Chapter 15: Cassino: A Retrospect
SO long as men study the art of war the battles of Cassino will interest them as a classic contest between the advantages of terrain and of material. By prolonging their resistance for four months or (on a more extensive view) for seven months, the Germans showed that in certain circumstances of ground and weather the offensive may lose the mobility with which modern weapons are sometimes thought to endow it. In some ways Cassino was a battle of the First World War fought with the weapons of the Second. When the German Corps Commander walked down the shell-pitted Liri valley during the fighting, he found himself carried back in memory thirty years to the Somme.1 The first great lesson of Cassino is that when the attacker is drawn into a strait of commanding natural strength, the tank and the aeroplane may easily fail to break the ensuing deadlock. By piling the difficulties of street fighting upon the natural defences of river, marsh and height, the Cassino position enabled stout defenders to defy appreciable odds in manpower and vast odds in material. Like a whirlpool, Cassino sucked into its vortex all that tried to pass through the strait.
The operation that began on 15 March was one of a series and has been variously described. It is called by Alexander2 the third battle of Cassino, to distinguish it from the first, fought by the United States 2 Corps in January and early February, and the second, fought by the New Zealand Corps between 15 and 18 February (operation avenger). On this reckoning there were four battles of Cassino, the last being part of the great offensive of May. The perspective of the New Zealand historian tempts him to follow this example. But it seems unreal to deny unity to the American and the first New Zealand Corps attacks, which were made almost without a break and on essentially the same plan; and it has therefore seemed preferable in this account to regard avenger as part of the first battle and dickens as the second. To
others, it may appear that operations from January to March constitute a single battle, divided into two only by the chance of bad weather.3 Finally, the historian of the whole war may see only one battle stretching over seven months from late October 1943, when the Fifth Army began its attacks on the outposts of the Bernhard line, until the middle of May 1944, when Montecassino fell.4 This view has the merit of acknowledging the organic connection between the defence of the Bernhard and Gustav lines, for the time the Allies took to break the former the Germans used to strengthen the latter. Such distinctions and divisions are never quite unimportant to the historian, for as he groups his facts so he weaves his patterns; but here they are mentioned for the sake of clarity and as a reminder of the context of operation dickens, the subject of discussion in this last chapter.
Had the issue been different, the odds against the defenders in the second battle of Cassino might have been described as crushing. Admittedly, the disparity in infantry strengths was almost modest. To the fourteen battalions under command of 1 Parachute Division in the critical sector the New Zealand Corps could oppose twenty-four–very much less than the three-to-one superiority held indispensable by General Alexander for such operations. But in material the attackers had a huge preponderance. They could count over 600 armoured fighting vehicles – 455 Sherman tanks, 124 Stuarts and 59 armoured cars – though in the event they could deploy only a small proportion, never more than 10 per cent at any one time. The enemy fought through the crisis with only a handful of tanks in Cassino, and even in the dying stages of the battle he could have brought in no more than sixteen. He had perhaps eighty tanks waiting in the Liri valley.
Our 610 artillery pieces in direct support had by 25 March fired no fewer than 588,034 rounds; to these weapons must be added another hundred or so self-propelled close-support guns of various calibres which Combat Command ‘B’ held available but did not use. At its greatest strength the German artillery numbered about 240 pieces. In Cassino itself during the height of the battle there was a solitary enemy assault gun, which had to be put out of action every night for repairs.
While our aircraft flew 2629 sorties and dropped 2362 tons of bombs, the enemy flew only 214 sorties against vastly superior anti-aircraft defences. The opening bombardment from air and ground dropped on and around Cassino high explosives to the weight of about 2500 tons in seven hours and a half, and for the next ten or eleven days, though the bombardment slackened, it hardly ceased. In all, the Allied air force and artillery must have contributed to the second battle of Cassino between ten and eleven thousand tons of high explosive.
What was the return for this tremendous expenditure? The territorial result of the twelve-day battle may be briefly stated. Among the hills there was no change, but on the flat the New Zealanders, who had hitherto held only the northern fringes of the town, captured the rest of it but for a belt of strongpoints immediately under the hill. In the south they retook, and this time they held, the railway station. They had secure bridgeheads over the Rapido both on the main highway and on the railway route. Though defensively the new line was certainly uncomfortable, it had better offensive possibilities than the old. A great bite had been taken out of the Gustav line. As on the Sangro, the main prepared defences had been breached and the battle of endurance settled down on an improvised line to the rear. Though Senger has suggested that the attackers were halted by their exhaustion in working through the main line of resistance,5 neither on the Sangro nor at Cassino does this appear to be true. The capture of the Sangro ridge defences did not tire the Division; and in the second battle of Cassino territorial gains were hardly expanded after the first fifty hours of fighting, though a fresh brigade was still available. The explanation must be sought rather in the Germans’ stubborn response to a crisis.
The gains of March stood as a useful credit in the account of the Allies against the day of the May offensive. It is true that the town of Cassino was never again frontally assaulted. In May the local object was to isolate it by a Polish drive through the hills to the north-west linking up with the 13 Corps advance up the Liri valley. But our possession of most of Cassino and the railway station helped to protect the right flank of the 13 Corps troops forming up in the mouth of the valley and making their bridgehead across the Rapido.
Strategically, operation dickens had few and unimportant repercussions within the Italian theatre. It necessitated no great enemy troop movements – only one regiment (brigade) of infantry and a few tanks were sent to help the paratroops, and both were found
from 14 Panzer Corps, the parent formation. And the defensive victory (we must not grudge the word) was a tonic to enemy morale and a discouragement to the friends of the Allies throughout Italy and even further afield. The simple fact of deadlock or of victory and defeat is always more eloquent than the complex reasons that may lie behind it.
In the main, the battle restated the plain grammar of warfare, but it directed notice to some neglected aspects of it, such as the art of street fighting, and it taught some tactical and technical lessons of greater novelty, particularly on the use of heavy bombers in close support, the tactics of infantry, tanks and engineers in following up aerial bombardment and the dropping of supplies from the air.6 These lessons flowed into the pool of Allied experience and flowed out again in distant fields, not least in those about to be opened in North-West Europe.
The casualties for the period from 15 March to 26 March were:7
|2 NZ Div||11||104||50||646||2||68||63||818||881|
|4 Ind Div||9||123||52||740||4||151||65||1014||1079|
|NZ Corps Tps||3||18||3||31||0||4||6||53||59|
The second battle of Cassino, then, cost the Allies well over two thousand casualties. The New Zealand casualties during the seven weeks’ life of the New Zealand Corps were 1392 (206 killed, 1085 wounded, 101 missing).
It is not possible to state the enemy casualties in the second battle with any accuracy, but an estimate based on the incomplete figures in the German records suggests that they may have been in the region of eleven or twelve hundred.
Discussion of the strategic rationale of the battle may begin with a general observation. Throughout the Second World War, but especially after Churchill became Prime Minister, the involvement of politics and strategy in the British war effort was peculiarly close. The balance of power between the statesmen and the generals – or more properly between Whitehall and the commanders in the field – will tilt this way or that according to the
personalities who fill the offices and the ease of communication between them. Churchill’s well-informed interest in the Mediterranean campaign was brought to bear intimately by personal visits to the theatre and rapidly and often by an excellent system of signals. Military discretion was to that extent qualified, the more so because both the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Mediterranean and the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies in Italy were British officers. In this situation, the presence of Dominion troops under a commander whose Government had given him an exceptional right of veto over their employment8 introduced not a persistent, but a potential, nonconformity and an independent critique, healthy or vexatious according to the mode of its exercise. This power came into play at Cassino in setting a limit to the number of casualties the Division would accept, but Freyberg was not prepared to go the length of withholding the Division from the battle. In his view, expressed long afterwards, the New Zealanders could not have it said that they accepted only the easy assignments and left the difficult ones to the British. He asked Alexander whether, if the New Zealand Division refused, some other division would have to carry out the operation. On being told ‘Yes’, he undertook it, though fully alive to the hazards.9
On its military merits alone no competent soldier would have chosen to assault Cassino in March 1944. He would have looked askance at the very notion of trying to carry by storm the strongest fortress in Europe in the dead of winter by a single corps unsupported by diversionary operations. He would have waited to attack in a better season with larger forces on a broader front, and he would probably have expected the decisive breach to be made elsewhere than at Cassino. While the first and third battles were related to a general offensive, the second was a lone enterprise. When Freyberg came to plan it after the failure of operation avenger on 18 February, its purpose was partly to relieve the weight on our troops at Anzio, where the counter-attack was reaching its climax. By early March the bridgehead was safe, and the capture of a Fourteenth Army order of 4 March directing the resumption of the defensive might have been expected to relax strategic pressure. No such effect followed.
Operation DICKENS, which was in suspense until the weather
should improve, now had little to justify it by way of local military advantage, but it was still believed to be necessary. As we have seen,10 General Wilson, hoping much from the bombing plan, feared that while General Alexander regrouped the enemy might disengage, taking refuge north of the Pisa – Rimini line and leaving the spring offensive to beat the air. Alexander rightly doubted this estimate of the effects of bombing, but in any case he could assure Wilson that there would be no lull in the land fighting. The second battle of Cassino was thus an interim measure to keep the enemy extended until the well-prepared blow could be delivered in the spring. But behind it also lay the unspoken desire to restore a prestige dimmed by earlier reverses at Cassino and to convince the Russians that the Western Allies were pulling their weight – a pledge more necessary now that the Second Front would not open until full summer.
In planning his regrouping in February, Alexander was prepared to assume the failure of the impending battle of Cassino.11 In fact, a spring offensive from the existing line might have the advantage of trapping the German forces between the main front and the beach-head, whereas if they were driven from Cassino they might be able to economise in troops by holding a single connected line south of Rome or farther up the peninsula. Alexander was certainly anxious to win a bridgehead across the Rapido and seize the Cassino headland, but it is difficult to believe that he had serious expectations of the plan of exploitation. It is regrettable that operation dickens was not shorn of its pursuit phase at the outset, for it was taken seriously in New Zealand Corps and the intention to carry it out had an unfortunate influence on the conduct of the battle. So it now appears. What is less clear is whether Alexander’s doubts (if he had them) of an armoured dash through the winter mud of the Liri valley should have absolved him from the commander’s normal duty to be ready with a plan to exploit unexpected success.
Cassino, then, was to be attacked again. We have already noted12 why other alternatives were rejected, but the reasoning behind the plan may bear recapitulation. The long pause between the first and second battles must not mislead. Had Freyberg by some gift of second sight been able to foresee that the weather would delay the second battle for three weeks, he might have planned it otherwise. In reality, he had to be in readiness to attack as soon as
possible. There was no time to regroup. The tactical possibilities were thereby strictly limited.
Once the river crossing in the mouth of the valley was discarded – itself an operation requiring some time to mount – two courses were left.13 One was a renewal of the Indian attack towards the monastery from the north-west; but this would have been folly in the light of recent experience. There remained an assault on the monastery from the town, and the town could be approached either from the east or from the north. At first glance the eastern approach seemed to offer a broader front and shallower objectives. But the ponding of water between the Rapido and the town almost confined the advance, even on foot, to Route 6 and the railway line. Moreover, a river crossing would have to be made; the strongest defences were thought to be in the east; Point 193 could not be attacked until the town had been cleared; and only then could the advance across the flat link up with an attack along or up the hill. The north, where we already had a footing, gave a much better approach on all these counts. A more dubious part of the plan was that which required 4 Indian Division to exploit along the open hillside step by step with the advance through the town.
In its direction the attack showed little or none of that tactical originality which is commonly called surprise. Freyberg therefore sought surprise by varying the method of attack. Hence the summons to the heavy bombers, which he called his secret weapon. He hoped that by razing Cassino to the ground they would eliminate costly street fighting and reduce casualties – always to him a very large consideration. Once his infantry had occupied ground beaten into impotence from the air, he relied on his armour to convert the break-in into a break-through. And it probably seemed to Freyberg, in his search for a necessary novelty, that the experiment was worth a trial. Known risks he accepted (Brigadier Hanson produced a calculation of the number of bombs likely to fall in the streets and the obstruction they would cause). On the unknown risks he had to take a chance.
The demerits of the bombing plan have been amply published14 It failed in its purpose of extinguishing all life in the town or of sufficiently intimidating the survivors: the paratroops emerged from their vaults and bunkers to fight in the rubble. It is said on high authority15 that the bombardment ‘produced better defensive positions
than it destroyed’. Above all, craters and rubble blocked the progress of tanks.
These criticisms, while all partly valid, are of unequal gravity. Many paratroops did, indeed, survive; but many were put out of the battle – on General Heidrich’s estimate, about half the garrison of the town. The rest were badly enough shaken to prompt General Senger’s fervent hope that the attack would not be repeated. The same high authority who thought that the bombing made good defences better also doubted whether any but paratroops could have endured such a hammering.16
It is questionable, secondly, whether the bombing actually improved the defences of the town. What it did was often to spare the prepared defences while destroying lighter cover. To this extent it certainly put a premium on defensive works and assisted the Germans who manned them, and it made the control and direction of infantry attack extremely difficult. The organised, set-piece action in which the New Zealanders excelled could not be mounted in the midst of devastation.
The third criticism – that the armour was obstructed – is probably the weightiest and the hardest to rebut, for it exposes a contradiction inherent in the plan. Since the operation was designed to make a penetration on a small front, speed was of its essence. Only tanks could provide this speed. But the very method used to blast a breach for the tanks to pass through made their easy passage impossible. By binding the rubble into the consistency of dough, the rain on the first night intensified this difficulty but did not create it. Craters were already filled or half-filled before the rain began. Tanks, it is true, gradually butted or manoeuvred their way into and through the town, but they came as mobile assault guns in a battle of attrition, not in the swift role of exploitation. Nor is it at all convincing to say that the German tanks were handicapped as badly as ours. The onus of attack, after all, lay on the attacker. Denied the chance of manoeuvre, Freyberg fell back upon mass, but by frustrating its own purpose the bombardment came perilously near to being a reductio ad absurdum of weight of metal.
The attack by heavy bombers raised more problems than it solved, but it was not a complete failure. At the end of the day half of the town or more was in our hands at the cost of only 20 killed and 51 wounded. And a plan can only be judged in the light of the rejected alternatives. A silent attack was unthinkable. The only real alternative was the use of lighter bombs17 or fewer bombs or
some form of artillery preparation unaccompanied by bombing. In any of these cases, the destruction in the town would have been less. The attackers would have found better cover. So would the defenders, and their prepared defences would have been comparatively unharmed. The material obstacles to tank movement would have been easier to clear away. The streets might even have retained the likeness of thoroughfares. But the garrison would certainly have been more numerous and their morale would have recovered still more quickly than it actually did. It is impossible to believe that our tanks and infantry, even given greater mobility, would have been permitted to slash through the streets of half-destroyed Cassino in a quick thrust. The battle would have developed into street fighting of a more orthodox kind, and the enemy (who had in fact expected just such a battle) would have had to be cleared out house by house. This is almost a definition of what Freyberg was hoping to avoid.
The plan was one thing, its execution another. The assaulting troops themselves, as we have seen,18 had been kept waiting in tense and uncomfortable circumstances too long to be at the peak of military fitness. Yet they cheered as the bombs fell on Cassino, and they were wrought up into the excited expectation of a walkover. The truth was therefore the more brutal.
The wounding of the New Zealand Divisional Commander on 2 March caused displacements down the chain of command, leaving his successor and the new commander of 6 Brigade to carry out a plan conceived by others.
At a series of conferences between 22 February and 2 March the commanders’ ideas of the battle were thoroughly worked over. Freyberg admitted that the plan offended against the principles of war in being an attack on a limited front against a fortress, but he thought that the weight of bombardment and a swift infantry follow-up would give a reasonable chance of success. He spoke of ‘an infantry assault without wasting any time at all, using the full moral effect of the air blitz’. Kippenberger was even more explicit. The leading battalion, according to his notions, was to enter the town by two roads and press on to its objective. ‘Another battalion,’ he continued, ‘follows on their heels as quickly as it can get on to the road. Assault troops have to be fed in on a narrow front as it is impossible to get on to a broad one. They take over 193 and a third battalion goes through to the final objective’. The Indian division, which also had a narrow entrance to the battlefield,
was to deploy three battalions in a leapfrog fashion. The intention was clear: the attack was to be immediate and in great strength, with six battalions committed by nightfall if all went well.
Our narrative has shown that on the day this plan was not followed. The first wave of New Zealand infantry, starting at zero hour from the barracks, were fed into the town by the single entrance of Caruso road. They did not obviously dawdle and within fifty minutes had advanced a mile or so and were well inside Cassino. Two companies pushed through the town towards their objective quisling, which was about 600 yards in width, one was diverted to Point 193 and one took up a reserve position in the north of the town. It is possible that the two leading companies did not ‘lean on the barrage’ as closely as ideally desirable in the early stages. This is not surprising. Obstructions hampered them, and because of the wide lateral fragmentation of rounds fired from the flank they could not approach as close to the shell-line as with the usual overhead barrage. Later, of course, they lost it because of resistance to their advance. It is also possible that the safety margin of 1000 yards might have been reduced so as to speed the follow-up, but the record of the heavy bombers compels a doubt.
The assaulting companies were for a long time without tank support, and the need for infantry reinforcement was for that reason the more urgent. Yet four hours elapsed after zero hour before the order was given to send more infantry into the town. The response was to send one company. It was nearly five and a half hours after zero hour before the next full battalion was called forward. Whereas it had been envisaged in the original planning that it would be committed by dusk on the 15th, the third full battalion was not thrown in until early afternoon on the 17th.
The conclusion seems inescapable that this delay cost the corps its best opportunity of ‘gate-crashing’ Cassino. Every hour that passed stiffened the resistance. A company on the 15th was worth a battalion on the 17th. If two companies could reach the northern arm of Route 6 on the first afternoon, five or six might have been able to reach the final infantry objective almost as soon. The tactic of swamping the opposition, of fanning out at once to the objectives and of leaving enemy pockets to be isolated and reduced by later waves, though an orthodoxy of street fighting, was not practised. Whatever the truth later, it seems undeniable that there was plenty of room for more infantry on the 15th. This emerges, for example, from the eviction of the 25 Battalion men from the convent, which was to be used two days later as a start line for the advance to the station.
This seeming passivity is puzzling, and not less so in the absence
of any evidence that Freyberg was dissatisfied. One explanation may be that the effect of the bombardment in obliterating opposition was overrated, while the resilience of the defence was underrated–a very venial error in those who had just witnessed the pulverising of Cassino. Such was the Germans’ interpretation of our comparatively light infantry follow-up. ‘The enemy,’ says the 1 Parachute Division diary, ‘must have thought his heavy bombing and barrage would result in an easy success. ...’ If fallacious optimism did exist, it must have been nourished by the reports that filtered back from the leading troops. For some hours it was believed that the advance of both infantry and tanks was meeting with no unmanageable trouble, and it was not until after 5 p.m. that 6 Brigade realised that the engineers could not work in the town. Faulty communications helped to swathe senior commanders in a cocoon of unreality and to render their orders irrelevant.
In view of the ignorance of what was going on, it may have been an error of judgment that no battalion headquarters were established in Cassino in the first two days of the battle. Comparatively junior commanders, faced with the disruption of an organic plan, were left to improvise as well as they could, for their seniors lacked the knowledge necessary for adapting the plan to the unforeseen mischances. This may account for the sense of sterility that seems to overtake the conduct of the battle on the second day. Indeed, a study of the fighting leaves the impression, strongest of the early phases but never wholly erased, that the senior commanders did not completely grasp the brute physical difficulties of combat in Cassino.
The rain on the night of 15–16 March was a stroke of ill-fortune. It can be made to carry too much blame, but its effects were serious enough. It denied the New Zealanders the use of the moon for regrouping and resuming the advance and helped to increase the delay of the Indian division in taking over Point 193. It made worse obstacles of the rubble and cratering in Cassino and, most seriously of all, it gave the enemy a respite in which to reorganise himself and his defences.
It is conceivable that up to the 17th, had infantry been poured in, Cassino might have been taken fairly cheaply. Thereafter, with the Germans reinforced, the town might still have been taken, but only by a process of attrition, and it is by no means certain that the monastery would have been included for the price. In retrospect, it seems that up to that day persistence in the original plan was the most reasonable course. The capture of the station and hummock implied that it was still being adhered to, for the principal use of the area was to open up the valley for exploitation. The corps
continued to work to the original plan for two days longer. The operations set down for the 19th represent it in a belated and somewhat truncated form. They were forced on before the preliminaries had been completed either on the flat or on the hillside, partly perhaps by pressure from the Army Commander, and partly no doubt from a feeling that it was now or never. Only when they had failed was the battle reoriented. Only now, after four days, did Freyberg feel himself free to overrule the advice of Parkinson and Bonifaht, to respond to the pleas of Clark and Galloway and to release the infantry that he had been husbanding for the pursuit. So long did the remote and doubtfully realistic object of the operation hinder the attainment of the nearer and more practicable.
For the New Zealand Corps the events of 19 March were a premature culmination of the battle. When the day failed, it was judged necessary to set about finishing the tasks whose completion was the prerequisite of success for the original plan. The fight against infiltration began. But when the second New Zealand brigade was deployed, the time had gone by for any but a limited and costly victory. Day after day the New Zealand infantry rolled the stone of Sisyphus against the western defences of Cassino. It may be asked whether this was a wise or necessary policy.
In one sense it was, as we have indicated, a perseverance with an old plan. But lest we too readily assume a bankrupt inflexibility of outlook, we must look at it in another light. Since 16 March the lodgment on Hangman’s Hill, won with high bravery and held at high cost, was a challenge to the whole corps. There it was before them, hoist like a proud standard at the head of an army. Towards this place of honour many men marched. In short, this dramatic foothold, so prominent to the eye and so close to the monastery, constituted almost a moral lien on the efforts of the corps. When General Galloway claimed that it could never be secured until the hillside was worked and that the hillside could never be worked until the town was cleared, it was difficult to deny him. To go to the assistance of the beleaguered Gurkhas thus became the object of operations. To this end, the New Zealanders tried to do two things: first, to throw a cordon round the town so that it could be methodically cleared, and secondly, to break through the cordon that the enemy (save for the aperture at Point 193) had thrown round the hill. All the stiffest fighting in the battle took place along the line where these two cordons touched, namely at the western edges of the town.
It might appear, by the 19th at the latest, that the dictate of prudence was to cut our losses in Cassino and allow the battle to follow its ‘natural tendency’, which was to bypass the town and
to assume a shape not unlike that of the February attack. Was it, then, only the lodgment on Hangman’s Hill that drew the New Zealanders back into the furnace of Cassino? At this clarifying and comfortable distance there seem to have been two possible ways of continuing the battle when deadlock in the town became obvious. The first course was to launch 5 Brigade from the station across Route 6 well south of the town to link up with the Gurkhas on the hill. This is the plan which, when suggested late in the battle for 78 Division, was rejected by the corps and divisional commanders but which caused Alexander to ponder. It was sure to be costly and it was not sure to succeed. At best there was a chance of uniting the two forces and a smaller chance that the union would bring about the capture of the monastery. Its essence was to rupture the enemy cordon on a broader front than was possible at Point 193.
The other possible course, while making use of the railway station base, would have attempted to isolate rather than to burst through on to Montecassino. It might have been possible, in spite of the flooding round the Gari, to develop a thrust along the railway embankment and into the Liri valley. A German patrol late in the month reported that the ground round the blown railway bridge over the Gari was passable to tanks ‘with broad tracks’. But even if the going had been practicable and if the attack had made head against the furious opposition that would have been offered from the area of the Baron’s Palace and the Colosseum, it could hardly have succeeded alone. A single pencil-thrust up the valley would have been suicidal except on one condition. The indispensable corollary was a drive by the Indians among the hills north-west of Montecassino towards Route 6, so that a junction of the two forces would complete the envelopment of the monastery. But after six weeks in the hills, the Indians of 7 Brigade were in no condition to mount such an effort.
One of our alternatives, then, was not genuinely a possibility. The other (admittedly at a later phase of the battle) was rejected after careful consideration. The decision to keep battering away inside Cassino may now appear in a truer light. The German documents, moreover, authorise the opinion that in the battle of attrition the scales were very delicately poised. On the 21st, in particular, the enemy was momentarily reduced to the slenderest foothold in the town. It is hard to pronounce impossible a plan which, on the German showing, was within an ace of at least limited success.
Criticism, which has ranged over the direction of our effort during the battle, might finally dwell for a moment on the method of applying that effort. It is not to the discredit of the New Zealanders to admit that they suffered from want of experience in the
specialised and militarily sophisticated art of street righting. The commanders were under no illusions. ‘It is still the desert army and we have a lot to learn,’ remarked General Galloway.
Street righting was not only hard to learn but in the conditions at Cassino it especially penalised the New Zealand Division by limiting the exercise of what had always been one of its strongest weapons–the close integration of infantry and artillery. The carefully staged attack, with its taped start lines, precise rates of infantry advance and barrage lifts, was shown on the first afternoon to be all but chimerical, at least where communications were not good enough to permit the assaulting troops to control timings to conform with their progress. There were simply too many physical obstacles for the infantry to remain in the shelter of the barrage.
Yet the contrast between the mighty opening fire plan and the absence of anything like it afterwards invites the query whether the best possible use was made of our artillery. This powerful armament produced smoke, harassing and defensive fire repeatedly and in great volume, it hit hard at opportunity targets with mass salvoes and its counter-battery and counter-mortar tasks were discharged with a zeal that approached ferocity. But it is noteworthy that after the first day it was never used in a general, concerted fire plan to help the infantry forward. There was a large-scale neutralisation programme by the name of dustbin, but none of the attempts to clear up the western edges of the town was prepared and supported by a carefully devised plan using all available guns and mortars.
It is necessary to insist on the difficulties: for the reason suggested, a creeping barrage might have been impracticable; the shooting would have been close; the lift of the ground in the west would have raised problems of accuracy; our occupation of Castle Hill would have had to be taken into account; and special measures would have been needed to give the assault an initial momentum by dealing with enemy posts too near to be neutralised by gunfire. Still, at some stage the experiment might have been worth while of pausing to take stock of the situation and carefully co-ordinating the fire resources of the corps with an attack by fresh infantry. As the battle in the town actually developed, increasing reliance was placed on direct-fire, high-velocity weapons. The only question is whether by this time the possibilities of indirect fire had been exhausted.
No doubt by struggling for a few days longer the corps could have won the whole town. Even paratroops must soon have resigned possession of the ruins. But General Freyberg was not prepared to
hazard more casualties. When the New Zealand Corps was first formed, he warned General Clark, under the authority he derived from the New Zealand Government, that when his casualties had reached a thousand he would abandon the attack unless it had achieved or was about to achieve success. His view was that the Division could afford these casualties, and considerably more, provided that they were incurred in a successful operation, but that to lose more than a thousand men for no substantial military result would so impair the morale of the Division that it would take months to recover.19 When he attended the Commander-in-Chief’s conference on 21 March, Freyberg had a return of casualties which showed that the Division had lost 549 men in the second battle, and probably more. Since New Zealand casualties at Cassino up to 14 March numbered about 500, the thousand mark was reached and passed. Freyberg’s determination not to make a Passchendaele of Cassino is an essential clue to his attitude in the closing stages of the battle, and it may have had its weight with Alexander when he decided on the 23rd to call off the operation.
The New Zealanders made mistakes in the second battle of Cassino. The most serious was the failure to rush the defences with sufficient weight on the first afternoon. But every battle is a tissue of error, and something must be left to chance. It was for the New Zealand Corps a malevolent chance that pitted 1 Parachute Division against it. Did infantry ever fight a stauncher defensive battle than the German paratroops at Cassino? They were manning defences three months in the preparation, they had had recent experience of street fighting at Ortona, they knew how to exploit every advantage of terrain, they were imbued with utter confidence in themselves and with boundless zeal for their Fuehrer and their toughness and endurance were beyond all ordinary reckoning. It is not to be assumed that other German troops would have equally withstood the assault.
The Germans themselves attributed much of their success to their ability to concentrate their artillery fire rapidly on targets in the town, but the New Zealanders were most impressed by the efficiency of their close-support infantry weapons, especially the mortars. At a somewhat higher tactical level, two other facts deserve a place in the explanation of German success. One was their intelligent control over the counter-attack. They soon found that attacks on any large scale did not repay their cost. Only at
Point 193, the Allied sally-port on to the hillside, did they keep returning to the assault. Elsewhere, particularly in the town, they preferred to let the New Zealand Corps carry the fight to them, to resist from prepared positions and to confine themselves to small, local counter-strokes. In the second place, their system of command was simple and direct. They fought Cassino as a strictly divisional battle. General Heidrich established himself at the headquarters of 3 Parachute Regiment, which was responsible for the town. He was held on a light rein by his Corps Commander. General Senger was content with a general supervision over the conduct of the battle, he secured and fed in the few reinforcements and made frequent tactical appreciations for the enlightenment of Tenth Army.
Our discussion of the battle is ended. It has led into free speculation on the alternatives open to the New Zealand command, in the belief that the decisions that were actually taken can only be understood in the light of those that might have been taken. It may well be that no second assault ought ever to have been launched into the teeth of the Cassino fortress, which its commander agreed was almost impregnable when once defended. But the exigencies of strategy decreed otherwise. Where so much is obscure, it is as clear as day that there was no easy solution to the problems of the attacker. The critic of the solutions that were in fact adopted must first arm himself with better ones; he must then be sure that they were available amidst the confusion, the misinformation, the fluctuating hopes and the sheer worry and exhaustion of the battlefield; and he must finally caution himself against what an English historian has called ‘one of the perpetual optical illusions of historical study – the impression that all would have been well if men had only done “the other thing”‘20
The commanders may abide our question: the fighting men they led are free. Of the quality of the New Zealand troops who actually came to grips with the enemy, let the enemy himself speak:
The New Zealand soldier [said a 14 Panzer Corps report on the battle] is physically fit and strong. He is well trained and formidable in close range fighting, and steadier than the Englishman. He does not shrink from hand-to-hand fighting. In many cases strongpoints had to be wiped out to the last man, as they refused to surrender.
The historian of the battles of Cassino who revisits the scene finds no relief from the difficulty of commemorating them in a way that will do justice to the New Zealanders who fought there, but he
is impressed anew by the need for making the attempt. For except in its boldest features, the face of the land has changed even in so short a time. To stand on the summit of Point 593 on the tenth anniversary of the peace was to be engulfed in a tranquillity made the more immense by the emphasis of a few simple sounds – the chime of a cowbell, a skylark’s glee and, far below beside the new white abbey, the shouts of black-robed novices as they skirmished with a football. Earth heals her own wounds, and the husbandry of a thousand peasants has tended the growth of twelve successive springs. Ruins are dismantled and new buildings arise on the sites of the old. Men remember but their memories fade and finally die with them. And of the deeds bravely done and the hardships bravely borne, soon nothing will remain but the imperfect record itself.