IN the autumn of 1943, after the Allied occupation of Sicily, the British Eighth Army, commanded by General Sir Bernard Montgomery,1 landed in Calabria, the toe of Italy, and advanced along the Adriatic seaboard on the eastern side of the peninsula. Fifth Army, part American and part British, under Lieutenant-General Mark Clark, landed on the Salerno beaches – where a German counter-attack might have succeeded but for the overwhelming support given by the Allied naval and air forces – and pushed along the western side of the peninsula. Together the two armies formed the Fifteenth Army Group,2 commanded by General Sir Harold Alexander. The Germans, under Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, Commander-in-Chief South-West, stubbornly withdrew to the formidable defences of the Winter Line, which they constructed astride the narrow waist of Italy south of Rome. There, in country ideally suited to the purpose, with rivers, valleys and spurs running at right angles to the central backbone of the Apennine Mountains, and assisted by the mud, slush and snow of winter, they halted both Allied armies.
General Alexander’s plan for the capture of Rome was in three phases: in the first Eighth Army was to break through the Winter Line on the Adriatic coast, advance to a lateral highway (Route 5) which crosses the peninsula from Pescara through Avezzano, and threaten Rome from the north-east; in the second phase Fifth Army, by driving up the Liri and Sacco valleys to Frosinone, was to approach Rome through the only gap in the mountains to the south. The third phase, which depended on the progress of the first two, was to be an amphibious landing south of Rome.
Eighth Army, which 2 New Zealand Division3 rejoined in November, crossed the Sangro River and fought its way into the coastal town of Ortona and reached the outskirts of Orsogna, but was held among the ridges and valleys midway between the Sangro and Pescara rivers. There the Adriatic sector was allowed to become static.
Fifth Army, after a succession of costly battles, was confronted by the Gustav Line (the strongly fortified rearward position of the Winter Line west of the Apennines), which followed the lateral Rapido-Gari-Garigliano valley across the mouth of the Liri valley, through which Route 6 (perpetuating the ancient Via Casilina), the highway from Naples, led to Rome, 85 miles distant. Cassino, just north of the junction of the two valleys, was the key to the line: Route 6 passed through the town and the railway ran within a mile of it; rising directly behind it was the steep-sided 1500-foot Montecassino, crowned by the fortress-like Benedictine monastery, at the tip of a massive spur descending from the 5500-foot Monte Cairo. From these heights the enemy had an uninterrupted view of every approach.
The third phase of the plan to liberate Rome, the amphibious landing behind the enemy’s front, had not been attempted because Eighth and Fifth Armies had been balked in their endeavours to break through the Winter Line. The Allies decided upon a revised plan, forcefully and persistently advocated by the British Prime Minister (Mr Churchill). In conjunction with a frontal attack by Fifth Army on the Gustav Line, a force larger than originally envisaged was to be landed on the beaches of Anzio, 35 miles south of Rome, and directed inland on the Alban Hills, which dominated the southern approaches to the city.
Fifth Army’s attacks on the Gustav Line in January 1944 had the desired effect of persuading Kesselring to reinforce that front with his tactical reserve. The landing by 6 Corps (comprising British and American troops) at Anzio achieved complete surprise and was virtually unopposed, but instead of driving immediately to the Alban Hills, as he certainly could have done, the corps commander (Major-General John Lucas) spent several days building up his beachhead to withstand the counter-attack which he expected. He thus gave Kesselring time to improvise a heterogeneous force with which he was able to block 6 Corps when it eventually did attempt to advance inland. The Germans then massed sufficient troops around the beachhead to counter-attack and force 6 Corps on to the defensive.
Fifth Army’s thrusts against the Gustav Line made little progress before being halted. On the left of the Liri valley 10 British Corps (Lieutenant-General Sir Richard McCreery) crossed the Garigliano River into the foothills of the Aurunci Mountains, where it was
checked but retained a bridgehead – this was to be of inestimable value as the springboard for an offensive four months later. In the centre, at the mouth of the Liri valley and in full view of the enemy overlooking the valley, 2 United States Corps (Major-General Geoffrey Keyes) launched an assault over the Gari River, but was repulsed with grievous casualties. On the right General Alphonse Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps worked its way into the mountains north of Cassino. When 2 Corps’ frontal assault failed, General Clark tried to envelop the defences from the right by crossing the Montecassino spur into the Liri valley, but the Americans, utterly exhausted after two months of continual fighting, were finally halted at the outskirts of the town and within a very short distance of the monastery.
The enemy’s success in sealing off the Anzio beachhead and repulsing the attacks on the Gustav Line persuaded General Alexander to reinforce Fifth Army at the expense of the Eighth. Three divisions, therefore, were brought from the static Adriatic sector to the Cassino front, where the New Zealand Corps, consisting initially of the New Zealand Division and 4 Indian Division, joined later by 78 British Division, and commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg,4 came into being on 3 February under Fifth Army.
Urgency was given to the resumption of the offensive at Cassino because of the imminent danger of the German effort to drive the Anzio beachhead force into the sea. Apparently no advantage could be seen in trying to exploit the bridgehead 10 Corps had won over the Garigliano, or in trying to outflank Cassino as suggested by Juin, by concentrating on the approach through the mountains to the north, where the French already had broken into part of the Gustav Line. Instead, another attempt was to be made to crack the line at its strongest point, the town of Cassino and the monastery hill.
Taking over the half-fought battle from 2 US Corps, the New Zealand Corps attacked in February with the object of establishing a bridgehead across the Rapido and Gari rivers to permit the deployment of armour in the Liri valley. The monastery was destroyed by heavy bombers and artillery fire, and its ruins were occupied by the Germans, who deny that they previously had
used the building as a strongpoint or for observation.5 The 4th Indian Division failed in its attempt to capture Montecassino and cut Route 6 at the foot of the hill, and the New Zealanders were unable to retain a footing across the Rapido in the area of the railway station, just south of the town.
At the same time the Germans, ordered by Hitler to eliminate the ‘abscess’ at Anzio, launched a powerful counter-attack on the beachhead. At first the issue hung in the balance, but 6 Corps repelled both this attack and another which came at the end of February. The Germans then went over to the defensive on a line round Anzio. Before the struggle for the beachhead ended it took a heavy toll of both Allied and German soldiers.
Despite the failure of the Anzio landing to break the stalemate and pave the way for a drive on Rome, the British were convinced that a vigorously prosecuted campaign in Italy would assist the cross- Channel invasion of Western Europe (an operation known by the codename OVERLORD). The Americans, while not opposed to pursuing the Italian campaign at least as far as Rome, believed that a landing in southern France (Operation ANVIL) should be made at the same time as OVERLORD, and that preparations should be continued for this undertaking. General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, who had succeeded General Dwight D. Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean, recommended that priority be given to the Italian campaign and that ANVIL be cancelled. The Combined Chiefs of Staff compromised by giving the campaign in Italy priority over all other operations in the Mediterranean and by postponing ANVIL.
To force the Germans to commit as many divisions as possible in Italy at the time OVERLORD was launched, General Alexander planned a spring offensive in the Liri valley, designed to link up with the Anzio beachhead and capture Rome. For this offensive the bulk of the Allied force was to be concentrated west of the Apennines, where Eighth Army was to take over the front covering Cassino and the entrance to the Liri valley, and Fifth Army was to retain the flank between the Liri and the sea and responsibility for the Anzio beachhead. But first Alexander wanted to establish a bridgehead across the Rapido which would give access into the Liri valley when the offensive began.
Operation DICKENS, the last attack before the spring offensive, was to be an attempt by the New Zealand Corps to capture Cassino
and break into the Liri valley in the vicinity of Route 6. After the town had been pulverised by bombing, the New Zealand Division was to advance southwards from its northern outskirts, and 4 Indian Division was to guard the right flank by moving along the eastern face of Montecassino. When Cassino had been captured, the corps was to exploit by opening up Route 6 and clearing the ground south of the town so that river crossings could be constructed.
The attack was fixed tentatively for 24 February, but it rained day after day for nearly three weeks, and while the New Zealand and Indian divisions, under the most disheartening conditions, waited for fine weather, the enemy perfected his defences and brought one of his best formations, 1 Parachute Division, into the sector where he correctly anticipated the attack would come. On 15 March aircraft demolished Cassino with nearly 1200 tons of bombs (about half of which fell within the town), but did not attack the ruined monastery which the Germans had converted into a fortress. The New Zealanders, with artillery support on a scale greater than any they had previously experienced, cleared the enemy from perhaps nine-tenths of the rubble defences of the town, but could not drive him from strongpoints on its fringe. On the slopes of Montecassino the Indians thrust as far as Hangman’s Hill, near the ruins of the monastery, but also could go no farther. When the attack was called off on 23 March, Cassino still barred the road to Rome.