18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 31 — Cassino and the Mountains
Cassino and the Mountains
While the Eighth Army was busy making history and most of 4 Brigade was away back out of the centre of the canvas at Pietramelara, the squadrons of 18 Regiment, spread out over 16 miles of the front, were having very varied adventures. For those few weeks pride of place must go to B Squadron, which in the wreck of Cassino found a kind of war unlike any other that it had ever struck or ever wanted to strike: a war of tremendous nervous tension, with Jerry so close that you were sure he could hear you breathing; a war of cave-dwellers, both sides lurking by day in dark cellars, holes and crevices, and coming out at night to stretch their legs, patrol, bring in supplies. Before the war Cassino had been one of Italy's show places, and visitors had flocked there. Now it was everyone's ambition to keep away from the place, or, once there, to get out again as fast as possible.
In March, while the fighting was at its most savage, New Zealand tanks had somehow forced their way into that desolate, ugly ruin. Some had been shot up or bogged on the outskirts of the town; others, their crews hardly knew how, had pushed right through the mess and on to the railway station half a mile beyond, only to find their way blocked by flooded ground. At the beginning of May there were three little groups of Shermans, one at the station, two in the town itself, all manned by Canadians—three widely separated groups, out of direct touch with each other, reached by three different routes. They were not there to be aggressive or to shoot up Jerry's positions—in fact, this was forbidden. They were there only in case Jerry counter-attacked, and to step up the morale of the unfortunate infantry doomed to live in such a hell-hole.
18 Regt Tanks In Cassino
This was a most tricky relief, for Fowler's tanks had to occupy exactly the same spots as the Canadian tanks so that Jerry would not see the difference. This meant a preliminary ‘recce’ on foot, always a tense, hazardous job in Cassino. Then, when all was ready, Fowler says:
The OK was given to the Canucks who started up & commenced to move out…. One came past us, then a second, no sign of the third, then a frantic clattering of boots & five maple leaves came flying out of the darkness. When trying to stop them making so much din I was promptly told ‘their—tank had gone over a bank & they were not going to be left behind in this hole’ & vanished into the night after their companions. We then moved into positions vacated by Canadians, switched off & waited for repercussions, however, apart from a few mortar bombs things were very quiet.
The usual routine in a new place is to sleep till daylight, then find out all about it. But here that did not apply. From dawn to dusk the boys were stuck, for better or worse, inside their tanks, and dared not leave them for any reason. The three Shermans were scattered among other wrecked, derelict tanks, stuck at drunken angles across and round the intersection of two streets, under Jerry's direct gaze, and the first and most essential rule of life was—don't ever let Jerry see that there is anyone here. Major Brown says of these tanks:
The positions of the tanks were never changed, nor anything on them or in them. If a periscope was pointed in a certain direction, it remained in the same position all the time; the same with the guns etc. The crews opened up the hatches at night time and got their exercise in the dark. Before dawn they battened down again.page 449
Cooking was done in the cramped, stuffy front compartments, or on the flat turret floors, and all rubbish went out into holes dug under the escape hatches in the bottoms of the tanks. With such a set-up, hygiene did not exist, and the mixture of smells inside the tanks was appalling.
Even at night it was risky to leave the tanks, for every few minutes a mortar bomb would drop somewhere handy, or a burst of Spandau fire come crackling round. A big gun away up north, christened ‘Terelle Bill’, had a habit of landing dud shells with shook the whole place, tanks and all, as they bored into the ground. Every night the troop commander made his perilous way 200 yards back from the tanks to the town jail, where a Welsh Guards battalion holding the north end of Cassino had its headquarters. The Guardsmen were more than pleased to have the tanks there—Second-Lieutenant John Gray,2 whose troop alternated with Fowler's, remarks, ‘The way the C.O. and his Staff… “rolled out the carpet” for one very Smelly Dirty Kiwi had to be seen to be believed.’ Every third or fourth night the crews changed over, the fresh men coming forward from San Michele in jeeps, then walking the last stretch into the town, carrying their three days' rations on their backs.
On that first night, 4 May, two tank crews came up by jeep from San Michele to the Cassino end of Route 6. They were decanted from the jeeps beside a rusty bridging tank, another relic of the March battle, that stood smashed and useless on the roadside. From there they took all their belongings on their backs and went up, across the sagging Rapido bridge and by a winding narrow path between the bomb craters along what had once been a wide straight road. At a huge, gaunt, roofless convent on the left of the path they thankfully dropped part of their load, then went on another hundred yards to where their two Shermans were tucked away in a small building, or rather heap of rubble. In better times it had been a furniture factory. The tanks had originally gone in there for protection, but then many shell hits had partly collapsed the roof and walls, so that now the tanks were half entombed in rubble. Here the boys page 450 were a little better off than the crews at the jail, for they were not so strictly confined to the tanks, but their freedom was limited to the shelter of their own little pile of ruins, and they dared not poke their noses outside.
Down in the crypt under the convent, crowded with soldiers of all descriptions, including the headquarters of the Coldstream Guards, who held the centre of Cassino, Second-Lieutenant Harry Hodge3 inherited a No. 22 radio set, by which reports went back at fixed times daily to B Squadron headquarters. To get into this crypt you dived down a glorified rabbit hole at the base of the convent wall, and along a tangle of murky passages. Nobody ever liked using this entrance by daylight, for it was in full view of the snipers on the high ground, but still the crypt was the busiest place in Cassino, with people perpetually passing in and out, though it was a mystery where they came from or where they went.
Here, too, the original idea was to change over every third night. But after two changes the boys in the furniture factory suggested that they stay there longer, for lurking in their little corner of the town was less trying on the nerves than swapping over. The dangerous times in Cassino, the times when casualties occurred, were the night hours when supply parties came up and reliefs took place. Reliefs were never run to any set pattern, and the timings were made as irregular as possible, but there were always shells along the track, and periodical interference from ‘Spandau Joe’, a nasty-minded Jerry who roosted up on the hillside ahead, and let go a burst of fire straight down Route 6 whenever he felt like it, which was pretty often.
At the jail and the convent the crews had very little to do; they longed, in fact, for something to while away the time. But the orders were strict. No shooting whatever, no movement, no sign of life. They did what they could to keep the engines in running order; when 18 Regiment took over at the furniture factory the batteries of both tanks were flat and useless, and as changing batteries was out of the question—it was an awkward four-man job—they were forced to use the special ‘Homelite’ battery-charging engine, which was seldom used in action, as it had what one man calls ‘a hellish & most distinctive noise’. page 451 Engines were always run under cover of ‘stonks’ arranged beforehand with the artillery, to avoid calling undue attention to the tanks. Jerry's normal fire was bad enough. One day Corporal Harry Barrance's4 tank at the jail, which had already taken one or two hits on the turret, was hit direct on the engine cover, ruining the tank and giving the crew a bad shake-up. This meant quick, quiet work that night, winching the damaged tank out, driving a fresh one into position, and making it look exactly like the first one before daylight. To everyone's relief, Jerry did not seem to realise what had happened.
The other two troops of B Squadron were independent of these comings and goings from San Michele. When B Squadron came forward to Cassino they sheered off to the left of Route 6 to take up a post of grave danger at Cassino railway station, half a mile south of the town.
This railway station was an evil place. It had been captured in one of the bloodiest assaults in 2 NZ Division's history. There the attack had bogged down in the face of German paratroopers on the rising ground and impassable waterlogged meadows ahead. All the gain there was to show for it was a bare little island surrounded by marsh, fearfully exposed, under direct observation, so that it was impossible to move round by day without being shot at. A viler place to live could hardly be imagined. And yet, somehow, we clung to it for two months, losing more good men than the place was worth, but sticking grimly to it as an outpost that threatened Jerry's route into Cassino and kept him worried. Troops were relieved after about three days there—that was all that most men could stand.
There were three Shermans parked closely side by side in what had once been the station building, but was now reduced to one flimsy wall which barely hid the turrets from Jerry. Crews, tanks and all changed over every second or third night. A noisy process, this, and calculated to attract all the fire Jerry could put over, but it was about the only way to bring up food and ammunition, which had to come up to the station somehow.page 452
Second-Lieutenant Bill Reynolds's5 troop, the first one to inherit this unwholesome job, went straight ahead to the station as soon as it arrived from Mignano. The other troop, under Second-Lieutenant Jack Oxbrow,6 and a small temporary headquarters under Captain Laurie, went to a group of farm buildings well back across the Rapido, in the middle (as far as could be seen in the dark) of a blasted heath, and made themselves as invisible as possible behind the buildings.
The road forward to the station was terrible. The only way up was along the narrow railway embankment and across the Rapido by a shrapnel-riddled bridge, an impossible trip in daylight and next to impossible even at night, the tanks pitching blindly nose down and then nose up through shell-holes, every spare inch of inside room crammed full of ammunition. The men had been prepared for a few fireworks when they drove up in their great noisy Shermans, and they certainly got what they expected. Spandaus from straight ahead, their tracer streaking through the dark like a swarm of falling stars, mortars bursting thick round the tanks as they drove up and edged in behind their wall.
This performance was turned on every time the tanks changed over. As soon as Jerry heard them moving, down came the fire. As long as the engines kept running the metal kept flying. But, as Captain Stan Edmonds7 says, ‘it usually quietened down when tanks ceased to move and there was no offensive action on our part’. Even then there were still mortars landing every few minutes, and almost continuous Spandau fire which zipped across the tanks' front and past the end of their wall, and rifle grenades fired from the waste land ahead.
Life at Cassino station was about as bad as it could be. The whole place stank of death. The bomb-holes were full of brackish water covered with green slime. During the daytime, even when no mortars were falling, our own smoke canisters were constantly whistling down all around. Everybody was filthy, unshaven, perpetually on edge for whatever might page 453 happen the next second. Almost underneath the tanks, in holes under the sheltering wall, lived the British infantry. The tankies had a dugout only a few feet away and trenches under the tanks. Everyone had a rifle or a Tommy gun, and all the Browning machine guns were taken out of the tanks and mounted on the ground, some of them pointing out through little holes in the wall, which also served as peepholes through which you peered out into Jerry's territory as far as the foot of Montecassino. Not that you could see anything, for Jerry was as careful as we were not to show himself in daylight.
‘This was the only time,’ says Reynolds, ‘when I felt sure I wouldn't see my home again.’ Everyone was certain that Jerry knew just where the tanks were, and nobody could forget that some night he might take it into his head to knock the wall down and leave them exposed. But he didn't do this. The worst damage was one night when a mortar salvo fell right on the spot during a changeover, killing Sergeant Bill McKinlay8 and wounding three others.
The reserve troop's farmhouses, in contrast to all this, were comparatively intact, pretty comfortable as houses went in that part of Italy, and fairly peaceful. The men back there could move round by day in the shelter of trees, though this was not encouraged, as too much of it could have attracted Jerry's vicious attention. Vehicles were debarred from coming and going in daylight, as the approach was quite open, but there was no difficulty bringing jeeps in at night with supplies, which were then loaded on to the tanks before each relief. Food and ammunition for the infantry went up in this way.
The night of 11 May was almost as bright as day in Cassino, the noise and concussion bewildering, shells splashing red on the slope of Montecassino, the sky alight with gun flashes. Then came a few days of impatient suspense, Jerry's fire much slacker, but his snipers still present and alert, and the boys still confined to the tanks or their small, smelly buildings. Then a couple of days of uproar when Jerry (presumably getting rid of all the ammunition he could not take away) plastered Cassino as never before, while at the same time the Eighth Army was page 454 closing the ring tighter and tighter round the town, and the writing was appearing on the wall for the Germans. Then, on the morning of 18 May, the boys at the station, peering out to the west, saw Shermans and British infantry coming into Cassino from the south; a little later, up went white flags on the rubble of Montecassino; then B Squadron emerged from its holes, at first gingerly, as if still in fear of Spandau Joe and his friends, then gladly, though hardly believing the full extent of the devastation which they now saw for the first time. They felt they ought to celebrate, but there was nothing to celebrate with, and nowhere to do it; the floods and the piles of ruins and the fear of mines kept them from wandering far afield. And the awful desolation all around dampened the spirits and made you feel like whispering rather than shouting.
That evening B Squadron bade Cassino a farewell that had no sadness in it, and went back to the muddy slope below San Vittore to wait for the rest of the regiment. With them went the tanks from the station and the jail, but not from the furniture factory—the recovery section hauled them out two or three days later and handed them over to 20 Regiment, their surprised owners.
On the night of 5 May A Squadron, with Major Playle now in command, arrived up at Mignano on its transporters, sat under the trees there on the 6th, and that night went forward again along the ambulance route—arrangements as before, nine tanks to the forward slope below Portella, crews for the seven tanks on the Terelle hill crowded on jeeps.
Very little had changed up there in the last fortnight. There was the same old shellfire, random and sporadic, not heavy enough to really worry anyone, though one evening just before dark a thick concentration of mortars came down and did a lot of damage among the infantry only fifty yards away. There were the same old nocturnal jaunts down to the jeep-head for supplies, cursing as you stumbled over loose stones. There was still no excitement, nothing to talk about, lots of time to kill.page 455
It was pretty hot up the hill now; but at Portella, under olive trees which broke the force of the early summer sun, life was quite idyllic. After giving the tanks their daily attention the boys had nothing to do but drink tea and acquire suntan, or at night watch the fireflies whirling round in the sultry still air. The fields had now burst out of their spring green and were ablaze with wild flowers. The boys wandered almost at will round the lanes; Jerry paid them very little attention, except on the famous day when he shelled the Division's big supply depot out of existence.
This depot, the Hove Dump, was tucked away in a mountain gorge two miles behind A Squadron, and the shelling did not affect the tankies directly, though they could hear it all and see the huge smoke column as the dump burnt. But it affected their supply team, who had previously brought the daily loads straight from the Hove Dump down the amazing, almost vertical Inferno Track, but now had to make a 20-mile night trip back without lights over a zigzag mountain road lined with 25-pounders and horribly exposed to shelling. In this place the front line was much easier on the nerves than the roads that led to it.
The night of the attack was one to remember all your life. For a few nights there had been constant movement along the lanes as vast numbers of Poles, infantry and artillery, came into the areas all round A Squadron. Some 25-pounder batteries dug in just behind the tanks. Major Playle remembers the big night:
When night fell on the 11th May it sounded like an axemen's carnival as these gunners felled trees to clear their lines of fire. When the barrage opened at 11 p.m. the noise was indescribable, the air seemed to strike our eardrums in solid waves. These batteries fired without ceasing for 17 hours; many of the A Sqn boys went over to give the Polish gunners a hand. We had a respite from the noise for about a day, & then the guns opened up again, this time for 23 hours.
Jerry, luckily, was too busy elsewhere to spare any ammunition for the Portella area.
The tanks up on the Terelle hill did nothing during the attack, but were alert to fire if necessary over to their left, where the Poles attacked towards Montecassino from their precarious page 456 starting point on Monte Castellone. But their help was not needed. The tank crews, from their lofty perch, had a most spectacular view of the barrage, and of some fine tracer displays over the next few nights, when odd German planes prowling over the Rapido valley got the full weight of our ‘ack-ack’. The criss-cross lines of red and gold tracer, rising thick from the black gulf of the valley, was a majestic sight; in peacetime thousands of people would have gone miles to see such a display. By day you could not see much down Cassino way, for the valley was full of rolling grey smoke.
Only once was the routine of life up the hills disturbed, when two tanks sallied out round the corner, advanced some half a mile along the road, and flattened two houses where Jerry was thought to have a headquarters. It was a very satisfying piece of work, though a nasty trip out and back along that winding road where a false move would have had the tank rolling down the mountain. Jerry, evidently astonished by such cheek, sent nothing back except a little badly aimed rifle and Spandau fire.
When, after a week of suspense, the Poles swarmed ahead and Cassino and Montecassino fell, the tanks had outlived their usefulness at Terelle. Even though Monte Cairo was still in Jerry's hands, he was not fighting back with any vigour, and it looked as if he was just to be left till he decided of his own accord to get out. Reports of successes farther south seemed to indicate that there would not be long to wait.
But A Squadron did not see the end. On 18 May, when 18 Regiment got its marching orders, the squadron was summoned back to the fold. On the night of 19 May the crews up on the hill were relieved by a collection of assorted Kiwis and took their last trip by jeep down the nightmare Terelle road. They left the tanks behind with no regrets—not only had they been a little out of their element with the petrol Shermans, but their life up there had been most unexciting, with a lot of discomfort, a lot of boredom, and a standard of living much lower than they were used to. The same night the rest of A Squadron pulled out from Portella, and the whole squadron went back to join B Squadron in its hillside bivouac at San Vittore, waiting for the rest of the regiment to come up.page 457
The eight C Squadron tanks that jolted away from Pietramelara on their transporters after dark on 8 May soon swung to the right off Route 6 to follow the Volturno valley north through Venafro, which, even in the dark, looked more like a real town than anything the crews had seen for months. A few miles farther on they camped for the night in a field outside the village of Pozzilli, in a little basin almost surrounded by steep terraced hills. Their night was not undisturbed, for a handful of German planes came over and raided the Venafro airfield, far too close for the boys, who had got out of the habit of this sort of thing lately. Next day they moved on up into the mountains by a road whose twists and steep hairpin bends all too vividly recalled Sangro days. It seemed incredible that such rugged hills could exist so close to the fertile plains and open uplands that the regiment had known for the past four months. In less than six miles the scene changed from vine to olive country, and farther ahead, as the road climbed higher, to stony pastures, with picturesquely poor hamlets clinging to the roadside beneath overhanging rocky peaks.
So far nobody had known what lay behind the move of the tanks to such an unpromising spot, but now the news circulated that they were to go up farther, probably in a day or two, and give Jerry a good plastering to make him think an attack was coming. The attack would really be going in farther to the left, between Cassino and the sea, but Jerry was to be kept guessing. The boys were rather sceptical about how much he would be deceived, for the hills ahead did not look the sort of place anyone in his senses would choose for an attack. Some Tommies bivouacked not far from C Squadron were pessimistic about the chances of the tanks even getting up to where they were supposed to go.
Except for ‘recces’ by the tank commanders, nothing happened until the night of 11 May. Here, just as elsewhere, the barrage opened up at 11 p.m. with a roar, made even intenser and more impressive by the echoes that ran round the hills. At midnight, in the middle of the uproar, the tanks set off again along the winding road, up a series of little valleys tucked away among the peaks, then through a high-walled gorge. In daylight and under normal conditions it would have been a magnificent trip, but now the only thought in anyone's page 458 mind was whether, in the blackness, any of the tanks would run off the road.
But there were no accidents, and it was hard to believe that this was the front line or anywhere near it. The tanks came up to their appointed place, fired shells away into the darkness ahead just as planned, then turned round and moved away back down the road; and not a shot was fired against them, only a shower of flares from somewhere ahead. Trooper Hancox's only comment was the laconic ‘Stink of dead mules was terrific’. By 4 a.m. the tanks were two miles back, parked off the road, camouflaged away, and the crews had slitties dug and bivvies up and were comfortably rolled in their blankets.
Daylight showed that they had come to a very attractive place, on a gentle slope between the road and a little river, with grass underfoot, and trees to break the sun's heat. There was not a sound of war anywhere, except what the tanks themselves created when they put over a few ranging shots during the morning. British artillerymen living nearby said that only one shell had landed anywhere near in the last fortnight. Between the tanks and Jerry was a cluster of hills, high and difficult enough to prevent him from doing anything reckless.
Here the crews spent a delightful week with very little to do. Early one morning, for half an hour, tanks and artillery ‘did over’ Jerry's positions on the other side of the hills, still with the idea of keeping him on his toes and discouraging him from pulling troops out of this quiet part of the line. There was another short shoot from the road ahead of the tank park, mainly to oblige the British paratroop colonel, who, delighted at having tanks to play with, asked them to have a go at Jerry's infantry positions and observation posts which overlooked part of the British lines. But apart from this, and a little maintenance on tanks and guns, the boys spent a leisurely week, bathing in the stream, lying in the sun, occasionally strolling a mile down the road to explore the ruined, derelict village of Cerasuolo, bombed and shelled beyond repair, a gruesome reminder of the war's cruelty. In these secluded hills, which the fighting had mostly passed by untouched, and where you could not even see the effect of your own shooting, you were apt to forget what a hideous thing war is.page 459
On the evening of 19 May the tanks with some reluctance moved out from their quiet meadow to find an unusual bustle and activity at Pietramelara as the regiment prepared to break camp. There was a general air of cheerful expectancy that had been absent from 18 Regiment for too long, and though the stream of orders and counter-orders on 21 May took the edge off this a little, it was still there on the morning of the 22nd, when the unit moved out to take the westward road.
So the whole of 18 Regiment came together again at San Vittore.
Here it sat for three whole days, enjoying the lovely early summer weather but, as one man says, ‘on edge for move’. The tank crews polished up their steeds and put them in first-class order. Lieutenant-Colonel Robinson and various ‘recce’ parties spent many hours away, and came back full of business. And the whole unit waited, happy in the hope that at last, after so many months of disappointment, they would get after Jerry and hunt him northwards.