19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 19 — Cassino Fortress
He shall dwell on high: his place of defence shall be the munitions of rocks.
—Isaiah 33: 16
At Piedimonte d’Alife the weather broke suddenly on 4 February. Early in the morning heavy rain began to fall. This wet weather, the first bad omen for the forthcoming battle, was destined to dog the Division during the whole of its operations against the Gustav Line. The same morning a forward reconnaissance party from Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade, consisting of the brigade second-in-command, Colonel Hartnell, Major Thodey and Second-Lieutenant Holder from 19 Regiment, set out for the Cassino area. They had hardly left when a change of plan was announced and a second party, Captain Wilson and Second-Lieutenant Monson,1 were despatched to Mignano. It was the eve of the first action on Fifth Army’s front, and for the regiment the end of an idyllic two weeks.
The move to Mignano began at 3.30 a.m. on 6 February. In teeming rain and biting wind, on a route which was partly by road and partly across country, the regiment, in column led by the CO, safely accomplished the 50-mile journey. There were 150 vehicles in this convoy and not one fell out, a performance which spoke well for the skill of the regiment’s drivers and for the high standard of mechanical maintenance in the unit.
The new area was in a bleak, windswept mountain valley dominated by rocky, snow-clad peaks and the grim ‘Million Dollar Hill’, where many American and German dead still lay unburied. It was about half a mile from what had been the town of Mignano; after being mined by the retreating Germans, and after months of air and ground bombardment by the Allies, the place was now no more than a heap of rubble. Regular sorties by medium bombers and the page 367 almost continuous roar and rumble from the 240-millimetre guns sited north of Mignano brought the war back to reality. It was cold and wet, and here the regiment learned a new trick which it was to use successfully on many later occasions: the tank tracks were run over the muddy camp site to form drains to take off the water lying in the area.
On Fifth Army’s front conditions were now somewhat similar to those the Division had so recently left behind on Eighth Army’s sector. Stalemate had been reached. There had been some early, hard-won gains, but the whole Fifth Army was now halted. The winter weather had set in and the Allied advance was blocked by the powerful Gustav Line, standing squarely across the approach to Rome. By early February 1944 the fierce offensive by the American forces had battered itself out against the almost impregnable enemy defences in the Liri valley. A diversionary landing made at Anzio on 22 January had had only limited success and did not, as had been hoped, force the enemy to weaken his garrison manning the Gustav Line. The road to Rome was still denied to us.
The Orsogna front became of secondary importance now, for in winter the Apennines are impassable. As deep snow closed the passes, denying the enemy reinforcements from the rear and making the exploitation of any Allied gains impossible, formations were drawn from the immobilised Eighth Army to bolster up Fifth Army’s operations in the west. The New Zealand Division and 4 Indian Division were among those switched to Fifth Army’s front, and together they became the nucleus of the New Zealand Corps which, under the leadership of Lieutenant-General Freyberg, was briefed to assume responsibility for the Cassino sector as from 12 February. In addition to 2 NZ Division (commanded by Major-General Kippenberger), 4 Indian Division (Brigadier H. W. Dimoline) and 78 British Division (Major-General C. F. Keightley), New Zealand Corps included strong British, Indian and American artillery formations and an American armoured force.
Beneath the dominating heights of Monte Cairo lay the Liri valley, through which ran Route 6, the main highway page 368 to Rome. Both the valley and the road were commanded by the steep, rock-faced hills above the town of Cassino, where the road and railway were hemmed in close to the hills by the Rapido and Gari rivers and their tributaries. Cassino was the key point of the line, for there the enemy held a defence feature without parallel, a position which had long been regarded as the classic example of a natural fortress. But the thorough German was not content with geographical advantage only. Into the Cassino sector he put his best troops, laid extensive minefields, and built cunningly sited and well camouflaged strongpoints.
Immediately before New Zealand Corps took over the sector, 2 United States Corps, with 34 and 36 Infantry Divisions, had been making valiant efforts to dislodge the enemy and drive into the town of Cassino itself. Their main attacks launched in the last week of January secured bridgeheads across the Rapido, a foothold on Monte Cairo, and a slender hold on the eastern slopes of Colle Maiola. The enemy then immediately reinforced, and drove back 36 Division, which was established over the Rapido, causing the Americans heavy casualties. By 6 February the force in the hills had taken a considerable part of Monte Castellone and fought its way under withering fire to within 300 yards of Monastery Hill. The troops in the valley, however, after the bitterest fighting, succeeded only in securing a few houses on the outskirts of the town.
This ten weeks of uninterrupted hammering had taken a heavy toll of lives, but on 11 February the survivors, though almost worn out by their hard battling and the foul weather, put in a final attack. It failed, and with fierce fighting still in progress the relief of 2 US Corps began.
Two American combat teams remained under the command of New Zealand Corps. In the initial plan the role of one of these teams was to sweep across the Rapido and establish a bridgehead south and west of Cassino. A force from New Zealand Corps, ‘Stewart Force’, which included 20 Armoured Regiment, was to break through the Americans and push on to Sant’ Angelo. The American task force would then make for Pignataro, while another force page 369 (armour and motorised infantry) would advance to Piedimonte San Germano. A week of bad weather forced the abandonment of this plan, for during this period the low-lying flat land south and west of Cassino became waterlogged and impassable.
The next plan was to push the armour along the railway embankment and to break out from the station area. The bridgehead over the Rapido was to be made at the railway crossing by 28 (Maori) Battalion, and 7 Indian Brigade was to attack the Monastery from the north-west along the ridge; but before this attack was launched this historic building was to be destroyed by air bombing and gunfire.
The decision to destroy the Monastery on Monte Cassino was one which was taken reluctantly, for throughout the campaign the Allies had shown magnanimity in caring for historic buildings and in carefully avoiding targets which might jeopardise sacred or historic sites.
Though the Fifth Army commander, General Mark Clark, has since recorded his opinion that the destruction of the Monastery was unnecessary and that it was not occupied by the enemy, the other Allied commanders on the spot at the time did not share his faith in the Germans’ moral integrity. So obviously important a military objective in enemy hands, even if only used at the time as an observation post, could be the cause of crippling casualties to our troops attacking the Gustav Line. Its commanding height and formidable construction made it a most important tactical feature. It was capable of housing a brigade of troops, and in winter shelter was second only in importance to protection. Up to 15 February the Monastery was considered to have provided both shelter and protection for German troops in the area. Full warning of what was to take place was given to the occupants of Monte Cassino.
On the 15th the attack began. Relays of heavy aircraft bombed Monte Cassino, while both sides watched sadly. The magnificent structure at first stubbornly resisted the continuous concentrations of high explosive, but at last the bombs slowly began to take effect, though the shell still stood after 350 tons of bombs had been used against it.page 370
That night (the 15th) 1 Royal Sussex Regiment attacked Point 593, but failed. Despite the bombing, there seemed to be no lessening of opposition from the Monte Cassino feature. More raids were made on the Monastery on the 16th and again the following day, but still the thick outside walls remained upright, and it was soon evident that as an enemy strongpoint the ruined monastery, if less comfortable, was just as effective as it had been before.
In preparation for the main attack on 17 February, 19 Armoured Regiment moved from Mignano to a position south-east of Monte Trocchio, and that evening 28 (Maori) Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Young2) crossed the Rapido. After fierce fighting during the night the Maoris captured the railway station and established themselves there just before dawn.
But the plan, which had provided for 19 Regiment to cross the Rapido on a newly erected bridge, move along the railway embankment, pass through the Maoris, then break out onto Highway 6 and enter the southern outskirts of Cassino, could not be proceeded with. It had proved impossible in the time available for the engineers to fill the last two gaps in the embankment, and consequently the tanks could not get forward to support 28 Battalion. With daylight the enemy poured down devastating fire from the Hummocks, which overlooked the railway station position. The Maoris held on grimly until German tanks, attacking with infantry support, drove them back, and the hard-won bridgehead upon which so much depended was lost.
Shortly after dawn orders were received cancelling the regiment’s role, and the tanks which had been standing by, at times under heavy shellfire, returned to Mignano, where they arrived just after dark on the 19th. There had been twelve casualties.
Fresh plans were now prepared for the crossing of the Rapido and Gari rivers and for the capture of Cassino and the Monastery. This new operation, with the code-name page 371 Dickens, was to prove one of the most strenuous and perhaps the most disappointing ever undertaken by the Division.
In general the plan had the same objectives as before, but this time Cassino was to be assaulted from the north. Sixth Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Parkinson), with 19 Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin) under command, was briefed to attack the town and force a bridgehead. This formation was to relieve 133 US Infantry Regiment in the northern sector of Cassino before the attack. Fourth Indian Division, on the right, was to hold its position on the hills and secure the Monastery and the ridges leading to the high feature. Exploitation into the Liri valley was to be the task of the American Task Force B and the remainder of 4 NZ Armoured Brigade (Brigadier Stewart3).
In preparation for the relief of the American forces, Headquarters 4 Brigade and 19 Regiment’s orders group went up to Monte Cairo with Brigadier Parkinson and made contact with the Americans. A reconnaissance was made of all forward positions, and final arrangements were completed for the changeover. The following night the regiment moved out from Mignano.
Under cover of darkness the tanks went forward in groups and squadrons took up the dispositions which had been previously reconnoitred. Simultaneously 756 US Tank Battalion moved out. By 3.20 a.m. the relief was complete and Regimental Headquarters was established in a wadi north-east of Pasquale, beside the Portella Road. A and C Squadrons were dispersed in the riverbed and among the olive trees in the fields to the north of Regimental Headquarters. B Squadron took up a forward position with its headquarters in a casa and one troop in a quarry within 1000 yards of the enemy. This troop had the responsibility of watching the entrance to the town.page 372
For the next three weeks the regiment remained forward under direct view of the Monastery and Monte Cairo, uncomfortable, alert, and daily expecting the attack. Every alarm and hurried preparation during this uneasy period was brought to nought by the receipt each morning of a signal which read ‘DICKENS postponed’. Bad weather held up the offensive. It was a trying time; security suffered and even the local Italians were soon asking, ‘DICKENS tomorrow?’ The sour jokes about the weather, which was invariably either as ‘cold as the Dickens’ or as ‘wet as the Dickens’, did nothing to confuse them—every bambino knew that an assault on Cassino was brewing and that DICKENS was the code-name for it.
B Squadron (Major Leeks) in particular had a very sticky three weeks, for its area was given the closest attention by the German aircraft, guns and mortars, and casualties, mounting daily, were a steady drain on manpower. Some of the men, too, were under fire for the first time; with no opportunity to reply or even to move about to any extent, theirs was an unenviable experience. Dismal cold and constant rain made conditions wretched for everybody, and nothing could be done to alleviate them. Squadron Headquarters had a narrow escape from obliteration when a heavy calibre shell penetrated its casa and ricocheted round the inside stone walls, injuring several men but fortunately failing to explode. Thereafter the anxiety remained that the German gunners might get on to the same target again, and that next time the shell would not be a dud.
The large proportion of heavy shells which failed to explode was remarkable. In A Squadron’s area, of approximately 140 shells recorded, 100 were duds. This was popularly attributed to sabotage by the forced labour working in the German armament factories.
The use of wireless at this time was forbidden, so that communications were confined to line. As it was vital that the links to B Squadron and its forward troop should be always in working order, much maintenance was necessary. The forward watch on the town was of the highest import- page 373 ance, and Sergeant Ian Hercus,4 who was killed in action later in the operation, did a sterling job under difficult conditions. He was out night and day testing and repairing the cables which were constantly being cut by shellfire.
The 19th Regiment’s tanks, cowering immobile under wet camouflage nets, took no offensive action during these three weeks, but from the quarry just below Point 225 crews from the advanced troop patrolled along the approaches to Cassino and reported on the state of the routes into the town. When the operation developed, a clear passage in would be essential if the tanks were to give effective close support to the attacking infantry when it would be most needed.
It was the middle of March before the weather cleared sufficiently to dry out the airfields and so allow the preliminary air assault to be mounted against the town. Meanwhile battle casualties and sickness were robbing the Division of manpower, and unit strengths dwindled daily. On 2 March the GOC (Major-General Kippenberger) was severely wounded by a mine and the command of the Division passed to Brigadier Parkinson, whom Brigadier Bonifant5 succeeded as commander of 6 Brigade.
On the 14th word came through at last that DICKENS would begin at noon next day. In preparation for the bombing forward troops were withdrawn behind the safety bomb line, while units further back moved up into position. After so many postponements signs of the impending attack were greeted almost with relief. At a CO’s conference the plan for 19 Regiment was gone over once again, and squadrons made their final preparations. All was made ready for the midday move into Cassino.
The 15th March dawned fine and clear and at 8.30 a.m. the leading waves of bombers appeared. From that hour onwards, with relentless regularity, Liberators and Fortresses roared over the target. Under the pall of smoke and dust page 374 churned up by the 1100 tons of high explosive they released, Cassino rocked and shuddered until it seemed impossible that any living thing could have survived. It was an awesome exhibition of Allied air might, but the watching troops, elated at first, were soon uncomfortably aware that the term ‘safety bomb line’ meant little to many of the bombardiers up above. Some of their missiles found marks as much as five miles within our own area, and there were many unexpected casualties. Much bitterness naturally resulted. It was with justifiable relief that the troops waiting to go into the attack watched the last group of planes disappear shortly before midday.
At the stroke of twelve, when the air bombardment had ceased, our artillery opened up and, behind a barrage from over 600 guns of all calibres, the attack began to move forward. Over the radio telephone, breaking the long-imposed silence, came the voice of OC B Squadron, ‘Moving now everything OK.’ The month of waiting was ended: DICKENS was on.
The 25th Battalion with B Squadron 19 Regiment in support, led 6 Brigade’s assault on the town. The first objective was Point 193 (Castle Hill) and the high ground around it, then along the line of the main road running east through Cassino to the intersection of the north-south route. In code, this line was known as QUISLING.
The advance was made along two roads running south from the barracks area into Cassino. Two troops of tanks moved on each route, but in the first few minutes it was found that all the preliminary route reconnoitring by the engineers, infantry and armour during the long wait outside the town was now of no use. The two troops on PARALLEL (the eastern) route were forced to retrace their tracks, while radio reports from the leading tanks on CARUSO route indicated that, while they had reached the northern outskirts of Cassino, further progress was impossible. The heavy bombing had completely wrecked all roads to the objective. Huge craters and debris from demolished buildings made the going impossible, and the tanks were halted halfway between the jail and Route 6.page 375
ATTACK on CASSINO
To add to the already serious situation, several sorties of dive-bombing Kittyhawks attacked the area in which the leading tanks were working. Some of them could now move neither forwards nor backwards.
The bridgelaying tank with B Squadron was called up, but the craters left by the heavy bombs on the rain-sodden page 376 routes were so large that they could not be spanned with this equipment. It was evident that bulldozer assistance from the engineers would be required before any reasonable progress through the town could be expected. All hope of a swift armoured breakthrough had now gone.
Nevertheless the crews of B Squadron’s tanks left their vehicles and, working with pick and shovel under cover of smoke, cleared their way forward. By this means individual tanks were manœuvred into positions where they could best assist the infantry by gunfire. Energetic work on foot, first by Major Leeks, then by his second-in-command, Captain McInnes, and later by Lieutenant Carey,6 resulted in ten tanks being got into good supporting positions. All these officers commanded B Squadron in succession, and all were wounded during this hazardous work.
The task of 25 Battalion, too, had been made very difficult by the bomb damage. Cassino was in ruins and the whole layout of the town seemed to have been changed. The attacking platoons had hard work keeping direction and surmounting obstacles. Though at first the infantry struck little opposition as they approached the objective, the enemy holding a strong line along the base of the hill began to fight back fiercely. The tanks now gave valuable assistance, and despite the fact that at this stage there was no effective communication between armour and infantry, B Squadron tanks, working individually and through regimental control, were able to bring effective fire to bear on many buildings from which the enemy was harassing our troops.
Snipers and pockets of enemy, who evidently had still been underground when the attack passed over them, began to emerge from the crumbling debris and engage our men from unexpected quarters, and areas that had been cleared but which could not be garrisoned by the attackers were later reoccupied by the Germans. Companies were out of touch with each other, and in the afternoon progress was impossible to follow. Fierce local fights held up movement page 377 in some places, while other groups managed to get forward. A company of 24 Battalion was put in to help clear the areas on the objective, and by 4.30 p.m. B Squadron 19 Regiment had its ten tanks along the general line in close support of the infantry.
That the enemy could come up so full of fight after the fierce air bombardment and intense artillery barrage spoke well for the calibre of his infantry. It was evident that he was using his best and most seasoned troops in the defence of Cassino. By nightfall Castle Hill and Point 165 were successfully occupied, but a number of enemy strongpoints were still holding out and giving much trouble. Then at dusk heavy rain began to fall, and the full moon, which had been counted upon to assist the attacking forces, was obscured by low black clouds.
Despite the unwelcome change in the weather, the night of 15–16 March was a period of feverish activity. The infantry, stumbling in the pitch darkness over the heaped-up ruins, attempted to link up their areas and consolidate their hard-won gains. The tanks, including A Squadron (Major Thodey) and one troop of C Squadron (Lieutenant Brown7), moved up during the afternoon and contacted part of 26 Battalion which they were supporting. No contact was made, however, with the forward company headquarters, of which there was no news. During darkness some damaged vehicles were recovered, wounded were evacuated, and the tanks took some supplies forward. The engineers, whose tasks were tremendous, did their utmost to clear routes for the next phase of the attack, which was planned to capture the railway station area and then, by exploiting along Highway 6 on to the high ground, secure the gateway to the Liri valley.
During the night, too, 5 Indian Brigade relieved 25 Battalion on Castle Hill and occupied Hangman’s Hill. But the changeover was difficult and only scattered elements were able to establish themselves on the barren rock faces page 378 of the Castle feature. Throughout the night the enemy kept up an intense fire on all approaches.
With weeks of local knowledge behind them the German infantry had a great advantage over our men, and in the night they were able to infiltrate back into cleared areas, reinforce their strongpoints in the town and establish several new ones. When daylight came the battle began again with renewed fury.
The Allied artillery and parties from Divisional Cavalry and 7 Anti-Tank Regiment now put down smoke to screen the bridges under construction over the Rapido, mask movement in the town, and blind the enemy observation posts around the Monastery and Terelle areas. In addition to the prearranged programmes fired by the artillery as required, B Squadron tanks and the self-propelled guns under regimental command responded smartly and efficiently to calls for support, smoke and concentrations. Nevertheless many of the enemy’s well-sited weapons were able to keep up their destructive work. His 170-millimetre guns behind Monte Cairo and nebelwerfers around the Piedimonte and Pignataro areas caused casualties to our armour, and his mortars firing from the reverse slopes of Monte Cassino and Colle Sant’ Angelo harassed the infantry. Snipers continued to do deadly work, and spandau nests among the masses of rubble in the town were difficult to locate and to deal with.
From now on the whole of the battle area was under a cloud of smoke. Ruined Cassino, shrouded in a constant greyish pall, became a nightmare town where every device of friend or foe seemed to react against the troops whose task it was to burst through the debris and the defences and secure a safe passage into the valley beyond. The system of canals under the streets had been burst by the bombing, and the rain and the welling up of the water turned what little remained of the roads in the centre of the town into a muddy mess. Tracked vehicles churned up this mud and the pulverised mortar from the wrecked buildings into a sticky dough, which poured into ruts and craters, creating hidden hazards for the tanks and setting almost insuperable repair problems for the engineers.
A German Mark IV tank knocked out at Ruweisat Ridge, 16 July 1942
After Ruweisat—Wellington company group: (standing) W. J. Coleman, C. J. Stark, E. Taylor, I. Constable; (sitting) J. H. Walden, R. W. Patterson, G. W. Baxter, R. T. Lowry, H. McMillan
Bogged at the Sangro
Snowed up at Orsogna
Cassino — from the leading tank on arrival at the Railway station
Crew of the leading tank relieved after the attack on the railway station, Cassino — (sitting) Tpr A. S. Furby, unidentified; (standing) Lt J. G. Furness, Cpl W. N. Forbes, Tpr L. A. Strong
There was frenzied work all day on the 16th in an all-out endeavour to make further progress through the town, both infantry and armour using every device to get forward. A Squadron was switched from the northern end of Cassino and at 11 a.m. began to move to Route 6. The 26th Battalion, which had gone in the previous afternoon to attempt to push on to the second objective, had lost communication with its brigade headquarters and was out of touch until 3.45 p.m. At that hour three A Squadron tanks, which had fought forward and got on to Highway 6 with the assistance of two Valentine scissors bridgelayers, entered the town and made contact. No. 1 Troop (Lieutenant Morrin) set up its headquarters with Headquarters 26 Battalion in the church just short of the Botanical Gardens.
The meeting is recorded in the history of 26 Battalion:
… an officer wearing a black beret was seen walking unconcernedly along Route 6. He turned to enter the Nunnery but a hurried call brought him over to 14 Platoon. The tank officer, Lieutenant Morrin of 19 Armoured Regiment, had left his tank a short distance back down Route 6, and to while away the time while sappers filled in a road crater, had come forward to locate the infantry. He was asked to shell the Nunnery. A short while afterwards a dozen shells landed on the building. Corporal Tombs8 then led his men into it.
Using the regimental wireless link, 26 Battalion was now able to report on the situation in its sector. In this relief 1 and 4 Troops from A Squadron each had a tank bogged, but particularly fine work by the bridgelayers enabled the rest to enter the town. Despite the slow rate at which this difficult advance into the town was accomplished, the tanks were up with the infantry before dark, firing on targets, passing messages, and preparing for a renewed offensive next day.
B Squadron that day (the 16th) had six tanks well into the northern end of the town in close support of 25 Battalion, in whose area snipers were doing murderous work until they were effectively dealt with by fire from the armour. This squadron was relieved on the night of 16–17 page 380 March. In the original plan it was to have been taken out the first night, but its long and previously passive contact with the enemy had culminated in two days’ hard fighting following its assault on the town. The squadron left seven tanks in Cassino. The high hopes held by commanders and crews before the battle were still unrealised though each man had done his utmost. The havoc wrought by the bombing had made B Squadron’s role unbelievably difficult, but the assistance it had given the infantry in the initial stages of the battle had been invaluable. The squadron now undertook a supporting role in the north of Cassino.
Following close, confused fighting during the morning of the 17th, an attack was made on the railway station area. C Company 26 Battalion and three troops drawn from A Squadron (which now had eight runners in the town) were used in this assault. No. 4 Troop (Lieutenant Jim Furness9) led. The approach move was a most difficult one and Furness has described it as follows:
… we found that the streets just did not exist: there was nothing but rubble everywhere and all our previous recces and plans went overboard. I couldn’t find any semblance of the roads E-Q or G-Q [see photograph following p. 378] so we nosed the tanks through a few gaps and somehow got in behind the Convent [on Route 6, also referred to as the Nunnery]. From there I had no alternative but to get out of the tank and crawl forward among the rubble to find a track. I was successful in finding a thoroughfare which enabled us to get out to the road somewhere in the vicinity of M. Somewhere here there was an anti-tank gun lining itself up on us—it had actually been sited on to the railway station—and we liquidated it. Machine-gun fire was rattling like hailstones on the tank as we made our way to the station, firing on the move with the 75mm at any building that looked suspicious. At the cross-roads Q we encountered a deep minefield. I decided to move the mines, but in view of the heavy machine-gun fire I endeavoured to put out smoke with the 75mm smoke shells. However these travelled too far, so we fired them into the nearby rubble which held the shells while they discharged their smoke. I intended to do the job alone, but a member of my tank crew, Cpl Bill page 381 Forbes,10 was soon at my side and we soon got the road clear. We got under way again, shooting up a couple of pill boxes and several M/G posts as we went.
The dash along the open concrete road to the railway station now began. The enemy gunners had the approach well taped and No. 2 Troop (Second-Lieutenant ‘Dib’ Beswick) had both tanks in his troop knocked out and brewed up. No. 4 Troop, however, got two tanks (Lieutenant Furness’s and Sergeant ‘Snow’ Coleman’s) onto the objective. They arrived at the station at 11.55 a.m. and immediately began to engage the enemy posts around it.
As No. 3 Tp advanced down Route 6, Lt Beswick’s two tanks could be seen burning and exploding halfway down the built up open road leading to the railway station. On enquiry, the Sqn Comd informed that the artillery had engaged the A/T gun which had got Beswick’s troop, and it was thought to be out of action.
The troop was told to hit the road with the greatest speed and the Sherman tanks were really extended to the limit. The Tp Comd’s tank led followed by Sgt Frank Milne12 and then came Cpl Hubbard.13 The general area was being shelled at the time and when the leading tank shuddered to a halt at the end of the road, a quick examination showed what appeared to be a large shell splinter jamming the track (later found to be a bit of the track suspension—an AP shot was firmly embedded in the chassis). Sgt Milne’s tank had by this time drawn alongside and the Tp Comd and he changed tanks, then continued on until stopped by the flood waters of the Rapido river [probably the Gari]. At this stage no infantry had reached the Station area.
Frequent calls on the wireless failed to get a reply from Cpl Hubbard’s tank, and the infantry who arrived later in the afternoon said that one tank had gone off the road. At approx 5pm, when the fighting had died down, the Tp Comd went page 382 back to Sgt Milne who was still fighting the immobile tank, and picked up Milne and his driver Bert Orr14 and ran back to the tank which it was found had fallen about 10 feet and was on its side in the mud. This move brought down mortar fire from the Hun but shortly afterwards darkness covered the efforts to extricate the crew—the driver had escaped earlier but had been pinned down in the water for several hours by a spandau.
The only entry into the tank was via the driver’s hatch because the turret had sunk too far into the mud. By tapping on the hull, contact was made with the wireless operator, Mick Cooney,15 but entry from the driver’s compartment to the turret was barred by the grilled side of the turret wall. Bert Orr returned to his tank for tools and work was started on this obstacle. The task took from 6 p.m. till 11 p.m. but finally a hole was cut sufficiently large for Cooney to be rescued. Cpl Hubbard and Tpr Gasson16 (the gunner) had both been killed by the A/Tk shell which had penetrated the turret. Cooney was severely wounded and he was eventually sent home to NZ after many painful months in hospital.
Effective fire from the tanks on the objective at the station soon resulted in a slackening of enemy resistance from the strongpoint on the Hummocks. But the infantry were still pinned by deadly sniping and lost many men. They were able to cross the open ground only after a smoke screen had been put down, and did not get to the station until 2.40 p.m.
German troops fleeing from the area were hotly engaged, and by 3 p.m. the station was secured and mopped up by 26 Battalion. The three mobile tanks and one disabled remained on the position in close support.
During this engagement Second-Lieutenant Beswick, while evacuating the surviving members of his ill-fated No. 2 Troop, ran into trouble from enemy machine-gun fire. Acting with great coolness and promptitude, he and Corporal Garth Ryder17 rushed the nearest post and, with a page 383 German tommy gun snatched from a body, wiped out the crew and captured seventeen prisoners. These were herded into a dugout, where they were kept under guard all day. After dusk Beswick led his men, with their prisoners, for over 1000 yards across the shambles to Squadron Headquarters at the crypt at the rear of the convent. Their arrival at first caused some consternation.
A Squadron had done magnificent work under conditions which were almost impossible for tank movement, and its efforts had done much to relieve the precarious situation in the central sector of Cassino. For his outstanding example and leadership the squadron commander, Major Thodey, was awarded the DSO, and the squadron also earned several other decorations.
For the whole day (the 17th) C Squadron continued in close support of 24 Battalion in the town near Highway 6. The tanks were kept busy engaging suspected points and knocking down buildings from which the enemy was bringing fire to bear on the infantry, who were then attempting to push on to the Continental Hotel. They had already cleared the Botanical Gardens area during the first two hours of daylight, and this enabled the attack on the station to be mounted. At last light No. 9 Troop, with one tank from Squadron Headquarters, moved south to watch the junction of Route 6 and to stand by in a reserve position ready for further exploitation towards the Liri valley.
With the bridgehead over the Rapido established and both objectives in the town area now taken, prospects for the break-out seemed better, and the final moves for fully investing Cassino were prepared.
The clearing of the western high ground and the town itself was the first task. The three battalions already in the town area were to be reinforced by 28 (Maori) Battalion, which was to come into Cassino on the night of 18–19 March to complete the mopping-up and consolidation of the town area.
It was evident, however, that the enemy had no intention of relaxing his hold, and throughout the night of the 17th-18th both 25 and 26 Battalions were severely shelled and page 384 mortared. In the station area German patrols were very active, and the tanks firing on fixed lines assisted in keeping them at bay during darkness.
Just before dawn Lieutenant Furness called up advising that there were indications that a counter-attack was developing. This startling news alerted all tanks but one in No. 1 Troop. Just as this information had been received the commander of this tank switched on and filled the air with details about a burning camouflage net which his crew were doing their best to extinguish. He had not heard the call from the station and apparently in his excitement forgot to pull his switch. As long as his set remained on ‘transmit’ it not only jammed the rest of the regimental net but prevented him from hearing the frantic instructions to ‘Get off the air.’ Some tense minutes passed before he realised his error and switched to ‘Receive’. Fortunately the attack did not take place immediately, and when it did the enemy was beaten off. The incident, however, was a telling example of how a small mistake might cause a major disaster.
At daylight the shelling of all areas increased, freshly sited anti-tank weapons engaged our armour, and snipers caused trouble in all sectors. The Luftwaffe also took a hand with some strafing.
The tanks in the town remained in close support of our infantry. A and C Squadrons and No. 5 Troop from B Squadron were split up throughout the occupied areas and engaged as required in fire tasks, but were much in the same positions as those taken up the previous day. During the morning two tanks from Regimental Headquarters under Lieutenant McCown18 were brought in to thicken up A Squadron’s area, and another tank (Lieutenant Morrin) was sent on a special fire task against buildings from which the enemy was still harassing the infantry. A round of armour-piercing followed by high-explosive proved an effective method of opening up these trouble spots.page 385
All day long the German artillery was effective and accurate, and most of the tanks in the town received direct hits from projectiles of various calibres. The commander of No. 10 Troop (Lieutenant Peter Brown)—attached to A Squadron—had his tank knocked out by a bazooka, two of his crew killed, and was himself wounded. At Battle Headquarters the CO’s tank, which was sheltering at the convent, had the building brought down on top of it. The barrel of the 75 was bent, and a new tank had to be sent in during the night to replace the damaged one. Our armour, however, evened the score and claimed that day to have accounted for two enemy tanks in the town.
Around Points 193 and 202 the infantry made some small but costly gains. The whole programme for 18 March was so solidly opposed that by nightfall there were few changes in the positions of the infantry or the tanks, though No. 9 Troop was successfully withdrawn from C Squadron’s area, and moving by Highway 6, joined McCown’s two RHQ tanks in the southern end of Cassino.
The engineers’ tasks had now progressed considerably. Working from dusk to dawn, they had Pasquale route repaired and Highway 6 clear as far as the southern end of Cassino. The railway route was passable for tanks as far as the station, and the bridges over the Rapido north of Highway 6 were almost completed and were expected to be ready for traffic by the morning of the 19th. Mines had been lifted in all important areas in which our troops were working, and altogether the Engineers had done a prodigious job.
During the night of the 18th–19th the Maori Battalion moved into Cassino. Bitter fighting took place in front of the Continental Hotel where the Maoris, attacking immediately they moved in, advanced from the Botanical Gardens and by dogged street battles fought their way almost to Route 6 before being held up by fire from the enemy strong-points above the hotel. During this attack a number of trouble spots were eliminated and a good bag of prisoners taken. These gave information of the enemy’s armament and methods and positive identification of the German units page 386 opposing our forces. The enemy had handed the responsibility for the defence of Cassino to his best troops: 3 Parachute Regiment was in the line.
With their supply dumps located in the ground floors of the bomb-wrecked buildings, well hidden by rubble and known only to themselves, the Germans were confident of their ability to hold the town and expected shortly to launch a two-battalion counter-attack with flame-throwers. In the area, too, were operating seven or eight Mark IV tanks and the same number of self-propelled guns. The ruins were the enemy’s greatest ally. They gave excellent concealment and cover, confused our infantry, and immobilised our armour.
During the day the Maoris took more prisoners, but every one had to be winkled out of the debris from which they had been fighting. Quick to appreciate the effectiveness of the tanks, the Maoris won the admiration of the crews by their coolness in going out from cover to indicate to the armour just where enemy strongpoints or snipers were located. A Maori warrant officer (RSM Martin McRae19) went within five yards of a large building where a group of enemy was known to be. He asked for fire to be put in at certain windows. This was done at point-blank range by Lieutenant Morrin’s tank, and several Germans came out smartly, their hands in the air. Using dire threats and novel means to tell them what he wanted, McRae had them call out their colleagues. Nearly a hundred prisoners were thus collected from this one building.
Co-operation between the tanks and infantry was good, and in the afternoon A Squadron, which at the time controlled a gunline of seven tanks, had a blitz on snipers who had been worrying 25 Battalion. The system used was for the infantry to describe targets over a No. 38 wireless set; these descriptions were received on another No. 38 set in the squadron commander’s tank and the target identified. Orders were then relayed to the other tanks by their No. 19 sets. All guns were trained, and one gun fired ranging shots; page 387 these shots were observed and corrections received from the infantry until the target was hit, whereupon the whole gun-line—which during the ranging had been making the necessary corrections—fired three rounds. The results were excellent.
Resistance continued as strong as ever in the town area, especially on the higher ground, and neither infantry nor armour could make much forward progress. On the hills, too, things were not going well, for part of the Essex Regiment, on its way to reinforce the Gurkhas, was badly cut up, and the remainder, moving in for an attack on the Monastery, was pinned down by fire. In a strong counter-attack the enemy recaptured Point 165 and threatened our position on Castle Hill.
One attack which might have done much to relieve the position took place from Colle Maiola when two columns, comprising tanks from 20 Regiment, some American Honey tanks and self-propelled guns, and light tanks from 7 Indian Brigade, surprised the enemy and temporarily caused him some confusion. On Colle Maiola a well camouflaged route had been in course of preparation for two months. It was not discovered by the enemy and was now used for the first time. It was unfortunate that the attack could not be pushed home. Minefields and bad going encountered once the end of the road had been passed made further armoured progress difficult, and several 20 Regiment tanks attempting to get forward were knocked out by German infantry with bazookas. There was no infantry to support the armour or to enable the situation caused by this surprise move to be exploited before the enemy had reorganised.
That night (the 19th–20th) there was a reshuffle of responsibilities, and 6 Brigade handed over the town area north of Route 6 to 5 Brigade. The battalions of the former brigade now concentrated on a line from Route 6 to and including the railway station. On their southern flank was the Divisional Cavalry (Major Stace20), with some units page 388 from 78 British Division. The 6th Royal West Kents took over the castle, but the troops on Hangman’s Hill and Point 202 could not be relieved and, though virtually surrounded, still held out and fought vigorously. They were supplied by air. Supply and replenishment was a problem, and though the tanks had a distinct advantage in safety and carrying capacity, they too had some exciting incidents, as this extract from a letter written from hospital by Lieutenant Strat Morrin shows:
We went out again that evening for more ammunition. I took three tanks out and we also collected some rum and bread. After arriving back where we had our dump, we had spent about five minutes getting things going, three of the crew were on ammo, whilst the other and myself were sorting out the bread and rum when the Hun started to shell the area. The four of us who were outside the tank ducked in close behind, were alright for a short time but one landed right in close behind winging the lot of us. Three of us were winged in the back, the fourth in the legs as well. Percy Priest21 the driver and self were not bad, Cliff Stark22 was able to walk with difficulty while Jack Thomson23 the spare driver had a very nasty one in the back. (He subsequently died.) Morrie Webster24 the operator, the other member who was in the turret, got out to see what was happening, as the shell had also set alight to our dump, and was winged from one of our own shells, A.P. casing I think, in the arm.
Percy and I managed to get Jack Thomson back and we all made an infantry RAP in the crypt of the Church. After having our wounds attended to we later made back to our own RAP which was very handy. Morrie, Percy and I walked out while Cliff was a stretcher case. Jack was to come out in the next batch, none of us saw him again as he died the following day. We were well looked after when we made our own RAP, the most welcome thing of all being the big mugs of cocoa which the Padre Jack Somerville was dispensing.
We were sent on back and about six o’clock next morning we arrived at 2 G.H. at Caserta, where we still are and have been looked after wonderfully well.page 389
During darkness, too, the tanks carried out some necessary reliefs. C Squadron took over from A. Nos. 9, 11 and 12 Troops of C Squadron, plus one disabled tank from A Squadron, carried on in the northern end of the town while Nos. 3 and 4 Troops went out to reorganise. Later B Squadron took over from Nos. 11 and 12. Lieutenant Jan Suter succeeded Captain Geoff Wiles25 as technical adjutant; the latter, having been wounded the day before, finished a strenuous tour in which he had gone five days and nights almost without sleep. Throughout the whole of the Cassino operation the work of the technical personnel was of the highest order. Aided by an American Sherman recovery tank (Lieutenant Allan Tupper-Brown and crew of four), they had done some magnificent work in getting vehicles back on their tracks and keeping all the tanks in the town in fighting trim. Their impressive recovery work—often under heavy fire—to some extent offset the unfavourable conditions under which the armour was operating and kept the regimental tally of runners surprisingly high considering the circumstances under which the battle was being fought.
The 20th saw more hard house-to-house fighting by both 28 and 23 Battalions (Lieutenant-Colonel Connolly26), with the tanks in the town supporting them by fire as required. Two Regimental Headquarters tanks were sent in to reinforce A Squadron and at 11.30 a.m. Nos. 3 and 4 Troops, which had been taken out twelve hours earlier, were ordered back. No. 4 was sent right into Cassino to a position near Point S [see photograph following p. 378], and No. 3 remained on call near the Bailey bridge.
That night (20–21 March) 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel McElroy27) was put in to cut the southern entrance to the town and to link up with the troops on Point 202. The battalion met solid opposition, which increased as the day wore on. Fire from above the Hotel des Roses was very page 390 severe and prevented any move towards the south along Route 6. There were no decisive moves made on the 21st.
The battle had now been raging for seven days. Shelling on both sides was almost continuous, and the volume of fire coming from the enemy strongpoints clearly showed that he had been able to reinforce considerably since the 15th. Every move was met by well-directed shooting, and our infantry suffered severely. The enemy had the better of the battle, for his observation posts were sited on all the commanding points, while his guns were not only directed from these points but were receiving information from hidden observers located in the ruins of Cassino itself.
One of these observation posts in the town—an enemy Mark IV tank—was discovered by some astonished infantrymen who had heard it running its engine to charge its radio batteries. It had been completely sealed into a building next door to the one they were occupying. Several rounds of armour-piercing high-explosive from Lieutenant Jock McPhail’s tank were put into the building. When the site was investigated after the tank had brewed up, it was found that the radio was set up and no doubt had been used as a valuable link in the enemy’s forward observation organisation during the seven days our troops had been in Cassino. The crew (all of whom were killed) had a specially constructed underground passage which ran from the room in which their tank was incarcerated to the basement, under the courtyard and road, and across to the embankment on the other side.
On the 21st all tank moves were made in the early hours of the morning while it was still dark. Nos. 5 and 6 Troops from B Squadron and the two tanks from Regimental Headquarters, which had gone down Highway 6 the previous day, relieved A Squadron in the southern end of the town. During this relief No. 4 Troop lost a tank and A Squadron’s strength was reduced to eleven runners, this total including one new vehicle from the tank supply depot.
On the night of 21–22 March all B Squadron runners were assembled near the church and A Squadron went back page 391 into the town. Lieutenant Carey who, despite having been wounded on the first day, had commanded B Squadron since its original two commanders had successively been severely wounded in the first few hours of the battle, now handed over the squadron to Lieutenant ‘Rup’ Glendining,28 and was evacuated.
At 6 p.m. Nos. 9 and 12 Troops of C Squadron passed to the command of the Buffs. The total strength of this squadron was down to nine tanks. Relief to both men and vehicles was now a matter of considerable concern, for the battle tension had been unremitting. Some tanks could not be moved, though they were still being fought, and in the case of No. 9 Troop it was possible only to exchange crews so that the men who had been longest in action could come out and get some rest.
Inside the tanks sleep was almost impossible, for each member of the crew was required to be constantly on the alert. The frequent smack of bullets, shrapnel, and debris on the outside armour always held the threat of something larger and more penetrating. Several commanders had their periscopes sniped and snatched away from their eyes when the glass above splintered and the tube on its ball joint swung violently upwards; one man received a nasty face wound this way. The air inside the cramped quarters, though foul, could get icy cold, especially in the early mornings or when the engine had been stopped for a long period.
From the beginning of the action communications had been a big problem though successfully handled. The many telephone lines laid by the infantry signallers lasted only for the briefest periods, despite determined efforts to repair and replace them. The 19th Regiment’s wireless network soon became the mainstay of the system. It comprised fifty-five stations within the unit and eight others linking attached units and units being supported by the regiment. The magnificent way in which the regimental operators coped with this crowded net was the result of the high standard of training and radio discipline attained by the page 392 unit’s signallers under Lieutenant John Milliken.29 A performance worthy of particular mention was that of Corporal Ian Munro,30 who maintained ‘control’ at the CO’s battle headquarters for the full time under conditions which called for the highest degree of alertness and efficiency.
By the 22nd it was evident that the New Zealand Corps’ attack was spent. The troops had been in the line for almost six weeks, and the last eight days had been spent under conditions which were miserable beyond description. The strain on all ranks had been tremendous, for not only was the fighting severe and continuous, but the shambles over which the battle was being fought made even the most routine tasks gruelling. Supplies had to be manhandled. Hot food or drink was almost impossible to arrange. There was no defined line; the enemy might be anywhere, and his minefields and booby traps were a constant hazard.
The continuous working in the half light of smoke screens and in darkness, and the uncertainty and danger attending even the shortest move, were factors which added to the exhaustion of the individual. Nevertheless the troops were still determined, and efforts were made even in the last hour to swing the balance. The 21st Battalion again attacked in the western area, while 23 Battalion made another attempt on the slopes below the Monastery road. Little headway was made at either point.
On the night of 22–23 March A Squadron of 20 Armoured Regiment relieved A Squadron of the 19th, and the following morning the regiment began to move back to Mignano. A and B Squadrons withdrew that day but C remained in Cassino, still in support of the Buffs, and the disabled C Squadron tank attached to A Squadron, which after six days was still being fought but which could not be got out, was left under the command of Sergeant Sargent31 to keep up its supporting role as long as it was needed. The ‘flying fitters’, page 393 though loath to leave this tank, were finally ordered off. The A Squadron team, Sergeant Brian Buchanan, Corporal ‘Ding’ Byrne,32 Lance-Corporal Jim Walden,33 and Trooper ‘Fitz’ Fitzpatrick,34 a redoubtable quartet at any time, had excelled themselves during this action, and fully justified the above-establishment quota of rank which they had clung to despite official attempts to break up the combination.
These armoured reliefs were part of the plan to temporarily abandon the offensive while New Zealand Corps reorganised its line. Orders were to hold all gains securely, and as this still involved armoured support of the infantry in the town, tanks were relieved one at a time.
The following day (the 23rd) C Squadron passed from the command of the Buffs to that of 20 Regiment, and the squadron moved back finally on the 26th to rejoin the rest of the 19th in the dispersal area at Mignano.
The regiment was now completely withdrawn from its active role and began to refit immediately. In Cassino it had left twenty tanks; eight others were in workshops or with the Light Aid Detachment, and the remaining thirty runners all required much maintenance.
Casualties, though regrettable, were lighter than might have been expected. Seven men were killed in action and forty wounded during the eleven days of active operations under conditions completely unfavourable for armour. In addition to these Cassino battle casualties, B Squadron had lost one man killed and fourteen wounded while waiting outside the town. These losses, plus considerable wastage caused by sickness, left the regiment’s strength at low ebb, and much reorganisation was necessary.
Of the battle and the part the 19th played in it, it can be said that, despite the limiting factors, the causes of which were outside the control of the unit, a good account had been given by all squadrons. The narrow streets of the bomb-shattered town imposed conditions completely unfavourable for the employment of armour. Manœuvre was page 394 impossible and every movement hazardous. Nevertheless our hard-pressed infantry was given every support and assistance possible.
The Gustav Line still held and the road to Rome was still closed, but a bridgehead over the Rapido had been established and the town was virtually in Allied hands. This and the foothold gained on the hills would continue to cause the enemy the utmost anxiety. Because he was forced to garrison the Liri valley position strongly, relief was afforded the Anzio beachhead, where the situation was critical.
From the DICKENS operation tank commanders and crews gained much valuable experience in close co-operation with the infantry. Throughout the fighting it had been their constant endeavour to be well up with the assaulting troops, and though some of the tasks had been beyond the mechanical capacity of the tanks, the crews were always willing. The 19th, having once fought as an infantry battalion, soundly appreciated the dangers and difficulties confronting the units it had been supporting in what was perhaps the toughest job the New Zealand Division had yet tackled—a job that clearly confirmed the old axiom that in battle only infantry can finally force a decision. Air, artillery and armour, no matter how great the concentrations employed, cannot alone capture an objective held by determined troops.
Back in the bloody squalor of Cassino other 4 Armoured Brigade units were carrying on in support of the battalions now concentrating on the defence of the area. Then, on 26 March, New Zealand Corps was disbanded, and as Fifth Army reorganised for a fresh offensive, 2 NZ Division was withdrawn at the end of March to the Volturno valley for a short, much-needed rest before taking over a sector of the Allied line in the Apennine Mountains.
Gunnery training at Fabriano
B Squadron gunline at Faenza, Christmas Day 1944
Tests with tank-track extensions (‘grousers’) at Faenza
A billet in the regimental rest area at Faenza
Sergeant-Major N. J. Stewart has a bath while in the gunline at the Senio
2 Lt-Col R. R. T. Young, DSO; Richmond, England; born Wellington, 25 Jun 1902; oil company executive; CO School of Instruction Feb-Apr 1943; 28 (Maori) Bn Dec 1943-Jul 1944, Aug-Nov 1944; wounded 26 Dec 1943.
3 Maj-Gen K. L. Stewart, CB, CBE, DSO, m.i.d., MC (Greek), Legion of Merit (US); Kerikeri; born Timaru, 30 Dec 1896; Regular soldier; 1 NZEF 1917–19; GSO 1 2 NZ Div 1940–41; Deputy Chief of General Staff Dec 1941-Jul 1943; comd 5 Bde Aug-Nov 1943, 4 Armd Bde Nov 1943-Mar 1944, and 5 Bde Mar-Aug 1944; p.w. 1 Aug 1944; comd 9 Bde (2 NZEF, Japan) Nov 1945-Jul 1946; Adjutant-General, NZ Military Forces, Aug 1946-Mar 1949; Chief of General Staff Apr 1949-Mar 1952.
5 Brig I. L. Bonifant, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d.; Gisborne; born Ashburton, 3 Mar 1912; CO 25 Bn Sep 1942-Jan 1943; Div Cav Jan 1943-Apr 1944; comd 6 Bde 3–27 Mar 1944; 5 Bde Jan-May 1945; 6 Bde Jun-Oct 1945.