19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 20 — The Break-out Into the Liri Valley
The Break-out Into the Liri Valley
O there was horsing, horsing in haste
and cracking of whips out o’er the lee.
Once back in the dispersal area at windy, desolate Mignano, 19 Regiment set to work to smooth out the dints suffered by all departments during the two weeks’ hammering in Cassino. The winter weather and the battle had both been severe, and in the unit there was much to attend to, physically and mechanically. The past two months had been tough for man and vehicle, but as crews, troops and squadrons settled down to the routine of living and working together under quiet if not too comfortable conditions, the necessary overhauls, tackled with a will, were speedily accomplished.
The bright spring weather in the first week in April was as welcome in the daytime as was the undisturbed sleep at night. Duties were many, but there were many men to share them. Leave parties to Naples, where Vesuvius had blown its head off as the Cassino attack petered out, shuttled back and forth on a rotation quota, generous enough to give everyone a chance. Those men most in need of a completely free spell were sent off in batches for a week at the divisional rest camp.
In the frequent natter sessions the war quickly took second place, for during the Easter weekend fourteen original 19 Battalion men marched in on return from ten months’ furlough in New Zealand. Though their eagerly sought personal accounts of what was happening back home showed no degree of unanimity, they were welcome visitors individually or collectively at any gathering. Never was any band of lecturers given a more attentive hearing. Brigadier Inglis, who had just resumed command of 4 Armoured Brigade, had already whetted all appetites for news from New Zealand when, the week before, he had given a breezy, informal chat on his own impressions.page 396
Officially the Cassino battle was far from forgotten, and Regimental Headquarters was busy compiling the full report it was required to furnish on the 19th’s activities during the operation. This report was of its kind historic. The high level to which it was delivered was evidence of its importance, as was the fact that the CO was required by the Army Commander to fly to Egypt to add his personal account.
The regiment’s part had been a pioneering one for armour, and its experiences in operating over a built-up area which had been wrecked by heavy bombing could well be the basis for determining future Allied strategy. The careful work done by the ‘I’ section on radio interception during the battle now proved to be of immense importance, and 19 Regiment’s radio log became the most valuable document available for the accurate reconstruction of the events under examination.
Evidence that the work done by the unit was officially appreciated was in the list of immediate awards. The twelve who received decorations were: the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin, DSO; OC A Squadron, Major Thodey, DSO; OC No. 4 Troop, Lieutenant Furness, MC; OC No. 1 Troop, Lieutenant Morrin, MC; OC No. 2 Troop, Lieutenant Beswick, MC; Sergeant Sargent, MM; Sergeant Milne, MM; Sergeant Churton,1 MM; Lance-Sergeant Forbes, MM; Corporal Ryder, MM; Trooper McCulloch,2 MM; and Trooper Hislop,3 MM.
It was 14 April before the regiment was required to undertake another active role. On that date it was assigned to an indirect fire task in support of 21 Indian Infantry Brigade from the Trocchio feature. This task was taken over from 18 Regiment by C Squadron (Major Parata), which remained in this position until 18 April, fired a total of 581 rounds and had some good shooting. On the night of 18–19 April C Squadron was relieved by B Squadron (Major page 397 Wakelin4), which maintained the same programme, engaging with success a variety of targets and getting in some interesting practice in indirect fire. On the night of 22–23 April nine of the tanks were moved forward to the Terelle area in support of 11 Canadian Brigade. The remainder of the squadron’s tanks went back to the regiment with drivers only. The three officers and twenty-five other ranks remaining were required to take over seven Canadian tanks sited on the Monte Cairo-Terelle route in a defensive role as road blocks. Of the tanks taken over only three were runners.
On the 24th the unit (less nine of B Squadron’s tanks and extra crews) began to move to Pietramelara. As the regiment’s tanks pulled out their places were taken one by one by rubber dummies manufactured by a British camouflage unit and inflated on the spot. Before dawn the changeover was complete and by mid-afternoon the 19th was re-established in a bivouac area among fertile farmlets in an almost arcadian setting.
In these lovely surroundings the unit was to enjoy a programme of almost three weeks’ interesting but not too tough training, a full and varied round of sport and entertainment, and a happy liaison with other units and with the friendly Italian farming folk, collectively the most pleasant members of their race yet encountered.
B Squadron, in the Terelle area, had its headquarters and No. 5 Troop (Lieutenant ‘Opie’ Barnett5) and No. 7 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Jock McPhail) located near the Hove Dump. The role of this part of the squadron was that of forming a firm base for the South African infantry in the sector and of being in readiness to counter-attack should the enemy put in a thrust down the valley.
No. 6 Troop (Lieutenant Glendining) and No. 8 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Mac Opie), under Captain Carey, the second captain for B Squadron, took over the seven Canadian tanks previously mentioned. These tanks, in their road-block role, were sited along the roadway on the S bend page 398 just short of the crest of Terelle peak. They had been taken up by Canadian crews, left there, and manned in succession by various armoured units.
The area was most unhealthy, for the roadway was under full observation and movement was possible only during darkness. The Maori Battalion also had some mortars sited near the tank positions, and there was a constant duel between these and the German mortars and artillery. The tanks themselves were built into the side of the road with stone sangars, and from their positions there was nothing to see or to shoot at. The 19th Regiment’s crews, however, found plenty to do.
All the tanks were in a bad state through lack of maintenance, but in three days all had been fuelled, fully overhauled and polished up. Two flying fitters from the squadron assisted the crews to get the four non-runners in going order, and work went on despite shelling. That tough soldier, Trooper Gifford,6 did a grand job bringing up the fuel. He made many solo trips with jeep and trailer through Cairo village—a real hot spot—and up the steep roadway to the tanks with a full load of four-gallon cans. His return trips with the empties made enough noise to wake the whole of the Gustav Line and invariably brought down a hail of shells on the roadway.
The nights were always noisy, for 5 Brigade, in the southern sector of the Terelle line, was keeping the enemy needled up by aggressive patrolling and raids. The tank crews, hoping for a less static job, kept their vehicles in fighting trim and arranged protection so that they could be got out with the minimum of delay. On 2 May an attack with flame-throwers on 21 Battalion’s area alerted every man, but by daylight the position was restored and the tanks stood down once more. Tank commanders and crews all visited the various observation posts on the crest and returned to their tanks chagrined by the tempting targets they had seen and could have shot up if they had been permitted to move their tanks.page 399
On 3 May they got their one offensive assignment when a tank commanded by Second-Lieutenant Opie was trundled up the hill, round a hairpin bend at the top, and into position to deal with a cave on which our artillery, owing to the angle of the entrance, could make no impression. In nine minutes (there were five stops to allow the smoke and dust to clear) a total of sixty-two rounds—nineteen armour-piercing high-explosive, four armour-piercing and thirty-nine high-explosive—were pumped into this previously snug strongpoint. This tricky and risky task was done in daylight and it naturally roused the resentment of the opposing artillery.
The tank could not be turned round for the return journey and had to back over the crest and down the road. With a drop of some 250 feet on the left-hand side, the hairpin bend required careful negotiating. Mac Opie, directing his driver over the inter-communication, got to the critical turn and ordered: ‘Right stick!’—no response, and the tank continued to back towards the drop. ‘Right stick!’—still nothing happened. ‘Right stick, right stick, driver!’ By this time the rear-end left track was in mid-air. The tank commander shot out of the turret like a rocketing pheasant, smote the driver on the skull, and yelled ‘STOP’!
The subsequent proceedings involved directing the driver forward on to firm ground again and then, by gesticulation and word of mouth, indicating the movements required to get round the corner and down the hill. The performance had few onlookers, but it was well worth witnessing, for Opie was in Olympic class as a plain or fancy curser, and the failure of the tank wireless during so delicate an operation under fire gave him adequate cause. The obliteration of the cave and the successful return of the tank despite enemy shelling and the failure of the inter-communication were both excellent performances, and are still recounted with glee by the few men who took part.
On 8 May B Squadron came home, having been relieved in both positions by 18 Regiment. By this time at Pietramelara the full range of regimental amenities were functioning for the comfort and enjoyment of all ranks. The YMCA page 400 recreation tent, with its library, radio, and purchasing organisation, plus the always available tea and biscuits, provided off-duty relaxation for all but its genial sponsor, Les Charters.7 An ENSA party and a mobile cinema turned on highly appreciated evening entertainment. But perhaps the most successful show of all was the regimental ‘at home’ held on 10 May and attended by some 200 other ranks from divisional units. A dinner and a concert—at which 4 Armoured Brigade Band co-operated—were the set pieces of the evening. Guests and hosts alike enjoyed themselves thoroughly and the function was exuberantly successful.
Other notable events during the Pietramelara period were the GOC’s parade at which the Cassino awards were presented—a proud day for the regiment, and especially for A Squadron, which had gained nine of the twelve decorations which came to the 19th. This parade was remarkable also for a rare slip by Brigadier Inglis who, while his troops were at the ‘Present’, gave the command ‘Order Arms!’ The resulting confusion would have delighted the cartoonist Bateman.
Back in the unit area celebrations were held to commemorate the regiment’s honours. A Squadron’s officers’ ‘do’, however, was marred by the action of a misguided humorist—not a 19th man—who, when the party was well warmed up, tossed several small German smoke canisters into the tent. Lieutenant Jan Suter sustained nasty burns while attempting to remove them.
Sports days held in bright, warm weather combined strenuous competition with picnic relaxation, and, a certain indication of a change of season, battle dress was changed for summer uniform. A large New Zealand mail, letters and parcels, added further to the regiment’s satisfaction with life in general.
The winter weather was at last over, and with the change of season came inevitably a change in the Allies’ tactics. Attack was now to replace defence, and a full-scale advance of both armies from coast to coast was planned. By 11 May preparations were complete and the offensive against the page 401 Gustav Line was due to reopen. The plan for this operation involved a two-corps attack. The 2nd Polish Corps (Lieutenant-General W. Anders) was to isolate Monastery Hill and Cassino from the north-west and join up with 13 Corps (Lieutenant-General S. C. Kirkman), whose task was to secure a bridgehead over the Rapido between the town and the Liri and isolate Cassino from the west by cutting Route 6.
The 2nd NZ Division, with 5 Infantry Brigade in a defensive position in the Terelle sector, and 4 Armoured and 6 Infantry Brigades resting, now formed part of 10 Corps, which had a holding role on the right flank. The Division was not expected to have any early commitments. Two days later, however, 19 Regiment was once more moving into action.
On 13 May, at 8 p.m., the regiment received an unexpected warning order to be ready to move at short notice. At 9 p.m. the evening picture show was interrupted and the audience hurriedly recalled to reality from the celluloid fantasy of ‘The Man in Grey’, and in a few minutes began hastily to pack up. At that hour the unexpected warning order had already been altered and the action time put forward by seven hours. The regiment was now required to move at 1 a.m. to form a firm base for 4 British Division (Major-General A. D. Ward), which as part of 13 Corps was to resume the attack on Cassino on the night of 14–15 May.
The second-in-command (Major Thodey) immediately left for Headquarters 13 Corps for instructions and details and, while packing up was proceeding, the CO called his orders group together. It was now 10.30 p.m. The Brigade Commander (Brigadier Inglis) arrived for the conference and gave the general plan, which was:
That 19 Regiment would move to the Porchia area at 1 a.m., but would NOT be required to cross the Rapido until noon.
That the regiment (less one squadron) would come under the command of 10 Brigade. One squadron was to come under the command of 12 Brigade. The page 402 task was to support these British brigades in enveloping Cassino and Route 6 from the south.
The CO then issued the following orders:
Tanks, A1 Echelon, plus necessary petrol, oil and lubricant vehicles were to cross the start line at Pietramelara at 1 a.m. and proceed to the vicinity of Porchia.
The Adjutant was to follow later in the morning with essential vehicles, including ‘I’ section and Regimental Headquarters’ office, RAP, etc.
The ‘I’ officer now left for Brigade Headquarters to mark up all maps, pick up reference codes, and gather all possible information before rejoining the tanks in the Porchia lying-up area. In stygian blackness, precisely at 1 a.m. on 14 May, the tanks rumbled forward to begin their 30-odd mile move across country that had not been reconnoitred.
While the tanks were tackling this tricky forward journey, the second-in-command at Headquarters 4 British Division had had further startling instructions. These were to the effect that the 19th would not go into a laager area at Porchia but would be required to go across the river and straight into the front line. On the grounds that the tanks could hardly be expected to make a hurried dash of thirty to forty miles at night across unknown country and then go immediately into action, Major Thodey protested. He was overruled by the British GOC and GSO 1 and instructed to inform the CO that the plan would stand; but they added, ‘We can imagine no conceivable circumstances whatever that will necessitate any immediate further move by the tanks once they reach their action locations across the Rapido River’—an over-optimistic forecast, as later events would show.
At the Porchia turn-off the guides arranged by the second-in-command now waited for the regiment’s arrival. page 403 It was still dark when the head of the column, with the CO’s tank leading, loomed into view. Despite the pitch-black night, all but two tanks—a Sherman and a Honey which took tosses over steep banks—made it successfully, and by 5.45 a.m. were refuelling in the lying-up area. Promptly at dawn the forward move began again.
4 British Division’s operations, 11–18 May 1944. The bridges over the Gari River are given their code-names
The 4th British Division, on the right of 13 Corps’ attack, had by this time crossed the Gari in assault boats. On the night of 11–12 May it had won a shallow bridgehead after solid fighting, and since then had been subjected to fierce enemy fire and had had heavy casualties. On the whole of 13 Corps’ sector first-day results had been disappointing, and by the evening of 12 May only about half of the first objectives (which it had been expected would have been captured by first light) were in our hands. On the 13th the depleted brigades made some further gains, while the Royal Engineers worked on the vital bridges across the Gari and the Rapido so that the sector could be reinforced and the bridgehead enlarged.
C Squadron (Major Parata) was first over the Gari. At 7.45 a.m. it crossed AMAZON, the Bailey bridge south of Cassino, and took up positions in support of 2 Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, which was in a reserve and counter-attack role. B Squadron (Major Wakelin) followed and had two troops over when it was recalled. Later in the day this squadron crossed the CONGO bridge and moved up with 2/4 West Hampshire Regiment, which was to put in a local attack that evening. A Squadron (Captain Scotland9) crossed AMAZON bridge at 10 a.m. and then lay up awaiting instructions. Regimental Tactical Headquarters, with Regimental Headquarters’ tanks, was ordered to the south-eastern side of Trocchio, close to the grouped headquarters of 10, 12 and 28 Brigades of 4 Division. At noon, with the regiment all in position, the CO went forward, visiting each squadron headquarters in turn.
Though all set for action, the unit still lacked the reference codes for the front on which it was to operate and the page 405 wireless call signs and frequencies of the units with which it was to co-operate. These had not been available at Porchia, and the omission made the situation most uncomfortable, especially as the regiment, already well split up, was almost immediately required to undertake further commitments. It was evident that squadrons could expect little time for checks and maintenance before going into battle.
Shortly before 2.30 p.m. (during the CO’s absence) the commander 10 Brigade called at Tactical Headquarters and instructed that two troops from A Squadron should move out to support 2 Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, which was expecting a counter-attack. In the absence of wireless communication, these orders were taken to Headquarters A Squadron by Captain Saxton,10 officer commanding Reconnaissance Troop.
This move now left two troops of A Squadron under the command of 28 Brigade, while Squadron Headquarters and the other two troops passed to 10 Brigade’s command. The plan for 4 Division’s part in the offensive had already been outlined at a conference held at 11 a.m. Squadrons were all in position and ready to give armoured support to the infantry battalions with whom they were working. The battle order was as follows:
12 Brigade: 2 Royal Fusiliers, 6 Black Watch, 2 Royal West Kent.
28 Brigade: 1 King’s, 2 Somerset Light Infantry, 2/4 West Hampshire.
The main moves in the next phase of 4 Division’s advance were to be made on the following day in conjunction with 78 Division, but the Divisional Commander considered it advisable to push forward immediately on the left flank and so conform with the dispositions of 8 Indian Division on the western sector. This move immediately involved B Squadron.
In furtherance of the Divisional Commander’s decision, 2/4 West Hampshire—the only battalion in 28 Brigade still page 406 with an effective fighting strength—was ordered to attack across the Pioppelo River and take Masseria Vertechi. The operation began at 6 p.m. For the tanks it involved crossing the Pioppelo on a scissors bridge which was in poor shape, having been hit during the day. It collapsed when the tank of OC No. 6 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Bramwell11) was halfway over. This tank was tipped into the stream; the next tried to jump the eight-foot-wide gap, but just failed to make it; the third rolled over on to its side in the run-up on the opposite bank.
No. 8 Troop (Second-Lieutenant O’Callaghan12), going further down stream, tackled a temporary bridge constructed of green willow logs about four inches in diameter, plus a lot of lighter material. By a miracle three tanks got safely over this flimsy structure and reached the objective ahead of the infantry, despite bitter opposition from the defenders of the feature.
By 6.30 p.m. 2/4 West Hampshire Regiment had captured its objective and was consolidating. It was supported by fire from the tanks still on the near side of the river, while the troop on the objective gave all possible forward assistance. The attack was completely successful, though the infantry suffered a considerable number of casualties. One of the West Hampshire company commanders (Captain R. Wakeford), who was severely wounded, was awarded the VC for very gallant conduct during this operation.
Simultaneously with this attack 2 Royal West Kent Regiment (12 Brigade) struck down the road towards Pignataro, but was held up by fire from Point 86.
During these engagements A and C Squadrons remained in their positions, but after last light the former squadron was moved to a harbour area. The movement attracted shelling and mortaring, and Sergeant Buchan13 was killed and Second-Lieutenant Carmichael wounded.page 407
On the night of 14–15 May a liaison officer visited all squadrons and distributed marked maps and call and code signs required for working with 4 Division units. The wireless diagram was issued and the regimental net enabled full control to be maintained despite the scattered nature of 19 Regiment’s commitments, involving dispositions along the whole of the divisional front. Immediate moves required B Squadron to support in hull-down positions 2 Royal Fusiliers, 6 Black Watch and 2 Royal West Kent Regiments. The reserve half of A Squadron was ordered to contact 3 Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, which was in divisional reserve, and to tie up a plan for co-operation should that battalion be used later in a counter-attack role. The position now was that the 19th, less one squadron and Regimental Headquarters, was under the command of 12 Brigade on the left of the line, while A Squadron remained under the command of 28 Brigade on the right.
Early on the morning of the 16th it became apparent that 78 Division’s formations which were to pass through 4 Division during the night had not made the progress expected, and 2/4 West Hampshire’s position on Masseria Vertechi was in the air. To secure this flank against any possible enemy counter-attack, two troops of B Squadron, under the command of Captain Carey, remained there in support, while Headquarters B Squadron with the other two troops moved to the forward company areas of 2 Royal Fusiliers on Colle Evangelista and worked with that battalion during the day. These B Squadron tanks destroyed one Ofenrohr gun and crew, and a strongpoint in a house from which machine guns and mortars had been causing trouble. Four machine-gun posts were also silenced.
Meanwhile the two troops with 2/4 West Hampshire Regiment moved south-westwards to assist 2 Royal West Kent in a further attack on Point 86, at the crossroads on the Pignataro road. The tanks advanced with the infantry and took up hull-down positions just south of the objective, where they were able to give supporting fire and assist the advance. Point 86, however, was not captured that day. During this attack one tank ran onto a minefield and was page 408 disabled, but another tank of the same troop (No. 7) secured an unexpected prize in an equally unexpected manner. The tank gunner, testing his coaxial guns, put a burst of Browning fire into a haystack. To his surprise the bullets ricocheted. He lost no time in following up with several rounds of 75-millimetre armour-piercing, whereupon the haystack brewed up, disclosing a German Mark IV tank.
The radio log records the incident as follows (names have been used instead of call signs):
|1224||OC 7 Tp||Comd Tk A||Engaged haystack with co-ax. Ricochet noticed so put in AP. Appeared to be hornet by shape, burning now.|
|1232||OC 7 Tp||CO||Can you give us reference for vehicle you set on fire.|
|1232||CO||OC 7 Tp||No not at present but will get it.|
|1250||OC B Sqn||2nd Capt B Sqn||CO of Inf has message for you (CO of RWK speaks). I think that was rather grand. Thank you so much for your help. Have you any further commitment? I understand you want to get away.|
|1250||CO RWK||B Sqn HQ tank||Sqn Comd away at moment. Back in few minutes. Will you wait?|
|HQ B Sqn||CO RWK||Yes I will.|
|1300||OC B Sqn||CO RWK||I thought that went magnificently. Thank you ever so much. Have you another commitment?|
|CO RWK||OC B Sqn||Yes I think so but will call my CO. Have you finished with us?|
|1305||OC B Sqn||CO 19 Regt||Good show. Carry on with original instructions and go to allocated position.|
|1305||OC B Sqn||CO RWK||I will inform my people that you are leaving us.|
Later in the day Squadron Headquarters and two troops moved again, this time to support 6 Black Watch close to the Pignataro road. They engaged targets to good effect and late in the afternoon the whole squadron withdrew to a page 409 harbour area at Casa Petrarcone, being shot at en route by an anti-tank gun but fortunately without loss. The tally for the 15th was one tank, one mobile pillbox, one self-propelled gun, one ammunition dump blown up, several machine-gun posts destroyed, and some prisoners. The squadron had the misfortune, however, to lose its second captain, Lieutenant Glendining, who was killed while reconnoitring on foot to contact the infantry. Two officers, Joe Carmichael and Jack Stewart,14 were wounded during the operations.
A and C Squadrons stood by all day in readiness to assist the infantry, who were expecting the enemy to counter-attack at dawn. Despite a heavy ground mist, which reduced visibility in the morning to almost nil, these expected attacks did not eventuate, and by 10 a.m. the front, except for shelling and mortaring, was quiet. That night (the 15th-16th) C Squadron remained forward to guard a gap between 2 Royal Fusiliers and 6 Black Watch. The regiment at this stage had forty-seven runners.
On the 16th B and C Squadrons co-operated with the infantry in a general attack across the Pignataro road to reduce an enemy salient which divided 10 and 12 Brigades. The 2nd Royal West Kent Regiment, with B Squadron in support, had Point 61 as its objective, while 2 Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, on the right with C Squadron in support, was to capture Point 49. The attack, which was to have been preceded by artillery concentrations, was several times postponed and was not finally mounted until 6.30 p.m. As an opening to the attack, the artillery appeared to fire only four rounds. In the Royal West Kent area the enemy disconcertingly chose this same hour to attack, but the English battalion made good progress until nightfall. The failing light and the infantry’s inability to make the best use of their No. 38 wireless sets resulted in confusion and halted their advance. Small-arms and defensive fire from machine-gun posts which had been overrun by the tanks caused the infantry many casualties. The tanks spent much time trying to determine the exact dispositions of the Royal West Kent page 410 companies in the hope that they could be assisted forward to consolidate the ground already won. Total darkness at last made any further advance impossible, and at 8.15 p.m. B Squadron’s tanks were ordered to withdraw and remain in close support behind the few surviving infantry. These Tommies earned the admiration of the tank crews; for sheer guts and unhesitating obedience to orders they were outstanding. The battalion started the attack woefully under strength. Two of the company commanders were second-lieutenants and the other two were sergeants. Already they had done four days’ hard fighting, but they went into this attack in true textbook style. In one spot the tank crews saw two sections lying dead, every man still in perfect alignment and properly spaced; each section had been struck by a heavy mortar bomb while advancing through a wheatfield. One company finished the attack with only nine men.
Two tanks were lost during this engagement, and both commanders, Second-Lieutenants Bramwell and O’Callaghan, were killed; seven other ranks were wounded. These tanks fell to daring German gunners who, lying concealed in the long grass, engaged them at close range with Ofenrohr anti-tank weapons. Evidence of the determined fighting by both sides was seen next morning when thirty-five German dead were counted in front of the foremost tanks of No. 5 Troop, and a total of 150—all killed by tank fire—in B Squadron’s sector.
The 2nd Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, with C Squadron in support, made a rapid advance simultaneously with the above attack until it reached the line of the Pignataro road. Here the infantry was held up by fire from a house near Point 50. This strongpoint was disposed of by the tank guns, but resistance over the whole area became most determined, and there was a veritable hail of mortar and machine-gun fire, which caused very heavy casualties. Despite excellent co-operation between the infantry and armour, the left-hand company was forced to remain some 300 yards east of the road. The right-hand company was also badly hit, but managed to get further page 411 forward before it was pinned down. Both company commanders were wounded.
On the right flank Lieutenant Don Kerr (OC No. 12 Troop) took over and organised the defence of his area. Visibility was now bad and he sent out patrols from the tank crews to ascertain the position on the left and reported the situation back to Squadron Headquarters: the infantry was out of touch with its headquarters, and the tanks provided the only communication link forward. At dark it was obvious that any further attempt at progress would be costly, and the line was stabilised. Headquarters 10 Infantry Brigade instructed that the ground gained would be consolidated overnight, with the tanks remaining in close support.
Kerr’s sterling work during this attack earned him the MC. His efforts were not only confined to organising defence; during the night he attended to the wounded, evacuated several on his tank, and returned with stretchers and formed bearer parties from the prisoners to take the rest back for medical attention.
Anti-tank fire from the south-west brought down an artillery ‘stonk’ during the night, and next morning it was discovered that a 75-millimetre concentration from No. 12 Troop on a house near Point 50 had destroyed an anti-tank gun. Thirty-two prisoners from 1 Paratroop Machine-Gun Battalion were taken from this area, and a mass of gear was found lying around.
A Squadron spent a fairly quiet day on the 16th in support of 2 Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and 2/4 West Hampshire Regiment. No. 4 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Adair15) had the only active task, that of destroying a machine-gun post in the vicinity of Point 50; this post had been harassing B Company Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry until it was successfully silenced by the troop.
That night patrols along the 4 Division’s front saw little sign of the enemy and took a total of forty prisoners—all of them paratroops. It was clear that the presence of tanks page 412 in the attacks made at dusk and pushed on during early darkness had forced a general withdrawal of the German infantry forward positions.
That night at B Squadron Headquarters a tense and anxious group stood round the wireless. Sergeant John Churton’s tank, of which there had been no news since the stage early in the attack when his troop commander’s tank had been hit and brewed up, had suddenly come on the air. It was learned that it had a number of wounded aboard and was in charge of Trooper Lawson.16 He was ordered to return to Squadron Headquarters immediately, and the query came back, ‘Where is it?’ The crew was completely lost. Flares were fired by Squadron Headquarters in the hope that they would be seen by the tank. Numerous fires burning all over the area and tracer flying about confused the issue, and the watchers in the tank did not spot the flares. The risky business of reversing the procedure was now tried, and as Squadron Headquarters had a general idea where the tank might be, the third flare was picked up. A bearing was quickly given by radio telephony and the journey home began, fresh flares being fired from time to time, until at last the tank was guided right in.
Lawson had done an outstanding job. He had taken charge after Churton had been wounded in the head while they were rescuing the survivors from Bramwell’s tank. With four wounded men aboard and being attended to, the tank was hit on the hull by something heavy, and the second driver suffered concussion. Trooper Donald,17 the driver, kept the tank moving towards the objective, leaning over from time to time to fire the hull gun to discourage any lurking enemy.
By the time the wounded were fixed up it was quite dark, and all on board had lost any sense of direction. The tank was hopelessly lost in wooded country among olive groves and pines. From time to time it was fired at by small arms and bazookas, but the tank was kept moving and any target page 413 seen was engaged with the 75-millimetre and turret Browning guns. Bursts of fire could be heard on the wireless after Squadron Headquarters had been contacted and the tank commander let go a Very light and waited for further directions. Eight flares were fired altogether, and at 1 a.m. on the 17th the tank got back to the squadron. Since it had moved out at 6 p.m. it had fired over a hundred rounds of 75-millimetre and 7000 rounds of Browning.
All the able men in the crew had done a grand job, and the cool and efficient manner in which the difficult situation had been handled by Lawson won him the DCM. Other members of the crew were mentioned in despatches, and Sergeant Churton, who despite a nasty wound on the face and head had encouraged and heartened his crew from the floor of the turret, received a bar to his MM.
Just before dawn on 17 May there was a general scare along the front when it was reported that German tanks were moving in the vicinity of Point 55, and B and C Squadrons quickly dispersed to positions to meet the threat. A Squadron, still with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry on the other flank, was warned to be ready to move over if this became necessary Nothing was seen of the enemy tanks, however, and daylight found the front quiet, with some enemy infantry coming in tired and hungry to give themselves up.
At 10.35 the previous evening Headquarters Eighth Army had issued orders for 2 Polish Corps and 13 Corps to launch their concerted attack to isolate the German forces in Cassino. Seven o’clock on the morning of the 17th was named as the zero hour. The 78th Division at that hour began its advance to the ‘Bedale Line’, while 4 Division began a wheeling movement to cut Route 6 and the Poles attacked and took Colle Sant’ Angelo ridge.
B Squadron was withdrawn at 6 a.m. for maintenance, and the CO left Tactical Headquarters to make the rounds of the squadron positions. During his absence 12 Brigade issued orders for B Squadron to return to the Royal West Kent sector, but after its hard fight the squadron was in no shape to furnish adequate support immediately. On being page 414 contacted the CO therefore sent forward No. 2 Troop of A Squadron. This decision was confirmed by the commander of 12 Brigade, who met the commanding officers of 19 Regiment and 1 Royal West Kent in the area.
At 7.15 a.m. Royal West Kent, with No. 2 Troop in support, then pushed on to its objective of the previous night. It passed the objective and advanced just forward of Route 6. Little opposition was met and when the infantry support weapons had come up the troop went back to A Squadron. At 7.45 a.m. C Squadron sent No. 11 Troop to cross Route 6. This troop advanced to Point 50 with only light opposition, and 2 Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire then moved to just south of Route 6 while No. 2 Troop of A Squadron (Lieutenant Griggs) went on with 2 Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry to Point 55. Only light machine-gun fire was encountered on this advance and only four prisoners were taken.
The 19th Regiment’s tanks were now at last on the general line of the final objective set for their attack through Cassino, where they had seen so much bitter fighting two months before. There was great elation when, during the afternoon, it was learned that next day the regiment would once more provide tank support for the attack on Cassino. This time they would go in from the south. The assault was to be mounted by 2 Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and 6 East Surrey at 10 a.m. on the 18th. During the wait that evening an enemy anti-tank gun was destroyed and a sniper accounted for by the forward troops, but otherwise everything was quiet; in keen anticipation of tomorrow’s battle all stations signed off the air at 8 p.m. The tank crews stood down for a few hours’ much needed sleep.
Plans for the attack on Cassino from the south were completed at a GOC’s conference held at 9.30 p.m. Orders were given for one troop to support each battalion, with two troops each in reserve. A and C Squadrons were given the forward role, with B Squadron standing by until required.
At 11 p.m. the quiet night was shattered by an unexpected enemy air attack, during which the regimental area was bombed and strafed without damage. This proved to be page 415 the enemy’s last fling. Early next morning reports were received that he was evacuating the town. A quick conference was held and the attack pushed forward at 9.30 a.m. Even while the units were getting into position prisoners began to drift in, and when the advance began there was no active defence. Except for mines, entry into the town was unimpeded, and by 11 a.m. Cassino had fallen. Simultaneously, the Poles raised their red and white flag on the Monastery.
Cassino had fallen, the Gustav Line was broken, and the Canadian Corps went through to keep up the momentum of the attack and rush the Germans from the Hitler Line, their last organised barrier across the route to Rome.
It was a proud and elated regiment which heard the CO’s message to Headquarters 4 NZ Armoured Brigade: ‘Cassino in our hands. Poles in the Monastery. Regt in at the kill.’ In the town itself the tanks passed the now silent but still sinister spots which had received so much attention in the previous attack. The Baron’s Palace and the Amphitheatre, where there were several knocked-out Mark IV tanks, the Hotel des Roses and the Continental could all now be studied at close quarters. Major Parata and Lieutenant Kerr paid a quick visit to the bar of the Continental Hotel: it was not open for custom, but despite the battering the building had taken, parts of the interior were found to be remarkably well preserved.
The infantry was having a field day; mopping-up operations were going ahead rapidly, and the few remaining Germans in the town seemed only too glad to give themselves up. The place had been well booby-trapped, and these and mines caused many casualties. Great care had to be taken when investigating buildings, for the whole area was dangerous. Tank crews were warned not to forage among the ruins and especially not to touch any of the 19th’s knocked-out tanks which were still in the town.
At 11 a.m. 10 Brigade Headquarters replied to the regiment’s request for further orders with the signal: ‘Am now able to release you, many thanks for excellent support.’ The CO immediately gave orders for the tanks to find suitable page 416 positions, and for the crews to stand down and brew up pending orders to withdraw. During this period Brigadier Inglis arrived at Rear Headquarters and arranged to meet the CO at the AMAZON bridge over the Rapido, and 4 British Division gave permission for the regiment to withdraw to an area reserved for it south-west of Trocchio. Despite a slow move back through the congestion of traffic on Route 6, all vehicles were in the laager position in the vicinity of San Vittore by 7 p.m. The crews now stood down for a well-earned rest.
In its tour of duty with 4 Division 19 Regiment had taken part in some of the toughest and bloodiest fighting it had experienced in Italy. The enemy had stood his ground firmly and had had to be blasted out of his positions or killed still fighting in the open. Of the work done by the regiment, Major-General Ward, in a letter to the CO, wrote: ‘I cannot thank you enough for the simply splendid way you and all your chaps supported us during the last few days and I am delighted that you were in at the end at Cassino. All my soldiers are full of praise for your first class co-operation and I hope very much that we may fight together again some day. All the best of luck to you and your Regt.’
On 20 May the regiment began to make its way back to peaceful Pietramelara, moving slowly through the great convoys of forward-moving traffic. In a last desperate attempt to delay the advance, the Luftwaffe sent over several air sorties to bomb Route 6. Though there were some near misses, the regiment came through unscathed, and at 7.30 a.m. on the 23rd the last tank got in to the rest area. As maintenance and refitting went on there was an atmosphere of solid satisfaction throughout the whole regiment, for all ranks were agreed that in the engagements just ended the unit for the first time in its armoured career had had the type of role for which it had been waiting. The five days’ fighting in the Liri valley had proved that, given ‘tankable’ terrain, it could move fast, hit hard, and hit frequently.
On the 29th another move was made, this time to Sant’ Elia, quite close to Cassino itself. Many men now took the opportunity to visit the bomb-wrecked town and to climb page 417 to the Monastery to see from the enemy’s angle the grim battlefield on which both sides had lost so many lives. In the unit area, among the tangled vineyards and poppy-speckled fields, Padre John Somerville conducted a deeply moving memorial service to the men of the 19th who had fallen in the fighting at Cassino and in the Liri valley. Here, too, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Rt Hon Peter Fraser, clad in grey army jersey and leather jerkin, called on the unit, spoke informally on topics of interest, and answered questions. Among soldiers on service, politicians are apt to be graded to a somewhat lower scale than the enemy, but in speech and presence Mr Fraser struck so genuine a note that he left with many hearty handshakes and with more friends than critics.
Sant’ Elia will long be remembered by those who, after the clash and clangour of the battle, found themselves gazing in safety towards the now silent, ruined Cassino. On the still, humid, spring nights the quietness had an unearthly quality. The menacing roar of the guns and the flashes and flares now gave place to the noiseless flickering of the fireflies, whose soft points of pale blue light pricked aimless patterns in the darkness; yet somehow it was an uneasy peace, for with the stench of unburied dead in the nostrils and with the twisted, shell-stripped olives standing like spectres in the fields, yesterday’s battle could never be wholly forgotten.
Within a week of the fall of Cassino Fifth Army had linked up with the troops from Anzio. The German Army was in retreat, the pursuit was on, and the fall of Rome was not many days away. The 19th’s sister regiments had now taken up the chase. On the 25th 18 Regiment, under the command of 8 Indian Division, began to advance up the Liri valley, and on the 29th 20 Regiment, supporting 5 and 6 New Zealand Brigades, began the move from the upper Rapido. It was 1 June before the 19th went forward to join up with the Division in an operational role once more.