Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
II: The Maoris' Action
II: The Maoris' Action
At 8.45 p.m., hard on the opening of the artillery programme, the two Maori companies left their assembly point on the laborious tramp to the start line. Though it was only about 600 yards away, the Maoris arrived damp and dirty. They had had to plod through the mud of the causeway and flounder across waterlogged fields and through an exasperating system of drains. B Company was further delayed in getting past the engineers and their piles of equipment on the causeway, and it was after 9.30, zero hour, when the company left the start line. The night held a series of unpleasant surprises. Late in starting and slowed down by the heavy going, the Maoris now found that they were advancing across fields sown with mines, and before long mortars and machine guns on the lower slopes of Montecassino and the southern edge of the town began to range on them. Men began to fall to the fire and the mines, and the returning trickle of stretcher-borne casualties became a stream. B Company, which had suffered badly on the minefields, took an hour to reach the entrance to the station yards and A Company was moving scarcely any faster.
In the light of flares, B Company saw its way into the yards barred by new wire, with two posts dug in behind it. Closing in, 12 Platoon wavered for a moment before a particularly violent burst of machine-gun fire, but there was an immediate response to Captain Wikiriwhi's1 call for a charge. As though in training, two men threw themselves on to the coiled wire, and those following leaped over and went to work with bayonet and grenades. The posts were cleared out, and with the dannert wire cut and the rest of the company coming through the gaps the ruins of the station building and the Round House were soon seized from their rugged defenders, men of III Battalion 361 Panzer Grenadier Regiment.
But the time never came. All this while A Company had been held at bay at the foot of the hummock by an obstacle more formidable than had appeared from the air photographs – a swollen creek twenty feet wide and covered by wire and mines. Watchful and accurate machine-gunners ensconced on the hummock made every movement perilous. There was nothing to do but keep up a running fire on the Germans while exploring for a route round the flank. None could be found.
By 6 a.m. the moon and the breaking day were beginning to expose both companies more dangerously than ever. To an inquiry for directions, General Kippenberger replied with instructions to the Maoris to stay forward. The houses and the hummock, which between them covered the approach to the Gari, would have to be left for the time being, but the GOC reckoned that the chance, however slight, that the Maoris might hold their gains was worth the risk of casualties. These he hoped to minimise by the use of smoke.
Certainly the success of the Maoris had as a prerequisite the success of the engineers. But it was a frustrating night along the embankment and critical delays defeated the engineers' plan to open the road to the station before daylight, though only by the narrowest of margins. Sapper tasks were divided between 8 and 6 Field Companies. The former was to bridge the two branches of the Rapido and to repair the demolition between them, and the latter was to work farther forward, from Demolition 8.
The programme lagged from the outset. The 30-foot bridge over the Rapido backwater was almost built by 8.35 p.m., but the platoon working on it retired when the first artillery concentration fell on the station and on resuming work it was hindered by the passage of the Maoris on their way to the start line, and then by the launching of the attack. In the upshot, instead of being open by 9 p.m., the bridge was not open until 11.15. The engineers were then two hours and a quarter behind the clock and the loss of time was never made up.
Meanwhile, in the rear a tide of waiting sappers began to dam up in a procession of unalterable sequence – first the minesweepers, then the bulldozers, and finally the bridge-builders' laden trucks. However, in view of the delay in the first bridging operation, parties went forward on foot, sweeping for mines and breaking down the sides of demolitions as far forward as Numbers 8 and 9. With the first bridge open, four bulldozers went to work on Demolition 6 between the two arms of the Rapido, but it was 1 a.m. before the page 234 first truck could pass and nearly another hour before the bridging material reached the main stream of the Rapido (Demolition 7). Here for two hours and a half 8 Field Company worked under intermittent showers of small-arms and mortar fire, some of it from Germans who sniped from a boat farther up the river; but at 5 a.m. – over five hours late – the bridge was up and the Rapido was no longer impassable to traffic.
Unfortunately it was futile to send tanks and other supporting weapons across because work beyond the river was not far enough advanced to allow them to be usefully employed. Bulldozers, bypassing Demolition 7, had filled the next three breaches in the embankment, and Second-Lieutenant Higginson1 had crossed the wire to reconnoitre Demolition 11, which he reported could be repaired by a bulldozer. German mortar fire, however, prevented the bulldozers from following up the reconnaissance. The way to the station was therefore still barred by Demolitions 11 and 12 and no vehicle could hope to find a detour across the quagmire beside the causeway. The unbridged gap was no more than 300 yards.
Since about three o'clock the moonlight had been a boon to German marksmen and enemy interference reached a climax at 5.45, when a sudden burst of mortar and nebelwerfer fire along the whole embankment killed three of 6 Field Company's men, drove the rest to cover, and threw the work into disorder. At the order of the CRE the parties withdrew to await the effect of the smoke screen. But the mortaring continued so heavily that the smoke was judged to give inadequate cover and the engineers rejoined their companies. Except for a reconnaissance of Demolitions 11 and 12 by Second-Lieutenant Brown2 of 8 Field Company, the engineers' work was done for the day. The three killed were their only casualties in the action.
1 2 Lt T. J. Higginson, MM; born NZ 17 Oct 1917; sheep farmer; wounded 26 Oct 1942; died of wounds 30 Mar 1944.
The German counter-pressure began punctually after sunrise. At 7.15, covered by the fire of an elusive tank, a force was seen forming up at the southern edge of Cassino. It was probably of three platoons hastily assembled from 211 Regiment's headquarters, engineers and reserves from the town. If so, its career as a combined force was brief, for the second of two artillery concentrations called for by the Maoris fell among the Germans as they formed up, caused casualties, and broke up the counter-attack. But the respite was only relative. The single tank was not only ominous of others to come but its continual fire was troublesome enough without prognosticating more. A small aircraft was sent up to observe and eventually the tank was engaged by medium guns. Machine guns and mortars mainly on Monastery Hill, fired incessantly and parties of infantry tried to close in on the station. The Maoris had no retort but to ask the artillery for a thickening of the smoke screen, which a brisk southerly wind was dispersing too quickly, and for concentrations of high explosive.
The Maoris were indeed isolated. About 10.15 Lieutenant-Colonel Young again asked for a denser smoke screen to blot out observation from Montecassino while a platoon from C Company reinforced his weary and depleted companies in the station and the wounded were evacuated. But the reinforcing platoon had hardly crossed the Rapido before it lost twelve men from the hail of shells, mortar bombs and bullets that greeted its intrusion into the battle and it was unable to reach the station. Moving in the opposite direction, the stretcher-bearers also suffered casualties.
It was now past midday. The Maoris were still cheerful and their high spirits spread upwards through their battalion commander to Kippenberger and Freyberg, both of whom treasured the prospect page 236 that soon after dark the last gaps in the embankment would be repaired and the waiting armour would be able to pour over the river and expand the bridgehead to safer dimensions.
A crisis of supply arose. Kippenberger had to decide whether to concentrate on shelling the German positions and leave the Maoris comparatively open to observation or to obscure them by maintaining the smoke screen at the risk of providing cover for a surprise German counter-attack. He chose the second course as likely to be cheaper in human cost; but the insatiable demand for smoke, as Brigadier Weir warned, rapidly consumed the limited supplies at gun positions and in nearby dumps. At the urgent request of the Divisional Commander, transmitted through Brigadier Crump, 1 Ammunition Company acted without delay. From Teano, where Garibaldi laid his conquests at the feet of Victor Emmanuel, a convoy returned loaded with the green shells to feed the guns, and the smoke screen never failed. More than 9000 rounds of smoke were fired during the day by 4 Field Regiment, with occasional assistance from the other field regiments and the American artillery. The smoke canisters lit by 5 Brigade's defence platoon, 24 Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry, and the smoke bombs fired by two 4·2-inch mortars of 21 Battalion added usefully to the protective fog, but a proposal for the dropping of smoke bombs from the air was rejected because it was too late to change the bomb loads on the aircraft.
The early afternoon brought renewed signs of German impatience. A movement which the enemy seems to have rated as a counter-attack was seen shortly before two o'clock, when troops crossed the Gari by the railway line and approached close to the Maoris in the station. At the same time two tanks moved into Cassino from the south-west. Such activities as these prompted the Maoris to ask for continuous gunfire until dark on Montecassino and the southern end of Cassino. This fire, intensified at the request of the infantry, staved off another threat a little later when the tanks nosed tentatively towards the station.
By mid-afternoon 90 Panzer Grenadier Division had committed its last local reserves in support of 211 Regiment, which planned to recapture the station by a pincer movement of infantry attacking from the south-west and tanks from the north. This final effort began about 3.15, under cover of heavy fire from guns, mortars and machine guns. The infantry, coming along the railway line, were too close to be engaged by artillery. The two tanks, reported to be Shermans, were halted for a while on the road from Cassino by an artillery concentration, but they came on again irresistibly, forcing their way into the station yards.
The Maoris were helpless. They had neither tanks nor anti-tank page 237 guns with them. Caught by the point-blank fire of the tanks, B Com pany's foremost platoon was overrun. The survivors of the two companies escaped from the station and struggled wearily back under parting volleys which cost them more casualties. As their wireless touch with battalion headquarters had failed during the fighting, the first news of the rout was their arrival back across the Rapido at four o'clock. All were utterly exhausted; many were suffering concussion from the crackling inferno they had just left. Out of a force recently 200 strong, they numbered 66 – 26 from B Company under their sole remaining officer, Second-Lieutenant L. T. Crapp, and 40 from A Company, temporarily under command of Second-Lieutenant Christy.1 A few stragglers remained to come in. At seven o'clock Major Henare led back the remnants of A Company's headquarters and last of all came Captain Wikiriwhi, who, being unable to walk, dragged himself across the river the next day.
The final count of casualties among the two companies put them at approximately 130, of whom more than 20 were killed, about 80 wounded, and 24 missing or taken prisoner. The enemy paid quite as heavily. Nineteen Germans were reported killed and 102 wounded in the station on 18 February, and during their attack the Maoris sent back 18 German prisoners.
In retrospect it is tempting to dismiss the failure of operation AVENGER as inevitable by definition; for it may be defined as an attempt to penetrate the glacis of one of the strongest fortresses of Europe by two companies of infantry with a diversion against the well-nigh unassailable keep. Good strategic reasons existed, no doubt, for General Alexander's directive of 11 February that New Zealand Corps should begin operations without delay to clear the entrance to the Liri valley, and these reasons drew fresh emphasis from the enemy pressure at Anzio; but the fact remains that the strategy frittered away troops in a series of premature and small local operations which had little chance of tactical success. The Maoris, in short, were sent on a forlorn hope.
Finally, the operation appeared plausible to reputable military opinion. The tactical feasibility of the Rapido crossing was thoroughly reviewed by the corps, divisional and brigade commanders during the planning and much time was devoted at commanders' conferences to details of the exploitation. Opinions varied as to the likelihood page 239 of success. There were some reservations about the effect of an Indian failure on Montecassino, but on the whole it was estimated that a bridgehead over the river could probably be held if it were consolidated in sufficient width and depth.
These hopes may perhaps be waved aside as chimerical, but what is to be said of German fears? In his plea for reinforcements on the 15th, when the New Zealanders were looking forward to a change of tempo and to armour rolling track-free down the Liri valley, General Senger gave no indication that he believed his corps front to be impregnable, but quite the contrary. The fact that he could deduce his enemy's intentions with such insight shows them not to have been ridiculous; and to him they certainly seemed only too realistic. On the 12th the capture of the monastery from the hills above Cassino appeared practicable to General Keyes, who spoke out of the American experience: ‘We feel that it is a matter of fresh troops, more troops rather than the difficulties that are found up there’. But if the attack on the monastery was a reasonable operation, one would be inclined to argue that a fortiori the attack across the Rapido was reasonable. At least there is evidence that the Germans looked on the New Zealanders' threat to the station more seriously than the Indians' threat to the monastery.1 Thus when reserves became available, it was to relieve 211 Regiment in the station area that they were directed. And it is perhaps not an over-refinement to draw a similar inference from Kesselring's carefully graduated eulogy of the defenders: ‘Convey my heartfelt gratitude to 211 Regiment, and to 1 Parachute Regiment not quite so strongly,’ he told Vietinghoff. ‘I am very pleased that the New Zealanders have had a smack in the nose. You must recommend the local commander for the Knight's Cross’. Kesselring's thankfulness after the event rings no less true than Senger's alarm before it. As it happened, New Zealand hopes were dupes and German fears were liars, but that is no reason for supposing that the New Zealanders carried hope to the point of foolhardiness any more than that the Germans allowed fear to sink into despair.
The Maoris were pitted against excellent troops. The reputation of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division as one of the most improved German formations in Italy was firmly upheld by 211 Regiment. The Germans stood imperturbably against gunfire and infantry assault, vexing the Maoris with casualties and delays until they could deliver the final blow. Posts that resisted the attack or lay beyond its reach never let their fire slacken, and the Maoris were harassed relentlessly. By General Freyberg's admission, the converging counter-attack that carried the station was ‘a well-executed operation’.
The skill of the defenders was matched by the strength of their defences. To the natural advantages of steep hills, the Rapido and the mud, artifice had had time to add deep shell-proof dugouts in the rock and armoured pillboxes, to set complex traps of wire and mines, to demolish all the approach routes and to contrive awkward inundations. To move forward along the causeway, with the impediments of wire, mines and water under hostile eyes on Monastery Hill, as 28 Battalion had to do, was like walking a tightrope in a shooting gallery. The Maoris' predicament was the worse because every inch of the ground was covered by crossfire. In spite of, or perhaps because of, distinctly meagre artillery support, the German infantry's fire plan was well co-ordinated and allowed them to deluge the bridgehead with fire from three sides and to deny supporting weapons access to the battle. This was a significant achievement, for it put the tired Maoris at the mercy of an armoured counter-stroke and proved, more than any other single fact, to be decisive.