Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
I: 15 March
I: 15 March
THE bludgeon of air power descended upon Cassino town punctually at 8.30 on the morning of 15 March. As they swept across the blue sky toward the target, the medium bombers of the first wave were watched intently by Allied soldiers who had climbed to vantage points and settled down with binoculars to absorb a sight that they expected to remember for the rest of their lives. In the comparative safety of the hills around Cervaro the picnic atmosphere was indecent but irrepressible. Here, after many days, was the spectacular promise of release from boredom and deadlock. In the next few hours a whole town would shudder to destruction before one's eyes.
Below the aircraft the northern part of Cassino was empty. The forward troops of 24 and 25 Battalions had been coming back since 3 a.m. and were now at a safe distance in the reserve areas north of the town, save for three volunteers manning an anti-tank gun near the quarry on Caruso road. Their going had been unnoticed by the Germans, who went about their business without suspecting that the bombers overhead were the first of about 500 and their freight a foretaste of the 1100 or so tons of 1000-pound high-explosive bombs loaded for delivery in the town.
From his command post at Cervaro, where he had the company of Generals Alexander, Clark and Eaker, General Freyberg watched the aircraft strike home. ‘Flashes of flame from bursting bombs leaped from the buildings and from the slopes above the town, explosions reverberated through the hills and shook the ground under our feet,’ he wrote later. Trembling under the shock of the first attack, Cassino was momentarily lit with the flame of detonation and then became shrouded in swirling eddies of smoke and dust that soon hid it from observation. A continual ripple of air rose from the town and drifted across the sky above the Liri and Rapido valleys. The bombers followed, wave on wave, the mediums in superb tight formation, the heavies more raggedly. Mistiming page 268 occurred in some groups, but it was exactly at midday, as planned, that the last group dropped its bombs squarely into the centre of confusion. None who saw it will forget the terrible one-sidedness of the spectacle: there was an insolent meting out of punishment as the great bombers, unwavering and impeccable, opened their racks upon the suffering earth. The sky had been swept clear of enemy fighters and the bombers were unchallenged except by a nest of anti-aircraft guns south of the Liri, which fired ineffectually as the attackers wheeled away from the target; and even this fire was silenced half-way through the morning.
It is estimated that 50 per cent of the bomb load fell within the confines of the town. Near misses scattered some bombs on Montecassino and many on the river flat east of the Rapido. Still less precise and more costly was the aiming that dropped bombs in our own lines. Casualties rising to as many as twenty in a single regiment occurred in British, American and New Zealand artillery areas; fifty men were hit in 4 Indian Division's B Echelon in the upper Rapido valley and forty at a Moroccan military hospital. Some attacks at various points between Venafro and Isernia were wildly astray. One complete group mistook Venafro for Cassino, two towns more than ten miles apart but similarly placed in the lee of high hills. One hundred and forty civilians were left dead or wounded. The main offenders were the heavy bombers, whose inaccuracy in aim and timing was shown to be due to several causes – poor air discipline in two new groups, faulty bomb racks, lack of specific aiming points and the obscuring of the target by smoke and dust.1
Whatever its other shortcomings, the bombing lacked nothing in destructive effect on the town; in that opinion there was unanimity. Already battered from weeks of siege, Cassino was now utterly laid waste. Not a building stood intact. Those not directly hit were unroofed and shaken to their foundations by the blast. Upper stories collapsed over ground floors and basements, toppling down bricks and mortar, tiles, girders, lumps of concrete, wooden beams, plaster walls. Cratered and buried under mounds of debris, streets lost their identity in a wilderness of whitish-grey rubble, and parks and open spaces became wastes of torn earth and bruised and uprooted trees. What remained was less the semblance of a town than a desolation open to the sky, with here and there a solitary wall rising above the tumbled ruins.
Prisoners' reports varied: some were surprised to learn that other Germans had been taken alive in the town; some had only private experiences to relate as they crawled out of the wreckage just in time to be captured; some reported more chaos than casualties and soon recovered their composure. More Germans seem to have died in the northern part of the town than in the south and west, where, on the rising ground, stouter dugouts had been built. Here the defenders shook off their stupor and were again at their posts, the cocky members of a corps d'élite, before the New Zealanders could get at them. Their resilience was a measure of paratroop toughness. What flesh and blood could withstand they withstood. It was General Alexander's opinion that no other troops in the German army could have endured such a hammering.
At midday, as the last aircraft turned for home, the artillery took up the bombardment. As displays of destructive majesty, there was little to choose between the clean sweep of silver wings as the earth erupted beneath them and the stabbing flashes and rippling fortissimo of drumfire from the massed artillery. Suddenly Monastery Hill was pimpled with the grey puffs of exploding shells. In the town the fires were stoked again and more remnants of cover were brought crashing down.
Under such an umbrella, the assaulting infantry of 25 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel MacDuff) approached the town along Caruso road at a brisk walking pace. It was a small band to be so resoundingly heralded. The lead was taken by B Company (Captain Hoy), on the right, and A Company (Major Sanders). They moved in single file, followed by the tanks of B Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment. Leaving the rest of the battalion in a quarry north of the town, they pressed on into Cassino under the cover of the barrage and smoke screen and had no difficulty in regaining the old forward positions. But beyond the line of the jail a challenge awaited them.
Where they had hoped to find no life, rifles and machine guns started up, troubling them from the slopes of Castle Hill and the heaped ruins on the flat. Soon the attackers were dissolved into small page 270 groups of infiltrators, now separated, now reunited, by the flux of the fighting. Nothing went according to plan. At one o'clock communication with battalion headquarters failed, and for the rest of the afternoon the wireless link was silent. Nor could runners get through: all three who were sent back became casualties, and those sent forward by C Company (Lieutenant Milne),1 established at the jail, failed to find the leading troops. The two companies lost touch with the tanks and before long with each other. But they knew they had to keep working southward, with the mountain on their right.
This was not a simple progress. At the best of times a contested advance through a town is a staccato sequence of pauses under cover and dashes for fresh cover. Here in Cassino such cover as remained was still mostly in enemy occupation. The way forward to the next breathing space lay over ground that slowed down infantry and exposed them to short-range fire. They had to plunge down cavernous craters up to sixty feet across, scramble over piles of debris or find a way round, get on through churned mud and keep direction under the pall of smoke whose protection alone made advance possible.
The fighting ardour of the German paratroops was roused. Now that they had their enemy at close quarters on ground they knew and had prepared, the terms of combat had turned dramatically in their favour since the morning. They gave ground sparingly and at a price. Fighting closed to hand-grenade range. Mortar bombs fired from Montecassino and the railway station area fell among the New Zealanders; nebelwerfers tossed up their fearful cascades of bombs; and finally from about 3.30 German guns in the north began to take the northern end of the town under heavy fire. The New Zealand Corps artillery meanwhile prolonged its fire on the final line of the barrage, 400 yards south of Route 6, for nearly an hour and a half beyond the scheduled time, but even when it ceased at 3.30 it was still too far ahead of the infantry to shield them effectively.
On the left, A Company made a little more headway. Before one o'clock its leading platoons reached the nunnery. They pushed on slowly southward and it was 3.30 before they had fought their way to the northern branch of Route 6. Here the right-hand platoon swung right towards the mountainside, but a hundred yards along the road fierce opposition halted it amid ruined buildings for the rest of the day. Farther east along the same road, headquarters set themselves up in a building which, from sheafs of unused stamps, official forms and telegraphic equipment, they identified as the Post Office. Working through a more open part of the town, the left-hand platoon actually reached the objective at the point where Route 6 was intersected by a road that bounded the town on the east. These men entered a convent at the crossroads but failed to dislodge a party of Germans who were sharing the same abode. Large as the convent was, it was too small to contain both parties with comfort to either. The New Zealanders could make no further ground, they could not be supported and they were in danger of encirclement. Major Sanders therefore recalled them toward company headquarters, reluctantly giving up a base from which a flank attack on the untaken part of the town and the advance to the railway station in the second phase might have been mounted.
At dusk, then, the infantry in Cassino seemed to have spent their force. B Company had gone to cover half-way through the town. A Company was somewhat farther forward, holding a line for about 200 yards along the northern branch of Route 6 with a swarming nest of spandaus formidably close on the right flank. Back at the jail and the nunnery C Company had been attempting for some hours to relay messages between the forward troops and battalion headquarters, but without success. A and B Companies indeed were in touch with each other, but there was no regular contact with the tanks. A small reinforcement – B Company 24 Battalion (Major Turnbull) – was on its way, but it was to be midnight before it reached A Company and settled in nearby. In a last effort to help 25 Battalion on to the first objective, the artillery again fired on the last line of the barrage from 5.30 to 6 p.m. and then concentrated for quarter of an hour on the railway station area in the hope of subduing enemy mortars. No inch of ground was gained. When night fell all thought of advance was given up.
Consolidate was the order at dusk [wrote Lieutenant Milne]. In the maze positions were sorted out, with men milling about, stretcher bearers getting out the wounded and shells falling all over the place. No supplies could be brought in but luckily each tank had carried ammunition, even primed grenades, so there was no shortage.
The tanks meanwhile had been fighting a separate battle. The plan of a cohesive stroke of infantry and armour was one of the first casualties of the bombing. Nineteenth Armoured Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin) ordered B Squadron (Major Leeks)1 to escort 25 Battalion on to the first objective, quisling, whereupon A Squadron (Major Thodey)2 was to lead 26 Battalion on to the second, Jockey. The assault guns of 392 Self-propelled Battery (98 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery) were under 19 Regiment's command to give close support.
Unlike the infantry, the tanks tried two routes forward – Caruso and Parallel roads – but one of the leading troops found the latter impassably cratered and all had to use the Caruso road approach to the town. The other leading tanks, those of 7 Troop, were balked for a while by a bomb hole in Caruso road, but found a detour which enabled them to enter Cassino about one o'clock, already half an hour behind the infantry. It was all to no avail: rubble at this entrance absolutely forbade the troop to continue south under the slope of Castle Hill, and there it stayed.
Such an order was wholly in keeping with the spirit of the plan but it was beset with all vexation. The squadron which McInnes inherited was now dispersed: one troop, the 6th, had not even forced a way into the town, 7 Troop was halted near the Caruso road entrance and the other two were held up each on a different road, about 200 yards short of the northern fork of Route 6. The help they could give the men on foot was limited by ignorance of the forward infantry positions and by lack of liaison – the only contact was on the ground, and it was at best intermittent and always dangerous. Enemy shelling was troublesome. Even less welcome was the too close support of American fighter-bombers: some bombs fell uncomfortably near the forward tanks, and others blocked the road behind them. Major McInnes's reconnaissance towards Route 6 convinced him that further armoured advance was at present impossible. Having so reported, he was sent forward again to explore the ground round the Botanical Gardens between the two branches of Route 6. On this mission he was wounded, and the squadron passed to Lieutenant Carey.1
It was obvious that a way would have to be blasted or swept by bulldozer. But when McGaffin again asked for help, the engineer detachment found the shelling too severe to get into the town. Its bulldozer, unarmoured, bulky and obtrusive, was a sure magnet to attract angry metal. Nothing was left now but to face the tanks head-on to the obstructive rubble and charge it. McGaffin gave the order. With grating tracks, roaring engines and much metallic wheezing, the tanks bucked and bounced at the obstacles, but none surmounted them and a few wedged themselves immovably. The tank attack came to a stop.
To the grim tale of frustration within Cassino events on Castle Hill (Point 193) furnished a shining contrast. The capture of this eastern promontory of the Cassino massif, from which the Germans throughout the afternoon had all but dictated happenings in the town below, was the assigned task of D Company 25 Battalion (Major Hewitt). The company fought a brisk, resourceful action. Since the western outskirts of the town had not been cleared, it turned off Caruso road and up the slope of the mountain, approaching Castle Hill along the ravine to the north. While the rest of the company moved round the eastern foot of the hill, 16 Platoon worked south until it was below Point 165, the northernmost hairpin bend on the road to the abbey. From this point a rocky saddle extended a hundred yards or so to the stone fort that gave Castle Hill its name. About one o'clock the platoon began to scale the almost vertical cliff. Its climb was unopposed. Two Bren-gunners covered the rest of the platoon as it appeared over the crest and rushed a nearby house, which disgorged two prisoners. The Bren-gunners then lighted upon a pillbox containing an enemy company headquarters and, after exchanging machine-gun fire and hand grenades, forced twenty-three Germans to surrender. The platoon occupied Point 165, but when it advanced on the fort from the west, machine-gun fire from the west wall sent it to earth and kept it there.
1 The total number of prisoners credited to D Company in this action – 47 – may be exaggerated. The situation report of 6 Brigade next morning gave the figure of 36, but it is possible that some prisoners were passed back through 4 Indian Division and not included in the New Zealand claim.
Though it was important to know the situation on Point 193, so that as long as necessary the enemy on the hill might be kept under fire, news of the success was slow in reaching those who controlled the guns. It came finally by one runner from the fort to company headquarters at the foot of the hill and thence by another to battalion headquarters. The relief of D Company by the Indians was so much the longer delayed; and this delay was the capital deposit that grew by compound interest as the operation proceeded.
The engineers passed a vexing and rather profitless day. Four companies, including two of Americans, were given an active role in the attack, but progress in the town was so slow that only one – 7 Field Company (Major White)1 – came into action before nightfall. It was placed under command of 6 Brigade to clear routes through Cassino from the north. The bulldozers, it was recognised, would have to do vital work, with the sappers clearing mines, blowing demolitions and using picks and shovels. One platoon under Lieutenant Faram filled craters on Pasquale road until it was open to tanks as far as the Rapido. Here the engineers demolished a stone wall and were using rubble to build a causeway across the dry riverbed when shelling and rifle fire closed down the work. First the bulldozer operator and then the men on foot retired to the security that smoke could not afford. The crossing was left unfit for tanks. A second detachment, under Lieutenant Budge,2 was to sweep a route through Cassino for the tanks but it was halted at the outskirts by rifle fire from Castle Hill, and here also the bulldozer driver had to quit his machine. Later orders to push through to the aid of the tanks proved futile. Even after nightfall, the utter darkness and the stubborn rubble-heaps so thwarted the two bulldozers working near the Caruso road entrance that the attempt to sweep a tank route had to be abandoned. During the day 7 Field Company had one man wounded.
The other fighting units of the Division either gave the support appropriate to their weapons or stood in readiness to exploit when the battle became fluid. Machine-gunners of 2 and 3 Machine Gun Companies, with targets on Monastery Hill and the southern edge of Cassino, added their bullets to the great opening bombardment. Other participants in the elaborate orchestration of the battle were 32 and 34 Anti-Tank Batteries, firing a mixture of high-explosive and armour-piercing ammunition from fourteen guns placed well forward. Fifth Brigade's role in this first phase was to bring its support weapons to bear ‘as opportunity offers’, but it appears that only 28 Battalion actually helped the assault with its mortars and Vickers guns. The brigade's main role was to exploit. Twenty-first Battalion moved up ready to accompany Task Force B across the river; 23 Battalion, which was to move with 4 Armoured Brigade, stayed in place; and 28 Battalion pushed one company forward handier to the railway station area, which it was to make secure after 26 Battalion's attack.
When night came, it was a night of almost impenetrable darkness. The clouds that were to obscure the moon began their disservice by bringing rain. For hours after 6.30 it teemed down, chilling the forward troops to the bone and turning into ponds the craters that were already beginning to fill by seepage from the sub-soil. The rain and the darkness commanded a lull, and their coming closed one phase of the battle. It is an opportunity to review the day's doings.
The battle was already seriously behind the timetable. According to the plan, objective quisling should have been in New Zealand hands by 2 p.m. By dusk 6 Brigade should have been lodged on the second objective jockey, well to the south of the town, and 5 Indian Brigade should have been established on Hangman's Hill (Point 435). In reality, about 200 yards and obvious hard fighting lay between the most advanced troops and the first objective, and the Indians had not even begun to move along the face of Montecassino. Castle Hill was a valuable capture but within the town the infantry were not happily placed. One company was sheltering in a maze of ruins in the centre of the town; another, foremost of all, was being firmly resisted by an enemy hourly recovering poise and confidence and strongly fortified between the two branches of Route 6. The forward troops were under very imperfect cover; they were cold and wet through; there was to be no hot food for them that night; their spirits were indifferent; they were denied the reassuring attendance of armour. Nineteenth Armoured Regiment had battled gamely to burst through, but as the tanks could not have the aid of the engineers, the infantry had to do without the aid of the tanks. Communications to the forward companies were working poorly, so that even their locations were in doubt. Their wireless sets were damp and useless. For a brief period that night a telephone line was open to A Company but it was soon cut, and shelling and mortaring were heavy enough to discourage its maintenance. C Company alone remained in touch with battalion headquarters by telephone.
All through the afternoon the burden of infantry fighting had been borne exclusively by 25 Battalion, of whose four rifle companies one was in a reserve position. Casualties, it is true, had not been heavy – in the town 11 killed or died of wounds, 29 wounded, and 1 wounded and missing. Still, by four o'clock its inadequacy for the double task of capturing Castle Hill and clearing the town as far south as Route 6 was too obvious to escape notice. Quite apart from the evidence of slow progress, enemy riflemen were causing disorganisation out of all proportion to their numbers at the vulnerable page 278 joints, so to speak, between mutually supporting arms. At this hour, Major-General Parkinson instructed 6 Brigade to put in more infantry. Having committed the whole of 25 Battalion, Brigadier Bonifant called for a company from 24 Battalion, which had spent the afternoon consolidating in its old forward positions. B Company set out at five o'clock. Before dusk, however, it was decided to reinforce more strongly. At 5.25 p.m. 6 Brigade gave the word of advance to 26 Battalion.
By this time it was clear that the effect of surprise had been lost. The corps' intention now stood revealed – to extinguish all life in Cassino, drive through it from the north and flow round the headland as a prelude to armoured advance up the Liri valley. General Freyberg was already saying, ‘You must expect it to be slow’. A different type of battle was emerging, in which victory in the encounter phase might be so costly in infantry as to leave too few for the break-out and pursuit. It was beginning to look as if within the major premise of operation dickens there lurked two allied miscalculations – an underestimate of mind (for the survivors in Cassino were uncowed) and an overestimate of matter (for it was the collapse of bricks and mortar that foiled our tanks).
The German outlook at nightfall on 15 March was cautious but not despondent. It was rightly appreciated that Cassino was the only immediate object of the attack. This was matter for relief, but the fear was that 14 Panzer Corps would not be able to sustain a long battle of attrition.
The enemy tactics seemed to be modelled on those of Alamein [wrote the war diarist of the corps]. He was banking mainly on his superiority in equipment, and had so far committed a comparatively small force of infantry (estimated at two battalions). It was thought possible that the enemy might be able to gain a victory after several days by sheer weight of material. He would have to smash our troops to pieces first. Experience had shown that a major action would cost us a battalion a day. Corps had at present four battalions available (including recce units) to fill gaps in its front-line units.
If lack of reserves was the ultimate fear, the enemy had plenty of worries more pressing. The replacement of equipment was one. The opening bombardment from air and ground had destroyed eight heavy mortars, five heavy machine guns and several assault guns. The battered 71 Werfer Regiment had lost nearly all its barrels from gunfire controlled by air OPs, though for the time being they had been replaced by 90 Panzer Grenadier Division's guns from the second line. The unremitting vigil of air OPs and the frequent air raids were almost crippling the artillery, especially page 279 in the Liri valley. Within Cassino stocks of ammunition were precarious and supplies could only move along the roads by night. Anti-tank defence was regarded as quite inadequate. The German commanders were not confident that their requests for air support would be heeded.
None the less, the Germans found food for consolation. Their infantry had behaved admirably. Under the full shock of the bombing, II Battalion 3 Parachute Regiment had suffered casualties but had rallied to the counter-attack. Some groups of defenders, surrounded in the northern part of the town, had regained their unit, and morale was high. ‘With luck,’ it was thought, ‘the enemy can be pushed out by close-range fighting’. Now that the two sides were locked in close combat, the Allies could no longer safely bomb the short-range defences in the town. The onus of mechanical movement through the choked environs of Cassino lay on the Allies – in fact, the New Zealand Corps had seen only three German tanks all day – and it was no contemptible advantage to the defenders that the attack had to be brought to them. The weather was the Germans' last reserve. ‘Rain would be even better than air support,’ General Senger told General Vietinghoff from his headquarters. By that time it was already pouring in Cassino.
The delay in the town caused a major revision in the plans of 26 Battalion. It was to have moved in the early afternoon, to have passed through 25 Battalion on Quisling and, with armoured support, to have seized Jockey by dusk. Now, however, its move was postponed till nearly nightfall, it was directed to make an attack for which a firm base did not exist, and it was unaccompanied by armour, for though the tanks of A Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment had been ordered into Cassino three hours before, they could not follow the men on foot.
1 2 Lt F. J. Muir, MM; born NZ 8 Feb 1915; clerk; killed in action 15 Mar 1944.
D Company was the first to reach the northern fork of Route 6. The time was about nine o'clock – it had taken three hours to travel the 650 yards from the Rapido crossing. Lieutenant Muir, still thinking of an immediate advance to the second objective, set off to scout for the road leading to the station. He left his platoon beside the shaggy walls of the Municipal Buildings, where it was soon joined by the rest of the company. From A Company 25 Battalion, whom he had located in the Post Office, Major Piper learnt the disappointing truth. He realised that the attack on the second objective was not yet practicable. By telephone he received instructions from Lieutenant-Colonel Richards that all companies should consolidate along Route 6 until the strongpoint to the west, which had already engaged the battalion, had been eliminated.
One by one the other companies appeared out of the night and sectors were roughly allocated. Two companies set themselves up along the northern branch of Route 6, an alley now bristling with infantry weapons. The two others went into or beside the Municipal Buildings, where they were separated from the enemy by a well stirred porringer of mud that had once been the Botanical Gardens. They seem to have made no attempt to occupy the convent where there had been a skirmish in the afternoon, though all four compnies were close to it and though it was the most substantial building in the vicinity and offered the luxury of shelter under a roof only partly demolished. After a gruelling night of wrong turnings and delays, 12 Machine Gun Platoon arrived with its Vickers guns in the early hours of the morning and sited them in ruined buildings near the Post Office. Whatever its terrors, the night had not so far been costly in the number of casualties. Two had been killed – but one of them was Lieutenant Muir – and three wounded.