Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
III: 19 March
III: 19 March
The promise of the 19th withered early. First, the Germans in the west of Cassino refused to leave, even at the urging of the fresh Maori Battalion. Next, they turned to throttle the attack on the monastery before it could fairly begin by striking at the Indians' vulnerable lifeline to Hangman's Hill. Finally, the tanks which surprised the monastery garrison by appearing over the north-western hills, being left unaided, ended in discomfiture a sortie that deserved a better fate. Before the full tale of the day's misfortunes could be told the Corps Commander had resolved on a reorganisation that marked the half-way point in the battle because it assigned to the conquest of Cassino infantry who had been destined to exploit far beyond.
At three o'clock on the morning of the 19th 25 Battalion renewed the onslaught against the enemy ensconced beneath Castle Hill. A and B Companies at once ran into a tempest of mortar fire, for which our shelling of known positions was a retaliation rather than a remedy. Still, while the darkness lasted almost satisfactory progress was made, but when daylight came the advance flagged and soon ceased. The total achievement was a little ground gained, a ‘tidying up’ of our positions and a slightly clearer picture of the enemy's defensive scheme.
On the left, C and D Companies of 28 Battalion (Captains Reedy1 and Matehaere), the only Maori companies sent forward, advanced between the two arms of Route 6 towards the Continental area. The Maoris were in good heart and though the battle raged fiercely and D Company, in the lead, had fourteen casualties, including their commander, they began to make inroads into the defences. The Germans fought from entrenchments under the hill along Route 6 and its northern extension, with the efficient support of two tanks hull-down in or about the hotel ruins. The enemy infantry were for the most part invisible, but the muzzles of their weapons protruded through slits and crannies made by the fall of slabs of masonry, bricks and beams of steel and wood. The tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment could approach no nearer than two or three hundred yards for rubble and craters, but from that distance they could do some execution and before nightfall they claimed the destruction of the two enemy tanks. A few men of D Company actually reached the foot of Monastery Hill, only to find that they had outrun their fellows and that they were surrounded. In the afternoon the Maoris went to work clearing the area north of the Continental, and from a building farther south they took a good haul of prisoners, prodding their first captives in the ribs and persuading them to call on their comrades to surrender. These successes were won against the enemy's outworks only. The main centres of resistance could not be reduced, and indeed it was guessed that under cover of darkness and the distractions of mortar and shell they were reinforced that night to their original strength.
Between Route 6 and the station 24 Battalion's three companies had a passive role until about an hour after dusk, when D Company repelled the first of several counter-attacks that disturbed the night of 19–20 March on that part of the front. Intended to regain ground and not merely as raids, these forays seem to have been made in no great strength and all were beaten off without serious trouble, though not without casualties.page 308 page 309
Both 26 Battalion round the station and C Company 24 Battalion on the hillside occupied areas whose tactical importance invited enemy fire, and both spent most of the 19th with their heads down. The: 24 Battalion men had better opportunities to retaliate – for example, on Point 165 and the yellow house near it, which was a nest of troublemakers – but by compensation they had to suffer from our own loosely aimed shells and from flying smoke canisters, shell cases and base plugs, and only on the rare occasions when wireless communication was open did they shed the sense of isolation and ignorance. The patrol that set off down the hill that night to keep an appointment with the Maoris about Route 6 made no friendly meetings, and, overtaken by daybreak, had to shelter throughout the 20th close to the Hotel des Roses.
Even before the ruins of the monastery showed dusty white again in nhe dawn of the 19th, the two claws of operation revenge were beginning to close upon them. To the north tanks were making the stiff ascent up Cavendish road from Cairo village; and above Cassino town two companies of the Essex battalion had started out from Castle Hill across the hillside to clear a way for the rest of the battalion to Hangman's Hill, whence with the Gurkhas they would make their dash for the crest. About 5.30 as two Rajput companies were relieving the Englishmen at Point 165 and Point 193, the enemy broke in upon these preparations.
Announced by a sharp bout of gunfire and mortaring, a battalion of paratroops (I Battalion 4 Parachute Regiment) swept down from the summit of Montecassino, engulfed the defenders of the lower hairpin bend and pressed on to the castle. The garrison, numbering about 150, manned the battlements and fought back their assailants, first with their own arms and then with the help of the gunners, who dropped a barrier of shells between the castle and the enemy. Again and again the Germans came on. They had to be shot down as they tried to clamber up the walls. By 8 a.m. the first fury of the assault was dying down, but only three officers and sixty men remained on their feet in the castle. ‘Machine gunners had fired more than 8000 rounds and the Essex mortars more than 1500 bombs. Mortar barrels had grown red hot, had curled and bent’. At nine o'clock the attack was renewed from the east. The paratroops savagely machine-gunned the castle from the buildings on the fringe of the town, but when they mounted the slope the defensive fire was so deadly that they sued for a truce to pick up their wounded and for thirty minutes there was peace. During the afternoon an audacious party of Germans blew a charge under a buttress of the page 310 northern rampart but as they swarmed through the breach they fell beneath a hail of bullets. This was the last crisis. Point 165 had been lost but the castle was held (though the German headquarters believed otherwise), and if a parachutist who gave himself up was telling the truth, only 40 of the 200 men in the first assault were still fit to fight.1
The Essex companies already on their way to Hangman's Hill when the counter-attack began reached their goal about 10.15 a.m. Their journey of five hours, almost entirely by daylight, left them so weak, and the line of supply and reinforcement was now so insecure, that the attack on the monastery, planned to take place at 6 a.m., was postponed.
But if the enemy had dashed the initiative from our hands in one place, he lost it in another. The tank thrust at the monastery from the rear, for which Cavendish road had been developed,2 was a stroke long meditated, and had originally been timed for the second day of the battle. The armour had been intended merely to complete the rout of an enemy already beaten by an infantry assault from the front. The circumstances of the 19th were much less favourable.
The armoured hook over the hills was to be delivered by a force under command of 7 Indian Brigade comprising seventeen Honey tanks of the brigade's reconnaissance squadron and from 760 United States Tank Battalion, three 105-millimetre self-propelled guns from Combat Command ‘B’ and the Shermans of C Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment (Major Barton). A reconnaissance on the 18th stripped Barton of any illusions that the going might be easy; he was burdened with a difficult task of liaison with the Goums of the French Expeditionary Corps on Monte Cairo; his squadron was a small detail in a mixed force directed on to a somewhat vague objective under command of a British artillery colonel without tank experience; and he was so concerned at the total lack of infantry support that he made representations to Corps, but fruitlessly since the Indian brigade, steadily drained of men by weeks of fighting and exposure in the hills, could spare no infantry for the operation.
1 This paragraph is based largely on the account in Stevens, pp. 303–5
On the first stage of their filibuster it was the going that gave the tank commanders their chief worries. They found the trail itself negotiable, but elsewhere the ground was sometimes treacherously soft in spite of the recent fine weather or harsh and rocky. Consequently, some tanks were bogged and others lost their tracks. They passed through one defile without trouble but beyond a second, four or five hundred yards north of the stone farmhouse of Albaneta, opposition rapidly became warmer. The sudden apparition of tanks in this rugged country took the enemy off his balance and agitated wireless messages were overheard. But the men of 111 Battalion 4 Parachute Regiment rallied quickly. Lacking anti-tank guns, they called down reiterated salvoes from the artillery, threw in the vicious deterrent of mortar bombs and, above all, used their small arms with such accuracy and persistence from the cover of scrub and boulders that it was death for the tank commanders to show their heads for more than a moment above the turrets of their tanks. Thus, half-blinded, several tanks trundled into difficulties. Some stranded by mud or mechanical failure were later stalked by aggressive tank-hunters.
The Shermans meanwhile had burst through the thin defensive line and thrust a way between Albaneta Farm and the rock-strewn slopes of Point 593, pounding at the blockhouse with their guns. While other New Zealand tanks engaged the enemy infantry, Lieutenant Renall1 led his troop on round the southern shoulder of Point 593 towards the monastery ruins. The Liri valley was in full view on their right, and the leading crews won to a sight of their goal. The way to the monastery, they reported later, lay open over a good cobbled road, but they had no infantry to go with them. One by one they came to grief, hit or stuck in the mud; and when the lighter tanks intruded into the arena they drew a storm of fire on themselves. Solid shot and high-explosive shells were pumped into Albaneta house to set up a dust and under its cover two American Honey tanks raced in and rescued some of the crew of a wrecked Sherman. The gallant Renall was killed.
1 2 Lt H. L. Renall; born Carterton, 5 Oct 1920; farmer; died of wounds 19 Mar 1944.
Losses had been appreciable. Of the New Zealand tanks alone nine or more were immobilised, and damaged radiators and bogeys made others unfit for battle. Casualties in C Squadron numbered two officers and three other ranks killed and one officer and about eight other ranks wounded. Most of these were inflicted by rifle and bazooka fire.
1 The Germans were not deterred from withdrawing paratroops from this area. The next day III/4 Parachute Regiment was relieved by 5 Panzer Reconnaissance Unit for service in the town.
2 Some of the New Zealand tankmen believed otherwise, but this view probably sprang from the optimism of good soldiers.
The engineers' day retraced the now familiar pattern – on the outskirts of the town a workmanlike job could be done, but inside the town it was impossible. In the morning and again in the evening fifty men from 5 Field Park Company tried to clear Route 6 behind the Maoris, but roadmending in the thick of the battle was shown on both occasions to be visionary. Reconnaissance alone cost two officers wounded. Improvements to the railway embankment and to the lateral road from Route 6 now gave two quite good routes to the railway station, and American engineers on the night of 19–20 March completed the alternative bridge over the main highway.
The artillery duel grew in intensity on the 19th. Besides firing in direct support of the troops in the town and on the slopes of Montecassino, the corps guns had recently played with increasing severity on the area around the Colosseum, whence tanks and mortars were believed to be harassing our infantry between the station and the hummock. The Colosseum area merited attention for other reasons: it would certainly act as a dyke to contain any attempt to flow round the cape into the Liri valley, it commanded Route 6 south of the Hotel des Roses and it would hold in enfilade any drive by our troops to cross this reach of road in order to link up with Points 202 and 435. Though still outgunned in the proportion of about three to one, the Germans were bringing up more batteries and it was estimated that they now disposed 9 heavy, 50 medium, 120 field and 60 88-millimetre pieces.
If their guns fired aggressively and with considerable immunity, it was not because of negligence by our counter-battery organisation, which was unusually alert and inventive. It was rather that the German guns enjoyed exceptional protection from the terrain and the layout of the battlefield. Three of the main enemy gun areas gave good flash cover – the valleys round Piedimonte San Germano, the valleys south of the Liri in the neighbourhood of San Giorgio and the northern hill country of Belmonte and Atina. The last two lay almost in prolongation of the line of Monte Trocchio, the New Zealand flash-spotters' base, so that effective triangulation was impossible, and all three profited from the hill echoes which baffled our sound-rangers. Even when gun positions were accurately located, it was therefore not simple to detect which batteries were active at any given time. And even when the active batteries were correctly reported, they were by no means automatically silenced, because they were dug in on reverse slopes where page 314 only a direct hit would do much harm. The fourth group of guns, on the flat of the Liri valley round Pignataro, were the most vulnerable. Though they seemed to be using flashless powder, they were constantly worried by our air OPs, and the crews had to get what comfort they could from dugouts. By keeping some guns laid on active positions, the corps counter-battery staff managed to bully the nebelwerfers in the Liri valley into a more respectful silence.
The armoured hook once stopped, the enemy viewed the day's events with composure, though not with complacency. Fourteenth Panzer Corps believed that the counter-attack on Point 193 had isolated Hangman's Hill and that this pocket could be cleared out as a preliminary to tiring the enemy and pushing him out of the town step by step. But any general counter-attack, it was thought, would be madness. The New Zealand tanks were admitted to be ‘getting through the craters not badly’ and their fire was causing fairly heavy casualties. If the Germans had a real anxiety, it was less for Montecassino than for the area of the station – the sole worthy object of a weighty counter-stroke.
For some time General Freyberg had been inclined towards a strengthening and regrouping of his infantry in Cassino. News of the trouble at Point 193 turned an inclination into a decision. On reporting his setback General Galloway complained that the two battalions in the town were two battalions too few and flatly declared it to be ‘a glaring fact’ that his division could do little more until the town was cleared. It was agreed that the enemy was stronger in Cassino than had been thought. Some of the assaults on Point 193 had come in from the town side, and the New Zealanders were finding that houses cleared once were apt to be reoccupied by the enemy a few hours later. Though Colonel Hanson thought that there was ‘an underground Cassino’ and common speculation honeycombed the town with an elaborate system of tunnels,1 it had to be assumed that the Germans were filtering back by more orthodox means – in particular, by the southern stretch of Route 6 and by the steep gully that ran down from Point 445 to Point 193.
Having made these dispositions, the Corps Commander felt more cheerful, but he did not disguise his sense that time was running out. The Gurkhas and the New Zealanders below them on Point 202 could not hang on in mid-air for ever. In fact, henceforth their supplies and ammunition were dropped by aircraft.
Lively enemy gunfire disturbed but did not dislocate the reorganisation on the night of 19–20 March. Among the New Zealanders in the town the relief occasioned much abstruse shuffling of places and there was some marching and counter-marching, but when the 20th dawned a picture of tolerable clarity emerged. The Royal West Kents had taken over Castle Hill, allowing the half-battalion of the Essex Regiment to go into reserve. East of Castle Hill in the northern part of the town 23 Battalion was holding the old FDLs of 25 Battalion, one company of which remained in the town on the northern flank, with the other three back in a rest area along Pasquale road or on the way there. The Maoris remained in position roughly between the two arms of Route 6, but to the south there were new dispositions. Twenty-fourth Battalion, reinforced by a company of the 23rd on the sunken road, continued the line, but it had sent one of its companies to reinforce 26 Battalion round the station. Finally, on the Division's left flank, 23 Battalion's sector had been occupied by the Divisional Cavalry, which in its turn had been relieved by two companies of 2 Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers from 78 Division's 11 Brigade. The inter-divisional boundary now ran along the Ascensione stream from its junction with the Gari, across the railway as far as the 19 northing grid line on the map and thence due east to Route 6.