Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
IV: 23–26 March
IV: 23–26 March
As early as 20 February, after the first New Zealand failure at Cassino, General Alexander was planning a major regrouping page 327 of the Allied forces in Italy.1 His great strategic purpose was to compel the enemy to commit as many divisions as possible in Italy at the time overlord was launched. The best method in his judgment was so to destroy enemy formations that they would have to be replaced from elsewhere to avoid disaster. But as a local superiority of at least three to one in infantry was thought to be necessary to penetrate prepared defences in the Italian terrain, his forces would have to be strengthened and then massed at the point of attack. Against 23 or 24 German divisions in the whole of Italy, the Allies had 21, which were now to be reinforced to 281/2. The overwhelming preponderance of this force would operate west of the Apennine divide. Leaving a corps directly under Alexander in charge of its sector on the Adriatic, Eighth Army would move west, as five of its divisions had already done. Its new sector would lie between the existing inter-Army boundary on the right and the Liri River on the left. There it would assume command of most of the British troops in Italy except those at Anzio, and Fifth Army would concentrate on the southern flank from the Liri to the sea, with responsibility also for the Anzio bridgehead. This regrouping was to be the prelude to a triple attack – by the Eighth Army up the Liri valley, and by the Fifth Army on its main front through the Aurunci Mountains and from the bridgehead towards Valmontone. It would take some time to regroup and mid-April was the earliest date for the launching of the offensive.
On 28 February an Army Commanders' conference agreed to this plan and in part elaborated it. One decision was to appoint 13 Corps to relieve New Zealand Corps after its attack at Cassino, with command over 2 New Zealand, 4 Indian and 78 Divisions. Alexander's message of 20 March foreshadowing an early decision on policy sprang therefore not only (if at all) from Churchill's gentle spur but from a wish not to jeopardise his plans for regrouping by unprofitable delays. Alexander had to balance the timing of his spring offensive against the chance of last-minute success at Cassino. On the one hand, the timetable must not lag unduly; on the other, Churchill was known to want results, and the capture of the Cassino massif, if only it could be pulled off, would start the offensive in April or May with an immense advantage.
Discussion therefore turned on other questions – whether the corps should commit the rest of its resources in a last endeavour to leave a tidier bequest to its successor, and if so where; or whether, admitting deadlock, it should stabilise the line, and again if so where. The proposal of a 78 Division attack on the monastery from the area of Point 593 was reconsidered, only to be rejected as too slow to mount, difficult to support with gunfire and condemned by experience.
Two offensive possibilities remained. One, which was canvassed more fully after than during the conference, was to turn the town from the north and west through Point 165. A point in its favour was that prisoners taken from that area were dejected. But Point 165 seemed proof against attacks from Point 193 and the alternative approach, from Point 175, was barred by the deep gash of the re-entrant running down from Point 445, which was certain to be strongly defended.
That left one chance. An enveloping movement south about to join with the garrison on Point 435 had been broached before: now it was examined. What was envisaged was an advance by a brigade of 78 Division from roughly the station area across the Gari and Route 6 and up the south-eastern face of Montecassino. Tactically, it conformed to Freyberg's notion that the way to win the battle was to isolate the enemy from his supplies, though he still harboured suspicions of an underground system. Given food, the Gurkhas were prepared to stay on Point 435 for two or three days longer.
But the more closely the plan was scrutinised, the larger loomed the difficulties. Any hope of surprise could be discounted. Behind the Gari, which was five feet deep and running fast, lay a belt of strongpoints manned by watchful Germans and the Hotel des Roses, militarily speaking, was as solid as rock. The approach to the objective lay for some distance across flat ground wide open to enemy observation; and when that had been crossed the way was straight uphill frontally into the very jaws of the defence. Nor could the operation be mounted in less than three days. No one enthused over it, but it was the fittest and it survived for higher consideration.
Opinion, however, clearly inclined to a pause in the offensive. It would be necessary to recall the troops from Montecassino, but page 330 there was general agreement that the extremes of the ground securely won – Point 193 and the station area – should be held. To withdraw from them would be a declaration that the battle was over. To defend them would not only keep the enemy extended (the ultimate object of the battle and the campaign) but it would hold the wedge in place until a stronger force could drive it home. Again, no one relished the prospect of dwelling on a line which had not been chosen for its defensive possibilities but which was simply the high-water mark of an arrested attack. Freyberg confessed that ‘the troops in the town and the south were in the worst military position that he had ever seen troops in’. But the gravest forebodings were those of the Indian division's commander, who repeatedly urged the hazards of holding Point 193 once the battle ended. It could be made defensible only by extensive engineering works and by securing beyond all risk Point 175 and the jail area of the town. Even then he thought it would attract fire that was now dispersed, and a terrible drain of casualties must be expected.
Freyberg's decision fairly represented the sense of his commanders. Through General Clark, who concurred, he advised the Commander-in-Chief that the operation should be suspended and the isolated posts withdrawn from the hill. The plan of a 78 Division attack from the south was passed on, but without any positive recommendation.
When Alexander came forward that afternoon to see the ground again and to hear the arguments for himself, he seemed disposed to try the 78 Division venture as a last chance. Certainly he wanted to question a prisoner from the south, and there were long discussions in Freyberg's caravan, from which Freyberg emerged with his views apparently challenged but unchanged. Alexander left at nightfall for final conferences at Fifth Army and at 9.30 p.m. his decision was telephoned to Freyberg. The corps would stand firm where it now stood and the change of command would take place in a few days.
One last effort to conjure victory out of deadlock perhaps deserves record. On the morning of the 24th, the GSO I of 4 Indian Division proposed a night attack on the monastery with a fresh brigade. Let the Castle Hill garrison strike at Point 165 to take or at least to contain it, while the fresh troops made a mass infiltration uphill to Point 435 and thence to the top. Hangman's Hill was to play Anzio to the abbey's Rome. Both Freyberg and Kirkman warmed to the idea, but Galloway objected and Alexander dismissed it without hesitation. He had come not to revive a corpse but to bury it: planning to reorganise the front proceeded.
The decisions of 23 March set in motion a long train of disentanglement and rearrangement. This process occupied nearly a week and its object was not only to allow an offensive to dwindle slowly away but also to give effect locally to Alexander's strategic regrouping. The larger intention may be described first. New Zealand Corps was to be dissolved on 26 March, handing over to 13 Corps, which would simultaneously come under command of Eighth Army. This was one in a sequence of reliefs that by the end of the month would range five corps across the peninsula from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian in the order 5 Corps (directly under the Commander-in-Chief), 2 Polish Corps and 13 Corps (Eighth Army), and the French Expeditionary Corps and 2 United States Corps (Fifth Army). Within 13 Corps 4 British Division would hold the Monte Cairo sector on the right, 78 Division would relieve 4 Indian Division in the centre, and on the left 2 New Zealand Division would continue to hold Cassino and extend its left to cover the old 78 Division sector as far south as the inter-army boundary.
While preparing for this redeployment, New Zealand Corps had also to wind up the battle without seeming too obviously to do so. The isolated posts on Montecassino would have to be withdrawn; otherwise not an inch of the hard-won gains was to be yielded. The corps' policy was defined in an operation instruction issued on the morning of 24 March as one of active defence with vigorous patrolling. Positions were to be wired and mined and field works were to be employed wherever possible. Plans for counter-attack were to be made ready. The instruction indicated six points which were to be heavily defended as vital to the holding of the line, including Point 193, the north-west part of the town, the area west of the Botanical Gardens, the railway station and the hummock. Tanks already in Cassino were to remain there in close support until the reorganisation was complete, when they would be withdrawn into infantry brigade reserve in a counter-attack role. To reduce hostile shelling there was to be no unnecessary movement by day in the forward areas, and active counter-battery fire was to continue. For security reasons the telephone was to be preferred to the wireless. Beginning on the night of 25–26 March, the New Zealanders' relief of 78 Division was to be complete by the night of 27–28 March.
One of the earliest tasks of the corps was to disengage its troops on the hillside above the town. Since 18 March they had been page 332 supplied exclusively from the air; 194 sorties had been flown for the purpose on seven different occasions. Despite the enemy's trickeries to mislead the aircraft and the resiting of his anti-aircraft guns to harry their run-in, about 50 per cent of the loads fell where our troops could retrieve them. Some days no food was gathered and both parties, Indians and New Zealanders, went hungry; but the only serious shortage was the Indians' lack of radio batteries, most deliveries of which floated wide. Ammunition stocks were abundant. There was plenty of water, for not only did the containers fall luckily, but both parties drew upon local wells until the Indians found a dead mule in theirs. Though there were a few light skirmishes and much sniping, shelling (from friendly as well as hostile guns) was the severest hardship; but perhaps cold and hunger were worse. The German policy was to let these outposts wither from their own isolation. It was not until the 21st that the enemy identified the troops on Point 435 as Indians, and then only from a report by a German NCO who had escaped from them. Major Reynolds's New Zealanders on Point 202 were kept in daily touch with the Indians above them by the visits of a Gurkha officer.
To guard the secret, it was decided to transmit the orders for withdrawal by word of mouth. On the night of 23–24 March three officers who had volunteered set out separately across the hillside, each with a carrier pigeon to take back the news of the success of his mission. One officer was intercepted, but the other two reached Hangman's Hill and passed on three prearranged signals – by radio code-word, Very lights or bursts from Bofors guns – any of which would be the order to withdraw. Major Reynolds received the warning to evacuate when he visited the Gurkhas early on the morning of the 24th. That day's air drop was a spectacular success. A copious shower of food, drink and raiment descended on the New Zealanders – potted meat, ‘M & V’, sardines, mincemeat, Indian bread, milk, tea, sugar and eight gallons of rum, cigarettes and clothing. The New Zealanders watched their windfall jealously until the light waned, calculating that they would have enough rations for a week, but they had barely begun to collect the canisters when the word came through to withdraw. God's plenty had to be left behind. But they marched out, or rather slipped away, in good order, carrying the standard burden of personal weapons and ammunition and their emergency rations still unconsumed.
Fortune for once favoured the brave. As General Freyberg predicted, the evacuation was achieved without a casualty. While our guns thundered and our tanks made distraction in the town, and while the Royal West Kents preoccupied the Germans on Point page 333 165 with a diversionary attack, the Indians and New Zealanders in fighting patrols of about platoon strength made good their crossing of the hillside. They went unhindered. Within less than two hours, C Company 24 Battalion was back at the quarry in Caruso road, having passed through the bottleneck by climbing the wall that ran down from Castle Hill. Major Nangle described afterwards how the Indians had to work forward between two lines of shells bursting across the hillside:
Between these walls of fire lay the way to the Castle [he wrote]. We continued to move slowly across the face of the hill. The artillery fire quite covered any noise we made as we stumbled over the loose stones. A slight deviation allowed us to give the Brown House [the Continental Hotel] a wide berth as we were uncertain whether it was held or not. No sound came from this ruin and we continued, hardly believing our good luck, to the Castle. We filed up the narrow path and were challenged by the West Kents.1
So ended what for some had been a nine days' ordeal.
Three New Zealand officers and 42 other ranks returned from Point 202. From Point 435 the numbers who came back were 12 officers and 255 other ranks, the great majority from 1/9 Gurkha Rifles, but including some from 1/4 Essex Regiment and 4/6 Rajputana Rifles. Eleven wounded – nine New Zealanders, an Englishman and an Indian-were left overnight just north of Point 146 and brought in next morning. According to one account,2 the last stretcher party was given a card by an enemy patrol stating that in future the German divisional commander would not permit the evacuation of casualties under the Red Cross.
The implication – that the enemy command was unaware of the withdrawal – is confirmed by the documents. A puzzling series of entries in the records of 14 Panzer Corps attributes to the men on Point 435 a desperate defence against fighting patrols on 26 March, nearly two days after they had left; and it is not until 27 March that 1 Parachute Division claims to have retaken Point 435, where ‘the enemy lost heavily’. The mopping up of stragglers is then said to have begun and its completion is reported on the evening of 30 March, along with a tally of casualties and trophies of war – 165 dead, 11 prisoners, 16 light machine guns, 2 German machine guns, 2 heavy machine guns, 103 rifles, 38 machine pistols, 4 wireless sets, 4 bazookas.
1 Stevens, p. 310.
2 Ibid., p. 311.
For the Indians and New Zealanders who had held on so staunchly the evacuation was a bitter disappointment. Themselves the curiously passive centre of the last week's fighting, the still pivot on which the battle turned, they were tired and hungry and their limbs were weak for want of exercise. But the faith and fire were still in them, and had the acceptable hour come they would have roused themselves up and crossed the crest of the hill to assault the ruined abbey. When warned for the withdrawal, the Gurkhas wanted to know who would relieve them.
1 13 Corps Intelligence Summary, No. 450.
The new divisional front stretched for about five miles and a half, almost to the point where the Liri gathered the waters of the Gari and Rapido and turned south to become the Garigliano. The reliefs incidental to the occupation of this sector began on the night of 25–26 March and lasted for three nights. They were carried out at some cost in casualties but without derangement. When they were complete, 6 Brigade held a line from the north-west corner of Cassino running west of the Botanical Gardens, by way of the sunken road, the railway station and the hummock, to the junction of the Gari with a stream about 700 yards south of the station. Fifth Brigade's responsibilities began here and extended to the Division's left boundary, which ran east along the 13 northing (roughly parallel with, and just north of, the Liri) as far as the junction of the Rapido with the Ladrone stream and thence to Colle Cedro. In the northern sector 6 Brigade disposed four battalions – the 25th on the right under Castle Hill, the 24th between the arms of Route 6, then 22 (Motor) Battalion (now deployed for the first time since the battle began) and 26 Battalion round the station and south to the brigade boundary. Fifth Brigade's battalions were arrayed from north to south in the order 23 Battalion, 21 Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry. The Maoris were in reserve.
The reorganisation did not at once becalm the battlefield. Our tanks and guns in particular gave the last days of the New Zealand Corps a dying illumination. Though plans were considered for sapping and blowing German strongpoints in the west of Cassino, it was left to the armour to hammer away at close quarters and to the artillery to attempt the work of demolition at long range. The two embattled hotels were now sprawling cairns of stone and brick, but they still harboured live paratroops, and they were now, if anything, more dangerous to approach. After days spent in clearing and epairing Route 6 the enemy had succeeded in bringing Mark IV tanks and anti-tank guns into the infantry zone and the New Zealand armour was beginning to feel the impact of the new arrivals.
Because of the continued exchanges in the town and perhaps because he was misinformed as to the true position on Point 435, it took the enemy some days to penetrate the Allied design. And even when he realised that one battle was at an end, movement that the smoke failed to screen led him to predict the imminence of another. On the 24th 14 Panzer Corps thought that Cassino page 337 could be held for eight days longer. The four battalions of paratroops in the town varied in strength from a company to a strong platoon, in numbers from 120 to 40. In spite of a wastage of about forty dead a day, the ruins of the town were deemed to be worth defending if only to prevent the Allies from rolling up the whole Gari line. After two quiet days on the 25th and 26th, the German outlook brightened. On the 27th Senger was able to report to Tenth Army that enemy pressure was slackening and that as a result of reliefs by panzer grenadiers in the hills above the town the paratroops now had two battalions in reserve. They would retake Point 193 in heir own good time, seize the station if it was evacuated and follow up any withdrawal as a precaution against renewed large-scale bombing. Senger ended with a cautious claim to victory.
The second battle of Cassino has ended in our favour. But the enemy will probably launch another major attack in the corps sector very soon. He will hardly lie down under his two defeats, as they represent a loss of prestige for him, and have an undoubted effect on the morale of his armed forces elsewhere and on the international political situation. There is no indication yet just where the enemy plans to strike next.
Senger was right in predicting that the Allies would strike again, though he misconceived the timing and the weight of their blow. It was in preparation for this blow that New Zealand Corps handed over its front to 13 Corps at noon on 26 March and went out of existence. Its dissolution was therefore not merely the end of an old chapter but the beginning of a new. The story of Cassino had not yet run its course. As the days lengthened, the rivers fell and the ground became hard, Alexander massed his forces for the broad-fronted offensive that he had promised Churchill on 20 March.1
In the last hour of 11 May his two armies rolled forward in the attack from Cassino to the sea. For several days, while the French thrust deeply through the Aurunci Mountains and 13 Corps forced a crossing of the river in the mouth of the Liri valley, 2 Polish Corps fought the third battle of Cassino among the hills north and west of the monastery. It is no disparagement of the Poles' splendid bravery to say that it availed little until successes elsewhere threatened the defenders of Montecassino with encirclement. Only then, on the morning of 18 May, did the Polish flag and the Union Jack fly above the dusty ruins of the abbey. So at last though the great fortress fell, it was never conquered.
1 Churchill, V, p. 450.