CHAPTER 13 — Cassino
The operation that had envisaged 6 Brigade's leaping from the Sangro to Chieti was finally suspended at the end of December 1943. For political as well as strategical reasons the policy was still the capture of Rome at the earliest possible moment, and to that end Fifth Army on the west coast was reinforced at the expense of the Eighth on the mud-bound east.
Five divisions, including the New Zealand Division, were to be switched with the utmost secrecy to the west of the Apennines. When, on 18 January, 21 Battalion was warned to be ready for a move within a few hours, it thought it was going for a short rest. Breakfast was at midnight, and two hours later the troops, not unthankfully, were embussed and waiting to move. They staged a hundred miles away at San Severo, where they were told that the move was something more than a rest out of the line—the Division was transferring to Fifth Army and was heading for Naples, on the other side of Italy.
The next day the convoy crossed the Apennine mountain chain, passing the now familiar villages perched in impossible positions on mountain sides and tops. The third day's run ended in the divisional training area of Piedimonte d'Alife, between the Volturno River and the southern edge of the Matese Mountains.
It was a pleasant spot. The snow had been left behind, and though the nights were cold, the days were fine and the troops were soon comfortably established. The country rolled easily from the Matese foothills down to the 80-yard-wide Volturno, dramatically different from the turbulent, treacherous Sangro. The fighting around Cassino, 30 miles north, was only a rumble in the night.
Training, after the initial clean up and reorganisation, took the form of fire and movement exercises, interspersed with climbs into the Matese mountain ridge, lunch in the clouds, and a return to a hot meal. It was not long before the troops were in good shape.page 307
There was a battalion parade at which Brigadier Kippenberger gave an address on the general war situation, the not unworthy record of the battalion, and the part likely to be played in the forthcoming campaign. He mentioned that the Division was in reserve to Fifth Army and under the direct orders of the Army Commander, with the role of exploiting towards Rome when Fifth Army had breached the Winterstellungen (Winter Line), as the Germans called their defences.
In the meantime they were to take it easy—well, comparatively easy—and recuperate. One of the Brigadier's ideas of taking it easy was to practise a brigade exercise in crossing the Volturno. The troops were in favour, for they had had enough of wading through the ice-cold Sangro, and if there were more rivers to cross they preferred to do it above the water rather than through it. The company commanders practised without troops—in Army parlance TEWTs (tactical exercises without troops)—the platoon commanders practised without platoons, and the platoons practised without boats. On the day, the operation went off very well. Patrols lined the river bank and beat down imaginary opposition; the artillery blanketed probable strongpoints with smoke and fire; platoons rushed folding assault boats to the riverside, were ferried across, and formed up and advanced on their objectives. Everybody, including the Brigadier, was pleased with the show, and the feeling was ‘Bring on your river crossings’.
Since the landing on the Salerno plain, the junction with Eighth Army and the advance on Naples, Fifth Army had squared up to the line the Germans had chosen to stand on for the defence of Rome. The Italian General Staff considered the position impregnable; and they had the support of history, for only once in all Rome's stormy existence had it been successfully attacked from the south. On the selected line the Apennine Mountains reach almost to the sea, pierced by only a single valley, the Liri River depression, which runs north-west and south-east for 20 miles and varies in width from four to seven miles. West of the Liri River the roadless Aurunci ranges stretch to the coast. A main road hacked out of their seaward slopes had been destroyed beyond the possibility of early repair, leaving the Liri Valley the only axis of advance. Apennine page 308 peaks flank the valley, and its southern entrance is guarded by the precipitous foothills of Monte Cairo. From that watchtower runs a spur that terminates abruptly in the 1700-foot-high Monte Cassino, the bastion that guards the southern exit of Highway 6, the road to Rome.
On 20 January, the day 21 Battalion left San Severo, Fifth Army crossed the 30-foot-wide, fast-flowing Rapido River, which was the first line of defence of the Liri Valley. On the 22nd, while the troops were cleaning the Orsogna mud off their clothes and equipment, a seaborne landing was made at Anzio. The 2nd New Zealand Division stood ready to exploit success, while the Americans launched attack after attack against formidable defences tenaciously defended. By 30 January only partial success had been achieved, and it was clear that the town and spur which dominated the mouth of the valley had to be taken or turned.
Cassino town, with a population of 7000, nestled under the extreme eastern end of the Monte Cassino feature, along the face of which an unbelievable road zigzagged for five miles to the summit. The Abbey of Monte Cassino was perched at the top of the height and looked south towards the invading Fifth Army, west towards the Tyrrhenian Sea and east towards the Abruzzis, in the centre of Italy. It was an incomparable lookout and had been there in one form or another for 1400 years. Cassino Monastery had seen a lot of war and had been destroyed at least three times. It was to see a lot more and was to be destroyed again.
The troops played a little football, route-marched, and were inspected—ceremonial parades are good for morale. Fifth Army tried to outflank the German defences and did not wholly succeed; a shadow New Zealand Corps became a reality on 3 February, preparatory to taking over if the Americans did not capture Cassino by the 12th; 5 Brigade was ordered to relieve 36 US Division, holding the line of the Rapido south of Cassino.
Colonel McElroy gave his orders for the relief on the morning page 309 of 4 February. In the afternoon the battalion, less 15 per cent LOB, was embussed and at 8 p.m. arrived in the battalion assembly area, where guides were waiting. It was a wild night of lightning, wind and rain, as the men squelched along the muddy tracks in single file towards their company headquarters. The battalion took over from 143 Regiment, 36 US Division, and occupied a mile and three-quarters of the front, with A, B, and C Companies forward in that order and D Company in reserve. The battalion signallers had a nightmarish job trying to trace the American telephone wires; there seemed to be lines laid to and telephones installed in every foxhole. Eventually they gave it up and ran their own system.
When it was sufficiently light the troops took stock of their position. They found themselves in part of the area from which the Americans had launched their first unsuccessful attempt to outflank Cassino from the south. Bullet-ridden assault boats were still lying about and heaps of abandoned equipment were everywhere. There were also heaps of rations still uncollected, but the acquisitive Kiwis soon altered that. C Company also acquired two brand-new Chevrolet trucks, which were callously taken from them by Battalion Headquarters and eventually found a home at Brigade.
Between the forward posts and the river, about 300 yards distant, were waterlogged paddocks, while in front, behind, and all around stood farmhouses in varying stages of demolition. Olive orchards, clumps of naked trees, and stumps of grape vines separated the company posts and blocked the view. The area had been held by a weakened American regiment, equivalent to three battalions, and there was as much as a quarter of a mile between platoons and three-quarters of a mile between the company areas. Owing to the distances the platoons could neither mutually support each other nor prevent infiltration. On the enemy side of the Rapido a narrow ledge of flat country was overlooked by the heights of San Angelo. Half-right and obscured by trees and houses, the town of Cassino crouched under the bluff of the Monte Cassino Monastery, while further back, dominating the background, were the peaks of Castellone and Corno at the foot of Monte Cairo.
The day was quiet in the battalion sector—maybe the enemy page 310 felt that there was nothing to fear from that direction—and the sunny morning was used to dry out saturated clothes and weapons. Of course quietness in the front line is a relative term, for the artillery fired whenever the spirit moved them. It is an article of faith among front-line soldiers that during a period of static warfare both sides' supporting arms have an unwritten agreement not to fire on each other, but to deliver their shells to the opposing infantry. The mortars, anti-tank guns, and attached machine guns came up after dark, and 28 Battalion tied in on the right flank. It is a very comforting feeling to have your own supporting arms behind you, no matter how good the Americans may be—they might not speak the same language should quick support or retaliation be asked for. It is also reassuring to have the Maori Battalion handy.
The 23rd Battalion was in reserve, and 5 Brigade was poised ready to make another bridgehead across the Rapido and put the tanks across as soon as the Americans captured Cassino. They already had a bridgehead further north and a footing in the outskirts of Cassino town. Further west and north they held a line of strongpoints in the craggy hills, one of which, Point 445, separated by a ravine, was within 300 yards of the Abbey.
The night of 6-7 February was as busy as the day had been quiet. Brigade had ordered the battalion to reconnoitre the river bank and its approaches, with a view to the early crossing. The patrols were instructed to be back before dawn, not to cross the river, and not to lose any prisoners. It was hoped that the secret move from Orsogna was still a secret as far as the enemy was concerned.
The early part of the night, cold, frosty and moonlit, was like any other night in the front line of a static position—occasional shells whining high overhead, odd short bursts of small-arms fire from a nervous lookout beginning to imagine things, or a lazy one cleaning his rifle the quick way, and periodic flares that make patrols halt in their tracks and hope they look like trees.
Half an hour after midnight Battalion Headquarters was electrified by a phone call from Major Abbott. His company headquarters was surrounded by enemy. The house, a typical farm dwelling, was built of stone, and Company Headquarters page 311 occupied one room and an Italian family the other. There was a sentry at each end of the building outside, while inside Abbott and Second-Lieutenant Turley1 were studying various routes to the river, which the latter had just returned from examining. Sergeant Babe and his two-man patrol entered and reported that they had tied in with the left flanking troops, and then left to get some sleep. Babe had returned to see about something, when a couple of shots were heard and he went outside to investigate. He walked right on top of a German who dropped a grenade and darted around the side of the house. Babe kicked the grenade sufficiently far away to suffer only shock and some splinters when it exploded.
Major Abbott identified himself over the phone by using his Christian name, Brian, and one of the Germans called out, ‘Brian, come on out and surrender!’ He declined the invitation.
Between phone calls to the forward platoon to come and chase the Germans away, Abbott exchanged shots with the enemy through the door and a shuttered window. It was a case of stalemate: the enemy patrol was outside and could not enter, nor could Company Headquarters emerge into the moonlight. The Germans solved the problem by leaving before the relief arrived. The serious aspect of the affair was that the secret that 2 NZ Division was on the western front was out, for a check-up revealed that one sentry and the two men of Babe's patrol were missing. The other sentry, an anxiety neurosis case awaiting evacuation, was found hiding with the Italians in their room.
While Abbott was searching for the missing men, Second-Lieutenant Fitzgibbon2 with a three-man patrol from D Company, was returning from the river bank. His party spotted an enemy patrol returning home and deployed across the track they were both using. When the Germans, dispersed and in line, were close enough the patrol opened fire, and a confused fight followed until the New Zealanders ran out of ammunition, whereupon they retired.
The firing and yelling was close to B Company's outposts, page 312 and Major Hawkesby sent Second-Lieutenant Burton3 with his platoon forward to investigate. They saw the patrol coming in and covered them until they were in safety, for not only were the patrollers out of ammunition but they were helping Fitzgibbon, who had been wounded in the skirmish. They had also picked up a German anxious to surrender. He had been moving cautiously around calling ‘Kamerad’ and had volunteered the information that his party was twelve strong. Later two more wounded Germans were found in front of B Company, which suggested that the New Zealand patrol had had the better of the argument.
Fitzgibbon was not badly hurt and was soon back with D Company. His binoculars were picked up the next night, and their condition explained why he had complained of a pain in the chest when there were no signs of a wound: one barrel contained a piece of hand grenade and the other was full of powdered glass and a spandau bullet.
In the morning the Brigadier's comments were a little terse and included an instruction to reorganise the battalion sector. For a few days the quickest way to achieve unpopularity around Brigade Headquarters was to mention raiding parties or 21 Battalion.
It was a day of smoke drifting down from an American attack on Cassino, and it was followed by a sleepless night owing to the presence of American self-propelled guns close up and firing in support of the still raging battle. D Company moved into closer support, the outposts were re-sited to give better coverage of the over-long battalion front, but beyond minor alarms of enemy working parties and patrols, nothing more of note occurred.
The battalion, less D Company, was relieved during the night of 10-11 February by the Divisional Cavalry, operating as infantry; D Company returned to the battalion on the 13th. Hard frosts and fine days had given way to rain, and the sodden troops were glad to get out of the mud into bivouacs near San Pietro, about eight miles east of Cassino. It was an area of camouflaged dumps, with the troops living under olive page 313 trees. The Americans had fought over the area, which they had christened Cemetery Ridge, and emphasized the name by building a large cemetery on its side. The place was still a mess, with temporary bridges over and detours around blown culverts, cratered crossroads, mine warnings and wrecked houses. San Pietro, on the side of Cemetery Ridge, was a typical war-torn Italian village; in its narrow cobblestone streets a few Italians were trying to restore their homes to some sort of order.
The Corps was commanded by Lieutenant-General Freyberg and consisted of 2 NZ Division, 4 Indian Division, and two task forces of American tanks. The New Zealand Division was commanded by Major-General Kippenberger, who had relinquished 5 Brigade to Brigadier Hartnell.4 The Corps' plan was for 7 Brigade of 4 Indian Division to follow the route fought over by 2 United States Corps to within 300 yards of the Monastery, while 5 New Zealand Brigade was to cross the Rapido just south of Cassino. The two brigades were then to clear the town, and a task force of American armour, with 21 Battalion in support, was to exploit through the Liri Valley.
On the New Zealand sector the only possible route into Cassino for tanks was along the causeway that carried the railway line to the station a mile south of the town. Both sides of the causeway were waterlogged and the embankment itself thoroughly mined and demolished.
The Maori Battalion was detailed for the attack. The axis of advance was the railway line and the station its objective. Behind it the engineers would clear mines and fill demolitions so that the armour could get up, support the assault, and enlarge the bridgehead.
The second battle of Cassino opened on the night 17-18 February, with 21 Battalion on two hours' notice to move. By daylight the Maoris were in the railway station, but the engineers, page 314 in spite of superhuman efforts, had been unable to fill all the breaches in the embankment. Both assaults were necessarily on narrow fronts. The Indians were unable to close on their objective, and in the absence of armoured support the Maoris were driven from the station by fierce tank and infantry counter-attacks. The 21st Battalion remained in reserve while Corps considered new plans.
The revised plan was for an attack on Cassino from the north, where we already had a footing on the outskirts of the town. The assault would be preceded by an air blitz with a thousand tons of bombs, which would paralyse the defence and destroy all but the most solid buildings. Sixth Brigade would then capture the town and the dominating spur of Castle Hill, whereupon the Indians would be able to use the natural line of approach to the Monastery. It was necessary to seize Castle Hill from the town side, as the north face was almost sheer and was pitted with caves sheltering machine-gun crews.
The operation orders for the second New Zealand Corps' attack were briefly:
The 6th NZ Infantry Brigade, with 19 Armoured Regiment under command, was to capture Cassino and Point 193 and then secure a bridgehead over the Rapido.
The 4th Indian Division, with C Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment, was to secure Point 193 after its capture by 6 Brigade, and attack across the eastern slopes of Monte Cassino and take the Abbey.
The 2nd NZ Divisional Engineers were to construct bridges over the river and clear the railway embankment and roads into the town.
US Task Force ‘B’ (approximately one battalion of medium tanks, with tank destroyers and 21 Battalion and New Zealand engineers under command) was to cross the first bridge completed and enlarge the bridgehead.
US Task Force ‘A’ (approximately one armoured brigade group) was to remain in reserve for subsequent exploitation.
The attack was to be put in at the earliest possible moment, as it was essential to relieve the pressure on the Anzio bridge- page 315 head. All that was needed was a spell of fine weather to dry out the Liri Valley for the armour, and to enable the heavy bombers to take off from their waterlogged aerodromes. The troops were moving into position on the 20th—and it rained and rained and rained.
The 21st Battalion, under six hours' notice, did routine training for three weeks, while early spring covered the countryside with blossoming fruit trees, the oaks and the poplars came into leaf, and the grape vines sprouted.
The 78th Division took over the half-frozen and wholly saturated river line, including the area 21 Battalion had handed over to the Divisional Cavalry. Sixth Brigade hid up all day in the houses along the edge of Cassino, where it was mortared all night and mortared the enemy in return.
It was with a sense of personal loss that the battalion heard on 2 March that General Kippenberger—known as ‘Kip’ even to the newly joined recruit—had been seriously wounded. He had commanded 5 Brigade for so long that few could remember it before his time. He had made his presence felt at Kabrit in January 1942 when he took the battalion to pieces for slackness, and almost his last appearance in front of the troops was to recount the deeds of the brave men who had been in the unit and who had passed on to promotion, to hospital, or to a soldier's grave.
ATTACK on CASSINO 15 to 24 MARCH 1944
By daylight it was evident that the attack on Cassino had not gone as well as was expected. Another day and a night passed, and the battalion was bombed alternately by German pilots who knew what they were doing and Americans who did not. On the evening of the 18th the unit, still on two hours' notice, returned to San Pietro. There was some reorganisation in the battalion command, for, besides 15 casualties at Trocchio, three senior officers had gone off strength within ten days. Major Roach, second-in-command, had been evacuated sick on 8 March; Major Bailey, acting second-in-command, had been wounded at Trocchio; and Major Abbott was evacuated sick that night.
Major Tanner, himself slightly wounded at Trocchio, became second-in-command to Colonel McElroy; Second-Lieutenant Kirkland commanded A Company; Major Hawkesby remained with B Company; Major N. B. Smith, who had been away from the unit since North Africa, went to C Company; Captain Harding took over D Company, and Captain Robertson stayed with Support Company.
The situation in Cassino was that the town had been occupied, with the exception of vital enemy strongpoints situated along Route 6 where, after passing through the town, it turned sharply left and joined the railway before entering the Liri Valley. From right to left the Germans occupied the Continental Hotel, the Hotel des Roses and the Baron's Palace, as well as the higher ground at the foot of Monte Cassino, and possibly the Monastery itself directly above. In front of the strongpoints were several small streams, insignificant obstacles ordinarily but now dammed by fallen masonry, while the hotels, once multi-storied buildings, had been shattered into rubble heaps. They were stronger military obstacles after demolition than before, because their garrisons, ensconced in their cellars, were safe from shellfire.
The 23rd and 28th Battalions had already been thrown into page 318 the battle, and the 21st was the only fresh unit left. In the morning after its return from Trocchio (19 March), Colonel McElroy was ordered to move the battalion into Cassino the following night.
21 battalion operations in cassino
Convent where battalion assembled.
16 and 17 Platoons D Company move up Route 6 towards Continental Hotel.
House from which 17 Platoon was fired on. Platoon occupied it and was then held up.
16 Platoon, held up by fire down road, deploys to right.
18 Platoon reinforces, tries to outflank Continental Hotel and is also held up.
C Company's start line.
Battalion HQ in house at end of row of workers' flats.
Hidden German tank discovered and captured by 13 Platoon.
To Hotel des Roses.
A Company's attack along Castle Hill.
McElroy went forward in a Sherman tank to reconnoitre the position. He found that most of the town lay north of Highway 6 and was in our hands. The church at the outskirts of the town was a battered wreck and its crypt the only shelter. Two blocks further in brought him to a large two-storied building that had been a convent, but which was then in the same state as the church. Around the Convent were several rows of two-storied workers' flats, with the Continental Hotel about 350 yards further on. The hotel corner was heavily built up, but between those buildings and the flats around the Convent were open park lands. At least it had been open park land before the bombers had destroyed all the drains and culverts; it was now a waterlogged marsh, swept with fire from the Hotel des Roses.
The battalion's task was to clean up the area around the Continental Hotel and relieve C Company 24 Battalion, which was marooned on Point 146, between the hotel and the first leg of the road to the Monastery. Its final objective was to capture Point 202, below the second leg of the winding road.
The only approach to the hotel was along Route 6, and it was decided to put D Company in, with C Company in support. When D Company had taken the hotel, C Company would pass through to the high ground behind and tie in with C Company 24 Battalion, whereupon a line would be formed clear of the southern end of the town.
The assaulting companies moved after dark to the debussing point a mile short of the town, where the ‘I’ officer, Second-Lieutenant Voss,5 met them and led them to the Convent, where Colonel McElroy was waiting. The commanders held a short conference and the troops tried to get their bearings from the shelter of the Convent wall. Tracer and mortar bursts gave momentary glimpses of houses leaning drunkenly with sides shorn off, and of jagged walls of partly destroyed buildings. page 320 They had already heard of the ability of the Germans to reoccupy buildings after they had been cleared, and there were wild stories of subterranean tunnels. The truth is, of course, that the paratroops holding Cassino were among the best troops in the German Army, had sworn to hold it at all costs, and had sufficient local knowledge to infiltrate between the New Zealand posts after dark.
Captain Harding decided to sent 16 and 17 Platoons up, one on each side of Route 6, and retain 18 Platoon with him in reserve at Company Headquarters, which was set up in a house adjacent to the Convent. C Company also took temporary shelter in the same area.
There was a moon by the time the two platoons moved around the end of the Convent on to Route 6, with 16 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Dewson6) on the right and 17 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Rabarts7) on the left-hand side. No. 17 was stopped within a hundred yards by a water-filled bomb crater and crossed to the other side behind 16 Platoon. There was a burst of small-arms fire close behind the platoon, but evidently not meant for it, so it carried on. In actual fact Second-Lieutenant Voss had raised a hornets' nest while looking for a suitable battalion headquarters at the other end of the Convent. He was fired on from a house at the end of a row of flats and, with two of his ‘I’ section, had rushed it, whereupon the occupants fled. Voss decided that the cellar would make a suitable headquarters and sent for Colonel McElroy to move in.
No. 17 Platoon had scarcely begun to move forward after crossing the road when it was fired on from a house in the open on its left. Rabarts led his platoon through trip wires to the house and occupied it after a sharp exchange of grenades. The enemy disappeared in the gloom, but fire from the Hotel des Roses prevented the platoon from emerging again. No. 16 Platoon carried on until within a hundred yards of its objective, when converging fire from Castle Hill, the Continental Hotel, and the Hotel des Roses forced it to take cover. No. 18 page 321 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Hollies8) was sent up; it took a diagonal track through some shrubbery and tried for the right of the hotel corner, but was also forced into cover.
It was now about 2 a.m., and Major Smith was ordered to move C Company around the left of D Company. The line of advance was across the open morass between the Continental Hotel and the Hotel des Roses, and the distance less than 300 yards; but it was 300 yards of trip wires, barbed wire and water-filled bomb craters, with converging fire from the two hotels. Second-Lieutenant Blackie9 (15 Platoon) got his troops on the start line, a road in front of the ruins behind which they were sheltering, but was not able to make any headway through the obstacles and was finally forced to take shelter in the Convent.
The moon was quite bright by this time, and McElroy decided to pull 17 Platoon back out of their isolated house. He asked for a smoke screen to assist the withdrawal, but before the platoon could take advantage of it the enemy burst through and overran the platoon, taking most of the men prisoners. No. 18 Platoon caught momentary glimpses of the attack and brought all its fire to bear, but did not stop the enemy. No. 16 Platoon was also nearly overrun at the same time. Second-Lieutenant Dewson was wounded and the position was becoming precarious, but Sergeant Feoff Mason10 took charge and put new heart into the defence. Single-handed he evicted a post that had been established in the platoon area and reorganised the platoon.
It was nearly dawn when 18 Platoon was attacked but, with five Bren guns covering its front, the platoon broke up the attempt to rush it. German stretcher parties were busy carrying in their wounded, and two New Zealanders were seen to be lying out in front of 18 Platoon. There were no Red Cross arm bands available, but Second-Lieutenant Hollies and Private ‘Pom’ Pomeroy11 took the risk of being shot from the Continental page 322 Hotel about 150 yards away, and assisted them both to regain our lines.
With daylight the enemy fire increased rather than diminished, and any movement in the open was almost impossible without the protection of smoke shells. D Company's wireless set was destroyed, and what protection the company had was being pounded by nebelwerfers. No. 18 Platoon and the remnants of 16 and 17 Platoons were withdrawn to the shelter of the Convent, where they found 15 Platoon and a handful of men from 23 and 28 Battalions sheltering.
Meanwhile Battalion Headquarters, in the cellar at the end of the row of flats, could hear the starter motor of a tank warming up. None of our tanks were in the vicinity, but the noise was unmistakable and was eventually traced to the next row of buildings. That noise explained why the battalion was being fired on from the back as well as from both flanks and the front. Second-Lieutenant Voss crept like an alley cat from building to building until he located a couple of Shermans, then guided them through the maze of debris to where they could fire on the enemy hideout. Either the enemy tank saw what was coming and called for assistance, or the mortar crews did not need telling, for a positive storm of artillery and mortar shells fell on the area. It was a battle within a battle, with the enemy firing on the Shermans and the Shermans firing on the enemy hideout. No. 13 Platoon, now commanded by Sergeant Babe, was ordered to occupy the building. Ably assisted by Corporal Reg Mathers,12 Babe led the platoon across the open ground through the hail of fire and, with grenade and tommy gun, cleaned up the post. The platoon remained in the building until the walls fell in and it was ordered to vacate it. The wireless set in the tank was still in working order and without doubt had been directing artillery fire on our positions.
The day passed in a haze of yellow smoke and an unceasing rain of shells and mortars. Stripped of code-words, messages from the companies to Battalion Headquarters and from Battalion Headquarters to Brigade consisted of requests for smoke: smoke in front of platoon posts, smoke in front of enemy posts, smoke page 323 thinning by Hotel des Roses, more smoke over Continental Hotel, smoke to evacuate wounded, smoke to bring up ammunition, can't wait until dark, house falling around us, more smoke while we find another house, more smoke….
In the evening the battalion commanders went out in tanks to a conference at Brigade Headquarters. Each battalion explained its position and prospects of attacking. As far as 21 Battalion was concerned there was too much water and mud to attack frontally, and the only avenue that offered a chance of success was to go around by way of Castle Hill, clamber along the hillside below the first hairpin bend in the road, and try from the west.
The plan agreed upon was for an American tank-destroyer unit to try and silence the enemy tanks in the Continental Hotel and Hotel des Roses, while A Company 21 Battalion was brought up and, with D Company 23 Battalion, attacked across the north-east slopes of Castle Hill, then swung down towards the two hotels and took the Continental from a flank. Five tanks from 19 Armoured Regiment would fire on the objective, and smoke on Monastery Hill would obscure the attack from the enemy almost directly above.
Brigade Headquarters was notified that A Company (Second-Lieutenant Kirkland) was required at all possible speed, and in five minutes under the hour it was on its way into the town. In the meantime 25 Battalion was ordered to send a company to the School to protect the right of 23 Battalion, and CO 19 Armoured Regiment was requested to support 25 Battalion in the School area.
Colonel McElroy met Kirkland with A Company at the School at a quarter to six and gave him his instructions. The first objective was a number of enemy-occupied houses on the eastern fringe of Castle Hill and was the responsibility of D Company 23 Battalion.
The advance began about 10 a.m. under heavy fire from above. More smoke was called for, but had to be delayed until a party of Indians carrying wounded from Castle Hill had passed through, whereupon the attack continued. D Company closed in and cleared two isolated buildings, then called for more smoke to protect it from the intense shelling. A Company page 324 was scrambling along the steep face of Castle Hill. The 19th Armoured Regiment, under armour-piercing shelling, requested artillery ‘stonks’, and the unseen enemy above was pouring in small-arms fire indiscriminately.
By half past three D Company 23 Battalion was within a hundred yards of its objective under terrific mortar fire, and enemy troops were evacuating the Continental Hotel. But D Company was finally pinned down. A Company, on the rock face above, tried to get down, but the track it was following permitted only single-file movement under fire from snipers and rifle grenades. A reconnaissance was made to find an alternative route, but without success. By 5 p.m. it was clear that both companies were unable to move, and the attack was called off. A Company then returned to houses in support of C and D Companies.
That attack was the last effort to clear Cassino. Both the Indians and the New Zealanders were too exhausted to continue the attack, and New Zealand Corps received orders to consolidate a line running from Castle Hill to the railway station.
The change in policy made no difference to the troops in Cassino: mortar shells continued to rain down on them; one house had a nebelwerfer bomb through the roof, another an 88-millimetre shell through the wall; yet another fell on the occupants, who had to claw their way out of the ruins. There is no day, only two kinds of night—a yellow, smoky, choking night, and a black, meteor-ridden night. Nerves stretched almost to breaking point and shaking hands lighting cigarettes. Too tired to feel pleased when 22 Battalion takes over—platoon half a dozen strong. Shelled all the way out, but too tired to give a damn. Climb into the waiting trucks—somebody tries to sing but falls asleep instead.
C and D Companies woke up at midday and found it was Sunday, 26 March. The same afternoon A and B Companies and Support Company in an infantry role relieved a battalion of 78 Division in the old river sector opposite Sant' Angelo. They passed an uneventful three days there and returned without casualties.
In pursuance of the order to hold Cassino in depth, the area had been divided into four battalion sectors. The right sector was under Castle Hill, the centre contained that part of the town facing the Continental Hotel, and the third faced Route 6 page 325 on the left of the Continental. The fourth sector was not in the town itself, but comprised the railway station and approaches. The 21st Battalion was warned to relieve the 25th in the right sector, and moved in on the night of 1 April. If the New Zealand battalions were knocked about, the enemy was in no better shape, and a sort of armistice of exhaustion had arranged itself.
The German positions were about 200 yards away, and of course movement by day was out of the question, though both sides sometimes used the same well at night. A visit to it was a very carefully organised affair.
C and D Companies had been pooled and, though they remained two companies, were shuffled into what they called ‘Bitza companies’, each platoon composed of bits of C and bits of D. ‘Bitza’ D Company, now commanded by Major Copeland13 (recently returned from a tour of duty in New Zealand) took over the Cassino gaol. They were very pleased with their quarters in the kitchen and the solid walls around them, and considered the lack of a roof no disadvantage. Between sleeping, listening to the mortars bursting against the stone walls, and keeping watch, they produced a newspaper containing all the latest news, some of it nearly true.
Owing to the bad reception in the area, some signallers with a powerful receiving set were in the gaol with a platoon of ‘Bitza’ D Company, and messages were relayed through them to the forward posts, and vice versa. The editorial staff of the Cassino Evening Post was thus able to get the BBC news and transmit it to the otherwise newsless troops. Printed and published at The Gaol, Spandau Alley, Cassino, the first editorial ended:
After only two days in the gaol, the proprietors are fully convinced that crime does not pay, and are quite prepared to sell their interests to anyone requiring a home.
The final edition ends on a highly moral note:
The Managing Director very upset following an insinuation that a concubine is being kept in these premises.
The Cassino Evening Post was handwritten on the back of message forms and delivered at night with the rations. And, page 326 speaking of rations, let it be clearly understood that, although a battalion is primarily a fighting machine, it must be clothed and fed. Here is the ‘Q’ branch in operation:
It's April, 1944. The Bn. moved into Cassino again last night. The weather's not the best, cold and threatening rain. Bn. 2 I.C. Major Tanner, has ordered a hot meal to be taken in tonight. Coy. 2 I.C.'s will have food in hot boxes on ready to move by jeep and trailer by 18.30 hours.
The Bn. B Ech. and rest area is at San Pietro on Highway 6 about 12 miles south of Cassino. Coy. Cookhouse and Q Stores are dug in and well camouflaged. We get the occasional shell from up the Liri Valley just to remind us we are still in the war. We are reasonably safe from air strafing and bombing. We haven't seen an enemy plane for months.
Rations are brought up daily from the ration point well south, and at present Coy. 2 I.C.'s are supervising the preparation of the evening meal: hot stew made from fresh beef, with plenty of dehydrated vegetables, to be followed by rice pudding and tinned peaches. We have a little flour, so cornish pasties are being made and will be used as the mid-day meal. For breakfast this morning we had a change, good American Spam made into fritters. Quite a change from soya links.
The time is 18.30 hours. The food is ready packed in hot boxes and sand bags, the Coys have improvised Thermos packs for hot cocoa. Having poured boiling cocoa into Jerry cans, the cans have been placed in sacks and packed with straw. This will keep the drink hot for a couple of hours. The Bn. T.O. Lt. R. B. Reed,14 and the Bn. Q.M. Capt. Vic Butler15 make this trip every night. We take three jeeps with trailers and one fifteen cwt. for carrying the carrying party. The carrying party comes from Bn. Drivers and Coy. Storemen. The little convoy moves off just before dusk and drives quietly along Highway 6, but does not pass Mt. Trocchio feature until it's properly dark. We still have 2½ miles to Cassino along a straight highway which is under observation from the Liri Valley. Most nights it's quiet, with only the occasional shelling on Highway 6 near the crossroads to San Vittori, but it gets a little sticky down near the Rapido River. The enemy has several big guns in the Liri Valley and does the main road over at regular intervals just with the hope of catching a ration party moving in page 327 or out. We have been lucky, so far we have missed everything.
We get to the bridge over the Rapido. Everything is very quiet. Vehicles are pulled off the road and the food unloaded. We have got an extra load tonight: batteries for the 38 sets, so our little carrying party is well laden down. Quietly, but efficiently the party picks up the load and moves off. We haven't far to go, only about 600 yds, but the road is all shell holes and under water in places. Lt. Reed is leading and Sgt. Ding Bell16 is bringing up the rear. The party moves quickly and quietly, then suddenly the first mortar shells land bang square on the road, everybody is down. Herman the German certainly can put down a concentration of mortar shells just when he wants them and where he wants them. It stops as quickly as it started. Lt. Reed moves back through the carrying party, not a man has been scratched. The drivers don't like this and they're keen to get going again. We pick up our loads and get moving. We arrive in Cassino, or what's left of it. The T.O. falls in a shell hole at least 20 feet deep and narrowly misses getting shot up by a trigger-happy Maori boy who fired first and asked for the Pass Word afterwards. Lt. Voss arrived just in time to save the ration party. The food is handed over very quickly to Coy. Guides, who have been waiting with Lt. Voss. Batteries are dumped and empty containers plus a couple of walking wounded are picked up and our little party moves off again on its homeward journey. ‘Seems funny how your legs move much easier on the way home’, said Snow East17 to Bill Henriksen.18 We get back to the trucks where Cpl. Jim (Soya Link) Sawers19 is waiting and dying for a smoke. We check everybody present, onto the vehicles and push off for San Pietro, tired, but we know the boys in the lines have a hot meal and everybody's happy. Only two more trips and the boys will be out for four days (we hope20).
A battalion of Welsh Guards relieved 21 Battalion on the night of 7 April. It was Good Friday and, by way of a welcome, the troops in the Nunnery cellar had decorated their shelter with all the brass candlesticks, statues and vestments they could find in the ruined chapel above them.
The battalion's casualties from 5 February to 7 April were 16 killed, 62 wounded, and 20 prisoners of war (including two wounded), a total of 98.
6 2 Lt E. M. Dewson; Hastings; born NZ 27 May 1920; plasterer; twice wounded.
20 Account by Lt Reed.