Chapter 14 — The Battle for Cassino
The Battle for Cassino
THE troops quickly settled down in their new quarters. The majority were living with Italian families who appeared to enjoy the company of New Zealanders. In the course of the next few days beards were shaved off, dirty clothing discarded, and equipment cleaned and oiled. The weather continued to be bleak and cold with occasional falls of snow. The men soon caught up on lost sleep for there was little to do except laze about. The shower-house set up in the village was well patronised, and so also was the cinema run by the Mobile Cinema Unit. On 4 January a special dinner was served. Pork potatoes, green peas, plum pudding and sauce formed the main part of the menu, with tinned fruit and cream to follow. A ration of cigarettes and beer was issued. Two days later came a sharp reminder to those who had forgotten that the enemy was not far away. Several shells crashed down near D Coy's billets, two men from 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion being killed. On the 8th a large parcel mail arrived. Letters and magazines were eagerly scanned and parcels opened. That night and on succeeding nights there were many parties. Wine, cheap and plentiful, overcame the shortage of beer. The civilians, young and old, joined in the fun.
The following day orders were received to return to the line, but nobody was disappointed when these were countermanded. The weather cleared and the next few days were fine and sunny. Allied fighters and bombers reappeared and roared overhead as they turned to bomb Orsogna. By the 11th the troops were beginning to get restive. Company commanders organised route marches, and working parties were sent to help the sappers keep the roads open for traffic. The snow was beginning to melt and in places the mud was ankle deep. Everyone was expecting that the battalion would return to the line and perhaps take part in another attack. Nobody was looking forward to it, least of all the 50 reinforcements who had just joined the battalion. On the 12th came word that the Division was being withdrawn for page 336 a rest. Early the next day Maj Ollivier left with an advanced party for the new camp site near Lucera. The civilians sorrowfully bade their visitors farewell, and a few minutes before midnight on 14 January the battalion embussed and set out towards Lucera on the first stage of its journey south.
About two hours later the convoy halted and the troops slept by the roadside until dawn. Faster progress was made on the 15th, drivers increasing speed as soon as they turned on to the main coastal road. The convoy halted when it had covered 76 miles, only a short distance from Lucera. A hot meal was served, after which some startling news was released. The Division was not going into reserve but was transferring to another front on the western side of the Apennines, where ground conditions were more favourable for a winter campaign. With mixed feelings the troops bivouacked by the roadside and discussed this latest piece of news.
Early the next morning the convoy set out along a road which led to Naples. The journey was full of interest. After leaving Lucera the trucks crossed a wide, fertile plain, not unlike the Taieri Plain. Farms, heavily cultivated, bordered the roads for many miles. After the convoy crossed the Cervaro River the farmland gave way to scattered olive groves and bush-clad hills. The trucks halted at 4.15 p.m. on a side road near the village of Cicciano. A hundred miles had been covered and the day's journey was over. In the distance lay the famous Mount Vesuvius, a lazy feather of smoke drifting above its summit.
Another early start was made next morning, 17 January, and by 11 a.m. the battalion had reached its destination, a camp site in the valley of the Volturno River. Close by were two villages, Alife and Raviscanina. The troops debussed and moved into company areas where they erected their bivouacs amongst the olive groves. Here they remained until 5 February.
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The New Zealanders' role on the Fifth Army front had already been decided, and as they would not be required until early in February they were given specialised training to fit them for the task ahead. Emphasis was laid on quick debussing from vehicles and assaults by small parties on strongpoints—houses or page 337 fortified posts. A demonstration of street clearing by C Coy clearly illustrated the need for a definite battle drill for work of this nature. The company had been well schooled and the sections skilfully cleared the houses one by one, keeping under cover as much as possible. Most of the casualties in the Sangro action had been caused through mines and trip wires, so detailed instruction on the best methods of detecting and lifting mines was given all ranks by sappers. Although the No. 38 set had proved its value in the recent fighting, efforts were made to obtain better results, particularly in certain types of action. Lieutenant Pritchard1 gave lectures to platoon wireless operators, who later carried out practical demonstrations.
Towards the end of the month companies practised river crossings on the nearby Volturno. Various methods of crossing were carried out, assault boats and kapoc bridging being the most successful. There were many scenes of hilarity as inexperienced oarsmen tried to row to the opposite bank. During the daytime the troops were seldom left idle for long, route marches and range practice filling the rest of the syllabus. The ground around the camp was not suitable for sport and football was mainly confined to platoon and company games. A battalion team played the Divisional Cavalry and was soundly beaten. Naples had been placed out of bounds but small parties visited Pompeii. Few exercises were carried out at night, and this left the men free to attend an occasional picture show or concert. Little rain fell during the period, but the nights were cold and few men ventured far from the lines. A heavy downpour after dark on the 25th caused some inconvenience, part of the camp being flooded.
The spell worked wonders and the general health of the troops improved considerably. Sores and skin complaints disappeared. Several American units were stationed in the neighbourhood and many of the men visited their camps. On 20 January the battalion was given the use of the American Bath Unit's facilities. The troops found the equipment of this unit very elaborate considering its proximity to the front line and would have liked to have gone again, but unfortunately after page 338 one visit the men had to be content with the New Zealand Mobile Shower Unit. On the 24th General Freyberg inspected the brigade and presented decorations to a number of officers and men.
Seventy-eight reinforcements were posted to the unit during the fortnight and brought the battalion almost to full strength. About 25 per cent of the new arrivals were veterans returning from furlough. The officer losses in the recent campaign were made good and Lt-Col Richards had a full complement by the first week in February. Five sergeants who had relinquished commissions in the New Zealand Forces to come overseas, and who had served with the battalion in the Sangro-Orsogna actions, were recommissioned in the field. Major Molineaux left the battalion and his place as D Coy commander was taken by Capt Piper. Second-Lieutenant Palmer2 became Intelligence Officer.
Increasing interest was being shown in the Fifth Army's offensive, which had been launched with the object of capturing Cassino and opening the road to Rome. During the greater part of the battalion's stay in the Volturno Valley, the Americans pressed home attack after attack against stiffening opposition. The road to Rome was no easy path. On 22 January 6 US Corps landed on the Anzio beaches south of Rome. A bridgehead was secured but little more. The first few days of February saw bitter fighting but gains were small. Stiffest opposition was coming from the central sector, the entrance to the Liri Valley. A series of hills bounded the narrow valley and the river running through it, and on these the Germans were strongly entrenched. Aerial photographs and maps of the area were made available and a study of them showed the formidable task ahead of the assaulting Americans. Not only were the hills formidable but the approaches to them were across a plain sodden with rain and under enemy observation. The main road to Rome, Route 6, crossed this plain, skirted the hills, and then ran parallel to the coast. Possession of this road could be secured only by the capture of the prominent Monastery Hill and the town of Cassino at the foot of it. The difficulties facing the Americans page 339 were not realised until after the troops had seen what had been done and had themselves taken part in the assault.
By the end of January the Americans had reached the entrance to the valley, and early in February they began a series of attacks on the main fortress area on the west side of the valley. The New Zealand Corps was formed, with General Freyberg in command and Maj-Gen Kippenberger commanding the Division. Fourth Indian Division, plus a composite force of British, American, and Indian artillery and an American armoured formation, Combat Command B, joined the New Zealanders to form the Corps. If the assault on Cassino and the hills behind it succeeded, NZ Corps was to drive up the Liri Valley; if it failed, the Corps would relieve the Americans and continue the attack. In readiness to take part in the action, the Division moved forward closer to the scene of the fighting. The move took place during the first week of February, 5 Brigade relieving 36 US Division along the line of the Rapido River. Sixth Brigade was in reserve.
The battalion's move was completed without incident. By nightfall on the 5th the troops were packed ready to leave. A long line of trucks waited in the lane. Hopes were high. At 10.30 p.m. the men embussed, and two and a half hours later the drivers stopped at the debussing point, six miles from Cassino. In bright moonlight the companies marched to their respective areas and the men dug in. Not far away was the railway line which crossed the plain and swung north-west toward Cassino and the coast. About two miles beyond it, Route 6 followed a similar route. In the morning the troops awoke to hear the sound of gunfire in the direction of Cassino. The day was fine but it was impossible to see Monastery Hill, Cassino, or much of the Rapido Valley. A large hill, Mount Trocchio, blocked the view. All that could be seen was the snow-clad crest of Mount Cairo. It dwarfed the hills around it and towered over the valley. Another series of hills ran up the eastern side of the valley, which farther north seemed to disappear into them.
On the 7th Col Richards went forward and saw for himself the formidable defences which were holding up the advance. Cassino, a town of over 7000 inhabitants, nestled at the foot of page 341 several hills, the most prominent of which was Monastery Hill. This feature, towering 1700 feet over the town, contained on its summit a magnificent monastery, mother-house of the Benedictine Order. Below the monastery, and slightly to the right, was a much smaller hill with a castle on its crest—Castle Hill. Behind the Monastery rose Mount Cairo and several smaller peaks. From his positions on these features the enemy had an uninterrupted view of Cassino, of Route 6 as it approached and turned through the town and wound around the foothills, and of the low-lying valley with the river running through it. This river, the Rapido, enclosed the town and formed the outer ring of the enemy's defences. The attacking force was depending on good weather, for with a river to cross and semi-swamp land beyond it, any deterioration would bring the advance to a standstill.
Unfortunately, after dark on the 9th heavy rain fell. It ceased at dawn only to recommence at dusk. The rain caused widespread - flooding. In the battalion area the troops were rudely awakened as the flood waters swirled into bivouacs, soaking bedding and equipment. In pouring rain the men endeavoured to rescue their gear and then dashed for the nearest shelter—house, barn, or hayloft. Part of B Coy which sought refuge in a hayloft, spent the rest of the night huddled in the hay with hundreds of rats as companions. At dawn the camp was a sorry sight. A few men were wearing greatcoats and battle dress but most, clad in boots and damp woollen underclothing, were searching around for their gear. It lay beneath the wreckage of tents or on the fringes of one of the many ponds. The stream which had caused most of the trouble was still in flood. Breakfast was a dismal affair. Later in the morning the sun came out. Dry clothing was issued, scowls turned to grins, and the incident soon became a memory.
On 12 February Cassino and Monastery Hill were still in enemy hands and the control of the sector passed to NZ Corps. This news caused little dismay as most of the men were chafing at the continual delays. Amongst the lower ranks the Americans were criticised because of their apparent inability to force a decision. Little did the men know of the difficulties and hardships faced and overcome by their allies or of those in store for page 342 NZ Corps. Those who saw the rocky mountain slopes which the Americans had climbed, the shallow rock-walled holes where they had fought for weeks and died, and the shell-cratered plain across which they had advanced, knew how hard had been the struggle.
Another week passed without any sign of a move. On the 15th the Monastery was bombed. Knowing little of what was going on in higher circles, the troops watched flight after flight of bombers pass overhead, aware that an attack would almost certainly follow. The day passed without any word. Enemy gunners ranged on the Allied artillery nearby and shells landed all around the sector. Six men were wounded and several others had lucky escapes. Two days later King Peter of Yugoslavia visited the unit and inspected a C Coy platoon. After dusk the guns began to fire in support of the first New Zealand attack on Cassino. Fourth Indian Division was attacking through the hills from the north while the Maori Battalion tried to gain a foothold in the town. It was a difficult attack to plan and carry out. All through the night the guns kept up their deafening roar. At first it seemed the assault was going to be successful, but during the 18th it was learned that the Maoris and the Indians had been forced to withdraw after suffering heavy losses. Everyone knew General Freyberg would not give up so easily and that 6 Brigade would almost certainly take part in the next attack. A few more reinforcements had arrived and the unit was at full strength, ready for what lay ahead.
On Sunday, 20 February, inaction ended. While the usual church services were being held Col Richards attended a conference at Divisional HQ. There he learned that 6 Brigade was to relieve 133 US Regiment in its sector north-east of Cassino. Fifth Brigade was to retain its position south of the town, with 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion providing the link between the two brigades. The 24th and 25th Battalions were to take over positions close to the town, with 26 Battalion east and north-east of them. Sixth Brigade was to be in position by daybreak on the 23rd and be ready to take part in a full-scale attack on the town and Monastery Hill 36 hours later.
When the CO returned with this news the troops began dismantling the camp and packing ready for the move. Recon- page 343 naissance parties were sent forward to the new sector and a movement order was issued. Major Ollivier was given command of the LOB party of three officers and 48 other ranks who were not to take part in the action. With plenty of time at his disposal, Col Richards decided to send two companies forward to a lying-up area after dark on the 21st, leaving the rest of the battalion to follow 24 hours later. The roads leading to the new position were in bad shape, and by moving in this way the Colonel hoped to avoid traffic congestion on roads often shelled by the enemy.
B and C Coys, accompanied by Tac HQ, left the camp at 10 p.m. For a while the trucks made good progress, but after they turned on to a narrow track bounded by thick woods the drivers were forced to move more carefully. It was a very dark night and the surface of the road was slippery. Eventually one of the leading trucks swung off the road and effectively blocked the passage of those behind it. A tree had to be cut down before the truck could be freed and the convoy was delayed for three hours. At length, after six hours in the trucks, the two companies debussed and dug in under cover. The second party which followed the next night took almost as long, and both drivers and men were glad the move was over.
The battalion was now sheltering on a thickly wooded hill slope on the eastern side of the valley and slightly north of Cassino. Nearby was a large mule camp staffed by Indians and Italians. Beyond it lay ‘All Nations' Gully’, which climbed through the hills in a north-easterly direction. It was already in use as an advanced ammunition dump, and later B Echelon personnel were to know it well. The sound of gunfire drew all eyes to Cassino. The town, built of stone and concrete, nestled close under the hills at the entrance to the valley. The Rapido River with its many tributaries, all swollen by rain, ran around it in a wide half-circle. From a distance it did not seem a formidable barrier, but the hills behind the town appeared to be much more difficult objectives. They seemed to rise almost perpendicularly from the flat ground and, almost devoid of cover, offered no concealed approach to an attacking party. Castle Hill, which lay behind the northern end of the town, looked small beside Monastery Hill. Behind them both Mount page 344 Cairo, snow-capped and majestic, towered over everything. Despite the pounding it had received from the air the Monastery was still a potential menace to the Allied troops closing in on Cassino. Its massive walls still stood, and from behind them the enemy could watch all that went on in the town and in the valley which contained it. Although they could not be seen, the western approaches to the Monastery were equally as difficult, for the enemy still held Mount Cairo and the high peaks north of it. From positions on these features he could pour a deadly fire on any troops which tried to attack from the west or north-west.
During the 22nd, while the troops watched the puffs of smoke rise above the town and on the slopes of Monastery Hill, reconnaissance parties went down to the flat to look over the new sector. The skies clouded over during the afternoon and by dusk it was raining heavily. The rain came so suddenly that many of the men were caught unprepared and were unable to keep the water out of their trenches. Some took shelter in a French ADS, where they made the acquaintance of Fighting French troops who were at that time attacking through the hills on the eastern side of the valley. The bearded ‘poilus’ shared their food and wine and royally entertained their visitors until it was time for them to begin their march down to the new sector.
By this time it was 8.45 p.m. and the rain had ceased. Nevertheless it was very dark, and the rough tracks which led down to the flat and across the valley were very muddy. The leading troops were soon in difficulties as it was almost impossible to pick out landmarks, but eventually all except A Coy reached their new areas. The latter, unable to find its bearings in the darkness, retraced its steps and spent the night in the vicinity of ‘All Nations' Gully’. At dusk the following night Maj Fraser was more successful.
The Corps' plan for the capture of Cassino and Monastery Hill had been issued. A detailed operation order was received at Battalion HQ, and with it came aerial photographs and maps. The two earlier attacks on the town had been made from the west and north-west. Both had failed, largely because only a limited number of troops could be used and supporting arms could not reach them after they had passed the point of entry. This time General Freyberg planned to attack from the north while continuing to exert pressure from the high ground in the north-west. The town was to be given a heavy pounding from the air and later by massed artillery. Following this 2 NZ Division was to assault down the Rapido Valley, capture the town and Castle Hill, and then continue past the railway station along Route 6 to a point where the armour would be able to continue the thrust up the Liri Valley. Immediately Castle Hill was captured, 4 Indian Division would move through the New Zealand troops holding the feature and scale the slopes of Monastery Hill, supported by the full weight of the Corps' artillery. Simultaneously other Indian troops would attack the Monastery from the rear.
Many difficulties faced the attackers, the biggest obstacle being the narrow front on which the assault had to be launched. From the north only one road which could be used by tanks and infantry led into the town. The rest of the area was either flooded or heavily mined. It was known that the enemy had strengthened the natural defences of the area by completing extensive fieldworks from the banks of the Rapido in the north and east to the Gari River in the south. Large minefields covered the approaches to the town and demolitions and blown bridges blocked the roads. In the town were more minefields. It was foreseen that the bombardment might create problems, particularly to the armoured units as they tried to force a way through the rubble and fallen masonry; but it was expected these difficulties would not prove unsurmountable. The majority of the page 346 buildings in the town were very solidly constructed, and many of them were reported to have deep, connecting cellars in which the enemy could shelter with comparative safety. Intelligence reports indicated that the enemy was holding both the town and Monastery Hill in strength. The 1st Paratroop Division, reputed to be the best division in the German Army, was defending the area. Every vantage point was manned and each rocky outcrop on Monastery Hill fortified. Until the Indians cleared these outcrops and reached the bombed abbey, the enemy would be able to direct accurate fire on those attacking the town and moving along Route 6. The code-name for the attack was Dickens, a word which became well known to all ranks in the days that followed.
Sixth Brigade was directed to capture the town and Castle Hill and also establish the bridgehead at the entrance to the Liri Valley. The assault was divided into two phases. The 25th Battalion, led by a squadron from 19 Armoured Regiment, would follow a barrage, capture Castle Hill, and clear that part of the town which lay north of Route 6. Two squadrons of 19 Armoured Regiment would then cross Route 6, closely followed by 26 Battalion, and continue the southward thrust past the railway station to the Gari River and west to Route 6 again. The 24th Battalion would take over Castle Hill when it was captured and later hand it over to 5 Indian Brigade when the latter began its assault on the Monastery. The reserve battalion was then to move forward and cover the gap between 25 and 26 Battalions.
Because of the area of the final objective Col Richards decided to commit the four rifle companies to the assault. They were to approach the town by the two roads which bounded the sector and advance through the eastern outskirts to Route 6. D Coy, which was to lead, was to follow the armour and consolidate on the station, nearly half a mile away. C Coy following was then to pass through the leaders and capture the Hummocks, a low rounded ridge about 200 yards farther south. These two objectives were known to be strongly held and had been the scene of heavy fighting when the Maoris attempted to gain a foothold on the town a week earlier. B Coy was given the southernmost objective and was to cross the swampy ground page 347 beyond the Hummocks and consolidate along a line beyond the Gari River. A Coy was to branch off to the right and consolidate on Route 6 in the vicinity of the Baron's Palace and the Amphitheatre. The Vickers gunners, 12 Platoon 27 MG Battalion, were to follow the infantry, manhandling their guns page 348 through the town to hold a position on the Hummocks. The remainder of the supporting arms—mortars and anti-tank gunners—were not to move until the companies had consolidated. The Anti-Aircraft Platoon was to assist sappers to clear gaps through the minefields.
Colonel Richards in explaining the plan to his officers3 did not hesitate to say that the task in front of the battalion was difficult. The Maoris had suffered heavy losses in trying to hold the station and the Hummocks in the earlier attack. Even if the infantry succeeded in gaining their objectives, it was problematical whether ground support could be given them in the event of a sudden enemy counter-attack. The town extended only a short distance south of Route 6, and the companies would have to cross several wide stretches of open ground before they reached their objectives. The success of the assault might depend on the speed with which the Engineers cleared road demolitions and bridged the Rapido, so that the armour was not delayed and the enemy given time to recover from the bombardment. Another bridge over the river was to be erected on Route 6 to allow the passage of tanks. Communications throughout the advance would be by wireless and a link station would be set up at the Rapido River crossing. In case of a breakdown a line party was to accompany D Coy.
Maps and aerial photographs of the town were supplied to each company and all ranks were given an opportunity to study them. Landmarks on the route to be followed were carefully pinpointed—the church and nunnery on Route 6 and a group of public buildings nearby; the station and the semi-circular workshop beyond it; the Hummocks. South of the Hummocks was the Gari River, and to the west the Baron's Palace and, across Route 6, the Amphitheatre. On paper the advance appeared to be a simple one for the assault was to be made in daylight, but everyone knew that all the buildings which lined the page 349 road to the station and beyond might be occupied by the enemy and that the whole area was under observation from Monastery Hill.
With the proposed attack the main topic of conversation, the troops settled down amongst the Italian families to await the arrival of the bombers and the order to move off. The wait was a long one. For the third time since their arrival in Italy the New Zealanders were delayed by inclement weather. On the eve of the proposed attack (24 February) rain began to fall, and it continued with monotonous regularity day after day. Roads became impassable and ditches filled with water, flooding the low-lying ground. Dirty, muddy water filled the hundreds of shell and bomb craters which dotted the valley. Not until the second week in March did the skies clear. Slowly the surface water drained away and roads and tracks once more became passable to traffic. Planes were able to use airfields, and by 14 March the ground was considered sufficiently dry for tanks to cross it.
During this waiting period the battalion remained in its sector north-east of the town living with the Italian peasants, who appeared to enjoy the company of their visitors. By the end of a fortnight most of the men were tired of their long spell of inactivity and welcomed the prospect of fine weather. The battalion's duties were not arduous. There was scarcely any hostile shelling and pickets and patrols were the only unpleasant tasks. Parallel Road, which formed the right boundary of the battalion sector, was under water but the left-hand boundary road, Pasquale Road, had been built up above the level of the surrounding countryside. As this road would be used by tanks and infantry to approach Cassino, reconnaissance patrols were sent down it each night to determine the extent of the enemy demolitions and minefields on it. Minesweeping parties often accompanied the patrols. Although the enemy had obviously tried to wreck it, a pontoon bridge across the Rapido was intact. Nearer the town several demolitions blocked the way and in places the road was mined. Wire had also been stretched across it. Occasionally there was some excitement. A few enemy deserters came in, and twice strong patrols scouted around looking for spies reported to be in the area.page 350
Throughout the period mules were used to bring hot meals, rations, and mail forward from B Echelon and nobody envied the Indians their unpleasant task. On the 2nd General Kippenberger was severely wounded by a Schu mine while out on reconnaissance, and Brig Parkinson became temporary Divisional Commander.4 Brigadier Bonifant5 assumed command of 6 Brigade. The following week parties from each company were sent back each day to the vicinity of ‘All Nations' Gully’ for a shower and a rest. On 14 March came the news everyone was waiting for—Operation Dickens was to take place next day. There had been a slight change in plan since the original operation order had been issued. The 25th Battalion was to hand over Castle Hill to 5 Indian Brigade, and 24 Battalion was to follow directly behind the assaulting battalions and preserve the link between them, occupying the ground south of Route 6, where it ran through the town, to the station. Originally two companies were to have moved off from Parallel Road, but as it was under water in many parts, all four were to assemble near Pasquale Road before the bombardment began. Additional support had also been allocated to the battalion: a troop of 17- pounders and two 6-pounder anti-tank guns from 33 Battery 7 Anti-Tank Regiment.
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March 15 dawned fine and clear. At breakfast there was only one topic of conversation. Eager and expectant eyes scanned the skies for some sign of the bombers. A strange silence fell over the front as if everyone had forgotten about the war to bask in the bright sunshine. By eight o'clock most of the houses had been vacated and the troops were dispersed under cover in the fields and behind a given bomb-line. All ears were attuned for one sound; it came at half past eight—the distant murmur of aircraft engines. The bombers came nearer, wave after wave, and within a few minutes smoke and flame mushroomed from buildings in the town. A short interval and the page 351 next flight appeared … and so it continued until midday. Cassino and the Monastery were blotted out in a wall of dust, flame and smoke. The ground trembled as the bombs continued to crash down and the thunderous roar of the explosions re- echoed through the hills. Over a thousand tons of bombs were dropped in less than four hours within a mile radius. As the last stick of bombs exploded in the town, 610 guns of varying calibres opened fire, some to form a barrage line for 25 Battalion's attack and others to lay concentrations on known and suspected strongpoints. The hillsides were quickly dotted with dozens of white puffs which soon merged into one large cloud. Fighter-bombers darted in and out of this cloud searching for targets.
At Battalion HQ on Pasquale Road the CO waited for news of 25 Battalion and the order to begin the advance. Not all the bombs had fallen within the target area. B Echelon had been bombed and C Coy's area had been straddled, but fortunately nobody had been hurt. During the early part of the afternoon the rifle companies moved into position near Pasquale Road ready to move off. Colonel Richards moved his headquarters nearer the town. About 2.30 p.m. a flight of Kittyhawks bombed C Coy but caused no casualties. Another hour passed. The guns were still firing as heavily as before but no orders were received. Four o'clock passed with still no word. Local weather ‘prophets’ forecast rain, and officers and men looked anxiously at the skies for nobody wanted to enter the bomb-shattered town after dark. At length came news of 25 Battalion. It had captured Castle Hill but was encountering stiffening resistance as it tried to move through the town towards Route 6. Tanks had been unable to go forward with the infantry because the roads were completely blocked by fallen masonry. The enemy had not vacated the town, and as the infantry attempted to move through it snipers and machine-gunners had emerged from the cellars to inflict severe casualties on the attacking companies. Mortars and spandaus firing from buildings on the lower slopes of Monastery Hill also helped to slow the advance.
Although Brigade HQ was not able to give a complete picture of what was happening, it was evident that 25 Battalion had not reached its objective and had not extended sufficiently to the left to cover the whole town. This meant that there was page 352 page 353 page 354 every likelihood that 26 Battalion would have to fight its way through the eastern suburbs to Route 6 before it could begin its role. Moreover, the four companies would have to attack without armoured support, as the bombing had damaged Pasquale Road and the pontoon bridge over the river to such an extent that it would take the sappers several hours to repair them.
At 5.25 p.m. Brigade HQ gave orders for the battalion to advance. Word was immediately sent to D Coy, which set off in single file down Pasquale Road towards the river and the town. No. 16 Platoon was leading, followed by Nos. 18 and 17 and Coy HQ. The artillery bombardment had ceased and the enemy was lightly shelling the road. Within 20 minutes the leading platoon had reached the junction of Pasquale and Parallel roads. Suddenly a burst of machine-gun fire sent everyone to cover. Almost at the same time shells and mortar bombs exploded all around. Three men were wounded, one fatally. As soon as the shelling ceased—and it lasted only a few minutes—the company moved into the town, stretcher-bearers remaining behind to attend to the injured men. Dusk was falling as the long line of men began to move through the eastern outskirts of the town, following a road which led directly towards Route 6 and the Nunnery. Even in the murky light it was possible to see the devastation caused by the bombardment. Landmarks had disappeared and so had the roads. Houses had been flattened and buildings were only walls amidst piles of rubble. There were huge craters in every direction, with shell holes in between them. Cassino as a town no longer existed.
By this time the other companies had moved off. C Coy was close behind the leaders, A Coy at the road junction, and B Coy fording the river. Dusk fell and all four companies were soon in difficulties. The darkness quickly became almost impenetrable and D Coy was forced to advance in single file, with each man clinging to the battle dress of the man in front. Second-Lieutenant Muir6 was in the lead, feeling his way through the piles of rubble and trying to determine if he was on the right track. Route 6 lay only 800 yards away. Every now page 355 and again someone would trip over some rubble or slide into a bomb crater. It was a nerve-wracking advance made in an eerie silence save for an occasional burst of spandau and mortar fire. All the time everyone was expecting the enemy to open fire from one of the darker outlines that represented what was left of a building. To make matters worse heavy rain began. Nobody was wearing a greatcoat, and within an hour most of the craters were half-filled with muddy water and the ground around them very slippery. The wireless batteries became wet, and before the night was through no set would work. Meanwhile the other companies had closed up on the leaders. At 8 p.m. C Coy was only a short distance behind and slightly to the left of D Coy. A Coy was not far away, and B Coy was moving slowly along a road east of that taken by the others. The four were not in touch with one another but had been able at intervals to communicate with Tac HQ through the battalion wireless link near the river. The line party led by L-Cpl Officer was at this stage travelling with A Coy and Maj Fraser was able to make use of the phone. Shortly afterwards, when it became apparent that D Coy must be near Route 6, the linesmen went ahead and rejoined Maj Piper.
A few minutes before 9 p.m. 16 Platoon reached Route 6. It had taken the company over three hours to advance less than a mile. D Coy was now ready to begin Phase Two of the attack. Muir turned west along Route 6, intending to branch off to the left along a sunken road which led to the station. He halted his platoon alongside the Municipal buildings while he carried out a reconnaissance to determine if he was on the right track. Behind him Maj Piper was trying to locate 25 Battalion. He eventually found a company commander from that battalion in the ruins of the Post Office; this officer informed him that not only had his battalion been unable to clear the route through which D Coy had advanced, but also that the left-flank companies were still some considerable distance from Route 6. This news was very disturbing for it meant that 26 Battalion had no firm base from which to launch its assault on the station and the Hummocks. Until 25 Battalion completed its task, sappers could not clear a path for tanks or supporting arms to reach 26 Battalion if and when it reached its objective.page 356
Major Piper rejoined his company, which by this time was concentrated in an area close to the square immediately west of the Municipal buildings. Several shells exploded on the lower slopes of Monastery Hill and the flash from them momentarily lit up the area. A burst of spandau fire from a building nearby killed 2 Lt Muir and severely wounded another man standing alongside him. The rest of the platoon, and indeed the company, ran to cover. A Coy, which had appeared out of the gloom only a few yards away, attracted the attention of the enemy and was also forced to take cover. The fire was coming from a building west of the square, and the leading troops of both companies, without waiting for orders, moved off to silence the enemy post. Part of 16 Platoon began to move quietly around the left-hand side of the building, while a section from A Coy circled around to the right. Before they could achieve their object they were ordered to move back and take up another position.
Major Piper, having spoken to Maj Fraser, had phoned through to Tac HQ and informed the CO of the position. The latter, knowing that 25 Battalion was still trying to straighten its left flank, gave orders for the companies to dig in along the line of Route 6 until the western end of the town had been cleared. In the darkness it was not possible to set up clearly defined company sectors. Heavy rain was still falling and everyone was soaked. Most of the platoons took cover in the nearest pile of rubble or in bomb craters ready to move forward later. Spandaus and mortars were ranging on the area and restricting movement. Major Fraser set up his headquarters in the Municipal buildings, part of 9 Platoon being with him. The rest of the company was scattered around the building in piles of rubble and shell craters. C Coy, which had swung slightly to the left of the others during the later stages of the advance, moved across to join A Coy. Major Williams set up his headquarters in the eastern side of the Municipal buildings and his platoons took up positions east along Route 6 as far as the Nunnery. Although the two company commanders occupied adjacent cellars in the building, communication between them could be made only by climbing over the rubble of the upper stories. D Coy HQ was set up in the Post Office, which faced a road page 357 running into the hills north of Route 6. No. 17 Platoon took up a position on the south side of this road, but the forward platoons crossed Route 6 to the left of A Coy and took cover in some rubble there. B Coy, the last to arrive, turned down the Post Office road and made contact with D Coy. The two company commanders discussed the situation and decided that B Coy should try to make contact with the left-flank company of 25 Battalion. Major Harvey set up his headquarters in the ruins of the theatre which lay opposite the Post Office. No. 12 Platoon remained close at hand, with 11 Platoon a short distance west of it and 10 Platoon on the south side of the road near the Municipal buildings.
There was some confusion in the darkness and the majority of the men did not have the vaguest notion of where they were. A Coy 25 Battalion, with C Coy 24 Battalion in support, was manœuvring around to the right rear of D Coy. Hostile fire was not heavy, but it was sufficient to warn the men that the enemy was still in the town and aware of their presence. The lines of tracer seemed to come from every direction, even from the rear. All ranks hoped that 25 Battalion would complete its task and that tanks would arrive before dawn. Unfortunately at 11 p.m. all communications with Tac HQ broke down. Lance-Corporal Officer had set up his phone at A Coy HQ, and B and D Coys had tapped the line and were able to keep in touch with each other by this means. Linesmen working from A Coy HQ and Tac HQ were able to mend the breaks and restore communications for a while, but shortly after midnight the breaks became so numerous and enemy shelling and mortaring so heavy that it was impossible to maintain the line in the darkness.
At 3 a.m. the situation was largely unchanged. A Coy 25 Battalion had moved up on the right of B Coy but had gone no further. The Vickers gunners, following the road taken by B Coy, had reached Route 6 and taken up a position so that they could fire along it. Hostile fire in the forward areas was still not very heavy although sufficient to keep everyone under cover. Nos. 16 and 18 Platoons were in close contact with the enemy, who was established in buildings only a short distance away. Grenades and LMG fire kept the enemy on the defensive. At Tac HQ the breakdown in communications was causing page 358 some concern. All sorts of ways and means were tried to get messages to and from the companies. The 25th Battalion was asked to make contact with the Anti-Aircraft Platoon operating about 100 yards forward of it. Messages were given to the tank squadrons attempting to move into the town from the north. Runners were sent out. All the time Lt Pritchard and his signallers were trying to keep the line to A Coy HQ mended, a difficult and almost hopeless task. At 4.35 a.m. A Coy came back on the air for a short while and the Colonel learned that the position was unchanged. Hostile mortar and shell fire was increasing and spandaus were keeping everyone pinned to their holes. The 25th Battalion did not seem to have made any material progress towards clearing the rest of the town.
Shortly before dawn paratroops made a determined attempt to regain a hold on the Municipal buildings. The troops inside and outside the building engaged the enemy with Bren guns, rifles and grenades, and the enemy retired towards the hills leaving several dead behind. About the same time Maj Harvey received orders from the CO to assist 25 Battalion, which was about to make an attack west towards the hills. Contact was made with B Coy 25 Battalion which was to make the assault, and it was arranged that 11 Platoon should advance west along the Post Office road towards the hills, clearing the houses on either side as it moved forward. It was almost dawn before the advance began. No. 11 Platoon ran across the open ground and had covered about 150 yards before spandau fire forced it to take cover. B Coy 25 Battalion was also pinned down. The platoon came under heavy fire from snipers and machine-gunners posted in the ruins of buildings all around. Three men were hit in quick succession. It was now broad daylight, and the enemy from his vantage points on the slopes of Monastery Hill and the wreckage of buildings was able to fire down on the platoon. Realising that stretchers would be needed to evacuate the wounded, Sgt Welsh7 ran back across the uneven ground to the Post Office to get some. Shortly afterwards he was back with a team of stretcher-bearers, and two of the wounded were safely carried to the Municipal buildings despite the hostile fire. page 359 The third man was dead. The platoon remained under cover for the rest of the day, some of the riflemen trying to snipe the snipers and so reduce the fire on their positions.
The dawn had brought nothing but trouble to the New Zealanders in the town. The rain had ceased but the weather was still cold. However, nobody was worrying about the weather; as the light became clearer everyone became more concerned about his own personal safety. There seemed to be snipers everywhere, and they directed accurate fire on the circle of infantrymen sheltering in bomb craters and among piles of rubble. It was dangerous to move at all. Paratroopers who had hidden in the cellars of buildings during the bombardment now appeared on almost every conceivable vantage point north, east, south and west of the companies. It was impossible for those outside buildings to do anything about this fire for a concerted rush on one post would draw fire from several others. Of all the buildings nearby only the Post Office and the Nunnery retained part of a roof. The rest of the town was a shambles except, unluckily for the attackers, a number of buildings on the lower slopes of Monastery Hill. Roads were scarcely recognisable. Deep craters and piles of rubble hid them from sight. The bombardment had not had the effect hoped for, and the Germans showed every sign of contesting any further advance and neutralising the gains made by the brigade.
The troops in the town did not remain entirely on the defensive despite the heavy fire directed on them. The actions of two A Coy men, Cpl Tyson8 and Pte O'Sullivan,9 were typical of what went on all day in almost every platoon area. These two men climbed on high heaps of rubble in different parts of the Municipal buildings and, in full view of the enemy on the slopes of Monastery Hill, set about sniping enemy snipers. Both used Bren guns, and they succeeded in silencing a number of enemy posts which had been troubling the platoons below them. In an effort to dislodge them the enemy directed heavy shell and mortar fire on and around the building, but this did not drive page 360 them from their self-appointed task. The accuracy of their shooting was proved by the frequent appearance of enemy stretcher-bearers, who carried over a dozen casualties out of the danger zone. By their action these two men saved the lives of others and also eased the task of 25 Battalion when it resumed its westward attack along Route 6.
It was give-and-take fighting, and 26 Battalion did not escape unscathed. At daylight Maj Fraser found that the only entrance to his cellar faced west and was covered by enemy machine-gunners. The danger of going in and out of the building was soon proved. Second-Lieutenant Fogarty10 ran over from 8 Platoon but a sniper shot him as he entered the building. A soldier following him had a very lucky escape. After this those in the building did not go outside in daylight. Across Route 6 the forward platoons of D Coy were not very happy. During the night paratroopers had crept up to within a few yards of their position, and the platoons had almost exhausted their stock of grenades and ammunition trying to drive them out. At dawn the situation was unchanged, but it was soon evident that enemy mortars had the platoons' position registered for they were subjected to heavy and accurate fire which caused casualties. The men were unable to move because of the Germans in the rubble nearby. By the end of the day there were few in either platoon who had not been shaken by their ordeal.
The thirteen A Company men who reached the Hummocks, 17 March
Back Row: L. J. Hampton, I. W. Keen, J. Lang, J. W. Young, J. R. McCann, R. M. Owen, J. F. O'Reilly
Front Row: J. H. Moore, J. M. Mitchell, G. A. Lundon, T. R. Ayson, R. Houston, R. W. Fleming
26 Battalion graves at Cassino
Bivvies in Company lines on the banks of the Volturno
Deviation on the road to Avezzano
It was nearing midday and everything was ready for the assault when an officer wearing a black beret was seen walking unconcernedly along Route 6. He turned to enter the Nunnery but a hurried call brought him over to 14 Platoon. The tank officer, Lt Morrin11 of 19 Armoured Regiment, had left his tank a short distance back down Route 6, and to while away the time while sappers filled a road crater, had come forward to locate the infantry. He was asked to shell the Nunnery. A short while afterwards a dozen shells landed on the building. Corporal Tombs then led his men into it. A short silence was followed by a burst of firing and some shouting. Four Germans lay dead and the other five were endeavouring to escape out the southern door, pursued by a very determined NCO. As the Germans ran back across the uneven ground they met a hail of lead from the tank and from A and C Coys. Two men were hit but the rest escaped. The two sections had two men wounded. The others soon appeared at the windows of the Nunnery with grins on their faces. Major Williams decided to leave them there in case the enemy returned.
Colonel Richards found he could do little to alter the situation in the town. After the infantry positions had been determined, heavy artillery and mortar concentrations were fired on the parts of the town still held by the enemy. Closer support could not be given because of the breakdown in communications. It had been expected that the maintenance of line communications would be relatively simple after dawn but the contrary was the position. Early in the morning Sgt Moase12 had left Tac HQ to repair the line to A Coy HQ. For hours there was no news of him. The line was not working, so Lt Pritchard set out to find him and also to repair it. After passing the RAP, which had been set up the night before in the gaol in the northern end page 362 of the town, the Signals officer encountered heavy mortar and machine-gun fire which eventually forced him to discontinue his efforts. Ahead Sgt Moase was busy repairing the many breaks in the line, caused not only by shell and mortar fire but also by jagged pieces of masonry and ironwork. His efforts were of no use; no sooner had one break been mended than the line was cut in another place. Nevertheless the signallers tried hard and persisted in their dangerous work, but by the end of the day they had to admit failure.
During the morning the situation in the town was discussed at a conference at Brigade HQ. The attack as a whole had not succeeded. Sixth Brigade had captured only part of the town and the Indians had failed to capture Monastery Hill. The devastation caused by the bombardment had had far-reaching effects. It had held up the tanks at the northern entrance to the town, and without their support 25 Battalion had been unable to clear part of the town north of Route 6. This in turn had delayed 26 Battalion at the start line and had forced it to advance in darkness, and it was now held up in its present position without armour in support. The Indians had had a hard fight with paratroopers contesting every possible vantage point. The enemy had counter-attacked at dawn and the situation on the hill was very fluid.
Later in the day, after the Colonel was aware that tanks had reached the forward troops, the Brigade Commander called at Tac HQ with news of the Corps Commander's plans to regain the initiative. After dusk the Indians were to resume their assault on Monastery Hill and the Maoris were to attack the railway station from the south-east. At dawn A Coy 25 Battalion and C Coy 24 Battalion, with armour in close support, were to drive west along Route 6 to the base of the hill. If the Maoris failed, 26 Battalion would be ordered to capture its original objectives.
Meanwhile, in the town the situation had improved. Three Shermans reached the Nunnery at 2 p.m., and although their arrival was a signal for increased mortar and shell fire, they soon began engaging targets, particularly spandau posts, which had been harassing the men. Major Williams was also able to give the CO a résumé of the day's happenings, contact being made page 363 through Lt Morrin's wireless. One problem was the evacuation of wounded. Earlier in the day an attempt had been made to get two wounded men back to the RAP in the north end of the town. The stretcher-bearers, two of whom were Germans who had surrendered to B Coy, stepped on a mine which wounded all of them. Some 24 Battalion men came to the rescue and all were evacuated. Because of the danger of mines and the heavy enemy fire, no further attempt to evacuate wounded by this route was made. Fortunately Capt Borrie,13 24 Battalion's Medical Officer, had set up his RAP at the Post Office and the wounded received prompt attention. Some, however, required urgent surgical attention and would have to be evacuated. With this in mind Col Richards arranged for Capt Fletcher to shift his RAP to Route 6, at a point about two miles east of the Nunnery. Eight teams of stretcher-bearers from the Anti-Aircraft and Carrier platoons were directed to move down this road after dark and help the companies to carry out the twelve wounded men to where jeeps could meet them.
As dusk fell 18 fighter aircraft swept over the town, heading east. Nobody took much notice, believing they were friendly. They bombed a Bailey bridge and raced back across the town, their machine guns chattering. Before the troops fully realised the planes were hostile, they had disappeared from sight. After dusk snipers ceased to operate, but sufficient happened during the night to prevent anyone from getting any sleep. The men were still wearing damp clothes and the night was very cold. Hostile shell and mortar fire eased off, beginning again when tanks moved along Route 6 and circled around behind the battalion in readiness for the dawn attack. Spandaus firing from the slopes of the hill raked the low ground around the Nunnery at frequent intervals. Fortunately casualties were very light.
Early in the evening 14 Platoon moved into the Nunnery and mounted strong pickets in the building. All platoons were on the alert in case the enemy counter-attacked or tried to infiltrate back into the area. Some of the men who had lain in page 364 exposed positions throughout the day moved to safer ones. Major Harvey vacated the theatre building, which had only one wall left, and joined Maj Piper in the Post Office. The wounded were safely evacuated. About midnight the forward platoons of D Coy withdrew to a position in front of D Coy HQ. They had suffered fairly heavy casualties—three killed and seven wounded. Some of the others were very badly shaken. About the same time carrying parties from each company collected rations from the company QMs, who had brought them most of the way. Everyone was very hungry but had hoped that the ration party might also have thought to bring greatcoats. All efforts to maintain line communications were abandoned and L-Cpl Officer left A Coy and moved back to the gaol.
Friday, 17 March, was a momentous day for the battalion. It was a day of successes and a day of heavy losses. At dawn the situation was little different from the day before. German snipers were very active but the troops, wary of their tricks, gave them little encouragement. The self-appointed platoon snipers resumed their previous day's activities. Various methods were employed to encourage the enemy to show himself. The most dangerous was for a man to display himself for a second or two so that a Bren gunner could pick the German off as he rose to fire. Enemy mortars and field guns kept up an almost constant fire on the ruins where the troops were hidden. Some of the tanks which had moved into the town during the night were hit, including three alongside the Nunnery. Monastery Hill was partially shrouded in smoke, but shell explosions on the hillside indicated that the Indians' second attack had not succeeded and that they were still a long way from their objective. At 7.15 a.m. Maj Piper, using a 25 Battalion phone, made contact with Tac HQ. Colonel Richards informed him that the Maoris' attack had failed and that 26 Battalion would advance on its original objectives some time during the day. Further details could not be given until arrangements concerning time and support had been completed, but the men were to be ready to move off at a moment's notice. This information was passed to the other company commanders.page 365
Meanwhile, the 24–25 Battalion attack had begun. The tanks led off, heading towards the shell-cratered gardens west of A Coy. The infantry followed, keeping under cover as much as possible. After they passed A Coy they fanned out to cover the ground. Enemy snipers and machine-gunners opened fire on the two companies, and some in doing so revealed themselves to the patient A and B Coy marksmen, who did not hesitate to take advantage of it. To assist the companies still further, Brens and Vickers opened fire on enemy-occupied buildings at the foot of the hill. One by one the buildings on either side of the Gardens were cleared. A stalemate followed. Between the New Zealanders and their objective lay a 400-yard stretch of cratered and swampy ground. The enemy laid a curtain of fire across this area through which neither infantry nor tanks could pass. In the excitement of watching this attack the A Coy men forgot about the possibility that the battalion itself would soon have to make an assault.
At that time all arrangements for an attack on the station and the Hummocks had been completed. Smoke was to be fired to allow the companies to form up and artillery concentrations laid on the objectives and other strongpoints in the vicinity. The 26th Battalion, supported by A Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment, was then to attack, the tanks leading the infantry and moving south past the Nunnery along a built-up road. A decision on zero hour was delayed until the results of the 24–25 Battalion attack were known. Unfortunately Col Richards had no way of passing this information to his companies. There had been a complete breakdown of communications since early in the morning, and this was causing some concern. In the town the troops had watched the tanks assembling, and shortly after midday they saw them moving south past the Nunnery. About the same time Maj Williams received a wireless message from Maj Thodey,14 A Squadron's commander, advising that the attack was on. The Company Commander sent runners to B and D Coys, advised A Coy, and moved his men into the Nunnery. Soon after the company assembled in the building a tank stopped outside and down jumped Col Richards and page 366 Capt Barnett. The CO had decided to set up his headquarters in the town so that he would be better able to co-ordinate the attack.
Without waiting for the other companies to arrive, the Colonel ordered C Coy to set out in the wake of the tanks. Within a few minutes the company had left the building by the southern entrance and was heading towards the station and the Hummocks about half a mile away. No. 14 Platoon was in the lead and was closely followed by No. 13, with Coy HQ and 15 Platoon bringing up the rear. The leaders, moving in single file, skirted some large pools of water and set out at a run towards a crossroads 400 yards away. They reached it in safety and paused for a breather. A few yards ahead of them three tanks were slowly moving south along the built-up road towards the station. They drew heavy fire, and while the men watched the leading tank was hit and set on fire. The crew scrambled out and dashed into a nearby house. The second tank was hit about 20 yards farther on and the third toppled over the 10-foot bank and was lost to sight. The platoon set itself for another dash, this time to the house which the ‘tankies’ had entered. Climbing on to the road again, the men ran the gauntlet of shell, mortar, and machine-gun fire to reach the house without loss. In the basement of the building the tank crew, some of whom were wounded, stood guard over some paratroopers who had been manning a spandau post.
No. 13 Platoon reached the building. The rest of the company had been delayed by heavy shelling and mortaring soon after they left the Nunnery. Of Coy HQ only Maj Williams and his CSM, WO II Corrigan,15 had survived. No. 15 Platoon, which had lost its commander, 2 Lt Peterson,16 the day before, lost another eight men. Meanwhile, the leading platoon had split up to continue the advance. One section under Cpl Tombs dashed along a culvert which ran alongside the road while the other two sections crossed over and ran across the swampy page 367 ground north of the station. Lieutenant Hay,17 13 Platoon commander, followed Cpl Tombs and so did the remnants of 15 Platoon. By using this culvert the company escaped some of the fire by which the enemy was covering the approaches to the station. Shells were exploding along the length of the built-up road and machine-gunners were raking it with bullets. When the men climbed out of the culvert it was every man for himself, and a mad rush to get to the station 150 yards away followed. All thought of formation was forgotten—there was no time to think. Puffing and blowing, the leaders darted into a cable car station opposite the railway station. Others followed, and within a few minutes the two platoons were collected together again. Despite the heavy fire only a few men had been hit.
There were two tanks nearby, one alongside the ruins of the station and the other in the yards. The commander of one of them, Lt Furness,18 ran over to the platoons. He said the station itself was clear of the enemy but that there were a number of spandau posts in the yards and beyond them. Enemy shelling was too accurate for the tanks to attempt to support the company in an attack on the Hummocks, but Furness promised to give covering fire. Shortly afterwards Maj Williams and the CSM arrived and the former set about planning an assault on the Hummocks. C Coy at this juncture had a total strength of about forty, but Williams believed that by retaining the initiative success would be achieved. The Hummocks, a rocky hillock about 75 yards long and 50 yards wide, lay about 200 yards away. Between it and the station yards was a large semi-circular engine shed, known as the Roundhouse. Major Williams decided to capture this building first and then continue on to the Hummocks. Orders were given for 13 Platoon to give covering fire while 14 Platoon captured the Roundhouse. In turn, No. 14 was to cover No. 13 as it moved on to the hillock.
Misfortune had befallen the other three companies although B Coy had escaped fairly lightly. When Maj Thodey's news was received, Maj Fraser ordered A Coy to prepare to move immediately and sent a runner, Pte Bennett,20 to go to the Nunnery and find out more details of what was to be done. The runner negotiated the open stretch of ground safely and shortly afterwards signalled the company to the building. The smoke which the artillery had fired to cloak the movements of the infantry had also warned the enemy that something was afoot, and his gunners ranged on Route 6 and the area around the Nunnery. The A Coy men were well aware that snipers waited patiently for them to appear. Major Fraser knew too that a sniper had his gun trained on the western entrance to the Municipal buildings. Nevertheless, section by section, the company raced over the uneven ground in a dash to the Nunnery, 100–150 yards away. The enemy snipers were waiting and they showed no mercy. One after another the men dropped. Wounded crawled into shell craters or tried to stumble on to safety, only to be hit again. Those who paused to help were themselves hit. Those who reached the temporary haven of the Nunnery were badly shaken. Over twenty men lay dead or dying out in the open. Amongst them were some who had given long service to the battalion. They included Maj Fraser, a gallant officer who had served in every action since May 1942.
In the Nunnery 2 Lt Lowry21 took command of the remnants page 370 of the company. The CO ordered him to follow in the wake of C Coy. Immediately they heard the orders three men, Sgt Wallen,22 Cpl Killworth,23 and Pte ‘Shamus’ O'Brien,24 ran out the southern exit to the building and made for the crossroads. They were followed by a party of about a dozen men led by Sgt O'Reilly.25 Lowry brought up the rear; he had with him the balance of the company—about 15 men. Misfortune still dogged the company. Since C Coy had passed through the area the enemy had increased his shelling and mortaring of the approaches to the station, and snipers and machine-gunners, who had remained hidden while the tanks were present, were now very much in evidence. Sergeant Wallen and the two men who had accompanied him were killed near the crossroads. The other two parties ran panting along the road until they came to the house where C Coy had sheltered. Led by the acting Company Commander, the men raced along the long culvert. Unfortunately an enemy sniper was now covering the exit and 2 Lt Lowry was mortally wounded. Several other men were hit at the same time. Sergeant O'Reilly and the only remaining company officer, Lt Davies,26 decided to cross the road and move on to the mud flat as the built-up road was under very heavy fire. As the men crossed over more casualties were suffered.
Sergeant O'Reilly, in the lead, was unaware of the location of C Coy, so he set out to find the best approach route to the station. On the way he dealt with a sniper who had been causing a lot of trouble. Within a short while he was back, and he led the 13 men with him to the station without any further losses. At the station WO II Corrigan directed him to the Roundhouse. One man was wounded as the party crossed the station yards. A short while afterwards O'Reilly was ordered to move his men on to the Hummocks to reinforce 13 Platoon. In page 371 the meantime Davies had reached the station with another small party. Stragglers from the company were sheltering in houses all along the route, and Davies decided to await their arrival before continuing farther. He was still waiting when B Coy arrived with the remnants of D Coy. Davies was ordered to take his men and those of D Coy and occupy the cable car station across the road.
B Coy had escaped fairly lightly but D Coy, which had left the Post Office earlier, had lost all its officers and quite a number of men. Major Piper was injured soon after he left his former headquarters. The CSM, WO II Prebble,27 ran across to get 2 Lt H. H. Lawrence, the only platoon officer left, to take over. Lawrence immediately ran forward and joined Coy HQ, calling on the platoons to follow him. The open ground between the Post Office and the Nunnery was under heavy mortar and machine-gun fire, and the platoons had scarcely had time to move before Coy HQ went over in a heap. Lawrence was wounded, the CSM killed, and several others wounded. Sergeant Carlson led those who were still on their feet to the Nunnery. Of the remainder, some had not heard the order to move and others were pinned down by accurate machine-gun fire from buildings south-east of the Nunnery. The twenty men with Sgt Carlson were ordered to join B Coy as it began its move to the station.
B Coy had watched both A and D Coys crossing the open ground north of the Nunnery, and each man knew it would be his turn soon. Under cover of the smoke Maj Harvey had withdrawn his scattered platoons to the Post Office, where they awaited the order to advance. With horrified eyes they saw the A and D Coy men fall. They saw wounded struck not once but two or three times before they fell prone and still. Cries could be heard above the din of the shelling. Captain Borrie did not hesitate. Accompanied by two No. 12 Platoon men, 2 Lt Neale28 and Sgt Maze,29 he dashed out to rescue as many as he page 372 could. For 20 minutes the small party did what it could but heavy mortar fire forced it to return.
Shortly after 3 p.m. 11 Platoon made a dash for the Nunnery. No. 12 Platoon followed, and then came Coy HQ and 10 Platoon. Each group suffered losses, 11 Platoon much the heaviest. Little time was wasted in the Nunnery for Tac HQ had been set up in a room open to the skies and the enemy seemed to be trying to dislodge those inside it. Retaining the same formation the company set off for the station, the remnants of D Coy bringing up the rear. Under heavy fire the company raced to the crossroads. No. 11 Platoon continued along the built-up road but encountered machine-gun fire from a sniper's post on the roof of a house. Two sections were pinned down by this fire, but Sgt Welsh immediately led the remaining section around the other side of the building and trapped the sniper. The platoon crossed the road and followed the route taken by Sgt O'Reilly to the station, where they were joined by the rest of the company which had advanced along the sunken road. Leaving his men in houses or under cover, Maj Harvey set out to locate C Coy. Running through the station yards he found Maj Williams in the Roundhouse. The two officers decided they had insufficient men to continue the attack and, in fact, barely enough to hold the ground they had won. A plan to defend the area was quickly decided on. C Coy was to be responsible for the Roundhouse and the Hummocks, while B Coy covered the ground north of the station. Both companies would be able to cover the approaches to the station yards.
Major Harvey soon had his platoons in position. No 11 Platoon, which was low in strength, stayed close to Coy HQ in a house less than 50 yards from the station; 10 Platoon was about 100 yards away on the right flank, while 11 Platoon occupied a house a similar distance in front of Coy HQ. Both companies sited their positions to face west and south-west. By the time this was completed it was fairly late in the afternoon. More tanks had reached the station and by dusk there were twelve of them in the vicinity, some disabled but still able to fire. All could give close support to B Coy but could do little to help C Coy in the event of a counter-attack. The whole area was under very heavy mortar fire, and spandaus firing from page 373 under the hill covered all stretches of open ground. Smoke fired by New Zealand artillery soon after the troops consolidated had enabled the Germans in and around the station yards to escape westward with much lighter losses than would normally have been the case. Later the Sherman tanks gave excellent support and directed their fire on machine-gun posts along the Gari River, the Baron's Palace, the Amphitheatre, and along the foothills. They also harassed mortar positions.
The battalion's position was now fairly secure, although the forward troops were not in line communication with Tac HQ and had no support other than the tanks. The three-hour action had taken a heavy toll of the rifle companies and attached personnel. The Germans who had been encountered had not given in without a fight, and only 13 prisoners, all from 1 Paratroop Division, had been taken. At dusk the total strength of the companies on the objective was little more than a hundred. Stragglers who had been held up by snipers or the heavy shelling were still arriving, but most of those missing were casualties. A Coy had lost all but one of its officers and 36 other ranks, including 16 killed or mortally wounded. C Coy was not much better off and had lost 30 men, including 10 killed. D Coy's figures were 6 killed and 18 wounded and B Coy's 5 killed and 12 wounded. The battalion's casualties since the 15th now totalled 109, of whom 37 had been killed, and for the afternoon's attack 88, including 33 killed. One man was missing.30 These figures represented almost a third of the fighting strength of the rifle companies—a serious loss in the middle of an undecided attack. Moreover, the reported casualties did not represent the true picture for there were quite a few, the majority from D Coy, still in the town. Badly shaken and unnerved by the sniping and heavy mortaring during the two days, they were of no use to the forward companies, at least until they had recovered.
* * *
The shelling and mortaring of the town had not decreased with the departure of the troops to the station. The movement page 374 of tanks along Route 6 attracted even heavier fire, much of which fell on or around the Nunnery which was being used as a general headquarters. Every now and again the enemy would fire his six-barrel nebelwerfer. It was an unpleasant afternoon for the CO and the Adjutant for by dusk the Nunnery and the adjacent church had received many direct hits. There was much to be done. Communication had to be established with Rear Battalion HQ and with the forward companies. Wounded had to be evacuated and rations and ammunition brought forward. By establishing his headquarters in the town Col Richards placed himself in a position where he was not only better able to control the movements of his own unit but also those of other units. Difficulties in maintaining communications and the aggressiveness of the enemy forced this heavy responsibility onto the CO and the Adjutant, who were compelled to remain on duty day and night.
During the afternoon Rear Battalion HQ moved from Pasquale Road to Route 6 and occupied a house close to the RAP. Signallers immediately began laying a line from the new headquarters to the Nunnery, and by 4 p.m. the two were linked by phone. The remainder of Tac HQ—signals and intelligence personnel—moved into the town. In response to an SOS call Capt Fletcher also shifted his headquarters into the Nunnery and began attending to the many casualties. Late in the afternoon Tac HQ left its exposed room and moved into a crypt under the adjoining church. Possibly because of this the success signal fired by the forward companies was not seen. However, later in the afternoon news of the success of the attack was received through A Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment. Later in the evening messages were brought back from the station by runners who had volunteered for the task. Private Williams31 brought news of A Coy, Pte Duff32 of B Coy, and WO II Corrigan of C Coy. These men brought details of company positions and remained to guide stretcher-bearers and ration parties through to the forward area.page 375
Hostile fire did not ease at dusk. Apparently expecting a continuation of the attack or the arrival of reinforcements, the enemy shelled and mortared the forward areas for most of the night. He attempted to raze the houses occupied by B Coy and drive the New Zealanders off the Hummocks. His gunners were particularly severe on all roads leading to the station and on Route 6, and his shelling made the task of ration parties, runners, linesmen, and stretcher-bearers very dangerous. Many times the whole area was raked by machine-gun fire, the lines of tracer giving the only indication of its origin. It was a cold, sleepless night without greatcoats or blankets. Most of the stretcher-bearers attached to companies had become casualties themselves, and a heavy burden was placed on those who were left. From the Carrier and Mortar platoons came teams of men who worked far into the night under heavy fire, picking up all the wounded found, carrying rations and ammunition forward to the companies. Linesmen went forward and by dawn had lines through to B and C Coys. The lines did not last long; they were continually being broken and several good signallers were lost while maintaining them. The line to Rear Battalion HQ also gave endless trouble and eventually, to minimise casualties, the Colonel ordered the company lines to be abandoned. Subsequent communication with Majors Williams and Harvey was by wireless.
As soon as it was dusk the forward platoons established listening posts in front of their positions. On the Hummocks Lt Hay moved two men onto the forward slope. It was thought that the enemy might attempt a counter-attack by approaching from the river under cover of darkness, and the troops on the reverse slope had dug in so that by standing up they could command a field of fire over this open stretch of ground. Likewise Lt Quartermain placed two men west of the Roundhouse. The night seemed long. Those out in the open, particularly on the Hummocks where the fire was heaviest, were to say the least very uncomfortable, though casualties were light. About 2 a.m. a 24 Battalion company arrived to strengthen the right flank and preserve a link with the troops in the town. Two hours later there was a noticeable increase in the artillery fire of both sides. The Hummocks were heavily mortared.page 376
Suddenly during a lull in the firing the C Coy listening posts ran back to report enemy troops approaching. It was nearly dawn, and within a few seconds everyone was on the alert. The Germans were approaching rapidly from the north-west, apparently intent on reaching the station and the yards. They rushed in, yelling that they were Indians, but nobody was deceived. Instead both companies from their dugouts, shelters, and houses poured a well-directed fire on them, inflicting heavy casualties. About a dozen reached the Roundhouse, but they too met a hostile reception and soon left, leaving behind their dead. The action was over in a few minutes. The enemy had had enough and withdrew under cover of smoke fired by New Zealand artillery. The troops on the Hummocks were waiting and, as the paratroopers ran across the mudflat towards the river, directed a steady volume of fire on them. In the words of one officer writing about the sudden departure of the enemy, ‘It was a pity for they were so easily killed.’ There was ample proof of this. In C Coy's area alone lay 23 dead, and B Coy had accounted for others. Six paratroopers had been taken prisoner. C Coy's only casualty was one man killed.
Within an hour enemy mortars, field guns, and spandaus were all in action again. The tanks and the artillery retaliated but the enemy fire did not slacken. Monastery Hill was again partially enveloped in smoke, a sure indication that the Indians had not succeeded. C Coy was feeling very pleased with itself, but Maj Williams realised that ammunition stocks would have to be replenished during the day in case of another attack. He could ill spare men for this dangerous task, but WO II Corrigan volunteered for it and was allowed to go. In broad daylight and under heavy fire most of the time, he made several trips to the crypt, bringing back a heavy load each time. After dusk he guided a team of stretcher-bearers carrying hot stew, rations, and a few greatcoats through to the companies.
* * *
After the Arezzo action
Looking north from Gradara
In the town there had been some changes. On the 19th 5 Brigade assumed responsibility for the area north of Route 6 and 6 Brigade south to the Hummocks. The Maoris and 23 Battalion moved into the town and set up their headquarters in the crypt, which became the rendezvous for all sorts of units and formations. Colonel Richards and the Adjutant, because of their intimate knowledge of the town and the general situation, became the ‘eyes and ears’ of both brigades and to some extent co-ordinated operations. The additional movement in the area did not pass unnoticed and the enemy stepped up his concentrations on the church buildings and east along Route 6. The increased use of smoke by both sides not only brought about heavier fire but, it was suspected, allowed the enemy to infiltrate back into the town. The 25th Battalion and the Maoris, with tanks in support, tried to wrest the balance of the town from the enemy. Although their efforts met with some success, they failed to clear a small area on Route 6 and under the foothills. The enemy was strongly entrenched in two hotels (Hotel des Roses and Continental) in this area and defied all attempts to dislodge him. Renewed attempts to capture Monastery Hill had failed. Instead, the enemy had launched a determined counter-attack which had isolated the New Zealand and Indian troops holding Castle Hill and Hangman's Hill, not far from it. An attack on the Monastery by armoured forces, which had approached the stronghold from the rear, had also failed.page 378
The maintenance of communications kept Lt Pritchard and his depleted staff busy. Those not out trying to mend breaks in the line were operating the phone and wireless sets. It was the same for all at Tac HQ—heavy responsibilities, no sleep, and little rest. The evacuation of wounded to and from the crypt was always a problem. The lot of stretcher-bearers was no more dangerous than that of the jeep drivers who came down Route 6 to take the wounded from the danger zone. This road was almost invariably under heavy fire, but there was no other way to evacuate the casualties. Mr Gray of the YMCA was always a volunteer for this unpleasant task, and he made many trips to and from B Echelon in his jeep, carrying greatcoats, blankets, chocolate and cigarettes, and returning with a load of wounded. Eventually he fell a victim himself, being badly wounded as he was about to take out another load of wounded. During his long service with the battalion he had always gone out of his way to help the wounded, and many men had cause to be thankful for his self-imposed tasks.
On the afternoon of the 20th Col Richards received a message to report to Brigade HQ for a conference. It was no simple matter to get from the crypt to Brigade HQ, which was some distance east of the town, particularly in daylight when the shelling was at its heaviest. The Colonel left the crypt in a tank, which went as far as the blown bridge over the Rapido, and then sprinted to another tank coming to meet him. He returned with the news that the battalion was remaining in the town, with the companies taking up positions south of Route 6 and facing the two hotels which were still holding out. A battalion of the Buffs Regiment would take over the station and the Hummocks shortly after dusk.
The British troops did not arrive until about 9 p.m. and over two hours elapsed before the troops left the Hummocks. B Coy was the first to move and was followed by C Coy and the A and D Coy remnants. Major Harvey made a reconnaissance of his sector, which extended north from the crossroads towards the Municipal buildings. The company moved into position without difficulty, Coy HQ and 12 Platoon moving to a house near the crossroads, 10 Platoon forward on the right in a building near the sunken road, and No. 11 almost directly behind it. page 379 C Coy withdrew from the Hummocks and reached its new sector on the right of B Coy without much trouble. Major Williams went ahead with the CSM to make arrangements to relieve the company of 23 Battalion holding the sector, and later sent WO II Corrigan back for the platoons. No. 13 Platoon, the remnants of No. 15, and Coy HQ occupied one building, while 14 Platoon moved into another building on their right. In the darkness it was not possible to determine who occupied the buildings on either side.
The A and D Coy remnants, the last to leave the old sector, met with misfortune. As they moved back towards the Nunnery the enemy shelled the road heavily. Several men were hit, including Lt Davies, who later died, and WO II Scott33, the CSM. Sergeant O'Reilly took charge and led the remainder to the Nunnery, returning later with a team of stretcher-bearers to collect the wounded. Instead of joining C Coy, the remnants spent the rest of the night in one of the cellars under the Nunnery.
In the morning C Coy was able to examine its immediate surroundings more closely. A platoon of Maoris was occupying part of the Coy HQ building, and a 21 Battalion platoon was sheltering in some ruins half-right of the company. On the left were several unoccupied buildings. No. 14 Platoon was soon made aware of the occupants of an adjoining wing of its building. A bazooka crashed through the wall and two men had lucky escapes from injury. Something like this had been expected and the troops opened fire on the enemy party, which decamped leaving one of its number dead in the building. Outside the buildings all roads and tracks were covered by spandaus firing from the foothills, and the company was more or less isolated in its position during the daytime. After dusk that night the men were able to move about more freely. Strong pickets were posted in each building as it had been reported that the enemy was infiltrating back into the town.
Guided by Maj Williams, the A and D Coy remnants under Sgt O'Reilly moved forward after dark to take up a position with C Coy. The Company Commander left them in a building page 380 while he arranged for Lt Hay to carry out a reconnaissance for a suitable position. Hay met trouble, and he and the small party with him had a short but brisk fight with some paratroopers in a building. The enemy withdrew, but when Hay returned to collect O'Reilly's men they were gone. The sergeant, having waited an hour in the freezing cold, had decided to return to Tac HQ to find out what was happening. Eventually the remnants, joined by a 23 Battalion platoon under 2 Lt Hargest,34 set out for C Coy once more. On nearing the company area the officer and the sergeant went on alone to find Maj Williams. Unfortunately they ran into machine-gun fire and both were wounded, Lt Hargest mortally. O'Reilly was able to get back to Tac HQ unaided, and 2 Lt Richmond35 was sent forward to take charge. After some delay the remnants and the 23rd Battalion platoon took up a position on the left flank of C Coy.
The companies remained in these positions until the 23rd and they found them a good deal better than their previous ones. Signallers laid lines to both companies and these did not require much maintenance. In any case the No. 38 sets were working well. Smoke lay heavy over the town and the hills all the time, and this proved rather depressing especially to tired and jaded men. Both companies were able to direct artillery and mortar fire on targets visible from their positions. It continued to be dangerous to move about in the daytime for snipers and machine-gunners in the buildings under the hill were constantly on the alert. The platoons retaliated but found that their fire usually drew heavy mortar fire on their positions. At dusk each night jeeps brought hot meals and rations as far forward as they could and carrying parties were sent back to collect them. Tactical HQ at the crypt had little respite, for the enemy continued his bombardment of the church buildings which, strong though they were, gradually disintegrated.
On the 23rd there was a change of policy. New Zealand Corps was disbanded and the assault on Cassino and Monastery page 381 Hill abandoned in the meantime. The Division was ordered to take up an all-round defensive position to hold the gains made. The troops on Monastery Hill were to be withdrawn. As a preliminary to this regrouping, B Coy was to be relieved by a company of the Buffs and withdrawn to a second line of defence behind the Rapido River. LOB personnel and the Carrier Platoon were already holding positions along this line.
Before it left Cassino that night a party from B Coy had an unpleasant task—to bury the A Coy dead around the Municipal buildings. In the words of one officer, ‘It was a ghastly job.’ After dusk the men waited impatiently for the British troops to arrive, and as soon as the relief was complete they wasted no time marching down Route 6 to some houses about a mile from the town. Tactical HQ also moved out of the town and rejoined Battalion HQ. Twenty-four hours later it was C Coy's turn. It was relieved by a newly-formed A Coy, comprising LOB and B Echelon personnel commanded by Capt A. R. McKinlay. The A and D Coy remnants joined this company, the majority going to Nos. 7 and 9 Platoons. On the morning after its arrival, the 25th, the enemy welcomed the new company with a sustained burst of shelling on the platoon buildings. After dusk that day 22 Battalion took over the sector and the rifle companies were wholly withdrawn from the line, the 4.2- inch mortars being the only section of the unit in action. The latter were being called on to fire on targets west of the Hummocks.
This brought to a close the battalion's part in the battle for Cassino, although it was later called on to take up a position in the defence scheme for the area. The action had called for considerable nerve and endurance and had cost the unit many of its best soldiers. Casualties had been heavy, but the splendid example set by officers and NCOs had prevailed when it seemed at times that the men might wilt under the strain of continual shelling, mortaring, and lack of sleep. Five officers and 39 other ranks had been killed or mortally wounded, and three officers and 98 men wounded. To this total could be added the 43 ‘battle casualties’ evacuated to hospital and the many more who were held at Battalion HQ or B Echelon.page 382
The spell was short. After dusk on the 28th the battalion relieved the Buffs in their sector south of the town. During the four days out of the line the troops, able to relax for the first time for nearly a fortnight, rested and read the mail which had accumulated. A good wash, a shave, regular meals, and plenty of sleep worked wonders, and when the time came for the men to march back to the Hummocks much of the tenseness so evident earlier had gone. The 26th was a cold day, snow falling during the early morning, but the next two days were very pleasant. Everyone who could basked in the warm sunshine and forgot about the smoke which still hung over Cassino, less than two miles away. A few reinforcements joined the battalion and, with no more in sight, the CO reorganised the unit on a three-rifle-company basis. B Echelon was combed to find men to fill the gaps in each company. D Coy personnel were absorbed in the other companies, but this was not sufficient to bring the platoons to full strength. On the 28th the average platoon contained between 15 and 18 men and company strengths were about 60 all ranks. Captain McKinlay was confirmed as A Coy Commander and Lt P. J. Humphries acted as Adjutant in the absence of Capt Barnett on leave.
The new sector was a familiar one, extending north from the Hummocks to the crossroads about 400 yards from the Nunnery. A Coy was made responsible for the Hummocks and the station area, while B Coy returned to its former sector on the north side of it. As the latter had a wide front to cover, the Anti-Tank Platoon, operating as infantry, was attached to it. C Coy was to join the Carrier Platoon in the second line of defence in a position almost due east of the station. To avoid a repetition of the enemy attack of 18 March, the ground forward of A and B Coy's positions was divided into squares, each one being registered by artillery and mortars and given a code-name. In B and C Coys company commanders and seconds-in-command interchanged positions, Capt Kerr36 taking charge of B Coy and Capt Kain37 of C Coy.
The relief was completed without incident, there being little page 383 shelling or mortaring at the time. On the right of the station B Coy HQ occupied the building which had been its former headquarters, with the Anti-Tank Platoon occupying the houses west of it. The other three platoons occupied houses farther to the north: 12 Platoon was in that previously held by 10 Platoon, 10 Platoon at the crossroads, and 11 Platoon on the sunken road. A Coy HQ was set up in the Roundhouse with 8 Platoon in the same building. No. 9 Platoon moved onto the Hummocks and 7 Platoon occupied the cable car station. No. 11 Platoon, the anti-tank gunners, and 8 Platoon posted listening posts some distance forward of their positions, and the other platoons maintained strong pickets. Most of the tanks were centred around the station, with one or two beside the platoon houses. To close the gap between the second line of defence and the forward line, 2 Lt Grainger38 and 34 men from 33 Battery 7 Anti-Tank Regiment took up an infantry position south of C Coy, manning two crossroads near the river at night.
As the dawn approached enemy mortar and shellfire increased. Direct hits were scored on a number of houses but no casualties resulted. No. 8 Platoon, stationed in and around the Roundhouse, was unlucky. A mortar bomb wounded five men, including the platoon commander, 2 Lt McLean.39 Up until this stage Capt McKinlay had been unable to make wireless contact with Battalion HQ and all messages were being relayed through B Coy's set. By this means Battalion HQ was advised there were casualties to be evacuated. Captain Fletcher decided to go forward and attend to the wounded on the spot, despite the fact that it was broad daylight and the Germans were shelling all approach routes. The doctor arrived safely, and later the injured men were evacuated in jeeps, which ran the gauntlet of enemy fire to reach the station.
For the rest of the day the sector was fairly quiet although at times it was heavily shelled and mortared. Second-Lieutenant Walker40 joined A Coy and assumed command of 8 Platoon, page 384 which now contained fewer than a dozen men. Enemy bombers made a sudden appearance but did not tarry over the area. Butterfly bombs were dropped on C Coy but caused no casualties. After dusk both companies made much use of the prearranged fire tasks, and mortar and artillery concentrations were called down on suspected enemy gun positions and suspicious troop movements. The quick response by the supporting arms to these requests was very heartening to the men on picket duty. It gave a feeling of security to all platoons more or less isolated in their houses after darkness.
At dawn on Thursday, 30 March, the Germans increased their fire over the whole sector. Mortars, including nebelwerfers, fired heavy concentrations on the station and the Hummocks area. This fire continued almost unabated throughout the day, and counter-battery fire did little to quieten the enemy gunners. Dusk fell without any slackening of the enemy bombardment and the two companies called for concentrations across their front. Shortly before 9 p.m. the hostile fire eased off and the listening post forward of the Roundhouse ran back to report enemy troops crossing the river. A heavy artillery concentration was called down on this area, but shortly afterward the listening posts on the forward slope of the Hummocks reported that the Germans were close at hand. Both sides opened fire almost simultaneously. The Germans had divided, one party moving in from the west and the other from the south. The second party was able to bring fire to bear on 9 Platoon and caused some casualties before it was forced to relinquish its hold on the feature. The party on the western slope was unable to drive the platoon from its well dug-in positions and was content to maintain fire across from the Hummocks towards the Roundhouse and the station. This prevented the platoon from evacuating its wounded, two of whom, including the platoon commander, 2 Lt Richmond, were seriously hurt.
About the same time as the listening posts warned 2 Lt Richmond of the approach of the enemy, another party of Germans moved between 12 Platoon and the Anti-Tank Platoon. The pickets saw nothing, and it was not until Sgt Foster41 was page 385 fired on and wounded as he entered one of the Anti-Tank Platoon's houses that it was realised the enemy was about. A few seconds later the silence was again broken as the tank at the rear of the building was bazookaed. The Germans then climbed onto the tank and fired through the opened hatch, killing the four occupants. By this time the Anti-Tank Platoon was fully on the alert but, apart from firing blindly into the darkness, could do little to stop the enemy from moving farther east. Captain Kerr, who had been doing the rounds of his platoons, called for artillery and mortar concentrations which were repeated several times. It was very dark and difficult to judge the strength of the enemy party and the purpose of his assault.
The noise of the firing allowed another party of Germans to approach 7 Platoon unseen and unheard. The picket on duty first noticed something amiss when he saw several paratroopers trying to lift the hatch of a nearby tank. The crew inside were revolving the turret in an effort to dislodge them. Within a few moments a steady volume of fire was forcing the enemy to move back towards the station. Grenades were flying in all directions and casualties were suffered by both sides. For what seemed an age but was only a short time, the platoon fought the enemy off as he again tried to close in on the tank and enter the building.
While all this was going on other enemy groups had infiltrated into the station area. They attempted to move around towards the Roundhouse and the Hummocks but, as they came closer, ran into heavy fire from 8 Platoon which, however, was forced to give up its outside positions. It was soon apparent that this was no enemy fighting patrol but a counter-attack in strength. A Coy was not in a very good position. Captain McKinlay was out of touch with Battalion HQ at least most of the time, and had no way of finding out how 7 and 9 Platoons were faring as the Roundhouse and the approaches to it were under heavy fire. Captain Kerr was better off as only 12 Platoon and the anti-tank gunners were affected. It was little use calling for supporting fire as the enemy had penetrated the defences and it was too dark to determine his location. Later, when it became apparent that the Germans were after the tanks, Capt Kerr decided to bring some of his men from the right flank to straddle page 386 the station road and plug the gap between 7 Platoon and the Anti-Tank Platoon. A section from 11 Platoon, led by 2 Lt McClean, moved across and took up this position, from which they were able to direct accurate fire on the Germans as they darted in and out of the shadows. Several of the enemy approached B Coy HQ, and the three men on picket allowed them to get quite close before they opened fire and killed or wounded all of them.
The firing died down, but occasional outbreaks indicated that the enemy was still in the locality but mainly in the station yards. The situation on the Hummocks was unchanged. To reinforce McClean's party two sections from 10 Platoon were led by Pte Duff to B Coy HQ, and they also took up a position covering the station road and the railway line. At Battalion HQ Col Richards was receiving wireless reports from B Coy but none from Capt McKinlay. As the fighting appeared to be centred on the left flank, the CO was anxious to receive fuller details— details which the A Coy commander was unable to supply because of his isolated position. However, both company commanders had decided that the enemy was after the tanks and, having failed in his purpose, would soon withdraw. Everyone was on the alert for some sign of this happening. At 2 a.m. the enemy began to move and a heavy artillery concentration was fired forward of the companies. This must have deterred the paratroopers, for a short time afterwards A Coy was heavily engaged as the Germans tried for the second time to break out of the station yards towards the Hummocks. For the next two hours the firing went on with neither side being able to inflict much damage.
Shortly before dawn the Colonel arranged for two tanks to cross the yards and move to support A Coy. By this time enemy troops had withdrawn from the station area, and only an occasional burst of firing from the Hummocks area disturbed the uneasy peace. A few Germans in B Coy's sector were being rounded up. Captain McKinlay called for smoke on the Hummocks, and at first light 8 Platoon ran across the open ground, joined 9 Platoon, and moved across to clear the forward slope. Part of it was cleared, but intense small-arms fire eventually forced the two platoons back to the reverse side. While this page 387 was going on the wounded were evacuated to the Roundhouse. Corporal White,42 a medical orderly, attended to the casualties and helped to carry them out of the danger zone. Five paratroopers had been captured and they assisted stretcher-bearers to carry the casualties to the cable car station to await the arrival of ambulances.
Meanwhile the situation on the Hummocks had again reached a stalemate, although this time the enemy was in the worse position. Tanks and infantry were able to bring heavy fire on him and by 9.30 a.m. he had had enough. About twelve paratroopers made a sudden dash across the open ground, heading towards the river. The A Coy men were waiting for them at every vantage point. Under the concentrated fire from the two platoons and the tanks, the paratroopers dropped one by one until none was left running. Although A Coy had suffered quite severe losses—three killed and twelve wounded—the enemy had also lost heavily for his dead were scattered over the sector. B Coy had lost four men, including 2 Lt McClean, who was shot through the head shortly after daylight. Soon after his men left the area the enemy recommenced his mortaring. The wounded were taken down into the cellar of 7 Platoon's building, where Pte Trembath43 was busy handing around liberal doses of rum. A short time afterwards jeeps arrived and the wounded were evacuated. After dusk that night Lt Hay took two platoons from C Coy forward to the Hummocks, and A Coy, which now totalled fewer than 40 men, moved to the right to cover the Roundhouse and the station yards.
After this setback the enemy made no further attempt to recapture the station area and was content to mortar and shell the sector heavily at irregular intervals throughout the day and night. His gunners concentrated on the roads and on the buildings and positions which he now knew were occupied by the battalion. Despite the accuracy of the enemy fire few casualties were suffered, and these generally as a result of a direct hit on a trench or house. After dark on 3 April the battalion was page 388 relieved by 23 Battalion. By this time the men had had their fill of Cassino and were eager to be gone. For some reason the artillery fired smoke across the front just before the relief took place, and the enemy retaliated by heavily mortaring the station and the Hummocks. This delayed A Coy considerably, and it was not until after 3 a.m. that the last of the company reached Battalion HQ. The incoming company of 23 Battalion had run into the mortar fire and had lost the greater part of its headquarters killed or wounded. The A Coy guide with them was killed.
Nineteen days after it had entered Cassino the battalion left it for the last time. It was not the same battalion which had confidently awaited the arrival of the bombers on the morning of 15 March, eager to do what the Americans had failed to accomplish. Only a handful of those men remained fit. Fifty-five had lost their lives and 128 had been wounded. ‘Battle casualties' and sickness accounted for nearly seventy others, and there were many more unfit for duty. Those who survived carried scars hidden from sight and which only time would heal. As a supreme test of endurance and courage the battle for Cassino was to become a byword throughout the Division and the English-speaking world.
3 Appointments were:
2 i/c: Maj F. M. Ollivier
Adjt: Capt A. W. Barnett
QM: Capt M. Joel
MO: Capt I. H. Fletcher
Padre: Rev. H. S. Scott
OC A Coy: Maj A. J. Fraser
OC B Coy: Maj D. P. W. Harvey
OC C Coy: Maj J. R. Williams
OC D Coy: Maj D. C. Piper
OC HQ Coy: Capt A. R. McKinlay
Signals: Lt S. M. Pritchard
4 He commanded the Division from 3 to 27 March.
5 Brig I. L. Bonifant, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d.; Gisborne; born Ashburton, 3 Mar 1912; CO 25 Bn Sep 1942–Jan 1943; Div Cav Jan 1943– Apr 1944; commanded 6 Bde 3–27 Mar 1944; 5 Bde Jan–May 1945; 6 Bde Jun–Oct 1945.
6 Lt F. J. Muir, MM; born NZ 8 Feb 1915; clerk; killed in action 15 Mar 1944.
24 Pte B. G. O'Brien; born NZ 6 Sep 1911; labourer; wounded 2 Nov 1942; killed in action 17 Mar 1944.
25 Lt J. F. O'Reilly, DCM, m.i.d.; Mount Hutt, Rakaia; born Rakaia, 14 Jul 1907; barman; wounded 22 Mar 1944.
30 One of the medical orderlies (Pte G. R. Black) who had gone back to the gaol with the wounded on the morning of the 16th was captured by the enemy on the return journey to B Coy.
32 2 Lt G. P. Duff, m.i.d.; Dunedin; born NZ 14 Sep 1909; school teacher.
34 2 Lt G. R. Hargest; born NZ 30 Jun 1922; bank clerk; died of wounds 22 Mar 1944.
39 2 Lt F. G. L. McLean; Waimate; born Waimate, 27 May 1918; wool classer; wounded three times.