27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 19 — Cassino
Fifth Army hoped to reach Rome by the direct route along the Liri valley—the Via Casilina by which Hannibal had marched on the city over 2000 years ago—but the entrance to the valley was closed by the Germans’ Gustav Line, which followed the western bank of the Rapido River through Cassino to the confluence with the Liri River. Cassino, the key to the line, was ‘as strong as any position could be without being impregnable.”1 Route 6, the main highway between Naples and Rome, passed through the town, and the railway ran within a mile of it. Steep-sided mountains, dominated by Monte Cairo, over 5400 feet high, descended to the 1700-foot Montecassino, which directly overlooked the town and was crowned by the ancient, massively walled Benedictine monastery. From these heights the enemy looked straight down Route 6 and enjoyed an uninterrupted view of every approach.
The Americans had tried to cross the Rapido south of Cassino and had been driven back with heavy losses; they had made some progress in the mountains north of the town, but both town and Montecassino remained firmly in the enemy's grasp.
This was the situation on 3 February when 2 New Zealand Division and 4 Indian Division were formed into a corps under General Freyberg's command. The 2nd United States Corps was to deliver another attack on Cassino from the north, and if that succeeded, New Zealand Corps was to exploit up the Liri valley.
Fifth Brigade (with 1 and 2 Companies under its command) relieved 36 US Division in the line south of Route 6. The New Zealand trucks drove up the main highway as far as Mignano page 388 and then followed the railway line, which had been converted into a two-way road and passed around the southern side of two isolated hills, Monte Porchio (the smaller) and Monte Trocchio.
The wrecked assault boats which lined the bank of the Rapido, the damaged weapons and equipment left in the trenches, the K rations, clothing and medical stores strewn about were testimony of the casualties the Americans had incurred in their attempt to cross the Rapido.
In the evening of 5 February 3 Platoon joined 21 Battalion, which had gone into position the previous night about 300 yards from the river. A few nights later a German patrol tried to break into the house which Platoon Headquarters shared with a rifle platoon, but withdrew after an exchange of fire.
Before going into position to support the Maori Battalion, which arrived on 21 Battalion's right on the 6th, 2 Platoon was shelled and suffered the machine-gunners’ first casualties on Fifth Army's front: Private Dwyer2 killed and three men wounded. The platoon occupied positions on high ground south of Monte Trocchio, where it overlooked the river and covered the Maoris’ front; this was an unhealthy spot, under direct observation by day and heavily mortared at night.
The rest of the battalion at this stage was in reserve near Porchio or farther back along the railway but still within range of the enemy's larger guns.
On the night of 10–11 February 3 Platoon, which had fired a few belts at houses across the river, was relieved by 6 Platoon, in support of Divisional Cavalry, which came into the line as infantry and took over from 21 Battalion. The other two platoons of 2 Company went into positions in front of Monte Trocchio, which rose abruptly 1000 feet from the plain and overlooked Cassino, about three miles away; they were to harass Route 6 in the direction of the town and the Cassino-Sant’ Angelo road on the other side of the river.
Very heavy rain fell. The two platoons had to unload their trucks and ferry their guns and equipment in jeeps. ‘Walk about mile through “dry” creek,’ wrote Private Ross3 (5 Platoon). ‘Water up to our knees. Arrive about 8.30 & bed down. Rotten night. Water all round me.’ The ground was too wet to dig in, so 4 Platoon placed its guns in the open and began a harassing shoot. After the first belt or two, however, page 389 spandaus replied, and because of the ‘iffy set up in front’ Captain Aislabie asked Brigade Headquarters for permission to cease fire. He drew Brigade's attention to the fact that there was no infantry opposite the Germans in this area for about 800 yards. ‘Bde I.O. had wrong dispositions and a rearrangement was quickly made.’
The guns were dug in on the rocky hillside and next night the harassing shoots were begun in earnest, one platoon firing between nightfall and midnight, the other between midnight and dawn. Thereafter they got away between 15,000 and 20,000 rounds each night. The men carried their guns up to the pits in the darkness, and when the task was completed, took them back to the houses in which they lived.
At the same time 1 Platoon, going out each night from behind Porchio to the holes it had dug south of the railway, harassed Sant' Angelo and the roads in the vicinity.
The 2nd US Corps fought its way to the last defences of Montecassino, but its very depleted and exhausted divisions could go no further. Now it was the turn of the New Zealand Corps. While the Indian Division was to take over from the Americans and clear the enemy from the heights above Cassino, the New Zealand Division was to cross the Rapido below the town. Two companies of Maoris were to capture the railway station and the engineers were to bridge the river so that the tanks could cross and, together with the Maoris and 23 Battalion, attack Cassino from the south.
It was reluctantly decided that the Monastery, the hub of the German offensive system, would have to be bombed. Founded by Saint Benedict in the sixth century, it had been sacked by the Lombards, rebuilt, destroyed by the Saracens, restored again, wrecked by an earthquake and raised a third time. Its prodigiously thick walls could not be breached by gunfire. The bombardment was delayed until fine weather and then, on 15 February, wave after wave of Flying Fortresses and medium bombers, 265 aircraft altogether, reduced the buildings to ruins. The Indian Division's assault, originally intended for the night after the bombing, could not be mounted before the night of the 17th–18th. Despite the most valiant efforts it failed.
For their attack on the railway station that night the two companies of Maoris were supported by a great number of heavy, medium and field guns, mortars, and the Vickers of 2, 4, 5, 6 and 10 Platoons (10 had arrived in the Trocchio area page 390 the previous night). The Vickers engaged the Maoris' objectives, the road on the far bank of the Gari stream (which flows into the Rapido) and German infantry positions; they expended 66,000 rounds during the night and almost as many the following day, when they received frequent requests for defensive fire.
Much of the flat, low-lying land near the river was water- logged, and the Mignano-Cassino railway embankment provided the only firm access for the tanks and anti-tank guns. The Maoris, advancing under fire from Montecassino and the town, crossed the streams and sodden fields, which were sown with mines, and gained possession of the station before dawn, but when daylight came the sappers had not been able to bridge or fill in all the gaps in the railway embankment, and the tanks and anti-tank guns, therefore, could not get through. The Germans counter-attacked with tanks and infantry, and eventually the Maoris, who were without supporting arms, were withdrawn. Only a third of the original 200 got back.
The whole plan of attack was changed: the town was to be assaulted from the northern side after the heaviest possible bombardment, and in preparation the Americans still in the line north of Route 6 were to be relieved by New Zealand Corps.
After the Maoris' withdrawal the command of the Rapido River sector facing the railway station passed to 24 Battalion, which in turn was replaced by the 23rd (10 Platoon being relieved by 1 Platoon at the same time) on the night of 19–20 February. The following night 3 Company and 34 Anti-Tank Battery, acting as infantry under 5 Brigade's command, took over from an American reconnaissance battalion between Route 6 and the hamlet of San Pasquale, and the night after that 6 Brigade (with 4 Company under command) relieved a regiment (equivalent to a brigade) of 34 US Division on the other side of the Pasquale Road and in the northern outskirts of Cassino.
Cassino, 25 February 1944
The front was strengthened by the arrival of 2 Platoon in the evening of 4 March. The same evening Second-Lieutenant Hanan led three men to the demolished bridge to report on the river and its approaches and to listen for enemy movement. Small-arms fire clipped the tops of the trees the patrol was passing through. The road was reported to be in excellent state right up to the demolition, which was about thirty feet wide; the ground on each side was covered with water, but no mines were seen.
From 7 March onwards 3 Company established a listening post at the demolished bridge each night between 9 p.m. and midnight. One evening the post became aware of an enemy party just across the river. A tommy-gunner shot a German and the 3 Company men withdrew just in time to escape a heavy concentration of mortar and machine-gun fire from Cassino. Fifth Brigade called down artillery fire on the enemy weapons, and soon afterwards the patrol went forward again. Captain Pleasants, who was leading, was fired on by a machine gun and found that ‘the water in the ditches there was mighty cold.’ Another artillery concentration was called down, and when all was quiet, the patrol went to a position farther from the bridge, where it spent the rest of the night.
The company heard digging on the riverbank one evening, and suspected that it might be a minelaying party. Machine-gun, mortar and artillery fire soon stopped the digging. Several times 8 and 9 Platoons harassed enemy mortar positions at the foot of Montecassino and on Castle Hill, directly behind the town. Occasionally, mostly at night, the enemy shelled or mortared and machine-gunned the company.
Meanwhile New Zealand Corps was strengthened by 78 British Division, and one of the newly arrived British brigades replaced Divisional Cavalry on the southern flank. East Surrey machine-gunners took over from both 6 and 1 Platoons. By the time 6 Platoon was able to leave, in the evening of 23 February, Divisional Cavalry's armoured cars had churned every track into a creek of liquid mud with ruts two feet deep. The trucks bellied every few yards and almost had to be carried for a mile or so. The platoon, covered in mud and utterly exhausted, finally emerged on the railway at dawn and later joined the rest of 2 Company in front of Trocchio.
Now that 2 Company's three platoons were available for the harassing tasks, one was allowed a night's rest while the other two fired the normal 20,000 rounds. ‘Each Pln,’ says Aislabie, page 393 ‘had a casa of a sort to live in, but movement was under observation in daylight—hence the men were more or less cooped up all day & came out like owls at night…. With the amount of shooting being done barrels were wearing out rapidly but each Pln. Cdr. had a barrel gauge and a careful check was kept on all guns and barrels to maintain accuracy and safety. … A British Brig (ordnance) who inspected stated that 27 [Battalion] gunners were the most experienced in the British army especially as to mechanics and amounted to junior armourers.’
Lieutenant-Colonel MacDuff left 27 (MG) Battalion on 29 February to command 25 Battalion, and Lieutenant-Colonel Hutchens, formerly second-in-command of the 25th and just back from furlough, became the machine-gunners' new CO. Two months later, when Hutchens left to command 26 Battalion, he was succeeded by Lieutenant-Colonel Steele, an original machine-gun officer who had commanded the New Zealand squadron of the LRDG and 22 (Motor) Battalion.
The next attack on Cassino (operation dickens) was originally fixed for 24 February, but heavy rain set in the previous day, and day after day it went on remorselessly, making the countryside even more of a morass than it was already. For nearly three weeks the New Zealand and Indian troops waited ready to advance when the word was given, while the enemy perfected his defences and brought his best troops in Italy (I Parachute Division) into the sector where he correctly anticipated the attack would come.
The long spell of waiting was especially disheartening for the infantry of 24 and 25 Battalions in the outskirts of Cassino: they could not appear in the open in daylight because of their proximity to the enemy, and most of the time they were confined to dirty quarters underground. The reserve areas and the roads away from the town were shelled and mortared, and 4 Company (10 and 11 Platoons with 24 and 25 Battalions’ rear echelons, 12 Platoon with 26 Battalion north of the town, and Company Headquarters with Brigade Headquarters near the Pasquale-Portella road) came in for some of this.
In the evening of the 14th, after a couple of fine days, Fifth Army declared that dickens would begin next morning. The forward infantry withdrew a distance of a thousand yards from page 394 the fringes of the town, and at 8.30 a.m., in bright sunshine, the first bombers arrived. No fewer than 338 heavy bombers and 176 mediums took part, and with brief intervals the attack was maintained for four hours. Altogether nearly 1100 tons of bombs were dropped, and unfortunately not all of them were aimed at the target. Venafro, at least 12 miles away, was three times mistaken for Cassino, and our own troops were bombed.
Nearly all of the aircraft made their bombing run over the ground occupied by 3 Company. ‘On the morning we had withdrawn all posts 800 yds to allow for any bombs which may have been dropped short of the target,’ says Captain Pleasants. ‘By midday we had withdrawn a further 1000 yds and were still getting the unders. Coy was fortunate in that it suffered no casualties but a substantial number of bombs fell in the Coy area…. At the time all pls were quartered in houses but before the morning was over everybody was outside as far away from any house as he could get, hugging the ditches.’
Second-Lieutenant Moss, one of those in 4 Company who had a grandstand view of the bombing, wrote in his diary: ‘Mitchells, in a long column of groups of three … weren't much above 3000' & in the clear air we could see the four bombs detach themselves from each plane and go plummeting down in a shower. It was easy to follow the 1000 prs. right to the ground, where an enormous geyser of black and orange mud and debris leapt into the air, and fell back again while the pillar of smoke unfolded. After about sixty Mitchells had passed, a deeper roar made us look round and we observed several great flights of Fortresses in formations of about six at a time… A big percentage of their bombs [six from each plane] fell … in front of the town where they did not appear to be doing any good…. Groups of Forts had been coming over for about twenty minutes and another lot was coming in a long column of threes when we became aware of a terrific rushing sound behind us…. two 1000 prs. burst on the hill. … Everyone who had been grandstanding hurled themselves into our little gully as the remaining four bombs of the stick crashed into the olives about six hundred yards away.’
Some of them had landed among 11 Platoon's transport, and Lieutenant Bern's6 truck had been hurled in the air and dumped heavily on its back, bending it into a V shape; one of the gun page 395 trucks had been damaged but was repairable, and one man slightly injured. The craters were about sixty feet wide and twenty feet deep. Scornfully 11 Platoon erected a notice on the edge of the crater nearest the road: ‘American Precision Bombing. Cassino 3 Miles.’
Later came formations of Liberators, at least two-thirds of whose bombs appeared to fall on the flat ground outside Cassino, and then ‘very tight formations of six Bostons each. Their efforts were the best of the lot, the whole cluster of 24 eggs each time falling square in the village and completely flattening an acre of buildings. This did as much damage as nearly all the rest of the bombers put together.’
Next day, in the afternoon, 11 Platoon was bombed again. While idly watching Mitchells heading up towards Piedmonte, a village five miles west of Cassino, Moss ‘saw three of them turn off and come in our direction. I put the glasses on them in time to see them begin releasing their bombs eight hundred yards down in front of us. They looked like 100 lb. anti-personnel bombs and sewed a great crackling seam of flame a thousand yards long through the olives across the gully in front. … The “stick” had landed almost exactly along the path of the 1000 prs. the day before but had done far more damage. One of the bedfords was blazing furiously and [two trucks] had been peppered with shrapnel…. A nearby Indian three tonner was also blazing and the 6 pr. ammo it contained was exploding at intervals….’ In 11 Platoon Lieutenant Bern and Corporal Hoggard7 were killed and six men wounded.
The bombing of Cassino was followed at midday on 15 March by the heaviest artillery bombardment the New Zealanders had known in the Second World War. While close on 900 guns and howitzers, supporting New Zealand Corps, pounded the shattered town and the slopes of Montecassino, the artillery of the French Expeditionary Corps, in the mountains to the north, and of 10 (British) Corps, on the Garigliano River to the south, also shelled every known German gun position.
During the morning's bombing 2 and 3 Companies had been required to fire on any movement they saw in the town, but there had been very little sign of the enemy. During the first forty minutes of the artillery barrage 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 Platoons fired on selected targets in the town south of Route 6 (which page 396 cut through from east to west) and on the slopes of Montecassino; these targets included machine-gun and mortar posts, pillboxes, the railway station area and the Amphitheatre. For the remainder of the day the Vickers fired on request or whenever they saw any movement. ‘We had a grandstand view of the show & contributed our modest share,’ says Aislabie.
The fantastic chaos of rubble and bomb craters made progress slow, and the German machine-gunners and snipers emerged from the cellars of the wrecked houses to resist fiercely. Nevertheless 25 Battalion captured Castle Hill and much of the northern part of the town. The 26th Battalion entered at dusk, and some hours later was pinned down by machine-gun fire a short distance beyond Route 6.
Carrying all its guns and equipment, 12 Platoon had started off at 1 p.m. and then had waited a long time on the Pasquale Road. The weather broke. ‘We restarted about 8 P.M.,’ wrote Sergeant MacLean in his diary. The platoon had no tea and it was as ‘dark as hell, raining steadily, only gas capes over battle- dress. Got lost near town about 10 P.M. after crossing Rapido on foot—hung round for hours in mud and slush—very miserable—huge bomb craters delay passage of tanks. Eventually contact 26th about 2 A.M. & dig guns in in rubble…. Inftry casualties very heavy. No sleep. Town in shambles. Imposs. to trace layout. Enemy inf very close.’ MacLean's section was in a house with Headquarters B Company, by the Post Office in the centre of the town and opposite the advanced infantry RAP. Platoon Headquarters and the other (Sergeant Hunt's8) section were in another house a hundred yards away.
‘Expected counter attack at first light [on 16 March] did not develop—cold as hell—feet like ice—& wet clothes. Bright at first but later deteriorated to rain & bitterly cold wind—no hot food & very little of it.
‘Indians [5 Indian Brigade] & our chaps clearing mountain side & houses of spandau posts. Enemy snipers everywhere. Tunnels connect cellars of houses & complicate the job. House 150 yds away offers very stubborn resistance—tanks assist with their 75's at pt blank range & mg's. Enemy shelling very frequent and heavy all round us. Monastery has not yet fallen—being continually obscured by our smoke shells to deny observation.
‘Our shelling of Monte Cassino last night was most spectacular—like a spangled shirt on the stage.’
Watching the battle from outside the town, Moss thought the face of the hill looked like ‘a gigantic board closely studded with electric bulbs which were being intermittently flashed on page 398 and off all over its surface.’ Many ack-ack weapons of all calibres, including American multiple machine guns, were concentrated near the bridges and in the hills on the eastern side of the valley. When enemy aircraft appeared the ack-ack bursts would fill the sky with a fleecy smoke cloud.
In the evening of the 16th MacLean and three others met the ration party, ‘who have done a great job in bringing up hot tea, bread & cheese. Rest of our rations incl. hot stew still on truck 1 ½m. away on Route 6. Bomb craters make road impassable. But men too done in to ask them to do a 3 m. trip. So maleesh till tomorrow night. Another uncomf. night without greatcoats or blanket. The cold gets right into one's marrow….
‘Shelled and mortared steadily all day [the 17th] right to within a few feet away—shrap. flying all round us—damnably uncomfortable. Snipers extremely busy—spatter pillars above our heads when we expose ourselves—from several directions— watched tanks blasting them out. Our inftry (26th) have to run the gauntlet across an open space of 25 yds or so immed. in front of us & suffer very heavy cas's—even after the area well smoked, the spandaus fire on same area on fixed lines—our inftry do a wonderful job—should get more consideration than any other unit in the Div but out of action they're only the PBI. Bill May9 & I help a couple outside our bldg to RAP. very badly wounded—snipers get many stretcher bearers.’
In the western and south-western parts of Cassino a still numerous enemy fought with extraordinary stubbornness. Route 6, after passing through the town, turned sharply southwards along the foot of Montecassino, and on the corner a large building, the Continental Hotel, and another a few hundred yards south of it, the Hotel des Roses, continued to be centres of resistance despite all the efforts of 24 and 25 Battalions. Before nightfall on the 17th, however, 26 Battalion had struck southwards and secured the railway station and the Hummocks.
Meanwhile, for the first thirty-six hours of the battle, 4 Company did not know where 12 Platoon was or how it had fared. Lieutenant-Colonel Richards10 (CO 26 Battalion) said his headquarters was not in touch with it. Captain Halkett entered the town by the Pasquale Road route and found the platoon ‘holed up in the basement of two demolished buildings. They were “remarkably comfortable” in water ankle deep (when wanting page 399 to move about).’ Halkett and Sellars11 located Headquarters 26 Battalion and learned that the platoon was to be guided to a position where the guns would get a limited field of fire. The machine-gunners were to lie doggo unless a counter-attack came which they could deal with, and were to be ready to occupy the positions proposed for them in the Hummocks area when the enemy had been winkled out of the town.
The platoon set out about midnight. Sellars injured his ankle and was evacuated, so MacLean, taking command, followed a telephone cable to C Company, at the station, and was redirected to B Company, about 130 yards away. ‘Just as we reach a stone bldg nearby,’ he writes, ‘we get a terrific plastering by Nebelwerfers for ½ an hour. Miraculously no cas's….
‘Get guns set up in windows of R/way Hotel just at first light [18 March]. Enemy patrol attacks C Coy at Stn Engine sheds—tank behind our building lends a hand. Patrol eventually beaten off with cas's. I believe they heard us go to C Coy & called for stonk on us.
‘Then our building suffered a terrific stonk—shelling and mortaring for about an hour very worrying as I did not know what our building could take but it stood up to it well—we vacated front & retired to rear rooms—get tank to call for defensive stonk…. Further food & ammo brought up by Tom Ford's12 party in evening. A visit from Capt Halkett…. Our greatcoats & jerkins arrive about 4 AM. Thank God.’
Hangman's Hill, just below the Monastery, was captured by the Indian brigade, but its isolated garrison had to be supplied from the air by parachute. The Germans now held very little of the town, but it was the most vital part astride Route 6. The Maori Battalion moved into Cassino during the night of the 18th–19th, and fighting from house to house, reached the corner of Route 6. Although the Maoris took over a hundred prisoners, the Continental Hotel stronghold still defied them.
MacLean reported ‘very heavy—shattering—shelling of enemy FDL's by our 105's. Only 3 or 4 hundred yds away and blast shakes our joint—also R.A.F. fighter bombing very close to us but they are most accurate. Spent most of afternoon working out M.G. stonks on approach areas…. Our new off [Second- Lieutenant Wilson13 arrived with Captain Halkett at night….page 400
‘Have scarcely seen the sun for days [on the 20th] owing to smoke and dust. We smoke flat and hill all day to deny observation to enemy. Both sides lay a heavy barrage & as part of ours lands less than 100 yds (much less at times) from us, we get it both ways—rocks our bldg. A great deal of enemy bombing and shelling is directed at Bailey bridge over Route 6. Huge bomb craters still hold up approaches to town & passage through it.’
Men from 3 Company smoked the Bailey bridge erected on Route 6 over the Rapido. The canisters which emitted the smoke were heavy and awkward to carry, and fresh ones had to be lit every ten minutes. The men had to work in the open without cover against accurate shell and mortar fire; fortunately the flooded ground was soft and the shells tended to bury themselves before exploding; otherwise there would have been many casualties.
A change in wind direction on the first morning meant that the bridge had to be smoked from the town side. The enemy was shelling some tanks which had crossed the bridge and stopped on the road within 50 yards of it. Private Bishara,14 who had brought up a further supply of smoke generators in his jeep, was mortally wounded. Private Tucker15 carried him over to the jeep, turned the vehicle on the narrow road and drove back to the first aid post in an attempt to save his life.
None of 12 Platoon's guns did any shooting in Cassino. They saw none of the normal Vickers’ targets. ‘If we had sprayed masonry thought to harbour snipers,’ says MacLean, ‘we would have defeated the purpose for which we were there…. Vickers guns betray their presence at short ranges & all the time we were within easy range of small arms fire. Before a projected enemy counterattack, we would have been blasted to hell, together with the infantry around us.
‘We did a lot of sniping with our rifles, chiefly at cracks between masonry which we, by continued observation, believed to conceal an enemy sniper. It was most frustrating & infuriating to be continually sniped at, particularly in our first position, & never knowing exactly where the shot came from.’
One night MacLean had to go some distance through the infantry in the piles of rubble. ‘Picking my way rather uncer- page 401 tainly back again in the darkness every few yards, it seemed I'd hear the faint metallic click as a rifle or tommy gun was being cocked, I'd freeze in my track and hiss ‘Chota and/or peg’ [the passwords] through my teeth, every second expecting a bullet in the belly either from a Jerry or a trigger happy Kiwi. I was mighty glad to locate our own crowd.’
The artillery's defensive stonks on the Baron's Palace, Colosseum and Amphitheatre were ‘a real hell—I still remember a line of ‘airbursts’ exploding simultaneously & all exactly the same height above ground. A lot of the shrapnel was striking our building.’
A large group of Germans, headed by a Red Cross flag, marched in an orderly manner along Route 6 from the direction of the Continental Hotel towards the Baron's Palace. ‘They were probably walking wounded but appeared to be alright from our distance. There were a lot of urgent requests and discussion to open up on them as many considered that Jerry was using the Red Cross flag to relieve the troops in the town. However when they were about 50 yards from the Baron's Castle several shells burst on the hillside above them. All semblance of orderliness vanished on the instant & there was a mad scramble for the safety of the Baron's Castle, much to our amusement, if chagrin.’
The last two infantry battalions available, the 23rd and the 21st, were brought into the town, but their attempts to clear the south-west corner of it were no more successful than those previously made. The Germans had been driven from all but this fringe of Cassino, but the deadlock had to be acknowledged, and on 23 March it was decided to abandon the offensive for the time being and hold the present gains.
That evening 12 Platoon was relieved in Cassino by machine-gunners of the Kensington Regiment. ‘Shortly after 9 P.M. Capt Halkett arrives with glad news that we are to be relieved. … So pack up in the dark, plant relieving guns & walk out per railway route without incident. Breathe freely at last.’16
New Zealand Corps was disbanded on 26 March. Sixth Brigade then held the front from Castle Hill through the town to the railway station and the Hummocks, and 5 Brigade from there southwards until the night of 29–30 March, when it handed page 402 over this sector to 1 Guards Brigade; three or four days later 5 Brigade relieved the 6th in the town sector. While 4 Company continued to support the New Zealand brigade at Cassino, 1 Company went back to rest near Venafro and the remainder of the battalion came under the Guards’ command.
Still at Trocchio, 2 Company regularly harassed the approaches to the town. It assisted with defensive fire when 26 Battalion repelled a counter-attack on the station and Hummocks. The Welsh Guards, south of the station, asked for close support by a section of guns; Captain Aislabie reconnoitred to the demolished railway bridge to select a position for overhead fire, and on successive nights a section went out to this spot.
When it was his section's turn, Ross (5 Platoon) wrote in his diary: ‘Leave about 8 o'clock. Jeep collects guns & we walk. Get guns in position on elevated road in very exposed position. Spandau fire makes us keep very low. Shell lands among some 23rd chaps [23 Battalion had relieved the 26th]. One killed four wounded. Help to carry them out…. Lend our great coats & do freeze for rest of night. Jerry shells in front of us all night & makes us dive for cover very smartly…. The guns out about 5 o'clock. No excitement except one long burst of fire…. Get back to house about 6 & go straight to bed.’
The weather was milder: the snow gradually receded up the slopes of Monte Cairo. The cherry and almond blossom began to open, and the wild flowers—primroses, violets, periwinkles, grape hyacinths, buttercups and a host of others—dappled the fields. On clear, still mornings the smoke from the generators hung in a thick fog around the bridges and the river flats.
Responsibility for the Liri valley and Cassino sectors passed from Fifth Army to the Eighth, which was to renew the offensive with 2 Polish Corps. The New Zealand Division was relieved by 6 British Armoured Division and joined 10 Corps, under whose command it was to take over part of the Apennine mountain sector at the northern end of the Rapido valley to protect the Poles’ flank. By 8 April, therefore, 2 and 4 Companies had handed over to British troops, and the whole battalion except 3 Company (which spent another fortnight in the Rapido line south of the railway) assembled near Venafro in the Volturno valley. ‘Pleased to be relieved,’ wrote Aislabie, whose company had fired well over a million rounds in eight weeks.
While supporting the Guards Brigade 3 Company was employed with the artillery and mortars on very well organised ‘aggressive defence’.page 403
‘Each day we would select the targets for the night, taking into account all the information available [from aerial photographs and patrol reports],’ says Captain Pleasants, who was assisted in this work by Captain Halkett. ‘Gun sites would be selected, weapon pits dug and night firing lines laid out. With the aid of the Fd Svy Bty and Met telegrams ranges and angles would be determined to the last yard.’ If possible two platoons were placed where they could enfilade the target from different angles, and the third platoon well back so that the higher trajectory of its fire at the longer range could ‘dig’ into the enemy trenches. ‘For the same reason [maximum fire effect] we also hit the target with as many guns as possible identically. The idea being to get as many bullets as possible into the area in the first few minutes to cause maximum confusion.’ The targets were harassed at different times during the night.
The Guards sent out listening patrols to observe the enemy's reaction and captured a German patrol who admitted when interrogated that the explosives they were carrying were to destroy the houses occupied by the machine guns. They were mistaken, of course, in believing that the Vickers were in houses.
1 Infantry Brigadier, p. 353. The book ends with this extract from the author's diary: ‘March 2nd. Corps Conference at 1400 hours. Went with Frank Massey up Mount Trocchio afterwards and, coming down, stepped on a mine and had one foot blown off, the other mangled and thumb ripped up. Frank slightly hurt. Picked up by very plucky party of 23rd and amputation done at A.D.S. by Kennedy Elliott. Saw General and Jim Burrows before operation….”
W.E. MacLean expresses the real sense of loss & regret we all felt … when we learned during the trying period of waiting [before the attack on Cassino] that Kip had trod on a mine. I can say with absolute truth & sincerity that we in 12 Ptn considered it a major calamity.’