2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Maoris Attack the Railway Station
The Maoris Attack the Railway Station
The New Zealand attack in the night 17–18 February was by the Maoris in close conjunction with the sappers. To say the plan was curious would be putting it mildly. Two companies had to cross the Rapido by the railway line on a very narrow front indeed, seize the railway station and one or two key page 558 points near it, and then with the rest of the battalion hold this bridgehead while armour and other mobile forces swept through it laterally and then swung round to the left rear into the boggy misery of the Liri Valley. The sappers would have to work like supermen to fill or bridge the gaps in the railway embankment and allow supporting arms across the river. But the whole area was under water, as well as being heavily mined and booby-trapped and covered by a powerful arc of defences in the town and hills. (After the March attack, when the ground was drier, the New Zealanders gained these objectives and the page 559 bridges behind them were secure; but even then the notion of edging sideways through the bridgehead and out into the Liri Valley was utopian.)
How could the artillery give effective support to this operation? A creeping barrage would be like a steamroller in a swamp. The arc of defences could be shelled, but in what depth? They extended right up the steep slopes of Montecassino and an Indian conquest of the ruined abbey in the same night was certainly not to be counted on. The 25-pounders were virtually useless against the buildings of Cassino itself and there were not nearly enough medium and heavy guns to neutralise this source of trouble. In the event two batteries of heavies and two medium regiments began the softening-up of the enemy in and around the bridgehead area, then the mediums and at least four field regiments fired in direct support of the Maori attack. They fired concentrations, among them several ‘murders’, and then HF and CB tasks. One or two tasks continued into the night, but most of the gunners rested and waited for dawn. The programme had so far entailed from 200 to 400 r.p.g. ‘A very noisy night’, the 47 Battery diary remarks, ‘with the sky lit up by flashes for hours on end.’
Dawn disclosed, as several of the senior gunner officers expected, a sea of troubles. For the 4th Field it began their busiest day of the war. Two companies of Maoris only were across the river and no supporting arms could get through to them. They were perilously exposed to enemy eyes and were certain to be counter-attacked. Only the gunners could now help them.
Murderous fire was pouring into the Maori positions from three sides and the first steps were to fire heavy concentrations into enemy forming up to attack and also to blind the enemy or obscure his observation. The 4th Field therefore began to fire smoke—mainly 25 Battery, with 26 Battery joining in from time to time. Brigadier Weir advised General Kippenberger, the acting Divisional commander, that it was out of the question to keep the smoke going all day long—there were not nearly enough smoke shells in the whole of his command. Ammunition company lorries drove 25 miles to Teano to get more smoke shells. Meanwhile the 4th Field went on firing and the B Echelon gunners drew further supplies from an ammunition point four miles back. At the start and for a long time afterwards 25 Battery was firing at three rounds per minute—the so-called ‘normal’ rate, but exhausting to keep up for hours on end. It entailed firing a three-tonner full of ammunition page 560 every eight minutes. The screen was controlled and the rate varied; but for most of the time it was all that the 25 Battery gun crews could do to maintain it. From 11 a.m. to 5.45 p.m. 46 Battery also fired smoke, starting at two rounds a minute and later slowing down to one round. D Troop of the 5th Field was also put on this work towards noon, the 6th Field had some part in it, and at some stage the American artillery helped. Besides this, 26 Battery fired nine DF tasks of either five or 10 rounds per gun during the day, as well as other shoots.
In the early hours, when there was a thick mist over the gun area, some American ack-ack gun crews came across and helped 25 Battery handle the ammunition. Enemy guns opened heavy fire and in this case unlucky 25 Battery was the obvious target, its regular and ceaseless firing making it easy to pinpoint. C3 received three shells in its pit and all but Gunner White11 were wounded. White carried on single-handed, firing the gun regardless of the heavy return fire—a feat for which he was later awarded an MM. In the end most of his crew returned from the RAP with their wounds dressed and continued as before.
The smoke screen was controlled by Majors Robertson12 of 25 Battery and Spring of 26 Battery from the latter's OP. The flat ground where the points of origin had to be chosen was waterlogged and the points had to be changed several times because of changing air conditions. For most of the time, however, the wind blew south along the Rapido at 15–20 miles per hour. In the early afternoon wind conditions made it hard to screen the Maori positions and the rate of fire had to increase. The guns became grossly overheated and almost all the gunners serving them suffered burns and blisters.
For the gun crews and ammunition parties behind them there were no spells at all throughout the day. Bombardier Kennedy,13 who was in charge of ammunition for 25 Battery, had eight three-tonners and 20 men working and he says there were ‘no growls when [they were] told that they wouldn't stop for breakfast or lunch and for 14 hours all they had was one cup of tea and nothing to eat…. Practically every truck that came in [to the gun position] was met by heavy shell fire’. page 561 Several times trucks arrived just as a gun was firing its last rounds, and many times lorries were splattered with dirt and stones and shell fragments as they were being unloaded. The conditions were miserable and the ammunition parties had sometimes to struggle to keep their vehicles moving on the muddy tracks. Kennedy intercepted a road convoy carrying ammunition from Naples and got it to by-pass the ammunition point and drive straight to the gun positions.
The A Troop command post had been set up in a rather shaky house (the inside walls of which had been attractively decorated by a German artist). Many heavy-calibre shells began landing in the area, 170s and bigger, and some huge craters appeared. The command post then received a direct hit. Normally it was full of gunners taking a breather; but this day all were working and only five were wounded, including an officer.
Despite all efforts on the part of the gunners to screen them with smoke and HE, the Maoris lost their bridgehead over the Rapido to a tank and infantry counter-attack in mid-afternoon. Artillery concentrations briefly checked the tanks, but the Maoris were too close. When the tanks came on again the foremost Maori platoon had to surrender and the rest of the two companies did their best to get back across the river and surprisingly many succeeded. The smoke screen had originally been ordered from 6 to 9 a.m.; the time was extended to midday and again to 5 p.m., and then it was expected to go on until dark. When the CRA heard that the struggle at Cassino station was over he ended the smoke shoot. It was 5.30 p.m.
At the end of the day 46 Battery had fired 2129 rounds of HE (including those fired by night in support of the attack) and 3902 rounds of smoke. For the same period 26 Battery fired about 3300 rounds of HE and over 3000 rounds of smoke. For 25 Battery the figures were 1600 HE and a phenomenal 10,056 rounds of smoke, of which A Troop fired 5864 smoke rounds and C Troop 4192. One 25 Battery gun fired in this time a total of 1700 rounds. A Troop's performance was almost certainly a record for one day's firing.14
Including cartridge cases, 25 Battery had fired well over 150 tons of ammunition in less than 12 hours. Each smoke shell had to have its fuse cap removed and its time fuse set by hand. page 562 Three firing rods broke and two of them were replaced. Gun crews had been utterly dedicated to their task of shielding the embattled Maoris. When night fell they were weary to the bone and covered with the grime of battle. The whole area was littered with empty charge cases, ammunition boxes and fuse caps. Around the 25 Battery guns the cratered ground looked like the surface of the moon.
Enemy artillery was most active on the 19th, shelling American 8-inch guns behind Trocchio with remarkable accuracy and hitting two of them. The New Zealand guns had fired harassing tasks until 2.30 a.m. except for the ‘duty battery’, the 5th Field, which fired all night. Then more smoke was called for from the 4th Field and expenditure for the day was 3158 rounds, besides 1119 of HE. In the morning the crew of E2 suffered from a particularly nasty kind of premature: a faulty round apparently struck the breech block when being loaded and exploded practically in the loader's hand. It killed three gunners instantly and the No. 1 died on his way back to hospital.15 The 5th Field had much trouble from nebelwerfers and there were several narrow escapes, especially when one rocket landed just outside E Troop command post.
From these unpredictable rockets and from constant and accurate fire on the New Zealand gun areas, the next few days are ones the gunners concerned would like to forget. The 6th Field suffered the attention of several self-propelled guns in the night 19–20 and then came the rockets. Gunner Wise16 was killed on the 20th and Gunner Swords17 next day. Lance-Sergeant Hollis18 of the 4th Field, who had already displayed great determination in the Orsogna fighting, was out every day mending breaks in the telephone lines to the OP on Trocchio, always under fire. On the 20th he carried on in the same fashion, mending six breaks at one critical stage in complete disregard of the heavy shellfire landing all around him. For this he earned an MM. On the 21st it was the turn of the 5th Field, after a busy night of HF and CB tasks to which the enemy replied with rockets and the fire of three 170s. A high velocity page 563 170 took up the bombardment in the afternoon, rocking with its huge shells the RAP, then the command post of 47 Battery, then the 27 Battery gun area, where it killed a signaller, Gunner Milne,19 and finally RHQ. A nearby gun of the 23rd Field, RA, suffered a direct hit. In the morning of the 22nd a nebelwerfer rocket exploded in some trees in front of E2 of the 4th Field, killing Gunner Elliott,20 and in the afternoon the B Echelon area of RHQ was heavily shelled, killing the padre, the Rev. A. C. K. Harper,21 and Gunner Ferguson22 and wounding four others. The padre had just returned from burying Gunner Elliott. (When the hostile battery that seemed responsible was engaged by the regiment the 46 Battery OP reported a fire and clouds of smoke in the target area.)
Lance-Bombardier Armstrong23 at once rushed to the scene of the shelling and helped the wounded from the dugout to the shelter of a house. Another shell then hit the house. Armstrong had telephoned for an ambulance car and he now carried the wounded, by this time five men, out of the area that was being shelled. He went back to the house to look for any others who might have been buried in the rubble and began to clear it away. The shelling continued, and in the end Armstrong had to be ordered away from the position. His persistence in caring for the wounded regardless of his own safety earned him an MM.
The final fatality in this uncomfortable and unhappy period was Lance-Sergeant Johnson24 of the 6th Field, who died of wounds on 24 February. The day before this the ammunition dump of 27 Battery was set on fire and the fire spread to a nearby vehicle. Bombardiers Somerville25 and McIntyre26 immediately set about putting out the fire regardless of the danger of exploding shells and brought both fires under control. Other men then arrived on the scene and helped them to extinguish page 564 the fires completely. In the course of this McIntyre also drove a truck out of danger. Such acts were almost expected of the gunners at this period, when injury or sudden death was a constant threat to all who served the guns, and neither of these bombardiers was decorated.
Though every day saw a long list of DF and CB tasks issued from Artillery Headquarters and RHQ, there was still scope for individual prowess in bringing down observed fire. Almost all the OPs were on or very near Trocchio, but 46 Battery operated one for a time on the left flank, in a group of three ruined houses looking across the Gari towards S. Angelo. It gave good command over the river flat and up the Liri Valley, and at nights the OP parties could usually hear and bring down fire on vehicles or working parties ahead. For some time the OP parties spent the daylight hours there ahead of the infantry, though the latter would come forward by night to protect them against incoming patrols. Captain Vivian27 of the 4th Field at one stage set up an OP on a solid rock by the simple process of installing a chair on it and then surrounding this with smaller rocks to give some slight protection. It could not be reached by day, so the FOO had to be prepared for a long, lonely and cramped vigil—and an extremely cold one on those days when a sleety rain fell.
One of the first tasks for FOOs in the morning was usually to study all the houses on the enemy side and note those which had smoke rising from their chimneys. These were then engaged, usually with one gun. Towards the end of February targets became scarce, the enemy taking good care not to move by day if he could possibly avoid it. For want of better targets, therefore, some FOOs undertook a systematic ‘house-busting’ programme, in the certain knowledge that all but the worst-damaged houses facing them—except in Cassino itself—were enemy-occupied. As an experiment smoke candles were burnt along Route 6 to screen the much-shelled gun areas behind Trocchio; but FOOs reported such poor visibility as a result that the practice ceased. But in late February and early March continual rain and frequent mist had almost the same effect.
Throughout February and March most of the 7th Anti-Tank and 14th Light Ack-Ack had little or nothing to do in their proper roles and much to do in the less attractive tasks of road- page 565 making, digging gun pits, bringing up ammunition28 and suchlike—tasks which invariably had them floundering around with mud over their ankles and hatred in their hearts for the Italian winter. The conditions were so bad that many gunners were taken ill with high temperatures, and of these an increasing proportion contracted pneumonia. In the 7th Anti-Tank this almost became an epidemic. In 34 Battery alone 41 men out of 172 went to hospital with pneumonia.
The 34th was nevertheless able to provide an infantillery force of 51 men under Second-Lieutenants Dickey29 and Stevenson30 to serve with 3 Company of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion in positions vacated by Americans north of Route 6 on the outskirts of Cassino, with the anti-tankers on the right. They manned three posts facing the Rapido, one behind a brick wall, one in a slit trench, and the third in the room of a house. Four men manned each post from 6 p.m. to midnight and then four more took over until 6 a.m., with two more as daytime lookouts. The enemy was so close and dominated the scene so completely by fire and observation that movement by day was sternly restricted, there were no fires and no hot drinks, and even personal hygiene had to conform to the exigencies of the situation.31
Two patrols went out on 22 February to inspect the Rapido and the pontoon bridge across it and find fords for tanks. Dickey led one of them, crossed the river, climbed a high stone wall beyond it, and moved towards the town. The patrol came upon barbed wire and moved along it to the right until it reached the Pasquale road; it then returned across the pontoon bridge. Next day the 17-pounder guns Q2 and Q3 were brought forward to be deployed in the area, but only one of them, Q3, was emplaced, about 1000 yards from the town in a flat stretch of ground that gave no cover.page 566
Sergeant F. M. Diver of the 4th Field won an MM for a similar action this day and for another quite like it in the Florence campaign of July 1944.
14 These figures do not tally with those of the war diary, which gives 7035 HE and 9660 smoke as the day's output. But Bombardier Kennedy kept his own records, he collected ammunition without reference to RHQ, and his figures are certainly more reliable.
28 The ammunition party of the 7th Anti-Tank in the period 8–20 February brought forward the following rounds of ammunition and charges:
31 The Italian owner of the house and his daughter were still there and became very popular. Whenever a stonk came down on the German positions he would appear with a bottle and glass to celebrate and to urge the gunners to tell their colleagues not to stop firing.