CHAPTER 20 — Cassino
Rome was the immediate target. The intention was that the city should fall to a triple thrust by the Fifteenth Army Group: from a drive through Route 5, across the narrow waist of Italy, made by the Eighth Army after it had gained Chieti and Pescara; from another by the Fifth Army, along Route 6 through the Liri valley; and from a third coming along Route 7 from a seaborne landing in the south-east. So far the German Winter Line, though breached by the Sangro river crossings, had not been penetrated, and stalemate arose with Chieti untaken. The landing at Anzio beach south of Rome was being prepared. Now the main weight of the attack had to come from the Fifth Army, already breasted up to the Gustav Line, along the Rapido River and at Cassino, a defensive position which had proved of classic strength as long ago as the 4th century.
Since there was no immediate chance of the mobile New Zealand Division exploiting a break-through along the Eighth Army's front on the Adriatic, it was sent, augmented for the occasion into a corps by the addition of 4 Indian Division, round to General Clark's command, where it would be ready to burst forward once a break was made in this Gustav Line.
Arrived there on 22 January, the regiment was settled in within an hour or two and all arrangements were made for freshening up in preparation for the work to come. A training syllabus was drawn up: route-marching, maintenance of vehicles and weapons; showers were erected; there were lectures—mainly on enemy weapons—periods for football, leave parties to Pompeii. Naples, being thoroughly disorganised, was not in bounds. There were night driving practices in preparation for the expected mobile work, and experiments in exploding mines with instantaneous HE from the 37-mm. guns. The ground, being well drained, was reasonably free of mud, and though hard frosts at nights made the issue of leather jerkins and charcoal braziers very popular, the air was clean and the sunlight warm. Nevertheless mud tyres were fitted to all vehicles.page 324
There were parades to smarten up the squadrons, and on 1 February a visit was received from Prince Peter of Greece, who was an interested spectator at a practice shoot organised for the Staghound crews.
When Major Robinson was transferred to 18 Armoured Regiment there was quite a change-round in the various commands within the regiment, in which the major appointments were as follows:
|Commanding Officer||Lt-Col I. L. Bonifant, DSO|
|Second-in-Command||Maj G. H. Stace|
|Adjutant||Capt G. S. Kavanagh|
|OC A Squadron||Maj J. B. McMath|
|Second-in-Command||Capt C. L. Sommerville|
|OC B Squadron||Capt G. P. R. Thomas|
|Second-in-Command||Lt P. M. Keith|
|OC C Squadron||Maj N. P. Wilder, DSO|
|Second-in-Command||Capt D. A. Cole, MC|
|OC HQ Squadron||Maj R. B. McQueen|
|Medical Officer||Capt P. F. Howden, NZMC|
|Padre||Rev. H. G. Taylor, DSO, CF|
During this period the Fifth Army was steadily hammering at the door of the Liri valley. Both the assaults it had made had been contained and it became steadily more obvious that the New Zealand Corps would have to be used during the making of the breach as well as in exploiting it. Accordingly, on 6 February the regiment found itself moving to an assembly area further forward, at Stazione di Toro, on Route 6, and within the next day or so all the officers had been taken forward to Monte Trocchio to view what was to be the battlefield. And by the 9th the Divisional Cavalry had been allotted in the forward line a sector which it was to take over from 21 Battalion. This sector was on the near bank of the Rapido opposite the village of Sant' Angelo.
The next night, the 10th, in miserable cold, wet weather, the Divisional Cavalry became genuine infantry for the first time. The real and permanent change was not to come for many months yet; but this was the first taste. Amongst a division of such experienced infantry as their own New Zealanders, Div Cav, in lightly describing themselves as ‘Infantcavalry’, grimly and with rather rueful modesty laid emphasis on the first half of the word. They certainly felt themselves back at the recruit stage though they were very much at the uncomfortably ‘sharp end’ of the war. They had their Signals sergeant, Sergeant Lovegrove, shot up by some of their own infantry whilst trying to organise parties to repair telephone wires broken during the day. They had all the misery of mud and rain and the strain of listening and watching for enemy patrols more experienced than themselves. They had a hard initiation. By day the whole battlefield was completely under the observation of the monastery of Montecassino, and though they tried to reassure themselves, as did many thousands of others, that it was not occupied by the enemy, its great mass frowned and its windows looked coldly down upon them from the other side of the valley.
When the rain lifted, it left the area a sea of glutinous mud which not even the jeeps could get through. With both sides glaring at each other across the river, the days were fairly quiet, but for Div Cav in particular, green as it was to this work, the nights were unnerving. Enemy patrols came into the area and often could not be located in the blackness. When they could, they were driven off, or ‘stonks’ were called for from the supporting artillery. Even these were frightening. Pat Smith,1 the Intelligence Corporal in A Squadron, writes:page 326
‘… the Artillery had box barrages arranged to bring down fire on the river banks. I recall the codename “Minnesota” covered our front, and you just had to breathe it in the telephone to have all hell let loose about 50 yards in front.’
The destruction of the Monastery has no real part in this story; the rights and wrongs of it will be argued for many years yet. To Div Cav—well: it had glared at them: when it went up it was spectacular. The regiment was quite phlegmatic. Bob Pinney,2 for ever the farmer at heart, said:
‘… on the morning of the 15th the Flying Fortresses came over in hundreds it seemed. They dropped 1400 tons of high explosive on it. I wish they'd dropped that much lime on Glen Ngaio. That would've brought the clover on.’
Two days later the Maori Battalion put in its attack along the railway line into Cassino. Essentially this attack was designed to gain an entry into the town from its southern flank, or at least to seal it off from that direction while the defenders were occupied with the Indian Division's vigorous attempts to take the Monastery Hill from the hills on the other side. The Maori attack was also intended to gain a foothold across the Rapido, and its tributary the Gari, so as to get a point of emergence into the Liri valley for the whole Division.
The major difficulty in launching this attack was the narrowness of its front, for there was sufficient space to give room for only two companies. General Kippenberger needed therefore to give the enemy the impression that the whole attack was on a much broader front. Accordingly the Divisional Cavalry and 24 Battalion, on its right, were given a heavy machine-gunning and mortar programme to put down on their fronts. Then, during the daylight hours of the 18th, they were to help the Maoris by keeping a screen of smoke across their front.
Naturally, during the night of the 17th, the enemy accepted the bluff that an attack was pending towards Sant' Angelo and reacted vigorously by sending back a lot of small-arms and mortar fire on what he imagined would be the start line, namely Div Cav's front. However, this caused little damage, there being only one casualty when Second-Lieutenant Little was wounded.
It is not surprising that the enemy reacted so vigorously opposite Sant' Angelo, for it was about here that a previous attack by 2 US Corps had been thrown back across the Rapido with bloody loss, and the regiment was still discovering, and page 327 reporting to the American Graves Department, one or two very dead GIs; B Squadron, too, found a grim relic of the attack, in the form of an amputated leg in a boot and, scattered about, some surgical instruments, indicating that this rude operation had been completed under difficult circumstances. Even some time later than this, in April, when Div Cav was back in the same area, one unfortunate man on a standing patrol near the river spent some time in a slit trench in company with an American soldier then dead some three months.
The Maoris' attack got as far as the railway station: but only just, and no support weapons got across the river. So the two companies looked forward to a grim day of holding on desperately against the German counter-attacks. The only protection that could be given them in the meantime was gun-fire against the forming-up places for these attacks, and smoke which was laid on the new front to hide them from observation from directly above, on Montecassino. Further down the Rapido the scheduled plans were able to help to a certain extent as the smoke drifted across on the sea breeze from the Gulf of Gaeta. The task of laying the smoke screen fell to 24 Battalion, to Div Cav, and to the defence platoon of 5 Brigade Headquarters. It was very heavy work as the viscid, mucid mud was impossible even to jeeps, and the smoke canisters had to be carried forward on men's backs.
Whatever help those on the flank could be, and what greater help the guns in the rear could give the intrepid Maoris, was not enough. By late afternoon they were forced back over the river—what was left of them. We had opened the door into the Liri valley, but just a chink, and had slipped our toe in it too. But it had been firmly closed again, badly bruising the toe.
The Divisional Cavalry had been looking forward to getting back on its wheels once the breach had been made, and to leading off towards Rome. But it had to accept the disappointment of the further prospect of infantry work in the mud of the Rapido against this more experienced—indeed particularly cunning—enemy infantry.
On the night of the 20th, two enemy self-propelled guns, protected by mortars and at least one nebelwerfer, sneaked up close to the river. Between them they brought about a lot of excitement and confusion in Div Cav.
The battery, however, eventually rang up for more news since, in the words of the Gunner Adjutant, the enemy gun had ‘taken a personal dislike to my house and is trying to remove its foundations.’ The regiment did its best to help but by now it was really reaping the whirlwind, and this almost literally, for the shells of both sides seemed to be clearing RHQ'S roof by mere inches. The Divisional Cavalry lost interest lest somebody, friend or enemy, had trouble with his arithmetic.
Whether or not the beginning of this episode gave birth to the idea is not known, but on the night of the 21st, A Squadron set fire to three more haystacks which were blocking its view of the river. They were well clear of the squadron's positions, but nevertheless the job entailed some fairly cunning patrol work as the stacks were right under the enemy's nose.
Though it had not rained for several days the heavens opened again on the 23rd, the day that had been chosen for Div Cav to move out of the line. The regiment was relieved by 1 Surreys of 78 British Division. It moved back a mile or so to positions round the base of Monte Trocchio.
Though in this area the regiment was relieved of some of the strain of the forward line, it was far from free from shell- fire of heavy calibre guns. On the 25th, A Squadron had one man killed, Lance-Corporal Dunn,3 and on the 28th C Squadron suffered six more casualties, of whom Second-Lieutenant Batchelor4 died later that night.
That night, too, a stormy one with heavy rain, A and C Squadrons carried out the relief of 23 Battalion in positions round the base of Monte Trocchio.
Above Cassino the defiant hills, crowned with ruins, stared coldly and hatefully down upon the plains below and the soldiers reeling in the mud.page 330
The Divisional Cavalry was now feeling the steady whittling losses that cut without remorse into infantry battalions: a man killed here; three wounded there; a couple evacuated sick. Day by day it learned that its respect for the infantry battalions had never been misplaced. On 2 March at a moment's notice it lost its CO, Ian Bonifant. But he was not whittled away. He was taken away. The whittling was more serious—for the whole Division—for he took over temporary command of 6 Brigade from Brigadier Parkinson when General Kippenberger was seriously wounded. Major Stace took command of Div Cav.
The fight went on. The restless days, cold and grey; the drizzling rain, or the cruel, sleety, driving rain; the nights of biting cold, of suspicion and fright: nights that made men pray for the comfort of daylight whether it brought grey cloud or watery sun: all these made men feel prematurely old.
The regiment held the sector on its own until 5 March, when two companies of 23 Battalion came back into the line alongside them. Two nights previously Second-Lieutenant Kingscote5 led a patrol down to the Bailey bridge which had been erected where the railway line used to cross the Rapido. From the time the Maoris had retired back from their attack, this bridge had come in for considerable enemy attention. It had been a target for much fire from heavy guns and at least one demolition party, and was somewhat knocked about. There was a suspicion that the enemy was placing a standing patrol at the western end each night. But even before Kingscote's patrol reached the bridge it had met an enemy patrol. This was allowed to go on its way whilst Kingscote's continued on to the bridge. Sure enough, there they found a man on guard. He was summarily disposed of and they lay in ambush for two hours for the return of the enemy patrol. On its return they managed to shoot one man without suffering any casualties themselves.
From then on a listening post was set up by night regularly at the near end of the bridge.
Once the 23 Battalion companies had come back into the line, C Squadron and part of B Squadron were able to take a spell from patrolling for a day or so. Nevertheless it was not possible really to relax by day, for once back with the Staghounds, the tension was not relieved very much. The whole countryside was dominated by Monastery Hill, and the big cars were difficult to hide behind buildings.page 331
Exactly the same misfortune that robbed the whole Division when General Kippenberger stepped on a Schu mine, struck again within Div Cav on the night of the 6th. Lieutenant David Tripp6 was leading a patrol through a minefield marked with the usual white tapes. Using one of these for a guide, he followed it faithfully to where something, mortar bomb may be, or shell, had blown it off the line, and he too stepped on a mine, suffering injuries from which he died an hour or two later.
The patrolling went on night after restless night, both sides quick on the trigger; both sides determined to show aggression. Regimental Headquarters, a little further back than the squadrons, suffered its share. One night it received the most unwelcome attentions of a big 170-mm. gun. The shells—well-borers they were soon termed—could drill as far as twelve feet into the ground before they exploded. Fortunately thus they did little damage; but they were shocking on the nerves!
For over a fortnight now the New Zealand Corps had been waiting day by day for the next assault on the town itself; waiting for a morning, just one morning, of fine weather for the preliminary bombing, and with it the prospect of two days of fair weather for the operation. This state of high tension continued until 15 March. The Divisional Cavalry was scheduled for no part in the attack other than to be prepared to assist with machine-gun fire if called upon, and to lay smoke across the bridges to cover the advance of the assaulting companies when the bombing programme finished.
Warfare had certainly hardened these young men's hearts. They had dispassionately watched the destruction of an historic and peaceful building. And that destruction had been to no avail. Now they were to witness the destruction of a peaceful town which for many centuries had lain nestled in the valley under the benign and kindly surveillance of that quiet monastery. Just as warfare had made them fateful of their own possible extinction at any moment, so were their thoughts for Cassino: they simply dismissed it as being an unlucky town for happening to be there.
The New Zealand infantry in the town had been quietly withdrawn before dawn, and punctually at 8.30 the first squad- page 332 rons of aircraft arrived. They came in superb tight formations, the mediums obviously more practised than the heavies. The first squadron had scarcely unloaded and wheeled before their bombs struck the very centre of the town. There were vicious stabs of yellow light which were soon shrouded by their own ugly grey smoke and by white clouds from masonry now pounded into dust. From then until midday, under this writhing cloud which climbed towards the calmness of the heavens, the town quaked and tumbled and disintegrated into a heap of rubble, whilst the air round it shuddered and rumbled, and the air above it drummed and droned from the motors of the relentless aircraft.
The very moment the last squadron turned for home the massed guns of the Corps opened up on every known occupied enemy position: in the town, behind the town, and on the hills above it. The attack was on.
The Divisional Cavalry had nothing to do that day. Nor did it know much of the progress of the attack.
By nightfall it was known that this had been anything but a walk-over and that there were great difficulties in getting tanks forward or sappers up to clear the way for them. As well as this the enemy troops in the town itself had not been completely obliterated, as was expected, but had come up out of the cellars below the ruins, stunned and shocked but still with fight in them. By daybreak on the 16th other protection was required for the attackers. Smoke was needed, and lots of it.
The regiment was assigned the task of keeping the Route 6 bridge over the Rapido constantly hidden by smoke. This job fell the lot of C Squadron and kept more or less the whole of it busy carrying the smoke canisters forward to the point of emission. In the late afternoon the Luftwaffe made a determined attempt to destroy this bridge when some eighteen Focke-Wulf 190s came in suddenly, but their bombs fell wide of the mark. This gave the smoke party, even though they suffered a casualty, some satisfaction over the effectiveness of their work.
This continued right through the next day and constantly until the 20th. By then C Squadron had really begun to feel the strain. Some 400 canisters weighing 20 lb. each had to be carried forward on foot through about sixteen hours each day, over country which was under enemy observation and attended by sniping, mortaring and shellfire. As a result there was a steady stream of casualties, eight men being cut down on the page 333 18th, Sergeant South7 dying of his wounds. Trooper Ramsay8 died of wounds on 17 March and Trooper Johnson9 was killed on the 20th.
‘… there was a crushing explosion in the field about 20 yards to the left … and we dived for cover in the water channel on the right hand side of the road. We huddled down knee-deep in mud and water…. One fell on the road itself and the rubble spurted up about 18 inches from my head. I was swearing at each crash and flinching….’
At one time, shelling and machine-gun fire was so intense and accurate that the smoke party was pinned for a considerable time and there was a grave danger that the bridge would become exposed to enemy observation. Trooper Jim Barnard11 earned an immediate award of the MM by coolly going forward under direct observation and setting more canisters alight. This eased the pressure from, at least, observed fire and allowed the work to go on. Buchanan continues:
‘I grabbed a couple of canisters … and placed them out in the open at an angle favourable to the breeze, tore open the fuse, exposing the grey-black powder, and dropped in a fusee. The stuff burned readily, with a hissing sound, the small flame glowing green and yellow and giving off a dense column of grey smoke that spread quickly. In a few moments the structure was obscured from me, and from the observers on the hill.’
Enemy shellfire cost B Squadron one Staghound destroyed, and a bombing attack accounted for three of C Squadron's Staghounds as well as a White scout car. By now the men were well used to being away from their cars. They were resigned to the fact that what use they could be in this type of battle would not entail any thrusting movement forward or reconnaissance, but they realised that once a break-through had been achieved page 334 at Cassino they would be hurried forward along the Liri valley at the head of 5 Brigade, which was being held in reserve to exploit the breaking of the line.
But the battle had not yet got past the stage of the break-in which had been planned to be completed in the first night. As 5 Brigade gradually became reconciled to the fact that it was not going to be used in following up a routed and defeated enemy, so too did Div Cav realise that its contribution to the battle was going to be just unspectacular drudgery helping to maintain what slender hold had been made in the town itself. The New Zealand Corps was going to be too exhausted to do any following up, even if it did manage to gain complete possession of the town.
A rest from the steady grind of laying smoke came on the 20th when the regiment was relieved by 56 Reconnaissance Unit of 78 Division. The men were not reluctant to pull back for a rest, even though they had not taken any particularly dramatic part in the actual fighting. The regiment had not taken such punishment as the infantry of 6 Brigade, nor the armour of 4 Brigade, nor the New Zealand Engineers. It had not toiled day and night like the gunners, or the ASC who kept them supplied. It had been forced to stay behind the start line waiting to be thrown in for the break-out which never came, whilst slogging away to keep a vital forward link hidden by smoke. The men had been fed more or less regularly. They had taken some punishment but had been unable to hand any back, and at least one squadron had been kept slogging away at an unobtrusive job; so when relief came the regiment was not loath to accept it. Even then, when it had moved back to an area some miles behind the line and it was found that the relieving regiment could not manage to take over the job of laying smoke until the 23rd, A Squadron was sent forward to carry on with the job yet another day.
Active night patrolling by both sides continued until the end of the month, and by day the enemy kept up a certain amount of mortaring; in return he was enlivened by shoots from 3 Company's Vickers, these shoots being mainly aimed at the roads on the outskirts of Sant' Angelo. One of the observation posts spotted smoke across the river, obviously from someone making breakfast. For his carelessness his fast was broken by some accurate attention from the 3-inch mortars. Later that day a heavy mist suddenly lifted to expose several men running for cover. Speed was lent to their heels, too, the same way.
During the night of 31 March an enemy patrol worked its way into the A Squadron area and adopted the brazen ruse of talking loudly. This succeeded in putting our outpost temporarily off guard so that, when the patrol was challenged, the reply came in the form of a grenade which wounded two of our men and began a lively exchange in kind, together with other small arms. One German was wounded and died half an hour later. The patrol had taken the precaution of removing all badges of rank and identification. But the wounded man had not been thorough enough and a small pocket diary he carried, which was translated at Div Cav before being sent back, established that he had arrived in the Liri sector on the 22nd and that his flottesasken—a little rubber pontoon for getting over the river—was in good order. Later, word came down to Div Cav that the diary contained an officer's name which traced him as belonging to 276 Panzer Grenadiers, 94 Division, last reported in the coastal sector.page 337
For over a week this went on; provocation and patrolling by night, suspicion by day; and the regiment was lucky to lose only one man, Trooper Cochrane,14 who died of wounds on 7 April. One of the night patrols was led by Sergeant Freddie Marks15 who, not satisfied with his efforts for nearly two months now, to keep his squadron's communications intact by going out, usually under fire, to mend the telephone lines, volunteered to go down to the Rapido to investigate an enemy working party.
Both sides were thoroughly trigger-happy. During one morning a civilian casualty, an Italian woman, found her way to the Div Cav RAP with Spandau bullet-wounds in her arm. She suffered the first aid stoically, for the peasant women are made of stern stuff. In fact, when one of the orderlies went over later to see how she was faring, he found her nursing the bambino as usual—presumably right on time—mother and babe quite content.
The battle for Cassino ended for the Divisional Cavalry as it had begun, patrolling in the mud down along the Rapido. Even the regiment's relief, by 22 Battalion on 9 April, was carried out under the usual climatic conditions—heavy rain. The only difference was that the regiment had arrived there in winter. As it left, the first shy buds of spring were opening to the now daily mellowing sun.