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Infantry Brigadier

26. Cassino

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26. Cassino

Denis and I stayed the night in the Officers' Club at Avellino, not far from Naples. I remember it because next morning we had champagne for breakfast. I reported to the General and by evening Brigade Headquarters was settled in very comfortably in a farm-house near Alife, an exceptionally filthy little town huddled inside ancient walls.

We were in this area in good quarters and fine weather, until 4 February, and we all enjoyed ourselves. The troops rested, trained in moderation, and got thoroughly tidied up. Ike and Keith and I visited the American Second Corps on the Cassino front, saw for the first time Cassino Abbey and Mount Trocchio and were impressed by the destruction and havoc all the way up Highway Six. We visited the French Corps beyond Venafro, saw General Juin again and were warmly greeted, and were astonished to see the knife-like edges and vast ravines through which it was fighting. The French Chief of Staff told me that they never made anything but daylight attacks and was inclined to be incredulous when I told him that we almost always attacked at night.

We visited Pompeii, not nearly as attractive as Leptis Magna or Sabrata. Brigade Headquarters gave a party and we were guests at a 4 Brigade cocktail party which was also attended by nurses; and at a party at the Casualty Clearing Station, where there were many old friends and more nurses and all were very bright. 21 and 23 Battalions, the latter now commanded by Dick Connolly, put on delightful dinnerparties with the brigade band or its orchestra providing the music. I sent the band to an American Field Hospital near by. Claude said that the Commandant had thanked him very warmly and said that his staff and patients had much appreciated the entertainment, the more welcome because quite unexpected, as V.D. hospitals were seldom so favoured. page 349 We practised a river crossing over the Volturno, with enough success to make me confident that we could do an opposed crossing reasonably well. The battalions put on ceremonial parades, that of the Twenty-first memorably good. I spoke to each of them about its history and the brave men and deeds of the past. 6 Brigade and the artillery had ceremonial parades. We decided to have one also, selected a field, and set about preparations. Of an evening we had a magnificent log fire, there were always guests and callers from the battalions, we played chess or yarned, drank a little or a lot, and were very happy. The men were warm and snug in good quarters, with fires and parcels and clean clothes. Daily I could see their faces losing the strained look. What matter that all the summer campaign lay ahead, for a little while we were very content with life.

On the afternoon of 4 February orders came for us to relieve 141 and 143 United States Regiments holding the line of the Rapido river in front of Mount Trocchio. The Twenty-first carried out the relief on a wild night of wind and rain.

For a few days 5 Brigade Headquarters shared buildings with the headquarters of 141 Regiment, the equivalent of one of our brigades. It was most interesting to be with the Americans. The regimental commander was a very likeable youngish man named Wyatt. He told me that he was an estate agent from San Antonio, Texas, and that he drove eighty miles to work every morning in one and a quarter hours. He had been in the Army three years altogether. His family was very Southern and had disliked his marrying a girl from Ohio. We played chess and proved to be equally bad. He told me that his divisional commander never came forward as far as regimental headquarters, that he never went farther himself than to his battalion headquarters.

In the pamphlet Notes on High Command that General Montgomery had distributed down to Brigadiers at Tripoli, he gave the good advice always to think two down. Wyatt said that Division would tell him how to use his battalions, he would tell his battalion commanders how to use their companies and supporting arms. He was astonished when page 350 I told him that Division with us would never do more than tell me what to do, leaving me to decide how, and similarly that I would never tell battalions how to carry out a task, that I might advise and suggest and support in every way possible, but nothing more. He did not understand how that system would work. He said they had nothing comparable to our divisional conferences and discussions. Orders came down from the higher formation and were literally obeyed, and he had never heard of subordinate commanders being consulted beforehand. His regiment had crossed the Rapido a fortnight earlier and had been driven back with heavy loss. He showed me his orders and those received from his division for the operation and I thought that almost everything that should have been done had not been done and few things that should have been done had been attended to. Nothing was right except the courage. After the failure the divisional commander had ordered another attempt the next night, by the same troops, on the same plan, at the same places. Such things were done often enough by British Generals in 1915 and 1916 but I would not believe that such an abysmal ignorance of war was still possible and questioned him closely. It was so; he had gathered his surviving officers in the room we were in and had said good-bye to them. At the last moment the divisional infantry commander had intervened and had persuaded the divisional commander in his Olympian solitude and ignorance that the operation was not feasible. Wyatt thought this was an extraordinarily bold action on his part and doubted whether the divisional infantry commander would ever command a division. Yet the operation had been cancelled. This all revealed a very different system of command.

We looked at the American troops with the keenest interest. One of the regiments stayed in the area we had taken over for a few days. The men looked tired and haggard but their commander thought it was a good thing to rest them with route marches over the muddy tracks, within range of the German guns and occasionally within view of their observers. If the men felt afraid they made no effort to conceal their feelings. Two shells pitched in the midst of a company page 351 shuffling past our house and killed three men. The company instantly dispersed among the olive-trees, the men running like rabbits in all directions. Denis and I, watching from a balcony, laughed heartily and stopped suddenly a moment later when we saw the poor lads spattered against the wall.

I attended with General Freyberg at a Corps conference where we were told that the American 36 Division was to join the American 34th and deliver another attack on Cassino Abbey from the high ground north of the town. I told the General that the American infantry was worn out and quite unfit for battle without a thorough rest. He was disturbed and questioned the American commanders closely as to the condition of their troops and it was very plain that none of them had been forward or was at all in touch with his men.

On the way to this conference I called on the Maori battalion. Running up Highway Six we were nearly put in the ditch by American Negro drivers. An Indian military policeman warned us to waste no time at the San Vittore corner, beyond which we overtook an Algerian battalion with French officers. We passed through an English field regiment's area, several hundred American infantry working on the road, and reached Corps Headquarters immediately behind two Brazilian generals. In the first room I was astounded and mystified to hear that the Japanese had taken the castle. This proved to be incorrect but it was some time before I realized that the Japanese concerned were those of 100 U.S. Infantry Battalion and the castle that at Cassino.

We were observing wireless silence, still had our badges off, and were anxious to conceal from the enemy our arrival on this front. Consequently it was mortifying to have to ring the General early on the morning of the 7th and tell him that the Twenty-first had lost three prisoners. The battalion was on a very wide front in wooded country, Battalion and Company Headquarters in houses, the companies in widely separated section posts often out of sight or support of one another. A raiding party crossed the river during the night and penetrated between posts to Brian Abbott's house. They were seen just in time, the door was slammed and the window shuttered after a scuffle in which two of the Germans were page 352 wounded. Brian called Battalion Headquarters on the phone, said ‘Bunny here’, explained the situation, and asked for help. The Germans listened to this and jeered: ‘Come on out, Bunny, we know you're there.’ Three of our men walked unsuspectingly up to the door and were at once grabbed and hustled away and our arrival on the scene was no longer a secret.

The General was very nice about the incident, but I was not so nice to McElroy. Prince Peter of Greece was staying with us at the time, and when I called on the Twenty-first and told McElroy and his company commanders how I thought they should have held their ground and what was wrong with their dispositions, I quite forgot the prince was with us and listening. This was too much for poor Harry, already deeply mortified, and next day he called and asked to be relieved of his command. I thought myself at fault and so refused his request and we talked the matter out and got on to a good footing again. Prince Peter played quite good chess at a terrific pace, rarely deliberating more than five seconds over a move.

On the 19th New Zealand Corps, consisting of 2 New Zealand and 4 Indian Divisions together with an American Combat Group and over 600 guns, was formed with the specific task of taking Cassino. General Freyberg took command of the Corps with Queree as his B.G.S. I took command of our Division with Thornton as G. 1 and Sid Hartnell succeeded me in 5 Brigade. Corps and Divisional Headquarters were set up close together but with separate messes and establishments. Frank Massey, from the Twenty-first, came as my A.D.C.

The American attack was to be delivered next day, after one or two postponements, and the first task was to make arrangements to take advantage of any success they gained. This was quickly planned and prepared and we could have attacked with 5 Brigade and the American Combat Group on the night of the 11th. There was heavy rain all day, the attack failed as almost everybody expected, and we cancelled our own project. Colonel Wyatt was among those killed, by a direct hit on his headquarters. 4 Indian Division, page 353 temporarily under Dimoline, took over from the Americans on the high ground and New Zealand Corps took over command on the front. The Americans had battled since January with a stubbornness and gallantry beyond all praise, but they were fought out. Some of the eighteen battalions in the line had lost 80 per cent, of their effectives and they were utterly exhausted. When relieved, fifty men had to be carried out on stretchers. It was our turn.

The Cassino position was as strong as any position could be without being impregnable. The German defences were to be broken at their strongest point. They were held by a good division, 15 Panzer Grenadiers, supported by about 180 guns and numerous Nebelwerfers and 50 or 60 tanks, ample to hold the ground. At the end of February 1 Parachute Division, reputed the best Division in the German Army, took over from the Panzer Grenadiers. From the slopes of Monte Caira, rising to 5,000 feet, and from Cassino Hill and the abbey, the enemy looked straight down Highway Six and had complete command of every approach. The front was covered by the Rapido and Gari rivers, flooded west of Cassino town. Our one real advantage was that we had almost complete air superiority, so that the enemy guns seldom fired except in emergency or on harassing tasks at night. No movement could ever be seen in the enemy area and we moved freely on all roads. Our immense superiority in tanks could be of no use until the battle was won.

The Americans had tried to cross the Rapido in the wide Liri valley south of Cassino and had failed. They had then crossed the Rapido north of the town and by hard and long fighting got on to the high spurs north and north-west of the abbey hill and more or less between it and Monte Caira. Their desperate efforts to storm the abbey from that direction had now failed.

We considered a crossing in the centre of the Liri valley near the village of San Angelo where the crossing was actually made three months later. This was ruled out on the grounds that we did not have enough troops and that any bridgehead made would be untenable unless the abbey hill with its perfect observation was in our hands or at least being page 354 heavily disputed. After many hours of study of maps and air photographs and of the ground from every possible vantage point, and after many discussions, General Freyberg decided on a plan that was in effect a continuation of that of the Americans. The Indians would attack Cassino town from the north, we from the west; the two attacks simultaneous and converging.

Map 14. Cassino, February-March 1944

Map 14. Cassino, February-March 1944

Unfortunately it was impossible for either Division to deploy its full strength. The Indians had incredible difficulties in carrying out their relief and in supplying their troops and became involved in hard fighting to get any sort of start-line from which to launch their attack. We could not attack Cassino on a broad front because of the floods, while the only approach from the west was along and astride the railway causeway. The causeway itself was known to be heavily mined and it had been breached in half a dozen places, so that no tanks or supporting arms could get up until page 355 the mines had been cleared and the gaps bridged. We could attack only on a front of two companies and the longer and harder one looked and thought, the more difficulties one saw.

I directed 5 Brigade to prepare an attack by one battalion along the railway causeway to capture the railway station and the black hummocks near by. Every possible weapon—self-propelled guns, seventeen-pounders, machine-guns, and mortars—was to be brought forward as close as possible to Cassino, to keep the garrison there under fire and to give at least the illusion of an attack on a broad front. The sappers were to clear the mines and bridge the gaps, and if all went well we would have tanks and supporting arms in the station area before dawn. Unless the Germans cracked more quickly than we could expect, it would be a question of holding on and hammering with our guns all the following day, and the next night the American Combat team, 180 tanks with 21 Battalion under command, would cross the Gari and pour out into the Liri valley. It was to be followed by the New Zealand 4 Brigade with as many tanks and 23 Battalion, which would sweep south and clear the banks of the Rapido. If we could hold the railway station, the operation would go on with a fair prospect of success, whether the Indians succeeded, had partial success, or failed. If we failed to take the station or lost our toe-hold there, then the operation ended and we would not have lost heavily. I felt a little unlucky having to deal with so awkward a problem in my first battle as a divisional commander.

After earnest consideration it was decided to bomb the abbey. It had a certain religious significance, and even after being bombed would undoubtedly remain of value to the enemy. Undamaged, it was of higher value, and although the Germans declared that it was not garrisoned and that it housed only refugees from the Cassino town, we felt certain that it was at least the enemy's main observation post. It was so perfectly situated for the purpose that no Army could have refrained from using it. We felt that our duty to our troops was paramount over all other considerations and I gave my vote for its being bombed. The decision was made on a higher page 356 level, and on the morning of 15 February the abbey was bombed by fifteen waves of heavy bombers, 351 tons of bombs being dropped. Considerable damage was done, probably rather more was done to the surrounding posts, and the Indians had twenty-four casualties. Whatever had been the position before, there was no doubt that the enemy was now entitled to garrison the ruins, the breaches in the fifteen-foot thick walls were nowhere complete, and we wondered whether we had gained anything.

This bombardment, whether valuable or not, was not followed by any immediate attack. The Indians were still groping amid extraordinary difficulties for a start-line. During the night of 15 February, one of their British companies got on to Hill 593, which dominated the abbey itself, and nothing else happened. The next day we did nothing but bombard steadily and on the night of the 16th 1 Royal Sussex got on to Hill 593 with a fine effort and was driven off again. Poor Dimoline was having a dreadful time getting his Division into position. I never really appreciated the difficulties until I went over the ground after the war. He got me to make an appointment for us both with General Freyberg, as he thought his task was impossible and his difficulties not fully realized. The General refused to see us together: he told me he was not going to have any soviet of divisional commanders.

In one way or another the Indians got four battalions into the attack on the night of the 17th, with Hills 593 and 445 as objectives. We delivered our attack with the Maoris. It was a bleak winter night. The Maoris met intense mortar and machine-gun fire, wire, and minefields. In a fine effort they stormed the railway station but were unable to take the neighbouring hummocks. Fred Hanson and his sappers were on their heels. They worked heroically throughout the night to clear the causeway and bridge the gaps, regardless of heavy casualties to officers and men. But in vain. At daybreak there was still one gap to bridge, it could not possibly be done in daylight, and neither tanks nor anti-tank guns could be got up to the Maoris at the station. Sid Hartnell asked me for permission to withdraw them. I page 357 refused. It was just possible that the enemy would not counter-attack with tanks or, if they did, that our guns could beat them off and the chance had to be tried.

At daybreak I went up to see the Maoris. Russell Young thought they could hold on, which was the right opinion for a good battalion commander. I had to decide whether to use smoke, which would protect them from observed fire but give the enemy a chance of putting in a counter-attack unobserved by our guns, or whether to leave them unobserved all day and rely on the gunners to beat off any tank counterattack. Looking at the slopes of the mountain looming above the station, I thought there would be no one alive by the end of the day if they had no concealment, and decided to use smoke. Steve laid it on at once, but said he did not have enough to keep it going all day. I rang Stan Crump and told him the position. His drivers had enough on their hands and there were no smoke shells nearer than Naples, seventy miles away. But he promised that we should have the shells and we never ran short.

The day dragged very slowly, I had never realized that hours were such lengthy periods. If only night would come all would be well. Allen and his formidable Combat Group were waiting behind Trocchio, Fred Hanson had everything ready to bridge the last gap and the Gari in record time, and we would be away. At midday all was still well, though the Maoris said they were being heavily mortared. Still they sounded cheerful, in fact said they were quite happy, and we began to feel hopeful. At 3.45 p.m. 5 Brigade reported that a tank and infantry counter-attack, under cover of our smoke, had driven the Maoris out and that they were retiring as best they could to their original positions. There was nothing to be done except tell Steve to stop his smoke and rest his gunners. The Indians reported that after heavy fighting and high casualties they had only a footing on 593 and could do no more.

So we had failed again. The Maoris had 128 casualties and the Indians lost very heavily. We had lost about thirty of the gallant sappers. It was no use repining. Two editors from New Zealand were at my mess and we had a particularly page 358 gay evening, joined half-way through by the General and his mess. Soldiers should not worry, you do your best and do not cry over spilt milk. Prince Peter was in the party. He told us that he had climbed Trocchio during the day and had a fine view from there. Someone remarked that there were a good many ‘schu’ mines on Trocchio.

Cassino was still to be taken. We started at once to prepare another plan and by the 20th had done so and the troops were moving into position. This time we called on the Strategic Air Force to smash Cassino town with its heavy bombers. This time the two divisions would attack side by side from the north and roll up the defences one by one. New Zealand Division was to assault down the Rapido valley, capture the town and castle and a bridgehead opening out into the Liri valley through which the tanks would be poured. After we had gained the castle, the Indians would move on our right flank, clear the hill-side by stages under full view and support of our guns, and then turn uphill to storm the abbey, which meantime would be threatened from the opposite side, the line of the earlier attacks. It was not a bad plan: the subsequent army report said it was the best that could have been produced in the circumstances. One drawback was the fact that again we could attack only on a very narrow front. 6 Brigade, detailed for the assault, had to enter the town down a single road, the ground on either side being flooded and mined, with sections in single file on either side of the road, that is on a front of two men. It could only feed its battalions into the fight instead of going in with a united blow. Another difficulty was that the Indians had only a narrow entry on to the slopes of Cassino hill through the castle itself when we had taken it. A third was the probability that the bombing would create as many obstacles by cratering as it destroyed. That would not matter so much if we had fine weather; the following tanks would then scramble through all right. A fourth disadvantage was that the dependence on an air bombardment to soften the defences made us also dependent on the weather. We had 610 guns and very likely could have produced enough fire without waiting for the air.

page 359

I made out a list of ‘Blessings’ and ‘Troubles’ which I quoted to everyone I found doubting our prospects. The ‘Blessings’ were:


1,000 tons of bombs (actually 1,100 tons) must affect morale and make gaps in defences.


Artillery can to some extent neutralize enemy flanking positions on hill.


Enemy defensive fire must be uncertain and our counter-battery is powerful.


Armour can be used.


We can give flanking fire to an unusual degree, deluging the area with fire.


No great number of troops or tanks is risked.


No minefields to cross.

The ‘Troubles’ that I foresaw were:


Possibility of enemy re-occupying northern fringe of town which we had to evacuate before the bombing, when he would command the 6 Brigade approach by its single road. (This did not happen and was, in any case, cared for by a ten-minutes' bombardment by 200 guns on the northern fringe during the approach. A barrage was then formed which advanced at the very slow rate of 100 yards in ten minutes.)


Approach under observation from abbey and higher slopes. (This observation would be obscured by the smoke of the bombing and to some extent handicapped by the heavy shelling the observation areas would receive.)


Enemy strongly constructed works on slopes enfilade whole advance and will be little damaged by bombs or shells. (We could only hope that they would to some extent be neutralized by the artillery.)


Tank manœuvrability would be restricted in the bombed town. (This, owing to the rain, proved to be the worst trouble of all.)

There were continual postponements while we waited for the weather authorities to give us a fine day.

page 360

My diary reads:

Feb. 22nd. Mild sunny day. Conference at 0900. Orders out for attack.

Feb. 23rd. Heavy rain all day, so attack for to-morrow postponed.

Feb. 24th. Saw Ike and discussed his plans. Feel optimistic. Corps Conference 1600 hours, the General, Keightly 78 Division, Dimoline and self. The General's son, Paul, missing at Anzio.

Feb. 25th. Dull and wet again. Called on 5th Brigade, 21st and 28th Battalions. Another postponement.

Feb. 26th. Bad wet day and, of course, another postponement.

Feb. 27th. Visited 6th Brigade and 25th Battalion. Jim Burrows took over 5th Brigade from Sid Hartnell. Rain and another postponement.

Feb. 28th. Saw Keith and Jim. Ike worrying a good deal. Everyone on edge with frequent postponements.

Feb. 29th. To 5th Brigade and saw Jim, then to 23rd and Divisional Cavalry who are having a fair number of casualties. Rain and another postponement.

March 1st. Cables from New Zealand Government and General Puttick with congratulations on my appointment.

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….