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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino

I: The Origin of dickens

page 241

I: The Origin of dickens


THE failure of operation avenger had consequences both tactical and strategic. Tactically, it forced a reappraisal of what was fast hardening into the ‘Cassino problem’. Scarcely more than an hour after receiving the news that the Maoris had been driven back across the river, General Freyberg was revolving fresh ideas for reducing the fortress; and in assuming that he was not to resign the initiative he anticipated the thinking of the higher Allied command. For the defeat at Cassino, coming almost simultaneously with the enemy defeat at Anzio, displayed again the power of the defensive, called up endless vistas of deadlock and prompted a review of strategy in the Mediterranean theatre and of the way in which it could best serve overlord. The relevant conclusion was that the battle of Cassino must be resumed.


On 19 February General Wilson and General Alexander visited the corps front to see the craggy realities for themselves. Three days later Alexander formally addressed to Wilson an exhaustive appreciation of the situation in Italy and his plan for the future conduct of the campaign. His object was ‘to force the enemy to commit the maximum number of divisions to operations in Italy at the time overlord is launched’, and he argued that it would most probably be fulfilled by a major offensive up the Liri valley, designed to link up with the bridgehead. But in order to attain the necessary local superiority of three to one in infantry, he would need another seven and a half divisions by mid-April to reinforce his existing twenty-one divisions, and he also proposed to regroup. Leaving a single corps on the Adriatic side, he would transfer the Eighth Army west of the mountain divide to take over the front as far south as the Liri. Fifth Army would command the sector from the Liri to the sea and the Anzio bridgehead, and would mount offensives from both as the Eighth Army struck up the Liri valley.

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The same day, on the strength of these recommendations, Wilson placed his views before the British Chiefs of Staff. He had been under instructions to plan operation anvil (an invasion of Southern France in support of overlord) with an assault landing of at least two divisions. He now contended that it would be unsafe to withdraw forces from the Italian battle until the main front had been joined up with the Anzio bridgehead, and urged concentration on the campaign in Italy, with an amphibious feint, as the best way of keeping the enemy employed. He advised the cancellation of anvil and sought a fresh directive in more general terms ‘to conduct operations with the object of containing the maximum number of German troops in Southern Europe’. Wilson's plea was opportune. It arrived in time to clinch a compromise to which dissensions over anvil had already given rise.1

On the 26th, therefore, he received a new directive giving the campaign in Italy priority over all other Mediterranean operations until further orders. Alexander's plan of a great spring offensive had in effect been ratified.

Wilson himself was hopeful that the incessant bombing of the enemy's communications would compel him within two months to withdraw at least as far as the Pisa-Rimini line, thus limiting the Allied armies to the task of exerting continuous pressure to prevent a cheap disengagement. Alexander, with an eye to the weather, was more reserved about the effect of the air policy. But whether or not the spring offensive became necessary, both commanders were agreed that there must be no appreciable pause in bringing to battle the enemy's eighteen divisions south of the Rome-Pescara line and, if possible, in drawing in the four and a half in reserve in the north. The longer the delay the stronger the enemy's prepared defences. Nor could there be much doubt where he must be engaged. On the Adriatic the war was at a standstill. At Anzio 6 Corps, having survived, must now pause to recruit its strength. Only the Rapido-Garigliano front remained. Here the choice narrow ed itself down to the Cassino area. For one thing, Alexander wanted the Cassino spur cleared and a bridgehead established across the Rapido as an exit into the Liri valley when the spring offensive began, if exploitation was not possible earlier. For another, he had in Freyberg a commander on the spot with a plan that his corps was ready to execute.

That four weeks elapsed between its conception and its execution is an example, with a modern twist, of the perennial influence of mud on history – mud, this time, that prevented tanks from leaving the roads and aircraft from leaving the runways. For these four

1 Churchill, V, pp. 451–5.

page 243 weeks, until 15 March, the weather tried the New Zealanders and the Indians with a series of frustrating delays that blunted the edge of the enterprise, wasted them with casualties and sickness, drained the nervous energy of infantry at close grips with the enemy and sent all about their duties in fretfulness and wet-footed discomfort.


When the third attack on Cassino failed on 18 February Freyberg lost no time in planning another. There was indeed no time to lose, since this was the day of crisis at Anzio. Freyberg's choice lay among courses almost equally unattractive. Whatever his plan, the stark fact was that he was being asked to launch troops he thought too few on a major offensive at the most difficult time of the year, when river valleys were under water. A mere repetition of the double thrust on the monastery and the railway station would have invited defeat. Two other solutions to the Cassino problem lay open to the corps, the one more, the other less, of a turning movement than operation avenger. The more oblique approach was by a river crossing in the mouth of the Liri valley which might eventually outflank Cassino by uniting with an Indian advance descending into the valley from the hills north-west of the monastery. Though this choice would in fact have caused most alarm to the Germans, it did not appear any more attractive now than when, for various reasons, it had been rejected several days before.1 It had failed at high cost in January. In Freyberg's mind the roading required to sustain such an attack was alone prohibitive. Kippenberger thought that the operation was feasible and in principle to be preferred to a direct assault on a fortress, but that if it failed it would fail disastrously with the loss of a large part of the Division, whereas failure at Cassino or in the hills above it would be only a repulse, not a disaster.

The town itself, then, would have to be cleared. An attack from the east would be terribly exposed to observation – the bridging would have to be done in the open – it would be hampered by flooding and demolitions, and it would encounter the most carefully prepared defences. The least disadvantageous approach was from the north. Here the Americans had won a footing in the outskirts, from which it would be necessary to advance south through the length of the town before the valley could be opened. The stout buildings of stone and concrete might offer some cover against fire and observation from the hillside on the attackers' right flank, but they would also be desperately defended by the German parachutists and, in default of a ruinous house-to-house progress, they would have to be devastated by weight of high explosive and rushed before the

1 See above, p. 240.

page 244 defenders could recover. The best way to deliver the high explosive quickly and in sufficient bulk was from the air. On the late afternoon of the 18th Freyberg advocated a careful plan to demolish the town by heavy bombers while the forward troops were withdrawn, and to follow the bombing instantly by infantry assault. Here was the pivot upon which all action turned for the next month.

Nor was action dilatory. After conferring with his own senior commanders Freyberg laid his plan before Clark at Army Headquarters on the night of the 18th. The next day he saw Wilson and Alexander, and that evening he returned from Army to Corps Headquarters with the news that ‘the attack on the village is on’. Having received general approval for his plan, Freyberg hastened to fill in the outlines. Early on the morning of the 20th he gave oral directions to his divisional commanders to start the necessary troop movements and other preparations. On the 21st the air and artillery policies were concerted at a conference attended by representatives of 12 Air Support Command, and late that night the corps' operation instruction was issued. Briefly,1 operation dickens2 was an attempt to capture Cassino and establish a bridgehead over the Rapido by infantry and tanks attacking through the town after it had been pulverised by bombing aircraft used as siege artillery. Immediately after the air bombardment, the New Zealanders, under cover of maximum artillery support, would advance south from the northern outskirts of the town, with the Indians moving along the eastern face of Montecassino to guard their right flank. On capturing Cassino, they would exploit south to open up Route 6 and east and south-east to clear the enemy between the Gari and Rapido rivers so that crossings might be constructed. The date for the attack would be determined by the air command, but it would not be earlier than 24 February.

The decision to leave the air command to fix the date underlined Freyberg's reiterated statement that without a full measure of air support the attack would have to be abandoned. The distinctive and indispensable feature of the plan – the use of the heavy bombers of the Strategic Air Force in a tactical role – was not without

1 The plan is described in greater detail below, pp. 2636 and Appendix V.

2 Miss Hornabrook, a member of the staff of the War History Branch, has pointed out that this code-name is a reminder that Charles Dickens was once a visitor to the abbey, which moved him to reflections not yet outdated. In Pictures from Italy he writes: ‘… the monastery of Monte Cassino … is perched on the steep and lofty hill above the little town of [Piedimonte] San Germano, and is lost on a misty morning in the clouds.

‘So much the better, for the deep sounding of its bell, which, as we go winding up, on mules, towards the convent, is heard mysteriously in the still air, while nothing is seen but the grey mist, moving solemnly and slowly, like a funeral procession ….

‘How was this extraordinary structure ever built in such a situation ….? How, being despoiled by plunder, fire, and earthequake, has it risen from its ruins, and been again made what we now see it, with its church so sumptuous and magnificent?’

page 245 precedent, but the circumstances in which the weapon was to be tried were unparalleled in the West. Alexander and Freyberg could recall that in Africa concentrated aerial bombardment at Djebel Tebaga had been followed by an immediate break-through on the ground. Clark had noticed earlier in the month how close air support encouraged the troops at Anzio.1 But neither of these attacks was by heavy bombers. Twice previously, it is true, heavy bombers had given direct support to the army in Italy. Once was at Battipaglia, a crossroads village near Salerno, in September 1943, when great damage was done. But the experiment only led the Royal Air Force Review to cite the incident as illustrating the hypothesis that all-out bombing attacks on fortified towns were better suited to aid defence than assault. The other occasion, of course, was the bombardment of the abbey – an impressive demonstration of the power of heavy bombs to wreck massive buildings. But neither Battipaglia nor Montecassino was a true precedent, partly because of the smaller weight of the attack but mainly because ground troops had not followed up immediately. More apposite was the example of Stalingrad, where the Germans, having reduced the city to ruins by bombing, sent in wave after wave of tanks, only to have them halted by stubborn Russian defenders protected by rubble, the shells of buildings and bomb craters. A British War Office survey of this action concluded that it had proved to the hilt that ‘the ruins of a city constitute one of the most formidable types of fortifications in modern war’. Though this survey was published a year before the Cassino battle, it may not have been received or studied at Freyberg's headquarters in time to be of use.2 Its main finding was, however, a commonplace of the First World War.
The ‘lessons of history’, military or otherwise, are in any event perilously easy to misapply. The idea of bombing a way through Cassino was not a product of diligent search for a precedent, but an urgent response to a practical challenge. It originated with Freyberg, who thought it would open up a new situation, and, with some exceptions, gained a fresh imprimatur at each stage upward in the chain of command. Clark had earlier pondered the use of strategic bombers in close battlefield support at Anzio, since their attacks on the rear areas for the last six months had not prevented the enemy from moving reserves at will.3 Alexander, thinking like Freyberg, welcomed the plan as a means of varying the tactics of assault. Major-General John K. Cannon, commanding the Tactical Air Force, thought that, given good weather and all the air resources

2 An undated copy in the 2 New Zealand Division file ‘Lessons from Operations’ is filed after the lessons from Cassino.

page 246 in Italy, it would be possible to ‘whip out Cassino like an old tooth’.1 Air Force officers at the conference on the 21st warned Freyberg that casualties might occur from misdirected bombs: this he accepted as the price of close support. To the further warning that bomb craters and rubble would produce perfect tank traps, he replied that if our troops could not use tanks neither could the enemy; he also thought that bulldozers could speedily clear a path. The final air force verdict at this conference was that a full infantry effort, if generously supported by gunfire and made immediately after the air attack, would have ‘a fair chance’ of taking the town. On the whole, the ground commanders and the air commanders accustomed to working with them viewed the plan experimentally as a possible way of breaking out of the impasse without risking great loss of life. They were in a mood to try anything, provided it cost materials rather than men.

General Eaker was less hopeful, though the plan was being urged from above as well as from below. For it so happened that about this time in Washington General H. H. Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces, was independently coming to the conclusion that the potentialities of mass air assault were not being sufficiently explored in Italy. He quoted Cassino as a place where the concentration of air power might achieve results if the ground forces could take full advantage of it. This suggestion, after being approved by the American and British Chiefs of Staff in turn, was passed on by the Combined Chiefs of Staff to Wilson, who was able to inform them that just such a plan was awaiting execution. Eaker cautioned Arnold not to expect a great victory because he doubted whether the air strike would wholly neutralise the enemy and whether the ground troops could adequately exploit their opportunity.2The sybil has been less prophetic than this.


The New Zealand Corps had several days to regroup for the attack, tentatively fixed for 24 February. The Indians needed a firm base whence to advance along the hillside above the town and check interference with the New Zealanders' right. The preliminaries required of them, therefore, were the capture of Point 445, about 300 yards north of the monastery, and then the construction of positions along a line from Point 450 through Point 445 and eastwards down the spurs to the edge of Cassino, so that they could cover with fire the western outskirts of the town and the eastern slopes of Montecassino. The New Zealanders were to replace the Americans in the northern part of the town and astride

1 Quoted by Alexander, p. 2916.

page 247 Route 6 to the east, and so to deploy as to be ready to attack and to engage the enemy with all possible weapons from the east bank of the Rapido. The Americans still in the line north of the Indians were to be relieved by the French Expeditionary Corps. Second United States Corps would then form a new Fifth Army reserve.

In the hills above Cassino the forward Indian infantry kept cheerless vigil in slit trenches and rock sangars that were difficult to improve because of the close proximity of the Germans. For these troops the harassing fire of machine guns and mortars made movement impossible by day and chancy at any time. Though the porters provided by 11 Indian Brigade were reinforced eventually by three Indian pioneer companies, porters as well as mules remained too few to bring up more than meagre supplies of rations over the steep, rugged tracks. Rain and snow further tested the Indians' fortitude.

The intention to reorganise on a two-brigade front was carried out on the night of 19–20 February, when 5 Indian Brigade took over the eastern half of the sector from 7 Indian Brigade; but the relief had no sooner been completed than the new corps plan of attack foreshadowed its undoing. Operation dickens called for a fresh Indian brigade to be held in readiness to join the New Zealanders in the assault on Cassino. Seventh Indian Brigade was sorely depleted and 11 Brigade was dispersed on various assignments. Fifth Indian Brigade was thus the only one available for the assault and would have to be drawn back into reserve. Meanwhile one of its battalions, 1/9 Gurkha Regiment, essayed the preliminary task of seizing Point 445. Its silent attack on the night of 22–23 February ran into unexpectedly strong resistance and recoiled before punishing mortar fire. Thereafter, Point 445 was resigned to the enemy and 7 Brigade had to adjust the line of the new positions which it now dug and fortified east of Point 450 down the hillside to cover Cassino and Montecassino.

The relief of 5 Indian Brigade was scheduled for the night of 23–24 February in the expectation that the attack would begin on the morning of the 24th, but heavy snow delayed for twenty-four hours the relief of 1/9 Gurkhas by 2/7 Gurkhas. This last battalion and 2 Cameron Highlanders (in reserve), both of which belonged to 11 Indian Brigade, now came under command of 7 Indian Brigade, which resumed responsibility for the division's sector. With 5 Indian Brigade back in reserve round Cairo village, the Indians had positioned themselves for the corps' offensive.

For the New Zealand Division the interval between the actual end of avenger and the presumed beginning of dickens was likewise a period of preparatory reliefs and explorations. The main page 248 reshuffle was north of Route 6, where 6 Brigade (Brigadier Parkinson) and elements of 5 Brigade (Colonel Hartnell) replaced the Americans. On the right, 6 Brigade took over from 133 United States Regiment a wedge-shaped sector, with the blade of the wedge forming the ‘front’, only about 500 yards broad, among the buildings in the northern part of Cassino. The western or right-hand boundary lay against the hillside, resting on the positions being dug by the Indians. The left-hand boundary ran away north-east from Cassino along Pasquale road, so called because it passed through the hamlet of San Pasquale. Caruso road led almost due north out of the town along the foot of the hill, cutting through a military barracks before trending westward to Cairo village. The course of the Rapido lay beside Caruso road almost as far as the barracks, and east of it again ran Parallel road, which merited its name but for a slight divergence to the north-east.

The battalions of 6 Brigade, moving in under wireless silence on the night of 21–22 February, proved an awkward freightage for the
new zealand dispositions north of route 6, 24 february 1944

new zealand dispositions north of route 6, 24 february 1944

page 249 vehicles of 6 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company, which had to carry them over narrow, muddy, devious lanes to debussing points only hundreds of yards from the front line. Though one loaded truck lurched over a bank and capsized, no harm was done to the occupants, and shortly after midnight the infantrymen had all been delivered safely. For the drivers the journey back over the return stretch of the traffic circuit was a waking nightmare. Gun flashes dazzled the men at the wheel, momentarily dispelling the murk of the night and then leaving it more impenetrable than ever. Overhead, branches clutched at canopies and ripped them. Reserve drivers had to walk ahead to pick out the route. Rough tracks and ditched tanks and trucks reduced progress to a crawl, two miles in the hour.

Meanwhile the infantry of 24 and 25 Battalions (Lieutenant-Colonel Pike and Major Norman) had been met at the barracks by American guides and conducted to their positions. The changeover was completed not long after 3 a.m. The brigade's forward area, now occupied by four companies, was five or six hundred yards square, with its extremities at Point 175, a knob protruding from the lower slopes of the hillside, and at the eastern edge of the town 100 yards south of the junction of Parallel and Pasquale roads. From the right the positions were held by C and D Companies of 24 Battalion (Major J. W. Reynolds and Captain Ramsay)1 and B and A Companies of 25 Battalion (Captain Hoy2 and Major Sanders).3

The area was sprinkled with buildings which closed up to each other in 25 Battalion's sector to form part of the town. Here the enemy manned posts a street's width away. Almost as near in appearance and by no means remote in fact was Point 193, known as Castle Hill from the towered and castellated stone building on its summit. Not so much a hill as the tip of a spur running down from Montecassino, Point 193 showed to the north a cliff face dropping sheer into a deep ravine and hollowed into caves and dugouts where machine guns had been emplaced. The obstrusive tactical strength of this feature ensured sooner or later a deadly game to be king of the castle, but for the time being the Germans held possession and with it command over all 6 Brigade's forward positions. Walls and roofs saved the New Zealanders from the worst consequences of this surveillance. More active self-defence was the siting of 3-inch and 42-inch mortars and of six-pounder anti-tank guns and the manning of mined road blocks north of the town. The reserve companies in bivouac areas on the slopes of Colle Maiola, being at a safe distance from the German infantry, were continually harassed by the German guns.

1 Maj A. H. Ramsay; Auckland; born China, 27 Mar 1907; clerk; wounded 19 Mar 1944.

2 Maj K. F. Hoy, m.i.d.; Hamilton; born NZ 5 Sep 1911; civil servant.

3 Maj N. K. Sanders, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Blenheim, 10 Jun 1913; Harbour Board employee.

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The brigade's reserve battalion, the 26th (Lieutenant-Colonel Richards)1 scattered its companies in the angle of country enclosed by Parallel and Pasquale roads. The tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin), now under command of 6 Brigade, moved into the same area ready to give weight to the attack through the town.

On 6 Brigade's left, between San Pasquale and Route 6, the Americans of 91 Reconnaissance Battalion had already handed over on the night of 20–21 February to New Zealand anti-tank and machine-gunners holding the line as infantry. This improvised force under 27 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel MacDuff)2 formed the right wing of 5 Brigade. With 34 Anti-Tank Battery on the right and 3 Machine Gun Company on the left, it held a ring of outposts set three or four hundred yards back from the Rapido, which in this area on the eastern approaches to Cassino had overflowed its banks and created that most irksome of all military obstacles – a marsh. One of several patrols sent to scout along the river on the night of 22–23 February had to plod through a foot of mud for the last 50 yards and failed to find a crossing.

Another round of reliefs occurred farther south on the front held by 5 Brigade since 6 February. After the Maoris' withdrawal on the 18th command of the Rapido River sector facing the railway station passed to 24 Battalion, which redisposed its platoons and brought up anti-tank guns to prevent the enemy from pressing home his success by attack along the railway line. A battalion front of more than 5000 yards was almost equally divided between A Company, from Route 6 to the Ascensione stream, and B Company, from the stream south to the boundary with the Divisional Cavalry Regiment. The arrangement was short-lived, for on the night of 19–20 February 24 Battalion was relieved to rejoin its brigade and 23 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel J. R. J. Connolly) took over its commitments. The incoming battalion deployed C Company (Lieutenant Coe)3 on the right and D Company (Major Slee)4 on the left of the railway sector and sent B Company (Captain F. C. Irving) to replace 24 Battalion's C Company, which was guarding the Division's left flank under command of the Divisional Cavalry.

Though the Germans did not follow up across the river, they showed every intention of holding what they had. A 24 Battalion

1 Lt-Col E. E. Richards, DSO, m.i.d.; Nelson; born Kumara, 6 Dec 1915; civil servant; CO 26 Bn Dec 1943–Apr 1944.

2 Col J. L. MacDuff, MC, m.i.d.; Lautoka, Fiji; born NZ 11 Dec 1905; barrister and solicitor; CO 27 (MG) Bn Sep 1943–Feb 1944; CO 25 Bn Feb–Jun 1944; CO Adv Base 2 NZEF Jun–Jul 1944; Chief Magistrate, Fiji.

3 Lt F. R. Coe, MC; born England, 21 Aug 1912; goldminer.

4 Maj C. A. Slee, m.i.d.; born Westport; clerk; died of wounds 5 Apr 1944.

page 251 patrol found them wiring their defences round the station and the hummock. Heavy shellfire fell forward of Trocchio. Efforts were made to block an attacker's routes of approach. Concentrated gunfire on the Bailey bridge erected by the New Zealand sappers over the Rapido scored a direct hit and left the bridge sagging, with holes in both ends of the decking and part of the western end blown away. Nevertheless, it was still judged worth protecting, and 23 Battalion continued to cover it nightly by a standing patrol. About the same time, according to German reports, the commander of a 210-millimetre troop personally ranged his guns on the road bridge and destroyed it, though not so thoroughly as to deter an enemy engineer patrol which fought its way to the bridge and set off another demolition. Repairs to the railway embankment were engaged by the always troublesome German mortar crews.

The enterprise of enemy patrols kept the New Zealand infantry on edge and tempted sentries to fire at shadows. One night, in what the Germans justifiably called ‘a bold and skilful assault’, a patrol from I Battalion 129 Panzer Grenadier Regiment ambushed Second-Lieutenant Esson1 and a sergeant of C Company 23 Battalion on their rounds and spirited them away with such silent efficiency that the mystery of their disappearance was only unveiled after the war.

By the 22nd, when 6 Brigade had relieved the Americans north of Cassino, the New Zealand Division was extended to the limit to hold a front that stretched continuously for six miles or more from the slopes of Colle Maiola to the Ladrone stream, the boundary with 10 Corps. It had had to improvise infantrymen to man this length of line. And it was preparing to participate in a major offensive. General Freyberg therefore decided to commit part of his third division on the southern flank of the corps to reduce the New Zealanders' responsibilities.

This new force was 78 British Division (Major-General C. F. Keightley), the last of five to be transferred in recent weeks from the Eighth to the Fifth Army. It crossed Italy in the first half of February and came under New Zealand command on the 17th. Since it was to be used if possible only for the pursuit, Freyberg assigned it no active part in the coming assault, but it was to be ready with bridging material to cross the Rapido in support of the New Zealanders' exploitation if required to do so. Meanwhile, on the night of 23–24 February, its 11 Brigade relieved the Divisional Cavalry and B Company 23 Battalion on the Rapido, sending 1 East Surreys forward and keeping the other two battalions (5 Northamptonshire Regiment and 2 Lancashire Fusiliers) in reserve.

1 Capt W. K. Esson; Christchurch; born Wellington, 19 May 1910; salesman; p.w. 20 Feb 1944.