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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino

II: Waiting For The Weather

page 252

II: Waiting For The Weather


The infantry had now been deployed, the armour was disposed for the assault and break-through, and the artillery had built up the ammunition for its huge programme of supporting fire. All awaited the propitious hour. Such was an hour in which the ground was dry enough at bomber bases as far apart as Foggia and Sardinia to allow the aircraft to take off, the weather ‘flyable’ between these bases and the target, and the Liri valley firm enough to enable tanks to exploit. The last condition necessitated three fine days before the operation, with the promise of two more to follow; and the whole combination was asking a good deal of a February in Latium. But Freyberg was prepared, indeed determined, to wait for it. The 21st and 22nd were fine, bracing days, but the 23rd broke dull and overcast, and soon after midday heavy thunder showers and snow in the high country ruined any prospect that the operation might begin next day. A postponement of twenty-four hours was ordered.

So began the long period of hope deferred, until the code-word dickens became a symbol for heartsick frustration and the operation it signified a mirage receding with the horizon. Day after day for three weeks the delay dragged on, while the corps stood ready to advance at twenty-four hours' notice. Taihoa (by and by) became the watch-word of Maori and pakeha alike. From the 23rd for the rest of the month and well on into the first week of March the wet, cloudy weather persisted, with only an occasional ‘drying wind’ to give hope a pretext. The 7th was the first of several fine days, but by this time the ground was so saturated that the armoured commanders were unanimous that four days' drying would be needed for the tanks to deploy and another two for them to exploit. Hints from Army Group that a time limit might have to be set caused Freyberg to meditate a more restricted operation which might at least relieve enemy pressure at Anzio. By the 9th tracks had hardened so well that the prospects for the next day seemed favourable. Then it became known that bad weather had waterlogged the Foggia airfields and that the bombers were earthbound. There was a similar disappointment on the 13th, but the 14th was to be the last day of waiting.

One of the most grievous consequences of the delay was the mood of pessimism that settled down on the corps. None could fail to see that time lost to the attacker was time gained to the defender. The Germans used it to perfect their defences, regroup their forces, and move their best troops into the Cassino sector. But once the plans were laid and the troops in position, the New page 253 Zealand Corps had no preparations upon which to busy itself. A sense of staleness, physical and psychological, was inevitable. On 2 March, when spirits were beginning to droop, Freyberg gathered his divisional, brigade and battalion commanders in conference, explained his plans to them and sent them away with a glow of optimism. At Corps Headquarters so long as General Gruenther's voice came up on the telephone cheerfulness kept breaking in. His sallies about the weather, his studious helpfulness, his encouraging prediction of how the spadger terrier would fasten upon the German mastiff and make it squeal – all helped to hold gloom at bay. But enforced idleness gave time to dwell on the difficulties of the operation, and these were nowhere disputed from the highest ranks downward. On 23 February Alexander wrote to Freyberg: ‘I put great store by this operation of yours. It must succeed….’ Yet he was obviously doubtful whether exploitation would be possible. On the 28th Clark said that the New Zealand attack had a 50–50 chance. Freyberg himself commented privately on 2 March that he had never been faced in the whole of his military career with so difficult an operation. Kippenberger compiled a list of ‘Blessings’ and ‘Troubles’ and used it to confound the doubters.1 At least one brigadier was worrying a good deal.2 Among the troops the effervescence that bubbled up on the announcement of the bombing programme subsided into flatness.

The promised spectacle was indeed for so long a topic of conversation throughout the corps, in rear areas as well as forward, that security was imperilled. It seemed impossible that warning of the operation should not have reached civilian or even enemy ears. On 2 March an order by 2 New Zealand Division forbade mention of dickens over the telephone. Before this, the wireless silence enjoined by the Division's operation order had had to be relaxed because of the frequent cutting of telephone lines by shellfire.

The New Zealand Division was losing about ten battle casualties a day. Sickness was on the increase. The number of men evacuated sick in February was 813, against 693 in January, and during the first half of March the rate continued to rise. Four drafts of reinforcements in late February and early March brought about 950 fresh men to fill the gaps in all arms of the service.

One gap was bound to be seriously felt. On the afternoon of 2 March, an hour after leaving General Freyberg's conference, General Kippenberger was severely wounded in a minefield on Trocchio, to the great distress of all New Zealanders in the field. He was succeeded in command of the Division by Brigadier Parkinson, and Lieutenant-Colonel I. L. Bonifant took over 6 Brigade.

2 Ibid., p. 360.

page 254 Command of the Divisional Cavalry devolved upon Major Stace.1

The long pause was unvaried by any notable clash of arms. For the most part it was a trial of patience rather than a provocation to élan. Except among the hills north of the monastery and in Cassino town, where close contact was always likely to generate combustion, the front was quiet. Forward areas, gun positions and roads were the main targets in the exchanges of artillery and mortar fire that accounted for most of the daily activity. The deeds of the corps will be most conveniently described sector by sector.


On the storm-swept Montecassino spur 7 Indian Brigade suffered most of the torments of a winter war waged against a determined enemy. Joined rather than separated by a no-man's-land that narrowed down to 100 or 50 yards at places, both sides were quick on the trigger and harried one another with mortar bombs and rifle grenades. The Indians steadily lost about sixty men every day from fire on forward posts, reserve areas and supply tracks, and from sickness due to exposure to snow and rain. The German parachutists made at least three raids on the Indian positions around Point 593 and Point 450, but each was beaten off with the help of gunfire. On the evening of 9 March German rifle grenades ignited a dump of petrol in 2 Camerons' area, and before it could be put out the fire caused an explosion of ammunition which wounded nine men. The enemy's ingenuity showed itself more than once. He replied to our own propaganda offensive with shell-borne pamphlets written in Urdu, and on the night of 13–14 March he embarrassed the troops on Point 593 by holding it in the beams of a searchlight believed to be sited at Aquino. The Indian brigade was able to afford some relief to its battalions during this period. 1/2 Gurkha Rifles continued to hold the right flank, but 1 Royal Sussex and 2/7 Gurkha Rifles were gradually replaced in the centre and on the left by 2 Camerons and 4/16 Punjab Regiment respectively.

To counter the chronic shortage of mules, the Indian engineers put in continuous work during February to make the supply track fit for the use of vehicles. Cavendish road, as it was called, was a steep, winding track that rose 800 feet in a mile and a half. On the top of the rise on the north side of Colle Maiola, at a point known as Madras Circus, it came out on to comparatively level ground, and fairly easy foot tracks led from there to the forward areas. Towards the end of February General Freyberg and his chief engineer, Brigadier Hanson, revived an earlier idea of developing the track as an

1 Lt-Col G. H. Stace, Order of Phoenix Silver Cross (Gk); Omaka, Blenheim; born Blenheim, 26 Apr 1912; farmer; CO Div Cav 4–27 Mar 1944.

page 255 axis for tanks. If Cavendish road could be made wide enough as far as Madras Circus, tanks might achieve such surprise in this seemingly tank-proof country as to capture Albaneta Farm and exploit to Montecassino. The better-equipped New Zealand engineers were directed to assist the Indians. Daily and all day from 3 to 10 March, save when rain interfered, a party of New Zealand sappers, with their compressors and bulldozers, followed up the Indians working with pick-axes and crowbars, and drilled, blasted and cleared away the rock through which the upper part of the road had to be cut. Exposed stretches of the road were camouflaged with nets in the hope of keeping the tactical secret. By the night of 10–11 March the road was fit for tanks as far as Madras Circus. From that night a force under command of 7 Indian Brigade Reconnaissance Squadron, including 17 Stuart tanks of an American battalion and the 15 Shermans of C Squadron 20 New Zealand Armoured Regiment, stood by to exploit to Albaneta and Montecassino as soon as operation dickens had made some headway. The French Expeditionary Corps, through whose area most of the road ran, readily agreed to allow the Indians to site anti-tank guns along it and to use it for operations if necessary.

Because it was to launch the assault, 6 New Zealand Brigade perhaps chafed more than other formations at the wasteful delay. The infantry companies in the northern parts of Cassino had to listen nightly to the strengthening of defences they hoped soon to attack and were powerless to do more than call down artillery fire – at best a temporary remedy. The period of waiting cost 24 Battalion 28 casualties and 25 Battalion 47 from German fire and many more from sickness. Men in the forward posts led a troglodyte existence under the shelter of stucco, stone and tiles, emerging only at night to stretch their limbs and take a breath of fresh air. Their cramped, insanitary places of refuge and the dank weather threatened an epidemic which only good doctoring and the disinfecting of buildings held in check.

Holding the line inside a town was a new and nerve-racking experience to most of the New Zealanders. The ‘line’ was as artificial as an electoral boundary, merely the forward edge of the buildings held by the Americans when their last attack lost its impetus, buildings whose size and shape acquired sudden military interest and whose dead architects, having designed thus and not otherwise, ruled men's lives from the grave. Not only from neighbouring buildings but also from the rocky face of Castle Hill German snipers, machine-gunners, and mortar crews watched every movement and fired at every target and every suspicion of one.

Communications with the forward posts of 24 and 25 Battalions page 256 were patchy. Wireless had often to be used while the signallers carried out the uncomfortable and dangerous work of repairing telephone lines. Those bringing up supplies also had to expose themselves at short range. As motor vehicles could not approach within half a mile of the town, large carrying parties from the companies in reserve had to run the gauntlet of fire every night. In fact, the enemy had the northern environs of Cassino so well registered with his weapons that at this time more casualties were suffered on the roads and in the reserve company areas than in the FDLs.

To ease the strain of life in Cassino 25 Battalion made frequent reliefs. B and A Companies formed one pair which alternated in the forward positions every three days with D and C Companies (Major S. M. Hewitt and Major Robertshaw).1 As safety demanded the utmost stealth, companies moved one platoon at a time at long intervals. Being farther from the enemy, 24 Battalion had to relieve only one platoon during this period. Most of the patrolling fell to 24 Battalion, which sent out parties north and south to keep in touch with the Indians and 25 Battalion respectively. The battalion also posted standing patrols and laid mines against infiltration up gullies to the south and west. Twenty-fifth Battalion had more brushes with the enemy. One was occasioned by the unsuccessful attempt of a German fighting patrol to blow down the wall of a house by an explosive charge, and another by the enemy's too obvious efforts to fortify a nearby school and nunnery. But on the whole both sides in Cassino town agreed that there was little scope for mobile patrolling and contented themselves by firing their weapons from permanent positions.

Meanwhile, 26 Battalion performed the task – in every respect more pedestrian – of securing 6 Brigade's rear areas with standing and roving patrols and of protecting and assisting the engineers of 7 Field Company. The system of roads was reconnoitred and reported on, swept for mines, drained and repaired. A bridge was replaced, a ford was improved, a track giving emergency access to Cassino was put in order, the demolition of walls by the Rapido was prepared so as to provide an alternative crossing for tanks; elsewhere a gap in the riverbank was sealed to prevent flooding and a river gauge was installed from which the height of the water was reported each morning. Between 6 and 15 March the Rapido dropped nearly a foot. And thanks to the work of the engineers, 6 Brigade's rear area was in much better shape for the supply and support of the coming attack.

There was little to report from 5 Brigade, which on 28 February passed from the command of Brigadier Hartnell, who left on

1 Maj P. W. Robertshaw, OBE, MC, ED; Porangahau; born Palmerston North, 30 Dec 1911; shepherd.

page 257 furlough, to that of Colonel Burrows.1 Most of the action on this broad front centred on the road and railway crossings of the Rapido east of Cassino. Though the marshy ground in front of 27 Battalion's sector made patrolling pointless, the blown bridge on Route 6 was inspected, and for the last week of the period 3 Machine Gun Company maintained a listening post each night at the flooded 30-foot demolition. The Germans were also interested in this spot and several skirmishes occurred. The Bailey bridge at the railway crossing was in the sector held by 23 Battalion until the night of 28– 29 February and by the Divisional Cavalry until 5 March, and was finally shared by the two units, with A and B Companies of 23 Battalion on the right and A and B Squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry on the left. On the night of 3 March a Divisional Cavalry patrol led by Second-Lieutenant Kingscote2 shot a German sentry at the bridge, and the next night a listening post was set up in the vicinity. The brisk enemy reaction to probing movements suggests that for nights on end both Germans and New Zealanders had men listening intently on their proper sides of the damaged bridge. Farther south also the Rapido was kept under observation, and the movement of men and vehicles on the far bank was regularly engaged by 23 Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry.

The main engineer work on this front was to bring the railway line into use for vehicles. Reconnaissance by 6 Field Company revealed about twenty demolitions in the five or six thousand yards short of the point where repairs had begun for operation avenger. Many of the demolitions were only blown culverts, but there were so many interruptions on account of the weather, the softness of the ground and enemy shelling, that by 14 March the line had been cleared only for about 2000 yards to the point where it passed round the south-western shoulder of Trocchio.

The southern sector of the corps front was held by 1 East Surreys of 78 Division in country so featureless that its northern boundary was defined as the 17 northing line on the map. The battalion patrolled aggressively but with little luck. Reconnaissance patrols to inspect the river and its approaches, fighting patrols to seek out and strike, engineer patrols to dump bridging material, standing patrols to listen and learn or to protect, ambush patrols to lie in wait, patrols to lift mines, all were sent out but the results were disappointing. Most returned with negative reports and some lost men on

1 Brig J. T. Burrows, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Gk); Christchurch; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; schoolmaster; CO 20 Bn Dec 1941–Jun 1942; 20 Bn and Armd Regt Aug 1942–Jul 1943; comd 4 Bde 27–29 Jun 1942, 5 Jul–15 Aug 1942; 5 Bde Mar 1944, Aug–Nov 1944; 6 Bde Jul–Aug 1944; Commandant, Southern Military District, Nov 1951–Oct 1953; Commander K Force, Nov 1953–Nov 1954; Commandant SMD, Jan 1955–.

2 Maj R. G. F. Kingscote, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 27 Aug 1922; student; company commander, Indian Army, Burma.

page 258 mines or to enemy lurkers. Engineers of 78 Division spent the period of waiting in improving and draining roads in the forward areas against the day when the division should be called to exploit.


The gunners manning the truly formidable armament of the corps were hardly aware of the existence of a lull. For them nearly every day brought a full day's work, made the more onerous by the greasy mud that turned gunpits into porridge-pots and access tracks into slippery lanes of penance, negotiable only on foot or by jeep. The gunlayer had to leave his sights and lend a hand to pass the ammunition. All possible gun areas on the corps front were so congested that a troop counted itself lucky to find an alternative position as much as two or three hundred yards away. The many troops and batteries unable to move found that with the constant vehicle and foot traffic of two weeks or more their positions became glutinous lakes, and further that enemy shellfire gained in accuracy.

The guns of the New Zealand Corps had a glutton's appetite. On two days in late February the New Zealand ammunition point, which catered for all the British field and medium artillery in the corps, temporarily ran out of 25-pounder shells, but for some time thereafter 19,000 rounds came in every day to 1 Ammunition Company. The heavy expenditure of the previous weeks was abruptly curtailed on 8 March, when the field artillery was rationed to twenty-five rounds a gun daily and the medium artillery to twenty. These amounts were ample for holding the line, especially as by this time the corps had clearly demonstrated its massive ascendency in gun power. A measure of its superiority may be guessed from two recollections of Brigadier Weir:

Once while observing from the castle on Mount Trocchio I saw a single German emerge from a hole near the Gari just south of the Baron's Castle and walk quietly south. He was engaged by a holocaust of fire, including that of 8-inch howitzers. As he heard the shells arriving he ran and escaped into an underground shelter. Another time I plainly saw a three-gun self-propelled battery emerge from Santa Lucia and go into action north of Route 6. I gave no orders but merely watched. In a matter of a few minutes hundreds of shells arrived and smothered the three guns, leaving them blackened skeletons.1

Assembled for a great attack, the artillery at Brigadier Weir's disposal was more than abundant for routine tasks. To the 216 field guns of the three divisions had to be added more than 150 field and medium guns of 2 AGRA, as well as the medium and heavy artillery of 2 United States Corps. By a rough division of labour, the
Operation dickens, 15 March 1944

Operation dickens, 15 March 1944

1 Comment on preliminary narrative.

page 259 harassing fire by night and the observed fire by day were shared among the various groups of guns, most of the defensive fire tasks were allotted to the divisional artillery, and most of the counter-battery work to the corps and army artillery.

The harassing policy was not to scatter the fire widely at any one time but to concentrate guns on vulnerable spots such as crossroads and bridges and localities where the enemy had been seen and to change the targets nightly. Good shooting by the heavier calibres gave the Germans a supply problem in the Liri valley. A direct hit on the bridge at Pontecorvo closed the last crossing of the Liri in the forward area, and later the destruction by shellfire of a bridge on the PontecorvoPignataro road seriously hindered supply traffic north of the Liri. The Germans wryly admired the accuracy of their opponents' harassing fire but were professionally disdainful, if thankful, for their failure to block Route 6 and their repetitious and fruitless tactic of firing heavy concentrations south of the Abbey-Albaneta ridge. Another form of harassing, of which the Germans leave no official record, was the weekly delivery by gunfire of the Frontpost, a sheet containing all the news most likely to depress its readers.1

Most of the defensive and observed fire fell on Cassino, Montecassino and the country near the Rapido. Defensive fire proper was rarely required because the enemy did not threaten attack. Hardly a night passed, however, without a demand from the infantry for defensive fire tasks upon working parties or the movement of vehicles across the Rapido. This abuse of an emergency call disclosed the defensive fire areas and taught the Germans to avoid them. In Cassino itself gunfire was often requested for work that infantry weapons could have done more effectively.

But the gunners rarely grudged a round, as the lavish, almost improvident, scale of their observed shooting showed. Visibility was frequently poor, and it was because it blinded our own observers as well as the enemy's that the experiment of screening our gun areas by laying smoke between Trocchio and Porchio was not repeated. But on clear days no enemy movement escaped the eyes of artillery observers. One result was that movement was rarely to be seen and the front looked as uninhabited as an artillery practice range. To this generalisation there was one exception – ambulances showing a red cross frequently moved up and down Route 6. After repeated reports that these vehicles were discharging and loading troops with arms, Headquarters New Zealand Artillery gave permission to fire on them.

1 Margaret Bourke-White (Purple-Heart Valley, p. 168), writing of a slightly earlier period, relates how the German infantrymen, who had come to rely on Frontpost for the news, would grumble when an issue was delivered late.

page 260

Overborne as they were by the volume of gunfire from the New Zealand Corps, the German gunners were an oppressed class. On 20 February 2 AGRA came under command of the corps to direct the counter-battery programme. The result was immediate. On the 22nd, General Baade, commanding 90 Panzer Grenadier Division, wrote:

Worthy of note is the fact that the enemy uses two or three rounds of smoke for ranging. Usually the first round is right on the target. Our gun positions are pin-pointed and usually shelled as soon as they open fire. The shelling of our rear areas by heavy guns is extremely accurate and well organised, leading to the conclusion that the enemy has just detailed a special group of guns to engage long-range targets. The enemy has obviously changed his artillery policy.

The high priority given to counter-battery work, which during the rationing period claimed half the ammunition, paid valuable dividends. Of the four main groups of German artillery – round Vallemaio, Pignataro, Piedimonte San Germano and Atina – the second, being in the Liri valley, felt the full weight of our metal. Their fire varied with the visibility and was aimed principally at crossroads and bridges on Route 6 and at infantry areas and gun positions. Two types of German gun were very elusive. One was the self-propelled gun, which would use the roads, firing each time from a fresh position. The other was the 170-millimetre gun, whose range of 29,000 yards put it beyond the reach of any artillery in the corps.

Most of the German artillery, however, was unprotected by either mobility or distance. It was located by the use of air photographs, ground observation posts, the flash-spotting and sound-ranging of 36 Survey Battery and – most galling of all to the Germans – the air OPs which continually hovered over their gun areas. The commander of 414 Artillery Regiment complained bitterly of the lack of air protection in the Liri valley:

… enemy artillery OP aircraft circle round our positions for hours at a time …. Some of them fly very low and slowly …. They often appear unexpectedly, and it is quite a common thing for some of our guns to be caught firing by one of them, and their exact position thus betrayed. The enemy is able to range undisturbed on our guns, bridges and other worthwhile targets. Losses, casualties and supply difficulties arising from destroyed bridges are daily occurrences, while our artillery is hampered not only by the ammunition shortage but also by the lack of cover from view against these aircraft.

This commander found chapter and verse for these complaints in the sufferings experienced by one of his heavy batteries under the plague of air OPs. With two of them overhead, it had taken one troop several hours to range on a Rapido bridge; another troop, observed responding to a call for defensive fire, shortly afterwards lost six men killed and wounded from shellfire and a fighter-bomber raid; page 261 finally, an air OP ranged British heavy guns on battery headquarters, which was forced to move by persistent shellfire.

A document captured about 23 February admitted the accuracy of the counter-battery fire and ordered German gunners to stand by their guns even while they were being shelled. Later, 14 Panzer Corps had a plan to use captured Italian guns for routine work and to move the German guns to positions as yet undiscovered by the enemy, where they would be reserved for emergencies.

The nests of nebelwerfers at Pignataro and Piedimonte San Germano were also severely handled whenever they opened fire. Often they came into action only once or twice a day, usually in the evening when the westering sun hindered observation from the Allied side, and sometimes they were silent for days at a time. On 20 March, during the battle for Cassino, General Senger reported that ‘the whole area round the nebelwerfer positions has been ploughed up and reploughed until it looks like the front lines of the Great War’.

The German mortars were harder to tame, in spite of elaborate programmes for that special purpose. Fifty-five mortars had been claimed as located by 14 March, more than half in the Liri valley and the rest in Cassino and the hills north of Route 6. These last were almost immune from shellfire, though it was during this time that the New Zealand artillery began to practise shooting in the upper register, that is, at angles over 45 degrees, which gave pro jectiles a high, lobbing trajectory and enabled them to search steep reverse slopes.


The Germans were too battle-wise to construe their victory of 18 February as an augury of peace and quiet, but they welcomed the respite as an opportunity to strengthen their defences and to unravel the tangle of their command. On 4 March Field-Marshal Kesselring noted the transfer of the New Zealand, Indian, and 78 Divisions from the Eighth to the Fifth Army and made the obvious deduction that the attempt to force the Liri valley would be renewed. Long before this, on 21 February, 90 Panzer Grenadier Division, as the formation on the spot, foresaw another attack at Cassino and hastened to give depth to its positions. It assembled more assault guns and anti-tank guns just west of Cassino, brought up a fresh field battery to support the troops in the town, and began to replace tired troops by newly-arrived parachutists. By this time Senger was confident that with the paratroop battalions streaming in Cassino could be held, but he was doubtful whether the weakened front of 15 Panzer Grenadier Division could weather a major attack. The page 262 artillery of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division therefore prepared to support its southern neighbour.

On 25 February 90 Panzer Grenadier Division relinquished its sector to 1 Parachute Division and retired for a well-deserved rest. The new master of Cassino, Lieutenant-General Richard Heidrich, was the aggressive commander of an aggressive division. An officer of machine guns in the First World War, Heidrich had fought against 2 New Zealand Division in Crete as commander of 3 Parachute Regiment and was known to be strict and ambitious. Now he led one of the élite formations of the whole German Army, composed of volunteers, many of whom had made several parachute jumps into enemy territory. As the monks whose abbey they now defended were dedicated to peace, so they were single-mindedly dedicated to war. They were physically and mentally toughened and were trained to perfection. Their steadiness in action was renowned. The division had a ration strength of about 13,000 and a fighting strength of about 6000. It was excellently equipped, particularly with light automatic weapons and anti-tank guns. It at once set to work to construct dugouts in the houses at Cassino, strengthening cellars with concrete, and to fortify the hills above. The defences were deepened by siting heavy machine guns behind the front line, positions were prepared for a line of anti-tank guns, and a reserve of supplies was built up for use by the forward troops should Route 6 be cut behind them.

Growing confidence even induced 14 Panzer Corps to contemplate a pincer movement on Cervaro in order to cut off the enemy north of Cassino; but the plan had to be postponed immediately for lack of troops to carry it out and indefinitely pending the liquidation of the Anzio bridgehead.

The corps made good progress in straightening out its divisions. By 14 March the pattern of command was much tidier. The defenders of the railway station, 211 Regiment, had been sent to join 71 Division on the Garigliano. South of Cassino 104 Panzer Grenadier Regiment resumed command of all three of its battalions and released the remaining units of 129 (now 115) Panzer Grenadier Regiment for service at Anzio. In the Terelle-Belvedere sector to the north, 44 Division now had none but its own regiments.

The parachute division's sector lay between the mouth of the Ascensione stream on its right and the deep ravine north of Castellone on its left. Its right flank was held by 3 Parachute Regiment (Colonel L. Heilmann), with I Parachute Machine Gun Battalion south of Cassino, II Battalion in the town and III and I Battalions on Montecassino. In the centre was 4 Parachute Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel R. Egger), with II Battalion at Albaneta and III and I Battalions on Colle Sant' Angelo. Among the hills on the left, I and page 263 II Battalions of 1 Parachute Regiment held Pizzo Corno, facing Castellone, and IV Alpine Battalion was on Monte Cairo. The garrison of Cassino town was estimated at about 500 men.

Although in a general way the German command read the Allied intentions correctly, it went astray in detail. For a reason not yet clear, the New Zealand Division was believed on 8 March to have left the corps front, but the Germans were puzzled and urgently wanted prisoners to confirm the report. Five days later the New Zealanders' whereabouts was still a subject of anxious speculation, and when General Westphal demanded a prisoner he had to be told that ‘the fish are not biting there at all’. The timing of the coming offensive also escaped the Germans. The long lull gave at least one advantage to the New Zealand Corps – it made last-minute troop movements unnecessary. The German intelligence therefore had no warning by way of regrouping or reinforcement in the forward areas and the patrolling was too light to give any indication of the impending attack.


The final New Zealand Corps plan of attack did not differ materially from the orders originally issued on 21 February. Before dawn on D-day the Indian and New Zealand troops would withdraw to a safety line 1000 yards from Cassino. The air bombardment of the town would begin at 8.30 a.m. and last until noon. Ten groups of heavy bombers and six groups of mediums, nearly 500 aircraft in all, would drop more than 1000 tons of 1000-pound high-explosive bombs on a target measuring about 1400 yards by 400. The attack would be delivered by relays of medium, heavy and medium bombers in that order, rising to a crescendo as midday approached. Late arrivals would be diverted to targets outside the town. In the afternoon fighter-bombers would be on call for prearranged targets on the southern edge of Cassino.

Zero hour for the ground troops was fixed for midday. At that time 6 Brigade was to advance at the deliberate rate of 100 yards in ten minutes to the capture of Point 193 and the whole of the town north of Route 6. It was to be preceded by a creeping barrage fired by the artillery, escorted by the tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment, supported on the right flank by the fire of 7 Indian Brigade from its prepared positions on the slopes west of the town, and protected from frontal fire by the anti-tank guns and small arms of 5 New Zealand Brigade and Combat Command ‘B’, which were ordered to engage enemy localities in Cassino south of Route 6. A battalion of 5 Indian Brigade was to take over Castle Hill as soon as possible after its capture. It was hoped to complete this first phase (objective quisling) by 2 p.m.

page 264
cassino town

cassino town

In the next phase 6 Brigade would continue southward to clear the rest of the town and establish a bridgehead by seizing the road junction near the Baron's Palace, on the southern outskirts of Cassino, the railway crossing of the Gari, the railway station and hummock and the country to the south. During the advance to this second objective, jockey, 5 Indian Brigade would be exploiting step for step along the eastern slopes of Montecassino and turning uphill to capture Hangman's Hill (Point 435),1 a knoll just below the

1 On Point 435 there stood one of the ruined pylons that originally carried the wires of the cable-way running from the cable-car station, near the railway station, to the monastery. The twisted ironwork had all the appearance of a gibbet, hence the name ‘Hangmans' Hill’.

page 265 south-eastern crest of the feature. At the same time 7 Indian Brigade was to keep up pressure from the north on the defenders of the monastery ruins. All this, it was hoped, would be accomplished by dusk on D-day.

That night the New Zealand engineers, with American assistance, would bridge the rivers on both the road and railway routes and clear a way through Cassino. The tanks of Task Force B, with 21 New Zealand Battalion under command, would move into the bridgehead ready to exploit and 5 New Zealand Brigade would close up to the river to assume responsibility for the railway station area. The Indian assault on the monastery would be launched the same night, but whether or not it succeeded the exploitation into the Liri valley would open at first light. Task Force B would advance to the first bound, and then 4 New Zealand Armoured Brigade and Task Force A would make the running.

The plan of exploitation was essentially the same as for avenger, but with two additions. The first was to define the role of 78 Division. On the night of D-day the division would build roads to selected crossings of the Rapido in the area of Sant' Angelo and to the north. On the second night two battalions would cross the river, establish a bridgehead to cover the construction of bridges, and prepare to conform with the New Zealand Division by capturing the high ground west of Sant' Angelo. The object was to help open a wide front as soon as possible to force the enemy to disperse his artillery effort. The second addition was made possible by the completion of Cavendish road. The armoured force under 7 Indian Brigade Reconnaissance Squadron was to debouch from Madras Circus at first light on the second day of the operation to assault the Albaneta Farm area and to finish off what it was hoped would be the rout of the defenders of Montecassino.

Artillery support was planned on a scale to eclipse all precedent in the history of the New Zealanders. The great variety of the weapons taking part and their occasionally obscure provenance confine us to round figures, but it may be said that during dickens nearly 900 guns would be available, if both direct and indirect support and both major and ancillary operations are counted. These included not only the commoner calibres of British and American field, medium and heavy artillery, but also American anti-aircraft and tank-destroyer guns and even three Italian 160-millimetre railway guns manned by Italians. General Freyberg calculated that in all a quarter of a million shells would be fired. These would weigh between three and four thousand tons.

The actual opening programme would employ more than 600 guns, firing nearly 1200 tons in four hours into the area of the attack. It fell into three parts. In the north the French Expeditionary Corps page 266 would fire a diversionary programme. Beginning fifteen minutes before zero hour, the French would simulate an attack and fire smoke to screen German observation posts on the high ground from the sight of the New Zealanders forming up in Cassino. A counter-battery programme was to be fired by the French and 10 Corps as well as by New Zealand Corps. Every known hostile battery would be engaged when the attack went in, and harassing fire would continue during the afternoon. Finally, there was a programme of close support for 6 Brigade. From zero hour for 130 minutes a barrage by eighty-eight field and medium guns would precede the infantry through Cassino, while well over 200 guns fired concentrations on known enemy defences in the town and on the southern outskirts. The harassing of the southern and eastern slopes of Montecassino by sixty guns would complete the close-support programme.

If the enemy could be blasted into submission, this was the plan to do it. In seven hours and a half bomb-rack and gun-barrel would discharge upon Cassino four or five tons of high explosive for every German in the garrison. And 400 tanks waited to follow up. But all this sound and fury would signify nothing if the infantry failed to win their way through the town, and their difficulties were fully acknowledged. There was the risk that the Germans would reoccupy the northern edge of the town vacated before the bombing. Both the Indians working along the hillside and the New Zealanders in the town had dangerously narrow entries that would prevent them from appearing suddenly in great strength. The whole attack would be overlooked from the hills above Cassino and enfiladed by well-protected weapons on the slopes of those hills. The airmen had warned that the bombed ruins might impede tanks.1 Only the event would show.


Though it was fine on the corps front, the weather forecast on 13 March was bad. On the 14th the indications had improved, and at 10.30 that night Fifth Army confirmed that the operation would begin next day. The long-awaited code-word bradman was circulated through the corps. Those who affected sporting language speculated on the state of the wicket; and the historically minded noted that the morrow was the ides of March.

1 Kippenberger, pp. 358–9.