Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
I: 17 March
I: 17 March
THE sun that brought in a fine day on 17 March rose about 6.20 on a scene which, confused and uncertain as it was, gave the New Zealand Corps some encouragement and the Germans some concern; but when it set twelve hours later after a day of close and bitter fighting both hopes and fears were shown to have been exaggerated. Though the Indians reinforced their garrison on Hangman's Hill and the New Zealanders made a thousand yards of good ground by pushing south to the railway station and the hummock, the German stronghold in the south-west of the town held out as doggedly as ever, and the eastern face of Montecassino remained to both sides a place of peril. The enemy survived a testing day. The 17th brought us fresh territorial gains, but to all intents and purposes it also defined their limits.
Overnight the main actions had been fought on the hillside. Once more 5 Indian Brigade sent elements of two battalions up the slope. From Point 165 two companies of 1/6 Rajputana Rifles assaulted Point 236, the knob above the next hairpin bend in the road, and seized and held it against counter-attacks until about dawn, when, their ammunition spent, they had to fall back on their starting point. Point 165 itself now changed hands but the Indians won it back and held it during the day in none too firm a grip. The two other companies of 1/6 Rajputana Rifles made good their objective, Point 202, and defended it under fire for the rest of the day. Their advance had been made beside three companies of 1/9 Gurkha Rifles, who were to press on to reinforce Lieutenant Drinkhall's all-but-beleaguered company on Hangman's Hill. It took the Gurkhas eight hours or more to weave through the enemy defences. They arrived not a minute too soon. Their comrades on Point 435 were hard pressed: the Germans had counter-attacked, gained a foothold on the knoll and had been barely kept at bay by the page 292 courage of Lieutenant Drinkhall, who, with one leg broken, had propped himself against a rock, fired his pistol at the enemy and inspired his men to hold on. They did, and when the three companies reached them the Germans were put to flight. Still closely hemmed in, the battalion threw a small circle of posts round its position and prepared for a feat of endurance. Drinkhall insisted on retaining command of his company and he did not abandon it until he was evacuated the next day. His bravery, skill and leadership earned him the Victoria Cross.
On the morning of the 17th, then, Point 435 was securely garrisoned by 1/9 Gurkha Rifles, and below them Point 202 was in the hands of two companies of 1/6 Rajputana Rifles. There was only shaky contact between these two posts, and with the troops below them none at all. The rest of 1/6 Rajputana Rifles clung precariously to Point 165, which was besieged by enemy posts, but on Castle Hill 1/4 Essex were more comfortable though still troubled by fire from above and below. At Point 236 the enemy not only interposed himself between the Gurkhas and their base but dominated Castle Hill and Point 165, held at least a prohibitive command over the road to the monastery and swept with his fire wide areas of the hillside. So long as this situation was not mended the abbey looked safe from any threat based on Point 435, and the garrison there was like an arrow without a bow. But since a reliable route upwards from Castle Hill could not be established while Cassino was uncleared, the New Zealand infantry came under an urgent incentive to finish the job in the town. Freyberg pressed Parkinson to ‘put great energy into clearing it up on a broad front’. ‘It is essential that we should push through to the Gurkhas tonight,’ he added. ‘Anywhere you can push in tanks, do so’.
A pause ensued. But the attack had forced open the door far enough to allow 26 Battalion to pass through towards the second objective. Before 9 a.m. Bonifant reported that he now had enough room to work on both fronts at once. Freyberg, who had already that day withstood Clark's pressure for more infantry, had words of exhortation: ‘Push on, you must go hard. Task Force B must go through as soon as possible. The limit is the roof – push hard’. Five minutes later he confided to Clark his hopes of ‘a certain amount of movement’.
Their forming up on some sort of start line was a frantic and bloody manoeuvre. They had to rush distances of a hundred or two hundred yards under the muzzles of German rifles and spandaus to reach Tactical Headquarters in the convent and the road to the station. The later platoons had to cross ground where they had seen their comrades struck down. Some slipped through almost unharmed by swinging left to shelter behind the stumps of buildings. Others, those of D Company, chose less wisely in veering to the right into full view of the waiting enemy and reached the convent in utter disorder. About twenty-five soldiers of A Company, including Major Fraser,2 failed to get there at all. One who did described his ordeal.
… those in the Municipal Buildings knew that their chances of gaining Tactical Headquarters were slim. Not only did the enemy have a sniper watching the only entrance to the building but the ground which the whole company would have to cross was under heavy fire. Enemy snipers and machine gunners had a clear view of the route and each man in the company knew what to expect when he started running …. Nevertheless, section by section the men raced over the open ground. Most of them had only little more than a hundred yards to go, but the enemy snipers on roof tops were waiting and they showed no mercy. Most of those in the building got out safely only to be shot in the back as they ran toward the Nunnery [Convent] entrance. One after another they dropped. The wounded crawled to shell craters, others paused to help, only to be hit themselves. Other wounded stumbled, half-crawled towards shelter only to be laid low by another bullet …. The wounded were lying everywhere. Mortar bombs were bursting amongst them. Those who reached the temporary haven of the Nunnery were badly shaken.
For twenty minutes Major Borrie,3 24 Battalion's medical officer, assisted by Lieutenant Neale4 and Sergeant Maze5 of B Company, worked in the open to succour the wounded till mortar bombs at last drove them to cover.
3 Maj A. W. H. Borrie, OBE, MC; Dunedin; born Port Chalmers, 10 May 1917; medical practitioner; medical officer 1 Gen Hosp Aug–Dec 1941; 6 Fd Amb Dec 1941–Jul 1942; RMO 24 Bn Jul 1942–Oct 1944; 3 Gen Hosp Oct 1944–May 1945.
Meanwhile the attack had gone forward. Between Route 6 and the railway line lay two roads forming a St. Andrew's cross. In spite of an earlier reconnaissance, Lieutenant Furness could now rediscover neither of the two northern arms of the cross, so deep lay the rubble. By exploring on foot, he found a way round the blockage and led his tanks south under fire, with machine-gun bullets ‘rattling like hailstones’ on their steel walls. About the crossroads half-way to the station a belt of mines caused a hold-up. Furness himself and Corporal Forbes1 cleared the field while the other tanks covered them with the smoke of shells aimed into nearby piles of debris. Gaining the embanked road which formed the south-east arm of the cross, the tanks brought their guns to bear convincingly on pillboxes and machine-gun posts and all was going well until in quick succession two tanks of 2 Troop were set aflame by an enemy anti-tank gun. The crews made the most of their involuntary infantry role by wading through water waist-deep to capture a house from which machine-gun and mortar fire had been troubling them. From this building and another enemy post they combed out about sixteen prisoners. The tanks of 4 Troop pressed on towards the station and by noon two tanks were there ready to usher in the infantry. Within an hour they were joined by two tanks of 3 Troop (Lieutenant Griggs),2 the survivors of an adventurous journey from the Bailey bridge over Route 6.
When Major Williams arrived he found that his company had dwindled to about forty men, but he decided to seize the propitious moment and to order the capture of the hummock. This rocky hillock lay 200 yards farther on. To reach it the Round House had first to be taken. It fell without much trouble to Lieutenant Quartermain's1 14 Platoon, which found it empty; but when 13 Platoon passed through to the final goal, opposition started up until Lieutenant Hay2 silenced two posts. He then led his men on to capture the hummock which had defied the Maoris a month earlier, along with six prisoners. The eastern slope was occupied and a post was sited on the forward slope to look across the flooded Gari towards the Baron's Palace and the Colosseum, the origin of so much of the fire that had challenged the advance to the station area and now continued to harass its captors.
The progress of the other companies towards the station was similarly checkered by mishaps and loss and redeemed by the initiative of junior commanders and the doggedness of those who followed them. A few episodes are recorded, and they must do duty for all. Behind C Company came the remnants of A. Second-Lieutenant Lowry,3 who had taken over command, followed the tunnel route with fatal consequences, for by now the enemy was covering the exit with machine guns. Sergeant O'Reilly,4 at the head of two platoons, moved out across the mudflats over ground creased with deep ditches full of muddy water and bespattered with smoke canisters. He searched boldly for C Company and, brushing aside resistance, led the fourteen men still with him to the Round House and thence to the hummock. B Company (Major Harvey)5 made its wav to the station along with the survivors of D Company, now reduced to about platoon strength. They found the embanked road still raked by machine guns and infested by riflemen and when they plunged off it on to the flat the going, in knee-deep water, was slower and only a little less exposed.
3 2 Lt K. J. Lowry; born NZ 9 Oct 1912; stock agent; killed in action 17 Mar 1944.
4 Lt J. F. O'Reilly, DCM, m.i.d.; Mount Hutt, Rakaia; born Rakaia, 14 Jul 1907; barman; wounded 22 Mar 1944.
By dusk the New Zealand infantry in the station area numbered about a hundred, and a few stragglers were still drifting in. Not all those missing were casualties – some were badly shaken and had turned back, some had stopped to tend the wounded, some were lying low until dark. But when the cost came to be counted, the battalion's casualties during the afternoon were found to be 33 killed and 58 wounded.
The capture of the railway station and hummock was to have been the cue for 24 Battalion (less B Company) to essay the even more ambitious task of rolling up the vital stretch of Route 6 at the foot of the hill between the Continental and the Colosseum. Its failure might have been forecast from the day's reverses in the town. At 9 a.m. Freyberg had canvassed the idea of sending tanks to work both ways from the T-junction of Route 6, south towards the Colosseum and north towards the centre of the town. In the event the infantry in Cassino spent the day gallantly but vainly battering themselves against the granite defences in the western fringes of the town and along the foot of the mountain, 25 Battalion under Castle Hill, B Company 24 Battalion at the approaches to the Continental. Consequently, when in the early afternoon 24 Battalion received the order to advance from the quarry area north of the town, the direct route to its objective was a fiercely contested battlefield.
A and D Companies, leaving C Company beyond the barracks, found Cassino, which they now entered for the first time, a perplexing and dangerous shambles. A Company (Captain Schofield) was pressed out to its left by hostility under the hill, but the pace could not be quickened and it was after nightfall when the company reached the convent. By now it was out of touch with D Company page 298 (Captain Ramsay). The centre of the town had proved too much for Ramsay's men also. After being shot at by well-hidden riflemen in a narrow defile where the use of smoke was not feasible, the company probed for another route but in the end pulled back to the northern entrance to the town and thence set out in the dark for the convent by way of the eastern outskirts, arriving about 8.30 p.m. Shortly after nine o'clock A Company made contact with B Company. Major Turnbull's account of his company's repeated repulses by ‘the heaviest fire I've ever seen’ and his insistence on the need for an adequately prepared attack with armoured support persuaded Schofield to turn back from his objective. D Company likewise paused for the night south of the convent. Thus the two companies inserted themselves between 26 Battalion in the south and 25 Battalion in the centre of the town; but the plugging of this hole seemed to have been a result of accident rather than design. Twenty-fourth Battalion's coming made no real impact on the battle.
By night the roading programme went ahead smoothly on the outskirts of Cassino, but within the town, as always, successes were slight and hard-won. The northern approach along Pasquale road was repaired and the ford over the Rapido opened, but enemy fire forbade work on the eastern boundary road and so prevented the junction with Route 6. The Americans almost completed an alternative bridge over the Rapido on Route 6, but farther west in the town the New Zealand engineers with mechanical equipment could clear a route only as far as the Botanical Gardens, so that between an aggressive tank and its most desirable target – the Continental Hotel – three hundred yards of impenetrable wreckage still intervened. Though pitted with craters, barred by demolitions and liberally mined, the railway route was easier to work. By the morning of the 18th it was open to tanks and jeeps up to the station and to all traffic nearly as far.
At dusk on the 17th the situation of the New Zealand Corps was ominous but not yet hopeless. It had profited from this day of opportunity, when the enemy resistance was at its lowest ebb, to advance as far as the hummock in the south – a success which gave more room for applying its superior numbers, stretched the German defences and widened the range of tactical choice. The air was almost entirely ours for observation or attack (over 400 sorties were flown this day) and the Germans had good grounds for their complaints about the consequences for their artillery, nebelwerfers and supply routes. The expenditure of our artillery remained vast. From dawn to dusk smoke was being fired or otherwise generated. page 299 Three battalions of infantry were fighting in the town with the support of a regiment of tanks, three more on the hillside. But no irreparable damage had been done to the enemy.
By the test of original expectations, the work of a few hours was still incomplete after more than two days. On the slope of Montecassino, where there were two battalion groups rather than three battalions, the garrison of Point 435 was poised precariously at the end of a limb which the Germans milling round Castle Hill were already threatening to sever at the trunk. Below them neither of the first two objectives was wholly in New Zealand hands. Thanks to the tenacious defence of the western edges of the town, quisling was only partly taken. Whereas the line of jockey was a semi-circle swinging south from the Baron's Palace and then north to the station, no bridgehead had been established there and indeed not a single New Zealander stood west of the Gari.
Judged even by that morning's plans, the day's operations had failed: it had not proved possible to ‘mop up the village’ and clear the zigzag road as far as Hangman's Hill to relieve the Gurkhas. Communications were undependable. Enemy shelling seemed to have increased. Casualties in men and material were mounting. The Indians were finding the slopes above the town very expensive to hold and on the 17th the New Zealanders lost about 130 all ranks in killed and wounded. Of the fifty or so tanks in the town, the German claim to have destroyed thirteen was exaggerated. At least twelve, it is true, were unserviceable, but the great majority were capable of repair or merely needed to be released from the grip of mud or rubble.
In the conduct of the battle two problems in particular exercised the generals and provoked brisk exchanges of opinion between Freyberg and the commanders above and below him. The first was whether the time had come to commit fresh infantry in Cassino. Early in the morning Freyberg contemplated the alternatives of reconstituting 5 Brigade to occupy the station and help in clearing Cassino and the calling in of a brigade of 78 Division. Since 5 Brigade was being held for the pursuit, the first course implied some weakening of the intention or hope of exploiting up the Liri valley, and this Freyberg was yet unwilling to admit. Nor, for similar reasons, did he like the second course. His decision not to reinforce 6 Brigade in the town was fully in accordance with the views of Parkinson and Bonifant, but both Clark and Galloway dissented.
A second disagreement concerned the timing of the assault on the monastery. Clark pressed strongly and repeatedly to close the pincers as soon as possible, with an assault on the monastery from Point 435 page 300 to be accompanied or closely followed by a tank-supported advance from the hills to the north and north-west. Freyberg doubted whether the armoured right hook would achieve much until the monastery could be powerfully attacked from the south and east. As with the Anzio landing (‘nobody knows this better than you’), the diversion would succeed only when the main front had begun to crumble. To spring the trap too soon would only be to sacrifice surprise; and the monastery could not be attacked frontally, as Galloway insisted, until the supply route to Point 435 was secure. It was Galloway's reiterated conviction that it would not be secure until Cassino was clear. Hence Freyberg's pressure on 6 Brigade. This, like so many Cassino arguments, came round in a circle. The two controverted problems were one and indivisible.
At 14 Panzer Corps headquarters an early alarm gave way during the 17th to rising confidence. In the early stages of the battle news had come in slowly owing to shattered communications, and when the intelligence map was brought more nearly up to date on the morning of the 17th the sight was found disconcerting. Reports of an orderly officer who had returned to 1 Parachute Division headquarters showed the Allied gains to be more extensive than at first thought, even though they were still short of the truth and were nearly all post-dated. At 10 a.m. Tenth Army confessed to Army Group C that ‘things are not too splendid here’, expressed anxiety lest the attack should be covering another operation elsewhere, perhaps along the coast, and rested the outcome of the battle on the day's events. The disposition at corps and division was to estimate the threat along the railway line more seriously than that on the hillside, where shellfire would prevent the Allies from forming up in any strength, and the assault on the railway station was correctly forecast. The Germans recognised that the Allied possession of the station and Point 435 exposed them to the danger of an outflanking movement, but when the station fell later in the day they took reassurance from their continued occupation of the western parts of the town and the monastery ruins. Their reports say that paratroops abandoned nothing but heaps of ruins in the town; and the station is said to have yielded only after hand-to-hand fighting, of which the New Zealand records afford no corroboration.
By night-time, Heidrich, always in the thick of the fight, was cheerful enough to be quite vexed not to have scored a decisive victory, but to console him he had the Fuehrer's personal approbation and – a more substantial comforter – reinforcements. In the town losses had been critically heavy. One company had sunk to a fighting page 301 strength of eight men; 1 Parachute Regiment was in a bad way. Corps therefore placed two further battalions of 115 Panzer Grenadier Regiment at the disposal of the division on the understanding that they should relieve paratroops in the quieter neighbouring sectors. The paratroops hoped to share the honours of Cassino with none.