Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
II: 18 March
II: 18 March
The clearing of Cassino continued to engross the New Zealand Corps on 18 March, another day of fine weather. The Indians on the hillside, supplied overnight after more than one setback, could do little but hang on. The New Zealanders held their ground round the station, but the defence retained the upper hand also in the western fringes of the town, where the Germans threw back assaults from east and west. While the enemy infiltrated back into the town, the view still prevailed at New Zealand Corps, though with mounting doubt, that the three battalions already committed were equal to their task. They fought hard through the day without reinforcement but at the end had little to show for their efforts. By then a fourth battalion was on its way forward, the forerunner of a fresh brigade.
The tactics of the enemy and of our own troops on the 18th may be briefly compared before their almost uniform failure is described. The Germans had sufficiently regained their aplomb to be feeling their way towards a general counter-attack. They had planned for the night of 17–18 March to recapture the three points of a triangle which all but enclosed the battlefield – Point 193, Point 435 and the railway station area. As it happened, the first two attacks had to be abandoned, and the third failed; but the design was significant. If Castle Hill could be retaken, the danger to the monastery from Hangman's Hill would wilt away of its own accord. Further, a base would exist from which to drive the New Zealanders out of the town. The railway station was to be seized for the same purpose. Besides, so long as it was in New Zealand hands the fear of being bypassed in Cassino would persist.
The New Zealand Corps plan was in essence the converse of this reasoning. It may be likened to an attempt to close a door with its hinge in the north-west corner of Cassino, its handle at the hummock and its jamb at Hangman's Hill. If the door could be closed Cassino and the hillside would be sealed against infiltration, and the assault on the monastery from Hangman's Hill could be mounted with a weight befitting its importance and conjointly with page 302 the armoured hook over the hills. On the 18th the three battalions pressing against the door in order from the right were the 25th, the 24th and the 26th. Most force was being exerted near the hinge, and we might picture C Company 24 Battalion as sallying out in front of the door to remove, from the area of the Hotel Continental, an obdurate wedge that was keeping it open.
Twenty-fifth Battalion was once more instructed to root out the enemy who had established themselves in two blocks of about six houses each at the foot of Castle Hill. These Germans were in a narrow salient from which they directed their fire into the centre of the town and, even more seriously, up the hillside. They succeeded in restricting the deployment of troops on Monastery Hill to the single channel of a well-registered postern in the castle, through which only one man at a time could pass. C Company laboured all the day and into the night to reduce the resistance. From their eyrie on Hangman's Hill, where they were themselves the cynosure of New Zealand eyes, the Gurkhas looked down on the stubborn work in the town. Their commander, Major Nangle, wrote:
We watched, in one interval in the smoke, the New Zealanders below clearing one of the streets of Cassino. From our detached viewpoint we could appreciate the subtleties of the technique of both sides. The careful approach of the tanks, the searching for them by the German mediums, the blasting of each house in turn, the withdrawal of the Germans from house to house always covered by fire from another or from the street, the quick dashes of the supporting New Zealand infantry and the use of smoke by both sides.1
C Company's perseverance was not unrewarded. At the last of three sorties from different directions, the company succeeded in clearing one troublesome strongpoint, killing 14 Germans and capturing three for the loss of 3 killed and 14 wounded. They were efficiently backed up by the fire of 19 Regiment tanks, mainly those of C Squadron, whose guns, it was claimed, completed the ruin of five or six houses. In such a scrimmage misadventure was not always avoidable: through bad marksmanship or ricochet some of the solid shot from the tank guns brought a wall in the castle tumbling down on some of the Essex battalion's garrison and caused casualties.
Other companies of 25 Battalion nearer the centre of the town seem to have been less active, but they were subjected to the same merciless mortaring and small-arms fire as they reorganised and looked after their wounded. Though late that night Bonifant thought that the Germans were being worn down and that the town would be cleared next day, the fact was that the nuisance under Castle Hill was barely abated.
1 Stevens, p. 309.
Farther south, 24 Battalion's three companies were holding a line from the Botanical Gardens along the sunken road as far as the right wing of 26 Battalion. They faced, at a respectful distance, the Hotel Continental and its neighbouring bastion, the Hotel des Roses, 200 yards to the south. But B Company early lost two men shot from the rear by Germans who had presumably crept back during the night. Sniping from Monastery Hill made movement in the open suicidal. Nevertheless, having rested his men, Major Turnbull was planning another bid for the southward stretch of Route 6 when half his company were rudely disturbed by the collapse of the ceiling of the room where they were sheltering. By the time the men had dusted themselves, patched their wounds and disinterred their weapons, a dive-bombing raid had begun and it was then too late to attack. Such combined dangers and discomforts were the daily bread of the infantryman in Cassino, a ration more regular than any the quartermaster could send up.
Late on the 17th it was decided to vary the head-on assaults upon the defences at the foot of Montecassino by an attempt to come in by the back door while the Germans had their attention fixed towards the Rapido. The plan was for C Company 24 Battalion (Major Reynolds), still in reserve, to come forward through Castle Hill to Point 165 and thence to attack south to Point 202 to link up with the Rajputs who held that point. While 14 Platoon worked uphill to keep touch with the Gurkhas on Hangman's Hill, the other two platoons from a firm base on Point 202 were to sweep down towards the town to clear the area between Point 202 and Route 6, with 13 Platoon on the right directed on the Hotel des Roses and 15 Platoon on the left on the Continental. Tanks in the town were to give the support of their guns.
Arriving at Point 165 on time at 5 a.m. on the 18th, the three platoons had to fight for a start line amid spandau bursts and in thick smoke, but the first stage of the attack went fairly well. A junction was made with the Indians on Point 202 and even with the Gurkhas on the ledge above. But the plunge towards the town failed. The open hillside, swept by machine guns dug in on the slope or mounted at crumbling casements on the edge of the town, craved wary walking. The two platoons' lines of advance crossed: 15 Platoon found itself pinned to earth by fire from a pink house before it could close on the Hotel des Roses, and 13 Platoon could make as little headway. Two troops of A Squadron battered down some pillboxes, but they could not break the deadlock. Lieutenant Klaus1 succeeded in leading 13 Platoon as far as Route 6, only to be killed outside the Hotel des Roses.page 304
Towards the end of the day the company, with six killed and five wounded, consolidated on the slope above the town in the rough area of Points 202 and 146. Major Reynolds was ordered to remain in place, partly to protect the flank of the Gurkhas on Point 435 and partly to interrupt as far as possible the flow of enemy supplies and reinforcements up Route 6. But the essential purpose of the action was unfulfilled. The paratroops were no more to be dislodged by the stiletto in the back than by the club in the face.
On the left flank of the Division, 26 Battalion beat off the strongest counter-attack yet attempted on the flat. For the men round the station a night made cheerless by shelling and the want of coats and blankets was succeeded by a cold, grey dawn, and with the dawn came the Germans. About sixty strong, they belonged to the motorcycle company attached to the Parachute Machine Gun Company. Their orders were to recapture the station and hummock and then to push north to the crossroads half-way to Route 6. Their coming was heralded by some ill-aimed artillery and nebelwerfer concentrations. Trying to pass themselves off as Indians, they approached across the mudflat and passed between the hummock and the Round House. Though some Germans managed to enter the Round House, the New Zealanders lying in wait opened such a fusillade, notably from the vantage-point of the hummock, that the attack was not pressed. The enemy withdrew under smoke, leaving behind at least ten casualties and perhaps more.
Their defensive success earned the men of 26 Battalion little respite. Sniping, mortars, artillery – the enemy employed the full repertory of harassment against them all day. To make life still less pleasant, our own 25-pounder smoke shells ‘were hissing overhead and bursting above [the battalion] area with a sharp crack [and] sending their canisters humming down to bowl madly all over the place’, while bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe burst in the flooded fields in front of the battalion and showered the men in their dugouts. That night there were more welcome visitors with greatcoats and blankets, and before midnight stretcher-bearers brought up a hot meal along the railway line. Since the ambulance jeeps used Route 6, casualties could be evacuated only by a difficult carry of half a mile or more to the convent.
By day the smoke screen was still an important charge on 5 Brigade, the Divisional Cavalry and the artillery. The supply of smoke shells was being consumed at an alarming rate. On this day alone 21,700 rounds were issued to regiments and stocks at Mignano were only saved from exhaustion by a timely journey to Nola by trucks of the Petrol Company. High-explosive shelling was supplemented as usual by aerial bombing, but the plight of the Indians page 305 on Point 435 made an unusual call on the services of the fighter-bombers. Porterage on the mountainside was absorbing good troops, it was costly in casualties and it was unreliable in results. General Galloway was anxious to try the dropping of supplies by air, though it was realised that because of the steep slope some were sure to fall wide. During the afternoon forty-eight aircraft, each carrying two containers, made the delivery. Guided by coloured smoke, they came in slickly at about 200 feet. Suddenly the air blossomed into parachutes of many colours. Some of the canisters bounced out of reach down the hill, but the men on Point 435 retrieved enough food, water and ammunition to survive by hard living and to defend themselves.
The Germans' story of the 18th had a ring of confidence:
The enemy's fierce assaults continued all day, but the paratroops held firm and kept command of all their positions. The town's battle commandant, Captain Foltin, distinguished himself particularly … by personal gallantry and sound leadership. The … artillery again played a great part in the success of the defence, bringing perceptible relief to the hard-pressed infantry with destructive concentrations on the enemy's forming up places.
Fresh reserves were brought up to strengthen the very weak garrison of the town.
Now that the day of crisis had been overcome, General Heidrich was full of confidence for the future.
The Germans were congratulating themselves on having survived the 17th when, without reserves, the handful of troops in Cassino had held off ‘a vastly superior enemy force’. Now the garrison had restored a continuous defensive line and was firmly under control. From the observed approach of Allied reinforcements the enemy concluded that the attack was losing its dash. The validity of this deduction may be tested against the tactical thinking in New Zealand Corps.
On this disappointing day the debate on the sufficiency of the infantry in Cassino continued. Having seen the New Zealanders in the town, General Galloway again suggested that their difficulties were due to shortage of men. General Freyberg seemed now inclined to agree. He thought first of committing another battalion; by 7.30 he had almost made up his mind to put in 5 Brigade; but when an hour later General Parkinson repeated that he had enough troops, Freyberg deferred, rather dubiously, to his Divisional Commander. ‘You must remember,’ he said, ‘that the whole operation is being paralysed until Cassino is cleared up’. The slow progress page 306 in the west of the town was the final argument. At 4.15 p.m. the decision was taken to commit 28 Battalion to mop up the rest of the town. The Maoris, under command of 6 Brigade and with the support of 25 Battalion, were to attack at 3 a.m. the next morning to capture the Continental and the buildings at the base of Castle Hill, including a towered watch-house which had been conspicuously troublesome.
Meanwhile plans had been laid for the capture of the monastery itself by a concerted assault. The unfinished state of the battle, whether in the town or on the hillside, was not allowed to act as a deterrent. The Maoris, it was hoped, would have snuffed out the last flame of resistance in the town before dawn. The Indians on Hangman's Hill were considered to be fit to deliver the final stroke against the monastery, both because of the partial success of the supply missions by foot overnight and by air that afternoon and because 5 Indian Brigade had been able to reorganise – 4/6 Rajputana Rifles, having been relieved of their portering duties, had been amalgamated with 1/6 Rajputana Rifles to form a battalion of full strength. While the Maoris distracted or dislodged the Germans under Point 193, the Essex battalion was to climb the hillside to join 1/9 Gurkha Rifles on Point 435, and together at dawn the two battalions were to storm the monastery. At the same time 7 Indian Brigade Reconnaissance Squadron, reinforced by New Zealand tanks, was to make its diversion in the rear. The corps was doing its best to hasten the battle to a climax. Who held the monastery, it had always been thought, held the road to Rome. If the great prize could be seized on the 19th, the fifth day of the battle, the chase might still be possible. Three hundred and fifty clean tanks and two fresh New Zealand battalions were ready to exploit.