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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino

I: 20 March

page 316

I: 20 March


‘ANOTHER lovely day – climatically’. The half-irony with which General Freyberg's diary greets 20 March was apt; for on this sixth day of the battle the note of ultimate doubt sounds for the first time in New Zealand Corps' tactical conversations. News converging on Corps Headquarters from above and from below racked it once more between the strategically desirable and the tactically possible. From Churchill at Whitehall issued an inquiry that forced Freyberg to consider whether the corps should persist in its attempts to smash through Cassino and open up the road to Rome or whether it should now be content to secure its existing gains in order to bequeath a goodly heritage to its successors. From the troops, scrambling in the mud and puddles, the rubble and the acrid smoke of the battlefield, came reports that equally faced Freyberg with the choice between what he called a hopeful policy and a contemplative one.

The contest resolved itself into the question whether the corps could seal off Cassino against enemy reinforcement, the Indians by blocking the northern entry round Point 193, the New Zealanders by blocking the southern along Route 6. This effort absorbed every infantry battalion of both divisions and drew 78 Division increasingly into the battle, but it failed. On 23 March failure was acknowledged and the offensive was abandoned, on the night of 24–25 March the outposts on the hillside were withdrawn and on the 26th the New Zealand Corps was disbanded. The second battle of Cassino ended with most of the town in our hands but with the enemy inviolate on Montecassino and across the mouth of the Liri valley.


The 20th was a barren day. Strengthened by 23 Battalion, the New Zealand infantry still struggled against the defenders of the town between Point 193 and the Continental. On the northern page 317 flank, men of 25 Battalion could make no gains in the face of heavy machine-gun fire. Lieutenant-Colonel Connolly, who was shocked with the state of affairs in Cassino, had ordered 23 Battalion to attack at first light. His A and D Companies (Captain Parker1 and Major Slee) made some ground at first but, fresh as they were, they soon found themselves as helpless as their predecessors against the barrier of defensive fire. The Maoris on their left even had to yield a few broken walls and the beaten earth they stood on, but they managed to thwart a circling movement by paratroops round their right flank. Both 5 Brigade battalions were troubled by elusive Germans who after eviction from one ruined building would reappear in another, frequently behind our forward troops. It was for this precise reason that Freyberg deplored the partial relief of 25 Battalion overnight: every able man was needed to garrison the town, and he gave strict instructions that 19 Regiment's tanks were on no account to be withdrawn for refuelling or for any other purpose.

Another worry to the infantry in the centre of Cassino was the loss of smoke cover, which exposed them to the malice of machine-gunners at the road bends by Points 165 and 236. In part, the lifting of the screen was due to a change in the wind that nullified the efforts of the smoke-canister parties along the Rapido. But it was partly a deliberate decision, for 5 Indian Brigade feared smoke might mask new assaults on Point 193. When later in the day their pleas for smoke were answered, the New Zealand tank crews and infantry felt the benefit.

Communications were still causing anxiety. Wireless to the forward companies gave at best a fluctuating service, and from battalion headquarters to brigade the telephone line was even less reliable. For example, after a section of Divisional Signals had spent a whole night and day laying a wire from 5 Brigade to Tactical Headquarters 28 Battalion, it stayed ‘in’ for a minute and a half. At the end of another day maintenance on the line was abandoned, but by that time at least three men had been killed in trying to keep it open.

The tanks of 19 Regiment hit out at German strongpoints with such telling effect and so methodically that the enemy described the situation in the late afternoon as critical. He complained that craters and ruins prevented his anti-tank and assault guns from approaching close enough to reply, and he was even contemplating, if his own Panthers could get no closer, the advisability or necessity of handing over the difficulties of the town to the Allies and

1 Capt A. H. Parker, MM, m.i.d.; Nelson; born Nelson, 18 Jul 1918; vulcanist; wounded 22 Mar 1944.

page 318 standing on the high ground behind Cassino. But the German artillery was certainly taking a toll of our armour. Seven tanks were disabled during the day, though all but one were recoverable. Fourteen were still battleworthy, but their ambit of action was narrow, and there were times when Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin wondered whether more could be usefully employed.

In the southern precincts, 24 and 26 Battalions were spared the sustained close fighting of the troops in the town. But they received their full quota of hostile fire, and more than once 24 Battalion had to push back paratroops who came probing under cover of darkness or smoke. Near the station the collapse of the Round House roof – a favourite target for gunners – provided acceptable cover for 26 Battalion riflemen who had taken post in the greasing pits beneath.

The men on the open hillside hung on grimly. Two air drops during the day were well aimed. Though no food canisters seem to have fallen within reach of the fifty men of C Company 24 Battalion, they gathered up tins of water and ammunition. Water they did not need, having two good wells in the vicinity, but it was now possible to distribute half a dozen hand grenades to each sangar. Not all that fell from the sky was so welcome. However, half the company were in dugouts on Point 146 and company headquarters inhabited a cave, in a well hole of which they sheltered sixteen wounded whom it was impossible to evacuate.


The closing of the battlefield against enemy reinforcements was the grand object of planning on the 20th. To that end a triple attack was fixed for the night of 20–21 March. As a prisoner confirmed what had long been suspected – that Point 445, north of the monastery, was being used to pass troops down the ravine – 7 Indian Brigade was ordered to capture the feature. It could spare only a single company of 2/7 Gurkhas for the task. So as to open wider and to buttress the doorway on to Monastery Hill and to prevent the seeping in of infantry round Point 193, the hairpin bends at Points 165 and 236 would have to be retaken. The Royal West Kents, now in the castle, were chosen to make the assault. Porters would try to follow through to Point 435.

Finally, it was necessary to get astride Route 6 south of the town and to link up with the two outposts on Montecassino. A wider turning movement based on the station was rejected, because of enemy strength in the area, in favour of a closer envelopment. This mission was entrusted to 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel page 319 McElroy), which was now detached from Task Force B and reunited with 5 Brigade. Twenty-first Battalion was directed up the slopes of the hill to join the troops on Points 146 and 202, with a line from Point 202 to the Continental as its objective and with two companies of 24 Battalion following up to occupy the ground won. The New Zealanders' front was to be further narrowed by the relief of 26 Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry on its left flank by 5 Battalion of the Buffs and 56 Reconnaissance Regiment respectively. Seventy-eighth Division would take charge of the area of the station and extend right as far as the crossroads north of it.

On this same day Churchill signalled to ask Alexander ‘why this passage by Cassino, Monastery Hill, etc., all on a front of two or three miles, is the only place which you must keep butting at’. Since ‘five or six divisions have been worn out going into these jaws’, he wanted to know why outflanking movements were not being made. Alexander's reply was a succinct statement of the difficulties that beset attempts to turn Montecassino from north or south. He thought that Freyberg's attack had ‘very nearly succeeded in its initial stages, with negligible losses to us’. He was meeting Freyberg and the Army Commanders the next day to discuss the situation.1 Early on the afternoon of the 20th Freyberg received his summons to the conference. It said:

The slow progress made so far in attacking the town of Cassino with the consequent delay in launching the attack on the Monastery, combined with the necessity of preparing the maximum forces for a full-scale offensive in the second half of April makes it essential to decide in the course of the next twenty-four or thirty-six hours whether (a) to continue with the Cassino operation in the hope of capturing the Monastery during the next three or four days or (b) to call the operation off and to consolidate such gains of ground as are important for the renewal of the offensive later. It is also necessary to decide when Eighth Army is to take over responsibility for operations on the Cassino front and when Headquarters New Zealand Corps is to be dissolved and replaced by Headquarters 13 Corps. In the Commander-in-Chief's view Eighth Army and 13 Corps should assume responsibility for Cassino front as soon as the Monastery has been captured and consolidated, or alternatively immediately it is decided to call off the present offensive, but he wishes to discuss the point with Army Commanders before reaching a final decision ….


With this decision in suspense, we may look at front-line opinion on both sides of the hill. Almost throughout operation dickens expectations at New Zealand Corps had oscillated like the needle of an excited seismograph, not only from day to day but almost from hour to hour, but the mean of these oscillations had been

1 Churchill, V, pp. 448–50.

page 320 distinctly on the side of optimism. The uncertainty of communications from the front, added to the very real difficulty of fixing locations on the map in a devastated area, helps to explain the alternation between hope and caution. Often the balloon of optimism, inflated by an early fiction, was pricked by a subsequent fact. The Corps Commander, for example, founded a picture of armour accumulating across the Rapido for the break-out on the false report that a tank had reached the southern stretch of Route 6. Even when one disappointment succeeded another, spirits were revived by the thought of uncommitted resources and of the sore straits of the enemy. And every new decision for the conduct of the attack brought its proper flush of hope.

By the 20th illusions were difficult to support. It was recognised that the wastage of the Indian division would soon necessitate its relief. The problem of supplying the men on the hillside was unsolved. The lessons of street fighting, it was freely acknowledged, had yet to be mastered. The step had been taken of committing the last New Zealand infantry. Seventy-eighth Division was already on a broad front. The enemy in Cassino was thought to have been reinforced. ‘People on the spot are depressed with the situation and we have to take their view,’ said the General in discussing the next day's decision. Later that evening Brigadier Burrows had a more cheerful appreciation from 5 Brigade. Although the Germans were thought to be numerous in the town, our men's morale was high and they were confident that they were wearing the enemy down.

The Germans' resistance at Cassino had its limits, but should it end there it would be resumed on the heights beyond, and no general collapse was likely. Even to win the town the Allies would have to persevere for a few more days. So much is clear from an appreciation by 14 Panzer Corps on the 20th. Cassino was proving a steady incinerator of German infantry. The remnants of 3 Parachute Regiment had lost all identity as battalions and had become fused into a single group, daily concentrating more tightly in the western edge of the town. One battalion commander had had to be replaced because of exhaustion, but the men were undaunted and their spirits were high. Senger would not hear of replenishing them with second-line troops: to water down the quality of the defence would invite disaster. Even II Battalion 115 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, the one alien body among the paratroop heroes of Cassino, had been in part unreliable. ‘Only the toughest fighters can fight this battle’. Allied tanks, while not venturing within range of the Ofenröhre, had come close enough to be able to destroy the fixed defences piecemeal. To counter them, only page 321 one assault gun was left in the town. The blocking of Route 6 as it entered Cassino prohibited close support by the tank company of 15 Panzer Grenadier Division and by a company of Panthers from 4 Panzer Regiment, but the grouping of the foremost artillery outside the town for the purpose of direct support had produced good results. In the Liri valley the German gunners, under the scowling eye of air OPs, were in a miserable plight. As alternative positions were few and, once occupied, soon spotted, the gunners preferred to remain in old positions, where they at least had the protection of dugouts. Around the nebelwerfers, shelling had ploughed the ground into a morass.

Summing up, [wrote Senger] the enemy's air superiority, artillery superiority and … superiority in tanks all make it improbable that Cassino can be held for any length of time. It is likely that the wastage of the infantry in the town will compel us to pull back gradually to the line between the Abbey and the present left wing of the Machine Gun Battalion. The enemy has suffered heavily, but he is not exhausted, as he is only attacking at this one spot and has fresh reserves.