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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino

II: 21 March

II: 21 March


The double effort of 4 Indian Division on the night of 20–21 March was unavailing. Separated from the monastery by the steep gully that had foiled other Indians a month before, Point 445 was still strongly held, and the company of 2/7 Gurkhas gave up after two hours of fighting that cost numerous casualties.

Down the eastern slope of the mountain the Royal West Kents sallied forth from the castle and occupied the yellow house, half-way to their objective, Point 165, without mishap. Then luck deserted them. While digging in, one soldier of the platoon detailed to hold the house struck a mine. A whole minefield was set off and the upheaval drove the attackers back to the castle to reorganise. The enemy was now alert and when the company tried to leave the castle machine guns trained on the gate penned them in.

Another disappointment for the Indians was the failure of the porters to get through to Point 435. The day's air drop, however, was successful, though the Germans tried to misguide our aircraft by firing green smoke on Monte Trocchio in immediate imitation of our indicator on Hangman's Hill.

So far was the division from an offensive success that it had to look urgently to its own security. Raiding Germans about Point 175 and between there and Point 193, 600 yards to the south, touched a tender spot, for this patch of hillside overlooked Caruso road, page 322 5 Indian Brigade's main supply line. Reinforcements and mines were hurriedly brought up in order to make each point firm, to knit them to each other and both to 7 Brigade on the right in a system of mutual support and to block infiltration.

While the Indians strove to seal the northern aperture, the New Zealanders were throwing in their last reserves to picket the south of the town. Lieutenant-Colonel McElroy's final orders to 21 Battalion entrusted the operation to D and C Companies (Major Bailey and Major Smith). D Company was to thrust down Route 6 to subdue the strongpoints in the area of the Continental Hotel. C Company would then pass through, clear the slopes up to Point 146 and there link up with C Company 24 Battalion. The rest of 24 Battalion would follow up to strengthen the chain of posts that would swing in an arc running from about the Botanical Gardens to Point 202 and bestriding both arms of Route 6.

The two assaulting companies made a slight dent in the defences but no penetration. The men of D Company were hindered by swampy ground, but when a detour brought them within 100 yards of the Continental Hotel they were enmeshed in a deadly crossfire and then counter-attacked. One platoon and most of another went down in the rush. C Company found the battlefield a tangled confusion. It groped forward through promiscuous pockets of Germans and Maoris and by daybreak its platoons lay in unconcerted dispositions vaguely north-east of the Continental, and probably nowhere nearer than 200 yards. Rubble and mud, not to mention a block of well-defended ruins, stood fairly across the way forward. The battalion had lost seventeen prisoners in exchange for about half as many. As its failure to get forward left 24 Battalion without a specific mission, the three companies of the 24th in the town regrouped, A and B Companies coalescing into one of about seventy men under Major Turnbull.

The grim work of eroding the stronghold beneath Castle Hill again occupied 25 and 23 Battalions. The 25th, unable to summon tanks to its assistance, for the most part lay low, but the 23rd, stronger in numbers, fought hard until the solidity of the defence and heavy losses brought it to a halt on a line running about 100 yards from the foot of the hill. Infiltration was especially irksome farther south in 26 Battalion's sector, but the battalion was now so reduced in strength – A and D Companies could muster only twenty-three men between them – that it could not garrison all the ruins. Thus surrounded, the platoons dared not venture out of their shelters by day. The tanks of 19 Regiment were finding it discreet to cruise about in order to dodge mortar bombs. It was page 323 becoming clear – and the enemy knew it – that the best help they could give our infantry was to knock down points of resistance with their guns; but the going was rough, smoke clouded the gunner's sights and ignorance of our men's whereabouts often restrained his fire. To improve co-operation the tanks began to be fitted with No. 38 wireless sets to be tuned to the infantry net.

By now the New Zealand infantry in Cassino were in as much disarray as their adversaries. New arrivals and muddy, stubble-chinned veterans of several days' standing, stretcher-bearers and signallers, ‘O’ parties from the gunners, straying sappers and dismounted tank crews, section posts and company headquarters – all rubbed shoulders in the press of battle. And Germans often intermingled with them. North of Route 6 in order from the right the New Zealand positions were held by 25, 23, 28 and 21 Battalions, and to the south 24 and 26 Battalions manned a line curving from the sunken road back to the crossroads that marked the Division's left flank. But no tidy picture is possible.

A nest of battalion headquarters in the convent served as a kind of control centre. It could give rough directions to men bringing up the rations, provide primitive shelter while stretchers were loaded on to jeeps, act as a rallying point for lost infantrymen or as a rendezvous for the more aware and even compose the gossip of the battlefield into something resembling a tactical picture. Mere presence in Cassino generated among the soldiers a fellowship that was less lasting but not less strong while it lasted than the ordinary loyalties of battalion or regiment, for to enter Cassino was consciously to step into a well-defined arena. To this feeling the convent gave a local habitation.

Confusion was not complete, but communications were always chancy, so that forward troops were often unable to report their positions even when they knew them, and the town was a place of unexpected encounters. One company, for example, was awakened to the presence of Germans in the next room by bazooka fire through the dividing wall. There was one period of three days when more than forty Maoris shared a house with the enemy and only took their departure because their ammunition was spent.


The Germans interpreted the corps attacks on the 21st as a desperate effort to force a decision during the day at all costs, and it is true that short of the wholesale committal of 78 Division tactical inventiveness was beginning to tire. The General still set high store on the drive by 21 Battalion to link up with the men on page 324 the hill, who, though hungry, were well supplied with water and ammunition and in good heart. But when the day's reports had been sifted of their wishful thinking the residue was the blunt fact that ‘progress today was just a matter of odd buildings’. Before he left for the Commander-in-Chief's conference in the afternoon, Freyberg had asked Lieutenant-Colonel McElroy for his frank opinion whether 21 Battalion could get through by night. Back over faulty communications came ‘a long answer to say no’. Nevertheless, the conference made a temporising decision: for the time being at least the offensive was to be pressed. This is as Churchill would have wished. On this day he had signalled Alexander his hope that the operation would not have to be called off. ‘Surely the enemy is very hard pressed too,’ he added.

In Freyberg's mind also this was a cause for perseverance. There were other arguments. Our infantry had got to the very edge of the town, and the Germans admitted that only resolute counter-attacks had kept their men in Cassino at all. It was believed that by working between 23 and 28 Battalions our tanks could command the southern arm of Route 6 and close by fire what the infantry had so far failed to cordon off. It was hoped too that 21 Battalion would now know its ground and would be able to make better progress that night, though the moon, which rose only two hours earlier than the sun, was no longer an ally.