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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino



SO long as men study the art of war the battles of Cassino will interest them as a classic contest between the advantages of terrain and of material. By prolonging their resistance for four months or (on a more extensive view) for seven months, the Germans showed that in certain circumstances of ground and weather the offensive may lose the mobility with which modern weapons are sometimes thought to endow it. In some ways Cassino was a battle of the First World War fought with the weapons of the Second. When the German Corps Commander walked down the shell-pitted Liri valley during the fighting, he found himself carried back in memory thirty years to the Somme.1 The first great lesson of Cassino is that when the attacker is drawn into a strait of commanding natural strength, the tank and the aeroplane may easily fail to break the ensuing deadlock. By piling the difficulties of street fighting upon the natural defences of river, marsh and height, the Cassino position enabled stout defenders to defy appreciable odds in manpower and vast odds in material. Like a whirlpool, Cassino sucked into its vortex all that tried to pass through the strait.

The operation that began on 15 March was one of a series and has been variously described. It is called by Alexander2 the third battle of Cassino, to distinguish it from the first, fought by the United States 2 Corps in January and early February, and the second, fought by the New Zealand Corps between 15 and 18 February (operation avenger). On this reckoning there were four battles of Cassino, the last being part of the great offensive of May. The perspective of the New Zealand historian tempts him to follow this example. But it seems unreal to deny unity to the American and the first New Zealand Corps attacks, which were made almost without a break and on essentially the same plan; and it has therefore seemed preferable in this account to regard avenger as part of the first battle and dickens as the second. To

1 Senger: Diary, pp. 102–3.

2 Loc. cit., p. 2917.

page 339 others, it may appear that operations from January to March constitute a single battle, divided into two only by the chance of bad weather.1 Finally, the historian of the whole war may see only one battle stretching over seven months from late October 1943, when the Fifth Army began its attacks on the outposts of the Bernhard line, until the middle of May 1944, when Montecassino fell.2 This view has the merit of acknowledging the organic connection between the defence of the Bernhard and Gustav lines, for the time the Allies took to break the former the Germans used to strengthen the latter. Such distinctions and divisions are never quite unimportant to the historian, for as he groups his facts so he weaves his patterns; but here they are mentioned for the sake of clarity and as a reminder of the context of operation dickens, the subject of discussion in this last chapter.

1 This is in effect the view of the Battles Nomenclature Committee, which has decided that there were two battles of Cassino, Cassino I from 20 January to 25 March 1944, and Cassino II from 11 to 18 May 1944. The number of troops engaged is an important consideration in determining the official nomenclature of battles.

2 Cf. General von Senger und Etterlin: ‘Die Cassino-Schlachten’, in Allgemeine Schweizerische Militär Zeitschrift, June 1951, p. 409.