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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino



Had the issue been different, the odds against the defenders in the second battle of Cassino might have been described as crushing. Admittedly, the disparity in infantry strengths was almost modest. To the fourteen battalions under command of 1 Parachute Division in the critical sector the New Zealand Corps could oppose twenty-four–very much less than the three-to-one superiority held indispensable by General Alexander for such operations. But in material the attackers had a huge preponderance. They could count over 600 armoured fighting vehicles – 455 Sherman tanks, 124 Stuarts and 59 armoured cars – though in the event they could deploy only a small proportion, never more than 10 per cent at any one time. The enemy fought through the crisis with only a handful of tanks in Cassino, and even in the dying stages of the battle he could have brought in no more than sixteen. He had perhaps eighty tanks waiting in the Liri valley.

Our 610 artillery pieces in direct support had by 25 March fired no fewer than 588,034 rounds; to these weapons must be added another hundred or so self-propelled close-support guns of various calibres which Combat Command ‘B’ held available but did not use. At its greatest strength the German artillery numbered about 240 pieces. In Cassino itself during the height of the battle there was a solitary enemy assault gun, which had to be put out of action every night for repairs.

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While our aircraft flew 2629 sorties and dropped 2362 tons of bombs, the enemy flew only 214 sorties against vastly superior anti-aircraft defences. The opening bombardment from air and ground dropped on and around Cassino high explosives to the weight of about 2500 tons in seven hours and a half, and for the next ten or eleven days, though the bombardment slackened, it hardly ceased. In all, the Allied air force and artillery must have contributed to the second battle of Cassino between ten and eleven thousand tons of high explosive.

What was the return for this tremendous expenditure? The territorial result of the twelve-day battle may be briefly stated. Among the hills there was no change, but on the flat the New Zealanders, who had hitherto held only the northern fringes of the town, captured the rest of it but for a belt of strongpoints immediately under the hill. In the south they retook, and this time they held, the railway station. They had secure bridgeheads over the Rapido both on the main highway and on the railway route. Though defensively the new line was certainly uncomfortable, it had better offensive possibilities than the old. A great bite had been taken out of the Gustav line. As on the Sangro, the main prepared defences had been breached and the battle of endurance settled down on an improvised line to the rear. Though Senger has suggested that the attackers were halted by their exhaustion in working through the main line of resistance,1 neither on the Sangro nor at Cassino does this appear to be true. The capture of the Sangro ridge defences did not tire the Division; and in the second battle of Cassino territorial gains were hardly expanded after the first fifty hours of fighting, though a fresh brigade was still available. The explanation must be sought rather in the Germans' stubborn response to a crisis.

The gains of March stood as a useful credit in the account of the Allies against the day of the May offensive. It is true that the town of Cassino was never again frontally assaulted. In May the local object was to isolate it by a Polish drive through the hills to the north-west linking up with the 13 Corps advance up the Liri valley. But our possession of most of Cassino and the railway station helped to protect the right flank of the 13 Corps troops forming up in the mouth of the valley and making their bridgehead across the Rapido.

Strategically, operation dickens had few and unimportant repercussions within the Italian theatre. It necessitated no great enemy troop movements – only one regiment (brigade) of infantry and a few tanks were sent to help the paratroops, and both were found

1 Diary, p. 149.

page 341 from 14 Panzer Corps, the parent formation. And the defensive victory (we must not grudge the word) was a tonic to enemy morale and a discouragement to the friends of the Allies throughout Italy and even further afield. The simple fact of deadlock or of victory and defeat is always more eloquent than the complex reasons that may lie behind it.

In the main, the battle restated the plain grammar of warfare, but it directed notice to some neglected aspects of it, such as the art of street fighting, and it taught some tactical and technical lessons of greater novelty, particularly on the use of heavy bombers in close support, the tactics of infantry, tanks and engineers in following up aerial bombardment and the dropping of supplies from the air.1 These lessons flowed into the pool of Allied experience and flowed out again in distant fields, not least in those about to be opened in North-West Europe.

The casualties for the period from 15 March to 26 March were:2

Formation Killed Wounded Missing Total Casualties
Offrs ORs Offrs ORs Offrs ORs Offrs ORs All ranks
2 N2 Div 11 104 50 646 2 68 63 818 881
4 Ind Div 9 123 52 740 4 151 65 1014 1079
78 Div 3 16 3 57 0 8 6 81 87
NZ Corps Tps 3 18 3 31 0 4 6 53 59
—— —— —— —— —— —— —— —— ——
26 261 108 1474 6 231 140 1966 2106

The second battle of Cassino, then, cost the Allies well over two thousand casualties. The New Zealand casualties during the seven weeks' life of the New Zealand Corps were 1392 (206 killed, 1085 wounded, 101 missing).

It is not possible to state the enemy casualties in the second battle with any accuracy, but an estimate based on the incomplete figures in the German records suggests that they may have been in the region of eleven or twelve hundred.

1 For notes on some of the tactical and technical lessons of the battle see Appendix III.

2 These figures were compiled shortly after the battle and are not strictly accurate, but they are used here because there is no break-up of the revised figures to show casualties during the period of the battle. The final official statement of losses between 1 February and 10 April 1944 is given in Appendix I.