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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino



Discussion of the strategic rationale of the battle may begin with a general observation. Throughout the Second World War, but especially after Churchill became Prime Minister, the involvement of politics and strategy in the British war effort was peculiarly close. The balance of power between the statesmen and the generals – or more properly between Whitehall and the commanders in the field – will tilt this way or that according to the page 342 personalities who fill the offices and the ease of communication between them. Churchill's well-informed interest in the Mediterranean campaign was brought to bear intimately by personal visits to the theatre and rapidly and often by an excellent system of signals. Military discretion was to that extent qualified, the more so because both the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Mediterranean and the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies in Italy were British officers. In this situation, the presence of Dominion troops under a commander whose Government had given him an exceptional right of veto over their employment1 introduced not a persistent, but a potential, nonconformity and an independent critique, healthy or vexatious according to the mode of its exercise.This power came into play at Cassino in setting a limit to the number of casualties the Division would accept, but Freyberg was not prepared to go the length of withholding the Division from the battle. In his view, expressed long afterwards, the New Zealanders could not have it said that they accepted only the easy assignments and left the difficult ones to the British. He asked Alexander whether, if the New Zealand Division refused, some other division would have to carry out the operation. On being told ‘Yes’, he undertook it, though fully alive to the hazards.2

On its military merits alone no competent soldier would have chosen to assault Cassino in March 1944. He would have looked askance at the very notion of trying to carry by storm the strongest fortress in Europe in the dead of winter by a single corps unsupported by diversionary operations. He would have waited to attack in a better season with larger forces on a broader front, and he would probably have expected the decisive breach to be made elsewhere than at Cassino. While the first and third battles were related to a general offensive, the second was a lone enterprise. When Freyberg came to plan it after the failure of operation avenger on 18 February, its purpose was partly to relieve the weight on our troops at Anzio, where the counter-attack was reaching its climax. By early March the bridgehead was safe, and the capture of a Fourteenth Army order of 4 March directing the resumption of the defensive might have been expected to relax strategic pressure. No such effect followed.

Operation dickens, which was in suspense until the weather

1 A charter given to the GOC New Zealand Division by the New Zealand Government on 5 January 1940 gave him the right, ‘in the case of sufficiently grave emergency or in special circumstances, of which he must be the sole judge’, to exercise the powers of his Government over the employment of the Division. See Documents, Vol. I, pp. 31–2, for the text and J. L. Scoullar: Battle for Egypt, Chap. I, for earlier examples of its invocation.

2 General Freyberg to General Kippenberger, letter of 30 July 1956. See Scoullar, p. 13, for an example of Freyberg's application of his ‘test question’ earlier in the war; and for a critical comment on it the review of Scoullar by Barton Maughan in Historical Studies: Australia and New Zealand, Vol. 7, No. 26 (May 1956), p. 244.

page 343 should improve, now had little to justify it by way of local military advantage, but it was still believed to be necessary. As we have seen,1 General Wilson, hoping much from the bombing plan, feared that while General Alexander regrouped the enemy might disengage, taking refuge north of the PisaRimini line and leaving the spring offensive to beat the air. Alexander rightly doubted this estimate of the effects of bombing, but in any case he could assure Wilson that there would be no lull in the land fighting. The second battle of Cassino was thus an interim measure to keep the enemy extended until the well-prepared blow could be delivered in the spring. But behind it also lay the unspoken desire to restore a prestige dimmed by earlier reverses at Cassino and to convince the Russians that the Western Allies were pulling their weight – a pledge more necessary now that the Second Front would not open until full summer.

In planning his regrouping in February, Alexander was prepared to assume the failure of the impending battle of Cassino.2 In fact, a spring offensive from the existing line might have the advantage of trapping the German forces between the main front and the beach-head, whereas if they were driven from Cassino they might be able to economise in troops by holding a single connected line south of Rome or farther up the peninsula. Alexander was certainly anxious to win a bridgehead across the Rapido and seize the Cassino headland, but it is difficult to believe that he had serious expectations of the plan of exploitation. It is regrettable that operation dickens was not shorn of its pursuit phase at the outset, for it was taken seriously in New Zealand Corps and the intention to carry it out had an unfortunate influence on the conduct of the battle. So it now appears. What is less clear is whether Alexander's doubts (if he had them) of an armoured dash through the winter mud of the Liri valley should have absolved him from the commander's normal duty to be ready with a plan to exploit unexpected success.

1 See above, p. 242.

2 Loc. cit., p. 2916.