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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino



Cassino, then, was to be attacked again. We have already noted3 why other alternatives were rejected, but the reasoning behind the plan may bear recapitulation. The long pause between the first and second battles must not mislead. Had Freyberg by some gift of second sight been able to foresee that the weather would delay the second battle for three weeks, he might have planned it otherwise. In reality, he had to be in readiness to attack as soon as

3 See above, p. 243.

page 344 possible. There was no time to regroup. The tactical possibilities were thereby strictly limited.

Once the river crossing in the mouth of the valley was discarded – itself an operation requiring some time to mount – two courses were left.1 One was a renewal of the Indian attack towards the monastery from the north-west; but this would have been folly in the light of recent experience. There remained an assault on the monastery from the town, and the town could be approached either from the east or from the north. At first glance the eastern approach seemed to offer a broader front and shallower objectives. But the ponding of water between the Rapido and the town almost confined the advance, even on foot, to Route 6 and the railway line. Moreover, a river crossing would have to be made; the strongest defences were thought to be in the east; Point 193 could not be attacked until the town had been cleared; and only then could the advance across the flat link up with an attack along or up the hill. The north, where we already had a footing, gave a much better approach on all these counts. A more dubious part of the plan was that which required 4 Indian Division to exploit along the open hillside step by step with the advance through the town.

In its direction the attack showed little or none of that tactical originality which is commonly called surprise. Freyberg therefore sought surprise by varying the method of attack. Hence the summons to the heavy bombers, which he called his secret weapon. He hoped that by razing Cassino to the ground they would eliminate costly street fighting and reduce casualties – always to him a very large consideration. Once his infantry had occupied ground beaten into impotence from the air, he relied on his armour to convert the break-in into a break-through. And it probably seemed to Freyberg, in his search for a necessary novelty, that the experiment was worth a trial. Known risks he accepted (Brigadier Hanson produced a calculation of the number of bombs likely to fall in the streets and the obstruction they would cause). On the unknown risks he had to take a chance.

The demerits of the bombing plan have been amply published2 It failed in its purpose of extinguishing all life in the town or of sufficiently intimidating the survivors: the paratroops emerged from their vaults and bunkers to fight in the rubble. It is said on high authority3 that the bombardment ‘produced better defensive positions

1 A third course, a fairly wide turning movement to the north, based on Monte Castellone and directed on to Route 6 via, say, Villa Santa Lucia, was not a real possibility in the time available, even had the appalling difficulties of supply and the enemy control of the Monte Cairo heights not ruled it out.

2 E.g. by Clark, p. 333; Army Air Forces in World War II, Vol. III, pp. 269–70; Field – Marshal Lord Wilson: Eight Years Overseas, p. 201. See also Appendix III.

3 Alexander, loc. cit., p. 2914.

page 345 than it destroyed’. Above all, craters and rubble blocked the progress of tanks.

These criticisms, while all partly valid, are of unequal gravity. Many paratroops did, indeed, survive; but many were put out of the battle – on General Heidrich's estimate, about half the garrison of the town. The rest were badly enough shaken to prompt General Senger's fervent hope that the attack would not be repeated. The same high authority who thought that the bombing made good defences better also doubted whether any but paratroops could have endured such a hammering.1

It is questionable, secondly, whether the bombing actually improved the defences of the town. What it did was often to spare the prepared defences while destroying lighter cover. To this extent it certainly put a premium on defensive works and assisted the Germans who manned them, and it made the control and direction of infantry attack extremely difficult. The organised, set-piece action in which the New Zealanders excelled could not be mounted in the midst of devastation.

The third criticism – that the armour was obstructed – is probably the weightiest and the hardest to rebut, for it exposes a contradiction inherent in the plan. Since the operation was designed to make a penetration on a small front, speed was of its essence. Only tanks could provide this speed. But the very method used to blast a breach for the tanks to pass through made their easy passage impossible. By binding the rubble into the consistency of dough, the rain on the first night intensified this difficulty but did not create it. Craters were already filled or half-filled before the rain began. Tanks, it is true, gradually butted or manoeuvred their way into and through the town, but they came as mobile assault guns in a battle of attrition, not in the swift role of exploitation. Nor is it at all convincing to say that the German tanks were handicapped as badly as ours. The onus of attack, after all, lay on the attacker. Denied the chance of manoeuvre, Freyberg fell back upon mass, but by frustrating its own purpose the bombardment came perilously near to being a reductio ad absurdum of weight of metal.

The attack by heavy bombers raised more problems than it solved, but it was not a complete failure. At the end of the day half of the town or more was in our hands at the cost of only 20 killed and 51 wounded. And a plan can only be judged in the light of the rejected alternatives. A silent attack was unthinkable. The only real alternative was the use of lighter bombs2 or fewer bombs or

1 Alexander, loc. cit., pp. 2917–8.

2 Twenty-five-pound fragmentation bombs were used in the attack across the Senio towards the end of the campaign, but they were not available at Cassino.

page 346 some form of artillery preparation unaccompanied by bombing. In any of these cases, the destruction in the town would have been less. The attackers would have found better cover. So would the defenders, and their prepared defences would have been comparatively unharmed. The material obstacles to tank movement would have been easier to clear away. The streets might even have retained the likeness of thoroughfares. But the garrison would certainly have been more numerous and their morale would have recovered still more quickly than it actually did. It is impossible to believe that our tanks and infantry, even given greater mobility, would have been permitted to slash through the streets of half-destroyed Cassino in a quick thrust. The battle would have developed into street fighting of a more orthodox kind, and the enemy (who had in fact expected just such a battle) would have had to be cleared out house by house. This is almost a definition of what Freyberg was hoping to avoid.