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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino



The New Zealanders made mistakes in the second battle of Cassino. The most serious was the failure to rush the defences with sufficient weight on the first afternoon. But every battle is a tissue of error, and something must be left to chance. It was for the New Zealand Corps a malevolent chance that pitted 1 Parachute Division against it. Did infantry ever fight a stauncher defensive battle than the German paratroops at Cassino? They were manning defences three months in the preparation, they had had recent experience of street fighting at Ortona, they knew how to exploit every advantage of terrain, they were imbued with utter confidence in themselves and with boundless zeal for their Fuehrer and their toughness and endurance were beyond all ordinary reckoning. It is not to be assumed that other German troops would have equally withstood the assault.

The Germans themselves attributed much of their success to their ability to concentrate their artillery fire rapidly on targets in the town, but the New Zealanders were most impressed by the efficiency of their close-support infantry weapons, especially the mortars. At a somewhat higher tactical level, two other facts deserve a place in the explanation of German success. One was their intelligent control over the counter-attack. They soon found that attacks on any large scale did not repay their cost. Only at page 353 Point 193, the Allied sally-port on to the hillside, did they keep returning to the assault. Elsewhere, particularly in the town, they preferred to let the New Zealand Corps carry the fight to them, to resist from prepared positions and to confine themselves to small, local counter-strokes. In the second place, their system of command was simple and direct. They fought Cassino as a strictly divisional battle. General Heidrich established himself at the headquarters of 3 Parachute Regiment, which was responsible for the town. He was held on a light rein by his Corps Commander. General Senger was content with a general supervision over the conduct of the battle, he secured and fed in the few reinforcements and made frequent tactical appreciations for the enlightenment of Tenth Army.

Our discussion of the battle is ended. It has led into free speculation on the alternatives open to the New Zealand command, in the belief that the decisions that were actually taken can only be understood in the light of those that might have been taken. It may well be that no second assault ought ever to have been launched into the teeth of the Cassino fortress, which its commander agreed was almost impregnable when once defended. But the exigencies of strategy decreed otherwise. Where so much is obscure, it is as clear as day that there was no easy solution to the problems of the attacker. The critic of the solutions that were in fact adopted must first arm himself with better ones; he must then be sure that they were available amidst the confusion, the misinformation, the fluctuating hopes and the sheer worry and exhaustion of the battlefield; and he must finally caution himself against what an English historian has called ‘one of the perpetual optical illusions of historical study – the impression that all would have been well if men had only done “the other thing”’1

The commanders may abide our question: the fighting men they led are free. Of the quality of the New Zealand troops who actually came to grips with the enemy, let the enemy himself speak:

The New Zealand soldier [said a 14 Panzer Corps report on the battle] is physically fit and strong. He is well trained and formidable in close range fighting, and steadier than the Englishman. He does not shrink from hand-to-hand fighting. In many cases strongpoints had to be wiped out to the last man, as they refused to surrender.

1 H. Butterfield: George III, Lord North and the People, 1779–80, p. 86.