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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino

I: A New Task

page 176

I: A New Task


A CHANGE of plan now brought the Division under the eyes of the world and linked for ever the youthful name of New Zealand with the venerable name of Cassino. The task at Orsogna was left unfinished for a new and unexpected mission better suited to a corps de chasse. At the end of December the intention had been to leave the Division in the line for the next month and then to relieve it for a period of training. But at 4 a.m. on 17 January it relinquished command of its sector to 4 Indian Division, newly arrived in Italy. To understand why, it is necessary to ascend once more the Olympus of grand strategy.

It may be recalled that, as the Allied armies felt the stiffening of German resistance across the narrow waist of the Italian peninsula, Alexander superseded his optimistic plan of October by a more carefully deliberated plan of early November. Fifteenth Army Group now envisaged operations for the capture of Rome as developing in three phases. In the first, the Eighth Army on the Adriatic flank was to advance to Pescara and Chieti and then strike left-handed through Avezzano to threaten Rome from the north-east. In the second, the Fifth Army, west of the Apennines, was to drive up the Liri and Sacco valleys to Frosinone, approaching Rome from the south. In the third, a seaborne force landed south of Rome would seize the Alban Hills, whence they would descend on the capital, only a few miles to the north-west. The first part of the plan, as we have seen, miscarried, leaving the Eighth Army arrested between the Sangro and Pescara rivers; and by the time the Fifth Army had fought its way as far as the German winter line guarding the entrance to the Liri valley, the third stage of the plan, the amphibious operation shingle, seemed to have been outmoded by events. The plan to land about 23,000 men at the twin towns of Anzio and Nettuno had presupposed that the Fifth Army would be within supporting distance, but by mid-December it was clear that this condition would not be realised within any predictable page 177 period. Operation shingle had therefore to be either abandoned or recast.

As the principal exponent of the circular strategy, Churchill could not endure the thought of stalemate in the Mediterranean. Convalescence from pneumonia on its southern shores gave him time for inquiry and meditation. He soon made up his mind that ‘the stagnation of the whole campaign on the Italian front is becoming scandalous’;1 no offensive use had been made of the landing craft in the theatre for the last three months. The Mediterranean venture which he had pioneered and protected must not be allowed to grind to a halt in mud-bound deadlock. He was now intent on stirring up fresh devilment for the enemy in Italy. The sudden amphibious strike behind the enemy lines, the ‘cat-claw’, promised alluring rewards – the capture of Rome, the destruction of a large part of the German forces in Italy, favourable reaction in the Balkans, relief for the Russians, further distraction for the Germans, the fullest employment for Allied resources in men and materials and the best possible prelude to overlord

Wheels began to hum. Churchill won over every high commander who would come to his bedside. He deputed General Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who had been one of his visitors, to influence the British Chiefs of Staff. On Christmas Day at Carthage he gathered about him Eisenhower2 and the Mediterranean commanders-in-chief of all three services and before they broke up shingle had been revived in a greatly expanded form. The force now to be landed at Anzio about 20 January, consisting at first of two assault divisions and eventually of more than 110,000 men, would be strong enough to hold its own in the event of delay in linking up with the main Fifth Army front.

The point of resistance was the shortage of landing craft. The new shingle could not be mounted unless fifty-six LSTs, due to return to the United Kingdom for overlord from 15 January, could be detained until 5 February. Churchill ordered a review of the programme for the fitting out of these vessels for the cross-Channel invasion, with time margins pared to the limit. The result convinced

1 Churchill, V, p. 380. But much depends on the point of view. Churchill wrote these words on 19 December 1943. In the previous week 1 Canadian Division had been engaged in a battle across the Moro, of which it was officially written that ‘Furious fighting had characterised the operations of the past few days’. On the 21st the Canadians began clearing Ortona, street by street. (‘The fighting which developed was particularly savage’.) On the 15th the New Zealanders attacked across the OrtonaOrsogna road. (See Chap. 6.) On the west, the Americans of 2 Corps were clearing the mountainous outposts of the German winter line before Cassino. (‘The second battle for San Pietro opened on the 15th and succeeded, though at heavy cost in casualties, by the 17th; Monte Lungo was also occupied and, north of the village, we forced our way further along the knife-edge of Monte Sammucro. This was bitter mountain fighting, with great use of artillery and gains in territory small compared with the time consumed and the losses suffered.’)

2 General Eisenhower commanded the Allied Land Forces in the Mediterranean. He was succeeded by General Sir H. M. Wilson on 8 January 1944.

page 178 the British Chiefs of Staff that shingle about 20 January was not incompatible with overlord in May, as promised to Stalin at Teheran. But overlord still meant to the Americans what its code-name implied; and Churchill awaited with tremulous anxiety the outcome of his appeal to Roosevelt. On 28 December the President telegraphed his approval. Churchill received it ‘with joy, not… unmingled with surprise’. ‘I thank God,’ he answered at once, ‘for this fine decision, which engages us once again in wholehearted unity upon a great enterprise’.1

While Churchill steered the enterprise between a few last shoals-problems of build-up on the bridgehead and the need for an airborne force – Alexander2 decided to entrust the assault to one American and one British division under command of 6 United States Corps (Major-General J. P. Lucas).

In order to draw enemy reserves and attention away from Anzio and to burst through the German front on the way to the aid of the seaborne landing, General Mark Clark's Fifth Army was ordered to make a strong thrust towards Cassino and Frosinone shortly before 22 January, D-day for shingle. Alexander wanted to be sure that the Fifth Army had sufficient strength to exploit up the Liri valley. It was for this reason that he decided to withdraw 2 New Zealand Division from the Eighth Army to the Naples area to form an Army Group reserve with which to influence the battle. The Division received warning notice on 9 January, and on the 12th its role was forecast in an Army Group instruction: ‘The task of this division will depend on the course of the operations, but it is primarily intended for exploitation, for which its long range and mobility are peculiarly suited. It will be placed under command of Fifth Army when a suitable opportunity for its employment can be foreseen.’


The relief of the Division by 4 Indian Division went on for about a week from 13 January, the forward posts changing hands by night without worse mishap than the occasional jostling and straying inevitable when large numbers of troops take over strange positions in the dark. The New Zealanders still in action came under command of the Indian division when it assumed control of the sector early on the 17th, but by this time nearly half the Division was on the road back, and by the 20th only a few rear parties remained in the area.

1 Churchill, V, p. 390.

2 General Sir H. Alexander was C-in-C Allied Central Mediterranean Force, formerly 15 Army Group and later designated Allied Armies in Italy. It consisted mainly of the Fifth (US) Army and the Eighth (British) Army.

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No means were overlooked to confuse the enemy about the Division's movements. The information given to the troops was incomplete and misleading but plausible enough to discourage rumour. In the warning order for the move, issued on the 11th, San Severo was named as the destination and four weeks' training as the purpose. All New Zealand insignia were removed from clothing and vehicles, and the Division masqueraded for the time being under the name of spadger force. To hide the departure of 4 Armoured Brigade, the exact positions it had vacated in the reserve sub-sector of Castelfrentano were occupied by 101 Royal Tank Regiment, a camouflage unit, and the first stage of the New Zealand tanks' withdrawal was shielded from prying enemy aircraft by a standing patrol of Spitfires at 20,000 feet. In order to deceive, if concealment should fail, measures were taken to represent the Division as concentrating at Petacciato on the Adriatic coast. Signboards were erected and a wireless traffic and other incidents of the New Zealanders' presence were simulated while the Division, moving southwards, observed wireless silence. How far these shifts and stratagems would baffle an observant enemy behind the lines is doubtful; and it is also doubtful whether the enemy beyond the lines was deceived. On the 17th, after the capture of twelve men of 1 Royal Sussex Regiment on the notorious spur across the Arielli, the German Tenth Army reported to Army Group C that 4 Indian Division had definitely relieved the New Zealanders. Whatever it was that shook confidence in this intelligence, later thoughts were more cautious: as late as the 23rd 76 Panzer Corps spoke of a relief of the Division as ‘not impossible’.

By this time the Division had almost completed its march to the west. Unit advance parties set out together on the 13th. The 4500 vehicles of the main body followed in eleven groups, ranging in size from nearly 600 to just over 200 vehicles. Each group assembled behind the line and travelled by night the 25 or 30 miles to a staging area near Casalbordino. Thence, after a halt of two or three hours, it resumed its journey by day to San Severo, about 80 miles farther south. The first group, belonging to the Army Service Corps, left Casalbordino shortly before dawn on the 14th, and the last, the armoured workshops group, precisely a week later. San Severo was only a night's halt, and there the men were let into the secret of their mission. The next day's journey took each convoy across the Apennine divide and down into the populous Campanian plain to the area of Cancello, about 20 miles east of Naples. From Cancello it was only a short march on the third day to the divisional training area. The hard knocks of the Orsogna campaign had probed the weaknesses in many vehicles, and the recovery trucks that brought up the page 180 rear of each convoy were kept busy in giving first aid to stragglers. The tanks of the Division, strengthened by fifty-two taken over from 5 Corps' reserve, were meanwhile transported by train from Vasto to Caserta and thence driven to their destination.

The divisional area lay in the prettily wooded valley of the Volturno on the downward slope from the Matese Mountains to the northern banks of the river. Known as Alife from the grubby walled village that was one of the centres of its peasant life, it was, even in winter, a smiling stretch of country where it was easy to relax, to make good arrears of sleep, and to see to the upkeep of vehicles and weapons. Training programmes were not too rigorous - for infantrymen route marches and rifle-shooting, for the armoured brigade tank maintenance, for gunners gun drill and route marches, for engineers practice in river crossings with Bailey and pontoon bridges, rafts and assault boats. Late in the month 4 and 5 Brigades borrowed the assault boats for brigade exercises on the Volturno. To freshen up personal appearances and corporate morale, most of the formations held ceremonial parades, which the General inspected. Sports were played, daily excursions of no excessive solemnity were made to Pompeii, there were concerts and social occasions. Rested and reinforced by the arrival of 600 men, mostly infantry, the Division felt fitter for the trials ahead.


All this time the Fifth Army's winter offensive was developing, but with such setbacks as to make it less likely that the Division would be employed as a pursuit force. On its main front, the Fifth Army was up against the Gustav line,1 the southern section of the German winter line, which traversed the narrowest part of the peninsula from Ortona to Minturno. Here the mountains bar the way from coast to coast, parting only south of Cassino at the mouth of the Liri valley to open a gap six or seven miles wide, through which the Via Casilina (Route 6) passes on its way to Rome, 85 miles distant. Across the mouth of the axial valley of the Liri runs a lateral valley, carrying a stream of waters successively augmented and successively renamed. Fed by the mountains north of Cassino, the Rapido flows past the town, then out across the Liri valley as the Gari, and finally joins the Liri itself to become the

1 Whereas on the Adriatic side, the ‘ridge-and-furrow’ country of successive river valleys gave the German ‘winter line’ numerous defensible positions, two only were available on the other side – the Bernhard line, incorporating Monte Sammucro and the Monte Camino massif, which commanded the eastern approach to the valley of the Rapido and Garigliano, and the Gustav line, on the western side of the valley, with Montecassino as its fortress.

page 181 Garigliano, which winds through an alluvial plain to the Gulf of Gaeta. At its junction with that of the Garigliano, the Liri valley is not easily forced, for it is flanked on the north by the hills rising steeply from Cassino to the topmost peaks of the Central Apennines and to the south by the rough Aurunci Mountains, and it is stopped by the waters of the Rapido or Gari. It was a classic battleground over which the Fifth Army now prepared to fight. In 1503 it had witnessed the crushing defeat of the French invaders by the troops of Spain and Naples and the drowning of a Medici heir as he tried to float his cannon down the river; and it was here in 1860 that the Piedmontese scattered the Neapolitans of the Bourbon regime in one of the culminating battles of the Risorgimento.

General Clark's plan of a turning movement on either side of the Liri valley and a drive down the valley itself opened on 17 January, when 10 British Corps launched itself across the Garigliano and into the Aurunci foothills. On the 20th, when four enemy divisions were fiercely engaged on the left, 2 United States Corps began its assault across the Rapido, and a few hours later the French Expeditionary Corps brought the right into play by attacking through the mountains to outflank the Rapido defences from the north. Every division of the German Tenth Army had been drawn into the task of staving off this threefold offensive when 6 United States Corps landed at Anzio at dawn on the 22nd. Kesselring's response was calm and prompt. Instead of pulling his forces out of the Gustav line for fear their communications should be cut, he ordered them to stand and proceeded to seal off the Anzio bridgehead with a force hastily assembled from eight different divisions. All four thrusts of the Fifth Army made some progress and were then halted.

To this threat of deadlock Clark reacted by ordering the attack on the Gustav line to continue. Second Corps' frontal bid across the Rapido having been bloodily repulsed, he decided to envelop the defences from the right. This necessitated fighting in the hills above Cassino in order to capture the ‘Cassino headland’, the massive spur running down from Monte Cairo and having as its southern tip the commanding eminence of Montecassino, sentinel over the mouth of the Liri valley. For six days at the end of January, therefore, the Americans and French against stubborn opposition worked their way slowly through the rugged hills around the village of Cairo, whence they might turn left to battle through broken country, over Montecassino, and at last down into the Liri valley. But this was not to be, and already by the end of the month the strength of the German resistance here and at Anzio made it plain to Alexander that the New Zealand Division would need to be page 182 reinforced if it was to have a chance of success in its task of exploitation. The task, moreover, required a larger organisation than one division could supply. Hence on 30 January he instructed Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese, the new commander of the Eighth Army, to despatch 4 Indian Division without delay to form part of a temporary New Zealand Corps under General Freyberg.

At 10 a.m. on 3 February, while the Indian division was still on its way from the Adriatic coast, the New Zealand Corps officially came into being and passed under command of Fifth Army. The organisation of the corps called for some slight improvisation. The heads of services in 2 New Zealand Division assumed a double role, taking up similar duties in the New Zealand Corps. The only additional appointment made immediately was that of Colonel Queree1 as BGS, New Zealand Corps, while Lieutenant-Colonel L. W. Thornton resumed the appointment of GSO I of 2 New Zealand Division. To form a common corps pool under centralised control, no apportionment of transport and other facilities was made between corps and division. For a week or so from 3 February the Corps' administrative resources were built up by the attachment of a general transport company, two mobile petrol filling centres and a bulk petrol company, five mule transport companies, a corps ordnance field park company, a provost unit and a pioneer labour company. The artillery was strengthened by 2 Army Group, Royal Artillery, comprising three field regiments (one with self-propelled guns), five medium regiments and a light anti-aircraft battery, and by three American anti-aircraft battalions. In addition to this formidable increase in fire-power, the corps had the heavy and medium artillery of 2 United States Corps available for its support throughout the Cassino operations. The engineers, the medical corps and the armoured services were also reinforced from British and American sources.

Later in the month, when plans were being matured for a breakthrough by the corps, the American Combat Command ‘B’ (part of 1 United States Armoured Division) was added as an exploiting force. It was divided into Task Forces A and B, each composed of two tank battalions, a tank-destroyer battalion,2 and two companies of engineers, and it had four battalions of field artillery in support.

Meanwhile the role of the corps had been the subject of discussion at high levels. In an outline plan drawn up at Alexander's

1 Brig R. C. Queree, CBE, DSO, m.i.d.; born Christchurch, 28 Jun 1909; Regular soldier; Brigade Major, NZ Artillery, Oct 1940–Jun 1941; GSO II, 2 NZ Div, Jun–Aug 1941, Jan–Jun 1942; CO 4 Fd Regt Jun–Aug 1942; GSO I, 2 NZ Div, Sep 1942–Dec 1943, Jan–Jun 1944; BGS NZ Corps 9 Feb–27 Mar 1944; CO 5 Fd Regt Jun–Aug 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div, Aug 1944–Feb 1945, Mar–Jun 1945; QMG, Army HQ, May 1948–Nov 1950; Adjutant-General Nov 1954–Mar 1956; Vice–Chief of the General Staff Apr 1956–.

2 A ‘tank destroyer’ was a high-velocity 75-millimetre gun on a Sherman tank chassis.

page 183 request and after reconnaissance, Freyberg put his faith in surprise and weight of metal from aircraft and gun. The clearing of the Cassino headland seemed to him the first condition of success in the valley below. That done, the corps on a two-divisional front should cross the Rapido and punch a passage down Route 6 in the wake of overpowering air and artillery bombardment. The Indian division, experienced in mountain warfare, would operate in the hills north of Route 6 and the New Zealand Division in the Liri valley.

Hopes were still high that the preliminary conquest of the hills above Cassino would be carried out by the troops already fighting there, and 2 US Corps, much weakened and nearing exhaustion after two months of unbroken combat, was now asked for another effort. While one force attacked the town of Cassino from the north, a second would continue to press forward from hill to hill to take Montecassino from the rear. To buttress 34 US Division in its push through the hills 36 US Division, holding the line of the Rapido in the throat of the Liri valley, would have to be relieved south of Route 6, and on 3 February Clark ordered the New Zealand Corps to detail a brigade for this purpose.

It was in these circumstances that 5 Brigade, as the vanguard of the New Zealanders, went into the line before Cassino. The plan was now for the Americans to move forward along the hilltops so that the New Zealanders might establish a bridgehead across the Rapido and pass tanks across. The Indian division was not to be committed immediately but was to await the outcome of the American attack.

The plan for this attack, like the plans that succeeded it, aroused little enthusiasm among senior commanders, least of all among those directly charged with its execution. It was accepted as a necessary duty. Each new strategic move in Italy had involved the Allies in deeper play. Before the New Year there had been no military necessity for aggression against the Gustav line; but, with the force at Anzio first contained and then threatened, the necessity became urgent. So long as the bridgehead was in danger, the pressure for action on the Cassino front, regardless of weather or terrain, was irresistible. It was a portent that on the day when the New Zealand Corps came into existence the Germans launched their first counter-attack towards Anzio. On 8 February Churchill found some consolation for his disappointment in the fact that the enemy was being engaged in such strength so far away from the other battlefields. ‘… we have a great need to keep continually engaging them, and even a battle of attrition is better than standing by and watching the Russians fight’.1 A battle of attrition it was to be.

1 Chruchill, V, p. 431.

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5 brigade positions, 8 february 1944

5 brigade positions, 8 february 1944