Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
II: On The Rapido
II: On The Rapido
The deployment of the corps was a work requiring caution, patience, tact and good humour. The superb command of the enemy over the valley of the Rapido and Garigliano and long stretches of Route 6 confined the movement of convoys in the forward area to the hours of darkness, when drivers had no more luminous guide than the wan beam of undercarriage lighting on the truck ahead. Route 6 was a busy highway running through a rain-sodden and dejected landscape and past the litter of battle and grey stone buildings wasted by war and splashed with mud. It was under the tight control of American military police, models of brisk, or even brusque, efficiency, and the strange driver felt at first like a bucolic drayman plunged into the traffic stream of a metropolis. Owing to congestion on and off the roads, the corps could take forward only essential transport, and this had to be divided into small convoys of not more than thirty-six vehicles each.
Reconnaissance parties were at their wits' end to find suitable assembly areas, gun positions and the like. Except well forward on the floor of the Rapido valley, the demand for flat ground exceeded the supply, most of it having long since been engrossed by earlier arrivals. As it was necessary to disperse vehicles without delay and impossible to evict existing occupants, late-comers had to fit themselves in as best they could, colonising ill-favoured sites and setting to work to make them tenable by sweeping for mines, forming tracks, and digging drains. Overhead the sky was grey, raining or threatening rain, and in many places pools of water lay on the ground. The diverse nationalities that elbowed and jostled each other along and about Route 6 met on a common footing of mud.
While spare vehicles and the men ‘left out of battle’ (comprising 7½ per cent of the fighting units) remained round Alife, the rest of the Division steadily moved into the battle area between 4 and 7 February, leaving 4 Indian Division to follow later when the result of the contest among the hills above Cassino became clearer. The elements most urgently needed were the infantry of 5 Brigade, who were to relieve 36 Division, and the artillery, whose fire was to hammer the defences resisting 2 US Corps.
First into the line was 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel H. M. McElroy). It moved up in the heavy rain of the afternoon and evening of the 4th and by an early hour next morning had taken over a 3000-yard front on the Rapido south-west of Monte Trocchio from 143 US Regiment, the left-flanking formation of 36 US Division. Because of some hitch in the transmission of orders, 28 Battalion page 186 (Lieutenant-Colonel R. R. T. Young) was unable to relieve 141 US Regiment on the right next day as it had hoped. When it arrived, the Americans had received no instructions to hand over and refused to do so, but instructions came to hand about midday on the 6th and by nine o'clock that evening the relief was complete. Although two American battalions had occupied this sector, they had lost heavily in the attempt to cross the Rapido, and one company of Maoris – D Company (Captain J. Matehaere) – was judged sufficient to hold it. Meanwhile, C Company (Captain Wirepa) had replaced 91 Reconnaissance Unit between 141 Regiment and the divisional boundary on Route 6. The brigade's third battalion, the 23rd (Lieutenant-Colonel J. R. J. Connolly),1 went into reserve behind Monte Porchio, a hill similar in shape to Trocchio but smaller and farther to the rear. With its headquarters established in the lee of Trocchio, 5 Brigade was now in position between the Americans of 2 Corps and the British of 10 Corps.
Restricted in their choice of gun positions by the number of troops already on the ground, the three field regiments spent the whole of the 5th in deploying in muddy and slightly rolling country behind the infantry. The density of American anti-aircraft defences made it unnecessary to bring forward more than one Bofors battery, the 41st, which was sited near Porchio to protect the heavy and medium artillery. The flash-spotters of 36 Survey Battery found an admirable base on the summit of Trocchio.
In accordance with the carefully prepared timings of the Corps' movement order, the remaining New Zealand convoys left the Alife area between the 5th and the 7th, dispersing themselves around Route 6 for several miles behind the Porchio feature. Immediate administrative needs were served by the opening of two advanced dressing stations and a casualty clearing station, and of ammunition, petrol, and supply issuing points.
1 Lt-Col J. R. J. Connolly, m.i.d.; Ashburton; born NZ 13 Aug 1910; petrol serviceman; CO 23 Bn Apr–May 1943, Dec 1943–May 1944; twice wounded.
With one brigade in the line, with the rest of the New Zealand fighting troops handily disposed and with 4 Indian Division assembling in the rear, the New Zealand Corps, reinforced, fuelled and munitioned, was gathering itself for the break-through and pursuit. At 9 a.m. on 6 February it took over from 2 Corps command of the Rapido line south of Cassino. The northern boundary with 2 Corps was Route 6 and the southern with 10 Corps ran along a lane south-west from Colle Cedro to the Gari. The corps area thus broadened out fanwise towards the enemy to form a front of seven or eight thousand yards along the Rapido where it flows south across the mouth of the Liri valley.
Here at the meeting of the two valleys, 5 Brigade's immediate surroundings were desolate, but no one could deny a wild grandeur to the wider prospect or miss the sense of portent in its bold architecture, as though it had witnessed great deeds not for the last time. Behind or to the right of the platoons near the river, the long, sharply-ridged, clean-sculptured shape of Monte Trocchio rose abruptly out of the plain and showed an almost sheer western face 1000 feet high towards Cassino. From the foot of Trocchio the ground dropped in gentle undulations and then, as it neared the river, became flat and marshy and covered with reeds and brush. The land had been cultivated but already, after three weeks of battle, the willows looked scarred and the vines and small trees spindly and stunted. The lanes and tracks were thick with mud and the numerous farmhouses were becoming dilapidated in appearance and often in fact. As Route 6 skirted the northern shoulder of Trocchio, so the railway line ran round the southern shoulder and then north across the New Zealanders' front to a bridge over the Rapido half a mile south of the main road. Beyond the Rapido the rolling country came down almost to the brink of the river, giving the Germans better covered approaches and allowing them to hold posts actually on the riverbank, whereas the New Zealand outposts were set back between 200 and 400 yards. Midway between Montecassino and the village of Sant' Ambrogio – the two posts, as it were, upon which the double gates of the Liri valley swung – lay the village of Sant' Angelo, built on a bluff high above the river and commanding the whole width of the gateway.
Looking over greater distances, the New Zealand infantry saw far to their right the snow sprinkled on the summit of Monte Cairo page 188 and, disquietingly close, the white range of abbey buildings set four-square on the southern promontory of the Cairo massif. At the foot of the abbey hill, facing the New Zealanders, were the grey stone buildings of Cassino town; directly in front of them lay the valley that led to Rome; and south of it again, far to the left front, the Aurunci Mountains stretched away, peak on peak, toward the Tyrrhenian Sea.
The German troops on the western side of the Apennine divide belonged to 14 Panzer Corps, commanded by General F. von Senger und Etterlin, a man of wide attainments who had been a Rhodes Scholar before the First World War and who was known for a cool and clear-headed soldier. The inland mountain sector was held by 5 Mountain Division and 44 Infantry Division, the latter on Monte Cairo. Between Monte Cairo and the Liri valley 90 Panzer Grenadier Division had just been hurriedly brought into the line to stiffen the defence of a vital sector which embraced Montecassino, the hills north of it and the town itself. It was commanded with dash, imagination, and close knowledge of the ground by the independent-minded Lieutenant-General Ernst Baade.1 South of Route 6, in the Liri valley itself and opposite the New Zealanders, was 15 Panzer Grenadier Division (Lieutenant-General Eberhard Rodt), a formation of fairly high quality, well equipped with infantry weapons and presumably heartened by its success in throwing back, with heavy losses, the attempt of 2 US Corps to cross the river on 20–22 January. The rugged southern sector from the Liri to the sea was committed to a single division, 94 Infantry Division, which, having responsibility also for coastal defence up to Terracina, was stretched to danger point.
The terrain occupied by the enemy was renowned for its natural military strength. In the north the high country inland from Monte Cairo and in the south the Aurunci Mountains – both almost roadless wastes built on a majestic scale – could be held lightly and without elaborate field defences. Defensive effort was concentrated in the centre, where Montecassino dominated the entrance to the Liri valley – ‘a classical example of the control exercised by height over terrain.’2 After years of studying it as a regular tactical exercise, the Italian General Staff believed this position to be all but impregnable even without artificial works. Now the Germans had incorporated it into the Gustav line and for months had been building fortifications.
1 Commanded 115 Infantry Regiment in Africa in 1942. See Lt-Col J. L. Scoullar: Battle for Egypt, p. 261 et seq.
2 Lt-Col G. R. Stevens: Fourth Indian Division, p. 274.
Nothing that skill could devise or energy execute had been omitted to make it proof against assault. In the summer of 1943 Cassino was the headquarters of 14 Panzer Corps.1 The corps returned there after the withdrawal from Sicily and in September it began to prepare defences in accordance with Kesselring's intention to stand south of Rome, which Hitler soon confirmed. As the Allied armies drew near work was pressed on by the Todt organisation, assisted by the labour of civilians and prisoners of war.2 From north of Cassino to its confluence with the Liri the line followed the west bank of the Rapido, but the very core of the defences in the Cassino area lay behind the river in the complex of mountains north and west of the town. Here, in rough, bare country furrowed by deep ravines, the Germans held a series of peaks from which defensive posts could give mutual support and sweep all approaches with fire.
From the key height of Montecassino on the tip of the spur observers had an almost uninterrupted panorama over the valleys of the Liri, the Rapido and the Garigliano about 1500 feet below. The Rapido line itself was protected by flooding, notably south-east of Cassino, by the demolition of roads, tracks and bridges forward of the line, and by wire and minefields on both sides of the river. North of the town emplacements were dug into steep slopes across the river and were served by concealed communication trenches. Behind anti-tank obstacles, the narrow streets and stone buildings of Cassino had been easily converted into a fortress. Attackers would be challenged by machine-gun posts strengthened by concrete, steel, and railway ties, by well-armed snipers at doors and windows, and by self-propelled guns and tanks sited to see without being seen.
Southwards across the mouth of the valley strongpoints powerfully supported by field artillery were established at irregular intervals, with the village of Sant' Angelo as the pivot of the system. All along the line houses had been destroyed and trees felled to clear a field of fire and rob an attack of cover.
1 F. von Senger und Etterlin, article in New English Review, Vol. II (N.S.), No. 4, April 1949, pp. 250–2.
2 Fifth Army History, Vol. IV, p. 7.
Within a few hours of its entry into the line 5 Brigade had begun to amass information, but only, unhappily, by the method of exchange. On the night of 6–7 February each of the two battalions despatched two reconnaissance patrols with instructions to return before dawn, not to cross the river and not to lose prisoners, which would disclose the presence of the Division. In the northern part of the front the two Maori patrols, led respectively by Second-Lieutenants Tomoana1 and Asher,2 spent six hours in unhindered inspection of the river and the approaches to it. They found that, though assault boats could be launched at any of the crossings examined, the tracks leading to the river were soft, muddy or even waterlogged and exposed. Fifth Brigade accordingly advised Divisional Headquarters that bridges could be built across the river provided the engineers cleared the approaches and made them firm.
Farther to the left 21 Battalion spent a less satisfactory night. Both of its patrols clashed with an enemy who in this sector was alert and aggressive. The first, having explored the river near a demolished bridge at the southern entrance to Sant' Angelo, ran into a German ambush on the way back and left two of its men in German hands. The second, under Second-Lieutenant Fitzgibbon,3 returning from a more southerly stretch of the river, was engaged by about a dozen Germans in a creek bed. The arrival of a party of ten men led by Lieutenant Burton4 from B Company reversed the odds and the enemy withdrew, though Fitzgibbon was wounded and it was nearly an hour before all members of his patrol were reunited at B Company's forward posts. The Germans were still on the move in the area. B Company, suspecting that they might try to recover wounded comrades believed to be lying in front of its outposts, eventually sent forward a party which brought back two prisoners.
1 Capt Te M. R. Tomoana, MC; Hastings; born Hastings, 16 Nov 1919; railway porter; twice wounded.
2 2Lt G. A. Asher; born NZ 31 Jul 1914; student; killed in action 18 Feb 1944.
3 Lt R. G. Fitzgibbon, MC; Whangarei; born Whangarei, 25 Aug 1906; transport driver; three times wounded.
4 Maj A. E. Burton, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Christchurch, 24 Sep 1910; departmental buyer.
The loss of three prisoners overnight made mortifying news for the New Zealand command next morning: the fact that the New Zealanders had joined the Fifth Army, hitherto so carefully concealed, was a revelation of strategic proportions. With a shrug for the irrevocable past and a care for the future, Brigadier Kippenberger ordered Lieutenant-Colonel McElroy to reorganise his battalion into compact company areas and to send out only strong patrols capable of looking after themselves. Now that the secret was out, it was thought safe to allow the Division on the 10th to resume its signs, titles and badges and to drop the pseudonym of spadger force.
Strong patrols of Germans continued to venture across the Rapido on the following nights and to explore the brigade's territory until, on the 9th, 28 Battalion advanced its outpost line to the bank of the river to control the intruders. Twenty-one section posts were set up at 100-yard intervals and, with help from the reserve companies, were manned nightly until 5.45 a.m. and left empty by day. From time to time the gunners scored successes in answering infantry calls for fire, but one such success was quite inadvertent. On the night of 10–11 February a green flare lit up the Maoris' front. Whatever it meant in the signal code of the Germans who fired it, to the New Zealanders it meant that the enemy was approaching in overwhelming force. The shellfire that the Germans thus brought down on themselves was severe and found a mark, for the Maoris heard their wounded crying for help.
Twenty-first Battalion, which had suffered no further surprises after adjusting its dispositions, was relieved on this same wet night by the Divisional Cavalry Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel I. L. Bonifant) in its now customary role of line-holding infantry. At the same time the brigade's fire-power was strengthened by the deployment of 2 Machine Gun Company (Captain Aislabie),1 which opened its programme of harassing Route 6 before it could dig in and paid for its temerity by drawing heavy return fire from the German machine-gunners.
1 Capt W. R. Aislabie; Wellington; born Gisborne, 18 May 1910; civil servant.
To the infantry along the sodden line of the Rapido and to the troops supporting them in more genial surroundings, 11 February was like any other day, but it was in fact decisive. The Division's future was being decided among the heights above Cassino. It will be remembered that by the beginning of February 2 United States Corps, instructed to maintain the momentum of the winter offensive, had made appreciable gains in a right-about movement of descent upon Montecassino and Cassino town from the north. Though 36 Division on the left was halted in the northern outskirts of the town, 34 Division, after capturing the village of Cairo, wheeled left and attacked uphill to seize the commanding peak of Monte Castellone. Thence the way lay downhill for two miles across very broken country to Montecassino and its monastery, the last great obstacle before dropping down into the Liri valley.
By the 6th sheer dogged fighting had brought the Americans within measurable reach of their goal. They held a line stretching from a point on the eastern slope of the massif just north of Cassino through Point 445 (only 300 yards north of the monastery walls) and north-west to the embattled Point 593, where no one had more than a slippery fingerhold. But farther than this they could not go. Tired from ten weeks of fighting, gravely depleted (some units fell in the end to 25 per cent of their fighting strength) and exposed to dirty weather, they failed in a renewed attack on the 8th, and what was to have been the prelude to a race by the New Zealand armour down the valley towards Rome came to nothing. One final effort was ordered for the 11th.page 193
Reluctant though he was to commit his exploiting force, General Alexander now warned the New Zealand Corps to take over the Americans' sector in the event of their failure. General Freyberg's plan of the 9th, drawn up with this contingency in view, was the fruit of long study of the ground and of air photographs, of thorough conference and the careful weighing of alternatives. The plan provided for an attack on the night of 12–13 February. Fourth Indian Division would inherit 34 US Division's forward positions and its objectives. From the Castellone feature it would seize Monastery Hill (Montecassino), cut Route 6, and capture Cassino from the west. The New Zealand Division would assist the operation with fire and be prepared to cross the Rapido to help the Indians take Cassino. Exploitation towards Pignataro and the construction of crossings over the Rapido on Route 6 would be in the hands of United States Task Force B. Meanwhile, 5 Brigade was ready with plans to follow up an American success above Cassino by forcing the river. But these last plans were to be unnecessary.
Not unexpectedly, the attack on the 11th was repelled, and the larger corps plan rose to the top of the agenda. That evening Major-General A. M. Gruenther, General Clark's Chief of Staff, spoke to General Freyberg on the telephone. ‘The torch is now thrown to you,’ he said. ‘We have had many torches thrown to us,’ Freyberg commented later, in the full realisation that the latest would not be the lightest.
The progress of the Americans among the hills had in fact caused General Senger great alarm. Each of his divisions committed in the major battle zone was losing the equivalent of one to two battalions daily and their annihilation was only a matter of time. He believed, moreover, that the penetration by the Americans north of Cassino had brought them within sight of Route 6, his indispensable supply line. In these circumstances he proposed, at the risk of his prestige, to withdraw from the Cassino front to the ‘C’ line, a new defensive position behind the Anzio bridgehead. The proposal was rejected.1 These facts might have comforted General Freyberg, had he but known them. As it was, he made a cool estimate of the prospects. Asked at Fifth Army Headquarters what he thought the chances of success would be, he answered ‘Fifty-fifty’, and declined an invitation to improve the odds.2
1 General Senger's war diary of the Italian Campaign (Cassino), in possession of Historical Division, Headquarters United States Army, Europe; English translation, pp. 69–71 of typescript.
2 General Freyberg in oral and written comment to author.
The New Zealand Corps, then, could no longer hope to pass through a door thrown open for it; it would have to open the door for itself. Preparations to this end were now accelerated. While, as we shall see, the Indian division laboured to install itself in the hills west of Cassino, the New Zealand Division made ready to seize and then to expand a footing across the Rapido. Temporary command of the Division now passed to Brigadier Kippenberger, who relinquished 5 Brigade to Colonel Hartnell.1
Kippenberger gave orders immediately, but it was already found necessary to postpone the attack for twenty-four hours until the night of 13–14 February. Twenty-eighth Battalion was then to cross the Rapido with two companies and capture Cassino railway station to enable the engineers to bridge the river and allow a squadron of 19 Armoured Regiment to cross. These tanks, with the rest of 28 Battalion, would attack Cassino from the south, linking up with the Indians, and 23 Battalion would then pass through to widen 28 Battalion's bridgehead. The narrowness of the front on which the attack was to be launched was recognised as a weakness in the plan, but it was not to be avoided because of the widespread flooding of the Rapido around Route 6 and the railway line. Indeed, on the 12th, observation from Trocchio and closer reconnaissance left the officers of the two assaulting companies of 28 Battalion pessimistic. Though infantry could cross the river along the railway line, the area was so wet and marshy, with the fields under an inch of water in places, that deployment would be hazardous and, as digging was nowhere possible, supporting troops could not be employed with safety.
1 Brig S. F. Hartnell, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Palmerston North; born NZ 18 Jul 1910; carpenter; CO 19 Bn Oct 1941–Apr 1943; comd 4 Armd Bde Jun–Jul 1943; 5 Bde 9–29 Feb 1944.
The same morning an engineer report to Corps Headquarters stated that even the infantry could not at present go across country south of the railway because of the ponding up of water, which would probably not subside for four or five days. The operation was therefore further postponed, but 28 Battalion was to be ready to attack any night. The two other battalions, the 23rd, which was to extend the bridgehead, and the 21st, which was to exploit under command of Task Force B, were put on six hours' notice to move.
The Maori Battalion used the respite to build up its ammunition supply, work on its forward battle headquarters, and improve its knowledge of the ground. Of two patrols after dark on the 14th, one under Second-Lieutenant G. Takurua not only probed the enemy's defences at the railway station, as instructed, but prodded them into vigorous life. Challenged by a sentry near the station, the patrol shot two Germans, whereupon at least six spandaus opened fire from all quarters and for three minutes a fight was carried on with machine pistols and grenades. The Maoris escaped unharmed under cover of the railway embankment, leaving the defenders for the next hour or so to shoot their spandaus at shadows. A companion patrol to the hummock, a group of black mounds about 200 yards south of the station, found the ground drier than on the last reconnaissance but remarked on its openness and want of cover. When a party from 21 Battalion saw it the next night, the Rapido was flowing fast, three or four feet deep, between stopbanks eight to ten feet high.
Successive postponements of the attack – on the 13th it was put off again till the 16th – were beginning to tell on the morale of the Maori Battalion, and the two forward companies, destined for a reserve role in the attack, were tiring. On the 16th, therefore, relief was arranged. Coming under 5 Brigade's command, 24 Battalion (Major Pike)1 deployed A and B Companies (Captain Schofield2 and Major Turnbull),3 allowing the two forward Maori companies to retire to the Trocchio area. C Company of 24 Battalion (Major Reynolds)4 went south to assist the Divisional Cavalry, which, though not hard pressed, had had some brushes with German patrols and was a little anxious about a ragged left flank.
1 Lt-Col P. R. Pike, MC; Auckland; born Auckland, 1 Oct 1913; accountant clerk; 2 i/c 24 Bn Jan 1943–Apr 1944; CO 24 Bn Apr–Jun 1944; twice wounded.
2 Capt S. C. Schofield; Auckland; born NZ 20 Aug 1920; clerk; wounded 18 Mar 1944.
3 Maj G. V. Turnbull; born England, 24 Sep 1907; farmer; NZ military representative, PWX Branch, No. 30 Military Mission to Russia, 1945.
4 Maj J. W. Reynolds, DSO; Hamilton; born Hamilton, 15 Jan 1919; bank clerk; GSO III (Ops) 2 NZ Div Mar–Aug 1943; BM 6 Bde Nov 1944–Jun 1945; wounded 28 Jun 1942.
Serious engineer reconnaissance began after dark on the 10th. Escorted by a patrol of thirteen men, including minesweepers, from 28 Battalion, Lieutenant Faram1 (5 Field Park Company) examined the railway track as far as the yards, where there was a brief skirmish with grenade-throwing Germans, and returned with a well-documented but doleful tale. In the thousand yards of track short of the station he counted ten demolitions, which he numbered in ascending order towards the enemy. The pithy nature of his report may be judged from a quotation: ‘Demolition 7 (86501933) – bridge over Rapido blown – 78 feet gap 8 feet deep – Messerschmitt 109 in gap – can be forded – hard gravel bottom – doze down each side’. Nearly all the demolitions would need bulldozing and some would need new bridges or culverts, but no mines were found and, except at one point, all rails and sleepers had been removed from the thirty-foot-wide permanent way.
This valuable report supplied the factual basis for the programme outlined by the CRE (Brigadier Hanson) at a conference on the 11th, when it had become probable that the Division would have to make an opposed crossing of the Rapido. The schedule of work then laid down, however, proved difficult to fulfil owing to a variety of hindrances that interrupted the career of the three field companies. One night traffic congestion delayed the engineers' arrival on the job; another night heavy rain caused a field company to cancel work; undetected mines at Demolition 3 severely damaged two bulldozers; the affray which Takurua's patrol touched off drove the engineers to cover; the western side of Demolition 5 was too steep for the bulldozers to climb; and enemy gunfire was a continual nuisance. In view of such setbacks and disturbances the engineers made satisfactory progress. Thanks partly to the regular protection of Maori patrols and to the covering noise of New Zealand gunfire, the first four demolitions were repaired by the 16th and a negotiable road existed almost as far forward as the outpost line.
1 Maj L. F. Faram, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Tikokino, Hawke's Bay, 19 Nov 1900; consulting civil engineer; OC 27 Mech Equip Coy 1945.
Fourth Indian Division, withdrawn from the Eighth Army at the end of January into Fifth Army reserve and then placed under command of the New Zealand Corps, completed its move to the Cassino area by 6 February. Owing to the illness of Major-General F. I. S. Tuker, officiating command of the division – the phrase is Tuker's – devolved on Brigadier H. W. Dimoline, the divisional CRA. At General Freyberg's headquarters on the 4th he took part in the first of several conferences on the employment of his division. For some days, while the fortunes of 2 US Corps lay in the balance, no firm decision could be taken, though it was agreed that in any advance up the Liri valley the Indians' experience of mountain warfare on the North-West Frontier, in East Africa, Syria and Tunisia fitted them to fight among the hills north of Route 6 while the New Zealanders fought on the flat. On the 9th, however, it was decided to commit the New Zealand Corps should the Americans fail to take their objectives by dark on the 12th, and Freyberg warned the Indian division to be prepared to attack immediately after that time. Most of the division was then in its rear assembly area, but 7 Indian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier O. de T. Lovett), which was to lead the attack on Montecassino, moved up on the 10th and concentrated on the lower slopes of Monte Castellone near Cairo village on the night of 11–12 February, ready to relieve the Americans the next night and to launch its attack the night after.
Final details for the relief of the Americans were arranged between 2 US Corps and the New Zealand Corps on the 12th. It was agreed that 36 US Division should continue to hold the large Castellone feature against counter-attacks from the west while the Indians attacked southwards from Points 593, 450 and 445, the limit of the American advance towards Monastery Hill. Thirty-sixth Division could muster only 600 or 700 men on Castellone and might have to call on the New Zealand Corps for help. Major-General Geoffrey Keyes, the American Corps Commander, wondered how long it could hold on if the Indians did not attack soon. Its boundary with the Indians was a stream running north-east between Castellone and Maiola hills and then bearing east round the northern side of Maiola to join the Rapido near the Cassino barracks. The Indians had as neighbours on their left the Americans of 34 Division, which remained in Cassino town with its right flank on the lower slopes of the Cassino massif along a line from Point 193 (Castle Hill) to Point 175.page 198
A relief that would in the best conditions have been arduous was made doubly so by mischance. The Indians, expecting to take over a sector solidly held, found it a battlefield. For the Germans refused to give up for lost the ground that the Americans had won at such heavy cost. On 5 February 14 Panzer Corps commented that ‘over a long period the present situation would be intolerable, i.e., the enemy occupying positions west of Cassino only two or three kilometres north of the Via Casilina’. Early on the morning of the 12th, just as the leading Indian brigade was assembling near Cairo, 90 Panzer Grenadier Division launched two assault groups of 200 Panzer Grenadier Regiment against Castellone under an unusually heavy barrage. The height fell to the Germans and for a while the American defences were critically disorganised, but all possible troops – cooks and clerks not excepted – were rallied, and the devastating defensive fire of the artillery made the German reconquests quite untenable. By noon the danger was past. Operation michael and the actions that developed simultaneously in the hills to the south cost the Germans well over 300 casualties and won not an inch of ground. Still, 36 US Division had been further exhausted, and while waiting in the concentration area 7 Indian Brigade was suffering casualties – at the rate of twenty an hour, according to report. Further, the same afternoon Germans began to infiltrate from the area of Terelle and the Indians had to face about and deploy two battalions in support of the Americans on Castellone. This diversion made it impossible to carry out the relief that night, and a twenty-four-hour postponement of the attack (already the second) followed as a matter of course.
The move of 7 Indian Brigade into the forward positions began at nightfall on the 13th, but the Indians' troubles were not over. From Cairo it was a steep, strenuous climb of nearly four miles over a tortuous mountain track which had become rougher with the weather, and which was exposed to the fire of enemy guns and mortars throughout its length. The bringing up of supplies over battle-swept trails was then, and later, a feat of physical and moral endurance. Everything had to come up by night about five miles across the Rapido valley from the Portella area to Cairo village by tracks so deep in mud that the Indians' vehicles were often stranded in the sloughs, and the loan of sturdier American trucks became necessary. Near Cairo the loads were transferred to mules; but as the mules were too few (they numbered about nine hundred) and in part ill-trained and unfit, they had to be supplemented by the equivalent of five companies of porters drawn from units in reserve. Then came the exhausting climb up to the front over tracks which an Indian pioneer company on permanent duty hewed out of the rock by hand. The front line could not be approached by day, the page 199 forward posts being overlooked by the enemy from a few yards' distance.
The relief that began at dusk on the 13th could not be completed overnight and it was 6 a.m. on the 15th when 7 Indian Brigade took over the sector. It deployed 1 Royal Sussex Regiment on Point 593 and 4/16 Punjabis on its left, occupying the ridge of Points 450 and 445.1 After a sustained show of bravery, the Americans were spent with fighting and weak from the frost and snow. Some who had been lying in their holes with frozen feet had to be carried out on stretchers.
By this time General Freyberg was beginning to show something less than exasperation but something more than indifference at the continued delays. At Anzio the enemy was obviously on the eve of a maximum effort to destroy the bridgehead. General Alexander's wish for the earliest possible action at Cassino was unmistakable. Freyberg could not but transmit this pressure. Moreover, there was a question of prestige: his immediate superior was an American and the Americans whom his corps had relieved had not concealed their belief that fresh troops would be able to complete the task the Americans had begun. On the other hand, Freyberg had committed the main attack to an Indian division whose commander was a locum tenens. Brigadier Dimoline's problem was to find a firm footing from which to lunge forward in attack.
1 Stevens's description (p. 285) of conditions on these terrible slopes is accurate and graphic: ‘When dawn broke 4/16 Punjabis looked across the intervening falling ground into the rear walls of the Monastery – “almost within touching distance” as one of the officers put it. Every window peered into the Indian lines. The Royal Sussex were even less comfortably situated. Immediately in front of their foxholes and shallow sangars loomed the rocky crest of Point 593, with the ruins of a small fort upon its summit. The slopes were shaggy with great boulders, sharp ledges and patches of scrub. These natural hideouts sheltered German spandau teams and bomb squads. Enemy outposts were less than 70 yards distant. The slightest movement drew retaliatory fire. No reconnaissance was possible, nor was there any method of ascertaining the enemy's strength. There was no elbow room for deployment, no cover behind which to concentrate effectively, no opportunity to withdraw in order to obtain space for manoeuvre. 7 Brigade therefore was committed to battle without knowing the lie of the land nor the strength of enemy which held it. Neither artillery nor air could intervene. The infantry must make its way alone’.
Dimoline, rightly or wrongly, thought that his difficulties were not fully appreciated. When at his request Kippenberger asked Freyberg to receive both of them together, the reply was a refusal to have ‘any soviet of divisional commanders.’1 Besides his troubles over deployment, though not unconnected with them, Dimoline had the deputy's natural anxiety to hand back his temporary charge in good shape. He can hardly have failed to know that Tuker, whom he had been consulting, was concerned to avoid all needless casualties.2
After hearing a report from Brigadier Lovett, who had reconnoitred the front, Dimoline was convinced that the attack on Monastery Hill could not succeed until Point 593 was cleared of the enemy. He said so as early as the 12th, before his troops were in the line, and he maintained his opinion in the days that followed. Freyberg recognised the need for a firm base,3 but with the lapse of time he became more urgent for action. As the patience of his superiors waned and as the difficulties of the troops on the heights became increasingly apparent, Dimoline was ground between the upper millstone of strategy and the nether millstone of tactics. But on one point no such tension was felt. Freyberg and Dimoline were at one in considering the abbey on the hill to be a military objective.
1 Infantry Brigadier, p. 356.
2 After he had been taken ill, General Tuker wrote, in a personal letter to General Freyberg: ‘I am ever so thankful my division is being looked after by yourself. With you there, I know that no single life will be squandered and that those that are spent will be well spent’.
3 For example, at a conference at New Zealand Divisional Headquarters General Kippenberger said: ‘The Corps Commander has laid it down that the first priority is to get established on a firm base to attack from and that the time element is of secondary importance. The Indian Division therefore has to establish itself firmly on the ground from which it is to attack’. This, however, was on the 13th, and at the time Kippenberger anticipated a delay of 24 or 48 hours only from the night 14–15 February.