CHAPTER 13 — Cassino
InJanuary 1944 a shift of the main Allied effort from east to west called for 2 New Zealand Division's presence on the other coast, and after being relieved by 4 Indian Division its units began their long journey over Italy's great central mountain barrier. Starting late on 14 January, 24 Battalion camped for a few hours on the roadside and then, moving off again before dawn, arrived at the staging area near Lucera, to be entertained that night by a mobile cinema. Till now the troops had been under the impression that they were going to San Severo to be trained as motorised infantry, but all such expectations vanished next day when the column turned along the Naples road, passed through Ariano Irpino and Avellino, and then swung north-west to halt just south of Cancello. That night tongues of flame could be seen bursting from the crater of Vesuvius, twelve or fifteen miles to the south. Naples and the coastline were not far off, and 17 January saw the Aucklanders' journey end at a camp among pleasant woodlands near Piedimonte d'Alife, in the Volturno valley.
American troops were much in evidence hereabouts and their weapons and equipment were a source of great interest to our men, as also were their sports and pastimes—especially when an American basketball team visited 24 Battalion and badly defeated the previously uninstructed New Zealanders. Naples being out of bounds, leave parties had to be content with visits to Pompeii. The usual accumulation of courts of inquiry and courts martial had to be disposed of while the chance presented itself. Training was adapted to local conditions. In Italy the crossing of rivers was a necessary accomplishment, and a novel form of exercise was carried out in the use of collapsible canvas boats and kapok pontoon bridges. The latter were tricky things to walk upon, and there were several spills into ice-cold water.
On the whole life was very pleasant in the Volturno valley, page 225 but from the nature of things it could not be expected to last. Not only in the east but also in the west a state of deadlock had developed. Stretching across the Liri valley and extending coastwards along the line of the Garigliano, the Gustav Line barred the Fifth Army's way to Rome. A French African corps faced the enemy in the alpine region north of Cassino; 10 British Corps' lines extended southwards from the Liri- Rapido confluence, while in the central sector the forward movement of 2 United States Corps was stemmed by a fortress both natural and artificial which effectually commanded the Liri valley. Lying on the edge of a marshy plain, the town of Cassino was dominated by mountains on its western side and overlooked by the ancient, massively-built Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino. Route 6, the main highway between Rome and Naples, passed through the town itself, while the railway ran south of it at a distance of less than a mile. In January an American division had crossed the Rapido five miles south of Cassino, only to be counter-attacked and driven back over the river. A few days later the attack had been renewed in the mountain region north of the town, where some progress had been made, but with town and monastery both remaining firmly in the enemy's grasp no general forward movement was possible.
On 3 February 2 New Zealand Division and 4 Indian Division were formed into a corps under the command of General Freyberg, who handed over the New Zealand Division to Major-General Kippenberger.1 The new corps' task was to support the American forces attacking Cassino and, in the event of their objective not having been captured by 12 February, to take over their sector and continue the offensive. Meanwhile the New Zealand infantry brigades began to move forward.
On the night of 5 February 24 Battalion left its quarters in the Volturno valley and moved to a camp beside the railway line, seven or eight miles west of the Garigliano River. Once page 226 more in a forward area the battalion lost no time in camouflaging tents and digging slit trenches. As usual casualties, sickness, and other causes had brought about several changes. Soon after the battalion's arrival in its new position, Colonel Conolly was evacuated to hospital and his command devolved upon Major Pike,2 Major Dew becoming second-in-command. For the past 21 months A Company had gone into action under Major Aked, but whatever his own views on the subject this officer was due for a peaceful interlude and he was placed in charge of the LOB troops, who were to remain for the time being at Capua on the Volturno. His company3 was taken over by Captain Schofield,4 while B was now commanded by Major Turnbull. Major J. W. Reynolds, who had been a subaltern with the battalion in Greece, was back in charge of C after a long absence, and Captain A. H. Ramsay, wounded when a platoon commander at El Alamein, now commanded D Company. Captain Boord was training reinforcements at Maadi Camp before going on leave to New Zealand, and his place as Adjutant was being taken by Captain Phillips.5
The 2nd United States Corps had not succeeded in capturing Cassino by 12 February and, consequently, the task devolved upon the newly-formed New Zealand Corps. General Freyberg's operational plan directed the Indian Division to attack Monte Cassino from the north, and, having captured it, to cut Route 6 south-west of the monastery. Meanwhile 5 Brigade was to cross the Rapido at the railway bridge south-east of the town, and then go on to cross the Garigliano beyond. With these two bridgeheads established, the remainder of the New Zealand Division would be free to deploy and advance up the Liri valley.
Fifth Brigade had already relieved 36 United States Division along the line of the Rapido and Garigliano rivers when, on the night of 16 February, 24 Battalion came under command page 227 of 5 Brigade. Two of its companies, A and B, moved forward to relieve 28 Battalion in its position between Route 6 and the railway, beyond the forward slopes of Monte Trocchio. C Company took over from A Company 23 Battalion south of the railway, while D remained in reserve in its old position. The Maoris had been ordered to capture the railway station, and A and B Companies of the 24th had taken up the position described above to form a firm base for the attack and provide a smoke screen for the engineers while they threw a bridge across the Rapido.
After dark on 17 February A and B Companies of 28 Battalion formed up on their start line beyond the Rapido, after an approach march through heavy going over waterlogged fields. The attack began at 9.30 p.m., and the lines advanced over more flooded ground, sown with anti-personnel mines, in face of heavy fire from Cassino and the slopes immediately above it. On the right B Company seized the station, but page 228 A Company failed to capture its objective, consisting of a hummock immediately south of the railway line. With the coming of daylight the Maoris were in an evil case, but they held on until afternoon, when a determined counter-attack by infantry and tanks forced them to withdraw.
While this engagement continued, A and B Companies of 24 Battalion had been firing smoke canisters intermittently since dawn on the 18th. They had not been heavily shelled, but had suffered casualties from anti-personnel mines of a new type, described as follows in B Company's war diary:
Number 10 Platoon had to pass through a minefield and suffered some casualties. This was our first meeting with the shoe [Schu] mine, a small anti-personnel mine made of wood, about 6 inches long by 4 wide and three deep. Made entirely of wood with a push pull igniter set and a small block of composition explosive, they are a very deadly piece of mechanism. Two mines were trodden on, and Ptes Dorney and Morris both lost a foot each.
Two hours after the withdrawal began, 24 Battalion moved two platoons of D (Reserve) Company out on to its right flank on Route 6, and sent three anti-tank guns to cover the railway line, while a patrol went forward to discover whether the enemy was attempting to follow up the Maoris' retreat. This patrol crossed the Rapido and got close to the station before being fired upon. The enemy was repairing his wire and appeared to have no intention of following up his success. In the evening of 19 February 24 Battalion withdrew to its former position, at the same time reverting to the command of 6 Brigade.
The Indian Division's attack on Monte Cassino having also failed, General Freyberg gave up all idea of persevering with his pincer movement, deciding instead to assault the town by day from its northern side after air and artillery bombardment. In accord with this intention, 2 NZ Division moved round to the north of Cassino and relieved the American forces occupying that sector.
The 24th Battalion was picked up by motor transport on the night of 21 February and taken along Route 6 to within about 3000 yards of Cassino, after which the convoy turned north and eventually deposited the Aucklanders beside a main road leading out of the town in a north-easterly direction. page 229 Thence, by a circuitous route, the troops finished their journey on foot and before daybreak had taken over the positions occupied by 133 United States Regiment.
Thus 6 Brigade, detailed as the assaulting formation, lay poised north of Cassino ready to attack the town; it would be supported by the Indians, who would bring neutralising fire to bear on the hill positions overlooking it from the east and take over Point 193 as soon as it should be captured. The Indian Division was then to sweep forward over the eastern slopes of Monte Cassino. The 5th NZ Brigade would move close up along Route 6 and bring fire to bear on fortified houses and other enemy positions south of that highway. Once the town was in 6 Brigade's possession, 4 NZ Armoured Brigade would exploit south-west and cross the Garigliano. Such, in brief, was the plan known as Operation DICKENS, which only awaited fine weather to be put into effect; but fine weather was a long time coming.
The attack had been tentatively fixed for 24 February, but rain began to fall a few days previously and persisted with only short intervals for the next three weeks. During that time the waiting troops lived not only in great discomfort from mud and slush, but also under direct observation from enemy batteries on higher ground. A and B Companies suffered especially, and one gathers some idea of their plight from the following extract taken from B Company's war diary:
The rain which followed led to the designation of this congested area as ‘Mud Valley’. Bivvyless for the first few days, many and varied were the shelter contraptions devised. 12 Platoon were chased by intermittent shelling from one side of the gulley to the other, and the Indian roadmakers above us were chased down into the creek bed. The night of 28-29 [February] was a particularly wet one, and a roaring torrent took bivvies and all kinds of gear with it, salvaging of Vickers guns and our 2 inch mortars being quite the order of the day.page 231
Under these trying conditions the usual sanitary arrangements lapsed into abeyance. Rations were brought up by mule train, and some of the carcasses of animals killed by shellfire were allowed to remain unburied. An epidemic of diarrhoea broke out but ceased as soon as the mules were buried and proper sanitation insisted upon.
The defence of Cassino had been taken over late in February by battalions of 1 German Parachute Division, a crack corps, and when Operation DICKENS finally took place on 15 March they still held the town. Orders were issued for all our forward troops to move back behind a safety line well in rear of front-line positions before the aerial bombardment preceding the attack should begin. C and D Companies withdrew accordingly before dawn, leaving anti-tank guns and mortars behind with sights and firing mechanism removed. Only a volunteer gun crew of the Anti-Tank Platoon, under Second-Lieutenant O'Brien,6 remained in their forward position. Battalion Headquarters moved up in front of the Villa Barracks.
March the 15th dawned with a clear sky, and at half past eight, in bright sunshine, the first wave of bombers flew over Cassino to drop their lethal cargoes, and thereafter until midday squadron followed squadron in successive waves, raining high explosive on the town. The wisdom of moving all troops back behind a safety line was amply demonstrated by the number of bombs which fell near C and D Companies' former positions. During intervals in the aerial attack O'Brien's gun crew, consisting of Corporals Stanaway7 and Bryant,8 fired on enemy pillboxes around Point 193 and then went to ground again as soon as the bombing was renewed. Eventually the platform of loose stones which served as an emplacement was shaken down by the concussion of the bombing, and they were obliged to cease fire. Since nothing more could be done, the crew retreated to B Echelon, leaving their gun behind, and were subsequently employed in the arduous and dangerous duty of carrying supplies to forward troops. Stanaway received page 232 the MM as an immediate award for his conduct on this occasion.
Soon after the action began, B Company of 24 Battalion moved up to the south end of Villa Barracks and waited there till 5 p.m., when orders were received to come under command of 25 Battalion. Having duly reported to Lieutenant-Colonel MacDuff,9 Major Turnbull was directed to pass through the captured part of the town and get in touch with 25 Battalion's A Company, which at that time occupied the most advanced position. Keeping under cover by wading along the bed of a creek that ran beside the right-hand parallel road, Turnbull's men made their way into the town and, being directed forward from one company headquarters to another, at length found A Company. Turnbull then established his own headquarters in the Post Office, just north of Route 6, with his men in position between that building and the church standing at the crossroads.
Meanwhile 26 Battalion had come forward along the Pasquale Road, crossed the Rapido, and passed through the town. Arriving at the church, it moved on down the marginal road leading towards the railway station, but was pinned down by machine-gun fire a little way south of Route 6.
C and D Companies of 24 Battalion had returned to their original lines when the bombing was over, but after nightfall C was sent to a reserve position behind the Villa Barracks, and A moved into the lines it had previously occupied.page 234
On the night of 15 March only the south-west corner of Cassino was left in German hands, and this remaining portion might soon have been captured also had it not been for a change of weather. Moonlight would have helped the attackers, but rain came on and brought a pitch-black night. Runners lost their way and companies lost touch with each other, while the enemy, with better knowledge of his surroundings, reorganised defensive posts and recovered from his state of confusion.
After passing through the town, Route 6 turned sharply southwards at the foot of Monastery Hill. On the corner stood a large building, the Continental Hotel, and a few hundred yards south of it, the Hotel des Roses. These two buildings in the south-western end of Cassino remained as centres of resistance, and at dawn on 16 March 11 and 12 Platoons of B Company 24 Battalion, under Second-Lieutenant McCorquindale,10 were ordered to attack along the line of Route 6 towards the Continental Hotel, while detachments of 25 Battalion advanced on their right. Heavy fire came from the hill face, and the platoons lost three men killed and seven wounded before reaching the shelter of a house at the foot of the slope. No. 12 Platoon occupied the first floor, while No. 11 took up quarters in the cellar. Two prisoners were taken. The house was under heavy and continuous fire. Without going outside there was no communication between the first floor and cellar, and to overcome this disadvantage McCorquindale ordered his men to drive a passage through the intervening floor, a task which took them more than five hours. While working, the men called out to each other frequently, using christian names, and their exchanges of conversation were overheard by other unknown listeners.
‘During the afternoon’, writes McCorquindale, ‘we prepared the first floor as a defensive position. Just on last light, when the troops were standing to, a voice from the rear of the house was heard shouting, “Are you there, Mac?” I answered “Yes”, and the voice continued, saying, “Two fife are on your left”. Private G. C. Brown, who was standing by me, said “That's no Kiwi, Mac”. Realising it was the voice of the enemy I ordered grenades to be thrown in page 235 the direction of the voice, and one of my men opened fire with a light machine gun. A voice then called on us to surrender as we were surrounded, and we were attacked by grenades and automatic weapons from south, west and north. We vigorously retaliated with grenades and light machine guns, and after this the enemy abandoned pretence and we could hear them in the darkness shouting to one another in German. When we were almost out of grenades the enemy patrol moved southward and we could hear them engaging another position.’
Nos 11 and 12 Platoons held the house until the early hours of 17 March and then withdrew on orders from Company Headquarters. The wounded especially, who were got away at the same time, had passed through a grim ordeal, which McCorquindale goes on to describe. ‘Conditions during our stay of five or six hours in the cellar were extremely trying, the water being about six feet deep in places, and we were forced to stand throughout this period on submerged tables etc., but even then we were standing in several inches of water. The only relief from these conditions could be obtained by four men squeezing on to a broad shelf against the north wall. The plight of our seven wounded who could not be evacuated until after last light was particularly wretched.’
On the night of 16-17 March 6 Brigade reorganised for a fresh effort. Little respite was allowed the platoons of B Company, and at dawn they formed up at the church corner preparatory to making another attempt along Route 6, supported this time by a troop of 19 Armoured Regiment. Elements of 25 Battalion attacked simultaneously on the right across an open space planted with trees and shrubs, known as the Botanical Gardens, which lay between Route 6 and another road branching off to the north. The attack began at 6.30 a.m., but before it had covered much distance one of the tanks got bogged at the south-east corner of the Botanical Gardens, and each of the other two cast a track some little way farther on. Unsupported by armour, B Company pressed on and reached a point 200 yards from the Continental Hotel, where it encountered intense fire and was obliged to withdraw. The three platoons then established a defensive position in a block of buildings close to where the last tank had broken down. page 236 Meanwhile, on the right, 25 Battalion had succeeded in clearing the Botanical Gardens.
If this action was only partially successful, it had at least the effect of securing the right flank of 26 Battalion, which now struck south towards the railway station, supported by A Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment. By mid-afternoon not only the station but also the Hummocks on its south side were firmly in our hands, and A and D Companies of 24 Battalion had begun moving into the town with the intention of seizing Route 6 south of the Continental Hotel.
Having got safely past the gaol at the northern end of Cassino, A Company was held up by a sniper and obliged to move forward for some way in single file along the bottom of a ditch. Progress was slow, and not until long after dark did the company arrive at Route 6, intending to pass along that highway towards its objective. On being informed at B Company headquarters that the Continental Hotel was still firmly held by the enemy, Captain Schofield turned back and led his men south along the marginal road.
Following on in rear, D Company at first tried to move through the centre of Cassino but was held up in a narrow defile by a sniper who could not be located. There was nothing for it but to turn back and try farther east. Reaching the marginal road beyond the gaol, the company pushed on and, skirting the town, crossed Route 6, eventually arriving at a point near some crossroads immediately north of the railway station.
On the morning of 18 March B Company held the south-west corner of the Botanical Gardens, with A on its left and D on the left of A, facing the Hotel des Roses. It soon became apparent, however, that the enemy had been reinforced during the night. The houses lying along the foot of the hill were more strongly held than ever. Snipers had crept round to the rear of our company positions, and Captain Schofield (A Company) was badly wounded early in the morning, his command devolving upon Second-Lieutenant Armstrong.11 Even so, B Company was preparing for another attempt on the Conti- page 237 nental Hotel when the upper floor of the building, occupied by more than half its men, suddenly collapsed under the weight of rubble that had fallen down on to it from the superstructure. One man was hopelessly crushed and buried under tons of masonry. Private Taylor12 was pinned down at the edge of the fallen pile, but behaved with such courage during the half hour it took to extricate him that he was awarded the MM. Corporal Rockell13 earned the same decoration by making his way back to Company Headquarters at great personal risk and returning with a rescue party. In spite of being hit on the head by a stone, Second-Lieutenant McCorquindale remained master of the situation and got the survivors out to safety without a suspicion of panic, before having to go down the line himself with concussion. A number of rifles and other equipment were buried under the debris. The men, having been badly shaken, were in no condition to undertake a somewhat desperate venture, and the contemplated attempt along Route 6 was cancelled.
The general situation of our infantry in Cassino at this time is aptly and briefly expressed in a message from B Company to 24 Battalion headquarters. The following extract may be quoted:
B Coy is 33 strong. Have one mobile tank with us. No word of D Coy, should be somewhere left of A Coy. Town literally full of enemy snipers and spandaus. They inhabit rubble and ruined houses. We are being as aggressive as possible…. Until Monastery hill is in our hands sniping problem will continue. It is not to be under-rated…. Tanks find it difficult to operate. Movement in daylight nil. 18 and 38 sets can not contact you and line is out. Am trying to rest troops today, sleep has been nil so far. Morale high….14
The Continental Hotel, the Hotel des Roses, and the intervening houses along Route 6 were still the centre of enemy resistance, and although these positions seemed almost impregnable to attack from the north or west they might yet be taken page 238 successfully from the rear. Since the night of 15 March C Company had been waiting behind the Villa Barracks, ‘cold, wet, and shelled’,15 but late on the 17th Major Reynolds and his platoon commanders were summoned to Battalion Headquarters and instructed in the enterprise they were to undertake. Having moved by night to Point 165 beyond Castle Hill, arriving there at 5 a.m., C Company would proceed to clear the slopes of Monastery Hill as far as Point 202, from where it would sweep down on the rear of enemy positions along Route 6. The men were to travel as lightly as possible, with twenty-four hours' rations and an extra supply of grenades, but without blankets.
After its capture, the Castle on Point 193 had been taken over from 25 Battalion by ¼ Essex Regiment, and although the Indian Division's subsequent attempt to advance had failed, a company of 1/9 Gurkhas had bypassed several enemy strongpoints and occupied Hangman's Hill, below the monastery. But at the time of which we are speaking the Indians' positions were very imperfectly known, and C Company's platoon commanders were specially warned to be careful not to mistake them for the enemy.
The night was pitch black; many landmarks had been obliterated by bombing, and finding the way to the Castle under such conditions promised to be no easy task. But actually the first part of C Company's journey was uneventful, and the Castle was reached by way of a steep track leading up from the north-east end of Cassino. After making contact with the Castle garrison, Major Reynolds took his company on to Point 165, arriving there at the specified time of 5 a.m., and his officers, having already been instructed as to the plan of attack, proceeded to carry out their appointed tasks. It was still dark when the platoons moved off again, coming under spandau fire for a brief interval as they did so. No. 14, under Second-Lieutenant Lloyd,16 advanced southward across the slope, without becoming involved in action, till it arrived at Point 202, where the troops began to build rock sangars for cover. While the position was being prepared, Lloyd took one page 239 man with him and went off in the direction of Hangman's Hill to get in touch with the isolated Gurkhas. He came first upon some wounded men sheltering in a culvert some 200 yards above his own position, and then found the remainder of the company occupying bomb craters farther up the slope. The officer in command told him that during the night advance to Point 202 the New Zealanders had passed within a few yards of a Gurkha patrol, which had refrained from firing, being uncertain of the strangers' identity. Having now ascertained that C Company's rear was secure, Lloyd returned to his own position and found Reynolds' headquarters established close by.
By this time the other two platoons had already started off downhill towards Route 6. According to plan, 15 Platoon, under Second-Lieutenant Matheson,17 made straight towards the Hotel des Roses from the north-east, and 13 Platoon, commanded by Second-Lieutenant Klaus,18 having made a wide cast via Point 202, approached the same objective from a south-easterly direction. Matheson's men got to within 100 yards of the hotel before being held up by fire which kept them pinned down in the same spot till nightfall, while Klaus led a most determined assault which almost reached the hotel walls. Throwing a grenade into a doorway, he ran forward to break in in the wake of its explosion, but the grenade failed to explode and he himself was killed by a shot from the same doorway. Heavy fire came from every window, and his men retreated as best they could towards Company Headquarters at Point 202. No. 15 Platoon also withdrew after dark and was placed so as to guard the left flank. No. 14 remained in the centre, and 13, now under Sergeant Tracy,19 was posted on the right.
Reduced in strength and finding the opposition far stronger than expected, C Company could hope to do little more than maintain its somewhat precarious position. That night the first page 240 carrying party with rations arrived under Lieutenant O'Brien. As events were to prove it was also the last.
Before dawn on 19 March, ¼ Essex Regiment was on its way from the Castle to reinforce Hangman's Hill when it was caught in the open by a German counter-attack. The battalion was badly mauled; the counter-attack swept on to recapture Point 165 and penetrate almost to the Castle walls. First light revealed to the men of C Company that their retreat was cut off.
Yet, if the way by which they had come was barred, it seemed likely that another way out would soon be opened when 28 Battalion, which had entered Cassino the previous night in support of 6 Brigade, attacked in concert with 25 Battalion along Route 6 from the east. Early in the morning the Maoris could be heard calling on the Germans to surrender, while confused fighting went on all day around the Continental Hotel. Before dusk a message came through from 24 Battalion headquarters, saying that our troops had reached the Hotel des Roses and might soon be moving on towards Point 202. After dark, acting on the strength of this information, Reynolds sent Lloyd with 14 Platoon to try and make contact with the New Zealanders who were supposed to be in the vicinity of Route 6. Lloyd's men approached the Hotel des Roses, expecting to find friends, but were fired upon as soon as their identity was disclosed. All night they probed the town for an opening, but in vain. Before dawn they took shelter behind a low stone wall about twenty yards above the hotel and remained there all day, withdrawing to Point 202 on the night of 20-21 March, having taken one prisoner and had two men wounded.
In the morning of 19 March one of our own mortar shells had landed on C Company headquarters, wounding five men and putting the No. 18 radio-telephone set out of action. Reynolds at once abandoned his company net and called in all No. 38 sets, but these had to be sparingly used because of a shortage of batteries. Six wounded Indians had come from higher up the hill, and altogether there were now twelve disabled men at Company Headquarters.
Practically no headway was made in Cassino during 19 March, and that night a reorganisation of forces began, 5 Brigade assuming responsibility for all ground lying north page 241 of Route 6. The same evening Major Pike held a company commanders' conference at his headquarters east of the town, but the enemy attacked B and D Companies' positions in the meantime. Thus the company commanders had difficulty in getting back to their own headquarters, and in attempting to do so Captain Ramsay was wounded. Captain Macdonald20 arrived forward next day to take over command.
When Colonel Conolly returned to duty on the morning of 20 March, it was to find his battalion's strength in Cassino reduced to 144 men. B Company had suffered worst of all, but while its commander (Major Turnbull) still survived, A Company, with twice as many men, was in charge of a subaltern (Second-Lieutenant Armstrong). Conolly, therefore, amalgamated the two companies into a single unit under Turnbull's command. D Company still had three officers.
When the readjustments and reliefs consequent on 5 Brigade's move into Cassino were complete, 24 Battalion was facing across the Gari stream towards Route 6 and the Hotel des Roses, with its composite company left and D Company right. The 26th Battalion, which had been relieved in its position at the railway station by the 5th Buffs of 78 Division, now lay on the Aucklanders' right flank.
The attempts made by 21 and 23 Battalions to clear Cassino's south-western corner were no more successful than those previously made by 6 Brigade. More enemy reinforcements had entered the town and the initial momentum of our attack had been lost. All troops both north and south of Route 6 were continually embroiled in a bitter dogfight which produced scarcely any result other than casualties. This condition of stalemate had at length to be acknowledged, and on 23 March it was decided to abandon the offensive and hold present gains. Since this might be done with fewer troops in advanced post- tions, the process of thinning out the front line began forthwith. Sixth Brigade was to take over the whole of Cassino from Castle Hill down to a line immediately south of the railway. The 4th Indian Division would remain on its right flank, while 5 Brigade would relieve 78 Division on the Garigliano.page 242
In accordance with general strategy, 24 Battalion headquarters moved from north to south of Route 6 early on the night of 23 March, and later A and B Companies were relieved by a company of the 5th Buffs. D Company remained behind in Cassino for the time being. Reliefs were complicated and dangerous operations, only to be undertaken at night. In some cases our men and the enemy occupied adjoining houses, and nothing was easier than to lose one's way in the darkness amid the tumble of ruined buildings. Yet, although troop movements in and out of Cassino on its eastern side were sufficiently hazardous, it seemed possible that even greater danger and difficulty might attend the withdrawal of C Company, still isolated on Point 202.
O'Brien21 had made nightly attempts to get through with more rations, but this having proved impossible, Reynolds' men were threatened with a shortage of food. Attempts were made to drop supplies by parachute, but although some ammunition was obtained in this way, most of the foodstuffs fell too far away and too near enemy positions to be picked up. Two packages containing chocolate and ‘K’ rations were gathered in on 22 March, but otherwise no food reached C Company by parachute till the day before final withdrawal.
Enemy mortars soon got the range of C Company's position round Point 202, and 15 Platoon, lying farthest north, received an almost daily complement of shells from our own 25-pounders when a ‘stonk’ on Point 165 overlapped that area. Complaints by radio-telephone failed either to get the range adjusted or to stop the smoke, which now became an even less bearable nuisance, as may be gathered from the following extracts taken from C Company's day-to-day report:
March 20: Smoke from our own guns is landing in Company positions.
March 21: We were completely smoked out again today. It is just like a continuous night as double picquets must be maintained and there are continual stand tos.page 243
March 22: The LO (from 1/9 Gurkhas) had to remain till dark because of our own smoke which was so intense in the area as to make movement there almost impossible without casualties. Despite protests from Company it kept up.
March 23: Still being smoked out despite protests.22
From 20 to 23 March a British officer of 1/9 Gurkhas came down from Hangman's Hill every morning to C Company headquarters to maintain contact. More Indian wounded came down too at intervals, until 18 casualties were waiting to be evacuated from Point 202. A medical officer was reported to be coming from the Castle to attend to them on 22 March, but he failed to put in an appearance. Everyone present, whether wounded or not, was suffering from hunger and exposure. The cold at night was severe, and there were neither groundsheets nor blankets.
Meanwhile, in accordance with the newly adopted strategy of standing on the defensive at Cassino, it had been decided to withdraw C Company. The operation, which was carried out on 24 March, is described below by Major Reynolds:
The LO from 1/9 Gurkhas arrived at about 0330 hrs [24th] and said his CO had instructions for me. They were in possession of a 22 set netted to their Brigade Headquarters. I went to HQ 1/9 Gurkhas and was told that if a certain codeword were received that afternoon we were both to withdraw during night. A barrage would run up the hill between us and the Castle and would commence on a lesser contour than that which I occupied. What plan did I think we should follow? There were two considerations from his point of view, I thought.
The enemy may follow him out and harry his rear.
Someone may require to punch a hole in the encirclement for both of us to pass through.
I told him I thought it more tactically correct for him to withdraw through me, and I would do his rearguard. He would make any necessary gap. He agreed and said he would be through my area by 2100 hours. He would send his LO when the codeword arrived. I returned to HQ and gave the picture to the platoon page 244 commanders and told them not to tell their men. We waited. The LO and codeword came. Also came some rations by air—tinned milk, Indian chapatties (a kerosene tin full) and two two-gallon jars of rum. I called the platoon commanders, gave the orders for withdrawal—we were to merge as a large patrol—and allowed platoon commanders to take away as much milk as they desired. I would not allow the men to eat chapatties on empty stomachs. I told the wounded that I would not be able to take them, explaining our tactical role. A few walking wounded did accompany us. I had only about 32 unwounded left, and these might have to fight hard. I promised the wounded that I would return for them in the morning under a Red Cross flag,23 as the enemy could do nothing with them, and probably would be glad for us to remove them. I left them about one gallon of rum and poured the remainder on the rocks. Again, rum on an empty stomach may have had an undesired effect.
We erected a Red Cross flag over the wounded and prepared to withdraw. When the barrage commenced at 2100 hours I sent out patrols to contact the Indians but [without success]. At 2200 hours I made up my mind to give them one hour more, and at 2300 hours moved off, leaving the wounded. Lloyd led as a fighting patrol and we followed. We saw no one until we passed the Castle, where I spoke to the sentry on duty. We then moved to the quarry where we embussed at 0045 hours for B Echelon. The vehicles we travelled in belonged to the 1/9 Gurkhas who had at this juncture all passed through. I still don't know how we missed them.
For the manner in which he conducted the operations of a company completely isolated for six days under the most trying circumstances, Major Reynolds was awarded the DSO.
After being relieved on the night of 23 March, A and B Companies had moved back to a point south-west of the railway station. Twenty-four hours later their position was taken over by the newly formed Support Company, composed of signallers, anti-tank gunners, and men from the carrier and mortar platoons. A and B then went back to B Echelon for a few days' rest, during which time they were reorganised as separate companies. Last of all, D Company was relieved on the night of 25-26 March by 22 (Motor) Battalion of 4 Armoured Brigade.
Of the C Company wounded left behind at Point 202, all page 245 those who were able to walk had made their own way out the following morning (25 March) under Red Cross flag, but five serious cases remained behind, and an attempt was now made to get them away. Sergeant Thompson, of 24 Battalion's RAP, was sent off with a party of 14 men and was instructed to get in touch first of all with the medical officer of the Royal West Kent Regiment, which had recently taken over the Castle Hill sector. The party left B Echelon at 8.30 a.m. and found the medical officer at the Quarries, north of Cassino. He explained to Thompson that the wounded could only be evacuated if the Germans would consent to let his party through, and warned him at the same time that, since all his men might possibly be taken prisoner, it was essential that only volunteers should go. The whole party volunteered at once and, having been provided with Red Cross flags, started off for the Castle, where Private Clifton,24 a lightly wounded man of C Company, had been left behind to act as guide. On arriving there, however, Thompson was informed that Clifton had been evacuated, the Indians being confident that they themselves could find the way. The party, therefore, left the Castle, led by an Indian guide and accompanied by four Indian stretcher-bearers who hoped to find Gurkha wounded on the slopes beyond Castle Hill. Approaching Point 165, they were met by two German orderlies carrying Red Cross flags who allowed them to pass on. Arriving at the place where they thought C Company headquarters must have been, they searched caves and dugouts, at the same time calling out loudly ‘Kiwi wounded!’ Five Indian casualties were found but no New Zealanders.
Sgt. Thompson (so runs an eye-witness account) felt the task was hopeless without a C Company guide and decided to return to get one. We set out for the Castle taking the five Indian wounded with us—two stretcher and three walking cases. The German orderlies accompanied us, turning us off the road as we neared the enemy lines and leading us by a route which would not disclose the lay out of his defences. At the enemy forward defended localities the German orderlies said goodbye and shook hands. Our party went in a straight line to the Castle from the enemy's forward positions and reported to the Medical Officer at the Castle. He told us that our wounded had probably been picked up by the enemy.page 246
Sgt. Thompson was not satisfied with this reply. He returned, the rest of us with him, to 24 NZ Battalion's B Echelon and reported to Major Dew, who ordered another attempt to be made after lunch with one of the C Company medical orderlies as a guide. Capt. Borrie, MC,25 the 24 NZ Battalion's Medical Officer, decided to accompany the party.26
From this point the story may be continued in Borrie's own words:
We went down past where my original RAP had been, and I checked with an ADS and RAP to see that the boys hadn't got out. At the last RAP they warned me not to go with the party, but I put on my Driver Tim's coat and became a private, and off we trudged–three red cross flags flying and armbands on. A camera man now took our photos, and when we had gone 100 yards he got hit. [We went] up to the Castle with a marvellous view of Cassino below, Cassino and its few remaining derelict houses. The Sgt. in the Castle told us we could go out in parties of 12 only, so we set off, keeping below Jerry's stronghold. We could see some people with a red cross flag on the road, and when we got near them we realised they were our wounded. They had rum dropped by parachute the day before, and at 2 p.m. decided that they were not going to be collected so they had started to walk—all lying cases who had been hit in the legs. They were an amazing sight on the road. Two pairs were leaning up against one another, and the other was sitting on the wall. They were very slow moving. We had two stretchers and I decided to try and take all of them. I put the two worst on stretchers, and got 3 men to carry each, and gave the others a two man carriage. Circus27 had led the party in and I directed it from the middle, and also going out. However a Jerry appeared on the road with a red cross flag by Pt. 165, and the boys seemed a bit perplexed so I took the lead and when half way to him I turned down off the road. The Jerry came down to meet us and said ‘Retournez’. He kept repeating ‘Retournez’ and said the Commandant had ordered it. I argued, without avail, but I got the boys to close in. He then told me to come and see the Commandant, but as I had no pips on and was a captain in my paybook page 247 I thought it best to send others, and sent Circus Worth28 and Bob Thompson. This meant I could contemplate ways of escape in daylight and in dark.29
While Borrie pursued his meditations, Thompson and Worth accompanied the German to his headquarters. After they had waited there for about twenty minutes, a German officer came out and asked if they spoke ‘Deutsch’. Thompson said they did not, upon which the officer produced a written message and asked that it should be given to the ‘English Commander’. He then said that the party might proceed on their way to the Castle, but that after this no more wounded might be evacuated. Having shaken hands with Thompson and Worth, the German asked them for a cigarette. Only too readily they gave him a packet and then returned to their party.
‘I didn't dare to turn round’, writes Borrie, ‘until I heard footsteps, and then I saw Circus's long face.
‘“We can go but it's the last party.”
‘What relief! Bob and I picked up our man and almost ran with him, but the others kept close behind. I collected the others, got more men on the stretchers, and went down and got Denis Wood30 just as he was trying to get me. We got the patients31 on my jeep and came riding victoriously home to the ADS.’
Major Aked was back again with the battalion and in charge of his old company when it went back into the line on the night of 26-27 March to relieve 28 Battalion in Cassino north of Route 6. The Support Company under Captain Pratt32 relieved 23 Battalion immediately to the right, astride the road branching north from Route 6, but Aked was in charge of all 24 Battalion troops in Cassino. The 22nd (Motor) Battalion lay on his left and 25 Battalion was on the Support page 248 Company's right. B and D Companies remained close to Battalion Headquarters by the cemetery at San Bartolomeo, a mile or more due east of Cassino, while C Company stayed at B Echelon.
Active defence was to be the watchword of the troops in forward positions. They were to harass the enemy with patrols, to lay mines, and generally do what damage they could, employing the smallest possible number of men. No major operation was undertaken either by ourselves or the enemy during the week in which 24 Battalion held a front-line sector. The Support Company had one platoon on either side of the north branch road, and another in close support, with Company Headquarters in a house some 200 yards in rear. A Company's dispositions north of Route 6 are explained in Aked's account, quoted below, of this period of warfare in a ruined town.
A Coy Commander (myself) went in early with a runner and at HQ, which was in the Crypt,33 learned as much as possible about the situation. Then when the Company marched in [he] led them into the positions. En route forward a mortar stonk landed in one platoon, and two men were killed and several wounded.
The position in Cassino was grim—just a wilderness of ruins—not a house or building could be called anything more than a heap of rubble. Huge bomb craters everywhere, and movement at night was difficult.
The position occupied by 28 Bn lacked depth, and, instead of keeping the platoons forward, A Coy Commander placed two forward, and moved the third platoon and Coy HQ to a new position approximately 400 yards in rear. This was the cellar of the Hospital, and the only part intact was a room approximately 50 ft by 20 divided in two. The remainder was a pile of rubble and a number of Jerries must have been buried under parts of the cellar which had collapsed. The atmosphere inside wasn't pleasant but it was at least safe from shells, etc.
It was impossible to move anywhere in the area by daylight. Any sign of movement brought machine gun fire immediately, and mortars and nebblewerfers [sic] engaged any area for about ten minutes at a time.
Colle Sant' Angelo, to the right of the town of Sora, was captured by 24 Battalion on 1 June 1944
Mortar carrier burnt out by enemy fire in the San Michele area
Lt B. F. E. Kelly is on the right
Men and transport at Forli
Move to the Faenza front
The banks of the Lamone River—an assault pontoon bridge ready for a crossing exercise, February 1945
HQ (Support) Coy, commanded by Capt. Bob Pratt, were allocated the right sector joining up with 25 Bn, I think. A Coy and HQ Coy for the next six nights carried out a large-scale wiring and mining programme, as A Coy Commander felt that a determined attack by Jerry would be difficult to stop. Working at times no further than 30 yards from an enemy position made things difficult, but both coys managed it and strengthened the defence line. Though Jerry several times attempted to raid positions at night he failed each time.
Artillery stonks at first had a bad habit of falling short, but this was gradually righted by coys reporting the number of shorts landing.
The safest area was in forward platoon localities as here the Hun was so close that he or we could not mortar or shell one another. Coy and Reserve Platoon HQs, however, received a lot of attention, and life at times was unpleasant, especially when a 210 MM consistently shelled our pile of rubble. However it was safe inside.
Every evening at last light Jerry occupied his night positions. The whole Div Artillery waited for our call to stonk the area immediately forward, and caused quite a few casualties. However, one night Jerry tricked us and occupied 7 Platoon night positions under cover of our stonk. 7 Platoon, led by their Commander, Sgt. Roger Smith,34 had a lively few minutes kicking out the unwanted tenants. The Hun lost several men; our casualties were one wounded.
In under a house numbered 21 on the aerial photo we located, by following its movements, an enemy tank which used to roam at night, blazing away at the Castle and down towards HQ at the Crypt. The artillery, however, put a stop to this. A stonk named 21 was registered. A few minutes before the tank made its appearance our 38 set to Coys always received a lot of static. We therefore took notice and, whenever this happened, called for 21. The time lag was five minutes, and after about three times running the tank appeared and ran into the stonk immediately. He was either disabled or buried for we heard no more from him.
We also received a lot of unpleasant attention from Spandaus in the Hotel des Roses, but Brig. Steve Weir,35 himself using a 155 MM American gun, knocked it about so much that fire from this quarter was very much subdued.page 250
Actually life in Cassino was not bad except for living conditions. The smell of dead and explosives together with the smoke which enveloped us all day was hard on stomachs, but casualties were few. One soon learned to keep one's head down and use periscopes to keep watch. The chaps who had a really sticky job and to whom great credit is due are the personnel of HQ Coy, Coy QMS and storemen who nightly carried in rations, ammunition, wire, mines, etc. A trek along the mad mile36 into the town laden with a heavy load was a trip to be feared, but these men did it night after night. Casualties occurred every night but they kept us supplied.37
The two companies of the 24th were relieved by the Maori Battalion on the night of 2-3 April. ‘The noise they [the Maoris] made’, writes Aked, ‘drew a lot of machine gun and mortar fire. The relief took longer than it should have done owing to the enemy's activity. All platoons of both coys were relieved, however, by 0200 hours, except 8 Platoon. To change over this platoon I had to call for two artillery stonks on the area immediately forward, and under cover of this the relief was completed.
‘Coy HQ moved out last, and, after reporting to HQ in the Crypt that relief was complete, started out along the mad mile for the last time very hurriedly. Both Baillies38 had been completely destroyed since our move in, and the road was, if possible, in a worse mess.
‘To all of us in the Bn, I am sure Highway 6, or the mad mile is one piece of road we will always remember. Just a mile straight of road bordered by shell torn stumps of trees and a convenient ditch. Every yard a crater, and, on the side, blanket covered bodies of chaps who had stopped one. This time we were lucky and received no casualties.’page 251
The battalion's casualties in Cassino were:
|Died of wounds
1 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF 1916-17; wounded Mar 1917; CO 20 Bn Sep 1941-Apr 1941, Jun-Dec 1941; commanded 10 Inf Bde (Crete) May 1941; 5 NZ Inf Bde Jan 1942-Jun 1943, Nov 1943-Feb 1944; 2 NZ Div 30 Apr-14 May 1943 and Feb-2 Mar 1944; twice wounded; commanded 2 NZEF PW Repatriation Unit (UK) 1944-45; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories.
3 Captain Steele took over from Major Aked but remained in command for a few days only before being evacuated to hospital.
6 Lt W. R. O'Brien, MC; Ohaupo; born NZ 14 Feb 1922; motor mechanic; wounded 29 Jul 1944.
9 Col J. L. MacDuff, MC, m.i.d.; Lautoka, Fiji; born NZ 11 Dec 1905; barrister and solicitor; CO 27 (MG) Bn 24 Sep 1943-29 Feb 1944; CO 25 Bn 29 Feb-15 Jun 1944; CO Adv Base 2 NZEF Jun-Jul 1944; Chief Magistrate, Fiji.
14 Message received at HQ 24 Bn from B Coy at 9 a.m. 18 Mar 1944.—War diary, 24 Bn.
15 War diary, 24 Bn.
21 For his conduct while commanding an anti-tank gun crew within the bomb line and leading ration parties to forward positions, this officer received the MC as an immediate award.
22 War Diary, 24 Bn. Major Reynolds also writes: ‘Owing to the direction of the wind we were the point of origin for air burst smoke for our troops in the town… smoke cannisters and empty shell cases… dropped all over us most of the daylight hours.’—Letter, 27 Jan 1950.
23 Maj Reynolds was forbidden to go back personally by the GOC. The evacuation of wounded is described later.
26 Eye-witness account of evacuation of C Coy wounded from Point 202.—War diary, 24 Bn.
27 Nickname for Pte Worth, the C Coy medical orderly, who was acting as guide.
29 Letter, Capt Borrie, 25 Mar 1944.
31 ‘The nature of the casualties was normal for a battle fought on granite-like rock, mostly caused by splinters in the limbs and body. Unfortunately gangrene set in and some of the poor beggars were smelling badly when we left them. As far as I know none of them died, although at least one lost his leg through gangrene.’ —Letter, Maj Reynolds.
33 The crypt was under the church, which stood where the eastern marginal road cut Route 6.
35 Maj-Gen C. E. Weir, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 5 Oct 1905; Regular soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939-Dec 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941-Jun 1944; commanded 2 NZ Div 4 Sep-17 Oct 1944; 46 (Brit) Div Nov 1944-Sep 1946; Commandant, Southern Military District, 1948-49; QMG Army HQ Nov 1951.
36 Along Route 6 from the direction of the cemetery at San Bartolomeo.
37 Letter, Lt-Col Aked, 25 Jul 1948.
38 Bailey bridges.