CHAPTER 11 — Cassino
The battalion quickly settled down in its new area, pleasantly situated amidst olive groves and oak trees, the change of scene all the more enjoyable because of the genial sunny weather which generally prevailed during the three weeks spent there. The training was interesting and not too arduous and sport played a big part in the daily round. Weapons of course received a great deal of attention, but the main emphasis was on training for mobile warfare under the conditions likely to be met with on the new front. Demonstrations of the great fire power of all the supporting weapons were particularly impressive, especially to the many men who had recently joined the battalion. Mines were playing an increasingly important part in operations, and as engineers were not always available, the infantry were frequently called upon to remove them; No. 2 AA Platoon therefore gave a demonstration showing the best method of dealing with mines.
Tactical methods, route-marching, administration and supply problems, and the crossing of rivers in assault boats all received attention. During all this training the only untoward incident occurred on 22 January during a fire-power demonstration by the mortars when Sergeant Reid1 of the Regimental Police was wounded. Recreation was not neglected. On alternative days trips were made to the ruined city of Pompeii at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, the parties numbering about thirty men; some excellent concerts were staged, in one of which the organisers, Padre Norris and the YMCA, were assisted by a choir from a convent. The mobile cinema was particularly popular.
General Freyberg paid a visit to the area and at a ceremonial parade of 6 Brigade made an inspection, presented awards, and addressed the troops. On 23 January, the day before the General's visit, a reinforcement of 5 officers and 72 other ranks had brought the battalion to within sixty-one of its authorised establishment; these men were organised as a separate platoon and given special training before they were posted to the companies. Thus far there had been few working parties to be provided, but at the end of the month numbers of men were page 376 employed in improving the roads in the area. January closed with an excellent concert given by the Maori Concert Party. The battalion lost no time in reciprocating, its concert party next day ‘putting on a pretty good show’ for the Maoris.
From 1 February the New Zealand Division once more was required to be ready for active operations and a move was expected at short notice. During this waiting period training was continued, boat drill, hill training, football, and TAB inoculations occupying the first few days.
Cassino, on the left of the Gustav Line, as the German defensive position across Italy was named, was about 25 miles to the north-west. From the Adriatic front the line stretched in a south-south-west direction over mountainous country through Cassino to the junction of the Rapido and Liri rivers, six miles to the south of the town. In the mountains 12 miles north of Cassino were the French, United States troops were opposite Cassino, and 10 British Corps was south of the junction of the rivers.
The Cassino position was extremely strong and indeed, in Italian staff exercises, had been rated as impregnable. The town was very compact, averaging 500 yards in width and 1200 yards in length from north to south, though scattered buildings extended along the roads to the north, east, and south, and up the hillside to the west. With a normal population of 19,000, the town lay on the extreme western edge of the Rapido valley between the Rapido River and the eastern shoulder of a great spur or ridge which projected from high country exceeding 3000 feet altitude, five miles to the north-west, where Monte Cairo of over 5400 feet was the principal feature. On the eastern side of the spur the very prominent and precipitous Castle Hill rose 600 feet in height within 300 yards of the main street of Cassino; 1000 yards to the south-west of Castle Hill was the famous and imposing monastery of Montecassino, situated on a hill of over 1600 feet, with Hangman's Hill about 260 feet lower 300 yards to the south-east. A zigzag road, of about one in fifteen gradient, from Cassino to the Monastery (1100 yards away in a direct line), was four and a half miles in length, emphasising the towering domination over Cassino enjoyed by positions on the ridge. Naturally the heights also gave the Germans perfect observation over the Rapido and Liri valleys and the approach routes through the hills east of the Rapido. The Rapido valley between the hills and the town, about two miles wide, was perfectly flat.
In the Maadi baths
Panorama of Orsogna showing breastworks
Clearing snow in Castelfrentano
Aerial view of Cassino, taken in November 1943, showing Castle Hill in the background
The first stick of bombs falls on Cassino, 15 March 1944
Captain A. Norton-Taylor, Sgt Bill Nicolle and Dick Olds are welcomed to Sora
Company cookhouse at the beach, south of Leghorn
Mud at Rimini
B Company officers on reconnaissance at the Senio
RAP at staging area north of Forli. Capt P. D. Nathan is the RMO
Meal time at a platoon house on the Senio
B Company troops move up towards the Senio with their assault bridge
A platoon passes through Barbiano
25 Battalion infantry and tanks advance towards the Santerno
Crossing a scissors bridge near San Giorgio
Knocked-out enemy tank blocks the road near Bondeno
On the night 20–21 January Fifth Army, commanded by Lieutenant-General Mark Clark, United States Army, had attacked this position, with the main effort between Cassino and the Liri River, the intention being to advance westwards along Route 6 to Rome, 85 miles away. The New Zealand Division was to be used as a mobile force to exploit up the Liri valley when the United States attack broke through. On the following night British and United States troops landed at Anzio, 60 miles behind the German right flank.
The main assault on Cassino had little success and British and French attacks elsewhere were also held up. At Anzio strong German reinforcements confined the attacking forces to a small bridgehead, where their situation was somewhat precarious. Further attacks by the French north of Cassino near Monte Cairo with great difficulty made small gains, and American attacks on the Monastery from the north and north-west, though reaching Point 445 about 300 yards north of the Monastery, could get no farther over the very broken ground against the strong German defences. The American attacks had gained the northern outskirts of the town but could not overcome strongpoints in the houses. The German forces, especially in the Cassino area, were of high quality and had been strongly reinforced.
Such was the situation at the beginning of February while the New Zealanders were in reserve in the Alife area waiting to move to the front. For its projected advance up the Liri valley the Division on 3 February was expanded to a temporary New Zealand Corps under General Freyberg by the addition of 4 Indian Division from the Eighth Army and a considerable increase in artillery and other arms. In addition to its exploitation role the New Zealand Corps was to be ready to assist the French and American attacks. The concentration and deployment of the Corps could not be completed before 8–9 February, and then only if the weather remained favourable.
On 4–5 February, in accordance with General Clark's orders to relieve that part of 36 US Division south of Route 6, 5 NZ Brigade took over the line of the Rapido south of Cassino and made plans for an advance across the river. The remainder of the Division also moved forward to assembly positions behind the front a few miles south-east of Cassino, the movement being completed by the 7th. A little before midnight on the 5th 25 Battalion, preceded by an advance party of one NCO and five men from each company under Lieutenant Muir, left for a page 378 new area, three miles to the north-west. There, with the rest of the Brigade Group in the vicinity, it was in reserve seven miles south-east of Cassino. The battalion was again under command of Colonel Morten who had rejoined the day before.
The area was under observation from the lofty Monte Cairo though otherwise well masked by Monte Trocchio, four miles to the north-west of the battalion, and by a lesser hill, Monte Porchia, a mile and a half away in the same direction. Moving to their company positions, the troops lost no time in digging in. The men soon realised they were back into the war as it was not long before a few German shells burst some little distance away, and the Allied artillery, including heavy American guns just behind, fired several concentrations. During the seventeen days the battalion remained in this reserve position it was shelled twice at night, suffering several casualties, once in the evening mess queue when German 88-millimetre fire straddled the area. ‘Sergeant Bill Nicholl2 [sic] who was ladelling out soup,’ wrote one man, ‘had his cookhouse (which was situated in a dug-out) filled with diving bodies and spilt hot food when the men decided it was the only reasonably safe place to be.’
In the next two weeks there were daily route marches and hill climbing; sporting activities included baseball against some Americans, while the YMCA mobile cinema gave several entertainments. Heavy rain on the 4th, 8th, and 11th made conditions unpleasant, but otherwise, though sometimes cold and frosty, the weather was fine. During this period the principal spectacle was the bombing on 15 February of Montecassino by waves of heavy and medium bombers, supplemented by the shelling of all known anti-aircraft positions and by bombardment with heavy and medium guns in the intervals between bombing attacks. The bombing was protracted, commencing at 9.30 a.m. and continuing for four hours; 143 Flying Fortresses and 112 Mitchell and Marauder medium bombers were engaged. In general retaliatory enemy shelling the following night the battalion was twice shelled and lost one man killed and six wounded.
The great pains taken to keep the enemy in ignorance of the transfer of the New Zealand Division from the Adriatic front were unfortunately set at naught by the loss on the night of 6–7 February of three prisoners by 21 Battalion; in consequence page 379 the wearing of badges and titles was resumed. On 7 and 14 February fifty reinforcements arrived but were sufficient only to keep the strength at the general level of about sixty below establishment. Due to postings elsewhere, sickness, and attendance at courses, there were frequent changes in officers and nine replacements arrived.
B Company was somewhat similarly disposed on the right of A Company, its frontage extending to the north-west for a similar distance; on its right to the north-west was C Company 24 Battalion on the southern slopes of Point 175, which faced Castle Hill directly to the south. Touch between the two battalions was maintained through a listening post of C Company 24 Battalion situated in the ravine below Castle Hill, 100 yards west of B Company.
The total frontage of the two battalions was some 600 yards. About 300 yards behind A and B Companies, a position astride the Caruso road was held by D Company 24 Battalion. C and D Companies (Lieutenant Milne and Major Hewitt) were in reserve some 2500 yards behind A and B Companies and about 1000 yards north-west of the barracks, the reserve companies of 24 Battalion being in the same locality. Headquarters of 25 Battalion was in a cave near the barracks. Twenty-sixth Battalion was in reserve to the north-east of Cassino and had three companies forward east of the barracks on a frontage of a mile, with its reserve company 1500 yards back.
Supporting weapons were soon in position. The Divisional Artillery also was in support as usual, ready to engage observed targets and to bring down defensive fire in front of the infantry posts. Twenty-fifth Battalion, and 24 Battalion likewise, took over road blocks of mines established by the Americans on the roads leading northwards out of Cassino.
The position held by the battalion was unusual and unpleasant. The forward defended localities of A and B Companies were within a few yards of the enemy, whose voices and movements could be distinctly heard. The enemy in positions on Castle Hill commanded all the forward positions held by both battalions and frequently swept them with machine-gun fire. Fortunately all the posts, both in the town and on the slopes of Point 175, were in buildings which had been fortified and turned into strongpoints by the Americans. Tucked-in as they were under the lee of the ridge, A and B Companies were very page 382 vulnerable to any enemy advance along the ridge, and any reverse suffered by 24 Battalion would place the two companies in a very precarious position.
The reserve positions beyond the barracks also provided no haven for the occupants. They were in full view of enemy observation posts on the slopes of Monte Cairo and were frequently and heavily shelled by mortars and artillery, especially during daylight meals when some movement was unavoidable. During the relief C and D Companies suffered three casualties. There was, however, some consolation. ‘The barracks was previously an American Supply Depot,’ remarked one man, ‘and it did not take the 25th Battalion long to find out, as all members helped themselves to what was known as “American K Rations”.’
Obviously the conditions in Cassino were especially difficult for the recent reinforcements for whom it was their introduction to warfare. The approach march over difficult roads in pitch darkness, both in the trucks and on foot, with the thunder and flashes of numerous guns all around and the whine and crash of enemy shells, was something of an ordeal even for seasoned troops. The process of occupying the various posts within the battalion position was not the comparatively clear and orderly operation of the training exercises, nor was it easy for inexperienced men to determine what was dangerous and what was not, a difficulty sometimes increased by the stupid pranks of occasional humorists who had forgotten their own ignorance and fears in similar or easier circumstances. But danger is a great teacher and the ‘rookie’ soon became the veteran.
It is not only the British, apparently, who indulge in understatement, as the men of A Company will recall. ‘As we trudged in through the mud-clogged fields on the dismal night of February 21st 1944, one of the boys asked the Yanks as they hurried past in the darkness “What's it like in there?”. “Waal,” replied one, who took time off to answer, “it's a hot old time in that old town”, a reply regarded very shortly afterwards by A Company as “a gem of understatement”.’
‘The house occupied by 7 Platoon who took over from the Americans became known as “The Wayside Inn”,’ wrote one of the platoon. ‘On the night of the take-over from the US tps two of their men were in such a bad way physically that they did not wish to go out in the dark and chose to make a break for it just before first light. They were however mowed down by Spandau fire as they endeavoured to make a break along page 383 the side of the Rapido river…. The smell of the corpses (in the area generally)… was something that the tps could not get used to and as it was impossible to organise burial parties, this area will always be remembered for its stench of death.’
The men found the town very badly battered and at first it was difficult to locate the enemy's forward posts. These soon made themselves evident, however. Spandau posts, some with steel turrets, were only thirty to forty yards away and enemy positions were observed in the nunnery, 120 yards south-east of the gaol, with various rifle-grenade posts nearby. The house occupied by 7 Platoon was a favourite target for enemy light mortars, and being a light type of building did not give much protection. It was soon obvious that communications would be difficult. Signal lines were cut time after time, giving the signal personnel the dangerous task of continually and at all hours searching during enemy shelling for the breaks in the lines. On one such occasion, when 7 Platoon signal lines were broken, a nightly occurrence, a repair party consisting of Corporal Wootton3 and Private Fraser4 was crawling along a ditch when it came face to face with a German patrol. Luckily, as the night was black, a hasty retreat was possible.
The two companies in the town were supplied at night by carrying parties, who (always running the gauntlet) worked hard and fast under cover of darkness. There were equal difficulties farther back. The supplies were brought to the battalion by jeep, generally in darkness, but a crossroads on the route about 600 yards east of the barracks was in full view of the snowcapped heights of Monte Cairo and was continually under heavy fire. Mule teams which were being used by various units had suffered severely, as the many dead animals along the route bore witness.
On its first day in the Cassino sector 25 Battalion had a change of commanding officers, Major Norman taking over command in place of Lieutenant-Colonel Morten who was evacuated sick.
Although the attacks by 5 Brigade and 7 Indian Brigade on 17–18 February had failed and the prospects of success in future operations against the Cassino position were not bright, it was essential to pin down the enemy forces there to prevent them page 384 from intervening elsewhere. General Freyberg decided that after an overwhelming air and artillery bombardment the next attack would be made from the north within the next two or three days, provided the weather was suitable. Clear weather was essential so that the bombers could see their target; it was equally necessary that there should also be fine weather beforehand and afterwards so that the airfields should be dry enough for the heavy bombers and the ground generally, but especially the Liri valley, sufficiently firm for the tanks to operate.
Before going into Cassino the battalion had been told that, after two or three days there, the forward troops would be temporarily withdrawn while the bombing and bombardment took place; after that the battalion would again advance, with tanks, and capture the town so that the armoured forces could advance round the southern flank of Montecassino into the Liri valley.
On its first complete night in the line, 22–23 February, A Company in common with B Company experienced some shelling and mortar and machine-gun fire against the forward posts, and just before midnight it was shelled, with little effect, by self-propelled guns. Shortly after dark the battalion had lost by enemy shelling one man killed and seven wounded, the total casualties for the day being two killed and thirteen wounded. The following afternoon line communication between Battalion Headquarters and A Company was broken by shellfire and could not be re-established until after dark. Heavy rain which commenced at midday created very unpleasant conditions for the troops and made it inevitable that the impending attack would be postponed.
The orders for the attack, which had been given the codename dickens, were issued on 23 February. It had been intended that before dawn the next morning the forward troops of 24 and 25 Battalions should withdraw to a safety line 1000 yards north of Cassino. The bombing and bombardment would then take place, after which 25 Battalion would advance under an artillery barrage, accompanied by a squadron of Sherman tanks of 19 NZ Armoured Regiment under command, and capture that part of Cassino as far south as Route 6, a distance of 700 yards from the forward positions held by A and B Companies near the gaol; Indian troops on the higher ground to the right of 6 Brigade were as far as possible to give covering fire against the hills and higher slopes commanding the town from the west.page 385
Twenty-sixth Battalion and the remainder of 19 Regiment would follow 25 Battalion and clear the rest of the town. Twenty-fourth Battalion was to re-occupy its former position on the high ground to provide a firm base for 25 Battalion's attack, and to be ready to assist that attack and move into Cassino after its capture. Fifth Brigade and the two machine-gun platoons in position beyond the Rapido east of the town were to support the attack with all the fire they could bring to bear.
The artillery programme in support of the attack was tremendous. It included 168 field guns and 80 medium guns of British, Indian, and New Zealand regiments, 134 American guns of 240-mm, 155-mm, and 105-mm, and 12 French guns of 155-mm, the majority directed chiefly against the comparatively small target of the town.
The air bombardment, planned on the grand scale, would be made by about 360 heavy and 200 medium bombers, which would drop about 1100 tons of bombs in a period of three and a half hours. The bombs to be dropped on the town were to be of 1000 pounds and fitted with instantaneous fuses.
As expected, the rain caused a postponement of the attack, which was put back twenty-four hours to 25 February. The ground was soon waterlogged and was more or less a morass. Next day the weather broke completely and rain fell almost continuously until 5 March, resulting in a waiting period of over three weeks before conditions improved sufficiently for the attack to be launched. For the attacking troops the delay was most unfortunate. A great strain was imposed, especially on those in close proximity to the enemy, and casualties from enemy fire and sickness mounted daily. While no doubt the enemy, well aware that an attack was coming, also suffered strain, he had a breathing space to regroup his forces and bring up his best troops, build up reserves of ammunition and supplies, and improve the already formidable defences. Even by 9 March, when conditions had improved sufficiently, bad weather in south-east Italy prevented the heavy bombers from using the Foggia airfields, and the following day, when all was ready, a bad weather forecast caused further delay. Truly the operations were very susceptible to the effects of weather over a large area and some period of time.
There was further rain on 11 and 12 March but good drying days followed, and on the evening of the 14th it was decided that the attack would be made next morning.page 386
During this waiting period the two forward companies of 25 Battalion in Cassino were relieved every third day by the two reserve companies, the first relief commencing on 24 February when C Company relieved A Company, losing three men wounded while moving up. The reliefs were difficult and dangerous and the platoons moved one at a time with long intervals between moves. Every day there was a good deal of enemy action, especially against the forward posts. Mortars both by day and night fired on the defences and roads, at times heavily, and were engaged by ‘stonks’ (pre-arranged and registered bursts of artillery fire) and by the battalion mortars. The latter with their high-angle fire were particularly suitable against targets behind buildings or on reverse slopes, though they were much disliked by the enemy and generally attracted a good deal of fire. The hostile artillery, machine guns, mortars, and snipers all took part and the Germans made free use of rifle grenades, an effective trench-warfare weapon of the 1914–18 war, where they were extensively used by the New Zealanders though very little, if at all, by the Germans, who retaliated strongly against them.
Early in the evening of its first day in the forward posts on the left flank, C Company was attacked by a fighting patrol which tried to blow in with an explosive charge a wall of a house occupied by the left platoon. The patrol was driven off by fire and a fighting patrol of an officer and ten men sent up from the reserve company was not needed. In consequence C Company was naturally very much on the alert, and on hearing enemy tracked vehicles moving in the town called for a ‘stonk’, which stopped further movement. Later, a heavy gun in the centre of the town, no doubt self-propelled, shelled the forward positions, and in the early part of the night heavy fire on a nearby quarry, probably against two six-pounders and three 3-inch mortars there, broke the Signals' line communication with Battalion Headquarters. The line to Brigade Headquarters from Battalion was also giving trouble, and to avoid a road junction which was a favourite target for the German artillery, a line was laid on a different route.
The area between the barracks and the Rapido came under heavy fire at times, chiefly from mortars, and Battalion Headquarters and the reserve companies' areas were frequently shelled. The enemy fire brought immediate retaliation from the battalion mortars and the supporting artillery, which continued page 387 to harass the enemy. Bright moonlight during the evening of the 29th at first delayed the carrying parties which were taking supplies to the forward companies but rain at 10.30 p.m. removed the difficulty. Enemy snipers and machine-gun posts on Castle Hill, which was less than 500 yards from the forward posts, were a distinct menace and a careful watch was rewarded by the discovery of some of the positions, which were immediately shelled. It was no duel of sniper versus sniper.
February closed with steady rain, a dreary prospect for the resumption of the attack. The cold wet weather continued into March and the conditions it created, combined with the watching and waiting, threw such a strain on the troops that the launching of an assault on the town would have been welcomed. The insanitary conditions, especially in the forward positions, caused an alarming increase in the sick rate, amounting almost to an epidemic, but it was checked by treatment and such disinfection of the area as was possible.
Another difficulty of the postponements arose through the code-word dickens becoming so widely known that security was endangered; those familiar with the slang use of the code-word, however, were convinced of its suitability for the proposed operation.
With the enemy in such commanding positions all approaches and roads had been accurately plotted and registered by his artillery and other weapons and the large carrying parties required each night had an unenviable and onerous task in the dark, their routes being frequently swept by artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire. Front-line work was deemed preferable, and indeed it was safer since the majority of the casualties suffered almost daily occurred in the reserve areas and along the supply routes. Vehicles could not approach within half a mile of the town. ‘It was quite impossible to enter or come out of the town unless under darkness,’ remarked one man, ‘as all parties were immediately under observation from Castle Hill. This also applied to ration parties and the troops in the town could assess their meal times by the rising of the moon.’
The casualties during February were six other ranks killed, and one officer (Second-Lieutenant Kemp5) and forty-one other ranks wounded.page 388
On 1 March Lieutenant-Colonel MacDuff,6 formerly commanding 27 MG Battalion, took over command of the battalion from Major Norman. Moonrise that night was at 11.40 p.m., and to avoid its dangers the usual three-day relief of the forward companies was completed before that hour, commencing at half past seven. Possibly the enemy had some inkling of it as from 9 p.m. till midnight his heavy guns fired on the barracks and their vicinity at quarter-hour intervals but caused no casualties. On 2 March 6 Brigade had a change of commanders, Brigadier Parkinson taking command of the Division in place of Major-General Kippenberger,7 who had been severely wounded by a mine on Monte Trocchio; a former commanding officer of 25 Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Bonifant from the Divisional Cavalry, was appointed to command 6 Brigade.
The enemy continued his harassing tactics and the moon in early March was still a nuisance to the carrying parties. On the 6th, however, the men taking rations to the forward companies risked enemy observation, with the result that on the way back near the exit from the town they suffered casualties from machine-gun and mortar fire. The following day Battalion Headquarters had some casualties from two salvoes fired by nebelwerfers. Captain Pearse, the battalion medical officer, was evacuated sick that day, his place being taken by Captain Dick.8
During the whole period preceding the attack on Cassino 25 Battalion sent out only one patrol; this was on the night 7–8 March when a route from the south end of Caruso road into Cassino on the right flank of the right company was explored. The patrol found that the route was not mined and that it provided a good approach for a company in the advance. The battalion sector was of course not suitable for normal patrolling.
The weather on 9 March was fine but cold and with a high wind which appreciably dried the sodden ground. In the afternoon C Company on the left flank in Cassino reported movement south-east of its left platoon and asked for mortar fire page 389 which dispersed the enemy; a couple of hours later, towards dusk, the enemy was heard to the west of the previous position and was fired on by New Zealand machine guns situated eastwards of the company position. On the other flank at 11 p.m. D Company heard a working party in the gully just to the north of Castle Hill, and in response to its request, ‘Wadi Stonk’, an artillery concentration planned to deal with that area, caused the activity to cease.
Except for the usual shelling of crossroads and machine-gun fire in the late morning, the following day was generally quiet. At 5 p.m., however, the enemy had a spectacular success when his artillery scored a direct hit on a mortar-ammunition dump situated near Caruso road about 200 yards from the barracks. This was rather unfortunate for Battalion Headquarters and various detachments in that vicinity as the ensuing conflagration aroused the enthusiasm of the enemy gunners, who for five hours shelled and mortared the road and the country nearby. The nightly carrying parties were also affected as the illumination and the danger from exploding mortar bombs delayed them till the small hours of the morning.
The next day enemy guns from the direction of Terelle to the north-north-west troubled the troops in the reserve area, B Company having eight men wounded. There was little relief in being in reserve in such an exposed locality. After dark an enemy patrol, which appeared to be trying to penetrate between the forward posts of D Company and 24 Battalion, was driven back, after suffering casualties, by mortar and small-arms fire from both battalions. A couple of hours afterwards in this somewhat disturbed night twenty-eight reinforcements reached the battalion, a rather trying time and place for men to join a unit, though no doubt some ‘old hands’ rejoining were amongst them and gave them confidence.
Bright moonlight was still troubling both the carrying parties and the company reliefs, which were delayed till three in the morning and completed only just before daylight broke on the 12th. Shortly after noon the reserve companies' area was again shelled, but ineffectively, from the direction of Terelle. Up in front after a quiet day A and B Companies were fired on by mortars for four hours before midnight, and as the night went by there were signs of increased enemy activity. The German was not sitting down quietly under the obvious threat of impending attack. Mortar and machine-gun fire against the battalion's forward positions was vigorously replied to by artil- page 390 lery defensive fire on the enemy's Castle Hill positions. Before midnight detachments of 4.2-inch mortars took up positions in 25 Battalion's sector a little to the west of Caruso road, about 900 yards behind the forward companies, a powerful support under the immediate control of 25 Battalion; ammunition expenditure was limited to twenty-four rounds for each mortar daily, though this did not apply in the event of an enemy attack or for Operation dickens. A limit of twenty-five rounds per gun for 25-pounders and twenty rounds for medium artillery had also been imposed as expected supplies had not reached Italy. These quantities, however, were sufficient for harassing and were very little below the average daily expenditure.
To give some relief from the strenuous conditions the battalion was experiencing, each company in turn was to be given two days' rest at the B Echelon area about three miles east of the barracks. D Company had the good fortune to be sent first, marching out from the reserve position after dark on the 12th to the vicinity of the ADS, two miles to the north-east, and being taken on from there by RMT vehicles. As it happened the company just had time to complete its refit, clean-up and rest period before being called back to take part in the attack.
After light rain at intervals throughout the previous day, the 13th was fine with bright sunshine and perfect visibility and prospects seemed good for an early attack; but it was still a matter of wait and see. During the morning the enemy artillery registered with pink smoke a little to the north of the reserve companies' area and followed this with heavy shelling for twenty minutes, mostly on C Company and fortunately without effect. Four hours later the shelling was repeated for five minutes, and shortly afterwards the crossroads about 600 yards north-east of Battalion Headquarters—a favourite target— were shelled and mortared at frequent intervals for half an hour. The enemy mortars in a re-entrant south of Castle Hill spur had been aggressive and were fired on by the artillery, the observation of fire being carried out by A Company.
A man from the battalion Intelligence Section had been attached to the headquarters of each of the forward companies to locate enemy positions and to become familiar with the area of attack. The lay of the ground and the jumble of wrecked buildings, combined with the proximity of the enemy, made observation difficult and these special measures were necessary. On one occasion one of these men during darkness went to a house, selected from air photographs as suitable for an OP to page 391 observe Castle Hill. The house had been occupied by American troops and during the day three Italians, a man and two women, all quite young, were discovered living in the cellar. They had plenty of food, mostly American rations, but had no water. So for the rest of the day four persons shared one water bottle. With a certain amount of difficulty the Italians were persuaded to leave the house and after dark on the 13th were taken back to Battalion Headquarters. They had been living in the house for eighty days and had remained in the cellar so were unable to give any information regarding enemy positions; they had no knowledge of the tunnels which were said to exist in Castle ridge. From time to time other groups of Italian civilians had been evacuated from the town.
Early on the 14th, the day preceding the attack, light rain fell but later the day was clear and sunny. Before dawn there were sounds of enemy activity at the nunnery on the left in front of A Company and at a school on the right between Castle Hill and B Company. Using German grenade dischargers, the two companies carried out with great satisfaction lively exchanges of rifle grenades with the enemy and, fearing their stock would be exhausted, sought a further supply from Battalion Headquarters. Casualties in the battalion continued and during the first two weeks of March there were two other ranks killed, one died of wounds, and twenty-one wounded.
It was nine in the evening before the code-word dickens at last came into force, and final preparations were then made for the battle of Cassino on the morrow. It had been a long and arduous wait in unpleasant and dangerous conditions and with movement most restricted. It was also a period of steady attrition, as has been shown, the battalion casualties from 16 February to 14 March being eight killed and sixty-two wounded, while many more were evacuated sick.
Very early next morning, 15 March, Battalion Headquarters vacated its cave in favour of 24 Battalion and moved to a building 100 yards closer to the barracks. Before dawn all the forward troops, with the exception of a small covering detachment in the quarry, moved back behind the safety bomb-line, A and B Companies at 5.30 a.m. withdrawing from Cassino to prepared positions at the foot of the hills a little beyond the barracks. The covering detachment, a Bren and an anti-tank gun crew with two tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment, remained in the quarry within 600 yards of the gaol to act as a rearguard and to conceal the withdrawal. Fifteen minutes before the air page 392 attack was due the detachment withdrew, the tanks carrying the two gun crews with them. All heavy weapons, such as anti-tank guns, mortars, and medium machine guns were left in position, but essential parts were removed. The battalion's six-pounder anti-tank gun near the barracks remained responsible for covering Caruso road. All mines on roads leading into Cassino from the north were removed to clear the way for the subsequent advance of the tanks.
At 8.30 a.m. the first wave of heavy bombers came over and the impressive spectacle was an exhilarating sight to the waiting troops below. A huge and dense pall of smoke and dust rose over Cassino as the heavy bombs burst with a shattering roar, rendered all the more violent by the use of instantaneous fuses. The smoke and dust gradually spread well beyond the target area, and although reports from observation posts estimated that 90 per cent of the bombs first dropped were on the target, subsequent waves with vision badly obscured and poorer navigation were not so accurate. Many bombs, chiefly from the heavy bombers, dropped well wide of the mark, including several on the B Echelon area though with no ill effects there. At approximately fifteen minutes' intervals until noon, successive waves of heavy and medium aircraft continued the attack, the total weight of bombs dropped by the 338 heavy bombers and 176 medium bombers being 1140 tons. Of this total 576 tons were dropped on or near the Abbey.
The area of the bomb-target was approximately 1200 yards by 1500 yards; disregarding the special attention paid to the Abbey and the bombs dropped outside the target area, the density of the bombing was roughly one ton per three square chains (33 yds by 44 yds), and apart from the vicinity of the Abbey was probably about half that density.
The general plan for the attack, issued on 23 February, has already been referred to. The objective for 25 Battalion was the western edge of Cassino from a point 180 yards north-east of the Castle to the road junction where the southern branch of Route 6 turned southwards at the Continental Hotel, thence 500 yards to the east along Route 6 to the convent at the crossroads. B Company on the right was to clear the western part of the town and secure the objective as far as the Continental Hotel. A Company was responsible for the remainder of the objective and for clearing the rest of the town north of Route 6. D Company was to capture the imposing and formidable Castle Hill (Point 193) and join up with the right flank of B Company, page 393 handing over Castle Hill to a unit of 4 Indian Division. C Company, with a section of engineers under command, had the task of mopping up any enemy left in Cassino north of Route 6, after which it was to occupy a reserve position behind B and A Companies.
Each of the leading companies had two troops of Sherman tanks allotted to it, 7 and 8 Troops to B Company and 5 and 6 Troops to A Company. No. 7 Troop was also required to support D Company's attack by observed fire on Castle Hill. From positions south of the barracks three of the battalion mortars were to fire on the saddle west of Point 193 and on observed targets on the western side. The anti-tank platoon and two sections of carriers were to be available on call; the anti-aircraft platoon was to provide two minesweeping teams.
Half an hour before the end of the air attack 25 Battalion began to move to its forming-up position in a gully 300 yards east of the barracks. The starting line at the barracks was crossed at noon as the last of the bombers passed overhead and ‘the artillery opened up a terrible barrage’. A Company (Major Sanders) led along Caruso road, followed by B Company (Captain Hoy), a troop of tanks, Battalion Headquarters, C Company (Lieutenant Milne), and D Company (Major Hewitt). As far as the town the rate of advance was 100 yards a minute and thereafter, following the barrage, 100 yards in ten minutes. A second troop of tanks moved down Parallel road, beyond the left bank of the Rapido, 200 yards from Caruso road.
As the troops advanced there was practically no enemy fire. Battalion Headquarters and the two rear companies halted while the leading companies went on. Both companies were in single file, B Company following Caruso road and A Company in the Rapido River beside the road. The river was from two to five feet in depth and very muddy. ‘There were several barked shins,’ said an A Company man, ‘while several members fell over in the water and on two occasions had to be assisted from going under … there were several weapons lost during the advance and many Tommy guns had their firing mechanism temporarily disabled by water. The advance was made by hugging the right bank of the river for besides pieces of shrapnel hitting the water we were under small-arms fire from Castle Hill. During the advance up [down] river some difficulty was experienced in edging round a wounded man (Pte Aitken9) page 394 and platoons became very spread out. Eventually some members were held up in the gaol by an enemy sniper and were “lost” for three days.’
Under cover of the barrage and smoke screen the companies reached the town without much difficulty, and after deploying gained their old positions level with the gaol without meeting the enemy. At this stage the two companies were in the same sectors as those taken over by them from the Americans, B Company on the right between the lower slopes of Castle Hill and the gaol, and A Company on the left from the gaol eastwards. When the companies advanced a little farther they soon encountered machine-gun and rifle fire from Germans on the slopes of Castle Hill and in the ruins of buildings on the flat. It was soon evident that overwhelming and devastating as the bombing and the artillery barrage appeared to have been, they had not been able to destroy the enemy sheltered in deep dugouts and in cellars beneath collapsed buildings, though undoubtedly they had inflicted heavy casualties. Cassino was to be another example of the truth so often illustrated in the terrific bombardments of towns and field defences in the 1914–18 war, that fire would never destroy the defenders and that infantry closely following a barrage had always to be employed to that end. The optimism noticeable in all quarters as to the effect of the bombardments was rapidly dispelled as the strength of the German resistance became apparent.
By 12.50 p.m. A Company's leading platoons had advanced 100 yards to the nunnery and to the vicinity of the road junction 150 yards east of it, protected by the barrage and the thick smoke screen which covered the town, and in very difficult conditions were pressing forward. Cassino was in a state of utter destruction, every building in complete ruins and open spaces and former roadways churned up or covered by debris and badly cratered. Some streets could hardly be found, much less used. The men had a most unenviable task, scrambling over rubble, through mud and bomb craters half-full of water, and exposed to incessant rifle and machine-gun fire. A little after 1 p.m. communications between the forward companies and Battalion Headquarters were broken and the companies also lost touch with each other in the confused jumble of the ruins. ‘This was one time in the war,’ observed one man, ‘when Red Cross flags, arm bands, etc., were not observed and Fred Wright,10 our RAP man was killed by German snipers page 395 when attending himself to a German wounded.’ Major Sanders, commanding A Company, also said that stretcher-bearers, plainly visible, were shot at close range when trying to pick up wounded, several of whom had to be left lying in the open till after dark. In these circumstances Lance-Corporal Pritchard,11 a medical orderly attached to the company, showed great courage in attending to many wounded lying in exposed positions and in getting them to a place of safety. For this and similar work throughout the battle he received the Military Medal.
One of B Company's tasks on the way to the objective was to clear the lower slopes of Castle Hill to prepare for D Company's attack on the Castle. Fire at close range from the German posts there, however, forced the company to swing to the left towards the middle of the town, some of the men going over as far as the nunnery. By 2 p.m. the company had been unable to get farther forward than the line of the nunnery, but an hour later was again moving forward, being finally held up for the day with its forward platoon at a school about 350 yards short of the Continental Hotel.
Sergeant T. W. Tulloch, a platoon sergeant in B Company, took command when his platoon commander was wounded, though he himself was wounded by grenade splinters. Getting in touch with a nearby tank, he arranged for its support and overcame the nearest enemy strongpoint. His strength had then been reduced to twelve men and he was beyond the limit of further tank support, but with his platoon weapons alone he assaulted the next strongpoint about seventy-five yards away; this was a group of strongly fortified houses at the base of Castle Hill. He and his platoon were driven back, but he then established his men in a strong position on the flank and partly neutralised the strongpoint. Until ordered by his company commander to report to the RAP, where he was evacuated, he stayed with his men; throughout the fighting his aggressive tactics and his personal example were excellent. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, commonly regarded as the equivalent for other ranks of the Distinguished Service Order.
Meanwhile the supporting tanks, 7 Troop on the right and 8 Troop on the left, had been delayed by craters on the roads before entering Cassino. About 1.30 p.m. 7 Troop succeeded in reaching the southern end of Caruso road, 100 yards south-west of the gaol, but the destruction of buildings and streets page 396 had created such appalling obstacles that the troop could get no farther down the main street towards the Continental Hotel, 600 yards farther south. From the position it had reached, however, 7 Troop, which was under fire from the slopes of Castle Hill, vigorously engaged the enemy posts. On the other flank 8 Troop made its way slowly over piles of rubble and around craters past the gaol and the nunnery, and shortly after 2 p.m. reached the road junction east of the latter which A Company had passed an hour or more earlier. The troop continued to move slowly forward though sometimes, to find a route, it was necessary to make a reconnaissance on foot, and on occasion the men had to clear a path with pick and shovel. According to one personal account, ‘The confusion was such when the town was entered that our own tanks did not know which buildings we had occupied and at times we came under fire from them with armour-piercing shells.’
A Company had continued its advance, though slowly, towards Route 6 against determined opposition at close range and fire from Castle Hill. At 2.10 p.m., when the barrage was to end, the company was still short of the objective. Enemy mortars on Montecassino and in the vicinity of the railway station, 700 yards south of the objective, were bombarding the forward troops, and half an hour later nebelwerfers were also in action. After an hour of this the enemy artillery commenced to shell the north end of Cassino with increasing severity.
The enemy opposition and the physical obstacles made movement extremely difficult. In consequence the barrage was extended until 3.30 p.m., when the right platoon of A Company succeeded in reaching the Post Office, which was situated on an extension or northern fork of Route 6 about 180 yards short of the objective on Route 6 proper. From the Post Office the platoon turned to the right, or westwards, but met with strong opposition both from the west and south and could get little farther. A Company headquarters came up to the Post Office and the left platoon, which had fewer buildings to clear, pushed through to the objective on Route 6 and entered the convent near the crossroads there. However, the Germans held part of the building and could not be dislodged, and the platoon was also in action at close range with other enemy posts. Major Sanders saw that no further advance could be made, and as the platoon in its isolated position could not be supported, he withdrew it late in the afternoon to the Post page 397 Office. As dusk approached A Company was firmly established in that area, its right platoon about 150 yards in advance or south of the leading troops of B Company at the school.
The tanks also had made a little progress, but as they had no liaison with the infantry the situation was by no means clear to them, though they were able to give some help by engaging any enemy posts they saw. No. 8 Troop on the left, which had been advancing in the wake of A Company, had been joined on its left by 5 Troop. The latter had been stopped by craters on the road running north and south on the east side of the town 250 yards north of the convent, while 8 Troop about 3 p.m. was also blocked by craters 200 yards north of the Post Office. There it met some men of A Company who said that the enemy was holding a house at the crossroads 300 yards ahead, and also the convent at the next crossroads 100 yards farther on. Bulldozing their way to get into position, the tanks engaged the two targets, no doubt contributing to the success of the left platoon in pushing on and entering the convent a little later, as already related.
No. 7 Troop on the right had been unable to make any further progress. Tank reinforcements sent up could achieve little and supporting tanks on the left flank east of the Rapido River—which they could not cross—could do no more than heavily engage Castle Hill. The tanks had made strenuous efforts to get forward to support the infantry, even to the extent of making personal reconnaissances on foot ahead of the tanks by two majors commanding squadrons (both were wounded by rifle fire), but the physical obstacles were insuperable.
C Company, which had been in reserve at the quarry, had also advanced into Cassino and about 1.30 p.m. was in position at the nunnery, where it met men of A and B Companies and also saw the tanks advancing in the vicinity. With its headquarters at the gaol, the company was in touch by wireless with Battalion Headquarters and did valuable service in relaying reports and messages from A and B Companies, providing fairly good communications until the companies moved on. It was then necessary to use runners from C Company forward and from A and B Companies back to C Company, but owing to casualties and to the runners being unable to find their way, the results were not satisfactory.
From 5.30 to 6 p.m. the artillery again fired on the final barrage line and after that concentrated on the railway station area, from which enemy mortars had been troublesome. How- page 398 ever, the expectation that the leading companies would then be able to reach the objective was not realised. The scene at dusk was described by Lieutenant Milne, commanding C Company:
‘Consolidate was the order at dusk. In the maze positions were sought out, with men milling about, stretcher-bearers getting out the wounded, and shells falling all over the place. No supplies could be brought in but luckily each tank had carried ammunition, even primed grenades, so there was no shortage.’
To add to the desolation and to the discomfort of the tired, disillusioned, and disappointed troops, rain began to fall just after dusk and continued heavily throughout the night. With the moon obscured it was pitch-dark; movement was almost impossible. The water-filled craters made conditions hopeless and night operations simply could not be planned and carried out. No hot food could be taken up and the men, saturated and chilled, passed a miserable night.
At 4 p.m., when it was obvious that 25 Battalion was unable to take its objectives, B Company (Major Turnbull12) of 24 Battalion was placed under command of 25 Battalion and sent into Cassino. This company had been kept on the hillside near 25 Battalion headquarters in readiness for such a role, and at 5 p.m. it moved down to the quarry and along the bed of the Rapido into the town, losing on the way one man killed and five wounded. Its task was to pass through B Company and take that company's objective. Major Turnbull had little trouble in finding B and C Companies but the ruins, darkness, and pouring rain created such obstacles that his company could not reach A Company till midnight. Turnbull established his headquarters alongside Sanders in the Post Office and his platoons took up positions along the northern branch of Route 6, the conditions making it practically impossible to organise any worthwhile operation. Enemy mortars and machine guns were still firing though not so intensely as before dusk.
Despite the conditions in Cassino the casualties of A, B, and C Companies of 25 Battalion were not severe, with eleven killed or died of wounds, twenty-nine wounded, and one wounded and missing. In the circumstances they could have been very much worse.
The operations of D Company (Major Hewitt) against Castle Hill have still to be described, and here there is a much brighter page 399 tale to tell. In the early afternoon the company was held up outside Cassino by the slow advance of A and B Companies in the town. The orders for the attack gave B Company the task of clearing the lower slopes of Castle Hill so that D Company could then attack from the south-east. As B Company had been forced away from the hill into the town, Hewitt moved D Company up the slopes at the foot of Point 175 (450 yards south-west of the quarry and 700 yards due north of Castle Hill) and then into the ravine between the two hills. No. 16 Platoon was sent farther to the west along the ravine to attack Point 165 (an off-shoot or lesser peak of Castle Hill, about 90 feet lower and 150 yards south-west of the summit); at the same time the remainder of D Company moved round to the east of Castle Hill to where a sharp ridge led straight up to the fort at the top. Company Headquarters was established at the foot of the ridge and 17 and 18 Platoons then delayed their advance up Castle Hill to give 16 Platoon time to develop its attack from the opposite side.
About 1 p.m. 16 Platoon was at the foot of an almost sheer cliff below Point 165 and began the slow and very difficult climb. Private McNiece,13 a Bren-gunner in No. 1 Section, describes the extraordinary events which followed:
‘It was about 1300 hours when we reached the foot of Castle Hill and started to scramble up the cliff face where a goat would have had difficulty in getting up. After a very hot and hard climb we reached the shelter of a very large rock, about 100 feet from the top of the hill. Cpl McInnes,14 i/c No. 1 Section, directed myself (Bren gunner) and Bill Stockwell15 (2 i/c Bren) to go out to the right and protect the pl's right flank.
‘We hadn't advanced ten yds when I looked back and saw Cpl McInnes with two Jerries with their hands well in the air; they were scouts posted on the lookout to warn their HQ of our approach but we were so close on the arty barrage and the Jerries were as deep down as possible in their dugout, so that they failed to hear or see us. If they had spotted us we would never have had a chance to climb the hill face; from their position they could have quite easily picked us all off.
‘As Bill and I came to the edge of the rock I noticed a concrete pillbox on the top of the hill—it was about 12 feet page 400 square with a small window two feet square and four feet from the ground. I said to Bill “That's a likely place for a Jerry or two; what about having a look”… I raised the Bren to my hip and made for the pillbox which was about 20 yds distant. When I had covered the distance I heard Bill yell “Look out for the Spandau” and he fired past me into the window. I did not see the Spandau but made a dash for the side of the pillbox. Bill kept on firing and the Jerry withdrew the Spandau. I was now between the window and the corner of the pillbox, a distance of five feet. My first thoughts were of the three HE 36 grenades that I had on me and in a few seconds I had pulled the pin out and slipped one grenade through the window. There was a lovely explosion, dust and splinters of stone and wood came flying out of the window; a few seconds later there was a clatter at my feet and there lay a Jerry stick grenade smoking and spitting out sparks—without stopping to think I grabbed it up and flung it over the cliff— I didn't hear it go off but the boys at the rear of the platoon said it went off just below them! I immediately slipped another grenade through the window and it went off with a bang; another stick grenade came out through the window and landed just out of my reach—I fell flat on my face and hoped for the best; the seconds seemed like ages; then there was a terrific explosion. Dirt and rocks flew in all directions. I was completely obscured in the dust and Bill said to himself “Mac's had it”. My head felt as if it had been bashed in and my ears rang and ached cruelly. [Note: He was evacuated to hospital on 8 April suffering with ruptured ear drums.] When the dust cleared away I was standing by the window with the Bren gun held out at arm's length pouring a stream of hot lead through the window. I then threw my last HE 36 grenade inside and stood with my back to the wall wondering what to do next.
‘All the time this was happening a Spandau was firing past a corner of the pillbox and the hot lead was only missing my legs by inches. I looked down at Bill and saw him calling to the Jerries to come out. I then looked at the window and saw a Red Cross flag held out. I called on Jerry to “Camarad” and he replied “No, no, wounded”. I looked through the window and saw some wounded Jerries lying on the floor. I called Bill up and covered him while he entered, then I scrambled in and covered the Jerries while Bill took their arms away. At the far end of the pillbox there was a ladder down into a huge dugout about 12 feet square and 15 feet deep. Jerries were filing up page 401 the ladder with their hands in the air. When we counted them up there were two dead, twenty-three alive, five of whom were wounded. The pillbox was a German Coy HQ of the Paras. The captain, a 21 yr old boy, was dead and the 2i/c, a lieut, was seriously wounded. After we had disarmed them I sent them one at a time, down the hill to our officer—all this was done in a few minutes.
‘In the meantime the Jerries in the Castle had come into action—mortars, rifle grenades, and bullets were flying in all directions. Cpl McInnes had stopped a burst of Spandau in the back and was dead. Gerry Marsh,16 a boy of 21, was also killed by a Spandau and several others wounded.’
It was indeed an amazing feat and McNiece and Stockwell had well earned the Military Medals they were awarded.
After occupying Point 165 16 Platoon tried to move up the slope to the summit of Castle Hill but was pinned down by the heavy fire described by McNiece. The platoon had done well. By its skilful approach and through the resolution of McNiece and Stockwell it had achieved a brilliant success which greatly assisted, if indeed it did not actually make possible, the subsequent capture of Castle Hill.
Meanwhile, about 2 p.m. on the other side of Castle Hill, from the buildings at the foot of the slope east of the fort, 17 and 18 Platoons began their climb. On the right 17 Platoon went straight up the ridge while 18 Platoon followed a stone wall leading up to the fort on the south side. The houses on the lower slopes were occupied by the German snipers and machine-gunners who had been so troublesome to B Company and other troops in Cassino and the leading sections were soon engaged with them. One section of 18 Platoon used a grenade and a tommy gun against one house, killing the four occupants; pushing on, it found a man of B Company pinned down by fire from a house in front and a flank attack enabled another three Germans to be killed with the tommy gun. Continuing the climb the section passed the last houses and approached a couple of dugouts or tunnels; while endeavouring to fire down these the section leader was shot through the head by a sniper. Now reduced to three men, the section was pinned down by rifle fire on one side of its stone wall and by a Spandau on the the other and, until the rest of the platoon advanced along the wall, had to remain there for an hour or more.page 402
At this stage 17 Platoon was in sight moving up its ridge and the advance continued with no further opposition until the top was reached. Germans were then seen running from a broken wall on the left to the shelter of a keep in the quadrangle of the fort, a German officer being wounded by a lucky shot as he ran for cover. The two platoons occupied the broken walls, and after an exchange of fire and the throwing of grenades down a hole in a wall leading to terraces below, a German called out ‘Kaput no shoot’ and came up through the hole with a Red Cross flag. The German walked across to where a wounded corporal of 18 Platoon was lying and brought him in. Two more Germans, one with a Spandau, then surrendered; two dead Germans were found in the hole in the wall and three more on a terrace below where six prisoners were taken, three of them wounded. By 4.45 p.m. all resistance had ceased and the company took up defensive positions in the fort, 16 Platoon shortly afterwards coming up from Point 165.
In this well-planned action which was conducted with skill and resolution by all ranks, D Company had scored a very important success. Its casualties were six killed and sixteen wounded. The prisoners reported captured by the platoons numbered forty-seven and the Germans killed, in the various incidents related, were nine, apart from the final episode at the fort where, on rejoining the company, 16 Platoon found ‘dead and wounded Germans lying everywhere’. Though there were the usual discrepancies between the number of prisoners reported by the platoons and those recorded at Brigade Headquarters, for which the explanation apart from error could be casualties en route or prisoners passing through other units, the German losses in killed, wounded, and prisoners, were undoubtedly severe.
In the early afternoon when D Company approached Cassino, Major Hewitt was confronted with a difficult situation. The battalion plan required B Company to clear the enemy from the lower slopes of Castle Hill close to the town so that D Company could form up there for its attack up the hill. When Hewitt found that B Company had been forced away from the base of the hill and that he could not form up there, he immediately sized up the position, formed an entirely new and very sound plan, and carried it out with skill and determination. For this operation and his subsequent fine work in Cassino, Major Hewitt was awarded the Military Cross.page 403
Just after dark when the rain set in, a cold wind blowing around D Company's elevated position gave the men a rather miserable time whilst they were awaiting relief by a unit of 4 Indian Division, especially so because they had no blankets or greatcoats and had had no food since 11 a.m. In these respects they were of course in no worse case than the troops in Cassino, and in other ways they had distinct advantages. From their lofty hilltop they had a grand view of the brilliant spectacle of bursting shells of a concentrated artillery bombardment of Hangman's Hill below the Monastery, only 1000 yards away to the south-west; they were little troubled by enemy fire; and from an undisclosed source they had an abundant supply of cigarettes.
Through poor signal communications it was some time before 25 Battalion headquarters knew of the capture of Castle Hill, which is difficult to understand in view of its prominence and the ease with which the visual success signal should have been seen. Then the relieving troops, from the Essex Regiment, were delayed by heavy enemy shelling and the great difficulty of negotiating the country in the dark. The Essex men reached D Company's headquarters at the foot of the ridge shortly after 8 p.m. and from there they had the stiff climb over rugged ground to the summit. The relief was not completed till just after midnight, when the platoons moved down the hill into Cassino. On the way down they were met by a burst of Spandau fire and rifle grenades from the foot of the hill and forced to take cover for a time, but by daylight the company was concentrated behind B Company in the town.
The official casualty list for the day was one officer (Second- Lieutenant Blackie17) and fourteen other ranks killed, two died of wounds, two officers (Second-Lieutenants Chapman and Murphy18) and forty-two other ranks wounded, and one other rank wounded and missing.
Meanwhile 26 Battalion, which was to follow 25 Battalion into Cassino, by 9 p.m. had two companies at the Municipal Buildings on the northern branch of Route 6. There they were in touch with A Company at the Post Office and were told of a German strongpoint west of the Botanical Gardens which had held up the advance. Until the strongpoint was dealt with the page 404 two companies took up a position along Route 6, the remaining two companies of 26 Battalion appearing some time later. About 9.30 p.m. 26 Battalion asked 25 Battalion headquarters to complete the capture of its objective so that 26 Battalion could proceed with its task of securing the railway station, the hummock to the south of it, and Baron's Castle, and also another objective 600 yards beyond.
Until after midnight and except for runners, 25 Battalion headquarters had no communication with its companies, but then for a short time A Company got through by telephone. Major Sanders was then ordered to maintain contact with 26 Battalion on his left and to join with B Company 24 Battalion in an attack on the western edge of the town and clear the enemy from the north of Route 6, that is, from the area north of the road between the Continental Hotel and the convent.
Majors Sanders and Turnbull decided that both companies would attack astride the northern branch of Route 6, with B Company 24 Battalion on the right and A Company 25 Battalion on the left; the objective was the road on the western side of Cassino between the school held by B Company 25 Battalion and the Continental Hotel, 350 yards to the south-west. Brigadier Bonifant had ordered that the objective must be taken before dawn, but both company commanders agreed that it was hopeless to try to organise the attack in the pitch darkness and decided to attack at dawn.
At 6.15 a.m. on the 16th the two companies, assisted by 11 Platoon of B Company 26 Battalion, launched the attack. The enemy was on the alert and from the outset heavy fire was encountered. B Company 24 Battalion, which very early had three killed and seven wounded, took two prisoners from one house and with two platoons occupied another, 100 yards short of the road junction; the company was in action against parties of Germans at close range.
No. 11 Platoon of B Company 26 Battalion ran forward along the road leading to the west from the Post Office, where it was between B/24 and A/25; after covering nearly 150 yards the platoon was forced by Spandau fire to take cover. Like the other troops in the attack the men were pinned down by heavy fire from machine guns and riflemen in the ruins and, since it was then daylight, from positions on the high ground of Montecassino. Until dark the platoon stayed in its position and then rejoined its company. Its casualties were one man died of wounds and two men wounded.page 405
Not much stronger than a platoon, A Company 25 Battalion advanced to within a hundred yards of its objective, where it was about 200 yards north of the Continental Hotel. No. 8 Platoon (Lieutenant N. Lawson) occupied the first building and made contact there with a platoon of B Company 25 Battalion under Lieutenant B. S. Edinger. A few wounded and other men of B Company 24 Battalion who had become detached from their company were also there. No. 7 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Simpson19) crossed the street and, wading through three feet of water from the nearby Gari River, occupied another building a little in advance of 8 Platoon. There it found itself in a somewhat unique position, as a personal account relates:
‘7 Platoon (Lt B. Simpson), 12 strong at this stage (and mostly 3 Section under Cpl J. Wootton) shared a house with the enemy for three? days, and for 36 hours lived on iron rations and cigarettes. On the second night a ration party got through with supplies of bread etc…. Unfortunately, early next morning as the platoon was preparing its first meal for two days, the enemy became extremely awkward.
‘Although the platoon had visibility from the front of the house, and some protection on the right side from 8 Platoon, the other two sides of the house were 18 inch solid stone walls with no holes or windows. While the Germans could be heard moving about on the roof and next door, nothing could be done as all exits were covered by a German strongpoint across the street in front and grenade-dropping snipers on the roof. This meant that the only doorway—that into the water-covered alleyway between 7 and 8 platoon houses—was effectively blocked.
‘With movement so restricted 7 Platoon were confined to a largely defensive role but even so accounted for a dozen or more of the enemy who were noisy or careless in their movements in front of the house at night. An attempt was made at one stage to pick a hole in one wall to provide communication with 8 Platoon but this proved impossible.
‘Back to the long awaited meal—about mid-morning as the food was being prepared, a quick aggressive Kiwi sentry lured 3 Germans into the house and so into the bag. These prisoners were not by any means arrogant or sullen. They were just plain scared—but not of us—and would not talk. After a while they were made to run the gauntlet across the alley and so handed over to 8 Platoon's care.page 406
‘It was not long after that that the reason for a mysterious tapping in one wall, of the night before, was felt.
‘Before most of the platoon had time to eat anything, over half the ceiling and back wall were blown into the room with a noise in keeping with the damage. Yes, you're right Dig, a demolition charge had been placed high up on the back wall. Fortunately, the platoon organized quickly, and the hole in the roof, the front of the house and the flooded alleyway were quickly covered. Attempts to rush the house were discouraged by lobbing grenades through the hole in the roof, and down into the alleyway. Meanwhile two inspired? members of the platoon managed to pick a hole in the wall and provide an escape route into 8 platoon's house. After sharing a nervy day with 8 Platoon, the two platoons were ordered to withdraw that night. This was done without incident and both platoons took part in a local attack carried out by A Company.
‘This episode was fairly typical of conditions in Cassino at the time. Platoons, often only a section strong, fighting well toward their objective only to be temporarily isolated. Their desired aggressive role was thus handicapped by shortage of manpower and so firepower and lack of communication to call for supporting fire.’
In common with B and D Companies, A Company during daylight had no contact with Battalion Headquarters despite strenuous efforts by linesmen and runners, who suffered several casualties. After dark supplies were taken into Cassino for all companies, a reserve ammunition dump was formed at the gaol, and the wounded and prisoners were taken out. The proposed advance by 26 Battalion that day, 16 March, was postponed, and despite sustained attempts to fight back 25 Battalion was pinned down by enemy fire. A notable success was gained, however, when in the early afternoon the convent was secured and made into a strongpoint. A tank of 19 Armoured Regiment used its guns effectively to assist in the capture and by the middle of the afternoon three tanks were at the convent, greatly strengthening the general position in Cassino. Throughout the day Allied aircraft had carried out thirteen attacks on the enemy gun positions, about 300 bombers dropping over 300 tons of bombs; fighter aircraft by continuous reconnaissance flights over the enemy forward areas and two-hourly visits farther back considerably reduced artillery action against Cassino, prevented any ammunition or other supply during daylight, and guarded against enemy troops forming up to page 407 counter-attack. In the late afternoon the enemy made one spectacular air attack when twenty-eight Focke-Wulf fighter-bombers made a raid on the New Zealand forward area, including a Bailey bridge over the Rapido half a mile east of Cassino. New Zealand Bofors engaged them heavily and apparently broke up the formation though no hits were observed. The bombs fell over a wide area east of the Rapido, wounding three men of 28 Battalion but otherwise doing no damage. As the aircraft finished their dive at the bridge they levelled out and raked Cassino with cannon and machine-gun fire before disappearing over Montecassino and towards the north.
During the evening of the 16th it was decided that after reorganising during the night 25 Battalion in the morning would continue the attempt to gain its objective, assisted by A Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment which would concentrate at the convent. After 25 Battalion had succeeded in its task, 26 Battalion would attack the station and other objectives, while 24 Battalion would move into Cassino and capture the Colosseum area, 1000 yards south of the Continental Hotel. During the night the Indians on the right were to attack Hangman's Hill, 300 yards south-east of Montecassino.
As the light failed the nebelwerfers continued firing on Cassino and were immediately countered by the artillery, a large and very satisfactory explosion and fire occurring in the target area. The nebelwerfers were quietened but at 11 p.m. opened up again, only to receive retaliatory artillery fire for nearly two hours; during the rest of the night they gave no more trouble. According to enemy documents one nebelwerfer regiment during the day lost eighty-one out of eighty-eight barrels on its establishment.
The battalion's casualties for the day were four other ranks killed, ten wounded, and one prisoner.
When dawn came on 17 March (St. Patrick's Day) troops of the Indian brigade could be seen approaching Hangman's Hill and it was learnt that during the night they had captured Point 165 (which had been reoccupied by the enemy some hours after 16 Platoon had left it), Point 202 (on the eastern slopes of Hangman's Hill and 500 yards south-west of the Continental Hotel), and had also taken but had lost Point 236 (500 yards north-west of the hotel). This success, partial though it was, was likely to be of great value to the troops attacking through Cassino as it imperilled the Germans lower down who were page 408 confronting 25 Battalion and enhanced the prospects of success in the impending attack by the three battalions of 6 Brigade.
By daylight on the 17th D Company had moved through Cassino and occupied positions in the convent and in an adjoining ruined church, the two large connected buildings on Route 6. From there it was to give covering fire in support of the attack of 26 Battalion later in the day. In 18 Platoon Private Graves20 did some excellent work. On his platoon commander being wounded Graves took command of the platoon, together with men of another platoon, and organised the position; he also arranged for stretcher-bearers and a place for the wounded. A little later, on the arrival in a tank of Lieutenant-Colonel Richards,21 the commander of 26 Battalion, Graves explained the situation to him and assisted the Colonel by carrying messages to the tank outside the building, though a Spandau was trained on the door. That night he also helped 26 Battalion with its wounded. He was awarded the Military Medal.
At 6.45 a.m. 25 Battalion resumed its attempt to reach the objective of the previous day, attacking to the west to secure the road running northwards from the Continental Hotel. The frontage was about 200 yards. B Company 24 Battalion was under command and 5 Troop 19 Armoured Regiment in support. For fifteen minutes prior to the attack the tanks had been firing on enemy posts, and 26 Battalion and medium machine guns were to give as much covering fire as possible, especially against the enemy positions at the foot of the hill, though mist and smoke in the town made observation most difficult.
The tanks led the advance towards the Botanical Gardens, with A Company on the right and B Company 24 Battalion on the left taking advantage of all available cover. On passing the Municipal Buildings on the eastern side of the Gardens the two companies extended to cover the frontage between the two branches of Route 6. Enemy riflemen and machine-gunners fired on the advancing infantry, and while doing so some of them made good targets for the watchful men of 26 Battalion and the machine-gunners supporting the attack.
The tanks drew heavy fire and from the outset A Company— which at that time was in touch with Battalion Headquarters page 409 by line—encountered heavy shelling from the south-west and made very slow progress. Buildings were cleared one by one and a few Germans were killed and eight prisoners taken.
B Company 24 Battalion, which was under fifty strong, met strong opposition from various directions, the poor visibility making it difficult to see the enemy positions. Very early in the attack the company had one man killed, two probably killed, and nine wounded, a quarter of its strength; one tank was bogged in the Gardens, a morass of liquid mud, and two more cast their tracks, but others closed to within twenty feet of enemy dugouts and blasted them with their 75-millimetre guns and .30 Browning machine guns, clearing the way for the infantry. In three-quarters of an hour the company had passed through the Gardens, and after crossing a small branch of the Gari River, about 150 yards east of the Continental Hotel, was, in the words of Major Turnbull, ‘pinned down by the heaviest fire I have seen’. A stretch of open ground, heavily cratered and swampy and impassable to the tanks, lay between the company and the hotel, which was very strongly held, and no further advance was possible. At that time the company numbered thirty-three, and when reporting the situation to 25 Battalion Headquarters, Major Turnbull asked for a hundred men to reinforce him, explaining that with his very low strength he would be unable to hold his objective even if he captured it; he also reported that he had one tank supporting him, which was doing good work, and although most of its gun ammunition had been used, it still had plenty of machine-gun ammunition.
In reserve in the gaol area, C Company had been providing a very useful forward report centre for the battalion, with a telephone exchange to the companies. Its 13 Platoon was in the vicinity of the Botanical Gardens alongside Major Turnbull's company and was stopped by the same fire, principally machine-gun and mortar fire from a strongpoint at the Continental Hotel. The platoon had lost contact with its company, and after one NCO was killed and another wounded by sniper fire while trying to get in touch, Private Bertie22 volunteered for the task. He found C Company headquarters and then rejoined his platoon. Just before 8 a.m. Major Turnbull was able to advance a little farther but the very poor visibility was still hampering the tanks, while the hidden enemy had no page 410 difficulty in seeing the moving troops. An hour later the company was trying to get in touch with B Company 25 Battalion to get assistance in its attack. B Company 24 Battalion was then in a house a few yards on the southern side of Route 6 proper, where a sunken road from the direction of the station joined Route 6 east of the Continental Hotel. It was still in touch with 13 Platoon of C Company 25 Battalion, which was in another house a little to the east.
A Company had been unable to make any further progress and through a break in its signal line was out of touch with Battalion Headquarters. By 9.30 a.m. the smoke and dust over the town had lifted considerably, enabling the tanks to engage targets. This had the immediate effect of reducing considerably the troublesome Spandau fire and the German snipers were not having matters all their own way, being engaged by the battalion riflemen and Bren guns, singly or in combination as well as by the tanks, with a good deal of success.
Tanks and infantry were working well together by W/T, and Battalion Headquarters, which hitherto had been very much in the dark regarding the situation, was much better informed. There was still, however, a good deal of confusion in Cassino. Dominated as it was to a very large degree by Spandau and rifle fire from the slopes immediately west of the town and shelled heavily and frequently by artillery and mortars, movement was hazardous. The men were under cover in cellars and ruins and the Germans, not very far away in some places, were similarly placed. With various automatic weapons and hand grenades in use and both sides very sensitive to movement and noise, silent and cautious movement was necessary, rendering communication between sections, platoons, and companies slow and uncertain. Forming-up for attack was always difficult as were co-operation, timing, and other ingredients of a successful operation. The town was in such complete ruin that the main buildings, and even streets, were often unrecognisable, maps were of little assistance, and it was a problem to give clear instructions or information regarding positions, objectives, and any other geographical matters. Added to all these drawbacks was the fact that so large a proportion of the troops was having a first, or at best a second, experience of battle.
Although not completely successful the operations of 25 Battalion and its attached and supporting troops had cleared the way sufficiently to enable 26 Battalion to pass through for its attack against the station area. At 11 a.m. on the 17th the page 411 barrage opened in preparation for that attack and an hour later the tanks moved forward under it, passing the convent shortly after midday and followed by the leading company of 26 Battalion. By 2.30 p.m. 26 Battalion had succeeded in capturing its objectives in the station area, and at that hour 24 Battalion began to move forward towards the sunken road to take up a position between 25 and 26 Battalions east of the Hotel des Roses, 200 yards south of the Continental Hotel; its task was to clear the former hotel area and possibly seize Route 6 south of the hotel and join up with the right flank of 26 Battalion.
Prior to the advance of 24 Battalion snipers and Spandaus from the ruins and the slopes above the town were still troublesome, especially a Spandau at the foot of Castle Hill. Twenty-fifth Battalion was concerned that the advance of 24 Battalion might be checked and asked for tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment to assist in dealing with the enemy posts, which would be indicated by tracer fired by B Company. The attempt failed because in the late afternoon the fading light prevented the tanks giving sufficiently close support to enable the infantry to close on the enemy. However, 24 Battalion was not interfered with as guides from B Company 25 Battalion were able to follow a covered route forward. About this time Brigadier Bonifant at a conference emphasised the importance of clearing the town and ordered 25 Battalion to deal immediately with all pockets of resistance in the town within its assigned objectives.
After dark B Company 24 Battalion in its house east of the Continental Hotel was instructed by 25 Battalion to rejoin its own unit, and 13 Platoon in the adjoining house rejoined its company. That night D Company, with the exception of 18 Platoon, withdrew from the convent and adjoining church and occupied the gaol, where some tanks and anti-tank guns in the vicinity attracted continuous enemy shelling and mortar fire during the night. Until the next morning 18 Platoon remained in the church near the convent and then moved to the Post Office, suffering casualties on the way. During the day it attended to the wounded and at dusk took both stretcher cases and walking wounded back to the collecting point at the gaol, where it rejoined D Company.
Of the remaining companies, A Company (Sanders) was at the Post Office and along the northern branch of Route 6 westwards to within a hundred yards of the road junction where the road turned southwards towards the Continental Hotel; B Company (Hoy) except for an odd detachment had been page 412 unable to get beyond the school it had reached 350 yards north-east of the Continental, where it was about 120 yards from the forward platoons of A Company; C Company with 13 Platoon on the way to rejoin was at the nunnery 100 yards south of the gaol.
Elsewhere troops of 4 Indian Division were holding Castle Hill and Hangman's Hill, though somewhat insecurely; 26 Battalion was in occupation of the station and hummock, though low in numbers after severe fighting; 24 Battalion was trying to bridge the gap between 25 and 26 Battalions from the Botanical Gardens southwards towards the station.
Apart from artillery and mortar fire, the German resistance was centred chiefly along the lower slopes of Castle Hill and Montecassino (and of course the Monastery), and in a rough triangle with the base extending from the Hotel des Roses northwards past the Continental Hotel for 200 yards and the apex about 200 yards north-east of the latter hotel. The areas were small, but the formidable obstacles and ideal cover presented by the devastated buildings and water-filled bomb craters, and the skilful and determined opposition, aided by perfect observation, made the task of overcoming the defenders very difficult. Casualties on 17 March were one died of wounds, two officers (Second-Lieutenants Grant23 and Morton) and sixteen other ranks wounded. The rifle company strengths were now very low; A Company had 51, B Company 49, C Company 40, and D Company 42.
For the next day, 18 March, the main task for 6 Brigade was to clear Route 6 down to the Baron's Palace (where Route 6 turned to the west to the Liri valley, 1100 yards south of the Continental Hotel), preparatory to further operations against the Monastery. Twenty-fifth Battalion was to hold its ground, clear the remainder of the town, and bring up supporting arms, ammunition, and adequate supplies. Twenty-sixth Battalion was to secure the Amphitheatre (just west of the Colosseum), and 24 Battalion had still to work down Route 6 towards the Baron's Palace. Twenty-eighth (Maori) Battalion was ready to join in the general battle.
At one in the morning two guides from D Company led C Company 24 Battalion round the top of Castle Hill, whence it intended to advance to the south-east on to Route 6. The other companies of 24 Battalion were in position facing west page 413 in the vicinity of the Botanical Gardens, along the sunken road leading southwards to the station, and also at the crossroads 400 yards north of the station.
Twenty-fifth Battalion had two blocks to secure, each of about six houses. After daylight C Company, supported by tanks, advanced against an enemy strongpoint at the base of Castle Hill at a point about 200 yards south-west of the gaol. Heavy mortar and other fire from the north-west caused casualties in two unsuccessful attacks; the first attack was made from Point 165 (south-west of Castle Hill, 16 Platoon's capture on the first day) in an easterly direction down into the town. Observation was so obscured by heavy smoke and fog that the tanks were unable to engage the enemy in the houses and the infantry was pinned down by fire. It was then decided to attack from the town towards the west, but this attack failed when a change of wind at a critical moment lifted the smoke and exposed the advancing troops. Finally a third attempt was made from a ridge running to the east down Castle Hill, the attack swinging round the base of the hill to the south-west. To allow the tanks to support the attack by gunfire an Indian RAP situated directly in line above the enemy position was moved elsewhere. This attack was successful, the strongpoint being taken with a loss of three killed and several wounded. Fourteen Germans were killed and three captured, curiously enough from three units, 3 Parachute Regiment, II Battalion 115 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, and I AA-MG Battalion. A few tower-like structures in a stone wall near the strongpoint had provided vantage points for enemy riflemen and machine-gunners to operate actively against any movement in the town below, but the capture of the strongpoint put an end to that. The battalion's casualties for the day were three killed and twelve wounded.
During this attack, in order to give covering fire to his section, Private Bertie, 13 Platoon, crawled out to an exposed rock and with his Bren gun opened fire at close range. He received a bullet wound across his head but continued firing, killing two Germans though again wounded, this time through the shoulder, but still maintained his fire on the strongpoint until the section assaulted it. Until ordered to the RAP by his platoon commander, Bertie remained in position giving flank protection to the platoon. For his gallantry and devotion to duty he was awarded the Military Medal.
Elsewhere the enemy artillery and mortars had been firing steadily into Cassino, the mortar fire being very heavy at times. page 414 In the early afternoon D Company had several casualties when a mortar bomb penetrated the roof of one of its buildings. Enemy aircraft, too, were very active and late in the afternoon twenty aircraft bombed the station. Allied aircraft also were much in evidence on reconnaissance, strafing, and bombing missions.
C Company 24 Battalion, which it will be recalled had been led round the top of Castle Hill by D Company guides, had made an important advance southwards along the lower slopes of Montecassino to the vicinity of Point 202, which had been taken by the Indian brigade on the night 16–17 March. This operation threatened from the rear the enemy positions lower down and along the western edge of Cassino and Route 6 confronting 25 Battalion and the remainder of 24 Battalion. The enemy held on to those positions stubbornly, however, and fire from a pink house 150 yards north of the Continental Hotel and from a strongpoint south-east of Castle Hill prevented C Company 24 Battalion from advancing eastwards against Route 6; it remained, nevertheless, a nuisance and a menace to the Germans below and a comforting and valuable link with the Indians somewhat precariously established on Hangman's Hill, 750 feet above them, and at Point 202. Special care had to be taken by 25 and 24 Battalions below and by all supporting arms to avoid endangering the New Zealanders and Indians on the slopes.
About midnight 18–19 March, 28 Battalion, which had been placed under command of 6 Brigade, moved into position west of the Municipal Buildings in readiness to assist 25 Battalion to clear up enemy posts from the slopes of Castle Hill, 250 yards north of the Continental Hotel, southwards along and a little to the west of Route 6 as far as the Colosseum. At 3 a.m. the attack commenced, with A and B Companies on the right and two companies of 28 Battalion on the left. Against heavy mortar fire, countered to some extent by counter-battery fire, A and B Companies made little progress and when daylight came were halted by machine-gun and rifle fire. Fire from supporting arms then helped a little but no further advance was made.
With assistance from tanks the Maoris on the left of 25 Battalion advanced against considerable resistance, a mortar barrage fired by 6 Brigade and an artillery barrage on the slopes of Monastery Hill providing covering fire. By 7 a.m. some progress had been made and in an optimistic mood the page 415 Maoris expected to be able to complete the task by dusk. The enemy was, however, firmly established at the Continental Hotel and for 150 yards on either side to the strongly-held pink house (previously mentioned) to the north, and to the vicinity of the Hotel des Roses to the south. Two enemy tanks at the Continental had been causing considerable trouble but were knocked out before dusk by tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment. By nightfall, although the Maoris had achieved some success and had in fact claimed the capture of 100 Germans, the enemy still held his positions.
During the night enemy artillery and mortar fire was heavy and there were signs that the enemy had been able to reinforce his forward troops, several sharp attacks being made against 24 Battalion in Cassino. C Company 24 Battalion near Point 202 had maintained its position but had been under heavy fire of all kinds throughout the day and, during the attack of 25 and 28 Battalions, had been unable to advance towards Route 6 as planned.
During the morning to assist that attack, tanks had made a diversionary thrust through the hills north-west of Cassino and, despite the difficult nature of the country, had advanced to within about 900 yards of the Monastery. In the absence of infantry support the tanks were compelled to retire before the light failed. South of Cassino 26 Battalion could make no progress towards the Colosseum but was shelled all day and had beaten off counter-attacks. The situation at Castle Hill and Point 165, especially the latter, was uncertain, due to enemy attacks in the early morning of the 19th.
From prisoners taken by 25 and 28 Battalions it was learnt that 3 Parachute Regiment was responsible for the defence of Cassino and that under its command were a battalion of I Parachute Regiment, a nebelwerfer regiment, a machine-gun battalion, and an AA-MG battalion; there were seventeen to twenty flammenwerfers with ample fuel, seven or eight tanks, and the same number of self-propelled guns. No anti-tank guns were in the town as bazookas and anti-tank hand grenades were preferred for close work in the ruins. The Germans also said there were supply dumps in the town, hidden on the ground floors of buildings protected by rubble; the German companies were fifty to eighty strong.
Little had been achieved on the 19th, which had cost the battalion one man killed and ten wounded, and it was apparent that the Germans were as unconquerable as ever. During the page 416 night a reorganisation was to take place. Fifth Brigade was to be responsible for Route 6 and the area to the north on the west of the Rapido; 25 and 28 Battalions were to come under command of 5 Brigade, it being intended that 25 Battalion should go into reserve in the Pasquale road area, a mile or so north-east of Cassino; 6 Brigade (less 25 Battalion) was to hold the area south of Route 6 (but including the position near Point 202) as far as and inclusive of the station and hummock area.
In the very early hours of the 19th 25 Battalion headquarters was established in the vicinity of San Pasquale in the reserve area, rest areas for the companies being selected in that locality. On their relief early on the 20th by 23 Battalion, A and B Companies expected to move out but were told that because of the great increase in enemy activity it had been decided that all positions in Cassino must be held, and that 25 Battalion was to thicken up 23 Battalion's sector. However, shortly after 6 a.m. this very disappointing situation was altered to some extent; 5 Brigade gave permission for A and B Companies to leave but C Company was to remain in position, together with two companies of 23 Battalion, in the middle of Cassino, 350 yards north-east of the Continental Hotel. D Company, which had gone to the rest area the previous evening and received its reinforcements there, returned at 8 a.m. to Cassino under cover of smoke and mist and occupied positions at the gaol. During the day there was much artillery fire on both sides and enemy mortar and nebelwerfer fire as usual. In the afternoon C Company made a further attempt to overcome the enemy positions at the base of Castle Hill, but the attack met heavy machine-gun fire and failed. At dusk that day, 20 March, Colonel MacDuff discussed with his company commanders in Cassino the question of further operations there, and A and B Companies, which had gone out to the rest area that morning, returned to Cassino at dusk to strengthen the defences, B Company on the right flank of D Company near the gaol and A Company joining C Company near the school, about midway between the gaol and the Continental Hotel.
Early that night C Company (Milne), assisted by D Company (Hewitt), made yet another attack on the enemy Castle Hill positions but could make no headway. The artillery and other supporting arms continued their usual roles by day and night and Allied aircraft, in addition to the normal sorties, dropped supplies for the troops on Hangman's Hill. Although the day page 417 was fine enemy aircraft made only two sorties and lost two aircraft to anti-aircraft fire. No casualties were reported in 25 Battalion that day.
For the remaining eleven days in March the situation in Cassino remained practically unaltered, the battalion's casualties for these days being four killed, six died of wounds, twenty wounded, and one missing. An operation on the 22nd by two companies of 5 Brigade against enemy strongpoints on the lower slopes of Castle Hill was assisted by A Company 25 Battalion but achieved little; twelve men of 25 Battalion. brought forward from B Echelon three miles away, acted as stretcher-bearers to take out wounded of 23 Battalion. There seemed little prospect of any further attack succeeding, and 2 NZ Division therefore adopted a policy of aggressive defence, using harassing fire of all descriptions, mining, wiring, and active patrolling. In common with other units 25 Battalion every second day was to send a company out of Cassino for a two-days' rest in reserve. The battalion was given the task of forming a secondary defensive position stretching from Caruso road to Parallel road, to be held by one platoon of machine guns and the battalion's 3-inch mortars, and was to place anti-tank guns and medium machine guns between Parallel and Pasquale roads. This was done on the night 23 – 24 March. Captain Mahar, commanding the Support Company, was placed in command of the reserve position at Pasquale; the positions were heavily shelled at dawn on the 24th.
The defensive position in Cassino between the gaol and the station, a front of about a mile, was held by six New Zealand units, or parts of units, and 5 Buffs. Sixth Brigade was to relieve 5 Brigade in the town, the relief extending over three nights and commencing on the 25th. Fourth Indian Division on the right of 25 Battalion was to extend its left a little to include the gaol, while 25 Battalion would also extend its left about 200 yards to the south to the vicinity of the northern branch of Route 6 to relieve B Company 23 Battalion. Twenty-fourth Battalion would be on the left of 25 Battalion, while page 419 22 (Motor) Battalion and 26 Battalion in that order carried the front to the south, the latter relieving the Buffs in the station area.
In the morning of the 26th memories of the Sangro and last New Year's morning were roused in the minds of many of the men by the sight of snow, light on the flat but appreciable on the hills, and giving rise to some caustic comments on ‘Sunny Italy’, especially by drivers who found it necessary to have a guide walking ahead of the vehicles. During the night a French Arab soldier was brought in by Lieutenant Groshinski and sent on to Brigade Headquarters, an incident of greater frequency a little later when the advance was resumed and escaped prisoners of war passed through.
For the remaining days of March there was little change in the general pattern. Various reliefs took place, an enemy patrol and later a party of about forty Germans entered 24 Battalion's front on the left of 25 Battalion but were driven off, and an enemy raid or counter-attack 1000 yards to the south of the battalion, in the station area, caused a considerable stir throughout the night and was not disposed of till after daylight.
On 1 April 5 Brigade commenced the relief of 6 Brigade, which was to be completed over a period of three days, 25 Battalion being relieved by 21 Battalion on the first day. The relief proceeded smoothly in the order A, Support, C, B, and D Companies, and Battalion Headquarters, commencing at 7.15 p.m. and being completed by three the next morning. Moving in buses to the south-east down Route 6, the battalion was soon in its bivouac area near the main route 15 miles from Cassino. The bivouacs had been erected by men from B Echelon and ‘after over five weeks in the Cassino sector … the companies were soon bedded down, thankful to be out of range of enemy guns for a while.’
In the battle of Cassino the battalion had suffered casualties numbering 6 officers and 217 other ranks. One officer and 36 other ranks were killed; 10 other ranks died of wounds; 5 officers and 170 other ranks were wounded; one man was a prisoner of war.
During the last two weeks of March these casualties were largely replaced by reinforcements of 9 officers and 105 other ranks, but because of a prior deficiency of 3 officers and 61 other ranks, the battalion was still 131 men below its establishment. (The full establishment was 35 officers and 741 other ranks.)page 420
In fine, warm spring weather a period of relaxation and reorganisation followed, with daily leave to Naples and Caserta, and leave parties to Bari and a rest camp at Quadraventi. Voluntary church parades and a Commemoration Service for the Fallen in Cassino were held and Good Friday and Easter services arranged.
Looking back at the Battle of Cassino, no doubt the commanders concerned saw that the tactics adopted did not fit the conditions that were encountered. A general review of the battle is beyond the scope of a unit history, but the plan of attack, in its effect on the operations of 25 Battalion, may well be examined. Omitting the general miscalculation of the effect of the air and artillery bombardment, which has already been referred to, the battalion was confronted by tactical difficulties which might have been eased or avoided. These include the frontage of attack, the strength of the attack, the rate of advance, and the objectives.
The battalion's frontage in the attack was a mere 700 yards, and after D Company in the evening had descended from Castle Hill, the whole attack was confined to the town of Cassino. This narrow frontage permitted the enemy to concentrate the fire of the whole of his artillery and mortars from a wide arc and of all machine guns from a lesser arc against the town, an area 650 yards by 800 yards, a veritable fire trap. Also, as the slopes west of the town from Castle Hill southward to and beyond Montecassino commanded the town, enemy riflemen and light machine-gunners in that area, within ranges of from a few yards to 1500 yards or so, were all able to fire on the attackers. Even if the air and artillery bombardment had destroyed all the enemy in that area, reserves from the reverse slopes had time to come forward and reoccupy at least part of the defences, more especially in view of the very slow rate of advance adopted.
The strength of the initial attack was only one battalion (though it was to be followed by others) and one company of that battalion was employed against the important objective of Castle Hill, thus reducing the infantry available to overwhelm the town below. This weakness was easily avoidable as 24 Battalion was handy and could readily have done the job with little or no detriment to that battalion's subsequent task. A quick follow-up by another battalion to pass through 25 Battalion if required might well have achieved success.page 421
The rate of advance, 100 yards in ten minutes, only thirty feet a minute, had serious disadvantages. In a town of brick buildings with ruins of various heights which were bound to intercept some shells short of the barrage line, the advancing troops would be compelled to keep at least 100 yards from the creeping barrage, a distance which it took the men ten minutes to cover and which gave the enemy defenders that time to recover and fight, instead of a few seconds. Possibly the deciding factor in this timing was the desire to have tanks up with the leading infantry, and the tanks would require time to negotiate the debris.
Reverting to the question of the frontage of attack, it will be noticed that no attempt was made, as at Tebaga Gap on 26 March the previous year by 25 Battalion, to spread the frontage of attack and consequently the enemy fire. This could have been done, probably with great advantage in other directions, by widening the front westwards beyond Castle Hill and also extending the objective to include the area from Montecassino to the station. For the same reasons a simultaneous thrust from the east against the station area, similar to 5 Brigade's attack of 17 February, even if it were limited to a holding attack, would certainly have dispersed the enemy fire. There again a possible explanation for excluding this might have been the necessity for the Division to be ready to undertake its pursuit role.
7 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF 1916–17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1939–Apr 1941, Jun-Dec 1941; comd 10 Bde, Crete, May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942–Jun 1943, Nov 1943–Feb 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div, 30 Apr-14 May 1943, 9 Feb-2 Mar 1944; comd 2 NZEF Prisoner-of-War Reception Group (UK) Oct 1944–Sep 1945; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories, 1946–57; died Wellington, 5 May 1957.
17 2Lt W. J. Blackie; born NZ 1 Apr 1922; clerk; killed in action 15 Mar 1944.