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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II

319 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

page 286

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

4 April 1944

I have the honour to report on the part played by the New Zealand Forces in recent operations at Cassino. Reports of fighting from our war correspondents have been sent to New Zealand, and my purpose is merely to give a brief connected picture of our operations during the last two months.

In earlier cables I reported to you that we had temporarily become the New Zealand Corps under the Fifth American Army for operations with the 4th Indian Division, a British division, and with British and American armour and guns under command. As stated in my secret cipher message when our role was assigned to us, we had no illusions about the difficulties of the task ahead. I cabled then, ‘We are undoubtedly facing one of the most difficult operations of all our battles.’1

The Cassino position is a formidable one, and not for the first time in history it has barred the way to armies advancing into the Liri Valley which leads to Rome. Cassino, once a substantial stone town, lies at the foot of Monastery Hill, which rises sharply out of the plain, not unlike the rock of Gibraltar in steepness and height. The road and railway to Rome pass through Cassino, the narrow plain over which we had to advance is flooded, wired, and mined, and the entire defensive system is covered by the small but swift-flowing Rapido River. From the vantage point of the Monastery the enemy can watch and bring down fire on every movement on the roads or open country in the plain below.

This natural fortress of the enemy's Gustav Line held up the American advance earlier in the year, and it was from an American Corps that we took over after coming across from the Eighth Army front. As we drove forward we saw the ideal defensive country from which the American, British, and French troops of Fifth Army had driven the enemy after months of heavy and most gallant fighting. At Cassino they attacked again and again, gaining important peaks to the north and a foothold in the northern edge of the town itself. These were the positions we took over, the 4th Indian Division moving into the mountains to the north while the 2nd New Zealand Division occupied the northern outskirts of Cassino.

Since the middle of February we have maintained pressure on the Cassino front. The enemy has been attacked from the air and bombarded by artillery and has been forced to deploy his reserves

1 No. 317.

page 287 to meet the threat of a break-through. He put in his best available troops to hold Cassino and the heights above it. On 15 February the Benedictine Monastery was destroyed by heavy air bombardment, a step which was forced upon us because, despite enemy protests to the contrary, it was being used as an observatory for military purposes.

Prior to the main attack on Cassino itself, the 4th Indian Division fought a battle on the steep rocky slopes to the north of the Monastery. They gained ground on Point 593 and have held it ever since despite enemy counter-attacks and very difficult conditions. The enemy had prepared their positions in advance and their strongpoints blasted into rock had to be stormed at night with hand grenade and bayonet.

On 17 and 18 February the 28th (Maori) Battalion carried out an operation to cross the Rapido River south of the town. A bridgehead was won and the engineers were within an ace of getting demolitions repaired and bridges through after magnificent work, but dawn came an hour too soon. By daylight the enemy could pick out their targets from Monastery Hill and further work was impossible under continuous fire. Supporting arms could not be got up and our bridgehead was driven back by an enemy tank attack.

Meanwhile, plans were made for a full-scale attack supported by very heavy air and artillery bombardment. This was to be followed by an infantry assault which, if fully successful, would make a break for the armour into the valley beyond. The attack on Cassino and Monastery Hill by the 2nd New Zealand Division and 4th Indian Division, dependent as it was upon tank and air support, required firm going for the tanks and clear visibility for the bombers. This meant weeks of patient waiting since weather conditions in February and March in Italy leave much to be desired. At last on 15 March it seemed that the weather was right and the attack was launched.

Before dawn that morning the New Zealand troops on the northern outskirts of Cassino were withdrawn and at half past eight a terrific air attack began. For the first time heavy bombers of the Strategic Air Force, as well as medium and light bombers, took part in a close air support programme of unprecedented weight. From an observation post I watched already battered Cassino reduced to rubble. Squadron after squadron of Fortresses, Liberators, Mitchells, and, Marauders of the American Air Force came in, with short intervals between groups to allow the huge clouds of dust and smoke to clear. Flashes of flame from bursting bombs leaped from the buildings and from the slopes above the town, explosions reverberated through the hills and shook the ground under our feet. No enemy aircraft appeared during the attack. Enemy anti-aircraft guns were neutralised by artillery and none fired after half past ten.

page 288

At twelve o'clock precisely the last flight of medium bombers planted their bombs with impressive accuracy. Twelve o'clock was zero hour, when the Allied artillery (under our CCRA, Brigadier C. E. Weir) opened fire and the infantry attacked. Your Division (under Major-General Parkinson) had the task of storming Cassino. During the air attack there had been no artillery fire on Cassino as dust and smoke would have obscured the target for aircraft, but at zero hour between five and six hundred guns of all calibres opened on the Corps front, a bombardment heavier than at Alamein. Behind the creeping barrage infantry, engineers, and tanks advanced into Cassino from the north.

The approach was a bottleneck restricted by massive mountains on the west and by the Rapido River on the east. Only one battalion could be deployed at a time, a factor which was a great handicap to our operations. The positions we had withdrawn from were occupied without trouble; our first objective, Castle Hill, a steep miniature of the Monastery feature just north of the town, was stormed and captured by the 25th Battalion, and the 26th Battalion, followed by the 19th Armoured Regiment, attacked Cassino itself. At first our attack met little opposition and casualties were very light. The prisoners taken were stunned and reported heavy casualties from the bombing. The town was completely wrecked, and the whole area was covered with wide, deep craters up to 60 feet across which could not be crossed by our armour. In some places where bombs had missed buildings or had not penetrated reinforced basements, there were snipers and enemy posts which were holding out, and on the western edge of the town the enemy position blasted into the base of the hill remained intact. From positions south of Monastery Hill enemy nebelwerfers and trench mortars came into action. Our artillery, bombers, and fighter-bombers engaged these enemy mortar areas and continued the attack in depth on enemy positions on Monastery Hill and on gun areas in the valley beyond.

By evening good progress had been made and the stage was set for the next vital phase of the attack. This was to take advantage of enemy disorganisation during the moonlight. Cassino was to be mopped up by New Zealand battalions. Troops from the 4th Indian Division were to take over Castle Hill from our 25th Battalion and then attack Monastery Hill. American and New Zealand engineers were to put a bridge over the Rapido on the main Rome road and clear routes forward to bring tanks through the town.

Up to this moment the operation had developed as planned. At nightfall, however, the weather broke and torrential rain fell throughout the night. Visibility was poor and the moon made little or no difference. It was impossible to keep control in the pitch dark and progress in Cassino was slow. When the 4th Indian Division moved, page 289 Cassino town had not been cleared. As a result they could not deploy on the precipitous slopes of Monastery Hill, and there was inevitable delay and loss of cohesion. In these conditions the achievement of the Gurkha Battalion in capturing ‘Hangman's Hill’, the point just below the Monastery, before dawn was a magnificent one. But they were too thin on the ground to attack Monastery Hill.

The engineers' task of making routes and bridging gaps was also greatly hampered and slowed down by conditions. Owing to the low-lying nature of the ground, craters were full of water and mud and bridges had to be built across the gaps. Despite all difficulties, however, the engineers built steel bridges over the Rapido River before dawn.

On the morning of the 16th Monastery Hill was still in enemy hands and Cassino had not been cleared; indeed, the enemy had had opportunity during the night to clear away debris and reorganise a number of strongpoints. It was clear that hope of obtaining full advantage of a surprise attack and breaking through with armour had gone and that further progress would be slow. Cassino had to be cleared so that the New Zealand Division could link up with the Indian Division on Hangman's Hill. At first light New Zealand infantry of 6th Brigade, with tank support, went on with their task.

Apart from isolated posts, the main enemy resistance was in the concrete defences in the south-west corner of the town, known as the Continental Hotel area, and at two points at the foot of Castle Hill, blasted into the face of the hill, where the enemy resisted fiercely. It was against these points that the New Zealand infantry concentrated during the following days. Close up behind the infantry the engineers built bridges, and with bulldozers and hand labour gradually cleared routes through. On the 17th tanks of the 19th Armoured Regiment were brought into the town, and that morning our 26th Battalion, supported by a squadron of tanks, swung south and made an important advance, capturing Cassino railway station after fierce fighting. Enemy tanks and anti-tank guns attempted to intervene but were dealt with by our tanks and artillery.

From now on Cassino became the scene of most bitter fighting, and our battalions of 5th Brigade (under Brigadier Burrows) joined 6th Brigade (under Brigadier Bonifant)1 in the battle for the strong-points. Our infantry, closely supported by our tanks, fought forward from one heap of rubble to another and dug out snipers in ones and twos. Walls of houses in the west of the town where the enemy held out were literally blown down in sections by our tanks.

1 Brigadier I. L. Bonifant, DSO, ED; CO 25th NZ Battalion, Sep 1942 – Jan 1943; commanded NZ Divisional Cavalry, Jan 1943 – Apr 1944; commanded 6th Brigade, 3–27 Mar 1944; 5th Brigade, Jan – May 1945; 6th Brigade, Jun – Oct 1945; Area Commander, Christchurch, Apr – Aug 1948.

page 290 On the 19th 180 prisoners were taken from two strongpoints, but the enemy still held the western edge of the town securely and was able to supply and reinforce it by night. For a week, under cover of smoke by day and in waning moonlight by night, the battle went on. By day and night the town was shelled and mortared by the enemy, while our own guns were continuously in action masking enemy observation points on Monastery Hill with smoke and breaking up enemy formations and shelling his gun areas.

While your Division fought in Cassino, British and Indian troops of the 4th Indian Division fought back counter-attacks in the hills. We were forced off Point 165, but Castle Hill was firmly held by infantry from Essex and Kent. The garrison has already repulsed five counter-attacks made against it. The Gurkhas on Hangman's Hill and a company of our 24th Battalion on Points 146 and 202 became isolated but held on with great determination. They were supplied by air by American dive-bombers and fighter-bombers which dropped ammunition, water, and food in parachute containers with remarkable accuracy onto such difficult targets. The full success of our operation depended on our ability to clear Cassino and link up with these isolated garrisons so that the attack could go on to take the Monastery. This could not be accomplished and eventually the isolated troops had to be withdrawn by night.

In an attack against an enemy position such as this, the operation always divides itself into three phases: the break-in battle, the encounter battle, and the break-out. Our plan was to reduce the second phase to a minimum by the violence of our initial blow, but blitz bombing proved a double-edged weapon and produced obstacles which made speedy deployment of our armour impossible. At Alamein, and in the Battle of Mareth just one year ago, the third phase was reached after several days' heavy fighting and decisive battles were won. At Cassino the strong defence held, and we have not reached the third phase. We have, however, broken into his main defensive system, and in the fierce battles which ensued we have caused the enemy heavy casualties. We have won and now hold part of our objective. We have a bridgehead across the main Rapido River, and we hold Castle Hill and the bulk of the town and the railway station.

In this battle we have been fighting in the Fifth American Army. I would like to record here our pride in doing so and our deep appreciation of the help and co-operation we have had from General Mark Clark,1 his staff, and all formations with which we have served.

1 General Mark W. Clark, US Army; Chief of Staff and Deputy to General Eisenhower (European Theatre of Operations) 1942; GOC 5th Army, 1943–44; commanded 15th Army Group, 1944–45; United States Forces in Austria, 1945–47.

page 291

May I quote from a letter I have just received from our Army Commander:

Undiscouraged by the hardships of unfavourable weather and extremely difficult terrain, and in the face of a desperate and stubborn enemy, your command has fought with outstanding valour and determination. The fine spirit of co-operation and teamwork displayed by your Corps and by other components of the Fifth Army has shown the enemy clearly that the Allies are truly united nations and as such will fight together to final victory.

Many gallant exploits have been performed by the British, American, Indian, and New Zealand troops who fought over those steep hills and in the town. Units and individuals cannot be mentioned in this report but some will be recognised when awards are announced.

I am adding this paragraph on returning from a visit to the units in the line. After the hard battle the troops were tired, but they are recovering quickly and are in good heart.1

1 New Zealand casualties from 1 Feb – 10 Apr 1944 were:

Died of wounds78
Died on active service (includes deaths through sickness, accident, &c.)29
Prisoners of war (includes 7 wounded and prisoners of war and 1 died of wounds while prisoner of war)49