Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
II: The Apennine Position
II: The Apennine Position
The transfer of the New Zealand Division from Cassino to the Apennine mountain position was accomplished by a complicated process of disentanglement and rearrangement which took some time. After the disbandment of New Zealand Corps on 26 March, 13 Corps took over the Cassino front with 4 British Division holding the Monte Cairo sector on the right, 78 British Division relieving 4 Indian Division in the centre, and the New Zealand Division on the left in the ruined town and extending its flank as far south as the boundary between Eighth and Fifth Armies, near the confluence of the Gari and Liri rivers.1 The New Zealanders' sector thus stretched for about five and a half miles, with 6 Infantry Brigade holding the line through the town to a few hundred yards south of the railway station and 5 Infantry Brigade continuing it to the southern boundary.
To get the two New Zealand brigades out of the line, 1 Guards Brigade relieved 5 Brigade, which in turn relieved 6 Brigade; 2 Independent Parachute Brigade relieved the Guards Brigade, which then relieved 5 Brigade. On the night of 7–8 April, when the last of these reliefs was completed, the whole Cassino sector came under the command of 6 British Armoured Division, with the Guards Brigade on the right, the parachute brigade in the centre, and 4 NZ Armoured Brigade on the left.
Fifth Brigade (Brigadier Stewart1) went back down Route 6 to the Mignano locality and later to Isernia, in a peaceful valley east of the upper Volturno River; 6 Brigade (Brigadier Parkinson2 went to the Presenzano area, near the Volturno beyond Mignano. In pleasant surroundings, where the fresh spring growth in woods and fields was in such vivid contrast to the rubble, bomb craters, shattered tree-stumps, mud and water, and the perpetual smoke pall of the Cassino battlefield, the troops relaxed and trained while their units reorganised. Leave parties went to Naples, Bari, Pompeii and elsewhere, and those not on leave were entertained by concerts, films and mule derbies.
1 Maj-Gen Sir Keith Stewart, KBE, CB, DSO, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US); Kerikeri; born Timaru, 30 Dec 1896; Regular soldier; 1 NZEF 1917–19; GSO I NZ Div 1940–41; Deputy Chief of General Staff Dec 1941–Jul 1943; comd 5 Bde Aug–Nov 1943, 4 Armd Bde Nov 1943–Mar 1944, 5 Bde Mar–Aug 1944; p.w. 1 Aug 1944; comd 9 Bde (2 NZEF, Japan) Nov 1945–Jul 1946; Chief of General Staff, 1949–52.
2 Maj-Gen G. B. Parkinson, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Christchurch; born Wellington, 5 Nov 1896; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1917–19; CO 4 Fd Regt Jan 1940–Aug 1941; comd 1 NZ Army Tank Bde and 7 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) 1941–42; 6 Bde Apr 1943–Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 3–27 Mar 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div Jun–Aug 1944; comd 6 Bde Aug 1944–Jun 1945; QMG, Army HQ, Jan–Sep 1946; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1946–49; Commander, Southern Military District, 1949–51.
3 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, VD, ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk); Hamilton; born Mosgiel, 16 May 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde and MG Bn, 1915–19; CO 27 (MG) Bn, Dec 1939–Aug 1940; comd 4 Inf Bde, 1941–42; 4 Armd Bde, 1942–44; GOC 2 NZ Div, 27 Jun–16 Aug 1942, 6 Jun–31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947–50; Stipendiary Magistrate; died Hamilton, 17 Mar 1966.
Some of 4 Brigade's Sherman tanks were retained in the Cassino sector in a defensive or counter-attack role. Eight or nine from 20 Armoured Regiment stayed in the town, three of them in the station area, with the Guards Brigade. Unlike those still east of the Rapido River, where they had better fields of fire and could move from place to place, the tanks in the town were immobile and could do little or no shooting; their cover was gradually whittled away by enemy fire, and smoke had to be used increasingly to screen them from view. This was a wretched and monotonous existence for their crews, who could get out to stretch their cramped limbs only at night.
South of Monte Trocchio, the isolated hill which gave observation over much of the front, 18 Armoured Regiment employed one of its squadrons at a time in an artillery role adopted because ammunition had to be husbanded for the 25-pounder field guns but was more than sufficient for the 75-millimetre tank guns. Among the variety of targets the tanks engaged from their indirect fire positions were enemy guns and buildings, including the front-line village of Sant' Angelo on the ridge across the Gari River. The Germans' retaliatory stonks1 damaged two tanks and killed five men and wounded others during the three weeks the regiment was employed on this task before handing over to 19 Armoured Regiment.
The 6th Armoured Division was relieved at Cassino by 8 Indian Division, and when 22 (Motor) Battalion had been replaced by 3/8 Punjab Regiment, 4 Armoured Brigade relinquished command of its sector to 19 Indian Infantry Brigade on 25 April, and withdrew to Pietramelara, 20-odd miles from the front. The relief of 20 Armoured Regiment's tanks in Cassino by 12 Canadian Armoured Regiment was particularly difficult: one New Zealand tank broke a track on the way out and although ‘smoked’ all the ensuing day was too badly damaged by enemy fire to be of further use; another two tanks, which could not be extricated safely, were left in position for the Canadians.
1 Quick defensive artillery concentrations fired according to a prearranged pattern.
On Easter Monday (10 April) 25 Battalion had left the Volturno valley near Venafro and motored up the winding road through steep-sided valleys and small villages to a debussing point near Cardito, where stores and equipment were loaded on mules with the assistance of Indian muleteers. Accompanied by Polish guides and troublesome mules, the companies set out on foot in the dark on a track alongside a tributary of the Volturno and after two or three miles began climbing very steep, narrow tracks—exhausting for the heavily laden men—on the northern side of the Cardito – San Biagio section of the road, where they relieved 14 Polish Battalion on the extreme right of the divisional sector. Following much the same procedure, 24 Battalion next night took over positions from 16 Polish Battalion south of the road and facing the 3500-foot Monte San Croce, and 26 Battalion, after being delayed by a thunderstorm, on the following night relieved 18 Polish Battalion on the lower slopes of San Croce and on Colle dell' Arena, a plateau-like feature farther to the left. C Squadron of Divisional Cavalry and 33 Anti-Tank Battery, both under 6 Brigade's command, were given infantry tasks to thicken up the defence; and the Vickers guns of two companies of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion were sited where they could make best use of their long range and give enfilade fire in front of the infantry posts. Also in support were 5 Field Regiment, two batteries of the Royal Artillery, an anti-aircraft battery, and a company of engineers.
Sixth Brigade's sector was a comparatively quiet one, but as 85 Mountain Rifle Regiment of 5 Division had excellent observation from Monte San Croce and the nearby high ground, it was hazardous to move in the open in daylight. The rugged terrain made a continuous line of defences impossible; wide gaps existed between the defended localities, which were protected by mines and wire entanglements, and between 6 Brigade and the Italian Motor Group in the next sector. Exchanges of fire were not very frequent, but pickets and patrols kept a vigilant watch to prevent enemy patrols from infiltrating through the gaps. The troops enjoyed the spring sunshine and the clear mountain air, the views down the page 14 Rapido valley and across the intervening hills to Montecassino, visible in fine weather, but found the nights cold, especially in posts which gave little shelter. Occasional storms brought high winds, heavy rain, and snow on the ranges.
The central sector of 2 NZ Division's line in the upper Rapido valley was held by 11 Canadian Infantry Brigade Group, and the Belvedere-Terelle sector, on the left, by 28 Infantry Brigade of 4 British Division. The Canadian group, 7500 strong, stayed on this part of the front from 9 April to 5 May, when it was relieved by 12 South African Motor Brigade. In addition to the three Canadian infantry battalions the group included a motor regiment of 5 Canadian Armoured Brigade, artillery and engineer units, and the Italian Bafile Battalion (composed mainly of 1000 sailors from the Italian Navy who had volunteered for land duty after surrendering their ship at Malta). The Canadians' sector offered the best opportunity and had the most need of constant patrolling, and sometimes as many as a dozen patrols went out during one night. The Canadians' most formidable problem, shared by all formations in the Apennines, was getting supplies to troops in isolated, rocky positions.
After just over a week in the line on the Canadians' right, 6 NZ Infantry Brigade relinquished command of its sector on 20 April to 2 Independent Parachute Brigade (which had been replaced at Cassino by a brigade of 8 Indian Division) and went into divisional reserve in the upper Volturno valley not far from Montaquila. About the same time 5 NZ Infantry Brigade left Isernia to relieve 28 Infantry Brigade on the Canadians' left.
Probably no part of the front was more difficult to reach than the Belvedere-Terelle sector, hardly more than a precarious foothold high up on the western side of the Rapido valley, about half-way along the route from Cassino to Atina. From the lofty slopes of the snow-capped Monte Cairo, rising directly above and overlooking the position, and also from Montecassino to the south and from the mountains to the north, the enemy could observe every access route and direct fire from his guns on it.
Fifth Brigade's convoys followed the narrow, winding roads and tracks through the hills east of the Rapido valley to a debussing point near the village of Portella. The changeover of each battalion took two nights to complete. The first 5 Brigade troops to arrive, 28 (Maori) Battalion, set off on foot after dark on 19 April on a five-mile march down to the river crossing at Sant' Elia Fiumerapido and to a lying-up area among trees at the foot of the precipitous page 15 face of Colle Belvedere, where they remained until the following night before taking over from 2/4 Battalion, The Hampshire Regiment. Fifth Brigade assumed command of the sector on the 21st, and during the next two nights 23 Battalion completed the relief of 2 Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry, and 21 Battalion that of 2 Battalion, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment. The climb of over 2000 feet to the posts on Colle Belvedere and the adjacent Colle Abate took three to five hours. Laden with their personal gear, arms and ammunition, the men clambered and scrambled over rock faces in the darkness and stumbled and groped along narrow tracks and ridges.
From the village of Cairo in the Rapido valley a road zigzagged around 10 hairpin bends up the almost vertical southern face of Colle Belvedere and then continued onwards and upwards for about two miles to the enemy-occupied village of Terelle, which cleaved to the side of Monte Cairo. Fifth Brigade's foremost posts, mostly in rock sangars very close to the enemy, were about midway between the top hairpin bend and Terelle: 21 Battalion was astride the road and holding a salient on the reverse slope of Colle Abate, 23 Battalion farther north on Colle Belvedere and facing part of Colle Abate still held by the enemy, most of 28 (Maori) Battalion near the top hairpin bend, and a company of Maoris, 32 Anti-Tank Battery and a squadron of the RAF Regiment (these last two in an infantry role) about half-way down the zigzagging road. It was necessary to hold the flank of the road because there was a gap between the New Zealand sector and the Polish 5 Kresowa Division farther south, in which the terrain precluded the establishment of a permanent junction post. This gap had to be watched constantly—by standing patrols at night—to prevent enemy infiltration across the lines of supply to the New Zealand and Polish sectors.
A company and a half of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion supported the infantry in the Belvedere-Terelle sector, but for most of the Vickers guns the range was absurdly low. A German band could be seen and heard playing in Terelle, and the enemy also could be seen stripped to the waist and sunbathing, but it was inadvisable for the infantry or machine-gunners to do any shooting in daylight because so much of their position was overlooked from the north, west and south.
Also in 5 Brigade's sector were seven Sherman tanks, whose crews from 12 Canadian Armoured Regiment had been replaced by men from 18 NZ Armoured Regiment when its A Squadron relieved the Canadian armour in 11 Canadian Infantry Brigade's sector. A few days later A Squadron in turn was relieved by B Squadron of 19 Armoured Regiment. The changeover at Belvedere page 16 introduced petrol-engined Shermans to the New Zealanders, who were accustomed to the diesel-engined type. The tanks, badly in need of an overhaul, were parked in a bend in the roadway, where there was nothing to see or shoot at without going farther forward. Once or twice a tank did go up to a position from which it could fire into a cave or tunnel on which the artillery, owing to the angle of its entrance, could make no impression.
The artillery was deployed well back, among the tangle of hills and narrow valleys on the other side of the Rapido valley, where the guns might be concealed from enemy observation behind ridges, or dug in and camouflaged in sites—sometimes on the very edge of a road—which gave them sufficient crest clearance for defensive fire when requested by the infantry and for counter-battery and counter-mortar work. The divisional front was covered by 5 Field Regiment and a battery of the 6th in support of 2 Independent Parachute Brigade on the right, 17 Canadian Field Regiment (under New Zealand command) in support of the Canadian brigade group in the centre, and by 4 and 6 Field Regiments (less a. battery of the latter) in support of 5 Brigade on the left. The mediums and heavies of 2 Army Group Royal Artillery were available for the assistance of both 2 NZ Division and the Italian Motor Group.
Both sides fired propaganda leaflets, but while the Allied artillery had the advantage of knowing that those in German could be read by the opposing troops, the enemy had first to identify the occupants of any sector and then ensure that the shells containing the leaflets were correctly addressed, for they had prepared special messages for the Poles, Frenchmen (with separate versions for Moroccans and Algerians), Indians, South Africans, Canadians, Americans, New Zealanders, and the men from the British Isles. The New Zealanders often received leaflets in Urdu or Polish, or addressed to the depressed lower classes of England; on the rare occasions they received those intended for the ‘Kiwis’ it was obvious that the Germans would have done better to have left their shells filled with high explosive. Nor did the British leaflets appear to have much better effect, although a few men of Russian or south-east European origin came into the lines bearing ‘safe pass’ leaflets.
The Germans raided some of the forward posts in the Belvedere- Terelle sector, usually after a preparation of shell, mortar or machine-gun fire, but were driven off with grenades and small-arms fire, and if necessary with artillery and mortar concentrations. During one of several unsuccessful enemy attempts to approach 21 Battalion's posts on Colle Abate, two men were captured from a unit of 132 Grenadier Regiment of 44 Division, whose sector ex- page 17 tended at that time from Terelle to Monte Cifalco, north of Sant' Elia. According to a German report ‘all our patrols in the central and southern parts of  division's sector found the enemy in strength holding a continuous line. The positions were most difficult to approach as the enemy was very alert and opened fire at the slightest sound.’
The bringing up of supplies and the relief of posts in the dark ‘bulked very largely in the men's minds at that time, much more than anything they were called on to do in the way of fighting…. the most talked of and dreaded business of each day was the nightly walk down to the collecting point for supplies, or to the nearest well (all taped by Jerry) to fill water-cans.’1 After weeks of occupation by troops of different nationalities, some of whom were not particular about hygiene, the positions had become most insanitary. On the reverse slope of Colle Abate a machine-gun platoon was accommodated in sangars which ‘smelt to high heaven & it was difficult to move in darkness without setting up a hell of a clatter among the empty tins that covered the ground …. The infantry sangars were on the brow of the hill as we saw it [the ground rose again just beyond them] …. At the foot of the hill in a fairly sheltered position on our right was a group of 3″ mortars. We could almost look down the barrels because of the steepness of the slope.’2
2 A. E. Gladstone, quoted in 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, p. 406. During the reliefs and moves to listening posts at night men wrapped sacking around their boots to deaden the noise.
The tortuous roads and tracks, by which day-to-day requirements were delivered to the brigades of 2 NZ Division and troops were ferried to and from their mountain sectors, were also used by the heavily laden convoys of 2 Polish Corps dumping ammunition and stores in preparation for the offensive. All movement on each route, therefore, had to be planned in advance, and great care taken to prevent vehicles and troops being found in daylight in the places where the enemy had observation and could concentrate immediate shellfire. With a chain of provost posts linked by telephone and an efficient breakdown service to remove vehicles which blocked the way, the system of traffic control worked remarkably smoothly.
The New Zealand Division and the Poles both used the narrow, two-way road from the Volturno valley (near Venafro) to Acquafondata, which was as far as it was safe to go in daylight. From Acquafondata, in the basin of an old volcanic crater 2700 ft above sea level, two routes, one north and the other south of a ridge, descended westwards to meet again at Hove Dump, near Sant' Elia Fiumerapido. North Road was the New Zealand Division's axis and Inferno Track (the southern route) was the Poles', but in fact they shared both routes.
Inferno Track shortened the distance from Acquafondata to Hove Dump by six miles and was much less exposed to the enemy's view than North Road, but was shelled when daytime traffic raised dust, and was so very narrow and steep, with grades of up to one in four or five, that it was suitable only for one-way traffic and vehicles with four-wheeled drive. A system of control posts, which regulated movement to a bypass area, permitted groups of vehicles to proceed in stages up and down Inferno Track day and night, but it was such a slow and difficult route that some of the Polish transport had to be diverted to North Road each night.
Although located among the artillery gunlines, Hove Dump was considered a safe and convenient harbour for supplies. The ammunition, petrol, rations, and even hay for the mules, were stacked in a clay-walled gully—a dry riverbed said to be an old course of the Rapido—and according to the artillerymen these walls gave immunity from enemy shellfire. Nevertheless, early in May, the Germans managed to land a few shells at the gully's narrow lower entrance, and set fire to a dump of pyrotechnics placed there by the Poles. This was a portent of the calamity which the Army Service Corps had been assured could not happen.
German artillery activity increased noticeably on 6 May. Heavy calibre guns began to search out gun and mortar positions and laid several heavy concentrations round some of the headquarters positions and on supply roads and tracks. On the 7th, a fine day, shells began to drop into Hove Dump. Eye-witnesses report that ‘a shellburst engulfed a jeep and a huge column of black smoke— probably from a load of petrol—spiralled up into the clear sky, a fine marker for enemy gunners. There was sudden, feverish activity. Drivers jumped to their jeeps and self-starters whirred. Trucks and jeeps, some blackened by fire, streamed out of the gully to safety.’1 Obviously attracted by the smoke, the enemy guns poured shells into the dump, which soon became a blazing inferno, in which whole stores of petrol and ammunition exploded. ‘Viewed from afar by awed onlookers, Hove appeared as a deep gash in the earth from which billowed smoke and flame and with them shuddering explosions. Even stacks of super-heated bully beef were bursting like small-arms fire.’page 20
Hove Dump was finished.1 Stocks of ammunition, petrol, rations, fodder, and many vehicles had been destroyed. The casualties, as far as could be assessed, were about 50, including one New Zealander killed and 26 wounded. Thereafter Acquafondata became the most forward New Zealand dump from which the nightly jeep trains distributed supplies.
During the five months it had been in action in Italy 2 NZ Division had suffered over 3200 casualties, nearly half of them (1596, including 343 dead) at Cassino between 1 February and 10 April 1944. All its units needed time for training and the absorption of reinforcements who had been arriving in large numbers since the end of the battle at Cassino. A complication was the surplus of senior NCOs, who included those returning from furlough in New Zealand, experienced in desert warfare but strangers to conditions in Italy, and ex-officers who had voluntarily relinquished their Territorial commissions in New Zealand to come overseas, with less combat experience than those who had served in either North Africa or Italy. By this time, also, the 4th Reinforcements, who had been with the Division since 1941, were due for furlough.
The recent reinforcements were sent into the line soon after their arrival. They could get little exercise and no training while confined in cramped shelters in the daytime and standing-to watching for enemy patrols at night; the men who went out on patrol usually were chosen from among the old hands. General Freyberg felt that his infantry had not had sufficient training in mountain warfare and he had no inclination to commit them in a frontal assault in such difficult country. It was preferable, therefore, that the Division should not be part of the striking force and that the main assault by Eighth and Fifth Armies be made elsewhere. The Division's immediate role was merely to make a series of simulated attacks to contain the enemy on its front, and to provide artillery and mortar support for the Poles, if required, in their attempt to outflank Montecassino from the north. Later, depending on how the battle developed, the Division could expect an exploitation role.
1 According to German records, observers had seen the constant movement of traffic into and out of ‘the gully north of Portella’. Presumably because the guns to the north and north-west could not clear the crests, 1 Parachute Division's artillery in the Cassino area was laid on this target on 6 May. A German report next day says that after movement in the gully was shelled ‘20 explosions were seen, followed by fires which lasted for a long time. Petrol and ammunition had obviously been hit….’ This shelling was continued on 8 and 9 May, when more fires and explosions were reported.