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Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste

IV: The Capture of Cassino

page 31

IV: The Capture of Cassino


For Eighth Army's final assault on Cassino General Leese decided to commit his army reserve (the Canadian Corps) and continue the battle on a three-corps front. To isolate the town and monastery the Polish Corps and 13 Corps were to strike simultaneously on the morning of 17 May, the Poles south-eastwards over the Monte CairoMontecassino spur where they had made their previous attempt, and the British north-westwards in the Liri valley to cut Route 6 and link with the Poles. Meanwhile the Canadians were to enter the valley, take over from 8 Indian Division, and continue the westward advance on the left of 13 Corps.

The plan for the second Polish attack on Montecassino was much the same as for the first, but the conditions were more favourable: not only had the enemy lost heavily in the first attack (as had the Poles themselves) but 1 Parachute Division had been compelled to weaken itself further by sending reinforcements to the Liri valley in the vain hope of sealing off the Allied penetrations of the Gustav Line; in addition, the only way of escape from Cassino, along Route 6, was in danger of being blocked.

This time 5 Kresowa Division, attacking in waves of battalion strength, was to capture in turn the northern part of Phantom Ridge, Colle Sant' Angelo and Point 575 (farther south, overlooking Route 6), and was then to continue the advance downhill and across the highway to meet 78 Division of 13 Corps. Kresowa Division had an unexpected success on the night before the opening of the planned attack. A company, while reconnoitring in force (with supporting fire from 4 and 6 NZ Field Regiments), captured some enemy positions on the northern end of Phantom Ridge, and the remainder of the battalion quickly went forward to exploit this success. The Germans counter-attacked, but were repulsed.

The 17th of May was a day of bitter fighting, much of it hand-to-hand against an enemy who defended his rocky strongholds to the last. In the morning, when the artillery (with the New Zealand guns again participating) fired its programme in support of the attack, a second battalion of Kresowa Division passed through the one already on Phantom Ridge and took Colle Sant' Angelo, except for some pillboxes on the western side, but came under fire from Passo Corno and Villa Santa Lucia, to the north-west. The Germans counter-attacked from some vineyards under the south-western slopes and were twice repelled; but the Poles were running out of ammunition, and in their third attempt the Germans captured the southern peak of Colle Sant' Angelo. page 32 Although a third Polish battalion came forward to help restore the losses on Colle Sant' Angelo, the day's fighting had cost Kresowa Division so many lives that it could go no farther.

The primary objectives of 3 Carpathian Division, which attacked at the same time as Kresowa Division, were two key positions of the German defences, Albaneta Farm and Point 593 (a few hundred yards to the east). A battalion, accompanied by engineers, advanced to the gorge north of Albaneta Farm to clear it of the enemy and his mines, but as this task took longer than anticipated, Albaneta Farm was brought under neutralising fire while a second battalion was committed to an attack on Point 593, which it captured despite a German counter-attack. This battalion then attempted to reach Point 569, just to the south of 593, but was obstructed by the ruins of an old fort and came under mortar fire from the monastery, about half a mile away, and machine-gun fire from Point 575. Although a third battalion joined in the attack, the Poles were unable to take Point 569, and were halted within 200 yards of Albaneta Farm by fire from steel pillboxes.

The Carpathian Division took up defensive positions for the night, with orders to prevent a German withdrawal along the ridge from Montecassino to Albaneta Farm, and next morning (18 May) finally cleared the enemy from Albaneta Farm and Point 569. A patrol of 12 Podolski Lancers met no resistance from the 30 men, many of them wounded, who still remained in the monastery, where the Polish standard was hoisted over the ruins at 10.20 a.m.


The decision to launch the Polish Corps attack on 17 May had been taken the previous evening, when 13 Corps had made sufficient progress in the Liri valley: 78 Division had pushed north-westwards through the last defences of the Gustav Line, while 4 Division had straightened out its line south of Montecassino.

B and C Squadrons of 19 NZ Armoured Regiment co-operated with the infantry of 4 Division on the 16th in an attack across the Pignataro road to reduce a small salient which divided 10 and 12 Brigades. The advance began at 6.30 p.m. B Squadron and the Royal West Kents, on the left, had gone some way towards their objective (a point about 1000 yards south of Route 6) when they met the enemy approaching as if to counter-attack (or perhaps to reoccupy positions vacated earlier), and after some very confused fighting in the failing light—complicated by the infantry's inexperience in the use of the No. 38 wireless-telephony link to keep in touch with the tanks—halted on the ground they had gained. In this engagement the Englishmen had earned the New Zealanders' page 33 admiration for their ‘sheer guts and unhesitating obedience to orders’.1 The Germans also had fought with great determination. Their ofenrohr crews had lain concealed in the long grass until the tanks were nearly on top of them. B Squadron had two tanks knocked out, two officers killed, and seven men wounded. Next morning 150 enemy dead, all claimed as the victims of tank fire, were counted in the squadron's sector.

On the right C Squadron gained the line of the Pignataro road about half a mile from its junction with Route 6, but had outdistanced the infantry (the Bedfordshires and Hertfordshires), who had halted in the darkness. A strongpoint in a house was disposed of by tank fire, but a storm of mortar and machine-gun fire caused many casualties. A line was stabilised with the tanks in close support of the infantry.

When the Polish Corps and 13 Corps launched their concerted attack on 17 May, 78 Division, continuing its wheeling movement to the north-west, at first met sharp resistance, but this began to weaken as the attack progressed. The village of Piumarola, about two miles beyond the Pignataro road, was finally captured in the evening after a stiff fight with the garrison of German paratroops.

Meanwhile, on the inner flank, 4 Division conformed with this wheeling movement. In the morning its infantry, supported by tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment, advanced against negligible opposition to reach Route 6 south of Montecassino. B Squadron, having already had several days' hard fighting, was replaced by a troop of A Squadron, which accompanied the Royal West Kents beyond the objective of the previous night and gained the highway at the foot of the mountainside below the monastery. A troop of C Squadron crossed Route 6 farther to the east and shot up positions near the junction of the road to Pignataro, which allowed the Bedfordshires and Hertfordshires also to reach the highway. A troop of A Squadron covered 2 Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry in an advance which, against light machine-gun fire, reached a point near the railway south of the town. These gains brought 19 Armoured Regiment into the area of the original New Zealand objective for which the regiment had battled unsuccessfully in March.

By this time the escape route from Cassino and the monastery was restricted to the mountainside and, farther west, to the narrow strip of valley between the mountains and the railway running parallel with Route 6. In anticipation of a German attempt to break out that way during the night, Route 6 was patrolled and page 34 the artillery put down harassing fire, but most of the enemy already had slipped away; only 70 prisoners were taken, many of them medical orderlies. It had been necessary for Kesselring personally to order General Richard Heidrich's 1 Parachute Division to retire, ‘an example,’ he says, ‘of the drawback of having strong personalities as subordinate commanders.’1

On the morning of the 18th 10 Brigade approached Cassino with two battalions supported by tanks from A and C Squadrons, and without meeting any resistance—although a few Germans gave themselves up as prisoners—secured the Baron's Palace, the Colosseum and the Amphitheatre. The 4th Division then made contact with 1 Guards Brigade in the town and with the Poles. Mines and booby traps were thick on the ground and in the rubble, and great care had to be taken when investigating buildings. The tank crews were warned not to forage among the ruins, and especially not to touch the knocked-out New Zealand tanks still in the town. Having completed its task in the Liri valley, 19 Regiment was released by 4 Division.

Shortly after midday 3 Carpathian Division despatched a patrol down the slopes of Montecassino and made contact with 78 Division on Route 6 below Albaneta Farm. Nevertheless parties of Germans covering the withdrawal from Cassino, and some who had not received orders to withdraw, continued to resist throughout the day, and isolated pillboxes had to be destroyed individually. On 5 Kresowa Division's front repeated attempts to dislodge the enemy were thwarted by the fire from strongpoints on the southern slopes of Colle Sant' Angelo and from Point 575. By evening General Anders decided that, rather than incur further casualties,2 it would be better to pin down and exhaust the enemy. A counter-attack from Villa Santa Lucia, farther west, was repulsed, and early next day (the 19th) this place was reported clear; but Passo Corno, at a height of about 3000 feet on the side of Monte Cairo, remained in German hands.


While 13 Corps and the Polish Corps were fighting the battle to isolate Cassino, the Canadian Corps, entering the Liri valley on the left of the 13th, struck towards the Hitler Line through country dotted with strongpoints and furrowed by many small streams. The 1st Canadian Infantry Division, after taking over from 8 Indian Division near Pignataro, fought its way to the Forme d'Aquino, a

1 The Memoirs of Field Marshal Kesselring, p. 202.

2 The Poles' casualties were approximately 4000, including 1000 dead.

page 35 stream which straggles across the valley through marsh and gully to join the Liri River near San Giorgio. This natural obstacle allowed the enemy to disengage his forces in front of the Canadians on the night of 17–18 May—while farther north he reluctantly retired from Cassino through the gap between 13 Corps and the Poles.

Although the enemy had lost Montecassino, his northern flank was still secured by his retention of positions on the slopes of Monte Cairo, including the small town of Piedimonte San Germano, perched on a spur overlooking Route 6. On his southern flank, however, his misappreciation of General Alexander's plan and of the Allies' ability to cross the Aurunci Mountains had resulted in his failure to halt Fifth Army's drive. The French had taken Esperia by 17 May and were less than four miles from Pontecorvo the following afternoon. Alexander now ordered Eighth Army ‘to use the utmost energy to break through the “Adolf Hitler” line in the Liri valley before the Germans had time to settle down in it’.1 He also directed the Poles to press on to Piedimonte to turn the line from the north, and the French, after reaching Pico (west of Pontecorvo), to encircle the southern flank.

Eighth Army almost broke through the Hitler Line before the enemy ‘had time to settle down in it’. Early in the evening of 18 May the Derbyshire Yeomanry Group from 78 Division, advancing rapidly south of the railway, reached the Aquino airfield, on the edge of the main defences of the line. A few tanks entered the village of Aquino, but were without infantry support so withdrew. An assault was made on Aquino at daybreak on the 19th, but when the sun suddenly dispersed the heavy morning mist, the tanks of 11 Canadian Armoured Regiment, supporting a battalion of 36 British Infantry Brigade, found themselves in the open, some of them within point-blank range of German anti-tank guns. Shell and mortar fire compelled the infantry to retire, but the tanks, protected to some extent by a smokescreen, held their ground throughout the day. When the regiment finally withdrew at dusk, it had lost 13 Sherman tanks, and every tank of its two leading squadrons had received at least one direct hit by high-explosive shells.

On the same day 3 Canadian Infantry Brigade, supported by a battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment, tried to penetrate the defences farther south, between Aquino and Pontecorvo, but after emerging into the open from thick patches of stunted oak trees, the infantry were halted by machine-gun and mortar fire, and the tanks by anti-tank gunfire. By this time it was obvious that a major

1 The Allied Armies in Italy, p. 2925.

page 36 assault would be necessary to break the Hitler Line in the Liri valley.