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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery


page 550

THE same political conceptions or misconceptions which prompted the fruitless and expensive efforts to push past Orsogna and Ortona in the depth of an Italian winter were behind the switch of effort to the Fifth Army front. Here, too, the ground, the mud and the weather favoured the enemy. What sensible military opinion on the Adriatic front called a stalemate, political opinion called ‘stagnation’ and described it as ‘scandalous’.1 This cruel description was applied equally to the Fifth Army fighting, which had been severe, costly and parsimoniously rewarded in terms of ground gained. Each successive yard was now costing more in effort and blood. Overwhelming political pressure, moreover, added a new hostage to fortune on this front and compelled an even greater increase of effort than the most sanguine military opinion would support. When the newly-arrived NZA units were holding church parades near Alife on 23 January they heard of a landing at Anzio by an American division and a British brigade. This was 60 miles beyond the left flank of Fifth Army on the Gulf of Gaeta, inevitably it attracted counter-attacks, and each of the many crises it faced caused demands for increased Fifth Army pressure to draw German strength away from the threatened beach-head. This was the situation when more troops, the New Zealanders among them, already sorely tested in the mountains and mud of the Eighth Army front and with little or no time for rest and recuperation, were committed to the cauldron of Cassino.2

In the Volturno valley the days passed all too quickly. The first few of them were taken up in cleaning vehicles, equipment and uniforms for a Divisional Artillery parade and march-past on 26 January at which General Freyberg presented some of the decorations awarded since the Alamein fighting. It was a smart turn-out and earned congratulations; but it was chiefly remembered by the gunners for an incident relating to the flag which was bundled on the pole ready to be unfurled when the GOC page 551 arrived. When Freyberg appeared the band struck up the General Salute, the troops presented arms, but the flag, instead of unfurling, fell in a bundle to the foot of the pole. Steve Weir, who had previously addressed the gunners over a loudspeaker system which was still switched on, growled ‘God Almighty’. His words thundered across the parade ground and a ripple of amusement ran through the assembled gunners.3

Two other glowing memories of the Alife4 days were of leave to Pompeii and of the American army shower baths at Piedmonte d'Alife, the old and the new and both in their way luxurious. ‘These are super showers’, the 46 Battery diary for 29 January says of the latter, ‘everything being organised to perfection.’ After the visit to the baths, the diary adds, there was the ‘Usual plonk session in B Tp’. Though the nights were cold, with heavy frosts, the weather at Alife was milder than in the foothills of the Maiella and the area was agreeable—a huge valley in which the units camped among croplands and orchards, with here and there a level stretch of ground on which football posts appeared as if by magic. The training carried out there was as mild as the weather, though there were mutterings about spit-and-polish.

Headquarters staff and senior regimental officers, however, had other and more serious matters on their minds. Another New Zealand Corps was being formed and officially came into existence on 3 February. Divisional Headquarters served also as Corps Headquarters, with Colonel Queree as BGS and Lieutenent-Colonel Thornton as GSO I.5 Besides 2 New Zealand Division it included 4 Indian Division with its normal artillery, 2 AGRA, three field regiments (one of them equipped with self-propelled guns and therefore earmarked to support 4 Armoured Brigade), five medium regiments, a light ack-ack battery, and in due course five American field artillery battalions, as well as American ack-ack artillery of various kinds. Of this great weight of artillery, three field regiments were to come directly page 552 page 553 under the CRA's command and the SP regiment, the 98th Field, came under 4 Armoured Brigade.

black and white map of brigade position

5 brigade positions, 8 february 1944

The need for such a mass of guns was painfully clear when the CRA and his regimental, battery and troop officers reconnoitred gun positions and OPs at the end of January and the first few days of February. They had to emplace their guns in a muddy river flat facing mainly north-westwards across the River Rapido towards the 5500-foot Monte Cairo. The abbey of Montecassino, on a spur running down from the mountain towards them, a colossus astride a 1700-foot height, seemed at a distance of four miles or so from the gun areas to be so close that they could reach out and touch it. Despite its long and august connection with the Benedictine Order and the treasury of art and archives it sheltered, it was hard not to think of it as a gigantic and evil barracks with Germans at every window. Putting guns in below it was like undressing in Piccadilly Circus or Times Square—ludicrously open to a public and hostile gaze, an improper act certain to bring down on those who perpetrated it a dire punishment. It was a feeling that did not diminish with the passage of time.

The only consolation, when the field guns went into action on 5 February south-east of Monte Trocchio, with 41 Battery guarding the gun areas, was that there were many partners in sin. The neighbourhood bristled with guns and the 25-pounders seemed puny alongside the 8-inch and 155-millimetre American howitzers already in position. It was a clear day after rain which made the mountains seem dangerously close, and all but 29 Battery and A Troop of 41 Battery were in position before dark. The guns were south of the main road to Cassino, Route 6, between M. Trocchio and the smaller M. Porchia, with the 4th Field astride the RomeNaples railway. The 26 Battery gun crews struggled with drag ropes for four hours to get their guns into the muddy position and they were extremely lucky that the enemy did not shell the regimental area. The 5th Field area was crowded with vehicles as the guns deployed and two 105-millimetre gun-howitzers shelled it all afternoon, wounding a sergeant of RHQ and a gunner of 47 Battery. The 6th Field attracted even more attention, a reconnaissance party suffering one killed—Gunner Grant6 —and four wounded. In the evening all access roads were shelled quite heavily and 29 Battery was lucky to get through unharmed.

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The journey forward took the gunners through a land more obviously affected by war than any they had previously seen. Indeed it was reminiscent of photographs of the Western Front in the First World War. Leafless and mangled trees were everywhere, farmhouses lay in ruins, shell holes (some of them of monstrous size) scarred the land like an ugly rash, filled with water and edged with mud, and as the incessant gun fire grew louder there were many refugees to be seen—‘Some pitiful sights—old women and children with no shoes’, the Survey Battery diarist noted. The first guns to be seen—those farthest from the front—were huge American 240-millimetre ‘widow-makers’.

Major Drummond of the Survey Battery had left the Adriatic sector as early as 14 January with an advanced party, and on the 16th he consulted the artillery GSO III of the Fifth Army at Caserta. From there he went on to Mignano, on the main road and railway 15 miles from Cassino, to learn what he could from 2 American Observation Battalion. He camped there with his party for the night, near a regiment of 8-inch guns which, as he noted, ‘made a lot of noise’. On the 17th the party had a look at American flash-spotting and sound-ranging bases. The flash-spotting equipment was better than their own, but the sound-ranging recorder was of an older type. On lofty Monte Camino they studied what the 8th Survey, RA, were doing.

After careful study of the New Zealand front, the flash-spotting troop established three posts, one on the crest of Trocchio, one to the north-east and a third to the south. The sound-ranging troop had more condenser trouble and did not open for business until 9 February. The survey troop had so many units to survey in that there seemed no end to its work. The meteoro-logical section began on the 6th what became a routine of supplying six meteor telegrams per day, at first to the New Zealand units only, later to other artillery in the neighbourhood. The weather conditions, however, made the work extremely difficult. Apart from rain and low cloud there were very high winds from many different quarters and some curious and erratic air flows near the mountains.

The OPs of the field regiments were almost all on or near Trocchio. There was hardly anywhere else to go. That of 26 Battery had been constructed for the commander of 2 United States Corps. Gun positions were good or bad according to two criteria: whether they were on sloping ground or flat and whether there were casas (houses) that could be used for com- page 555 mand posts and living quarters. Sloping ground was highly valued for drainage. The casas varied greatly in the protection they gave from the weather and shellfire. The protection Trocchio gave to the guns was dubious. They clustered tightly behind that feature, but all the positions were overlooked from the mountains to the right front and some of them were clearly visible from Montecassino. The gun crews of 26 Battery thought they were out of sight of that baleful spur; but they were quite mistaken, as they learned when some of them looked back later from the monastery ruins.

The field regiments were forbidden to carry out predicted shoots in the night 5–6 February for fear of warning the enemy, through their distinctive methods, of the New Zealanders' presence. But at 10.30 a.m. on the 6th the CRA gave permission for FOOs to register their zones and engage likely targets. This they duly did. In the 5th Field it was 28 Battery that opened fire first, at 12.33 p.m., against a group of buildings that looked like a headquarters. All afternoon the 105s replied, wounding an officer and a gunner of 47 Battery. In the night 6–7 February the field guns fired a harassing programme to the west-south-west of the gun areas, mainly at road junctions on a road leading from Cassino to the Liri and then westwards, and also at points on the northern bank of the Liri itself. All three regiments fired until 9 p.m. and the 4th Field carried on all night. But only one of the tasks was a stonk.

At that time 5 Brigade was holding the front between the gun areas and Cassino itself and this harassing fire therefore did not support the New Zealand infantry. But it was on an area that was thick with nebelwerfers. Next night 21 Battalion called for DF fire and it fell on the Rapido crossing used by German patrols. The three regiments took turns at all-night duty on HF tasks. On the 8th several ‘murders’ were fired on the CRA's orders at nebelwerfers; but by this time the enemy was well aware that he was facing New Zealanders.7

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The 2nd US Corps was all the time attacking in an effort to capture the vital Montecassino, an absolute pre-requisite for an advance up the Liri Valley, and NZ Corps was poised to exploit success by staging that advance. The New Zealand gunners did what they could to help the Americans. Early on the 8th the 4th Field fired a two-hour CB bombardment.8 Then on the 11th all three field regiments fired to neutralise hostile batteries while the Americans attacked. (The American artillery, of course, was also active and this day it shelled Montecassino heavily and spectacularly.) But two months of very hard fighting and heavy loss had weakened the two American divisions greatly, whereas the enemy in his enormously strong positions, though shaken and weakened, was far from beaten. At the same time the Anzio beach-head was under heavy pressure and the call for countervailing pressure on the Cassino front was irresistible. On the 12th the Germans overran much-weakened American units on Monte Castellone, halfway between Cassino and the top of Monte Cairo, but were driven back by a tornado of shellfire. When the Indian division climbed laboriously to the scene and then began working its way down the mountainside towards the abbey, the guns could do little to help. Friend and foe were too close and the front meandered in the hills as the Rapido and its southern extension, the Gari, did below them.

Artillery Headquarters worked out details of its part of a dual attack by the Indians and New Zealanders, the former downwards to Montecassino abbey, the latter to establish a bridgehead across the Rapido in front of Cassino, the town that nestled into the eastern side of the Montecassino spur. To aid both, the abbey itself was to be bombed and its immensely thick walls shattered. To co-ordinate these operations was a formidable task.

Meanwhile on the 13th the 5th Field fired a concentration on Monastery Hill (to give Montecassino its current nickname) and a heavy explosion followed.9 Next morning from 8 to 11 an armistice was observed in the ‘Monastery Hill sector’ to allow the enemy to collect his dead. This was arranged through the Americans, but the New Zealand guns doubtless had some- page 557 thing to do with the need for it. On the 14th and early 15th F Troop of the 4th Field and perhaps other New Zealand guns as well fired leaflets into the abbey and its environs warning of the impending bombing, but the warning was ignored by civilians too frightened or sceptical to act on it.

Every known hostile ack-ack gun was the target of a CB series on the 15th, the day of the bombing, and the mediums and heavies fired into the abbey itself. To the gunners watching from the Trocchio–Porchia area the bombing was awe-inspiring. It covered the hill with smoke and dust, made the ground tremble for hours on end, and filled the air with noise. About 2 p.m. those gazing through field glasses to study the effects saw the great west wall cave in. The great blue flashes of the bombs as they struck the hillside will live on in the memories of those who saw them. All guns within reach, about 340, also fired on Montecassino and the medium and heavy guns shelled the abbey all night.

‘The results of yesterday's bombing and last night's arty battering of the Monastery were visible this morning’, the 5th Field diary says on the 16th, ‘when the building was seen to be nearly wrecked. The roof doesn't exist and the walls are levelled nearly all round.’ But the ground attacks which were to have hammered home whatever advantage the bombing and shelling gained were critically delayed. The Indians tried desperately hard to seize Hill 593, higher up the spur, which dominated the approaches from above; but only that small part of the strength of the division which could be deployed at the end of a long and difficult approach was available for its formidable tasks and it was not enough. The same day 43 Battery provided a working party to help the 76th Medium several miles behind Porchia. The area was heavily shelled and nine of the party, including the officer in charge, were wounded. Next day one of these, Gunner Humphries,10 died of his wounds.

1 Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. V, Closing the Ring, p. 380.

2 The reinforcing of failure is always unpromising. To do it with troops who had failed in a similar enterprise on another front and had scarcely been refreshed was asking for trouble. The military authorities well knew this; but their hands were forced.

3 Another version of this incident, in the 5th Field war diary, is that the CRA's comment was on the clumsiness of Freyberg's driver in striking a large pothole on the way to the saluting base, and the diarist comments that ‘it goes well for the discipline of the NZA that no one laughed’.

4 There were several Alifes and the NZA were camped between Alife proper and S. Angelo d'Alife. To the north-east were Castello d'Alife and Piedmonte d'Alife.

5 Senior New Zealand staff officers then and at many other times were predominantly gunners.

Brigadier Weir's position was awkward. He was responsible for the command of the whole NZ Corps artillery, but he shared the detailed command of it with the commander of 2 AGRA.

6 Gnr C. A. Grant; born Wellington, 2 Nov 1919; painter; killed in action 5 Feb 1944.

7 The nebelwerfer crews would fire, then move their weapon under cover before the CB fire came down. When the New Zealand units grasped this they kept a gun laid full-time on each of the most troublesome positions and were thus able to hit the crew before they got under cover. Then the Germans took to firing from a different position each time. It was a battle of wits.

The flat ground to the west, at the entrance to the Liri Valley, was the chief source of mortar and nebelwerfer fire and Captain K. J. White won an MC for establishing an OP under heavy fire on this flank—having done much the same thing in the Arielli area on 23 December 1943, when he spent three days in front of the infantry.

8 A2 of 41 Light Ack-Ack Battery was heavily shelled this day and Lance-Bombardier E. R. Wilson was fatally wounded.

9 This day 41 Battery fired briefly at two FW 190s. The American heavy and light ack-ack fired profusely, but it looked more like an area barrage than aimed fire. A6 was later shelled and a gunner wounded.

Many miles farther from the front, 43 Battery suffered the loss of Gunner W. L. Alder killed and another gunner wounded when an S-mine exploded.

10 Gnr H. A. Humphries; born Woodend, 28 Dec 1920; glass beveller and fitter; died of wounds 17 Feb 1944.