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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Assault on the Cassino Defences

Assault on the Cassino Defences

After many delays through the unfavourable weather and the flooded, impassable ground, midday on 15 March was fixed for the attack on the town and monastery of Cassino. In the early hours of the morning the infantry were withdrawn to points a safe distance from the town in preparation for the air bombardment that was to precede the attack.

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Evacuation from 6 ADS was by road for a short distance, and then by ambulance track to Route 6. As a result of a warning that tanks might have to use the track in the advance to Cassino, thus blocking the evacuation route, two surgical teams, the HQ team and 8 British Field Surgical Unit, were attached to the ADS. As things turned out, they were not needed, the track remaining open throughout the whole operation. The orderlies going off duty at 6 a.m. crossed the road and gazed down the slope at the town. Spreading to the foot of the hills and up the lower slopes, it looked so peaceful in the still air of the early morning that they found it difficult to believe that in a matter of some two hours it would be in the process of being blown to rubble.

The first wave of bombers appeared at half past eight. A Company was out, as were all the troops in the area, watching with interest the approach of the aircraft. The interest changed to slight apprehension when a load of bombs was dropped to the rear, exploding in huge clouds on the hillsides, while the planes still came on. Their apprehension, however, was nothing compared with that of the HQ surgical team. Moving up to the ADS, they were halted by the bombs bursting across their path.

The heavy, throbbing roar of aircraft engines added to the pandemonium as wave after wave of bombers came up from the south and wheeled over, while the town was going up, rent and shattered, in great masses of rubble and sheets of flame that seemed from the ADS to dwarf even the hill of Monte Cassino. Dirty yellow, opaque smoke overspread and blotted out the countryside as more and more loads of bombs whistled shrilly down to burst with long, sickening, rolling crashes. In the midst of it all a number of Indian Red Cross vehicles halted outside the ADS area. The British officer in charge peered uneasily into the pea-soup air. ‘I've a field ambulance somewhere down there,’ he said, and he drove on. His Indian drivers impassively followed, and the little convoy vanished into the smoke and dust.

The bombing of the town ceased and the artillery barrage began at noon, though fighter-bombers still wheeled over in lines to peel off and batter the monastery throughout the afternoon. Half an hour later the infantry and tanks advanced to the attack. Held up by the heaps of masonry and huge bomb craters, the tanks were unable to penetrate far; but the infantry carried on and the Castle page 349 Hill feature, a rock surmounted by ruins immediately above the town, fell to troops of 25 Battalion. The enemy, who had withdrawn after the first wave of bombers and returned when the artillery barrage began, showed bitter resistance in the town itself and hampered the New Zealanders by sniping.

The casualties began to arrive. By nightfall 37 had been treated at 6 ADS and evacuated, and another 20 were held in the evacuation tarpaulin until first light. There was some shelling round about during the night, and several of the walking wounded, their nerves on edge, had to be transferred to the basement of the house.

Throughout the night could be heard the sound of the enemy mortars and machine guns down among the houses of Cassino. In the darkness the craters and heaps of smashed masonry made progress slow, until finally the infantry were pinned down. The ADS was kept steadily going through the night. Some of the wounded died in the station and some were carried in dead. The morning of the 16th was a typical morning after a battle. There was an indefinable hush, in spite of the fact that the Germans were shelling, if anything, more heavily than usual. During the day 57 patients were admitted.

About 5 p.m. the company was under fire. A number of tanks parked in the next field began to move about, emitting puffs of smoke that obviously were visible to the Germans in the observation post on Monte Cairo. Also, they were testing their wireless equipment, in spite of the warning of a military policeman posted on the corner below the ADS. The Germans opened fire, evidently using very heavy guns sited well back, for the first shell seemed an age in coming. The roar of its approach was like that of an express train in a tunnel. It landed on the corner, practically annihilating a tank crew. Strangely enough, the military policeman conversing with the crew was not only unhurt but felt nothing. He simply became aware of men falling dead around him.

The members of A Company were just emerging from the shelter of trenches and rising from the ground, when the air began to throb again and the roar of the approaching shell grew in their ears. They rushed back to shelter. A driver, who was standing alone in front of the house across the road, made a dash over to the ADS. No sooner had he reached it than the shell landed, sending up a page 350 fountain of earth and leaving where the driver had been standing a hole in which a three-ton truck could have been buried. Another roar was already filling the air, and two more shells burst along the road. Debris showered everywhere. The trunk of an olive tree descended end over end into the area, and a large fragment of stone crashed through the new canopy of the evacuation truck.

Still the battle went on amongst the smoke and houses below, with the infantry attempting to clear the town in spite of the hidden snipers and machine-gunners. With the support of tanks, the 26 Battalion attacked and occupied the railway station. The enemy shelled and mortared the town, and the Allied artillery responded with heavy concentrations that appeared to be gradually putting the enemy guns out of action. At the ADS, ambulance cars moved out and down the road to the town as they were needed. In view of the exposed nature of the RAP positions, the ambulances remained at the dressing station until ordered by telephone. Normally they reached the battalions unmolested; but often the roads were under heavy fire, and the drivers and orderlies were compelled, time and again, to leave the vehicles and dive into the nearest ditch.

By the 17th operations were confined to a triangular area south of Route 6, and 6 ADS was well off the most direct line of evacuation. The company moved to a new area on the morning of the 18th. It was planned to get the ADS established and the Red Crosses up before dawn; but there was unavoidable delay while the evacuation section cleared casualties and dismantled the shelter, and the company arrived in broad daylight. The trees round about were chopped and mutilated and the ground pitted. Behind a row of trees that lined the area to the rear, a gun was firing. To the front Monte Cassino loomed up through the mist, and occasionally strange rockets that seemed to explode and scatter in mid-air shot out from the heights of the crag. Tarpaulins were re-erected and gear unpacked and arranged, and at 6 a.m. the dressing station was once again open.

For the attack, A Company (Capt R. A. Wilson2) relieved B Company, 5 Field Ambulance, in the ADS in the battered farmhouse page 351 on Route 6. The men bedded down on the upper floor. The lower rooms were equipped for treatment, resuscitation, and blood transfusions. A tarpaulin was tied over a ramshackle lean-to, forming a shelter for cases awaiting evacuation. Casualties came back steadily from the RAP in Cassino itself, as well as others caught by shells on Route 6.

During the attack on 15 March there was heavy shelling in 5 ADS area, and in the next few days the ADS itself was frequently plastered. Three of the staff were wounded, one fatally. On the 22nd it was decided that men not actually on duty at the ADS should move back for sleep and rest at 5 MDS at Mignano.

2 Maj R. A. Wilson, MC; born Christchurch, 2 Feb 1909; Medical Practitioner, London; RAMC 1940; RMO 23 Bn Jun 1941-Oct 1942; Medical Officer 3 Gen Hosp Dec 1942-Jan 1944; 5 Fd Amb Jan-Sep 1944; Repatriation Unit (UK) May 1945-Mar 1946.