28 (Maori) Battalion
CHAPTER 14 — Cassino
SanSevero, a viticultural centre of some forty thousand inhabitants, held great promise as a rest area but it was a promise that did not materialise into fact. The brigade column stopped before daylight at Casalbordino for breakfast then skirted Vasto and Termoli, passed through San Severo, and halted at the staging area near Lucera. The troops ate their tea on the side of the road and digested with relish the information that the Division was on its way to the west coast.
The New Zealand Division was, in point of fact, the third of five divisions leaving the snow and mud-bound Sangro, which was actually farther north than Rome but on the other side of the Apennines, to join the Fifth Army for an offensive in easier country towards the same political prize—Rome. The Division was to go into 15 Army Group reserve with the ultimate role of exploiting a breakthrough by the American Fifth Army—the role that had been intended but not realised on the Sangro.
One hundred-odd miles through the passes that carried the road and railway from Foggia to Naples, then across the fertile plains of Campania where three crops a year are gathered, brought the Maoris to the staging area at Cancello, about 14 miles north of Naples. The war had passed that way not long since.
Before daylight they were bearing north through Caserta where previously, during the summer, the King of Italy relaxed in a royal place and gardens which imitated Versailles. Many men of the Maori and other battalions were also to relax there soon for 2 NZ General Hospital established itself in Caserta. The move ended on the banks of the Volturno River near Piedimonte d'Alife, a village secreted in a valley of the Monte Matese plateau.
The battalion, scattered over a wide area between the villages of Alife and Sant' Angelo d'Alife, about four miles apart, made itself at home under olive and oak trees, cleaned off the Sangro mud, and freshened up under showers operated by an American unit in Piedimonte d'Alife. The difference from the Adriatic conditions was very striking and very welcome—the intense cold, the biting winds, the monotonous overcast skies were replaced by a warmer climate and bright sunshine.page 350
The unit stayed there a fortnight training hard, absorbing reinforcements, and regaining its fighting edge. A hint of the shape of things to come was provided by practices in crossing rivers in assault boats. In between times conducted parties went sightseeing at Pompeii where the Maoris, with proper pride, considered the quiescent Vesuvius came a bad second to Ngauruhoe. A talk on the general situation, illustrated with maps, was given by Brigadier Kippenberger, and for the benefit of the 9th and 10th Reinforcements he also outlined the history of 28 (Maori) Battalion. It was a not undistinguished record as unfolded by the speaker under whose command it had been for most of the time.
When the Eighth Army drive to Rome via Chieti and Avezzano (a name we will hear of again) slowed and eventually bogged down in mud and snow around Orsogna, the Fifth Army had also been halted by a different barrier about 30 miles north of the New Zealand reserve area, where the Apennines bulge and, by various names, reach the coast. The Liri valley, an Italian Tebaga Gap, was the only practicable route to Rome, the seat of Government and the centre of an empire that had, for the second time, passed into history.
The Liri valley ran roughly north and south, was from four to seven miles wide and was covered by two rivers, each with several tributaries; the Rapido rushing down the valley of the same name was joined on the flat by several side streams and then flowed into the Gari. Somewhat confusingly, the Gari then joined the Liri and became the Garigliano. But as far as this history is concerned all that is necessary to remember is that the Rapido had several branches and that the Gari was similarly endowed.
Behind the 30-foot-wide Rapido whose name indicates its style was a series of defended localities, the key to which was the town of Cassino1 under the extreme eastern end of Montecassino, 1600 feet high and almost precipitous. On the top was a monastery, a superb lookout and perhaps a stronghold, and between the town and monastery a road wound up the cliff. Five miles north of Montecassino stood Monte Cairo (5400 feet) with the lesser features Castellone and Corno at its feet. Both Monte Cairo and Montecassino commanded every yard of the Rapido and Liri valleys.page 351
The night the Maoris staged at Cancello (20-21st January) the Fifth Army, with the French Expeditionary Force on the right, 2 US Corps, centre, and 10 (British) Corps, left, made a full-scale attack on the Cassino position. The Americans were to break through on a six-mile front between Cassino and the Liri River and 2 NZ Division was to exploit the breakthrough as at Alamein. The plan did not come off. Both flanking corps made some progress in country that would have puzzled a mountain goat before they were stopped, but the centre corps, unable to get supporting arms across the Rapido, was counter-attacked and thrown back.
A seaborne landing at Anzio behind the German line was quickly sealed off and the position of the Fifth Army was not one to be regarded with equanimity. The Americans continued to hammer away at the Gustav line—enemy appellation—via Monte Castellone and fought their way to within 300 yards of the monastery, where they were finally stopped by a steep valley pitted with machine-gun nests. They again crossed the Rapido and broke into the outskirts of Cassino, but strongpoints built into houses likewise stopped them there.
The picture of 2 NZ Division chasing a broken German army towards Rome faded and preparations were begun for another slugging match; the Division became the New Zealand Corps by the addition of 4 Indian Division, 78 (British) Division, sundry RA and American artillery formations, four American tank battalions and two tank-destroyer battalions.2 General Freyberg commanded the Corps, and on 9 February Brigadier Kippenberger, promoted Major-General, took command of 2 NZ Division and Brigadier Hartnell3 took over 5 Brigade.
Dear General Freyberg,
It is with a great deal of pleasure and pride that I welcome you and the officers and other ranks of the New Zealand Corps into the Fifth Army. I assure you without reservation that I have the utmost confidence in your leadership and in the battle-trained troops of the 2nd New Zealand and 4th Indian Divisions, both of which have established such enviable page 352 records in the hard fighting in the desert, in North Africa, and here in Italy.
I look forward with great anticipation to your forthcoming operations with the firm belief that they will affect in a large manner the outcome of our present campaign for the capture of Rome.
With every good wish for splendid success, I am,
(Sgd) Mark W. Clark,
The characteristics of the New Zealand soldier and how he acquired the name of Kiwi were explained to the Americans in a service journal by one of themselves:
The name that is most generally applied to the NZ Division, both individually and collectively, is ‘Kiwi’. The Kiwi is a species of bird found only in NZ and now almost extinct…. In the RNZAF certain personnel are often referred to as Kiwis, for obvious reasons; but the most usual application of the term is to NZ'ers, soldier variety, serving overseas, and it originated with the first of our countrymen to arrive in the Middle East. One version of the derivation of the name I have heard goes like this—‘Like the bird, we can't fly, we can't see, and we are rapidly becoming extinct.’
A characteristic almost universal among the Kiwis is that they experience a practically uncontrollable urge to ‘Brew-up’ at any old hour of the day or night…. When living in base camp, or in a bivouac area—in fact at any time when they are not moving or actually engaged in action—they will be found boiling up at more or less regular hours between meals—around 1000 hours, 1500 hours and again before turning in at night.
At the beginning of February and before 4 Indian Division had arrived from the Adriatic coast to join NZ Corps, it was planned to attack again with 2 US Corps to turn the position from the north. Fifth Brigade was to relieve 36 US Division for employment in this operation and tension began to mount as the orders trickled downwards. Colonel Young was in the middle of an inspection at a battalion ceremonial parade on 4 February when he was called away and the troops did an hour of squad drill and marching to the music of 5 Brigade Band in lieu of the parade. When he returned it was to confirm what had page 353 already been sensed by the troops and guessed by the company commanders; the unit packed up ready to move into the line late the following afternoon.
The 36th US Division had not got its orders regarding the changeover and there was some delay before the matter was cleared up. The Maoris were to take over from the Americans holding the line of the Rapido River from Route 6 (the main road into Cassino) south for two and a half miles to where the 21 Battalion sector began. The Americans were widely spread and it was not easy to find a suitable assembly area, but eventually Colonel Young selected a position immediately south of the 1000-foot-high Monte Trocchio, an isolated hill flanking Route 6.
The trucks edged into the traffic and followed Route 6 as far as the Mignano railway station, which touched the road about ten miles from Cassino. From there onward Route 6 was a oneway road, and traffic was passed along the railway line which had been converted into a road, then, by several connecting tracks, rejoined Route 6 for the return journey.
The railway line-cum-road skirted the south end of Trocchio, where the unit dispersed into the area selected by Colonel Young only to find that rain, which had been falling steadily, had rendered the place uninhabitable—clearly the reason why the Americans had left it alone. A and B Companies found trenches and dugouts recently vacated by the enemy further up the hillside, D Company was fitted in around Battalion Headquarters near Route 6, and C Company went forward to take over from 91 Reconnaissance Unit on the right of the New Zealand sector.
The FDLs were between 200-400 yards from the Rapido River. Willow trees, olive orchards, and houses blocked the view, whereas the enemy on the higher ground across the river overlooked the area. It could have been a very uncomfortable place, but it was part of the locality where the Americans had been thrown back and was probably not then regarded by the enemy as dangerous.
D Company relieved part of 141 US Regiment the next night (6th), linked up with 21 Battalion, and 5 Brigade was again in the line with two battalions up and 23 Battalion in support.
New Zealand Corps had taken over from 2 US Corps and, with the immediate aim of creating a small bridgehead, 5 Brigade was ordered to make a thorough reconnaissance of the Rapido and the approaches thereto. Lieutenants Tomoana and page 354 Asher,4 each with seven men, traversed different lateral roads from which other tracks went down to the river. Four possible crossing places were inspected without enemy interference and the patrols reported their findings to the CO, who consolidated them into a written report to Brigade Headquarters. The congratulations of the Brigadier on the completeness of the information were passed on to the men concerned; the reports stated that the routes followed were waterlogged in places, the approaches soft and exposed, but that assault boats could be launched. In short, the engineers would have to do a lot of work and even then, on account of the swampy ground, the routes would be extremely difficult in wet weather.
The 21st Battalion patrols did not have such a quiet time; first a German patrol invaded the area and tried to capture a company headquarters; then two patrols clashed near the river. Taken by and large, it was a very lively night.
Colonel Young thought it wise to thicken his line because of the distance between posts, and 9 Platoon (Lieutenant Christy) took over half a mile between Route 6 and C Company, which closed in to make room. It was a wise move for about 10.30 that same night Lieutenant Reedy reported that one of his outposts had fired on an enemy patrol, which left behind one man wounded. The CO was not in favour of having enemy patrols wandering around, so after dark the next night (the 9th) the outpost line was pushed right up to the river and posts established at 100-yard intervals along the whole front. A and B Companies sent men up to help man the posts, which were held during the hours of darkness only. Thereafter comparative peace reigned along the Maori sector.
Meanwhile, on 8 February, 2 US Corps tried again to clear the hills north of Cassino and occupy positions commanding the eastern end of the Liri valley. Some progress was made but the Americans, like the Kiwis on more than one occasion, were almost fought out for the time being and they failed to dislodge the stubborn Germans. It was decided to have one more try and then, if unsuccessful, to hand the job over to NZ Corps.
Maybe General Freyberg anticipated the result, for his plan envisaged the embanked railway from Mignano to Trocchio being continued as a road across the swampy country to the Cassino railway station, and 28 Battalion was ordered to make a reconnaissance of the embankment as far forward as possible.page 355
The distance from the Rapido to the Cassino station was about half a mile and the station was about the same distance south of the town. After dark that night (10th) Lieutenant Christy, accompanied by Lieutenant Faram5 (5 Field Park Company) and preceded by four men from the anti-aircraft platoon sweeping for mines, took a nine-man patrol across the Rapido by the ruined railway bridge. From there they advanced in single file on each side of the track and Faram examined the demolitions along the embankment. There was no interference until the patrol was in the marshalling yards, when grenades were thrown from a building and immediately answered by tommy-gun fire. The enemy was not inclined to disclose his position and that was the end of the matter; Lieutenant Christy was grazed by a splinter but was able to carry on. The sapper reported that there were ten demolitions between the river and the station (actually there were two more in the railway yards), almost all of would need bulldozing, culverting, or bridging for the passage of tanks.
The final American attack on the 11th failed and the assault was over to NZ Corps, the only fresh force available with adequate reserves. For the second time in Italy the exploitation division, through force of circumstances, became an assault division. Fourth Indian Division began to deploy for its part in the NZ Corps' plan: to carry on the attacks in the hills north of Cassino that the outfought and decimated American battalions had begun.
When the Indians were ready 2 NZ Division would seize a bridgehead over the Rapido along the axis of the railway embankment and hold it while the engineers got in bridges, culverts, and fillings for the passage of tanks and supporting arms. The next night an American combat team of 180 tanks, with 21 Battalion under command, and 4 NZ Armoured Brigade with nearly as many tanks, and with 23 Battalion under command, would break out into the Liri valley. The Maori Battalion would make the initial bridgehead.
This is how General Kippenberger appreciated the situation:
If we could hold the railway station, the operation would go on with a fair prospect of success, whether the Indians succeeded, had partial success, or failed. If we failed to take the station or lost our toe-hold there, then the operation ended and we would not have lost heavily. I felt a little page 356 unlucky having to deal with so awkward a problem in my first battle as a divisional commander.6
Attack on Cassino Railway Station, 17-18 February 1944
The assault was fixed, tentatively, for the night 13-14 February. The Maoris' start line was just across the Rapido, with the railway embankment as the right boundary on a two-company front of 200 yards. B Company (Captain Wikiriwhi) right and A Company (Captain Henare) left were detailed for the capture of the station.
The company officers concerned spent a lot of time on the top of Trocchio viewing the proposed route and on the night page 357 before the attack took a closer look at the terrain forward of the start line. They were very unfavourably impressed. The ground was marshy, covered in places with an inch of water, and quite impossible for digging in support weapons. Divisional Headquarters decided, as a result of this reconnaissance, to postpone the operation until conditions improved; in any case, 4 Indian Division was not yet ready to attack.
The night of the proposed attack did not pass without incident; standing patrols providing a screen for the sappers and as an assurance against enemy curiosity regarding the nature of operations on the railway line stood by from dark to dawn. That night two bulldozers lost tracks when mines exploded under them. The area had been swept but the mines were evidently hidden under the steel rails and had not been detected; the noise of the explosions was the signal for the enemy guns to give the area a thorough doing over. The bulldozers were camouflaged with nets and everybody departed with some celerity.
The succeeding night was also fairly lively; the anti-aircraft platoon went forward to dig a position in the embankment near the start line for Battalion Tactical Headquarters. D Company supplied the screen, and in addition two patrols went towards the station. One patrol of ten men led by Lieutenant Takurua7 was to test the enemy defences and, if possible, bring back a prisoner for identification, while the second, Sergeant Rivers8 and four others, was to survey the approaches to a hummock on the left of A Company's objective. Takurua's patrol was challenged from a demolition in the station yard, whereupon two challengers were shot, but six spandaus then opened fire from various directions on the Maoris, who withdrew without loss. Sergeant Rivers was close to the hummock when the firing began and likewise withdrew his party. Once more the sappers had to stop work because of the enemy activity, although our machine guns and artillery had been making a fuss to hide the noise of their work.
The strain of waiting was relieved on the morning of the 15th by the sight of 250 bombers reducing the Montecassino abbey to a heap of ruins preparatory to the Indian attack. The abbey itself did not affect the Maori operations, so the question whether it was occupied by the enemy or not or the rights and page 358 wrongs of destroying a sacred edifice that in one form or another had stood there for a thousand years are outside the scope of this history.
C and D Companies, after ten days of desultory attention from the German guns, were very pleased to be relieved next night by 24 Battalion and to move to the shelter of the railway embankment.
The Indian prong of the NZ Corps' pincer, after hard fighting for a start line, was ready to attack on the night 17-18 February and Colonel Young issued his final orders for the Maori prong to operate the same night. B Company's objectives were, first, the station buildings and the engine shed and, second, three hundred yards of sunken road leading to Cassino and bordered by a scattered group of houses. A Company was to clear the railway yards and capture a small mound south of the engine shed known variously as the Pimple, the Hummock, or the Hummocks. The engineers, who had already repaired four of the demolitions on the railway, were to have the necessary bridges and fillings completed before daylight. Immediately the road was open 19 Armoured Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin)9 would send tanks through to support the Maoris and secure the bridgehead.
There was no barrage but two batteries of American heavies and two regiments of medium guns were to put down a ten-minute concentration on the objectives, whereupon every available field regiment would concentrate on likely areas for two hours; four machine-gun platoons would engage targets that had been located south of the station, plus any other targets that might appear; 5 Brigade's 4.2-inch mortars would also assist, while the battalion mortars were to stand by and bombard targets as requested by the infantry.
The troops were to cross the start line at 9.30 p.m. A final check up, a short Ringatu service led by Lieutenant Takurua (12 Platoon), a few words by the CO, and A Company, followed closely by B, moved off in single file along the embankment. There was some delay in getting past the engineers and their piles of bridging equipment and B Company was not properly on the start line at zero hour. The enemy was quick to reply to the preliminary artillery fire and there were casualties before the advance commenced. Captain Wikiriwhi was slightly page 359 wounded but was able to carry on. He had decided to carry the Company Headquarters wireless set himself and had instructed his platoon commanders to do likewise so as to ensure communication, because it was so easy for signallers to get lost in a night attack. A blast from a near miss shattered his set, which luckily saved him from anything worse than scratches, but this meant that he was out of communication right from the start. Fire from the south edge of Cassino town and the lower slopes of Montecassino, the hazards of an unsuspected minefield, and creeks, drains, and a near swamp hampered the Maoris, but they pushed on. On the right, cascades of flares showed up new wire laid across the entrance to the railway yards with two strongpoints dug in behind it. Captain Wikiriwhi writes:
As we closed my 12 Pl on right wavered momentarily in the face of a particularly violent burst of MG fire from 2 Jerry posts. I immediately ordered a charge—the men leapt forward and, as in training, two men leapt on to the wire (concertina)—the others jumped over (there was sufficient light from flares and gun flashes) and, with bayonet and grenades cleaned the posts out. Others were busy with wire cutters on the ordinary dannert wire and the platoons were soon through on to the 1st objective.
A Company worked up the station yard in much the same way and by midnight both companies were digging in with a third of their strength casualties. Captain Wikiriwhi received a nasty leg wound while he was attending to CSM Ron Koinaki10 and left Lieutenant Takurua in temporary command while he went back to get ‘patched up’ at the RAP. He was back within half an hour after a short report to Colonel Young and found that Lieutenant Asher (10 Platoon) had been killed and Lieutenant Crapp (11 Platoon) wounded. By this time the engineers had dealt with five demolitions, the field guns were ‘stonking’ the western approaches and the mediums hammering Cassino. The brigade mortars were told to continue firing until they had only thirty rounds left.
Around the station, in the words of OC A Company, ‘… sections and groups of men were having individual scraps all over the place—a few prisoners here and there a few dead Jerries….’page 360
Colonel Young went up himself to examine the position and found both company commanders confident that all objectives could be taken before daylight. A Company had been stopped by a twenty-foot-wide swollen creek covered by wire and mines that had not shown up on air photographs, but patrols were looking for a crossing.
On his return to his headquarters Colonel Young sent the following signal to Brigade:
Have been on recce fwd and have ordered a pl of A Coy [which had been called to assist B Coy] to attack houses at 857204 [B Coy's second objective]. Attack now in progress. Confident of success. A Coy still held up and are looking for another way through although the enemy is still firing MGs from the Hummocks. CO still confident that he can capture objective by first light. General impression that enemy is thin on ground but has plenty of MGs. Engrs may be finished by daylight but CO expected it would take longer than that. Engrs are prepared to work on in daylight under cover of smoke. Minor delays have been caused by mortar and shell fire. CO's appreciation—Once the bridge is finished pass the armour through; at one stage B Coy adv was held up by 4 MGs in a house and when the house was rushed enemy escaped in a truck which had been standing with the motor running behind the house. The truck went along the road into Cassino.
At 2 a.m. the engineers were working on three demolitions at the same time with one more untouched, but at 3 a.m. the moon came up and gave the enemy sufficient light to lay directed mortar and machine-gun fire on to them. A sapper officer, Lieutenant Martin,11 wrote:
The enemy, who had apparently not seen the work or been aware of what was going on then began to cover the area with MG fire from the Hummocks on the left and well directed concentrations from mortars further back. On two occasions the mine sweeping and clearing parties had to stop work. However word came through that the work had to proceed as it was fast becoming light and support weapons had to be got through to the Maoris.
Between moonrise and dawn, however, the engineers were ordered to withdraw and Colonel Young asked Brigade if the page 361 Maoris, with the Hummock still untaken, should stay forward. The answer, after the query had been submitted to Divisional Headquarters, was that they were to hang on and that they would be screened with smoke.
A and B Companies were in much the same situation that the battalion had been in at Orsogna, where support arms could not get through and permission had been given to pull back; this time permission was refused and daylight found the companies overlooked by the towering Montecassino and under fire from three sides—from Cassino town, from the Hummock, and from the western approaches to the railway station.
Smoke was building up as fast as the gunners could get the shells away, but glimpses could be had of enemy forming up for a counter-attack and tracer was coming in from a tank that could not be located. Artillery concentrations were called for, and the second, falling right in the middle of the German infantry, lessened the tension for the time being.
Here is a report of the position as seen through German eyes:
… The enemy is still in the station, and we are round him in a semicircle. He has the station, only nothing else. About midday he tried to push north along the road. Baade assumes from this that that is his next direction. We are trying to cut off the men by thrusting from the north and south….12
All through a torrid morning and afternoon the Maoris withstood the infiltration tactics of a determined enemy. An attempt to reinforce with a platoon (Lieutenant Reedy) from C Company was frustrated when twelve of the men were shot down before they had gone a hundred yards. Up in the railway station A and B Companies had already lost seventy-six men killed and wounded. Orders were relayed through from Divisional Headquarters that the Hummock was not to be taken and that the forward artillery would fire one round every two seconds into that target from a time to be notified later.
The problem for the Divisional Commander to decide was whether to continue the smoke or revert to shelling. It was decided that smoke was more likely to keep down casualties and every available weapon that had smoke shells was ordered to use them. Smoke was, in fact, a two-edged weapon, as the murk enabled the enemy to get in so close that the guns could page 362 not fire on them for fear of dropping their shells among the Maoris.
Infantry the Maoris could deal with while their ammunition lasted, but when two tanks overran sections of 10 and 12 Platoons Captain Wikiriwhi ordered a withdrawal.
When tank attack came in I was with remnants of my Coy HQ right in the station, i.e. 1st objective. The forward sections must have been overrun by then. They were not more than 5ox [yards] from us and opened up with 75 mm and MG. That was when I gave the order to withdraw.
More men were hit returning to the start line. Wikiriwhi stopped to rally some who had taken cover from the firing and was seriously wounded. Lieutenant Takurua and two others dragged him to the shelter of the railway embankment and used his pistol lanyard as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. He ordered them to leave him there and get back while they might. Takurua was killed a few minutes later. Those who did get safely back were a pitiful remnant of the two hundred who had gone into the attack—26 Arawas and 40 Ngapuhi. A few more straggled in during the night.13
In high places another method of reducing Cassino was being worked out, for the Indian effort had also failed and the beach-head at Anzio was not secure. Back with the rest of the battalion, the Maori survivors of the attack on the railway station were sleeping the sleep of soldiers after a hard battle. Private Maihi,14 with two holes drilled through him, reported back at midday, and some hours later Captain Wikiriwhi crawled in to 24 Battalion's FDLs.
By a fortunate coincidence he had been left in such a position that a piece of board and a discarded gas cape were within his reach. He split the board with an Italian stiletto he had carried since the days in the desert and fashioned a pair of splints to hold a leg shattered with machine-gun bullets so that it was possible to move. When it was dark he crawled up on to the railway line and, using the sleepers as levers, hauled himself back to safety. An MC was added to his Takrouna DSO.
The Maoris moved back a couple of miles into brigade reserve and the officers entertained the COs, adjutants, and company seconds-in-command of 21 and 23 Battalions to an page 363 evening. The men went to a picture show put on by the YMCA.
One gathers, from the following conversation between Colonel-General Vietinghoff, commander of Tenth Army, and Field-Marshal Kesselring, that the Kiwis, although regarded as tough fighters, were not liked very much.
V. We have succeeded after hard fighting in retaking Cassino station.
K. Heartiest congratulations.
V. I didn't think we would do it.
K. Neither did I.
V. North of Cassino also very heavy attacks have been beaten off. 400 dead have been counted on 1 Para Regt's front…. Our losses are pretty heavy too.
K. Convey my heartiest congratulations to 211 Regt, and 1 Para Regt not quite so strongly…. I am very pleased that the New Zealanders have had a smack in the nose. You must recommend the local commander for the Knight's Cross.15
Fifth Brigade was not going to be involved in the new attempt to clear the way into the Liri valley. Briefly, the plan was for 6 Brigade to take Cassino and the railway station from the north, where a foothold had been obtained, and clear Castle Hill (Point 193), a commanding outcrop that guarded the only practicable route to Montecassino monastery. Fourth Indian Division would then, via Castle Hill, capture the monastery while the engineers completed the road on the railway embankment into the Cassino station, whereupon Task Force B (approximately one battalion of American tanks), some New Zealand engineers and 21 Battalion for local protection would exploit through. Other formations would follow as the situation developed.
The only part the battalion had in the operation, timed to commence on 24 February, was to occupy the railway station after its capture.
The actual time of the attack depended on the weather remaining fine sufficiently long to dry out the airfields further south. The Maoris had had no air support for their attack as every effort was being made to support the Anzio landing, but this time a massive bombing programme had been arranged. But, instead of drying out, the airfields became boggier as the page 364 winter rains fell steadily for a fortnight, and it was not until 14 March that the ground was dry enough at Cassino for the passage of tanks and at Foggia for the heavily loaded bombers to take off. Zero hour was finally fixed for the following afternoon.
It was during this waiting period that Private Rangiuia16 (12 Platoon B Company) reported back after a week behind the German lines as a prisoner of war. He had been taken to the headquarters of another enemy division opposite 56 (British) Division and sent across the front with a truce note suggesting an armistice to bury the dead and care for the wounded between the lines.
The troops learned with deep regret that General Kippenberger had been seriously wounded on Monte Trocchio on 2 March. A written address of condolence and wishes for a rapid recovery from his wounds (one foot was blown off and the other amputated) was sent to the General as a mark of the high regard in which he was held by all members of the Maori Battalion. The address was signed by the officers and NCOs of every platoon in the battalion. The General, in spite of his condition, insisted on replying and later had the battalion letter framed. His reply read:
1 NZ MOB. CCS,
10 March 1944.
Lt-Col R. R. T. Young, Officers, NCOs and Men of the
28 (Maori) Battalion,
I have received with pride your message. It will always be one of my most treasured possessions. Further battles lie ahead of you, but mine are finished, and no more will I share in planning your battles and it will fall to others to help you in your tasks. I will still, from a distance, glory in your deeds, and grieve over your losses. I know that you will always remember that in the hands of each one of you rests the fame of your great battalion and the honour of your people. It has been one of my proudest privileges to have had the Maori Battalion under my command in so many battles. Now the time has come to part. I thank you and those who have served before you and wish you well. I thank you with all my heart.
Many descriptions have been written about the destruction of Cassino town on 15 March 1944 but few so matter-of-fact as these extracts from the battalion war diary:
0745 Bn HQ with C and D Coys all packed up ready to move fwd at a moment's call. All awaiting the big show.
0810 Own Arty still shelling the slopes of Cassino and an occasional shot in the town.
0830 First wave of 30 Med bombers passed overhead and dropped their bombs in Cassino town. No A/A went up at all. Very good results observed. Smoke from the bombs added to the Arty shells made a very good screen and troops were able to move about.
0845 Second wave of bombers 24 in all also dropped their bombs in Cassino. The second 12 of the 24 bombers however mistook the 6 Bde HQ for Cassino and dropped their bombs killing 15 of the 6 Bde HQ personnel.17 This however discouraged the men and after that all eyes were watching the bombers in case they dropped some more short of the mark.
0900 Third wave of 24 Liberators again plaster Cassino….
0925 20 Fighter bombers heading out over Enemy lines probably supplying an umbrella. A/A went up for the first time and from well behind Cassino Monastery. Fourth wave of 23 Fortresses dropped their loads both in the Enemy and own lines. Luckily no casualties suffered by us.
0945 Fifth wave of 34 Fortresses this time dropped their load right in Cassino town and started several small fires.
1000 Seventh and Eighth waves of 35 Fortresses and 39 Liberators again plaster the town and the Monastery. The smoke of the bombs growing intense every minute and Cassino could hardly be seen.
1015 Ninth wave of 12 Bostons and 12 Marauders carried their loads further up the Valley and there dropped them on some gun line or Adolph Hitler line.
1017 Tenth wave of 37 Liberators again plaster Cassino and this time heavy A/A met them as they swung round to page 366 come back. Fighter cover still being maintained by light fighter bombers (P40s).
1037 Eleventh wave of 40 Liberators again plaster Cassino after having dropped some of their bombs on the Arty lines.
1100 Twelfth wave of 43 Fortresses with fighter cover again plaster Cassino.
1115 Thirteenth wave of 40 Liberators drops their loads right in Cassino and area rly Stn.
1215 Fighter bombers then took over the job of straffing and Divebombing….
1345 Still no word of moving up received yet. 6 Bde probably meeting stiff opposition. Everybody watching the shelling and Dive bombing.
C and D Companies had already gone back to approximately the old battalion posts between Route 6 and the railway. From these positions D Company (Captain Matehaere), preceded by mine-lifters, would occupy the station after it had been captured and C Company (Captain Reedy) would provide parties to protect the engineers on several road and bridge-construction jobs.
The 25th Battalion had followed the bombers into Cassino while 24 Battalion stood by in close support. Sixth Brigade, supported by a squadron of 19 Armoured Regiment, was to clear the town and Castle Hill, which 5 Indian Brigade would take over as the base for its job of climbing Montecassino and taking the monastery on top.
Castle Hill fell early in the afternoon but resistance was stiff in the town in spite of the cataclysmic destruction by shell and bomb. The tanks had been unable to keep up with the infantry on account of cratered roads and fallen masonry and by evening both 24 and 26 Battalions had been thrown into the fight.
In the end it was the weather as much as the enemy that prevented the complete clearing of Cassino. Torrential rain began in the late afternoon, filling the bomb craters and adding to the difficulties of 19 Armoured Regiment struggling to the support of the infantry. What should have been a night of moonlight was one of impenetrable blackness with the defenders knowing the locality and the attackers groping their way forward. By the afternoon of the following day (16th) most of the page 367 town was being shared with a tenacious enemy, but the vital south-west corner was still in his hands. The Indians, who had taken over Castle Hill from 25 Battalion, had not been able to fight their way to the summit of Monastery Hill and were preparing to renew their attack.
Colonel Young, ordered to test the defences in the railway area, detailed Lieutenant Smith and twelve Maoris to work forward behind a smoke screen. They were accompanied by Lieutenant Whelan, NZE,18 and two minesweepers to clear the page 368 way but were forced to return by fire from at least four spandau nests. On their way back a change in the wind left them in the open and the sapper officer and two others were wounded.
In contrast to the rain on the previous day, dawn on Friday, 17 March, broke fine and clear. The second Indian effort failed and 25 Battalion, after clearing the Botanical Gardens in the centre of Cassino, was also stopped by fire from the Continental Hotel, the Hotel des Roses, and the houses grouped along the base of the steeply rising Montecassino.
No word came for the Maoris to occupy the station after its capture by 26 Battalion, as had been arranged, and they waited through the night and most of the following day. Orders came, but not the orders expected: 28 Battalion was to pass to the command of 6 Brigade and clean out the south-western corner of Cassino. In effect, the Maoris were to close a gap between 25 Battalion north of Route 6 and 26 Battalion south of it; then, after clearing the Continental Hotel, they were to carry on to the Hotel des Roses, where they would be met by C Company 24 Battalion holding Point 146, while a force from 4 Indian Division would clear the high ground west of the battalion objective. The way would then be clear for the sappers to repair Route 6 for the armour to go through and establish a bridgehead in the direction of Sant' Angelo.
The Maoris' start line was the western edge of the Botanical Gardens and the area to be cleared was the jumble of masonry bounded by Route 6 and what may be called for clarity the North Fork, as far as the Continental Hotel. The method to be adopted, as laid down by Colonel Young's operation order, was:
Two Coys, C and D will be involved in the operation. D Coy will search for and clear out all enemy in the objective area and take up and consolidate on western side of the objective, with front particularly directed west.
C Coy will follow D Coy at 15 mins interval and will rely on the bayonet and grenade and not fire to clear out any isolated pockets left behind, searching every nook and cranny.
C Coy will take up to and consolidate on eastern side of objective (i.e. Route 6 running south) with front particularly directed east. Time of crossing start line—
D Coy 0300 hrs 19th
C Coy 0315 “ “page 369
The troops saw to their weapons, ate the hot meal that had been delivered, and snatched a few hours' sleep while Colonel Young, his company commanders and subalterns, pored over aerial photos and selected landmarks. Nobody realised that the photographs, taken before the town was heavily bombed, were quite useless because the landmarks had been obliterated.
The CO left early to find a battalion headquarters site handy to the start line and eventually settled on a corner in the crypt of the church where 26 Battalion headquarters was already operating.
Shortly before midnight D Company led the way in single file along Route 6 into Cassino. The road was not being heavily shelled at the time and the approach was made safely to the start line on the edge of the gardens. Behind them were the Municipal Buildings, in front an open space pitted with waterfilled bomb craters, then four hundred yards of shattered houses hidden against the deeper darkness of the side of Montecassino. Secreted in the rubble, in cellars, behind walls, and in houses not completely flattened were enemy strongpoints manned by paratroopers determined to hold Cassino. A few enemy tanks were also concealed in buildings; at that very moment there were two tanks close to the Maoris' start line. When 21 Battalion was thrown into the battle two nights later it found one in the row of buildings next to its headquarters. The fate of the other will be related in due course.
Captain Matehaere disposed D Company with two platoons up, 18 (Sergeant Ruku Haddon)19 right, 17 (Sergeant Mataira)20 left, and 16 (Lieutenant R. Smith) in reserve. They had not moved thirty yards when they were fired on by a machine-gun post. No. 17 Platoon silenced it and took two prisoners. This job, disposed of in a few words, took half an hour to accomplish, but the jungle of masonry and the difficulty of control posed a problem. ‘It was evident that to try and move my whole Company forward would be asking for trouble,’ wrote Captain Matehaere, ‘therefore decided to probe with 17 and 18 Platoons, leaving 16 Platoon in reserve with part of my Coy HQ and the two PW.’
Matehaere was wounded within the next few minutes by fire from another enemy post directly in front. He told the two sergeants to try to outflank it, and when they moved off that was practically the end of co-ordinated movement. It was not page 370 so much an attack as a game of hide-and-seek—a grim game with a sudden penalty for the loser. As soon as one post was silenced another opened fire from a different direction and eventually 18 Platoon had to take shelter in cellars and what remained of houses. Sergeant Haddon was killed later while trying to rescue one of his men lying wounded in the open.
Sergeant Mataira led 17 Platoon up a narrow street and, noticing a door swinging open, went through to make a quick investigation. As soon as he went in the door slammed and he was in the bag. At the same time a machine gun firing on a fixed line down the lane forced the platoon to take shelter. Apparently Mataira yelled to his men to pitch a grenade over the wall—there wasn't any roof—and in the commotion that followed he emerged wounded but still able to shoot a couple of his late captors. He was awarded the DCM for his exploit.
By this time 17 Platoon was even more scattered than 18 Platoon, and before dawn a few of the men filtered back to Company Headquarters convinced that they were the sole survivors of the company.
Immediately we [13 Platoon] moved into the attack I lost contact with my platoon with the exception of the section I was with. Our objective for the attack was the Continental Hotel. As far as I could make out our line of attack was fairly true. I had two sections forward and one in reserve. Occasionally I sent a man to our right to contact our other forward section but returned each time without contact. However we kept going until we came to a high bank of rubble etc which I think must have brought us up onto the sky line because we got pinned down by machine gun fire every time we attempted to go over.
We had no idea whether we had reached our objective or how far we were from it as the area we were in was bomb holes and rubble and only parts of buildings standing…. Day was breaking and we were out in the open so I pulled my men back a little and found a better position to lie up in. Contacted one other section in this position. I settled my men under Sergt Tutaki and then I went out to try and find Coy HQ.page 371
Lieutenant Waititi was wounded before he found his Company Headquarters. Thirty wounded passed through the RAP before daylight prevented further movement; the others had to wait until the following night to receive attention.
The net result of the operation was a partial clearance of the triangle bounded by Route 6 and the North Fork, but the important objective, the Continental Hotel, was still held by the enemy. Our own tanks could not get further forward than the Gardens but were able to silence the enemy tanks near the Continental Hotel while our own artillery with smoke and high explosive smothered the hillside. The enemy in return smothered Cassino with mortar bombs. Little more except to ferret out enemy occupying the same or adjacent houses could be attempted until dark. WO I McRae, returning to Battalion Headquarters after checking on ammunition and the evacuation of the wounded, discovered the second enemy tank referred to earlier. Lieutenant Morrin,22 19 Armoured Regiment, who with his tank was involved in the subsequent proceedings, describes what followed and what earned McRae the award of the DCM:
As we were pulling out once to replenish with ammunition, we had a small dump in behind the Convent, a Maori (WO I McRae) who was in one room at the end of a long building, made out he wanted us to shoot up the end room. We obliged with HE from the 75 and Browning and carried on, on his instructions, at various openings, doorways and windows, in the building. This went on for some time. We fired quite a number of rounds of HE and a few belts of Browning at a range from about eight feet to 60-70 yards. We noticed one of the Maoris, there were only two of them, had a Hun prisoner by then and the following was most natural and realistic. McRae made the Hun to understand if he told the rest of the Huns to surrender all would be well, if not he would be shot…. The movement of McRae's tommy gun was dinkum enough. The Maori won out OK and in next to no time Huns were everywhere, dozens of them. I think there were round 70-80 that came out alright and with the dead and wounded the score for the building would be near the 100 mark. My tank I think did most, if not all the shooting on this building, but 2 Lt Carmichael23 in his tank was page 372 on the scene before the end of the action. I omitted to mention that the prisoner was pulled out of the tank in the room. He was the wireless operator and McRae's observation was done by looking through a doorway which led into a long corridor.
McRae's haul of prisoners, probably larger than the total number taken to date, did not exhaust the supply, for the Maoris had a very troublesome day with odd snipers who had infiltrated or re-emerged in their rear. The reason for the large number of enemy being concentrated in one building has never been satisfactorily explained, but it is probable that the building was a rendezvous for infiltrating parties who had lacked the time or inclination to spread out during the hours of darkness.
There was a reorganisation after dark that night (19-20) with 5 Brigade deploying north of Route 6 and 6 Brigade south of that highway, inclusive of the railway station. The 28th Battalion was not involved as it was to return to the command of 5 Brigade, but 23 Battalion came in and took over 25 Battalion's positions on the Maoris' right flank. One 23 Battalion company reinforced 24 Battalion in the sunken road leading to the railway station just in time to help beat back a counter-attack. The 23rd Battalion was then disposed roughly in a semi-circle round the Maori Battalion from right and rear.
This battalion had come in to clear up the remaining enemy pockets. Two companies went forward at first light on the 20th but, after fairly heavy casualties, were unable to advance beyond the Maori-held area.
Enemy mortar batteries celebrated the so-far successful defence of Cassino by another deluge of bombs. The building above the crypt, now also used by 23 Battalion as a headquarters, received fifty direct hits. A few more tons of masonry were dislodged, all the candles supplying the illumination in the crypt extinguished, and all the signallers' lines severed; otherwise there was no harm done. And probably that was also the position in the Hotel Continental which received special attention from us.
The 21st Battalion was the last to be thrown into the battle. It attacked on the night 20-21 March along Route 6, the boundary between the two brigades, but like everybody else was stopped by the Continental Hotel and other strongposts in Cassino.
Daylight found 23, 28, and 21 Battalions practically in line, with the final objectives as far away as ever. That night all battalion commanders went out by tank to a conference at page 373 Brigade Headquarters24 where each detailed the difficulties and the situation in his area.
Further frontal attacks were ruled out, but a possible avenue lay alongside the side of the hill from Castle Hill, trying for the Continental Hotel from its rear. One company from 21 Battalion and another from the 23rd made the attempt but they failed, and that was the last New Zealand effort to clear Cassino. Despite the best efforts of American, New Zealand, and Indian divisions, Montecassino still blocked the road to Rome. The 1st Parachute Division was entitled to congratulate itself.
It was decided to hold the line Castle Hill-Cassino railway station for the time being, and as the Maoris' CO, IO, and RSM had been in the FDLs for a long time without a rest the Brigade Commander insisted that they go back to B Echelon for a short spell. Captain Logan then took temporary command of the battalion, with Second-Lieutenant Baker as his Intelligence Officer.
Although there was no attack, neither was there any truce, and the Maoris endured mortaring, shelling, and machine-gunning from the hill above them until the night of 26-27 March, when they were relieved by 24 Battalion and went back to Mignano.25 A week later the unit was back in its old area, but in the meantime NZ Corps had been disbanded. Fifth Army, probably very thankfully, had handed over the Cassino and Liri sectors to the Eighth Army; 2 Polish Corps was coming out of the hills for another attempt at Cassino and the Kiwis were back in Eighth Army again.
The Division was to go back into reserve and reorganise and on the night of 5–6 April a battalion of Coldstream Guards took over the Maori sector. As was usually the case, all battalion messages from Brigade were sent in Maori through Captain Marsden. This practice avoided the necessity of using code and Maori signallers were frequently lent to other units so that their signals could be sent in clear. Sometimes, when the wavelengths were too close to those of neighbouring units, there were repercussions. Maori messages always ended with the word ‘Kahuri’ (‘Over’) and once, after a battle for the mastery of the air, an American voice was heard to say, ‘Come on Sam, let's get this over while those ruddy Kahuri guys are off the air.’page 374
It was not as easy as it sounds to take over the forward posts in Cassino; liberal quantities of smoke were necessary to cloak troop movements, and the enemy, rightly interpreting the laying of smoke at night, took appropriate measures. The battalion war diary strikes an authentic note:
2230 hrs—D Coy calls once more for smoke to be laid. Change over commenced but had to wait a while to allow the smoke to thicken as the enemy is only 40 to 50 yds away. More smoke was called for at various times and directed onto 35, 34, 33. At last the guns put down a decent smoke and the change over was carried out in safety. At this time a fair scrap was going on in the 21 Bn area and this demanded alertness both in our own troops and the relieving party.
2415 21 Bn mortars under orders from Bde also put down smoke fwd of Bn area.
0010 Change over completed without incident and D Coy with Bn HQ moved out. The whole of the Bn proceeded down Highway 6 moving to the cemetery area where they all embussed on RMT and moved straight back to area Mignano. On the way out D Coy suffered two casualties from MG fire which came over from the rly stn area.
‘Proceeding’ down Highway 6 meant marching in single file down the Mad Mile out of the town with eyes strained forward for obstacles such as stranded vehicles, dead men, and holes in the road. It also meant marching with ears strained backwards for incoming shells and with muscles flexed for a quick jump for cover. There was no cover, but you jumped just the same and chanced the unswept mine.
2The Corps was formed on 3 February but the Indian and British divisions and the United States units did not join it until later.
42 Lt G. A. Asher; born NZ 31 Jul 1914; student; killed in action 18 Feb 1944.
6Kippenberger, Infantry Brigadier, p. 355.
72 Lt G. Takurua; born Ruatoki, 23 Jun 1913; lorry driver; killed in action 18 Feb 1944.
9Col R. L. McGaffin, DSO, ED; Wellington; born Hastings, 30 Aug 1902; company manager; 27 (MG) Bn 1939–41; comd 3 Army Tank Bn (in NZ) Mar-Oct 1942; CO 27 (MG) Bn Feb-Apr 1943; CO 19 Armd Regt Apr 1943-Aug 1944; CO Advanced Base, Italy, Aug-Oct 1944.
10Sgt R. Koinaki; Tahuna; born Hoe-o-Tainui, 22 Aug 1918; labourer; twice wounded.
13The battalion's casualties were 22 killed, 78 wounded, and 24 missing or prisoners.
15From 10 Army reports and conversations.
16Pte S. Rangiuia; Tuatahuna; born Tuatahuna, 15 Jun 1919; labourer; missing 18 Feb 1944; safe with unit 27 Feb 1944.
17The diarist has made an error here. HQ 6 Bde was not bombed, although some other units were.
19Sgt R. Haddon; born Manunui, 21 Mar 1911; sawmill hand; three times wounded; killed in action 19 Mar 1944.
24Fifth Brigade was now commanded by Brigadier J. T. Burrows.
25The battalion's casualties from 18 to 27 March were 12 killed, 95 wounded, and 1 prisoner of war. Its casualties while in Fifth Army were: Killed and died of wounds 45, wounded 213, prisoners of war 22 (includes 4 wounded and p.w.).