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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

Battle Situation at Cassino

Battle Situation at Cassino

The enemy's Gustav line crossed the peninsula at its narrowest point where rugged hills formed a series of natural obstacles most favourable to the defenders. Rome was the Allies' objective, and the only possible route to it was along the valley of the Liri River, the entrance to which was dominated by Montecassino, or Monastery Hill. This was a rocky spur which rose steeply from the plain to a height of about 1700 feet. On top was the Benedictine Abbey. To the north-west was a mountain ridge along which the American forces had advanced, almost reaching the fortified hilltop, Point 593, and Monte Castellone. Beyond this again was majestic, snow-capped Monte Cairo.

During January Fifth Army was conducting an offensive whereby 2 US Corps, with flank support from 10 British Corps and the French Expeditionary Corps, attempted to cross the Rapido River to take Cassino and enter the Liri valley. Then, on 22 January, 6 US Corps landed at Anzio and secured a bridgehead, but its expansion was effectively prevented by the enemy.

The offensive at Cassino met with extremely fierce opposition and there was no quick breakthrough for the New Zealand Division to exploit as originally planned. In early February there was bitter fighting on all sectors of the Fifth Army front, where Cassino and Monastery Hill had become the principal objectives, but repeated attacks by 2 US Corps met with little success. At this stage 4 Indian Division came from the Orsogna sector to join 2 NZ Division and with it form a corps which was placed under the command of General Freyberg. A strong concentration of British, Indian, and American artillery units, and an American armoured force, were included in the corps, and 78 British Division was added later.

The initial task of the New Zealand Corps, which officially came into being on 3 February, was to support the continuing American assault on Cassino, it being understood that if the fortress had not been captured by 12 February NZ Corps would assume responsibility page 530 for the sector. By that date the Allies held only a few houses on the northern outskirts of Cassino, but to the north 2 US Corps had reached Point 593 and had captured part of Monte Castellone. Command of the sector therefore passed to NZ Corps, of which 5 Brigade had on 5 February gone into the line along the Rapido and Gari rivers, while 4 and 6 Brigades remained in reserve.