Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
I: Plans and Dispositions
I: Plans and Dispositions
AT this point, as our narrative reaches 17 February, we must refocus our view on a larger scene. The plan of the Indian division was no isolated effort but part of a concerted corps offensive, and the action of the New Zealand Corps has a setting in the fortunes of the Fifth Army.
On the morning of the 16th, having massed the strength of six divisions, the German Fourteenth Army opened a counter-attack intended to eliminate the Anzio bridgehead and recognised for what it was by the Fifth Army. Diversionary pressure on the main front became urgently necessary. The Corps' offensive had been envisaged as far more than a mere demonstration or containing action, but now it could serve a double purpose. Its original aim had been defined in General Freyberg's corps operation order of 9 February.1 Slightly modified, the Corps' intention was now to establish a bridgehead across the Rapido and Gari rivers to permit the deployment of armour in the Liri valley. The Indians were to capture the high ground west of Cassino, including Monastery Hill, and to cut Route 6 at the foot of the hill, while the New Zealanders were to make a bridgehead across the Rapido in the area of the railway station. This was the first phase of an operation which it was hoped would gradually develop momentum in four stages.
Such were the plans when at last on the night of 17–18 February the two attacks could be synchronised. After days of baffling delays and disappointments, Freyberg was understandably concerned – ‘calm but preoccupied’ – about the night's event. His personal aide and a visiting journalist both noted his anxiety, and that night he slept in his clothes.
To the best of his ability the enemy was braced to meet the coming attack. Since early in the month he had never ceased to worry about the safety of the Cassino sector. On the 5th, General Senger had decided to leave 90 Panzer Grenadier Division in charge of this part of the front because of General Baade's unrivalled knowledge of the terrain rather than to relieve it at once by 1 Parachute Division. Baade's command was reinforced by fresh battalions, which were thrown into the line as soon as they arrived with scant regard for the symmetries of text-book organisation, until finally it was a checkered coalition of units from seven different divisions – clear testimony, if any were still needed, of the Germans' ability to survive by makeshift.
Senger was so sure that his danger lay between Cassino and Monte Cairo that he strengthened his defences there by gravely weakening quieter parts of the front over the protests of his divisional commanders, and at the calculated risk of local Allied penetrations and new crises and of denuding the corps of all reserves. On the 15th he appreciated that ‘the enemy has now regrouped his forces for another major attack on the key-point of the Gustav line, the Cassino massif’. The Allies' position only a few hundred yards from final success there, the movement of their infantry reserves, the day's bombing and the increasing effectiveness of their observed shellfire all pointed to the imminence of a large-scale attack. The next day Senger was expecting this attack to coincide, for diversionary purposes, with the German effort at Anzio. All steps had been taken to meet the contingency.
Though finding no indications of a frontal assault across the water barrier, Senger anticipated that one would follow success at Cassino. He thought it probable that a fresh infantry division was waiting in the Casiline plain to exploit a break-through. A report to corps on the 17th that engineers were bridging the Rapido backwater can only have confirmed an assessment that was, on the whole, remarkably perceptive. The Germans, then, were mentally prepared.page 226
Their material preparations appeared rather less adequate, but no one was more aware of the deficiencies than Senger himself. His most pressing anxiety was shortage of infantry. Against fourteen battalions much below the average strength of Allied battalions, he estimated that the enemy had twenty-six in the vital sector and he doubted whether his troops could hold out against another big attack. Casualties and the severe weather were causing a daily wastage of the equivalent of about a battalion, compared with two to two and a half a day in heavy fighting. Exhaustion resulting from the rigours of mountain warfare, insufficient supplies and equipment and lack of relief was increasing, especially at Cassino, where the garrison had been exposed to fourteen days of continuous high-explosive and phosphorous shellfire. Lacking infantry, the corps could not hold positions in depth and had to fall back on linear defence. The artillery counted only 51 pieces against a not inaccurately estimated 292 on the Allied side. Gun ammunition was either short at the dumps or came up from them far too slowly for want of transport. On the 16th, for example, 90 Panzer Grenadier Division artillery had ammunition for only two hours' full-scale fighting. Whether or not spuriously darkened to give point to his plea for help, the picture in Senger's summing up is certainly gloomy.
If the enemy decides to concentrate his artillery, air and infantry in co-operation on a few deciding points (Cassino, Montecassino, Albaneta Farm, Colle Sant' Angelo), he will probably succeed in his aims. The Corps is no longer able to reinforce the line in the Cassino massif without outside help.
The holding of the Gustav line depends on the holding of the last line of heights, which is now in our hands. If this line is lost the situation will be most critical, as there is no other suitable prepared defensive position behind it. The holding of the Gustav line is … a basic point of general policy in Italy. The line cannot be held unless infantry and artillery reserves are placed under Corps command as soon as possible.
Senger asked Tenth Army for a fresh division, reinforcements to bring existing formations up to full strength, more battalions of paratroops, heavy artillery, machine guns and, as soon as possible, the transfer of the Luftwaffe's weight from the Anzio front.
The troops in the line between Cassino station and Colle Belvedere when the New Zealand Corps attacked included fourteen infantry battalions, two companies of tanks, part of two nebelwerfer regiments, an assault gun battalion, four batteries of field, one of medium and one of heavy artillery, and a battalion and a company of anti-tank guns. Opposite the New Zealanders, Cassino station and town were manned by 211 Regiment (Major F. W. Knuth), with two battalions of its own and a third from 361 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, and the Montecassino-Albaneta sector of the Indian front was in the hands of 1 Parachute Regiment (Colonel Schulz), comprising page 227 four battalions – two of its own, one of 3 Parachute Regiment and the Parachute Machine Gun Battalion.
Reconsidered in terms of infantry actually engaged in launching or repelling the assault, the odds against the Germans almost shrink away. At those points in the German lines which it had chosen to breach, the New Zealand Corps was far from being able to bring to bear a crushing weight of numbers. In the initial heave that was to topple the enemy defences, the Indians enjoyed a superiority in battalions of perhaps four to three, while the New Zealanders fought numerically on about equal terms, so narrow were the attackers' avenues of approach. The gate was strait and in the event the scroll would be charged with punishment.
The Indian plan for the night of 17–18 February was for 7 Brigade, reinforced by one battalion from each of the other two brigades of the division, to make a double thrust, each by two battalions. At midnight 4/6 Rajputana Rifles, with three companies of 1 Royal Sussex under command, having overrun or bypassed Point 593, was to advance about 1000 yards along a ridge to Point 444, 300 yards or so from the north-west angle of the monastery buildings. Two hours later 1/2 Gurkha Rifles and 1/9 Gurkha Rifles were to pass through 4/16 Punjab Regiment in position on Points 450 and 445 to assault the monastery ruins directly from the north, and then to exploit down the hill to bring Route 6 under small-arms fire.
All that could be done was done to help the Indians on to their objectives against the vigorous defence that could be expected from the paratroops. The Anzio bridgehead had first claim on air support, but shortly before dusk the abbey was accurately bombed. Artillery preparation was hampered by the proximity of the forward infantry, but the Indians that night shared with the New Zealanders the support of nearly 500 guns, including not only those of the New Zealand Corps and 2 United States Corps but also of such French and 10 Corps guns as lay within range. On the Indians' front concentrated shellfire was directed at likely enemy forming-up places and the German artillery was subdued as far as possible by the heavier calibres.
When the preliminary bombardment began, flares in unusual numbers lit the sky from the monastery south to Sant' Angelo. They hinted that the Germans were alert, and the night's fighting left no doubt. On the right 4/6 Rajputana Rifles fought at close quarters from midnight until 3.30 to capture Point 593. By then they had lost many men and all but two of their officers, the enemy fire was page 228 still devastating, and it proved impossible to clear the forward slopes for the advance to Point 444. Indeed, Point 593 itself was still contested in a hand-to-hand struggle that abated only when daybreak compelled the Indians to consolidate on the ground they held. On the left the night's work was no less grim and hardly less disappointing. Even for Gurkhas the precipitous cleft separating their starting line on Point 445 from the monastery was made all but impassable by vicious, thorny scrub throat high which tore at their clothes and equipment, and by an enemy who fired or threw grenades from emplacements at unexpectedly short range. Two companies of 1/2 Gurkha Rifles, suffering fearful casualties, had been thinned out to a pitiful remnant when the order came to withdraw. Reports that some Gurkhas had penetrated to the abbey were, and remain, unconfirmed.
Now that both thrusts were held up, it was decided to send the force on the left to take the objective originally assigned to the right-hand force. The reserve company of 1/2 Gurkha Rifles and 1/9 Gurkha Rifles were therefore directed to cross the valley from Point 450 to seize Point 444. This mission was carried out in the face of fierce resistance, and soon after dawn four companies of Gurkhas were established within 300 yards of the monastery – the nearest approach the Indians are known to have made. But Point 444 was overlooked from the west by the Germans higher up the ridge on the southern slopes of Point 593; and from the east by those in the rubble of the abbey. A dash for the abbey by daylight would have been suicidal and to avoid fruitless casualties the Gurkhas were ordered back to Point 450. Wounded men left in the scrub on Point 444 were carried back the next night.
By 1 p.m. on the 18th 7 Brigade had shot its bolt. Its battalions were digging in on the reverse slopes of Points 593 and 450, still within hailing distance of the enemy. Point 445 had been abandoned on the calculation that a position only 400 yards from the monastery walls and 200 feet below them was too costly to hold. Four hundred dead among the Indian battalions were reported by 90 Panzer Grenadier Division, a figure that most probably represents their total casualties.1 The Germans themselves admitted to the loss of seventy, including the commander of the fighting troops on Montecassino. Their success among the hills is to be attributed to the skill and tenacity of first-class infantry, well sited and well protected in terrain of overriding natural strength. Gunfire had little part in driving off the Indians. The German artillery, after concentrating on the hill sector, later switched to the Rapido, and had in any case exhausted its meagre stocks of ammunition by 4.20 a.m.
1 The casualties given by Stevens (pp. 288–9) total 439 all ranks killed and wounded.
Freyberg was under pressure to renew the direct attack on the monastery. On the morning of the 18th, when told by Fifth Army of the critical turn of events at Anzio, he remarked that ‘we must do our damnedest to make a diversion here’; and that afternoon he put to Dimoline the disadvantages of pausing to reconsider the plan of attack. Dimoline, however, strongly opposed another immediate bid for the monastery. He recurred to the problem inherent in the siting of the defences in the Cassino promontory. A series of mutually supporting posts extended in a horseshoe eastwards from Point 575 to the monastery, and to attack without first subduing the westernmost strongpoints was simply to enter a pocket where fire poured in from all sides. Three battalions were needed to secure the existing line and another brigade to make a wide sweep to roll up the defences from the flank. After careful consideration, Freyberg agreed that the Indians should pause to reorganise on a two-brigade front.
Meanwhile, on the drenched flats south-east of Monastery Hill the New Zealanders prepared for operation avenger. Their prime object was, as it were, to peg out the Cassino railway station and the ground immediately north and south of it so as to hold the enemy in Cassino town at bay while armour and supporting infantry were passed along the railway embankment across the Gari and out into the Liri valley. So long as the peg was inserted and held firmly in place, the operation could probably prosper, even though the Indians should fail to seize the monastery. In this indispensable preliminary the difficulties crowded thickly, but the crux of the problem is easily stated. Flooded approaches prevented the deployment of more than a small force of infantry, and the need to repair numerous breaches in the embankment entailed a race to bring up heavy weapons in time to sustain the infantry against the almost inevitable counter-attack. And if the peg were to be knocked out, the plan would collapse.
Once a river crossing farther south had been rejected,1 the Division had to accept the disadvantage of assault on a narrow front. It was contrary to the New Zealand practice in Africa, where attacks were launched on the widest front that the guns could adequately support. In flat, open country fire from the flanks made it difficult to consolidate and reinforce narrow penetrations; and even in the closer and more rugged terrain of Italy the Division usually preferred to hit the enemy on a front of at least three battalions.
The objectives were to be shelled first by heavy and medium guns and then by all available field guns until the infantry advance had been in progress for ten minutes. Counter-battery and harassing fire for two hours after zero hour would complete the prearranged artillery programme. Special targets were also found for machine guns and mortars. Farther south, 24 Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry were to fire heavily across the river during the attack, and after dawn they were to make smoke to screen the newly-won ground. The whole fire plan was intended not only to soften opposition on the objectives and to quieten the enemy in Cassino itself but also, as noted, to disguise the vulnerable want of breadth in the front of attack.
In close attendance on the infantry, the engineers were to bridge the main stream and a tributary of the Rapido and to repair four other demolitions in the railway line with bulldozers. It was hoped that they would be up to the station with an open road behind them before dawn so that 19 Armoured Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin) might carry out its task. The regiment was to have a squadron in the station by daylight for defensive purposes, and then by way of exploitation was to send the rest of its tanks to clear the southern outskirts of Cassino without penetrating too deeply into the town and to be ready to climb the zigzag road up Monastery Hill to help the Indians. In this early exploitation 19 Regiment's tanks would be accompanied by part of 23 Battalion. All going well up to this point, the Division would then put into effect its further plans for exploitation over the Gari and into and up the valley, with Rome ahead.