Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
II: 16 March
II: 16 March
The day of the 16th advanced the clearing of the town very little. The infantry made one local attack in an effort to renew the rhythm of the battle and restore it to its planned course, but when this had failed they fell back on the defensive. To move from the cover of a crater or a mound was simply to offer a target to the rifles and automatics of encircling Germans; to rush one enemy post was to page 281 attract the fire of several others. The break-down of communications made it hard for the forward troops to act in concert and hindered the flow of information to, and of orders from, the rear. When orders did come they were as likely as not to be unrealistic. For example, to order supporting arms on to the first objective, as Division did at 6 a.m. on the 16th, was to command heavy weapons to be taken where individual runners could not go by day. The conduct of the battle passed effectively into the hands of company and even platoon commanders, while headquarters up to Corps itself reconciled themselves, by successive retractions, to the discipline of the achievable.
At 9.30 p.m. on the 15th 26 Battalion asked 25 Battalion to complete the capture of quisling, but it was past midnight before it was possible (for a short time) to speak to A Company 25 Battalion by telephone. Major Sanders was then ordered to join with B Company 24 Battalion in an attack westward to clear the enemy from north of Route 6. Brigadier Bonifant had given instructions for this to be done by night, but so great were the difficulties of co-ordinating and orienting an attack in the blackness of the night that Majors Sanders and Turnbull decided to postpone their efforts until dawn.
At 6.15 a.m. the two companies advanced on opposite sides of the northern branch of Route 6. On the right, B Company 24 Battalion was directed towards the part of the town under Castle Hill and told to link up with B Company 25 Battalion. On the left, A Company 25 Battalion was to wipe out resistance west of the Botanical Gardens in the area enclosed by the two arms of the road.
As soon as 11 and 12 Platoons at the head of B Company emerged from shelter, they were whittled down by machine-gun fire, losing three killed and seven wounded. They cleared one house, which yielded two prisoners, and made a lodgment in another that was better preserved than most of its neighbours. A jagged wall stood in the midst of desolation, and cover could be found in part of the ground floor. This 12 Platoon seized from parties of Germans, who were driven away with casualties. Beneath the new tenants, 11 Platoon got into the basement, where they spent an uncomfortable five hours in deep water until 12 Platoon dug a hole in the floor and helped them through. Though now isolated, the two platoons were ordered by Major Turnbull, during one of the fleeting intervals of wireless communication, to stay where they were. There they stayed for nearly twenty-four hours, beating off German raiders who invited them in English to surrender; but the next night they were recalled to the rest of the company. This attack, then, made little ground, and the few yards gained were given up.page 282
On the left A Company 25 Battalion, with a platoon from 26 Battalion, had even less success. Immediately they stirred, the lead ing platoons were pinned down by fire from the strongpoint they were being sent to destroy. Enemy rifles, machine guns and mortars held them in subjection all through a difficult day. So it was with the rest of the battalion. No contact existed that day between 25 Battalion headquarters and any of its companies, except C Company at the jail, which was in touch by telephone. Runners and linesmen alike found every route through Cassino barred by enemy small arms
In form, 26 Battalion was waiting to have the first objective cleared as a springboard for advance to the second; in fact, there was little to distinguish its day from that of 25 Battalion. It had to suffer under the same squalls of German fire, it felt the same annoy ance at being unable to hit back more effectively and it was as badly served by its communications. But it did have some armoured sup port, and, partly as a result, one success came its way. The convent on the south side of Route 6 was recaptured in the early afternoon. Under cover of bullets from nearby platoons and shells from one of 19 Regiment's tanks which had approached along Route 6, two sections of 14 Platoon C Company dashed across 50 yards of open ground, entered the convent and drove out the Germans. Possession of this strongpoint (it was reinforced that night) removed a source of irritation and gave the New Zealanders the largest building and the best unprepared cover in that section of the town. Later in the battle it was to prove its usefulness as a control post.
Armoured assistance for the infantry in Cassino on the 16th was restricted, like so much else, by the difficulties of ingress. It was only through pluck and persistence that any arrived at all; and it was a judgment on the bombing plan that it came not from the north through the town, where the tanks were only a few hundred yards away, but from the east across the Rapido.
The tanks of B Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment at the north western entrance to the town and along the eastern boundary road could not improve their positions during the day. Though under continual fire themselves, they gave what support they could to the infantry at Cassino, but from lack of regular contact this was little enough. When the squadron was relieved by 11 and 12 Troops of C Squadron in the afternoon, it was found that only three of its tanks could move out of the town. Seven of them, stuck fast or damaged, had to be left behind in the charge of C Squadron until they could be conveniently recovered.page 283
While part of A Squadron was withdrawn to the northern out skirts of Cassino to laager, squadron headquarters, 1 and 4 Troops stood by to enter Cassino from the east in support of 26 Battalion's assault on the station. A reconnaissance by American tanks of Combat Command ‘B’ discovered craters on Route 6 and all four bridging tanks were put at A Squadron's disposal1 Although the attack on the station had to be postponed Major-General Parkinson ordered 6 Brigade to call up the armour to help the infantry clear Route 6 through the town. Shortly before noon, therefore, 1 Troop (Lieutenant Morrin)2 crossed the Rapido by the Bailey bridge erect ed overnight by a company of 48 United States Engineer Battalion and drove on towards Cassino. About 150 yards short of the convent it was halted by the first of the craters and waited an hour for the arrival of a bridging tank. When the bridge had been partly laid across the gap, a shell destroyed it and damaged the lowering mechanism of the tank. With difficulty the tank dragged the wreck age out of the crater and backed away, while a second bridging tank came forward, carrying Second-Lieutenant McCormick3 and two of his engineers from 2 Platoon of 7 Field Company, who were to sweep for mines.
Meanwhile a junction had been made with the infantry. After failing once, Lieutenant Morrin on his second reconnaissance by foot located 14 Platoon of C Company 26 Battalion, which he help ed by the fire of his tank to occupy the convent.
But back at the crater there was more trouble. This time the bridge tilted to one side when it was lowered over the gulf. It took an hour, some hard work by the engineers and tank crews and finally the pull of one of 1 Troop's tanks to right the bridge. A third bridging tank then crossed and spanned another crater 100 yards ahead. The road to 26 Battalion was now blocked by only one more breach in the road, a few yards from the convent crossroads. The two leading tanks of 1 Troop made a deviation and by 3.45 they had joined C Company 26 Battalion by the convent. One tank of 4 Troop, which had been following up, also got through.
Continued activity on Route 6 between the bridge and the convent was practicable only by night or behind a screen of smoke. Now and throughout the battle smoke-making was a main occupation of some infantrymen and gunners, and tank crews were often seconded to the task. Gun and tank shells, mortar bombs and canisters were used to generate a haze that would in particular blind observers on Montecassino and in the railway station area and obscure the Rapido bridge from hostile eyes anywhere. On this first full day of the battle, men of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment and 27 Machine Gun Battalion humped the ponderous canisters across the Rapido and lit them from emission points on the exposed flats south of Route 6. The screen round the bridge was thickened by the fire of the 4. 2-inch mortars but as soon as noon approached, and with it the time of day when smoke was least protective, the guns of 4 Field Regiment switched to the same target, and finally the tanks of B Squadron 19 Regiment and the self-propelled guns of 392 Battery were called in. Even so, a freak of the wind would lift the curtain now and then. Not till late afternoon was it judged wise to slacken off the production of smoke. By that time the canister parties by the riverbank, whose location was accurately advertised by the thick white streamers curling from the smoke-pots, had drawn much of the enemy's fire upon themselves.
For the engineers the 16th was another day of frustration. Each of the three field companies had been allotted an avenue of approach to the infantry objectives – the 7th the northern route through the town, the 6th (with 48 United States Engineer Battalion) the eastern route along Route 6 and the 8th the south-eastern along the railway line. A dawn reconnaissance, which cost a life, convinced 7 Field Company that no feasible route could be found and that it was hopeless to work in Cassino. Sixth Field Company stood by to await the southward thrust by 26 Battalion, and 8 Field Company returned to its camp, except for the small detachment which, as we have seen, tested the railway line. Overnight, however, a platoon of 6 Field Company under Major Loudon2 had the satisfaction of solid work far forward on Route 6. The tank scissors bridge over one crater was replaced by a treadway bridge and relaid over another, and a third crater was filled in. By dawn on the 17th, the tanks at the convent had a clear road behind them.
After firing a programme to help the infantry forward before dawn, the artillery spent most of the day on protective tasks- counter-battery, counter-mortar and smoke shoots. The German artillery reply was desultory and not very harmful. The mischievous nebelwerfers round Pignataro got themselves into trouble in the early evening when a retaliatory bombardment by the New Zealand field guns set off an explosion and a fire in their area; and when they came again toward midnight, they provoked a mighty counter-blast (on the scale of a hundred to one in weight of metal) that kept them quiet for the rest of the night.
For several hours on the 16th obscurity almost as thick as the smoke clouds that billowed and drifted about it surrounded the course of the battle on the eastern face of Montecassino. Here, against savage opposition, 5 Indian Brigade was trying to exploit along the hillside to keep pace with the New Zealanders in the town. The three battalions of the brigade were given successive objectives. Castle Hill and Point 165 were to be taken over from the New Zealanders by 1/4 Essex Regiment, which would hold the doorway for the rest of the brigade. First to pass through would be 1/6 Rajputana Rifles, directed on two bends in the road leading to the monastery, the northern at Point 236, the southern at Point 202. From this firm base, 1/9 Gurkha Rifles would move over the upper slopes to Hangman's Hill, a knoll protruding from the stony hillside only three hundred yards or so from the south-east walls of the monastery. The final assault on the monastery was reserved for the Essex battalion and as many Gurkhas as could be spared.
From the beginning the plan fell behind the clock. There was delay in clearing the very threshold to the Indians' battlefield. Because of rain, darkness, steep going and enemy interference, the Essex battalion's relief of D Company 25 Battalion, timed originally for 7.30 p.m., was not complete till after midnight, and as late as 3 a.m. on the 16th the Englishmen were still fighting for Point 165. So unsure was our hold on the doorway that General Freyberg contemplated cancelling the exploitation, but decided to let it go on in the hope that the prize of Montecassino would yet fall to a sudden thrust.
The next stage in the plan went awry. When the Rajputana Rifles at last advanced about 3 a.m., already depleted by enemy fire, the two companies sent to capture Point 202 were soon scattered. They disposed of some German posts but could not reach the southern bend of the road and fell back, under heavy fire, toward page 287 Castle Hill. The other companies made ground uphill toward Point 236 and engaged the enemy at close range. This road bend, giving vital command over the Castle Hill area, seemed almost within their grasp until shortly before dawn, when casualties, some of them inflicted by our own artillery, caused them to withdraw. The Rajputana battalion was now dispersed and disorganised, its headquarters was out of action from casualties and its losses had been heavy.
This failure ahead of him confronted the commander of 1/9 Gurkha Rifles (Major G. S. Nangle) with what proved to be a fateful choice. He had either to hold back his battalion or send it forward over intermediate objectives probably not yet cleared. He paid his men the compliment of choosing the bolder course and despatched two of his companies towards Hangman's Hill. One early fell into an ambush, losing fifteen men in a minute to spandaus. The other, C Company, under Lieutenant M. R. Drinkhall, melted away into the night. Dawn revealed a brigade thrown into much disarray by the night's work. The Essex battalion and two companies of the Rajputanas had a firm grip on Castle Hill and Point 165. The other Rajputana companies were scattered in disorder on the edge of the town. Three Gurkha companies lay in some sort of defensive line behind the castle. Lieutenant Drinkhall's company was missing.
Later in the morning figures were dimly descried moving round the rocky ledge of Hangman's Hill. In the early afternoon, a faint wireless message confirmed that they were the survivors of Drinkhall's company, set squarely where they had been ordered to go. They had been on their narrow platform since just before dawn. Their ascent from the castle area had been an astonishing feat. Lieutenant Drinkhall had led his platoons, under plunging fire from the hillside, unerringly round craters, over hillocks of debris and between gaps in ruined buildings south through the western outskirts of the town. Then he had struck uphill, always skirting German strongpoints which he knew to be unsubdued, and reserving his men for the contest that would be needed to clear his own objective. By the time he reached the foot of Hangman's Hill, parts of his company had strayed; but he did not wait for them to come up. With his leading platoon commander and one rifleman, he climbed the crag, flushed the surprised Germans from their defences with grenades and small-arms fire and seized the hill. When the last platoon toiled to the top, it found Drinkhall going about the task of organising his company on its precarious perch. The Gurkhas had dwindled sadly in numbers, they were all but encircled by the enemy in well-prepared posts not far away and their lifeline back to the castle was extremely tenuous, if it could be said to exist at all. page 288 They settled down to take the drubbing which is the enemy's tribute to a successful stroke of daring. This isolated lodgment, clearly to be seen by anyone in the Allied lines who cared to scan the grey hillside, now helped to shape the Indians' battle. Its reinforcement became a main preoccupation of 5 Indian Brigade.
The night of 15–16 March brought forth another exploit on the mountain. An engineer officer, Lieutenant Angus Murray of 4 Indian Field Company, and Sergeant Morris1 of 20 Armoured Regiment were ordered forward with the attacking troops to reconnoitre a tank route to the top of Montecassino so that C Squadron might help the Indian brigade in the exploitation. To these two belongs the distinction of penetrating farther behind the German lines than any other Allied soldiers at Cassino. After being held up by shellfire, they set off at 5 a.m. for Point 202, whence they turned downhill to explore routes between there and Route 6. They worked south as far as the amphitheatre at the corner of the valley mouth, but as they returned north they were overtaken by daylight and found themselves in an area populous with Germans. In a building where they took shelter from our own shelling they became embroiled with a small party of the enemy. Sergeant Morris was shot dead, but the officer killed several Germans and in the scuffle made his escape. He outran his hosts, dodged the bullets they aimed after him and reached safety at Point 193. His report was that Montecassino was impassable for tanks except by the road.
For the Indian brigade on the bare, boulder-strewn slopes or on the outskirts of the town, the 16th was a day of endurance rather than of achievement. The infantry on Hangman's Hill and Castle Hill fired and were fired at from short ranges intermittently all day. It proved impossible to win Point 236. Further attacks were postponed until after dark
The effect of surprise had now quite expended itself; and the 16th saw inexorably at work a law of diminishing returns. The attack was in danger of stagnation. The day's record did not reveal the New Zealand Corps as the force in real command of the battle, nor did the day bring fresh illuminations or inspire new initiatives. A conference at 6 Brigade at 6.30 p.m. prescribed for the morrow the dose as before with a stiffening of iron. After reorganising itself overnight, 25 Battalion should attack again next morning with the same objectives, but this time with the support of A Squadron 19 Regiment. Thereafter, quisling having been cleared, 26 Battalion would seize the railway station and, on brigade orders, 24 Battalion the area of the Colosseum. From Brigade upward high store was set upon the ability of the armour to break the incipient deadlock. Yet no more than nine tanks were fairly within the town. Of these six were certainly, and the other three probably, incapable of further advance until bomb cavities had been filled and rubbish removed from their path. But Brigadier Hanson was complaining that his sappers could not work very usefully until the infantry had made room for them: they could improve the road behind the tanks but they could not break the barrier in front of them. So the vicious circle closed again upon the infantry
Three battalions had been thrown against the defences on Montecassino, but in the town only two battalions and one company from a third had been committed. Though perhaps two-thirds of the built-up area of Cassino was in our hands, resistance on the rising ground in the south-west, which had a hard core in and around the Continental Hotel, was a serious hindrance to 6 Brigade's designs on the railway station objective. The strengthening of the infantry had been suggested. In the morning the Army Commander advised pouring more infantry across the Rapido bridge, but General Freyberg thought he had plenty in the confined area of the town; and in the evening Major-General A. Galloway, who had assumed temporary command of 4 Indian Division, remarked that he was ‘completely convinced that the best way to clear Cassino is to put infantry in and go on doing so until it is cleared’.
The Germans meanwhile were tolerably satisfied with the progress of the battle: at least irretrievable disaster had been staved off. Senior officers were forward encouraging their men. When General Senger went to 1 Parachute Division battle headquarters on the page 290 afternoon of the 16th, he found that General Heidrich had gone into Cassino, where he had been with the fighting troops since the action began. The fear of a repetition of the previous day's air assault clearly emerges from a telephone conversation that day between General Vietinghoff, at Tenth Army, and General Westphal, Marshal Kesselring's Chief of Staff.
Westphal: Do you think Cassino can be held indefinitely?
Vietinghoff: I can't tell yet. Senger thinks that if he were to turn on another air attack to-day like the one yesterday, our men would be helpless. Everybody was dazed by that bombardment, and before they could snap out of it the enemy was into them ….
Westphal: The enemy has reported that it was impossible to maintain troops in the town because of the German snipers.
Vietinghoff: That is very good indeed …. But Senger told me the aircraft had a terrible effect.
Westphal: I bet you are glad you had the paratroops there.
Vietinghoff: Yes …. The paratroops will hold on best ….
Material reinforcement was promised to the forward troops in the form of Ofenröhre and Faustpatronen,1 and 15 Panzer Grenadier Division was to lend some armoured vehicles to carry supplies and wounded. Senger also agreed to transfer to the parachute division III Battalion 115 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, which would release I Battalion 4 Parachute Regiment on Colle Sant' Angelo for service in Cassino, where it would fight on familiar ground and beside familiar units. This reinforcement was only a stopgap and there would be an anxious time until a more substantial draft was received. The crisis would come soon. In fact, the Germans expected on the 16th that ‘the enemy would make a supreme effort next day to capture the ruins of Cassino’. In the enemy reading of the battle, then, the 17th would be a day of destiny.
1 The Ofenröbr was similar to the American bazooka and fired a hollow-charge rocket projectile; the Faustpatrone was a 44-millimetre recoilless anti-tank grenade launcher.