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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino

III: 22 March

III: 22 March

As it happened, no blow was struck on the night of 21–22 March. But from first light hard fighting developed and by midday it had risen to a savage intensity unusual even in Cassino. The New Zealanders battled with a vehemence born of the knowledge that the sands were running low. As he surveyed the field Freyberg was struck by the disparity between the volume and the effect of his corps' fire-power. He determined to pursue his advantage and bring to bear every weapon that would help pummel a fainting enemy into collapse. Tanks in the north of the town were to hammer away at the two hairpin bends of Points 236 and 165, tanks in the station area were to take the southern stretch of Route 6 under fire, tank-destroyers and 17-pounder guns were to step up their campaign of levelling enemy-occupied buildings, trench mortars in the town and on Point 193 were to be thickened up and used mercilessly, 78 Division was to exert pressure up to and even across the Gari in the south, and artillery and air support were to be fully maintained, with special attention to offending nebelwerfers.

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It was the enemy who made the first move. At dawn a company of 1 Parachute Regiment climbed up towards Point 193 from the wadi to the north, bringing with it a detachment of engineers to throw heavy charges into the castle. The Royal West Kents broke up the attack with vigorous fire, capturing twenty-seven of their assailants and a further eight Germans who came from Point 165 to pick up wounded, and they inflicted perhaps thirty casualties. This was a good beginning, but the rest of the day was only to confirm the ascendancy of the defence.

The main effort of the New Zealand Division was made by a composite force of A Company 21 Battalion (Lieutenant Kirkland)1 and D Company 23 Battalion, with 25 Battalion demonstrating on the northern flank and several tanks of 19 Regiment engaging strongpoints. The intention once again was to crush the enemy at the eastern base of Castle Hill. That done, the New Zealanders would link up with the garrison of the castle and form a line facing south-west – possibly the line of the stone wall running up the hill – which would close the town from the north and enable some of the troops in northern Cassino to be rested. Frontal assaults had cost so much blood and toil that the method chosen was an oblique approach from the school area up the north-eastern ridge of Castle Hill, whence the intruders could swoop down upon the Germans from their flank or rear.

The realities were less kind. Efforts to launch the attack seem to have broken down several times – once because of difficulty in making contact with the tanks, then because the men in the tanks could not see through the smoke to shoot, and finally because wounded making their way down from Castle Hill obstructed the line of fire. When at last all was set, the attack progressed for a while and a few buildings were cleared, but the manoeuvre was detected and then the fire came down, heavy and accurate and the more deadly because the New Zealanders had to scramble across craggy ground with jutting rocks and sharp precipices that forced them into single file. Nothing remained to be done but to hug the earth until the order to withdraw came late in the afternoon.

It was the tanks that caused the day's crescendo of hope. Their shooting was good both against the strongpoints round Point 193 and farther south. Some of them were conducting a sort of shuttle service between the Bailey bridge on Route 6, where they replenished their ammunition, and the farthest negotiable point west along the road, where they discharged it at the Hotel Continental and the Hotel des Roses. One salvo was reported to have flushed fifty Germans from the latter. From the station area tanks

1 Lt J. H. Kirkland; born NZ 6 Jan 1914; accountant; died of wounds 29 Jul 1944.

page 326 fired hard across Route 6 at the enemy workings round the Colosseum. General Freyberg, confident that the tanks held the key to success, was delighted that fire was being brought down effectively on the southern entrance to Cassino. He knew that some prisoners held little hope for the Germans in the town unless they could be reinforced and supplied; those taken in the fighting for Point 193 had had no food for three days and were short of weapons; the corps intelligence officer (Captain Davin)1 thought that the breaking-point was near. At last it seemed that the steel cordon round Cassino was being pulled tight.

Yet with Brigadier Burrows' evening report came the diminuendo. Territorially, in spite of the tanks' good work, there was little improvement. General Parkinson later confirmed this estimate: the enemy still held the day's objectives and there was another day's fighting in mopping up the town. The German view was that there were many more. Heidrich was almost jaunty. He thought that the Allies had lost their dash, and with two battalions now in reserve he faced the future with assurance. The garrison of Point 435 was ‘defending itself with the greatest hardihood’, but its extinction could easily wait.

The Germans also had reason to take hope from the day's portents in the air. The 22nd was remarkable as the first day on which the enemy flew more sorties than the Allies. Most of our twenty-seven sorties were supply missions. The dropping was not faultless, but the 24 Battalion men by slipping out smartly from their shelters salvaged enough ‘K’ rations and packs of chocolate to feed themselves for two more days. The enemy aircraft strafed and bombed Route 6 in the forward areas and attacked anti-aircraft emplacements, but on the whole the defence more than repaid the inconvenience, filling the sky with menace and shooting seven victims out of it. Our field gunners were beginning to feel the strain of an arduous week's work. Fourth Field Regiment, the great supplier of smoke, had to borrow thirty anti-aircraft gunners to keep its 25-pounders in action. On this day the regiment fired 7456 rounds of smoke and 570 of high explosive – a typical Cassino expenditure of more than 300 rounds a gun.

1 Maj D. M. Davin, MBE, m.i.d.; England; born Invercargill, 1 Sep 1913; student; wounded May 1941.