Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
The plan was one thing, its execution another. The assaulting troops themselves, as we have seen,1 had been kept waiting in tense and uncomfortable circumstances too long to be at the peak of military fitness. Yet they cheered as the bombs fell on Cassino, and they were wrought up into the excited expectation of a walkover. The truth was therefore the more brutal.
The wounding of the New Zealand Divisional Commander on 2 March caused displacements down the chain of command, leaving his successor and the new commander of 6 Brigade to carry out a plan conceived by others.
Our narrative has shown that on the day this plan was not followed. The first wave of New Zealand infantry, starting at zero hour from the barracks, were fed into the town by the single entrance of Caruso road. They did not obviously dawdle and within fifty minutes had advanced a mile or so and were well inside Cassino. Two companies pushed through the town towards their objective quisling, which was about 600 yards in width, one was diverted to Point 193 and one took up a reserve position in the north of the town. It is possible that the two leading companies did not ‘lean on the barrage’ as closely as ideally desirable in the early stages. This is not surprising. Obstructions hampered them, and because of the wide lateral fragmentation of rounds fired from the flank they could not approach as close to the shell-line as with the usual overhead barrage. Later, of course, they lost it because of resistance to their advance. It is also possible that the safety margin of 1000 yards might have been reduced so as to speed the follow-up, but the record of the heavy bombers compels a doubt.
The assaulting companies were for a long time without tank support, and the need for infantry reinforcement was for that reason the more urgent. Yet four hours elapsed after zero hour before the order was given to send more infantry into the town. The response was to send one company. It was nearly five and a half hours after zero hour before the next full battalion was called forward. Whereas it had been envisaged in the original planning that it would be committed by dusk on the 15th, the third full battalion was not thrown in until early afternoon on the 17th.
The conclusion seems inescapable that this delay cost the corps its best opportunity of ‘gate-crashing’ Cassino. Every hour that passed stiffened the resistance. A company on the 15th was worth a battalion on the 17th. If two companies could reach the northern arm of Route 6 on the first afternoon, five or six might have been able to reach the final infantry objective almost as soon. The tactic of swamping the opposition, of fanning out at once to the objectives and of leaving enemy pockets to be isolated and reduced by later waves, though an orthodoxy of street fighting, was not practised. Whatever the truth later, it seems undeniable that there was plenty of room for more infantry on the 15th. This emerges, for example, from the eviction of the 25 Battalion men from the convent, which was to be used two days later as a start line for the advance to the station.
This seeming passivity is puzzling, and not less so in the absence page 348 of any evidence that Freyberg was dissatisfied. One explanation may be that the effect of the bombardment in obliterating opposition was overrated, while the resilience of the defence was underrated–a very venial error in those who had just witnessed the pulverising of Cassino. Such was the Germans' interpretation of our comparatively light infantry follow-up. ‘The enemy,’ says the 1 Parachute Division diary, ‘must have thought his heavy bombing and barrage would result in an easy success ….’ If fallacious optimism did exist, it must have been nourished by the reports that filtered back from the leading troops. For some hours it was believed that the advance of both infantry and tanks was meeting with no unmanageable trouble, and it was not until after 5 p.m. that 6 Brigade realised that the engineers could not work in the town. Faulty communications helped to swathe senior commanders in a cocoon of unreality and to render their orders irrelevant.
In view of the ignorance of what was going on, it may have been an error of judgment that no battalion headquarters were established in Cassino in the first two days of the battle. Comparatively junior commanders, faced with the disruption of an organic plan, were left to improvise as well as they could, for their seniors lacked the knowledge necessary for adapting the plan to the unforeseen mischances. This may account for the sense of sterility that seems to overtake the conduct of the battle on the second day. Indeed, a study of the fighting leaves the impression, strongest of the early phases but never wholly erased, that the senior commanders did not completely grasp the brute physical difficulties of combat in Cassino.
The rain on the night of 15–16 March was a stroke of ill-fortune. It can be made to carry too much blame, but its effects were serious enough. It denied the New Zealanders the use of the moon for regrouping and resuming the advance and helped to increase the delay of the Indian division in taking over Point 193. It made worse obstacles of the rubble and cratering in Cassino and, most seriously of all, it gave the enemy a respite in which to reorganise himself and his defences.
It is conceivable that up to the 17th, had infantry been poured in, Cassino might have been taken fairly cheaply. Thereafter, with the Germans reinforced, the town might still have been taken, but only by a process of attrition, and it is by no means certain that the monastery would have been included for the price. In retrospect, it seems that up to that day persistence in the original plan was the most reasonable course. The capture of the station and hummock implied that it was still being adhered to, for the principal use of the area was to open up the valley for exploitation. The corps page 349 continued to work to the original plan for two days longer. The operations set down for the 19th represent it in a belated and somewhat truncated form. They were forced on before the preliminaries had been completed either on the flat or on the hillside, partly perhaps by pressure from the Army Commander, and partly no doubt from a feeling that it was now or never. Only when they had failed was the battle reoriented. Only now, after four days, did Freyberg feel himself free to overrule the advice of Parkinson and Bonifaht, to respond to the pleas of Clark and Galloway and to release the infantry that he had been husbanding for the pursuit. So long did the remote and doubtfully realistic object of the operation hinder the attainment of the nearer and more practicable.
For the New Zealand Corps the events of 19 March were a premature culmination of the battle. When the day failed, it was judged necessary to set about finishing the tasks whose completion was the prerequisite of success for the original plan. The fight against infiltration began. But when the second New Zealand brigade was deployed, the time had gone by for any but a limited and costly victory. Day after day the New Zealand infantry rolled the stone of Sisyphus against the western defences of Cassino. It may be asked whether this was a wise or necessary policy.
In one sense it was, as we have indicated, a perseverance with an old plan. But lest we too readily assume a bankrupt inflexibility of outlook, we must look at it in another light. Since 16 March the lodgment on Hangman's Hill, won with high bravery and held at high cost, was a challenge to the whole corps. There it was before them, hoist like a proud standard at the head of an army. Towards this place of honour many men marched. In short, this dramatic foothold, so prominent to the eye and so close to the monastery, constituted almost a moral lien on the efforts of the corps. When General Galloway claimed that it could never be secured until the hillside was worked and that the hillside could never be worked until the town was cleared, it was difficult to deny him. To go to the assistance of the beleaguered Gurkhas thus became the object of operations. To this end, the New Zealanders tried to do two things: first, to throw a cordon round the town so that it could be methodically cleared, and secondly, to break through the cordon that the enemy (save for the aperture at Point 193) had thrown round the hill. All the stiffest fighting in the battle took place along the line where these two cordons touched, namely at the western edges of the town.
It might appear, by the 19th at the latest, that the dictate of prudence was to cut our losses in Cassino and allow the battle to follow its ‘natural tendency’, which was to bypass the town and page 350 to assume a shape not unlike that of the February attack. Was it, then, only the lodgment on Hangman's Hill that drew the New Zealanders back into the furnace of Cassino? At this clarifying and comfortable distance there seem to have been two possible ways of continuing the battle when deadlock in the town became obvious. The first course was to launch 5 Brigade from the station across Route 6 well south of the town to link up with the Gurkhas on the hill. This is the plan which, when suggested late in the battle for 78 Division, was rejected by the corps and divisional commanders but which caused Alexander to ponder. It was sure to be costly and it was not sure to succeed. At best there was a chance of uniting the two forces and a smaller chance that the union would bring about the capture of the monastery. Its essence was to rupture the enemy cordon on a broader front than was possible at Point 193.
The other possible course, while making use of the railway station base, would have attempted to isolate rather than to burst through on to Montecassino. It might have been possible, in spite of the flooding round the Gari, to develop a thrust along the railway embankment and into the Liri valley. A German patrol late in the month reported that the ground round the blown railway bridge over the Gari was passable to tanks ‘with broad tracks’. But even if the going had been practicable and if the attack had made head against the furious opposition that would have been offered from the area of the Baron's Palace and the Colosseum, it could hardly have succeeded alone. A single pencil-thrust up the valley would have been suicidal except on one condition. The indispensable corollary was a drive by the Indians among the hills north-west of Montecassino towards Route 6, so that a junction of the two forces would complete the envelopment of the monastery. But after six weeks in the hills, the Indians of 7 Brigade were in no condition to mount such an effort.
One of our alternatives, then, was not genuinely a possibility. The other (admittedly at a later phase of the battle) was rejected after careful consideration. The decision to keep battering away inside Cassino may now appear in a truer light. The German documents, moreover, authorise the opinion that in the battle of attrition the scales were very delicately poised. On the 21st, in particular, the enemy was momentarily reduced to the slenderest foothold in the town. It is hard to pronounce impossible a plan which, on the German showing, was within an ace of at least limited success.
Criticism, which has ranged over the direction of our effort during the battle, might finally dwell for a moment on the method of applying that effort. It is not to the discredit of the New Zealanders to admit that they suffered from want of experience in the page 351 specialised and militarily sophisticated art of street righting. The commanders were under no illusions. ‘It is still the desert army and we have a lot to learn,’ remarked General Galloway.
Street righting was not only hard to learn but in the conditions at Cassino it especially penalised the New Zealand Division by limiting the exercise of what had always been one of its strongest weapons–the close integration of infantry and artillery. The carefully staged attack, with its taped start lines, precise rates of infantry advance and barrage lifts, was shown on the first afternoon to be all but chimerical, at least where communications were not good enough to permit the assaulting troops to control timings to conform with their progress. There were simply too many physical obstacles for the infantry to remain in the shelter of the barrage.
Yet the contrast between the mighty opening fire plan and the absence of anything like it afterwards invites the query whether the best possible use was made of our artillery. This powerful armament produced smoke, harassing and defensive fire repeatedly and in great volume, it hit hard at opportunity targets with mass salvoes and its counter-battery and counter-mortar tasks were discharged with a zeal that approached ferocity. But it is noteworthy that after the first day it was never used in a general, concerted fire plan to help the infantry forward. There was a large-scale neutralisation programme by the name of dustbin, but none of the attempts to clear up the western edges of the town was prepared and supported by a carefully devised plan using all available guns and mortars.
It is necessary to insist on the difficulties: for the reason suggested, a creeping barrage might have been impracticable; the shooting would have been close; the lift of the ground in the west would have raised problems of accuracy; our occupation of Castle Hill would have had to be taken into account; and special measures would have been needed to give the assault an initial momentum by dealing with enemy posts too near to be neutralised by gunfire. Still, at some stage the experiment might have been worth while of pausing to take stock of the situation and carefully co-ordinating the fire resources of the corps with an attack by fresh infantry. As the battle in the town actually developed, increasing reliance was placed on direct-fire, high-velocity weapons. The only question is whether by this time the possibilities of indirect fire had been exhausted.
No doubt by struggling for a few days longer the corps could have won the whole town. Even paratroops must soon have resigned possession of the ruins. But General Freyberg was not prepared to page 352 hazard more casualties. When the New Zealand Corps was first formed, he warned General Clark, under the authority he derived from the New Zealand Government, that when his casualties had reached a thousand he would abandon the attack unless it had achieved or was about to achieve success. His view was that the Division could afford these casualties, and considerably more, provided that they were incurred in a successful operation, but that to lose more than a thousand men for no substantial military result would so impair the morale of the Division that it would take months to recover.1 When he attended the Commander-in-Chief's conference on 21 March, Freyberg had a return of casualties which showed that the Division had lost 549 men in the second battle, and probably more. Since New Zealand casualties at Cassino up to 14 March numbered about 500, the thousand mark was reached and passed. Freyberg's determination not to make a Passchendaele of Cassino is an essential clue to his attitude in the closing stages of the battle, and it may have had its weight with Alexander when he decided on the 23rd to call off the operation.