20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 15 — Cassino
The blizzard that brought in the fifth New Year of the war made it obvious at once that stalemate had been reached on the Adriatic front, and on 2 January General Alexander decided to switch his offensive to the western side of the Apennines. Five divisions were transferred from the Eighth Army to the Fifth, the New Zealand Division moving between 13 and 25 January on being relieved by 4 Indian Division, newly arrived in Italy.
The secret of the move was well kept. A warning order on 11 January gave San Severo as the Division's destination and four weeks' training as its future. At midnight on the 15th—it was raining again and there was no moon—the regiment left for Vasto, at least 50 miles short of San Severo, arriving there about 8 a.m. To hide 4 Armoured Brigade's departure a Royal Armoured Corps camouflage unit placed dummy tanks in position at San Eusanio and a patrol of Spitfires kept the sky clear of enemy while the tanks withdrew.
The tanks, reinforced by fifty-two Shermans taken over from 5 Corps, were taken by rail from Vasto to Caserta and thence by road to the Piedimonte d'Alife area, 20 Regiment going to Benevento. The move took the regiment almost a week. The railway across the Apennines had been reopened by American engineers only seven or eight days before and only one train ran each day. Because rolling stock was short, the regiment's tanks left Vasto in daily batches of about a dozen at a time; the rest were hidden in a sunken road to wait their turn.
The motor transport (B1 and B2 Echelons) travelled by road. The ‘wheels’ began their journey from the Sangro area on the 19th and staged near Vasto late that night before going on in the morning to Lucera. Here minor repairs had to be made before the convoy left next morning, heading inland through green, gently rolling country whose hills gradually got higher and steeper and craggier until they became mountains. The trip across the mountains was made on a very hot day over melting page 366 bitumen roads, and the steep grades caused blowouts, over-heated engines, and burnt out brakes. The journey, made in four stages, ended at Alife at 5 a.m. on the 22nd and the transport settled in at Benevento that morning.
The code-name Spadger Force behind which the Division hid for the move fitted the New Zealanders about as well as the first khaki serge uniforms had fitted the men of the first 20th in October 1939. A spadger, a few men recognised, was Tommy slang for sparrow, but the idiom was British and not New Zealand. The spadgers now nested in olive and oak groves in the Volturno valley around Alife, a grubby walled village set in pleasant surroundings 20 miles or more behind the line. The regiment was dispersed just over a mile from the town, the tanks in squadron areas, the wheeled vehicles in echelons. The blizzards of the Orsogna front gave place to crisp spring days; the men relaxed, serviced their tanks, did a little training and played a great deal of sport. The 20th received two more Shermans (bringing its strength to 45 tanks) and a large parcel mail; the men had leave to Pompeii and practised river crossings on the Volturno in assault boats borrowed from the engineers.
One rest area is much like another. Squadron commanders have perpetual conferences, the men train half-heartedly, thinking of leave; tanks arrive from Workshops to replace those lost in action and occasionally a new batch of reinforcements arrives from Advanced Base or wounded and sick return to duty. It is pleasant enough in this green valley at the foot of rugged mountains, but everyone wants leave to Naples; and Naples, dirty and diseased—‘streets and streets of slums, seven and eight storeys high’—is out of bounds because of the risk of typhus. The ruins of Pompeii—‘as ruins go, the R.A.F. can turn on a much neater and more effective job any time’—come in the category of places the soldier tourist must see ‘because then you can say you've seen it’; and Piedimonte d'Alife, although its people are friendly and its children attractive, is a small town (about 6000 inhabitants) that can be ‘done’ thoroughly in an afternoon. The men go there for showers at the New Zealand Mobile Bath Unit and on foraging excursions for eggs, oranges, and ‘vino’. Women from neighbouring villages do the soldiers' washing and mending.page 367
On 27 January the regiment got a new CO when Lieutenant-Colonel J. B. Ferguson, from 18 Armoured Regiment, replaced Lieutenant-Colonel Purcell, who left for Egypt on 3 February to take command of the Armoured Corps training depot. As an engineer captain in Crete, the new Colonel had won the MC; at Orsogna, where he was twice wounded, he had twice commanded 18 Regiment in hard-fought actions for which he was later to receive the DSO.
On the same day officers, warrant officers, and sergeants at a lecture in the Piedimonte d'Alife theatre after a ceremonial brigade parade heard General Freyberg speak of fresh tasks for the Division. Five days before, at dawn on the 22nd, 6 United States Corps had landed at Anzio, 30 miles south of Rome and 60 miles behind the German Gustav line at Cassino. It had been hoped that the landing would cause the enemy to withdraw from this line, just as the Division's desert left hooks had forced him more than once to withdraw in North Africa; but although the seaborne left hook at Anzio surprised the enemy, it did not drive him from the field. Reinforced from northern Italy, he pinned the Americans and British down to a small beach-head and strengthened his hold on Cassino.
Here the Gustav line lay along the Rapido River, backed by steep, rocky hills furrowed by deep gullies. From the mountains north of Cassino the Rapido flows south past the town through marshy plains and across the throat of the Liri valley, through which the main highway (Route 6) passes on its way to Rome. Here, confusingly, the Rapido joins and becomes the Gari and then joins the Liri to become the Garigliano, now much bigger in girth, and winds through an alluvial plain to its mouth on the Gulf of Gaeta, north of Naples. The name Rapido, of course, means swift-flowing. Between three and four feet deep, it flows fast between stopbanks eight to ten feet high.
The town of Cassino, as an old edition of Baedeker confirms, ‘presents few objects of interest’. Its ten thousand inhabitants (more or less: estimates made in 1944 range from seven to twenty thousand) lived mostly in old, thick-walled stone houses on narrow streets, nestled under the foot of what has come to be known as Monastery Hill. This hill, 1700 feet high and precipitous, is crowned by Montecassino Abbey: Baedeker is now enthusiastic but his details of the church's furniture and its page 368 archives don't concern the regiment's story. Rugged hills surround the town to north and west, the Liri and Rapido valleys to south and east.
While the New Zealanders were arriving in the Alife area British, United States, and French corps of Fifth Army assaulted the enemy line. They gained a little ground but no real success, and Lieutenant-General Mark Clark's plans to use the Division as a corps de chasse to exploit a breakthrough had to be recast. The Division was strengthened with guns, tanks, engineers and transport and on 3 February, joined by 4 Indian Division, became the New Zealand Corps under General Freyberg's command. The main armoured reinforcement, transferred to the New Zealand Corps in February as an exploiting force, was the American Combat Command ‘B’ (part of I US Armoured Division) comprising four tank battalions, two tank-destroyer battalions, engineers and artillery. The tank destroyer was a high-velocity 75-millimetre gun on a Sherman chassis. Another division, 78 British, was added to the corps on 17 February as an exploiting force.
General Freyberg, true to form, again favoured a heavyweight punch, using ‘all available artillery and air power to blast through’ along Route 6 after the Monte Cairo massif, five miles to the north-west, had been cleared so that the Rapido could be crossed. Fourth Indian Division, whose Gurkhas, Punjabis, and Rajputs were hill-men trained on the North-West Frontier and tested in mountain warfare in East Africa and Tunisia, would operate north of Route 6 in the hills and the New Zealand Division in the Liri valley.
The plan adopted on 2 February was that 2 United States Corps would attack again in the hills north-west of Cassino across the hilltops towards the rear of Montecassino; all the artillery that could be brought to bear would hammer the enemy's defences, and 4 Armoured Brigade would then crash over the Rapido with the help of all the available air support. The Indians were to wait to see how the Americans fared before being committed.
Early in February 5 Brigade relieved 36 United States Division in the line facing the Rapido south of Route 6, the Americans going to support their 34th Division in its push through page 369 the hills. The rest of the New Zealand Division also moved up from Piedimonte d'Alife, 4 Armoured Brigade going to Mignano, still ten miles or more from Cassino. The 20th pulled out on the night of 6 February, but before it left Alife companies from some of the neighbouring infantry battalions came to look over its tanks. The visits were planned to establish closer relations between armour and infantry, and at the least they were a change from the ‘General maintenance’ and ‘General refitting and reorganisation’ entries which make the regiment's war diary for this period so uncommunicative. The Maoris especially were keenly interested in the Shermans. According to one of their NCOs some of them had already tried out the Sherman's 75- millimetre gun when they had investigated some derelict tanks in front of Orsogna. Some of them, perhaps with thoughts of other derelicts in future battles, were reported to be even more interested in the tanks' eight-day clocks.
The regiment's convoys from Alife travelled all night in ‘weather changing to wet’, but by 4 a.m. on the 7th all were in their new areas, a mile or more south of the ruined town of Mignano. The tank crews had one of their coldest trips in Italy and before the journey ended feet and hands were numb and sore. Heavy rain on 4 February had soaked the countryside, the water in many places lying in pools, especially in the low-lying fields near the Rapido in 5 Brigade's area. Except for this brigade, the New Zealand units were spread out for several miles along Route 6 behind Monte Trocchio. The area was crowded with troops, and naturally the best sites had been taken by the American units already there. There was little flat ground left for guns, trucks and tanks, and often new areas had to be cleared of mines, tracks made, and drains dug.
The 20th does not seem to have fared badly. Its tanks were dispersed through olive groves, while bi Echelon clustered round a large villa in which, according to local Italians, Marshal Goering had stayed in September 1943 when he had reviewed the Hermann Goering Division. The Americans had fought over this area some months before and mines still lay on Monte Camino (‘Million Dollar Hill’) and on neighbouring hills, on one of which (‘Dead Man's Hill’) Trooper Petrie1 was killed page 370 on 9 February when he trod on a mine. Some miles ahead American guns were pounding away at Cassino, the echoes rising and falling as they crashed round the mountainsides.
The main appointments in the regiment at the beginning of February were:
CO: Lieutenant-Colonel J. B. Ferguson
Sccond-in-Command: Major J. M. Elliott
Adjutant: Captain J. A. Johnston
Technical Adjutant: Lieutenant G. E. Taylor
IO: Lieutenant L. W. Colmore-Williams
HQ Squadron Captain J. R. Coote
A Squadron Captain R. A. Bay
B Squadron Major V. C. Poole2
C Squadron Major P. A. Barton
Quartermaster: Lieutenant J. T. K. Bradley
RSM: WO I T. H. Wilson
At 9 a.m. on 6 February the New Zealand Corps took over command of the Rapido line south of Cassino; but although the New Zealanders now commanded the line, in no sense could they be said to control it. The nearest outposts on the east bank were between 200 and 400 yards from the river. The enemy positions on Montecassino spur and the village strong-point of Sant' Angelo on a bluff above the river commanded almost the whole of 5 Brigade's 8000-yard front. Facing the New Zealanders was 15 Panzer Grenadier Division, well equipped and confident.
On the 8th, the day after its arrival at Mignano, 20 Regiment was placed on two hours' notice to move. On the hilltops above Cassino the Americans on Point 445 were only about 300 yards from the monastery walls, but repeated attacks and counter-attacks had caused them heavy losses. It was intended that they should clear the monastery headland by the 9th, when 20 Regiment would cross the Rapido and clear its west bank, enabling 5 Brigade to bridge the river and cross on the night of 10–11 February. For this proposed operation the regiment page 371 took under its command 3 Company of 22 Battalion and a platoon of 7 Field Company engineers. The tired American troops tried twice more to cover those last few hundred yards but failed; tried again on 11 February but failed once more. On the same day 20 Regiment's two hours' notice was withdrawn and replaced by six hours' notice, ‘while awaiting better weather conditions’. On the night of 12–13 February 2 US Corps handed over its sector to the New Zealand Corps. The exploiting force now had to clear a way for itself.
The New Zealanders were still spadgers, mud-spattered and bedraggled, forced it seemed to bear their sufferings incognito. But a German raiding party took three prisoners on the night of 6–7 February and the arrival of the Division on the Fifth Army front was no longer a secret. On the 10th the Division dropped the pseudonym with relief and resumed its badges, titles and signs, and on the 11th its command passed to Brigadier Kippenberger, the 20th's first CO, who took over when General Freyberg assumed command of the New Zealand Corps.
Fourth Indian Division was then sent north to relieve the Americans and clear the enemy from the hills above Cassino while the New Zealanders established a bridgehead across the Rapido. The Indians' forward posts were only a few yards from the enemy (‘within hand-grenade range’, a German report describes them) and by day the front-line troops were confined to their slit trenches and rock sangars.
Before the New Zealand Corps' attacks were launched it was decided to bomb the Montecassino abbey. Its commanding position made it a perfect observation post; its walls, loop-holed by many small windows, were 5 feet thick and 15 feet high. For four hours on the morning of 15 February wave after wave of bombers attacked it. They left it a smoking ruin.
The Germans said that they had strictly respected the abbey's neutrality before it was bombed and afterwards loudly declaimed their story of Allied vandalism. But whether or not it had been manned before the bombing, after it there was little room for doubt. Mortars were posted in its ruins and made it a strongpoint from which two miles or more of flat country in an arc from north-east to south-east could be swept by fire. Fourth Indian Division, which had not by 15 February completed its relief of the Americans, could not take immediate page 372 advantage of the bombing and was unable to mount its main attack before the night of 17–18 February. The attack failed, with heavy losses.
Meanwhile, on the Rapido 5 Brigade patrols were probing the enemy's defences and surveying the ground between the river and Cassino station. The station, about 600 yards west of the river, was the New Zealanders' main objective. The fields west of the river and south of the station were covered with an inch or more of water, and the only road forward was along the railway embankment. But first twelve demolitions, mostly blown culverts and bridges, had to be repaired before the station could be reached. The engineers began work at once, and artillery and machine-gun fire drowned the noise of their bulldozers.
Under mortar and machine-gun fire from the slopes of Montecassino, two companies of the Maori Battalion attacked on the night of 17–18 February. The Maoris had to flounder through water and heavy mud across fields sown with anti-personnel mines. About midnight, after a grim fight with panzer grenadiers, the station buildings and the Round House at the western end of the railway yards were occupied, but the hummock—a black mound of earth about 300 yards south of the station—was still in German hands. The Maoris held off enemy attempts to infiltrate their positions until three o'clock in the afternoon, when a German counter-attack supported by two tanks forced the survivors out of the station yards and back across the Rapido. ‘I am very pleased that the New Zealanders have had a smack in the nose,’ Kesselring told the German commander.
The New Zealand and American tanks took no part in the battle. No vehicles could move on the waterlogged ground off the embankment and the engineers could not repair all the demolitions that blocked the way along it. By morning, in spite of difficulties, both arms of the Rapido had been bridged, but further demolitions to the west still blocked the route to the station.
In the meantime the regiment waited at Mignano. ‘General maintenance—position static,’ recorded the war diary, wasting not a word. The weather was wet and bitterly cold, with occasional skiffs of snow. The enforced idleness was not good for anyone, but the promise of an assignment if the Maoris' page 373 attack succeeded in establishing a bridgehead across the river at least gave the tank commanders something to study and prepare for. The troop commanders studied the ground through glasses from the shoulder ridge of Monte Trocchio and discussed plans for the exploiting role that had so long been denied them and was to be denied them once again.
A C Squadron officer's most vivid recollections of this period are of ‘the bitter cold and the enormous fire we had going all night.’ The men were even colder; and some of them had their boots stolen. There were not enough houses to go round and many of the men were quartered in bivvy tents and lorries, where living conditions were cheerless. At night the wind flapped and tore at the canvas and draughts found entrance to even the most carefully made bed. Some of the men made ingenious charcoal stoves from ammunition boxes and shell cases; others spent their spare time making olive-wood pipes with perspex stems in a variety of sizes and shapes; some limited their handicraft to making shanghais and filled in time improving their marksmanship to the discomfiture of some of the local population and their stock. Home-made oil-drip diesel stoves warmed the bivvies efficiently but had to be treated with respect. The stove's oil tank was usually an old margarine tin, its explosion chamber a two-gallon water tin, its chimney a string of food tins wedged one inside the other with the ends cut out; but its worst fault was a tendency to go out and relight itself a few seconds later with a nerve-shattering explosion and a shower of soot. When ‘revved up’ it glowed red hot and threw out a terrific heat, but most men preferred to warm themselves from a respectful distance.
The fourth anniversary of 20 Battalion's arrival at Port Tewfik passed on 12 February without recorded comment or celebration; besides, there were few of the original battalion left to remember it. The YMCA mobile cinema unit gave an occasional screening and Corporal Leary3 organised a concert party from amongst the men of bi Echelon to relieve the monotony. C Squadron's officers bought a piano in the neighbouring village of Conca and installed it in their villa, but after various adventures it had to be retrieved by a ‘reconnaissance in force’, led by Captain Pat Abbott, from an English unit page 374 which had commandeered it. It was later restored to the squadron at San Michele.
On the evening of 24 February (‘I can't remember a blacker night,’ one NCO recalls) C Squadron moved to San Michele to support 5 Indian Brigade. Sixteen tanks set out, one got bogged on the way, and another was involved in a road accident. ‘I can well remember the fright we got when passing practically under the barrels of a troop of Yank “widow-makers” when they all opened fire,’ says the squadron commander, Major Barton. ‘When we had recovered from the shock the language was lurid in the extreme.’
Although in full view of the monastery the squadron settled in comfortably at San Michele, each troop with a house to itself. There was plenty of shelling, but most of it was directed at the artillery just beyond the tanks and the squadron had no casualties. ‘The shells used to whine uncomfortably close over our very flimsy house,’ says the squadron commander, ‘and we prayed that no half-witted Jerry gunner would drop one short.’
Already the Cassino fortress had been attacked three times. Each attack had failed and now the job had to be done again. The New Zealand Corps, being on the spot and assembled ready to attack, was ordered to do it.
The men who gave these orders wanted the job done straight away, as men who give orders are in the habit of doing. Churchill wanted Rome: it would be the first of the Axis capitals to fall and its possession would be of considerable strategic and moral value to the Allies. Stalin wanted a Second Front and he wanted it soon: the best the Allies could do was to keep up pressure on the enemy in Italy and prevent the Germans withdrawing forces to reinforce their troops in Russia. The Allies were planning to land in Normandy in a few months' time and wanted the enemy kept busy in Italy. Clark wanted relief for his hard-pressed troops at Anzio. Alexander, short of troops, wanted the New Zealanders to attack to avoid being attacked himself.
Most of the previous attacks had been made in the mountains and across the Rapido to the south. General Freyberg now decided to take Cassino town. He planned to clear the Germans out of it house by house, first demolishing it with bombers and page 375 then sending in tanks and infantry immediately afterwards under an artillery barrage. The assault would be made in daylight and would come from the north.
Cassino's narrow streets, stone buildings, and deep cellars had been converted easily into a fortress, with strongpoints in the steep hills behind it from which the defenders could watch almost every move made by the besiegers and sweep all approaches with fire. On these approaches bridges had been demolished and craters blown; flooding, barbed wire, and mines girdled the town; and in the town itself hidden self-propelled guns and tanks, snipers with spandaus, machine-gun posts and concrete bunkers challenged the attacker.
The orders for the attack were issued on 23 February. They were of impressive length and full of the vital details of air support and artillery tasks, map references and code-words, that are so important at the time but now so dull in retrospect. The attack was to be made by 6 Brigade after the heaviest possible air bombardment in which 338 heavy bombers and 176 medium bombers, carrying over 1100 tons of bombs, would concentrate largely on the town, a target about a mile long and half a mile wide. (Someone worked it out as three 1000-pound bombs for every German in the area.) Before dawn on the day of the attack the forward New Zealand and Indian troops would withdraw to a safety line 1000 yards from Cassino and stay there till zero hour. Zero hour was noon, but the day depended on the weather. The ground troops were ready on 24 February; but first the ground had to be dry enough locally to allow the tanks to advance up the Liri valley, and dry also in south-east Italy so that the bombers and their heavy loads could take off from their airfields. The attack required a clear day for the bombers, a few days of fine weather before it to dry the ground, and a forecast of more fine weather afterwards. The code-name for the operation was Dickens, a reminder that the author had once travelled the winding road by mule to visit the monastery and had marvelled at its lofty situation.
Dickens had made his pilgrimage on a morning of mist and the operation which had borrowed his name was blessed also by bad weather. It rained, almost continuously, from 23 February till 5 March; from the 5th to the 10th it was fine except page 377 for two light afternoon showers and the ground began to dry, but in south-east Italy it was still raining and the airfields at Foggia could not be used by the bombers. Rain began again on 11 March and in the hills above Cassino it snowed. There was more rain on the 12th. It blew a gale that night but the 13th was fine and warm. On the 14th (still fine, but keep your fingers crossed) word was received in the evening from Fifth Army that the attack was on next morning.
The decision rested with 12 Air Support Command and was made on a day-to-day basis. An interesting point in their deliberations with General Freyberg is that the Air Force representatives at a conference on 21 February warned that the craters in Cassino after the bombing would make perfect tank traps to hinder the corps' advance. General Freyberg accepted this risk, replying that if the New Zealand tanks could not go forward the Germans would not be able to use theirs either.
For everyone it was a miserable three weeks. As day followed day the forward troops in Cassino whiled away the hours waiting wretchedly in cramped, insanitary buildings and cellars, suffering besides the cold and wet the strain of ceaseless watch in close contact with the enemy. At night strained sentries saw a target in every shadow. Whenever they could hear the enemy working on his positions they called down artillery fire; the enemy retaliated or shelled the supply points and roads over which carrying parties from the reserve companies each night humped food and ammunition to the forward posts, a carry of about half a mile.
Each day reduced the brigade's strength. With little to do but wait for the attack to begin, officers and men became pessimistic about its chances: there didn't seem much point in butting head-on a fortress as tough as Cassino. It soon became obvious that the enemy had correctly anticipated where the main attack was to be made and was using the time gained to strengthen his defences and relieve units needing a rest. His best formation, I Parachute Division, was made responsible for the defence of Cassino and Montecassino. It was supported by tanks and by about 180 guns.
the advance to albaneta house
Cpl Miller's tank loses track.
Col Gray's tank loses track.
Lt Hazlett's tank bogged.
Cpl Lennie's tank bogged.
Lt Hazlett killed.
Lt Renall killed.
20 Battalion RAP, Bir el Chleta. Capt W. L. M. Gilmour, in braces, tends the wounded; Capt E. R. Chesterman, in tin hat and with an arm in a sling, stands in the background
Lunch on the way to Syria, 4 March 1942. WO I ‘Uke’ Wilson is in the foreground
Pioneers in Syria
15 Platoon, C Company, has a meal at the company cookhouse during a move before the Ruweisat Ridge attack
20 Armoured Regiment officers, September 1943 Back row: Lts J. A. T. Shand, L. I. Carson, C. V. Shirley, R. B. F. Eastgate, J. T. K. Bradley, I. M. Walton, P. H. Brooks, C. F. S. Caldwell, G. F. Hart, M. P. Donnelly, G. C. Ferguson. Second row: Lts R. T. Familton, R. F. Walford, D. E. Murray, C. A. Low, L. W. Colmore-Williams, F. J. McKerchar, G. E. Taylor, S. A. Morris, Capts E. O. Dawson and R. J. Abbott, Lt F. E. M. Tuck. Sitting: Capts W. R. Gutzewitz and J. W. Rolleston, Majs V. C. Poole and P. A. Barton, Rev. G. A. D. Spence, Lt-Col J. W. McKergow, Majs H. A. Purcell, J. F. Phillips, and G. Baker, Capts J. A. Johnston, H. R. C. Wild, J. T. Shacklock In front: Lts J. S. Hazlett, J. F. Moodie, W. Heptinstall, 2 Lt J. A. Dawkins.
Tank positions, Orsogna, about New Year's Day 1944
Cassino, the German view of the town and valley. Castle Hill is in the left foreground, Route 6 and the Nunnery in the centre, the railway station and the Hummock on the right, and Monte Trocchio in the middle distance
C Squadron officers, Cassino, March 1944 From left: Bill de Lautour, Jim Moodie, Pat Barton, Percy Brooks, ‘Stuffy’ Hazlett, ‘Buck’ Renall. The three last named were killed in this battle
Cpl W. H. Archdall, 11 Troop C Squadron, on the advance to Florence
Looking towards Florence
In the hills the Indians prepared for their part in the battle. Fifth Indian Brigade had been allotted the task in operation DICKENS of relieving 25 Battalion on Castle Hill after its capture and then pushing on to the abbey. C Squadron on 2 March was put under the brigade's command for this operation, which involved no less than a direct dash by the tanks up the five-mile zigzag road to the monastery. The brigade was withdrawn from its forward positions to the neighbourhood of Cairo village to rest and reorganise for this operation.
The main supply track to the Indians' positions in the hills was the Cavendish road, built in February by 4 Indian Division's engineers. From Cairo village the track ran round the lower slopes of Monte Castellone and up a series of almost precipitous spurs to the north side of Colle Maiola. At this spot, known as ‘Madras Circus’, the track came out on to comparatively level ground, and from there a track led round Point 593 and past Masseria Albaneta (in the German lines) to Montecassino abbey. The Indian sappers and miners had hewed the track out of the rocky hillsides almost entirely with picks and crowbars.
Towards the end of February while rain and mud on the flat postponed again and again the attack on Cassino, the idea was born of sending a force of tanks up Cavendish road to capture Albaneta Farm and exploit to Montecassino. C Squadron page 380 was to be part of this force. But first the road had to be made wide enough for Shermans as far as Madras Circus. On I March the hard-worked Indian engineers were ordered to widen it; for a week from the 3rd they were helped by a party from 5 Field Park Company's mechanical equipment platoon with compressors and two bulldozers and by part of a platoon from 6 Field Company. The job was urgent and the engineers worked until dark, stopping only when rain compelled a halt. Part of the road could be seen from the German positions but the drilling and blasting went on under camouflage nets over a framework of poles. As part of his routine of ‘dusting up’ supply tracks the enemy occasionally harassed the road with shell and mortar fire, killing on 6 March the New Zealand engineer officer in charge of the work. Although the engineers' camp was also shelled one evening, the enemy does not seem to have been aware of what was going on and Captain Hornig5 was the New Zealand engineers' only casualty. By the night of 10–11 March the road was fit for tanks as far as Madras Circus; it was about a mile and a half long and in that distance rose 800 feet. The attack would begin when operation DICKENS had made some headway.
Meanwhile, back at Mignano, the rest of the regiment sat around cursing the weather. By now its squadron areas were deep in mud, and in the few spells when it wasn't raining working parties were chased out into the cold to repair roads. The enemy seldom interfered, although early on the morning of 6 March he mortared the nearby crossroads and the cemetery area. When the ground dried, footballs came out and several inter-squadron matches were played. There was a squadron race meeting on the afternoon of the 14th. Next day, of course, was D (for DICKENS) day; it was also the date of the unhappy ides of March. The attack was on.
On the night of 14–15 March the forward troops of 24 and 25 Battalions withdrew behind the safety line. The bombing began at 8.30 a.m. on the 15th and ceased at noon. Some of it was accurate, some of it miles off the target—Venafro, 12 miles to the east, was bombed in error by about thirty of the heavy page 381 bombers—but the attack laid Cassino in ruins and is believed to have killed about one battalion of 3 Parachute Regiment. Then at midday 600-odd guns, the heaviest concentration of artillery the New Zealanders had ever had—they included American and French guns and even three Italian railway guns manned by Italians—began to bombard every known German gun position and to blind by smoke the German OPs north-east of Monte Cairo and their positions on Montecassino. The shock attack had bowled its opening overs and there was a test-match tenseness in the air.
Under a two-hour barrage fired by eighty-eight guns, 25 Battalion was to advance into Cassino at midday as far as Route 6 with a squadron of 19 Armoured Regiment. It was to be followed into the town by a second squadron of 19 Regiment and by 26 Battalion, which was to clear the rest of the town and take the railway station. Seventh Field Company, with two bulldozers, would clear routes for the tanks, and 24 Battalion was to move into the town after it was captured. Two companies of American engineers were to bridge the Rapido at Route 6 and clear that route through the town; the tanks would then round the corner of Monastery Hill and enter the Liri valley. Except for C Squadron with the Indians, 20 Regiment was again to fill its now almost habitual role as reserve, holding itself ready to come under 6 Brigade's command when required. There were plenty of tanks—the Corps had 400 New Zealand and American Shermans at its disposal—so the regiment had to sit back and taihoa once more.
But these were paper plans, and first the men on foot had to win their way through the town. Twenty-fifth Battalion's advance was vigorously opposed by snipers and machine-gunners, who climbed out of the cellars where they had sheltered during the bombing and fought back fiercely. After a stiff fight one company captured Point 165 and Castle Hill, but the other companies could make little progress on the flat. About half past five 26 Battalion was sent in to help; it was already too late. Too much reliance had been placed on the bombing to neutralise the defences and the stunned enemy had been given time to recover. Now the town would have to be cleared house by house.
Nineteenth Regiment's tanks had taken little part so far in page 382 the attack and were well behind the infantry. It had been difficult enough even for men on foot to advance over the rubble and craters (some of the latter forty to fifty feet wide) blocking the narrow streets. Some of the tank crews had had to dig their way forward through the rubble with picks and shovels, the men working under a smoke screen to hide them from the snipers on Castle Hill.
But it was the weather that struck the worst blow: at dusk rain began to fall and throughout the night it came down in torrents. Without moonlight to help them, the troops in the town could make no headway. The rain filled the bomb craters and packed the rubble into a solid mass which defied the engineers' efforts to clear a path. Hot food could not be brought forward that night and the infantry were wet through, cold and hungry. Wireless sets were soaked and useless.
With his local knowledge to help him, the enemy made good use of the darkness and by dawn on the 16th had reoccupied a number of strongpoints in the town. For the attackers it had been a miserable night, and dawn brought further miseries. So far our casualties had been light in spite of snipers and nebelwerfers, and although by morning the American engineers had bridged the Rapido on Route 6 our own engineers had been forced to abandon their attempts to clear a path for the tanks. In daylight every move brought down fire at close range from snipers, mortars and machine guns, and the troops in the town could do little but keep under cover and fight back when the opportunity offered. During the day the infantry was joined by a troop of tanks from 19 Regiment, which had used scissors bridge-laying tanks 6 to cross craters on Route 6 on the way in to the town.
By nightfall on the 15th C Squadron and 5 Indian Brigade had taken no part in the battle. From San Michele the squadron had had a grandstand view of the bombing, a view spoiled only when one American bomb-aimer released his bombs too early on the ridge above and ‘dribbled them down through our area.’ ‘I have never seen such a scatter,’ the squadron commander writes, ‘and from then on we watched with a wary eye on the Yank planes.’ A few men recalled the days when page 383 the planes were Stukas and came from the opposite direction.
The squadron's task, it will be remembered, was to tackle the zigzag road from Cassino to the monastery. Two of its officers, Lieutenants Percy Brooks and ‘Buck’ Renall,7 had been flown over the route they were to take and had returned impressed with its difficulties. The Indians' plan was that their battalions would exploit southwards from Castle Hill along the eastern slopes of Montecassino, capturing in turn the hairpin bends of the hill road and climbing until they reached the flat crest of Point 435, Hangman's Hill. This hill took its name from the gibbet-like pylon carrying the cable of an old aerial ropeway between the Monastery and the town. From Hangman's Hill, which was less than 300 yards from the monastery, ¼ Essex Regiment would make the crucial last stage of the attack.
To support the Indians one C Squadron troop was to try to make its way up to below Hangman's Hill via Point 202. Major Barton thought the task impossible. ‘I was very much against this part of the plan as it appeared quite obvious that it would entail far too much engineering work to make a track,’ he says. ‘However, the Indians were very insistent and I agreed to send Sergeant Morris8 with their engineer officer to make a recce the night of the attack and decide. Tragically Alan Morris was killed on this recce and the officer, after a number of escapes, got back and reported the route hopeless. I was very upset over this as Alan Morris was an outstanding NCO and we could ill afford to lose him….’
The story of Sergeant Morris's reconnaissance is well worth a longer telling. With Lieutenant A. Murray, a Royal Engineers officer attached to 5 Indian Brigade, and a party of four sappers, Morris moved forward on the night of 15–16 March with ¼ Essex Regiment. The battalion had a difficult climb up Castle Hill in heavy rain and it was after 1 a.m. by the time it had completed the relief of 25 Battalion. Here again the party was delayed while Point 165 was recaptured and during the wait Morris shot a sniper at close range.
The party's task was to reconnoitre a route for tanks from page 384 Cassino to the monastery via Point 165. Leaving the sappers behind, Morris and Murray set off alone about 4 a.m., each armed with a revolver and with a tommy gun between them. They passed through the Indian companies trying to advance towards the monastery but ran into our own artillery concentrations on the road near Point 165. The leading Indian troops suffered many casualties and pulled back towards Castle Hill, but Morris and Murray waited for the concentrations to lift and pushed ahead again about 5 a.m. The road was in good repair round the corner to the edge of Hangman's Hill spur (Point 435), but farther along it several craters made it impassable to tanks. About this time a company of Gurkhas captured Hangman's Hill.
According to Lieutenant Murray, on whose report to the commander of 4 Indian Division this account is based, Morris gave it as his opinion that the country was not ‘tankable’ except on the road, on which several craters would have to be filled before it could be used.
From Point 202 Morris and Murray struck downhill to explore the routes between that point and Route 6. They went down the road past the amphitheatre and turned north towards the town. Daylight overtook them and Germans could be seen emerging from their holes among the ruined houses. They were washing, shaving, cooking; but all carried arms. About a hundred were counted in the southern outskirts of the town.
Morris then decided that it was time to get back up to the road they had come down, but when a shell landed near them they dashed into a house being used by the Germans as a store and took shelter in a dugout. After taking a prisoner, Morris ran into a German with a sub-machine gun while investigating a passage leading from the dugout and was killed. Murray then had to shoot his way out of the dugout, exchanged shots with a German in another building, killed him, and ran out on to the road and up the hill with twenty or thirty confused Germans shooting at him. He reached Castle Hill safely and ended his lively reconnaissance with an equally lively dash back to the Indian brigade headquarters with his report, dodging from rock to rock and going to ground every few yards to elude enemy snipers. For this exploit Murray won the MC. He and Morris got farther behind the German lines than anyone else at Cassino.page 385
The rest of the squadron had moved up from San Michele about four o'clock on the afternoon of the 15th and waited near the barracks just short of the town. It had an uneventful journey across the valley and moved into position ready to move through the town at dawn on the 16th behind 19 Regiment. ‘I had a lot of trouble contacting the Indians as it was pitch dark,’ says Major Barton, ‘and to add to the joy of the occasion it started to rain. It was obvious that things were going very slowly—the darkness and very rough going was making it terribly difficult for the Indians. We had a certain amount of shelling from a big gun right up on the heights beyond Cairo but suffered no damage that day. When dawn eventually came I moved forward and contacted the 19th Troop who were just in front of us. I went forward with an engineer officer to have a look at the road and, as we had feared, it was just hopeless—collapsed craters and a sea of mud! I sent most of the squadron back over the causeway as we were getting shelled fairly heavily and reported to Bde HQ that it appeared hopeless to expect to get through.’
With its tanks strung out at 100-yard intervals hugging the side of the road, the squadron spent the day of the 16th lying up on the approach route into the north of Cassino waiting orders to enter the town and advance up the road to the monastery. Any movement on the road brought down a few ranging rounds of pink smoke followed by a sharp ‘stonk’ placed with nice accuracy. Just before dusk the squadron's quartermaster-sergeant, Bob Newlands, had come up to a corner of the road in his 15-cwt ‘Mungar truck’ to distribute rations when a sudden concentration landed amongst the tank crews who had left their tanks to collect them. One of the troop commanders, Lieutenant Brooks, and two men, Corporal Laurie Brenton9 and Trooper Tollison 10 (the RAP man), were killed and two men wounded. Second-Lieutenant Jack Denham, last mentioned as a corporal in the fighting around Orsogna, took over command of the troop next day.
Major Barton was in Cassino keeping in touch with the forward troops and the waiting squadron was under its second- page 386 captain, Jim Moodie. The day's fighting showed that there was no chance of the tanks getting through the town to support the Indians holding precarious tenancy of isolated positions on Monastery Hill, and Barton ordered the squadron to withdraw for the night to safer positions in an olive grove a mile or so back from the town.
The end of the first phase of the operation was an extreme disappointment to the squadron. It had been given the chance to prove its worth in the most important, but perhaps impossible, role of fighting its way up the road to the monastery with 5 Indian Brigade. ‘We thought at last our chance had come,’ says Major Barton, ‘and our tails were well up and morale was soaring. It was a terrible anti-climax to us.’ But at nightfall on 16 March the enemy garrison still controlled the town, and the only New Zealand tanks in Cassino were three from 19 Regiment which had struggled through to the convent on Route 6 and joined 26 Battalion.
With the failure of operation DICKENS to clear Cassino, the proposed tank thrust up Cavendish road to the rear of the abbey assumed a new importance. It was thought that a tank thrust towards the monastery from the rear would create a diversion while Indian infantry attacked from Hangman's Hill. The tank attack was a 7 Indian Brigade ‘show’, and on 17 March C Squadron passed under its command.
Major Barton reconnoitred the area on foot next day (the 18th) with Captain Moodie. They set off at daybreak and were guided up a precipitous track to 7 Indian Brigade's headquarters, where they arrived puffed and blowing and were presented with breakfast bacon and eggs by the Brigadier. The headquarters was in an old farmhouse from which there was a magnificent view of the whole of the Rapido valley.
We crawled on our stomachs to OPs all day and had a most interesting if strenuous day [writes the squadron commander]. We had a good view of the ground but, of course, could not tell just what the ‘going’ was like. We finished by visiting the French Brigade HQ and several of their OPs. The Free French [French-Moroccan Goums] were most bloodthirsty gentlemen and had a most endearing habit of pointing to the Jerry lines and slowly drawing a hand across their throats. We were thankful they were on our side. We finished by walking down the road where the Yank and British tanks already were—met the OC, Col. Gray, and the Tommy commander, Maj. page 387 Cruickshank. They had been there for several days under enormous camouflage nets. We finally arrived at the spot where we had left ‘Slim’ Somerville11 with the jeep, about 6 p.m. Slim was most irate as he had been subjected to three air raids which had not pleased him at all. When we got back the squadron was quite convinced we had been either captured or killed, or both.
The general plan was that the tanks would capture Masseria Albaneta12 and then exploit south-east towards the monastery, linking up if possible with the Gurkhas and Essex troops from Hangman's Hill. No infantry could be spared by the Indians to accompany the tanks: it seemed that the lessons of the Western Desert had already been forgotten.
The exact composition of the tank force is difficult to determine but it seems that it consisted of 15 C Squadron Shermans, 12 open-topped Honey tanks (Stuarts) manned by a company of 760 United States Tank Battalion, a troop of five Honeys from 7 Indian Brigade's reconnaissance squadron under Major M. L. Cruickshank, and three American 105-millimetre self-propelled guns on Sherman chassis. A British artillery liaison officer accompanied the column in an open-topped Honey.
Major Barton returned from his reconnaissance not very impressed: the objective was rather vague, the force would have no infantry support, the liaison arrangements with the French and Indians were not thought adequate, the force's commander —Colonel Gray was an artilleryman—had had no experience with tanks. Barton reported his doubts to Brigadier Stewart at 4 Armoured Brigade's headquarters. The Brigadier did not like the plan any better than Barton did and rang Corps. ‘You can imagine my astonishment when they said the show was starting at 0600 the next morning,’ Barton later wrote. ‘Here was I 15 miles from the squadron, who were all blissfully asleep.’
They were not left to sleep long. The squadron had received no orders to move, but a telephone call to the Indian brigade confirmed that the attack was on. A hurried conference was held by candlelight and troop commanders were given what meagre information was available. About 1.30 a.m. on 19 March Colonel Gray arrived with more explicit orders, but it was then page 388 found that he had no communication direct with 4 Indian Division and that before the attack could start another No. 19 set would have to be installed in the tank carrying him. Two of the crew were taken out of Sergeant Owen Hughes's13 tank and the wireless and the Colonel installed in the turret, Hughes commanding the tank from the spare-driver's seat. Installing the extra wireless was not easy, ‘but Ray Hodge14 of EME and his offsider … (‘Ash’ Hogan15) did a really wonderful job,’ said Barton. ‘No lights could be shown and it is a very tricky job [even] in broad daylight.’ Hodge was the wireless expert attached from Divisional Signals: ‘I was still rigging the wire for the aerial when they moved off,’ he says.
The squadron got away between 3 and 4 a.m., Colonel Gray's tank in the lead. A heavy mist had come down and the tanks had to travel more or less nose to tail over ‘one of the toughest bits of ground I ever saw tanks asked to tackle’—to quote one of the troop commanders. One tank (Corporal Rex Miller's) slipped off the narrow track up Cavendish road and threw one of its tracks; it stayed there ‘at an angle of nearly 45 degrees’ for several very uncomfortable days. Fortunately it was the last in the line; had it been the first the chaos can only be conjectured.
The rendezvous with the rest of the force was at Madras Circus, at the head of Cavendish road. It took about three hours to complete the journey. On the first stretch, by devious muddy tracks to Cairo village, mule trains blocked the way; on Cavendish road the camouflage nets erected to hide the road from enemy guns were not high enough in places and became entangled with the tanks' turrets. It was daylight before the rendezvous was reached.
With Second-Lieutenant Hazlett's troop in the lead, the squadron moved off about half past seven up a grassy valley between rough, bush-covered hills. The gradient was gentle and the track fairly good, although sown with S-mines (‘One could see them going off like crackers under the tracks’) and broken up with patches of very soft going between outcrops of page 389 rock. Within a few minutes Hazlett's tank was bogged in one of these patches or in a shell hole, and two others, including that carrying the Colonel, had lost tracks—they had moved only about 300 yards from Madras Circus. Hazlett transferred to his sergeant's tank. Off the track large boulders and shell craters made the going very bad, and Second-Lieutenant Bill de Lautour's tank shed a track trying to climb a rocky spur on Phantom Ridge, from which he was to give covering fire. Following Hazlett's example, he took his corporal's tank.
So far the leading tanks had met opposition only from infantry as the self-propelled guns had knocked out most effectively an enemy blockhouse OP opposite the French lines. Enemy mortars now opened fire and the gear strapped on Captain Moodie's tank was set alight. At this stage the hills converged on the track and the tanks had to pass one at a time through a bottleneck where the path narrowed to only a few yards between bushy slopes. Second-Lieutenant ‘Buck’ Renall forced a way through after blasting out a machine-gun post. About this point the advance came under heavy artillery fire.
With Renall at the head of the squadron was Corporal Dick Jones,16 a tank commander in Renall's troop. He and his troop commander had given each other covering fire as they alternated in the lead, their advance being covered in turn by the tanks behind them. Jones had trouble from enemy snipers. ‘It was getting very uncomfortable with the head out,’ he reports. ‘I tried commanding with the turret closed, using the periscope, but between fumes from the guns and the rough going found it impossible.’ He continues:
Buck called (on the wireless) to say that we would advance to Albaneta House in two-up formation, covering the left scrubby hillside while Jack Hazlett looked after our right with his troop. Our ‘Two-up’ formation consisted of Buck and myself forward with covering fire from our Sergeant's tank. We decided to advance, ‘leap-frogging’ each other with approximately 300 yard bounds, each giving covering fire in turn. Here we found for the first time how vulnerable a tank is on the move in rough going. I tried at first to secure hull-down positions at the end of each advance, but soon gave up this idea as we nearly got stuck twice, and anyway our advance was much quicker than we anticipated.
Just as Buck gave the word to move a German crawled out of the page 390 scrub waving a white flag. Here I think that if we had had Infantry we could have captured many prisoners as they were starting to appear everywhere, but just then our covering tanks were through and opened up.
As we leap-frogged our way forward it became obvious that we had caught Jerry napping. Just through the gap Buck wiped out a machine-gun nest, the Germans bravely firing away at us until the end. All the way we pounded the hillside and I think we must have inflicted heavy casualties as we could pick up a good few Germans moving about.
As we advanced up the plateau we were all conscious of a narrow part, and my crew knew as well as I that if Jerry had anything heavy in the ‘Nunnery’ (Albaneta House) we would be a sitting shot. With the way our advance had gone it was our tank's turn to advance first, through the ‘bottle neck’, as Buck and I had been calling it.
As we prepared to advance through I told our driver, Jack Hodge,17 to drive as fast as possible, swerving from side to side. Buck opened up on Albaneta House and Jack Hazlett's troop was also concentrating on it. When it was practically obscured by dust we moved. In the turret we tossed about as the tank swerved and bucked. I am sure we all held our breath in spite of this. When we stopped Steve Lewis,18 our gunner, opened up on the ‘Nunnery’ with A.P. and H.E., while Joe Costello,19 our spare driver, raked it with his .30 Browning, much to his delight. Buck moved through while we kept up the bombardment.
Meanwhile, on C Squadron's right flank the Indian reconnaissance squadron and some of 760 US Tank Battalion's Honeys tried to clear the Phantom Ridge area. Their objective was Point 575, 700 yards west-north-west of Albaneta House. They struck bad going and were heavily shelled. Most of the reconnaissance squadron's tanks lost tracks and the squadron ended a short, sharp action with only one tank intact. One American tank crew was taken prisoner. The attempt was given up and the American Honeys followed C Squadron towards Albaneta.
Having safely passed through the second bottleneck the tanks opened fire on Albaneta House, which lay a little below them on a flat plateau overlooking a steep gully to the west. A big, square, stone building with thick walls built of ‘something very like Oamaru stone’, the farmhouse had already taken a pound- page 391 ing from our artillery and from bombs. Renall's three tanks and Hazlett's two dusted it over again without much visible effect and then searched the hillside of Point 593 for enemy weapon pits, but the Indians' lines were so close to the Germans' that the tanks' fire was restricted.
Major Barton reported back that Albaneta House ‘appeared to be under control’ and moved Renall's troop down to the flat ground in front of it—a treacherously soft boggy area. Hazlett's troop followed Renall. Barton continues their story:
We had orders to try and see what the chances were of getting around the corner to the Monastery. We knew from the aerial photos that a track of some kind was in existence but it did not look very promising. From our position it was not possible to see the track. I ordered Buck Renall to have a try and see what the reaction was. Jack Hazlett's two tanks were to cover Albaneta House as we were certain some Jerries must be there—we had seen four pop up from behind a wall some time earlier. It was not possible to get around the rear of the house as it was perched on the edge of a gully and the going was too tough.
All this time we had been shelled with varying degrees of intensity, some of it very heavy stuff which fortunately had little effect except to make sightseeing out of the turret undesirable. Renall's troop (I'm not sure whether he had three or two tanks at this stage) disappeared around the corner and we waited anxiously to hear from him. All went well for a while and then silence. I cannot remember now whether we ever heard any more over the air from Buck Renall. I think not as it must have been one of his crew called up and obviously something serious was wrong. The next moment his tank appeared and came out—holed several times with bazookas. Buck was killed…. [He was shot through the head by a sniper.] His other tanks had a further attempt with equally disastrous results—a … [wireless operator, Tom Middleton20] killed and one or two of the crew badly wounded. Jones lost an arm in one of these tanks. Bazookas and snipers did the damage. I am hazy about the third tank but I know that one pulled out and reported it was holed badly and I think casualties in the crew. To complicate matters this tank got badly stuck on the track up from the flat by Albaneta. We tried to get smoke down to let the crew make a dash for it as the sniping was severe. I was very reluctant to send down another tank (we only had about three genuine runners left anyway) as its chances of being stuck were obvious—the few tanks had churned up the soft going very badly. I had just decided that they would have to make a dash for it when a Yank Honey dashed up alongside page 392 and took all the crew off—it was a gallant effort as they were very likely to have become bogged alongside…. Throughout the day they displayed great dash and calmness, especially as they had ‘open’ Honeys. Their casualties were very heavy as a consequence. We greatly admired them.
The tank crew rescued by the Americans was commanded by Corporal Reg Lennie.21 He had taken his tank close up to Albaneta House, where a shot had disabled one of its motors, and on the way back it had bellied on the edge of a bomb crater in the boggy ground. Enemy mortars quickly concentrated on this sitting target and accurate spandau fire smashed both periscopes and kept the crew sealed under their hatches. Smoke was put down but was dispersed by the wind. All the remaining tanks then opened fire on the farmhouse and the surrounding enemy positions while two American Honeys dashed in and picked up the crew. The rain of shells on the soft stone walls of the house quickly raised a dense pall of dust, ‘which soon enveloped the tank and allowed the crew to bale out into the straddling open-topped Honeys.’ Before they could get out the crew had to ‘bash open’ the turret hatch with empty shell cases as a hit from a mortar bomb had jammed it, but the four men escaped unharmed.22
It was about this time—or probably a little earlier—that Lieutenant Hazlett was killed. Major Barton tells what happened:
During these attempts to get around the corner a most distressing incident occurred. Jack Hazlett was very close to Albaneta House covering Renall and keeping an eye on Albaneta when his camouflage net which he was carrying on the back of his tank caught fire. Jack jumped out of his turret to pull it away and was shot dead from Albaneta. His wireless operator and gunner (Sorich23 and Dasler24) also got out—I have never understood why they did—and dived into a huge bombhole alongside and both perished either from shelling or snipers from Albaneta—I think shelling as we were having page 393 a nasty strafing at the time.25 Shorty Gallagher26 and Bill Welch27 were the drivers and eventually brought the tank out, much holed by bazookas. They put up a magnificent show and Gallagher received the MM…. It was a tragic affair. Dasler and Sorich if they had remained would have come out…. The death of Stuffy Hazlett was a severe blow to the Squadron. His never failing good humour and commonsense, as well as his renowned unorthodox methods, had endeared him to us all—he was sadly missed.
At the risk of a little repetition, the story of the advance by Renall's troop, now two tanks strong, is well worth hearing at first hand. It is told by Corporal Jones, commander of the surviving tank, who did not escape from the action unscathed. He writes:
Buck came on the air to say our other tank was bogged and that we were to recce for an advance route to the Monastery. It was a wonderful experience being so close after weeks of cowering under its domination, and to think we could actually fire at it directly.
It was at this time I realized that our ammunition was running low. Our Browning tins were nearly empty and our 75mm racks were getting bare. Every shot had to count now.
We turned left and went forward a hundred yards or so and somebody on the air said to ‘put out that fire on that tank’. While I was looking round to see if it was ours I saw the camouflage net on Jack's burning and Jack [Hazlett] climbing out to extinguish it. Seconds later he fell off the tank.
We advanced another stage to the left but shortage of ammunition didn't allow us to do the hill (Point 593) on our left over as thoroughly as we had on our advance, and I am positive that this was the reason for our downfall. I moved forward a bit further to get a better view of the track to the monastery and the shelling was terrific. We nearly got stuck, only superb driving by Jack Hodge getting us out.
Word came that Buck was killed. I realized that our reconnaissance would have to be quick as we couldn't fire our 75mm much and our Browning (co-ax.) was terribly hot and wasting ammunition by ‘running away’, in spite of the oil which Steve threw over it.
It was while looking at the possible route that we were hit.page 394
Regaining consciousness I saw that my arm was bleeding badly and must have a tourniquet quickly. I looked up to see Joe Costello gazing through the turret at me. How he wasn't hit is a mystery. Steve was slumped over his 75mm, bleeding badly from his back and head. Tom Middleton was lying on the floor, having fallen off his seat by his wireless. With difficulty I managed to traverse the turret by hand to allow Jack to scramble through to apply the tourniquet.
This applied, I told Jack to try the motors. It was with a prayer on our lips he pressed the starter. The left engine roared into life to be followed by the right immediately afterwards. With his head out of the driver's hatch, the better to see and get maximum speed, Jack drove out through our own tanks, which were still pounding away at the enemy, to the forward CCS.
The vital area was now Point 593—it was obvious that the attack could not succeed until the hill had been cleared. Dug in on its shaggy western slopes in positions hidden in dense scrub, the enemy's riflemen in their spotted camouflage suits were hard to pick up and harder still to hit. Their persistent and accurate sniping forced the tank commanders to keep their heads inside their turrets or permitted them only an occasional quick glance. Half-blinded, several tanks ran into difficulties. Giving each other cover against bazooka attack, the tanks strafed the enemy weapon pits but without infantry help could not clear them. Before the squadron could continue its dash to the monastery, infantry would have to come up to consolidate the ground gained.
At this point an attempt was made by Second-Lieutenant de Lautour to get his remaining tank towards the monastery, about 1400 yards away along a paved stone track, but the shelling was too heavy and the enemy's bazookas and snipers too persistent. With great dash and determination the American Honeys also tried in the late afternoon to advance round the southern shoulder of Point 593, but they suffered heavy casualties—seven tanks were lost—and had to pull out.
Major Barton was recalled to Madras Circus for a conference and the five surviving tanks under Captain Moodie took up a position on the track north of Albaneta House where they were hidden from enemy OPs. They stayed there the rest of the day waiting for infantry support and further orders. Except for sniping and a little shelling, the enemy held his fire, apparently waiting to see whether infantry would join the tanks. A few page 395 paratroopers who tried to stalk the tanks from the scrub on Point 593 were driven off by machine-gun fire. Moodie also called up three or four of the American Honeys and sent them to a crest above the track to harass enemy infantry to the west.
With only five runners left in the squadron and with daylight going fast, the chances of advancing to the monastery were now very slight indeed. The Gurkhas and Essex men on Hangman's Hill had more than enough troubles of their own and could make no attempt to link up with the tanks from the east. Without such support and with no infantry to back them, the tanks could make no headway and were ordered by wireless from Madras Circus to return there. They began to withdraw about dusk. Had they stayed later they would have become an easy prey to German infantry with bazookas or to counter-attacks already brewing on Phantom Ridge. In the failing light some of the enemy followed the tanks back part of the way while the flashes of their small-arms fire lit up the bushy slopes on both sides of the valley.
We spent the night licking our wounds and trying to get some much-needed sleep [Major Barton continues]. We were shelled fairly frequently and Jim Moodie was wounded and sent down next day. The Germans did not react in any other way. The Tommies and Yanks left us the following night. Shelling was heavy at times and we had the bad luck to have George Hanrahan28—my driver— very badly wounded, and also Bell,29 my spare driver. Bell died of wounds in an Indian CCS. We got up supplies by jeep—Bob Newlands being his usual grand self and we lacked nothing. Bill Dalrymple30 and his staff did what they could in the way of repairs….
The attack was the squadron's second disappointment within a week. It had lost nine tanks in the action (five were later recovered and brought back) and had had two officers and three other ranks killed and one officer and eight men wounded. page 396 What had it accomplished in return? It had taken the enemy by surprise and had penetrated well behind his lines in difficult country which he had apparently believed impassable to tanks for he had laid no anti-tank mines.31 It had helped to take some of the pressure off the sorely-tried troops isolated on Hangman's Hill. Lieutenant Renall is credited by an eye-witness as having got to within 1000 yards of the monastery; had there been any prospect of consolidation the dash to the abbey might have been ‘on’, although it is doubtful whether the track was wide enough for Shermans all the way. Sapper help would probably have been needed to open the road and under the heavy fire their employment was not possible.
The enemy had reacted nervously: he had retaliated with a hail of mortar and artillery fire, and although he scored hits with what is believed to have been an 88-millimetre gun, his snipers and bazookas caused most of C Squadron's casualties. Very few Germans were seen but they fought courageously: at one time paratroopers came as close as 30 yards and engaged the tanks with hand grenades and rifles. Most of the tank casualties, however, were caused by mechanical failure, broken tracks or bogging, rather than by the enemy's fire—an indication that he had been caught unawares and was badly flustered. An intercepted wireless message reported ‘Enemy tanks broken through our centre, inf attack imminent’; another agitated message claimed that the attacking force was ‘using new tank with rubber tracks that can climb rocks’.
The attack had little effect on the main battle for Cassino. It was primarily a raid—a ‘side show’ General Freyberg called it—one arm of a pair of pincers that could accomplish nothing without the other. But to get tanks behind Point 593 into the heart of the enemy defences was a feat of skill and determination which, if it had small result, was at least an achievement that provided one bright spot in a week of troubles and frustrations.
In a letter of appreciation to the squadron commander on the tanks' part in ‘the cavalry ride to Albaneta House’, General Galloway, the commander of 4 Indian Division, described the attack as ‘a very valuable diversion and a great effort on your page 397 part’. The squadron, he said, had made a real contribution to the battle both in the casualties it had inflicted on the enemy and in the fact that the possibility of the operation being repeated would ‘undoubtedly prevent the enemy from thinning out and so finding reserves for the main battles.’
Apart from the shelling mentioned by Major Barton the enemy left the tanks at Madras Circus alone. The Americans and British withdrew on the night of 20–21 March but the New Zealanders stayed there until the 22nd, when it was decided to leave one troop behind to support the Essex infantry and withdraw the rest to the squadron's old laager area at San Michele, where it would reorganise. Second-Lieutenant Jack Denham, on whose sound recollection much of this account is based, was left there in charge of a troop of three tanks until the night of 26–27 March. Reliefs continued to man these tanks until about 2 April, the crews being changed every four days. Apart from mortaring and sniping and a fall of snow, the crews had little excitement, although Second-Lieutenant Laurie Falconer was wounded by spandau fire on the night of the 30th and lost an arm.
‘One of our squadron's tanks knocked out in the earlier show was sitting abandoned some distance in front of the Tommy positions,’ says Corporal Miller, later mentioned in despatches for his part in this incident. ‘Laurie decided to endeavour to disable the gun in case the Jerries manned it, and I agreed to go out with him. We were joined by a Tommy officer and a fighting patrol of about eight men and proceeded in single file up the valley. Laurie first, myself second, and the patrol following. I had just sighted the form of the tank a few yards ahead in the darkness when a spandau opened up from beside it with a stream of tracer that seemed to go everywhere but through me. Jerry had got there first. I rolled well to one side and heard the rest getting back, so followed suit. On catching up with some of them I was told that Laurie had been hit, so I went back and found him. I got him back till we had nearly regained the FDLs and there met the Tommy officer who was on his way back alone to find what had become of us. We heard movements in the gully, which we suspected to be a Jerry patrol, so he returned and brought up men to give us cover defence while we got Laurie back further. I then went and page 398 collected a stretcher party from the tank crews to finish the job.’
Stores, ammunition, and water were brought up to Madras Circus at night by jeep and in the squadron quartermaster's 15-cwt. By now the activities of its quartermaster-sergeant, Bob Newlands, in various actions had become almost a squadron legend. ‘Bob was always the first on the scene after any action and we never lacked anything,’ writes Major Barton. ‘Bob and Bill Brass had been taking supplies up to Mount Cairo after the Albaneta House show and on their way back got a puncture in a very exposed part of the road. Bob sprang out and started rummaging round for the jack, and Bill, who had been equally quick to get out, said: “We've no time to worry about the bloody jack, Bob, I'll lift the b— while you change the wheel.” And lift it he did! I was very sad to hear that Bob has since died. A grander chap never lived.’
So far C Squadron had struck the regiment's only blows in the battle. At Mignano Regimental Headquarters and A and B Squadrons still waited for word to move. They had been there since 7 February and had found the wait interminable. Occasionally an enemy fighter would streak up the valley strafing the road, and on 19 March a spectacular fire in the Division's ammunition point nearby provided a lively and expensive display. Next day, the 20th, the wait ended for A Squadron, which moved that night up Route 6 and over a rough track to an area above the road and a mile or more north of Monte Trocchio. The night was pitch dark and the move took several hours. It brought the squadron almost due east of Cassino, still two miles or more away, and under command of 19 Armoured Regiment as reserve squadron.
Regimental Headquarters and B Squadron followed A Squadron north on the 22nd with the role of relieving 19 Regiment in Cassino under 5 Brigade's command. One tank was lost over a bank near Trocchio on the way up, but the regiment had received four new ones the day before. The tanks arrived in the new area about 8 p.m. and were hidden from enemy view under olive trees on a steep hillside near San Michele, sharing the narrow roads with 78 British Division, under whose command two troops of B Squadron were temporarily placed.
A Squadron was first into the town. It made a false start on page 399 the afternoon of the 22nd when 1 Troop moved up Route 6 under a smoke screen but was stopped at a bridge by an engineer officer and told that the bridges farther ahead had been damaged by shelling: they couldn't be repaired in daylight but the engineers would fix them that night. The troop returned to its lying-up area behind a house which sheltered it from the scrutiny of the battered abbey across the valley. Only two tanks had made the trip: at the start of the journey the troop commander's tank had lost a track and Sergeant Bill Russell was evicted, most unwillingly, from his.
At 5.30 a.m. next day Lieutenant Charlie Low31 and Sergeant Doig32 of 1 Troop followed the squadron commander, Captain Bay, up Route 6 and over the Rapido into Cassino. With them also was 2 Troop under Second-Lieutenant ‘Snow’ Nixon. Route 6 was still covered by the enemy in the Hotel des Roses and from gun and tank positions in houses at the foot of the hill. No. 1 Troop sheltered for a while behind what was left of a wall of the convent on Route 6, and then edged round the lip of a shell hole blocking the road into the town and crossed an empty section to the left. About 100 or 150 yards from the convent the two tanks took up positions in a partly demolished building near the road leading to the railway station, which had been captured by 26 Battalion and a 19 Regiment squadron on the 17th. Reports were received that three German tanks were sheltering behind the Hotel Continental at the end of the street and the troop opened fire. Again Low had bad luck: after firing only two rounds his gun gave trouble and he pulled back into shelter. Doig spent the day sniping and at close range fired over fifty rounds into the Hotel des Roses and other buildings. When enemy retaliation became too heavy or too close, he moved his tank behind the building until the fire quietened.
No. 2 Troop went to the railway station and almost immediately ran into trouble. Lieutenant Nixon's tank was holed by an anti-tank gun and Nixon and Corporal Cliff Watson,33 the wireless operator, and Lance-Corporal Brassey,34 the gunner, page 400 were wounded, the last the most seriously. The tank caught fire and its crew left it in a hurry, but Brassey had to be rescued by the troop sergeant, ‘Buck’ Needham. Needham left his own tank, climbed through the driver's hatch of the now furiously burning tank, and with help lifted out the gunner. The tank was still in full view of the enemy gun, which put another armour-piercing shell into the driver's compartment just as Needham climbed out. Brassey died from his wounds later in the morning; Needham, miraculously unhurt, was awarded the MM.
With the troop commander wounded, Needham took over command. His troop was relieved at dawn next day (the 24th) when B Squadron assumed responsibility for the station area, but it was daylight before the relief was completed. Needham's two tanks again had to run the gauntlet of the anti-tank gun. His own tank sped past; the second, more cautious, moved behind cover. As Needham had now lost communication with the second tank, he walked back some 200 yards along the road from where his own tank was halted to see if all was well. It was a clear day and the road was right under the enemy's eye; his machine guns and mortars lashed the ground with their fire. When one of the tank commanders in the relieving troop was wounded, Needham helped to evacuate him. The sergeant's coolness and disregard for his own safety was an example of gallant leadership far greater than the bare words convey. He was himself wounded a few nights later while coming back on foot from the railway station. Trooper Jack Ward,35 only a yard or so away, was killed by the same mortar bomb.
After a wretched week of difficulties and deadlock New Zealand Corps' policy was now to hold what it had won. Both sides had virtually fought themselves out. Successive days of bitter fighting to clear a way along Route 6 had achieved no notable successes. Because of the obstacles that blocked their path, the tanks could not close on the enemy strongpoints that defied the assaults of the infantry and were forced to engage them from a distance, sometimes of only 200 yards or so. At a conference on the morning of 23 March General Freyberg had reported that the Division had ‘come to the end of its tether’.page 401
The time had come to reorganise. Indian and New Zealand outposts isolated on Monastery Hill were withdrawn into the town on the night of 24–25 March and Cassino became a garrison. The tanks became pillboxes and 19 and 20 Regiments rearranged their boundaries and supporting tasks so that the 20th became responsible for the greater part of the town and the area of the station while the 19th worked in the northern end of the town. As far as the tanks were concerned, this reorganisation took place on the morning of the 24th when B Squadron of the 20th took over the station area from 19 Regiment.
B Squadron's task was to support the infantry around the station and along the western bank of the Rapido. One troop of tanks was sited in the station area in close support and a second troop was in reserve near the railway embankment about a mile away, ready to relieve the troop on duty and to move up to the station in an emergency if required. No. 6 Troop took over the station position about half past five on the morning of the 24th and was originally to be followed there by 8 Troop, but when it reached the station it wirelessed back that there was not enough cover there for more than one troop and advised 8 Troop not to come in without smoke protection.
Moving in line ahead along Route 6, Squadron Headquarters and 5 and 7 Troops came to a stop at a damaged bridge. As there was little chance of getting farther forward, Captain Clapham36 exchanged tanks with the officer he was to relieve and took command of the A Squadron tanks already in the town. The rest of the squadron then took up supporting positions near the cemetery north of Route 6.
No. 8 Troop had no better fortune than the others. On the way in to the station under a smoke screen, Sergeant McClelland's tank ran off the railway embankment just after crossing the bridge over the Rapido and lost a track. Captain Shacklock and Sergeant Hiscock37 reached the station but were recalled that night to the squadron area, where they were joined by McClelland's crew. A party then went out to remove the breech block from the damaged tank and to ‘cannibalise’ any of its page 402 equipment. Mortars opened fire and Hiscock was wounded in a leg; it was later amputated.
No. 1 Troop had spent the night of 23–24 March giving the encouragement and protection of its guns to a company of 21 Battalion, and had returned just before daylight to the protection of its building near the convent ready for another day's sniping. The crews had quickly learned that any movement of tanks by day at once drew enemy shells and mortar bombs. At night the tanks could move a little provided they did it quietly, as any noise brought a sharp enemy reprimand.
At night the tanks in Cassino acted as a sort of welfare centre for the infantry in the town: the crews would brew tea for them, hand out any food they had to spare, or help to bury their dead. All the time the tanks were on call should the enemy attack. The troop commander's post was with the infantry headquarters in the crypt at the rear of the convent. A wireless operator with him was in contact with the tanks in the town and with RHQ, which was on continuous wireless watch ready to call up the squadron's reserve troop near the cemetery, just over a mile away.
That, briefly, was the pattern of most of A Squadron's tank work in Cassino. No. 1 Troop took its tanks back out of the town about 6 a.m. on 25 March and Squadron Headquarters and 3 Troop took over. Sergeant Russell made his postponed entry into Cassino with this relief. He describes the experience:
I went in with the first relief, Martin Donnelly38 and Ces Brown39 showing us the way in. This trip we still had bridges over the Rapido and took the jeeps over. Later we had to walk this mad mile, or more or less. This first trip we were shelled or mortared quite a bit —at least I remember flattening out on the road a few times and was carrying a 4-gallon tin of petrol for our Homelite charger to keep the batteries up so that our wireless would still be of use to us. That's the heaviest tin I hope I ever carry.
Our first refuge was to get down on our hands and knees and enter the Crypt, which was our main dressing station or RAP. From here we scrambled out the other side and proceeded 100, perhaps 200, yards to the tank positions in the buildings. We also had infantry in these positions with us, and as far as I know there was nothing ahead of us except the enemy. Jerry was able to shell the yard page 403 between the church and the tanks but seemed unable to get short enough to hit the tank building. All the same we were close enough to Jerry to receive a rifle grenade with pamphlets.
We had dug trenches under our tanks and took our turns on sentry with the tommy guns ready for action, but we were never really called on to patrol or defend ourselves this way. But I'll always remember those positions, with the shells and mortars falling close behind us, and Jerry talking and screaming, and worst of all the croaking of frogs when listening and peering for forms in the darkness.
The crews of the tanks in the town—but not the tanks themselves—were changed every two or three days. The main reason for this was the difficulty the engineers had in keeping the bridges over the Rapido in repair: as regularly as they fixed them by night the enemy blew them apart by day or, as a variation, shelled them at night while the engineers were working on them, causing heavy casualties. ‘I've walked over our dead on those splintered planks more than once in haste,’ said one man. Crews usually travelled by jeep up Route 6 as far as the Bailey bridge, the jeep drivers doing ‘a great job’ under fire. The reliefs walked or ran or crawled the rest of the way according to individual preference and enemy viciousness at the time. ‘Spandau Joe’, a German machine-gunner who became one of the characters of the Cassino battle, gave the tank crews some anxious moments and close escapes on Route 6, but although his fire forced the jeeps to stop farther along the road and gave the crews a longer walk, sometimes raising the dust at their feet, it caused the squadron no casualties.
The tanks couldn't move about inside the town for Route 6 was still badly cratered and was covered by enemy guns. One of these was a long-barrelled 75-millimetre which was sited in a building near the Hotel des Roses. Perhaps the range was a bit short, or perhaps the gun could not be depressed enough to reach the squadron's position, for most (but not all) of the shelling passed overhead. On the 25th the fire was especially heavy and a 3 Troop tank was hit, Corporal Lovelock40 and Trooper Fowler41 being killed. The enemy seemed to have plenty of ammunition and the hours of relief had to be changed page 404 almost every day. One of the crews' main worries was the recharging of batteries to keep the wireless working and to start the tanks' engines. Carrying parties had to bring in petrol, often under fire, and the noise of the Homelite charger was almost certain to bring down fire. A near miss one day put the electrical system of one tank out of action but it was repaired in the town.
But not all the shells in Cassino were travelling east. By 25 March the Allied guns had fired over half a million shells, and mortars and tanks added their not inconsiderable quotas to the bombardment being rained on the enemy. The regi ment's tanks in the centre of the town and at the railway station found targets on Route 6, along which the movement of enemy tanks was several times reported, and engaged strongpoints at the foot of Monastery Hill. And when all else was quiet there was bound to be sooner or later a report from the infantry of tanks ‘popping in and out of cover’ from behind the Continental or the Hotel des Roses.
No. 6 Troop at the railway station fired smoke on the 25th to help screen the tanks in Cassino, but in the days that followed the troop at the station had troubles of its own. Although the position there was rather open and the whole area commanded by enemy guns, it had been decided to post a troop of tanks up with the infantry rather than run the risk of the bridge on the railway embankment being blown and the ground troops cut off from support. Should the enemy attack, the tanks were already in the front line and their commanders familiar with the area. The wisdom (and the dangers) of this plan were soon to be clearly shown.
On the night of 30–31 March German paratroops from a machine-gun company attacked 26 Battalion at the station and at the hummock. About nine o'clock, after heavy mortar concentrations, two parties crossed the Gari River to the west and made straight for the tanks. The infantry opened fire on the attackers and the tank crews could hear shouts in German, but in the dark the tanks were almost helpless and had to rely on the infantry for protection. Sergeant Bill Watson's42 tank was bazookaed. The German patrol then climbed on to it and fired through the open hatch, killing Sergeant Watson, Corporal page 405 W. A. Brown,43 and Troopers Vince Graffin44 and Alf Ball.45 The driver, Trooper Jim Hayward,46 was taken prisoner.
Twenty-sixth Battalion's historian records that one of his unit's pickets first noticed something amiss when he saw several paratroopers trying to lift the hatch of a nearby tank, whose crew were revolving the turret in an effort to dislodge them. This tank was Corporal Jim Boniface's.47
At approx 2200 hours [says B Squadron's commander] the enemy tps infiltrated the fwd inf positions apparently with the idea of KO-ing the tks, the tks at this stage being at separate positions with the inf, the sentry of which was to guard the tks as well as his own mates. Unfortunately on the night of the attack the sentry was a bit inexperienced. On hearing movement he challenged, ‘Who's that?’ and received the answer in English, ‘Only us’, and instead of challenging with the password relaxed and let the Germans move by on to the Sgt's tank, which they bazookaed.
The same trick was worked where the Cpl's tk was. But instead of bazookaing it the Germans climbed up on the tk probably with the intention of dropping a grenade in the turret. Fortunately one of the inf noticed them and fired, warning the crew, who came into action by traversing the gun, knocking the Germans off.
The troop at the station that night (No. 5) was due to be relieved at midnight and its commander (Lieutenant Rod Eastgate48) radioed Colonel Ferguson asking whether he thought the relief advisable in view of the enemy activity. It was decided that the troop should stay put for the night. It was a wise decision for the skirmish flared up again about midnight when the Germans made another probe towards the tanks. After a while the attack was beaten off and Eastgate set off to find his sergeant, with whom he had lost touch. ‘I set off to see what was wrong,’ he says, ‘but the infantry asked me not to move about, as they were fairly trigger-happy from straining their page 406 eyes into the darkness…. Shortly before dawn … the paratroops again came down the railway line from the direction of the “Baron's Palace”. This time they brought their blankets with them but they had a warm reception. As it grew light, Corporal Boniface and I were able to move our tanks over to the engine roundhouse, from which we overlooked the Hummocks, and were in a position to bring fire to bear on some of the troublesome spots. It was all over in an hour or so, and by that time the Arty had covered the whole forward area with smoke shells, so that Sergeant Reid49 was able to come roaring up in his tank in broad daylight to reinforce us.’ ‘My driver “Parkie” (later killed at Sora) … gave the old tank all she had,’ says Reid. ‘We had such a fast trip we could not tell whether anything was fired at us or not.’
No. 6 Troop had moved up in support during this skirmish but smoke obscured its view of the station yards and it took no part in it. No. 5 Troop spent the rest of the day improving its positions in anticipation of a further attack. Twenty-three enemy dead were counted in the station area and five prisoners were taken.
Eastgate's troop was relieved by Second-Lieutenant Jack Dawkins's troop that night. The three tanks of this troop were grouped together in a house at night to form a strongpoint protected by sandbags and ack-ack Brownings on ground mountings. The tank crews, armed with tommy guns, were made responsible for their own protection, but there were no further raids before the squadron was relieved.
The ‘flying fitters’ under Sergeant Charlie Lilley50 did particularly good work in the station area at this time. While manoeuvring into position behind a house, one 8 Troop tank struck a wall and damaged a sprocket and hub. A new one had to be fitted but, for obvious reasons, the work could not be done by daylight. For four nights the fitters worked in pitch darkness, sometimes using a torch under a tarpaulin. Each blow of the sledge-hammer rang like a bell, and after every few blows the fitters had to dive for cover for about a quarter of an hour while enemy guns and mortars briskly ‘stonked’ the area. Even page 407 muffling with sandbags failed to reduce the noise; the enemy mortars never failed to protest, and the work had to be carried out in short bursts of a few hectic minutes at a time.
Enemy patrols, no doubt trying to find out what the noise was all about, were an additional hazard. One wet, pitch-dark night when ‘Spandau Joe’ was venting his evening hate on the railway yards, the fitters took shelter in the turret of the tank on which they were working. To pass the time they called up the three other tanks on the high-frequency ‘B’ set. Through the earphones a hoarse voice whispered in reply:
‘Are you in the tank?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Be very quiet, there's a Jerry patrol in the area.’
Noiselessly the tank's hatches were closed and latched. All its guns had been either salvaged or made ineffective, and the fitters' only pistol was lying outside on the front of the driver's compartment. Suddenly there came the sound of running feet and a scurrying at the back of the tank. The fitters sat in silence, waiting tensely for the crash of the bazooka. Outside, a Tommy from a listening post, returning for his gas cape, had paused to take cover from the machine-gun fire.
In this area troops relieved each other every two days. A troop would do two days at the station and then two days in the reserve area (or vice versa) before going back along the railway to the dispersal area at San Michele, where Squadron Headquarters occupied a position on a hill behind a little red schoolhouse. Occasionally tanks were shelled while moving along the railway track. One night the relief was delayed because the railway bridge had been damaged by shellfire: the incoming troop left its tanks behind and went in on foot, taking over the tanks already in position at the station. On 15 April it was decided to leave troops in the station area for three days rather than risk casualties in changing over.
After a month in the line under various commands, B Squadron was relieved in the early hours of 25 April. On the way out a No. 8 Troop tank fouled a loose railway line at the bridge and broke a track, and as it was nearly daylight the tank was abandoned and the crew evacuated. At dusk that evening the Technical Adjutant, Captain George Taylor,51 went back for page 408 it with the American T2 recovery tank which he had retrieved from the muddy fields below the railway embankment but found that it had been blown to bits by a heavy gun.
Meanwhile, in the centre of the town, the routine that inevitably settles on the shoulders of any garrison in peace or war, making day to day incidents difficult to remember and duller to record, weighed heavily on the regiment's crews. At noon on 26 March New Zealand Corps was disbanded and Cassino became 13 Corps' responsibility and all the troops in the town passed to its command. For a few days A and B Squadrons took turns on duty, three tanks in the centre of the town and three in the station area. From time to time reports of the inevitable problem tank at the Hotel Continental drew down a hail of fire to which the tanks contributed their share. By night tired infantrymen and tank crews crawled out of their ruined houses and cellars and crossed the river for a brief rest while their reliefs struggled forward with heavy loads of supplies and ammunition—sandbags, kerosene for the primus, water tins, bully beef, bread.
The enemy was quick to anger and a ‘stonk’ would follow the slightest provocation. What provoked him on the 29th is not recorded but the tanks in the station area were chided with the heaviest shelling they had so far experienced in that position, and those in the town were bombed as well as shelled. One A Squadron tank had its radiator holed—amazingly slight damage for the fury expended—but one man was killed and another wounded. The regiment retaliated that night and next morning with concentrations against an anti-tank gun south of the Baron's Palace; in return, a tank at the convent was hit by shellfire and its crew evacuated.
On 29 March squadron responsibilities in the town were defined by the CO after a visit to 6 Brigade Headquarters. Nine tanks were to be kept there: three in the station area (the responsibility of B Squadron) with two tanks in reserve just north of the railway and about three-quarters of a mile to the east; three in the central area near the convent (A Squadron's responsibility) with a troop standing by in the squadron area; and three C Squadron tanks in the north of the town. The last squadron, with a troop still at Madras Circus in the page 409 hills, had taken over the northern sector from C Squadron 19 Regiment on the night of 25–26 March.
Because of the lack of cover the number of tanks in the centre of the town was later reduced from three to two. Both were sited in one building near the convent—the only suitable one left in that area—while the troop commander and a wireless operator with a No. 22 set were stationed with the infantry's headquarters in the crypt. A composite troop of four tanks was allotted a counter-penetration role and was sited two miles east of the town. Squadron Headquarters and the rest of the tanks, nine in all, were south of San Michele. Should the enemy dislodge the troops in the town, the squadron was to support the infantry east of the Rapido and prevent the enemy from crossing the river.
Early in April the New Zealand infantry in Cassino were relieved by regiments of the Guards Brigade (Grenadier, Coldstream and Welsh Guards), whose soldierliness made an impression on the tank crews. They learnt, for instance, to give the answer to the password quickly when challenged and to halt when ordered while entering their tank positions. The New Zealand soldier is often rather casual about such regimental niceties, but in Cassino, with the enemy often only a few yards away and sentries in no mood to dally, it did not take him long to learn to respond smartly and with precision to a challenge.
As the days went by and the little cover that was left was whittled away by the enemy's fire, the difficulties of keeping tanks in Cassino, especially at the railway station, began to cause anxiety. A tank's engines are no less a weapon than its gun, and without room to manoeuvre to improve its field of fire a tank loses much of its value. As the cover became less, more smoke had to be used to screen the tanks' positions from the enemy's guns; but smoke also allowed the enemy to bring up reinforcements under its cover and in turn made it more difficult for the tanks to register their own targets. It also made the enemy suspect that mischief was afoot and order an artillery drubbing for the area under the screen.
Reliefs were usually carried out before midnight, but not always at the same time lest the enemy should come to know when troops were on the roads. The method is described by Captain Caldwell, A Squadron's second-captain, who rejoined page 410 the regiment early in April after a spell in hospital. He writes:
When I arrived back from hospital two tanks were in the town and the remainder of the Sqn had pulled back and a group (I think the rest of the tanks) were in a nasty position in trees on the flat just a short distance from the beginning of the last clear run into the town. Crews were being relieved from there. There was no protection from anything, even the weather, and the blokes slept (if possible) out in the open and there was mud for miles. Shortly afterwards we moved the whole crowd back three or four miles on the right of the road (east) and then east about two miles, coming out on a nice (?) forward slope sparsely covered with olive trees. We moved in at night, put in our tanks, dispersed, with tarpaulins stretched out for cover as usual. When we woke in the morning, to our disgust we looked straight across the flat straight into the town, and the Monastery seemed very close. There was quite a bit of immediate moving and within a short time all the bivvies were on the friendly side of the tanks. It was a bad spot, as I am sure we were in full view, and although daylight movement was reduced to a minimum and lights at night had to be well covered, we were only stonked once or twice, and then I think Jerry was going either for the road immediately at our rear or some guns in the fields behind. Some shells landed at the corner of one of the bivvies, but we were all dug down a little so only the tarpaulin was ruined for this crew, plus a few headaches.
During this period we brought the cooks up and lived well. Regimental HQ was immediately east of us about 100 yds away. Crews were being relieved in town also during this time and the method was something like this:
The next change moved from the area to a house about 400 yds back down the road, where they had slightly better conditions than we had. The group consisted of an officer and wireless bloke to go into the crypt of the church … while the Sgt with two crews went to the tanks. The relief went by jeep as soon as dark down to the main road and along as far as possible, past where was (or had been) the Regt. MO's blokes in a house by the road. They then unloaded as quietly as possible and then stumbled along the ‘Mad Mile’ in pitch darkness through bust bridges, under and over girders, etc., till they struck the corner of the town where the church had been….
Tank crew ‘boils up’ during the advance to Florence
T2 recovery tank freeing a Sherman which broke its track when attempting to burst through this building. B Squadron's ‘flying fitters’ armoured car in the foreground
By-passing a demolition north of Rimini
20 Regiment officers at Maadi, March 1945 Back row: Walter Dougall, Jack Austad, Nigel Overton, Guy Baker. Centre: Rae Familton, Allan Hadfield, Pat Barton, John Howorth. Front row: Alf Pedder, Barney Clapham, Merv Cross, Robin Coote.
C Squadron conference before the attack on the Senio, 9 April 1945. From left: Bill de Lautour, Jim Moodie (squadron commander), Owen Hughes, WO II Jock Laidlaw, Bill Guest, Jack Denham, Noel Jenkins, Charlie Low
25 Battalion infantry and tanks advance towards the Santerno
Tanks waiting to be ferried across the Adige
A Squadron on the road to Trieste. Maj C. F. S. Caldwell is sitting on the leading tank's hatch; Lt Denham is in the right-hand tank
Tanks and Yugoslav infantry surround the Law Courts, Trieste
None were sorry when the squadron's tour of duty in the town ended. On the night of 24–25 April its two tanks and the wireless set in the crypt were handed over to a squadron of 12 Royal Canadian Tank Regiment. Squadron guides led the Canadian crews into the town. The regiment's crews were pleased to see them.
C Squadron's three tanks were stationed on the road between the jail and Route 6 in the north-east corner of the town. Although in full view of the enemy, they suffered no damage during their stay. Sniping in the daytime kept the crews inside the tanks or under cover and occasionally a bazooka rocket fired at long range whistled harmlessly overhead. On the second night one tank in Lieutenant de Lautour's troop ran over a bank some 400 yards out of the town, and on another night Lieutenant Denham's tank was showered with incendiary bullets which set fire to the sandbags surrounding it but did tank or crew no harm.
The squadron was short of officers and men after its losses at Albaneta and until early in April also manned three tanks at Madras Circus. As a rule the crews in Cassino worked on a roster of two days on duty and four off, when they were quartered at San Pasquale village, about a mile away. The tanks themselves were replaced only when fuel or ammunition were required, the longest period without relief being ten days. They had to be guided in and out of the area on foot.
One night the relieving troop towed in two six-pounder anti-tank guns for 25 Battalion but the relief was delayed when a tank went over a bank near the jail. For most of the period the squadron supported a battalion of the Welsh Guards whose headquarters was in the jail. During this time its crews experienced in full measure the wretchedness and monotony of static page 412 warfare in the ruined town but suffered no casualties. The tanks did little shooting. The men who shared this duty recall the incessant whistle of smoke shells being ‘pumped’ into the town or on to the hill above, the noise of frogs at night in the marshes and stagnant bomb holes, the swallows and pigeons, the smell. The squadron had had its moment of adventure in the hills at Albaneta House, but among the bomb craters of Cassino it could find little but mud and mortars. It was relieved on the night of 24–25 April by a Canadian squadron, which began its new task inauspiciously by losing a troop commander killed on arriving at the jail and by blocking the road out and delaying the relief of the forward troop when one of its tanks was ditched.
There is little to add to the story of the three squadrons in Cassino except to mention briefly the work of Regimental Headquarters near San Michele and of B Echelon back at Mignano. It took the resources of the whole regiment to maintain eight or nine tanks inside the town, some of the crews being reinforced by B Echelon drivers whose vehicles were grounded. For the whole period Headquarters was on continuous wireless watch ready to support its outposts should the enemy attack. Enemy tank movement in the town in the early period caused an occasional ‘flap’ and the Colonel seems to have been more than usually anxious over his isolated tanks, but for RHQ it was a worrying period rather than an exciting one.
The Colonel's anxiety was justified: need the tanks have crossed the river into the town at all? Tanks should be placed where they can both move and shoot, and in Cassino they could often do neither. Because of the difficulties of charging batteries, three of the tanks in the town at one stage could not be started (and, therefore, could not be moved) nor could they use their wirelesses. In other words, they were deaf, dumb, and crippled as well as almost blind. On the east bank of the river the reserve troops had better fire positions and fields of fire than the tanks in the town and could move from one position to another. The answer might have been to replace the tanks in Cassino with anti-tank guns and keep them in reserve as a counter-attack force.
However, the tanks were put into the town to support the infantry and to repel the enemy's tanks should they attack. page 413 Their guns were useful for knocking down the stone walls of enemy strongpoints, although the lighter self-propelled gun would have done the job just as well. They made good pillboxes from which to snipe with machine gun or ‘seventy-five’, but because of their restricted fields of fire their usefulness was limited. Their limited vision, especially at night, made them vulnerable to infantry assault, as the paratroopers' raid at the railway station on 30 March showed only too clearly. But the enemy had tanks in the town and our infantry felt unprotected without tanks too. Their chief value, then, was to the infantry's morale.
But if the presence of tanks in Cassino improved infantry morale, what was its effect on that of the tank crews living under nervous strain—as one man puts it—‘on a diet of cigarettes and fingernails’? It is as easy for a crew to become ‘tank-minded’ as it is for an infantryman to become ‘slit-trench minded’. The tanks' role was purely defensive and targets rare; their crews had little chance to hit back and enemy retaliation was severe. In daylight most crews were forced to ‘stay put’ inside their tanks, waiting until darkness brought their reliefs or the opportunity to stretch cramped limbs. The squadron in the centre of the town especially had little to do but sit and wait, ‘with no chance of a smack back at the enemy in return for what we were putting up with’. One man comments: ‘At no time have I seen our men so depressed.’
The fighting in the narrow, cratered streets of the town and on the stony hill track to Albaneta House and the monastery demonstrated the need for an armoured recovery vehicle in the regiment. Should a tank get hit or throw a track or become bogged in a shell hole, it inevitably blocked the route until the engineers could do something about it or the brigade workshops recovery section could bring up a tractor to clear the way. It was sheer good fortune on Cavendish road that the C Squadron tank which broke down was the last in the line. The workshops recovery section could not be on call in the forward areas to all regiments at once, and in the end the regiment had to find its own solution.
Captain Taylor, the Technical Adjutant, explains how this was done:page 414
On one occasion when making my way towards the railway line south of the Rapido en route to the station area, I spotted a strange-looking object that looked like a hay stack. Curiosity got the better of me and accompanied by the TSM [Technical Sergeant-Major]52 we made our way across the boggy ground to find our hay stack was an American T2 tank camouflaged. I thought if only we could recover this machine it would be a wonderful asset to the regiment. On my return to R.H.Q. I reported our find to Col. Ferguson. He was most interested in the T2 and wanted to see it next day. To move over that area in daylight was to run a big risk as our opposition had the low country well and truly covered. However, by dodging from tree to shell hole we managed to get there safely and made a further inspection. All I was concerned about was that should we be able to recover this T2, which was badly bogged, would we be able to hang on to it seeing that it belonged to the Americans. Having got the Col's assurance that he would do his best to retain our find, arrangements were immediately put in hand to recover the much coveted tank….
The first night the T.S.M. and I made temporary repairs to the engine and installed new batteries. The next night with the aid of the L.A.D. scammel anchored to a bridge by a long wire rope and the T2 motors going we attempted to remove the monster from the bog. All we achieved was to attract a mortar stonk and to suspend the scammel between the tank and the bridge so that the scammel could almost be spun between the two ropes. At daylight work was abandoned. The following night heavy timbers were brought up … and one of the recovery section's tractors. For hours in the pitch darkness and heavy rain we jacked up and tugged at the tank, attracting much attention from the Germans. With about two hours to go before daylight we had the tractor bogged as well. George— [the recovery section's lieutenant] couldn't afford to leave his tractor there so had to hurry back with the transporter for another D8. Just before daylight with two tractors and the tank engine roaring we had it on solid ground. Driver Jack Lay,53 who had taken over the T2, was happy and when unhitched from the two tractors I told him to keep his foot hard down, which he did until he reached R.H.Q. The following day the White Star was painted out and the regimental sign appeared. It was ours.
I might add it wasn't long before Div. H.Q. knew of our acquisition, which was lucky for us because in no time the Americans were enquiring the whereabouts of their T2 which was bogged at map reference so and so, and for some reason or other Div. H.Q. didn't know anything about it. From here on the T2 never stopped until we reached Trieste, and during that period must have salvaged dozens and dozens of tanks that would have otherwise been shot up page 415 in daylight. With the exception of Jack Lay, to whom I give much praise for his skill in handling this machine, the rest of the crew changed from time to time.
Supply caused no problems in Cassino but often meant long carries and hard work for tank crews. Where tanks could be relieved the incoming tanks carried in their crews' own food and ammunition and occasionally had some rations to spare for their infantry neighbours; otherwise jeeps carried supplies as far forward as they could get and carrying parties from the crews humped them forward to the tanks, sometimes a mile or more away, and often under fire. Tanks were also used to bring up rations and wire for the infantry, carrying their loads as far as the bridges, where carrying parties would pick them up. In spite of these difficulties the crews in the town were never short of food, although one report says that thermos flasks would have been a boon.
Back at squadron headquarters, their tour of duty completed, the tired crews were well looked after. ‘No matter what hour of the night or morning the troops from the forward area arrived back in the squadron area there was always a hot meal,’ one officer records. When some of C Squadron's ‘dehorsed’ tank crews after the Albaneta House action arrived back at B Echelon at Mignano about 2 a.m., RQMS George Weenink at once roused the cooks and provided a hot meal.
The ‘Q’ truck taking supplies forward from Mignano had to run the gauntlet of the enemy's guns on the long straight in front of Trocchio. ‘We used to go like blazes up that straight where we were in full view of the monastery, turn right, where we were not so much exposed to view, and soon were with our tanks,’ says the RQMS. Returning to the turn-off one day after delivering the rations the RQMS found that the enemy had been shelling the corner, and he had just begun to clap on speed past some burning haystacks when an American ran out of a nearby cottage and stopped the truck to thumb a ride.
Inevitably in the circumstances of this battle communications were bad, but the static period provided the opportunity to improve them. The difficulties of charging batteries and the state of the roads and bridges have already been mentioned; telephone lines were constantly cut by the heavy shelling and the signallers lost men trying to maintain them; the tanks going page 416 out on relief sometimes minced the infantry's lines with their tracks. Although the use of wireless had to be cut to the barest minimum to conserve batteries, both the No. 19 and No. 38 sets were operated successfully; in the early period the tanks' No. 38 sets were the main channel of communication between battalion headquarters and their forward companies in the town. Extension cords about thirty feet long allowed tank crews to keep wireless watch from outside their tanks and were a useful alternative means of communication with the infantry.
The Albaneta House attack emphasised once more the old, old lesson that tanks must have infantry support and are practically helpless without it.54 Seventh Indian Brigade had suffered severe losses and had no infantry to spare, but perhaps 22 (Motor) Battalion, trained for this role and in reserve near Mignano at the time, could have been used to support the tanks. Reluctance to use reserves in a diversionary attack such as this is easily understood, but in the event this battalion was not called on to join the battle until the night of 25–26 March, ten days after it had begun. The Albaneta House attack also brought home to C Squadron in tragic fashion, through the death of one of its most experienced troop commanders, that tanks, like men-of-war, should be stripped for action and all blankets, camouflage nets, personal gear and anything inflammable left behind.55
Cassino, to quote a German propaganda leaflet, was ‘a damned hard nut’ to crack. The New Zealand Corps had won some ground—firm bridgeheads over the Rapido on Route 6 and along the railway line and perhaps nine-tenths of the town —but the battle was a defensive victory for the Germans. In the period from 15 to 26 March the Division had lost 115 killed, 70 missing, and 696 wounded—heavy losses for what were in page 417 reality small territorial gains. Compared with those of the infantry battalions, the regiment's casualties were not heavy. Two officers (Lieutenants Brooks and Hazlett) and sixteen men had been killed in action; one officer (Second-Lieutenant Renall) and two men had died of wounds; three officers and twenty-nine men had been wounded; one man had been taken prisoner. Its tank losses are not so easy to arrive at, but at least twelve (excluding those recovered) of its pre-battle establishment of fifty-three tanks were lost through enemy action. Others lost tracks in difficult going or tumbled over banks on narrow tracks, but most of these were recovered and fought again.
2 Major Poole left the regiment in mid-February and was succeeded by Captain J. W. Rolleston, who was later sent to England on a course at the Royal Armoured Corps tactical school and was in turn succeeded, on 8 March, by Captain L. B. Clapham.
4 Maj-Gen G. B. Parkinson, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Christchurch; born Wellington, 5 Nov 1896; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1917-19; CO 4 Fd Regt Jan 1940-Aug 1941; comd I NZ Army Tank Bde and 7 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) 1941–42; 6 Bde Apr 1943-Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div (Cassino) 3–27 Mar 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div Jun-Aug 1944; comd 6 Bde Aug 1944-Jun 1945; Quartermaster-General, Army HQ, Jan-Sep 1946; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1946–49; Commandant, Southern Military District, 1949–51.
13 2 Lt O. W. Hughes; Milton; born Milton, 5 Sep 1921; woollen-mill employee; wounded 2 Aug 1944.
22 One of the American tank commanders (Lieutenant Chester M. Wright) was awarded the MC.
25 Another eye-witness (Lt de Lautour) says that Sorich and Dasler did not leave the turret when Hazlett was killed but took the tank down near to the house. Here they probably received a bazooka shot in the turret—‘we saw a Jerry in a window at this stage who had probably fired before we spotted him’—for they suddenly left the turret and ran to a nearby shell hole. The two drivers—Gallagher and Welch—also baled out through their escape hatch. While the other tanks were ‘doing over’ the building the drivers remounted and, finding the tank could still run, Gallagher drove it out.
26 L-Sgt L. P. Gallagher, MM; Upper Hutt; born Dunedin, 2 Oct 1914; chainman.
30 Sgt W. T. Dalrymple; Arrowtown; born Arrowtown, 14 Aug 1915; butcher. On the way up to San Michele on the night of 24–25 February Sergeant Dalrymple had taken over C Squadron fitters' scout car while the driver walked ahead with a screened torch. In pitch-black darkness on a narrow, sunken road, the Sergeant could barely see through his windscreen, and thinking that a tank closing up on him from behind might run him down he smashed the screen with his pistol. Back through the darkness came the driver's comment: ‘Dalrymple has done his scone— look out Cassino.’
31 Anti-personnel, but not anti-tank, mines were encountered north of Albaneta, but some of the American Honey tanks struck anti-tank mines on the track from Albaneta House to the monastery. When the Poles advanced over this route two months later mines blocked their way to Albaneta House.
52 Acting TSM at this time was Sergeant J. A. Brown. He had taken over from WO II Jack Lapthorne when the latter was wounded on 22 March.
54 The Germans were not slow to point out the lesson. ‘Many tanks of the 76oth US Tank Bn advanced without infantry support,’ said a propaganda leaflet. ‘Obviously, they thought they could smash these Jerries single-handed. One out of ten has come back from the Monte Cassino, the others still lie up there knocked to pieces!’
55 C Squadron's major part in this attack received no recognition other than the award of MM to Trooper L. P. Gallagher for recovering Lieutenant Hazlett's tank in front of Albaneta House. Major Cruickshank, commander of 7 Indian Infantry Brigade's reconnaissance squadron, received a bar to his MC, three officers of 760 US Tank Battalion and a Royal Artillery OP officer won MCs, and an American staff-sergeant and two NCOs attached to 17 Indian Field Ambulance won MMs. Major Barton was recommended for the DSO but the award was not made—to the keen disappointment of the regiment.