CHAPTER 13 — Cassino
Early in 1944, General Alexander decided that conditions on the west coast of Italy offered better prospects for an advance to Rome than did those on the Adriatic, where a stalemate had been reached. He therefore decided to withdraw the New Zealand Division from the Eighth Army and make it available for Fifth Army exploitation up the Liri valley. When the 23rd began its move back from the Sangro on 19 January, the men thought they were merely withdrawing to a rest or training area. At a staging area about 105 miles to the south, they were told that their journey was to be continued across the spine of Italy. Two days later, after a grand scenic drive across the Apennines and through many villages and towns, they reached their destination, Piedimonte d'Alife, a lovely spot with the valley of the Volturno below them. Here they stayed till 5 February.
During this period, Brigadier Kippenberger and Colonel Connolly organised training designed to get the men physically fit again after their occupation of static defences. Hill climbing, route marches, shooting, showers at the luxurious American Bath Unit where soap and towels were provided, rostered leave to Pompeii, and a variety of entertainments, including vino parties, soon had the men feeling fresh and fit enough for action. The most important new feature of training in this area was concerned with river crossings. The officers did various tactical exercises on the subject and on 28 January the men practised crossing the Volturno with assault craft. ‘Had a lot of fun. Craft went every way but the right one for a while. Some of the boys finished well down stream,’ wrote Jim Blakie1 in his diary. Eventually the technique was mastered and, when General Freyberg came to inspect progress, the companies crossed in two waves and completed their landing on the opposite bank in fifteen minutes.
The Fifth Army was now facing up to the German ‘Gustav Line’ which ran, more or less, across the peninsula and from page 317 the mountains to the coast. Central to this line on the Fifth Army front was Cassino, a town of about 7000 inhabitants. Situated on the flat western edge of the Rapido valley and astride Route 6, the main road between Naples and Rome, it was itself completely dominated by the mountains to the north and west. Immediately west of the town was the precipitous feature crowned by Montecassino Abbey and farther west were other high features, such as Monte Cairo, a 5400-feet height. The Germans had the advantage of the perfect observation the high ground gave them. They had also improved the naturally strong defences with mines and wire and by flooding the flat approaches to Cassino. The January attacks by 2 United States Corps had been driven back, mainly because its supporting arms could not be got up in time.
To reinforce the New Zealand Division for the heavy task ahead, General Alexander formed the temporary New Zealand Corps on 3 February by placing 4 Indian Division under the command of General Freyberg. On 11 February, General Kippenberger took command of the Division while Brigadier Hartnell2 became the commander of 5 Brigade. By this time the brigade had entered the line. When the 23rd moved forward from Alife on 5 February, the Colonel left Captain Robins, Lieutenant Edgar, Second-Lieutenant Sinclair3 and 48 other ranks, most of whom had seen long service, there as an LOB party. The rest of the battalion took up positions as brigade reserve in the rear of Monte Porchio. Two to three miles ahead, the 21st and 28th occupied ground forward of Monte Trocchio.
The 23rd remained in reserve and well back from Cassino for the next fortnight, but its area was shelled spasmodically by German heavy guns. Box and other mines also caused trouble: on 6 February, for instance, Sergeant Leathem,4 an A Company stalwart, lost his leg on a mine. The companies were unable to do any training on account of the perfect observation the Germans had over most of their area. The spasmodic shelling about which it seemed impossible to do anything effective did not help morale.page 318
When Prince Peter of Greece lunched at Battalion Headquarters on 10 February, Captain F. C. Irving and Sergeant-Major McIntosh5 were the only two Greek campaign men, besides Colonel Connolly, still with the battalion in the line. During this period of waiting for the attack on Cassino, B Company and No. 2 Platoon were the only 23rd troops at all actively engaged. B Company, under Captain Irving, went forward on 13 February to hold a position about 1500 yards south of the railway line near the Ladrone stream. Here it was under the command of the Divisional Cavalry until 16 February. Although still over four miles from Montecassino, the troops could now see the monastery plainly and had a grand view of its bombing on 15 February. No. 2 Platoon, the 23rd sappers, lifted and laid mines as required. On 14 February, after laying mines in the Divisional Cavalry area, they were withdrawing when someone stood on a mine and Lieutenant Neville Barker6 and Corporal Edgecombe7 were killed.
The general plan for the February attack on Cassino involved a right hook by the Indians and the establishment of a bridgehead over the Rapido by 5 Brigade. In the latter operation, the 28th was to seize ground near the railway station and then assist 19 Armoured Regiment in an attack on the town itself. The 23rd was then to assist 20 Armoured Regiment to cross the Gari river farther west. Full preparations were made for this attack: in particular, several reconnaissances from the top of Monte Trocchio were made. But success at each stage depended on success at the preceding stage and, in the event, although the Maoris took their objectives in their night attack on 17–18 February, no tanks or supporting arms could be got over the demolitions and the river to assist them to consolidate. The attack in which the 23rd was to participate was therefore cancelled.
On 19 February the 23rd was ordered to relieve the 24th in the line forward of Monte Trocchio that night. This relief was completed without untoward incident. B Company returned to its former positions and again passed under the command of the Divisional Cavalry. In the 23rd area, C Company under Lieutenant Frank Coe held ground on the right as far north as Route 6, while D Company, under Major Sandy Slee, con- page 319 tinued the line south to just below the bend in the railway. A Company was in reserve, more or less covering the gap between the two forward companies, although its 9 Platoon was with C on Route 6. So heavily shelled and mortared were the forward areas that they were thinly held. Picket posts were so far apart that going round them at night was no easy task. Thus, on 20 February, while Lieutenant W. K. Esson was making his rounds, he was ambushed and taken prisoner by a German patrol which had crossed the Rapido unobserved. To thicken up the defences without increasing too dangerously the number of men in the area, the device adopted on the Orsogna road was again employed and sixteen men from the carrier platoon, armed with Bren guns, came up to reinforce C Company.
Although enemy observation over most of the area made much movement difficult and meals had to be brought up under cover of darkness, the CO and IO, Second-Lieutenant Tom Mackie, invariably visited the forward companies each morning. Dick Connolly's robust cheerfulness, which no amount of shelling or neberwerfer mortaring appeared able to shake, instilled some measure of confidence into many young soldiers, especially some of the new men who had been given no time to find their feet in the unit. Forty-seven reinforcements had joined the battalion on 6 February and 16 more arrived on 21 February. Private Warwick Anderson,8 who normally made the briefest of entries in his diary, recorded at this time, ‘Old Dick a great sort!’ Another outstanding officer in Major Ian Wilson returned to the battalion in late February and was given command of HQ Company.
On 24 February A Company moved up Route 6 in preparation for an attack which was postponed because the weather broke, and the heavy rains not only waterlogged airfields in the rear but also rendered impracticable the employment of tanks in an approach to Cassino. B Company had reverted to the command of the 23rd and, with D also, moved into position on Route 6. The battalion felt it was shaping up for the attack, but time and time again orders were cancelled or altered. And still the shelling continued. On 27 February Battalion Headquarters was heavily shelled—two were killed and nine wounded. One of those killed was the RAP Corporal, ‘Vicky’ Idour, whose gallantry in attending the wounded under all sorts of fire had become something of a legend in the battalion and had earned him the Military Medal and a mention in despatches. page 320 The three officers wounded were Second-Lieutenant Mackie, the IO, Captain D. B. Robertson,9 the MO, and Second-Lieutenant Rex Musgrave,10 the former RSM, who had been commissioned in the field for his sterling service. Captain Alan Wilson, a former MO of the 23rd, came up on 29 February to relieve until Captain Robertson was fit to return. Another change in command came to 5 Brigade at this stage: Brigadier J. T. Burrows, a South Islander trained in the 20th in the Kippenberger tradition, took command on 28 February.
The 23rd's forward companies were relieved on 28–29 February and passed into partial reserve. The month ended without any effective blow struck at the enemy. Much work had been done on plans and preparations which had come to nought. The 23rd had lost 1 officer and 6 men killed and 13 wounded. Sergeant Garnet Blampied, the ‘I’ sergeant, correctly noted: ‘It has been a queer sort of month with nothing actually accomplished’.
The next two weeks passed in much the same way. The weather which broke so badly on 24 February continued wet. One day's rain succeeded another and the attack was postponed, not once but several times. Apart from the depressing effect of the weather itself, the repeated postponements were bad for morale, which could not be whipped up to the high pitch appropriate for the launching of an attack and then damped down again without some loss of enthusiasm on the part of the troops. These delays also enabled the pessimism and doubts at various levels to filter through to the fighting troops. Was this not the toughest defensive position the New Zealanders had ever been called upon to attack? Had not the Americans suffered terrible casualties without scoring a success? Had not the enemy had more than enough time in which to perfect his defences? Was there no way other than the direct approach and the head-on attack? These were questions which gnawed at the minds of commanders at various levels and the fears aroused by them were indirectly communicated to the troops.
Casualties contributed to the growing concern about the time taken to launch this attack. A few casualties were always taken for granted, but somehow the shock was greater when an outstanding leader whose presence in the field had also been taken for granted was suddenly removed. On 2 March, General Kippen- page 321 berger was returning from a reconnaissance up Monte Trocchio when he stepped on a mine and had one foot blown off and the other so badly shattered that it had to be amputated. At the time, the nearest troops belonged to D Company of the 23rd and their prompt actions undoubtedly saved the General's life. Private William Green,10 a stretcher-bearer, and Private Graham French11 went immediately to his assistance. As they approached, the General raised his head and called, ‘Be careful, boys, there's mines here!’ To which Green gave a soldier's reply,‘—— the mines!’, clambered up and applied a tourniquet. French organised stretcher-bearers from 16 and 17 Platoons and soon had the General on the way back to an ambulance. No soldier of the 23rd who kept a diary failed to record the loss of the Divisional Commander as a disaster of some magnitude. Thus Bob Stone gave a typical reaction: ‘News that “Kippie” has been wounded—lost both feet. Bad luck, for there could be no better man after Tiny than Kippie.’ Brigadier Parkinson12 took temporary command of the Division.
On the night of 5 March, Colonel Connolly sent A and B Companies forward to occupy the sector between Route 6 and the railway on the east side of the Rapido. During the next ten days, these companies lay low in the daylight hours and occupied listening posts or engaged in reconnaissance patrols at night. On some nights covering parties helped the engineers in their work on possible crossing places over the Rapido. Only rarely did the men have close contact with the Americans in the field but one happy incident deserves to be recorded. Lieutenant Jim Hennessy13 and his men in 8 Platoon were short of cigarettes and when Jim saw an American captain—at least, he was wearing three stars and Jim thought they were the equivalent of ‘pips’—he engaged him in conversation and persuaded him to part with a couple of cartons of cigarettes from the back of his jeep. That night Jim mentioned to the Colonel that ‘a Yank page 322 captain, who seemed to be a good sort’ had given him the cigarettes. The Colonel smiled. He knew ‘the Yank captain’ was General Mark Clark.
The ground and living conditions in the scattered houses were anything but pleasant. Private Jim Blakie's diary gives a first-hand account of life in the line during those days: ‘… raining, very mucky. What a track in … still raining, track a quagmire. Soaked from knees downward. Settled down to picquet and at 4.30 this morning had to go out again for rations…. 8 March … Bill Gale14 O-Pipping for our mortars today. Didn't take Jerry long to find out and send back some—pretty close, too. 9 March. We didn't have much rest this morning. Jerry plastered our little white house with mortars etc. Very close, no hits. Four on big house nearby…. 16 March … everything was peaceful when, bash! I thought the roof had fallen on me. I knew the house had been hit and I knew I had been hit with rock from shoulder down to my right hand…. Smoke shell coming down at steep angle came in top window, glanced off side, hit the floor, exploded and the shell part came right through window behind me and finally rested on Ray Tweedie's15 bed in corner … Vin O'Keefe16 wounded upstairs, Fred very lucky blown into corner undamaged. Our wounds dressed by Ron McIvor,17 had a tot, cup of tea and walked to Coy. Jeep to our RAP … ambulance to 5th ADS, 4th MDS, finally CCS.’
But the day before Blakie was wounded, the oft-postponed attack on Cassino was launched. The plan, settled on 23 February, provided for the capture of Cassino by 6 Brigade after a colossal bombing of the town area by nearly 500 medium and heavy bombers. One thousand tons of 1000-pound high-explosive bombs were to be dropped on the target. Artillery support on a grander scale than ever before was then to assist the infantry on to their objectives. Fifth Brigade was again earmarked for exploitation, with the 23rd briefed to accompany 4 Armoured Brigade into the Liri valley.page 323
Promptly at 8.30 a.m. on 15 March, the first wave of American bombers came over and dropped their bombs on Cassino. Most of the 23rd men had front-row seats for this show. The sight was stirring enough for men who had grown tired of waiting for some progress to be made but the noise was deafening. When the bombing ceased, the roar of the guns, the bursting of mortar bombs and the rattling of machine guns continued to numb the eardrums. A German fighter-bomber knocked out 9 Platoon's page 324 house, wounding Lieutenant Dick Harrison,18 who was replaced by Second-Lieutenant Nelson Ball.19 At 12.30 p.m. 6 Brigade launched its attack from the north by sending the 25th into the town. At first this advance went well, but the rubble and debris from bombed buildings slowed down all movement and, in some places, blocked the supporting tanks. Point 193 (Castle Hill) was captured in the early afternoon, but fierce opposition prevented the taking of the western and south-western parts of Cassino. Although the 24th and 26th were also committed to the attack in the late afternoon and took some ground, the Germans held fast to their posts in the western sector. That night rain fell, filled the huge bomb craters and blocked roads the tanks might have used. The enemy thus had time to reinforce.
The 23rd stood on two hours' notice to move from 15 till 19 March. During those days, it became only too clear that there was no hope of the whole operation being carried through to a successful conclusion. In other words, if the 23rd was to be employed, it would not be for exploitation but in assisting the troops already engaged in Cassino itself. On 19 March Colonel Connolly received orders to relieve one company of the 24th and the whole of the 25th. A Company (Captain A. Parker) was to relieve the company of the 24th in positions along a sunken road in the south of the town. To the north of A, C Company (Lieutenant Frank Coe) was to occupy the houses—or, rather, their remains—on Route 6 opposite the German-occupied Continental Hotel. North of Route 6, D (Major Slee) and B (Captain Irving) were to occupy sectors running towards the foot of Castle Hill. At first light next morning, the 23rd was to clear the rest of the town of the enemy. In view of the experience of 6 Brigade, this task of clearing the town sounded too delightfully simple.
At 6.45 p.m. Colonel Connolly, his IO, Lieutenant Ewart Hay,20 and a party of signallers and intelligence section men went forward and established a tactical headquarters in the crypt of the convent, where a variety of command posts were operating. Telephone communications were soon established with the main 23rd headquarters and with Brigade, but heavy page 325 shell and mortar fire soon cut the line to bits and made its maintenance impossible. The 23rd therefore had to be content with wireless communications, which were also subject to interference.
After dark, the companies moved independently along Route 6 to the crypt. Mortar and machine-gun fire forced them to move cautiously, with intervals between the men in single file. Even so, casualties were sustained and progress was slow. It was a taste of things to come. Second-Lieutenant John Morrow21 was wounded on the road in and had to be evacuated. As they arrived in turn at the crypt, the company commanders took their platoon officers or sergeants inside to be briefed. The crypt was full of wounded and, as fresh officers entered, it seemed to be a seething mass of men of all ranks, as it contained so many headquarters as well as individuals who had been driven to shelter there. Each 23rd company orders group thus received its briefing under most difficult circumstances. The only air photographs which could be studied at this time had been taken before the bombing, and therefore showed orderly streets and neat rows of buildings, whereas now rubble filled the streets and the buildings had been reduced to heaps of masonry and gaunt, broken walls.
As C Company proceeded to relieve the 24th company, it came under fire and had to approach the Post Office, its future headquarters, through and over several demolished buildings. The Post Office itself had been a three or four-storied building. It had been reduced to one room. In it, Second-Lieutenant Armstrong22 of the 24th indicated, to the accompaniment of bursting grenades and small-arms fire outside, how his men were placed. Despite the very obvious closeness of a very active enemy, the relief went through. Coe placed 13 Platoon in a building south of the Post Office and separated from it by an open area, 14 in another ruined building west of the Post Office and 15 he retained with Company Headquarters.
The amount of enemy fire of all kinds which met the 23rd on the way in necessitated a slight alteration in the proposed disposition of the companies. D Company relieved C Company of the 25th as arranged, while A Company relieved the remains of both A and B Companies of the same battalion. But B Company remained in reserve with battalion tactical headquarters.page 326
Next morning the three forward companies had the task of clearing out the enemy. C Company sent a patrol under Keith Burtt to reconnoitre before launching any attack. Burtt led his men along the remains of the Post Office corridor but found that every exit, whether broken hole or proper doorway, was covered by Spandau fire and it was practically impossible to move outside. Eventually, in climbing out over some rubble, Burtt was wounded at short range and the patrol returned to Company Headquarters, where Coe managed to call for tank fire on his radio. Since the enemy machine-gunners had not been located, they had to be flushed from their building by a process of trial and error. Second-Lieutenant Geoff Hargest,23 with 13 Platoon, took his men downstairs while the tank put a shot through the top story, and then the procedure was reversed. By this means, 13 Platoon's house was cleared of enemy and the main machine-gun nest manned by paratroopers was located in the next house. Waving Red Cross flags, they secured a cessation of the fire, but, instead of surrendering or waiting to be captured, they made off into other demolished buildings. C Company made a small advance but found any daylight advance across open ground impossible without serious losses, and the tank which had helped them clear one house could not follow up to clear more.
The main 23rd attack of the day was meanwhile being made by A and D Companies with the intention of clearing all enemy from the houses at the foot of Point 193 (Castle Hill). These companies made good progress for nearly 300 yards, although the rough state of the going made movement slow and awkward. The centre of the town was a wilderness of ruins. But in the heaps of rubble, or in the cellars and basement rooms covered with debris, were enemy strongpoints. As they advanced over some particularly rough mounds, the point sections of A and D Companies came under Spandau and sub-machine-gun fire from these strongpoints. Their progress slowed to a halt.
A Company slowly advanced towards the occupied houses and ruins on the west of Cassino but found that the worst enemy fire was coming from concealed dugouts below Point 193. From vantage points higher up the slope, enemy machine-gunners and snipers poured a withering fire on the advancing infantry as they tried to make their way through or over the piles of rubble. page 327 Even when a man went to ground he was not safe as snipers appeared able to bring plunging fire to bear on points which were sheltered from the immediate front. Wireless operators, such as Private David Smith,24 had a trying time but they kept communications going. As the opposition grew stronger and more casualties were sustained, Captain Parker decided that an advance in daylight was just not possible. He appealed to Battalion Headquarters for artillery smoke to cover the advance from observation by the enemy on the side of Castle Hill. The reply indicated that smoke could not be laid on Point 193 and the rest of Castle Hill as it was partly occupied by our own troops. After a series of fruitless attempts to get forward, and after several of the leaders, including Parker, had become casualties, A Company went to ground in the best cover offering. The wireless link with Battalion broke down and it was after dark before the wounded could be evacuated. Lieutenant Van Asch25 took command of the company and drew it back to a holding position a little west of the centre of the town.
Because of the broken nature of the terrain, the D Company attack was not co-ordinated with A's but it achieved little more in the way of success, although more casualties were sustained. Major Slee and his men understood that their attack was to be made under a smoke screen but no smoke was laid in any place where it was likely to help them to get forward. With unsatisfactory communications and the resulting uncertainty as to whether or not smoke was to be laid, the company waited and waited until after midday, when Slee gave the order to advance without waiting longer for smoke.
Slee's plan was for 18 Platoon to remain in reserve in and around the school buildings and to support with fire from all weapons the advance of 16 and 17 Platoons. No. 18 Platoon certainly fired at the lower slopes of Castle Hill, but its men had no sight of the enemy and therefore no definite target to engage. Nos. 16 and 17 Platoons advanced with sections and parts of sections moving independently on account of the extremely broken nature of the ground. Three Maoris appeared from nowhere and, seeking to revenge the loss of their comrades the previous day, joined in the advance. But, as the men moved down the forward faces of piles of rubble or threaded their way carefully round the edge of cellars or bomb craters full of water, they came under enemy rifle and machine-gun fire. The page 328 leading section of 16 Platoon was allowed to move right out into the open before the enemy opened fire: Corporal Les McMillan26 and all his men, except two, were picked off before they could reach cover.27 Platoon Headquarters and one section of 16 Platoon probably got the farthest forward: their path was probably more protected from view than those of the sections to left and right. But their experience when they emerged from behind cover was the same. Private Stewart Hewett28 was killed and others hit before they dived for the cover of a hollow surrounded by shattered walls. But even here the enemy had some observation, for when Second-Lieutenant Norm Hardie29 stood up to look over the remains of a window ledge he was promptly shot by a German with a Schmeisser sub-machine gun. While Sergeant Alan McLay30 was dressing Hardie's wounds, a grenade came hurtling over the wall and wounded McLay and others.
Up to this point, no member of the 23rd had so much as seen a German, but Private Bill Stirling,31 a wireless operator with the 38 set at Platoon Headquarters, was following in the rear of the others when he spotted a German in a doorway of a shattered house about twenty yards farther on from the walls where Hardie and his men were sheltering. Stirling fired a shot with his revolver but missed. He moved forward and, using the rifle of a wounded man, fired several rounds into the occupied locality. Next, he borrowed the Bren from Private Frank Phillips32 and shot off a magazine at the same area. Still dissatisfied with his efforts and suspecting that the sniper had only temporarily gone to ground, Stirling waited when his mates moved into the shelter of another wall. Sure enough, the German appeared, ready to take another shot. Stirling took a more careful shot with his revolver—‘a lucky shot,’ he recorded page 329 later—and the German fell forward. Much elated, Stirling ran forward to join the others, shouting in some excitement: ‘I got the bastardl I got the bastard!’
This simple story has been told at some length because it is one of the very few of even limited success that can be told of those Cassino days, when the general complaint among the 23rd men was that they could see no enemy, no rifle or other flash to indicate the whereabouts of the enemy, who had perfect cover combined with perfect observation, and therefore complete mastery of the situation. Under these circumstances, daylight attacks over ground so cratered and covered with debris that running was usually impossible did nothing more than give the enemy good targets. Certainly, all the attacking sections on 20 March found progress impossible and the majority had to wait till well after dark before they could withdraw their wounded. One of the finer acts of courage that day was performed by Private McIndoe,33 who saw a mate lying wounded in the open where small-arms and some mortar fire was still falling. Ignoring this fire and disregarding his own safety, McIndoe dashed forward and carried his mate back under cover.
The experience of A and D Companies did not help morale: hours of uncertainty and of being harassed by an unseen enemy who had apparent mastery of the ground over which the 23rd men wanted to move, the casualties, and the failure to take the objective were all rather depressing. It is not surprising, therefore, to find one man in D Company writing in his diary for 20 March: ‘Hell of a day…. Platoon casualties 8 killed 5 wounded. Grim show! Rest of us very nervous and jittery.’
Back at Battalion Headquarters the day had not been exactly quiet. Apart from the hammering of shells and mortar bombs on the top of the cellars and the crypt—and some B Company men counted over one hundred direct hits on their cellar—a ‘stand-to’ was called at 4.30 p.m. as enemy were reported to be infiltrating through the ruins to the right of C Company. Tanks sheltering behind the crypt opened fire on the danger area and, with B and C Companies able to direct Bren and other fire on the same sector, ‘this enemy advance was successfully stopped.’ Throughout this and other crises, the Adjutant, Fred Marett, was, as Colonel Connolly said, ‘a tower of strength’. The Colonel added: ‘I really believe nothing daunts that man. I cannot speak highly enough of him.’ Brigadier page 330 Burrows visited Colonel Connolly about 6 p.m. and discussed plans and tasks for the next day. The 23rd was now to hold the area to the north of Route 6, with A Company forward on the left and B forward on the right in the school area, and with the other two companies in reserve. Another attack was to be launched by the forward companies under a smoke screen which was promised for first light.
After dark B Company moved forward from the crypt to relieve D in the school. Although only 600 yards separated the two places, the company took over half an hour to walk the distance because of the bomb craters and the general accumulation of debris in what had once been tidy streets. The relief passed off without fighting or casualties.
The plan for the attack on 21 March was for A Company to hold fast while B launched the attack on the houses and dugouts on the lower edge of Castle Hill in roughly the same area where A and D had been held up the previous day. The artillery were to provide smoke to give some cover from the aimed fire of the enemy. Captain Irving's plan was for 10 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Welsh34) and 11 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Greig35) to attack frontally under the smoke, while 12 Platoon went round to the right flank and came in over the ridge which ran down from the old fort on Castle Hill.
At 6.30 a.m. the smoke screen came down and provided effective cover for the forming-up place. The advance from the school went well for nearly 100 yards. Enemy fire, apart from the odd mortar bomb, was limited. Then, just as the leaders were approaching the last heaps of rubble which separated them from their objective, the smoke shells stopped falling and, as if a malevolent fate were operating against the attackers, the light breeze changed and lifted all the smoke away. ‘It was like a blanket being lifted or rather being flicked away from a bed, the way that smoke disappeared,’ said one of the B Company men later. The men were left exposed to the enemy fire which now poured in upon them. Streams of machine-gun bullets as well as rifle shots came from concealed positions. Not one member of the attacking platoons could locate accurately the source of fire. Naturally enough, they went to ground in bomb craters, where these were not full of water, or behind page 331 rubble. The leaders decided that the alternative lines of action were to push on into the enemy positions or to pull back. They determined to try the former. Word was passed along that the advance would continue: a shout was given and the men rose to dash over the next rise. Almost immediately, the leading ranks were shot down. Second-Lieutenant Carson Welsh ran to assist one of the wounded, but as soon as he appeared over the rise his body was literally riddled with bullets. With most of their leaders gone and with no room to manoeuvre, the survivors sought cover. Captain Irving decided that to ask these men to attempt a further advance was to invite them to commit suicide. He therefore called the attack off. Under cover of heaps of rubble, he managed to dribble his men across to the right flank and thence back to the school buildings.
In the meantime, Second-Lieutenant Bill Gale, with 12 Platoon, had met with a fair measure of success. In the first instance, their approach over the ridge on the open face of Castle Hill apparently caught the enemy off guard. Although they were aiming at the same houses and ruins that the other platoons were attacking, 12 Platoon soon found itself among a series of dugouts which had not been seen before. Immediately, with Gale setting a magnificent example, the men attacked with grenades and fire from tommy guns and Brens. Several short-range duels were fought and no quarter was given on either side. The Germans had the advantage of being able to withdraw into their caves and some of the dugouts, but Gale and his men accounted for several—‘at least a dozen but probably not more than 20’ was the estimate made later. But some of the grenades thrown or rolled into the dugouts possibly did greater damage than was estimated. Captain Irving had no chance of letting 12 Platoon know that the frontal attack had failed and had been called off, but when, through his binoculars, he saw Gale and three others fall under stiffening enemy fire, he wirelessed battalion tactical headquarters asking for tank fire to be laid on the lower slopes of Castle Hill to enable the platoon to withdraw. Colonel Connolly was quickly on the job and Major Jock Thodey36 soon had two tanks firing in bursts on the correct area. No. 12 Platoon had suffered 15 casualties but was able to withdraw under the tank fire back into 25 Battalion's area.page 332
Another minor attack had gone in and had failed, but it was apparently thought that 12 Platoon had discovered the secret to a successful attack and that its line of approach should be tried again. Both Slee and Irving declared that to send men into a frontal attack on such a narrow front over such rough, broken ground, against such opposition as had been encountered by B and D Companies, was asking the impossible. The Colonel agreed that daylight attacks in that sector of Cassino were ‘useless and foolish’. Nevertheless, he was required to mount another attack to follow the approach route used by 12 Platoon.
During 21 March, the companies not engaged in the attack came under shell, mortar and tank fire. In the morning A Company called down several artillery DF tasks when it feared that the enemy was building up strength opposite it. C Company had more than its share of casualties that day. So reduced in numbers was 14 Platoon in the forward area that 13 Platoon was sent forward in the evening to thicken up the defences. While leading his platoon forward, Second-Lieutenant Geoff Hargest, son of 5 Brigade's first commander, was fatally wounded. Under the conditions applying in Cassino, normal administrative arrangements could not be carried out. For once the ‘Q’ side had to admit itself defeated in its attempts to get hot meals up to the men. Rations were therefore carried on or with the men in the forward sectors. The evacuation of wounded was also a serious problem in view of the shelling to which Cassino generally, and the bridges over the Rapido and other key points on the roads in particular, was subjected. Jeeps ran nightly up to the crypt, but rations were taken forward from there on foot and wounded were evacuated to that point on stretchers. Frequently, the wounded had to wait for stretchers and bearers to become available. Far too frequently, the bearers had to struggle back in the darkness and could not avoid stumbling and falling into the craters and other holes. Several wounded men endured unimaginable pain and discomfort on these trying journeys back. Headquarters and Support Companies supplied extra men for stretcher-bearing. Thus, on the night of 21–22 March, sixteen men from the anti-tank platoon carried ammunition forward and wounded men back out. The count of the battalion's casualties taken that night showed that 17 had been killed and 58 wounded since the move into Cassino two nights before.page 333
At 5 a.m. on 22 March, at a conference of COs of the three units of 5 Brigade, it was decided to attack with two companies of infantry round the face of Castle Hill, with supporting fire from tanks. A Company of the 21st and D of the 23rd were to execute this attack, which was to be directed on to the houses already attacked twice by the 23rd companies and was this time to include the Continental Hotel. Since 8 Platoon of A Company of the 23rd was in the direct line of the fire of the tanks supporting this attack, it was withdrawn about 200 yards just before dawn.
At 8.30 a.m. D Company moved into position in the forming-up place near the school but it was after 9 a.m. before contact had been satisfactorily made with A Company of the 21st. At 9.50 a.m. the tanks, still well to the rear but as far forward as the state of the ground would allow, opened fire on the objective. Shortly after ten, the infantry began their advance, but they had not gone very far before the unexpected appearance of a party of Indians evacuating their wounded, under cover of a Red Cross flag, from the top of Castle Hill necessitated the postponement of the attack. The time taken by the Indians to bring out their wounded and that needed to reorganise the supporting tank fire meant that the attack proper was not mounted till 12.45 p.m. While the D Company infantry waited, a Focke-Wulf 190 nose-dived above them and appeared to be certain to shoot them up, but instead it crashed somewhat to the rear. The pilot emerged safely and tried to make his way back to the German positions but blundered into A Company and was taken prisoner.
At first, the advance went smoothly enough, cover from enemy observation being given by the sharp-edged and rocky ridge which ran down the face. For the assault, 18 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Hanrahan37) was in the centre and in the lead, while 17 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Eastgate) was on the right and 16 Platoon (Sergeant Reid38) on the left. As they approached the opening in the ridge which they named ‘The Gap’ or ‘The Pass’, Hanrahan prepared to lead the dash through the gap. He shouted back to his men, ‘Are you right?’ and Corporal L. W. Burford, in command of the leading section, replied ‘All O.K.!’ Hanrahan ran through the opening and his men hurried to follow, but the first man to attempt to negotiate that page 334 gap was hit by a stream of bullets and it was obvious that the yard-wide opening was under heavy machine-gun fire and could not be used. But Hanrahan himself had no option but to go forward. He ran slightly downhill about 30 yards to the nearest house and, from the shelter of it, signalled to his men to stay behind cover. Peering through a window, he saw two Germans hurrying upstairs to get a Spandau into position. He shot them both with his tommy gun and was not troubled further by Germans trying to occupy the room next to the point where he was sheltering.
In 18 Platoon, NCOs and men realised the impossibility of passing through ‘The Gap’ and therefore they tried to advance on a broader front by clambering over the rocks. But no sooner had the first heads appeared over the ridge than streams of bullets whistled past and the leading men suffered casualties. Obviously the tactical advantage of surprise was lost and the chances of a successful advance appeared to be nil. Hanrahan's problem was now one of getting back to his men through the continuous fire which greeted any movement on the ridge. This problem was solved in a manner not provided for in the textbooks. ‘I thought I had no show of getting out alive,’ he said afterwards, ‘and, if ever I prayed, I prayed then and almost immediately afterwards a smoke shell landed in exactly the right place for me and I went back at the double’.
Slee now sent 16 Platoon round to the left, lower down the slopes of Castle Hill. Even before its members ventured into view of the enemy, they came under heavy rifle grenade fire but, by keeping low and crawling from rock to rock, they got farther forward. Privates Jim Niles39 and Bill Stirling saw the opening to a dugout farther down the slope to the left and went to investigate. A grenade tossed in the entrance served as a visiting card, but actually the only occupants were already dead, probably killed by 12 Platoon two days earlier. Stirling slipped into the dugout, which is worth describing as an example of the Germans' ingenuity. Inside, it was big and roomy and partially furnished for long-term occupation with, for example, an old chesterfield couch from some Italian home. A narrow fire slit gave a perfect view over Cassino town and the frontal approaches to the base of Castle Hill. In the foreground outside lay six dead Maoris in line, just as they had fallen in their attack. Farther along could be seen some of the 23rd dead from the earlier attacks on the same sector.page 335
The intensified enemy fire and the precipitous nature of the ground halted the advance. No. 16 Platoon engaged the enemy houses and dugouts with Brens and rifles but, in view of their exposed positions, which compared unfavourably with the cover enjoyed by the enemy, it was obvious that the defence had the better of the duel. Once again stout defenders using the natural advantages of terrain had shown how costly and unsatisfactory further daylight attacks would be. After lying out on and behind the ridge till after 5 p.m., D Company moved back to the gaol.
Above it on the rocks, A Company of the 21st had had a similar experience. According to its unit history, A Company ‘tried to get down but the track it was following permitted only single-file movement under fire from snipers and rifle grenades. A reconnaissance was made to find an alternative route, but without success…. the attack was called off’.40
That attack was the last attempted by the New Zealanders in Cassino. The defences had been tested but had been proved more than adequate until improved weather and ground conditions permitted the mounting of an attack on a wider front. Although some territorial gains were made in the first attacks made after the bombing of Cassino, the later direct frontal attacks were doomed to failure. The way to break the Gustav Line was eventually found, but it was not by attacking it at its strongest point.41
The 23rd remained in Cassino a few days more before being relieved. On the night of its attack, D Company returned to the cellars and the crypt at Tactical Headquarters. The men arrived there at midnight, dog-tired and seeking nothing but somewhere to lie down and sleep. In the dark, they quickly slumped into deep sleep. Only in the morning did they discover that in quite a few instances the living and the dead had been lying together and that some had slept with their heads pillowed on German dead.
Practically every day of the 23rd's term in Cassino was a day of continuous heavy shelling and mortaring. The Germans appeared to lay guns on certain roads and likely occupied posts. Communications were broken for long periods and casualties mounted steadily. In A Company Lieutenant Van Asch, the new commander, was wounded. Second-Lieutenant Jim Hennessy took command and reorganised his company positions to cope page 336 with the problems of holding their sector despite reduced numbers. In eight days, the company's strength was reduced from 75 to 33. Corporal Anderson42 took over 8 Platoon from Hennessy and handled it like a veteran. In particular, he assisted in the evacuation of wounded under most difficult conditions. Sergeant Griffin43 did equally good work in command of 7 Platoon.
C Company had somewhat similar experiences to A. This company was taken back for a short rest on the night of 22–23 March but, while resting near the crypt on the way out, was heavily mortared and suffered ten casualties. The Bren-carrier platoon supplied the extra stretcher-bearers required that night. In 15 Platoon, after Lieutenant Burtt was wounded, Lance-Sergeant A. D. Alexander took charge and proved himself an able leader, as did Sergeant Len Temperley,44 the temporary commander of 14 Platoon.
B Company had the worst time of all as it continued to occupy the school buildings during this period. Here conditions were probably the most horrible that 23rd men had to endure throughout the war, at any rate for more than a few hours. Two platoons were in the new school, where only the corridor remained, while the third platoon was in the ruins of the older school building. In some cases, the men dug down into the floor and the earth to secure protection, but as the building had stood up to several direct hits, some men were content to shelter against the wall nearest the Germans. Late on 22 March a shell came through a window or hole in the wall and burst, as if with a time-fuse, killing five and wounding eight. Amongst the wounded was the CSM, WO II J. R. Murdoch, who had done good work in handling every situation as it arose —getting up rations, manning picket posts and keeping up the spirit of the men. Lance-Sergeant Frank Sanders now took over Murdoch's duties and went back through heavy fire to Tactical Headquarters to get more stretchers and bearers to evacuate the wounded, a most difficult task under mortar fire in the dark and over the rough going. Sergeant Bill Henderson, commanding 11 Platoon, and Sergeant R. Stone, who had just returned from hospital and taken command of 10 Platoon, helped Sanders in his task of evacuating the wounded through the 25 Battalion page 337 area. That same night, Private Callanan45 showed courage of a high order in going back under fire to the crypt to get assistance for the wounded and, later, in stretcher-bearing.
The one shell which caused the thirteen casualties had the same effect on morale that shells scoring direct hits on men in slit trenches had had in the dark days after Ruweisat Ridge. Life was grim enough without this danger, exaggerated by the fear arising from the recent losses. There was plenty of food in the shape of dry rations but few felt like eating very much. Good drinking water was very short because the water in and around the buildings was polluted with the debris and the dead. Part of the building in which the men were cramped together had to be used as a latrine. As elsewhere in Cassino, it had been impossible to bury the dead and their bodies lay heaped together under wet blankets. Nothing could be more demoralising for these troops than living with the sight and smell of the dead, several of whom were their own comrades. The lack of success in the attack, the loss of confidence caused by the enemy's successful shelling, the depressing physical conditions, and the likelihood of another reverse if the company were committed to another attack—all these factors led to a serious falling-off in morale. The good soldiers for which B Company had long been noted continued to do their duty and would have answered any call, but generally spirits were low. Even Bob Stone, a veteran NCO of sterling character, and one who could always be relied upon to keep up the spirits of his men, wrote in his diary for the two days 24 and 25 March: ‘Very little sleep— too cold. I got a blanket and four of us used it…. Monastery Hill towers above us and Hun looks down on our positions…. Lads could do with a spell—conditions here pretty awful. No sleep. Heavy shelling…. Many dead Kiwis lying around—impossible to bury them in rubble and equally so to carry them out. Fair amount of shelling all day…. No hot drink today, cold and miserable…. Another cold night. Again no hot drink.’
To this company, which had lost all its officers, apart from its trusted company commander, the only original member of the battalion left in action who had not been home on furlough, came the news that Captain Irving was to go out of the line on the evening of 24 March. For their company commander to be withdrawn at this time made the men ask: ‘And when do we page 338 go out?’ Sick at heart at having to leave his men in such a situation, Irving went back to give the Colonel some of his thoughts on the subject.46 He learned that the company, now under Captain B. V. A. Jones,47 was to be relieved without delay. ‘Morale in B Company was almost certainly lower at that stage than at any other time of which I have knowledge,’ Irving summed-up later.
By this time, reliefs of forward companies were part of the decision that recognised that a deadlock had been reached inside Cassino. On 23 March, General Alexander had decided on a strategic regrouping: the New Zealand Corps was to be dissolved on 26 March and the New Zealand Division was to pass under 13 Corps (Eighth Army) and continue to hold part of Cassino. Active defence was to continue and no ground of value for later operations was to be surrendered.
There is a limit to what human flesh can endure or to what men can force themselves to do. Individuals as well as companies had to be relieved and, on 23 March, Brigadier Burrows sent Major Orbell up to relieve Colonel Connolly for twenty-four hours, as the latter had had practically no sleep since entering Cassino. That same night D Company went back to houses near Main Battalion Headquarters behind Trocchio. Here Bill Smellie, the CQMS, and his staff had shakedown beds ready for them. A good sleep out of the line and good hot meals and morale immediately began to rise again.
On the morning of 25 March, when the Tactical Headquarters area was being subjected to heavy fire of all kinds, a tank was set on fire by a German self-propelled gun. Private Fred K. Jones,48 a 23rd signaller, distinguished himself by dashing out, seizing an extinguisher from another tank, climbing on top of the burning vehicle and putting out the fire. His act was all the more meritorious in view of the intensity of enemy fire in the general area at that time.page 339
Meanwhile, provision was made for a second defence line east of Cassino and of the Rapido as a precautionary measure. On 26 March, D Company moved to new positions in this line and C Company, now under Captain Ken Clark, also took over a sector alongside D. On the same night, back in Cassino, A Company was relieved by a 24th company and B was relieved by a company of the 25th. Both A and B Companies went back to the houses behind Trocchio and had one night's perfect rest before entering the new line in the Rapido sector. The 23rd held this sector for only two days, when the Welsh Guards relieved it.
The battalion now went back to Mignano for a few days' complete rest. Some changes in company commands were made at this juncture. Major Ian Wilson returned to his former command of A Company, an event which led one A Company man to note the fact in his diary with the comment: ‘Just the very best!’ Major Bill Hoseit took over B Company, while Major Alan McPhail took the command of HQ Company relinquished by Ian Wilson. The command of 5 Brigade changed again with the return of Brigadier Keith Stewart, who visited the battalion on 30 March and met several old friends.
The stay in Mignano was brightened in the various ways customary for short periods out of the line—the 5 Brigade band played, pictures were screened, mail and bottles of beer were distributed and hot showers were provided. On Sunday, 2 April, Padre Holland preached on the text, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’. Every man present had lost friends in Cassino. As one private wrote in his diary after listing six of his best friends who had all been killed, ‘They were all good chaps. It's a knock after living with them for weeks to know I won't see them again’. And he added a special word for his platoon commander: ‘Bill Gale was a darned good officer. If you got hurt or were sick, Bill would look after you.’ Possibly the human losses in Cassino were regretted more bitterly than usual because there was so little to place in the credit scale of the balance. But the 23rd was not quite finished with Cassino.
After the church service on 2 April, arrangements were made to relieve the 26th in the Cassino railway station on the following evening. A Company was to remain LOB49 in the rest area. C and D were to be forward in and around the station and B was to be in reserve east of the Rapido. After dark on 3 April, page 340 C, D and B Companies, in that order, went forward by lorries to the 26th headquarters, whence they marched to their company positions. C had the farthest to go but, although some machine-gun and mortar fire worried them, the troops managed to reach their posts without casualties. No. 14 Platoon covered a crossroads north of the station with 15 just south, while 13 Platoon covered a crossroads west of the station. Either the Germans had heard the C Company troops entering the area or were just firing on suspicion, as a dreadful ‘hate’ session developed just as D Company was moving into position. As they moved along the railway line, which they could not leave for part of the journey because of the flooded swamp on either side, the men could hear the moan of the nebelwerfers and the ‘crunch, crunch’ of the bursting mortar bombs. Bursts of Spandau and heavier fire also crossed their route. D Company headquarters was caught in the middle of a mortar ‘stonk’; Major Slee and Corporal McCabe50 received fatal wounds and all other members of the headquarters, apart from Cecil McIntosh, the CSM, were wounded. Second-Lieutenant Norm Milsom,51 17 Platoon officer, and his sergeant, Noel McLean, were among the eight wounded. As usual, Bill Green did outstanding work in attending to the wounded under fire.
In D Company, Second-Lieutenant Hanrahan took command and followed Slee's intentions in the placing of the platoons: 16 (Second-Lieutenant Ernie Taylor52) occupied the station and part of the yards, 18 (Corporal Higgie53) the Round House or engine shed and the rest of the yards, while 17 Platoon was back at the Hummock. The men in 18 Platoon found that the greasing pits, either under a stationary engine or under heavy sleepers, made safe if dirty shelters. For three important forward observation posts, Hanrahan selected three of his best men from 18 Platoon—‘Pinky’ Maitland,54 ‘Chook’ Healy55 and ‘Snow’ Wilks.56 To avoid the coming and going of ‘Q’ staff, the men page 341 carried four days' rations with them and one bottle of water per man. Luckily they discovered an unpolluted water-tank and plenty of rations left behind by the Americans in an early occupation of that area.
Although the forward areas came under shell and mortar fire, this period in the line was not remarkable for any special incidents. The deadlock was recognised on both sides and there was no real infantry fighting. On 4 April, General Freyberg visited Battalion Headquarters behind B Company and asked searching questions as to the state of the unit.57 On the night of 6–7 April, the battalion was relieved without casualty by British troops. This marked the end of the 23rd's association with Cassino, apart from that day, ‘the saddest day I ever put in’, as one of those present termed it, when on 30 June representatives of each infantry company returned to bury their dead.
Cassino was one of the least happy chapters in the life of the battalion. It was a period of frustration and bitter disappointment. The men were prepared for one role which they never got a chance of executing. Instead of joining in the sharp attacks of exploitation after a break-out, they had to fight from house to house and to cross open stretches covered by enemy fire. They entered on the slogging match with customary vigour, but they had had no experience of and no serious training in street fighting. Furthermore, they entered the battle only when the chances of success were remote. The official historian of this campaign has said: ‘For the New Zealand Corps the events of 19 March were a premature culmination of the battle…. when the second New Zealand brigade was deployed, the time had gone by for any but a limited and costly victory. Day after day the New Zealand infantry rolled the stone of Sisyphus against the western defences of Cassino.’58 In the 23rd, too many good men were lost in these attacks in and around Cassino— 5 officers and 36 other ranks killed or died of wounds, 10 officers and 102 other ranks wounded, 1 officer and 3 other ranks prisoners of war.
The battalion ‘I’ section wrote up the unit war diary during the Cassino fighting:
‘There seems little doubt that the conditions under which the troops are at present fighting are the worst ever yet experienced.page 342
The Town is in ruins and the damage wrought by our bombers was so great that even streets are scarcely recognizable. Bomb craters many feet deep and filled with water hinder the advance of the troops, who have to suspect every heap of rubble as a likely spot for enemy snipers who infiltrate sometimes behind the forward troops. All day long German shells and mortars pound the ruins where the troops try to obtain a little protection and movement by day is made impossible. Fighting is at times so close that only a wall may separate friend from foe and the enemy has been taking advantage of this proximity by calling to our troops in English and sometimes misleading them to enemy positions. Many of the troops while in the Town never had the opportunity to brew up. The situation was not improved by the number of dead (both friend and foe) which lay unburied in the ruins.’
12 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 1 NZ Army Tank Bde and 7 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) 1941–42; 6 Bde Apr 1943-Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 3–27 Mar 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div Jun-Aug 1944; comd 6 Bde Aug 1944-Jun 1945; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1946–49; Commander, Southern Military District, 1949–51.
24 Not traced.
27 Pte Jack C. Irvine, one of this section, was given up for killed and was later ‘buried’ by the official 23rd burial party which visited Cassino on 30 June. Actually, he was picked up wounded by the Germans and turned up months later as a prisoner of war.
40 J. F. Cody, 21 Battalion, p.324.
46 The relief of Fred Irving was a very special case. Not only was he the only ‘original’ who had had no furlough, but he had had no leave in eighteen months, partly as a result of going to OCTU in the summer of 1943 when general leave was last granted. Now he was being sent as a 5 Brigade representative to join a leave party going on the Army Commander's plane to Algiers. Colonel Connolly read the above statement in first draft and commented: ‘I remember well Fred Irving having me on about his being sent out. Grand soldier all the time!’
48 2 Lt F. K. Jones, MM; born NZ 18 Jan 1913; business manager.
49 Left out of battle.
57 Cf. Documents, Vol. II, p. 291, where General Freyberg writes: ‘I am adding this paragraph on returning from a visit to the units in the line. After the hard battle the troops were tired, but they are recovering quickly and are in good heart.’