Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
I: The Division Begins to Advance
I: The Division Begins to Advance
WHEN the last battle for Cassino ended on 18 May with the Poles entering the ruins of the monastery and the British 13 Corps occupying the wrecked town, the Germans still held the slopes of Monte Cairo, which overlooked the Liri valley, and the heights farther north which commanded 10 Corps' front, on which 2 New Zealand Division held the sector nearest to the Poles.
After occupying Montecassino the Polish Corps was ordered to secure 13 Corps' right flank in the Liri valley by capturing Piedimonte San Germano and the high ground at Passo Corno, on the southern slopes of Monte Cairo. Piedimonte was defended by about 250 Germans, most of them from 1 Parachute Division, and although a Polish battle group managed to enter its outskirts on 20 May, the town was not finally clear until the 25th. The Poles, supported by New Zealand artillery and mortar fire, captured the crest of Passo Corno on 21 May, but made little progress beyond that point until the Germans withdrew from Monte Cairo.
Meanwhile the New Zealand Division watched its front for signs that the enemy was preparing to withdraw, and discussed the action it was to take when he did. Plans were mooted, amended, cancelled and revived before it was finally decided that the Division should advance towards Atina with its 5 and 6 Infantry Brigades. Both 2 Independent Parachute Brigade and 12 South African Motor Brigade, which occupied the northern and central portion of the Division's sector, were wanted for tasks elsewhere and would have to be replaced.
Fifth Brigade, which had begun to relieve 6 Brigade in the Belvedere-Terelle sector on the night of 16–17 May, completed the changeover two nights later, not without incident. About 1 a.m. page 49 on the 18th, while 23 Battalion was moving into the line partly on Colle Abate and astride the road to Terelle, a German patrol attacked the left-hand company (A Company) of 26 Battalion, which had not yet vacated the position, but was driven off with the loss of three men killed and three taken prisoner, at the cost of one New Zealander killed. Next night 23 Battalion staged a ‘demonstration’ by firing its weapons to see if the enemy was still there, and received retaliatory mortar fire which killed one man and wounded seven others. Brigadier Stewart warned his battalion commanders on the 19th that they were to be prepared for an immediate advance but were to avoid heavy engagements and casualties.
On the night of 20–21 May and the two following nights, 12 South African Motor Brigade was replaced by the composite Pleasants Force.1 The portion of 2 Independent Parachute Brigade's sector east of the road leading from the Volturno valley to San Biagio was relinquished to the command of the Italian Corps of liberation2 on the night of 21–22 May, when the Italians relieved the parachute battalion in that position. The parachute brigade, having already withdrawn another of its battalions, now held its reduced front with only one unit (5 Battalion), and the road became the boundary between 2 NZ Division and the Italian corps. Sixth New Zealand Infantry Brigade assumed command of the parachute brigade's sector on the morning of the 27th. By that time the Division had begun to advance.
1 Commanded by Lt-Col C. L. Pleasants, this group included Wilder Force (Div Cav dismounted from its armoured cars, with the Italian Bafile Bn— ‘more exotic than martial’—under command), 22 (Mot) Bn, 24 Bn, 31 A-Tk Bty, 2 MG Coy. A battalion from Eighth Army reserve (1/5 Essex), placed under 2 NZ Div's command, later relieved 24 Bn, which returned to 6 Bde.
2 A few days earlier the Italian Motor Group had been reinforced and given the title of the Corpo Italiano di Liberazione.
On 10 May General Valentin Feurstein, commanding 51 Corps, gave his opinion to the commander of Tenth Army (General von Vietinghoff) that the troops under 44 Division were not strong enough to hold the Liri valley sector ‘against such great enemy superiority’ and that ‘it would be better to evacuate Cassino and Montecassino and retire to the Senger support line [the Hitler Line] before the troops of the division were smashed….’1 But Feurstein's superiors did not share this view; Cassino and the present line were to be held as long as possible. Nevertheless Eighth Army's attack had been in progress only three days when, on 14 May, the commander of 44 Division (Lieutenant-General Bruno Ortner) insisted that either his division was reinforced or it would have to fall back on the Hitler Line. Reinforcements were provided by transferring troops from 51 Corps' northern flank. The 90th Panzer Grenadier Division took over the sector in the Liri valley on 15 and 16 May, and 44 Division went back to a position north of Terelle, where it resumed command of 132 and 134 Regiments in the sector between 1 Parachute Division and 5 Mountain Division. By the time this reorganisation was completed, on 22 May, Cassino had been evacuated, and the southern flank of 51 Corps, pivoting on Monte Cairo, had fallen back to the Hitler Line.
The demands on 5 Mountain Division for troops to reinforce the formations bearing the brunt of the battle in the south brought the complaint from its commander (Major-General M. Schrank) that he could no longer guarantee to hold his sector under attack. Nevertheless a battalion of 100 Mountain Regiment was called for on 23 May and had to be pulled out from the Monte Cifalco area ‘in full view of the enemy’2 in daylight, and its positions left in the charge of small standing patrols.
The divisions of 51 Corps were told that the line behind the Melfa was to be held on orders from Tenth Army. The 1st Parachute Division was to withdraw its troops to strengthen the Melfa front, and 44 Division was to take over the sector extending eastwards across the northern slopes of Monte Cairo to the vicinity of Terelle. This line was to be held until further orders—but 44 Division, 5 Mountain Division and 114 Light Division were to prepare to withdraw. Later 44 Division was told to re-man battle outposts on the Monte Cifalco line which it was evacuating.
Shortly before midnight on 25 May 51 Corps ordered the immediate withdrawal of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division to a line behind the Liri north of Ceprano (where it would come under the command of 14 Panzer Corps), and of 1 Parachute Division and 44 Division to a line running eastwards from the Liri over the hills to a point of contact with 5 Mountain Division west of the Belmonte-Atina road. Less than four hours later 51 Corps received orders from Tenth Army to retire to a line behind the Melfa River, to which 44 Division and 5 Mountain Division were to go as quickly as possible. The Germans covered their retreat by battle outposts left out in front of the new line.
Towards evening the Division came under heavy shellfire, which caused some casualties. The artillery observers were not sure whether the enemy was firing to register his guns in fresh positions or whether he was using up ammunition before he pulled them out from their old sites. In any case it was felt that he intended to cover the withdrawal of at least some of his forward posts, especially as the village of Valleluce, which he had held just south of Monte Cifalco, received many of the shells.
Fifth Brigade was directed to follow up any withdrawal but not to make a set assault on German positions. Before the brigade could advance it had to have access to the tracks between its front line and Terelle, and Terelle itself would have to be clear of the enemy. Brigadier Stewart instructed 23 Battalion (Lieutenant- Colonel McPhail1) to make a noisy demonstration with all available weapons and, if the enemy did not react, to send out patrols at once to reconnoitre. The demonstration drew little reaction, but the patrols came under machine-gun fire.
The enemy, after firing only intermittently during the night, began to shell the New Zealand positions heavily at dawn on 25 May. Observation posts reported hearing or seeing demolitions in locations which suggested that he already had taken his heavy weapons back or was abandoning them. Once again the Poles claimed that Terelle had been vacated, and by evening they had a patrol of platoon strength on the summit of Monte Cairo.
1 Lt-Col E. A. McPhail, DSO, MC and bar, m.i.d.; born Wanganui, 31 Dec 1906; bank official; CO 23 Bn May–Jun 1944, Aug–Oct 1944; 21 Bn Oct 1944–May 1945; wounded 9 Apr 1943; died Ashburton, 27 Jan 1967.
Stewart ordered 23 Battalion to send out more patrols and to be prepared to reinforce them if they met no opposition. At 8.40 p.m. the battalion asked that no artillery fire be laid on its front because its companies were following up its patrols. Soon the battalion reported that it was on the ridge across the road where the original German forward posts had been, without having met opposition, and was sending a patrol north-eastwards along the ridge to make contact on Colle Abate with 28 (Maori) Battalion. This patrol was held up by minefields, but the remainder of 23 Battalion, after some hard climbing over the rocky slopes, took up positions on a line covering the road. About a dozen casualties were sustained on mines or booby traps and from shellfire. ‘The bright flash with which one large mine exploded brought enemy shellfire down on the area. Had it not been for the fact that many shells were duds, casualties would have been heavy.’1
Fifth Brigade warned 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel McElroy2) to be ready to pass through 23 Battalion with Terelle as its objective if the 23rd had encountered no opposition by 11 p.m. About that time mortar shells began to fall across the Terelle road, so the battalion was told to wait until counter-mortar tasks could be fired on Monte Cifalco, from which the mortaring appeared to come. The mortaring continued intermittently, but as no small-arms fire was reported, Stewart released 21 Battalion shortly after midnight. The leading troops entered Terelle before dawn without meeting any Germans, except three who were surprised in a house and surrendered, and others who were rounded up by patrols searching near the village. Altogether about 15 prisoners, mostly of 132 Grenadier Regiment, were taken. After daybreak guns of heavy calibre began to shell the New Zealand sector, especially the road into Terelle and the village itself. Five men were wounded in 21 Battalion before this fire slackened off when the New Zealand artillery bombarded known gun positions between Belmonte and Atina.
1 Angus Ross, 23 Battalion, p. 350.
3 Redesignated 5 Essex in May 1943, but referred to in most records as 1/5 Essex.
Fifth Brigade was instructed on the morning of 26 May to push through to Belmonte Castello and Atina, provided this could be done ‘without getting into too much trouble.’1 After Brigadier Stewart had examined the situation and the ground, he ordered tanks and carriers to Terelle. These vehicles came under heavy shellfire when they appeared on the ridge east of the village. One of the carriers was hit, and one of the tanks, while turning to go back, ran on to a mine on the verge of the narrow track and was lost. The vehicles were then ordered to remain below the ridge until dark, when they were to join 32 Anti-Tank Battery's ‘infantillery’, who were to take over Terelle from 21 Battalion.
Both 21 and 23 Battalions were to ‘ease forward gradually as opportunity permits’.2 The 23rd was to use a track leading down a gully north of Colle Abate to Belmonte, and the 21st a route parallel to the 23rd's but farther west and joining the Belmonte- Atina road about midway between those two places. As the tracks were mined, the infantry would be accompanied by sappers from 6 Field Company.
1 War diary, HQ 5 Inf Bde.
General Freyberg told Brigadier Stewart, ‘Whoever (5 or 6 Brigade) gets to Atina first, will go on to Sora. The other brigade will follow. Don't get involved, but keep the enemy on the run.’1 The GOC did not want the Division to get embroiled with a strong German rearguard.
It was obvious on 26 May that, although his mortars were still firing from Monte Cifalco and his large guns from positions back in the mountains, the enemy was on his way out from the New Zealand front. A deserter who came into the Maori Battalion's lines at Colle Belvedere said his unit (a battalion of 132 Regiment) had withdrawn two nights earlier and had left his company to demonstrate its presence until the next night, when it also had fallen back. The Maori Battalion came under mortar fire late in the afternoon, which killed two men and wounded two. After counter-mortar fire was directed on the Monte Cifalco area, a party of Germans bearing a wounded man on a stretcher and carrying a Red Cross flag was seen marching down the Belmonte road.
During the night 23 Battalion advanced to some houses beyond Colle Abate and down the track to Belmonte, which B Company entered without opposition about 6 a.m. on the 27th; 21 Battalion, advancing northward from Terelle, secured the high ground beyond Belmonte. After exchanging a few shots with a German observation post on Monte Piano, A Company of 21 Battalion took four prisoners from 134 Regiment.
The 23rd Battalion, led by A Company, which took 11 prisoners, continued down the road to Atina, the outskirts of which were reached late in the afternoon. The battalion learned from civilians that the enemy had gone back behind the Melfa River, about a mile from the village. Bad demolitions were found on all the roads entering Atina, and the bridge over the Melfa had been wrecked, but the river was fordable. The 21st Battalion, which had kept pace on the left, also reached the Melfa.
Brigadier Stewart ordered the Maori Battalion (Lieutenant- Colonel Young1) in mid-morning on the 27th to move from Colle Belvedere to the brigade's concentration area near Sant' Elia in the Rapido valley and to get ready to advance along the road to Atina. The Maoris marched down the Terelle track, which no longer offered any terror. Fifth Brigade's support units, which included 32 Anti-Tank Battery (reverting to its anti-tank role), the detachment of five tanks operated by the Divisional Protective Troop, 1 and 3 Companies of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, and 2788 Field Squadron of the RAF, also were ordered to concentrate near Sant' Elia in readiness to follow up the infantry. B Squadron of 20 Armoured Regiment had arrived during the night; on the way one of its tanks had gone over a bank in the darkness, killing one and injuring two of the crew.
Sixth Brigade began its advance from the east towards Atina early in the afternoon of the 27th. The 25th Battalion (Lieutenant- Colonel MacDuff2) had moved up during the night from the brigade rest area in the Volturno valley to the vicinity of Cardito, and after 5 Parachute Battalion (temporarily under 6 Brigade's command) had patrolled to the road north-east of Monte San Croce without seeing the enemy, resumed the advance about 1.30 p.m. No opposition was met, but many demolitions and mines on the road had to be cleared before the tanks of A Squadron, 20 Armoured Regiment, and the support weapons could catch up with the infantry, who reached the outskirts of shell-battered San Biagio late in the afternoon. A patrol found the village unoccupied. Some of the demolitions were so bad that it seemed unlikely that the tanks and other vehicles would rejoin the battalion overnight, although sappers of 572 Field Company, Royal Engineers (in support of 6 Brigade), proposed to work by moonlight.
1 Lt-Col R. R. T. Young, DSO; England; born Wellington, 25 Jun 1902; oil company executive; CO NZ School of Instruction, Feb–Apr 1943; CO 28 (Maori) Bn Dec 1943– Jul 1944, Aug–Nov 1944; wounded 26 Dec 1943.
2 Col J. L. MacDuff, MC, m.i.d.; born Wellington, 11 Dec 1905; barrister and solicitor; CO 27 (MG) Bn Sep 1943–Feb 1944; 25 Bn Mar–Jun 1944; Adv Base, 2 NZEF, Jun–Jul 1944; Chief Justice of Fiji, 1962–63; died Suva, 11 Jul 1963.