CHAPTER 18 — The Struggle for Cassino
The Struggle for Cassino
At the end of December 1943 Eighth Army's intentions had been that 2 New Zealand Division should remain in its winter line until the end of January, when it would be withdrawn to the rear for a period of training. But the heavy snowfall of 31 December had caused the Army to revise its plan for driving through Chieti to Rome, and it had been decided that the western flank of the Allied line, where a landing by Fifth Army at Salerno early in September had carried the advance forward to within 30 miles of Naples, presented an easier approach towards the Italian capital.
After the fall of Naples the enemy had withdrawn to his Winter Line, which was a series of well prepared positions laid along the shortest possible line he could contrive across the waist of the Italian peninsula. This line extended from the Garigliano River, which flowed into the Gulf of Gaeta above Naples, through the mountains in the centre to the Sangro River in the east. Behind the Winter Line the main German defensive positions, the Gustav (or Cassino) Line, began in the Gulf of Gaeta, skirted the Garigliano River and continued up the western bank of the Rapido River to the heights above Cassino, which overlooked the entrance to the Liri valley, aptly called the gateway to Rome, still the immediate objective of the Allied armies.
This gateway enjoys tremendous natural advantages for defence. To the south it is flanked by steep mountains which border the western side of the Garigliano River all the way from the sea to where it swings westwards into the Liri valley and becomes the Liri River.1 To the east of the town of Cassino, which lies at the foot of the mighty bastion of Monte Cassino in the fork of the Rapido and Liri valleys, the spurs of the page 417 Apennines begin to rise into the rugged backbone of the peninsula. Here the terrain over which the Allies had to approach and assault the Liri valley defences was almost completely overlooked from the enemy positions above Cassino and the lofty sentinel tower of Monte Cairo, three and a half miles to the north-west, rising five and a half thousand feet above the valley floor.
From the Volturno plain in the south Highway 6, one of two principal roads from Naples to Rome, follows a natural corridor through the north-south mountain barrier. Near Mignano this corridor contracts to a defile a mile wide. Just beyond this defile, where the corridor debouches into the Rapido valley, two isolated features, Monte Porchia and Monte Trocchio, lie directly on the flank of the plain which leads across the Rapido River into the Liri valley. Both features had fallen to the Americans, Porchia on 7 January and Trocchio a week later. Thus, by mid-January, the enemy had been thrown out of his Winter Line on the Tyrrhenian side and back into his Gustav Line defences, while Fifth Army had breasted up to the Rapido River, which alone barred the way into the Liri valley.
On 12 January 15 Army Group directed that 2 NZ Division was to be moved to Fifth Army's area on the western side of the peninsula, where it would go into Army Group reserve. Its future employment would depend on the course of Fifth Army's operations on the Rapido River. But the Division was primarily intended to undertake an exploitation role, for which its mobility and capacity for long-range operations were particularly suited; and when an opportunity for such employment could be foreseen, it would be placed under the command of Fifth Army.
The relief of the Division and its move were screened in secrecy. The first warning order, issued on 11 January, said that the Division's positions were to be taken over by 4 Indian Division and that the relief would begin on the 13th.
Except for those units which were still in the forward areas engaged in what was known as the ‘casa war’, so-called from the line of infantry posts installed in cottages along the front, the Division was placed under a wireless silence beginning early on 12 January. From this date the designation of 2 NZ Division was replaced temporarily by spadger force.page 418
After dusk had faded on the evening of the 16th all ranks at Divisional Headquarters removed distinguishing badges, shoulder titles and any other marks or signs, including the fernleaf insignia on vehicles, which identified them as New Zealanders. Although these measures were ordered and carried out very thoroughly, they were incapable of achieving their purpose. How could any such measures disguise New Zealanders' mannerisms and their speech any more than they might conceal Australian accents or the county dialects of Englishmen? But the men complied with their usual light-hearted irony, some even inquiring facetiously if the engraved letters ‘NZ’ on their rifle barrels should be obliterated, or the New Zealand stamps removed from the food parcels from home with which nearly every vehicle was liberally provisioned. Others recalled the story—probably apocryphal but told and retold many times in good-natured derision—of the occasion in June 1942 when the Division travelled incognito from Syria to the Western Desert. All badges and distinguishing marks had been removed, but a large van, its sides boldly emblazoned with the words ‘New Zealand Patriotic Fund Board’, had travelled without any attempt at concealment in the middle of the Divisional Headquarters' convoy.
The first stage of the journey from Castelfrentano to the divisional training area north of the Volturno River near Piedimonte d'Alife was fraught with the usual difficulties of night moves. The trials of the drivers, especially those of the armoured command vehicles, command lorries and three-tonners, began early as the transport wriggled cautiously in the inky darkness out of the crazy labyrinth of Castelfrentano's alleys and formed up in the silent town. The use of lights was not permitted, so that for the first twelve miles the nose-to-tail line of transport inched forward over the ice-encrusted roads, noses bumping fenders and drivers straining their eyes to discern the way in the darkness.
The headquarters' three weeks' stay in the Alife area was extremely pleasant. The camp site in an olive grove, where the ground had a liberal proportion of gravel and thus provided firm standing for the heavier vehicles, commanded a fine view of the green Volturno valley hemmed in by high mountain page 419 ranges. The change in temperature from that on the wintry Adriatic coast was very noticeable; gone were the wintry landscapes and the biting winds, and the first of spring's new growth was bursting forth. Lieutenant-Colonel Pryor, commanding Divisional Signals in the absence of Lieutenant-Colonel Grant, who had gone to New Zealand on furlough, watched the fresh verdure with interest and was heard to remark that even the blast of war could not prevent the oaks from budding in season.
The training programme carried out in the Alife area was not severe and provided ample time for sport. Space was quickly cleared for football grounds, and soon strangely willing fatigue parties were industriously marking out side-lines and erecting goalposts of unsymmetrical proportions hewn from nearby trees.
From 23 January daily leave parties of 300 men from the Division visited the ruins of Pompeii, which was just another ruin to most of the men, although many whose tastes were more than usually cultivated in the architectural and decorative arts were interested in the almost perfect preservation of some of the murals in the houses. Naples, too, which many visited later, failed to arouse much enthusiasm, mainly because of the complete absence of the fleshpots with which Cairo and Alexandria abounded. Here the aesthetes found little to arouse their interest, being offended by the grotesque ornateness of Italian furniture and the hideous gilded interior decorations featuring bedraggled cherubim and cornucopias.
Meanwhile, in the plain below Cassino, 2 United States Corps of Lieutenant-General Clark's Fifth Army had thrust across the Rapido River in a four-battalion attack in an attempt to seize Sant' Angelo and thus open the way westwards along Highway 6 in the Liri valley towards Rome, 85 miles away. Had this attack succeeded, General Clark planned to exploit with the New Zealanders, but the Americans, having crossed the river the previous day, were thrown back on the 23rd by heavy counter-attacks. In the north, in the Rapido valley, attacks by 10 British Corps and the French Expeditionary Corps were also halted after they had gained a little ground. On the night of 21–22 January, immediately before 2 US Corps' attempt on Sant' Angelo, 6 US Corps landed at Anzio and Nettuno and page 420 secured a foothold against slight opposition. The enemy's reaction to this threat to his communications between Rome and his Gustav Line defences was swift: bringing down considerable reinforcements from the north, he contained the Americans within a narrow beachhead.
The Anzio operations having been thus restricted and those against Sant' Angelo frustrated, Fifth Army's point of attack to breach the enemy's main defences was shifted to the north in an attempt to outflank the Gustav Line. By the end of January an American division had reached to within a few hundred yards of the Monastery on the heights above Cassino, but in the face of stubbornly held German defences was unable to make further progress. Below the Monastery another American division had carried the enemy defences on the northern fringes of Cassino, but its progress was halted by German strongpoints in the town.
Because the New Zealanders' task of advancing up the Liri valley demanded, on account of the strongly increased enemy defences, a larger force and therefore a wider organisation than one division could supply, 2 New Zealand Division was expanded into a corps and reinforced by another formation from Eighth Army, 4 Indian Division, which was withdrawn from the Adriatic side and sent to Fifth Army's front. In addition to this accession of strength, New Zealand Corps acquired considerable administrative and artillery reinforcements, which included three field regiments and five medium regiments of Royal Artillery.
To Signals the immediate effect of this expansion was the augmenting of its resources to meet its new commitments by the attachment on 5 February, two days after the formation of New Zealand Corps, of a number of sections and detachments from Royal Signals and the Americans. With this rise in status of Divisional Signals to Corps Signals, a corresponding elevation occurred in the rank and appointment of its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Pryor, who became a temporary colonel with the appointment of Chief Signal Officer, New Zealand Corps.
Notwithstanding the welcome given the various detachments of Royal Signals, probably the most interesting newcomers to page 421 assist the New Zealanders in their new tasks were the United States Signal Corps' men from Fifth Army. Called privates first class, privates, and other appellations strange to British and Dominion signals units, they brought with them curious trans-Atlantic jargon and signal nomenclature which the New Zealanders took some time to become accustomed to. For a few days the designation ‘message Centre Chief’ for the familiar Signalmaster caused slight confusion and much amusement, and in B (cable) Section hard-bitten warriors winced when they heard themselves described as ‘trouble-shooting teams’ and their quad cable as ‘spiral four’. On the other hand an American officer was surprised when he heard a New Zealand lineman refer to his ‘ground spike’ as an earth pin.
The American field rations aroused much curiosity. With typical American generosity, the visitors handed over several cartons of biscuits, some coffee and a tin or two of the coveted bacon and eggs. They in turn were invited to try a tin or two of British bully which, to the stupefaction of the donors, they consumed with great gusto; one even went so far, to the incredulity of a group of New Zealanders, as to pronounce it ‘just fine’.
On 4 February an advance party of New Zealand Corps Headquarters and the forward signals group left for a new position a little over a mile north of Mignano to prepare a headquarters area and lay out the beginnings of a signals communication network in readiness for the deployment of the Corps. They were followed next day by Main Headquarters New Zealand Corps and Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division, together with their respective headquarters' signals components. On that day, too, Main Headquarters 6 Brigade moved to a new position one and a half miles south-west of San Vittore, and Main Headquarters 5 Brigade to the south-eastern side of Monte Trocchio. Late that night Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade moved up to within one mile south-west of Mignano. Meanwhile the New Zealand artillery, the first complete group from the Division to move up to the Cassino front, had reached previously reconnoitred positions south-east of Monte Trocchio and deployed its guns for action.
New Zealand Corps took over command of the Rapido line south of Cassino on the morning of 6 February. Its boundary page 422 to the north with 2 US Corps, which was across the Rapido north of Cassino by this time and had a foothold in the northern precincts of the town, was Highway 6, and to the south, with the British 10 Corps, was along a line running south-eastwards from the railway and reaching the Gari River about two miles north-west of its confluence with the Liri River.
Two attacks by 2 US Corps, one on the 8th and the other on the 11th, having failed to clear the enemy from the heights above Cassino and secure positions commanding the eastern end of the Liri valley, New Zealand Corps put 4 Indian Division into the hills north of Cassino to complete the task which the exhausted Americans were unable to do because of their heavily depleted numbers, the harsh rigours of the weather, and the fierceness of the German counter-attacks. When this had been done and 2 NZ Division had thrown a bridgehead across the Rapido, the stage would be set for an advance westwards up the Liri valley.
In the meantime the line communications system within New Zealand Corps had been building up steadily from its modest beginnings of 6 February, when only one circuit reached out to each of 5 and 6 Brigades, one to Headquarters Divisional Artillery and Headquarters 2 US Corps, and, in a 16-mile-long twisted pair cable, to Rear Headquarters New Zealand Corps. Now, on the 12th, there was an immense network of lines radiating outwards in intricate patterns and combinations of underground cable—part of the Italian civil system—poled-line circuits, metallic circuits of twin twisted cable, and the humble earth return circuits of single field cable.
Two days earlier the shroud of secrecy under which the Division had hidden as SPADGER FORCE had been lifted, but the wireless silence which had been imposed a month before in the Castelfrentano area still remained in force, so that most of the signal traffic within the Corps had still to be passed by line. All this imposed a great burden on the linemen of the signal sections, as much on those with the field regiments as those at brigades. At first, of course, when the Division took up its operational positions along the Rapido, all lines were put out to brigades and regiments by the shortest or most accessible routes in order to establish communications quickly; page 423 in such exposed positions, however, they soon began to incur considerable damage from enemy shellfire and the movements of tracked vehicles. Presently, after long hours of gruelling work each day by the mud-spattered and weary linemen, the circuits were built back into more secure places where vehicles could not pass, but enemy fire continued to inflict heavy damage to the cables.
The meagre results of the Americans' attempts to seize the heights above Cassino failed to present an opportunity for the New Zealanders to throw a bridgehead across the Rapido south of the town; similar attempts by the Indians on 15 February and again on the night of the 17th–18th also failed for very much the same reasons, although the Indians were stronger in numbers and not as exhausted as the Americans. Meanwhile, an attack planned for 5 Brigade to capture the railway station and the southern portion of the town on the night of the 13th–14th, in order to allow armour to pass through and gain Highway 6 to the west, was postponed because of the weather, which had made the ground south of the railway sodden and almost completely impassable even to men on foot.
By this time the question of whether the resistance on the heights around the Monastery on Monte Cassino should or should not be reduced by a heavy air assault was being discussed on the higher formation level. It was a difficult and controversial question, in which natural reluctance arose among some senior commanders because of the venerable and religious associations in which the Monastery was held. At length, however, a decision was reached that an attack should be made in considerable strength. On the morning of 15 February waves of heavy and medium bombers, comprising 250 aircraft, including 150 Super-Fortresses, passed over the heights and rained down their heavy bombs almost continuously from 9 a.m. until after noon. In the intervals between the successive waves of aircraft heavy and medium guns shelled the Monastery. The results were disappointing: although the high explosive wrought enormous destruction, large portions of the lower walls of the massive pile remained intact, and these, together with the surrounding rubble, gave excellent cover for the German defenders to continue their stubborn resistance.page 424
On the night of 17–18 February 5 Brigade attacked the railway station with two companies of 28 (Maori) Battalion. In readiness for this operation K Section on the 11th had established a signal centre on the railway where it passed between the Rapido River and the south-western slopes of Monte Trocchio. This signal centre remained in operation until the attack on the 17th; from it one twisted pair field cable ran to 28 Bat- talion's battle headquarters, which was dug in on the eastern slopes of the railway embankment about two miles north of the signal centre and about a thousand yards east of the station. Three circuits ran back from the signal centre to Main Headquarters 5 Brigade, behind Trocchio, and on one of these a superposed Fullerphone telegraph circuit was strapped through at the signal centre to the battalion's battle headquarters circuit. From Main Headquarters 5 Brigade two circuits went back to the Main Headquarters New Zealand Corps exchange.
Wireless, completely inoperative throughout the Division since 12 January, was freed from its silence at 9 p.m. on 17 February, half an hour before zero. Within 5 Brigade the conventional wireless layout for an infantry brigade was used for the attack. In addition a No. 38 set at the signal centre was netted in intercept to 28 Battalion's forward control net to its infantry companies.
Throughout the attack both wireless and line communications behind Battle Headquarters 28 Battalion worked well, although numerous faults on the lines between Main New Zealand Corps and Main Headquarters 5 Brigade had been caused by enemy shelling. Although signal communications forward of battalion headquarters are not normally the responsibility of Divisional Signals, K Section had acquired an interest, through its intercept set at the signal centre, in 28 Battalion's forward control net to companies. No line was laid forward of Headquarters 28 Battalion, all communication with the two companies in the attack being entirely by wireless.
Both companies left their forming-up line in the sodden fields south of the railway at 9.30 p.m. and advanced slowly across the waterlogged ground, which was sown plentifully with anti-personnel mines, against machine-gun and mortar fire from the southern portion of Cassino. B Company eventually reached page 425 the station yard and, after severe fighting, gained possession of the station itself and an engine house. On the left A Company pproached slowly towards the Hummocks south of the station under fierce fire, but shortly after midnight lost its wireless communication with B Company and with Battalion Headquarters. The engineers, working doggedly to repair enemy demolitions on the railway to allow tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment to reach the town along the track and secure the objectives won by the Maoris, were held up by enemy fire and could not complete their task.
Fierce fighting at the station yard and in the southern outskirts of the town continued throughout the morning and early afternoon of the 18th until, soon after 3 p.m., the Maoris were forced back by a determined German counter-attack supported by mortar and machine-gun fire and tanks. At 3.40 p.m. wireless communication failed between Headquarters 28 Battalion and the two companies, with the result that nothing was known of the counter-attack and its success until the first of the Maoris arrived back east of the Rapido stream about 4 p.m.
In this battle K Section sustained no casualties, but G Section, attached to 6 Field Regiment, did not get off so lightly, two of its line detachment being killed on the 18th while repairing a regimental line. One was Signalman Tankersley2 and the other, the driver of the sections' line truck, Signalman McKeown.3
Although 5 Brigade's attempt to seize and hold the railway station and the southern part of the town had failed, New Zealand Corps was still to apply pressure on the enemy's defences, mainly to prevent him withdrawing any of his formations to meet the threat of an Allied invasion of southern France. The New Zealanders were instructed to renew their attempts against the town.
Almost insuperable supply difficulties hampered 4 Indian Division's operations against the Monastery from the hills to the north-west, so the idea of attacking from the mountains or from the east, where the enemy's defences were strengthened page 426 by demolitions and water obstacles, was abandoned in favour of an assault from the north, where 2 US Corps was still in possession of the northern fringes of the town. The essence of the plan was that 6 Brigade should attack the town from the north and allow 19 Armoured Regiment to follow through past the railway station and open a breach, along Highway 6, in the defences covering the entrance to the Liri valley. Two American armoured formations, Task Forces A and B, were then to pass through with the rest of the New Zealand armour and exploit into the valley.
The date for this operation was fixed tentatively for 24 February, but whether this timing would be followed depended entirely upon the weather. A fine spell was needed to allow the ground in the Liri valley to dry out sufficiently to provide firm going for armour. Good weather was needed also to lift the heavy bombers off their sodden airfields so that they could batter the town before the infantry attacked. For the artillery preparation, which was to precede the actual assault after the bombers had done their worst, the Corps would have, in addition to its own New Zealand guns, those of 2 United States Corps, the French Expeditionary Corps and 10 British Corps, representing the greatest concentration of artillery the New Zealanders had ever had.
The relief of 133 Regiment of 2 US Corps in the northern outskirts of Cassino by 6 Brigade took place during the night of 21-22 February. On the 21st Main Headquarters 6 Brigade moved to a new position opposite Cassino in the Rapido valley and took command of the area from 133 US Regiment. The 19th Armoured Regiment, under the command of 6 Brigade for the forthcoming attack, took up a position nearby. On the 20th, the day before the move of Main Headquarters 6 Brigade, L Section set up a brigade exchange in the command post of 133 Regiment on the western bank of the Rapido north of Cassino; a Tactical Headquarters 6 Brigade was established there, and the exchange was intended to be expanded later to a signal office to serve the brigade's main headquarters.
Sixth Brigade's orders for the attack on the town were issued on the morning of the 23rd, but just after midday, when threatening signs of rain began to appear, word was received page 427 from Main Headquarters New Zealand Corps that the operation was postponed for twenty-four hours. That afternoon heavy rain fell and turned the ground into an unmanageable morass. Next day the weather failed completely, and three weeks passed before conditions again became suitable for the launching of the assault, which was to go under the code-name of DICKENS. Everything was then made ready for the attack to commence on 10 March, but only the night before New Zealand Corps learned that bad weather in the south-east had drenched the airfields at Foggia and grounded the heavy bombers.
During the first two weeks of February another Eighth Army formation, 78 Division—the ‘battle-axe’ people, so-called from the dreadful looking Jack Ketch cleaver depicted on their divisional insignia—arrived at Fifth Army from the Adriatic sector. This division came under the command of New Zealand Corps on 17 February; it was not to take part in the actual assault, but was to be held ready to cross the Rapido on the New Zealanders' left if required to assist exploitation in the Liri valley.
The New Zealand Division's operation order of 23 February for 6 Brigade's attack had reimposed wireless silence throughout the Division, but between then and 15 March it was frequently broken because of shell and mortar fire damage to the field cables.
dickens was set for 15 March. The last-minute preparations, which are a part of every operation however completely it might have been planned beforehand, were made. On the 14th, a fine day with a bright and clear sky and the promise of more fair weather to come, Signals at Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division completed an extensive programme of relaying the forward lines and building them back into places of safety from the tracks and wheels of transport.
Never before—except perhaps during No. 1 Company's employment as a Corps Signals in General Wavell's campaign in the Western Desert in 1940—had such a vast and complex system of line communications come within the responsibility of New Zealand Signals. From the Main New Zealand Corps' exchange, the nerve centre of the immense network, twenty-eight circuits, twelve of them provided with superposed page 428 telegraph channels, radiated outwards—forward to the infantry brigades and artillery formations, to other corps and divisional formations on either flank, and to the administrative headquarters in the rear. Of these twenty-eight circuits, Tactical Headquarters 2 NZ Division, which opened near Cervaro on the eastern side of the Rapido valley on the morning of the 15th, had two, 5 Brigade two, and 6 Brigade one. From Tactical Headquarters 2 NZ Division, in its turn, one circuit ran to each of the two infantry brigades and another to Headquarters Divisional Artillery, from which other lines went to the three New Zealand field regiments, one Royal Artillery regiment and Headquarters 2 Army Group, Royal Artillery.
Main Headquarters 6 Brigade had three circuits to its Tactical Headquarters, situated on the western bank of the Rapido just north of Cassino, and from there, in addition to the usual lines to the brigade's battalions assembled north of the town in readiness for the attack, two lateral lines ran to Headquarters 5 Indian Brigade on the heights to the north-west of the Monastery.
Wireless communications assumed the usual pattern employed in 2 NZ Division, but were considerably expanded in two important respects. The first was the establishment of the numerous control sets of a corps headquarters working forward to its divisional formations, in this case 78 British Division, 4 Indian Division, and 142 Regimental Combat Team (an American force consisting of an infantry regiment, an artillery battalion, some engineers and a medical company). There were no wireless links to Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division, which was sited in the same area as its parent corps' headquarters. The second cause of expansion was the inclusion at Headquarters New Zealand Divisional Artillery of an additional control set working forward from the headquarters of the CCRA New Zealand Corps to the CRAs at 4 Indian and 78 British Divisions and to Headquarters 2 Army Group, Royal Artillery. In addition, the New Zealand CRA's usual wireless net working forward to regiments had grown to almost unmanageable proportions with the addition of out-stations at a Headquarters Divisional Artillery observation post and an American anti-aircraft group, together with another seven sets installed page 429 in regimental commanders' reconnaissance vehicles which were able to switch at will on ‘flick’ frequencies to the control set at Headquarters Divisional Artillery. [See wireless diagram on pp. 444-5.]
In 5 and 6 Brigades wireless communications followed the usual pattern for an infantry brigade, with the addition in each case of No. 22 set out-stations at signal centres. In 6 Brigade two No. 38 intercept sets, one at Main Headquarters 6 Brigade and the other at the signal centre on the western bank of the Rapido, were tuned to a lateral wireless net between 24, 25 and 26 Battalions. At Tactical Headquarters 6 Brigade, on the same site as the signal centre, a No. 38 set was netted, also for intercept purposes, to the control set at Headquarters 25 Battalion, which worked forward to infantry companies; another, at Main Headquarters 6 Brigade, performed a similar function on 26 Battalion's forward company net.
At 8.30 a.m. on 15 March the prelude to DICKENS began with a massive air bombardment, which at intervals of between ten and twenty minutes until noon continued to rain destruction on Cassino and the slopes of Monte Cassino on the western outskirts of the town. In the three and a half hours of aerial assault more than 500 heavy and medium bombers of the American Strategic and Tactical Air Forces dropped over 1000 tons of bombs in an area of less than one square mile. While the heavies and mediums were pounding the town into rubble, hundreds of Boston bombers and lighter aircraft of the Desert Air Force and the American 12th Air Support Command attacked enemy positions in the south and south-west of the town. Although most of the bombs fell squarely upon the town and among the defences along the lower slopes of Monte Cassino, some fell wide, and one of these damaged a 6 Brigade B Echelon line at San Michele.
On the tick of noon, barely before the last group of bombers had vanished in the sky to the south-east, the black smoke from their last stick of bombs still eddying up from the ruins of the battered town, the eastern slopes of Monte Cassino blossomed into hundreds of fleecy puffs of smoke where the first shells from over 600 British, New Zealand, Indian, Free French and American guns opened the artillery concentration.
Half an hour later men of 25 Battalion moved off from the page 430 northern outskirts of the town on their advance towards their right-angled objective which, commencing at Castle Hill above the north-western corner of the town, ran south for 400 yards to the Continental Hotel in the south-west and then swung east for 600 yards to a road junction on the eastern boundary. Outside this angle lay the southern and south-western fringes of Cassino, with buildings more scattered towards the railway station and the point, farther west, where Highway 6 swung suddenly westwards into the entrance to the Liri valley.
At once the advancing infantry met difficulties. The bombardment had left great sprawling masses of rubble and masonry across the streets, which were plentifully pitted with yawning bomb craters, so that the squadron of 19 Armoured Regiment tanks accompanying the initial attack was unable to get beyond the northern fringes of the town, and even the infantrymen on foot had difficulty in maintaining their advance through the ruins.
Unexpectedly heavy resistance was encountered in the south-west corner of the town, where a strongpoint in the Continental Hotel, in the centre of the German line along the base of Monte Cassino, halted 25 Battalion. By the evening, however, the battalion had captured Castle Hill, and later that night it handed this feature over to 5 Indian Brigade and continued on towards the southern limits of its objective.
About the time that Castle Hill fell to 25 Battalion, 26 Battalion crossed the Rapido at the north-eastern end of the town and, accompanied by the rest of 19 Armoured Regiment, moved towards the brigade's second objective, which was a semi-circular line starting at a road junction south of the town, where Highway 6 turned west towards the Liri valley, and swinging round to join the Gari River nearly a thousand yards to the south-east.
But 26 Battalion also had considerable difficulty in making its way among the heaped rubble and yawning chasms left in the streets by the air bombardment. Finally it was pinned down by heavy machine-gun fire on a line running from the Botanical Gardens to the point where Highway 6 entered Cassino from the east. Soon after the battalion's attack had begun the progress of 19 Armoured Regiment's tanks was effectively halted page 431 in the northern part of the town by huge bomb craters and demolitions.
Early in the advance communications within 26 Battalion became very unreliable, and it was not until about 10 p.m., when the battalion signallers laid lines from Battalion Headquarters to the forward companies, that they were fully restored.
Soon after dusk heavy rain began to fall and this added immeasurably to the trials of the attackers, who so far had reached only the first objective. Bomb craters soon began to fill with water and into these the men stumbled as they groped in the inky darkness through the fallen masonry and twisted girders. Inevitably, of course, the No. 38 sets became inoperative from immersion in water when their bearers took cover from fire or fell headlong into the rain-filled craters. Moreover, some of the operators had removed the centre and top sections of the sets' aerials because of sniping and also to enable them to clamber more easily through the crumbling debris; this had the effect of reducing the sets' signal levels to an almost unworkable strength. Together with the failure of those sets which had become sodden, this soon rendered the battal- ion's internal wireless communications almost completely ineffective.
In the rear, however, communications were much more stable throughout the attack, all lines from Main Headquarters New Zealand Corps' exchange to both infantry brigades, and those between Main Headquarters 6 Brigade and its Tactical Headquarters, being maintained satisfactorily. Wireless communications between Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division and the brigades were also maintained without serious interruption.
At Main Divisional Headquarters considerable use was made of intercept sets by the General Staff Intelligence, who obtained a good deal of early information on the fighting in the town by listening on the squadron nets of 19 Armoured Regiment. Similarly, at both Main Headquarters 6 Brigade and the signal centre at Tactical Headquarters 6 Brigade, numerous reports were obtained by interception on the battalions' forward company nets, and these reports were passed back immediately by telephone to Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division.
On the second day of the attack bitter fighting continued in page 432 the town, especially in the south-western corner, where the Continental Hotel remained the principal centre of resistance. Very early in the morning contact had been re-established by battalion signallers between all elements of 25 Battalion, but when dawn broke new difficulties arose. Because a number of the battalion's No. 38 sets had become waterlogged during the night and were therefore quite useless, line communications assumed a greater importance. But these were very difficult to maintain in working order in the light of day; enemy shelling cut the cable, and where it lay across the broken rubble its insulation quickly became frayed and allowed earth faults to occur. Wherever tanks moved, their tracks ground the wire into the stony debris and tore it to pieces.
By this time, too, the lines back to Tactical Headquarters 6 Brigade from the headquarters of battalions had been extensively damaged by shell and mortar fire, and the work of the maintenance parties from L Section and the battalions' signal platoons was seriously hampered by enemy snipers. Lurking on the ground floors of ruined buildings and in cellar entrances and other vantage points, they fired quickly and accurately on any movement in the open.
To the rear both line and wireless communications with Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division and Main New Zealand Corps worked well, although there were several cases of frequency congestion during the day. These were quickly remedied.
The battalion signallers operating No. 38 sets evolved a fresh method to conceal them from enemy snipers, who had immediately singled out anyone seen carrying a wireless set. Instead of being carried uncovered in front, the sets were shifted to haversacks slung at the operators' sides, and the rod aerials were discarded and replaced by ground aerials, which consisted of ten to fifteen feet of wire trailed on the ground behind the operators.
Early on the 17th, the third day of the fighting, enemy counter-attacks against New Zealand and Indian gains on the lower slopes of Monte Cassino achieved some temporary success, but by the evening all the ground lost had been retaken. The day's fighting resulted in a noticeable weakening in the enemy's resistance, but when night fell his strongpoints in the south-west around the Continental Hotel were still holding out.page 433
That morning 26 Battalion, supported by artillery and tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment, began an attack from the lines of 25 Battalion's objective of the 15th, and by noon the armour had reached the railway station. The infantry moved into the station area early in the afternoon and later reached and secured the Hummocks, about 300 yards to the south. Heavy enemy shelling caused considerable damage to brigade lines during the day, but wireless communications remained quite stable.
On the 18th bitter fighting continued around the Continental Hotel area and near the Hotel des Roses, some distance to the south on Highway 6. During the previous night some enemy had infiltrated between the railway station and the Hummocks in 26 Battalion's newly won positions. Wireless communications, probably because of night conditions which have an unusually pronounced effect on signals from low-powered sets, were very unreliable at the time, and as lines were still in bad disrepair from shell and mortar fire, the situation was confused. Eventually 26 Battalion ejected the enemy party from this position.
Between Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division and the brigades, wireless and line communications remained satisfactory throughout the 18th. In Main Headquarters 6 Brigade's area, however, heavy enemy shelling caused major disruptions to line communications. Most lines were cut and the lead-in cable to Main Brigade Headquarters' exchange was damaged. L Section's signal office truck also sustained extensive damage. Soon, however, new lines were laid to both 24 Battalion—which had now been committed to the battle in the town—and to 25 Battalion.
That night 28 Battalion of 5 Brigade passed under the command of 6 Brigade and was given the task of eliminating resistance along the lower slopes of Monte Cassino between the Continental Hotel and Castle Hill. The Maoris commenced their attack from the Botanical Gardens area three hours before dawn on the 19th and at first made good progress in spite of heavy small-arms and machine-gun fire. At dawn they had reached Highway 6 and were only a few yards from the enemy's main strongpoint in the Continental Hotel, but here their progress was halted by the German paratroops' stubborn resistance. page 434 Several other posts in the area were cleared out, but at the end of that day's fighting the Continental Hotel and other strongpoints facing 25 Battalion farther to the north were still holding out as determinedly as ever.
On the 19th 5 Brigade was committed to the battle for Cassino. Brigade Headquarters moved that night from its position near Monte Trocchio to a location a few hundred yards south of Highway 6 and two miles east of the town. Earlier in the day, at 2 p.m., K Section had set up a forward signal office at this new site in readiness to carry line communications forward to Headquarters 28 Battalion in Cassino. The line party set off that afternoon, laying cable from a layer fitted in a jeep; by 5 p.m. they were laying the last 300 yards of the circuit, but shell and mortar fire had already cut to ribbons that part already laid, and when they eventually reached the Maoris' Tactical Headquarters the line was dead.
The task of reaching the battalion in the town had been particularly difficult and hazardous because the route along which the cable was laid, Highway 6, was under direct observation from the heights above Cassino, and the enemy put down a continuous and concentrated fire along the whole route. As the ground on both sides of Highway 6 was sodden and impassable to wheeled vehicles, Captain Brennan and his small party of linemen were forced to follow the road. When they reached the bridge across the Rapido the shelling was so heavy that Brennan instructed his men to take what cover they could find while he crossed the river and reconnoitred the rest of the route. With complete disregard for his own safety, he sought out the best route for the line, made his way back to the bridge and led his party forward to Tactical Headquarters 28 Battalion.
Having terminated the line there, tested it and found it disconnected, the party returned along the route to find the breaks and repair them. To do so they had to stand on open and exposed ground under continuous fire, and it was while they were thus employed that the first casualty occurred, Signalman Spring4 being wounded by a shell splinter. One of his companions, Signalman Miln,5 immediately went for medical page 435 assistance, and having brought it, went on with his work of repairing the cable. He had worked his way back into the town when he was himself severely wounded by shell splinters, as a result of which he lost an arm.
Next morning Brennan continued his efforts to restore the circuit, but was forced to take cover with his line party. In the afternoon the attempt was resumed and the last half mile of the line in the town completely relaid. When the party reached Tactical Headquarters 28 Battalion, communication was established with Headquarters 5 Brigade, but it lasted for exactly a minute and a half before a shell or mortar bomb tore a gap in the cable somewhere along the circuit. Still more attempts were made to restore the line that night but without success, and finally the Brigade Commander told Brennan to abandon the task.
These sustained efforts to get this line through to the Maoris were vitally important because of the difficulties being experienced at the time with wireless communications. Of the sets with the battalion, including the No. 22 terminal set working back to Headquarters 5 Brigade, those that had not been damaged in the fighting were being operated from cellars and other cover in an area subjected to some of the fiercest fire ever experienced by the brigade, with the result that there was insufficient head room for their vertical rod aerials. This caused the sets' signal strengths to fall off to a level which would have been barely sufficient to provide a stable circuit even under the most favourable conditions. In an attempt to help improve wireless working conditions in the battalion area, Brennan went forward again into Cassino, where he supervised the operation of some of the sets. Altogether he made three trips into the town by day and three by night, on each occasion along a route raked by heavy fire.
For these hardy though ineffectual attempts to carry line communication to the Maoris, and for Brennan's efforts to improve wireless communications, three immediate awards for gallantry were made, Brennan receiving the MC and Signalmen Miln and Spring the MM.
Throughout the day on the 19th both line and wireless communications in the rear between Main Divisional Headquarters page 436 and the brigades continued to be satisfactory, but that night, during heavy harassing fire, which was the first long-range shelling Divisional Headquarters had experienced since its arrival in Italy, considerable damage was inflicted on several important operational line circuits. The first to go was 6 Brig- ade's line, which failed half an hour before midnight; it was followed almost immediately by a 5 Brigade line and, within a few minutes, by one of the Tactical Headquarters 2 NZ Division circuits. Twenty minutes later all the Tactical Divisional Headquarters' circuits were gone, and also those to 78 Division; and in the interval 6 Brigade's line had not been restored.
The shelling also caused an abnormal number of casualties, two men being killed by shell splinters and ten others wounded in Signals' lines. Of the two that died, Signalman Lyttle6 was killed in his sleep; the other was an attached driver from Royal Signals.
During the night of 19-20 March the Corps' front was reorganised, 5 Brigade taking over the whole of the town north of Highway 6 and 6 Brigade assuming responsibility for the area between Highway 6 and the railway station and the Hummocks.
In the rearward area line and wireless communications between Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division and the headquarters of the brigades continued to be satisfactory, but early in the afternoon the GOC (Major-General Parkinson7 called from Tactical Headquarters 2 NZ Division and asked for a second line to be laid between that headquarters and 5 Brigade Headquarters' new location on Highway 6 east of the town. This line was completed shortly before 5 p.m.
Within 5 Brigade, however, communications were not so page 437 satisfactory. At 8.10 a.m. Tactical Divisional Headquarters reported that Headquarters 5 Brigade had no communication with its battalions and that 28 Battalion was out of touch with its infantry companies.
That night 21 Battalion was given the task of attacking through the Continental Hotel area and pushing up the slopes of Monte Cassino to make contact with a company of 24 Battalion isolated on Point 202, a rocky feature about midway between the Monastery and Highway 6. The 24th Battalion was to follow up and take over the hotel area while 21 Battalion pushed on up the hill. Simultaneously with 21 Battalion's attack, 23 and 28 Battalions were to press forward to the western edge of the town. An important point in the plan for this concerted attack was that the CO 21 Battalion would assess the progress of his advance and call 24 Battalion forward when he thought the time opportune for it to come up; to do this he would transmit the code word henrietta by wireless as the signal for 24 Battalion to move forward into the Continental Hotel area. Unfortunately Headquarters 5 Brigade lost wireless communication with 21 Battalion at 11 p.m., so that no news of the battalion's progress could be obtained, and it was not until another No. 22 set was taken to Headquarters 21 Battalion by a liaison officer later that night that communication was restored. In the event, however, 21 Battalion had encountered very stiff opposition and by nine o'clock next morning had reached only to within 100 yards of Highway 6 south of the Continental Hotel.
Early on the morning of the 22nd the enemy made another determined counter-attack against Castle Hill, but this failed, like his earlier attempts, and he withdrew after suffering heavy losses. In the town fierce fighting continued throughout the day, although there was some slackening of the usual heavy shell and mortar fire in the afternoon. Towards evening visibility in the battle area closed down to only a few yards because of the dense smoke which overhung the town. The 22nd was a bad day, too, for line communications; not only battalions' lines but those running back from brigades to Main New Zealand Corps' exchange were extensively damaged by shellfire.
During the night of 22-23 March there was comparative page 438 quiet, but at daylight bitter fighting flared up again in the Continental Hotel area, although in other parts of the town the enemy's activity appeared to diminish as the day wore on. Severe damage to line circuits in the rear and in front of brigades, however, still occurred at brief intervals. At one stage during the early afternoon both lines from the Main New Zealand Corps' exchange to Headquarters 5 Brigade, and all but one of those to Tactical Headquarters 2 NZ Division, were damaged within half an hour.
On the 23rd the decision was taken to discontinue the offensive on the Corps' front and to hold the gains already won. This was confirmed the following day in the Corps' operation order, which stated that the enemy had succeeded in reinforcing his strongpoints on Monte Cassino and in the town. The Corps' policy, therefore, would be one of defence, troops being thinned out in Cassino and the front mined and wired against enemy incursions. In the interests of security all wireless traffic was to be reduced to the barest possible minimum and an extensive system of telephone communications built up.
Tactical Headquarters 2 NZ Division, near Cervaro, closed down during the morning of the 25th and the GOC and his staff returned to Main Headquarters; Signals' telephone centre, however, stayed to operate the exchange, which was required to provide the alternative line circuits to 5 and 6 Brigades.
Thus the Division's part in the battle for Cassino ended with substantial gains; although the gateway into the Liri valley and the route to Rome was still closed, nine-tenths of Cassino was now in Allied hands, a firm bridgehead had been established over the Rapido and a secure foothold obtained on Monte Cassino, where the Indians remained in possession of Castle Hill.
The 27th was also the day on which the various Royal Signals and American Signal Corps detachments left the Division and returned to their own formations and units. Lieutenant-Colonel Grant marked the occasion with a valedictory notice in routine orders in which he expressed his thanks and those of the unit for the co-operation and excellent work of the visitors during their stay with New Zealand Corps Signals.
With the disbanding of New Zealand Corps towards the end of March and the transfer of responsibility for the Liri valley and Cassino sectors from Fifth Army to Eighth Army, regrouping of the Allied forces in Italy began on a large scale. In Eighth Army, which had taken over the greater part of the Allied line across the waist of Italy, plans for the renewal of the offensive were already in the making. Fifth Army retained responsibility for the Anzio beachhead and the area south of the Liri River.
When March ended 2 NZ Division had already passed to the command of 13 Corps and was being relieved in the Cassino sector by 6 British Armoured Division in preparation to join 10 British Corps, under whose command it was to take over a portion of the Apennine sector at the northern end of the Rapido valley. On the right of 10 Corps' Apennine line the Adriatic sector was thinly held by 5 British Corps; on the left, covering Cassino, was 2 Polish Corps, and on its left again, at the south-western end of Eighth Army's line, 13 Corps extended to the portal of the Liri valley.
On 7 April, while the relief of 2 NZ Division by 6 Armoured Division was still incomplete, a forward signals party left Main Divisional Headquarters at Mignano for the new divisional area at Montequila, where line communications were to be laid out in preparation for the headquarters' arrival next day. Early page 440 on the 8th the divisional communications at Mignano were handed over to 6 Armoured Division, and shortly after midday Main Divisional Headquarters reopened at Montequila.
Between 8 and 14 April arrangements for the relief of 4 British Division in the Apennine sector by the New Zealand Division were completed; a forward signals party from Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division had left on the 12th for Casale, the headquarters' new site, and established a signal office there. It assumed control of the divisional communications on the morning of the 13th, at the same time that the signal office at Montequila closed.
During the 14th all line detachments at Main Divisional Headquarters at Casale were kept very busy laying and rerouting lines to complete the divisional communications network in preparation for the relief of 4 Division, which took place next day, when 2 NZ Division assumed command of the sector and came under the command of 10 Corps.
During the night of 15-16 April considerable difficulty occurred in maintaining wireless communications with 5 and 6 Brigades because of the screening effect of high hills around the valley. Next day the divisional forward radio-telephony control set was manhandled to the top of a high peak overlooking the Rapido valley, and from there a remote-control line was run to the G operations office at Main Headquarters below. A detachment of operators worked the set on the hilltop and the task of supplying them with rations and newly charged batteries fell to the unit's daily duty men; after the long and arduous climb laden with the dead weight of the heavy batteries, they soon began to appreciate the meaning of the term ‘fatigue party’.
In the meantime, on 3 April, 5 Brigade had moved up from Mignano and relieved 6 Brigade in the Cassino sector. Headquarters 5 Brigade was established at San Michele, where K Section took over the brigade communications from L Section, which left with Headquarters 6 Brigade for a rest area near Venafro, in the upper Volturno valley.
After a short rest in pleasant surroundings in the Volturno valley, 6 Brigade moved on 12 April into the Monte Croce area, on the left of the 10 Corps' line, and took over from a brigade of 2 Polish Corps. It stayed there until the 20th, when page 441 it was in turn relieved by 2 Independent Paratroop Brigade and moved to the Montequila rest area, where it stayed until it relieved 5 Brigade in the Terelle sector at the end of the month.
The early days of May saw the completion of the Allies' major regrouping plan in preparation for the co-ordinated assault by Eighth and Fifth Armies to force the crossing of the Rapido River and breach the Gustav Line. In the operation, which was to go under the code name honker, 2 NZ Division had only a holding role, except for the Divisional Artillery, which was to give supporting fire for the Poles' attack against Monastery Hill. The divisional line ran from the Monte Croce area in the north to Monte Castellone in the south and was divided into three sub-sectors, of which the northern was held by 2 Independent Paratroop Brigade, the centre by a Canadian brigade—later replaced by a South African motor brigade recently arrived from Egypt—and the southern sector, known as the Terelle or Belvedere sector, by 5 and 6 Brigades in turn. On the left of the New Zealand line the heights from Monte Castellone to the ground facing the Germans' Monastery defences were held by 2 Polish Corps.
In the preparations for the battle which was to turn the enemy out of his Gustav Line defences and open the way to Rome, there were no special signal problems in the Division, except perhaps in 6 Brigade in the Terelle sector adjacent to 2 Polish Corps, where a New Zealand liaison officer provided with a wireless set was stationed at the Polish headquarters to provide communication with 6 Brigade should line communications fail. In addition an English-speaking Pole equipped with a wireless set was sent by Headquarters 2 Polish Brigade to Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division.
When honker opened shortly before midnight on 11 May, 6 Brigade was holding the Terelle sub-sector and 5 Brigade was lying in reserve at the Volturno valley rest area. Fourth Armoured Brigade, except for one or two small detachments, was resting at Pietramelara.
Sixth Brigade, from its Terelle positions, had a grandstand view of the artillery concentration which opened the attack for the Poles opposite Monte Cassino. They saw the front below them burst into flame and, as they watched the flashes rippling page 442 along the front, the incessant thudding of the guns echoed and re-echoed among the crags of the broken country about them.
The Poles met strong and vigorous resistance to their advance against Monte Cassino and suffered heavy casualties. After several days of fierce fighting they were back on their original line and regrouping in preparation for a second attack.
When the Poles' second attack began on the morning of the 17th it immediately achieved good progress, and the next day they linked up with British troops from Cassino on Monastery Hill. The Union Jack and Polish flag were run up over the ruined Monastery, which no longer barred the way into the Liri valley. Other ingredients for a resounding victory were lacking because the enemy, threatened from the rear by an unexpected and successful drive by French forces of Fifth Army from the northern end of the Liri valley, had withdrawn during the night, leaving only a few men to fall prisoner to the Poles.
When British troops entered Cassino that same day they found that the enemy had already decamped, and the town fell almost without a shot being fired.
7 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, 1 NZEF, 1917-19; CO 4 Fd Regt Jan 1940-Aug 1941; comd 1 Army Tank Bde 1941-42 and 7 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) 1942; 6 Bde Apr 1943-Jun 1944; comd 2 NZ Div 3-27 Mar 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div, Jun-Aug 1944; comd 6 Bde Aug 1944-Jun 1945; QMG, Army HQ, Jan-Sep 1946; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1946-49; Commandant, Southern Military District, 1949-51. Maj-Gen Kippenberger commanded 2 NZ Div from 9 February until he was wounded on 2 March; he was succeeded by Parkinson until NZ Corps was disbanded and Lt-Gen Freyberg resumed command of 2 NZ Div on 27 March.