New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
CHAPTER 18 — Cassino
The sappers most thankfully scraped the mud off their boots and, in accord with instructions, removed all New Zealand insignia from their vehicles and persons; the idea was to deceive the enemy Intelligence into assuming that 2 NZ Division was still on Jittery Ridge, instead of which it would be resting in reserve a hundred miles or so away.
The code-name for the move was Spadger and for a time the Division was known as Spadger Force. One American soldier was extremely puzzled, it is reported, because not in his atlas nor anywhere could he discover Spadgerland, where Spadger Force would have come from. Other Americans were puzzled too, about this time, to find that at the height of these security precautions, New Zealanders in felt hats and with engineer puggarees were to be seen in the streets of Naples. All was explained satisfactorily, however, when it was discovered that these men were from 14 Forestry Company, passing through from Algiers to the Calabria.
Sixth Brigade Group, which included 8 Field Company, was the first formation to depart from the Sangro area. The convoy moved off about midnight on 14 - 15 January, but did not maintain the movement order speed and density, so that there were periods of crawling in low gear followed by bursts of high speed, intermingled with long spells of standing still. The absence of enemy aircraft was the subject of thankful comment by drivers with long memories.
The men were told as they staged for the night on the Lucera–San Severo roadside that they were going for a rest and training spell all right, but that it would be taken on the western side of the mountains in reserve to the Anglo-American Fifth Army.
The sappers, and for that matter the whole Division, were to have another lesson in Italian geography, for the Apennines are not a continuous mass with odd passes like our own Southern Alps; rather they are thrown about in a series of short ranges, with the result that armies could fight there and be maintained by roads that penetrated for varying distances from both east and west. Rivers such as the Volturno and the Sangro of evil page 531 memory have their sources within a few miles of each other; and yet, after twisting and looping, one flows east and the other west. The Manawatu is another example nearer home of a river that has its origin on the eastern side of a dividing range but discharges its waters on the west coast.
The next day's drive was across this tossed-up mass of high country via the Foggia–Avellino–Naples highway, a good asphalt road with tough up to one-in-five grades. This lateral, one of two connecting the Eighth and Fifth Armies, had been repaired by British engineers after the Germans, with adequate time, explosives and the thought that they were not likely to pass that way again, had done their worst.
The column passed through quite considerable towns flanked by little paddocks draped over rounded hills or hung on to steep hills, and rattled through cobble-paved villages—all out of bounds to soldati—even more impossibly situated than those on the Sangro. There was snow on the higher peaks and long miles of road on the shady side of the passes that were as cold as Jittery Ridge, and there were innumerable unscheduled stops. From time to time legs were stretched, Benghazi burners produced and quick brews of tea organised.
To those musically inclined the names of the hamlets, villages and towns—half a million people inhabit the region—sounded like the libretto of an Italian opera: Lucera, Troia, Ariano, Grottanciano, Pratoa, Avellino, Baiano Cicciano.
It was at Cicciano, on the road to Cancello, that the sappers first saw Vesuvius; loyal North Islanders said stoutly that it wasn't really much of a volcano—Ngauruhoe could outsmoke it, and in size, Ruapehu could lose it.
‘We were in American territory by then,’ Lieutenant Fraser remembers, ‘and obviously they were not used to New Zealanders, for when one of their vehicles broke down, all aboard, including the driver, used to disappear in search of assistance. This occurred on that first night just down the road from us among some of the other formations of the Div. Next morning about all that was left of that particular vehicle was the chassis —somewhat of an exaggeration, but it was picked very clean much to the amazement of the Americans involved.’
In the morning the Group moved about 60 miles eastwards again, towards Alife, the Divisional training area at the edge of the Matese Mountains and close to the Volturno River. Eighth Field Company was detached near Capua and pushed on north to Sparanise, with a job to do for the Fifth Army.page 532
Sparanise was the Fifth Army railhead and petrol supply point. The petrol was brought there by a pipeline and taken from there in tank lorries. Eighth Field Company was required to build a new access road to the railway yards, improve the existing roads and put down a 40 ft single-single and a 60 ft single-single Bailey bridge. The plant, four bulldozers, two graders and a shovel, was supplied by RE units and seventeen 2 ½-ton tip-trucks arrived on loan from 425 (American) Engineer Company.
The days were sunny, the nights not too cold, for the sappers were now shielded from the bitter north-east winds that come from Russia via the Balkans; there were no technical problems and the job was nearly finished when 503 Field Company, RE, took over on the 22nd. Major Currie, at Fifth Army Engineer Headquarters, was warmly complimented on the speed with which the New Zealand sappers had worked. The Company left next morning and, after a couple of hours' drive, joined the Divisional Engineers group at the Alife training area, where bridging in all its aspects was being studied and practised.
The outstanding lesson of the Sangro fighting was that bridging and the rapid repair of roads would henceforth be the engineers' major role and that mine-lifting and detection must be at least partly the responsibility of the forward troops.1 For the last week in January and the first in February, therefore, the sapper units came under the command of the CRE and did some routine work in mine gapping and booby trapping, but chiefly they carried out experiments with Bailey bridge components, bulldozers and transporters.
One such experiment was to assemble 60 feet of Bailey and mount it on heavy timber skids. The whole thing was then towed about by dozers to test its manoeuvrability, after which various methods of pushing the sections or hauling them over waterways were tried out. The climax to bridge improvisation was the building of 120 feet of single-single with the central panels on a tank transporter. It was found that a D6 could page 533 move the assembled bridge and transporter with ease, so the whole affair was pushed into the Volturno, where the transporter acted as a pier.
On 6 February orders came to move.
The Fifth Army had, like the Eighth, fought its way up to the southern edge of the Winter Line but, unlike the Eighth Army, did not propose to halt there for the winter.
The only practicable route to the north—and Rome—was through the Liri valley, a trough between the Apennines and the Aurunci coastal mountains. The entrance to the Liri is obstructed by a foreland of tangled high country jutting from the snowcapped Cairo massif in the Apennines and leaving but a seven-mile-wide opening—almost another Tebaga Gap.
The extreme southern end of this mass of twisted ridges, some of it alpine in elevation, is the spot where St. Benedict chose to build his monastery, an edifice which during the wars of past centuries had been burnt, plundered or razed, but always rebuilt.
Lieutenant O'Reilly wrote in his diary:
‘My first sight of the Abbey was from the OP on top of Mt Trocchio. It is an enormous square building of red and cream stone straddled squarely across the top of Monte Cassino with the battered town huddled at the foot of the mountain. Behind it towers snow capped Mt Cairo. The monastery dominates not only Cassino and Mt Trocchio but the whole countryside around and from it one must be able to see miles down the Liri valley. It is extremely ancient, and in the way of ancient monasteries, extremely well sited for defence.’
The only practicable line of approach to the monastery was by way of a road which zigzagged for five miles down a very steep 1700 feet of hillside to the town of Cassino where, according to the guidebooks of the period, 5000 Italians lived.
A small valley, the source of the Rapido River, falls sharply to a marshy flat immediately east of Cassino and, quickly losing momentum, the Rapido merges south of the town into the River Gari. The Gari then crosses the mouth of the Liri valley and flows into the Liri. Somewhat confusingly, the augmented waters of the Liri now become the Garigliano. It is not necessary to ponder the intricacies of Italian river naming; it will page 534 be sufficient to remember that the traveller—or invader—must follow Route 6 through Cassino town and cross both the Rapido and Gari bridges if he would enter the Liri valley on wheels.
Geographically the three rivers are insignificant, but militarily the whole position, with some justification from history, had been considered by the Italian High Command to be practically impregnable.
While 8 Field Company was roading and bridging at the railhead, the British, American and French corps of the Fifth Army had made a three-pronged thrust at the Winter Line, with the result that the French had made some progress in the mountains north of Cassino, the Americans in the centre had been thrown back across the Rapido and the British in the south had been halted well short of their objective.
The day, 22 January, that 8 Field Company handed over its job to 503 Field Company, RE, a seaborne landing was made at Anzio, between Cassino and Rome. The German defences should have folded up but, instead, the beach-head was sealed off and, from our point of view, became a liability rather than an asset; instead of Anzio forcing a retirement from Cassino, Cassino had to be reduced to take the pressure off Anzio. But enough of the higher strategy.
The Americans, after taking over a part of the sector captured by the depleted Free French Corps, were making a wide wheeling movement around the monastery of Montecassino reminiscent of the New Zealand effort at Orsogna. Unlike the New Zealand Division at Orsogna, the Americans were not bombarding the hub of the wheel and the monks there, between devotions, had a bird's-eye view of the battle.
For the second time in Italy 2 NZ Division had been assigned a pursuit role in the advance on Rome, but it was thought that a stronger exploiting force than a division was necessary; consequently, for the second time in the war, the New Zealand Corps came into being on 3 February by the addition, initially, of 4 Indian Division, an American tank task force and various artillery and other auxiliary units. Colonel Hanson became Chief Engineer of the Corps, as well as CRE of the Division.
In order to maintain their turning movement the Americans south of Cassino were withdrawn to reorganise and 5 Brigade occupied the area. On 6 February New Zealand Corps began to deploy its components in front of Cassino in readiness for the push along the Liri valley that would follow the capture by the Americans of Montecassino.page 535
The Divisional Engineer concentration area was in the vicinity of the Mignano railway station, some 12 miles to the east of the battle line. Seventh Field Company detached four reconnaissance parties2 to work with 4 Armoured Brigade, one with Brigade Headquarters (Lieutenant Veart) and the others to 18 Regiment (Lieutenant O'Reilly), 19 Regiment (Lieutenant McCormick) and 20 Regiment (Lieutenant Crawford3).
The rest of the group did routine training, experimented further with Bailey bridging, operated a metal quarry, improved access roads to the CCS or split timber for the corduroying jobs that appeared probable.
Daily until 11 February the Americans and Germans contested the hilltops, but the end came with the outfought Americans deprived of the vital strongpoints and with but a foothold in the northern outskirts of Cassino town. The New Zealand Corps was then given the task of eliminating Montecassino as a preliminary to its pursuit role, so that in effect it now had not only to kick the goal but to score the try first.
The essence of the Corps plan was a double thrust from north and south; 2 New Zealand Division would capture the Cassino railway station, three-quarters of a mile south of the town, a group of houses at a road fork 300 yards to the north and a low hill (the Hummock) the same distance to the south of the station. It would then be possible to cover the bridging of the Gari and the passing of armour into the Liri valley.
The northern thrust was to be made by 4 Indian Division, which would complete the turning movement and the encirclement of Montecassino unfinished by the Americans.
Owing to the sodden condition of the terrain in front of Cassino, it was clear that large quantities of corduroy would be needed and every available sapper was employed cutting, winching and loading the trucks from the timber stands in the area. The main dump was behind Monte Trocchio4 and could be worked in daylight, but a forward dump on the enemy side of the hill could be approached only after dark.
Sapper Millar,5 the 6 Field Company winch-truck driver, missed the turnoff to the forward dump and carried straight page 536 on until he was stopped by a demolished bridge. He realised where he was at the same time as a Jerry patrol realised he was there. Millar managed to make a safe getaway, but when the truck was recovered it was not in very good order. The Rapido River was confined by stopbanks north of Cassino and the enemy had strengthened his already formidable defences by blowing both the stopbanks and a reservoir, with the result that the marshy country had reverted to a near-swamp. It was still page 537 littered with American tanks that had bogged down during the crossing of the Rapido in that vicinity, and the only possible route for support arms into Cassino station was along the railway track, which was built up above flood level.
It was, of course, highly unlikely that the enemy had refrained from doing more than ripping up the railway line and Mechanical Equipment Platoon was instructed to assess the damage. Lieutenant Faram, accompanied by Lieutenant Andrew6 from Headquarters Divisional Engineers, accordingly reported to 28 (Maori) Battalion at last light (10 February); they were to be provided with local protection, which in turn was to be preceded by a fighting patrol. In the end the local protection was dispensed with and the ‘recce’ officers had perforce to accompany the fighting patrol.
The Germans had removed all the rails except a double set about 50 feet long, still fastened to the sleepers just beyond the Maori FDLs. The patrol began by sweeping its way along the embankment, but because the steel dogs and fishplates lying around rendered the mine detectors ineffective, it was decided to take the risk of AP mines and watch out for Tellers. It was a night of drizzle with a watery moon and visibility of about sixty feet. The Maoris bumped an enemy patrol just inside the station yards and exchanged grenades. Lieutenant Fraser says:
‘They threw a couple of grenades (one of which got Christie7 in the hand)—we threw a couple back and took cover. I told Christie that we had better get back as we had all the information we required and there was no point in having a battle especially as Jerry no doubt had a M.G. on fixed lines pointing the way we had to go.’
They got back without further incident and Faram reported to the CRE's conference next morning that there were ten8 demolitions in approximately half a mile of causeway and that two bridges would be needed. Colonel Hanson was called away during the conference, and when he returned it was with the information that four nights could be counted on to get as much done as possible before the attack. The obstructions were described and numbered from the home end and 8 Field Company was given the job of picking up mines, putting in page 538 culverts and making ready for Mechanical Equipment's dozers as far as the fifth demolition, a blown bridge across a canalised stream known as the Little Rapido.
No. 3 Platoon, 8 Field Company, left its area in good time but found Route 6 so congested by 4 Indian Division transport moving up to relieve the Americans that it took them three hours to drive ten miles, with a consequent late start. Multitudinous scraps of metal were detected by the minesweepers but no mines were located. Thirty-six hours of almost continuous rain had, however, so added to the flood waters that there was a heavy flow through each gap in the causeway. The first two obstructions, a fallen overhead bridge and a blown-up house across the track, were dozer jobs, but time permitted of only one culvert being built in No. 3 Demolition. The surplus material brought up by 5 Field Park vehicles was hidden in a convenient house.
Eighth Field Company did not work the following night (12 - 13 February) but Lieutenant Faram took a dozer and a few tipper trucks loaded with bricks to fill holes in the access road from Route 6 to the railway line and then to doze a track up to the first culvert. At this point German cunning won a trick, for the dozer had to move along the double length of rail already mentioned. Detectors could not detect them but there were four Tellers planted, one under each rail.
Lieutenant Faram remembers the incident:
‘I got the dozer on to the part where the rails were in place and the first Teller went off and broke the track. Luckily Armstrong appeared on the scene (as he always did when there was anything doing) and he got another dozer up smartly. It was just passing the wrecked machine when another Teller went up and we had another wrecked machine on our hands—not too long to daylight and in full view of the Jerries if they remained there. We got another machine up and managed to pull the wrecks to the side of the cutting and cover them with nets and got out without attracting any mortars.’
The CRE advised at his Orders Group conference held on the 13th that the operation would probably be postponed an extra night, and that when the Indian attack went in 5 Brigade would seize the railway station. The sappers would follow up and get a Class 30 road into the station the same night if possible. It would depend on the light and the enemy interference and might have to be done in two nights. Demolition 5 (Little Rapido) and Demolition 7 (Main Rapido) would have page 539 to be bridged. Sixth Field Company would bridge the Little Rapido and 8 Field Company the Main Rapido, with Major Marchbanks in command of the work. Seventh Field Company would be held in reserve and, when the tactical situation permitted, would bridge the Gari.page 540
By this time 4 Indian Division had deployed and its commander, planning his operations in the very shadow of the prison-like monastery, had asked that it be destroyed by bombing. Much has been written about the merits and demerits of the proposal, which, when put into execution, converted the building, in the words of a German general, ‘from a mousetrap into a fortress’. The bombing of the monastery, military necessity or wanton aggression according to the point of view, does not concern this history as it had no influence on the work of the New Zealand sappers. It is sufficient to say that on 15 February 250 bombers dropped 576 tons of high explosive on or about the monastery of Montecassino and left it a smoking ruin which the enemy proceeded to convert into a fortress.
Expedients for getting a bridge across the Rapido in the shortest possible time were discussed at the CRE Orders Group held on the 14th. Everything, of course, depended on the arrival of components at the right time and in the right order, along a track barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass. Lieutenant ‘Bailey George’ O'Leary was in command of the bridging train, and as the citation for his MC for this and other actions mentions, ‘In the dark and on the narrow approach roads and raised railway embankment with numerous large craters to be avoided, the getting of the stores forward on time and in the correct order was no mean feat.’
‘Bailey George’ himself treats the whole thing very casually:
‘The method of loading the vehicles so that they were received in the sequence needed at site was of course elementary. It also simplified the actual handling of the trucks on the railway embankment itself as there was never any need to have more than one or two vehicles at the site at the same time. Most of the vehicles were backed from the assembly point onto the site, the drivers being guided by myself and Sgts Stan Kerr and Phil Newton.9 We simply walked alongside the vehicle on the driver's side and he relied on our verbal instructions to keep the truck on the right path. Once the show started we found that there was more than enough noise to cancel out any shouting on our part.’
Seventh Field Company was told off to work that night on the approaches to Demolitions 3, 4, 5 and 6 (5 was the Little page 541 Rapido and 6 a blown culvert east of the Main Rapido). This order was changed at the following day's Orders Group and 8 Field Company was made responsible for the road to Demolition 7 inclusive, which meant that it would bridge both Rapidos. Sixth Field Company would, with the help of Mechanical Equipment Platoon's dozers, carry on to the railway station.
Seventh Company corduroyed the track between Demolitions 3 and 4 that night while Mechanical Equipment Platoon ‘recced’ the main Rapido and found that, although the rubble from the demolition had partially blocked the Little Rapido and formed a deep pond or lake on the upstream side of the railway bank, the Main Rapido ran freely and had a fairly hard bottom. After a little work was done on the banks their dozers could cross before the bridge was built. Major March-banks took advantage of the information and decided to build the second Bailey on skids and haul it over the river with a dozer as practised at Alife. No. 3 Platoon, in reserve for the projected operation, set about shaping the timber skids.
One more postponement and the ‘show’, as the sappers referred to any attack in which they were involved, was definitely ‘on’ for the night 17th - 18th. The Maori Battalion was going to attack on a two-company front, one to capture the Hummock and the other the railway station and the group of houses previously mentioned. They would form up on the left of the embankment and leave the engineers free to get on with the work of bridging and filling demolitions for the passage of the support weapons, especially the tanks.
The situation at that time was, from the sapper point of view, that four of the twelve demolitions had been made good, the approaches for a bridge across the fifth prepared, and there were two more in the railway marshalling yards that had not for obvious reasons been reconnoitred. Demolitions 5 to 7 inclusive could not be started until the Maoris had taken their objectives, the station itself and the strongpoints on each side. The position of these would then be not unlike the three petals of a clover leaf, with the embankment as the stem, and their capture would shield the working sappers from aimed fire.
The Maoris were to leave their start line forward of Demolition 8 at 9.30 p.m., and Major Marchbanks had planned for No. 2 Platoon (Lieutenant Fisher) to commence building the bridge at Demolition 5 at 7 p.m. and completing it half an hour before the assault went in. No. 1 Platoon (Captain Wallace) page 542 was to be standing by ready to move up to the Main Rapido and begin building at zero plus 60, that is at 10.30 p.m., when the Maoris were expected to have taken all their objectives.
The carefully and tightly timed programme aimed at getting the support arms up to the Maoris before daybreak was dependent on (1) early success by the Maoris; and (2) early completion of Demolition No. 5.
There was a hard frost and starlight, with a waning moon due to rise at 3 a.m. While the sappers were stamping their feet to keep warm, Major Marchbanks was tying up the details of the local protection to be given by a platoon of Maoris while the first bridge was being built. It was at this point that the project timings got a setback, for although there was not going to be any barrage, two batteries of American heavy and two regiments of medium guns were to deliver a ten-minute ‘stonk’ between 8.40 and 8.50 p.m. It was disturbing news, for as March-banks wrote:
‘Lt-Col Young10 [CO 28 Battalion] had orders to withdraw all men to Demolition 1 before the stonk. I discussed with him whether we could go on building the bridge, but he said his orders were quite definite. He also insisted on the withdrawal of our men while the Maoris were assembling at Dem 5 for the attack.’
Four truckloads of material were unloaded, the far bank seat was put in and three panels of bridging, plus one panel of launching nose, were assembled before the ‘stonk’ fell on the Maori objectives. That delay and the time lost while the troops were clambering over Demolition 5 meant that the bridge, instead of being finished half an hour before the attack started, was still uncompleted when the sappers were again withdrawn until the success signal indicated that the objectives had been secured.
The actual building of the bridge took longer than had been expected and it is doubtful if it could have been finished in the time allowed. The site was just above water level and there was not enough room in the dozed down-approach to assemble the complete structure. This meant that it had to be partly built, then pushed forward while more panels were assembled, page 543 a circumstance which added materially to the time required. Had it been possible to get a dozer over first, the bridge could have been dragged across as was done at Demolition 7.
Sixth Field Company, less No. 1 Platoon, was to move from Demolition 1 at 10.15 p.m. and start lifting mines and reinstating demolitions from the western bank of the Rapido into the railway station.
The two company commanders waited anxiously for the success signal, and when none came by 10.15 p.m. they decided to carry on without it. Sappers were called forward by runner as required, the bridge was launched, the rollers removed and the decking finished by 11.15 p.m., but the first dozer to cross pulled off the ramp, which effectively stopped further traffic until it was repaired.
To make matters worse, the next dozer over again damaged the ramp so that the bridge was not ready for traffic until 1.15 a.m.
Twenty-five sappers were already breaking down the banks of the Main Rapido for the dozers to cross as soon as they had filled Demolition 6 between the two bridge sites—a gap 30 feet wide and seven deep. The bridge party, as instructed, arrived on the site at 11.30 p.m., but the trucks with the bridging components could not cross Demolition 6 until 2 a.m. The bridge, built on runners, was pulled across the Rapido and ready for traffic at 5 a.m.—over four hours behind the estimated time for completion. Actually the delay was not as serious as it would appear because 6 Field Company, working beyond the bridges, had not lost much time.
Major Goodsir's dispositions were:
Sixth Field Company was thus involved in making good five demolitions between the Rapido and the railway station. Demolition 8 was a damaged culvert 30 feet wide by 7 feet deep; No. 9 a blown-up subway; No. 10 was a huge gap 80 feet long page 544 by 10 deep, the largest demolition of all; Nos. 11 and 12 were inside the station yards and known only through aerial photographs.
It was quite apparent to the sappers from the flares, the yells and the firing that the Maoris had not got their objectives. The minelifting party found that the 8 Field Company bridge-builders were working on the assumption that there were no mines; the embankment, the debris in the river and the bypass were thoroughly checked, but there were in fact no mines and the sweepers swept on. It was now about midnight and the position was that two dozers had crossed the Little Rapido and were working on Demolition 6 while Higginson's party was starting on Demolition 8, where a track had to be formed around one side of the obstacle so that a dozer could work from each end. The minesweepers, led by Sappers Beal13 and Hughes,14 who were accepting the risks of trip-wired anti-personnel concrete mines or the wooden Schu mines while concentrating on the tank-stopping Tellers, were up level with the fighting infantry at the entrance to the station yards. The determination and example of these two sappers were recognised in the next list of awards by MMs.
The two dozers that had crossed the Little Rapido and damaged the bridge in doing so were working on Demolitions 8 and 9 by 1 a.m., and an hour later the Maoris had cleared the railway station but not the Hummock nor the group of houses situated on either flank of their objective; and the first dozer had got up to Demolition 10. The minelifting party was sheltering in this demolition while Lieutenant Martin worked his way and marked a track through the belt of wire and booby traps to the uninspected Demolition 11. On his way back he noticed a group of Maoris stranded in a field of mines and took time off to clear a way out for them. He was awarded an MC for his coolness and devotion to duty.
Up to this time it is doubtful if the enemy had been aware of the work the sappers were doing, but with the rising of the moon at 3 a.m. fire from the Hummock and concentrations from more distant mortars were directed into the railway yards. The sappers were forced back into the shelter of the demolition every time they began clearing a dozer track to Demolition 11.page 545
With the Rapido bridge ready for traffic, Captain Allen was requested to make another effort to get the track opened between Demolitions 10 and 11 because support arms had to be got through to the battling Maoris, still with only one of their three objectives captured. Captain Allen and two sappers were killed within minutes of exposing themselves, and Major Goodsir, considering that the conditions were impossible for unarmed men doing specialist work of this sort, ordered a withdrawal. By 6 a.m. all the engineers and the four dozers were back at Demolition 1; it was full daylight and smoke was being put down by the artillery, no doubt welcome enough to the station garrison but too late for 6 Field Company.
Major Goodsir's opinion that working conditions were impossible was confirmed by Major Marchbanks and so reported to the CRE. After the smoke was put down the CRE asked if the job could now be completed. An urgent message brought Second-Lieutenant J. Brown and the rest of No. 3 Platoon, 8 Field Company, to Demolition 1 at the double. Brown was instructed to ‘recce’ from Demolition 10 to 12 and took Sergeant Cottrell with him for company. They left about 8 a.m. under cover of the smoke and got safely to their destination, where they saw the work that had been done both in the demolition and on the wire in front of it.
The pair stepped warily through the wire obstruction. It was on pickets about two feet from the ground, criss-crossed and liberally sprinkled with AP mines. Demolition 12 was five chains inside the shunting yards and some distance beyond the point where the rails branched into the marshalling loops. It also was protected by wire and mines.
The smoke was thinning but a safe return was made to Demolition 1, where a lifting party was selected to finish the gapping. They were halted at Demolition 3 by a line of shells bursting along the track, and after waiting for some time for more smoke or less fire, neither of which occurred, Lieutenant Brown brought his party back to the starting point, as nothing more could be done until after dark.
Fifth Field Park Company's diary put the matter very succinctly:
‘Dozers shifted back to vicinity No. 1 demolition at daybreak. Personnel returned to camp. No casualties during the night. Party under Sergt Church stood by during the day to commence work on Nos. 11 and 12 demolitions if conditions allowed. They did not.’page 546
The Maoris were told to hold what they had gained until nightfall. Major White was instructed to clear Demolitions 11 and 12 that night and moved his No. 3 Platoon up to CRE Tactical Headquarters during the afternoon, but the party was recalled when the enemy counter-attacked and forced the Maoris to vacate the station. The Indian attack in the hills half a mile above gained some ground but did not make any significant advance. It was another round to the enemy. Mechanical Equipment Platoon (Lieutenant Gowan) retrieved the four working and two damaged dozers, noted that the causeway between Demolitions 3 and 10 was still being systematically mortared and returned thankfully to the tasks, with the rest of 5 Field Park Company, of opening up a metal quarry and doing maintenance work on its equipment.
But the position at Anzio remained critical, almost desperate, so further action was essential; the alternative of trying to break out at Anzio was to try again to break in at Cassino and New Zealand Corps was instructed to carry on.
The new plan was to attack Cassino town from the north with the New Zealanders and to guard their flank with Indians moving across the eastern face of Montecassino preparatory to assaulting the monastery by a possible route via Castle Hill, an outcrop that in earlier days had been equipped with a castle for the precise purpose of defeating such a move. The ruins of the castle were still there, but on this occasion a massive air support was to be provided.
The town of Cassino was a mile long from north to south by about half that distance wide, with a dense built-up area probably half a mile square in the south-western corner, where Route 6 turns at right angles between the Gari River and the steep side of Montecassino. The attack on the town and the slopes above it (code-name Dickens) was to be carried out by 6 New Zealand and 5 Indian Brigades, with 4 New Zealand Armoured Brigade in support; the rest of 2 New Zealand Division was to be used if necessary while 78 Division, newly arrived to join New Zealand Corps, plus an American tank force, were to exploit the break-through.
The assault was set down for 24 February but the weather deteriorated into almost incessant rain, and it was not until three weeks later that Cassino was first flattened by 500 bombers, then pulverised by 600 guns, before 25 Battalion moved down the Caruso road into the churned-up mess of masonry that had page 547 once been the town. It was a busy three weeks for the sappers of 7 Field Company, which had been in reserve during the Maori attack on the railway station.
The Company moved to the north of Route 6 on 23 February and made camp on the Pasquale road, near 6 Brigade Headquarters on the eastern side of the Rapido valley. Above, the page 548 Michele road sidled along the ridge, and two miles away due west stood the military barracks which the Americans had wrested from its German garrison and later used as a ration dump. It was still full of rations and nocturnal visitors came away with cigarettes, coffee and Yankee ‘K’ rations, but the biscuits were inedible. The area was the usual Italian scene of casas (as the troops had learnt to call the houses) nestling at each crossroad, small fields, some ploughed and some in grass, olive groves, grapevine stumps and small plantations. The livestock was kept indoors or had been driven into the hills before the tide of war had engulfed the little valley.
It was the area of the American Upper Rapido bridgehead, and three roads connecting sundry ridgetop villages with Cassino entered the north end of the town within a couple of hundred yards of each other. From west to east there were, first, Caruso road that passed the barracks about a mile out of the town and followed fairly closely the bank of the Rapido, then Parallel road, some 200 yards on the east side of the river, and Pasquale road, which also skirts the river for nearly a quarter of a mile before it joins Parallel road. Two bridges had carried the roads into different parts of Cassino. Finally the Rapido riverbed, owing to the blowing of the stopbanks, was almost dry for some distance between the barracks and the town.
Because of the proximity of the enemy and his commanding position, it was all night work for the sappers while they waited for the rain to stop and the battle to start.
The tanks were to use the Caruso and Parallel roads into Cassino and it was 7 Field Company's responsibility to see that there were no hidden traps, such as double Tellers dug in under the road verges and just waiting for the weight of a tank to explode them.
The most important job, however, was to make a crossing for tanks through the Rapido in place of the demolished bridge that had carried Parallel road into Cassino. The site was within easy mortar range and the work had to be done without the watchful enemy knowing what was going on. The method adopted and successfully carried through was, in the dark of the night and ever so quietly, to pave the Rapido bed with pieces of masonry from the blown bridge, taking the greatest of care to see that no part of the crossing showed above water.
It was also necessary to lay a series of charges in the banks of the river and in a concrete wall on the far side of the proposed page 549 ford so that, at the appropriate time, the explosions would present the tanks with an easy passage into and over the river.
Sergeant Dacey had charge of this job and was awarded an immediate MM for its successful conclusion. Part of his citation reads:
‘This was a particularly difficult and dangerous task. The area was covered by fixed line firing from Point 193 and frequent heavy mortar concentrations were put down. Considerable excavations were necessary and large quantities of gelignite had to be carried and placed in the wet holes. Sgt Dacey fully realised the danger involved in handling so much gelignite under fire but he went cheerfully and calmly about his work.’
The crossing was paved, the far bank mined and nothing remained but to fire the demolition charges, whereupon the tanks would roar into Cassino. To anticipate the event, what actually happened was that the preliminary bombing so damaged the road and ford site that no tanks crossed the Rapido into Cassino as planned. The only way into the town was by the road west of the river, as will be seen in due course.
Some 150 yards south of the bridge in the scattered outskirts of Cassino stood the town gaol, shared at that time by the infantry of both sides and the limit of our penetration. The road leading to the gaol and the square in front of it were searched for mines, and often the sappers on their side of the gaol could hear the Germans at work on the other side. Neither party called down trouble on the other.
The probable effects of an avalanche of over three tons of exploding bombs per estimated man of the German garrison were debated at conferences that were daily held at varying levels of command. It was generally conceded that the infantry and armour would cross a mausoleum, though under a certain amount of fire from the positions built deeply into the side of Montecassino. The sappers were not so sanguine about the ease with which the tanks would cross the chaos of rubble.
‘I was under no illusions,’ Major White wrote later, ‘about the difficulties of the engineer task in making a path for tanks after heavy bombing. At Brigade Conferences I used to reiterate that we could expect a direct hit on a road at an average distance of 100 yards and that each bomb hole in alluvial ground would require a bridge say 40 feet long and that some of the near misses would also take the whole of the road. However page 550 we were going to have the attack anyway and such gloomy predictions were of little use, so Brigadier Parkinson15 didn't encourage me.’
Eighth Field Company spent the time on odd jobs that came along and also practised, in the light of its experience on the railway causeway, in building varying lengths of Bailey in confined spaces and in experimenting with methods of dealing with low wire obstacles such as were encountered in the Cassino railway yards.
Sixth Field Company activities were largely concerned with the railway track. The rails and sleepers had been lifted from a point some miles east, past Mignano and up to the western end of Monte Trocchio, and the railway turned into a road. The advantages of continuing the easily formed road and bypassing Cassino were apparent and the Company spent many arduous hours continuing this work, sweeping for mines which were found in profusion, and clearing away the rails and sleepers. It was at this time that Major Goodsir went to hospital and Captain Louden assumed command, with Captain McGregor,16 recently returned from the Middle East Staff College, as his second-in-command.
Another small but very important job done by 6 Field Company was the Cavendish road.
In February the Indians had built a jeep track from Cairo village around the sides of Monte Castellone to the Colle Maiola bastion of the line. It was called Cavendish road—after the CRE 4 Indian Division—and ended at Madras Circus. Originally a peasants' foot track, it had been used by 4 Indian Division as a supply route—the only possible route to the troops in the forward sectors—and until the jeep track was built all supplies were carried by porters along its breathtaking grades.
Cavendish road was a fearsome thing, a mile long, and rose 820 feet with a grade of one-in-four on the final 400 yards. The idea was born of widening Cavendish into a tank track, for page 551 page 552 beyond Madras Circus the country appeared to be tankable as far as the German strongpoint at Masseria Albaneta (Albaneta Farm) which so far had resisted all American and Indian infantry attacks.
Colonel Hanson, Major Currie and other senior sapper officers ‘recced’ the job and conferred with the CRE 4 Indian Division. Since tanks might push down the retaining walls of the existing track, it was decided to widen it from eight feet of cut-and-fill to twelve feet of solid cut. It was further decided to make a new alignment near the head of the track about 150 yards long in order to avoid a hairpin bend.
The first part of the track required little work while much of the remainder, consisting of earth and gravel or shale and boulders, could be bulldozed; but there were stretches with intermittent rock outcrops and three stretches of solid limestone.
There were three Indian field companies, three dozers and four Morris compressors available for the work—reminiscent of Western Desert days when the Railway Construction sappers had the assistance of Indian field companies while building the Desert Extension railway. A Kiwi force commanded by Captain Hornig, 5 Field Park Company, consisting of No. 2 Platoon, 6 Field Company (Lieutenant Higginson), two D6 dozers, two Worthington trailer compressors and crews to operate them, was detailed to help the Indians.
The sappers moved to a more convenient bivouac area near the barracks on the night of 2 - 3 March, by which time the track had been widened to allow the trailer compressors to reach the rock outcrops where the New Zealanders were to do the blasting.
The assignment was both dangerous and spectacular, for the whole area was within easy enemy range, while the bivvies were so close to the Indian guns that sleep was impossible while they were in action. Enemy posts looked straight into parts of Cavendish road which, like Duncan's road at Orsogna, was shielded from view by camouflage netting, a precaution that seemed to annoy the would-be spectators.
On the exposed sections dozing had to be done at night, and operating without lights on such steep country was in itself a highly dangerous occupation.
There were thirty Indian casualties during the eight days it took to blast the road to its required width, but Captain Hornig, page 553 killed two days after the start of the job, was the only New Zealand casualty. Lieutenant Higginson took over command.
Blasting by borehole charges did not start properly until the 6th because it was found that, until a solid face was reached, it was quicker to use picks, crowbars, jacks and hand-placed charges. The Indians working with No. 2 Platoon just loved to be given some explosives and fuse and shown a small blasting job. Picks and shovels were used to remove earth, loose stone and shale; crowbars to unseat boulders up to three feet in diameter; jacks for bigger rocks.
Once a solid face was reached two or more lines of holes were bored at 4 ft intervals; each line was fused separately and timed so that the lowest exploded first and blew out a space to receive the debris from above. The bulldozers would then come in to push rubble over the side while the Indians would finish off the job. This work was completed on the 10th, when men and machines returned to their units after last light.
Nothing, not even Italian winter rains, lasts for ever, and eventually the airfields dried out sufficiently for the bombing planes to get off grass runways. Operation Dickens, after a three-weeks' lag, was to open on 15 March with bombers from as far away as England pulping the stone houses and built-in enemy strongpoints before flying on to Egypt to refuel. It was Julius Caesar country, for his friend Mark Antony had owned a villa near Cassino where he held some of his livelier revels; but there was no seer to warn the New Zealand Corps to ‘beware the Ides of March’.
The tasks for the sappers on the opening day of Operation Dickens were:
7 Field Company (Major White) would clear routes through Cassino from the north.
8 Field Company (Major Marchbanks) would open up the railway route into the Cassino station after it had been captured and then be ready to bridge the Gari.
5 Field Park Company (Major Askin) would detail two dozers to work with each field company (Mechanical Equipment Platoon), a party to go forward with corduroy (Workshops Platoon) and a reserve minelifting party (Stores Platoon).
6 Field Company (Major Louden) was in reserve.
An American task force of tanks had a part in the further development of Operation Dickens, and it was probably because page 554 Treadways could be quickly and easily built over a wet gap, if vehicles could get to the water's edge, that an American Tread-way Bridging Unit was attached to 6 Field Company. Treadway components were carried on large Brockway trucks which were fitted with three driving axles, each with dual wheels.
Treadway bridging differs from all other types of floating bridging in that it does not have a solid decking. The bridge consists of three main components, the pneumatic float, a float saddle and individual steel treadways, which can be used by tanks or wheeled vehicles. In construction, the floats are inflated and placed in the water, then the saddles are placed on the floats and secured with straps, and the treadways, each 25 feet long, rest parallel on the edge of the water gap and the float saddles, thus forming the decking. A boom on the end of the truck is used to place these, for each treadway weighs about 2350 Ib. Each float weighs about 850 Ib and is 33 ft long by 8 ft 3 in. wide, and a complete saddle weighs about 2200 Ib. The Kiwi sappers never handled this US Army equipment but after a demonstration were impressed with its possibilities in certain circumstances.
Operation Dickens finally opened at 8.30 a.m. on the 15th, the Ides of March, and this is what the engineers saw from vantage points, again quoting from Lieutenant O'Reilly's diary:
‘Operation Dickens started at breakfast time. For four hours great squadrons of Fortresses, Liberators and Lancasters and mediums paraded grandly over us while high above, just specks, we could see the high cover of Spitfires and Lightnings. On Cassino's 1 Sq mile they unloaded 1400 tons and on adjacent targets another 1000 tons. It was awe-inspiring the way these great squadrons in tight formation appeared as by clockwork from the south, wheeled over Cairo, unloaded and majestically turned for home. There must have been bombs falling on the town every minute of the 4 Hours—someone counted 700 of the “heavies” alone. One or two squadrons unloaded on our side of the bomb line also—these bloody Yanks again.’
As soon as the bombers departed the gunners took over and the infantry followed the barrage with the intention of clearing all Cassino north of Route 6 within two hours, whereupon Phase II would be put into operation. Phase II consisted of clearing the town south of Route 6 and capturing the railway station, while at the same time 4 Indian Division occupied selected spots below the monastery in preparation for the final assault after nightfall.page 555
Whether the Indian attack failed or succeeded, American and New Zealand armoured task forces would push along Route 6 and outflank Montecassino from the south. Simultaneously another tank force would, via Cavendish road, debouch from Madras Circus and complete the isolation of the monastery.
B Squadron, 19 Armoured Regiment, followed 25 Battalion into Cassino and the official history of the regiment describes the sequel:
‘The advance was made along two roads running south from the barracks area into Cassino. Two troops of tanks moved on each route, but in the first few minutes it was found that all the preliminary route reconnoitring by the engineers, infantry and armour during the long wait outside the town was now of no use. The two troops on the parallel (the eastern) route were forced to retrace their tracks, while radio reports from the leading tanks on caruso route indicated that, while they had reached the northern outskirts of Cassino, further progress was impossible. The heavy bombing had completely wrecked all roads to the objective. Huge craters and debris from demolished buildings made the going impossible, and the tanks were halted halfway between the jail and Route 6.
‘To add to the already serious situation, several sorties of bombing Kittyhawks attacked the area in which the leading tanks were working. Some of them could now move neither forwards nor backwards.
‘The bridgelaying tank with B Squadron was called up, but the craters left by the heavy bombs on the rain-sodden routes were so large that they could not be spanned with this equipment. It was evident that bulldozer assistance from the engineers would be required before any reasonable progress through the town could be expected. All hope of a swift armoured break-through had now gone.’
All hope of a swift infantry break-through had also gone for 25 Battalion discovered that the supposed graveyard had come dramatically to life; II Battalion, 3 Parachute Regiment, which was expected to have been killed, buried alive or shellshocked, fought back, emphatic evidence of the safety of rubble-covered cellars and the quality of their construction. And there were enough of the enemy to break up the cohesion of the attack and slow down the rate of advance until, like the tanks, it also stopped.page 556
Major White had detailed No. 3 Platoon (Lieutenant Budge17) to carry out any necessary road work in Cassino. They were to enter the town by way of a crossing where Pasquale road first joins the Rapido, and would be met there by Lieutenant Faram with dozers.
The road had, however, been hit with bombs meant for the town and the sappers worked on filling craters until Faram appeared. He had parked one dozer with spare drivers in a sheltered spot and had taken the other to the rendezvous with No. 3 Platoon.
‘I took one dozer forward,’ writes Lieutenant Faram, ‘after the bombing and went down the Pasquale Rd. Our job was to fill holes and cross the Rapido about 200 yds E of the Gaol and then doze a track through Cassino to Route 6 and so on to Rome or bust. We got to the north bank of the Rapido and a couple of Yankee Lightnings had a go at us first with MGs and then flipped over and dropped a couple of bombs which dropped into the mud on both sides of the road and fortunately exploded straight up without doing us any harm.’
No. 3 Platoon had to take what shelter it could while Lieutenant Budge and two men made a ‘recce’ into the town ‘and could only report that conditions in Cassino were such that the movement of tanks would be very restricted on account of the number of bomb craters.’
Major White, asked repeatedly by the tanks for sapper assistance which Budge was apparently unable to supply, went up to assess the situation. A sniper's bullet which creased the back of his neck confirmed the impression he had obtained from Lieutenant Budge that bulldozing was not practicable. Now joined by Lieutenant Faram, the pair ‘recced’ forward past the infantry and up to the first tank, which was lying on its side, a magnet for mortars.
They eventually got back to Company Headquarters, leaving the dozer behind the cover it had found. Major White wrote:
‘Messages from the 19 Regt continued to come through, urgently requesting sapper assistance. Lieut Budge reported that page 557 he was pinned down by aimed fire, and that engineer work was not possible. Smoke laid by the tanks did not stop the fire which was fairly close range, and the accuracy of which was creditable after what had hit the defence a short time before. I had confidence in Lieut Budge, and knew he would get on with the job if possible. Major Leeks,19 commander of C Squadron, was wounded when trying to recce, and Captain McInnes20 who took over from him was almost immediately wounded in the same way. Thereafter I think that the crews remained inside their tanks. They, no doubt, felt that we had let them down, but our task was beyond us. So the long afternoon wore on and the firing never ceased.’
With the assault halted in the ruins of Cassino the capture of the railway station had not eventuated, and 8 Field Company had not been sent to make good the railway-road into the objective. The lateral between Route 6 and Demolition 1 had however received, as had the Pasquale road, some of the bombs meant for the Germans in Cassino, with the result that there was a crater 40 feet in diameter and 14 feet deep that required filling if the road was to serve its purpose again.
It was a tricky job of bridging in a confined space. The oneway road was built up about six feet above the swampy ground over which it passed and there was thus no room for vehicles to pass. The job was done in the following manner—the D8 dozer went down the track used by the Maoris from Route 6 and so to the far side of the crater. The bridge was assembled farther back on the road and towed by the D6 to the site, where ramps were put on the bridge; the D6 then passed back over the bridge and the ramps were removed. The D8 on the far side then towed the bridge into position. The ramps were replaced, the D8 crossed and everybody went home.
Sapper work in Cassino during the night 15th - 16th, while the infantry stumbled among the ruins towards roughly allocated sectors, was confined to 7 Field Company. Major White and Lieutenant Budge, accompanied by Lieutenant Prosser who page 558 had been into Cassino almost every night during the waiting period, ‘recced’ for a track through the horrible jumble towards Route 6, but the upheaval, the pitch blackness of the night, and finally the heavy rain which turned rubble into mud and bomb holes into ponds defeated them.
Lieutenant Prosser writes:
‘I had been going into Cassino every night for five weeks and could not orient myself at all that night. There was absolutely nothing where we could get a bearing, couldn't even find the Jail. After climbing in and out of bomb craters for hours we had to return to the tanks informing them that the going was hopeless.’
Lieutenant McCormick, out on reconnaissance the same night for 19 Armoured Regiment, described Cassino thus:
‘It was a Hell of a mess, some of the craters being 60' and more across and they were as well distributed as the craters on the moon.’
The only positive results that night were obtained by the attached 48 US Engineer Battalion on the eastern approach to Cassino. One company got a Bailey across the Rapido where the Route 6 structure had been destroyed, and the other lifted mines along the highway as far as the convent on Route 6 at the corner of the road leading to the railway station. This convent, which became a landmark, was half a mile west of the Rapido and 400 yards past the point where a side road makes a V with Route 6, and which for clarity is called the north fork. Besides picking up mines, the American engineers filled three road craters between the bridge and the fork, a meritorious performance considering the conditions and the indiscriminating enemy fire which cost four casualties. Their orders suggested that they would clear the road right through Cassino, in which case they would have needed the friendly co-operation of the enemy. The orders had been predicted on the success of the infantry, which was to have been in possession of the whole town instead of the outer fringes.
Lieutenant Whelan with fourteen sappers, who had reported to Maori Battalion headquarters for any work that might be required to get the Maoris back into the Cassino railway station again, had endured the enemy's intention of making tolerably certain with mortars that the railway station was not again attacked along the axis of the causeway. The sapper officer, with Sergeant Heley21 and a Maori escort, tried at dawn to ‘recce’ page 559 the bridge over the Little Rapido but could not get close enough because of the rain of mortar shells. Lieutenant Whelan and a Maori were wounded but not put out of action.
Captain Morgan (7 Field Company) tried again from the north in daylight for a route to get the tanks on to Route 6, but one of his two sapper escorts was killed by a sniper's bullet and he later reported that it was not possible to work by day in Cassino. Major White confirmed this opinion after a flight in a spotter plane in the hope of being able to find from the air a possible route that could not be located from the ground.
The infantry, both New Zealand troops in the town and the British and Indians on the eastern face of the hill above them, made local attacks against limited objectives, but the enemy held the upper hand and, in the words of the New Zealand official history of the period, ‘the 16th was a day of endurance rather than of achievement’. The only real achievement was the arrival of three tanks which entered the battle by way of the American-built bridge over the Rapido on Route 6. Shortly before noon Lieutenant McCormick was informed that his reconnaissance group was to accompany No. 1 Troop of A Squadron, 19 Armoured Regiment, into Cassino.
The group left San Pasquale forthwith and parked the scout car at a convenient distance from the Rapido bridge. McCormick instructed the wireless operator to listen in on the tank wavelength for instructions and the working sappers to remain with the car while he and Sergeant ‘Digby’ Clements went up on foot to locate the tanks' troop commander, Lieutenant ‘Strat’ Morrin.22 He was found at the head of his troop near the fork of Route 6, at the end of the road repaired by the American sappers, and was halted by a demolition. The two officers made a ‘recce’ forward on foot, decided that a scissors tank23 could bridge the gap and returned owing to a sniper's attention, as McCormick later said, ‘with extreme rapidity’ to the shelter of Morrin's tank. Sergeant Clements availed himself equally smartly of the shelter offered by a ditch. A troop of scissors tanks under page 560 command for the operation was called by radio and one was ordered forward from where they were waiting, a mile or so from the Rapido bridge.
The scissors tank duly arrived and its bridge was put down across the bomb crater, but through some damage to the mechanism the tank was unable to disengage; while it recovered its burden another scissors asked for urgently came up and successfully put down its bridge. Morrin's tank crossed, and as he had been told to get in touch with the infantry as soon as possible, he again left on foot towards movement he had seen from his turret and which proved to be men of C Company, 26 Battalion. He was told that a nest of snipers firing from the convent about fifty yards away was troubling them. It was probably the same nest that had troubled the tank commander a little earlier, but a couple of tank shells led to the occupation of the convent by a party of infantry.
The building was the largest in that part of the town, a solid structure with a good basement and with most of its roof and walls still standing. This basement, mistakenly but widely known as the crypt, in due course became an RAP, a Signals Headquarters and a Battle Headquarters for the units fighting in Cassino.
If ever a project was conceived under an unlucky star it was the bridging of that bomb hole in Route 6. The number of crossings built by the sappers at night, destroyed by day and rebuilt by night, would make tedious reading, so the history of this bridge, codenamed selby, is told at some length.
The scissors bridge, although put down successfully, had tilted in the soft footing with the weight of Lieutenant Morrin's vehicle and no other tank had been able to use it. This was rectified by two tanks maintaining tension on tow ropes while Sergeant Clements and Lieutenant McCormick put stones and masonry under the wobbly end. They were covered by smoke from phosphorus grenades thrown from the tank by Morrin, for Montecassino was so close and so high above them that, as a sapper put it, ‘they could look down your neck to see if you were wearing a collar stud’.
Another crater, too large for a scissors, was the next obstacle and it was decided to risk the muddy going and make a detour. There were no mine detectors handy and, in any case, with all the metal splinters lying around and more arriving at frequent intervals, they would have been of little use, so the sapper officer walked ahead of the leading tank.page 561
Two made a safe detour but the third, over-anxious to reach the road, cut a corner and got stuck; the second tank went back to tow it out and found a mine that the American sappers had missed, with the result that it also was halted with a blown track.
The only other engineer activity that afternoon was along the railway embankment. Lieutenant Whelan, with Corporal Wilson24 clearing away mines, accompanied a Maori patrol sent to test an impression that the station might have been evacuated. The impression was quite illusory and Whelan was severely wounded. Wilson carried on through a mined area until the patrol had to take cover, then he crawled forward to obtain particulars of any further mines on the track. As soon as the patrol returned Sergeant Heley went out alone and made a close inspection of the track and of the bridges over the two Rapidos. Both NCOs were later awarded MMs for these and other actions. Lieutenant Brown arrived after dark to take command of the detachment.
The smoke-intensified darkness of the night (16th - 17th) covered the deployments for the revitalising of the battle and a victory bid. The Indians were to capture Monastery Hill, while the New Zealanders were to complete the clearance of Cassino and then capture the railway station. No. 1 Platoon, 6 Field Company, was ordered to stand by for work in Cassino, and about midnight moved off with the Treadway truck and en route picked up Lieutenant Tassell with a couple of dozers. The job was first to give any assistance required by the Americans in putting down their Treadway over the demolition near the convent that Lieutenant Morrin had bypassed, and then to prepare the approaches for a bridgelaying tank to span another bomb hole. It happened to be a job where the sappers had little to do. The Treadway's truck was turned around at a suitable place and backed up towards the crater, no mean feat on a dark night, but en route the vehicle ran on to the road verge and found a mine which blew away one of the rear wheels. Undeterred, the Yankee driver carried on and successfully launched his bridge, for which the sappers had prepared approaches. He then drove off with one axle trailing, but the sparks it raised and the noise it made were heartily cursed by the men still on the site. The bridgelaying tank then moved up to its crater and also successfully put down its bridge, where- page 562 upon it was possible to drive up Route 6 as far as the convent corner. There was no enemy interference and the sappers drove thankfully away.
Meanwhile Lieutenant McCormick's ‘recce’ party had been called up through the tank wireless network and occupied themselves with filling some small craters and searching for mines in the shelter of the convent. McCormick ‘recced’ around until nightfall, when the sappers curled up in the convent until disturbed by infantry movement in the early morning.
The attempt to clear the south-western corner of Cassino, where scattered strongpoints on rising ground were the core of the German defence, was only partly successful, but the overrunning of the Botanical Gardens, an open area of some five acres to which the tanks had found a road, gave room enough to launch the southward drive against the railway station. Twenty-sixth Battalion, scattered in the town, was to assemble at the convent and follow the tanks down the road to the objective, but for doubtlessly good reasons the smoke had been stopped and the infantry near the Gardens had to run the gauntlet of snipers and mortar crews on the hillside.
The men were shot down as they ran from cover to cover. The New Zealand official history, Italy, Volume I, contains a description by one who survived that day:
‘One after another they dropped. The wounded crawled to shell holes, others paused to help, only to be hit themselves. Other wounded stumbled, half-crawled towards shelter only to be laid low by another bullet…. The wounded were lying everywhere. Mortar bombs were bursting amongst them.’
McCormick, watching from the convent, remembered the phosphorus grenades that had shielded him the previous day. He raced to the nearest tank, filled his pockets with grenades, and as his MC citation records, ‘with a total disregard of the danger to himself, laid a smoke screen and then signalled the infantry forward. With a second wave of infantry he repeated the performance. It was undoubtedly due to his initiative, devotion to duty and qualities of leadership that the position was restored and the advance continued to a successful conclusion.’
It was the only successful conclusion of the day, for the Indian attack could not be initiated until Cassino was cleared and the vital corner was still held by the enemy at nightfall.
The second capture of the railway station was the signal for 6 Field Company to make a start with the clearing and repairing page 563 of the railway embankment road into the station yard, and so provide another route into Cassino in case the Route 6 bridge should be destroyed, a not improbable event considering the amount of metal it attracted. In passing, the attached American engineers made a start that night, by corduroying the approaches, with an alternative bridge about 150 yards north of the other one.
Lieutenant Menzies,25 who had been maintaining liaison by means of a wireless truck stationed at 28 Battalion headquarters, passed on a message to Lieutenant Brown that he was to take his party and sweep a 16 ft lane from the Main Rapido bridge to Demolition 10, also to prepare a walking track with Bangalores and jelly rope26 as far as Demolition 12. The rest of No. 3 Platoon arrived before the work was finished and widened the lane from the river to the station yards to 24 feet, in addition to building a culvert with railway sleepers in Demolition 12. Lieutenant Gowan brought one of his dozers along and graded down the sides of Demolitions 11 and 12. The operator, Sapper Hermon,27 unable to take shelter from incoming mortar shells, carried on until the work was completed. For this and other good work he was awarded an MM.
Meanwhile Bridging Platoon (Lieutenant O'Leary) was dodging craters on the narrow embankment with components for repairing the bridge over the Little Rapido and replacing the Main Rapido bridge which had been shot to pieces. No. 2 Platoon did both bridges, and at the end of ten hours' work the road into the station was ready for traffic.
While this work was going ahead, 6 Field Company, under instructions to clear Route 6 as far west as possible, improved the track the tanks had found up to the junction with the main road to the station, about 150 yards west of the convent and opposite the Botanical Gardens. Seventh Field Company, optimistically instructed to clear a path from the north through Cassino to Route 6, completed the Pasquale road, inclusive of the ford over the Rapido, but it was still not possible to operate mechanical equipment until the enemy was removed from the hillside above.page 564
The 18th was a day of stubborn attacks against equally stubborn defence and ended with the possibility of German counterattacks. Such an attack was in fact mounted against the railway station but did not gather any momentum, for this time the supporting arms were there to assist the infantry.
Plans were made for a concerted Maori, Indian and tank attack during the night of the 18th - 19th to end the four-day battle. Briefly, the Maoris were to attack the last remaining opposition on Route 6 on the west side of the Gari. At dawn two battalions of 5 Indian Brigade were to climb the hillside and assault the monastery, while at the same time American, Indian and New Zealand tanks were to attack from the end of Cavendish road.
Sixth Field Company's tasks for the night were to put down three bridges, one across a troublesome shallow wet crater near the Route 6 fork and two others to replace the scissors and Treadway bridges. Only the first was built, for the bridgelaying tank was unable to lift its scissors bridge—the traffic had pushed it too deeply into the mud—and the last Treadway gap was not attempted. The other sapper unit employed that night was 48 US Engineer Battalion, which built the alternative Bailey for which the corduroying had been done the previous night. They had about an hour's work left when enemy fire forced them off the job. Now that there was another way into the town via the railway embankment, it was not important to persevere under fire with this structure and they were withdrawn.
The Maori night attack was only partially successful, like the earlier efforts to clear the south-western corner of Cassino; the Indians in consequence could not get going and the tank venture in the hills came to an untimely end, defeated partly by the terrain, partly by the enemy strongpoints, and mostly by the absence of infantry to complete the work.
New Zealand Corps was not prepared to admit defeat, but for the second time in Italy the pursuit role was dropped by force of circumstances. It was decided to narrow the Divisional front and commit 5 Brigade to the attack. The deployment was to take place that night (19th - 20th), with 5 Brigade responsible for the town north of Route 6 and 6 Brigade for the remainder.
Engineer intentions were to improve the three entrances into Cassino, north, east and south, while the Americans completed the alternative Rapido crossing they were working on the previous night. The main job of cleaning up behind the Maoris, who had made some progress, did not eventuate.page 565
Major Askin took a mixed party of 5 Field Park and No. 2 Platoon of 6 Field Company (Lieutenant Higginson) into Cassino, but while making a reconnaissance of the job in company with Lieutenant Cuthbertson both were wounded. Major Askin was able to carry on and decided that there was too much enemy interference and tank traffic to make work possible. Sapper Thornton,28 who was with a section covering the two officers, wrote:
‘After tea our section went out to some point just in front of Cassino as a covering party to 2 Engr Recce Offrs. They were both hit and we returned about 9.30 p.m. wondering why they didn't wait for us. Not sorry though. Far from healthy there what with tanks changing over, infantry battalions being relieved, and at least four working parties of sappers with Jerry aware of it all and doing his best to dissuade such goings on.’
The enemy had again defied every effort to dislodge him. The engineers stood by in case they were needed, but they stood by in vain. At Corps level orders were being framed with the intention of sealing the German garrison off from reinforcements; at higher levels questions were being asked and answered as to why all the fighting was being done at one point only. In England it seemed that quite a large section of the Winter Line was being left in peace. The sappers, except for routine patching by night of road damage that the enemy contrived by day, were not called upon for important assignments until the 22nd.
The selby scissors bridge, in spite of being shored up nightly, was in a bad way; the enemy pasted it regularly at midnight and the sappers made their arrangements accordingly, but the structure was going from bad to worse. Finally it was decided to put down the stronger structure of a Bailey and take the scissors away; No. 1 Platoon, 7 Field Company, which had for several nights been doing what it could to selby, was given the job.
The platoon was to meet the bridging trucks, plus five trucks of metal for the approaches, at dusk at the Rapido bridge but found on arrival that 8 Field Company was replacing the decking and a wait of an hour and a half ensued. Lieutenant Prosser went forward to see what fresh damage had been done to selby during the day and found that a tank had tried to cross the bridge and had ended up in the hole, leaving insufficient room to put down the Bailey. The only thing left, seeing that the page 566 tank was unable to move and unlikely to be recovered that night, was to send for a Treadway as its over-all measurements were several feet narrower than a Bailey.
The Bailey bridge-train was sent back and Prosser was returning to his truck to send a signal to Company Headquarters for the Treadway unit when he met Lieutenant O'Leary, who told him that he was holding a Treadway bridge unit handy in case it was wanted by 8 Field Company. There seemed to be no objection to using the Treadway on the new location, so while one officer went for the bridge the other had his metal trucks parked along the north fork by the time the American sappers arrived.
The Treadway was almost ready for launching when Major White arrived to see how the work was progressing. There was now only half an hour before the enemy's nightly strafe and there was two hours' work ahead. It was decided to send two sections back to where the usual hot-box of tea was waiting, to get the Americans away as soon as possible, and to warn the remaining section to remove itself for half an hour when the first incoming shell was heard.
Before they heard it the first shell exploded, wounding the three officers, three Americans and five sappers; three more were killed instantly. Sergeant Dacey and Padre Watson, who seldom missed a night when sappers were out on forward tasks, attended to the wounded and a metal truck, emptied of its load, was turned into a combined ambulance and hearse.
Sergeant Davis29 carried the job through. His DCM citation ends:
‘Despite heavy and accurate fire he held his men together and calmly went about giving directions and assistance until the bridge was completed and the road open to tanks. Throughout the operations in Cassino L/Sgt Davis has cheerfully undertaken the most hazardous engineer tasks and his steadiness and devotion to duty have been an example and inspiration to his men.’
This day, 23 March, was the day of decision. It was agreed that both 4 Indian and 2 New Zealand Divisions were no longer effective attacking forces and that Cassino would perforce stay unconquered until the spring offensive was launched. New Zealand Corps was to be dissolved on the 26th, by which date a considerable reorganisation and redeployment of the five Army page 567 Corps across the Italian battlefront would be under action. For the time being the Kiwis would hold the Cassino sector in a defensive role.
The German mortar crews took violent exception to the new work at selby, and by nightfall there was evident need for another bridge. Seventh Field Company started building a 50 ft Bailey above the other two structures that night and completed it the following night.
The Bailey lasted for five days, when it also was written off, and No. 1 Platoon of 8 Field Company was given the job of pulling it out of the way and filling the hole, leaving the other two bridges under the debris. The sappers were driven off the site four times by night-firing mortars before the wreck was ready for towing out. Another deluge of mortar bombs caught a carrying party from 22 Battalion on the bridge and there were several casualties, three fatal. Two sappers carrying a wounded infantryman were killed, three others wounded and the bridge, thrown on its side, had to be left there. The work was abandoned for the night as there were alternative roads for wheeled traffic into the town.
Mechanical Equipment Platoon completed the job the next night with a D6 working at half-throttle to keep down the noise.
It is appropriate at this point to mention that often when a sapper party got through a bridge-mending job without casualties, it was not always their good luck alone that saved them. Engineer Headquarters used various expedients to deceive the enemy about the time the sappers would be working; sometimes they would start at dusk and sometimes in just enough time to finish before dawn. Smoke was used in different ways—sometimes to cover an actual job—and on other occasions smoke would be laid on every bridge site except the one to be worked on. An alternative was to smoke a site, then wait until the German gunners had tried all their tricks—such as not firing until some time after the smoke was laid, or sending over concentrations at intervals. It was a battle of wits to keep the roads open and a battle we did not always win.
From 23 March, when the decision was taken to accept defeat for the time being, until 10 April, when the New Zealand tenure of Cassino was terminated, sapper work was of a routine nature, the routine being to replace bridges and fill holes in the roads as fast as the enemy damaged the one and cratered the other.page 568
Although the Division had adopted a static role, there was nothing static about the casualty lists.
Seventh Field Company lost a succession of commanders, the first of course being Major White, wounded at selby bridge on the night 22nd - 23rd. Captain Morgan took over until Major Clark arrived on the 26th; within forty-eight hours they were both wounded on reconnaissance and Lieutenant Budge then commanded temporarily. The officers seconded to 4 Armoured Brigade returned on the 29th and the next day Major Lindell, back from New Zealand after being wounded in North Africa, assumed command with Captain Andrew as his second-in-command.
In 6 Field Company Major Louden was evacuated sick on the 23rd and Captain Wallace, promoted major, was given command. Lieutenant Higginson was killed in command of a working party and three sappers wounded, one fatally.
April opened with a week of beautiful spring weather, but even more exhilarating than the warmth in the air was the information that the Division was leaving Cassino.
Sapper casualties in all ranks under that forbidding hill were 13 killed and 36 wounded.
1 It was a lesson which, in spite of many illustrations by sapper demonstrators, was indifferently assimilated by forward formations. A sapper officer remarked feelingly to the writer, ‘Usually if the forward troops found you picking up mines they would sheer off smartly.’
The CRE also wrote in this connection: ‘All too frequently in the Italian campaign sometimes the Infantry, but more especially the Armour, would not look at a mine and if the ground was even remotely likely to be mined they just sat tight until engineers arrived and either tested the ground or removed any mines. This was not really a role for engineers who had much heavier tasks to do and tasks which other arms could not do.’
2 An engineer ‘recce’ party at that period usually consisted of an officer, a sergeant, two working sappers, a driver and a wireless operator.
4 An isolated hill about two miles east of the FDLs. It was the scene of bitter fighting between Germans and Americans prior to the occupation of the Rapido river line.
8 Two more were later located in the station yard.
10 Lt-Col R. R. T. Young, DSO; Richmond, England; born Wellington, 25 Jun 1902; oil company executive; CO School of Instruction Feb-Apr 1943; CO 28 (Maori) Bn Dec 1943-Jul 1944, Aug-Nov 1944; wounded 26 Dec 1943.
15 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; QMG, Army HQ, Jan-Sep 1946; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1946-49; Commander, Southern Military District, 1949-51.
23 A scissors bridge is a two-piece folding bridge (hence its name) carried and launched from a tank, primarily to get armour over gaps of up to 30 feet. It is hinged on the front of the carrying tank (usually a Valentine) with a folding hinge at the other end. Hydraulic or screw gear lifts the bridge, extends it and lowers it into position, without the operators having to leave the shelter of the tank.
26 Jelly rope was gelignite threaded on primer cord at about 6-inch spacings. When detonated it would blow or destroy all mines in very close proximity, thus making a safe path about two feet wide for foot traffic.