Cassino 1944: the stele of unnecessary polemics and true heroes

(To Tiziano Ciocchetti)

In these days, in the small town of Cassino Lazio, is mounting a controversy - generated by the ANPI and fueled by the newly re-elected governor of Lazio Zingaretti - about the construction of a stele in memory of the German paratroops who heroically fought along the Gustav Line.

The 25 February 1944 a massive formation of American bombers, consisting of 142 B-17 (the flying fortresses ), 47 B-25 Mitchell and 40 B-26 Marauder, took off in the direction of Cassino. The goal was the magnificent Benedictine Abbey of Montecassino, one of the most important ecclesiastical monuments of Europe.

The destruction of the abbey had been decided in the mistaken belief that the monument was occupied by German troops.

In reality, Field Marshal Kesselring, commander in chief of the Southern Sector, had forbidden his departments to enter the abbey. Paradoxically, the mass of debris and debris that the bombing had produced would have been exploited by the German parades of the 1 division to oppose a fierce resistance to enemy attacks.

On the slopes of the mountain were the positions of the battle group Schultz - under the orders of Lt. Col. Karl Lothar Schultz - recently transferred from Anzio to Cassino; formed by the 1 ° paratroopers regiment, from the 1 ° battalion gunner paratroopers and from the 3 ° battalion of the 3 ° paratroopers regiment.

The machine-gun battalion was located on the slopes of Montecassino, while the 3 ° was attested to defend the Colle del Calvario at 593. For ten days his men resisted the assaults carried out by the 2 ° US Army Corps, eventually forcing the attacker to admit defeat.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, the Schultz group received substantial reinforcements from the 1 division parachutists commanded by General Richard Heidrich (photo). He put his three regiments in position with great care: the 3 ° covered the monastery and the town of Cassino, the 4 ° the massif and the 1 ° the areas around Monte Castellone and the lower slopes of Monte Cairo. The German parishes were attested along a front of 13 km that incorporated some considerable natural obstacles.

In the basement of the monastery there were numerous passages that offered excellent coverage against enemy air observation and artillery fire. So what remained of the abbey stood out as fundamental to defense.

Since the main entrance to the monastery was subjected to an intense artillery fire, the preparations for organizing the defenses were carried out by the parishes with the favor of the night. However, the task would have been excessive even for two divisions to full organic: in Montecassino there was only one and even in reduced ranks.

The 1ᵃ division paratroopers had been formed in the spring of the 1943 with what remained of the old 7ᵃ air division. When the Allies landed in Sicily, the 10 July 1943, the 1ᵃ division had a staff equal to 15.000 men, but after seven months of war of attrition, in February of 44, it was now halved. In fact, many battalions were below the 300 elements and the companies were reduced to 30 or 40 men. The division had been engaged in action, without a moment's respite, since Salerno. The survivors were extremely experienced and many of them had malaria. The 1ᵃ paratroopers division, considered an elite unit, had received a particularly difficult task - for which other divisions had been discarded - and was determined to confirm its reputation.

After the aviation on the island of Crete, in the 1941, suffering heavy losses, the German airborne forces were transformed into elite terrestrial departments that Hitler had used as a central component of his brigade of fire (Feuerwehr). After the 1943, the Division had been equipped with more effective weapons, including the XMUMXXXUMX caliber FG42 submachine gun, the 7,92 mm anti-recoil gun and the lightweight 57 mm field gun.

On the eve of the third battle for Cassino, the morale of the parades of the 1ᵃ division was very high: not only were they united by the spirit of body but it was established among all a particularly close bond deriving from the fact that they had shared the dangers of launching with the parachutes and learned to rely on the professionalism and courage of each of them. Many officers and non-commissioned officers were veterans of the Holland, Belgium, Crete and USSR campaigns. Traditionally the highest officers in rank were always on the front line with the soldiers and gave orders under fire and not from sheltered positions. Of course it was not just the fighting spirit that made the 1ᵃ division a first-rate unit: an important element lay in training.

The level of training of men and their ability to adapt to the most disparate situations were to be attributed to Heidrich, commander of the division. He believed in a broad, in-depth and very imaginative preparation. He had imposed the use of ball ammunition in all the drills and had used his men to be individualistic, tenacious and confident.

Every parable must have been a complete soldier: infantryman, engineer and anti-tank artillery, all in one man. The attention he had towards training would then have borne its fruits at Montecassino.

The third battle of Cassino (whose beginning was set for the 15 March) had to develop on two lines: a frontal attack against the same town conducted by the 2ᵃ division of New Zealand and an attack on the hill of the abbey by the 4ᵃ Indian division .

A massive aerial bombardment against German positions was made before the attack. Starting from 8.30 15 1944 March, the Allied bombers dropped their cargo of bombs on the men of the 3 regiment paratroopers attested to Cassino.

In the next four hours everything that could be destroyed was razed to the ground: the debris themselves jumped several times in the air. About 500 American bombers dropped a thousand tons of bombs on Cassino and the Benedictine abbey and, immediately after the air raid, a massive artillery bombardment was launched: in eight hours 746 cannons overturned something like 200.000 grenades on the Lazio town.

Before the attack, the 2 ° battalion had a force of 300 men and 5 cannons; after the raid, men and a cannon had been reduced to 140. The 7ᵃ company had been reduced to a handful of parries, while the 5ᵃ and the 8ᵃ had no more than 30 soldiers each. The 6ᵃ company, which had found refuge in a cave in the rock at the foot of the abbey hill, had not suffered losses.

Heidrich, who at dawn had settled in the battle headquarters of his 3 regiment, had no more contact with the 2 ° battalion with the 14 ° panzer korps, since all the communications had been interrupted with the bombardment. The defense of Montecassino was in the hands of those scattered groups of parà who had managed to emerge from the rubble after the hammering by the bombers. Paradoxically, for the allies the effect of that massive bombardment was disappointing: half of the German parishes were out of action, but the morale of the survivors had not been broken. They were indeed furious and ready to fight to the last man. The bombing turned out to be a tactical failure as it had transformed the whole area into a lunar landscape full of rubble and craters that made the advance of the allied troops very difficult.

The piles of debris caused by the raid slowed the march of the New Zealanders who were also forced to abandon their armored support vehicles. In this way the attack became a slow, uncoordinated advance that provided the German parishes with excellent opportunities to fight short, bitter, delaying battles.

Although he lost all contact with the second battalion and was unable to coordinate the defense directly, Heidrich managed equally to direct a devastating artillery fire on the advancing New Zealand units. In particular, the mortar shelters and the artillery fire placed high had the effect of a carpet bombing.

However, despite the efforts of the German parishes and artillery support, by the evening of 15 March two-thirds of the town had been conquered by the New Zealand forces.

In the six days that followed, the third battle of Cassino became a fight to the death between the allied forces and the German parries. At one point the allied forces - which had succeeded in surrounding the abbey - were rejected. Heidrich, realizing that it was not possible to defend all the sectors of the perimeter, the 16 March decided to establish a shorter defensive line at Cassino. Two locations, a hotel called by the Allies Continental and the Hotel delle Rose, dominated the New Zealand state-run highway along the state road n.6 (Casilina) and the access points of the Indian departments to the massif behind the Castle Hill. Both hotels were turned into cornerstones and a tank was even walled up in the entrance hall of the Continental . The German partridges dug trenches in the middle of the surrounding buildings and holes in which they placed heavy weapons. Then, with the favor of darkness, Heidrich slowly infiltrated the reinforcements.

On March 22 the Allies blocked their offensive in Cassino. The commanders of the two sides were aware that the failure of the advance was entirely due to the strenuous defense of the lines by the 1ᵃ division paratroopers. The American general Marshall reported that the repeated attempts to conquer the city failed in front of the fierce resistance of first class German units and precisely the 1ᵃ division paratroopers that General Alexander he called as the best German division seen on any front. General Vietinghoff-Scheel, commander-in-chief of the armed 10ᵃ, reported to Kesselring that no other training, apart from the 1ᵃ division paratroopers, could have resisted Cassino.

However, the price paid was very high. The 3 regiment, for example, on an original force composed of 700 men, reported 50 dead, 270 missing and 114 injured.

At the end of March 1944 the 1ᵃ division paratroopers, hardly tried, but victorious, was withdrawn from the front of Cassino for a week of rest before returning to the front line.

Back on the front line, Heidrich placed the 4 regiment para and a battalion of machine-gunners in the town of Cassino and among the ruins of the same abbey, while the 3 ° regiment parà was held in reserve; mountain troops were added to the division to defend Monte Cairo.

The 11 may, when the Allies launched the fourth and decisive attack, put in place a huge mass of forces. The spearhead of the assault was composed of the 2 ° Polish body (photo), which had on its left the 13 ° British body ready to advance along the Casilina. The 5 was even more to the left US Army, including the French expeditionary body, which had the task of advancing along the state road n.7 (Appia). The Allies had 1.600 pieces of artillery and 3.000 aircraft.

Against these forces the Germans could deploy four incomplete divisions and heavily worn down by the prolonged battle.

The parishes were once again subjected to massive air and ground bombardments: under the cover of this barrage of fire the Allies launched the attack. The hardest fights took place in Monte Sant'Angelo, where they faced the 3 ° regiment parà and the Polish body.

Major Böhmler, commander of the 1 battalion, defended Monte Calvario. Soon the battalion came under repeated attacks by the Poles: there were fierce hand-to-hand combat between artillery fire and airstrikes. Böhmler's first company was eventually overwhelmed at the top of the mountain by Polish troops. This failure seriously threatened the German positions on the abbey. To regain the high ground, the 1 ° and the 2 ° battalion launched four counterattacks in vain. Finally on the evening of May 12, a patrol led by Sergeant Major Schmidt succeeded in repelling the Poles from the mountain which was then firmly held by the parishes.

The 17 May 1ᵃ division paratroopers received the folding order from Montecassino. At night, then, the paras silently abandoned their strenuously defended positions for weeks with fierce fighting and headed north, towards the next defensive line, the Line Adolf Hitler.

They had stumbled upon the city and the surrounding heights, but the French expeditionary body, which had broken down southwest of Cassino, threatened to isolate their positions. They were forced to withdraw only from external circumstances: their fame had remained intact. The high German and allied commanders recognized that only the 1ᵃ division paratroopers could hold positions in Cassino against the enormous pressure exerted by the Allies between March and May of the 1944.

(photo: bundesarchiv / web)