Cassino's Battle: "Second and Third Battle" (3 / 3)


Given the progress of the previous clashes with German troops in the sector, General Alexander decided to proceed with a change of strategy by employing new troops from other sectors of the Italian Front. Thus several military units from the Adriatic front were redeployed to Cassino. It was the 2 ^ New Zealand Division, of the 4 ^ Indian Division and the British 78 ^ which reached the area of ​​operation between late January and late February by forming a new army corps - the New Zealand Army Corps - placed under the orders of General Bernard Freyberg. The Allied military device on the Cassino front thus increased decidedly in quality: both the New Zealand and the Indian divisions had in fact performed excellently with the eighth army previously. Therefore, in light of all this, it was initially thought to use the new units received in an attack substantially similar to the one already carried out by the II American Army Corps and ended the 11 in February without success. But not all allied commanders were of the same opinion. For example, General Juin proposed using the forces that had just arrived to support his attack to head towards Atina and then bend towards the Liri valley, thus bypassing the Cassino position. Major General Tuker - commander of the Indian division - was of the same opinion, trusting in the familiarity of his departments to operate in mountain settings. Although this proposal could seem valid at first sight, it was then discarded as logistically unsustainable due to the harshness of the terrain. It was thus decided to attack the Abbey and Cassino directly from the front. Attack that, in the intentions of its creators, should have started the February 16 on the two fronts of Cassino and Montecassino using for the first the 4 ^ Indian Division - which had to previously detect the positions that overlooked the hill of the monastery held by the 34 American - and the 2 ^ New Zealand Division on the second. Following the agreed deployment, the Indians should have resumed the advance initiated by the II American Army Corps and the New Zealanders would have attacked from the east along the railway line also employing tanks. This would have involved crossing the Rapido river, so a department of engineers was ordered for the preparation of a mobile bridge capable of making the tanks cross the river. Soon, however, during the preparations for the attack, things did not go as planned. When the men of the Indian division climbed the mountains to detect the units there allocated they made the bitter discovery that the Americans were not on the expected positions, but on others clearly less advantageous. Positions that, moreover, were the object of heavy German counterattacks such as to make Americans lose even the small amount of land previously conquered. Consequently, the Indians should have taken fighting the planned starting line before launching the actual assault on the Abbey hill.

Each area of ​​the battlefield was in fact under the fire of German weapons positioned on the heights above Montecassino and its abbey. The situation seemed to the British general so compromised that he explicitly expressed the opinion that the offensive efforts had to be made further north, but the idea was soon discarded. The fact that the Indians would have had to contend with the German defenses near the Abbey of Montecassino, which at first the allies initially considered inviolable, was of no avail. Conviction that, subsequently, will change due to the urgent needs of the war after many disputes in the Allied commands. Indeed, the fateful date of 16 February was anticipated at 15 as it was considered important that the new army corps attack German positions to ease the pressure they exerted on the Anzio bridgehead. But by that date the Indian Division was absolutely not ready for the difficulties already exposed above and for the illness that struck General Tucker before the planned attack and that will lead to take over in the command the general Dimoline, who proposed again the same doubts already facts present from his predecessor. But even these considerations were rejected and Demoline thus had to conquer, at the same time, the starting positions provided for the assault and then launch the agreed main attack.

On the morning of the 15 February, the Allied air force secured its support for the plan by destroying the abbey and all that was around it, causing heavy losses among the civilians and German military personnel present nearby. Subsequently, it fell to the artillery to completely annihilate the enemy positions in the sector with a strong fire of explosive grenades in view of the assault that should have been held in the afternoon. But in the afternoon no attack was launched by the Allied forces according to forecasts. Only with the favor of the dark, a company of the 1 ^ "Royal Sussex" regiment slipped out of its shelters and advanced to conquer the predetermined point for the continuation of the subsequent operations. The offensive episode of the Allied soldiers was however effectively countered by the German troops operating in the area that inflicted very heavy losses, as in the following ones, carried out the following night. The same fate also affected the Indian units to which Freyberg had assigned the task of attacking Montecassino directly, after having reinforced them. The February 17 tried again to conquer the hills surrounding the abbey hill by using different units of the division but the Indians were taken by the Germans and nailed on the spot.

No better luck they met in the bottom of the Cassino valley the men of the 2 ^ New Zealand division that launched its attack on the city on the night of 17 February. The 28 ^ New Zealand battalion in charge of the operation to conquer the railway station and the area of ​​Cassino near the State Road 6, despite the tenacious German resistance helped also by minefields, in a first phase actually managed to achieve the set goals while behind the engineers worked tirelessly to build a road for support tanks. The following morning, however, the latter found themselves under a precise and constant fire of Germanic artillery such as to make him abandon the works, thus leaving the men of the 28 ^ battalion without help to maintain the positions they had just conquered. The New Zealand soldiers were thus made to withdraw by using a smoke screen as a diversion to hide them from artillery fire. But the same curtain of smoke used by the Allies was exploited by the Germans to conceal their counterattack on the newly lost positions which, in fact, were immediately reconquered. The New Zealanders were thus forced to return to their starting positions. The second battle of Cassino ended in substantial nothing and with huge Allied losses in men and means.

Immediately after the conclusion of the second battle for Cassino, the Allied military leaders began to plan their subsequent moves in order to keep the pressure on the "Gustav" Line high and thus prevent the Germans from threatening to force the landing at Anzio. Later, considered the bridgehead allied to Anzio, the general Alexander revised his plans and elaborated a new general plan of attack aimed at breaking the "Gustav" line once and for all, following the suggestion of his head of was Major Lieutenant General John Harding. To achieve this he ordered the sending and use of the largest possible number of Allied military units in the area between Cassino and the sea, corresponding to four army corps consisting of nine divisions to open a passage through the fortified line.

The attack, called by code name operation "Diadema", being very complex, could only be undertaken with the arrival of summer in May. So, in the meantime, the Germans had to be kept busy in the sector. To this end, Freiberg was assigned the task of attacking the town again, also with a view to exploiting any positive trends as a springboard for the most important general offensive.

The attack plan drawn up for this new occasion by the commander of the New Zealand Army Corps was different from the previous ones: Freiberg decided to attack the city by entering this time both from the north and from the east with the support of tanks and a intense bombardment aimed at eliminating its defenders. At the same time, the Indian 4 Division should have instead attacked the hill of the monastery passing by the road that ran along Cassino. Also this maneuver had to be supported by the Allied tanks that would have been used with the help of the engineers to avoid the numerous natural obstacles that overlapped with their profitable use. On the other side of the front, meanwhile, German units defending Cassino had been replaced by fresh troops. Instead of General Baade and his 90 ^ panzergrenadier, General Heidrich took over at the head of the 1 ^ Paratroopers Division formed by personnel with great combat experience against the British and Canadians in Sicily. Paratroopers that Heidrich redeployed on the ground: the 3 ^ regiment in the city and on the hill of the monastery, the 4 ^ on the mountain positions north and northwest of Montecassino.

The 15 in March 1944 began the third battle for Cassino with a great aerial bombardment carried out by medium bombers from eight and a half in the morning until noon, when the allied artillery also entered with an intense barrage of support over the city. Under this authentic flood of fire the 25 ^ battalion and the chariots of the 19 ^ New Zealand armored regiment moved to Cassino from the north. Despite the bombers and the artillery barrage, however, the German defenses had not been completely eliminated: hidden in their shelters, the German paratroopers emerged as soon as the allied support fire was fired by shooting at the New Zealanders with the machine guns supplied. The tanks used were of little help: the furious bombings that had proceeded with the attack had made the streets of Cassino practically impossible due to the large craters and rubble that obstructed them.

Meanwhile, on the battlefield, it also began to rain and the rubble dust became mud that could further hinder New Zealand's advance. The result was that throughout the day of the 15 March the 25 ^ battalion had advanced only a few meters, despite the fact that the 26 ^ battalion had also joined the attack. The only real success was the capture of Castle Hill, the castle hill, in the afternoon.

The medieval fortress was entrusted to the men of the 1 ^ battalion, 4 ^ "Essex" regiment of the 5 ^ Indian brigade. From here, with the favor of darkness, a part of the brigade moved towards the hill of the monastery. Furious fights were born with the German defenders in the area who ended up with a substantial stalemate, despite the fact that for a brief period the Indians had managed to conquer some area facing the abbey. Thus the New Zealanders in Cassino and the Indians in the hills had to limit themselves to securing their key positions. For this, the gurkhas were reinforced, but at a high price. Every man who was sent to reinforce their positions had to cross land under the constant cross-fire of the Germans.

Given the above, the reinforcements and supplies could only occur at night to the brave Nepalese who, in isolation, had to undergo a number of opposing counter-attacks, however, rejected. All this happened while in the city Freyberg sent the 24 ^ New Zealand battalion in reinforcement to the units already engaged. The 26 ^ battalion went up to the Casilina with the support of the tanks, remaining however nailed to the precise fire of the German chariots and self-propelled camouflaged among the bombed buildings. The 17 March, early in the morning, after an intense night of fighting, the Indian division had managed to position some men on different strategic heights, but remained under intense enemy fire. Limited progress was also made by New Zealand troops in Cassino, until they were forced to stop near the Continental and Des Roses hotel area by General Heidrech's troops who had built a powerful defensive stronghold in the area in question.

The same fate fell to the 26 ^ battalion which had managed to reach the railway station with the support of the tanks, but still remaining under fire from the enemy. On the morning of 18 March the gurkhas still able to fight in the hills had been reinforced and supplied with ammunition in view of subsequent operations. In the city, however, an attack behind the German stronghold of the Hotel des Roses ended in failure. At the same time, in the valley, the newly conquered railway station was the object of a powerful allied counterattack by the machine-gunners of the German Parachutist Battalion, rejected at the price of serious losses. Overall, the day ended like those that had preceded it: many harsh fighting without any real progress on the ground by the Allies. It was evident that the battle was at a standstill. Given this, Freyberg, worried about the lack of concrete progress, decided to launch the final assault. The Indians in the hills would have had to unite with the gurkhas and together they would have had to proceed to the final assault towards the abbey, with the support of a team of carts advancing among the mountains. For the occasion, the attackers were further supplied with ammunition and food by means of special hooks on their positions in the afternoon of 18 March. The next morning the Allied forces launched the final attack on the abbey supported by armored vehicles moving through the mountains. This created no small surprise in the Germans, as they would never have expected the use of such means in such a terrain. However, within a short time, they were able to stop their progress.

In the end, thanks to the massive German barrage and the harshness of the terrain, many Allied wagons had to succumb. Things were no better for Freyberg in the city where the 28 ^ New Zealand Battalion made no progress in attacking the Hotel Continental. Only two options remained to the Allied general at this point: to interrupt the fighting or to reinforce the New Zealand division engaged in the city to attempt a final decisive push to the Germans to wrest Cassino from him. Freyberg opted for the last solution proposed by ordering for 20 March a turnover of fresh troops to replace the exhausted New Zealand division and the Indians to close the Germans in the mountains. Even this time, however, there were no significant successes for the allies despite the fighting being very hard. It became so obvious that the German paratroopers had also won the third battle for Cassino. There was nothing left for either side to do but consolidate their earned or defended positions at a high price, and withdraw the most proven units from the fighting for a well-deserved rest.

by Manuele Serventi Merlo and Federico Massa

(photo: web)