Heritage - 27: A Hammer to Crack a Nut, the Allies Assault Monte Cassino
Overture... Initial probes were made to verify a German presence on the hill
Four assaults were needed to break the Gustav Line at and around Monte Cassino very early in 1944. It was a battle to reach through German lines to Rome. If Field Marshall Kesselring could b pushed back, allied generals reasoned, we could be in Rome and the Nazis could be chased north through the Alps into Austria and beyond.
When 1944 began the western half of the Winter Line was held fast by German forces who had a tight grip on the Rapido, Liri and Garigliiano valleys, along with the high ground in the vicinity. These physical features made up the Gustav Line. Dominating the nearby town of Cassino and the western openings.to the Liri and Rapido valleys was the 6th Century Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino. With views across the ground to south and south-east, the abbey - founded in AD 529 by Benedict of Nursia - was a strategic hub. So far it had been left alone by the Germans. However manned positions set into the steep slopes below the abbey's walls allowed them to observe comings and goings.
Accurate artillery bombardments made on Allied forces led commanders to believe the abbey itself was occupied by Axis observers. Casualties mounted. Evidence did not conclude German occupation of the abbey but it was earmarked for bombing. On 15th February, 1944 USAAF B17s, 'Flying Fortresses', went over with 1,400 tons of ordnance. Widespread damage was inflicted on centuries-old buildings and German paratroopers quickly took up positions in the ruins.
Between mid-January and mid-May the abbey ruins and the Gustav Line were assaulted time and again. The last assault involved twenty divisions along a twenty mile wide front. The defenders were driven from their positions at great cost with 55,000 casualties against German losses of around 20,000.
The Allies had landed in September 1943 under the overall command of Sir Harold Alexander, Commander-in-Chief Allied Armies in Italy. Pushing northward on either side of the central north-south range of mountains, the Appennines, Lieutenant General Mark Clark on the west side of the 'boot' and Sir Bernard Montgomery to the east on the Adriatic coast. Clark's US 5th Army found the going hard in the teeth of wet weather, tough terrain and an adept German defence. On the eastern side Montgomery's 8th Army had taken Ortona but the advance ground to a halt when winter blizzards struck at the end of December, 1943. A September march into Rome seemed remotely over-optimistic. The Germans had flooded the Pontine Marshes south of Rome, making progress nigh improbable.
Crescendo... The Push Forward, to break the Gustav Line
Cassino and Monte Cassino became the fulcrum of the Gustav Line, the hardest part of Hitler's Winter Line for the Allies to pass. Apparently Kesselring had ruled out the abbey of Monte Cassino as a forward observation post and informed the Vatican and Allies (through the Neutrals) in December 1943.
Not good enough, however. Allied reconnaissance crews observed German military personnel within the abbey. Although unconfirmed, it is plain that with its destruction the Germans took up defensive positions on the site after the bombing. The ruins would afford better cover for their troops than it would have done untouched.
British X Corps (56th and 5th Divisions) pushed across the Garigliano, with 46th Division following closely. Their success worried General von Senger, commander of the XIV Panzer Corps and 94th Infantry Division. He wondered if he could hold and Kesselring ordered the 29th and 90th Panzer Grenadier Divisions from the Rome area to reinforce. Had X Corps been able to exploit their advantage and break through, the German position may have been made untenable. The Corps did not have the reserves to keep up their momentum but there would have been time to modify the battle plan, or alter plans in order to make a decisive breakthrough in the south before Kesselring's reinforcements could reach their positions. As it was the two German divisions were able to consolidate their position. Insofar as it drew down German reserves the plan succeeded. The three divisions of X Corps took 4,000 casualties during their first engagement.
The central push by US 36th Division began late on January 20th. Uncleared mines and booby traps made their approach to the river hazardous. The complications of an opposed crossing proved planning to have been inadequate. A battalion of the 143rd Regiment managed to cross the Rapido south of Sant' Angelo and two companies of the 141st to the north. Allied armour was unable to cross nevertheless, leaving the men prone to counter-attack by panzers and self-propelled guns of General Eberhard Rodt's 15th Panzer Grenadier division. The southern group was thrown back across the Rapido by the following mid-morning. Major General Keyes commanding II Corps urged Major General Walker of 36th Division to press home the attack forthwith. Again the regiments attacked but lacked momentum against the well-entrenched 15th Pz Grenadiers. Two battalions of the 143rd were put across but lacked armoured support, to be ground down by daylight next day. The 141st also crossed and in spite of lacking armour pushed two-thirds of a mile. Again, with the dawn both battalions suffered. By the evening of the 22nd the regiment had been almost wiped out. Only two score of their number reached Allied lines again. The attack was a dire failure, costing 36th Division 2,100 men within a couple of days.
A new attack went in on January 24th. US II Corps with Major General Ryder's 34th Infantry Division spear-headed the attack and French Colonial troops assaulted on its right across the flooded Rapido valley north of Cassino. They pushed on into the mountains behind, meaning to wheel to the left and attack Monte Cassino from higher ground. The Rapido upriver of Cassino could be forded, but flooding made the push against the German flank awkward. Armour especially was only able to advance on paths surfaced with steel matting. Eight days of bloody battling over waterlogged ground saw 34th Division push General Franck's 44th Infantry Division back to gain a foothold in the mountains.
Monumental Confrontation - after bombing by the Allies German paratroopers occupied the ruins
To the right Moroccan troops gained ground initially against the German 5th Mountain Division led by General Ringel. They took positions on the slopes of their main objective on Monte Cifalco. Forward units of the 3rd Algerian Division had also come around Monte Cifalco to take Monte Belvedere and Colle Abate.
General Juin felt he knew Cassino could be isolated with its German defences but when he asked for reserves to keep up the momentum of his thrust he was turned down flat. The one available reserve regiment from 36th Division was despatched to bolster the 34th. By January 31st the French advance ground to a standstill. Monte Cifalco - in clear view of the French and US flanks - was still held by the Germans. The two Moroccan divisions suffered 2,500 casualties around Monte Belvedere.
US 34th Division - supplemented by 142nd Regiment of 36th Division - was given the task of fighting southward along the hilltops to the intersecting ridge north of Monastery Hill. They were supposed to break through to the Liri Valley to the rear of the Gustav Line positions. The going was very hard, the mountains rocky, boulder-strewn and gouged by ravines and clefts. Digging in was impossible and everywhere was open to fire from the heights around. The ravines were overgrown with gorse. They were also mined with booby traps and hidden barbed wire had been left by the defenders to catch the unwary (the German variety of barbed wire was razor sharp with 'snags' to catch men's skin and clothes). The Germans had readied their defences over three months, using explosives, stockpiled ammunition and stores. A lack of natural shelter exposed the men to wet and extreme cold.
By early February American infantry took a strategic position near Sant' Onofrio within a mile of the abbey. By February 7th a battalion reached Point 445, a round-topped hill just 400 yards below the abbey. An American squad achieved a reconnaissance by the abbey walls. Monks watched US and German.patrols fire on one another. Taking Monte Cassino was prevented by heavy machine gun fire from the slopes below the abbey and for all their struggle 34th Division were unable to take the last redoubts on Hill 593, held by German 2nd Parachute Regiment. This was the most prominent position on the ridge that led to the abbey. .
Largo: less masterful race pushed to the Gothic Line, sorrowful remnants to be mopped up. What happened to the all-singing, triumphant jackbooted heroes?
Following a hapless three day attack on Monastery Hill and the town of Cassino itself the Americans withdrew on 11th February. Two and a half weeks of strenuous fighting had sapped US II Corps. Although 34th Division's feat in the mou ntains - considered one of the finest achievements of WWII so far - they suffered losses of about 80% amongst the infantry battalions, around 2,200 casualties.
General von Senger moved 90th Division from the Garigliano salient north of Cassino at the height of the fighting early in February. He had been so worried at the loss rate, and mustered the full weight of his authority to ask for the Battle of Cassino to be broken off and to withdraw to a new defensive line. This would be north of the Anzio bridgehead. Kesselring turned down the request. No doubt he was aware that the Fuhrer would not think of giving ground, as had happened a year earlier in the war. He certainly would not want to go the way of Von Paulus. When it mattered Von Senger could throw the 71st Division into the battle, leaving the 15th Panzer Grenadiers (whom they were meant to replace) where they were.
There had been times in the battle when with a more imaginative use of reserves, better positions could have resulted in decisive advantages. Historians have suggested that the inability to take advantage of early successes might be down to General Clark's lack of practical experience in the field. It is perhaps more likely he had too much else on his plate, having both the Anzio bridgehead and Cassino to think about.
Whilst General Alexander found it politic to have one commander in charge of both Anzio and Cassino, Kesselring opted to bring about a separate 14th Army under General Eberhard von Mackensen to fight off the Allies at Anzio whilst leaving the Gustav Line under General Heinrich von Vietinghoff's 10th Army.
The withdrawn US units were replaced by the New Zealand Corps (2nd New Zealand Division and 4th Indian Division) from the British 8th Army on the Adriatic side. The New Zealand Corps was led by Lt General Bernard Freyberg (veteran, if you remember, of the Crete campaign, see HERITAGE - 21: 'LIGHTNING STRIKE...' ).
Another three battles (Operations 'Avenger', 'Strangle' and 'Diadem' involved the Indian Division, New Zealanders, British, Free Polish, Free French and French North African Colonial divisions. In the end it was the Poles who rooted out the German paratroopers from the abbey weeks after USAAF B17 bombers left the building in ruins.
In a move that beggared belief General Mark Clark ordered Truscott to switch his line of attack towards Rome. Most witnesses say he had harboured ambitions to be the first Allied general in the Eternal City. Truscott was struck dumb by the decision, believing he should trap the German 10th Army. Kesselring's seven divisions could now make their way unmolested to new positions on the Trasimene Line. They would link up with the 14th Army and then effect a rearguard action to the strong Gothic Line north of Florence.
Taking Cassino cost the Allies highly, with 55,000 casualties in the Monte Cassino campaign. German casualties were estimated at 20,000 fallen and wounded (although a certain amount of propaganda value might have crept into German estimates). Total Allied casualties over the four Cassino battles and the Anzio beachhead with the capture of Rome were over 105,000.
Odds & Ends:
With the great variety of nationalities who served at Monte Cassino the most unlikely was an Iranian bear named Wojtek (pron. 'Voytek'). He was raised by and enlisted into the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps, carrying artillery shells during the campaign (see picture above).
With that let's hear the final trumpet call from a Polish bugler to mark the end of an exhausting.four months:
Finale, trumpet salute to fallen comrades sounded amid the ruins - how different to 1939, with the Panzers rolling toward Warsaw?
*Footnote: It was Winston Churchill who suggested in 1945 that Europe should unite under one banner to avoid repetition -
The European Union - or Common Market as it was in the early days - saw former enemies come together: the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) with France, Germany and Italy as the original six. Expansion saw Britain, then Denmark, Finland, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Sweden join 'the club'. After the years of application to join despite Charles de Gaulle's continued opposition to Britain's access - 'Non!' became his most noted quotation - we were admitted in 1972 (Edward Heath as PM was awarded a sizeable amount of money by the European Commission for getting us in, which he put towards the purchase of his yacht 'Morning Cloud II'). What would Winston have made of the majority's wish to go its own way in the June 23rd Referendum? Could he have renegotiated the conditions of the UK's membership?
© 2015 Alan R Lancaster