Second and Third Battles of Cassino
By David Murray
After the failure of the U.S. II Corps to capture Monte Cassino, a new Allied formation was formed to take over from it. Designated the II New Zealand Corps, it consisted of the 2nd New Zealand Division, the 4th Indian Division and the 78th British Division.
The Germans also made some changes to their defending formations. On the Massif the 44th Infantry Division, heavily mauled by the U.S. assault, was withdrawn. The 200th Panzer Grenadier Regiment joined its sister regiment the 361st on the Massif. From the 1st Parachute Division, the 1st Regiment and a single battalion from the 3rd Regiment along with a parachute machine gun battalion took up positions around the monastery and lower slopes of the Massif. The 104th and 129th Panzer Grenadier Regiments remained in the Liri Valley and the 211th in Cassino town.
The Indian 4th Division relieved the battered U.S. units on the Massif. The Indian and British troops were amazed at the conditions that the American soldiers had had to endure, and many remarked on the vacant expression of many of the American GIs as they slowly made their way down the mountain to their rest areas.
The Indian forces had been given erroneous information by American staff officers and much of the area they thought they were taking over was now actually in German hands, including Point 593, which was supposed to be the jump off point for the Indian attack on the monastery. Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg, commander of the New Zealand II Corps, was convinced that the Germans were using the monastery for observation and asked for it to be bombed. Both sides had agreed not to occupy the monastery and a military exclusion zone had been established around it. The Allied command eventually agreed to the request. The bombing of the monastery has been a controversial issue ever since. The Allies did leaflet the monastery before the bombing but evidence that the Germans were using the monastery for military purposes is still scant. On February 15, 142 heavy and 114 medium bombers destroyed the monastery; this was followed by an extended artillery barrage. By midafternoon it should have been time for the Indian division to attack but Point 593 was still under German control and it was not until nightfall that a single company attacked towards Point 593 and was hastily repulsed. All the advantage of the bombing raid had been squandered and the German paratroopers quickly moved into the ruined monastery and turned it into a formidable fortress.
In the valley below the New Zealanders planned to attack along the railway line and capture the railway station. Engineers would follow this attack, bridge the Rapido and repair the breaches in the railway embankment deliberately created by the Germans. The embankment could then be used to channel armour across the Rapido and break out into the Liri Valley. The 28th "Maori" Battalion was chosen to lead the assault. The Maoris succeeded in taking the Railway Station but elements of the 361st Panzer Grenadier Regiment denied them the Hummocks. Scenario 12 represents the nighttime Maori attack on the Railway Station defended by the 3rd Battalion of the 361st Panzer Grenadier Regiment. The New Zealand engineers managed to repair all but one large breach in the embankment, and as dawn broke all work by the engineers halted due to accurate German mortar and artillery fire from the Massif. The Maoris had not been able to bring up any heavy weapons or anti-tank guns but were ordered to hang on until nightfall. The New Zealand artillery kept up a smoke screen to protect the Maoris from long range fire from the Massif. The smoke also masked the movement of the Germans troops as they assembled to assault the Railway Station. German attacks intensified all day. By late afternoon the Germans launch a major counterattack, this time supported by tanks, and the Maoris were forced back across the Rapido. Scenario 14 represents the 211th counter attack supported by tanks on the Maoris at the Station.
On 18 February the 7th Indian Brigade was at last ready to launch its delayed attack on the Massif. The 4/6 Rajputana Rifles, with support from 1st Royal Sussex, attacked towards Point 593 and Albaneta Farm. The 1/2 and 1/9 Gurkha Rifles were to capture Points 444 and 445 and the monastery itself. The defending Germans of the 361st Panzer Grenadier Regiment and 1st Parachute Regiment gave little ground and when they were pushed back they quickly regrouped and launched endless counterattacks. By daylight the Indian brigade were back at their start lines with little to show for their efforts but high casualties. Scenario 13 represents 7th Indian Brigade’s attack on the Massif. The failure of the New Zealand Corps to capture the monastery marked the end of the second battle of Cassino. On 16 February the Germans launched a major offensive against the Anzio beachhead. After four days of intense fighting the German attack was repulsed.
The Third Battle of Cassino
By the time of the third battle of Cassino plans were already in place for Operation Diadem, the major offensive that would eventually breach the Gustav Line. However the Allies wanted to keep the pressure on the Germans in the Cassino sector and so the New Zealand II Corps was again asked to launch an attack. The third battle would begin with the destruction of the town of Cassino by a huge bombing raid. The New Zealanders with tank support would follow soon after into Cassino Town. The 4th Indian Division would attack through Point 175 and Castle Hill and on to Monte Cassino. Before the attack could be launched the weather turned and for three weeks it rained preventing the bombers from flying from their air bases. During this time both sides made some changes to the forces in the Cassino area. The 78th British Division arrived and took up positions in the Liri Valley. For the Germans, the rest of the 1st Parachute Division arrived and the 211th Grenadier regiment was withdrawn.
By 15 March the weather had been dry enough for the bombers to take off and all that morning bombs fell reducing the town of Cassino to rubble. The 25th New Zealand Regiment supported by tanks of the 19th Armored Brigade advanced from the Barracks to the northern end of the town. Allied artillery kept the northern end of the town under a barrage until the New Zealanders reached the outskirts. It was expected that little German resistance would be met and what few survivors remained would be disorientated and would quickly succumb to the attacking force. At the start of the bombing 2nd Battalion of 3rd Parachute Division had just over 300 men in the town and five StugIIIG assault guns; after the bombing around 160 men were buried under the rubble and four of the vehicles had been destroyed.
However, the men of the Parachute Division were truly elite troops and quickly they scrabbled from their cellars and bunkers and set about defending the town. The New Zealanders were surprised by the speed at which the Paratroopers recovered and soon the advance slowed. The bombing of the town had been so successful that no roads existed and the cratered landscape made it all but impossible for the New Zealand tanks to enter the town at all. It was not until several hours later that the arrival of engineers allowed any tanks to progress into the shattered town of Cassino. Scenario 15 represents the attack of the New Zealand 25th Battalion and the 19th Armored Regiment against the town of Cassino. Later in the day the 24th and 26th New Zealand battalions were also committed to the town but still progress was extremely slow.
The one highlight of the day was the capture of Castle Hill by a company from 25th Battalion. But even this success was not capitalized on. 1/4th Essex Regiment of 5th Indian Brigade were awaiting a signal to take over the Castle and move onto the Massif itself, however no pre-arranged signal had been agreed upon and it was not until midnight that the Essex finally made it into the Castle. This gave the Germans plenty of time to dig in troops between the Castle and the monastery.
By 17 March the New Zealanders had captured the western side of the town and the Railway Station. The Germans, alarmed by the capture of the Railway Station, launched the dismounted parachute motorcycle battalion to capture it back. The attack of the motorcycle battalion stands out as one of the most inept actions of the whole campaign and very uncharacteristic of the parachute troops. The battalion charged across the open ground, forded the Gari, which in some places was up to their necks, and on leaving the river they were caught in their own mortar barrage. The defending New Zealanders quickly picked off the advancing paratroopers with accurate small arms fire. The paratroopers eventually turned and fled; only 19 soldiers made it back to their own lines. Scenario16 represents the attack of the dismounted paratroop motorcycle company on the Railway Station.
On 19 March the Allied commanders were surprised to discover that elements of the 1/9th Gurkhas who had been missing for several days had in fact made it onto Hangman’s Hill. The Hill was so named because on it stood a support for a cable car that used to run from the Station to the monastery. The remaining support looked like a gallows when viewed from a distance. In the early hours of 19 March elements of the 4/6 Rajputana Rifles attempted to re-supply the Gurkhas on Hangman’s Hill. The Germans were well aware what was happening and launched their own spoiling attack to deny the Gurkhas their much-needed supplies. Scenario 17 represents the attempt by the Rajputanas to supply the Gurkhas. Only a few soldiers made it to the Gurkhas and the Allied commanders decided it was too dangerous to attempt the mission again and the Gurkhas were then re-supplied from the air.
As dawn broke on the 19th the Germans launched a major attack to recapture Castle Hill; some paratroopers even made it to the walls of the Castle and had to be beaten off in desperate hand to hand combat. Once the Allies were alerted intensive mortar fire was called down on the attackers and eventually the Germans called off the attack. Scenario 18 represents the attack of 1st Battalion, 4th Parachute Division on the Castle.
The Allies had planned a major offensive for 19 March, however the events around Castle Hill and the town of Cassino had delayed the projected infantry attack towards the monastery from the town. In support of the attack the Indian engineers had in secret improved sections of a mule track that ran from Cairo village to the monastery so that armour could use it, this was named Cavendish Road. It seems that no one informed the tanks that were preparing to attack that the infantry attack had been delayed and so around mid-day a force of 15 U.S. Shermans, 12 U.S. and five Indian Honeys and three U.S. M7 Priests launched an attack on the Massif. The Germans were amazed to see tanks on the Massif. However they soon regained their composure and quickly knocked out the leading tanks. As other tanks moved off the track to move around the wrecks some lost tracks and became immobilised. Some of the U.S. Shermans tried to attack towards Phantom Ridge but the gradient was too steep. The tanks fired at enemy positions but without supporting infantry they unable to completely eliminate the enemy strongpoints. The tanks continued to advance but fire from Point 593 and Albaneta Farm was too intense and they had to withdraw. Scenario19 represents the Allied tank assault on the Massif.
The 22nd of March saw the last major attack by the New Zealanders at Cassino. The attack in the town supported by tanks achieved little the paratroopers were firmly entrenched as ever in the south-west corner of the town and slopes above. Scenario 20 represents the last attack of the third battle of Cassino by the New Zealanders.
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