’44: Gateway to RomeIn early 1944 the monastery of Monte Cassino stood at the
centre of a substantial German line of fortifications, named
the Gustav Line. The Gustav Line stretched across Italy from
coast to coast incorporating mountainous terrain and the Rapido,
Garilgliano and Sangro Rivers. Hitler had ordered the defenses
to be of "fortress" strength and it consisted of
extensive minefields, barbed wire, camouflaged pillboxes and
complex fire plans designed to repel any attempt to breach
By David Murray
The German army had fought a skillful rearguard action as
the allies slowly advanced up the spine of Italy buying time
for the completion of the Gustav Line. The Allies paid a high
price for every kilometer of Italian soil, as soon as they
got the upper hand in one location the Germans would withdraw
and set up another a few kilometers further on. By January
12th the Allied forces of the US Fifth Army had struggled
up to within a few kilometers of the Gustav Line.
In January the Cassino sector of the Gustav Line was manned
by units of the German 44th Infantry Division, stationed on
the Massif. The 71st Infantry Division's 211th Grenadier Regiment
defended the slopes around the monastery, Castle Hill and
Cassino town. Fifteenth Panzer Grenadier Division's 129th
and 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiments manned the defenses of
the Liri Valley. The Allied forces in the area consisted of
the US II Corps made up of the 36th "Texas" Division
and the 34th "Red Bull" Division.
As the Allied armies prepared to face the Gustav Line’s
formidable defenses the difficulty of breaching this "fortress"
was becoming increasingly evident. The Gustav Line crossed
the Italian mainland at one of its narrowest points; there
were only three routes that the Allies could realistically
advance north along. The route along the Adriatic coast was
very narrow and the British 8th army advance had already been
checked at the town of Ortona. The southern route was also
narrow and did not allow sufficient space for the Allies to
use their advantage of amour and materials. The remaining
route was along Highway 6 through the Liri Valley. The Liri
Valley would allow the Allies to use their numerical advantage
in tanks and transport to their advantage but it was also
where the Gustav Line was its strongest.
In the Liri Valley the Gustav Line crossed the valley at
its narrowest point, barely 10 miles across. Flowing through
the Valley was the Rapido River. Although the Rapido was only
around 30 feet wide it was very fast flowing with steep sides
and in winter it regularly burst its banks, waterlogging the
surrounding farmland. Elevated above the Liri Valley commanding
perfect views for miles around was the Benedictine monastery
of Monte Cassino.
Monte Cassino was reputed to have been founded by Saint Benedict
himself in 529. After being destroyed by an earthquake in 1349
it had been rebuilt with walls up to twenty feet thick and it
resembled a fortress. Directly below the monastery was the small
town of Cassino through which Highway 6 ran.
The Allies aware of the strength of the Gustav Line decided
to undertake an amphibious landing behind it to the north
at the small fishing village of Anzio. In order to ensure
that the landings were successful the US Fifth Army would
attack the Gustav Line and advance up the Liri Valley to draw
German troops way from the proposed landing area.
The French Expeditionary Force attacked to the north of Cassino
through the mountains and the British X Corps attacked to
the south across the Garigliano River. The major assault would
be by the US II Corps across the Rapido around the village
of Sant’ Angelo in the Liri Valley. The French and British
attacks make some initial progress but were soon halted after
meeting strong resistance. The 36th "Texas" Division,
of the US II Corps, attacked across the Rapido on the night
of the 20th January. Scenario 1 represents the efforts
of the 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Texan Division, in their
attempts to cross the Rapido north of Sant’ Angelo.
After two days of fighting the attack of the 36th was called
off. The US attack had been nothing short of a disaster, casualties
were terrible. The complete lack of success of this major
offensive can be summed up by the German reports at the time
who considered it nothing more than a minor spoiling attack.
It was not until the Germans started clearing the area and
discover the number of dead and wounded GI’s that they
realized the attack was intended to have been a major assault.
Scenario 2 represents the final elimination of the
US beachhead across the Rapido on the night of the 22nd January.
Note: The US forces in the first two scenarios
have a lower morale than regular US forces – this reflects
the lack of coordination in the attack, and the general feeling
amongst the troops that the crossing could not conceivably
The First Battle of Cassino
The Anzio landings took place on 22 January. The earlier
attacks by the US Fifth Army on the Gustav Line had not caused
the German commanders to commit many of their reserves and
the Germans quickly contained the beachhead at Anzio. The
pressure was on in the Cassino sector to draw German troops
away from the Anzio beachhead. This time the 34th "Red
Bull" Division was chosen to try and breach the Gustav
Line. On the 24th January they attacked north of Cassino town
towards the abandoned Italian Barracks. Scenario 3
represents the initial attack towards the Barracks by the
133rd Regiment of the 34th ‘Red Bull’ Division.
It took several attempts before the US troops had a secure
bridgehead across the Rapido. Scenario 4 represents
the second attempt of the 133rd to gain the Barracks.
On the 29th of January the whole of the 168th US infantry
Regiment with close support from 756th Tank Battalion was
committed and within a few days Points 56 and 213 along with
the village of Cairo was in US hands. Scenario 5 represents
the successful assault of the 168th Regiment. The
Germans now decided to reinforce the Cassino area with elements
from the 1st Parachute Division and the 90th Panzer Grenadier
Division. On the Massif the American 135th Regiment took over
from the now-exhausted 168th. Colle Maiola was taken and by
3 February Point 771 on Monte Castellone had fallen. Scenario
6 represents the 135th’s attack on Point 771.
The US soldiers on Monte Castellone attempted to push along
the ridge to Colle Sant’ Angelo but were halted by the
German 132nd Grenadier Regiment. On the 7th February the rested
168th regiment was once again called upon to launch a major
offensive, this time towards the monastery itself.
Scenario 7 represents the attack of the 168th across the Massif
towards Mont Cassino. At the same time the 135th
launched an attack towards the Albaneta Farm area to stop
the Germans from launching any flanking attacks on the 168th
as they advanced towards the monastery. As the 135th prepared
to attack, the Germans launched a major counter attack towards
Snakeshead Ridge and it was all the 135th could do just to
hang on to their starting positions. Scenario 8 represents
the counter attack of the German 361st Panzer Grenadiers on
Snakeshead Ridge. Both attacks cancelled each other
out and after an exhausting day of fighting both sides withdrew
almost to their starting positions. Scenario 9 combines
scenarios 7 & 8 together to represent the fighting of
the 7th February.
The Germans were frustrated by not capturing Point 593 on
the 7th of February and on the 10th launched an attack that
eventually seized it from the Americans. Scenario
10 represents the 361st Panzer Grenadiers successful assault
on Point 593. On the 11th of February the US forces
launched their last assault on the Massif; this was pretty
much a carbon copy of the previous attacks and was again unsuccessful.
Scenario 11 represents the last US assault on the
Massif. On the 12th February Major General Ryder,
commander of 34th Division, called off the assault and ordered
his troops to dig in, and so ended the American attempt to
capture Monte Cassino. Both sides had suffered horrendous
casualties: the 34th US infantry Division had lost 49% of
their rifle company personnel (318 killed, 1641 wounded, 392
missing). Accurate figures for German casualties are harder
to ascertain but there was no doubt that the Germans had also
taken considerable casualties.
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