Cassino ’44: Gateway to Rome
Historical Overview
By David Murray
May 2012

The very picture of a strategic hilltop. Cassino Abbey, with the town below.

In 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 it.

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.


Texas National Guardsmen paddle forward across the Rapido in the face of German machine gun fire.

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 succeed.

The First Battle of Cassino

Troops of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division await the American attack.

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.

Don't miss out! Order Cassino '44: Gateway to Rome