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Cassino: The First Round
Part 3 of 6
By David H. Lippman
December 2012

In the disastrous battle for the Rapido River the U.S. 36th Division suffered more than 430 killed, 600 wounded, and 875 missing. Most of the missing were presumed killed or captured. One company commander reported that out of 184 men in his outfit, only 17 were left. “My fine division is wrecked,” Maj. General Fred Walker wrote.

The 15th Panzer Grenadiers took “negligible losses,” the modest Maj. Gen. Eberhard Rodt reported to Lt. Gen. Frido von Senger und Etterlin laconically, adding that his division had “prevented enemy troops from crossing the river at S. Angelo.” Actually, Rodt lost 64 killed and 179 wounded.

The victorious Germans didn’t realize how big their victory was until the battle ended and the smoke cleared. Rodt reported the attack as a “reconnaissance in force.” But when they found the heaps of corpses and equipment, Rodt was astonished. His troops found that the Americans had taken carrier pigeons with them to send messages, and they were still alive, in their cages.

The Germans sent one back with a taunting message, “You poor nightwatchmen, here is your pigeon No. 2 back so that you won’t starve. What do you plan in front of Cassino, with your tin can armor?” Further insults followed. The message was signed, “The German Troops.” The men of the 36th were too exhausted to care.

“January 22 will long stand out in my memory, as definitely as December 25 or July 4,” wrote Walker in his diary the nest day. “Yesterday two regiments of this Division were wrecked on the west bank of the Rapido.”

Walker also wrote, “The great losses of fine young men during the attempts to cross the Rapido River to no purpose and in violation of good infantry tactics are very depressing. All chargeable to the stupidity of the higher command.”

Three days later, the Americans asked their German opponents for a truce to collect their dead and wounded. The Germans agreed and carried bodies down to the riverbank, so the Americans could not spot their positions. The 3rd/143rd drew the assignment, and Lt. Harold Bond was among those sent to perform the grim task, where he found German and American troops stacked up 80 bodies, side by side. Many had been decapitated. One German soldier, who spoke English, bummed a cigarette off of Cpl. Zeb Sunday, and revealed that he had a brother in Brooklyn.

The post-mortems continued. The attack was badly prepared — four battalions carrying heavy assault boats across boggy terrain to attack an entrenched and alerted enemy. The top generals had relied on maps, not personal inspection of terrain, to plan the attack. There was not even a plan for tactical air support. New Zealand Brigadier Howard Kippenberger, a veteran of Crete and North Africa who would soon face his own Calvary at Cassino, said bluntly, after reading the 36th’s operations orders, “Almost everything that should have been done had not been done and few things that should have been done had been attended to. Nothing was right except the courage.”

Edwin Glantz' purple heart.
One of many: Pvt. Edwin Glantz, 36th Division, killed on the Rapido.

The men of the 36th were furious over their sacrifice, as was the American press. American newspapers called the Rapido the worst disaster since Pearl Harbor. Soon field grade officers started pointing fingers. Clark blamed Walker and the division’s will to fight. Clark fired Martin, Wilbur, Walker’s own aide, and the division’s chief of operations. Clark also fired two of Walker’s aides, which hurt the division commander deeply — they were his sons.

‘Give Up, Tommy’

Meanwhile, with two divisions over the Garigliano, 10th Corps kept moving against Gen. Bernard Steinmetz’s German 94th Infantry Division. Steinmetz sent in everything he had to hold the line, even clerks and drivers. His corps commander, Senger, visited the 94th and saw that the division was in trouble. He requested reinforcements from Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the supreme German commander in Italy, and Kesselring scraped up three battalions of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division, the 134th Infantry Regiment of the 44th Austrian “Hoch und Deutschmeister” Division, and the 2nd Hermann Goering Panzer Grenadier Regiment, and three reconnaissance battalions.

Most importantly, Kesselring assigned his Army Group Reserve, the 29th and 90th Panzer Grenadier Divisions, both well equipped with assault and anti-tank guns. Unfortunately, the 29th would have to attack alone. The 90th was out of gas and under air attack.

The 29th hit the British 56th and 5th Divisions on January 21, just as the British attack was wrapping up. The Germans stopped the British cold. The British were weary and short of men. Pvt. S.C. Brooks of the 6th Cheshires saw that his platoon was made up of replacements with nine months service. Engineer Matthew Salmon, working on a ferry, saw that his passengers were edgy, saying, “How much longer are we going to be here? It’s about time we were bloody relieved.”

The next morning, the 22nd, the Anzio assault went in. The Anglo-American 6th Corps enjoyed complete surprise, but the Germans reacted with their usual speed, rounding up a variety of units to contain the assault. None of them came from the Garigliano and Rapido battles. The 5th Army’s river assaults had failed in their primary purpose, to draw off the German defenders.

The next six days saw hard fighting along the Garigliano River. The British launched attacks with ample determination against equally determined counterattacks. 5th Division’s 15th Brigade pushed through an attack, to find the Germans charging back, shouting, “Give up, Tommy, you are surrounded.”

On the evening of January 23, Pvt. George Mitchell of the 1st London Scottish charged alone up a hill on Damiano Ridge under heavy machine-gun fire, jumped into the German weapon pit, bayoneted one member of the crew and shot the other. He continued the attack but was held up again by an entrenched German section. Mitchell attacked this position, “firing his rifle from his hip, completely oblivious of the bullets which were sweeping the area. The remainder of the section, inspired by his example, followed him and arrived in time to complete the capture of the position, in which six Germans were killed and 12 made prisoner,” according to his citation.

Mitchell led his section by example in further attacks, taking Germans POW, but one of them, having surrendered, picked up a rifle, and shot Mitchell dead. He received a posthumous Victoria Cross.

The citation finished, “Throughout this operation Private Mitchell displayed courage and devotion to duty of the very highest order. His complete disregard of the enemy fire, the fearless way in which he continually exposed himself and his refusal to accept defeat so inspired his comrades that together they succeeded in overcoming and defeating an enemy who was both superior in numbers and helped by all the advantages of the ground.” Mitchell was buried in Minturno War Cemetery alongside 2,048 other Commonwealth casualties.

Milligan’s War

Another British casualty of the battle was Lance Cpl. Spike Milligan, but his fate was different. “God made gentle people as well as strong ones,” Milligan wrote. “Alas for the war effort, I was a gentle one.”

When the battle started on January 17, Milligan’s battery opened up on German positions, and the Germans hit back. A shell on the 18th left four dead and six wounded, the hardest damage Milligan’s outfit had taken since being formed up in 1940. That afternoon, the Luftwaffe turned up and treated Milligan and his pals to a dose of dive-bombing and strafing, pounding the battery’s forward observation posts. Volunteers were needed to replace the dead and wound men in the posts. Milligan volunteered. On the 19th, he rode by jeep north up to the Garigliano past fleets of ambulances heading south, loaded with wounded men. Tired from two nights of shelling and stomach ailments, Milligan shuffled across a ferry bridge to the far shore, beneath Monte Damiano’s brooding pile, reaching the battery’s Tac HQ at about 4 p.m.

“All around are dead Jerries,” Milligan wrote in his diary. “MG bullets are whistling overhead as we duck and run inside.” He was assigned to man the radio and stayed there for the next 17 hours. By dawn, he was bleeding from his illness and utterly exhausted. But at 9 a.m., he was assigned to carry 50-pound batteries and a radio to the observation post up above. While heading up the mountain, he and his pals came under German mortar fire.

“Crump! Crump! Crump! Mortars! We hit the deck,” Milligan wrote. “A rain of them fall around us. I cling to the ground.” Then Milligan heard a high-pitched whistle, and he blacked out, seeing red. “I am strangely dazed. I was on my front, now I’m on my back. . . . I know if we stay here we’ll all die.”

Wounded and shocked, he trotted down the hill. The next thing he knew, he was facing his C.O., shaking and crying while the major yelled: “Why did you come back?”

“He is shouting at me and threatening me. . . . Next I am in an ambulance and shaking, an orderly puts a blanket round my shoulders,” Milligan wrote.

He had suffered a leg wound, and was sent to a forward dressing station and given tranquilizers. Then he went by ambulance to a casualty clearing station, labeled with “battle fatigue.” Doped up, Milligan was sent back to his unit three days later, where his C.O. took away his corporal’s stripe due to his “unreliable conduct.”

Milligan spent the next week crying, stammering, and in distress over the continued noise of battle, and he was finally evacuated to No. 2 General Hospital in Caserta, where he recovered enough to volunteer to work, and was assigned as a clerk at a rehabilitation unit. Milligan’s war was over, but he turned his personal misery into comedy, becoming one of the founders of the BBC’s legendary “Goon Show” in the 1950s. His wartime diaries and misadventures became best-sellers and the movie “Hitler — My Part in his Downfall.”

Spike Milligan.
Spike Milligan, left, with a fan.

Guards and Pioneers

With the 5th Division’s attack running out of steam, the British sent in the crack 201st Guards Brigade against 90th Panzer Grenadiers, and Guardsmen and grenadiers traded verbal insults amid the vicious fighting. The 3rd Coldstream Guards set up its Tac HQ in a barn full of flies and fleas, and found its mess-plates covered with them.

The fighting raged on for the hills and mountains, with the Green Howards reaching Minturno, and Point 201 changing hands four times before the British took it for good. The 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers tried to take Monte Natale, and found it “very slow going over thick, rough country pitted with numerous ditches and darkness was falling before the objective was reached. . . . The C.O., who was himself personally controlling the advance, was fatally wounded.” Monte Natale would not be taken until the 29th, when two battalions of 17th Brigade would take the crest. By then, 5th Division was completely shot out.

The 56th Division wasn’t doing better. By the 20th, all of its brigades were committed, and two were tired and low in strength. Troops could only move by night. On the 24th, McCreery had to admit that: “the enemy remains firm . . . 56 Division troops have now been fighting for seven days and are tired. No further advance can be expected on the Corps front for some days unless the enemy withdraws.” Two companies were down to three officers and 37 men between them.

McCreery sent in 43rd Royal Marine Commando and 9th Army Commando Battalions to make progress up Monte Ornito, and the tough men in the green berets gained ground. But there were not enough reserves to exploit the success.

But the British put up with the situation with their usual stoic humor. Capt. Grazebrooke of 6th Grenadier Guards wrote after defeating a German counterattack near Trimonsuoli on January 29: “We managed to keep them off as it is very boring to have to take a thing like that twice.”

But the overall picture was slow going. The supply situation was a mess. The 10th Royal Berkshires went in without blankets or greatcoats, and the trails were impassible to mules. Porters had to bring everything up. Pvt. George Pringle of the 175th Pioneer Regiment took supplies from pioneer mule transport companies and carried packs on his back weighing up to 50 lbs. The pioneers struggled up narrow trails.

Pringle recalled later, “Each time a loose rock was dislodged and fell noisily to the valley below we froze in our tracks as enemy or our own forces fired an inquisitive flare into the sky. No one spoke or sneezed or even breathed too loudly, terrified in case we gave our position away. Finally we would reach our infantry and hand over the supplies, which were always welcomed.” Then the pioneers would act as stretcher-bearers, four men to a stretcher, hauling them down in the dark, the wounded men suffering more pain on the difficult descent.

Short of mules, 10th Corps put David Cormack, son of a veterinarian, in charge of 40 mules and 60 Italian cavalrymen with mule experience. Loaded down with .303-caliber bullets and three-inch mortar bombs, the muleteers managed to follow white-taped paths through minefields and up and down mountains on 12-hour round-trip journeys.

Another company of the 1st London Irish, surrounded for a while, reported that “the food problem was not acute but the water supply was low. . . . Latrine arrangements were not all that might be desirable, but necessity knows no law. The men behaved splendidly and the day proved an exciting one.”

On January 23, 1st London Scottish and 10th Royal Berkshires made a failed attack on Monte Damiano. The British sent up medics under Red Cross flags to recover the wounded. To the Britons’ surprise, a German officer appeared atop the ridge and said in English, “Gentlemen, will you please stop firing while we bring in our wounded?” A ceasefire lasted long enough to bring the wounded men down on both sides.

‘A Beached Whale’

On January 29, 10th Corps made one more attempt to take Monte Damiano, with the 2nd and 1st/4th Hampshires leading off, having recovered from their failed Garigliano crossing. The 2nd Hampshires’ diary said it all: “Attack unsuccessful owing to unexpected nature of ground and excessive use of grenades by the enemy.” The follow-up attack was called off. Everywhere the British tried to attack, they found ferocious German resistance.

McCreery decided to hit the Germans across the mountains by infiltrating from behind. The German defenders of Castelforte were extremely surprised, but the British troops struggled atop windswept mountain tops, some 2,000 feet high, under heavy shelling.

The Germans were suffering, too, though. A Landser of the 276th Regiment, on Monte Damiano, wrote of seeing 20 German dead and why: “The Tommies creep stealthily around. Their snipers shoot only too well. Again and again head wounds. The mortars fire and the whistle and explosion of shells go on, day and night. Sometimes, for a moment or two only, there is peace, and then I think of home. Sunlight by day, the night spent on cold stones.”

Another German wrote in his diary on January 22, “I am done. The artillery fire is driving me crazy. I am frightened as never before . . . cold . . . during the night one cannot leave one’s hole.”

German troops who were taken POW told their British interrogators — often Jews who spoke Yiddish or German — that: “To one of our shells you send 10 or 20 to our side.”

On February 10, McCreery faced facts. His men had taken Minturno and gained a few bridgeheads across the Garigliano, but had not driven the Germans off the pinnacles. The corps went over to “active defense,” and counted the dead and wounded. Nobody was sure about German losses, but the British had taken a beating. The 2nd/6th Queens had lost 138 men, 28.6 percent of its strength. 7th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Infantry lost 188 men, 37.8 percent of its strength.

But Clark and Fifth Army still weren’t finished along the Garigliano and Rapido Rivers. Despite fatigue, wintry weather, flooded terrain, high mountains, and higher casualties, Clark had to continue the offensive. Kesselring had contained the Anzio lunge and sealed off the abscess. Seventy thousand British and American troops and 356 tanks were trapped there, on the defensive. Churchill, who had pushed for the operation, was enraged. He had hoped “we were hurling a wildcat on the shore, but all we got was a beached whale.”

With the Germans hammering at the Anzio bridgehead, 5th Army now had to charge to its rescue as soon as possible. Clark could not wait for spring and dry weather. But he was running out of fresh troops. All that was left was the 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division, holding the ground between the battered 36th at Sant’ Angelo and the equally worn-down French Corps on the Cassino Massif. The 34th was facing the town of Cassino and the monastery brooding above it. The division’s time had come.

Into the Wire

The 34th was neither fresh nor inexperienced. A National Guard division from Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas, it had slogged its way up through Tunisia and Italy. By late January the division was worn down from vicious battles that gave the division a reputation as a hard-luck outfit.

Clark’s plan was to send the 36th Division’s 168th Regiment along the far side of the Rapido River north of the town in one thrust, and send a second dagger directly across the Cassino Massif, three miles behind the river, and into the Liri Valley. The French Corps, despite fatigue, would attack again, this time on the far right, towards Colle Belvedere, to protect the American right flank.

The Red Bulls’ 133rd Infantry Regiment would be the inner wheel. It would have to take an old wrecked Italian Army barracks two miles north of Cassino, while the 168th drove on a hillock called Point 213, a steppingstone to the higher peaks that led to the monastery.

Under Maj. Gen. Charles W. “Doc” Ryder, the Red Bulls would have to attack across a river less formidable than the 36th faced at Sant’ Angelo, but they would still face soggy ground. More importantly, the Germans created a 300-yard-deep minebelt on the far shore, in front of a flat plain, cut clean of all vegetation, which provided German machine-gun nests, strongpoints, and pillboxes with perfect fields of fire.

Barbed wire obstacles stood six feet in depth. All the surviving buildings had been turned into pillboxes, with self-propelled guns and anti-tank guns poking out from them. And the hill that led to Point 213 was surrounded by 15 yards of barbed wire. A 168th Regiment battalion commander said the German defenses had “enough barbed wire to fence in all the farms in Iowa and Illinois.”

Senger, the literate Rhodes Scholar and lay Benedictine, also had a clear understanding of mountain warfare. He realized that even his tough 5th Mountain Division had little experience with Italy’s ghastly terrain — the Austrians had written letters home saying that rather than stay in Italy they would crawl back to Russia on their hands and knees — and trained and equipped his men well.

Lt. Gen. Frido von Senger und Etterlin, 1944.
Lt. Gen. Frido von Senger und Etterlin, 1944.

Senger taught his men on how to dig into rocky positions with crowbars and explosives instead of spades. Supply teams, who normally used horses — 90 percent of the German army’s transport was horse-drawn — were re-trained in the use of mules. When Senger learned that hot food was cold by the time it got to the front, he ordered field kitchens moved closer to the dugouts, and had the food containers insulated with straw. As it was taking four men to haul down a single wounded buddy on a stretcher, Senger retrained his men so that a single man could lower a wounded man with ropes and haul him on an improvised sled. It was a remarkable adaptability to difficult conditions, and it was a hallmark of the German army throughout the war.

The terrain was a nightmarish obstacle, too. “The ridges, when seen from a distance, look like smooth, bare slopes running up and down,” said the British official history. “At Cassino this appearance concealed the horrible nature of the ground. This was unspeakably rough and broken with minor ridges, knolls and hollows jumbled all together. At one point deep clefts might be the obstacle, at another sheer rock faces or steep slabs, or all three might be found in a few acres. . . . To attacking troops the ground set vile tactical puzzles one after another. This or that knoll or ridge might seem to be promising objectives but would turn out to be commanded from an unlikely direction by another knoll or ridge or by several. A line of approach might look as if it would ‘go’ and would turn out to be blocked by some impassable obstacle. The advantages of the ground lay wholly with the defending troops.”

Digging In

The slopes of Colle Maiola, Monte Castellone, and Monte Cairo rose 450 meters in 1,000 meters and were crisscrossed with wire, mines, felled trees, bunkers, and machine-gun emplacements. Atop the pinnacles of Colle Sant Angelo, Point 444 and Points 593/569, the Germans had built sniper posts and mortar emplacements, all covered with thick logs. The mortars were neatly concealed in gullies.

Nor were the defenders any slouches. This part of the Gustav Line was held by elements of the 71st Infantry, 5th Mountain, and the 44th “Hoch und Deutschmeister” Infantry Division, under Lt. Gen. Dr. Franz Bayer. The original 44th was based on the historic Austrian 4th Infantry Regiment, and been destroyed at Stalingrad. A new 44th was created to replace the old one, and the Austrians were determined to uphold their long traditions. Even so, the Austrians were understrength.

On the evening of January 24, backed by tanks, the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 133rd Regiment attacked the German defenses. With the regiment’s 2nd Battalion still back in North Africa, the 100th Infantry Battalion, made of Japanese-Americans from Hawaii, was committed to this, its first battle.

The 133rd immediately ran into the minefield. The tanks hurled more than 1,000 75mm shells into the high far bank of the river to break it down, but with no success. By midnight the following day, 3rd/133rd was the only battalion across the river, holding a shallow bridgehead. 1st/133rd found its stream unfordable. The 100th Battalion “advanced across the flats under a smoke-screen, some of them carrying ladders for use in scaling the embankments. When they were halfway across, the wind changed, blowing away their cover, and they were stopped by a hail of . . . fire from the hills across the road. Only the company commander, two other officers, and 11 enlisted men reached the east wall. Those of the company who could still move sought cover in irrigation ditches or dug into the mud,” wrote a history of the battalion.

All day the 133rd struggled to cross the river, facing German shellfire from the far shore and angry messages from Ryder behind them. “The General will not accept excuses,” ran one message from 133rd Regiment to the 100th Battalion. Another message: “You got to get up, leadership and control will get them up.” The rhetoric helped: by midnight, all three battalions were across the river.

On the 26th, Ryder sent in troops and tanks to reinforce the bridgehead, but the lead tanks became bogged in the flooded quagmire, blocking the advance for the remaining vehicles. The 100th Battalion’s attacks were repulsed. The 1st/133rd was forced back across their start line. More than 300 casualties were suffered, and the regiment’s morale was dropping fast.

But the attack had to go on. Ryder committed the 168th Regiment, which had been his exploitation reserve.

Early on January 27, the 168th launched its attack, slightly upriver, with a platoon of tanks from the 756th Tank Battalion leading the 1st and 3rd Battalions. Most of the tanks slid into the bogs, but four of them were able to make it to the far shore, followed by infantry.

All four were out of action from anti-tank fire, mines, and artillery by 1 p.m., but they did their job, as the 168th reached the base of Point 213 early on the 28th.

Yet unbelievably, the commander of the lead company decided his position was untenable by daylight, and ordered a withdrawal to the river. “As he did so,” Martin Blumenson wrote in the U.S. Army’s official history, “the withdrawal turned into an uncontrollable rout. The troops fled across the river.” The panic spread and other companies began fleeing. Once the withdrawals were checked, 3rd/168th regrouped and headed 500 yards north to another crossing point, where they went over again, this time advancing a mile toward the village of Caira. This crossing point proved workable.

While the infantry dug in for the night, engineers built “corduroy” roads of logs and tree trunks to enable 756th Battalion and 760th Battalion’s tanks to cross the swampy ground for a new three-battalion attack on the 29th.

Continued in Part 4.

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