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Cassino: The First Round
Part 4 of 6
By David H. Lippman
December 2012

As the U.S. 34th Division crossed wire, minefields and the Rapido River, the French Expeditionary Corps prepared its second attack. When General Alphonse Juin briefed Gen. Joseph de Monsabert on the plan, the 3rd Algerian Division’s commander blurted out, “Storm Belvedere? Who’s dreamed up that one? Have they even looked at it? You’d first have to cross two rivers, the Rapido and the Secco, then smash through the Gustav Line in the valley, and finally, all the time attacking the Boche, climb more than 2,000 feet over a bare rock-pile, itself heavily fortified, that can be fired on from … Cifalco and the rest of the summits round about. It’s pure wishful thinking! A crazy gamble, mon general!”

Juin didn’t like the plan, either. He was being expected to hit one of the least accessible parts of the Gustav Line. The defenses included the 1,669-meter-high Monte Cairo, higher than the Monastery, and the 800-meter-high Colle Belvedere, all under German artillery observation from Monte Cifalco, a 947-foot pinnacle. The German commander Senger himself went there to call down German gunfire. The supply route was a single mountain road under German fire. And Juin had only two days to prepare his attack. Juin wanted to take Monte Cifalco, and sweep across the mountains, taking the Gustav Line and the Cassino Massif from behind. Instead, he was ordered into a frontal assault on the Massif.

Nevertheless, Juin was determined to succeed. He had to demonstrate the French Expeditionary Corps’ loyalty to the Allied cause. “It is a matter of honor,” he told Monsabert. That was all that Monsabert needed.

The 3rd Algerian’s Tunisian regiments were tapped to lead the attack. Lacking mules, the Tirailleurs hiked for eight hours through the mountains carrying their supplies to the forward positions. Each man stolidly followed a white patch tied to the pack of the man in front of him. Sgt. Rene Martin of the 4th Tunisian Regiment’s 3rd Battalion, led his mortar section across the Secco River, and everybody was soaked through before they could attack. “Everyone marched like drugged men,” a French historian wrote, “their backs bowed, knees stiff, thighs seized up with cramp. Would this Calvary never end?” Men had to wade across the ice-cold Rapido, up to their armpits.

Martin was a veteran who had fought the Germans in Tunisia, but this was different. “When we looked up and saw what we had to do, we said that it was impossible. Everyone thought it was madness.”

The 3rd Battalion’s commanding officer, Commandant Gandoët, was calmer. “The battalion is . . . ready. Ready to lead a bayonet charge, to be killed on the mountainside, to deal the enemy all sorts of blows,” he wrote in his diary. The 3rd/4th Tunisian was assigned to capture Hill 470 and then push on to take the high ground, Point 862, on the northern end of the Belvedere/Abate escarpment. The axis of attack would be “Gandoet Ravine,” which would give the Tunisians cover from shellfire and the advantage of surprise.

The 2nd/4th Tunisian, under Commandant Berne, was to grab the southern end of Colle Belvedere and hit Colle Abate. The 1st/4th Tunisian was the regimental reserve for exploitation.

Juin in 1944.
Juin in Italy, 1944.

The French attacked at 7 a.m. on January 25th. They found the defending Germans as ferocious as ever. The French stormed their way through to the summit of 470 against massive counterattacks.

Capt. Denee, commanding 3rd/4th Tunisian’s 9th Company, was wounded in the chest. He crawled to his radio operator and whispered into the mike and to Gandoët: “Denee here … I’m wounded … about to take the objective … I’m handing over command to Lt. El Hadi. Terribly difficult. Don’t worry, the 9th will make it … they’ll make it … to the bitter end.”

El Hadi, a Tunisian, leaped to his feet and led his men up the crest. “Half the company were casualties,” French historian R. Chambe wrote, “but those Tirailleurs who had not been hit became like men possessed. They had reached the stage where fear has vanished, where you are anesthetized by the excess of danger, and have but one single aim, to hurt, hurt, and hurt again because you have seen too many comrades fall and hear too many screams, or have been grazed by too many bullets, lacerated too often by exploding shells that should have killed you. You were invulnerable, by God!”

Point 862

The 9th Company reached the top, were thrown back by a counter-attack, and attacked again. El Hadi had his forearm sliced off by a shell. But he fought on, dragging his arm behind him, the men following, until he was hit by a machine-gun bullet, atop Point 470.

“He shouts to the Tirailleur Barelli who is just next to him, ‘You, send up a flare,’” read Chambe’s account. “Then he collapsed and crying up to the heavens, ‘Vive la France,’ he died on the conquered peak.” It was 10:30 a.m.

With 470 taken, Gandoet pressed the attack. The 3rd/4th Tunisians found “Ravin Gandoët” to be a steeply sloped gorge, blocked by rocky slabs, 2,500 feet high — three times the height of the Eiffel Tower. The Tunisians climbed the mountain walls with their hands, feet, and teeth. They came under German machine-gun fire, so the Tunisians knocked out the Germans positions with hand grenades. German shellfire commenced at 4 p.m., but still the Tunisians climbed the gorge, freezing, exhausted, thirsty, drenched in sweat. Men nearly blacked out from exhaustion.

After the eight-hour climb the Tunisians reached their objective, Point 681, atop Colle Belvedere. It turned out to be lightly defended — the Germans didn’t think anybody could climb the gorge — and the Tunisians made short work of the Germans, sweeping forward and killing most of the defenders, setting the rest to flight. At dusk, exhausted, hungry, thirsty, and out of communication with their regiment, the Tunisians dug in atop their objective.

The 2nd/4th Tunisians drove south of Colle Belvedere to Point 700, and more Tunisians reinforced the weary men atop Belvedere, then pressed on to Point 862, which they called “Le Piton sans Nom.” Without rest, under heavy fire, the Tunisians climbed the mountains all night, finally securing “Le Piton sans Nom” at 2 a.m.

The French had taken their objectives, but were exhausted from the ordeal. Captain Carre, who commanded 1st Company of the 1st/4th Tunisians, wrote, “Night black, visibility zero, we trample over corpses; they’re ours, one with no head, his guts spilling out.” Colonel Roux, commanding the regiment, asked Monsabert for a 24-hour delay on resuming the attack, but was told it was “out of the question.” The Germans were reinforcing. If the French delayed, the Germans would strengthen their defenses. “Prepare to attack 862 and 915 without delay,” Monsabert said. Monsabert later added to the transcript of the radio message, “Cruel necessity.”

Now the Germans were truly worried for the first time by the repeated Allied offensives. If the Allies were having supply problems with the mountains, the German situation was worse, exacerbated by Anglo-American air interdiction of roads and railways. But the standard German riposte to an enemy attack was a counterattack, and Senger hurled his Austrian troops against the Frenchmen, driving them back to the Secco River.

Sgt. Rene Martin was just finishing setting up a position for his mortars when a warrant officer suddenly shouted, “Get out, get out, get out.” An entire German regiment was advancing. Martin and his mortarmen retreated, and Gandoët’s troops atop Belvedere found themselves being shot at from all sides. For five days, Martin and one of his sergeants lay in a German foxhole, without water or food, under shellfire. Martin held a tin of peas against his lips to ease the chapping.

On Colle Belvedere, 11th Company of 3rd/4th Tunisians hung on all day, out of radio contact for most of it. The only orders they got: hold at all costs. The Germans hurled mortar rounds at the Frenchmen. “We are organizing the position,” the company’s war diary read. “Nobody sleeps. No water. Little to eat. The ration boxes were thrown away during the climb because they were too heavy. We must hang on . . . we stay where we are.”

That evening, the French reinforced the 1st/3rd Algerians to plug the Secco Valley, while the 3rd/7th Algerians to take over Point 700. Roux decided to hold off on the attack until the reserves had arrived. The Frenchmen climbed up the escarpments with grim fatalism, one telling Jordy later, “No one will ever know what we have done. No one will ever have a glimmering … these things, you see, they can’t be described. They will disappear with us. The Frenchmen back home will know nothing about it … ever.”

At dawn on the 27th, Gandoët’s battalion started out of its ravine, across the Secco, and up the escarpments, under heavy German shelling. The men hauled up machine-guns, mortars, shells, radios, on their backs, under heavy fire, to reinforce the exhausted 11th Company up on the high ground. They finally reached Jordy’s company at 2 p.m.

The 2nd and 3rd/4th Tunisians were ordered to attack at 4:30, with Gandoët’s men to hit Point 862, while Berne’s 2nd Battalion attacked Point 915. Both battalions set off on time and into a hurricane of fire. Berne was knocked unconscious by a German shell, and his battalion struggled. Capt. Leoni took over, but could make no progress. Roux was determined, and the 5th and 6th Companies attacked again at 9 p.m. With only a handful of men left, they took Colle Abate at 2:30 a.m. “The greatest satisfaction of my career is to be able to tell myself that I have seen under fire the company officers, the French NCOs and the best Tunisian soldiers and have known them for what they were, troops with the will to conquer. And my great pride is to have had the honor to lead such men,” Berne wrote later.

Gandoët’s men also took a beating. “Terrifying mortar and artillery barrages ever since dawn … we are open to machine gun fire from all sides. Small groups are probing forwards, we push them back but each repulse makes us anxious about our dwindling ammunition,” the battalion diary noted.

After five days of bombardment, the French gunners had the range on the ravines and clefts of Belvedere, and the Germans were short of ammunition and men. The French pulverized Point 862 with artillery, and the infantry attacked in the evening. At 7 p.m., Gandoet ordered his men to fix bayonets and storm the crest. The Tunisians charged with gusto and took the pinnacle, holding it against determined counterattacks.

'Night Will Bring No Rest'

On the 26th, Colle Abate finally fell, but the French were running out of men and steam. The French had gone in against two battalions of the 44th Division’s 131st Regiment and another battalion from the 71st Division’s 191st Regiment. Senger had brought in the third battalion of the 131st, a second from the 191st, and the entire 134th Infantry Regiment as well. Senger also rounded up some pioneers, two reconnaissance squadrons, and even a Luftwaffe airfield security company, to hold the slopes. Senger was told bluntly: Despite heavy casualties, there could be no withdrawal from Cassino.

On the 27th, Senger counterattacked, hurling his 2nd/191st at Colle Abate and the 1st and 3rd/134th at Point 700 and the Secco Valley. By 11 a.m., 2nd/4th Tunisians were almost surrounded on Point 915 and forced to fall back. Berne’s battalion had been almost completely destroyed, Capt. Leoni killed while directing machine-gun fire with his swagger stick.

Gandoët’s men held on a little longer, but were dwindling fast. A runner’s message read, “Noon. Situation very serious. Massive counterattacks everywhere. Enemy infiltration. We need an extra battalion. There is no 2nd Battalion.” Half an hour later, Gandoet pulled his 3rd/4th Tunisians off of Colle Abate. He wrote in the war diary, “It was not possible with the numbers we had, without food and above all without ammunition, to hold 862 and after the virtually complete destruction of the 2nd Battalion.”

Up on Point 862, Jordy and his men fought back enemy probes and attacks with grenades. “The position cannot be held,” the company’s diary recorded. “The enemy artillery fire is terrifying. Each salvo of shells strikes down two or three men. Pressure on the position is mounting by the minute … We are resisting stubbornly … Most of the machine gunners have been wounded by bullets or killed by shells because they stayed by their weapons during the bombardments … Nevertheless the morale of those who are left is still firm. We have reached a stage where fatigue can be shrugged off and, having neither eaten nor drunk since the 25th, we live on our overexcited nerves.”

The French pulled off Colle Abate at 12:30 p.m., and the Germans charged after them, seeking to regain Colle Belvedere.

Tirailleurs on the march.
At the battle for Colle Belvedere.

The French situation got worse. At Point 861, Captain Belsuze reported, “The rain of mortar shells is hard to credit. Dead and wounded everywhere. Impossible to evacuate them. One can’t lift one’s head. Frightful pounding. The Boche are sneaking in on all sides … The men are drained. Nothing to eat or drink since they left. No more ammunition. Heavy casualties. The 11th Company has no more than 35 men left out of 185 … the night will bring no rest. The enemy is 200 yards away on our left and holds the peaks 400 yards in front of us. The men are collapsing with fatigue. The human mechanism has its limits.”

All afternoon, German shells rained down on the French positions, and the thin lines. The 1st/4th Tunisians moved in to support the defense, and they took a beating. Battalion Commander Col. Bacque wrote in his diary, “A shell burst on a skylight which had been blocked up with stones … one of the two radio-operators, the one who turned the crank to work the dynamo, had the top of his skull ripped off, his brains are completely exposed. He still sits in the same seat … The lack of fresh supplies, both food and ammunition, is more and more critical.”

Captain Belsuze, with 11th Company, wrote in his official notes: “60 percent of our strength have been killed or wounded … We will have to be relieved, the battalion can do no more; or at least a sizeable reinforcement and fresh supplies of food and ammunition … we remain at our posts by the Grace of God. The mass of shells poured down on us, terrifying though they are, are gradually turning us into fatalists. Will it be this one, or the next? God only knows!” That was the last entry in Belsuze’s diary. A few minutes later, machine-gun fire hit him in the chest. The 11th Company was virtually annihilated.

Captain Jean took over the remains of 10th and 11th Companies, and shouted into the radio to battalion, “Above all, do not worry! I will hang on!” Then he ordered a bayonet charge to drive the Germans back. It worked. But Jean took 11 hits from mortar shells, and died as he was brought to the aid station.

Gandoet’s men lacked food, ammunition, and water. A convoy of 16 mules sent with all three was blasted by the Germans. The French hung on into the night of the 28th. “No food,” groaned the war diary, “Since the 25th, no food … The men were spent. They were hungry, they were cold … The night was a tragedy.”

But the battalion hung on, with the supporting French guns firing until barrels glowed hot, the shells falling nearly on top of French positions, breaking up attacks. “Thanks to incredible precision,” the war diary said, “thanks to the rapidity of their fire, the battalion was able to hang on without using up the few munitions that it would need tomorrow.”

'The Glorious Survivors'

On the morning of the 29th, incredibly, Roux ordered the 1st and 3rd/4th Tunisians to recapture Colle Abate. It seemed an impossible order, but the Algerian forces backing up Roux had secured the Tunisians’ rear, and the 7th Algerians were to attack Point 700 and take over from Bacque’s battalion. With reinforcements and supplies in hand, Roux went over to the offensive.

At 7 a.m. on the 29th, the French attacked. 3rd/7th Algerians grabbed Point 700 in half an hour, but the Germans drove them off at 11 a.m. Bacque’s battalion could not reach Point 771, and were driven back to their start line. Gandoët’s men, incredibly, made great progress against the depleted German defenders, and once again took Point 862. “Enthusiasm reached a peak,” Gandoet wrote. “Everyone was as if in a trance. Victory was in the air. Bayonets fixed, the Tirailleurs sprang forward like devils to attack their respective objectives. No one could stop them. In three-quarters of an hour, the slopes of 862 were taken.”

But the Germans counterattacked anyway, despite their own parlous numbers. The 1st/134th was down to 36 men, but they counterattacked anyway. German snipers harassed Bacque’s battalion. “We look disgusting,” wrote Capt. Carre. “Plastered with wet mud, hands black. Fingernails, torn, hair everywhere, clothes in rags. Lips cracked, skin filthy. Blood! Blood!”

But now Gandoët’s ammunition shortages were put his battalion at crisis point. “Still no food and ammunition was running out. We had to have ammunition at all costs. The commander demanded it, insisted on it, pleaded for it. He would hold. To eat was nothing but we must have ammunition and some reinforcements.” At 7 p.m., 26 mules finally reached Colle Belvedere’s lower slopes, along with a fresh company from 3rd/3rd Algerians.

Gandoet’s war diary recorded: “We would be able to hold. Every man without an automatic weapon was transformed into a porter. With belts of machine-gun bullets slung round their necks, grenades and cartridges in their groundsheets, tubes of mortar shells on their shoulders, they climbed on all fours, through the barrage, up 718 and 762 to carry the ammunition to their comrades. Several men were killed and rolled down the ravine … they found more flares than grenades. They would have to throw the flares, and a large rock after them … they would hold.”

On the 30th, Bacque’s battalion attacked Point 771 again, and grabbed it momentarily. But the Germans drove the Frenchmen off the pile. Bacque was among the last to retreat. Before he did, according to Chambe, he “planted his walking stick in the ground, like a range-marker, at the side of the abandoned mortars, and said to his adjutant, ‘Come. We’ll be back to look for that tomorrow.’” The 3rd/7th Algerians took over for Bacque’s battalion and attacked on the 31st, and regained Point 771, the abandoned mortars, and Bacque’s walking stick. The 3rd/7th pushed on to take Point 915 by noon on the 31st.

But Gandoët’s men were still clinging to Point 862, long past the end of most men’s endurance. The 11th Company “had reached the limit of human capabilities. Yet still, on all fours, they dragged the ammunition up to Point 862.”

Gandoët was near despair. “We had to hang on everywhere for yet another night. Every man had done far more than should be asked of him. The night would be terrible. The commander was afraid that his men would collapse with fatigue. All night he spoke with them, going from group to group. Luckily the artillery was on hand … a miracle … we held,” he wrote.

By now the Germans simply lacked the troops for another counterattack. On February 13, 4th Tunisian was relieved by 3rd Algerian, and Gandoët’s survivors were pulled out, with only 30 percent of the assault companies’ men left. Gandoët himself was wounded on the way down by a flurry of chance shells that also killed Jordy. Out of Martin’s outfit of 38 men, only seven shuffled down the hills, to a warm greeting from Juin.

The scarred World War I veteran wrote, “Our hearts were overflowing with pity and pride. We saw them coming back, haggard, unshaven, their uniforms in rags and soaked with mud, the glorious survivors of the regiment.”

The 168th Arrives

Juin was proud but angry. The French troops had taken the high ground, and with reinforcement, he believed, could sweep the defending Germans off the Cassino heights and drive into the Liri Valley. If there were no Allied reserves, why hadn’t the 34th Division gone in at the same time, to draw off German reserves? Juin wrote to Clark on the 29th, “The 3rd Algerian Division has carried out, at an unbelievable cost and with severe losses, the mission you have entrusted to them … I have absolutely no reserves to supply and offensive efforts. Also, on its left, the 34th U.S. Division hasn’t yet set foot on the heights southwest of Caira and the current situation for the 3rd Algerian Division is extremely hazardous.” Unless the 34th got moving, Juin would have to pull his exhausted and exposed men off the Belvedere Massif, giving up the hard-won ground.

The letter landed “like a bombshell” at Fifth Army headquarters, but on the 29th, the 168th Regiment attacked in force across the Rapido, trying to take the high ground in front of Caira, Points 56 and 213, which were connected by a ridge. It took all morning to get the tanks across the Rapido and support the infantry, pinned down by minefields, machine guns, and barbed wire. By afternoon, a dozen of the 50 promised tanks arrived, the rest blasted open or bogged down in mud.

The surviving tanks clanked through the minefields, blasting through the anti-personnel mines with no damage to themselves, creating lanes through which the infantrymen could move. The German machine-gunners abandoned their positions in the face of the American tanks, and retreated.

With the tank support, the 168th grabbed its objectives by dusk, and began consolidating. The 168th’s men found the German concrete bunkers were huge — accommodating up to 30 men in bunks, with plenty of food, ammunition, and even heating.

Bolstered by German concrete and ration packs, the 168th held off German counterattacks and captured the village of Caira. The German and American troops were so close to each other, they could hear each other talking. An American officer returning from hospital to the front with 30 replacements took a wrong turn and straight into German lines. All 31 men went “in the bag.”

Continued in Part 5.

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