Cassino: The First Round
Part 5 of 6
By David H. Lippman
After the bloody advances of the French Expeditionary Corps the battle for Cassino was going well, but it was a tremendous strain on the Red Bulls, the U.S. 34th Infantry Division. More than 1,100 mules and 700 litter bearers were needed. “Fighting was the bitterest met to date; casualties for all causes were high; replacements were slow in arriving and inadequate in number,” Ryder wrote. He intended to continue the attack on the 30th, using his 135th Regiment, since the 133rd was shot out. Keyes was worried, too. Asked to give an estimate of when Cassino would fall, Keyes could not do so.
While the 168th dug in, Senger continued to reinforce his lines. He moved the 211th Regiment of the 71st Infantry Division, another division bearing the identity of an outfit annihilated at Stalingrad, to Cassino town. The 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division’s 361st Panzer Grenadier Regiment, and the division’s colorful commander, Maj. Gen. Ernst Gunther Baade, arrived to take over the defenses on the massif. They were followed by 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Parachute Regiment, from the 1st Parachute Division.
The 90th Division was another outfit that had been rebuilt from a disaster, in this case, North Africa, formed in June 1943 from miscellaneous units in Sardinia. Baade himself had survived the North African campaign. Eccentric in dress, an Anglophile and pre-war international equestrian star, he sometimes wore a kilt over his uniform and carried a bone-handled dagger instead of a pistol. His pistol was suspended in a holster from his neck. Spending most of his time at forward HQs to see the battle and avoid bothersome staff officers, he also carried around a monk’s cowl as a disguise to evade capture.
Against stronger opposition, the 133rd Infantry Regiment attacked the old cavalry barracks, trying to break open the road into the northern end of Cassino. Backed by tanks, the 133rd cleared the barracks on February 1. Then they fought their way along a mountain shelf between the Cassino Massif and the Rapido River, heading for Point 175, which overlooked the northern end of Cassino town. Then the 133rd finally stormed into the market town.
Vicious street fighting ensued. The Germans had turned every building into a strong point, and their artillery spotters had perfect box seats. American tanks found they could not maneuver in the narrow streets, and German positions were well concealed in piles of rubble. The Americans had to rely on their bazookas to blast open holes in buildings. It took 10 bazooka rockets at point-blank range to destroy a strongpoint. The 133rd Regiment’s C.O. said a good bazooka operator was the key to the situation. He had to be “the type that will spit in a rattlesnake’s eye.” The 100th Battalion was pretty good at hurling grenades — which was attributed to the Japanese-Americans’ obsession with baseball.
Maj. Warren Chapman of the 133rd said: “’No Man’s Land’ consisted of about a 10-yard space between two houses. That was ideal for playing catch with grenades.”
The 100th Battalion in training.
For a week, the 133rd battered at the edge of the town, trying to take Castle Hill, a nearly-vertical hill that rose 193 meters over Cassino town, topped by a ruined fort. The 133rd kept trying, but they made no progress in the ravine between Point 175 and the castle.
But while the 133rd struggled in Cassino Town, the 135th fought its way up the Massif from Point 213. Their job was to drive on the French left and seize the monastery and the mountains beyond. The 135th’s first objectives were Colle Maiola and Monte Castellone.
When the 135th attacked on February 1, they moved up in single files in a dense fog, completely concealed from German gunners. As the 135th moved through the mist, they could hear Germans talking. “We were way up above them and got past in the fog. We could never have done it otherwise,” remembered Don Hoagland of the 3rd/135th. By 10 a.m., Colle Maiola and Monte Castellone were in American hands, and Hoagland and his buddies were digging foxholes.
Next day, the Germans counterattacked Castellone, but the rest of 3rd/135th pushed on to the monastery along a ridge that would gain the name “Snakeshead Ridge” for its shape. At the end of Snakeshead Ridge stood Monte Calvary, Point 593 on the chinagraph maps, a steep-sided hill 2,000 yards from the rear entrance to the monastery. Point 593 was topped by a ruined fort, which had a perfect view of the Massif area.
With the 135th advancing, Clark was optimistic. “Present indications are that the Cassino heights will be captured very soon,” he wrote Alexander on February 2.
The Germans seemed to agree. The 14th Panzer Corps’ war diary reported the same day, “The interpolation of the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division has not alleviated the situation.”
Mortars and Sangars
Next day, the 135th, backed by a battalion from the 168th, advanced up from Monte Castellone along Phantom Ridge, parallel to Snakeshead, aiming at Point 706 and Colle Sant’ Angelo (or Point 601) beyond that, to complete the effort to cut off the monastery.
The move on Point 706 went fine, but Baade’s men counterattacked at Colle Maiola against Hoagland and his men, and they had to dig in. Except that they couldn’t. Beneath the soil was solid rock. The men created small hollows and piled stones around them to create “sangars,” a word that comes from the Hindustani word “sunga,” which describes a rock parapet made by moving loose stones into a wall. The British and Indian Armies had picked up the concept and the term from the Northwest Frontier Province and passed them on to the Americans.
Now the Americans built their sangars and found they worked — the German attack was beaten off. Next day, the Americans kept moving up Snakeshead to within 200 yards of Point 593. On the left, the rest of the 135th and 168th Regiments advanced towards Point 445, directly before the monastery. The 34th was advancing on three axes, and nearly at the Liri Valley. One more push, and the monastery and the Gustav Line would be outflanked.
The problem was, the 34th was running out of ability to keep pushing. “There was never a time that we were free of intermittent or heavy mortar fire,” Hoagland recalled. “We took lots of counterattacks up there. You have your men placed expecting that you are going to be hit. It was almost always at night, and they came quietly to get as close as they could. All of a sudden there’s bodies moving out there in front of you. Every night there would be another attack and although we were able to beat them all off, eventually its fatigue that hits you as much as anything.”
All through the war, the Germans showed a remarkable ability to regroup under pressure and reorganize a cohesive defense. They covered all the avenues of approach to the monastery with machine-guns and mortars. But bullets and mortar bombs were not the only enemy the Red Bulls faced on the Cassino Massif.
“It was brutal country to fight in,” Hoagland said, “with cliffs that you could walk into in the dark without realizing they’re there.” On February 4, a snowstorm and freezing rain pounded the Red Bulls, along with mortar fire. “You’d lay down in your shallow hole,” Hoagland said, “and if you had a couple blankets you would put one down in the wet hole, lie down, and pull a wet blanket over you. That’s the way you slept.”
The Germans faced the same difficulties — and the Americans had plenty of mortars and artillery, too — but they had taken time to blast deep dugouts in the rock, packed with food, fuel, and ammunition. As the Americans moved forward, their supply line lengthened, and they ran into the same trouble as all the other divisions in Italy: shortages of mules and muleteers. The 1st/133rd had a 23-day wait between hot meals.
Shortages of men, too. Casualties were appalling, with companies down to 30 men. To make up shortages, truck drivers and anti-tank gunners were turned into infantrymen. But even these desperate measures couldn’t help. The 1st/141st was down to 56 men. 3rd/141st was down to 75. Two of its companies had 25 men between them. An army memorandum on the situation read, “The strain imposed by continual fighting in the mountains … has been materially increased by mud, rain, cold, and unhealthy climatic conditions. Only the highest level of hardening and stamina can resist the physical strain of combat operations under these conditions. The high percentage of non-battle casualties as a result of exhaustion and physical breakdown, as well as by sickness, has demonstrated this fact only too clearly.…”
Close to the Monastery
Hauling the wounded men down from the heights was another ordeal. The Red Bulls’ 1,000 doctors and medics were overwhelmed. Reporter Gordon Cammack described the situation: “In deep snow banks, up and down rocky, slipper, treacherous slopes there was established here during the first two weeks of February probably the longest litter train for he evacuation of the wounded in the history of the American Army.”
Many of the men from Hoagland’s battalion were seen by medic Robert Koloski, who helped doctors perform emergency surgery at the battalion aid station. “You were no longer the glamorous doctor, you were a first aid man,” he said. “But it was a good feeling, too: the opportunity to do something with these people.”
Most wounds were shrapnel from mortars, more feared than artillery. With their ability to five over reverse slopes and from narrow positions, mortars could dispense death and destruction from nearly anywhere, with great accuracy. But the biggest manpower drain was trench foot. Up on the massif, men could not change socks and shoes, were always cold, and soon their toes looked like sausages in the cold and damp. The gentian violet treatment — also used for crab lice — was ineffective, and men who suffered trench foot had to be evacuated, sometimes losing their toes or feet to gangrene.
“Mud, water and the chills couldn’t keep one from sleeping that night,” wrote a 2nd/141st GI on February 9. The next day he and his pals poked through debris for C rations under German mortar fire. The night brought drenching rain. The next 93 hours brought a continuous German artillery barrage, with snipers taking potshots at every man who bailed out of his soaking foxhole.
The senior American leadership couldn’t see what was going on. Brig. Howard Kippenberger of the 2nd New Zealand Division, checking on the situation personally, had a better view of it. He reported to his boss, Maj. Gen. Bernard Freyberg, that the 34th Division was worn out, and Freyberg questioned the American commanders about the condition of their troops. “It was very plain that none of them had been forward or was at all in touch with his men,” he said.
But with the 34th closing in on the Monastery and the Liri Valley, Clark believed that one more push would drive the Germans off the pinnacles. On the 5th, Clark issued an order that discussed measure to be taken “upon the capture of Cassino heights.”
German paratroopers at Monte Cassino.
On February 4, a company from 1st/135th captured Point 445, near the top of Monte Cassino’s ridge. South of 445, across a deep ravine full of rocks and thorny bushes, was Monastery Hill.
Next morning, two patrols of that company were sent out to capture the monastery if possible. A platoon of 15 men led by a sergeant worked its way through melted snow and mist towards the huge gray blur ahead of them. They moved down through a gully…toward a small stream … and found three Germans from an observation post fetching water from the stream. The Americans took the Germans prisoner, and sent them back with three guards. The rest of the platoon crossed the stream, and up the slope, finally hitting the black-topped winding road that led to the Monastery, and gazed up at the huge building’s east face.
So far, the monastery, its monks, abbots, and the refugees hiding in it had endured isolation, loss of electrical power, and occasional errant German and Allied shells. The Americans would not let their artillerymen fire on the Monastery, because of its religious importance, and because the Vatican had assured the Allies that they had barred German troops from its precincts and a 300-meter perimeter around it.
Now the Americans found, beneath the immense, brooding monastery, that the Germans had taken advantage of two natural caves within the 300-meter perimeter. One held ammunition, the other was a two-room quarters for troops. The monastery’s abbot, Gregorio Diamare, had repeatedly complained about the troops’ presence, but to no avail.
The Americans surrounded the cave, cut the phone line leading in, and the sergeant ordered the Germans to surrender. One German came out to see what the fuss was, and the Americans captured him. The Americans told him in halting German to order the other Germans to come out. If they didn’t, the American sergeant would toss his grenades at them.
Out came 17 Germans, led by a captain, with their hands up, followed by three conscripted Italian laborers. The Americans poked around the caves, finding the Germans had bunks, tables, food, as well as their phone. With the POWs outnumbering their captors, the Americans moved them into four groups, and headed back down a mule path, under fire from German snipers. One sniper hit an American corporal in the leg, but two other Americans captured him. The sergeant had three Germans and an Italian carry the wounded corporal home. They trip back was no easier — the Americans spotted a German machine-gun crew setting up their Spandau, and shot them all before they could get in position. Finally the Americans, shielded by a smokescreen, returned to their sangars, with their POWs, the only casualty being the wounded corporal and a man who had been nicked in the ear. That was as close as any Allied troops would come to the monastery for months.
Back and Forth
While the incident didn’t make the 14th Panzer Corps’ report that day, Senger saw that his defenses were being worn down. He recommended withdrawal from Cassino and pulling back behind the Anzio bridgehead.
Instead, Kesselring chose to hold Cassino. He sent in the 361st and 200th Panzer Grenadier Regiments, along with the 1st Parachute Regiment, a battalion from 3rd Parachute Regiment, and the Parachute Machine-Gun Battalion. In their mottled camouflage uniforms, the huge, tough paratroopers took up defensive positions on February 7th, against Clark’s next attack. To hold Cassino, the Germans pulled in reserves from France, Germany, and Yugoslavia, so the Allies could claim that the Italian campaign was tying down enemy reserves. The problem was, it was also tying down Allied forces. The Allies had to keep attacking, despite a lack of men and resources.
The last bullet left in Clark’s gun came from the battered 36th Infantry Division. The division’s 142nd Regiment had not been involved in the Rapido fiascoes, and now it was ordered to reinforce the Red Bulls on Monte Castellone. On February 5, the 142nd began climbing the mountain. Pvt. Clare Cunningham, from Iona County, Michigan, the son of an Irish immigrant, was among those who slogged up the mountain, taking over a two-man German foxhole with his pal, Stanley Katula. The foxhole was a big one, six feet wide and seven feet long.
“It seemed like we were under observation all day long,” Cunningham said later. “They were just looking down on us all day long. They knew every move we were making.” Huddling in the cold, feet frozen, not knowing what was going on 50 feet away, Cunningham felt powerless. So did other men. “Some would just go berserk. A forward artillery observer who had been with us just two or three days panicked and took off, no rifle, no nothing, running right through the German lines. We yelled at him — he was so new we didn’t know his name — we just kept hollering, ‘You’re going the wrong way, you’re going the wrong way.’ We never heard from him again.”
While the 142nd moved up, the 34th kept trying. Point 593, with its fortifications and superb view of the whole area, was the focus of the attacks. Between February 4 and 8, the 135th and its German opponents sides battled back and forth, swapping control of the pinnacle repeatedly. The 135th attacked on the 7th, faced an immediate counterattack, and its 1st and 3rd Battalions found themselves under heavy enfilading fire.
On the 135th’s left, the 168th kept pressing on the monastery. Pvt. John Johnstone, of Chicago, was just about to turn 20 when his company was ordered to attack.
“The first sergeant came round,” Johnstone said, “And said, ‘Okay men, here’s what’s going to happen. At three o’clock there is going to be a rolling barrage for 15 minutes, then I’ll blow the whistle and we’re going to move forward.’” Before the first sergeant left, he asked Johnstone his name. When Johnstone replied, the sergeant said, “Okay, you’re an acting sergeant for now.” Johnstone had been with the company for three months.
The barrage and whistle went off right on time, and Johnstone turned to his buddy, and said, “Come on, Harry, let’s go.”
“I am not going, you go,” Harry said.
“We’re a team, we’ve got to go.”
Harry wouldn’t go. So Johnstone, his lieutenant, the Browning automatic-rifle man, four riflemen, and a sergeant launched the attack. After 100 yards of advance, they came under heavy small-arms fire, and everyone hit the dirt. The BAR man opened fire, took out a clip to reload — and a hand grenade rolled down and under him, blasting open his stomach. The sergeant was wounded next, then Johnstone, by another grenade. “The lieutenant then came running back saying he was going back for help and that we should hold out a little longer, and then he took off.”
Johnstone and his pals were surrounded, and the Germans demanded their surrender. After the third demand, Johnstone and his surviving colleagues rose, hands up. The Germans took them to a cave behind the monastery, tended their wounds, and even returned his watch to him.
The 168th kept trying, but the Germans had a cute trick of counterattacking just as the Americans were about to launch their own attack. It was all the 168th could do to hold the ground it had already gained. By February 7, Senger had started moving in reinforcements from the tough German 1st Parachute Division, in their distinctive crash helmets and camouflage smocks, and they all headed for Point 593, counterattacking.
By February 10, the Germans had regained the summit and broken the Red Bulls’ morale. The 34th’s men were worn down from a lack of sleep and hot food. Men were either incapable or utterly unwilling to leave foxholes and sangars to attack. Hoagland said, “After about a week there were several times when an attack was planned but before it could take place, somebody would recognize that there just wasn’t enough push in the outfit to do anything. So it then became a case of just hanging on.”
Casualties were high. Some 135th companies were down to 30 men. The 168th and 133rd were in little better shape. Inspecting generals reported that the 34th’s morale was “progressively worse … (the troops) disheartened, nearly mutinous.”
But the Germans were suffering, too. A member of the 90th Panzer Grenadiers was captured with his outgoing mail. His letters home painted a grim picture. “For two weeks we have been in action,” the soldier wrote to his father, who was himself fighting in Russia. “The few days were enough to make me sick and tired of it. In all that time, we’ve had nothing to sleep in but foxholes, and the artillery fire kept us with our noses in the dirt all day long. During the first few days I felt very odd and … didn’t eat anything at all. I lost my appetite when I saw that … not a single man from my original squad is left, all of them missing. And it seems to be the same in the entire company.”
Continued in Part 6.
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