Cassino: The First Round
Part 6 of 6
By David H. Lippman
In the shadow of Monte Cassino the U.S. 34th Infantry Division, the Red Bulls, had been worn down disastrously by German counterattacks and lack of sleep. Morale was mutinously low; men refused to leave their foxholes. Attacks were planned and abandoned.
One man remained optimistic — Lt. Gen. Mark Clark. He sent in the regrouped 141st Regiment up to Snakeshead Ridge with orders to clear the gorge between Snakeshead and Phantom on its right, then break out into the valley below. Capt. C.N. “Red” Morgan commanded the regiment’s 3rd Battalion, and he was told to hook up with the 34th Division’s advance units, supposedly possessing Point 593.
When Morgan reached the front, he found that the 34th did not hold the summit, but were 100 yards short. Morgan could not attack to the right of Point 593 if the Germans held it. The 34th was supposed to take the pile on the night of February 10–11. But the attack was called off. So the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 141st relieved the exhausted Red Bulls, hiking up trails amid blinding rain and snow.
The 141st was not happy about being sent into action so quickly after the Rapido debacle. Lt. Harold L. Bond, commanding a mortar platoon in 3rd/141st, was told to make sure his men had full K rations and water canteens. The men of his platoon were mostly green replacements or worn-out veterans of the Rapido. The rookies were scared, but the veterans took the news quietly, except for one man who repeated over and over, “Who do they think we are?” Bond wrote that he was one of the first men to crack up in the battle. Bond himself packed an extra pair of wool socks. The men were driven by truck toward Highway 6 by night, past ambulances going back, full of wounded men. The nervous men, not allowed to smoke, watched the flashes of American artillery. Finally the men were dispersed in the dark, the trucks left, and jeeps arrived to break down and issue heavy weapons and ammunition.
In the dark, the 141st, loaded down with their gear, followed temporary road of metal matting built to accommodate tanks, over swampy ground, past burned-out tanks. Once near the village of Cairo, the men were allowed to sleep while they waited for dawn.
A sergeant and a shell-shocked soldier near Cassino, February, 1944.
By the morning of February 11, the two battalions of the 141st were in position to attack Pt. 593 at 11 a.m. Bond and his men waited for their orders to move, chomping on K rations, amid wind, snow, and the bloated bodies of three long-dead German horses caught by American artillery.
The attack went off into freezing rain, snow, and 50-mile-an-hour gusts of wind. Bill Everett, who had survived the Rapido, went into this battle and faced an immediate counterattack. “We lost the company commander and a couple of the guys early that first morning,” he said later. “I just told the guys, ‘Hang on. Somebody wants the hill pretty bad. Let’s hang on and hold it.’ We soon lost the rest of the officers and most of the enlisted men. The officer situation was so bad in our outfit they were going into the hospitals and getting guys that had been wounded at the Rapido River and bringing them back up. The attrition rate on company-grade officers, second lieutenants and first lieutenants in rifle companies was tremendous.”
Lt. Carl Strom and his company’s 40 survivors from the 141st’s Rapido River debacle had been provided replacements, but there weren’t enough to attack. The Germans did instead, charging up a hill against the Americans. “We used up box after box of hand grenades on them, because, of course, you could take a hand grenade and just throw it down there and catch any number of them, by they kept attacking.”
“Confusion reigned that day,” Red Morgan said later. “The only thing that kept the Germans from overrunning our positions was the tenacity and guts of the officers and men of the line companies. When the attacks and counterattacks were over, the two battalions wound up relatively on the same line that they had taken over from the 34th Division. The Germans were in command of the situation on Hill 593. Their meat grinder was ready to grind up any troops that we were willing to throw in.”
Back Through the Snow
Bond and his men also had a tough day — hiking up the narrow paths, past the bodies of six dead Germans, whose feet had been stripped by local peasants of their boots. After two hours of climbing, Bond and his team were in position on soaked ground, and freezing rain. Bond’s position stared straight at the monastery. Like many Americans in the battle, Bond believed the Germans were using the monastery as an observation post, so he had his mortarmen hurl a few bombs into the monastery’s yard. After scoring three hits, the Germans answered back with a larger shell that cut Bond’s telephone line. Heavy rain and sunset followed, which prevented Bond from finding the break in the wire. He and his platoon dug in until morning, amid cold rocks, endless rain, heavy shelling, and stragglers and wounded men shuffling back from the fighting. One of the wounded men was shot in the foot — Bond heard the medics say it was a self-inflicted wound. Bond and his men ate cold biscuits and cheese, and shivered.
For two hours, the Germans shelled Bond’s position, the hardest shelling he endured in the entire Italian campaign. After that, both the shelling and rain stopped, but everything was soaked, and Bond’s feet were numb — the first sign of trenchfoot. He quickly changed into the spare pair of wool socks he had brought up, which saved his feet. Bond and his new orderly-messenger huddled under blankets to keep warm.
Next morning, Bond rose to sort out the phone line, and told his orderly to try and improve the trench. When Bond returned after making his rounds, the orderly was gone. Bond never saw him again.
Ryder kept pushing his attack, pushed by Keyes, who was in turn pushed by Clark. Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, Clark’s boss, had given Clark until February 12 to keep the 34th in the Cassino battle. After that, he intended to bring in New Zealander and Indian troops. Clark was fearful of how that would impact on prestige — American and his own. He warned Keyes, “If you don’t make it this time, you’re going to miss the boat because I’m going to bring the New Zealanders and Freyberg in — he’ll do it.”
Pushed by Keyes the same day, Ryder hurled the 168th Regiment at the monastery again. With battalions down to one-third their strength, drivers, cooks, clerks, and supply men went into battle, struggling to remember how to use their M-1 rifles. They made a spirited charge forward to Point 593 amid driving snow, but the Germans threw them back.
Lt. Bond and his mortar platoon watched the attack go forward and the wounded come back. There seemed plenty of volunteers to lug stretchers back down the trails. Bond checked in with his company headquarters, and found dead American bodies lying on the trails, which had still not been picked up. At the company, Bond was asked about his mortar bombardment of the monastery. Admitting he did it, believing the Germans were using it for observation, Bond was told, “The army commander says that you can fight around the abbey, but you can’t hit it.”
Sent back to move his observation post, Bond found more enemy shelling, more dead American bodies scattered around the trails, and a checkpoint manned by a first lieutenant, pistol in hand, sent by the battalion commander to ensure that nobody but the most seriously wounded went down the trail to the rear. Anyone who did, the lieutenant said, would be shot. One man trying to head back down showed an inflamed hand, and said, “I can’t fire a rifle. I can’t even pull the trigger.”
“Use your toes, then!” the lieutenant retorted.
Up at his new O.P., Bond saw why the Americans could not gain ground — the German machine guns used smokeless powder, making them hard to spot, and their side of the hill was covered with low, scrubby brush. Attackers had to go through open ground, covered with rocks.
Up on Snakeshead Ridge, the 141st and 142nd had time to count casualties. By 5 p.m. on February 11, the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 141st were down to 20 officers and 150 men in total. Normally both battalions added up to 70 officers and 1,600 enlisted men. Even the walking wounded were pressed into the line. If a man could throw a grenade or fire his rifle, he held his position.
Bond and his mortarmen were alerted to provide covering fire for an attack. But as February 12 droned on, the attack never came. The 141st and 142nd could only hold their sangars — any movement drew immediate German small-arms fire or worse. The Americans made one more charge in a snowstorm, failed, and retired to their start lines.
The 2nd Corps’ advance had stalled. The corps itself was shattered. Walker began pulling his exhausted troops off the pinnacles, replaced by British and Indian troops from the 4th Indian Division, and New Zealanders of the 2nd New Zealand Division. By night, amid cold and wind, the men of the 36th crawled out of their foxholes for the first time in days and found themselves to exhausted to walk, in some cases suffering from trenchfoot. First Sgt. Don Hoagland took his responsibilities seriously — he was the last one out of his position, and saw his men trudge down. “They were like zombies shuffling along. They were just absolutely exhausted, and it was not our company alone; it was all of them. It was just continual lack of sleep, continual pounding, continual action. It was a nasty, nasty battle in a nasty, nasty war.”
When the 34th came off the massif, they met the famous photographer Margaret Bourke-White, lugging her Speedgraphic camera. The shots she took ended up in a book she published, along with her notes: “I thought I had never seen such tired faces. It was more than the stubble of beard that told the story; it was the blank, staring eyes. The men were so tired it was like a living death. They had come from such a depth of weariness that I wondered if they would ever be able quite to make the return to the lives and thoughts they had known.”
British Lt. Fred Majdalany, who served in the battle, wrote later of the 34th, “The performance of the 34th Division at Cassino must rank with the finest feats of arms carried out by an soldiers during the war. When at last they were relieved by the 4th Indian Division, 50 of those few who had held on to the last were too numbed with cold exhaustion to move. They could still man their positions but they could not move out of them unaided. They were carried out on stretchers.…”
But the battle wasn’t over yet. The 143rd Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division still held Monte Castellone, an ugly mass of three ring contours, scrub brushes, and little shelter, which anchored the American positions on Snakeshead Ridge. Maj. Gen. Ernst Gunther Baade reasoned that hitting Monte Castellone and taking it would force the Americans to retire from the massif. Col. Baron Behr and two battalions of his 200th Panzer Grenadier Regiment led the attack.
At 4 a.m., February 12, Operation Michael kicked off, with German shells hurling a hurricane bombardment of the American positions. Clare Cunningham of the 143rd was one of the casualties, when a shell hurled him and a buddy out of their foxhole just before dawn. Katula was killed. One of Cunningham’s legs was broken and the other smashed. He crawled back into his hole and fell asleep from the pain and exhaustion, despite the roar of battle around him.
Behr’s men charged up the mountain’s bare slopes in the bitter cold. The Americans reached for their weapons to find them frozen. One G.I. lit matches to thaw out his .50-caliber machine gun, while others urinated on their rifles to heat them up. “It didn’t smell so good after firing a couple of hours, but it saved our lives,” a G.I. said.
The Germans captured the near slopes of the mountains, but came under fire from their own guns: The German barrels, having fired so often, were worn out and no longer fired with accuracy. Many of their shells fell short and right onto their own men. The Americans took advantage of this error to rally and counterattack, beating off the German assault.
By noon, more than 150 gray-coated Germans lay dead on Monte Castellone’s slopes, and Baade called off the attack. They realized that the defenders’ advantages on Cassino’s mountains worked both ways.
At 5 p.m., Clare Cunningham was evacuated. But it took him 10 hours to get to an ambulance. Once at the casualty clearing station, his shattered leg was amputated.
The next morning, February 13, the German regimental commander beneath Monte Castellone sent an English-speaking officer up the bare hill, under a white flag, to ask for a truce to remove their dead. The Americans agreed for a two-hour break in the fighting from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., on February 14, St. Valentine’s Day.
That morning, Lt. Col. Hal Reese was assigned to oversee the truce on the basis of his rusty German from his days in Koblenz during the 1919 occupation, and he hiked up the mountain and down into the valley, past decomposing bodies of both sides, under an American flag. At a plateau, they found two Germans with a Red Cross flag, and Reese and the Germans organized the removal of the bodies.
One of the Germans told Reese that he was from Koblenz and remembered American troops being stationed there in 1919. Reese said he was one of them, and pulled out an old photo and ID of himself from his wallet. In a few minutes, the Germans and Americans were pulling out photographs of wives, sweethearts, parents, and children, and someone produced a camera for new photographs.
After the snaps, everybody got down to the grisly business of removing corpses. Medics hauled off the dead, while Reese sat in the middle of the field to ensure the truce was maintained. The work was hard, so the truce was extended by half an hour. Reese killed the dead time scanning the hills behind the German lines with his binoculars, and a German bullet pinged near him. Then another one. “Colonel,” said Reese’s aide, “I don’t think they like us using those glasses on them.” Reese got the point. He checked his watch: five minutes to go. Then he headed back to his own lines.
U.S. soldiers line up in a ceremony to award Purple Hearts at Cassino, February 1944.
The 36th stayed up on the pinnacles for another week. “It was snowing part of the time and raining part of the time and always cold,” Strom said. “I lost about half of my outfit from trench foot. “ Bill Everett suffered pneumonia. Gradually the exhausted men of the 36th Infantry came down from their sangars and hills, shuffled back across the Rapido, where a reward dinner of steak awaited them. The men, used to dried rations, lacked an appetite. The steak made them sick, and they had too much on their minds — the many buddies they had lost up on the massif.
The generals and men of the American, British, and French divisions had a lot to think about. The First Battle of Cassino had been a bloody failure for the Allies. They had taken ground and heavy casualties, but not broken into the Liri Valley. The Anzio bridgehead was a grim stalemate, the invaders now on the defensive. Cassino’s brooding mountain tops were still in German hands, and their gunners and artillery observers dominated everything in sight.
Senger wrote after the war, “When I look at the Allied plan for a breakthrough, I cannot refrain from criticism. According to the original plan, which was tactically well thought out, there was to be an attack against the right wing of my corps, followed by a number of blows against the Cassino front. But after the first attack failed, the original plan was followed too rigidly. This gave me the chance to draw reserves from the sectors where the attacks had failed, to constantly change the operational boundaries of the divisions, and to parry the blows one by one.
“Nor did I understand why the enemy attempted to break through at so many points of the front. It seemed to me that in doing so he was dissipating his forces.”
The casualty bill was horrendous: The 34th Division lost 318 killed, 1,641 wounded. The 2nd/168th had only seven officers and 78 men left. The 3rd/133rd had 145 men in all ranks. The 1st and 3rd Battalions of 141st were down to 22 officers and 160 men. Battalions of the 36th Division were down to 100 men. The French had the most successful drive, but lost 2,500 casualties. The British 10th Corps had suffered 4,000 casualties, and 46th and 56th Infantry were also played out.
The Germans also took a beating: The 2nd/132nd Panzer Grenadiers had been “pulverized,” and 2nd/361st had “melted like butter in the sun.” Only 32 men of the latter battalion were left by February 2. On February 4, the nine battalions of the 44th, two battalions of the 8th Panzer Grenadiers, and an Alpine company together amounted to less than 1,500 men. The Germans were holding the ground, but at massive cost.
It was also time to wonder what had gone wrong. The American assaults at the Rapido were poorly planned and executed. The French divisions showed ample determination and surprising toughness to Anglo-Saxon eyes but lacked the depth to maintain the pace of their offensive. Supplies could not move forward in the flooded swamps and high mountains. Italy’s winter weather made mere survival in the mountains into a horrific ordeal.
Walker had a lot to ponder, too. He believed the Rapido attack had no value. When it failed on the 3rd, Clark came up to Walker’s headquarters. Walker expected to get the sack. But Clark and Keyes asked Walker what happened, and Walker explained. When it was done, Clark said to Keyes, “It was as much my fault as yours.” Walker saw in that an admission of error.
Worse, the debacles had harsh reaction at home. The 36th Division’s sacrifices seemed like a meaningless waste of lives. Some of the 36th Division’s fiery Texan officers held a meeting in a barn on March 2, 1944, to honor Texas Independence Day. There they voted to have the battle investigated after the war. That’s what they did in 1946, when they formed the 36th Division Association. Backed by Texas American Legion posts, newspapers, and the state Senate, they made their case to the U.S. Congress, which probed the debacle.
Senior veterans testified, blaming Clark and Keyes. Col. H. Miller Ainsworth, president of the association and a former executive officer of the 141st Regiment, blasted Clark, saying he was “guilty of a breach of trust.”
Martin, who had led a regiment into the Rapido, said “A fine National Guard Division was being destroyed by faulty orders from a West Point commander.”
Walker, however, avoided assigning blame, merely saying that the attacks “were failures because of poor tactical judgment on the part of higher commanders in carrying out the instructions they received from General Alexander, and that the operation, because of poor tactical judgment, resulted in unnecessary loss of life and did not assist to any material degree the landing at Anzio.”
Congress decided that Clark’s attack on the Rapido with the 36th was justified and an unfortunate consequence of war. But while Clark admitted the Rapido attack was his fault after it happened, he never again took blame, merely saying that if he faced condemnation for a choice of attacking or retreating, he would rather be condemned for attacking.
Spam for Bully
Amid appalling weather, poor planning and logistical management, and incredible courage, the British, American, and French attacks of the First Battle of Cassino had failed. No link-up with the Anzio beachhead was achieved. The beachhead itself was sealed off by German reserves. The Germans still held the high ground over Cassino, and above all, the unblinking eye of Monastery Hill. Despite vile weather, terrain, and casualties, the U.S. Fifth Army would have to renew the offensive against Cassino and the Liri Valley. It was time to pass the torch to a new bearer.
That new team began to arrive as January gave way to February.
Under Maj. Gen. Bernard Freyberg, the New Zealand Corps, an ad hoc formation of the 4th Indian and 2nd New Zealand Divisions, created on February 3, was taking over from the exhausted Frenchmen and Americans. The New Zealanders rolled or marched into the American positions, astonished at how the Americans had strung so much telephone wire and abandoned so many useful vehicles. “Our method was to replace the driver who failed to maintain his truck efficiently. Their method, apparently, was to replace the truck,” wrote Jim Henderson in the New Zealand Transport Companies’ Official History.
The 18th New Zealand Armored Regiment was delighted to be offered the use of American showers, and traded bully beef for Spam. The 21st Battalion and 3rd Platoon of the 27th Machine Gun Battalion took over from the U.S. 143rd Regiment on the Rapido, and tried to trace the American telephone wires through the muck. The signalers gave up and ran their own wires. The 21st did find plenty of abandoned American equipment — wrecked assault boats, ration packs, medical kit, battered foxholes, and two Chevrolet trucks, which they quickly appropriated. The 24th Battalion, before taking up positions just south of Highway Six, east of Cassino, faced an American basketball team and lost. The 25th Battalion played baseball against the Americans, and replaced the 133rd Regiment in the ruined barracks. The 26th Battalion marched under the moonlight on the night of February 5 to their positions.
The 2nd Division’s Artillery had to put up with a good deal of ceremony and trouble. They paraded before Freyberg as he gave them their medals from El Alamein, a year and a half after the battle, and looked smart doing so, but when Freyberg’s personal flag was to be unfurled for the General Salute, the flag instead fell into a bundle at the bottom of the pole. Artillery commander Steve Weir growled “God Almighty” into the open loudspeaker microphone, and the humor broke the tension.
After that, the artillerymen moved their heavy pieces opposite Cassino, struggling for four hours amid mud and German shelling to set up their guns. The artillery’s official history recorded, “The journey forward took the gunners through a land more obviously affected by war than any they had previously seen. Indeed it was reminiscent of photographs of the Western Front in the First World War. Leafless and mangled trees were everywhere, farmhouses lay in ruins, shell holes (some of them of monstrous size) scarred the land like an ugly rash, filled with water and edged with mud, and as the incessant gun fire grew louder there were many refugees to be seen — ‘Some pitiful sights — old women and children with no shoes’, the Survey Battery diarist noted. The first guns to be seen — those farthest from the front — were huge American 240-millimetre ‘widow-makers.’”
The 2nd Division’s Signals team was also struggling, now part of the U.S. Fifth Army. American radiomen were assigned to them, and the New Zealanders were trying to make sense of American signaling procedures, ranks, radio slang, and food. “The American field rations aroused much curiosity,” their official history read. “With typical American generosity, the visitors handed over several cartons of biscuits, some coffee and a tin or two of the coveted bacon and eggs. They in turn were invited to try a tin or two of British bully, which, to the stupefaction of the donors, they consumed with great gusto; one even went so far, to the incredulity of a group of New Zealanders, as to pronounce it ‘just fine.’”
The Division’s Supply Company “operated as a link between Fifth Army's railhead at Sparanise and the forward troops. Trucks would go back to railhead in two groups in the afternoon and come forward to the supply point again the next morning. Issuing began at 8.45 a.m. and finished at 11 a.m. The ration strength varied from just over 27,000 to over 28,000. Charcoal, too, was a major item, and by 17 February 167 tons had been brought forward and 135 tons issued. As the rain softened the ground the engineers were called in to keep the point workable. They laid drains and spread shingle, carting shingle being part of the company's work.”
In between, they played cricket, soccer, rugby, and even baseball, with American gear from the Fifth Army’s Special Services team.
Petrol Company was impressed with how the Americans tightly organized road convoys, with strict timetables, serial numbers, priorities, and traffic control. They were equally impressed with American supplies: “‘Roads busy with U.S. traffic,’ Driver Feisst noted on 19 January. ‘The Yanks have about everything imaginable in equipment.’ The Americans believed in waging war in comfort, and were generous with their goods and facilities. Hot showers, ‘cawfee’, ‘seegars’ and ‘candy’ — to say nothing of Lucky Strike cigarettes — were freely offered to our drivers when they called (as many did, especially around meal times) at one or another of these Allied camps.”
A Hot Old Time
The large units and small of New Zealand Corps, moving from the Adriatic Coast to the Cassino Massif, moved in hundreds of trucks to their new assignment. The official history reported, “The deployment of the corps was a work requiring caution, patience, tact and good humor. The superb command of the enemy over the valley of the Rapido and Garigliano and long stretches of Route 6 confined the movement of convoys in the forward area to the hours of darkness, when drivers had no more luminous guide than the wan beam of undercarriage lighting on the truck ahead. Route 6 was a busy highway running through a rain-sodden and dejected landscape and past the litter of battle and grey stone buildings wasted by war and splashed with mud. It was under the tight control of American military police, models of brisk, or even brusque, efficiency, and the strange driver felt at first like a bucolic drayman plunged into the traffic stream of a metropolis. Owing to congestion on and off the roads, the corps could take forward only essential transport, and this had to be divided into small convoys of not more than 36 vehicles each.”
New Zealand soldiers at Monte Cassino.
The 25th Battalion moved into the wreckage of the barracks and found heaps of abandoned American K rations. Their official history recorded: “Obviously the conditions in Cassino were especially difficult for the recent reinforcements for whom it was their introduction to warfare. The approach march over difficult roads in pitch darkness, both in the trucks and on foot, with the thunder and flashes of numerous guns all around and the whine and crash of enemy shells, was something of an ordeal even for seasoned troops. The process of occupying the various posts within the battalion position was not the comparatively clear and orderly operation of the training exercises, nor was it easy for inexperienced men to determine what was dangerous and what was not, a difficulty sometimes increased by the stupid pranks of occasional humorists who had forgotten their own ignorance and fears in similar or easier circumstances. But danger is a great teacher and the ‘rookie’ soon became the veteran.
“It is not only the British, apparently, who indulge in understatement, as the men of A Company will recall. ‘As we trudged in through the mud-clogged fields on the dismal night of February 21st, 1944, one of the boys asked the Yanks as they hurried past in the darkness, ‘What's it like in there?’
“’Waal,’ replied one, who took time off to answer, ‘It’s a hot old time in that old town,’ a reply regarded very shortly afterwards by A Company as ‘a gem of understatement.’”
Lt. Harold Bond also met the new team. He had led his mortar platoon of the 141st through horrific German bombardments, heavy casualties, freezing cold, and gummy rations. Now he and his bedraggled, unshaven, weary men watched in amazement as officers from the 2nd New Zealand Division’s advance party hiked up the trail, carrying swagger sticks and walking sticks. “It was a sunny, clear morning, in sharp contrast to the snow and rain which had greeted us. They were experienced and well-trained men and knew exactly what they were doing. I noticed that some of the officers did not even wear their steel helmets. The officers went on past our positions toward the battalion command post, after asking us a few questions about the battle conditions up here. My men, dirty, unshaven, and weary, looked poorly beside the neat, spruce New Zealanders, but none of us envied them.”
As Bond watched, the New Zealanders set up tents and sleeping bags, despite their potential attractiveness to German fire. “I bade farewell to the young New Zealanders and wished them luck,” Bond wrote. “As events turned out, they did mount a powerful and prolonged attack. But they, too, were eventually broken and destroyed on the rocky slopes of the mountain.”
Order Cassino '44 right here