Pieces of Cassino
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Cassino '44: Gateway to Rome is the largest game we've published in the Panzer Grenadier series. German Army troops and Air Force paratroopers fight off repeated attacks by American, New Zealand, British, Indian and even Canadian forces before finally falling back in front of the elite Polish II Corps.
With all of those armies fighting over a comparatively small piece of ground, that means that the game includes a huge array of new pieces. Here's a look at them.
Two American infantry divisions fought in First Battle of Cassino, both of them National Guard formations. The 34th "Red Bull" Division from Minnesota and Iowa had shipped out for Europe just five weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor and seen action in Algeria and Tunisia before landing at Salerno. The 36th "Texas" Division also landed at Salerno, and in December 1943 took the Italian town of San Pietro in a bitter house-to-house struggle. The two divisions failed in their assault on Monte Cassino, starting the months-long battle.
Formal attachments of tank and tank destroyer battalions to infantry divisions came later in the war, but the two divisions of the U.S. II Corps did have significant support from corps-level assets and the American player will dispose of numerous M4 Sherman medium tanks, M5 Stuart light tanks and, for the first time in the Panzer Grenadier series, M10 tank destroyers.
Otherwise, the American forces are similar to those found in games like Elsenborn Ridge, with good infantry firepower and awesome artillery support. Plus the tactical air support is very good. But they are going up against one of the most daunting natural fortifications ever defended in modern times.
British troops of the 78th and 4th Infantry Divisions had only a supporting role in the Second and Third Battles of Cassino, but were right in the thick of the decisive Fourth Battle that finally saw Polish soldiers take the bloody ruins of the Cassino abbey.
The British units in Cassino remain organized on a table of 12 rifle platoons per infantry battalion, as opposed to nine in similar American or German formations. These platoons are slightly smaller than the others, and so have lesser firepower values. But there are usually more of them present to make up for that lack.
The platoons of Cassino are those of the 1943 War Establishment, and they are usually more powerful than those of Desert Rats or Afrika Korps. The Brits are also well-supported by tanks and artillery, though the rifle companies do not have their own machine gun platoons, relying on attachments from the divisional machine gun battalion instead — that may or may not be assigned.
The White Eagles are back in action, fighting the Nazis far from home. The Polish II Corps was organized on the British War Establishment, but grossly below strength as the Soviet Union had refused to release all of the anticipated soldiers imprisoned in 1939. Instead, the Poles planned to recruit their missing manpower from the ethnic Poles impressed into the German armed forces.
So while Polish units in the game are rated the same as British ones, they probably actually represent fewer men per piece. "Probably" as the Poles, being eager for battle with the Germans from the moment that arrived in Italy in December 1943, did not let on just how understrength were their two divisions. Thanks to their better weapons, the infantry platoons are actually the same strength as those in White Eagles, despite having fewer men.
The Poles have their own armored support, in the form of the 2nd "Warsaw" Armored Brigade, and a full array of artillery and recon units. This is a powerful formation, and it would be Polish lancers who finally took the abbey during the Fourth Battle.
Only a small Canadian armored contingent took part in the battle, giving tank support to the 8th Indian Division's crossing of the Rapido River on 13 May 1944. This marks the first appearance of Canadian units in the Panzer Grenadier series, and we have many fans in the Great White North who've waited for close to a decade for this small taste of Maple Leaf units.
The tough and battle-hardened 2nd New Zealand Division saw lots of action in Desert Rats, and they're back and re-organized for Cassino. Having lost a brigade in the desert, the division re-organized with one of the surviving infantry brigades converted to armor.
Like the other Dominions, New Zealand adopted the British War Establishment, but unlike them veered widely from it during the course of the war. Along with Australia, New Zealand also invoked the "Left Out of Battle" policy that deliberately held back a proportion of the division's manpower from major operations. In case of disaster, the division (effectively representing the bulk of New Zealand's national army) could then be rebuilt from this cadre.
The decision on how many troops to leave out of combat appears to have been taken at very junior levels - down to platoon commanders — and to have varied wildly. That makes it hard to determine exactly how to rate New Zealand units, but given their outstanding performance they've always been given the same ratings as their official establishment would indicate.
Once again, the elite 28th Maori Infantry Battalion is present, and they've even better-armed than they were in Desert Rats.
The Indian Army also followed the War Establishment, and was much more closely tied to the British Army than the Dominion forces: British battalions even served in Indian brigades, and British and Indian brigades were at times traded between divisions of the nominally separate forces.
The Indian formations that fought in Italy were the cream of the Raj's forces. They have solid morale and the same standard of weapons as support as the two British divisions. Most of their officers are British, with a smattering of "Viceroy's Commissioned Officers" assisting them but in a tightly-defined subordinate role. By early 1944 a growing number of King's Officers were actually Indian, but they are represented here by British leader pieces.
Along with the hardened regiments of the Sikhs, Frontier Force and others, the Indian units in Cassino also include Gurkhas. The battle-mad Nepalese mercenaries receive special bonuses in Assault combat, and of course consider the mountain terrain around Cassino to be slight rises compared to the real mountains back home.
By 1944, the German Army had been at war for four and a half years and suffered enormous losses in manpower, material and will to fight. Not all of the "Germans" who fought at Cassino were actually German, as recruiting officers had already begun to stretch the Reich's racial definitions to make more and more Eastern Europeans eligible for the German draft.
The 15th Panzer Grenadier Division conducted most of the early defense of the area around Cassino, with the 44th "Hoch und Deutschmeister" Infantry Division also present. The 15th had been formed in 1943 from the "Sicily" division of assorted garrison units and a handful of survivors of the Afrika Korps' 15th Panzer Division. It fought well at Salerno and was considered one of the better German formations in Italy. The original Viennese 44th had been lost at Stalingrad, and the new "Reichsgrenadier Division" that fought in Italy was rebuilt from the old division's butcher company and new recruits.
As in other Panzer Grenadier games, the German infantry platoons have improved firepower compared to those of the early war years thanks to greater use of semi-automatic rifles and machine pistols. But they have fewer men per platoon, and thus lose more strength if reduced.
The Germans also have the support of an array of unusual vehicles not seen before in Panzer Grenadier games: Nashorn and Marder II tank destroyers, and the Italian-built StuG75/34. There are also Tiger tanks present, and the ubiquitous PzKpfw IV. Plus there are German mountain troops in their own unique color scheme.
German Air Force
On the German side, the fight for Cassino is most notable for the stubborn stand of the elite 1st Parachute Division. The paratroopers have enormously high morale and initiative, great advantages for a defender, and of course have the terrain on their side. They are excellent light infantry, though their support weapons are somewhat light as befits a pseudo-airborne formation.
Cassino does introduce a number of special weapons with the paratroopers: 75mm air-droppable recoilless guns and 75mm mountain artillery. They also go into battle with an unusually large allotment of 81mm and 120mm mortars. All of that light artillery on top of the Cassino Massif makes for a formidable defense.
Cassino '44 exists because of the dedication of its designer, Dave Murray. I wasn't sure such a game could even be designed, but it works wonderfully well and is very exciting to play. The tough mountain terrain makes for a very different challenge than anything we've done before, and the "actual" terrain of the maps shows off the game system's historical accuracy better than any amount of online rhetoric can state. It's a huge game, with seven sheets of counters and four full-sized paper maps; it'll prove to be a fine toybox to support many book supplements over the coming years.
Are you ready to take on Cassino '44? Order now and find out.