Avalanche Press Homepage Avalanche Press Online Store

Tactics in
Fading Legions




Cassino '44:
A Virtual Battlefield Tour

By Dave Murray
May 2012

The Panzer Grenadier game Cassino ’44 has a map representing the mountains and the valleys of the Cassino area of Italy as it appeared during the dark months of early 1944. Cassino ’44 covers the battles on the Cassino massif as well as down in the valley and villages of the Liri Valley.

In today’s Daily Content we survey the major features of the battlefield and discuss their role and significance in refighting this most intense of battles.

The Monastery of Monte Cassino

The most famous landmark on the Cassino map is of course the monastery of Monte Cassino. This massive structure, built to withstand wars and earthquakes, had walls of stone up to 10 feet thick. The monastery, perched on the Cassino massif commanding views of the Liri Valley, became a fixation for the allied soldiers exposed in the valley below or hanging on to the barren surface of the surrounding mountains.

On the Cassino ’44 game map the abbey just fits within a single hex. The destruction of the abbey in February 1944 remains to this day a controversial decision. The German soldiers in the area have always maintained that no troops were located in the monastery prior to the bombing, a fact corroborated by the monks and abbot. However, German troops were placed into positions ever closer to the monastery as the Allied attacks forced the German’s back. Whether the Germans would ever have occupied the monastery when pressed we will never know, but hindsight seems to have judged the allied bombing of the monastery harshly considering the imperatives of the time, misguided or not. Whatever the original German intentions were, they soon occupied the ruined monastery and turned it into a veritable fortress.

The monastery was never taken by the Allies in battle. It was only when the German fallschirmjager’s (paratroopers) defending the ruins withdrew on the night of the 17th May that the Polish 12th Lancers were able to take the ruins. On the morning of the 18th May they hoisted their improvised flag over the ruins.

In Cassino ’44 the monastery appears as a victory location in many of the scenarios and of course both campaign games. The monastery is the single most valuable object on the map and is worth more victory points than any other single feature. It is a formidable building to capture, surrounded on five sides by steep slopes. The ruined monastery has the same characteristics as an entrenchment and an increased stacking limit, making all assaults extremely difficult.

During playtesting it was a rare occurrence when the monastery fell in an assault. The Cassino specific rules make all bombardment fire on the massif affect adjacent friendly forces on a roll of 1 or 2, which makes close artillery support risky. Taking the monastery requires patience, good leadership, strong infantry forces, artillery support and tank support if you can get it there! In the campaign games often the defenses were so strong that the monastery was bypassed by advancing units and then mopped up later.

Castle Hill: Rocca Janula

The ruins of the medieval castle sitting directly above the town of Cassino were of major tactical significance. Known by the Allies as Castle Hill, it was surrounded on five sides by steep cliffs and was a very formidable objective.

Historically the castle was briefly taken by U.S. soldiers in January and then later on the evening of 12th March by New Zealanders of D Company, 25th Battalion. A platoon scaled the cliffs and caught the sentries by surprise, then took out a pillbox. When the rest of the company, who had skirted around the cliffs to the west, arrived they forced the remaining Germans into the castle itself. After a brief firefight the Germans surrendered.

The castle is a significant feature in the game. Units occupying it can cover most of the northern end of the town of Cassino with plunging fire. Control of the castle also opens up access to the road that snakes its way up to the monastery. The exposed nature of the castle is both a benefit and a problem; it commands the surrounding lower hexes but is an easy target for Allied armour in the valley below. Using sufficient artillery, direct fire and armour support it is not that unlikely that the allies can suppress the German defenders, but getting foot soldiers close enough to take advantage of the situation for the Allies is difficult. A good German leader and HMG squad can cause considerable difficulties for any Allied troops advancing along the valley road from the north.

In the campaign games Castle Hill is second only to the monastery for victory points. It is a feature that is really difficult to avoid either for the defender or the attacker. With hindsight it is unlikely the Allies will be able to surprise the Germans as happened historically, and the fight for the Castle can consume a lot of resourses for both sides. Castle Hill is a significant victory location in many of the scenarios in Cassino ’44. The initial American assault attempted to capture the northern edge of Cassino town and Castle Hill but found the going too difficult and costly and quickly switched to operations on the massif itself.

The New Zealand Corps are involved in several battles that include the castle as a key victory location. The Germans knew the importance of the castle’s location and launched a major counter attack on the morning of March 19. This action is represented in Scenario 18, “The Castle Must Fall.”

The Rapido River

On the maps of the Liri Valley the Rapido River appears quite benign, a small ribbon of blue across an open valley and the route to Rome. The reality was very different, as the brave men of the 36th “Texan” Division found on the tragic night of January 20 when their attempted crossing went disastrously wrong.

The Rapido is very fast flowing with near-vertical soft muddy banks, and although only 30 to 50 feet wide it is up to 12 feet deep. Couple this with heavy winter rains that waterlogged the surrounding farmland and the Germans’ flooding of the area and you end up with treacherous terrain only approachable by soldiers on foot.

The Rapido was a central part of the formidable Gustav line of defences that stretched across the Italian mainland from coast to coast. The Germans had extensively mined and wired the east bank of the river. Strongpoints and extensive fire plans covered the eastern approaches to the Rapido.

In game terms crossing the Rapido is difficult for the Allies. The American forces were given the initial task of breaching the river defences and the first couple of scenarios cover these assaults. The U.S. campaign offers the Allied player the opportunity to attempt to breach the Rapido at alternative locations and try some different strategies.

There is nothing subtle about breaching the Rapido; the U.S. forces must push hard and accept the inevitable mounting casualties from such an operation. The British forces face the same problem later during Operation Diadem. The Germans are in a strong defensive position, but the amount of firepower the Allies can call upon means the German player must use his forces wisely. The defenders, if not used carefully, will quickly see the defence haemorrhaging and the Allies making significant progress.

The German player must try to absorb the Allied onslaught, causing as many difficulties to them as possible while keeping their own forces in as good a condition as possible. A skilful defence can see the Allies reaching a point of exhaustion, and then a counter-attack can split the attackers wide open. In the campaign game in particular, a successful German counter-attack towards the Allied bridgehead can cause considerable delay to the Allies, as well as potentially isolating forces to the west of the Rapido. Isolated forces suffer a drop in their morale.

Cassino Town

Highway Six, the ultimate objective for the Allies and their dreams of marching up the Liri Valley towards Rome, runs through the town of Cassino. This means there can be no victory without control of the town.

The Americans in early February reached the northern edge of the town (north is to the right). The German defenders were very well prepared; Cassino town was probably the strongest element in the whole of the Gustav Line defences. The Americans, unable to make sufficient progress, quickly switched to fighting on the massive itself.

The destruction of Cassino town by Allied bombers on March 15th heralded the New Zealand Corps assault on the town. The bombing of the town was a double-edged sword for the New Zealanders. The bombing devastated the town and nearly completely eliminated the German defenders who suffered horrendous casualties, but the defenders were not ordinary soldiers; they were the elite Fallschirmjager, the remnants of which quickly regained composure and mounted an astounding defence.

The narrow streets of Cassino were clogged with rubble and huge craters meant that the armoured support of the New Zealanders was incapable of supporting the advancing infantry. The progress of the New Zealand troops was slow and costly. The battle for Casino town continued for two more months before the German defenders finally surrendered.

Cassino town has two significant features marked on the map, Hotel Continental and Hotel Des Roses. Hotel Continental was a very formidable defensive position for the defending Fallschirmjagers; they had backed a Panzer IV into the lobby of the hotel to make it the strongest position in the town. The hotel was never taken by the Allies. It fell only after being abandoned by the Germans after the British and Poles had broken through the Gustav Line to the west. The Hotel Des Roses, although not as formidable as the Continental, was a strongpoint and units within it gain dug-in benefits.

Cassino ’44 provides rules for both before and after destruction of the town. Due to the extensive German defences, German Fallschirmjagers retain the ability to withdraw from an assault without a “free shot” against them.

The town is a tough nut to crack for the Allies; many scenarios cover the fighting in and around the town. In the campaign, deciding how many resources to allocate to taking or defending Cassino can be a very tough decision. During playtesting, a “Cassino only” strategy during a campaign proved a very difficult strategy to succeed in, similar to the experience of the New Zealanders that attempted the same strategy 64 years before. The front on which you can press an attack is very narrow and favours the defender. But neither can the Allies ignore the town as it is a large source of victory points. Allied success in other areas of the front can cause the Germans to thin the defences in the town and then a significant allied push may result in its capture.

Monte Villa Barracks

This large complex of buildings on the road north of Cassino town was of obvious tactical importance for any forces trying to cross the Rapido north of Cassino town.
The barracks, formally occupied by the Italian army, had provided an important defensive position for the German defenders. Any forces crossing the Rapido in this sector would need to capture the barracks in order to open up the road to Cassino town.

After the disastrous attempts of the U.S. 36th Division in crossing the Rapido to the south the 34th Division crossed the Rapido opposite the barracks. Several scenarios cover these attacks but ultimately all these attacks failed. A few days later an easier crossing location was discovered a little further to the north and that crossing proved successful. The barracks were still needed to be taken in order for forces to funnel down the road towards Cassino town. The barracks held for a couple of days the Germans only retreating after the U.S. forces were swinging around them from Point 213.

In game terms it can serve as an early defensive position, but once the Allies are across the Rapido in strength it is easy for the position to become isolated. Knowing when to withdraw is crucial.

The Liri Valley

Opening the Liri Valley and the route to Rome was the key objective of the Cassino campaign. It was not until Operation Diadem in May that substantial inroads into the valley took place. The Germans fought a skilled defensive action, deploying a small number of tanks when required.

In one such action in May 1944, Francis Jefferson of the 2nd Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers earned the British armies highest decoration in the valley below Monte Cassino. From his official citation: “On 16th May, 1944, during an attack on the Gustav Line, an anti-tank obstacle held up some of our tanks, leaving the leading company of Fusilier Jefferson’s battalion to dig in on the hill without tanks or anti-tank guns. The enemy counter-attacked with infantry and two Mark IV tanks, which opened fire at short range causing a number of casualties and eliminating one PIAT (Projectile Infantry Anti-Tank) group entirely. As the tanks advanced towards the partially dug trenches, Fusilier Jefferson, entirely on his own initiative, seized a PIAT and running forward alone under heavy fire took up a position behind a hedge; as he could not see properly he came into the open and standing up under a hail of bullets fired at the leading tank which was now only twenty yards away. It burst into flames and all the crew were killed. Fusilier Jefferson then reloaded the PIAT and proceeded towards the second tank, which withdrew before he could get within range. By this time our own tanks had arrived and the enemy counter-attack was smashed with heavy casualties. Fusilier Jefferson’s gallant act not merely saved the lives of his company and caused many casualties to the Germans but also broke up the enemy counter-attack and had a decisive effect on the subsequent operation. His supreme gallantry and disregard of personal risk contributed very largely to the success of the action.”

Francis Jefferson

Railway Station and the Hummocks

To the south of Cassino town stands the railway station with its distinctive “round house” and low hummocks to the south. The railway line was built on a low embankment. The Germans had blown large breaches in the embankment in order to stop the Allies using it for their armour.

The railway became the focus of the battle on the night of February 17. Two companies of the 28th New Zealand “Maori” Battalion crossed the river and captured the railway station. Behind them engineers worked through the night to repair the breaches in the embankment. The Maoris had captured the railway station but the hummock stayed in German hands. By the morning all but one breach in the embankment was repaired but with the approach of daylight German shelling forced the engineers to halt work. The Maoris, with no armour support or anti-tank guns, held on for most of the day but were eventually forced back across the river.

The actions around the station are represented in two scenarios, one covering the Maoris night attack on the 17th and one the German counter-attack on the 18th. In the campaign games the observation of this position by the Germans on the massif makes any successful crossing here very difficult. The Germans can quickly dispatch forces from Cassino town to assist in repelling the attacks. With Cassino town on the brink of collapse, capture of the railway station and the hummocks can lead to a knockout blow for the defenders, as long as you are keeping the Germans on the massif busy as well!

Snakeshead Ridge

To the northwest of the monastery lies a ridgeline the Allies called Snakeshead Ridge. Snakeshead Ridge dominates the approaches to the monastery from the mountains. At the southern end of the ridge is Point 593, a most significant feature as this commands the approaches to the monastery itself.

The battle for control of Snakeshead Ridge is really the battle for Point 593; the point was captured by the Americans, Indians and Poles only to lose it again to fierce German counter-attacks.

The art of defending on the massif is the use of the counter-attack. During playtesting a German reserve on a reverse slope, able to counter attack after the attackers had almost exhausted themselves, won many victories and could snatch the location back from the allies at the last moment. (For campaign games the Allies need to solely control key features such as point 593 on the massif; if the Germans can contest the locations at the end of day’s battle they retain control.) The difficulty for the German is when to counter. Go too soon and you will suffer unacceptable losses, leave it too late and victory will slip through your hands.

Cavendish Road

The construction of the Cavendish Road was a substantial task. During late February and early March, Indian engineers had in secret improved an old mule track that snaked its way up the mountains from the village of Cairo to high ground around Albanta Farm. Most of the work was undertaken at night with large stretches of camouflage netting obscuring any German observation during the day.

The intent was to surprise the Germans on the mountains with a sudden armoured thrust in an area in which they thought armour could not penetrate. This armoured attack was to take place simultaneously with a strong infantry attack from Cassino town. The tanks moved into position and attacked on March 19.

From the start things did not go well. That morning the Germans had launched an assault on Castle Hill which had disrupted the planned Allied infantry attack, but apparently no one told the Allied tanks on the Cavendish Road! The tanks launched their attack and succeeded in surprising the Germans on the mountain, but the Fallschijager were no ordinary soldiers and quickly recovered. Substantial small-arms fire forced the tanks to button up and the Germans closed, taking out several tanks with anti-tank grenades.

Cavendish Road was very narrow and manoeuvring around knocked-out tanks while buttoned up proved very treacherous. Several tanks threw their treads in the process. The tanks with little infantry support continued to struggle forward, but by the time they reach Albaneta Farm German anti-tank fire and mines caused the attack to be abandoned.

Sant’ Angelo

Sant’ Angelo is a small village on the west bank of the Rapido River in the centre of the Liri Valley. Its position at the centre of the Liri Valley meant that Sant’ Angelo was an important strategic location.

The initial attempt to breach the Gustav line was undertaken to the north and south of Sant’ Angelo on January 20 to 22. The U.S. 36th “Texas” Division attempted a night crossing but the attack was a disaster. The attack after the war was subject to a Congressional Enquiry which eventually exonerated General Clark, the commanding officer at the time. After the failed U.S. attack across the Rapido near Sant’ Angelo in January, this area of the front was relatively undisturbed until the start of Operation Diadem in May.

On the morning of May 11, after a night time artillery barrage, the 8th Indian Division attack across the Rapido at Sant’ Angelo. In thick fog the Frontier Force Regiment attacked to the left of the town and the 1st Royal Fusiliers to the right. Fighting was fierce and it was not until the 13th that a hastily-constructed bridge allowed several Canadian Shermans to cross the river and, supported by Ghurkha troops, finally cleared Sant’ Angelo of Germans.


The village of Cairo or “Caira” is nestled in the hills below Monte Castellone. After the failure of the Rapido crossings of January 20 the U.S. forces changed their axis of attack to the Rapido as it runs to the north of Cassino town.

The initial attacks against the barracks area were not successful. On January 27 General Ryder committed the 168th regiment of the 34th U.S. Division to attack north of the Barracks. This attack proved successful and within four days the village of Cairo was captured and remained under Allied control for the rest of the campaign.


Pignataro strides across the road that stretches across the Liri valley from north to south and so control of it was strategically very important.

The German had located several Nebelwerfer of the 71st Werfer Regiment in the village and these had by early May been causing the Poles on Cassino Massif a lot of problems. On the evening May 15, elements of the 3/8 Punjab Regiment supported by the 14th Canadian armoured closed in and took the village, but the Nebelwerfer had already been moved.

Horseshoe Ridge

In the flatlands of the Liri Valley, minor rises and small hills become significant. To the west of the village of Sant’ Angelo a horseshoe shaped hill became a significant defensive position in the spring of 1944.

The ridge finally fell on May 13 with the village of Sant’ Angelo.

Hangman’s Hill

Hangman’s Hill is a large rocky outcrop below the monastery of Cassino. Because of its prominence and proximity to the monastery it became a key feature in the planning of many assaults. The rather gruesome nickname of “Hangman’s Hill” referred to the remains of a cable car support—the car used to run from the valley to the monastery—which resembled a gallows.

Despite it being the target of many assaults on the massif, the capture of Hangman’s Hill came as a surprise to the Allied commanders. On March 19 a hitherto thought lost group of the 1/9th Gurkhas appeared on the hill. Over the next couple of days the Allies tried to resupply the Gurkhas first on foot and then by air. The Germans made the Gurkhas’ stay on the hill very uncomfortable. Eventually it proved too difficult even for the hardy Gurkhas and they abandoned their position. Scenario 17 represents the attempt by the Rajputanas to supply the Gurkhas.

Albaneta Farm

High up in the mountains is a small farm complex. The ancient farm buildings had thick stone walls and proved a substantial defensive position.

The farm in the shadow of Point 593 and adjacent to the ‘Cavendish Road’ saw much action during the campaign. The US 142nd Regiment was stopped short of the Farm on the 11th February. During the armoured attack along the Cavendish Road on the 19th March the Farm was a major defensive base for the defending German paratroopers.
The Poles eventually managed to secure the Farm in mid-May.

Polish Memorial at Albaneta Farm

Point 175

Point 175, like so many of the minor summits and features of Cassino massif was fought over by all sides during the campaign. However, on February 8, 1944, at Point 175, just northwest of Cassino town, Second Lieutenant Paul F. Riordan from Kanas City, cut off from his unit, single-handedly led an attack on an enemy strongpoint. He postumously earned the U.S. highest military award, the Medal of Honor.

The Medal of Honor citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty. In the attack on the approaches to the city of Cassino on 3 February 1944, 2nd Lt. Riordan led one of the assault platoons. Attacking Hill 175, his command was pinned down by enemy machinegun fire from the hill and from a pillbox about 45 yards to the right of the hill. In the face of intense fire, 2nd Lt. Riordan moved out in full view of the enemy gunners to reach a position from where he could throw a hand grenade into the pillbox. Then, getting to his knees, he hurled the grenade approximately 45 yards, scoring a direct hit. The grenade killed one and wounded the other two Germans in the nest and silenced the gun. Another soldier then cleaned out the enemy pillboxes on the hill itself, and the company took its objective.

Continuing the assault into Cassino itself on 8 February 1944, 2nd Lt. Riordan and his platoon were given the mission of taking the city jail house, one of the enemy's several strongpoints. Again 2nd Lt. Riordan took the lead and managed to get through the ring of enemy fire covering the approaches and reached the building. His platoon, however, could not get through the intense fire and was cut off. Second Lt. Riordan, aware that his men were unable to follow, determined to carry on single-handed, but the numerically superior enemy force was too much for him to overcome, and he was killed by enemy small-arms fire after disposing of at least two of the defenders. Second Lt. Riordan's bravery and extraordinary heroism in the face of almost certain death were an inspiration to his men and exemplify the highest traditions of the U.S. Armed Forces.

See if you can match the exploits of Riordan and Jefferson!
Order Cassino '44 today.