History Class, Uncategorized, World War 2

Monte Cassino: Concluded

The Benedictine monastery on Monte Cassino, rebuilt after its war time destruction. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Information about the license is linked here.

Yesterday I wrote about one of the defining battles of the Italian campaign: the Allied struggle to break through the German’s Gustav Line at Monte Cassino. The scope of the topic convinced me to split the story into two posts. Today, I’ll cover the second half.

Not only was the Gustav Line heavily fortified and the terrain incredibly unfriendly to attackers, but the Allied efforts were hampered from the start by the need to coordinate the initial attacks with the amphibious landings to the north at Anzio.

The first attempt to pierce the Gustav Line had failed. It would take three more battles*, and many more lives sacrificed, to break it.

A look at the landscape. Public Domain image, originally drawn for Time magazine, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Second Battle

File:Żołnierze 2 Korpusu Polskiego na pobojowisku na Monte Cassino - klasztor NAC 24-447-13.jpg
Soldiers of the 2nd Polish Corps on the battlefield at Monte Cassino. Soldiers of the Independent 2nd Armoured Brigade on their way to the ruins of the Benedictine abbey on Monte Cassino.” Public Domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The opening of the second battle at the Gustav Line found the Allies contemplating the monastery at the top of Monte Cassino. A huge, dominating feature on the landscape, its windows overlooked all of the Allied movements. Whether German troops occupied the monastery or not was uncertain. Whether the building was occupied or not, the battle’s planners felt that they could not ask men to storm a hill with an intact fortress like that waiting at the top of it. The Allies made the controversial choice to bomb the monastery.

Whether the choice was right or wrong, the bombing had several consequences.

First, the few remaining monks and refugees from the village who’d taken shelter in the monastery were warned by leaflets dropped by the Allies to flee. They tried to coordinate an evacuation with the Germans but were still there when the bombs fell. Many were killed or wounded.

Also, though the monastery itself was badly damaged, even the weight of the bombs couldn’t destroy its thick stone walls. The ruins that stood would still make an obstacle for advancing troops.

Then, the Air Force, due to the weather and concerns over rumblings of a coming counterattack at Anzio, moved up the date of the bombing to February 15th. While the residents in the monastery (and the Germans) were warned that the bombing was coming, the 1st Royal Sussex of the 4th Indian division, perched 1,000 yards away on the Allied bridgehead in the mountains (aka Snakeshead Ridge) were not told that it was happening. It must have been an unpleasant surprise to receive injuries from rock shards blasted up by the explosions. So was the news that they would have to move up their advance before full preparations could be made.

Still, advance they must. The initial plan was for them to head straight on to Monte Cassino from point 593, which the leadership thought was held by the Americans. Unfortunately, they were incorrect. The high ground at point 593 was still in German hands and would need to be taken before any assault on Monte Cassino could be attempted.

First, one company from the Indian Division moved forward at night, over hard ground full of loose stones that would betray their presence at one misstep. They made it about 50 out of the 70 yards they had to cover before German fire and a hail of grenades forced them to retreat.

For their second attempt, they called back for more supplies, especially grenades as these would be essential in taking this inaccessible point. Unfortunately, the ridgetop bridgehead was extremely difficult to supply. Grenades, water, food, ammunition—everything had to be brought seven miles across the valley and up the slopes on mules, then hauled up the last steep few hundred yards by men. This supply route took five hours to travel, if the mules survived the shelling along the way to complete it. (Unfortunately, during their initial advance to the bridgehead, two of the 4th Indian Division’s trucks—the ones carrying mortars and grenades—were lost, so they’d started short-handed from the beginning.)

The mules arrived, though an hour late. The men assembled to advance, planning to send one group as a diversion to one side of the ridge while the main advance followed the other side. Things went badly from the start as shells launched by their Allies, aimed for the heights beyond them, fell short, right into their midst. Then the diversionary force, who hadn’t been able to do ordinary reconnaissance before the attack, found cliffs and ravines blocking their path.

The Germans at point 593 held, and once again the Indian division had to retreat.

Battered but not completely beaten, the Rajputana Rifles and Gurkhas of the Indian Division and the Maoris of the 2nd New Zealand Corps took one more crack at Cassino, the first through the mountains again, the second across the valley into Cassino town.

The attack through the mountains was, once again, unsuccessful. The New Zealanders, on the other hand, were successful….almost. They made their way across the muddy valley, followed by engineers who frantically tried to bridge gaps and construct roadways for tanks and other vehicles to follow on. While the troops made their gains, the engineers were unable to complete the road work in time. The Maoris, left without tanks to support them, were able to hold their positions into the afternoon, but a fierce German counterattack drove them back.

On February 18th, the second battle for the Gustav Line was over.

The Third Battle

File:Monte Cassino bombing.jpg
“Second Phase 15 February – 10 May 1944: The town of Cassino shrouded in black smoke during the Allied barrage on 15 March 1944. Over 1,250 tons of bombs were dropped on this occasion.” Public domain image from the IWM courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As soon as it was clear that the pincers attack on Cassino had failed the battle was quickly called off, and General Freyberg at once began to devise a new plan so that the offensive could be resumed with as little delay as possible.

Majdalany 166

Since crossing mountains and rivers had failed, the Allies decided that it was time to try a more direct approach. The New Zealanders and Indian Division would take on the Gustav Line again, but this time, they’d attack head on, right down the center.

There were some advantages to this approach. It meant that the troops could use existing roads vs. building new ones. In other words, they would not need to go in without tanks this time. The leadership also had an idea that they hoped would make a significant difference. For four hours before the assault, they planned to engage the Air Force to do its best to obliterate Cassino town itself.

The town had long been abandoned by civilians, but housed many fortifications and German defenders. If the weight of bombs dropped on the town were enough, surely they could manage to wipe out the entrenched enemy.

Then, the New Zealanders would head into Cassino town to mop up and also take “Castle Hill ” at the foot of Monte Cassino. They would be followed by the portion of the Indian Division not shivering in exposed positions on Snakeshead Ridge, who would use Castle Hill as a jumping off point to take Monte Cassino. If they were successful, the 78th Division had come over from the Adriatic and waited, ready to push forward and sweep into the Liri Valley beyond

Of course, the attack would involve going into a bottleneck, hedged in between the mountain and a town fortified with half a million mines, machine guns, tanks and artillery, concrete emplacements and tunnels. General Clark gave the endeavor 50/50 odds.

The plan was set, and though Freyberg hoped to avoid delay, one thing he could not account for was the weather. The initial date for the offensive was six days after the last battle. Three weeks of rain kept the Allies stuck, waiting.

Finally, on March 15th, the third battle began.

The bombing from the air involved around 500 planes dropping about 1,000 tons of bombs on Cassino town, followed by 600+ artillery pieces opening fire.

The New Zealand 25th Battalion started down the road, following tanks. One company peeled off to Castle Hill. The rest entered the battered town. They were met by surviving Germans, whose fortifications had been too strong even for the powerful assault from the air. Bomb craters covered the terrain, bogging down the tanks. Sappers had come along, prepared to cope with them, until the Italian winter weather struck again. Rain poured down. Dark clouds blocked the sky, and sticky mud slowed everything down, hampering the work of the engineers. Stuck tanks tried to support the infantry from the edges of the battle.

Meanwhile, the struggle for Castle Hill continued. The New Zealanders were joined by the Indians.

Now, according to the plan, after taking the Castle Hill (named for the ruins of a medieval castle at its summit) the next objective was a flat stony high place nicknamed Hangman’s Hill for a pole on it that looked rather like a gallows from below. Two groups of Gurkhas were headed for Hangman’s Hill, but hampered by the dark and bomb craters they temporarily lost contact. Then, later figures were spotted atop Hangman’s Hill, and low and behold, the Gurkhas had taken it—the second objective taken before the first! Eventually, the Allies would occupy the “castle” as well.

Below in Cassino town, the New Zealanders continued to battle through the rubble, slogging from ruin to ruin. They made good progress and finally managed to gain one of the major objectives, the Station.

As the battle wore on, resupply became increasingly difficult, especially for the men who held the heights. Rations were dropped from the air, but many missed their mark. Heavy smoke screens, meant to help the sappers continue their work, created cover for German counter attacks. Sometimes the empty casings from the smoke cannisters fell on and injured the Allies holding the heights.

On March 19th, the Allies were in position, holding Castle Hill and some of the switchback road heading up toward the monastery, as well as Hangman’s Hill and a good portion of Cassino town. They were poised for a big forward push.

The Germans counter attacked at Castle Hill, just as the Allies holding it were getting ready to be relieved. In the town, the Maoris attempted to take on the German stronghold in the Continental Hotel, and behind all of the major action, Allied tanks crept through the mountains, hoping to take the Germans by surprise from behind.

However, when the forward tanks were destroyed, they blocked the others from advancing, keeping the “surprise” from being very effective. They were forced to retreat.

The Continental Hotel’s defenses were too strong. Though the New Zealanders took over 100 prisoners, they could not oust the defenders.

Hangman’s Hill and the switchback road area had to be given up, as the Allies pulled back to secure and consolidate the gains they could hold on to.

At the end of the third battle, the Allies still had not reached the Liri Valley. Still, they had made substantial gains in Cassino town and on the slopes of the hills. These gains were costly. In the two battles they engaged in, New Zealand lost 1,600 men, and the 4th Indian division lost over 3,000.

The Fourth (and Final) Battle

A cobbled together Polish flag flies over Monte Cassino. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For the first time in this campaign he (General Alexander) was able to mount an offensive at a time and place of his own choosing instead of being precipitated into action by events and pressures elsewhere.”

Majdalany pg 221

The final battle for the Gustav Line found the Allies in a significantly different situation than the first three. The Anzio beachhead was not in imminent peril, but was holding on and building up. There had been two months to regroup, reorganize and plan, and there was plenty of man-power as the 5th and 8th Armies were side by side. The wet and cold Italian winter had passed meaning that the terrain was considerably friendlier to vehicles.

This battle would look different, too. Rather than advancing in a narrow area, the Allies planned to advance together on a twenty mile wide front.

Elaborate deceptions concealed the date of the offensive from the Germans. Fake plans for an amphibious landing north of Rome were drawn up. The 36th Division was sent to Salerno-Naples to train for the fake landings, and assembly and embarkation areas were marked using a maple leaf symbol for the Canadians (who were really quietly heading for the Cassino front with their markings removed or hidden.) The Air Force did lots of recce fly overs at the false landing site, and the Navy performed fake exercises. Camouflage concealed troop movements and repaired roads. Army groups were moved at night to avoid German observation. The Allies even monitored the volume of their shelling so that the Germans would not notice the arrival of new gun emplacements.

The French packed into the Garigliano bridgehead. The Canadians joined the front, and the Poles took over on Snakeshead Ridge under strict radio silence so that their accent would not give them away. In fact, this effort would be a truly international one, also including Moroccan goumiers, South Africans, Americans, New Zealanders, British and even Italian forces. (If I’ve forgotten anyone, I apologize.)

On May 11, 1944, the guns on the Allied side of the Gustav Line fell silent. The German guns followed suit, which the Allies found so unnerving that someone ordered that they fire occasional bursts, just to break the quiet.

At 11 pm, the real barrage of 1600 guns began, followed by the last Allied offensive for Monte Cassino.

Even with the advantage of numbers, the final battle for the Gustav Line was not an easy one. The German defenders were well-entrenched and determined and it was, at least at first, a battle of attrition. But, by May 18th a cobbled together Polish flag flew on monastery hill, the German line had been broken, and their armies were in a retreat north as the Allies advanced behind them.

Even with splitting this post in two, there was so much to cover—and so much that I still left out! If you have things to add about these battles or this campaign, please, feel free to comment!

I’ll tackle Anzio in a couple of weeks, but at the end of this week I’m looking forward to sharing a more “writerly” post with you. Until then, all the best!

* I recall running across sources when I was first studying the fighting around Cassino that counted the battles differently, saying that there were three main offensives (most likely, I suppose, combining the second and third as they involved the same divisions. I’ll confess—I haven’t gone digging too far to check.) However, for this post I am primarily using Fred Majdalany’s excellent and very readable history, Cassino: Portrait of a Battle, and so am using his break up of the offensives as a guide. (Official Citation Information: Majdalany, Fred. Cassino, Portrait of a Battle. London: Cassell and Co, 1957. Print.)

If you’re interested in more short summaries of the Italian Campaign in WWII, here are links to the other posts in this series:

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: The Italian Campaign in WWII Part 1

Getting a Foothold: The Italian Campaign in WWII Part 2

Through the Rivers and Over the Mountains: The Italian Campaign in WWII Part 3

4 thoughts on “Monte Cassino: Concluded”

  1. A good write up of an epic campaign! Honestly I can never keep straight all the details of the different engagements. The specific breaks and battles are often a little arbitrary anyway, so whether its three or four its not surprising if sources disagree. The story involving the Abbey itself is the ultimate “no win” sort of situation.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! I spent a lot of time on Monte Cassino when I was writing that first book, but just getting all of the details straight again took some doing- it was such a protracted engagement.
      A friend whose family is stationed in Italy visited the rebuilt Abbey this last year- it was interesting seeing their pictures and comparing them with the ones from the WWII histories, and nice to see it rebuilt after all of the terrible destruction.

      Liked by 1 person

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