WITH THE ADRIATIC FRONT gripped by winter, Allied High Command proceeded with plans on the other side of Italy. Preparations were made for a landing at Anzio, 30 miles south of Rome, in conjunction with a drive up the Pontine Marshes along the Tyrrhenian Sea. For this operation, Fifth Army was strengthened at .the expense of Eighth Army, and certain formations took the roads to the west. Eighth Army in turn drew from other theatres. Early in January a new but very well-known divisional flash appeared in the Adriatic sector. Fourth Indian Division had arrived from Egypt and had moved up to enter the line near Orsogna.
This veteran formation, the victors of Sidi Barrani, Keren, and a score of battles in Western Desert and Tunisia, had earned world fame. In four years the Red Eagle Division had suffered 25,000 casualties, had taken over 100,000 prisoners, and had travelled more than 10,000 miles. Certain of the older units had disappeared, but it was pleasing to note on arrival in Italy that 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, which had been destroyed at Tobruk, had been reconstituted and that the long-standing association with British gunners remained unchanged. The battle order of the Division was as follows:
|5th Indian Infantry Brigade,
(Brigadier D. R. Bateman, D.S.O., O.B.E.)
|1/4th Essex Regiment. |
1/6 Rajputana Rifles.
1/9 Gurkha Rifles.
|7th Indian Infantry Brigade,
(Brigadier Q. de T. Lovett, D.S.O.)
|1st Royal Sussex. |
4/16 Punjab Regiment.
1/2 Gurkha Rifles.
|11th Indian Infantry Brigade,
(Brigadier V. C. Griffin)
|2nd Cameron Highlanders. |
4/6 Rajputana Rifles.
2/7 Gurkha Rifles.
|Divisional Reconnaissance Regiment||Central India Horse.|
|Machine Gun Battalion||5th Machine Gun Battalion |
|Artillery||1st Field Regiment R.A. |
11th Field Regiment R.A.
31st Field Regiment R.A.
149th Anti-Tank Regiment R.A.
57th Light A.A. Regiment R.A.
|Engineers||4th, 12th and 21st Field Companies (Sappers and Miners). |
11th Field Park Company.
5th Bridging Platoon.
|Medical Services||17th, 26th and 32nd Field Ambulances.
15th Indian Field Hygiene Section.
The Orsogna battlefield, where Fourth Division relieved the New Zealanders between January 15th and 17th, had yielded little gains after months of heavy fighting. Orsogna stood on a high ridge above the river Moro, with the main road from Central Italy to the Adriatic running along the crest. The town had been fortified to fortress strength, and had thwarted the utmost efforts of the New Zealanders to secure it. When Fourth Indian Division faced this formidable position, it was in anticipation of a stern struggle. High Command however willed otherwise. After a fortnight's seasoning in the forward positions, during which 4/16 Punjabis of 7th Brigade showed that they had lost nothing of their old art of worrying the enemy, Fourth Division was relieved and warned for transfer to Fifth Army.
Eighth Indian Division, which had had little more than a glimpse of its famous comrades, continued to man a two-brigade sector in the centre of Eighth Army. The front was static, but the monotonous B.B.C. announcement, "Little to report from the Adriatic sector. Patrolling continues--- often did less than justice to the situation. Nearly every night fighting flared up, as patrols clashed or raiding parties overran outposts. The following despatch from an Indian Army Observer describes routine conditions:
"Most of our front-line troops---British, Indian and Gurkhas---live in farmhouses on the hillsides. When dusk comes, patrols go out to investigate houses opposite, where movement has been seen during the day. Many small bitter encounters occur in the darkness when our men surround suspected enemy strongholds, sometimes only a few hundred yards from our line. A number of prisoners have been taken in this nerve-racking business. The operations are reminiscent of the 'No Man's Land' patrols of the last war in Flanders. Since the enemy operates in much the same manner as ourselves, houses on our side of the line are constantly guarded against German 'rustlers', who swoop out of the darkness to snatch prisoners. Several such 'cutting-out' parties have been beaten off with loss.
"Two of the stealthiest peoples in the world---both expert woodsmen and trackers---roam nightly in No Man's Land, giving the Germans the jitters. They are Gurkhas and North American Indians from the Canadian Rockies. The other night two patrols went out together. The Gurkha hillmen carried tommy guns and their dreaded kukris. The Canadian scout patrol, consisting of four trappers, two cowpunchers and two North-American Indians, were armed with automatic weapons and hunting knives. One of the North-American Indians---who looked very like a Gurkha himself except that he was taller---said to me in a broad Canadian accent: 'This is the first time that we have seen the Gurkhas, and boy, are they good? I thought I knew a bit about tracking, but I can't teach those boys anything. I'm mighty proud to be associated with them.'
"So near to one another are the German and Indian troops in this sector that they have taken to conversations. The other evening a German called out, 'Hallo, Indians! Why don't you go home?' An enraged V.C.O., who spoke English, shouted back, 'I did not come all the way from El Alamein to go home. It is you who will go!' The Germans went next day, driven back by this Subedar and his men."
Upon the departure of Fourth Indian Division, Fifth Canadian Armoured Division assumed control of the Orsogna front. This contact developed into one of the warmest associations of the war. For months to come Canadian armour served with Indian Infantry, until the sepoys boasted of Canadian tank regiments with as great pride as they showed in their own battalions. Language imposed no handicap. A lingua franca of which Italian was the base was supplemented by English and Hindustani phrases. Joint training familiarized tank men and infantrymen with each other's problems, and such knowledge evoked the warmest admiration for each other's craft and courage. Co-operation became so close that on one occasion, when supplied with other armour, a Mahratta battalion complained. "Why can we not have our own tanks?" they asked. When a questionnaire requested Indian units to choose British regiments for post-war affiliation, a Punjabi battalion voted unanimously for the 14th (Calgary) Armoured Regiment. Nor was this admiration one-sided. A young Canadian tank officer, decorated for courage and resource in action, summed up the feeling of his men when he said: "When they tell us we are going to be fighting with the Indians we are happy as hell. I hope they feel the same way about us."
Early in February, Eighth Indian Division side-slipped to the left and spread out over a front of nearly twenty miles between Orsogna and the Maiella mountains. The line ran nearly due north and south; its southern flank, which rested against the high spurs of the range, was open. 6th Lancers, the Divisional Reconnaissance Regiment, was made flank guard and given patrol and intelligence responsibilities over the gaps in the line. The first of the Italian partisan detachments to serve under Divisional Command arrived, and made themselves very useful in bushwhacking expeditions across the wild and broken mountain sides. During the next two months the Lancers and Mahratta Anti-tank Gunners embarked on a number of similar expeditions. Observation posts and local guards were shot up, prisoners snatched and communications interrupted. The Indians made such nuisances of themselves that the German Commander in this sector issued a series of exhortations in routine orders. He besought his men to be more alert, to be more offensive-minded, to frustrate the pestiferous Indians at all costs. It seems probable that he made representations further afield, for in March a new German formation, the Three Hundred and Thirty-Fourth Division, entered this sector. The new troops were highly aggressive and thereafter the sepoys had it less their own way. During March a series of grim scuffles occurred, in which both sides took punishment. In one or two ambitious attempts to isolate Indian detachments, as much as a company of the enemy was employed. On one occasion, near the village of Fallascose, a clash led to a fire-fight which lasted for eight hours. In a fierce night encounter, 1/5 Mahrattas taught a German force a sharp lesson with no losses to themselves.
In spite of foul weather and frequently interrupted communications, all divisional services continued to function admirably. Perhaps the most noteworthy if unspectacular achievement was that of the Indian Medical Services. Troops who had never known extreme cold now fought in frozen foxholes, patrolled in a slush and sleet, waded icy rivers, slept in snowdrifts, bivouacked in blizzards. Yet such hardihood had been achieved through adaptability and training that serious illnesses fell to vanishing point, and the general health of the sepoys was so good that an Indian ADMS was able to boast, "If the general health of India was equal to that of our men in Italy, we should be the mightiest nation in the world".
The long tour of Eighth Indian Division on the Adriatic drew to a close. On the night of April 18, Fourth Indian Division returned from Central Italy and relieved their comrades between Orsogna and the Maiellas. Next day, German artillery fired broadsheets into Fourth Division's lines, which read, "It wasn't much of a rest you had, was it? You need not think you will be allowed to complete your rest in this sector, although you may have been told that it was quiet here." This rapid identification illustrates the difficulty of maintaining field security in a countryside lately liberated from the enemy.
Three Hundred and Thirty-Fourth Division continued to be cocky. On Hitler's birthday (April 20th) they dressed Orsogna with flags and bunting, and displayed arrogant notice-boards which invited the Indians to participate in the celebration. As if further to mark the day, ten Focke-Wulfes bombed an Indian dressing station in Lanciano, causing 180 casualties. It is hoped that a reprisal shoot on Orsogna interfered to some degree with the celebration. A more potent response to the enemy challenge was the arrival (also on Hitler's birthday), of a new Indian formation, which began to relieve the Canadians in the coastal sector. Tenth Indian Division had landed in Italy late in March with the following battle order:
|10th Indian Infantry Brigade
(Brigadier T. N. Smith, O.B.E.)
|1/2 Punjabis. |
4/10 Baluch Regiment.
2/4 Gurkha Rifles.
|20th Indian Infantry Brigade,
(Brigadier J. B. McDonald, O.B.E.)
|8th Manchester Regiment. |
3/5 Mahratta Light Infantry.
2/3 Gurkha Rifles.
|25th Indian Infantry Brigade
(Brigadier Eustace Arderne, D.S.O.)
|1st King's Own Regiment. |
3/1 Punjab Regiment.
3/18 Royal Garhwal Rifles.
|Reconnaissance Regiment||Skinners' Horse.|
|Machine Gun Battalion||1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.|
|Artillery||68th, 97th, and 154th Field Regiments R.A. |
13th Anti-Tank Regiment R.A.
30th Light A.A. Regiment R.A.
|Engineers||5th, 10th and 61st Field Companies. |
Sappers and Miners.
41st Field Park Company.
|Medical Services||14th, 21st and 30th Field Ambulances. |
14th Field Hygiene Section.
Major-General Reid, who won three decorations in his 'teens in the last war, had been a highly regarded commander in the African campaign. From a battalion of Mahrattas in Eritrea, he became Brigadier of the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade in Fifth Indian Division. He commanded the mixed force of Indians and South Africans which captured the Libyan oases of Giarabub and Jalo in 1941. During Rommel's offensive in 1942, after holding El Adem box and fighting a brilliant delaying action over two hundred miles of desert, he was captured just before reaching safety at El Alamein. He escaped through the German lines near Cassino in November 1943, and thereafter assumed command of Tenth Indian Division. A shrewd Scot of imposing physique, with a keen sense of humour, he had proved to be an aggressive, popular and able leader.
On April 22nd, when the relief of the Canadians had been completed, Fourth and Tenth Indian Divisions held the entire Adriatic front between the sea and the Maiellas, a distance of 30 miles. All six brigades were in the line. The left flank of Fourth Division rested on the haunches of Monte Amore, whose snow-covered summits and even contours gave the mountain the appearance of an inverted pudding basin. Here Central India Horse was the chief component of Dawnay Force, a detached group whose mission was to patrol the uplands and to worry the Germans. Dawnay Force entered fully into the spirit of this enterprise, and established itself in the ruins of a number of XVth century robbers' castles on commanding crests. It sallied out to relieve the countryside in a manner not unlike that of the original owners of these habitations. An incident early in April recalled classical history, when a detachment of German ski troops cut off an Indian patrol on the lip of Monte Fara Gorge. Using their greatcoats as the Romans once used their shields, the Indians tobogganed to safety at the bottom of the canyon.
On Tenth Division's front it was not until May 4th, nearly a fortnight after coming into the lines, that the German broadsheets of welcome arrived. Either the enemy's intelligence or his printer had been tardy. General Reid had his own ideas of welcome. He offered a reward of £5 for each prisoner taken. (His A.D.C., a Scots banker in civilian life, was appalled by this commitment, and when £60 had been earned, summarily terminated the offer on the grounds of a technicality.) Although the snow still lingered in the Maiellas, spring had come over the land. With fair weather the Adriatic front wakened from its winter sleep. A correspondent with the forward troops sends an interesting picture of conditions on this thinly-manned front:
"The bleak-looking farmhouses, which dot the countryside, are the scene of many quick, murderous encounters. Both Indian and German detachments live in much the same fashion. Downstairs, in the toolsheds and cattle stalls. the infantry platoons are quartered. The cellar serves as a bolt-hole in emergency. The upper storeys, reached by outside staircases, which give excellent observation, house the machine-gunners, signallers, and other specialists. Everyone moves discreetly during the day to avoid unwelcome attention from enemy guns. When darkness falls, the danger mounts. These farmhouses nearly all have blind walls, behind which a raiding party may approach unseen. Throughout the night, therefore, sentries are stationed on all sides in slit trenches. Alarm wires are strung and likely approaches are mined or booby-trapped. The technique of surprise, like the precautions against it, demand courage and resourcefulness of a high order, as well as skill in battle tactics which are a mixture of gangster and Red Indian practices."
From May onwards, raids and "cutting-out" parties were features of the day's work on all sectors of the Indian front. At first the enemy was in the ascendant. During the first week in May, 214 Gurkhas of 10th Brigade were attacked twice. On the second occasion two platoons were overrun. A counter-attack by their neighbours, 12 Punjabis, chased back the enemy. Next night 2/3 Gurkhas on 20th Brigade front, were similarly raided. Stubborn hand-to-hand fighting ensued before the Germans withdrew. On Fourth Division's front, 1/9 Gurkhas and 3/10 Baluchis likewise were attacked. The assault on the Gurkhas was particularly severe, the raiders being estimated at the strength of a half-battalion. At dawn on May 14th a sharp shoot descended on 11th Brigade's front between Arielli and Orsogna, where the right forward company of 3/12 Frontier Force Regiment was stationed on a neck of land between three convergent valleys. Emerging from these valleys, a substantial German force, supported by tanks, overran the Frontiersmen. A counter-attack by a reserve company failed to eject the enemy, and it was not until evening that the intervention of the 2nd Camerons restored the situation. In this fighting, 11th Brigade suffered 150 casualties.
To these assaults the Indians reacted with characteristic vigour. On Tenth Division's front, 1/2 Punjabis crossed a stream, and in a wild Donnybrook in the dark, destroyed an enemy post and took prisoners. On the next night, 3/18 Garhwalis raided with equal success. Fighting patrols from the King's Own and Mahrattas stalked and scuppered enemy outposts on successive evenings. At midnight on May 23rd a company of 2/3 Gurkhas, in a sudden onset at Lone House, depleted the ranks of Two Hundred and Seventy-Eighth German Division by 20 killed and 3 prisoners. 8th Manchesters about the same time bumped an enemy patrol and inflicted casualties.
Under this pummelling the aggressiveness oozed out of the enemy. Intelligence. reports showed German commanders to be jumpy. Wireless intercepts from isolated posts were couched in plaintive key. British and Indian soldiers, in the idiom of the battlefield, told each other that there was a flap on over the way. An officer in an Indian observation post sent this characteristic message:
"A white flag has been seen waving frantically in the area C279134. Later a man began to crawl towards our lines. He has not yet arrived, but tea for fifty had been laid on."
In view of the possibility of an enemy withdrawal on the Adriatic front, both Indian divisions undertook to pin down their adversaries and to keep them under strict observation. During the last days of May, heavy German transport movements to the north were reported. Attempts to explore enemy positions, however, led to clashes which proved the enemy still to be holding in force. A combined patrol of Manchesters and Central India Horse was cut up on a risky expedition among the foothills of the Maiellas. Royal Sussex, on 7th Brigade's front, and both Camerons and Frontier Force Regiment on 11th Brigade's front, ran into trouble when they attempted to probe too intimately.
At the end of May, a regrouping of forces in the. Adriatic sector occurred. The Italian Utili Division arrived to relieve Fourth Indian Division on the Orsogna front. Their advance parties came forward with bands playing and with flags flying. The German artillery greeted such advertisement of intentions with a heavy shoot which interfered to some extent with the relief. Fourth Indian Division side-slipped on to the coastal sector, and on June 4th relieved Tenth Indian Division, which left at once for Central Italy. Fourth Divisional Artillery remained behind Orsogna in support of the Italians, while the guns of the Third Carpathian Division covered the Indians on the coast. A few of the old hands still remained who remembered the Carpathian Brigade which served beside them on the drive into Cyrenaica in 1941.
On June 7th a deserter from Two Hundred and Seventy-Eighth German Division revealed an enemy withdrawal to be imminent. At dawn next morning a Baluchi patrol reported Germans to be marching out of their positions carrying full equipment. At 0800 hours pursuit groups on all three brigade fronts advanced on the trail of the enemy. Simultaneously the Italians on the left discovered their sectors to be open and took up the chase.
Except for minefields along the river Arielli, no obstacles were encountered in the first stages of the pursuit. On the outskirts of Polo, 1/2 Gurkhas mopped up an enemy strong point which included the rather unusual defence of dug-in flamethrowers. Next morning the same battalion drew an enemy counter-attack when the hillmen pressed too closely in the chase. The Germans suffered a number of casualties in this futile enterprise. Thereafter the pace of the advance quickened. The partisans were up all over the countryside, and on more than one occasion these avenging irregulars chased Germans into the arms of the Indians. The Utili Division on the left kept edging across into the east, constricting the communications of Fourth Division until something like a bottle-neck resulted. With only two main roads on which to advance, 7th Brigade covered the entire Divisional front, and 11th Brigade were pushed on to the beaches. There amphibious craft awaited them. 2nd Camerons, with detachments of pioneers were ferried up the coast and landed north of Francavilla.
On June 10th, 1/2 Gurkhas entered Chieti, a sizable market town, where they received a delirious welcome. Here 7th Brigade received the news that 11th Brigade, having taken to the water, might claim the exciting prize of Pescara. Two Cameron officers had set off on bicycles in order to add this important seaport to their 'game book'. 7th Brigade countered by despatching its reconnaissance squadron and a Sherman tank, with instructions to hurry. The result of the race was close, and is still a matter of dispute. Pescara was found to be looted and deserted.
The last of the Indian divisions now prepared to leave the Adriatic front. On June 13th, Third Carpathian Division took over from the Fourth Indian Division, which withdrew to a training area at Campobasso in preparation for transfer to Central Italy.
FROM TIME TO TIME, divisions were relieved on the Adriatic coast and disappeared. All took the roads to Central Italy, where in turn they were committed to the epic struggle for Cassino.
This battle stands in the heroic category of Dunkirk, Stalingrad and Caen. Despite staggering losses the men of the United Nations strove for months to break the German defences at their strongest point. This narrative deals only with the fortunes of the Indian Divisions. It must not be forgotten that other troops shared in full measure the same disasters and contributed equally to the victory. Fourth Indian Division was not the only division to be well-nigh destroyed at Cassino, nor Eighth Indian Division the only formation to smash through. The story of Cassino is a saga of valour and endurance shared by all.
On the Adriatic coast the Gustav Line, based on a succession of ridges and rivers, constituted a flexible zone of defence. When it entered the mountains it became rigid. The key, the arch-essential bastion of these fixed positions, lay in the spacious valley of the Liri, some sixty miles south-east of Rome. Here a great abrupt buttress of the Matesi mountains towers above the countryside, commanding all approaches from east, south and west. Its crest is Monte Cairo, a huge cone rising five thousand feet above the valley. From this eminence a spade-shaped promontory of high ground thrusts down for ten miles to end in a high and almost sheer tip, which overlooks the valley of the Rapido to the east, and the valley of the Liri to the north-west. This is Monastery Hill. The little town of Cassino snuggles around its haunches. Route 6, one of the main roads linking Rome and Naples, comes up from the south, crosses the Rapido and swings through Cassino Town before turning to the north-west along the eastern slope of the Liri valley.
A second road to Rome traverses the reclaimed Pontine marshes along the Tyrrhenian coast. This road had been heavily damaged by bombing. Moreover, its low-lying water meadows, checkerboarded with drainage rhines, offered serious obstacles to mechanized advance. These circumstances accentuated the. importance of the Liri thoroughfare.
The river Liri follows the western or opposite wall of the valley, and does not approach Cassino. Its principal tributary, the Gari, rises in the mountains a few miles behind the town. Before the Gari reaches Cassino it is joined by a substantial stream from the north-east which is known as the Rapido. After the Rapido flows into the Liri, another change of name occurs, and the river is known as the Garigliano. Lest these different names confuse, in this narrative the river will be known as the Rapido, and the valley as the Liri.
Soldiers have been no uncommon sight. on the streets of Cassino. Year by year staff officers have come to lecture and to arrange exercises on a site which was familiar to military scholars as a model of impregnable terrain. of this set piece battlefield, Monastery Hill is the key. Monte Cairo is imposing, even awesome to the eye, but although its crest commands a vast area of countryside, it can be by-passed and neutralized if its slopes are beleaguered. But nothing can traverse the Liri or Gari-Rapido valleys save by consent of Cassino. If the Allies wished to strike for Rome by way of the main highway, they must first secure the heights with the Monastery upon its crest. Towering above precipitous slopes, as if in middle air, the great Benedictine hospice had been converted into a fortress during the nineteenth century. Even in the days of unlimited high explosive this lofty keep constituted a formidable obstacle. An imposing gate set in arches of stone thirty feet thick offered the only entrance. The walls were fifteen feet high, ten feet thick at their bases, loop-holed and tesselated. They were unscaleable and proof against any weapons which infantry might bring to bear.
In January the first battle for Cassino had been mounted on a grand scale. Three corps struck from three sides, while a fourth corps endeavoured to turn the position by a sea landing at Anzio. On the extreme left of a battlefront of more than twenty miles, Tenth British Corps attacked below the junction of the Gari and Liri rivers, seeking to bypass Cassino. In the centre U.S. Second Corps launched a frontal assault across the Rapido towards the high escarpments between Monte Cairo and Monastery Hill. On the right French Expeditionary Corps drove from the north-east in an endeavour to infiltrate behind Monte Cairo, and to amputate the enemy's mountain defences in entirety.
The centre failed to win home, and without success in the centre gains on the flank meant nothing. The American attack was thwarted by the unshakable grip of the enemy on the ridges and spurs above the valley of the Rapido. Murderous fire took a fearful toll. Foiled in their first assault the Americans mounted their next attack further to the north. After terrific fighting they forced their way across the Rapido and seized high ground in the rear of the main Cassino position. On January 29th they opened a third offensive with a double thrust, one division attacking southwards along the bottom of the Rapido valley, another along the crest of the escarpments above it. Six days of fluctuating fighting followed. A great effort hurled the enemy from Monte Castellone. By working down a long crest, afterwards known from its shape on the contour map as Snake's Head Ridge, advanced assault troops fought to within a few hundred yards of Monastery Hill. Here they were pinned down by fire from three sides. Within bow shot of the Monastery walls progress became impossible. The Americans had battled with dourness and gallantry beyond all praise, but they were fought out. It was time for others to take over.
Across the mountains from Eighth Army came two great divisions whose names had been a by-word throughout years of hard fighting in Africa. It is doubtful if two military formations composed of men of different race and culture ever achieved a closer association and a more comprehensive understanding than the Second New Zealand and Fourth Indian Divisions. They had been partners in hazardous enterprises from the beginning. Far back in 1940, before the New Zealand Division had reached Middle East, Kiwi lorry drivers accompanied Fourth Indian Division in the battle of Sidi Barrani. They raced their vehicles to within 150 yards of the walls of Tummar, and leapt down to charge beside the sepoys who stormed the camp. In the autumn offensive of 1941 the two Divisions served each other faithfully in the fighting along the Libyan escarpment. In Tunisia they had assailed the Mareth Line and the Enfidaville positions together. They had never failed each other. Year by year mutual understanding and appreciation increased. As fighting men they were of one piece---the warp and woof of an unsurpassed military fabric. Others boasted for them that they were the two finest Divisions in the Allied Armies.
This happy relationship was confirmed by the personal friendship of Lieut.-General Sir Bernard Freyburg and Major-General F. S. Tuker. To General Freyburg's great battle knowledge, General Tuker added outstanding comprehension of the fundamental problems of modern warfare. A military commentator once declared: "General Tuker's skill and training of infantry for war, and their leading in battle, is of such an original yet practical kind as to border on genius." Mountain warfare was his speciality. His etcher's eye (he is an artist of standing) for fine gradations of perspective, enabled him to master, as few commanders, the lie of a battlefield. In this new grim operation he promised to prove an exceedingly able lieutenant to an old colleague, and the long-standing illness which forced him into hospital just before the battle begun was not the least of the misfortunes of Indian troops in this ill-fated enterprise.
For the attack on Cassino General Freyburg became commander of the New Zealand Corps, which included his own Division, Fourth Indian Division with additional armour, artillery and ancillary troops. The plan for the new battle was in effect a continuation of the operation undertaken by Second U.S. Corps. Twin assaults would be mounted simultaneously on the high ground above the Rapido and along the bottom of the valley into Cassino Town. Fourth Indian Division would attack on the crests of the ridges, reaching for Monastery Hill from the north. The New Zealanders would advance from the east, crossing the Rapido for a frontal assault on the town. As prelude to this attack 7th Indian Brigade would relieve troops of Thirty-fourth U.S. Division on Point 593, the highest ground on Snake's Head Ridge. This saddle-back ran into the west about one thousand yards in the rear of the Monastery. The ridge was twelve hundred yards in length, a narrow crest with deep ravines on either side. it was approached by a ford over the Rapido, and by a mountain track which climbed its slopes some distance north of Cassino Town.
Seen from afar the Monte Cairo or Cassino massif appears bare and smooth, with little natural cover. Closer inspection reveals it to comprise rough and broken ground with ridges, knolls and hollows everywhere. Thick scrub affords ample cover in many places. The ridges have precipitous slopes and razor-backed crests bestrewn with giant boulders. Indeed every resource of nature seemed designed to protect the defenders and to harass and to hinder their assailants. German engineers had exploited these advantages of terrain. Every nook and cranny of the dead ground held weapon pits. Emplacements had been blasted out of solid rock; pillboxes of steel and concrete had been built in. Outposts were connected by tunnels and covered by aprons of mines. These minefields in turn were commanded by machine-gun nests approximately fifty yards apart. Between these nests storm troopers waited in foxholes, each with an automatic weapon and a basket of bombs, to deal with any attempt to infiltrate into the position.
Fifteenth Panzer Grenadier Division held Cassino Town, Monastery Hill and Snake's Head Ridge. These men were tough veterans of a dozen battlefields. Their commander, Major-General Baade, was one of the younger German senior officers. His instructions came direct from Hitler and were unequivocal. Political as well as military considerations dictated that Cassino must be held, whatever the cost.
The men of Fourth Indian Division were well aware of the gravity of the task which confronted them. On his initial reconnaissance Brigadier Lovett of 7th Brigade had noted the extreme exhaustion of American troops, and on his return had recommended that their relief should be expedited. Isolated, frozen, battered by right and by day, handfuls of indomitable men clung to positions which they had clawed from the grip of the enemy. Six American regiments---eighteen battalions in all---were distributed between Monte Castellone and Cassino Town. These units had lost eighty per cent. of their effectives. The regiment on Snakes Head Ridge had only four hundred men standing. Here the enemy held the ruins of an old fort on the high western tip, and from this lookout brought fire to bear on every yard of the crest of the ridge. The only cover consisted of shallow saucers scraped out among the rocks, and two-man sangars of the type common on the North-West Frontier of India. These exposed positions had seen continuous and heavy fighting for some days before the Indians arrived. Numerous German counter-attacks sought to prise the Americans from their hard-won ground. More than 150 dead on one company front testified to the bitterness of the struggle.
The relief of the Americans was scheduled for the night of February 12th. For some days previously Fourth Indian Division had been organizing on a mule pack basis. In addition to the Indian mule companies, a heterogeneous assemblage of French, American and Italian mules of diverse training, habits and temper had been recruited: the Divisional transport services will not readily forget those days. A first attempt to open a way forward through the lines of the famous I 33rd Japanese-American Regiment, on the left of the Divisional front, failed because not even mules could negotiate the terrain, and porter companies were not yet available. The approach therefore was shifted into the north, by way of Cairo village in the Rapido valley. Less than three miles from this hamlet, Monte Castellone was proving a soft spot in the Allied lines. Strong enemy fighting patrols had infiltrated, and it became necessary to deploy two battalions of 7th Brigade as a covering force until the Americans could deal. with the intruders. The relief of Snake's Head therefore was postponed for twenty-four hours until the situation around Monte Castellone had stabilized.
On February 13th 7th Brigade's assembly area came under long-range artillery fire and casualties resulted. After nightfall the Indians moved off over the only available route, a rough mountain track which had deteriorated under heavy use. The enemy was alert, and the relief was shelled and mortared from the time it crossed the Rapido. Cautiously the Royal Sussex filtered platoons forward until they reached the shoulders of the ridge below Point 593. Here the outpost lines were only a few yards apart. The much enduring American garrison was relieved. It was necessary to carry out the last fifty men on stretchers. On the left of the Sussex 4/16 Punjabis groped forward to occupy the southern slopes of the ridge. When the inclement dawn broke 7th Brigade represented a spearhead thrust into the heart of the Monastery defences. The Sussex and the Punjabis formed the point of the spear, Thirty-Sixth U.S. Division to the north and Thirty-Fourth U.S. Division to the south, its blade and haft.
Across the Valley of the Rapido, five to six thousand yards south-east of Cassino, strong groups of artillery prepared for action. In the neighbourhood of Monte Croce, a peak capped with an ancient castle, guns were massed in a manner reminiscent of the wheel-to-wheel concentrations of the Great War. A battery commander describes his position thus:
"At least my battery is not in full view of Monastery Hill as are the other batteries. It shares a gully with New Zealand gunners and with a battery of 11 Field Regiment. Over the road are six U.S. 155s. just behind us is a battery of American 105s and some British mediums."
This artillery target encouraged the enemy to risk his aircraft in a series of tip-and-run raids. These sudden exciting sorties did little damage, but they gave 57 L.A.A. Regiment an opportunity to prove that their shooting had not deteriorated since Western Desert days, when the sepoys credited this fine unit with marksmanship bordering on the miraculous. Seven aircraft destroyed over the Rapido valley within a week brought the Regiment's bag for the war to 103 victims counted on the ground, as well as more than 300 planes damaged in the air. These gunners had engaged enemy tanks over open sights near Benghazi in 1942. It is believed that their total kill exceeds that of any other anti-aircraft unit in the war.
The Air Forces likewise concentrated for the battle. Until now the Benedictine Monastery had been spared. The Germans declared no fighting formations to be in garrison and that the buildings housed only refugees from Cassino Town. Whatever the truth of such claim, it was apparent that the Monastery served as the enemy's main observation post. Warnings were dropped that aerial bombardment was imminent, and large groups of British and American aircraft were briefed for the Operation.
The attack was originally planned to begin on the night of February 12/13th. Delays in relief and incessantly foul weather necessitated adjournment. The flooding of air-strips grounded many of the bomber groups, and the New Zealand Armoured Brigade, which was to support the assault on Cassino Town, was bogged down in the Rapido Valley. Some of the objectives of the Kiwis were under water. It was not until February 15th that the weather improved sufficiently for the battle to open.
At 0800 hours on that day the first of fifteen waves of aircraft bombed Monastery Hill. During the morning and afternoon 35 tons of bombs were dropped. Visibility was low, and stray bombs fell on the Indian positions on Snake's Head Ridge, inflicting 24 casualties. Forward posts were withdrawn to avoid additional losses. Observing this movement, the enemy in an intercepted wireless message exulted rather prematurely in the retirement of "Indian troops with turbans". The air bombardment inflicted great damage on the Monastery buildings without impairing their value as fortifications and observation posts. Nowhere were the breaches in the walls complete. Except in the case of direct hits, pillboxes and concrete emplacements remained unscathed. Nor could the artillery intervene effectively in direct support of the assault troops. Indian positions were so close to those of the enemy that a barrage programme was impossible and the fire plan had to be restricted to counter-battery work and concentration shoots on forming-up areas. These handicaps imposed a grim necessity. The Infantry must do the job single-handed.
A further and equally ominous circumstance was that the naked slopes of Snake's Head Ridge prevented reconnaissance and investigation of the enemy's positions. From the forward posts only rocky hillsides and patches of scrub could be seen. The Germans might hold the summit of Point 593 in battalion or platoon strength; his forces could only be estimated in terms of supply possibilities. It was this uncertainty which led to a conference summoned by the Divisional Commander at 7th Brigade Headquarters on the morning of February 15th. All intelligence submitted at that meeting suggested the impossibility of carrying Point 593 and Monastery Hill in a single operation. Point 593 was therefore declared a preliminary objective and the Royal Sussex were ordered to secure complete possession that night. The main attack on the Monastery would be launched twenty-four hours later.
During their forty-eight hours on the exposed crest of Snake's Head Ridge, the Sussex had been unable to make other than the simplest preparations for the assault. They were blind by day, since any movement drew intense fire. After darkness, the lie of the ground was so difficult that patrols brought only confused and hazy reports. Uncertainty as to the enemy's strength was linked to the impossibility of deploying substantial forces on a narrow and exposed start line. The first attack therefore was little more than a try-out. On the night of February 15th, one company moved forward. The German outposts were on the alert. Heavy and accurate machine-gun and mortar fire swept the forming-up area. The men who had carried Libyan Omar by storm dourly charged uphill. Seventy yards ahead they encountered an impassable palisade of boulders. Intense fire searched the darkness, pinning the South-Countrymen to the ground. After several unsuccessful attempts to outflank and to by-pass this obstacle the Sussex withdrew, having suffered twenty casualties.
On the following night the entire battalion mustered for the attack. By 2200 hours the forward company had found its way around the obstacle of the previous night, and had gained a footing on the approaches to Point 593. From behind boulders and from foxholes dug under rocky ledges the panzer grenadiers buffeted the advance with bursts of automatic fire and with showers of grenades. A second company pushed up to thicken the line. A magnificent charge headed by Lieut. Dennis Cox won home, and the Sussex caught their breath amid the ruins of the small fort. Then came a fatal misunderstanding ---an enemy signal flare was interpreted as instructions to withdraw. Before dawn the Sussex abandoned this key position, which was never regained. Such unhappy errors had profound effects. Before the battle was resumed on February 17th it had become a Divisional instead of a Brigade operation. With increased resources the plan reverted to the original conception---a non-stop drive to the summit of Monastery Hill. For this assault 4/6. Rajputanas and 1/9 Gurkhas were placed under command of 7th Brigade.
At midnight on February 17th 4/6 Rajputana Rifles, with three companies of the Sussex, were ordered to destroy the enemy on Point 593, and thereafter to seize Point 445, within 800 yards of the rear of the Monastery. Two hours later, 1/2 and 1/9 Gurkhas would smash through to storm the Monastery itself, thereafter advancing down the hillside to establish contact with the New Zealanders. The remaining battalions of 5th Indian Brigade (1/4 Essex and 1/6 Rajputana Rifles) would wait a success signal from the Monastery before moving to an attack on Cassino Town from the north. The other battalions of 11th Brigade---2/7 Gurkhas and 2nd Camerons---would supply porters and support companies for the assault groups. Simultaneously the New Zealand Division would launch an all-out attack on Cassino Town from the south-east.
This plan subjected the German positions to the shock of heavy forces from three sides. Nevertheless the key to the battle lay in the hands of the two Gurkha battalions. Should the agile hillmen win to the summit, as at Fatnassa and Djebel Garci, success was certain. Should they fail, there could be. no victory. As midnight struck on February 17th, 4/6 Rajputana Rifles, heroes of a dozen desperate encounters, flung themselves in a fierce onslaught at Point 593. Yard by yard they closed upon their enemies. Once again a blaze of fire raked the slopes, and held the gallant Indians from the close. Major Markham. Lee with a handful of men reached the crest and died there By 0330 hours the attack was at a standstill. Nevertheless "B" and "C" Companies of 1/2 Gurkhas came forward, formed up on the left and began to work downhill towards Point 445.
A patch of scrub such as abounded on the ridges loomed in the darkness ahead. There had been no opportunity to reconnoitre this undergrowth, but since it was thin elsewhere and no impediment to free movement, it had not been considered a serious obstacle. A strong body of Germans had crept up and established themselves undetected in this covert within a stone's throw of the Indian positions. A thick seeding of mines with tripwires skirted the approaches; hidden in the scrub the storm troopers waited with tommy-guns at the ready. As the Gurkhas attempted to worm through the copse, the leading platoon blew up on the mines almost to a man. A hail of bullets and grenades followed. Lieut.-Colonel Showers fell seriously wounded. Two-thirds of the leading companies were struck down within five minutes, yet the hillmen continued to bore in, reaching for their enemies. Naik Bir Bahadur Thapa although wounded in a dozen places emerged on the enemy's side of the copse with a few survivors and established a foothold. It was to no avail; in that deadly undergrowth dozens lay dead, many with four or more tripwires around their legs. Only a handful remained to be recalled to defensive positions at dawn. Stretcher-Bearer Sher Bahadur Thapa traversed this fearful undergrowth no less than sixteen times in order to bring out wounded comrades. (He was killed soon afterwards.)
Concurrently "A" and "D" Companies, with companies from 1/9 battalion in close support, picked their way around the left flank of the holocaust in the scrub, and worked steadily forward in the darkness towards the Monastery. Shortly before dawn "B" Company managed to effect a lodgement on Point 445. Eight hundred yards away a dark defiant height marked the supreme prize. Three companies of 1/9 Gurkhas closed up. They stood in the midst of a ring of enemies, embedded in the heart of the defences. Fire rained on them from three sides. Enemy sources afterwards reported an attack repulsed from the Monastery walls, and months later a colonel of paratroopers, captured near Florence, declared that he had led the counter-attack which had destroyed Gurkhas who had penetrated into the fortress itself. He was a pompous conceited man, who probably lied: but there are reasons to believe that a small great-hearted group, seven against a city, continued to seek the enemy until death closed on them.
At daybreak bitter fighting still raged around the key position of the old fort on Point 593. Attack after attack took toll until the enemy succeeded in winning back part of the crest. A fourth company of Rajputanas had been thrown in at 0430 hours but had failed to regain the summit. Indians and Sussex dug in together on the reverse slopes, with the enemy in mastery above them. A thousand yards beyond, the breaking light found the Gurkhas endeavouring to scratch meagre cover on the scrabbly summit of Point 445. To continue the advance by day would have been suicidal, and until Point 593 was cleared of the last enemies, it was impossible for supplies to pass forward. There was no alternative therefore but to withdraw from Point 445 under cover of darkness. As always in the Cassino fighting, gains of ground meant little; it was the Monastery or nothing. An assault mounted with consummate gallantry had failed to win home. The task was too great.
During this bleak winter night, when the ridges and hilltops spurted flame and re-echoed with the crash of bombs, in the valley of the Rapido and on the approaches to Cassino Town the New Zealanders had thrown in a great attack. Everywhere they encountered the same bitter unyielding resistance as their comrades on the heights above them. A precarious bridgehead across the Rapido was established through which the Kiwis advanced to their assault upon the town. A Maori battalion under intense mortar and machine-gun fire dashed across a minefield, slashed its way through belts of wire, and stormed Cassino railway station. If this position could have been held, the enemy garrison in Cassino would have been in jeopardy. Unfortunately dawn came too soon; in spite of herculean efforts New Zealand sappers had been unable to bridge the Rapido, and essential support arms, particularly tanks and anti-tank guns, could not reach the forward infantry. After continuous bombardments throughout the morning, a strong enemy counter-attack with tanks in the van retook the railway station. The Maori garrison was overrun. The remainder of the New Zealand infantry then withdrew across the river. Except for an attempt on the night of February 28th on the part of 4/16 Punjabis and 2/7 Gurkhas to improve their positions on the southern slopes of Snake's Head Ridge, the first assault on Cassino had ended.
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