IT WOULD BE UNJUST to gloss the failure of the New Zealand and Indian divisions in their first attack upon Cassino. In fighting as intense, as heroic as any in history, two veteran formations had smashed without gain against this his well-nigh impregnable position.
Every variation of plan of battle led into a cul de sac, with enemies on all sides. There appeared to be particularly pertinent objections to continuing the attack on the high ground. The operations on the hilltops accentuated the difficulty of striking a balance between what the battle demanded, and what it was possible to supply. It obviously required more than one brigade to storm Monastery Hill; yet on Snake's Head Ridge it was impossible to deploy even a brigade. Moreover, it was only by the efforts of the remainder of the Division that a single brigade could be maintained in these forward positions.
All supplies were fetched over a single track to the ford on the Rapido, under direct observation by the enemy. An officer wrote of "the eerie feeling of crossing miles of open ground with the eyes of enemies watching you from above." In the Cairo village concentration area the Divisional vehicles bogged down hopelessly before reaching the forward dumps; only the loan of six wheeled American lorries kept the supply line open. A single train to Snake's Head Ridge absorbed five companies of porters and 800 mules. The stormy winter weather added a final and almost decisive complication. Every journey forward became a nightmare which strained the maintenance services to the utmost. Further responsibilities would have incurred the risk of breakdown.
Nevertheless, neither Allied High Command nor the battered New Zealand and Indian divisions were prepared to accept a first failure as final. As soon as positions were consolidated, the planning of another battle began. The new scheme began by recognizing the enemy positions to be mutually supporting. Either they must be stormed simultaneously, or overrun consecutively. In the first battle the sharp thrust at the heart had failed. It was now decided to begin at the northern limits of the Cassino position and to roll up the defences one by one until Monastery Hill alone remained. Except for a diversionary feint the high ground to the rear of the Monastery would be disregarded. The New Zealanders would move down the Rapido Valley and force an entrance into Cassino Town from the north. When they had effected a foothold, Fourth Indian Division would advance on the right flank of the Kiwis, reducing the fortifications of the hillside above the town. When the attack had won around the shoulder of the Monastery glacis onto its western flanks, an assault upwards to seize Hangman's Hill would be launched.
On paper the new operation looked tidier than its predecessor. Indian and New Zealand troops would be attacking on parallel rather than on convergent axes. Gains either in Cassino Town or on the hillside above it would react to mutual advantage. The chief drawback to the scheme was the bottleneck between the escarpment and the town through which the Indians would enter the battle. A knoll about four hundred feet in height, bearing a castle on its crest, stood above the town like a preacher above his congregation. There was no entrance onto the slopes of Monastery Hill except through this pulpit. Below it, the fringes of the town lapped up to the Castle walls; on the upper side a deep gorge offered an impassable approach. Further to the south, and likewise standing on the hillside above the town, the Continental Hotel had been converted into a strong point covering east, west and south. The road from Cassino Town to the Monastery wound up the hillside in a series of sharp switchbacks. Each of its hairpin bends had been strongly fortified. Should an attack on the lower levels secure the Castle and Continental Hotel, the switchback strong points would continue to bar any advance up the slopes.
Above the switchbacks, and only two hundred yards below the crest from which the walls of the Monastery rose sheerly, a second pulpit, a rocky platform bearing the concrete pylon of an aerial ropeway, abutted from the mountain side. The gibbet-like structure gave this protuberant pimple the ominous name of Hangman's Hill. It was sufficiently close to the summit to be in part dead ground.
As preliminary to the major battle a New Zealand brigade undertook to storm Castle Hill. Through this corridor the Indians would sally on to the hillside, working along the slopes southward and upwards to secure Hangman's Hill as the jump-off position for the final assault upon the Monastery.
5th Indian Brigade was briefed to open the new battle. Those battalions which had been operating under 7th Brigade command on Snake's Head Ridge were withdrawn for a brief period of rest and preparation. 7th Brigade reinforced by 2/7 Gurkhas and 2nd Camerons assumed command of the Divisional front. The operation was planned for February 24th, but before it could be launched, winter struck with all the violence of a fresh foe. Rain froze into sleet, sleet turned to snow, snow to blizzards followed by high winds and torrential downpours. "The wind," wrote an officer, "holds up everything except the men's tents." Again the sodden air strips grounded the bombers, and in the valley bottoms tanks and vehicles churned the fields into mud sloughs. For 7th Brigade in their naked sangars on Snake's Head Ridge life was nearly unbearable. The enemy was less than 40 yards from the forward positions, and any movement drew retributory fire. Until the elements abated it was out of the question either to improve positions or to launch a fresh attack. Day by day the assault was postponed for upwards of three weeks. During these weeks, the hazard of their positions cost 7th Brigade sixty casualties daily. Never has a severer task confronted Indian troops, and never have they borne hardships and dangers with greater fortitude.
In the second week of March conditions began to improve, and plans for the resumption of the offensive were completed. The new scheme was elaborate and intensive. For three and a half hours before the infantry went in, the strongest air attack yet assembled in Italy would pound Cassino and Monastery Hill. Immediately after the air programme, an equally formidable array of artillery would lay down a four-hour shoot to cover the assault upon Cassino Town. 610 guns of all calibres were enrolled in the concentration which would cast 1,200 tons of shell upon the objectives. Thereafter, 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade, with an armoured regiment in support, would storm Castle Hill, thrusting downwards into Cassino Town. 5th Indian Infantry Brigade would take over on Castle Hill, and would fan out on to the slopes of Monastery Hill, working along the outskirts of Cassino Town until in position to strike upwards for Hangman's Hill. Thereafter a final surge would carry the attack into the breaches of the Monastery.
Simultaneously, 7th Indian Brigade was ordered to undertake an audacious diversionary operation. The main supply route from Cairo Village had been improved from a trail to a track, and was now passable for tanks. Between Snake's Head Ridge and the next high ground to the west, a narrow valley led down past Point 569 and Point 444 almost to the rear walls of the Monastery. It was planned to send 7th Brigade's Reconnaissance Squadron and a troop of American tanks through this gap as a filibuster with intent to cause confusion. Should the surprise be complete, it might even be possible for the tanks to make their way into the Monastery by the back door at a time when the defenders were fully occupied with 5th Brigade's frontal attack.
The enemy was well aware of the massive nature of the assault to come. After the February fighting, Fifteenth Panzer Grenadier Division had been withdrawn, to be replaced by the pride of the German Army, First German Parachute Division. These troops represented the élite of fanatical Nazi manhood. They had been trained never to lose cohesiveness nor the will to resist. If isolated or abandoned, man by man they fought to the death. They were Hitler's chosen warriors, imbued with outstanding esprit de corps and energy.
Their commander, General Richard Heidrich, was an intensified counterpart of his men. of great physical courage, he was ruthless and not over-nice in observing the usages of war. In an order before arrival at Cassino, Heidrich announced that he would hold commanding officers "personally responsible" for the success of the defence. His treatment of senior commanders who did not please him was sufficiently severe to endear him to the rank and file. Not that their lives mattered to him. An ambiguously worded but grim order, issued soon after arrival, implied that his men must regard themselves as more expendable than their mules since a shortage of animals existed.
Seven battalions of paratroopers held Monastery Hill and Cassino Town, with the other three battalions in reserve at Monte Castellone. One hundred and eighty enemy guns covered this narrow front. High angle weapons were sown thickly in the hills behind the Monastery, including a number of "Nebelwerfers", devilish multiple mortars operated by remote control. The Luftwaffe was on tentacle, should the defence require air support.
On March 14th the German intercept service may have been puzzled by a pick-up. "Bradman will be batting to-morrow," it said. That night New Zealanders withdrew from Cassino Town. At 0830 hours next morning, the air attack went in. Three hundred and thirty-eight heavy bombers and one hundred and seventy-six mediums dropped one thousand one hundred tons of bombs. Cassino town crumbled under the devastating hail. A battalion of Third Parachute Regiment is believed to have died almost to a man under the ruins. On the stroke of noon the air onslaught ceased, and massed artillery crashed into action. Behind the barrage 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade moved to the assault.
Four hours later, after bitter and fluctuating fighting, Castle Hill was captured. The New Zealanders continued down the slopes into Cassino Town. As dusk fell, 1/4 Essex, leading 5th Indian Brigade, took over from the Kiwis on Castle Hill and began to fan out on the hillside above the town. One company reached and secured Point 165, the first hairpin bend in the road which climbed to the Monastery. A sapper officer and his sergeant on reconnaissance penetrated as far as the rear of the Continental Hotel strongpoint, and after a series of gangster shooting matches returned with information which suggested that enemy defences on the hill were anything but airtight. The battle had opened auspiciously.
Behind the fighting line, however, fortune had failed the Indians. 1/6 Rajputana Rifles were pressing forward to support the Essex when enemy defensive fire caught them, inflicting many casualties. The night was impenetrably dark, with a thin, soaking rain. Except for the crash of shells on Cassino Town there was little guide to direction. The Rajputanas reached the outskirts to find that under the air bombardment the streets had disappeared. Only masses of rubble and tottering walls stood where a town had been; from deep hide-outs snipers and tommy-gunners crept to blaze at the passing sections from point-blank range. Two companies of Rajputanas made their way through the Castle and joined the Essex at Point 165. The other two companies had been dispersed and were withdrawn from action. An unlucky shell crashed into battalion headquarters and all officers present, including Colonel West and his adjutant, became casualties. Next morning the two forward companies which had reached the Castle, under Major Scaife, were merged into the 4/6 battalion under Colonel Scott.
At 0130 hours Colonel Nangle, commanding 1/9 Gurkhas, came forward to ascertain the position. Finding the Rajputanas to be short of their objectives, he sent two companies to reinforce the attack. Before reaching the Castle, "D" company bumped an enemy group armed with automatic weapons, and lost 15 men within a minute. "C" Company under Captain Drinkall was luckier, reached the Castle, passed through and disappeared across the hillside into the night, seeking the battle.
Thus of the three battalions of 5th Brigade, only two companies of Essex (the other companies being part of the garrison of the Castle), two companies of Rajputanas, and one company of Gurkhas managed to reach the battlefield. Having helped the Essex to consolidate at Point 165, the Rajputanas at 0245 hours moved against Point 236, the next hairpin bend higher up the hillside. Much hung on the capture of this position. Except for the Monastery it was the last strongpoint which gave observation on to the roads to the north along which the attacking troops must advance. It dominated the slopes of Monastery Hill in both directions and could bring flanking fire to bear on any forces which endeavoured to pass below or to climb above it. This valuable position was found to be strongly held. When the Rajputanas had closed to within 150 yards, a blaze of small arms fire swept the slope. The attack broke down and it was necessary to withdraw to the Castle and to reorganize before renewing the assault.
Dawn broke on a wild scene. The New Zealanders, like the Indians, found the air bombardment to have been too thorough. Huge craters had filled with rainwater, and with the streets obliterated the Kiwi armour could not break in to mop up. Those paratroopers who had lived through emerged from their shelters full of fight. A battle on the Stalingrad model developed. Bombers and snipers laboriously cleared a few yards at a time. On the hillside above the town the Essex and Rajputana Rifles experienced equal difficulty in establishing a perimeter around Castle Hill. Every shattered wall, every cellar window, harboured a paratrooper of "C" company of the Gurkhas there was neither sight nor sound. They had gone into the blue and were off the map. It seemed fantastic that a complete company could disappear on a few acres of hillside.
Full daylight revealed the paramount importance of Point 236, the upper hairpin bend. At 0830 hours the Rajputanas drew together for a second try for this key position. The artillery laid down a smokescreen, and the gallant Indians dashed uphill. Once again the attack broke down in the face of overwhelming fire. Fate was against this fine battalion which had fought with conspicuous success from Eritrea onwards.
Throughout the morning, both in Cassino Town and on the hillside, sudden gusts of fighting broke out from time to time, as New Zealanders and Indians, seeking to consolidate their positions, stumbled on stubborn pockets of resistance. Progress was slow, and the battle seemed to drag, when shortly after noon came electrifying news. Corps artillery had asked if it was safe to lay a shoot on Hangman's Hill. The New Zealanders reported that they could see figures around the outcrop, and a little later a faint wireless message came through. The lost company of 1/9 Gurkhas was firmly established on the crest. By one of those freaks of fortune which so often altered history, Captain Drinkall and his men had threaded their way past two battles in the darkness, passing along the narrowest of corridors between the fighting at the hairpin bends and the strong point of Continental Hotel. Across the rocky slopes the Gurkhas worked steadily forward, clambering silently and weaving their way through a maze of defences. They were unsupported and alone in the midst of the enemy. An hour before dawn they scrambled up the last few hundred yards, flung themselves at the crest. and secured only a less prize than the Monastery itself.
This exciting success made it imperative that whatever the risk this gallant company must be supplied and reinforced. Three principal obstacles stood in the way---the northern hairpin bends which the Rajputanas had twice failed to take, the Continental Hotel strongpoint above Cassino Town, and Point 202, a kopje-like knoll near the lowest southern switchback. For supplies to traverse the hillside, they must pass within one hundred and fifty yards of the first two positions before turning directly up the hillside with Point 202 on the flank. It was essential to neutralize these menaces before the lower slopes of Monastery Hill could be controlled.
The New Zealanders undertook to stage an attack that would keep the garrison of Continental Hotel out of the picture. The other obstacles were to be Indian responsibilities. Two companies of Rajputana Rifles would sally from the Castle for the third attack on the upper hairpin bend. The other two companies, with the remaining three companies of 1/9 Gurkhas, would head for Hangman's Hill. Approaching Point 202, the Rajputanas would be detached either to storm or to mask that strongpoint, while the Gurkhas passed through to their objective.
At 1900 hours the evening erupted in smoke and flame as the Indians above and the New Zealanders below swept to the assault. After three hours of stiff fighting, the Rajputanas had carried the upper hairpin bend, although a redoubt above it still held out. Similarly the New Zealand thrust, while not securing Continental Hotel, had engrossed its defenders. At 2000 hours the Gurkhas and the remaining Rajputana companies debouched from the Castle on their perilous passage. With heavy fighting within three hundred yards on either side the Indians gingerly picked their way forward. A bright moon gave a feeling of nakedness to the men who ventured between the crocodile's jaws. As the Gurkhas passed below Point 165 they came under fire from ground supposedly cleansed of the enemy---probably from an enemy party seeking to infiltrate around the flanks of the Rajputanas' assault higher up the slopes. Continental Hotel was negotiated safely, but after turning up the hillside, the Rajputanas lost touch. The Gurkhas plodded steadily upwards, and before dawn reached their comrades of "C" company on the crest of Hangman's Hill. Here they deployed, and only just in time; for as they spread out with "B" Company on the right, "C" and "D" Companies on the platform around the gallows, and "A" Company astride the road on the left, a sharp unheralded counter-attack swept down from the Monastery. Fortunately it struck at the centre of the position. The paratroopers charged into a cone of fire, and fell back in disorder.
Similarly at first light a strong force of Germans came leaping down the hillside upon the newly won upper hairpin bend. These reinforcements threw the hard-fighting Rajputanas back on the lower switchback at Point 165. The morning "sitrep" (situation report) therefore was the customary compound of good and bad. None of the three obstacles had been neutralized, but three additional companies of Gurkhas had filtered through to provide a substantial garrison for Hangman's Hill.
The immediate problem was to supply this garrison. It was now forty-eight hours since "C" company had arrived on Hangman's Hill with a day's rations and filled water-bottles. There was no sign of lessening resistance in Cassino Town: on the contrary, there was evidence that the German commander had now charted the course of the attack, and had recognized the Castle Hill re-entrant to be the critical sector of the battlefield. During the forenoon of March 18th an obstinate series of enemy infiltrations began to establish a cordon around Castle Hill. From broken houses on the upper fringe of the town these groups blazed at any parties which endeavoured to sally from the Castle or to traverse the hillside. Every supply column must run the gauntlet. Even the Castle gate was brought under harassing fire. A state of siege began.
That evening a field company of Sappers and Miners with an Indian pioneer company as porters assembled behind Castle Hill laden with supplies. A strong escort of 4/6 Rajputana Rifles covered the carriers. Soon after leaving the forward dumps the supply column came under fire. It was midnight when the Castle was reached. Ahead the hillside was awake and bickering. It was too risky to take porters further, so the Rajputanas shouldered as many loads as possible and set off across the fire-swept slopes. Well aware of what was under way, the enemy threw a strong raid at Point 165, only two hundred yards above the line of passage of the supply party. Two companies of 1/6 Rajputanas broke up this incursion while their comrades trudged past below them. The. tail of the carrier column was caught in a mortar concentration, badly mauled and disorganized, losing a portion of the supplies. The remainder doggedly plodded on to reach Hangman's Hill shortly before dawn. It was impossible to return during daylight, so the Rajputanas settled down among the Gurkhas in an exposed position, intensifying the shortage of supplies and overcrowding the limited expanse of dead ground.
March 18th passed sullenly, with venomous outbursts of fighting among Cassino rubble heaps and along the Rapido. The gunners had swathed the base of Monastery Hill in a mantle of smoke, to assist the New Zealand sappers who laboured on the bridge sites. Enemy mortar fire was incessant, with occasional salvos from heavy guns, probably eight-inch howitzers. The area below the Castle became more and more thickly infested with enemy snipers and bomb squads. From a strong point in a conspicuous twin towered building, the paratroopers worked upwards to constrict the bottleneck and to cut the flow of men and supplies on to the hillside. (It seems probable that while the Gurkhas were feeling their way through the German defences on the previous night, paratroopers had crept down in similar fashion from the Monastery by way of a ravine to the north of Castle Hill, and had reinforced the pestiferous pockets along the outskirts of the town).
With the Castle closely invested, arrangements were made for an air dropping on Hangman's Hill. On the afternoon of March 19th forty-eight aircraft delivered containers of food, water and ammunition. The mark was so small and the slopes so steep that although the dropping was accurate, many of the containers bounced down the hillside out of reach of the Gurkhas. Sufficient supplies were retrieved to support the garrison on restricted rations.
At nightfall the battle reopened in Castle Hill area. The Essex prepared to extend the perimeter, supported by New Zealand tanks. Unfortunately the angle of fire resulted in a number of "overs" from the tank cannon which crashed through the walls of the Castle, burying Home Countymen who had formed up for the attack. From hideouts along the hillside fixed weapons constantly hosed the Castle gateway with small arms fire, so that the Essex could only move in and out singly and at the double. In spite of such difficulties preparations for renewal of the assault continued. A company of the Machine Gun Battalion of Rajputana Rifles made a trip to Hangman's Hill unmolested. The company of 1/6 Rajputanas which had spent the day with the Gurkhas returned to the Castle carrying wounded and bore back a load of supplies. Towards midnight 4/6 Rajputanas arrived to relieve the Essex, who were ordered to proceed before dawn to stiffen 1/9 Gurkhas for the final assault on the Monastery summit. In the last hours of darkness two companies of the British battalion began to move across the hillside while the third and fourth companies were in process of being relieved at the lower hairpin bend and in the Castle.
In retrospect the optimism of these plans appears surprising. With perfect observation the enemy could scarcely fail to follow the Indian moves. The situation around Castle Hill was steadily deteriorating. The Germans waited for the right moment, and as night thinned in the east, a battalion of First German Parachute Regiment doubled down the spur from the Monastery, lunging for Castle Hill. The companies of Rajputanas and Essex, engaged in relief at the hairpin bend, were overrun and destroyed. The attack swept on against the Castle itself and reached the walls. Quick and resolute action by the garrison companies stemmed the rush. Major Beckett of the Essex, although twice wounded, and Major Oswald of 1 Field Regiment, like knightly defenders of old, lined the walls with their men, exchanging showers of grenades and bursts of tommy-gun fire at point blank range. A paratroop prisoner in the castle courtyard watched this exciting clash with a professional eye. When his comrades fell back baffled he congratulated Major Beckett on a most soldierly performance and in token of his appreciation presented the Essex officer with his fur-lined paratrooper gauntlets. For once the enemy's timing was faulty. Apparently the Germans had planned to attack simultaneously from above and below, but the paratroopers were late on their start line in the outskirts of the town. By 0800 hours the assault from above had been driven to ground, while the threat from below did not develop until an hour later. Confused fighting followed with the Castle garrison imprisoned by enemy fire control of the gateway. Another section of the Castle wall collapsed, burying twenty men and two officers. An equal misfortune was the loss of Colonel Noble, who had led the Essex throughout years of hard fighting in Western Desert and Tunisia. He fell to a sniper's bullet. Protective concentrations of mortar and machine-gun fire, supplied by the Indians on the western approaches, and by New Zealanders along the southern wall of the Castle, finally discouraged and dispersed the paratroopers.
Broad day caught two companies of Essex on the way to Hangman's Hill, crossing the open hillside. From above the battle they watched the attack go in on their comrades below. As they pressed up the slopes to join the Gurkhas they came under heavy fire and sustained serious casualties, reaching their destination in badly mauled condition. It was apparent that they were in no shape to join in the final assault. At this juncture the seriousness of the situation in the Castle area imposed a new ordeal upon them. No. sooner had they reached Hangman's Hill than it was decided to withdraw them. Having been marched forward, that evening they were marched back. The enemy was on the alert and beat up the luckless groups as they filtered past his strongpoints. Only a handful regained the shelter of the Castle while others returned to Hangman's Hill. As a cohesive force the battalion had ceased to exist, and it was withdrawn from the fighting. 6th Royal West Kents was borrowed from Seventy-Eighth British Division to take over the Essex commitments.
The frontal assault consequently was postponed until the Kentish men could reach the Gurkhas, but for some reason the filibuster in the rear of Snake's Head Ridge was allowed to proceed. Two columns, one consisting of 3 Sherman and 21 Light tanks and the other of 16 Shermans, together with 7th Brigade's Reconnaissance Squadron, penetrated the low valley which ran down from the north-west. A track was discovered that was tankable, and both columns by-passed Point 569 without difficulty. At first it seemed possible that the feint might be turned into a mortal blow. An agitated enemy message reported to Wehrmacht headquarters that eight tanks had broken through the defences and that an infantry attack from the rear might be anticipated. By 1020 hours the progress of the column was so encouraging that Corps and Divisional commanders agreed that should the tank force bring the Monastery under effective fire, the forces on Hangman's Hill would attack forthwith.
Unfortunately the enemy had over-estimated the threat. The only trail was narrow, the ground on both sides rough and steep. The Shermans were obliged to advance in single file. The leading tank struck a mine and brewed up. Enemy gunners found the range. The column commander asked for sappers, and indicated delays. In the hope that smaller tanks would make better progress, the Shermans withdrew, leaving the lighter armour to continue into the enemy positions. Some penetration was effected, but there was not enough weight behind the punch. When a dozen tanks had been knocked out, the expedition was abandoned.
Thus when night fell on March 19th, the battle had reached a stalemate in which the initiative was veering towards the enemy. The utmost efforts of the New Zealanders had failed to clear Cassino Town. (As illustrative of the difficulties of this task, a New Zealand officer was obliged to ask 26th Indian Advanced Dressing Station to withdraw from its cellar shelters while his tanks blasted enemy machinegun nests on the upper floors of the same building). On Hangman's Hill 1/9 Gurkhas were perched under the walls of the Monastery without the strength to thrust home. Below them a New Zealand force was similarly isolated at Point 202. Further north the much battered Continental Hotel still held out. At the Castle, every effort to dyke the vital corridor had failed, and the enemy now controlled the traffic. Allied armour had intervened and had been frustrated. Neither the Air nor the artillery could bring its weight to bear because the forces were inextricably intermingled; shells and bombs menaced friends as well as foes. The artillery observation officer with the Gurkhas on Hangman's Hill, with a nice sense of humour, recorded in his diary the results of an endeavour to neutralize enemy observation posts on Monastery Hill.
"The smoke nuisance now became acute," he wrote. "Our shelling continued throughout the afternoon with such accuracy that the Gurkha commander's sangar received three direct hits with the shell itself. Attempts by the battery commander, urged by the Gurkha C.O., to shift the target became abusive but fruitless. Relations in all directions assumed an atmosphere of strain. The galling aspect of the whole business was that the smoke so placed screened nothing from nobody."
On March 19th a Corps conference reviewed the battle. It came to the inevitable conclusion that the attack à l'outrance must be abandoned in favour of the achievement of a series of objectives. First in priority came the protection and provisioning of the Gurkhas on Hangman's Hill. The Air took over this task, and no further attempts were made to porter supplies overland. There followed a realistic reassessment of the situation around Castle Hill. It was evident that the enemy proposed to protect the Monastery by deploying his utmost strength against the bottleneck, and that this area constituted the key sector. Until the Germans were contained and discouraged from their persistent interference with this corridor, it was futile to carry the battle further.
In pursuance of this decision, it was decided to widen the sallyport by recapture of Point 165, at the lower hairpin bend. In conjunction with this operation 7th Brigade would mount an assault in a new direction, by traversing the reverse or northern slopes of the ridge above the Castle, in order to seize Point 445, where Snake's Head Ridge merges into the main crest. Royal West Kents were given the first of these tasks, and 2/7 Gurkhas of 11th Indian Brigade entrusted with the second operation.
When dark fell on March 20th two companies of the Royal West Kents slipped out of the Castle, leaving the remaining companies as garrison. As the infantry filtered forward towards their start line a heavy explosion, whose origin is still unknown, shook the hillside, inflicting many casualties on the leading company, and preventing its deployment. The survivors were recalled into the shelter of the Castle, and reorganised; by 0330 hours they were ready to set out anew. The enemy unfortunately detected the activity. His spandau teams audaciously crept up the hillside until they covered the Castle gate in a crescent, continuously playing streams of bullets against the entrance. The paratroopers were in sufficient strength to seal up the Castle, and the Royal West Kents were obliged to abandon their attack.
Nor was the attack against Point 445 more successful. A company of 2/7 Gurkhas hammered at this objective for two hours, until rising casualties made it evident that a stronger force must be employed. The infantry attack was then abandoned, and an artillery group raked this area with a heavy shoot for the remainder of the night.
It was characteristic of the intensity and confusion of the fighting that while Royal West Kents and Gurkhas were being repelled by resolute German defenders, other parties of the enemy should move to the attack in the same area. Thrust and counter-thrust occurred within a few hundred yards of each other. Behind Castle Hill, and below the area of the Gurkha attack, companies of 2/7 Gurkhas and of 4/6 Rajputana Rifles beat back an audacious attempt to cut the main supply route from the north. To the west, where perhaps only 500 yards separated Castle Hill from the hairpin bends, another group of German paratroopers infiltrated in an endeavour to link up with the machine-gunners who commanded the Castle gate from the ruined fringes of the town. The boldness and offensive spirit displayed in these repeated efforts to block entry to and exit from the glacis of Monastery Hill, made it evident that defensive measures must be given priority. On the morning of March 21st it was determined by the aid of mines and wire to construct a safe lane between the Castle and the Divisional supply dumps in the upper Rapido Valley. 5th and 7th Brigades were entrusted with this task.
| || |
| || |
| || |
From his unequalled observation post on the crest of Monastery Hill, General Heidrich detected the move. Like the Indians and New Zealanders he too had almost reached the limit of his resources. The bitter hurly-burly had depleted his battalions, yet in typical ruthless fashion he decided upon a last bid. He armed his engineers as infantry; at dawn on March 22nd this improvised force plunged downhill in an attempt to carry the Castle by storm. The garrison was alert, and the gunners across the valley were standing to when the rush came. Heavy defensive fire crashed on the slopes above the Castle. The attack disintegrated, leaving the hillside strewn with dead and wounded. Thirty shaken prisoners remained in Indian hands.
Both adversaries were fought out. Fourth Indian Division had lost four thousand men. In Cassino Town the New Zealanders, after stupendous efforts, had reduced the enemy foothold to a. narrow wedge; the wedge remained impregnable. It was sadly evident that Castle Hill and every strongpoint were but steps on the road. High above the Monastery towered on its crest, and there the enemy was still secure. No intermediate gain promised to dislodge him. On March 23rd the offensive was abandoned.
The next problem was to get back the Gurkhas from Hangman's Hill. Since the first attempt to overrun them the Germans had intended to ignore this force. However, as day followed day short rations and wintry weather weakened even the tough Nepalese, and as no reinforcements could go forward the companies steadily shrank in strength. Communications presented a tricky problem. The batteries of the battalion's radio sets had run down, and out of fifty replacements dropped by parachute, only four fell within the perimeter. The Germans were closely piqueting the approaches and it was deemed unwise to pass any messages which might be intercepted, interpreted or deciphered. 5th Brigade therefore called upon volunteer officers from each battalion who would commit detailed instructions to memory and would afterwards attempt to reach Hangman's Hill. On the night of March 23/24 Lieutenant Mallinson of the Essex, Captain Norman of the Gurkhas, and Lieutenant Jenkins of the Rajputanas, each with a carrier pigeon, left Castle Hill at half-hourly intervals. Before dawn Lieutenant Mallinson and Captain Norman had reached Hangman's Hill, where they delivered to Colonel Nangle the instructions for withdrawal. (The code word for this operation was "Roche", somewhat to the indignation of the older officers of the battalion, since it was the name of a former commanding officer who had never withdrawn from any position). The signal was radioed at 1220 hours on March 24th; when dark fell that evening the evacuation began. Deceptions and distractions of the enemy were carried out in the form of artillery concentrations on Monastery Hill, a Royal West Kent raid from the Castle, and a series of feint attacks by the New Zealanders in Cassino Town. The enemy cordon on the hillside failed to interrupt the withdrawal. After eight days of ordeal, ten officers and two hundred and forty-seven other ranks came to safety. The same night the New Zealand company on Point 202 was withdrawn.
Military experts will scan the records of this battle for years to come, and doubtless will argue whether any direct attack on Cassino and Monastery Hill could have succeeded. Certainly in the light of what occurred two months later, it must be considered that the operation planned to destroy the enemy in the hard way. To those who were only conversant With the Cassino battle, it appeared from the beginning that the incredible difficulties of a direct assault upon this mountain fastness had been underrated. The Allied High Command, who were in a position to co-ordinate the necessities of all parts of the United Nations fronts, were perhaps aware of considerations which made it essential to persevere with the assault. It is now known that amphibious landings on a major scale had been planned for both coasts of Italy. It is likewise known that the situation in the Anzio bridgehead was desperate. Like Haig's fearful campaign in the Ypres salient in 1917, the tactical failure of Cassino probably will be re-appreciated in the light of its strategical necessity.
Thus after six weeks of almost unequalled strain and privation the ordeal of the fighting men of Fourth Indian Division ended in sad failure. Nor was it only the infantry which bore the burden of this sombre battle. The complete personnel of the Division shared the dangers and disappointments. The gunners who endured fierce shoots in their cramped lines, the porters who crossed and re-crossed the fire-swept slopes of Monastery Hill, the signallers who laid and followed the wires by night and day in an endeavour to keep communications open, the provosts who policed the supply routes for twenty-four hours daily under unremitting bombardment, the sappers and transport services who struggled equally against the obstinate terrain and the malice of the enemy---all these men paid the price in blood. Deeds of gallantry abounded everywhere. During preparations for the second attack, an act of unsurpassed bravery and self-sacrifice brought pride to Fourth Division. A British officer was trapped in a mine-field. Subedar Subramanyan of Madras Sappers and Miners with five other ranks undertook to clear a path to him. One of the sappers trod on a shrapnel. mine---a fiendish device which springs from the ground breast high before spraying steel balls in all directions. In the four seconds which elapsed before the mine sprang, Subedar Subramanyan threw himself upon it and absorbed the full force of the burst. His self-sacrifice was recognised by the posthumous award of the George Cross.
During this bitter and difficult battle the work of the Medical Services rose to fresh heights of achievement. Wherever men fell, aid and comfort came to them. It is pleasing to record that during the Cassino fighting the enemy usually respected the Red Cross flag, although on one occasion, for some queer reason, when the Germans had asked for an armistice to pick up their wounded, their snipers refused to observe it. Stretcher parties and First Aid groups moved on their errands of mercy, and although sometimes stopped by enemy sentries and patrols, were usually allowed to proceed.
When the Gurkhas were isolated on Hangman's Hill, two medical orderlies of the Essex Regiment, Lance-Corporal Edmond Hazle, D.C.M., and Lance-Corporal Leonard Piper, remained to take charge of the wounded. For eight days they treated all casualties from the slender resources of a first aid haversack. Major operations and even amputations were performed by Hazle with no other instruments than scissors and pocket-knife. This gallant man, who had won the D.C.M. at El Alamein for rescuing a wounded sepoy, now, received the immediate award of a bar to his decoration.
Baz Mir, a dhobi washerman of camp follower category, from whom combatant services were not expected, volunteered to serve as a stretcher bearer when casualties had depleted the field ambulance detachments. He crossed a minefield under heavy fire, and pushed through to Hangman's Hill. Next day he volunteered again, and although intercepted by an enemy post, was allowed to proceed. His award of the Indian Distinguished Service Medal was alike a tribute to his bravery and a portent of the new India to come, in which merit will surmount the barriers of caste.
Naik Mohammed Yusef, I.O.M., I.D.S.M., a Moslem from Rawalpindi, organized the evacuation of wounded along a track from Castle Hill which was systematically swept by artillery and mortar fire. He was afterwards presented to the King Emperor, who complimented him on his bravery. Naik Babu Raju, a Hindu from Madras, gained the Military Medal for tending wounded in the open with utmost contempt for danger. These instances of gallant behaviour by Britons and Indians of diverse creeds are illustrative of the spirit of all ranks of the Indian Medical Services.
When the wounded had been carried, slowly and painfully, down
the tracks over the escarpment, they found ambulances waiting beside the Rapido.
Many of these ambulances were driven by tall young men of the American Field
Service. This remarkable organization some day may publish its own history, but
in view of its long association with the Indian forces, it is essential to
record the admiration of all ranks for these volunteers. They had first arrived
in Syria in 1941----college men predominating, but with a sprinkling of
professional men too old for military service, as well as artists and
adventurers. In the Western desert they became known to all. Field Ambulance
commanders before battles would speculate and entertain high hopes concerning
the number of American ambulances which might be allotted to them.
The Americans themselves would scramble for the most dangerous and unpleasant
jobs. In their work they exhibited the courage of lions and the tenderness of
women. A doctor who daily traversed the evacuation route across the Rapido
Valley, a distance of five miles, wrote as follows:
"The river crossing---Windy Corner---received an unhealthy
amount of shelling. Jeeps did not tarry there. Yet in full daylight, an American
volunteer halted his ambulance, rescued a wounded man, dressed his wounds, took
him to the advance dressing station under continuous fire, and classified it as
'all in the day's work'. Another driver lost his ambulance when a near miss
ditched it, but continued on foot and brought in four Indians under a hail of
fire. Day and night, and nonstop if necessary, these American boys would carry
on. They could always be trusted to get through, no matter how sticky the
situation." Another Indian Army doctor wrote :--
"The unfailing courage, supreme devotion to duty and
unquenchable good spirit of these civilians in battle dress. along with their
constant thought of the welfare and comfort of the wounded, inspired all with
whom they came in contact. Our Medical Services, many thousands of British and
Empire wounded, and the people at home who wait for their loved ones, all owe to
the American Field Service a debt of gratitude which cannot be measured in
words." (It is interesting to note that a number of these attractive young men, as a
result of their contact with Indian forces, abandoned even their documentary
neutrality and accepted commissions in Indian regiments. One of them, a man of
many adventures, is now adjutant of a Frontier Force Regiment battalion)
Enemy press and radio burst into panegyrics when such famous and doughty
opponents as the New Zealanders and Fourth Indian Division admitted failure.
Even the Wehrmacht Army Commander, in an order to his troops, allowed colour to
creep in. He compared the "orange trees blossoming on the Tyrrhenian
Coast" with the "blizzards which rage two thousand metres up on the
Cassino heights". He recommended Major-General Baade of Fifteenth Panzer
Grenadier Division, and General Heidrich of First Parachute Division, for
priority in the Fuehrer's favour.
Among the troops of the United Nations, a gunner officer expressed the
"There is a fierce chagrin that the two best divisions in
the British Army, forming a corps that seemed a perfect combination, should have
achieved nothing." The disappointment of friends, like the vaunts of the enemy, alike had less
than fifty days to live.
Seven Table of Contents
The Americans themselves would scramble for the most dangerous and unpleasant jobs. In their work they exhibited the courage of lions and the tenderness of women. A doctor who daily traversed the evacuation route across the Rapido Valley, a distance of five miles, wrote as follows:
"The river crossing---Windy Corner---received an unhealthy amount of shelling. Jeeps did not tarry there. Yet in full daylight, an American volunteer halted his ambulance, rescued a wounded man, dressed his wounds, took him to the advance dressing station under continuous fire, and classified it as 'all in the day's work'. Another driver lost his ambulance when a near miss ditched it, but continued on foot and brought in four Indians under a hail of fire. Day and night, and nonstop if necessary, these American boys would carry on. They could always be trusted to get through, no matter how sticky the situation."
Another Indian Army doctor wrote :--
"The unfailing courage, supreme devotion to duty and unquenchable good spirit of these civilians in battle dress. along with their constant thought of the welfare and comfort of the wounded, inspired all with whom they came in contact. Our Medical Services, many thousands of British and Empire wounded, and the people at home who wait for their loved ones, all owe to the American Field Service a debt of gratitude which cannot be measured in words."
(It is interesting to note that a number of these attractive young men, as a result of their contact with Indian forces, abandoned even their documentary neutrality and accepted commissions in Indian regiments. One of them, a man of many adventures, is now adjutant of a Frontier Force Regiment battalion)
Enemy press and radio burst into panegyrics when such famous and doughty opponents as the New Zealanders and Fourth Indian Division admitted failure. Even the Wehrmacht Army Commander, in an order to his troops, allowed colour to creep in. He compared the "orange trees blossoming on the Tyrrhenian Coast" with the "blizzards which rage two thousand metres up on the Cassino heights". He recommended Major-General Baade of Fifteenth Panzer Grenadier Division, and General Heidrich of First Parachute Division, for priority in the Fuehrer's favour.
Among the troops of the United Nations, a gunner officer expressed the characteristic view:
"There is a fierce chagrin that the two best divisions in the British Army, forming a corps that seemed a perfect combination, should have achieved nothing."
The disappointment of friends, like the vaunts of the enemy, alike had less than fifty days to live.
Table of Contents