SEVENTY-EIGTH BRITISH DIVISION completed the relief of Fourth Indian Division on the hillside above Cassino town on the night of March 27/28th. The battered Indians took the road back to the Adriatic. The winter storms abated, the sun grew in warmth, and a false calm reigned along the Central Italian battle front as spring came out of the south.
Spring was the architect who planned the battle to come. The casual observer, in examining the topography of Cassino, is bound to wonder why Allied High Command chose to storm a well-nigh impregnable mountain when a broad valley on its flank invited advance. Unfortunately the easy ground of the Liri Valley offered a false lure. Under winter conditions tracks and wheels would have churned the greasy clays sodden with rainwater into a morass. The problem of advance along a valley as completely commanded as Monastery Hill commanded the Liri, required that the attack should punch a hole with the utmost expedition, and should by-pass the dominating heights without delay. Winter could promise nothing but obstacles to a programme dependent upon speed of movement. This picture changed when the ground began to dry, when rivers and streams declined to constant flow, and on roads and tracks the mud turned into dust. Then bridges no longer would disappear overnight before a spate of storm water; aircraft would not be grounded on their strips, nor tanks bogged down in their leaguers. The great Allied superiority in weapons then could be utilized to strike a devastating blow.
It has been recorded in an earlier chapter that when winter ended, Fifth Corps of Eighth Army, consisting of two Indian divisions, contained and harassed at least its own number of enemies on the Adriatic front. On the opposite side of Italy, Fifth Army was engaged in two desperate battles---one to hold the Anzio bridgehead and the other to relieve it by an advance from the south. It was apparent that Eighth Army, with five corps available for operations in Central Italy, was in the better position to undertake the new campaign. The beginning of May found four of these corps concentrated in the Cassino area.
The Liri Valley is from four to seven miles in width. It is flanked by parallel mountain ranges bearing into the north-west. Opposite the Monte Cairo-Cassino massif, the forbidding limestone masses of the Arunci range rise into a rocky promontory which gradually falls away towards the Roman plain. The river Gari, as the Rapido is known below Cassino Town, crosses the bottom of this valley. The river Liri flows to the south-east along the foothills of the Arunci. The apex of land enclosed between the confluence of these rivers, six miles south of Cassino, is known as the "Liri Appendix".
From the Appendix the Liri valley extends into the north-west for twenty miles, narrowing gradually between the undulating and well-wooded foothills of the flanking ranges. At Arce, Route 6 turns west, heading for Rome. Route 82 continues to the north through Central Italy. A few miles beyond Arce, at Frosinone, another main road leaves Route 6 and runs northward through the mountains, parallel to Route 82. At the top of the Liri Valley, therefore, there were three main road systems available for advance. This circumstance made it necessary for the enemy to block this corridor at all costs.
The Gustav Line defences south of Cassino Town followed the line of the west bank of the Gari, and after its confluence with the Liri, the line of the Garigliano, as the joint stream is named. A subsidiary switch line, known as the Adolf Hitler defences, was anchored into the Arunci spurs seven miles west of the Gari. It crossed the valley from Pontecorvo to Aquino, climbed the Cassino massif through the villages of Piedemonte and Villa San Lucia, and merged into the Gustav Line at Monte Cairo. These two lines were in fact one defence system, since the whole of the intervening countryside was dotted with strong points. The Forme d'Aquino, a straggling stream of some ten to thirty yards in width, crossed the Liri Valley between the lines. Its marshy approaches and deep cut banks had been heavily fortified. In addition, an anti-tank ditch consisting of a series of craters filled with surface water, had been incorporated in the defence scheme. On both sides of these water barriers extensive mine-fields had been laid, covered by belts of wire twenty feet in depth. The general plan of fortifications consisted of an intricate grid of local strongpoints positioned for mutual support. An outpost zone screened the mine-fields and water barriers, comprising great numbers of semi-mobile dug-in pillboxes, each with a crew of two machine-gunners. Behind these outposts came a belt of reinforced concrete emplacements and weapon pits, linked by tunnels and communication trenches. At the anti-tank nodal points groups of Panther turrets were anchored to concrete bases, with living quarters for the crews underground. The turret guns had all-round traverse and were supported by anti-tank artillery echeloned on the flanks. The Panthers were intended to take the shock, the mobile guns to deal with any attempt to by-pass them.
Infantry was accommodated in deep shelters twenty feet underground, with concrete roofs five feet thick. Such dug-outs were proof against the heaviest bombardment.
Construction of Adolf Hitler defences had begun during the previous winter, when the threat to the Gustav Line became evident. The fortifications, however, had never been completed; although formidable obstacles they lived to some extent on their name. (It is interesting to record that when a major attack became imminent, Berlin immediately re-christened this system the "Dora" Line). On the whole the engineering was not up to German standards. Many emplacements were sunk below crop level so that even the early growth blinded them. There were gaps in the anti-tank ditch. In several other respects the switch line had an "Ersatz" air about it.
A greater weakness lay in the garrison. For some extraordinary reason German High Command maintained sparse forces in this obviously important sector. When Eighth Army prepared to attack, only Fifteenth Panzer Grenadier Division, which had been roughly handled in Fourth Indian Division's assault on Cassino, held the Liri Valley and provided garrisons for the fortifications both of Gustav and Adolf Hitler Lines. On a front of seven miles troops so thin on the ground invited assault in strength and depth, with a view to a sudden brutal rupture of the position. It was this type of attack that Eighth Army had decided to launch when spring came.
Of the four corps available Tenth British Corps was deployed on a wide front north of Cassino with no other function than demonstration and deception. Next came Second Polish Corps, for whom a daring and ambitious operation was contemplated. It may be remembered that in the earlier assault upon Cassino a force of armour under the command of 7th Indian Brigade had exploited a passage through the hills into tankable terrain at the rear of Monastery Hill. Polish divisions were now ordered to crash through this narrow corridor, storm the Monastery from behind, and thereafter to descend into the Liri Valley to effect a junction with Thirteenth British Corps advancing from the line of the Gari. The latter Corps, four divisions strong, would strike the main blow in a frontal smash at the Gustav Line. If a hole was punched on the Gari, a combined thrust by Polish and British Corps was designed to break through the Adolf Hitler system. First Canadian Corps would remain in Army reserve to assist or to exploit, according to the course of the battle.
Thirteenth British Corps held the seven miles between Cassino Town and the Liri Appendix, and planned to attack with Fourth British Division on the right and Eighth Indian Division on the left. Seventy-Eighth British Division would remain in reserve to be used either for an advance along the foothills of the Arunci mountains, or through gaps which might be broken in the Gustav Line. Sixth British Armoured Division likewise was held for the breakthrough and briefed for pursuit when a breach had been established.
On the relief of Eighth Indian Division in the Adriatic sector early in April, 21st Indian Brigade crossed the mountains and took over from 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade in Cassino Town. Ten days later, 17th and 19th Brigades moved to a training area along the Volturno river, twenty miles south of Cassino. Here they met 15 Canadian Armoured Brigade, comrades of the Adriatic, and were overjoyed to learn that they would fight together in the battle to come. 17th Brigade was allotted 11th (Ontario) Armoured Regiment, and 19th Brigade 14th (Calgary) Armoured Regiment. Combined training followed in river crossings, the handling of assault craft, bridgement, and co-operation of infantry and armour in battle. At the beginning of May dress rehearsals ensued. Thereafter, 17th Brigade began to filter its units into the sector in which it was to attack. On May 6th, 19th Infantry Brigade came up on the left of 17th Brigade and took over the remainder of the Divisional front. 21st Brigade, having been relieved in Cassino Town, was brought into Divisional reserve. Eighth Indian Division was now ready for the curtain to rise.
During these preparations precautions were taken to lull the enemy and to cloak the stroke which he knew to be imminent. Only a thin screen of Indian troops occupied the forward positions. No movement of men or transport by day was permitted. Air reconnaissance was casual, artillery registration desultory. Tank squadrons ostentatiously lumbered away as if to reinforce the northern front. But each night, under the bright moon, many small parties stole forward to reconnoitre and to adjust details of the plan of battle.
The River Gari separated the adversaries on the entire Divisional front. It was about forty feet in width, six to eight feet in depth, and swiftly flowing. Meadows on both banks were marshy and intersected by numerous rhines and drainage ditches. Beyond the river, on the extreme right stood the tiny hamlet of San Angelo. Near this village the valley bottom was rolling and rugged, with many folds and hillocks. Two prominent knolls, one on each side of San Angelo, and a low escarpment along the secondary road from Cassino Town, constituted the principal relief features. For 3,000 yards the Gari flowed due south, but opposite Panaccioni the stream hooked sharply into the south-east. This bend, which created the neck of the Liri Appendix, caused the left flank sector of the Divisional front to face west instead of north. Here as at San Angelo the valley became rugged and the ground on the left rose sufficiently to afford observation.
It was evident that the heaviest resistance would be encountered on the flanks. General Russell's plan of battle called for three crossings---one on each brigade front and one for good measure and for exploitation. On the right, 17th Brigade would reduce San Angelo and give a firm flank to Fourth British Division. On the left, when 19th Brigade had broken into the enemy's positions one battalion would swing sharply into the south, amputating the Liri Appendix and trapping its defenders. Both flanks secure, the attack would drive frontally up the Liri Valley, with Pignataro, about three miles in advance of the start line, as the immediate objective. The San Angelo-Pignataro-Panatcioni area, when inked in on the map, is the shape of a horseshoe. The seizure of this horseshoe would complete the first phase of the battle.
On May 11th First Royal Fusiliers manned the line of the Gari on both sides of San Angelo. On their left, 1/12 Frontier Force Regiment took over. On 19th Brigade's front, 3/8 Punjabis occupied the centre of the line with 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders as the left flank battalion of the Division. The balmy afternoon faded into fine evening. A waning moon was due to rise at 2300 hours. Among hedges, shrubs, and folds in the ground, the Indian infantry waited. The rising moon gave the signal, and 800 guns shattered the peace of the night. A storm of shell swept the Liri Valley, pounding enemy fortifications and artillery lines. Mortar teams sprang into action, raining their bombs on infantry concentration areas. Indication tracer swept overhead to give prearranged direction. Far on the left machine-guns and mortars of Seventy-Eighth British Division laid down a curtain of high angle fire on the Liri Appendix, to guard the flank of the Indian advance.
As the shoot went down, the meadowland to the east of the Gari suddenly became alive with men. Leading companies moved forward to the river bank. Among them staggered sappers under the weight of assault boats. Mules floundered over the dykes and drainage ditches, laden with machine-guns and ammunition. At 2345 hours the first assault boats were launched, and both brigades struck for the opposite bank. The shoot on the enemy back areas abruptly switched on to a tight barrage advancing from the bank of the Gari at the rate of 100 yards in every six minutes.
On the right of the assault, Royal Fusiliers crossed the river to the north of San Angelo with little difficulty and few casualties. German counter measures, however, had begun, and a slight ground mist was thickened by an enemy smoke screen which drifted down the Liri Valley. The mist and smoke, together with dust and cordite fumes, blended into a pea-soup fog that the Fusiliers' native London could not have bettered. The infantry could scarcely see their hands before their faces. They stumbled forward in single file, each man clinging to the bayonet scabbard of the man in front. With deep-cut muddy ditches to cross it was impossible to keep up with the barrage. In the blind fog it was equally impossible to keep in organized array. The moment that the barrage moved on, the stutter of German machine guns began. Four hundred enemy field guns and groups of nebelwerfers opened, searching the approaches to the river.
By 0100 hours, the Fusiliers had pushed past San Angelo on the right, to find themselves hemmed in between the defences of the fortified village on one flank and "Platform" knoll on the other. No further advance was possible until these positions had been cleared. A considerable number of men had become detached in the fog, and it was necessary to reorganize. At 0200 hours the British troops dug in about 500 yards forward of the river.
On the left of the Fusiliers, 1/12 Frontier Force Regiment likewise had crossed the Gari without much difficulty. Once again the dense fog and the counter barrage made organization difficult, but by 0200 hours the Indians were deployed in front of "Bank" position, the low escarpment which lay along the lateral road. As they moved forward they stumbled over trip wires which when cut or pulled released additional smoke canisters, thickening the fog and giving German machine-gunners the line on which to lay their weapons. Many men fell dead or wounded. The Frontiersmen doggedly stumbled forward. "A" Company, closely followed by "D" Company, reached a belt of wire lining a mine-field on the approach to "Bank" position. A shower of grenades from outposts greeted them, and automatic weapons slashed the murk in all directions. With an impassable obstacle in front, both companies moved to the right and fought their way on to "Bank" position from the flank. On the left, "C" Company, by similar heroic efforts, reached the lateral road and destroyed the enemy outposts. All types of mechanical communication failed. The battalion commander instructed his officers to report their position by flares. The thick fog snuffed out the lights as soon as fired. Then the primitive device, succeeded---the Mussulman war cry of "Maro nari haidriya Ali!" rang above the din of battle and gave the commander pinpoints for his positions. The first objectives had been taken.
With reserves standing ready 1/12 Frontier Force Rifles waited for dawn in order to push ahead. The mêlée, however, continued, as sometimes German posts, undetected under the blanket of fog, lay doggo in the midst of the Indians, opening fire from the rear and fighting to the last. Machine-gun fire from San Angelo traversed "Bank" position from time to time. Major Amar Singh, who had led his company in many a gallant action in Italy, was killed. Casualties thinned the ranks. "B" Company of the Frontiersmen was called up from reserve. By making clever use of folds in the ground it closed on the German garrisons of a series of dug-outs before they could emerge. This mopping-up ended immediate resistance, and a firm grip was established on the left flank approaches to San Angelo.
In terms of the original plan, the attack upon the village itself now could go in. 1/5 Gurkhas, however, unlike the other battalions of the Brigade, had encountered trouble in crossing the river. When the riflemen assembled on the far bank, twelve out of sixteen available assault boats had been sunk by shell or mortar fire. Pulling the remaining four boats back and forward along guide lines, the Gurkhas were ferried over in the next five hours. Two companies were despatched to the start line for the assault on San Angelo, while the others waited along the river for the order to advance.
Thus at dawn on May 12th all three battalions of 17th Brigade were across the Gari. Royal Fusiliers were pinned down between two fires, 1/12 Frontier Force Regiment had completed its task in the face of heavy resistance, and the 1/5 Gurkhas were standing by to enter the battle.
We must now pass along the line of attack to the left, and examine the fortunes of the 19th Brigade.
3/8 Punjabis, the right-hand battalion, had been ordered as a first task to secure the line of the lateral road, thereafter striking for Point 63, a pimple of land in the centre of the valley. As they moved up to the Gari, enemy defensive fire crashed on to their launching area, causing many casualties. Undeterred, "A" and "B" Companies embarked and pushed off into the mist. Unfortunately the strength of the current had been under-estimated. On the return trip many of the assault boats were swept downstream and could not be, recovered. The Commander of "B" Company, Major Wright, was among those carried away. Other craft were holed or sunk by enemy fire, so that on one company front only one assault boat and two hastily assembled rafts were available to ferry over the remainder of the battalion. The assault boat was fastened to a guide rope, and throughout the night it was hauled backwards and forwards until everyone had crossed. This delay left the Punjabis far behind their artillery programme. When first light broke at 0530 hours, the battalion was deployed on the enemy's side of the river, and committed to attack without benefit of barrage or protection of darkness.
Fortunately the Germans had been too clever. They had used too much smoke. The dense curtain which frustrated the Indians in their first advance now concealed them when in an untenable position. Under cover of this providential cloak the forward companies of the Punjabis deployed for the assault. "A" Company, under Captain Douglas Treman, M.C., felt its way forward until held up by an apron of wire covered by mines. The exploding mines drew heavy and accurate small arms fire; many men fell. Captain Treman himself was severely wounded, but collecting fifteen survivors this dogged officer pushed through a gap in the wire and advanced to the line of the lateral road. Six of his small party had fallen on the way. Captain Treman, weak from loss of blood, ordered his nine men to dig in. Several Germans blundered into the position in the fog and were shot down. When the mist lifted in the forenoon, only three fighting men and their severely wounded leader remained. Out of touch and short of ammunition, this gallant remnant was obliged to surrender.
"D" Company, the other forward company, likewise groped forward through the smoke. Locating their first objective, the Sikhs charged in line abreast. A few yards short of the close, a belt of wire halted them, and four covering machine-guns opened at point-blank range. Major Sujan Singh, who led the charge, fell dead. One platoon, which by the impetus of its rush had penetrated the position, was wiped out to a man. They were afterwards found lying under the muzzles of the machine-guns.
"B" and "C" Companies crossed the river, and came forward to make good the gains. With Major Wright missing, Subedar Sumera Ram took command of "B" Company and Major Gardhari Singh assumed overall command of the assault. The advance was pinned down by a sleet of fire from front and flanks. Movement meant death, until the shining heroism of young Kamal Ram saved the day. This nineteen-year-old sepoy of Karauli State, in action for the first time, crouched near his Company Commander when the machine-guns swept the Punjabis to the ground. A gun firing from the right flank was particularly vexatious. The officer called for a volunteer to deal with it. Kamal Ram crawled through the wire and leapt upon the gun crew single-handed. He shot the gunner and bayoneted his feeder, swinging about to kill a German officer who sprang at him from a slit trench firing a pistol. With the post silenced he pressed on. Having sniped the gunner of a second nest, he bombed the remainder of the crew into submission. Together with a havildar he attacked a third machine-gun post and dealt with it in a similar fashion. The line was open. The Punjabis moved forward to secure their objective. Later, in a forward reconnaissance, Kamal Ram wiped out a fourth machinegun nest---an unsurpassed day's work which earned this gallant youngster the Victoria Cross.
On the left of the Divisional attack, the fortunes of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were similar to those of Royal Fusiliers on the opposite flank. It will be remembered that high ground in the Liri Appendix commanded this sector in much the same way as the knolls and escarpment on either side of San Angelo commanded the extreme right. These disadvantages of terrain were sufficient to make the difference between success and failure. The Scotsmen moved up to the Gari through a curtain of enemy defensive fire. Many men fell, the casualties including the entire group of forward observation artillerymen.
On the near bank of the river a tragedy occurred. In the January fighting an American division had tried to force the Gari at this point. Its assault had failed. When the Americans withdrew they mined both banks to counter any enemy attempt to follow up. For some days before the Indian attack the reserve battalion of 19th Brigade had been picking up mines, and it was believed that the near bank of the Gari was clean. Unfortunately, as the Scotsmen spread out along the river's edge, a number of men were blown up. This unexpected menace in a launching area disorganized the crossings, threw the advance out of timing, and cost the Argylls the advantage of the barrage.
(Among massed artillery supporting the Eighth Army attack were a number of batteries which had been engaged in the January fighting. Their knowledge of the front led American artillery men to offer odds of ten to one against Eighth Indian Division forcing the Gari. British gunners serving with the Indians are said to have snapped up such offers).
One company and two additional platoons of the Argylls managed to embark in the assault boats. Defensive fire caught them, riddling the boats and killing many. A hastily improvised raft likewise was destroyed. Only a handful of gallant men reached the far side safely and pushed forward through the murk. Belts of wire blocked the way, and machine-guns slashed at them as they sought to evade the obstacles. One company officer was killed and another wounded. A platoon of "D" Company reached and crossed the lateral road, where a few men dug in and maintained a precarious hold on a narrow triangle of waterlogged ground within 200 yards of the main German position. This handful were flank guard to Eighth Army. They alone stood in the way of the constriction of the shallow bridgehead, and an attack upon the Punjabis from the rear.
The din of battle was terrific, but from beyond the left flank of the Argylls a different noise now and then tinkled through the fog. Above the crash and clatter came the faint clank of metal on metal. The Germans heard these sounds, and since they could not see, poured defensive fire into the Liri Appendix, for it seemed certain that a bridge was being built there. As the shoot came down groups of 6th Lancers, who sat solemnly banging bits of angle iron and road rail together, scattered and took refuge. The enemy, who is nothing if not thorough, switched the shoot to the dummy posts and faked emplacements which the cavalrymen had built without undue caution a few days before. Throughout the early hours of the attack, a fair number of enemy guns which might have done damage elsewhere, continued to search an open front, and to splash their shells into empty ground.
The full light of morning saw the battle of the Gari superseded by the battle of the clock. Everywhere except on the extreme left the Indian infantry had made good its footing on the German side of the river. It now became a race to bring up support arms, to reinforce the firing line, and to strike the next blow. The enemy had no river to cross, no bridges to build, so that the race began with the attack carrying a handicap of several hours. This time factor could only be mitigated by exceptional enterprise and exertion. Off the mark on the heels of the infantry, the sappers and supply services hurried into the battle. A correspondent describes the scene.
"Vapours from the river spread over the valley. Before midnight the moon was obscured by smoke and fog. Bofors tracer shell at intervals streaked. across the sky, giving direction to the advancing lines of transport; in the mist the shells quickly dimmed and were lost to sight. Tracks to the Gari had been marked by white tape and shaded hurricane lanterns. Long lines of vehicles crept down to the river's edge jeeps towing anti-tank guns or carrying collapsible boats, three-ton lorries with bridging sections, ambulances to wait for loads of wounded. Drivers peering blindly forward through the fog drove on the instructions of their mates walking in front."
The Divisional provost companies, supplemented by volunteers from 26 Light A.A. Regiment, controlled the traffic along the narrow, twisting tracks which led to and from the river. Here all men and material came under control of the beach parties, who organized the crossings, launched the assault boats, built rafts and served as ferrymen and stretcher-bearers. Sudden gusts of mortar and artillery fire searched the line of the river, but the work went on without interruption. Moving imperturbably among the beach parties were the bridging sappers, the men who would win or lose this battle of the clock. Even as the infantry took to the water, their labours began. Through the blast and crackle of the barrage came the steady chug of bulldozers as they filled ditches and built up ramps for the launching sites. Behind them, working by feel, engineers fitted the Bailey sections and tightened them into spans. Three bridges, coded as Cardiff, Oxford and Plymouth, were planned. Small arms fire compelled the abandonment of Cardiff bridge on 19th Brigade's front. Oxford bridge grew steadily throughout the night, but when the darkness thinned the Bengal Sappers and Miners needed a few hours more.
Again the German smoke screen served well, protecting the sappers. At 0840 hours, a few minutes before the curtain of fog dispersed, the bridge was completed. Three minutes later the first Canadian tanks rumbled across the Gari, camouflaged with green boughs as though decked for a harvest festival. The roar of the armour was music to the infantry, as the panzers were expected at any moment. Troop after troop of tanks thundered across, and moved forward in search of dead ground to wait for the word to attack.
No crossings were prepared, and no one worked throughout the night on ramps for Plymouth Bridge. At 0930 hours a strange looking object approached the Gari. (Germans captured later in the day asked awe-inspired questions concerning the new British secret weapon). A tank of 14th (Calgary) Armoured Regiment carried a complete Bailey span on its back, which another tank pushed from behind. The leading tank waddled into the river carrying one end of the bridge. In mid stream it submerged; the crew climbed out at the last moment, spluttering. The rear tank thrust, and the span slid across the back of the carrier until it reached the far bank. A slight hold-up occurred when the bracket clamping the bridge to the pusher tank refused to disconnect. A Canadian officer blew off the union with a light charge. A new type of bridge, a triumph of mechanical improvisation, was open for its first trial in action.
With the bridging of the Gari on the Indian front the crisis passed. Fourth British Division had been unable to build bridges before morning and its brigades across the river were without supporting arms. Had Eighth Indian Division not completed its bridges, German armour, held in reserve at a focal point between the British and Polish thrusts, would have had twelve hours of daylight in which to destroy infantry west of the Gari. There is reason to believe that the enemy counted on this advantage, and that the gallantry, skill and speed of the bridge builders upset his plans. Indian Sappers and Miners and Royal Canadian Engineers had collaborated to turn the tide of battle.
The battle, however, was not yet won. On both flanks of the shallow bridgehead the situation was unsatisfactory. Royal Fusiliers were pinned to the drainage ditches north of San Angelo, while on the left only a few sections of Scotsmen, under constant fire and observation, held back the enemy. In the centre Punjabis and Frontier Force Regiment, having secured their immediate objectives, dared not drive deeper into the enemy positions until their flanks were secure. The Canadian armour supporting the infantry found the marshy meadows to be barely tankable, and little dead ground available in which to lie up from artillery observation. Harassing fire swept over the sparse, crowded assembly areas, searching the crossings and their approaches. Plymouth Bridge had subsided under the weight of armour and was unusable for tracks, although light wheel vehicles still crossed. One Bailey bridge therefore served the entire Corps front.
The most pressing need was to clean up San Angelo. This stubborn knuckle of resistance between Royal Fusiliers and Frontier Force Regiment blocked further advance on 17th Brigade's front. The two companies of Gurkhas which had gone forward during the night in search of their start line, lost direction in the fog and brought up among the men of Frontier Force Regiment. It was necessary to sort out, to reorganize and to realign before a fresh attack could be launched.
As soon as visibility was restored, re-deployment began. By afternoon the Gurkhas had mustered in the Frontiersmen's positions to the south of San Angelo, with troops of tanks in close support. At 1700 hours two companies advanced on the village. A blaze of machine-gun fire greeted them. One company swung to flank and cleared a machine-gun nest in a white house, killing twelve and capturing fifteen Germans. The other company swept up a low spur garrisoned by seven machine-gun nests; again the rush won home, and the crews were destroyed. Unfortunately, most of the Canadian tanks were trapped on treacherous footing, bogging down before they could come into action. The Gurkhas therefore dug in on the ground gained, and the assault on San Angelo was postponed until the following day.
As the Gurkha attack was launched from the positions of the Frontier Force Regiment, that battalion was unable to do more than sit tight and endure the constant harassing fire. On its left, the day fared better for 3/8 Punjabis. It will be recalled that Major Wright, commander of "B" Company, had been washed downstream in his attempt to cross the Gari. He landed well below the Indian front, and spent an exciting night picking his way through the German positions, which with soldierly care he marked down for future attention. Early in the afternoon he encountered a Canadian tank which was reconnoitring ahead of the infantry. Riding outside, Major Wright undertook a tour of his front. He visited a number of pin-pointed positions which the tank shot up thoroughly. In mid-afternoon he rejoined his company with a comprehensive picture in his mind. He asked and obtained permission to attack Point 63 that evening. A most successful little action ensued. Tanks and Frontiersmen raced in and overran the knoll, destroying its defenders. Pushing on the Punjabis stalked another fortified position, surprised the garrison, took 14 prisoners and rescued Captain Treman and his three gallant survivors of "A" Company of Frontier Force Regiment.
Thus at the close of this first day of battle the main assault was yet to be launched on the right of the Division front. In the centre the attack was definitely in the ascendant. Only on the left was the situation still critical. Here it was found necessary to withdraw the handful of Argylls isolated in the midst of the enemy. 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles, the reserve battalion of 19th Brigade, crossed the river to take over, and to proceed with the assault upon Panaccioni at the southern calk of the Horseshoe. The night was spent in making ready for resumption of the attack.
At noon on May 13th Gurkhas and Frontiersmen on the southern fringes of San Angelo were withdrawn to a safe distance. Seven field regiments crashed a vicious shoot on the village. After five minutes of hurricane bombardment, the guns lifted and two companies of Gurkhas dashed in. As the machine-guns opened, the Canadian tanks smashed cannon shells into the nests. Within fifteen minutes the Gurkhas, plying knife and grenade, had established themselves on the fringe of the village. Sixty minutes of deadly fighting followed. No German asked quarter---none was given. By 1300 hours San Angelo was won. In the deep shelters the last fanatical defenders were exterminated. A few groups which fled westward from the village were shot down by tanks which had taken station to intercept any fugitives. This sharp, short battle, which dislodged the keystone of the Gari defences, cost 1/5 Gurkhas 10 officers and 119 men.
The capture of San Angelo immediately reacted upon adjoining opposition. From "Platform" Knoll to the north, which blocked the advance of Royal Fusiliers, the German garrison watched the progress of the attack and the deployment of tanks in the open ground beyond the village. Without further resistance this strong point hung out white flags and surrendered in most un-German fashion.
To the south of San Angelo Frontier Force Regiment was now free to advance up the valley. With right flank secure, General Russell devoted his attention to clearing up the situation on the left. 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles moved towards the high ground barring the way to Panaccioni. Canadian tanks in close attendance found solid footing and terrain suitable for manuvre. The four companies and their armour skirmished forward in a brilliant set-piece action which paid tribute to the combined training on the Volturno. The Germans had stationed their self-propelled guns and tanks in sunken lanes, hoping to ambush the infantry and to trap its protective armour. The quick-eyed Indians detected and pinpointed these lairs so that the Canadian tanks might work on to the blind side to destroy them. As Jemendar Thakur Singh led his platoon forward, his men spotted four self-propelled guns concealed under the foliage of trees. A burst of tracer gave the tank escorts the clue. They plastered the site with armour-piercing shells as they closed in for the kill. Similarly, when German armoured vehicles sallied out to deal with the Indian skirmishers, the tank men saw them first and smashed them. Their wreckage sign-posted the line of advance. The enemy was unable to frustrate such efficient team work, and Panaccioni fell to Frontier Force Rifles at 1400 hours on the afternoon of May 13th.
Both flanks were now secure and the bridgehead firm. 21st Brigade immediately came forward from reserve to exploit the success by an attack up the Liri Valley on to Pignataro, the final Divisional objective. At 0525 hours on May 14th, 3/15 Punjabis, with Canadian tanks rumbling alongside, passed through Frontier Force Rifles. Two hours later this fine battalion had stormed its immediate objective and was moving into the open. The defence was disorganized and strong-points fell easily. 19th Brigade joined in the advance, with Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders re-crossing the river to swing left and to mop up Liri Appendix. 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles pushed up the valley on the left flank of 21st Brigade. By dusk two brigades had closed up on Pignataro, nearly three miles ahead of the Gari, and the Horseshoe had been cleansed of the enemy. Should Pignataro fall, the Cassino position would be turned from the flank, and the way opened to link up with the Polish Corps in their drive across the Monte Cairo massif.
Eighth Division pressed the pace. 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles with tank support attacked Pignataro at twilight. A lucky circumstance aided in the capture of this strong position. 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles had been on the outskirts of the village throughout the afternoon, and the enemy apparently expected the assault to be preceded by an artillery programme. Towards dusk Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who had been mopping up at a great pace on the left, were observed advancing towards Pignataro on the opposite side. This movement distracted the defenders who massed their automatic weapons against an attack from the south. As fire opened on the Scotsmen, Major R. R. Eckford's Pathan Company of the Frontiersmen, with a troop of Canadian tanks close behind, dashed at the village.
The assault took the defenders by surprise. The tanks bored in, smashing at the pill boxes with armour-piercing shell at point-blank range. The garrison of Pignataro proved to be students from a school of mountain warfare, who had been collected hastily and entrusted with the defence of this key position. They fought fanatically as the Pathans swarmed in upon them. After the position had been overrun, little groups which had fled in the face of the onslaught returned to dig in and to die in last stands. Prisoners emerged with their hands above their heads, holding grenades which they hurled as their captors went forward to secure them. It was all to no avail. The Dogra Company of the Frontiersmen raced up in support, and by dawn Pignataro was clear of the enemy.
All the principal fortifications of the Gustav Line were now in the rear of the Indians. In four days of fierce fighting, approximately 1,000 Germans had been killed and captured in the San Angelo-Pignataro-Panaccioni Horseshoe. The victory had not been without cost. Approximately one-third of 17th Brigade were casualties, and 19th Brigade's losses were only slightly less. But in comparison with Cassino the Indian troops had smashed the Gustav Line at low cost.
Twenty-four hours after Pignataro fell, the Polish attack was launched from the north of Cassino. After terrific fighting the Poles stormed Snake's Head Ridge and Monastery Hill. Twenty-four hours later they had worked their way down the southern slopes of the buttress and had made contact with Seventy-Eighth British Division on Route 6, to the west of Cassino Town. This completed the destruction of the Gustav positions, and the enemy fell back on the Adolf Hitler Line. Monte Cairo continued as the pivot of the defence system, and the Germans remained in strength at Villa San Lucia and Piedimonte in the mountain spurs above the highway. On the opposite side of the valley, French Expeditionary Corps had attacked along the foothills of the Arunci, and were advancing against the Adolf Hitler positions near the road junction of Pontecorvo.
According to the original plan Eighth Indian Division had completed its task. On May 16th 6th and 17th the Canadian Corps relieved the tired Indians. On May 19th Seventy-Eighth British Division and First Canadian Infantry Division assaulted the Adolf Hitler Line. The attack broke down owing to inadequate artillery support. It was essential to maintain the momentum of the assault, and shortly before midnight on May 19th Eighth Indian Division received instructions to re-enter the battle. Next morning, 21st Brigade moved up Route 6 under the shadow of the broken ridges where the Poles in ferocious fighting sought to smash the hinge of the switch line. The Indians were ordered to provide an infantry screen for Polish tanks which had worked around the flank of Piedimonte in order to assault the village from the south. Simultaneously Polish infantry would be launched in strength against the same position from the north. At 1500 hours on May 20th three companies of Royal West Kents moved forward to storm two strongpoints on the track which led from Route 6 to Piedimonte.
Before turning northward on to the hillsides, the Kentish men had to advance 2,000 yards across open cornfields swept by enemy fire. From the hilltops on the right, and from weapon pits in front, the enemy raked the advance. Royal West Kents went forward by platoons in short rushes, and although suffering considerable casualties, kept admirable cohesion and direction. One company lost both its senior officers; whereupon the subalterns in charge of platoons nominated Company Sergeant-Major Mott as company commander. At last light the Royal West Kents closed on their objective and swept over it, to dig in along a sunken road only 200 yards below the enemy's main battle position on the slopes of Piedimonte Hill. Thirty-three prisoners were captured from the Forty-fourth German Division, which had been rushed into action from a reserve area to the north of Monte Cairo.
In the hills behind Piedimonte a fearful battle raged. First German Parachute Division likewise had been hurried to the scene of the fighting. Toe to toe they met the gallant Poles with the same tenacity and contempt for death that they had shown against the Indians on the glacis of Monastery Hill. They held the conical Piedimonte crest and the ridges behind it in an unshakable grip. When day broke on May 21st they were able to turn their attention to the Royal West Kents, who had all but penetrated the position from the opposite side. Throughout the day the Kentish men were subjected to the heaviest shelling and mortaring that they had ever known. The presence of the Polish tanks convinced the enemy that a major assault from the west was imminent. That night the Poles again smashed at Piedimonte from the north and again failed to make progress. Night after night bitter and deadly fighting continued.
Meanwhile the French Corps on the opposite side of the Liri Valley had broken into Pontecorvo, the left flank anchor position of the Adolf Hitler defences. The battle was now rising to its climax. Day by day the artillery of four corps played on the German lines in the Liri Valley and in the foothills of the Monte Cairo massif. At dawn on May 23rd First Canadian Corps, with 700 guns and two brigades of armour in close support, burst into the German positions. The line cracked and the Canadians poured through. On the same morning the hard-fighting forces in the Anzio bridgehead broke out to link up with Fifth Army troops advancing from the south. Thirty-six hours later the Poles finally stormed Piedimonte. The enemy feverishly endeavoured to man the line of the Melfa river, five miles higher up the valley; before defences could be organized the Canadians were hacking through. Thirteenth Corps rapidly deployed for the pursuit. As preliminary to launching Sixth British Armoured Division, it was necessary to clear the enemy from his forlorn hope positions along the hilltops above Route 6. On May 25th, 19th Brigade passed through 21st Brigade, and 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles climbed the hillsides to assault Centro Cielo and Madonna di Castro, Cielo, a hilltop 2,400 feet above the valley. As the Frontiersmen clambered over the terraces of olive trees, the leading company came under heavy fire from paratroopers dug in as at Cassino, in the lee of boulders and under rocky ledges. New Zealand tanks in support of the Indians laid a smoke screen. The smoke shell fired the grass and flushed the Germans from their coverts. As they ran, the riflemen brought them down. By nightfall the Dogra Company was firmly established on the hilltops, and the Argylls had pushed through to take Cantalupo and Roccasecca against lessening opposition. The enemy was in full retreat, disorganized beyond possibility of immediate recovery. Morale had broken and even the fanatical paratroopers had lost heart. In a chance encounter, five camp followers of 3/8 Punjab Regiment, with only three rifles between them, captured eleven of Hitler's Prides without a shot being fired. A continuous flow of stragglers from dispersed units plodded back to the prisoners' cages.
Thus the travail of Cassino was avenged, and a new chapter opened in the campaign in Italy.
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