Battle of Monte Cassino | World War II

Battle of Monte Cassino | World War II

Overview

During World War II's Italian Campaign, the Battle of Monte Cassino (also known as the Battle for Rome and Cassino) was a costly series of four assaults by the Allies against the Axis-held Winter Line in Italy. The goal was to gain access to Rome. Germans held the Rapido-Gari, Liri, and Garigliano valleys and portions of the surrounding peaks and ridges at the start of 1944, anchoring the western half of the Winter Line. These characteristics came together to produce the Gustav Line. The surrounding hamlet of Cassino and the entrances to the Liri and Rapido valleys were dominated by Monte Cassino, a medieval hilltop abbey founded in AD 529 by Benedict of Nursia. Even though they staffed certain positions set into the steep slopes below the abbey's walls, the Germans left the monastery.

Following repeated precision artillery strikes on Allied assault troops, their commanders concluded that the abbey was, at the very least, being used as an observation post by the Germans. Fears grew along with the number of victims, and despite the lack of definitive evidence, it was designated for destruction. American aircraft unleashed 1,400 tons of heavy explosives on the 15th of February, causing widespread devastation. The raid was a failure because German paratroopers occupied the rubble and built solid defensive positions amid the wreckage.

The Gustav and Monte Cassino defences were attacked four times by Allied soldiers between 17 January and 18 May. Then, as part of a twenty-division attack along a twenty-mile front, soldiers from the Polish II Corps made one of the final assaults against the German defensive line on May 16. On May 18, a Polish flag was placed above the remains, followed by the British Union Jack. Finally, on May 25, the German Senger Line disintegrated due to the Allied triumph. The German defenders were eventually pushed out but at a high cost. The liberation of Monte Cassino cost the Allies 55,000 lives, while the Germans suffered significantly fewer casualties, with an estimated 20,000 killed and wounded.

Background

The Associated landings in Italy in September 1943, which came after the Allied landings in Sicily in July and were led by General Sir Harold Alexander, the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of the 15th Army Group, were followed by an advance northward on two fronts, one on each side of the central mountain range that formed Italy's "spine." The American Fifth Army on the western front, , led by Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark, advanced up the Italian "boot" from its main base in Naples, having suffered heavy fatalities throughout the main landing at Salerno in September. The British Eighth Army, led by General Sir Bernard Montgomery, advanced up the Adriatic coast on the eastern front.

Clark's Fifth Army made halting progress in the face of rugged terrain, inclement weather, and skilful German defences. The Germans were fighting from several pre-planned locations to inflict maximum damage before withdrawing to allow time for constructing the Winter Line defensive lines south of Rome. Unfortunately, the earlier predictions of Rome falling by October 1943 proved to be considered too optimistic. Although the German defensive line on the Adriatic front had been breached and the 1st Canadian Division had secured Ortona, the advance had come to a halt with the arrival of winter blizzards in late December, rendering close air support and mobility in the jagged terrain impossible. Route 5 from the east was thus ruled out as a viable option, leaving highways 6 and 7 from Naples to Rome as the only options. Highway 7 followed the west coast, but south of Rome went into the Pontine Marshes, which the Germans had inundated.

The Liri valley was dominated at its southern entrance by the craggy mass of Monte Cassino, which towered over the town of Cassino. The German defenders were able to identify Allied movement and direct highly accurate artillery fire from the summits of many hills, stopping any northward advance. The Rapido River began in the central Apennine Mountains and went through Cassino (joining the Gari River, which was erroneously labelled as the Rapido) and ran across the Allied over the entrance to the Liri valley line. The Liri and Gari rivers merged to form the Garigliano River, which ran to the sea.

Cassino became a keystone of the Gustav Line, the most formidable line of the defensive positions that make up the Winter Line. Its well-constructed mountain defences, challenging river crossings, and valley head flooded by the Germans. Yet, despite its potential as an observation tower, the German commander in Italy, Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, instructed German soldiers not to incorporate the fourteen-century-old Benedictine abbey in their defensive lines and informed the Vatican and the Allies of this decision in December 1943.

Despite this, some Allied observation planes spotted German forces within the abbey. While this is unproven, it seems apparent that the Germans took the monastery after it was demolished, providing better coverage for their emplacements and troops than an entire tower would have provided.

First Battle

Plans and Preparation

The goal of the Fifth Army commander, Lieutenant General Clark, was for the British X Corps, under by Lieutenant General Richard McCreery, to attack over the Garigliano towards the shore on 17 January 1944, on the left of a thirty-kilometre (20 mi) front (5th and 56th Infantry Divisions). On the night of January 19th, the British 46th Infantry Division was to charge diagonally the Garigliano below its connection with the Liri in support of the main onslaught on their right by the US II Corps, led by Major General Geoffrey Keyes. On 20 January, the US II Corps' main centre thrust would begin with an assault by the US 36th Infantry Division over the swollen Gari river, five miles (8 kilometres) downstream of Cassino. Simultaneously, the French Expeditionary Corps (CEF), led by General Alphonse Juin, would press on towards Monte Cairo, the pivot between the Gustav and Hitler self-protective lines. In certainty, Clark did not have faith in there was much chance of an early breakthrough. Still, he thought the attacks would draw German reserves away from the Rome area in time for the invasion on Anzio (codenamed Operation Shingle), where the U.S. VI Corps (British 1st and the 504th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Divisions, Combat Command 'B' of the U.S, U.S. Army Rangers and British Commandos, The Anzio landing, with the advantage of surprise and a quick march inland to the Alban Hills, which command both routes 6 and 7, was supposed to confuse the German commanders and lead them to retire from the Gustav Line to positions north of Rome. While this would have been consistent with German tactics throughout the preceding three months, Allied intelligence had failed to recognize that the fighting retreat strategy had been implemented solely to give the Germans time to build the Gustav Line, where they intended to hold firm. As a result, the intelligence assessment of Allied chances was overly optimistic.

The Fifth Army had only arrived at the Gustav Line on 15 January, after a six-week battle to penetrate the final seven miles (11 km) through the Bernhardt Line fortifications, during which they had lost 16,000 men. After three months of attritional battle north of Naples, they barely had time to prepare for the upcoming assault, let alone get the rest and reorganizing they desperately required. Because the Associated Combined Chiefs of Staff would not make landing craft available until early February, as they were needed for Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Northern France, Operation Shingle had to take place in late January, three days after the coordinated attack on the Gustav Line.

First Attack

The initial attack occurred on January 17th. The British X Corps forced a crossing of the Garigliano near the coast causing General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, commander-in-chief of the German XIV Panzer Corps, and accountable for the Gustav defences on the southwestern half of the line, severe doubts about the ability of the German 94th Infantry Division to hold the line. In response to Senger's worries, Kesselring ordered reinforcements from the 29th and 90th Panzergrenadier Divisions in the Rome region. There is conjecture about what would have happened if X Corps had the reserves to capitalize on their success and achieve a decisive escape. The Corps lacked the extra men, but there would have been enough time to change the general combat plan and cancel or modify the US II Corps' central attack to make forces obtainable to force the issue in the south before the German reinforcements arrived. As it turned out, Fifth Army HQ failed to recognize the German position's vulnerability, and the strategy remained unchanged. By the 21st of January, the two divisions from Rome had arrived and stabilized the German situation in the south. However, the plan was working in one respect: Kesselring's reserves were being dragged south. Lieutenant General McCreery's X Corps suffered 4,000 casualties over three divisions during the initial combat.

Primary Attack: II Corps in the Centre, 20 January

The US 36th Division's core drive, led by Major General Fred L. Walker, began three hours after sundown on January 20. The approach to the river was still dangerous due to uncleared mines and booby traps. The highly technical business of an opposing river crossing lacked the requisite planning and rehearsal due to a lack of time to prepare. Even though a battalion of the 143rd Infantry Regiment and two companies of the 141st Infantry Regiment were able to cross the Gari on the south side of San Angelo and the Gari on the north side, they were isolated for the majority of the time. Allied armour could never cross the river, leaving them highly vulnerable to counter-attacking tanks and self-propelled guns of Generalleutnant Eberhard Rodt's 15th Panzergren By mid-morning on January 21, and the southern group had been forced back across the river. Keyes pressed the walker to resume the attack right away. The two regiments assaulted again, but this time with no success against the well-entrenched 15th Panzergrenadier Division: the 143rd Infantry Regiment managed to get the equivalent of two battalions over, but there was no armoured backup, and they were destroyed when daylight arrived the next day. Despite the lack of armoured backup, the 141st Infantry Regiment crossed in two battalions and managed to advance one kilometre (0.62 mi). With the arrival of daylight, they were cut down as well, and by the evening of January 22nd, the 141st Infantry Regiment had all but vanished; only 40 soldiers had finished it back to the Associated lines. The attack had been a expensive failure, with the 36th Division losing 2,100 troops dead, wounded, or missing in 48 hours. As a result, Congress investigated the army's actions in this combat after the war.

II Corps Try north of Cassino

The next attack was started on the 24th of January. The US II Corps launched an assault across the flooded Rapido valley north of Cassino and into the mountains behind it, with the 34th Infantry Division under Major General Charles W. Ryder at the helm and French colonial troops on its right flank, to the wheel to the left and attack Monte Cassino from high ground. While crossing the river would be easier because the Rapido upstream of Cassino was fordable, floods rendered travel on both sides extremely difficult. Armour could only travel on steel matting-lined routes. It took the 34th Division eight days of terrible battle through the flooded ground to beat back General Franek's German 44th Infantry Division from establishing a position in the mountains.

French Corps Stopped on the Right Side

On the right, Moroccan-French soldiers made significant early headway against General Julius Ringel's German 5th Mountain Division, securing positions on the slopes of their primary objective, Monte Cifalco. Monte Cifalco was also bypassed by front forces of the 3rd Algerian Infantry Division to conquer Monte Belvedere and Colle Abate. General Juin was sure that a northern route could circumvent Casino and dislodge the German defences. Still, his request for reserves to keep the momentum of his advance was denied, and the only available reserve regiment (from the 36th Division) was dispatched to reinforce the 34th Division. The French had come to a halt on the 31st of January, with Monte Cifalco, which had a vibrant view of the French and American flanks and supply lines, still in German hands. In the battles near Colle Belvedere, the two Moroccan-French divisions lost 2,500 men.

II Corps in the Foothills North of Cassino

The US 34th Division was tasked with fighting southward laterally the linked hilltops towards the intersecting ridge on the south end of which was Monastery Hill. Behind the Gustav Line defences, they could then break down into the Liri valley. The mountains were rocky, covered with rocks, and pierced by ravines and valleys, making it difficult to progress. Digging foxholes was impossible on the rough landscape, and any feature was vulnerable to fire from nearby high points. The ravines were no better since the defenders had planted mines, booby-traps, and buried barbed wire among the gorse that grew there. The Germans had three months to create dynamite-filled defence fortifications and stockpile munitions and supplies. The weather was damp and bitterly cold, and there was no natural protection.

By early February, American forces had taken a critical position near the hamlet of San Onofrio, less than a mile (1.6 km) from the abbey. By 7 February, a battalion had arrived at Point 445, a round-topped hill directly below the monastery and only 400 yards (370 m) away. The monks observed German and American patrols exchange fire while an American team conducted reconnaissance right up against the cliff-like abbey walls. However, heavy machine-gun fire from the slopes below the monastery thwarted attempts to capture Monte Cassino. Despite their valiant efforts, the 34th Division was unable to capture the final redoubts on Hill 593 (recognized to the Germans as Calvary Mount), which was detained by the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Parachute Regiment, portion of the 1st Parachute Division and served as the ridge's dominant point.

Aftermath

The Americans were evacuated on February 11th after a final three-day fruitless assault on Monastery Hill and Cassino town. Afterward two and a half weeks of fighting, the US II Corps was exhausted. The 34th Division's performance in the highlands is regarded as one of the finest feats of arms performed by any men during the war. In exchange, they suffered 80 per cent losses in the Infantry battalions or 2,200 casualties. Von Senger und Etterlin had shifted the 90th Division from the Garigliano front to the north of Cassino in the first days of February and was so concerned about the rate of attrition that he "mustered all the weight of my authority to request that the Battle of Cassino is wrecked off and that we should occupy a fairly new line, a situation, in fact, north of the Anzio bridgehead." Kesselring turned down the request. Von Senger was able to bring in the 71st Infantry Division at the critical moment while leaving the 15th Panzergrenadier Division (whom they were supposed to relieve) in situ.

There were times during the war when more judicious use of reserves may have turned promising positions into decisive moves. According to some historians, Clark's failure to capitalize on early success could be attributed to his lack of expertise. However, being in charge of both the Cassino and Anzio offensives, it's more likely that he was overworked. Major General Lucian Truscott, commanding the US 3rd Infantry Division, was unable to contact him for negotiations during a critical moment in the Anzio breakout at the time of the fourth Cassino fight, as described below. While General Alexander, the AAI's C-in-C, chose to have Cassino and Anzio under one army commander and split the Gustav Line front between the US Fifth Army and the British Eighth Army, now commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese, Kesselring picked to create a distinct 14th Army under General Eberhard von Mackensen to attack at Anzio while leaving the Gustav Line to General Heinrich v. The departed American divisions were replaced by the New Zealand Corps from the Eighth Army on the Adriatic front, led by Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg.

Second Battle

Background

With the United States VI Corps under fire at Anzio, Freyberg was under pressure to execute a relief operation at Cassino. As a result, the combat began without the attackers properly preparing themselves. In addition, Corps HQ underestimated the difficulty of deploying the 4th Indian Infantry Division in the Alps and supplying them through the hills and valleys north of Cassino. Freyberg's strategy was to attack from the north along the mountain ridges and from the southeast down the railway line to capture the railway station across the Rapido, less than one mile (1.6 km) south of Cassino town. Cassino town would be squeezed out with success, and the Liri valley would open up. Given the circumstances, Freyberg had advised his superiors that he considered the offensive had just a 50 per cent chance of succeeding.

Destruction of the Abbey

Certain Allied officers became more fixated on the enormous abbey of Monte Cassino, believing that it was the abbey and its supposed use as a German artillery observation position that kept the 'Gustav Line' from being breached. The British media and C. L. Sulzberger of The New York Times often and persuasively described German opinion posts and weaponry positions inside the abbey in detail. During a fly-over, Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker, the commander in chief of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, was escorted by Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers, who personally observed "a radio mast... German uniforms were hanging on a clothesline in the abbey courtyard; machine gun emplacements 50 yards (46 m) from the abbey walls." In response, US II Corps commander Geoffrey Keyes flew over the monastery numerous times, reporting to Fifth Army G-2 that he had realized no sign that the Germans were inside. "They've been looking for so long they're seeing things," he said when told of others' reports of seeing enemy troops there.

Major General Francis Tuker’s 4th Indian Division would be in charge of the attack on Monastery Hill, had assessed the situation himself. He had discovered a book dated 1879 in a Naples bookshop that chronicled the abbey's construction in the lack of comprehensive intelligence at Fifth Army HQ. Regardless of whether the Germans held the monastery, he decided in his memorandum to Freyberg that it should be dismantled to prevent its effective possession. He also made a point that there were no practical ways for field engineers to deal with the place because it had 150-foot (46 m) high walls made of masonry at least 10 feet (3.0 m) thick, and that bombing with "blockbuster" bombs would be the only solution because 1,000-pound bombs would be "next to useless." Tuker stated that he would not strike unless "the garrison was brought to helpless madness by sheer unremitting bombardment by air and artillery for days and nights."

Brigadier Dimoline, the interim commander of the 4th Indian Division, requested a bombing strike on February 11, 1944. Tuker reaffirmed his case from a Caserta hospital bed, where he was suffering from a severe case of recurring tropical fever. On February 12th, Freyberg sent his request. However, air force planners considerably increased the demand, which was likely approved by Eaker and Devers, who wanted to exploit the occasion to demonstrate the ability of US Army air power to support ground operations. Major General Alfred Gruenther, Clark's chief of staff, was sceptical of the "military necessity." Brigadier General J.A. Butler, deputy commander-in-chief of the US 34th Division, had said when handing over the US II Corps position to the New Zealand Corps: "I'm not sure, but I don't think the enemy is hiding in the convent. All of the fire has come from the hillside under the wall ". Lastly, Clark, "who did not want the monastery blasted," persuaded Alexander, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies in Italy, to take responsibility: "I said, 'You give me a straight order,' and he did."

On February 15, 1944, 47 North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers, 142 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers,  and 40 Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers took part in the bombing mission. In total, 1,150 tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs were dropped on the monastery, dropping the entire top of Monte Cassino to a burning mound of wreckage. The artillery of the II Corps hammered the mountain in between bomb runs. As they watched the spectacle, several Allied soldiers and war correspondents rejoiced. "No, they'll never get anywhere this way," Juin said as Eaker and Devers stood there watching. Clark and Gruenther stayed at their headquarters rather than go to the site. The following day and the next day, an artillery barrage and a raid by 59 fighter aircraft wrecked even more havoc. Above and beyond the monastery, the German fortifications on Point 593 were unaffected.

Unfortunately, the air raid was not coordinated with ground orders, and a quick infantry response did not occur. The Air Force had determined the schedule as a distinct operation, taking into account weather and requirements on other fronts and regions without respect for ground forces. In addition, many of the troops had only taken over their positions from II Corps two days before, and difficulties had hampered preparations in the valley in supplying the newly installed troops with sufficient material for a full-scale assault due to incessantly foul weather, flooding, and soggy ground. As a result, Indian troops atop the Snake's Head were caught off guard, while the New Zealand Corps was only two days away from launching its main assault.

After the Bombing

After the attack, Pope Pius XII remained mute; however, his Cardinal Secretary of State, Luigi Maglione, plainly said to Harold Tittmann, the senior US diplomat to the Vatican, that the bombing was "a considerable folly... a piece of appalling stupidity. According to every investigation conducted since the tragedy, the only individuals murdered in the monastery by the explosion were 230 Italian citizens seeking sanctuary in the abbey. There is no proof that any German troops were killed by the bombs unleashed on the Monte Cassino monastery that day. However, given the imprecision of bombing at the time (it was estimated that only 10% of the bombs dropped from heavy bombers bombing from high altitude hit the monastery), bombs did land elsewhere, killing both German and Allied troops, though this was accidental. Indeed, sixteen bombs exploded barely yards away from the trailer where Clark was conducting paperwork at his desk at the Fifth Army base in Presenzano, 17 miles (27 kilometres) from Monte Cassino.

At dawn light the day following the bombing, the majority of the civilians still alive escaped the debris. Only about 40 people continued. The six monks who had managed to survive in the abbey's deep vaults, its 79-year-old abbot, three tenant farmer families, Gregorio Diamare, orphaned or abandoned children, the severely injured, and the dying. The monks chose to leave their devastated home with the others who could go at 07:30 on February 17th, after artillery barrages, repeated bombing, and attacks on the ridge by the 4th Indian Division. The ancient abbot chanted the rosary as he led the group down the mule route toward the Liri valley. Some of the badly wounded carried by the monks were taken away in a military ambulance once they reached a German first-aid station. The monks were driven to Sant'Anselmo all'Aventino after meeting with a German officer. On February 18, the abbot met with Lieutenant-General Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, commander of the XIV Panzer Corps. Carlomanno Pellagalli, a monk who had returned to the abbey, was subsequently seen walking the ruins, and the German paratroopers mistook him for a ghost. He was not seen again after the 3rd of April. The Germans had agreed not to utilize the abbey for military objectives, and it is now known. Following its collapse, German 1st Parachute Division paratroopers took the abbey's remains and transformed them into a fortification and observation point, posing a severe threat to Allied forces.

Battle

A company of the 1st Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment (one of the British troops in the 4th Indian Division) stationed in the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade attacked the vital point 593 from a position 70 yards (64 meters) away on Snakeshead Ridge the night after the bombing. The assault failed, with the company losing half of its members. The Royal Sussex Regiment was commanded to raid in battalion strength the next night. Inopportunely, it got off to a bad start. Because of the proximity and possibility of shelling friendly forces, artillery could not directly support point 593. As a result, it was decided to invade point 575, giving support fire to point 593's defenders. Because of the land's geography, shells fired at 575 had to pass very low over Snakeshead Ridge, and some of them landed among the advancing assault companies. After reorganizing, the attack was launched at midnight. The combat was intense and often hand-to-hand, but the stubborn defence held, and the Royal Sussex Regiment was defeated, suffering over 50% fatalities once again. The Royal Sussex Battalion lost 12 out of 15 staffs and 162 out of 313 men who took part in the attack throughout the two nights.

The main assault took place on the night of February 17th. With the Royal Sussex Regiment maintained in reserve, the 4/6th Rajputana Rifles would lead the assault on position 593 along Snakeshead Ridge. Point 444 was to be attacked by the 1/9th Gurkha Rifles. Meanwhile, the 1/2nd Gurkha Rifles were to launch a direct assault on the monastery, sweeping across the slopes and ravines. The latter traversed treacherous terrain, but the Gurkhas, experts in mountainous terrain, were expected to triumph. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a pipe dream. The fighting was severe once more, but no advance was achieved, and the fatalities were high. The Rajputanas lost 196 officers and soldiers, while the 1/9th Gurkhas suffered 149 casualties and the 1/2nd Gurkhas suffered 96. On the 18th of February, Dimoline and Freyberg called off the attacks on Monastery Hill after it became evident that the attack had failed.

The two companies of the New Zealand Division's 28th (Mori) Battalion forced a crossing of the Rapido. They attempted to take the railway station in Cassino town in the second portion of the primary attack. The plan was to create a perimeter around which engineers could construct a causeway for armoured support. The Mori retained their positions for much of the day thanks to a near-constant smoke screen laid down by Allied artillery that concealed their whereabouts to the German cannons on Monastery Hill. Yet, when an armoured counter-attack by two tanks arrived in the afternoon of February 18, they were in a hopeless situation due to their remoteness and lack of both armoured assistance and anti-tank weaponry. When it became evident to headquarters that both attempts to break through (in the highlands and along the causeway) would fail, they were instructed to retreat to the river. It had been a nail-biter. According to a recorded conversation between Kesselring and von Vietinghoff, the Germans were frightened by the station's capture and did not anticipate their counter-attack to succeed.

Third Battle

Plans

For the third fight, it was agreed that fording the Garigliano river downstream of Cassino town was an unappealing alternative as long as the winter weather remained (after the unhappy experiences in the first two battles). After a costly failure with the "right hook" in the mountains, it was decided to conduct twin attacks from the north in the Rapido valley, one against the defended Cassino town and the other against Monastery Hill. The plan was to carve a way through the bottleneck between these two features to access the station on the south side and hence the Liri valley. The British 78th Infantry Division, which arrived in late February and was assigned to the New Zealand Corps, would subsequently cross the Rapido downstream of Cassino and begin the March on Rome. The strategy did not sit well with any Allied commanders, but it was believed that an unprecedented preliminary bombing by heavy bombers would be the trump card. Three days of clear weather were required, and the assault was postponed for twenty-one days as the troops waited in the freezing, damp positions for a favourable weather forecast. The loss of Kippenberger, who was wounded by an anti-personnel mine and lost both feet, did not improve matters. A German counter-attack at Anzio was unsuccessful and been called off, so Brigadier Graham Parkinson replaced him.

The Battle

The third combat started on March 15th. The New Zealanders moved behind a creeping artillery barrage from 746 artillery pieces after a attack of 750 tons of bombs with late action fuses, which began at 08:30 and lasted three and a half hours. Taking advantage of the bombing's paralyzing effect was crucial to success. Although the bombing was not concentrated only half of the 300 paratroopers in the town were killed due to it and the shelling it did kill about half of the town's 300 paratroopers. The defences rallied faster than planned, and bomb holes slowed the Allied armour.

Nonetheless, the triumph was within reach for the Kiwis. Still, by the time a follow-up assault on the left was authorized later that evening, it was too late: defences had reorganized, and, more importantly, the rain had returned, contrary to forecast. Rain poured down in torrents, flooding bomb craters, burning wreckage into a dilemma, and obliterating communications since radio sets couldn't withstand the constant immersion. The thick rain clouds also blacked out the moonlight, making it challenging to clear paths through the ruins. Nevertheless, the New Zealanders had taken Castle Hill and point 165 on the right. Parts of the Indian 4th Infantry Division, now commanded by Major General Alexander Galloway, had pushed through to attack point 236 and subsequently Hangman's Hill, as anticipated. However, during the fighting, the 1/9th Gurkha Rifles company took a route that avoided point 236 and captured point 435, while the 1/6th Rajputana Rifles' assault on point 236 was repulsed.

The Gurkhas held Hangman's Hill, 250 yards from the monastery, in battalion strength by the end of March although German positions compromised their lines of supply at point 236 and in the northern part of the town. While the city was still fiercely defended, New Zealand units and armour had broken through the bottleneck and captured the station. On the other hand, the Germans were still able to resupply their forces in the town, and they were getting better at sneaking snipers back into areas that had been cleared.

The pivotal blow in the town and on the monastery was planned for 19 March, including a surprise attack by tanks from the 20th Armoured Regiment working from Caira to Albaneta Farm which had been set by engineer units under cover of darkness and from there to the abbey. However, a surprise and hard-pressed counter-attack by the German 1st Parachute Division from the monastery on Castle Hill utterly thwarted any attempt to attack the sanctuary from the Castle and Hangman's Hill. At the same time, the tanks, without infantry assistance, were all knocked out by mid-afternoon. As a result, the assailants made little advance in the town. As a result, the initiative was transferred to the Germans, whose positions at Castle Hill, which served as a gateway to Monastery Hill, hampered any early success. On March 20, Freyberg committed elements of the 78th Infantry Division to the battle; first, to provide a more significant troop presence in the town, so the Germans did not reinfiltrate that cleared areas, and second, to reinforce Castle Hill so that troops could be released to close off the two courses among Castle Hill and Points 175 and 165 that the Germans were using to reinforce the town's defenders.

As gruelling fighting continued through the 21st of March, Allied commanders believed they were on the verge of victory. On the other hand, the defenders were adamant, and the attack on Point 445 to cut off the German resupply route had narrowly failed, while Allied gains in the town were measured house by house. Alexander met with his commanders on March 23. Again, there were differing views on the likelihood of success, but it was clear that the New Zealand and Indian Divisions were tired. Freyberg knew the attack couldn't go on much longer, so he called it off. The German 1st Parachute Division took a thrashing but fought on.

Aftermath

The next three days were devoted to stabilizing the front and retrieving the isolated Gurkhas from Hangman's Hill, as well as a detachment from the New Zealand 24th Battalion that had held Point 202 in similar isolation. The tired 4th Indian Division and 2nd New Zealand Division were removed and replaced by the British 78th Division in the mountains and the British 1st Guards Brigade in the town, respectively. On March 26, the New Zealand Corps headquarters was disbanded, and the British XIII Corps gained command. The 4th Indian Division lost 3,000 troops in the Cassino front line, while the 2nd New Zealand Division suffered 1,600 men dead, missing, or wounded.

The German defenders had paid a high price as well. The battalions on the front line had strengths ranging from 40 to 120 soldiers, according to the German XIV Corps War Diary dated March 23.

The Fourth and Final Battle

Alexander's Strategy

"Force the enemy to commit the maximum number of divisions in Italy when the cross-channel invasion is begun," Alexander's approach in Italy stated. Circumstances allowed him to plan a major offensive to accomplish this. The bulk of the British Eighth Military, ordered by Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese, was to be shifted from the Adriatic front across the spine of Italy to join Clark's Fifth Army and attack along a 20-mile (32-kilometre) front between Cassino and the sea, initially inspired by Juin's idea to circle Cassino and take the Aurunci with his mountain troops to break the Gustav Line. On the left, the Fifth Army (US II Corps and French Expeditionary Corps) and on the right, the Eighth Army (British XIII Corps and Polish II Corps). Ground conditions improved with the approach of spring weather, allowing massive formations and armour to be deployed successfully.

Planning and Preparation

The idea for Operation Diadem was for the US II Corps to advance up the coast along Route 7 to Rome from the left. To their right, the French Corps would advance from the Garigliano Bridgehead, established by the British X Corps in the initial fight in January, in the Aurunci Mountains, which established a barrier between the seaside and the Liri Valley. The British XIII Corps would attack the Liri valley in the front centre-right. On the right, Lieutenant General Wadysaw Anders' Polish II Corps (3rd and 5th Divisions) reassured the British 78th Division in the foothills behind Cassino on 24 April. In February, they would attempt the task that had defeated them 4th Indian Division.Iisolate the monastery and push behind it into the Liri valley to link up with XIII Corps' push and pinch out the Cassino position. It was hoped that by being a much larger force than their predecessors in the 4th Indian Division, they would saturate the German defences, rendering them unable to provide support fire to each other's positions. Weather, ground conditions, and supplies would all be major concerns as well. The Polish and British Corps' pinching manoeuvres were crucial to the overall success. The Canadian I Corps would be held in reserve, ready to seize the opportunity. After defeating the German 10th Army, the US VI Corps would break from the Anzio foothold to cut off the receding Germans in the Alban Hills.

It took two months to complete the large troop movements required for this. They had to be carried out in minor groups to maintain secrecy and surprise. Road signs and fake radio signal traffic were created to show that a seaborne landing was planned for north of Rome, and the US 36th Division was sent on amphibious assault training. It was done to keep German forces away from the Gustav Line. Armoured units left the Adriatic front behind decoy tanks and vehicles, ensuring that the evacuated locations seemed unchanged to enemy aerial reconnaissance. The ruse worked perfectly. Kesselring estimated the Allies had six divisions fighting his four on the Cassino front as late as the second day of the last Cassino battle. There were thirteen in total.

Battle

The first attack on Cassino (11–12 May) began at 23:00 with a heavy artillery bombardment manned by British, Americans, Poles, New Zealanders, South Africans, and French, with 1,060 arms on the Eighth Army front and 600 arms on the Fifth Army front. The attack was launched in all four sections within an hour and a half. By morning, the US II Corps had made the little advance. Still, their Fifth Army counterparts, the French Expeditionary Corps, had accomplished their objectives and were fanning out through the Aurunci Mountains toward the Eighth Army on their right, rolling up the German positions between the two armies. On the Eighth Army's front, the British XIII Corps crossed the Garigliano in two opposing ways (the British 4th Infantry Division and the 8th Indian Division). Notably, the engineers of Dudley Russell's 8th Indian Division had succeeded in bridging the river by the morning, allowing the armour of the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade to cross and provide the vital element (sorely lacking in the first battle and the second battle) to beat off the inevitable counter-attacks from German tanks. The Polish 2nd Corps, led by General Wadysaw Anders, took Mount Calvary (Monte Calvario, or Point 593 on Snakeshead Ridge) in the mountains above Cassino, only to be recovered by German paratroopers.

Both sides suffered tremendous losses for three days due to Polish attacks and German counter-attacks. The Polish II Corps lost 281 staffs and 3,503 other ranks in attacks on Oberst Ludwig Heilmann's 4th Parachute Regiment till the invasions were called off. Only eight hundred Germans had succeeded in driving off attacks by two divisions, the area around the mountain has turned into a "miniature Verdun". The Polish infantry divisions were encountered with such severe mortar, artillery, and small-arms fire that the leading battalions were all but wiped out" in the early morning hours of 12 May.

Despite fierce counter-attacks, the Gari bridgeheads were expanding by the afternoon of 12 May, but abrasion on the shore and in the mountains sustained. By the 13th of May, the strain was beginning to show. The Fifth Army began to push past the German right-wing. The French Corps had taken Monte Maio and were now in a position to provide material flank support to Kesselring's Eighth Army in the Liri valley, against whom he had thrown every available reserve to buy time to switch to his second prepared defensive position, the Hitler Line, some 8 miles (13 kilometres) to the rear. On 14 May, Moroccan Goumiers outflanked the German defence while materially supporting the XIII Corps in the Liri valley by travelling via the mountains parallel to the Liri valley, the unprotected area it was deemed impossible to traverse such terrain. The Goumiers were colonial troops who were organized into four Groupement des Tabors Marocains specialized in mountain combat. Juin's French Expeditionary Corps contained of the Commandement des Goums Marocains of General Augustin Guillaume totalling some 7,800 fighting men, approximately the same infantry forte as a division, and four additional conventional divisions.

The British 78th Division, with an devoted armoured brigade, entered the British XIII Corps line from reserve on 15 May, passing over the British 4th Infantry Division's bridgehead to implement the rotating move to detach Cassino from the Liri valley.

General Anders commanded on the Cassino high ground that "it took some time to find men with adequate strength to climb the few hundred yards to the peak." Then, finally, a patrol of the Polish 12th Podolian Cavalry Regiment reached the wreckage and raised the Polish flag. The defenders' only survivors were a group of thirty German wounded who couldn't move.

Aftermath

Hitler Line

The Eighth Army advanced up the Liri valley and the Fifth Army up the shore to the Hitler defensive line. Following the failure of an immediate follow-up assault, the Eighth Army decided to reorganize. Receiving 20,000 vehicles and 2,000 tanks through the Gustav Line, which was broken, was a significant undertaking that took several days. On the 23rd of May, the Polish II Corps attacked Piedimonte San Germano on the right (defended by the legendary German 1st Parachute Division) and the 1st Canadian Infantry Division (fresh from the Eighth Army reserve) the centre. The Canadians broke over the line on May 24, and the 5th Canadian (Armoured) Division poured through. The Poles took Piedimonte on May 25th, and the line fell apart. The way was free for the attack on Rome and beyond to the north.

Anzio Breakout

On the same day that the Canadians and Poles launched their attack, Major General Lucian Truscott, who had taken over as commander of the US VI Corps from Lucas in February, launched a two-pronged attack using five of the seven divisions in the beachhead at Anzio (three US and two British). Because Kesselring had referred his armour south to assist the German 10th Army in the Cassino action, the German 14th Army faced this thrust without any armoured divisions. Moreover, the 26th Panzer Division, a single armoured division, was in transit from north Rome. It had been detained anticipating the non-existent seaborne landing the Allies had staged and thus was unavailable to fight.

Truscott's VI Corps was driving eastwards to cut them off by the 25th of May, with the German 10th Army in full retreat. They'd be astride the retreat line the next day, and the 10th Army, with all of Kesselring's reserves committed to them, would be trapped. Surprisingly, Clark ordered Truscott to switch his attack strategy from a northeasterly route to Valmontone on Route 6 to a northwesterly way directly to Rome. Clark's choice is surrounded by controversy, and its reasons are unclear. Most commentators point to Clark's desire to be the first to arrive in Rome. However, some argue that he was more concerned with providing a needed rest to his exhausted troops (even though the new attack strategy required his troops to attack the Germans' prepared defences on the Caesar C line). Clark was "fearful that the British were planning crafty plots to be first into Rome," as Truscott subsequently recounted in his memoirs, a feeling echoed in Clark's writings. General Alexander, the AAI's C-in-C, had precisely defined the Army boundaries before the war, and Rome was assigned to the Fifth Army. Leese's British Eighth Army was continuously reminded that their task was to engage the retreating 10th Army, abolish as much of it as possible, and then bypass Rome to continue the pursuit northwards (which they did, pursuing the retreating 10th Army for 225 miles (362 km) towards Perugia in 6 weeks).

Seven divisions of the 10th Army were able to make their way to the following line of defence, the Trasimene Line, where they could link up with the 14th Army and then create a fighting withdrawal north of Florence to the solid gothic line. Finally, on the 4th of June 1944, Rome was conquered just two days before the Normandy invasion.

Battle Honours

For their contributions at Cassino, the British and Commonwealth Armies bestowed battle honours on various units. The battle honour 'Cassino I' was presented to several troops in the campaign's early stages. In addition, some crews that took part in specific engagements during the initial portion of the war were awarded subsidiary battle honours. Monastery Hill, Castle Hill, and Hangman's Hill were the three. The glory of 'Cassino II' was bestowed on units that took part in the latter stages of the conflict. Finally, the Monte Cassino Commemorative Cross was awarded to all members of the Polish forces.

Casualties

Monte Cassino's capture cost a lot of money. During the Monte Cassino campaign, the Allies lost roughly 55,000 men. In addition, around 20,000 Germans were killed or wounded, according to estimates. Over 105,000 Allied deaths were recorded during the four Cassino battles, the Anzio campaign, and the subsequent surrender of Rome on June 5, 1944.

The air and artillery bombardments destroyed Cassino (particularly the air raid of 15 March 1944, when 1,250 tons of bombs were dropped on the town), and 2,026 of the town's prewar population of 20,000 were killed during the raids and battle.

Legacy

Evacuation and Treasures

In February 1944, Allied bombing and artillery barrages destroyed the ancient abbey of Monte Cassino, where St. Benedict originally founded the Rule that organized monasticism in the west in AD 516. Lieutenant Colonel Julius Schlegel and Captain Maximilian Becker of the Hermann Göring Panzer Division recommended the relocation of Monte Cassino's valuables to the Vatican and Vatican-owned Castel Sant'Angelo before the impending front a few months earlier, in the Italian fall of 1943. The officers persuaded church officials and their senior commanders to use the Division's trucks and fuel for the mission. They had to find materials for crates and boxes, find carpenters among their troops, recruit local labourers (who would be paid with food rations and twenty cigarettes per day), and then manage the massive job of evacuation centred on the library and archive, a treasure literally without price. The abbey's archives, library, and gallery held 20,500 volumes in the Old Library, 800 apostolical papers, 60,000 in the New Library, 500 incunabula, 200 parchment manuscripts, 100,000 prints, and independent collections, according to the abbey's website. Less than a week after Becker and Schlegel arrived in Monte Cassino independently, the first trucks containing paintings by ancient Italian masters were ready to leave. Each van escorted monks to Rome; the convoys saved the abbey's monastic community in more than 100 truckloads. In the first days of November 1943, the mission was completed. "It was quite an achievement in three weeks, in the middle of a losing war, in another country." Abbot Gregorio Diamare formally gave signed parchment scrolls in Latin to tribuno militum Julio Schlegel, General Paul Conrath, and Maximiliano Becker medecinae doctori for rescuing the monks and wealth of the Abbey of Monte Cassino following a service in the basilica. Titians, an El Greco, and two Goyas were among the items taken.

A Canticle for Leibowitz

An American writer Walter M. Miller Jr. and devout Catholic, was a member of a bomber crew who helped destroy the ancient Monte Cassino monastery. As Miller remarked, this event had a profound impact on him and led to A Canticle for Leibowitz a decade later, widely regarded as a classic of science fiction. The novel shows a future order of monks who live in the aftermath of a horrific nuclear war and are determined to preserve the surviving remains of man's scientific knowledge until the outer world is ready for it once more.

The United States Military History Reviews

Throughout a quarter-century, the official view of the United States government on the German occupation of Monte Cassino altered. The Headquarters of the Chief of Military History removed the claim that the German usage of the abbey was "irrefutable" from the record in 1961. "It appears that no German troops, besides a tiny military police unit, were actually inside the abbey" before the attack, according to a congressional inquiry to the same office in the 20th anniversary year of the bombing. In 1969, the US Army made the final adjustment to its official record, concluding that "the abbey was truly uninhabited by German soldiers."

Marocchinate

The Goumiers, French Moroccan colonial troops attached to the French Expeditionary Forces, were accused of rape and murder in the surrounding hills the day after the battle. In addition, some of these units were accused of atrocities against the region's Italian peasant inhabitants. The victims of these crimes were dubbed "Moroccchinate" in Italy, which means "Moroccan" or individuals who have been subjected to acts dedicated by Moroccans.

Last updated: 2022-January-12
Tags: History World War II
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