Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
III: The Destruction of the Gustav Line
III: The Destruction of the Gustav Line
General Alexander's plan for the capture of Rome and an advance of 200 miles up the Italian peninsula was defined in an operation order issued by Headquarters Allied Armies in Italy on 5 May: ‘To destroy the right wing of the German Tenth Army; to drive what remains of it and the German Fourteenth Army North of rome; and to pursue the enemy to the rimini-pisa line inflicting the maximum losses on him in the process.’1
The offensive was to open with a simultaneous frontal attack by the two armies on the Gustav Line on the night of 11–12 May 1944. Eighth Army was to force an entry into the Liri valley and advance up Route 6, and Fifth Army was to drive through the Aurunci Mountains and along an axis parallel to that of Eighth Army but south of the Liri and Sacco valleys. These assaults on the southern front were designed to draw in the enemy's resources and weaken his forces encircling the Allied beachhead at Anzio. By the time the enemy's second line of defence, the Hitler Line, had been broken, 6 Corps was expected to be able to break out from Anzio and advance inland to cut Route 6 in the Valmontone area and thus prevent the withdrawal of the troops opposing the advance of Eighth and Fifth Armies. After the capture of Rome Eighth Army was to pursue the enemy on the general axis of Terni-Perugia, and thereafter advance on Ancona and Florence, and Fifth Army was to pursue the enemy north of Rome, capture the Viterbo airfields and the port of Civitavecchia, and thereafter advance on Leghorn.
In Eighth Army 13 Corps (Lieutenant-General S. C. Kirkman) was to make the frontal attack across the Gari River south of Cassino while 2 Polish Corps (Lieutenant-General W. A. Anders) was to strike across the Monte Cairo-Montecassino spur to turn the line from the north; the junction of the two corps on Route 6 was to isolate and ensure the capture of Cassino and the monastery. The role of 1 Canadian Corps (Lieutenant-General E. L. M. Burns), in Eighth Army reserve at the beginning of the offensive, would depend on the progress of 13 Corps. Should 13 Corps succeed in penetrating both the Gustav and Hitler lines, the Canadians were to pass through and exploit up Route 6 to Rome, but if the British corps encountered strong opposition after it had established the initial bridgehead, the Canadians were to cross the Gari and go into action on its left.
A scheme was devised in 2 NZ Division to deceive the enemy by simulating a threat along the La Selva – San Biagio section of the road to Atina on 2 Independent Parachute Brigade's front. The artillery (5 NZ Field Regiment, a South African1 field battery and a South African medium troop) would fire a barrage for 42 minutes, starting at 2 a.m. on 12 May, on Monte San Croce and its western slope, and a troop of heavy anti-aircraft guns would fire on Monte Carella. The 4·2-inch and 3-inch mortars and Vickers machine guns were to cover the right flank of the ‘attack’, and Bren-gunners from one of the parachute battalions were to go forward and engage selected targets on the slopes of Monte San Croce. Two troops of C Squadron, 18 NZ Armoured Regiment's tanks were to manoeuvre on the road near La Selva. Presuming the enemy would think this ‘attack’ had failed, the Division was to simulate another thrust towards San Biagio on the night of 13–14 May.
For several weeks before the offensive began, the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces,2 taking advantage of a supremacy of nearly 4000 aircraft over the enemy's 700 (about half of which were based in Yugoslavia or southern France), concentrated on the disruption of the enemy's road, rail and sea communications in an endeavour to prevent him from accumulating stores to increase his resistance to the forthcoming ground attack. The Allied aircraft hampered and strained the German supply and transport organisation, but did not succeed in isolating the battlefield. In fact, both Tenth and Fourteenth Armies were adequately supplied at the start of the May offensive.
The air forces gave their fullest support during the battle. They bombed headquarters (disrupting HQ Tenth Army and HQ Fourteenth Corps) and command posts, and attacked the German gun positions across the Liri valley and behind Cassino.
1 By this time 12 South African Motor Brigade, which had recently arrived in Italy from Egypt, had replaced 11 Canadian Infantry Brigade in the central sector of 2 NZ Division's command. The Canadian brigade returned to 5 Canadian Armoured Division, which was to take part in the offensive.
2 The components of the MAAF were the Mediterranean Allied Strategic Air Force, the Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force (comprising the Twelfth Tactical Air Command and the Desert Air Force), the Mediterranean Allied Coastal Air Force, and the Mediterranean Allied Photographic Reconnaissance Wing.
With a thunderous roar amplified by the mountain echoes, the Allied artillery opened fire at 11p.m. on 11 May against the enemy's 30-mile front between Atina and the sea. Over 1000 guns were employed by Eighth Army and about 600 by the Fifth. After 40 minutes' counter-battery fire the bulk of the artillery switched to the corps objectives. Fifth Army began its thrust into the Aurunci Mountains south of the Liri River; in Eighth Army 13 British Corps forced a crossing of the Gari at the mouth of the Liri valley, but 2 Polish Corps failed in its attack on Montecassino.page 24
General Anders's plan was for 5 Kresowa Division on the right and 3 Carpathian Division on the left to capture part of the ridge about a mile north-west of the monastery, which would give observation over the Liri valley. The Poles' first objectives included Phantom Ridge and Albaneta Farm, and their second objectives Colle Sant' Angelo (a ridge beyond Phantom Ridge) and Montecassino.
The benefit of the preliminary 40-minute counter-battery bombardment had been lost when the Poles' advance began at 1 a.m. on the 12th. The enemy guns and crews were well dug in and the damage done to their communications was quickly repaired. Soon their fire regained almost its full intensity. The Poles captured Phantom Ridge and also Point 593 (less than a mile from the monastery) but were exposed to a ring of artillery and mortar fire, and were repeatedly counter-attacked by the Germans (who were in greater numbers than expected because they were carrying out reliefs in the Cassino sector that night). Weakened by extremely heavy casualties and unable to go on to their final objectives, the Poles were withdrawn to their starting point, where they would need time to reorganise.
The German reaction to this attack was confined at first to the Polish sector; except for some light shelling and mortaring, the adjacent New Zealand sector remained quiet. The only noticeable response to the simulated attack on 2 Independent Parachute Brigade's front at 2 a.m. was machine-gun fire on fixed lines and shell and mortar fire on likely forming-up points. The tanks from 18 Armoured Regiment trundled up the road to the appointed place near La Selva, fired shells into the darkness ahead, and returned down the road without one retaliatory shot from the enemy.
The artillery of 10 Corps, including some of the New Zealand batteries, and the air force supported the Poles throughout the battle. The New Zealand artillery answered numerous calls for counter-battery and counter-mortar fire on Monte Cairo, Terelle, Belmonte and Atina to lessen the volume of fire the enemy was bringing down on the Polish sector, and also helped to cover the Poles' withdrawal.
Although the Poles' attack inflicted correspondingly heavy losses on the enemy (one of whose relieving battalions was believed to have been practically annihilated by shellfire) and divided the attention of the enemy artillery which might otherwise have concentrated on 13 Corps, it made no tactical gains. ‘It is no disparagement of the Poles' splendid bravery to say that it availed little until successes elsewhere threatened the defenders of Monte- page 25 cassino with encirclement…. though the great fortress fell [on 18 May], it was never conquered.’1
While the Poles were battling among the hills above Cassino, 13 Corps was struggling to establish a bridgehead across the Gari River south of the town. From this bridgehead General Kirkman planned to turn northwards to cut Route 6 and join up with the Poles and isolate Cassino. The town was to be cleared of the enemy and the road reconstructed through it. Thirteenth Corps then was to advance up the Liri valley south of Route 6 to the Hitler Line.
Starting immediately after the counter-battery fire ceased, 13 Corps (unlike the Poles) at first did not have to contend with shellfire, but the swift-flowing Gari capsized many of its assault boats and swept many downstream, German automatic and small-arms fire caused numerous casualties, and the attackers soon lost the benefit of the supporting artillery barrage. On the right, between the Cassino railway station and Sant' Angelo, 4 British Division had not completed a bridge before dawn and was unable to do so in daylight, but although lacking support weapons the division clung to a shallow lodgement on the far bank throughout the day. On the left 8 Indian Division succeeded in placing two bridges over the river south of Sant' Angelo and was joined by tanks of 1 Canadian Armoured Brigade and some anti-tank guns.
Taken by surprise, the enemy made no co-ordinated counter-attack against 13 Corps on 12 May. Instead he threw in his local reserves piecemeal, and hastily assembled in the rear a battle group (including two parachute battalions) at the disposal of 1 Parachute Division, whose command was extended southward over 44 Division's front in the Liri valley. A regiment of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division was despatched to the Liri valley, but Kesselring, who still expected an Allied landing behind the front, reserved to himself the decision to commit this formation to action.
The 19th Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin1) left the Pietramelara area at short notice, travelled about 30 miles ‘in stygian blackness’2 on the night of 13–14 May, during which two tanks slipped off the road, and was refuelled and ready to go into action at dawn. C Squadron crossed the Gari about 8 a.m. and the other squadrons later in the morning, to take up positions in support of 4 Division, which was to act as a pivot for 78 Division's wheeling movement to the north and was to be prepared to move against Cassino when it was outflanked.
As 4 Division had not yet cleared the enemy from all of its objectives, the GOC (Major-General A. D. Ward) decided to attack on the southern flank to conform with 8 Indian Division's line. About 6 p.m. 2/4 Hampshires of 28 Brigade, with B Squadron in support, set out to take Vertechi Farm. The tanks had difficulty in crossing the Pioppeto stream. A scissors bridge, which had been hit during the day, collapsed when the first tank was half-way over; the second tank just failed to jump an eight-foot-wide gap, and the third rolled over on to its side in the run-up on the opposite bank. In another place, however, three tanks managed to cross a temporary bridge, constructed mostly of green willow logs, and reached the objective ahead of the infantry. Supported by these tanks and by fire from tanks still on the other side of the stream, the Hampshires were consolidating on their objective by 6.30 p.m.
1 Col R. L. McGaffin, DSO, ED; Wellington; born Hastings, 30 Aug 1902; company manager; 27 (MG) Bn 1939–41; comd 3 Army Tank Bn (in NZ) Mar – Oct 1942; CO 27 (MG) Bn Feb – Apr 1943; CO 19 Armd Regt Apr 1943–Aug 1944; comd Adv Base, Italy, Aug–Oct 1944.
3 Ofenrohr: German weapon similar to the American bazooka and firing a hollow-charge rocket projectile.
Meanwhile 78 Division was making slow progress through the bridgehead, where it was delayed by traffic congestion, difficulty in crossing the Gari and Pioppeto, and by shellfire. The enemy was able to direct his guns on targets in the Liri valley because of his undisturbed possession of vantage points on the Montecassino spur, which would have been denied him if the Poles had succeeded in their attack. The Poles intended to renew their attack on 15 May, but unless 13 Corps was within supporting distance, would have little prospect of holding the ridge if they captured it. It was decided, therefore, to postpone the Polish attack until 13 Corps, still advancing under continuous observed fire, was within striking distance of Route 6.
While Eighth Army was assaulting the best prepared German defences in the Liri valley and north of Cassino, Fifth Army was making sweeping gains farther south, between the Liri River and the sea, through mountainous country which the enemy had believed impassable for a large force.
Fifth Army could not advance up Route 7 (the Via Appia), which ran along the coast, without controlling the mountain ridges which dominated the road. It was decided, therefore, to strike directly over the mountains. Against the two German divisions south of the Liri, Fifth Army employed the four divisions of the French Expeditionary Corps, composed mostly of Algerians and Moroccans (with French officers) who were experienced and skilled mountain troops, and the two divisions of 2 US Corps in the coastal sector, where 10 British Corps earlier had secured a bridgehead over the Garigliano River.
The French quickly penetrated the Aurunci Mountains. On 13 May 2 Moroccan Division captured the 3000-foot Monte Maio, key to the German defences overlooking the Garigliano River, and then exploited north-westwards towards the Liri. This permitted the French 1 Motorised Division, after clearing the western bank of the Garigliano, to continue along the southern bank of the Liri to San Giorgio, which it reached on the 14th. Farther south 3 Algerian Division next day entered the Ausonia defile, through which the road passes to Pontecorvo, a nodal point of the Hitler Line. Meanwhile 2 US Corps, on the left of the French, crossed the road which runs south from Ausonia to join Route 7 near the coast.page 29
Surprised by the strength and speed of Fifth Army's advance, the Germans suffered crippling losses in men killed, wounded and captured, and fell back in different directions, 94 Division along the coast and 71 Division to the Esperia defile, through which the road from Ausonia enters the Liri valley. This compelled the enemy to divert to Esperia the formation of 90 Panzer Grenadier Division with which he had intended to reinforce the Liri valley front. It arrived in detail and was defeated in detail—which was to be the fate of all the mobile German divisions. Meanwhile, through the gap in the centre, between the retreating 71 and 94 Divisions, General Juin launched his Mountain Corps, composed of the goumiers and infantry of 4 Mountain Division, with orders to cut the Itri-Pico road, far in the enemy's rear. Almost unopposed as they crossed the trackless mountain ranges, the French had reached Monte Revole by 16 May, an advance of some 12 miles from the old line near the Garigliano.
Kesselring's failure to appreciate the strength and momentum of the Allied offensive south of Cassino is evident in a directive he issued to Tenth and Fourteenth Armies in the evening of 15 May, when he ordered that a new line of defence be stabilised from Esperia through Pignataro to Cassino, to permit ‘the continued defence of the Cassino massif.’1 By the morning of the 16th 13 Corps was already holding the road this line was intended to follow. In a telephone conversation early that evening Kesselring and von Vietinghoff discussed the necessity of a further withdrawal and agreed they would have to give up Cassino. The commander of Tenth Army then issued orders for a general withdrawal to the Hitler Line.
Although 5 Mountain Division, facing 2 NZ Division in the Apennine sector, was one of the formations from which troops were taken, often by companies at a time, to stem Eighth Army's thrust in the Liri valley, the Germans clearly intended to hold this part of the front, from Cassino northwards, as long as possible.
The same night 2 Independent Parachute Brigade repeated, with a modified version, its simulated attack in the vicinity of the road that passes through San Biagio on the way to Atina. Light machine-gun teams went forward under an artillery and mortar barrage on Monte San Croce and Monte Carella. The enemy showed that he was still in position by laying defensive fire in front of his forward posts. A patrol from 12 South African Motor Brigade, in the Division's central sector, surprised an enemy party of seven men and killed five of them. The dead were identified as being from 1 Battalion, 100 Mountain Regiment, which indicated that this battalion probably had spread out to cover the withdrawal of the other troops previously known to have been there. Nevertheless the Germans in this sector were very alert, constantly firing fixed-line tracer and Very lights, and severed the brigade's communications with shell and mortar fire.
Late in the afternoon of the 14th the New Zealand artillery laid smoke on an area where the Cassino-Atina road passes through the defile between Monte Belvedere and Monte Cifalco, and in a mixture of smoke and mist the South Africans simulated an attack with machine-gun and mortar fire. Although this brought little immediate response from the enemy, he apparently assumed it presaged a night attack, and after dusk he distributed so much defensive fire of all kinds on the New Zealand front that patrols were greatly hampered and pinned to the ground at times. Enemy aircraft, more in evidence than they had been for some time, bombed Hove Dump and the supply roads during the night and next day (the 15th); they returned the following night to bomb the medium gun areas. As the latter night was very still, sound carried a long way. Enemy mule trains and working parties, which could be heard plainly, were fired on by the artillery and mortars.