Operation Avenger (i)

This was an Allied offensive round Cassino on the western side of Italy to the south-east of Rome, leading to the 2nd Battle of Cassino (15/18 February 1944).

The Battles of Monte Cassino were a sequence of four very costly battles launched by the Allies to breach the 'Gustav-Linie' defences and thus open the way to Rome.

The prepared defences of the 'Gustav-Linie' were held by German formations holding the valleys of the closely related Rapido, Liri and Garigliano rivers together with a number of surrounding peaks and ridges. These positions did not include the Abbey of Monte Cassino, founded in 524 by St Benedict, although the Germans had created defensive positions in the steep slopes below the abbey’s walls. On 15 February the monastery, high on a peak overlooking the town of Cassino, was destroyed by the 'Bradman' bombing of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers and Martin B-26 medium bombers of the USAAF. Two days after the bombing, elite German paratroopers poured into the ruins, whose tumbled ruins now represented an excellent defensive position, to hold this linchpin of the area’s combat zone. From 12 January to 18 May, the ruined abbey was assaulted four times by Allied troops, for a loss of over 54,000 Allied and 20,000 German soldiers.

The Allied landings in Italy during September 1943 ('Baytown' at Reggio di Calabria on 3 September, and 'Avalanche' at Salerno and 'Slapstick' at Taranto both on 9 September) had been followed by a two-front advance to the north, one on each side of the central Apennine mountain range constituting the 'spine' of mainland Italy. On the western end of the front, Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army moved from its main base at Naples, taken on 1 October after the 'Avalanche' landing, but achieved only a slow rate of progress against difficult terrain and adverse weather conditions as well as a skilfully executed German defence.

The Germans fought from chosen natural positions to inflict maximum damage and casualties before they pulled back, so buying time for the construction of the 'Winter-Linie' defences to the south of Rome. In these circumstances, the Allies' original estimate that Rome would fall by October 1943 was seen to be wildly optimistic. The only feasible routes from Naples to Rome were the basically parallel Highway 7 and Highway 6. The former, along the line of a Roman road, the Appian Way, followed the western coast between Terracina and Rome, but to the south of Rome ran into the Pontine Marshes, which the Germans had flooded. Highway 6 was farther inland, and extended from Cassino to Rome via Pontecorvo, Frosinone and Valmontone. The southern end of Highway 6 in this area ran through the valley of the Liri river, whose southern entrance was the hill mass behind the town of Cassino. Here the peaks of several hills provided the defence with superb observation points for the detection of Allied movements and then the calling in of heavy artillery fire.

Running across the Allied axis of advance to the north was the Rapido river, which rose on the central sector of the Apennine mountains and then flowed torrentially through Cassino and across the opening of the valley whence the Liri river joins it to create the Garigliano river that flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea south-east of Minturno. With its artfully strengthened mountain defences, tricky crossings over fast-flowing river, and a valley bottom made very difficult by the fact that the Germans had diverted the Rapido at the head of the valley to flood its bottom, Cassino was the heart of the 'Gustav-Linie', the most southerly and also the most formidable of the defensive lines constituting the 'Winter-Linie' complex.

Because of its historical importance, in December 1943 Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber 'Süd' and also commanding Heeresgruppe 'C' which had been established on 26 November 1943 to co-ordinate the German defence of Italy, had instructed German units not to incorporate the Benedictine abbey into their defensive plans, and informed the Allies accordingly. There still remains a measure of controversy about the extent to which local units adhered to this order. The pilots of some Allied reconnaissance aircraft reported seeing German troops inside the monastery, which offered excellent observation of the surrounding hills and valleys, and was thus an obvious site for German artillery observers.

What is not disputed is the fact that once the Allied bombing had destroyed the abbey, the Germans moved into the ruins and used the rubble to build immensely strong defensive positions.

For the battle or, as it transpired, the first battle, to take Cassino and break though the 'Gustav-Linie', Clark ordered Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s British X Corps, on the left of a 20-mile (32-km) front, to attack on 17 January 1944 with the object of getting Major General G. C. Bucknall’s (from 22 January Major General P. G. S. Gregson-Ellis’s) 5th Division and Major General G. W. R. Templer’s 56th Division across the lower reaches of the Garigliano river near the coast; below its junction with the Liri river Major General J. L. I. Hawkesworth’s 46th Division, of the same corps, was also to cross. This was only the opening stage of the undertaking, though, for the main effort was to begin on 20 January, when Major General Fred L. Walker’s US 36th Division of Major General Geoffrey T. Keyes’s US II Corps would deliver an assault across the swollen Rapido river 5 miles (8 km) downstream of Cassino. At the same time Général de Corps d’Armée Alphonse Pierre Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps would press a right-hook move on Monte Cairo, the hinge to the 'Gustav-Linie' and 'Hitler-Riegel' defences.

Clark did not think that there was much chance of an early breakthrough, but believed that the attacks would draw German reserves away from the area of Rome in time for the 'Shingle' landing at Anzio, in which Major General John P. Lucas’s US VI Corps would send ashore Major General W. R. C. Penny’s British 1st Division and Major General Lucian K. Truscott’s US 3rd Division on 22 January. It was then hoped that 'Shingle', with the benefit of surprise and a rapid move inland to the Alban hills commanding Highways 6 and 7, would so threaten the 'Gustav-Linie' defenders' rear and supply lines that the German commanders might decide to withdraw from their formations from their defensive positions farther to the south and pull back to the north, perhaps even to positions north of Rome. Such thinking was consistent with the German tactical concepts evident in the previous three months, but Allied intelligence had signally failed to grasp the fact that the Germans' fighting retreat was not an end it itself but rather a tactic to buy the time needed for the completion of the 'Gustav-Linie' defences, in which the Germans then intended to stand.

The 5th Army had reached the 'Gustav-Linie' only on 15 January, and thus had time only to prepare itself for the new offensive without any of the rest and reorganisation it urgently needed after three months of attritional fighting as it advanced north from Naples. Because the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff Committee was prepared to make landing craft available for 'Shingle' only until a time early in February, the Anzio landing had to take place late in January with the co-ordinated attack on the 'Gustav-Linie' starting about three days earlier.

The first assault was therefore committed on 17 January against General Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin’s XIV Panzerkorps and General Valentin Feurstein’s LI Gebirgskorps of Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army.

Near the coast the X Corps forced a crossing of the Garigliano, in the process causing von Senger und Etterlin serious concern about the ability of Generalleutnant Bernhard Steinmetz’s 94th Division to hold this south-western end of the 'Gustav-Linie'. Responding to von Senger und Etterlin’s concerns, Kesselring ordered the movement of Generalmajor Walther Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision and Generalleutnant Gerhard Graf von Schwerin-Krosigk’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision from the area of Rome to bolster the defence.

The headquarters of the 5th Army did not appreciate how easily the X Corps, if reinforced by elements of the II Corps, might have been able to exploit this unexpectedly major success to turn the right flank of the German defences, and the two Panzergrenadier divisions therefore had the time to arrive from Rome by 21 January and stabilise the German position in the south-west. In one respect, however, the Allied plan was in fact working inasmuch as German reserves had been drawn south.

The central thrust by the 36th Division got under way three hours after the fall of night on 20 January. Lack of time for the standard type of preparatory work meant that the approaches to the river were still hazardous as a result of the continued presence of mines and booby traps, and that the complex matter of an opposed river crossing had not been planned fully or even rehearsed. Although one battalion of the US 143rd Infantry did manage to cross the Rapido to the south of Sant’Angelo in Theodice and two companies of the 141st Infantry to the north of it, these units were isolated for most of the time and no Allied armour was able to get across the river. This left the American battalions very vulnerable to counterattacks by the tanks and self-propelled guns of Generalleutnant Eberhardt Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision, and the southern group had been driven back across the river by mid-morning on 21 January.

Keyes pressed Walker to renew his 36th Division’s attack without delay. Attacking one gain, the two regiments achieved no greater success than in their last effort in the face of the well prepared 15th Panzergrenadierdivision: the 143rd Infantry got the equivalent of two battalions across the river, but yet again there was no armoured support and the Americans had been shattered by the time daylight came on the next day. The 141st Infantry also managed to get two battalions across the river and, despite the lack of armoured support, managed to advance some 900 yards (825 m). However, with the coming of daylight, the 141st Infantry’s battalions were also decimated, and by the evening of 22 January the regiment had virtually ceased to exist, a mere 40 men managing to make it back to the Allied lines. The assault had been a costly failure with the 36th Division losing 2,100 men killed, wounded and missing in 48 hours.

The next attack was launched on 24 January. The right flank of the II Corps, in the form of Major General Charles W. Ryder’s 34th Division, with Général de Division Joseph de Goislard de Monsabert’s Algerian 3rd Division of the French Expeditionary Corps on its right, also attacked across the flooded valley of the Rapido river to the north of Cassino and into the mountains behind it with the task of securing a penetration and then wheeling left to fall on Monte Cassino from the higher ground. While its task was facilitated by the fact that the Rapido river upstream of Cassino was fordable, the 34th Division found that the flooding had rendered movement very difficult in general, and in particular the armour could move only along paths laid with steel matting. Thus it took the 34th Division eight days of bloody fighting across waterlogged ground to drive Generalleutnant Franz Bayer’s 44th Division 'Hoch- und Deutschmeister' back into the mountains and establish its own foothold in them, most notably on Monte Maiola, Monte Castellone and Colle Sant’Angelo.

On the right of the Allied offensive, Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps achieved good initial progress against Generalleutnant Dr Julius Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision, and secured positions on the slopes of their key objective, Monte Cifalco. Forward units of the Algerian 3rd Division had also bypassed Monte Cifalco to capture the Colle Belvedere and Monte Abate. Juin was convinced that Cassino could be bypassed and the German defences unhinged by rapid exploitation of the northerly route opened by his corps, but his request for the reserves with which to maintain the momentum of his advance was refused, and the one available reserve regiment (of the 36th Division) was in fact sent to reinforce the 34th Division. By 31 January the French had ground to a halt with Monte Cifalco, which gave the Germans a clear view of the French and US flanks and lines of communication, still untaken.

It now became the task of the 34th Division, bolstered by the 142nd Infantry of the 36th Division, to fight south along the linked hill tops toward the intersecting ridge whose southern end was Monastery Hill. When, or rather if, the division had achieved this, it could then move down into the Liri valley behind the defences of the 'Gustav-Linie'. The division had a very hard time of it in rocky mountain terrain strewn with boulders and slashed by ravines and gullies. The digging of foxholes was impossible, and each feature was exposed to fire from surrounding high points. The ravines were no better since the Germans had sown its vegetation of scrub gorse with mines, booby traps and hidden barbed wire. This all resulted from the fact that the Germans had been given three months to prepare their defensive positions with liberal use of explosive, and also to stockpile ammunition and stores.

The Americans thus found that they had neither cover nor natural shelter, and moreover the weather was wet and extremely cold. Even so, by a time early in February the US infantrymen had managed to take a strategic point near the hamlet of San Onofrio, less than 1 mile (1.6 km) from the abbey, and by 7 February a single battalion had reached Point 445, a round-top hill immediately below the monastery and no more than 400 yards (365 m) distant from it. A squad of US infantrymen in fact managed too make a reconnaissance patrol right up against the cliff-like abbey walls, where the monks could watch German and US patrols exchanging fire. However, all attempts to take Monte Cassino itself were destroyed by overwhelming machine gun fire from the slopes below the monastery.

Despite their courageous efforts, the men of the 34th Division never managed to take the final redoubts on Hill 593, the dominating point of the ridge leading to the monastery held by the 3/2nd Fallschirmjägerregiment.

On 11 February, after a final unsuccessful three-day assault on Monastery Hill and Cassino town, the Americans were withdrawn. After two and a half weeks of bitter fighting, the II Corps was exhausted: the 34th Division’s infantry battalions, for instance, had suffered something in the order of 80% casualties. For a time the outcome of the battle had hung in the closest balance, and at the battle’s climactic moment during the first days of February, von Senger und Etterlin had moved the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision from the front on the Garigliano between San Andrea and Castelforte to the area north of Cassino, and had even asked Kesselring for permission to fall back to a new position north of the Anzio beach-head. Kesselring had refused, and at the crucial moment von Senger und Etterlin had been able to commit the Generalmajor Fritz Roske’s 71st Division while leaving in position the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision, which the 71st Division was to have replaced rather than supplemented.

During the battle there had been occasions when, with a more far-sighted use of reserves, promising positions might have been turned into decisive moves. The reason why this did not happen is probably the fact that Clark was overburdened by his need to supervise the Anzio as well as the Cassino fronts. Thus while Alexander had opted to place the Anzio and Cassino fronts under a single commander, and divide the latter between the US 5th and British 8th Armies, on the other side of the line Kesselring had chosen to create a separate army, Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 14th Army, to fight at Anzio and to leave the defence of the 'Gustav-Linie' defences in the hands of the 10th Army.

As the US formations were withdrawn at the end of this 1st Battle of Cassino, they were replaced by Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand Corps (Major General H. Kippenberger’s New Zealand 2nd Division and Major General F. I. S. Tuker’s [from 4 February Brigadier H. K. Dimoline’s] Indian 4th Division) from the 8th Army on the Adriatic front. With the VI Corps strongly threatened in its Anzio beach-head, Freyberg was under equal pressure to launch another offensive at Cassino in the hope of drawing off some of the German formations from their efforts in the north. However, this meant that the new offensive was launched before the attacking formations were fully prepared. Nor was there a full appreciation of the difficulty in getting the Indian 4th Division into place in the mountains and keeping it supplied on the ridges and valleys north of Cassino using mule transport along 7 miles (11.25 km) of goat tracks in terrain fully visible from the heights still held by the Germans and therefore wholly at the mercy of accurate artillery fire in 'Death Valley'.

Freyberg planned what was in effect an extension of the first Allied offensive: one attack from the north along the mountain ridges and another from the south-east along the railway line to capture the railway station across the Rapido river less than 1 mile (1.6 km) south of Cassino town, Freyberg’s hope being the pinching out of Cassino town and the opening of the Liri river valley. Freyberg was not unduly optimistic, however, and informed Clark and Alexander that he believed his corps had no better than a 50% chance of success.

By this time the thinking of a number of Allied commanders had become focussed on the abbey of Monte Cassino: they now believed that the Germans were using the abbey as an artillery observation point, and that it was this advantage which allowed the Germans to maintain their defence of the 'Gustav-Linie', and not the tactical failings of the Allies' own succession of costly frontal attacks in the face of a defence with was both determined and skilled.

The British press and C. L. Sulzberger of the New York Times frequently, convincingly but erroneously detailed the German observation posts, artillery positions, etc. inside the abbey. Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker, commanding the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, and Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers, commanding the US Army forces in Europe, personally flew over the abbey at less than 200 ft (60 m) in a Piper L-4 Grasshopper light aeroplane and 'observed' a radio antenna, German uniforms on lines inside the walls, and German soldiers within 50 ft (15 m) of the abbey’s walls. The headquarters of the New Zealand Corps also believed that the monastery was being used as the main German observation point. Tuker, whose Indian 4th Division would have the task of attacking Monastery Hill, had already come to the conclusion that the abbey should be destroyed by bombing for, like Freyberg, he believed that the Germans would occupy the abbey even if they had not already done so.

On 11 February Dimoline, acting commander of the Indian 4th Division during Tuker’s absence through illness, requested the bombing of the abbey, and Tuker concurred. Freyberg passed the request up the chain of command on 12 February, but Clark and his chief-of-staff, Major General Alfred Gruenther, were unconvinced, and asked for a final decision from Alexander, who opted for the bombing attack.

The 'Bradman' air attack during the morning of 15 February involved 239 B-17 heavy and B-26 medium bombers, which dropped 453 tons of bombs on the Monte Cassino complex within four hours. On the following day the Allied artillery deluged the area with shells, and 59 fighter-bombers also bombed the ruins. However, the air raid had not been co-ordinated between the air and ground commands. The time had been decided by the USAAF in the light of weather conditions and the other demands placed on the US bombing capability. So the bombing attack was delivered without reference to the ground forces concerned, and was therefore undertaken two days before the New Zealand Corps was ready to launch its main assault.

Many of the troops had arrived to take over the positions of the II Corps only on 13 February and, in addition to the difficulties of moving in the mountains, preparations in the valley to supply the newly installed troops with sufficient material for a full-scale assault had been disrupted and delayed by the incessantly adverse weather, flooding and the already waterlogged ground. When considered in the light of the ground attack that was soon to be launched, therefore, the bombing therefore achieved nothing for the Allied cause and helped no one but the Germans. The Vatican’s secretary of state opined that the bombing was 'a colossal blunder’a piece of gross stupidity'. The only people known to have been killed in the abbey by the bombing were Italian civilian refugees, and there remains no evidence at all that even one German died in the abbey during the attack. Given the fact that perhaps as much as 90% of the bombs aimed at the abbey in fact fell elsewhere, however, numbers of Allied as well a German troops were killed outside the abbey. At dawn on the day after the bombing, most of the civilians still able to do so fled the ruins. Only about 40 people remained: the elderly abbot, six monks who had survived in the deep vaults of the abbey, three tenant farmer families, orphaned or abandoned children, the badly wounded and the dying. After the artillery barrages, renewed bombing and attacks on the ridge by the Indian 4th Division, the monks and those would could move decided to leave 07.30 on 17 February.

The men of Generalmajor Hans Korte’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision now moved into the abbey’s ruins and quickly turned them into a veritable fortress which proved itself capable of withstanding all that was thrown at it for the following three months.

Thus was set the scene for the 2nd Battle of Cassino, which was known to the Allies as 'Avenger'. As noted above, the bombing raid was not co-ordinated with the land attack and therefore delivered too early to be of any real tactical use to the New Zealand Corps. Because of the need to avoid visual observation, attacks in the mountains had to be made in darkness, and on the night of 15/16 February one company of the 1/Royal Sussex attacked the key Point 593 from a position 70 yards (65 m) distant on 'Snakeshead Ridge'. The assault failed and the company suffered 50% casualties.

On the next night the Sussex Regiment was ordered to attack in battalion strength, but the effort got off to a disastrous attack. Artillery could not be used for direct support of the attack on Point 593 because of the risk of hitting friendly troops, so the plan adopted was for Point 575 to be shelled as this had been providing supporting fire to the defenders of Point 593. The lie of the land meant that shells fired at Point 575 had to pass very low over 'Snakeshead Ridge', however, and in the event some of the shells fell among the gathering assault companies. After being reorganised, the attack went in at midnight. The fighting was brutal, but the defence held and the men of the Sussex Regiment were driven back, again suffering more than 50% casualties in terms of killed, wounded, captured or missing. Over the two nights the Sussex Regiment lost 12 out of 15 officers and 162 out of 313 men who took part in the attack.

On the night of 17 February the main assault was delivered. The 4/6th Rajputs would assault Point 593 with the depleted Sussex Regiment held in reserve to pass through the Indians to attack Point 444 once Point 593 had been taken. In the meantime, the 1/2nd Gurkhas and 1/9th Gurkhas were to sweep across the slopes and ravines in a direct assault on the abbey. The Gurkhas would have to move across very difficult terrain, but it was hoped that as they were from the Himalayas and expert in movement in mountainous terrain, they would nonetheless succeed. Once more the fighting was brutal, but the men of the Indian 4th Division made no progress and in the process suffered heavy losses. The Rajputs lost 196 officers and men, the 1/9th Gurkhas 149 men and the 1/2nd Gurkhas 96 men. It became clear that the attack had failed, and on 18 February Dimoline and Freyberg called off the attacks on Monastery Hill.

In the other half of the main assault two companies of the New Zealand 2nd Division’s 28th (Maori) Battalion forced a crossing of the Rapido and attempted to gain the railroad station in Cassino town. They succeeded, but a bridge could not be thrown across the final gap in the railway causeway before daylight and the Maoris were therefore left without armoured support. With the help of a constant smokescreen laid down by Allied artillery to hide their positions from the German artillery on Monastery Hill, the Maoris were able to hold their position for much of the day. However their isolation combined with their lack of armoured support and anti-tank guns meant that when the counterattack by German armoured forces developed during the afternoon of 18 February the Maoris were in a hopeless situation. They were ordered to pull back to the river when it became clear that both the attempts to break through (in the mountains and along the causeway) would not succeed.

It had been very close, but the Germans kept their hold on Cassino, and the Allies were now faced with the prospect of the 3rd Battle of Cassino, which happened within the context of 'Dickens'.