Operation Dickens (i)

'Dickens' (i) was the Allied offensive by New Zealand and Indian formations of General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander’s Allied Armies in Italy against the German forces of Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s Heeresgruppe 'C' in the '3rd Battle of Monte Cassino' (15/25 March 1944).

The so-called 'Battle of Monte Cassino' was a costly series of four battles fought by the Allies with the intention of breaking through the 'Gustav-Linie' defences (extending right across Italy from the western coast to the south of Gaeta up the line of the Garigliano and Rapido rivers, across the crest of the Apennine mountains and thence down the eastern coast south or Ortona), link with the Allied forces of Major General Lucian K. Truscott 's US VI Corps contained within the Anzio pocket since the launch of 'Shingle', and then seizing Rome. As initially planned, the offensive by the Allied forces of Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark’s US 5th Army against the 'Gustav-Linie' positions was posited on an assault across the lower reaches of the Garigliano river by Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery’s British X Corps to pull the German reserves out of position. Major General Geoffrey T. Keyes’s US II Corps would then attack up the Liri river valley toward Frosinone, and General de Corps d’Armée Alphonse Pierre Juin’s Corps Expéditionnaire Français (French Expeditionary Corps) would work its way across the mountains into the peaks north of Cassino. When these operations were well begun, the VI Corps would make its 'Shingle' landing in the area of Anzio and Nettuno area and, once ashore, drive north to seize the Alban Hills, thus cutting the 10th Army's main line of communications. It was hoped that this threat would combine with the frontal attacks to persuade Kesselring’s Heeresgruppe 'C' to evacuate the 'Gustav-Linie' defences and retreat north of Rome. Meanwhile Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s British 8th Army, though weakened by the transfer of troops to the 5th Army, would continue its offensive on the eastern side of the Apennine mountains toward Pescara. The part of the front including Monte Cassino, dominated by the celebrated Benedictine abbey, was the responsibility of the 5th Army 1, which faced Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army 2.

The operational and tactical prospects confronting the 5th Army were not alluring, for the battle for what the Allies called the Winter Line (comprising the 'Barbara-Linie' and the 'Bernhard-Linie') positions only slightly farther to the south had made it clear that any breakthrough of the 'Gustav-Linie' defences would be costly in terms of men, equipment and time. Thus the previous plan for an amphibious landing in the area to the south of Rome was revived and enlarged to become 'Shingle', which would deliver the Major General John P. Lucas’s US VI Corps at Anzio behind the German defence’s right flank and, it was hoped, cut the German lines of communication between the 'Gustav-Linie' and Rome.

Unlike the Winter Line positions, the 'Gustav-Linie' defences had a definite key point, namely the town of Cassino lying at the foot of Monte Cairo mass at the junction of the Rapido and Liri river valleys. The new plan devised by Alexander’s Allied Central Mediterranean Force (from 9 March the Allied Armies in Italy) was based on Clark’s 5th Army, which was to use the X Corps, on the left of a 20-mile (32-km) front, to start an attack on 17 January across the Garigliano river near the coast with its 5th and 56th Divisions, supplemented from 19 January by the 46th Division, during the night of 19/20 January, across the Garigliano just below Sant' Ambrogio, near the point at which the confluence of the Liri and Rapido rivers creates the Rapido, to support the primary assault by the II Corps on its right. The central, and main, thrust by the II Corps was to get under way on 20 January with 36th Division assaulting over the Rapido river, greatly swollen by winter rains, at a point some 5 miles (8 km) downstream of Cassino on the Rapido river. Simultaneously the Corps Expéditionnaire Français was to continue its 'right hook' move toward Monte Cairo, the hinge to the 'Gustav-Linie' and 'Führer-Senger-Linie' defences.

Clark did not believe there was much chance that his army would secure an early breakthrough, but felt that the attacks would draw German reserves away from the Rome area in time for the attack on Anzio, where single British and US divisions of the VI Corps were to make their 'Shingle' amphibious landing on 22 January. It was hoped that the Anzio landing, with the benefit of surprise and a rapid move inland to the Alban Hills, which command both Highways 6 and 7, would pose so great a threat to the rear areas and line of communication of of the defenders of the 'Gustav-Linie' positions that it might disturb the German commanders sufficiently for them to order a withdrawal from the 'Gustav-Linie' defences to positions in the area to the north of Rome. While this would have been consistent with the German tactics of the previous three months, Allied intelligence had not understood that the object of the German strategy, of a fighting retreat, up to this time had been designed solely to provide time for the completion of the 'Gustav-Linie' defences, where the Germans intended to stand firm. Thus the Allied intelligence assessment of the 5th Army’s prospects was over-optimistic.

The 5th Army had closed on the Gustav-Linie' defences only on 15 January after six weeks of heavy fighting and considerable casualties in an advance across the last 7 miles (11 km) through the outlying 'Bernhardt-Line' (otherwise 'Reinhard-Linie') positions. The Allies had almost no time to plan the new assault and prepare for it, let alone gain the rest and reorganisation of which they were in dire need after their three-month campaign of attritional fighting their way to the north from Naples after breaking out of their 'Avalanche' beach-head at Salerno. The problem was that Alexander’s and Clark’s forces in Italy were constrained by the Allies' worldwide demand for amphibious warfare vessels, and the the Allied Chiefs-of-Staff committee would make landing craft available only until a time early in February. Thus 'Shingle' had to be undertaken by no later than a date late in January, with the co-ordinated attack on the 'Gustav-Linie' starting some three days earlier.

The offensive began on 17 January. Near the coast the 5th and 56th Divisions of the X Corps forced a crossing of the Garigliano river against the 274th Regiment and 276th Regiment of the 94th Division, the former Allied division advancing as far as Santa Maria Infante to the north-west of Minturno, and the latter division to a position beyond Castelforte and the road to Ausonia before being pushed back by the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision. Two days later the 5th and 56th Divisions were followed by the 46th Division on their right against the 129th Panzergrenadierregiment of the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision. The 46th Division could achieve nothing of significance, and its units were then diverted south to aid the 56th Division. These British successes were of a limited nature, but in the south nonetheless caused von Senger und Etterlin’s XIV Panzerkorps, holding the south-western part of the 'Gustav-Linie' defences, serious concern about the 94th Division's ability to hold the lower line of the Garigliano river. Responding to von Senger und Etterlin’s very real concerns, Kesselring ordered the 29th Panzergrenadierdivision and 90th Panzergrenadierdivision from the area of Rome to provide reinforcement.

The X Corps lacked the reserves to make any meaningful exploitation of the 5th Division’s and 56th Division’s initial successes, and it has been argued that Clark might have been sensible to cancel or modify the II Corps' central offensive and thus make available formations to force the issue in the south before the German reinforcements were able to get into position. The two German divisions from the Rome area had arrived by 21 January, however, and now stabilised the German position in the south.

In one respect, though, the Allied plan was working inasmuch as Kesselring’s reserves had been drawn to the south. The X Corps' three divisions suffered 4,000 casualties during the period of this 1st Battle of Monte Cassino.

The central thrust by Walker’s 36th Division started three hours after setting of the sun on 20 January. However, the lack of preparation time meant that the approach to the river was still hazardous as it was littered with uncleared mines and booby traps, and there had also been a lack of time to plan and rehearse the complex task of making an opposed river crossing. Although one battalion of the 143rd Infantry did cross the Rapido river in the area of Sant' Angelo in Theodice and two companies of the 141st Infantry at a point farther to the north, they were isolated for most of the time by the 104th Panzergrenadierregiment of the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision, and as no Allied armour able to get across the river this left the US infantry vulnerable to counterattack by the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision's tanks and self-propelled guns. The southern group had been driven back across the river by the middle of the morning on 21 January, and Keyes pressed Walker to undertake an immediate renewal of his 36th Division’s attack. Once again the 141st and 143rd Infantry attacked, but achieved no success against the strong positions held by the 15th Panzergrenadierdivision. The 143rd Infantry managed to get the equivalent of two battalions across the river, but again there was no armoured support and the US infantry took heavy losses on the following morning. The 141st Infantry also managed to cross the river with two battalions, and despite the lack of armoured support succeeded in advancing 1,100 yards (1000 m). However, with the coming of daylight, the 141st Infantry’s two battalions were also shattered, and by the evening of 22 January the regiment had virtually ceased to exist: a mere 40 men made it back to the Allied lines. The assault had been a costly failure in which the 36th Division lost 2,100 men killed, wounded and missing in just 48 hours.

The next stage of the Allied offensive started on 24 January. Ryder’s 34th Division, with the colonial troops of the Corps Expéditionnaire Français on its right, launched an assault across the flooded Rapido river valley in an area to the north of Cassino and pressed into the mountains behind the flooded region with the intention of wheeling to the left and attacking Monte Cassino from the high ground to its north. While the task of crossing the river would be easier, inasmuch as the Rapido river upstream of Cassino was fordable, the flooding made movement on the approaches on each side of the river very difficult. In particular, armour could only move on paths created with steel matting, and it took eight days of bloody fighting across the waterlogged ground for the 34th Division to drive back 44th Division, which was currently under the temporary command of Generalleutnant Friedrich von Franek, and gain a foothold in the mountains. On the Allies' extreme right, the 2ème Division d’Infanterie Marocaine at first made good progress against the 5th Gebirgsdivision, and secured positions on the the south-eastern slopes of its key objective, Monte Falconer. Forward units of the 3ème Division d’Infanterie Algérienne meanwhile bypassed Monte Cifalco to capture Monte Belvedere and the Colle Abate.

Juin was convinced that Cassino could be bypassed and the German defences unhinged by this northerly route, but his request for reserves to maintain the momentum of his formations' advance was refused and the one available reserve was a regiment of the 36th Division, which was in fact despatched to bolster the 34th Division. By 31 January the French had been forced to a halt with Monte Cifalco, which had a clear view of the French and US flanks and supply lines, still in German hands. The two French divisions had lost 2,500 men in their struggles around Monte Belvedere.

The 34th Division, now strengthened by the arrival of the 36th Division’s 142nd Infantry, next tried to fight its way to the south along the linked hilltops towards the intersecting ridge, on the southern end of which was Monastery Hill. If it succeeded, the division could then break through down into the Liri river valley behind the 'Gustav-Linie' defences. It was very difficult going: the mountains are rocky, strewn with boulders, and cut deeply by ravines and gullies. Digging foxholes on the rocky ground was impossible, and each feature was exposed to fire from surrounding high points. The ravines were no better since the gorse growing there, far from giving cover, had been sown with mines, booby traps and hidden barbed wire by the Germans, who had had three months in which to prepare their defensive positions and to stockpile ammunition and stores. There was no natural shelter, and the weather was wet and freezing cold.

By a time early in February, the US infantry had captured a strategic point near the hamlet of San Onofrio, less than 1 mile (1.6 km) from the great Benedictine abbey perched on top of the hill, and by February 7 a battalion had reached Point 445, a hilltop immediately below the abbey and no more than 400 yards (370 m) distant from it: a US squad managed a reconnaissance right up against the cliff-like abbey walls. However, attempts to take Monte Cassino were shattered by concentrated machine gun fire from the slopes below the monastery. Despite its very determined efforts, the 34th Division did not manage to take the final redoubts on Hill 593, known to the Germans as Calvary Mount, held by the 3/2nd Fallschirmjägerregiment, which was the dominating point of the ridge to the monastery.

On 11 February, following a final unsuccessful three-day assault on Monastery Hill and the town of Cassino below it, the US troops were withdrawn as the II Corps was totally exhausted after almost 20 days of constant fighting: the 34th Division had sustained losses of about 80% in the infantry battalions, some 2,200 men.

At the height of the battle, in February’s first days, von Senger und Etterlin had moved the 90th Panzergrenadierdivision from the Garigliano river front to a location to the north of Cassino, and had been so alarmed at the rate of attrition that he had recommended to Kesselring that the Germans fall back to new positions to the north of Anzio. Kesselring refused, and at the crucial moment von Senger und Etterlin was able to commit the 71st Division while leaving 15th Panzergrenadierdivision, which it had been due to relieve, in place.

While Alexander opted, for logical purposes of co-ordination, to have the Cassino and Anzio undertakings supervised by a single army commander and to divide the 'Gustav-Linie' front between the US 5th Army in the west and the British 8th Army in the east, Kesselring chose to create a new 14th Army under Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen to fight the Anzio battle while leaving the 'Gustav-Linie' fighting in the hands of von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army.

The place of the II Corps (34th and 36th Divisions) was now taken in the Allied line at Cassino by Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand Corps (Major General H. K. Kippenberger’s New Zealand 2nd Division, Major General F. I. S. Tuker’s Indian 4th Division and Major General V. Evelegh’s British 78th Division) from the 8th Army on the Adriatic front. But before launching his 'Avenger' attack in the 2nd Battle of Monte Cassino (15/18 February), Freyberg was one of several Allied commanders who demanded the destruction of the historic abbey on Monte Cassino, which overlooked the Liri river valley from a height of 1,700 ft (520 m) and was thought by several commanders to be occupied by the Germans as an artillery observation and heavy weapons position. Clark was sceptical of the claim, and therefore strongly opposed this act of military vandalism. Freyberg appealed to Alexander, who finally agreed with him. Field Marshal Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, the commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, made available the necessary air power, and during the morning of 15 February, in 'Bradman', 142 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress four-engined heavy bombers, 47 North American B-25 Mitchell twin-engined medium bombers and 40 Martin B-26 Marauder twin-engined medium bombers of the USAAF flew over Monte Cassino in three waves, dropping 453 tons of HE and incendiary bombs. The abbey of St Benedict was reduced to a complete and absolute ruin. Following the bombardment, the Germans had no compunction in occupying the ruins of the monastery, turned by the Allied bombing into an defensive position of immense strength for Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision.

The defence drove off with heavy losses the Indian 4th Division as it came up to assault the peak. The New Zealand 2nd Division suffered the same fate before Cassino. Either stumbling over the rubble in the little town of Cassino or trying to scale the heights to the abbey above it, the attackers were up against a high-grade defence under a capable leader and in occupation of wholly commanding positions. The area was littered with mines, one of which cost Kippenberger both his feet. Though taking heavy losses, the defenders were ably supported by concentrated fire from a regiment of Nebelwerfer rocket-launchers. The fighting in the streets of Cassino resembled that in Stalingrad in its ferocity. On the slopes up to the monastery Gurkhas and paratroopers fought for a few yards of ground in combat reminiscent of that which had characterised the trench warfare of World War I.

There followed a lull after the four-day 2nd Battle of Monte Cassino before the start of the 3rd Battle of Monte Cassino (15/30 March), in which the main thrust was 'Dickens' (i). For this third battle, the senior Allied commanders agreed that any further attempt to force the Rapido river downstream Cassino town would probably fail as long as the foul winter weather continued and the river remained in spate. The 'right hook' manoeuvre of the Corps Expéditionnaire Français and the 34th Division of the II Corps in the first battle had also failed, at great cost, and was still an unattractive option. In these circumstances, therefore, the Allies decided to launch twin attacks from the north along the Rapido river valley: one would be aimed toward the fortified town of Cassino and the other toward Monastery Hill. The object was to clear a path through the bottleneck between these two features and so permit access toward the station in the south and so to the Liri river valley. The 78th Division, which had arrived late in February and come under command of the New Zealand Corps, would then cross the Rapido river downstream of Cassino and start the advance on Rome. None of the Allied commanders was fully confident of the plan’s chances of success, but hoped that an unprecedented preliminary bombing would provide the edge that the ground formations needed.

It was deemed that three clear days of good weather were required, though, and for 21 days the assault was postponed as the troops waited in the freezing or sodden positions for a favourable weather forecast. Matters were not helped by the departure of Kippenberger, but then came news that the latest German counterattack at Anzio had failed. The third battle finally started on 15 March. After the shattering effect on Cassino town of 1,250 tons of bombs by 775 fighter-bombers and bombers, the latter including 260 B-17 heavy bombers, starting at 08.30 and lasting 210 minutes, the New Zealanders advanced behind a creeping artillery barrage from 610 pieces of artillery. The greatest chance of success depended on taking the maximum advantage of the paralysing effect of the bombing on the German defenders, but these rallied more quickly than expected, and the Allied armour was also delayed by the need to negotiate bomb craters.

Success was nevertheless within the New Zealanders' grasp, but was then lost as the follow-up assault on the left was launched only during the evening and was then too late. By that time the Germans had reorganised their defences and, just as importantly, it had started to rain once more, contrary to forecast. Rain downpours flooded bomb craters, turned the rubble of the shattered town into a morass, and effectively ended all chance of tactical communication as the Allied radio sets could not cope with their constant soakings. The rain clouds also blotted out the moonlight, which greatly impeded the task of clearing routes through the ruins. On the right, the New Zealanders had captured Castle Hill as well as Point 165 and, as planned, elements of the Indian 4th Division had passed through to attack Point 236 and thence Point 435, otherwise known as 'Hangman’s Hill'. In the confusion, a company of the 1/9th Gurkhas had taken a track avoiding Point 236 and captured Point 435, while the attack on Point 236 by the 1/6th Rajput Rifles was driven off. By the end of 17 February things had begun to take on a more optimistic appearance for the Allies. The Gurkhas now held 'Hangman’s Hill', 250 yards (230 m) from the abbey, in battalion strength, but their line of supply was compromised by the continued German presence on Point 236 and in the northern part of the town, and while the town was still being defended with determination by the Germans, New Zealand units and armour had passed through the bottleneck and captured the station.

On 19 February it was planned that the decisive blows would be struck in the town and on the abbey. A surprise and fiercely pressed counterattack from the abbey by the 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision then removed all possibility of an assault on the abbey. In the town the attackers made little progress, and in general the tactical initiative passed to the Germans, whose positions close to Castle Hill, the gateway to the position on Monastery Hill, continued to prevent all chances of any early success. On 20 February Freyberg called off the attack.

The 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision had been badly mauled, but had nonetheless won this third battle. The Allies devoted the next three days to a stabilisation of the front, extracting the isolated Gurkhas from 'Hangman’s Hill' and undertaking a reorganisation. The exhausted Indian 4th Division and New Zealand 2nd Division were both pulled back and replaced respectively by the 78th Division in the mountains and Brigadier J. C. Haydon’s British 1st Guards Brigade in the town. In its time on the Cassino front line the Indian 4th Division had lost 3,000 men, and the New Zealand 2nd Division 1,600 men killed, missing and wounded. The Germans had also suffered heavily, and the front-line battalions were now each down to a mere 40 to 120 men. The two sides now began to prepare themselves for the 4th Battle of Monte Cassino, which the 5th and 8th Armies would launch on 11 May as 'Diadem'.

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This was in fact an Allied army comprising McCreery’s X Corps on the left with Major General G. C. Bucknall’s (from 22 January Major General P. G. S. Gregson-Ellis’s) 5th Division (13th, 15th, 17th and 201st Guards Brigades), Major General J. L. I. Hawkesworth’s 46th Division (128th, 138th and 139th Brigades) and Major General G. W. R. Templer’s 56th Division (167th, 168th and 169th Brigades) with Brigadier R. H. E. Arkwright’s 23rd Armoured Brigade and Brigadier T. D. L. Churchill’s 2nd Special Service Brigade in support; Keyes’s II Corps in the centre with Major General Charles W. Ryder’s 34th Division (133rd, 135th and 168th Infantry) and Major General Fred L. Walker’s 36th Division (141st, 142nd and 143rd Infantry) together with Major General Ernest N. Harmon’s 1st Armored Division (1st Armored and 1st Armored Infantry), Brigadier General Robert T. Frederick’s 1st Special Service Force and Generale de Brigata Vincenzo di Pino’s Italian 1o Gruppo motorizzato in support; and Juin’s Corps Expéditionnaire Français (French Expeditionary Corps) on the right with Général de Division Joseph Jean de Goislard de Monsabert’s 3ème Division d’Infanterie Algérienne and Général de Brigade André Marie François Dody’s 2ème Division d’Infanterie Marocaine
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The sector facing the 5th Army was held by General Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin’s XIV Panzerkorps with Generalleutnant Dr Franz Beyer’s 44th Division 'Hoch- und Deutschmeister' (three regiments), Generalleutnant Wilhelm Raapke’s 71st Division (three regiments), Generalleutnant Bernard Steinmetz’s 94th Division (three regiments), Generalleutnant Eberhardt Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadierdivision (three regiments) and Generalleutnant Dr Julius Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision (two regiments) replaced on 17 January by Generalmajor Hans Hecker’s 3rd Panzergrenadierdivision (one regiment); the army reserve was Generalleutnant Paul Conrath’s Panzerdivision 'Hermann Göring', and under Kesselring’s direct control was General Alfred Schlemm’s I Fallschirmkorps with Generalleutnant Walter Fries’s 29th Panzergrenadierdivision (two regiments) and Generalleutnant Ernst-Günther Baade’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision (three regiments); both of these Panzergrenadier formations were released to the XIV Panzerkorps on 18 January.