'Revenge' was the Allied operation by the two divisions of Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand Corps, within General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander’s Allied Armies in Italy command, to take Cassino and open the entrance to the Liri river valley in 'Avenger' (2nd Battle of Cassino) after the 'Bradman' destruction of the abbey of Monte Cassino (15/18 February 1944).
On 9 February Alexander issued his orders for the further conduct of Allied operations in an around Cassino and Monte Cassino, this expanding and formalising the results of a meeting which Alexander had held on the previous day with Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark, commander of the US 5th Army. The new order mandated that Major General Charles W. Ryder’s US 34th Division, heavily mauled in the 1st Battle of Cassino, should be replaced in the near future by Major General F. I. S. Tuker’s Indian 4th Division. Currently under the temporary command of Brigadier H. K. Dimoline as Tuker was ill, the Indian 4th Division was the partner in the New Zealand Corps of Freyberg’s own New Zealand 2nd Division, currently commanded by Brigadier H. K. Kippenberger as Freyberg concentrated on corps command. In effect the order committed the New Zealand Corps of two divisions to a task which was proving itself to be beyond the powers of Major General Geoffrey T. Keyes’s US II Corps, also of two divisions.
The reason for this was that each of the New Zealand Corps' divisions were highly experienced combat formations, and that the Indian 4th Division was mountain-trained. Another factor for a renewed attack was the Allied knowledge that the Germans were preparing their 'Sonnenaufgang' third counter-offensive against Major General John P. Lucas’s US VI Corps in its 'Shingle' beach-head at Anzio, and Alexander thus hoped that an attack on the Cassino position might deter Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber 'Südwest' and commander of Heeresgruppe 'C', from sending reinforcements to Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 14th Army for this counter-offensive.
Since being informed that his corps was to be created on 9 February, the experienced Freyberg had been thinking of the Cassino position as a whole and not simply of an exploitation in the Liri river valley. At a conference on 4 February, at which Tuker was present, an outline plan was agreed. Like Keyes before him, Freyberg favoured an attempt to turn the Cassino position from the north, although by a wider manoeuvre and in greater strength than Keyes had contemplated. Général de Corps d’Armée Alphonse Juin was to to drive one division of his Corps Expéditionaire Français (French Expeditionary Corps) to the west through Terelle while the Indian 4th Division began a turning movement through the mountains to the north of Monte Castellone, perhaps through the Corno pass. At the same time one New Zealand brigade was to advance from Maiola hill to capture Albaneta Farm and Point 593. The second New Zealand infantry brigade and Brigadier W. B. Thomas’s New Zealand 4th Armoured Brigade would remain on alert in the valley to the east of the Rapido river to undertake a rapid exploitation into the Liri river valley after success had been achieved in the mountains.
Tuker both influenced and approved this plan, which accorded fully with his principles of mountain warfare. But it was at this stage that Tuker was compelled by illness to pass command of his division to Dimoline.
On 5 February Freyberg’s outline plan was suspended, and by 7 February hopes for a favourable outcome to the US II Corps' operations in the 1st Battle of Cassino paved the way to a tentative plan for the employment of the whole New Zealand Corps in an exploitation into and along the Liri river valley. However, by 9 February it had become clear that if the US II Corps was not able to gain the success that seemed almost within its grasp, the New Zealand Corps would have to take over the Allied offensive with the Indian 4th Division on Monastery Hill and the New Zealand 2nd Division round the town of Cassino.
It was on this same day that Freyberg issued his plan for the operation, which was now to have no wide flanking manoeuvre of the type he had outlined on 4 February. Freyberg and his staff were inexperienced in mountain warfare and may have come to an exaggerated conclusion about the difficulties of a wide outflanking movement through roadless country and, moreover, with only 1,500 mules available, there was clearly insufficient pack transport to maintain anything more than one brigade up to a maximum of 7 miles (11.25 km) beyond the supporting roadhead.
Freyberg’s plan of 9 February was to use the Indian 4th Division in the mountains and the New Zealand 2nd Division in the valleys. One Indian brigade, supported by a second, was to take Monastery Hill, then descend it to the south before turning to the east in the direction of Cassino town, which the New Zealand 2nd Division would be attacking from the south-east. It was the task given to the Indian 4th Division which raised the question of destroying the abbey with bombing to prevent its use by the Germans as an observation position in the fashion that the Allies believed that they had already started.
The days 13 and 14 February were, for the Germans, a period of quiet. On 15 February General Fridolin Ritter und Edler von Senger und Etterlin, commanding the XIV Panzerkorps which was holding this right-hand sector of Generaloberst Heinrich-Gottfried von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s 10th Army, came to believe that a fresh Allied offensive was imminent. Four Allied formations (US 34th and 36th Divisions, New Zealand 2nd Division and French 3ème Division d’Infanterie Algérienne) had been identified between Terelle and Cassino town and the presence of a fifth (Indian 4th Division) was suspected. von Senger und Etterlin calculated that in the Cassino position he had 14 battalions to the Allies' 26, and 51 pieces of artillery to the Allies' 292. His combat capability of his formations and units was ebbing daily, not only from battle losses but also as a result of sickness among the troops from exposure to the dire mountain weather which they had to endure without special clothing and food. He had no reserves and therefore could not relieve his front-line units on any systematic basis, and his units had insufficient numbers to occupy defensive positions in depth.
von Senger und Etterlin therefore doubted that his formations and units could withstand any major attack, yet fully appreciated the importance of holding the Cassino position if the 'Gustav-Linie' defences as a whole were not to be breached. von Senger und Etterlin told von Vietinghoff-Scheel that if his men were to hold out for any length of time they needed reinforcement, equipment and weapon replacements, special clothing and a increased allocation of rations. He also needed more medium and heavy artillery, and effective air support as a matter of urgency. But von Vietinghoff-Scheel and Kesselring lacked the men and other resources with which they might otherwise have been in the position to strengthen the XIV Panzerkorps.
On the Allied side of the front, the Indian 4th Division was to spearhead the operation which Freyberg had conceived in his plan of 9 February, and Dimoline issued his orders two days later. Starting on the night of 13/14 February, the division was to relieve the US 34th Division, and then Brigadier O. de T. Lovett’s Indian 7th Brigade would attack from Point 593 along the ridge to Point 569, Point 444 and the abbey in its commanding position. Brigadier D. R. E. R. Bateman’s Indian 5th Brigade would establish a firm base on Monte Castellone, and would take over Monastery Hill after it had been taken by the Indian 7th Brigade. When the Indian 5th Brigade had moved onto Monastery Hill, the Indian 7th Brigade would descend to the south in the direction of Highway 6 and then turn to the east against Cassino town, which the New Zealand 2nd Division would meanwhile have taken under attack from the south-east.
The plan for the Indian 4th Division was based on the mistaken assumption, shared by the division and the headquarters of the New Zealand Corps, that the Americans had a secure hold on the whole of Point 593.
Before the Indian 4th Division could attack, its Indian 7th Brigade had to relieve the US 34th Division, and in doing so it began to encounter the very difficult administrative problems which dogged all later efforts within this operation. The division’s concentration area was near Cervaro, and a staging post and supply dump were established at San Michele, some 2.5 miles (4 km) to the south-east of San Elia. The road to San Michele was so bad and so muddy that the division’s four-wheeled trucks became bogged and 270 six-wheeled trucks had to be borrowed from the Americans, who also provided 100 Jeep trailers and five mule transport companies. The Indian 11th Brigade’s three battalions each provided two companies to act as porters.
From San Michele one muddy track led to Cairo village, crossing the Rapido river by means of a Bailey bridge and passable only to Jeeps and trailers. From Cairo village goat tracks provided a way up along the slopes of Monte Castellone and Maiola hill and through a narrow valley to the forward positions some 4,000 yards (3660 m) distant to the south. However, these tracks were under German observation at several places including 'Death Valley' to the north of Maiola. Large quantities of ammunition, food, water and equipment had to be carried from San Michele some 7 miles (11.25 km) to the forward positions by mules and porters, and the convoys had to make the round trip during the hours of darkness to avoid destruction by observed artillery fire. Yet even darkness did not give complete security as the German artillery had registered the Rapido river bridge as a target for harassing fire, and all too often this crossing became a shambles of dead, dying and panic-stricken mules.
Then came the journey up the grim slopes, and at a certain time, no matter what point had been reached, loads had to be dumped and the return journey begun if San Michele were to be reached before the break of day. The dumped loads had to be collected and brought in at night by the reserve companies of forward battalions.
The inevitable consequence of these conditions was that the troops suffered extreme privation.
In spite of all difficulties the Indian 7th Brigade concentrated near Cairo village during the night of 11/12 February with the object of relieving the Americans on Point 593 during the following night. The US positions extended along the reverse slope of the d’Onifrio ridge (Point 450), but were very exposed and could not be approached in daylight.
Early on 12 February the Germans attacked the positions of the US 36th Division on Monte Castellone and also began infiltrating to the south from Manna Farm and Terelle. The situation at one time seemed so dangerous that Lovett deployed two battalions of his Indian 7th Brigade to aid the Americans. The danger passed but Lovett was forced to postpone the relief of the Americans facing Monastery Hill until the night 13/14 February and thus his own attack against Monastery Hill until the night following that.
After dark on 13 February the 1/Royal Sussex Regiment and 4/16th Punjab Regiment set off along the goat tracks which led to the front. By 06.00 on 14 February the 1/Royal Sussex had partly taken over from the Americans near Point 593, the 4/16th Punjabis had taken over on the left of the Royal Sussex, and the 1/2nd Gurkha Rifles had occupied reserve positions farther to the rear.
Now two unforeseeable events upset all the calculations on which the operation had ben schemed. Firstly, it emerged that the Americans were not holding the whole of Point 593, as had been assumed, but were clinging only to direly exposed positions on the feature’s northern slopes. The implications were immediately evident, for while the Germans held Point 593 any advance towards Monastery Hill would enfiladed from its right flank. Lovett decided that he would have to take Point 593 to be in any position to launch his main attack. Secondly, some 200 US troops in the 1/Royal Sussex’s area had suffered so extremely from exhaustion and exposure that they could man positions but were unable to walk and had therefore to be carried from their positions, something that could only be done after dark on 14 February.
On this day, therefore, Dimoline and Lovett had no option but to ask Freyberg for a second postponement of the Indian 4th Division’s attack. Thus Point 593 was to be taken on the night of 15/16 February, and the attack on Monastery Hill was to be made during the night of 16/17 February. Freyberg very sensibly agreed to the postponement.
It was on 15 February, during the enforced interlude on the ground, that the 'Bradman' bombing attack was flown and destroyed the abbey, and any benefit that might have accrued from a ground assault immediately after the bombing was lost as the Indian 7th Brigade’s attack had been postponed.
Facing Monastery Hill, the Indian 7th Brigade had the 1/Royal Sussex had the task of capturing Point 593 during the night of 15/16 February. The battalion had not been able to make any close reconnaissance, for Point 593 was less than 500 yards (460 m) distant and daylight movement was impossible. The terrain was so difficult that during the night of 14/15 February patrols were able to produce only hazy and confused reports. It seemed that there was room on the narrow ridge leading to Point 593 to deploy only one company, and thus it was a mere 70 men of one company who made the assault. The Germans were alert, however, and their heavy fire forced the assaulting infantry to ground. The men’s following efforts to crawl or rush forward were defeated by an obstacle variously described as a pitch of rock and as a deep gully, and which may have been both. To be caught in the open in daylight would have been suicide, and the company withdrew before dawn after losing 34 men.
On the night of 16/17 February the 1/Royal Sussex tried again, and this time Lieutenant Colonel J. B. A. Glennie had decided to use his whole battalion, though still on a one-company front. D Company managed to find its way round the obstacle of the night before and a small party reached the summit, where it was joined by A and C Companies. A wild fight was raging all over Point 593 when the Germans fired one of their own signals, three green flares, which by mischance was the 1/Royal Sussex’s signal to withdraw. The companies therefore fell back and Point 593 remained in German hands. The attack had cost 70 casualties.
The postponements of Indian 4th Division’s attack had not been altogether unwelcome to the New Zealand 2nd Division, which had much to do, especially in making reconnaissances and preparing to seize a bridgehead over the Rapido river to the south-east of Cassino town. After the failure of the second attempt to capture Point 593, however, Freyberg decided that the Indian 4th Division and New Zealand 2nd Division must begin their attacks during the night of 17/18 February. One of the reasons for this was that the Germans were counterattacking strongly at Anzio in 'Sonnenaufgang', and Alexander and Clark were eager for the New Zealand Corps to create at least a diversion.
The only connection between the attacks of the Indian 4th Division and New Zealand 2nd Division was the fact that they began on the same day. The Indian 4th Division had continued to concentrate while the 1/Royal Sussex was fighting to take Point 593. The 4/6th Rajputa Rifles and 1/9th Gurkhas, both of the Indian 5th Brigade, moved forward and came under command of the Indian 7th Brigade. Four companies of porters drawn from the Indian 11th Brigade assembled at Cairo village. Only 800 mules were now available, and these were allotted to the Indian 7th Brigade.
Dimoline’s plan was a direct assault on Monastery Hill on a four-battalion front. At 24.00 on 17/18 February the 4/6th Rajputs, with three companies of the 1/Royal Sussex under command, was to capture Point 593 and then exploit to the south-east in the direction of Point 444, the saddle which lying below the western face of the abbey. At 02.00 on 18 February the 1/9th Gurkhas would attack on the left of the Rajputs, aiming at the area of the saddle. At the same hour the 1/2nd Gurkhas, on the left of the 1/9th Gurkhas, would attack the abbey itself. The starting line for the whole attack, from the neighbourhood of Point 593 along the ridge marked by Points 450 and 445, extended along a north-west/south-east lime, so the axis of the attack was to the south-west on a front of 1,500 yards (1370 m). When all the objectives had been taken, the two Gurkha battalions were to exploit down the southern and western slopes of Monastery Hill to Highway 6. Artillery support was to be provided by the divisional artillery together with 144 field and 32 medium guns of the New Zealand artillery, and 144 guns of the US II Corps' artillery including 48 8-in (203-mm) howitzers. Thus the attack would have the support of some 394 pieces of artillery. Because the opposing lines were so close together and because of the problems of crest clearance, there was to be no attempt to support the infantry by concentrations and barrages, but all possible forming-up areas for a German counterattack or reinforcements were to be deluged with fire, and a heavy counter-battery programme was also prepared.
The air support capability of the whole of Air Commodore L. F. Sinclair’s Mediterranean Allied Tactical Bomber Force and Brigadier General Gordon P. Saville’s US XII Air Support Command had been switched to support of the 'Shingle' beach-head at Anzio on 16 February, but on that day 40 Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk fighter-bombers of Air Vice Marshal H. Broadhurst’s Desert Air Force braved adverse weather conditions and dropped 14 tons of bombs on the abbey, which was also the recipient of another four tons of bombs delivered by 10 P-40 fighter-bombers of the USAAF. On 17 February 35 British and 16 US Kittyhawk fighter-bombers dropped another 20 tons of bombs on the shattered ruins of the abbey. Even so, none of the infantrymen thought that the next attack would be anything but bloody, for it was known that the Germans were known to be present in substantial numbers and the terrain was appallingly difficult. Point 593, whose possession had been thought to be the essential preliminary only a few days earlier, was now just one of many objectives.
The Indian 7th Brigade was now committing all its assets but the 4/16th Punjabis to a single attack, and there were no reserves other than the 1/4th Essex Regiment and 1/6th Rajputs, of the Indian 5th and 11th Brigades respectively, these being located more than 5 miles (8 km) away at Portella.
On the other hand, under the command of Generalleutnant Ernst-Günther Baade’s 90th Panzergrenadierdivision, the Germans on Monastery Hill had been fighting for a fortnight and were exhausted. Their main positions were little more than 500 yards (460 m) yards distant from those of the Allies on the map, and the US commanders who had been at the front most recently believed that a strong push by fresh troops would win Monastery Hill. The Royal Sussex, the Rajput and the two Gurkha battalions were fresh and confident, and with a measure of luck, could well hope to take Monastery Hill.
At 24.00 on 17/18 February two companies of 4/6th Rajputs scrambled toward Point 593. Despite the German fire that immediately rained down on the battalion, a few men reached the point of the ridge and there started a furious battle fought mainly with grenades. The two following companies were caught in a crossfire from positions flanking Point 593 and were checked about 100 yards (90 m) from the objective. Small groups worked their way round boulders and along ledges, but almost all these men were killed or wounded. At 01.40 Lieutenant Colonel R. B. Scott called for a five-minute artillery concentration on Point 593, and under this a third company tried to outflank the feature from the left. The fight continued unabated, and a little after 03.00 all three companies reported that they were pinned down and expected counterattacks. Scott then committed his last company, but to no avail. The Rajputs were scattered over the approaches to Point 593 and had suffered 196 casualties.
The timing of Indian 7th Brigade’s attacks had allowed for the capture or neutralisation of Point 593 before the 1/9th Gurkhas advanced, but though neither of these events had materialised, the men of the 1/9th Gurkhas started to move forward at 02.15 and began to descend a slope. Of the two leading companies, C Company on the right was to skirt Point 593 and make for Point 569, while D Company on the left aimed to gain the same ridge and swing left to Point 444. The two follow-up companies were then to pass through and take the south-west corner of the abbey. Fully on the alert, the Germans immediately detected the Gurkhas' movement, and enfiladed their advance from each flank. Even so, the leading companies managed to gain some 300 yards (275 m) before being forced to ground, while direct fire prevented the follow-up companies from advancing at all. The attempts of C and D Companies cost 94 casualties.
At 03.30 the men of the 1/2nd Gurkhas were ready to advance toward Point 450, a ridge just half-way between Point 593 and the northern side of the abbey. C and B Companies were on the right and left respectively, and their objectives were the north face and north-east corner of the abbey respectively. D and A Companies were to follow C and B Companies respectively. The objectives were about 500 yards (460 m) distant, and the 1/2nd Gurkhas would have to descend into small gorge, pass through a belt of scrub and climb the opposite side. Lieutenant Colonel L. J. G. Showers had impressed on the men of his battalion that speed was vital, and the leading companies were to disregard anything happening on their flanks, bypass any German positions on their paths, press on and leave mopping-up to the companies behind them.
The moon had been rising for nearly four hours, so there was some light as the leading companies began to move and German crossfire immediately poured into them. The leading companies hurled themselves forward to the imagined cover of the scrub, but this proved to be a trap as the scrub was in fact a dense mass of thorn bushes which the Germans had sown with bouncing anti-personnel mines triggered by trip wires. A few of C Company’s men tore their way through, but B Company suffered severe losses. After a short time the survivors fell back to the northern edge of the thicket and began to dig in. A Company followed up to reinforce the survivors. D Company followed A Company to little purpose. The 1/2nd Gurkhas had lost 149 officers and men, and any further effort to advance could lead only to further very heavy losses as the light of day started to become evident.
At this period of the war communications within a battalion usually broke down because the walkie-talkie radio sets of the time were unreliable, signallers laying line or using signalling lamps were usually shot down, and runners simply disappeared. Of the men who remained on their feet, some filtered forward, some tried flanking moves, and some remained pinned down. It was almost impossible for those concerned to read the nature of the fight. The streams of German tracer gave a rough impression of where the German positions were, but the flashes of bursting projectiles were all alike.
On the morning of 18 February all the battalions which had taken part in the Indian 7th Brigade’s attack had failed at a total cost of 530 casualties, mostly in the infantry companies. At dawn the survivors of all the battalions filtered back to their starting points and took up defensive positions among the rocks. Lovett had some thoughts of attacking again under cover of smoke, if a New Zealand brigade could come up on his brigade’s left flank, but the idea was rejected by Freyberg and Dimoline, who decided that the Indian 7th Brigade must hold where it was as fresh plans were considered. These would have to take into account the results of the New Zealand 2nd Division’s operations in the Rapido valley.
For the Indian 4th Division, the fight for Monastery Hill was a stinging reversal, but for von Senger und Etterlin and Baade, who were more concerned with the New Zealanders' attack on Cassino station, it was a neatly fought and successful defensive battle. From the German point of view, it was also a paratroopers' affair as the units chiefly engaged were the 1st Fallschirmjägermaschinengewehrbataillon, the 1 and 2/1st Fallschirmjägerregimenter, and the 3/3rd Fallschirmjägerregiment of Generalmajor Hans Korte’s 1st Fallschirmjägerdivision.
The Germans believed that the tactical situation favoured them, and that their positions in and around the abbey would make it possible for then to cope with artillery bombardments, dire conditions and the inevitably steady drain that would be placed on their number by casualties.
It was on 6 February that Freyberg had ordered reconnaissances to locate sites at which bridges could be thrown across the Rapido river. Undertaken over several nights, these reconnaissances indicated that there were a number of points at which the river could be bridged if firm approaches could be constructed, for the entire valley floor was waterlogged by the combination of deliberate flooding and steady rain. Even where the water was only inches deep and therefore passable by infantrymen, the sodden nature of the ground meant that any attempt to pass wheeled or tracked vehicles over it almost immediately turned it into an impenetrable mud bath.
With the exception of the roads into Cassino town from the north, which the Americans had used, there were two ways in which Cassino town could be approached: that along Highway 6 was tactically too obvious for serious consideration, and the other was the embankment which carried the rail line to Cassino station, slightly more than 1 mile (1.6 km) to the south of the town centre. The embankment was 30 ft (9.1 m) wide and had been breached by 12 demolitions in a distance of slightly more than 1,000 yards (915 m) from the station toward the Allies' front. The rails and their sleepers had been removed.
Like that of the Indian 4th Division on Monastery Hill, the New Zealand 2nd Division’s attack on Cassino town was the first phase of Freyberg’s plan to pass a substantial force into the Liri river valley. Thus it was necessary for the New Zealand 2nd Division to take the whole of Cassino town, for the requirements of this first phase would be met by the capture of the station so long as the Germans holding the town were contained by the New Zealanders with the help of the Indians descending from Monastery Hill, if the breaches in the embankment were repaired to make it a road, and if bridges were thrown across the Rapido river, across one of its small tributaries, and then across the Gari river, a small tributary of the Garigliano river. The solution of these problems was the task of Kippenberger, who passed command of his New Zealand 5th Brigade to Colonel S. F. Hartnell and on 9 February and assumed command of the New Zealand 2nd Division in the acting rank of major general.
Kippenberger’s plan was ready by 11 February. The 28th (Maori) Battalion of the New Zealand 5th Brigade was to advance along the embankment during the night of 17/18 February and capture the station. At the same time the 6th and 8th Field Companies New Zealand Engineers were to repair the breaches in the embankment and bridge the Rapido river and its tributary before dawn on 18 February. Then the New Zealand 19th Armoured Regiment and some anti-tank guns were to move up to support the Maori battalion. The plan contained a number of risks and limitations, most especially the facts that a very small infantry force was to attack on a very narrow front, and that the engineers would be working to a very tight timetable. However, the route was the best available for the infantry, which would benefit from powerful artillery support, and the choice of route might come as a surprise to the Germans.
Night patrols by the engineers had collected much information about the demolitions they would have to repair, and had the engineers had also discovered that the Rapido river was fordable. Another advantage gained at this time was the postponement of the Indian 4th Division’s attack, which gave the engineers the opportunity to repair the first four embankment demolitions by 16 February. The undertaking was fraught with risk, but so too was the New Zealand Corps' whole operation.
The New Zealand 2nd Division’s plan therefore ordained progress in a number of stages. At 20.45 on the night of 17/18 February the 28th Battalion was to advance 600 yards (550 m) on a two-company front to its start line with B Company on the right and A Company on the left. B Company’s first objective was the station and engine shed, and its second a group of houses some 300 yards (275 m) to the north of the station in the fork of two roads which led into the town. A Company’s task was to take the 'Hummocks', a group of mounds 300 yards (275 m) to the south of the engine shed. B and A Companies had therefore to advance 800 and 400 yards (730 and 365 m) respectively.
The artillery of the New Zealand 2nd Division, supplemented by guns of the corps artillery and the US II Corps, was to lay down a bombardment on the objectives until the infantry had been advancing for 10 minutes, and then to lift. The New Zealand engineers were to follow the infantry to bridge the Rapido river and its tributary, and to repair all demolitions up to the station before day broke on 18 February.
At that time the New Zealand 19th Armoured Regiment was to push forward as fast as it could. The New Zealanders had a good idea of the strength of the town’s garrison (two battalions of the 211th Grenadierregiment, the 3/361st Panzergrenadierregiment, a battery of assault guns, and a few tanks under the command of Major Friedrich-Karl Knuth) and knew the nature of the defences they faced. At the same time they hoped that the US attacks in the 1st Battle of Cassino had drawn most of the garrison into the northern part of the town. Moreover the New Zealand 24th Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry Regiment were to create a diversion by fire and smoke lower down the Rapido river.
B and A Companies began their approach to the start line at 20.45 on the 17 February, but the whole schedule almost immediately started to go awry. The embankment was choked by the engineers and their equipment, the going on each side of it proved deeper than had been expected, and progress was generally slowed by the knowledge that the Germans had scattered mines liberally throughout the area. Moreover, the Germans were fully alert and soon opened a withering defensive fire with their mortars and machine guns.
There were heavy casualties in both Maori companies, which nonetheless pressed their attack with determination. As B Company neared the station, flares showed two German positions behind coils of concertina wire. The leading Maori platoon charged, crashed over the wire, and destroyed both posts. The rest of the company followed and cleared both the station and the engine shed. Soon after 24.00 B Company tried to work forward to its second objective, but the German fire proved too heavy and by 03.00 the company had gone to ground and was awaiting the diversion which might be caused by A Company’s attack on the Hummocks. By misfortune A Company’s attack never came. Air reconnaissance had shown that the Hummocks were defended by a ditch, which was apparently a trivial obstacle. In reality the ditch was 20 ft (6.1 m) wide, filled with flood water, protected by wire and covered by machine guns. A Company was halted and was unable to discover any flank route.
As day began to break, Kippenberger ordered the Maoris to hold their positions no matter how exposed they might be.
Meanwhile the engineers had been working to complete their tasks under intermittent small arms and mortar fire. By 05.00 they had bridged the Rapido river, but this technical success was five hours behind schedule. Two large demolitions still barred any vehicular approach to the station, and with the break of day engineer work became impossible as the scene of their labours was under observed fire. The engineers had therefore lost their race against time.
The two Maori companies were now in a decidedly hazardous position. Soon after sunrise, which came at 07.06 on 18 February, a small German force was seen to be assembling for a counterattack, but was destroyed by the New Zealand artillery. A better prepared counterattack was inevitable, however, and German artillery, mortar and automatic weapon fire was constant. Even so, the Maoris were not disheartened and called only for cover by smoke, the artillery responding with some 9,000 smoke rounds on 18 February. Under cover of this smoke a platoon was sent up to reinforce A and B Companies, whose wounded were brought back.
Kippenberger and Freyberg hoped that the engineers would be able to complete their tasks after dark on 18 February and that then the 28th Battalion’s bridgehead could be enlarged. The Germans had indeed been surprised by the direction of the New Zealand attacks, but Knuth soon recovered and despatched all his reserves to the point of danger. Even so, Baade knew that the men in Cassino town were exhausted and doubted if they would be able to dislodge the New Zealanders. But at about 15.15 Knuth made a great effort, with a handful of tanks attacking from the north and infantry from the south-west under heavy covering fire from guns, mortars and machine guns.
The Maori companies' communications with their battalion headquarters had failed, and the appearance of German tanks decided the battle as the New Zealand infantry lacked the tanks and anti-tank guns to defeat the German armour. 16.00 and 17.00 A and B Companies retreated across the Rapido river after an undertaking which had cost them 130 of an initial strength of 200 men. The Germans were highly relieved to see the New Zealanders retreat as their own casualties had numbered 192 and the garrison, in spite of reinforcement by the 2/8th Panzergrenadierregiment, was in no condition to withstand a heavy attack.
With the Indian 4th Division’s failure to take Monastery Hill and the repulse of the New Zealand 28th Battalion at Cassino town, the 2nd Battle of Cassino ended. It had cost the Indian 4th Division 590 casualties and the New Zealand 2nd Division 226 casualties. On the other hand the losses of the XIV Panzerkorps (including divisions fighting on other parts of the front) totalled 4,470 men between 1 and 20 February. What was clear, however, was that the battle of attrition on the US 5th Army’s main front was favouring of the Allies. In other terms, however, the results of the 1st and 2nd Battles of Cassino contained nothing that favoured the Allies. The main Cassino position was intact and still fully in the hands of determined German troops, and the German defence had been too strong for the US II Corps and New Zealand Corps, attacking in succession, to overcome.
Even so, Freyberg believed that success was attainable, and on 22 February issued the plans which resulted in 'Dickens', or the 3rd Battle of Cassino. Alexander and Clark agreed with Freyberg’s plans, even though the former had some reservations. He was anxious that the New Zealand Corps should not be used to exhaustion as already he had plans in mind for a great regrouping of his forces for the 'Diadem' offensive on the Cassino position in considerably greater strength in the spring.
Meanwhile a renewed attempt to capture Monastery Hill and to break into the Liri river valley seemed to offer the chance of some benefits.