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Sherman crosses Liri, 4th battle of Cassino

Sherman crosses Liri, 4th battle of Cassino

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Sherman crosses Liri, 4th battle of Cassino

This picture is said to show a Sherman about to cross the Liri River during the 4th Battle of Cassino. With no more details it isn't possible to tell if this is a British, Canadian or American tank. This picture does look to have been taken a bit behind the front lines, as there are three crew members driving with their heads exposed.

"Cruel Necessity": The Story of The First Battle of Monte Cassino

While the Allies would eventually defeat the Germans here, their first attempt was a costly failure.

But at the Fifth Army’s tactical headquarters, Clark was getting a different picture of events. Reports to him suggested that the British X Corps and U.S. II Corps were advancing. Ready to embark for Anzio, Clark phoned Keyes and urged him to “bend every effort to get tanks and tank destroyers across the Rapido promptly.”

Keyes drove to the 36th Division’s forward command post and got there at 10 am, to pass on Clark’s desires. Lecturing the divisional commander, Keyes said that if tanks had been rushed over the previous night, the assault would have been a success. A noon attack would have put the sun in the Germans’ eyes.

Walker said he could not attack again by day. He would try again at 9 pm. For Keyes, that was too long to wait. He wanted it to go in at once, but certainly before 9 pm.

Walker pointed out that his infantrymen needed to reorganize and his engineers needed to get new equipment. Keyes was unimpressed. Commanders were supposed to overcome obstacles, not be overcome by them.

50 Plywood Boats, 50 Rubber Crafts

Walker phoned his senior officers and reported back to Keyes that the earliest he could attack would be 2 pm. The engineers promised 50 plywood assault boats and 50 rubber craft in the division area by 12:30, which would give the assault troops an hour and a half to pick them up and move out. Not good enough for Keyes, but he would have to accept it. Keyes drove off, and Walker wrote in his diary, “I expect this attack to be a fizzle just as was the one last night.”

But communications were still snarled. Martin did not know he was going in until 1:10 pm, 50 minutes before jump-off. He asked for more time and was allowed to postpone the attack until 3 pm. Wyatt’s boats weren’t delivered in time either, so he got the same one-hour delay. But at 3 pm, the battalion commanders were objecting, the men were exhausted, and the boats still had not arrived. A 4 pm attack seemed more reasonable. Walker agreed.

At 3:30, Martin phoned Walker to say some of the boats had arrived, but not all. Berry saw one truck being driven by a brigadier general. Martin asked for another delay. This time, Walker said no. Martin was to go with what he had. At 3:45, with 15 minutes to go, Wyatt learned his boats had been on hand for an hour. But it was too late to meet the 4 pm deadline, so Wyatt asked to hold off until 9 pm. Wyatt got his wish. Martin still had to go in even though the only real reason to attack was to save the men on the far bank, and there were none in his sector.

At 4 pm, Martin tried again. The assault troops filed in at the same crossing points. Martin figured that, while the Germans would have the sites mapped and referenced, his men would not lose their way finding them a second time. And he also laid down a heavy smoke barrage that created an artificial fog on the river and nearly suffocated his own men—a small price to pay to avoid being shelled.

The companies pushed off in rubber boats, and for two hours paddled back and forth, putting all three companies of the 3rd/143rd on the far shore by 6:30 pm. Then the heavy weapons companies came over with their machine guns, while the engineers built footbridges. With those up, the rest of the battalion, including its headquarters, shuffled across the river.

Martin then sent a second battalion across, while the third battalion guarded the crossing site and kept the bridge open. By 2 am on the 22nd, the morning of the Anzio landing, Martin had a bridgehead. His men moved 500 yards inland, came under heavy fire, and dug in to consolidate their gains.

Building a Bailey Bridge Under Fire

Now the engineers had to replace the footbridges with treadway and Bailey bridges capable of supporting M-4 Sherman tanks. Normally, engineers could lap up a pontoon bridge in 45 minutes, but with the steep Rapido banks, they had to cut approaches.

Bailey bridges, a British invention still used around the world today, looked then as now like giant Erector sets, made of prefabricated sections in standard lengths, put together with rivets. They took six to eight hours to build, and were generally built out of range of enemy fire. This night they would be built under heavy fire.

But the pontoon bridges and Bailey equipment had not been brought forward yet. Time before the Shingle landings and dawn was running out. Keyes himself ordered that a span-type Bailey be flung across the river from one bank to the other, obviating the need for approach ditches. The engineers were astonished at the idea: the whole area was under fire. The engineers were brave enough, but this looked like suicide.

Suicide or not, the engineers tried. By midnight, they had cleared the mines on the approach routes, and trucks struggled forward through the quagmire to deliver the bridges. The trucks got stuck. The engineers hauled the steel sections to the site by hand and tried to start work, but German fire was too heavy. The engineers spent most of their time trying to take cover. By 9 am, it was clear that the bridges would not get built.

Eight Hours, No Progress

Meanwhile, Martin’s second attack, by the 2nd Battalion, went in on schedule. By 6:30, two companies were over the river, but the German shelling became fierce. Until 10:30, nothing could move across the river. Frazior personally crossed the footbridge to get his men moving, but it was impossible. German resistance was too strong. At 1:30 am, he nonchalantly radioed Martin, “I had a couple of fingers shot off,” and said he would stay there until a replacement, Lt. Col. Michael A. Meath, arrived. It took Martin three and a half hours to send forward a replacement for his wounded subordinate.

Three officers and 140 enlisted men made up F Company. By day’s end, all the officers were wounded, and only 15 of the enlisted men, many also wounded, made it back across the Rapido. Engineers began building a Bailey bridge at 3 am, but after four hours of work, it was only 4 percent completed. By 5 am, all three rifle company commanders were wounded, the footbridge was destroyed, and the boats were all wrecked. The engineers spent an hour and a half laying down two new footbridges, but all they were doing was helping litter bearers haul wounded men to the rear—or stragglers to flee, claiming illness or that they were carrying a message. By dawn, Meath reported he had only 250 effectives. And trucks bringing new bridges were stuck in the mud. Berry reported his Bailey bridge would be ready—if there was no enemy fire or interference—at 3 pm.

Martin told Berry to build the bridge, regardless of enemy fire. Martin would get more smoke pots to cover the construction efforts. But by mid-morning, the Bailey program was stalled. Engineers were trapped in foxholes, scared and shelled, a mile from the bridge site. Officers moved the engineers to the bridge site, but everyone was reluctant to go—the situation was getting hopeless. At noon, Martin saw that his bridgehead was untenable, and he ordered his men to withdraw.

Meanwhile, Wyatt’s 141st Regiment launched its attack at 9 pm on January 21, at the previous crossing site. The new boats the engineers brought forward were found to be defective, thanks to German shellfire, so only 60 men could brave the river and reach the far shore. In five hours of maneuver and attack, the 141st eliminated the German riflemen and machine guns. That gave the engineers time to build bridges. By 2 am, the engineers had two improvised footbridges finished, and two battalions headed across the river by dawn, along with their heavy weapons teams. The Americans moved 1,000 yards inland, despite heavy casualties, then dug in. But they found no sign of the men who had been trapped on the far bank.

While the infantrymen consolidated their gains, the engineers turned to building a Bailey bridge, hauling the girders and frames by muscle power across the swampy ground and shell holes. They started at 1 am and eight hours later had made no progress.

“The Stupidity of the Higher Command”

Everybody in the 36th was getting hammered. Around 4 am, the Germans hurled 300 shells at the division’s command post, causing casualties and disrupting the division’s staff work. Rumors spread that the Germans were counterattacking and making their own river crossing to trap the Americans. They were not, but heavy river currents washed away two footbridges weakened by German shells. The men of the 36th were tired, wounded, lost, and hungry. By 4 pm, every commander in both battalions on the far shore was dead or wounded, and a German shell hit the last footbridge, obliterating it.


On September 3, 1943, the Allies had captured the island of Sicily. From there the next step was to land on the Italian mainland and liberate it from the Germans. On September 4, British, Polish, and Canadian troops landed on Calabria. Four days later, Italy capitulated.

In the Battle of Monte Cassino, the Allies faced insurmountable obstacles in their mission to break down German defenses and liberate the Eternal City of Rome. In co-ordinated military operations, the British, French, Americans, Indians, New Zealanders, Moroccans, and Polish Regiments converged on key German strongholds in a bitter struggle that lasted several months and cost the lives of thousands of men.The only two roads leading to Rome, the Via Appia (Highway7) and Via Casilina (Highway 6) were fiercely defended by a series of impregnable German fortifications running across the width of Italy, from the Garigliano River on the west coast to the Sangro on the east coast. The strongest of their defenses, the Gustav Line, made it virtually impossible for the Allies to advance without suffering heavy casualties.The Gustav Line was erected by the Germans along the course of the Rapido, Gari, and Garogliano Rivers, behind which the Germans were solidly dug in.

General Wladyslaw Anders

Their positions were further secured by garrisons posted on every peak of the surrounding mountain ranges.Dominating the landscape is Monte Cassino, towering to almost 1,700m (5,500 ft), surrounded by smaller but no less imposing series of mountains.This natural terrain gave the Germans an excellent vantage point from which to observe and attack Allied positions.To obstruct the Allied advances, the Germans dammed the Rapido River causing it to flood the Liri Valley. The combination of natural terrain, bad weather, forced flooding and solid German defenses all conspired to frustrate and defeat Allied efforts time and time again. It took all of six months of the most bitter of fighting for the Allies to penetrate enemy lines. The Battle of Monte Cassino was carried out in four stages by a vast number of regiments and divisions under the banner of many nations, foremost Poland. The losses to men and material were staggering.It turned out to be a "see-saw" battle, where Allies, having captured key German strongholds, lost it shortly thereafter to the enemy and then succeeded in recapturing it. It was not until the last phase of the Battle, when all other Allied efforts had failed so dismally, that the II Polish Corps, under the command of Lt. General Wladyslaw Anders was finally called into action. Their mission was to capture Monte Cassino and Piedimonte, which up until then could not be achieved by any other military units. Now everything depended on the Polish units.

Polish Soldiers Monte Cassino

Battle of Monte Cassino - Phase Four

The fourth phase of the battle code-named Operation Diadem would be launched by the US II Corps, by an attack up the coast along Route 7 towards Rome. To their right the French Corps would attack from the bridgehead across the Garigliano. (The bridgehead was originally created by X Corps in the first battle in January into the Aurunci Mountains. It formed a barrier between the coastal plain and the Liri Valley.) In the center right of the front, the British XIII Corps would attack along the Liri valley. Meanwhile, on the right side the 2nd Polish Corps (3rd and 5th Division) commanded by Lt. Gen. Władysław Anders,would attempt to isolate the monastery and push round behind it into the Liri Valley to link up with XIII Corp's thrust and pinch out the Cassino position. The 4th Indian Division had attempted this mission but failed. Allied Command hoped that a much larger force than the Indian Division would be able to saturate the German defenses thereby preventing the enemy to give supporting fire to each others positions. Success of the Operation depended on this pinching manoeuvre. That and improved weather were important factors for the mission to succeed. Canadian I Corps was held in reserve pending a breakthrough. Once the German 10th Army would be defeated, the US VI Corps could break out the Anzio beachhead and cut off the retreating Germans in the Alban hills.

Polish soldiers charging up Phantom Hill
It took two months to set up troop positions and movements to prepare for the last phase of the battle and it had to be carried out in small units so as to maintain secrecy and wield an element of surprise. The ruse was on: the U.S. 36th Division was sent on amphibious assault training. Road signposts and dummy radio signal traffic were created to give the impression that a seaborne landing was being planned for north of Rome. The purpose of this was to keep German reserves held back from the Gustav line.

Troop movements in forward areas were conducted under darkness and as armoured units moved from the Adriatic front, they left behind dummy tanks and vehicles so that vacated areas appeared unchanged to enemy aerial reconnaissance. The deception was successful. As late as the second day of the final Cassino battle, Kesselring estimated the Allies had six divisions facing his four on the Cassino front. In reality there were thirteen.

The first assault was launched on Cassino at 23:00 hours on May 11th with a massive artillery bombardment of 1,060 guns on the 8th Army front and 600 guns on the 5th Army front, manned by British, Americans, Poles, New Zealanders, South Africans, and French. Within an hour and a half all four sectors were on the move. By daylight U.S. II Corps had made little progress, but their 5th Army colleagues, the French Corps, had achieved their objectives and were fanning out in the Aurunci Mountains toward the 8th Army to their right, rolling up the German positions between the two armies.

On the 8th Army front, XIII Corps had made two strongly opposed crossings of the Rapido (by British 4th Infantry Division and 8th Indian Division. By morning, the engineers of Dudley Russell's 8th Indian Division had succeeded in the critical task of bridging the river which enabled the armour of 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade to cross and provide the vital element (so missed by the Americans in the first battle and New Zealanders in the second battle) to beat off the inevitable counterattacks from German tanks that would come.

Point 593 or Snakeshead Ridge (Monte Calvario) above Cassino was taken by the Poles only to be recaptured by German paratroops. For three days Polish and German troops conducted ferocious attacks and counterattacks resulting in heavy losses to both sides. The Polish Corps lost 281 officers and 3,503 until the attacks were called off. At the end of the battles the Poles erected a memorial on the slope of the mountain.

Polish Soldiers Monte Cassino

May 1944: Over 1,500 Poles were killed in 3 days
By the afternoon of May 12, the Rapido bridgeheads were increasing despite furious counterattacks meanwhile the attrition on the coast and in the mountains continued. By May 13 the pressure was starting to show. The German right wing began to give way to the 5th Army. The French Corps had captured Monte Maio. They were now in a position to give material flank assistance to the 8th Army against whom Kesselring had thrown every available reserve in order to buy time to switch to his second prepared defensive position,the Hitler Line, about eight miles (13km) to the rear.

On May 14 Moroccan Goumiers were advancing through the mountains parallel to the Liri valley and were able to outflank the German defense materially assisting XIII Corps in the valley. (The area was undefended because it was considered impossible to traverse such terrain.) The Goumiers were colonial troops formed a year earlier into four Groups of Moroccan Tabors specialised in mountain warfare. On May 15, British 78 Division came into the XIII Corps line from reserve passing through the bridgehead divisions to execute the turning move to isolate Cassino from the Liri valley. On May 17 the Polish Division renewed their assault in the mountains. By the early hours of May 18, 78 Division and the Polish Corps had rendezvoused in the Liri valley 2 miles (3km) west of Cassino town.

In the early morning of May 18 a reconnaissance group of Polish 12th Podolian Regiment found the monastery defences abandoned and raised a Polish flag over its ruins. With German supply lines threatened by the Allied advance, German paratroopers had withdrawn from the monastery during the night and took up new defensive positions on the Hitler Line. The only remaining defenders were a group of thirty wounded German troops who had been unable to move.

The 8th Army units advanced up the Liri valley and the 5th Army up the coast to the Hitler defensive line (renamed the Senger Line at Hitler's insistence to minimize the significance if it were penetrated). An immediate assault failed and 8th Army took some time to re-organize. Over the next several days it took an effort of monumental proportions in getting 20,000 vehicles and 2,000 tanks through the broken Gustav Line. The next Allied assault commenced on May 23 with the Polish Corps attacking Piedimonte (defended by the redoubtable 1st Parachute Division) on the right and 1st Canadian Infantry Division (fresh from 8th Army reserve) in the centre. On May 24, the Canadians had breached the line, and 5th Canadian (Armoured) Division poured through the gap. On May 25 the Poles took Piedimonte, and the line collapsed. The way was clear for the advance northwards towards Rome.

On May 23,the Canadians and Poles launched their attack. Meanwhile General Lucian Truscott (who had replaced Lt. Gen.John P. Lucas as commander of U.S. VI Corps) launched a two pronged attack using five (three U.S. and two British) of the seven divisions in the bridgehead at Anzio. The German Fourteenth Army facing this thrust had no armoured divisions since Kesselring had sent his armour south to help the German Tenth Army in the Cassino action. The 26th Panzer Division was also unavailable to fight as it was in transit from the north of Rome where it had been anticipating the non-existent seaborn landing that the Allies had faked.

The Tenth Army was in full retreat by May 25 and the Allied VI Corps were headed eastward to cut them off. By the next day they would have been astride the line of retreat and the Tenth Army with all Kesselring's reserves committed to them, would have been trapped. At this point, surprisingly, General Mark Clark ordered Truscott to change his line of attack from a northeasterly one to Valmontone on Route 6 to a northwesterly one directly towards Rome. The reasons for his decision are unclear and controversy continues to surround the issue to this day. Most commentators believe that it was due to Clark's ambition to be the first to arrive in Rome however others suggest that Clark had to give the necessary respite to his tired troops. (notwithstanding the new direction of attack required his troops to make a frontal attack on the Germans' prepared defenses on the Caesar C line). Truscott later wrote in his memoirs that Clark "was fearful that the British were laying devious plans to be first into Rome, a sentiment somewhat reinforced in Clark's own writings. However, Alexander had clearly laid down the Army boundaries before the battle, and Rome was allocated to the Fifth Army. The 8th Army was constantly reminded that their job was to engage the Tenth Army, destroy as much of it as possible and then bypass Rome to continue the pursuit of the German Tenth Army, which they did for six weeks covering some 225 miles (360km) towards Perugia.

The Allies lost an opportunity. The seven divisions of the Tenth Army retreated to the next line of defence, the Trasimene Line where they then linked up with the Fourteenth Army and began to make a fighting withdrawal to the formidable Gothic Line north of Florence.

Rome fell June 4, 1944, just two days before the Normandy invasion.

The capture of Monte Cassino came at a high price. The total Allied Fifth and Eighth Army casualties spanning the period of the four Cassino battles and the advance to capture Rome on 4 June were 105,000. Of a total of 51,000 Polish soldiers, over 4,000 lost their lives on Monte Cassino.

"Cruel Necessity": The Story of The First Battle of Monte Cassino

While the Allies would eventually defeat the Germans here, their first attempt was a costly failure.

General Joseph de Monsabert’s 3rd Algerian Division followed, enabling Juin to set up his corps headquarters and work out the best way to send the divisions across the Abruzzi mountain range north of Cassino. With his mountain troops and mules, Juin did not see the mountainous terrain as a barrier. The French North African Army stressed small-unit autonomy, foot mobility, and infiltration.

“You Have No Officers Left”

On the night of January 11, the French Corps opened the battle for Cassino with a two-division, broad-front assault. The 7th Algerian Regiment led off the attack—its first battle—on a pinnacle called Monna Casale. After a 15-minute bombardment, the French moved out to attack the German 5th Mountain Division, a proven outfit of Austrian veterans.

Tragedy struck immediately. A German shell hit a rockpile where all the officers of the 7th Algerian Regiment’s 3rd Battalion were getting their orders, wiping out the battalion leadership with a single shot. The 3rd Battalion had to pull out of the attack. The other two regiments went in anyway. The 1st/7th Algerian took a beating, too. Captain Boutin was hit by a shell and refused to be evacuated. Instead, walking stick in hand, he led his men to take the summit of their objective. A bullet cut Boutin when he neared the top. Sous-lieutenant Vetillard took over and hobbled around, despite a bullet in the hip, encouraging his men to keep attacking. Then an exploding mortar round killed Vetillard. The French finally reached the top of Monna Casale, but it changed hands all day.

The Algerians used up their ammunition, and battalion commanders went up front to distribute bullets. The commander of one company told his 40 surviving men, “You have no officers left. But the 10th Company doesn’t need them. Go, take this peak for me.” The 10th Company did. Finally, the German 85th Mountain Regiment retreated to the Gustav Line.

The Moroccans had an easier time. Equipped with their ancestral dagger, the baroud, the 4th Moroccans gained surprise in their night attack. Jamming barouds into German backs, the 4th Moroccans “pushed on into the night. They were now no longer men, they were there to kill. Grenades exploded in the dugouts and screams came from within elsewhere the Germans rushed out into the snow, some still in stocking feet. Half-dressed, they rushed toward their weapons pits through bursts of machine gun fire which forced them to throw themselves flat. Some put up a half-hearted resistance but this was soon broken by the relentless tide of hellish giants that surged all around them,” their history recorded.

For four days, the French chased the Germans across the hills and mountains. They bounced across the Rapido and kept pressuring the Germans. But the French took serious casualties and, by January 21, were running short of food and ammunition and were weary from frostbite and exposure. Juin judged that with another division he could break through the crumbling German lines, hook around Cassino, and enter the Liri Valley. But he didn’t have another division. He kept trying with what he had, but the Germans were well dug in on the Gustav Line, and the French were exhausted. Juin called off further attacks on the Cassino massif and consolidated his gains. Patrolling Moroccan goumiers found Italian civilians hiding in caves and they raped the women they caught.

Little Progress

The British X Corps, under General Sir Richard McCreery, went in next on the left coastal flank. Two of the corps divisions, the 46th “Oak Tree” and 56th London “Black Cats” Divisions, had seen their first battle at Salerno and had been in action ever since. Fusilier Len Bradshaw of the 9th Royal Fusiliers, at age 19, was a battalion veteran. After three months of fighting, he did not think he would reach age 21. McCreery put the 5th Infantry Division on the coast, the 56th in the middle, and the 46th on his right. The 5th and 56th would cross the Garigliano and turn right, driving through the Ausente River valley into the narrow Ausonia mountain gorge and into the Liri Valley. The 46th would cross opposite Sant’ Ambrogio and protect the U.S. 36th Infantry Division on its right. The British made a close reconnaissance of the Garigliano riverbank, cleared German mines, and sited their bridging equipment.

The German defense consisted of the 94th Infantry Division, standing on high ground 1,000 yards west of the river. They had plenty of machine-gun positions and 24,000 mines, under General Bernard Steinmetz. The division bore the number of an outfit that had been eliminated at Stalingrad.

X Corps guns opened fire on the evening of January 17, 1944, supporting a British attack into mountainous terrain with few roads and fewer tracks. Mules were the crucial arm of logistics, but X Corps had only 1,000 of them, barely enough to supply the infantrymen up front, let alone carry mortars and artillery. Under the intense pressure, the mules repeatedly broke down, and McCreery had to send in human porters—Cypriots and Palestinian Jews of the Royal Pioneer Corps—to haul bully beef and .303-caliber bullets to the front-line positions.

The 5th Division’s amphibious move against Minturno did not work, and neither did its overland attacks. The division’s 17th Brigade crossed the Garigliano but took appalling casualties in the German minefields. One company of the 6th Seaforths found itself surrounded by tanks, and only a pinpoint artillery barrage saved them. The Germans regrouped and blasted the Scots. The company commander ordered all men to make a break for it. He was killed minutes later, and only one survivor of the company escaped the trap.

By the morning of the 18th, the 5th Division had taken Minturno, but made very little progress its reserve brigade, the 15th, was sent in, following narrow tracks marked by Royal Engineer tapes, through dikes and ditches. One company got lost and went straight into a minefield, losing a platoon. It took the rest of the night to extract the wounded men.

Meanwhile, the 5th Division’s third brigade, the 13th, took heavy casualties in its drive on Hill 156. They took it and lost it to a counterattack. The 2nd Cameronians warned their men in an operations order: “It is fatal to halt when mortared. Once you are in among [enemy] troops he will stop mortaring. Dig or die.”

The 5th Division had gained a shallow bridgehead and time to breathe. They took advantage of the superb German dugouts, one of which had a fully cooked breakfast ready to eat. The Germans launched counterattacks, which were fended off by artillery and naval gunfire.

The 56th London Division sent in the tough 169th “Queens” Brigade, which consisted of the 2/5th, 2/6th, and 2/7th Queen’s Regiments. By nightfall on the 18th, they were across the river and up on their ridge. The 167th Brigade was assigned a group of hills and ran into heavy machine-gun fire. The 9th Royal Fusiliers headquarters party walked along the wrong railway embankment and into enemy gunfire. The commanding officer survived, but most of his men were killed. The other two battalions were able to take their objectives, but the assault was running behind schedule. German resilience had been underestimated, as was the strength of their firepower and minefields.

At least the 5th and 56th got across their river. The 46th “Oak Tree” Division, supposed to support the American drive into the Liri Valley, was not even able to do that. Just before attacking, the division’s 128th “Hampshire” Brigade saw the Garigliano River turning into a torrent. The Germans had released the sluices of the San Giovanni Dam, and the river was six feet deeper than usual. The 2nd Hampshires and 1st/4th Hampshires had to offload their boats and manhandle them into position for the assault. When the 2nd Hampshires finally crossed, they rigged a cable ferry, but it broke, scattering boats downstream. Others got lost in the torrent and the mist. The 1st/4th Hampshires made 14 attempts to push a cable across the river all failed. By January 20, the 128th Brigade had to call off its attack, the Hampshiremen badly shaken by the destruction.

The Germans held the high ground and used it to their advantage, with artillery and mortar spotters calling in fire on British ferries, rafts, and floating bridges. Mines and shells wrecked British vehicles and blocked routes. The engineers tried to shield the bridgeheads with smoke, but the wind blew the wrong way, and the Bailey bridges had to be abandoned.

The Texas National Guard

The 46th Division’s attempt to cross the Garigliano and take pressure off the central V Army attack had failed. Maj. Gen. Fred Walker’s 36th Infantry Division would have no cover.

World War II Database

ww2dbase The Allies reached the western end of the German Gustav Line in Italy in mid-Jan 1943. The main German positions generally ran along the valleys created by the Rapido River, Liri River, and the Garigliano River. German troops established positions on the hill of Monte Cassino, which dominated over the valleys, but they had stayed out of the nearby historical Benedictine monastery per orders of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring.

ww2dbase British X Corps, consisted of 56th Infantry Division and 5th Infantry Division, attacked first on 17 Jan 1944, crossing the Garigliano River near the coast on a 20-mile-wide front. Two days later, British 46th Infantry Division attacked near the junction of the Garigliano River and the Liri River. In response, German 29th Panzergrenadier Division and 90th Panzergrenadier Division were called in from the Rome, Italy area to reinforce the defenses, arriving on 21 Jan. What was considered to be the main assault, conducted by US 36th Division, began shortly after sundown on 20 Jan 1944. Troops of US 141st Regiment and 143rd Regiment were able to cross the Rapido River, but timely German counterattacks by German 15th Panzergrenadier Division caused heavy casualties, and the Americans were eventually pushed back across the river by mid-morning on 21 Jan. After sundown, the two US regiments established new footholds on the far side of the river, only to be eliminated again after dawn on 22 Jan those established by US 143rd Regiment were destroyed in the morning, while those by US 141th Regiment were destroyed in the evening. In these failed attempted to cross the Rapido River, US 36th Division suffered 2,100 casualties. On 24 Jan, US 34th Infantry Division, with French Moroccan colonial troops also in its ranks, crossed the Rapido River north of Cassino where the terrain was unsuitable for vehicles for both sides. Infantrymen engaged in bitter fighting for the following week, and on 1 Feb, troops of German 44th Infantry Division which had opposed the Allies fell back toward Monte Cassino, finally allowing the Allies a solid foothold on the previously German side of the river. Tough fighting continued, but the Americans were generally able to push forward, capturing Point 445 on 7 Feb and attacking (but failing to take) Point 593 shortly after. A renewed attack toward Monte Cassino was launched on 8 Feb, but after three days of heavy fighting and no apparent success, the assault was called off on 11 Feb. While the Americans suffered very heavy casualties in the failed attempts to advance, the Germans suffered similarly. In fact, the German front line divisions had suffered such a high casualty rate that some German generals wondered if the western end of the Gustav Line should be abandoned in favor of the next defensive line to the north already being prepared, but Kesselring rejected such notions.

ww2dbase Meanwhile, the Allies launched Operation Shingle which landed 36,000 men at Anzio, Italy on 22 Jan 1944. In an attempt to assert pressure on the Gustav Line in coordination with the attack on Anzio, Operation Avenger was launched. Similar to the first attempt to take Monte Cassino, the Allies, largely consisted of New Zealand and Indian troops in this offensive, suffered heavy casualties to accurate German artillery shelling into the valleys. Since the artillery fire came from up above, Allied leadership believed that the Germans must have observation posts near or within the Benedictine monastery. Aerial reconnaissance missions conducted over the abbey did not consistently produce evidence that there were German troops stationed inside. Some of the Allied generals believed that even if the Germans were not already using the high ground at the monastery grounds, all efforts should be expended to prevent the Germans from doing so. On 11 Feb, Brigadier Harry Dimoline, acting commanding officer of Indian 4th Division, requested aerial bombing of the monastery, which was passed on by Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg to the air forces. The bombing was approved and conducted on 15 Feb, with 229 US heavy and medium bombers dropping 1,150 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs, demolishing nearly all structures the aerial bombing was augmented by artillery shelling as well. On the following day, while artillery shelling continued, 59 fighter-bombers attempted to destroy whatever remained standing. Point 593, the German strongpoint beneath the abbey that the Allies attacked but failed to take in early Feb, was nearly untouched by the attacks. Interestingly, the Allies failed to immediately launch a major ground assault immediately after the bombing (though a company of 1st Battalion of British Royal Sussex Regiment of Indian 4th Division did indeed attack Point 593, failing to take it). With the Monte Cassino monastery in ruins and thus no longer of cultural and historical value, troops of German 1st Parachute Division moved in and precisely used it as an observation post as Allied leadership had feared. In the night of 17 Feb 1944, Indian 4th Division and the New Zealand Division attacked Monte Cassino in strength a parallel attack by 28th (Maori) Battalion of the New Zealand Division successfully established a small bridgehead across the Rapido River, but this bridgehead would be lost again on the following day.

ww2dbase The third major Allied attempt to take Monte Cassino was launched on 15 Mar 1944, which began by a heavy bombardment that lasted more than three hours. When the New Zealand troops spearheaded the attack, they were met with a stronger German defense than what they had expected. Although the initial attacks did capture several positions including Castle Hill, Point 165, and Point 236 through 16 Mar, heavy rain slowed the Allied progress. By the end of the day on 17 Mar, a battalion of Indian Gurkha troops, having captured Point 435, were within 250 meters from the monastery while New Zealand troops were threatening to capture the town of Cassino. Several attacks were launched successively over the course of the next several day while limited progress were made with each attack, by 23 Mar, signs of exhaustion in the Allied divisions were obvious, and on that date Harold Alexander and Bernard Freyberg both agreed to pause the offensive. On the other side of the line, German 1st Parachute Division was begining to feel the pressure as well many of its units were now grossly under-strength.

ww2dbase The fourth and what was to become the final offensive on Cassino, codenamed Operation Diadem, was launched several weeks later in the night of 11-12 May 1944. An impressive artillery bombardment by British, American, Polish, New Zealand, South African, and French guns opened the operation, and by the dawn on 12 May some of the Allied units had made significant advances, particularly the success of Indian 8th Division in establishing a bridge over the Rapido River to bring forth tanks of Canadian 1st Armoured Brigade. During the day of 12 May, Polish troops briefly captured Monte Calvario, codenamed Point 593 by the Allies, but by the end of the day the position would again be lost to the German paratroopers. By 13 May, Germans lines began to buckle under pressure as French troops captured Monte Maio while US 5th Army overran several German positions in the Liri River valley. As German positions along the Liri River valley began to fall one by one, troops of the Polish Corps launched what was to become the final attack on Monte Cassino on 17 May they would succeed in taking the ruins of the mountaintop monastery by the following day after the Germans evacuated their positions overnight, leaving behind only thirty seriously wounded men to be captured.

ww2dbase German troops fell back from the Gustav Line to the Hitler Line 13 kilometers to the north, which was quickly renamed the Senger Line (ie. removing Hitler's name from the defensive line) as the Germans knew it would only be a matter of time before these positions would have to be abandoned. Polish and Canadian troops assaulted the line on 23 May, and on the following day the line was breached, forcing the Germans to fall back toward the Caesar C Line, the final line of defense south of Rome.

ww2dbase The four-month long campaign for Cassino cost the Allies about 55,000 casualties. Though defeated, the Germans suffered only about 20,000 casualties.

ww2dbase Source: Wikipedia

Last Major Update: May 2013

Battle of Monte Cassino Interactive Map

Battle of Monte Cassino Timeline

5 Nov 1943 In Italy, Lieutenant-General Richard McCreery's British X Corps reached Monte Camino, a 3,000-foot pinnacle overlooking the River Garigliano and the entrance to the Liri valley. Here, and in the surrounding hills, the Germans had laid extensive minefields and set booby-traps as well as blasting artillery, mortar and machine gun positions out of the solid rock. After several days of savage fighting in the cold and wet, Harold Alexander called off further action in order that the front-line divisions may be rested before trying again.
2 Dec 1943 The British 56th (London) Division, which had already been badly mauled in earlier fighting for Monte Camino, Italy, launched a new attack and reached the summit under cover of darkness, but it would take another four days of hard fighting before the position could be secured completely.
12 Jan 1944 General Alphonse Juin's Free French Expeditionary Corps launched an attack inland of Monto Cassino towards Castel Sant'Elia in Italy.
15 Jan 1944 Free French Expeditionary Corps reached Castel Sant'Elia, Italy.
17 Jan 1944 British X Corps attacked the western end of the German Gustav Line in Italy.
19 Jan 1944 British 46th Infantry Division attacked German positions near the junction of the Garigliano River and the Liri River in Italy.
20 Jan 1944 After sundown, US 141st Regiment and 143rd Regiment attacked across the Rapido River in Italy.
21 Jan 1944 In the mid-morning, German 15th Panzergrenadier Division wiped out the US beachheads along the Rapido River in Italy, forcing the survivors to withdraw back across the river. During the day, German 29th Panzergrenadier Division and 90th Panzergrenadier Division arrived in the region as reinforcement. After dark, US 141st Regiment and 143rd Regiment crossed the river again and established precarious footholds.
22 Jan 1944 German 15th Panzergrenadier Division wiped out new beachheads on the Rapido River in Italy established by US 141st Regiment and 143rd Regiment through the previous night.
24 Jan 1944 Adolf Hitler ordered that the Gustav Line in Italy was to be held at all costs. Meanwhile, French forces attacked north of Monte Cassino and US 34th Infantry Division attacked across the Rapido River north of Cassino.
27 Jan 1944 Germans launched a counter attack against French troops near Cassino, Italy.
31 Jan 1944 US 34th Division crossed the Rapido River in Italy. Nearby, French Moroccan colonial troops were halted by troops of German 5th Mountain Division near Cassino and Monte Belvedere, Italy.
1 Feb 1944 German 44th Infantry Division fell back near the Rapido River toward Monte Cassino, Italy.
5 Feb 1944 US forces reached the outskirts of Cassino, Italy, but were held out of the town.
7 Feb 1944 US troops reached Point 445, a hill 370 meters away from the monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy.
8 Feb 1944 US troops began an major assault toward Monte Cassino, Italy.
11 Feb 1944 The US II Corps attack toward Monte Cassino, Italy was halted by German troops. Major General Harry Dimoline of Indian 4th Division requested the aerial bombing of the abbey atop Monte Cassino.
12 Feb 1944 Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg requested Allied air forces for the bombing of the abbey at Monte Cassino, Italy.
13 Feb 1944 The monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy was given advance warning of the aerial bombing to come.
15 Feb 1944 142 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, 47 B-25 Mitchell bombers, and 40 B-26 Marauder bombers dropped 1,150 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the historic Benedictine monastery atop Monte Cassino, Italy. The aerial bombing was augmented by artillery shelling as well. In the evening, a company of 1st Battalion of British Royal Sussex Regiment of Indian 4th Division attacked neraby Point 593, but failed to capture the position.
16 Feb 1944 Fighter-bombers attacked the already-destroyed historic Benedictine monastery atop Monte Cassino, Italy.
17 Feb 1944 Indian 4th Division attacked Monte Cassino, Italy, failing to make advances and suffering heavy casualties. In parallel, Maori troops of the New Zealand Division established a small bridgehead across the nearby Rapido River.
18 Feb 1944 German tanks eliminated the 28th (Maori) Battalion bridgehead on the Rapido River in Italy.
2 Mar 1944 On Mount Trocchio near Cassino, Italy, walking down a path that was supposed to have been cleared, Major-General Howard Kippenberger, the admirable commander of the 2nd New Zealand Division, stepped on one of the vicious little wooden "Schu" mines. One of his feet was blown off and the other had to be amputated.
15 Mar 1944 At 0830 hours, the third major Allied attempt to attack Monte Cassino, Italy began with a heavy bombardment that lasted more than three hours.
16 Mar 1944 Allied troops continued the attack on Monte Cassino, Italy.
17 Mar 1944 New Zealand troops captured the train station at Cassino, Italy. Nearby, Indian Gurkha troops captured Point 435 (nicknamed Hangman's Hill).
18 Mar 1944 New Zealand troops mounted a failed armored attack on Cassino, Italy, losing all 17 tanks in the process.
19 Mar 1944 British and New Zealand troops attacked German positions in the Cassino, Italy area, making very little progress in the face of German 1st Parachute Division.
20 Mar 1944 British 78th Infantry Division joined in the attack of Cassino, Italy.
22 Mar 1944 General Alexander ceased the frontal attacks at Cassino, Italy.
24 Mar 1944 The Allied attacks on the Gustav Line were persistently repulsed by German defenders.
26 Mar 1944 The New Zealand Corps headquarters, currently near Cassino, Italy, was dissolved. Surviving troops were incorporated into British XIII Corps.
15 Apr 1944 The German defensive Gustav Line in Italy began to fall.
11 May 1944 Operation Diadem, the fourth Allied attempt at attacking Cassino, Italy, was launched at 2300 hours with 1,660 artillery pieces firing on German defensive positions. Troops of US Fifth and British Eighth Armies advanced toward German positions behind the artillery barrage.
12 May 1944 Near Cassino, Italy, engineers of Indian 8th Division successfully established a bridge to allow tanks of Canadian 1st Armoured Brigade to cross the Rapido River, while Polish troops engaged in fierce fighting with troops of German 1st Parachute Division at Point 593.
14 May 1944 French Moroccan colonial troops outflanked German defenses in the Liri River valley in Italy.
15 May 1944 British 78th Division joined in on the attack of Cassino, Italy as German troops withdrew from Gustav Line to Hitler Line 30 miles to the south of Rome, Italy.
17 May 1944 German troops evacuated Cassino, Italy. Meanwhile, the French penetration of the Gustav Line reached 25 miles. Nearby, Polish troops launched what was to become the final attack on Monte Cassino.
18 May 1944 British 78th Division linked up with the Polish Corps in the Liri River valley 3.2 kilometers west of Cassino, Italy. Later on the same day, Polish troops captured the ruins of the Monte Cassino monastery.
19 May 1944 French Moroccan colonial troops plundered villages near Cassino, Italy.
23 May 1944 Troops of Polish II Corps and Canadian 1st Infantry Division attacked Piedimonte, Italy.
24 May 1944 The German Senger Line south of Rome, Italy was breached by troops of Canadian 1st Infantry Division, Canadian 5th Armoured Division, and II Polish Corps.
25 May 1944 Polish troops captured Piedimonte, Italy.

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Fourth Battle of Monte Cassino

The final assault was named Operation Diadem, and the main plan was to engage the US II Corps from the left along the line of Route 7 that led to Rome. The French Corps would move in from the right while the British XIII Corps would attack from the Liri Valley. The Canadian I Corps would be held in reserve.

The first onslaught by the Allied forces began on May 11 th , starting with a massive artillery barrage powered by 1660 guns. Within half an hour of this barrage, the infantry and armored units were ordered to move in from all four fronts.

The British were making a heavily opposed but successful crossing, and the Poles managed to capture Point 593, Mount Cavalry – though it was retaken shortly afterwards by German paratroopers.

By May 12 th the tide had turned, and the Germans were facing increasing difficulties in holding the Allies back. On May 15 th the British 78 th Division was ordered to isolate the town of Cassino from the Liri Valley so the Germans wouldn’t be able to launch a major counter-attack.

On the 17 th May, the Poles launched a final attack on Monte Cassino and, after facing fierce resistance that quickly turned into hand-to-hand fighting, they managed to raise the Polish flag over the ruins.

Monte Cassino in ruins. Photo Credit

The Germans had been defeated, and the road to Rome was now open. The final count revealed that the Germans had lost 20,000 out of 140,000 soldiers, and an unknown number of tanks & armored vehicles, while the Allies had lost 55,000 out of 240,000 troops.

The Allies didn’t pause in their advance. They continued to move through the broken defensive line as fast as they could before a counterattack was launched by the Germans. This quick response put the German 10 th Army in full retreat, while the Allies were moving with haste to take back Rome from the puppet Socialist state.

Sherman crosses Liri, 4th battle of Cassino - History

By John Brown

The Gustav Line, stretching across Italy at its narrowest part between Gaeta and Ortona, was a formidable system of defenses, some of it in coastal marshes but mainly in mountainous country through which ran fast-flowing rivers. To the natural defensive advantages of the mountainous terrain the Germans had added extended and interlocking defensive positions reinforced with concrete and railway girders.

The defenses were multilayered, with positions planned from which to launch counterattacks on frontline areas lost to the enemy. Anti-personnel minefields and barbed-wire entanglements up to 400 yards deep covered the flats before hills and behind riverbanks. Batteries of guns, mortars, and machine guns covered every possible route of attack, and dams had been dynamited to flood low-lying lands already soggy from the winter rains. The Gustav Line was a prime example of German military engineering.

Monte Cassino: Linchpin of the Gustav Line

The key point in the line was the town of Cassino on the Rapido River. It lay astride Highway 6, the highway to Rome some 70 miles to the north, and was dominated by the huge, ancient Benedictine monastery atop the 1,700-foot massif of Monte Cassino. Saint Benedict founded the monastery in 529, and it became the home of the Benedictine Order. For centuries it was the leading monastery in Western Europe and a center of learning, particularly in the field of medicine. It was destroyed by Lombards in 580, by Saracens in 883, by Normans in 1030, and by earthquake in 1349, and rebuilt each time. The last time it was rebuilt as a fortress surrounded by 15-foot-high walls, 10 feet thick at their base, and was approached only by a five-mile-long twisting track. In 1886 it was declared an Italian national monument. Monte Cassino and its surrounding mountains were identified by the Italian military as the key defensive area to block an approach on Rome from the south, and the Germans were quick to take advantage of this in 1943.

On January 22, the Allies landed the U.S. VI Corps on the beach at Anzio, 40 miles behind the Gustav Line and some 30 or so miles from Rome. It was thought that this threat to the German rear and the German lines of communication would cause them to fall back. The VI Corps, made up of the 3rd U.S. and 1st British Infantry Divisions together with U.S. Rangers and British Commandos, landed unopposed, and its commander, Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas, fearing a German trap, ordered his corps to dig in. The Germans quickly brought up reserves and cordoned off the beachhead.

In February, New Zealander Lt. Gen. Bernard Freyberg, commander of the 2nd New Zealand, 4th Indian, and 78th British Divisions, insisted that the Monte Cassino monastery be bombed as the Germans were using it as an artillery observation post.

This was not so. The Germans had said they would preserve the sanctity of the monastery and had in fact transported many of its priceless paintings, manuscripts, and sculptures to safety in the Vatican. But Freyberg persisted, and on February 15, more than 200 Allied bombers dropped 600 tons of high explosives on the monastery, devastating it. The only Germans in it were two military police guards. After the bombing, paratroopers of the 1st Parachute Division moved in and built the rubble into a formidable fortress.

Stalemates on the Front, Build-ups in the Rear

On the morning of March 15, another 775 Allied bombers dropped 1,250 tons of bombs on the already battered town of Cassino. Over half the paratroopers of the German 2nd Battalion, 1st Parachute Division, occupying the town, were killed, wounded, or buried alive in the raid. Like the monastery, the rubble of the town was built into a fortress.

By the beginning of May, both sides had fought themselves to exhaustion on the Gustav Line in three battles, the first from January 12 to February 9, the second from February 15 to 18, and the third from February 19 to March 23. The battles had been fought with murderous intensity in appalling conditions of bitter cold, snow, sleet, and rain. Casualties had been heavy, particularly on the Allied side.

During the stalemate from the end of the third battle and the date set for the opening of the fourth battle, May 11, the Germans, using Italian labor, continued strengthening the Gustav Line and worked on new fallback lines, the Hitler Line, later renamed the Dora Line, seven miles behind the Gustav Line, and the Orange Line. Another one, the C-Line, was designed as a last-ditch protection of the immediate approaches to Rome. Ten thousand Italians labored on building this line.

At the same time, the Allies were building up their forces and supplies for what would be an onslaught of overpowering numerical and material strength. Strict secrecy was observed during the buildup. The movement of tanks and vehicles and supplies to the front was carried out as far as possible at night, as was their dispersal and camouflage. Radio silence was enforced, and most of the troops who would be used in the offensive were kept well back from the front. Marine landings were practiced along the coast to give the Germans the impression the Allies were preparing for landings from the sea closer to or beyond Rome. The result of these and other measures was that the Germans were completely ignorant of the Allied buildup and the date, place, and strength of the offensive.

Opposing Plans

Field Marshal Albert Kesselring was in overall command of German forces in Italy. At Anzio he had General Eberhard von Mackensen’s Fourteenth Army surrounding the American VI Corps, now commanded by Maj. Gen. Lucian Truscott. At the Gustav Line was General Heinrich von Vietinghoff-Scheel’s Tenth Army made up of two corps—Lt. Gen. Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin’s 14th Panzer Corps and General Valentin Feuerstein’s LI Mountain Corps, which included Lt. Gen. Richard Heidrich’s 1st Parachute Division. Kesselring also had three panzer and two infantry divisions at various points between the Gustav Line and Rome, held in reserve against a possible sea landing or airborne attack.

The overall commander of Allied forces was British General Sir Harold Alexander. His basic plan for the fourth battle of Cassino, codenamed Operation Diadem, was fairly straightforward and depended upon sheer numerical and matériel superiority. The main thrust would be by the British Eighth Army commanded by General Oliver Leese. It would cross the Rapido River and enter the Liri Valley where the British 4th and Indian 8th Infantry Divisions would create a bridgehead that would be exploited by the powerful British 78th Division and Canadian 5th Armored Division, with the British 6th Armored Division in reserve.

The battle for Cassino, variously described as an abattoir, a vision of hell, and a slaughterhouse, was all of these and more for the soldiers who fought and died in it.

The right flank of this force would be covered by the two infantry divisions and an armored brigade of Lt. Gen. Wladyslaw Anders’s Polish II Corps attacking the German paratroopers on Monte Cassino and on the left flank by the II Corps of American Lt. Gen. Mark Clark’s Fifth Army, which included General Alphonse Juin’s French Expeditionary Corps of four divisions of Moroccan and Algerian troops and some 9,000 Goumiers who would attack up the Ausente Valley toward Ausonia and Esperia while the Americans attacked along the coast. The Goumiers were Moroccan irregular troops who were already well known for their combat prowess in mountainous country. At Anzio, the Allied divisions contained in the beachhead by the Germans would break out and head for Valmontone, where they would cut Highway 6 and help encircle and destroy the German Tenth Army retreating from the Gustav Line.

General Alexander’s objective was the complete annihilation of German forces in Italy. Rome, for him, had no military significance it would fall in good time. But publicity-conscious Clark, whose Fifth Army was responsible for Anzio and the Cassino front from the Liri River to the sea, had his own objective—the capture of Rome and the glory he thought would go with it.

On May 11, the Allies had 108 battalions facing 57 German battalions, and many of the German battalions were only about half strength. The Allied advantage in infantry was at least three-to-one, and they had assembled 1,600 guns, 2,000 tanks, and 3,000 aircraft, equal to 45 guns, 57 tanks, and 85 aircraft for every 1,000 yards of the front.

The Assault Begins

At 11 pm on May 11, a massive Allied artillery barrage deluged every known German battery and defensive position along the 20 miles of the Garigliano-Rapido line, signaling the beginning of the fourth battle of Cassino. It was at least a week before Kesselring expected an attack, and its time, place, and power caught the Germans off guard. But they reacted quickly. Forty minutes after the barrage started, it stopped, and the Allied divisions began to move forward.

The American 85th and 88th Divisions on the left flank of the line moved first, pushing westward, with the 351st Regiment of the 88th detailed to capture the village of Santa Maria Infante. Forty minutes later, the four Free French divisions began their drive into the Aurunci Mountains, and five minutes later again and to the right of the Free French the British 4th and Indian 8th Divisions lowered their assault boats into the fast-flowing Rapido River. At 1 am on May 12, the Polish Corps launched its attack on the high ground around the Cassino monastery. Two hours after the barrage started, the Allies and the Germans were locked in combat all along the 20-mile front.

Crossing the Rapido

On the vital Rapido River front, German guns, mortars, and machine guns opened up on the troops of the 1st Royal Fusiliers as they tried to get their boats on the river. Many died before they could get in the boats, others died as they tried to cross, and some fell in the river and drowned, pulled down by the weight of their full battle kits. Some of the boats were swept away by the fast current.

The troops who did get across ran into intense fire. Some connected with trip wires that set off smoke canisters or activated machine guns firing on fixed lines. The smoke mixed with river mist to create a thick fog, adding to the confusion and disorganization. But the troops did manage to establish a bridgehead among the minefields and barbed wire, finding cover in drainage ditches or under or behind anything that provided shelter from the shells and machine-gun bullets.

The other leading battalion was the 1/12th Frontier Force Rifles, an Indian battalion that crossed the river downstream of Sant’ Angelo with the objective of, together with the Royal Fusiliers, encircling the village. But many of their boats were destroyed or swept downstream. Finally they got across to face machine guns and mines and smoke and fog. Like the Fusiliers, they were pinned down in drainage ditches for the rest of that night and the following day.

As soon as the first troops were across the Rapido, work began on three bridges over the river, preparations for which had been made during the previous nights. Access roads had been made to the river and camouflaged, engineers had swum the river and worked on landing points on the other side, and now the prefabricated parts of the bridges were brought up.

On the 13th on the American front, the 88th Division continued trying to move up the road to capture the village of Santa Maria Infante against intense German fire.

Fog and the heavy shelling hampered work on the bridges. Damage to one of them was so severe it had to be abandoned, and because of the urgency to get tanks across the river, work was concentrated on one bridge, nicknamed Amazon. Despite several daring attacks on the bridge by German aircraft, a superhuman effort costing 83 casualties out of the 200 soldiers who worked on the bridge permitted the tanks of the 17/21st Lancers to begin crossing under a deluge of fire at 9 the next morning. They drove over the bodies of the soldiers who had died on the far bank during the night they could not avoid them. The opening of this bridge was the turning point of the battle opposite the Liri Valley.

Repulsed from the Monastery

Perhaps the hardest task of all was that of the Polish II Corps—to capture the monastery fortress on Monte Casino. The monastery was linked with tightly integrated strongpoints and fire plans that covered all approaches, and General Anders’s assault was planned to take on all of the key German positions simultaneously to avoid flanking fire.

The Poles attacked with reckless gallantry, the Carpathian Division attacking Hill 593 as well as along the gorge between Snakeshead and Phantom Ridges, while the Kresowa Division attacked the strongpoints at the end of Phantom Ridge. With these cleared, the way to the Liri Valley behind the monastery would be open and the monastery itself isolated.

The Carpathians attacked against an increasing volume of fire and through minefields and barbed wire. By the sheer ferocity of their attack, they took the summit of Hill 593 at about 2:30 am. With their communications shot to pieces, they pressed on toward Hill 569. But the German paratroopers counterattacked, driving them back to Hill 593, where the counterattack was held. Another German attack half an hour later was driven off, and another a short time afterward.

The Germans had gotten close to the Polish positions and had found cover from where they began sniping and bombarding the Poles. This continued all day, and when night fell the paratroopers attacked again under a mortar bombardment. After a bitter hand-to-hand fight the few surviving Poles, an officer and seven men, were forced to retreat. In the gorge between Snakeshead and Phantom Ridges, the Poles came under murderous machine-gun and mortar fire, and gunfire and mines destroyed the tanks supporting them one after another. Their attack was brought to a halt.

Meanwhile, three battalions of the Kresowa Division attacked up Phantom Ridge toward Sant’ Angelo, their objectives were Hills 575 and 505. Here, too, they ran into heavy fire from numerous German bunkers and dugouts situated in cavities and depressions in the rocky ground. A few Polish troops reached the top of Phantom Ridge and became involved in vicious hand-to-hand fighting with the German paratroopers before being compelled to halt only halfway to their objectives at the end of the ridge.

Then the paratroopers bracketed the whole of the eastern face of Phantom Ridge with artillery and machine-gun fire, and by 3 am all three Polish battalions were pinned down. A fourth battalion was sent in to try to get the attack under way again, but it was hopeless. At first light the paratroopers counterattacked but were fought off. The Poles’ communications had broken down, and commanders had no contact with the troops.

Both Polish divisions had sustained such heavy casualties that General Anders had no alternative but to call off the attacks and order the troops back to their starting lines. He was distraught. Some 800 German paratroopers had driven off attacks by battalion after battalion of his two divisions with very heavy casualties, and Monte Cassino seemed as impregnable as ever. He immediately began planning another attack.

The Bringing Down the British “Battleaxe”

On the first day in the American sector nearest the coast, the 85th Division managed to secure only one of its objectives before being pinned down. On the 88th Division front, two battalions of the 350th Regiment made good progress on the first night, capturing the southern part of Monte Damiano, but the 351st Regiment failed to take its objective, the village of Santa Maria Infante. Under heavy fire in the darkness and mist, several company commanders had been killed, and control broke down. The commander of the 2nd Battalion, Lt. Col. Raymond Kendall, quickly reorganized his battalion and personally led it in an attack until he was shot in the head and killed. Despite receiving heavy air support during the day, the 88th “Blue Devil” Division made little progress in the first 36 hours of the assault.

To the immediate right of the Americans, the French North Africans, preceded by a heavy artillery bombardment, had more success. A Moroccan battalion quickly captured the key Monte Faito, giving them vital artillery observation, but elsewhere minefields and gunfire broke up many of the attacks. Failure to capture one mountain meant failure all along the front as the intact defensive positions brought down fire on its flanks. There was little forward movement that first day, and the casualties were very high.

The breakout from Anzio was launched on May 23, at the same time as Canadian troops, after fierce fighting, broke through the Hitler Line between Aquino and Pontecorvo.

Downstream of the British 4th Division sector, the Fusilier battalion of the 8th Indian Division attacked the high ground before the village of Sant’ Angelo then the Gurkha battalion attacked the village itself, which was taken at high cost. Canadian tanks moved in behind the village. Some German troops, seeing their stronghold of Sant’ Angelo fall, surrendered. Others retreated.

On the night of the 13th, the first units of the powerful British 78th “Battleaxe” Division entered the line in the 4th Division sector, and the 8th Indian Division’s reserve brigade joined in the fighting behind Sant’ Angelo. Tanks crossing the Amazon bridge made for the Cassino-Pignataro road, while the 12th Infantry Brigade pushed forward with fixed bayonets and the 10th Brigade wheeled northward toward Route 6. By the 14th, a bridgehead of 3,000 yards had been established, and more bridges had been thrown across the Rapido.

The battle now became one of attrition as the British overran Cassino town and slowly battered their way into the Liri Valley. German planes dive-bombed and strafed them, and the German troops opposing them fought superbly.

Fighting for the Liri Valley

One of the key features of the planned drive up the Liri Valley was that the Eighth Army should advance quickly enough to trap the bulk of the German Tenth Army against the sea, the trap being fully sprung when the VI Corps out of Anzio slammed the back door on the Germans at Valmontone. But the strength of the Allies in the Liri Valley built up quickly to five divisions—the British 78th, 8th Indian, 6th British Armored, 1st Canadian Infantry, 5th Canadian Armored—and together with their tanks, self-propelled guns, half-tracks, some 2,000 supply trucks, and hundreds of other vehicles the congestion was too much for the valley to take. Progress slowed to a crawl with movement held up by huge bottlenecks, traffic jams, and confusion.

On the 13th on the American front, the 88th Division continued trying to move up the road to capture the village of Santa Maria Infante against intense German fire. As the day wore on, the road became clogged with tanks and vehicles, and at 5 pm all traffic on the road ground to a halt. Then the German artillery opened up, disabling tanks and setting fire to vehicles.

It was a bad day for the Americans. One whole company surrendered after being surrounded. The inexperience of both officers and men resulted in heavy losses, and Santa Maria Infante remained in German hands.

On the 13th the French North Africans resumed their attack, their objective to exploit the only success of the previous day by driving from Monte Faito to Monte Maio. After a heavy bombardment the Moroccans moved forward and, bunker by bunker, drove the Germans off successive heights until they took Monte Maio, the heights of which commanded the southern part of the Liri Valley. The Germans began to fall back, hounded by gunfire directed from Monte Maio. Meanwhile, down in the Garigliano Valley, the North Africans, using rocket launchers and machine guns, smashed their way through lines of pillboxes and other fortifications. By the next day, Castelforte had fallen to them and the Gustav Line was cracked.

Then, General Juin, rather than consolidating, unleashed his mountain troops, including several thousand Moroccan Goumier irregulars, into the trackless mountains. They advanced at astonishing speed, driving the German forces before them. With the southwestern flank of the Gustav Line smashed and the speed of the following attacks, the Germans were not able to hold the Hitler Line in the coastal sector.

On the morning of the 14th, the Americans found that the Germans on the high ground around Santa Maria Infante had gone they were retreating to keep in contact with their left flank which was reeling back from the French attack. The Americans moved forward with only rear guards, mines, and booby traps to impede their progress.

This breakthrough of the Gustav Line made the German position in the Liri Valley much more difficult. On May 16, General Oliver Leese, commander of the Eighth Army, ordered the 78th Division to cut Route 6 behind Cassino. At the same time the Polish Corps tried again to take the monastery fortress on Monte Cassino.

German Withdrawal from Monte Cassino

Every night since the failure of their attack on Monte Cassino on the 12th, the Poles had sent patrols in among the German positions on the mountain, keeping the German paratroopers bloodshot eyed from lack of sleep. They had followed up with artillery barrages on the German positions. One paratrooper later said that the stench of the dead on the mountainsides was so horrible they had to wear their gas masks.

On the night of the 16th, a Polish patrol succeeded in taking out several of the paratroopers’ advance posts around Hill 593. General Anders quickly fed a whole battalion into the position. The German paratroopers counterattacked furiously in a battle fought with bayonets, grenades, and submachine guns throughout the 17th. It was another bloodbath, but the Poles held on. Both sides had fought themselves to exhaustion. There were now only about 200 paratroopers left in the monastery area one of their companies had only one officer, one NCO, and one soldier fit to fight.

Operationally, the battle was unnecessary as the main advance up the Liri Valley was bypassing the mountain and the abbey fortress could simply have been contained. But General Anders ordered an all-out assault the next morning, the 18th.

The Gustav Line had been breached, and the Eternal City had become the first Axis capital to fall to the Allies.

By then, however, Field Marshal Kesselring, seeing the hopelessness of trying to hold on to what remained of the Gustav Line, ordered a withdrawal to the Hitler Line. The paratroopers reluctantly had withdrawn from the abbey during the night, taking as many of their wounded with them as they could. The Poles walked into the dusty rubble the next morning, and at 10:30 they raised a Polish flag above the ruins.

Advancing on Rome, not the Germans

The U.S. Fifth and British Eighth Armies were now moving up the coastal plain and the Liri Valley with the German rear guards trying to delay them to give themselves time to occupy the Hitler Line. The French were moving so fast that they had to wait for the British to catch up. Now, General Alexander told General Truscott at Anzio, was the moment to make a determined effort to break out of the beachhead and head for the Alban Hills to block the retreat of the German Tenth Army.

The breakout from Anzio was launched on May 23, at the same time as Canadian troops, after fierce fighting, broke through the Hitler Line between Aquino and Pontecorvo. The breakout was successful, but two days later General Clark diverted troops away from closing the trap on the retreating German Tenth Army in order that he and his troops would have the glory of being first to enter Rome.

Troops of the U.S. 88th Division did enter Rome on June 4, and General Clark made his triumphal entry on June 5. It was his day of glory. He had a large “Roma” sign taken down and shipped home, and his huge publicity entourage let the world know of his victory. But his diverting troops away from closing the trap that his commander, General Alexander, had planned for the Germans allowed much of the Tenth Army to escape and retreat in good order to fight again.

General Clark’s day of glory was just that. On June 6, the Allies invaded Europe at Normandy, and news of D-Day relegated Italy to the back pages.

“Cassino: The Hollow Victory”

Military historians have little good to say about the Italian campaign in general and the battle for Cassino in particular, except for the successful deception prior to the fourth battle for Cassino and the great achievements of the French Expeditionary Corps. One historian calls it “a campaign which for lack of strategic sense and tactical imagination is unique in military history,” while another named his book Cassino, The Hollow Victory there are others who claim that the campaign should never have been started or that it should have been curtailed at a certain time. All seem to agree that victory at Cassino was simply the result of the Allies’ sheer weight of men and matériel.

The battle for Cassino, variously described as an abattoir, a vision of hell, and a slaughterhouse, was all of these and more for the soldiers who fought and died in it. Casualties during the fourth battle for Cassino were: British Eighth Army, including British, Canadians, Poles, Indians, and Gurkhas—10,919 plus a large but unknown number unaccounted for, and U.S. Fifth Army, including Americans, British, and French—34,014.

For the whole of the Cassino-Rome campaign, casualties were approximately 105,000. German casualties were thought to be at least 80,000.

The Gustav Line had been breached, and the Eternal City had become the first Axis capital to fall to the Allies, but months of heavy fighting remained in Italy, the strategic value of which is still being debated to this day.

Operation Diadem – The Plan to go up the Liri Valley

Operation Diadem was the name given to the fourth and final assault on the Gustav Line that took place in May 1944. In Canada this operation is usually called the Battle of the Liri Valley as our role was primarily concentrated in that part of the very broad front. We are here today with award winning Canadian military historian Mark Zuehlke who has written numerous books on the Canadian campaign in Italy including The Liri Valley, Canada’s WWII Breakthrough to Rome, which is the most detailed account ever written of our troops in action during the Battle of the Liri Valley.

The Liri Valley

I’ve read all Mark’s books on the Italian campaign in preparation for this trip and I must say I found this one the most difficult to make sense of. Frankly, it seemed to me like just one long drawn out tale of kill or be killed to the point that I was exhausted reading it. Hopefully being on the ground with Mark and Liberation Tours chief historian Phil Craig will make things clearer to me and my fellow Canadians.

First a few maps to help set the context of Operation Diadem. The first is of the Italian Front in May 1944. You can see the Gustav Line running across the Apennine Mountains and splitting in two just before Cassino. The northern spur was the Adolph Hitler Line which was the German fall back position if the Gustav Line was breached. Both would need to be broken to get to Rome. On the left or southern side of the line is the British 8th Army of which we are part, The French Expeditionary Force and the U.S. 5th Army. On the other side of the line is the German 10th Army and the 14th Panzer Corps. Just up the coast is the bulge of the stalled U.S. forces at Anzio, completely surrounded by the German 14th Army. Altogether there are hundreds of thousands of troops about to collide over a massive area.

Italian Front May 1944

Next is a map showing the Canadian advance up the Liri Valley with the French on the left flank and the British on the right.

Canadian Route up the Liri Valley

Lastly, is a larger scale map showing the Liri, Melfa and Rapido Rivers as well as the towns of Aquino and Ponte Corvo. We will be visiting all these today on our tour of the Liri Valley campaign.

We set out early from the town of Cassino which has been rebuilt since the war, as has the abbey that towers overhead.

Monte Cassino Abbey

It was finally taken by Polish forces on May 17, 1944. Allied forces had suffered 55,000 casualties trying to take this place, including over 1,000 Poles who lie in this cemetery that you can look down on from the abbey. Not surprisingly it is a very important place of pilgrimage for the Polish nation.

Polish Cemetery Cassino

Our first stop is on the banks of the Gari River, also known as the Rapido for reasons that are obvious when you stand on its banks. Phil relates to us the story of the Battle of the Rapido River where over two thousand Americans had already died trying to cross this river in mid-winter. It is also where the Canadians began their attack as part of Operation Diadem in May, 1944.

The group gathers around the Bell of Peace on the riverbank near the sight of London Bridge, one of many that were planned to be erected across the river to facilitate the crossing of the armoured brigades and one of the few that actually did get built as scheduled. The Bell of Peace commemorates all those who fell in the four battles that took place in this area in 1944.

Bell of Peace at the Gari River

I watch the rapid flow of the river and contemplate what it must have been like to get in a small rubber boat loaded with up to 100 pounds of gear and try to get to the other side, all the while under constant machine gun and mortar fire. I don’t know how they summoned up the courage to do it, but they did – Canadians, Americans, Brits, New Zealanders, Indians, Poles, South Africans, French, Moroccans and others, all united in common cause to break through the Gustav Line on the other side. A number of the members of our group had fathers who were part of this battle and this must be an incredibly emotional moment for them.

Mark narrates to us the story of Kingsmill Bridge, a true tale of on-the-spot Canadian ingenuity that was vital to the success of the Gari River crossing and establishing a foothold from which to cross the Gustav Line. As noted, there were many bridgeheads proposed for the attack, but few that actually got into place as planned. At a spot not far from where we stand Captain Hugh Anthony ‘Tony’ Kingsmill a member of the Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers attached to the Calgary Tank Regiment devised a plan to get a bailey bridge across the Gari River by having it carried atop a turretless Sherman tank which would plunge into the river and then have another tank push the bridge across from behind. This diagram shows how this simple plan allowed some of the first allied tanks to get across the Gari River and infantry to follow.

Kingsmill Bridge

Needless to say, the building of Kingsmill bridge was done while Kingsmill and his crew were under intense enemy fire. Both sides knew how important this bridge would be if successfully completed. Kingsmill was awarded a Military Cross for his actions that day. This is the citation:

From an original idea that a Bailey bridge could be launched across a river from the backs of tanks, Captain Kingsmill was instrumental in the development and construction of such a bridge used during the 12 May 1944 attack across the Gari River on the Gustav Line (Map Reference 863145). As a result of many rehearsals and careful preparation the bridge framework was assembled in daylight under heavy enemy concentrations. Then, at once, under direct observation and subject to intense mortar and machine gun fire Captain Kingsmill, with no thought for his own safety, coolly walked backwards over open ground a distance of 500 yards in front of the tank-borne bridge. He directed it successfully into place at the first attempt. Wounded by an exploding shell, he dauntlessly remained at the river crossing during the final securing of the span. When an enemy counter-attack developed from the opposite side of the river in an effort to dislodge the bridge, he climbed inside one of the two supporting tanks, methodically proceeding to machine gun the German fire positions. Determined to stem the attack, he called for and received artillery support. Not until the counter-attack was beaten off and the bridge was firmly in place did Captain Kingsmill consider leaving to have his wounds attended. His courage and determination were at all times beyond praise. His most gallant action contributed directly in the smashing of the Gustav Line.

Tony Kingsmill was a true Canadian hero who enjoyed a long and productive life back in Canada after the war. Here is a link to his obituary in 2010.

We were joined at the Gari River by Roberto Molle and Alessandro Campagna, two Italian men who have been passionate in their desire to make sure that the efforts of the Canadians who helped liberate the Liri Valley, are not forgotten. They would stay with us for the rest of the day.

That’s Alessandro addressing our group with Roberto to his left.

Alessandro Campagna Speaks To the Group

The crossing of the Gari River effectively breached the Gustav Line and left only the Hitler Line between the Allies and Rome. However, the word ‘only’ is an understatement as the Canadians were about to face their most serious and deadly fighting in the entire Italian campaign in the coming days. Please join us for the next post on how we broke the Hitler Line and at what cost.

Sherman crosses Liri, 4th battle of Cassino - History

May 2019 marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino, fought over four main battles between 17 January and 18 May 1944. They saw the Allied Forces involved in some of the most bitter fighting of the Second World War, where steep mountain slopes and winter weather were combined with the German defenders&rsquo determination and skill. The battles involved troops from America, Britain, Canada, France, India, New Zealand and Poland in fighting that compared in its intensity and horror with the battles of the Western Front in the First World War.

Following a major American bombing campaign in February 1944, the Germans took up position around the ancient hilltop abbey of Monte Cassino and the nearby town. The strategic importance of the area around Monte Cassino lay in its position within the 'Gustav' line, defending the approaches to Rome.

The first battle took place between 17 January 1944 and 11 February, the second battle, following a bombing assault on the abbey of Monte Cassino, took place between 15 and 18 February, the third battle between 15 and 23 March, and the fourth and final battle between 11 and 17 May 1944.

&lsquoA nation that forgets its past has no future.&rsquo Churchill&rsquos words are still relevant today.

British 4.2-inch mortars in action at the start of the final offensive on Cassino, Italy, 12 May 1944.

Via IWM Collections (NA 14733)

A British soldier with a Bren gun in the ruins of Monte Cassino.

Via IWM Collections (TR 1800)

A New Zealander poses with his sniper rifle in the ruins of Cassino, 26 March 1944.

Via IWM Collections (NA 13384)

Staged reconstruction of infantry clearing buildings in Cassino, Italy, 24 March 1944.

Via IWM Collections (NA 13274)

Cameramen in uniform: AFPU cameraman Sergeant Jessiman, photographed from behind as he braces his camera against some timbers in the window of a damaged building in Cassino, Italy.

Via IWM Collections (NA 13380)

The Medical Chain of Evacuation: An RAMC orderly makes his way forward under cover of the Red Cross flag to recover a casualty during fighting at Cassino, 24 March 1944.

Via IWM Collections (NA 13276 )

Second Phase 15 February - 10 May 1944: A reconstruction (staged for the photographer during the lull in the fighting in April 1944) showing the unsuccessful New Zealand assault on Cassino town during 15 - 22 March. Infantry are shown engaging enemy positions in the ruins of Casino.

Via IWM Collections (TR 13794)

A Sherman tank and jeep of the 4th Brigade entering the ruins of Cassino, 18 May 1944. The monastery of Cassino had formed the focal point of the German Gustav Line which they had successfully defended since November 1943. The fourth offensive led by Polish and British troops secured Cassino for the Allies and caused the Germans to retreat north of Rome, which was then declared an 'open city'.

Via IWM Collections (TR 15079)

Men of the Durham Light Infantry advance through the ruins of Cassino, passing the remains of the Hotel Des Roses, 18 May 1944.

Via IWM Collections (TR 14999)

Sherman tanks and infantry in the ruins of Cassino, 18 May 1944.

Via IWM Collections (TR 15009)

Infantry of the East Surrey Regiment enter the ruins of Cassino, 18 May 1944.

Via IWM Collections (TR 14989)

Second Phase 15 February - 10 May 1944: Indian troops pass bomb shattered buildings on the outskirts of Cassino town.

Via IWM Collections (TR 12895)

Overlooked by the ruins of the hill-top monastery, South African engineers of 11th Field Company, South African Engineer Corps, clear rubble from 'Route 6', the main road through Cassino. The final German resistance had ceased only hours before.

Via IWM Collections (NA 15080)

Captured German parachute troops file past a Sherman tank of the New Zealand 4th Armoured Brigade at Cassino, 16 March 1944.

Via IWM Collections (NA 12912)

Second Phase 15 February - 10 May 1944: A Sherman tank among the ruins on the outskirts of Cassino town.

Via IWM Collections (NA 12899)

Three German prisoners walking back through the Allied lines at Cassino, along the devastated Highway 6, the route to Rome from Cassino, May 1944.

Via IWM Collections (TR 1797)

Second Phase 15 February - 10 May 1944: A German patrol captured by Maori troops of the New Zealand Division are marched to POW camps along the Via Casilina in Cassino.

Via IWM Collections (NA 12253)

Third Phase 11 - 18 May 1944: A British stretcher party carry a casualty out of Cassino after its capture. In the background is Hangman's Hill.

Via IWM Collections (NA 15003)

British and South African soldiers hold up Nazi trophy flag while combat engineers on bulldozers clear a path through the debris of the bombed out city, May 1943

Via g503.com (Photographer: Carl Mydans)

The Commander of the 8th Army, General Sir Oliver Leese walking through Cassino after its capture.

Via IWM Collections (TR 15096)

Commander of the Polish 2nd Corps, Lieutenant General Władysław Anders and the Commander of the Allied Armies in Italy, General the Hon Sir Harold Alexander salute, after General Alexander had invested General Anders with the Order of the Bath in recognition of Polish services at Cassino. Lieutenant Eugeniusz Lubomirski, General Anders' adjutant, is standing behind his commander.

Via IWM Collections (NA 15352)

View of Cassino after heavy bombardment, May 1944, showing a knocked out Sherman tank by a Bailey bridge in the foreground with Monastery Ridge and Castle Hill in the background.

Via IWM Collections (TR 1799)

The shell-shattered road to Cassino, showing Monastery Ridge and Castle Hill in the background.

Via IWM Collections (TR 1798)

Ruined shell of the Monte Cassino Monastery a day after it was captured by troops of the 2nd Polish Corps, 19 May 1944. Photograph shows the only surviving wall of the Abbey after the bombardment of February 1944.

Via IWM Collections (NA 15141)

Sign Indicating a Minefield Amid the Ruins of the Monastery and Town of Monte Cassino

Ruins of the Monastery and Town of Monte Cassino

Third Phase 11 - 18 May 1944: A low aerial view of the Monastery showing its complete destruction.

Via IWM Collections (C 4363)

A family places flowers on the grave of an unknown British soldier killed at Cassino.

"Cruel Necessity": The Story of The First Battle of Monte Cassino

While the Allies would eventually defeat the Germans here, their first attempt was a costly failure.

Between 6 pm and 7 pm, 40 men paddled their way to the near bank, clinging to logs and debris to propel themselves through the bitterly cold current. Everyone else on the other side was left to be killed or captured. After about 8 pm, the sounds of gunfire died down on the far side. The 1st/141st was annihilated. The 36th Division suffered more than 430 killed, 600 wounded, and 875 missing. Most of the missing were presumed killed or captured. One company commander reported that out of 184 men in his outfit, only 17 were left. “My fine division is wrecked,” Walker wrote. The 15th Panzergrenadiers lost 64 killed and 179 wounded.

Walker further wrote, “The great losses of fine young men during the attempts to cross the Rapido River to no purpose and in violation of good infantry tactics are very depressing. All chargeable to the stupidity of the higher command.”

The postmortems continued. The attack was badly prepared—four battalions carrying heavy assault boats ac6.

British Guardsmen vs German Grenadiers

The 29th hit the British 56th and 5th Divisions on January 21, just as the British attack was wrapping up. The Germans stopped the British cold. The British were weary and short of men. Private S.C. Brooks of the 6th Cheshires saw that his platoon was made up of replacements with nine months of service. Engineer Matthew Salmon, working on a ferry, saw that his passengers were edgy, saying, “How much longer are we going to be here? It’s about time we were bloody relieved.”

The next morning, the 22nd, the Anzio assault went in. The Anglo-American VI Corps enjoyed complete surprise, but the Germans reacted with their usual speed, rounding up a variety of units to contain the assault. None of them came from the Garigliano and Rapido battles. The Fifth Army’s river assaults had failed in their primary purpose—to draw off the German defenders.

The next six days saw hard fighting along the Garigliano River. The British launched attacks with ample determination against equally determined counterattacks. The 5th Division’s 15th Brigade pushed through an attack to find the Germans charging back, shouting, “Give up, Tommy, you are surrounded.”

With the 5th Division’s attack running out of steam, the British sent in the crack 201st Guards Brigade against the 90th Panzergrenadiers, and guardsmen and grenadiers traded verbal insults amid the vicious fighting.

The fighting raged on for the hills and mountains, with the Green Howards reaching Minturno, and Hill 201 changing hands four times before the British took it for good. The 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers tried to take Monte Natale but were not successful until January 29, when two battalions of the 17th Brigade took the crest. By then, the 5th Division was completely shot out.

“The Enemy Remains Firm”

The 56th Division was not doing any better. By the 20th, all of its brigades were committed, and two were tired and low in strength. Troops could only move by night. On the 24th, McCreery had to admit “the enemy remains firm … 56 Division troops have now been fighting for seven days and are tired. No further advance can be expected on the Corps front for some days unless the enemy withdraws.” Two companies were down to three officers and 37 men between them.

McCreery sent in the 43rd Royal Marine Commando and 9th Army Commando Battalions to make progress up Monte Ornito, and the tough men in the green berets gained ground. But there were not enough reserves to exploit the success. The overall picture was slow going. The supply situation was a mess— the 10th Royal Berkshires went in without blankets or greatcoats, and the trails were impassible to mules. Porters had to bring everything up. Private George Pringle of the 175th Pioneer Regiment took supplies from pioneer mule transport companies and carried packs weighing up to 50 pounds on his back.

On January 23, the 1st London Scottish and 10th Royal Berkshires made a failed attack on Monte Damiano. The British sent up medics under Red Cross flags to recover the wounded. To the Britons’ surprise, a German officer appeared atop the ridge and said in English, “Gentlemen, will you please stop firing while we bring in our wounded.” A cease-fire lasted long enough to bring the wounded men down on both sides.

On January 29, the X Corps made one more attempt to take Monte Damiano, with the 2nd and 1st/4th Hampshires leading off, having recovered from their failed Garigliano crossing. The 2nd Hampshires’ diary said it all: “Attack unsuccessful owing to unexpected nature of ground and excessive use of grenades by the enemy.” The follow-up attack was called off. Everywhere the British tried to attack, they found ferocious German resistance.

McCreery decided to hit the Germans across the mountains by infiltrating from behind, and that worked. The German defenders of Castelforte were extremely surprised, but the British troops struggled atop windswept mountains, some 2,000 feet high, under heavy shelling.

On February 10, McCreery faced facts. His men had taken Minturno and gained a few bridgeheads across the Garigliano, but had not driven the Germans off the pinnacles. The corps went over to “active defense” and counted the dead and wounded. Nobody was sure about German losses, but the British had taken a beating. The 2nd/6th Queens had lost 138 men, 28.6 percent of its strength. The 7th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Infantry lost 188 men, 37.8 percent of its strength.

“A Beached Whale”

Despite fatigue, wintry weather, flooded terrain, high mountains, and higher casualties, Clark had to continue the offensive. About 70,000 British and American troops and 356 tanks were trapped at Anzio. Churchill, who had pushed for the operation, was enraged. He had hoped “we were hurling a wildcat on the shore, but all we got was a beached whale.”

With the Germans hammering at the Anzio beachhead, Fifth Army now had to charge to its rescue as soon as possible. Clark could not wait for spring and dry weather. But he was running out of fresh troops. All that was left was the 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division, holding the ground between the battered 36th at Sant’ Angelo and the equally worn-down French Corps on the Cassino Massif. The 34th was facing the town of Cassino and the monastery brooding above it. The division’s time had come.

Clark’s plan was to send the 36th Division’s 168th Regiment along the far side of the Rapido River north of the town in one thrust and send a second dagger directly across the Cassino Massif, three miles behind the river, and into the Liri Valley. The French Corps, despite fatigue, would attack again, this time on the far right, toward Colle Belvedere, to protect the American right flank.

The Red Bulls’ 133rd Infantry Regiment would be the inner wheel. It would have to take an old wrecked Italian Army barracks two miles north of Cassino, while the 168th drove on a hillock called Hill 213, a stepping-stone to the higher peaks that led to the monastery.

Under Maj. Gen. Charles W. “Doc” Ryder, the Red Bulls would have to attack across a river less formidable than the 36th faced at Sant’ Angelo, but they would still face soggy ground. More important, the Germans created a 300-yard-deep mine belt on the far shore, in front of a flat plain, cut clean of all vegetation, which provided German machine-gun nests, strongpoints, and pillboxes with perfect fields of fire. Barbed wire obstacles stood six feet in depth. All the surviving buildings had been turned into pillboxes, with self-propelled guns and antitank guns poking out from them, and the hill that led to Hill 213 was surrounded by 150 yards of barbed wire.

Senger, the literate Rhodes Scholar and lay Benedictine, trained his men on how to dig into rocky positions with crowbars and explosives instead of spades. His troops learned how a single man could lower a wounded soldier with ropes and haul him on an improvised sled. It was a remarkable adaptation to difficult conditions, and it was a hallmark of the German army throughout the war.

Three Battalions on the Beachhead

The slopes of Colle Maiola, Monte Castellone, and Monte Cairo rose 450 meters in a distance of 1,000 meters and were crisscrossed with wire, mines, felled trees, bunkers, and machine-gun emplacements. Atop the pinnacles of Colle Sant Angelo, Hill 444, and Hills 593/569, the Germans had built sniper posts and mortar emplacements, all covered with thick logs. The mortars were neatly concealed in gullies.

Nor were the defenders any slouches. This part of the Gustav Line was held by elements of the 71st Infantry, 5th Mountain, and the 44th “Hoch und Deutschmeister” Infantry Divisions, under Lt. Gen. Dr. Franz Bayer. The original 44th was based on the historic Austrian 4th Infantry Regiment and been destroyed at Stalingrad. A new 44th was created to replace the old one, and the Austrians were determined to uphold their long traditions. Even so, the Austrians were understrength.

Watch the video: 10 Most Amazing Discoveries From WWII (June 2022).


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