The Attacks on Cassino
The SHINGLE forces safely ashore at Anzio, General Clark on 23 January visited his three corps commanders on the main Fifth Army front to urge all possible speed in breeching the Gustav Line, opening up the Liri valley, and joining the forces at Anzio.1 Since II Corps had failed to gain entrance into the Liri valley by the frontal attack across the Rapido, Clark looked to the flanks. If General McCreery could expand his 10 Corps bridgehead across the Garigliano northward into the Liri valley, and if General Juin could turn his French Expeditionary Corps to the southwest in a wide envelopment also toward the Liri valley, both would break the defenses of the Gustav Line and outflank the Rapido entrance. General Keyes was to attack in the center of the army zone, his object to make a shallower envelopment of the Rapido defenses just north of the town of Cassino.2
South of the Liri valley, General McCreery was unable to do much. His Garigliano bridgehead had received strong counterattacks on 21 and 22 January, and the troops had barely held. When the Anzio invasion drew German strength away from the Garigliano, thereby weakening the forces opposite the British, the 10 Corps was too close to exhaustion to take up the offensive. Both sides settled into temporary inaction.
In the north, General Juin would need a day to shift the bulk of his French forces to the southern part of his zone. He prepared to attack on the morning of 25 January, his initial objective Monte Belvedere, about five miles north of Cassino.
Thus it remained for II Corps to apply whatever immediate pressure was possible. Since the 36th Division had expended itself at the Rapido, the task fell to General Ryder's 34th Division.
Keyes directed Ryder to cross the Rapido River north of Cassino, where the stream could be forded, and open a two-pronged drive. One thrust was to carry down the bank of the river into the town of Cassino. The other was to strike directly across the Cassino massif, a jumble of mountain peaks containing Monte Cassino, which juts out over the valleys of the Rapido and the Liri. Once across the high ground, Ryder would be in the Liri valley three or four miles behind the Rapido River and Monte Cassino.
To support the 34th Division, General Keyes instructed General Walker to have the 36th Division feint a renewed attempt to cross the Rapido River at the sites where it had failed. Walker was also to be ready on order to use the
THE CASSINO AREA
142d Infantry, which had not participated in the earlier attack and was intact, to force a crossing north of Sant'Angelo. Through this bridgehead, CCB of the 1st Armored Division--detached from its parent organization, which was on its way to Anzio by water--was to pass into the Liri valley to exploit toward eventual linkup with the Anzio forces.3
General Ryder selected as the first 34th Division objective an Italian military barracks area scarcely two miles north of Cassino.4 There, on a slight eminence of ground sometimes called Monte Villa, a group of some twenty rectangular one-story buildings, now reduced to ruins by artillery fire, stood on a field about 400 by 500 yards. From the barracks area south to Cassino, the bank of the Rapido was a narrow shelf, no more than 300 to 400 yards wide, overshadowed by the steep-walled Cassino massif. On this shelf, troops advancing along the road toward the town would have some protection from enemy artillery. North of the barracks area, the high ground was farther from the Rapido and at the village of Cairo, not quite two miles away, a flat plain stretched for more than a mile between the river and Hills 56 and 213.
To launch his two-pronged drive from positions on the far side of the Rapido, General Ryder planned to send one force south into the town of Cassino,
THE MONASTERY AND ITS ENVIRONS, with the Rapido River and the Italian barracks.
which lay at the base of Monte Cassino. The other force was to strike west across the mountainous terrain, its first objective Monte Castellone, a rugged peak about three miles from the barracks area. From there the troops were to turn to the southwest and south and advance another four or five miles to the slope overlooking the Liri valley--several miles west of Monte Cassino.
But first the 34th Division would have to take the barracks area, no easy task. Inside the damaged buildings, German troops had built concrete pillboxes that were concealed by the debris. The positions covered the approaches not only to Monte Villa but also to Cassino from the north and east. Along these avenues of approach, the defenders had liberally planted mines. Supporting artillery fire could also be directed from Monte Castellone and other peaks. But the 34th Division would mainly have to face the fire of German weapons across open fields east and southeast of the barracks area, fields that had been flooded by diverting the course of the Rapido. The waterlogged ground would make mechanized operations difficult if not impossible for Allied troops but General
BOGGED-DOWN AMERICAN TANK NEAR THE RAPIDO
Ryder considered possession of the barracks an essential preliminary for his attack, particularly the thrust to the strongly fortified town of Cassino.5
General Ryder ordered the 133d Infantry to secure the barracks, and the regiment planned to send the 1st and 3d Battalions across the Rapido to the northern and southern sides of Monte Villa in order to contain the defenders; the 100th Battalion was then to cross and turn south on the road leading directly into Cassino. The 756th Tank Battalion, attached to the regiment, was to follow the infantry across the river with its 54 medium and 17 light tanks and give close supporting fire, while the 753d and 760th Tank Battalions, made available to the division by the corps commander, were to add general support fire and be ready to cross.6
To escape German observation, the 133d Infantry jumped off at 2200, 24 January. The attack bogged down almost at once. Exploding mines disorganized the men, the mud of the flooded plain gripped tanks with sticky fingers, and strong fire from the barracks area discouraged any advance.7 At 0430, 25 January, General Ryder extended his attack to the right, where the ground seemed firmer. The 3d Battalion sideslipped to the right flank of the 1st Battalion, and the 100th Battalion moved still farther north. With all three battalions in assault, an artillery preparation
at 0900 helped the 100th Battalion get a few riflemen across the river. There, a barbed wire entanglement covered by machine gun fire blocked progress. Four and a half hours later, after clearing a lane through a mine field, the 1st Battalion succeeded in getting several platoons of infantry across the Rapido. In another four hours the 3d Battalion had established a small bridgehead. All three battalions built up their forces on the bank after darkness, and by midnight the 133d Infantry held a consolidated toehold.
In the hope of keeping the attack going, General Ryder ordered the regiment to expand its area before daybreak on 26 January. With an enlarged bridgehead, Ryder could get tanks across the river and commit the 168th Infantry for an advance to Cassino. But the 133d Infantry could do little more under the German fire than take cover. Holding grimly, the troops were unable to advance beyond the river's edge and toward the mountain mass, less than a mile away. By night on 26 January, the 133d Infantry was still close to the river, the 168th uncommitted.
Now seeing his problem as the need to eliminate the German fire coming from the high ground, particularly from Hill 213, northwest of the barracks area, General Ryder committed the 135th Infantry on the left, just below the area where the 133d Infantry had crossed. The 135th Infantry, after crossing the Rapido, was to climb the wall of the massif and strike toward Hill 213 from the south. Seizure of Hill 213 would eliminate enemy fire on the assault troops on the valley floor and open the way for an advance westward to Monte Castellone and beyond to the Liri valley.
During the night of 26 January, the 1st Battalion, 135th Infantry, managed to get a rifle company across the river. By 0330, 27 January, the company was struggling unsuccessfully to move through flooded ditches, wire entanglements, mines, and enemy fire. Tanks were unable to ford the stream because of the soggy approaches--six tanks were stuck on the most likely route, blocking further progress until engineers had substantially improved the crossing site.
With parts of two regiments holding small bridgeheads across the Rapido, it was imperative that additional forces cross the stream and get into the hills immediately behind. General Keyes, who still hoped "to launch armor northwest in the Liri valley," prodded General Ryder, who ordered the 168th Infantry to pass through the 133d Infantry on the morning of 27 January.8
Committing the 168th Infantry through the 133d Infantry and to the north of the barracks area represented a shift in emphasis. It showed an increasing awareness of several vital factors in the situation: the need for better ground for river crossing operations; the strength of the German defenses in Cassino; the necessity for depriving the Germans of the high ground; the urgency of reaching the flank of the Liri valley; and the course of developments taking place still farther north in the French zone.
General Ryder was quite specific in committing the 168th Infantry. He wanted two battalions to attack abreast, each preceded by a platoon of tanks. The tanks were to break down wire obstacles, overrun antipersonnel mines, and destroy enemy strongpoints. The attack was
to have an artillery preparation lasting an hour and then turning into a rolling barrage beyond the Rapido.9 If the tanks could make their way along the narrow and extremely muddy trails and tracks leading to the river, and if they could get across, Ryder believed the attack would have a good chance of success.
Just before daybreak on 27 January, as the artillery preparation started, the tanks preceding the infantry assault troops moved toward the Rapido. Some tanks slipped off the narrow routes that were under water in many places, but two were across the Rapido by 0830, two more by 0915. These had so churned up the ground that the tanks immediately behind bogged down and blocked further traffic. As engineer troops began at once to construct corduroy roads to the river, a process that would take most of the day, infantrymen followed in lanes cleared by the tanks. Despite enemy fire, each assault battalion of the 168th Infantry got two rifle companies across the Rapido. All four tanks that had reached the far bank were out of action by 1300--two destroyed by antitank fire, one with a damaged track from a mine, the fourth hit by an artillery shell while returning to the crossing site for more ammunition. Nevertheless, the rifle companies worked their way across the level terrain beyond the river and, despite heavy losses, were at the base of Hill 213 by nightfall. A fifth rifle company came across the Rapido after dark, climbed Hill 213, and reached the top undetected.
Instead of remaining on top of Hill 213, the company commander, deciding that his position would become untenable after daybreak, started to move his troops back. As he did so, the withdrawal turned into an uncontrollable rout. The troops fled across the river. Believing that a retirement was taking place, two of the other companies on the far bank became nervous, panicked, and then followed. Not until they were on the near bank were they stopped. By then they were disorganized. To leave the two remaining companies on the far bank, where their positions had been well marked by the Germans, was to expose them needlessly. They, too, were withdrawn across the river, then led north for 500 yards on the near bank to another crossing site. Picking their way through mine fields, the men recrossed the river and moved about a mile beyond toward the village of Cairo. Midway between the Rapido and the village, under the towering snow-capped peak of Monte Cairo, two platoons prepared and occupied defensive positions. The rest of the companies dug positions to protect the route from the crossing site. If, as seemed possible, a trail could be fixed for tanks, the division might complete its Rapido crossing.
The envelopment of the direct entrance into the Liri valley was proving to be deeper than originally contemplated, but the strength of the German defenses around Cassino required it. At the same time, action by the French Expeditionary Corps on the immediate right promised more conclusive results even though the corps required help.
Having shifted the bulk of his two-division strength to his left flank, General Juin attacked on the morning of
25 January to capture Monte Belvedere. By going on to take Monte Abate, an even more rugged peak about a mile to the west, the French forces would secure the flank of General Ryder's envelopment of Cassino. The struggle for Monte Belvedere consumed two full days of fierce fighting. At the end of the second day, the 3d Algerian Division held the mountain, which represented an important threat to the Gustav Line. But the French troops were stretched thin across a long front and were close to exhaustion. Further effort to take Monte Abate was out of the question for the moment.10
General Juin would write to General Clark on 29 January to clarify his situation. "At the cost of unbelievable efforts and great losses," Juin wrote, the 3d Algerian Division had committed all its reserves and had "accomplished the mission which you gave them." Although morale remained high, the Algerian division would be in an "extremely precarious" state until the 34th Division took the heights southwest of Monte Cairo, specifically Monte Castellone. Because Juin had no corps reserves available and because he could not risk leaving the Algerian division in virtual isolation on Monte Belvedere, he needed help. Otherwise, he would be forced to pull back from his hard-won mountain positions.11
General Clark had already acted. He had directed General Keyes to move an American unit into the area between the 3d Algerian and 34th Divisions in order to drive westward to Monte Castellone. Since the attacks north of Cassino seemed to be promising to crack the Gustav Line, General Keyes decided that a renewal of the attempt to cross the Rapido near Sant'Angelo would be unnecessary. Because a drive across the mountain wall would unhinge the Rapido defenses and open the Liri valley from the flank, he retained CCB for the exploiting thrust and attached the 36th Division's 142d Infantry to the 34th. He wanted the assistant division commander of the 34th Division, Brig. Gen. Frederic B. Butler, to add tanks and tank destroyers to the infantry regiment and to lead the task force in an attack designed to assist the French and at the same time to capitalize on the French success at Monte Belvedere.12
While the 142d Infantry was moving by truck and by foot from the Monte Trocchio area to the vicinity of Monte Belvedere, General Ryder was continuing his attack. Now he directed the 168th Infantry to commit all three of its infantry battalions across the Rapido for an advance across the Cairo plain directly against Hill 213 and a smaller neighboring height, Hill 56. With both pieces of high ground in American possession, an attack to Monte Castellone would become feasible and the 133d Infantry might finally take the Italian barracks area for later movement to Cassino.
General Keyes had given General Ryder all his available corps engineers--the 235th Engineer Battalion and the 1108th Engineer Group--to maintain the crossing sites at the Rapido and the approaches and exits in serviceable condition for use by tanks. Ryder placed all the engineers in immediate support of
the 168th Infantry. He also attached to the regiment the 760th Tank Battalion and the 175th Field Artillery Battalion.
With a heavy expenditure of artillery shells opening the attack, the 168th Infantry jumped off early on 29 January, the assault spearheaded by tanks. Against intense German resistance, seven tanks crossed the Rapido by 0700. Although two were quickly knocked out by enemy fire and two others rapidly used all their ammunition, the presence of the armored vehicles gave the infantry good impetus. All three battalions were fighting on the far bank of the Rapido, making relatively steady, if somewhat slow, progress toward the hills a mile and a half across the plain.
During the afternoon General Ryder committed the 756th Tank Battalion, which found a new, incredibly good approach to the Rapido. When twenty-three tanks of the battalion suddenly appeared at 1600, crossed the river, and blasted away at the numerous German machine gun positions at the base of the heights, the infantry attack picked up speed. While the tankers fired more than a thousand 75-mm. rounds at virtually point-blank range, the rifle companies advanced across the plain. By 1845 all three infantry battalions had reached the base of the hills. Moving through barbed wire entanglements ripped apart by tank shells, the troops climbed the slopes. By dawn on 30 January, the hills were in American hands, though mopping-up operations would continue until noon.
On the night of 29 January, near the II Corps-French Expeditionary Corps boundary, the 142d Infantry launched what would turn into a 2-day attack in the rough terrain between Monte Castellone and Monte Belvedere, thus covering the left flank of General Juin's French Expeditionary Corps and improving the Algerian positions. A further improvement came as the result of a foray by one of the two platoons of the 168th Infantry that had been blocking the Cassino-Cairo road. Together with a platoon of tanks, the troops struck to the north on 30 January and captured the village of Cairo, enabling French units to consolidate their positions in the Monte Belvedere area.
To the men of the 168th Infantry who held Hills 213 and 56 on the morning of 30 January, the situation was far from reassuring. They repelled two counterattacks that day, and another on the following day, with less than adequate communications to the support elements. Radios, soaked in the river crossing, failed to function. At least two radios brought across the river by artillery forward observers lay on the plain together with the bodies of their operators. For several hours during the afternoon of 30 January, the only signals tying together the forward and support units in the 2d Battalion area were those sent and received by the platoon leader of the 81-mm. mortars.
The tanks that had been so effective when the 168th units first crossed the river were unable to give direct assistance after the infantry took Hills 213 and 56 because of the steep walls of the massif. They huddled at the base of the hills, seeking shelter from German artillery and mortar shells dropping on the plain, apparently aimed at the disabled tanks. Antitank shells sought out the light tanks recrossing the river to bring up gasoline and ammunition for the mediums. After two of the tanks went
up in flames, chemical mortars came forward and effectively screened the crossing site with smoke.13
The advance north of Cassino by the II Corps and the French Expeditionary Corps had bent the Gustav Line but had not broken it. During the entire month of January, the 3d Algerian Division took approximately 500 prisoners--among them an officer who said, "I see that the French Army is not dead."14 The 34th Division had captured only 147 Germans during the last week of January. There were no signs of an impending enemy collapse or withdrawal.
South of Cassino General McCreery's Corps went over to the offense on 27 January, but expanded its Garigliano bridgehead only slightly. Although the British took 1,035 prisoners between 17 and 31 January at a cost of 4,152 casualties, their inability to gain substantial ground indicated that no immediate breakthrough into the Liri valley from the south could be expected.
The number of II Corps' casualties during January showed plainly how severe the fighting had been. The 54th Medical Battalion (Motorized), which served the 34th and 36th Divisions and the 1st Special Service Force, had transported 11,670 patients in ambulances during the month and had treated 2,537 patients at the clearing station it operated. It had managed to care for so many men only because 300 casuals and replacements had been attached to the battalion as litter bearers.15
The 34th Division met bitter resistance in the silted valley bottom of the Rapido, now a quagmire because the Germans had diverted the river, and on the ravine-scarred slopes of the Cassino massif, thoroughly organized with wire, mines, felled trees, concrete bunkers, and steel-turreted machine gun emplacements. Difficulties of supply, evacuation, and support were acute. At one time the division employed more than 1,100 mules and 700 litter bearers above normal transportation and medical resources; the engineer companies could not perform all the tasks required--for example, approximately twenty tanks were bogged down so hopelessly that they could not be recovered.16
Despite its advance across the Rapido River north of Cassino, the 34th Division had made no decisive thrust. The Germans still held the first key objective, the Italian military barracks area. The advance across the Cassino massif had hardly got under way, and debouchment into the Liri valley from the flank was still nothing more than a hope. General Clark wrote in his diary:
The original estimate that he [the enemy] would weaken the Garigliano-Rapido front to meet the amphibious landing, to an extent which would permit the advance of the Fifth Army to the Frosinone area, has not yet materialized . . . . [We are] like two boxers in the ring, both about to collapse. I have committed my last reserve, and I am sure the Boche has done the same.17
General Gruenther, the Fifth Army chief of staff, was of the same mind. "Enemy has everything committed," he cabled General Clark who was at the Anzio beachhead on the last day of the month, "and I believe we will take Cassino. However, no blitz is indicated. Keyes will give no estimate [as to when he expects to capture Cassino]. Mine is February 6th--I hope."18
To the individual combat soldier, the bitter cold weather of January had added to the discomfort of fighting in mud and water. Wet foxholes were the rule, freezing nights the norm, and trench foot and illness the result.19 A sharp rise in artillery expenditure rates during the last ten days of the month seemed to have little effect, and, added to other causes for concern, gave "every evidence that the enemy intends to prevent, at all costs, the occupation of Rome and juncture of the main Fifth Army with the Anzio forces."20
The estimate was correct. On 31 January, when Vietinghoff informed Kesselring that he intended to continue to hold his ground, he indicated that the focal point of his defense was the Cassino massif. If he needed to reinforce the XIV Panzer Corps to prevent the Fifth Army from breaking through, he would weaken the LXXVI Panzer Corps by taking troops from the Adriatic front.
Kesselring was satisfied. "In full agreement with intentions as reported," he said.21
At the beginning of February, the Germans had a dual task: eliminate the Anzio beachhead and hold the Gustav Line. The Allied lodgment, if expanded sufficiently to threaten the major lines of communication running south from Rome, would compel the Germans to abandon the Gustav Line and give up southern Italy. Yet the Allied pressure around Cassino to gain entrance into the Liri valley made it impossible for the Germans to divert forces to Anzio from the Gustav Line. In fact, the attacks against the Gustav Line required that more strength be concentrated along the Rapido-Garigliano line than had ever before been committed against the Fifth Army, so much more that Kesselring would have to draw on his strength at Anzio to bolster the Gustav defenses early in February. If the Gustav Line could be held until enough units were gathered at Anzio to eliminate the beachhead, the situation in southern Italy would remain the same as it was before the amphibious operation. The Allied forces would have suffered a crushing defeat and would still be a considerable distance from Rome.
The four German divisions that had been fully committed along the Gustav Line early in January had been increased by the beginning of February to an equivalent of about six divisions, and additional units would appear almost daily despite the requirements of Anzio. Opposite 10 Corps, the 94th Division occupied the coastal area, its eastern flank bolstered by part of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division. Against II Corps were parts of the 15th Panzer Grenadier, the 71st Infantry, and the 3d Panzer Grenadier Divisions, all of which also had units at Anzio, and the entire 44th
Infantry Division. Facing the French were part of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division and the entire 5th Mountain Division.
All these organizations except the 29th Panzer Grenadier and 71st Divisions had been in the line continuously for at least a month and most of them for longer. All were seriously depleted, the 71st in particular, and not enough replacements were coming in to return the units to full strength. The 44th Division, for example, had received approximately 1,000 replacements in January but had lost the same number as prisoners.
In the critical sector, the area immediately around Cassino, the 44th and 71st Divisions, as well as a few units of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division, had received a battering as they held tenaciously in the hills north and west of the town. To augment these troops and at the same time permit the relatively strong 29th Panzer Grenadier Division to move to Anzio, Vietinghoff would transfer the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division to the Cassino area from the Adriatic coast; units would begin arriving piecemeal around 7 February. A day or so later the 1st Parachute Division would come from the Adriatic front, to be joined at the Gustav Line by units of the division that had earlier been rushed to Anzio. The veteran paratroopers would take positions in the hills behind Cassino. Monte Cassino would become their fortress.22
Like the Germans, the Allied command augmented its strength in the decisive battleground west of the Apennines. Following the 1st British Division, which had moved from the Eighth Army area early in January to become part of the initial Anzio landing force, the 5th British Division had shifted from the Adriatic to increase the 10 Corps resources along the Garigliano. In order to constitute an army group reserve quickly available for use in the Fifth Army zone, General Alexander transferred the 2d New Zealand Division from Eighth Army control to the Cassino area. Hoping to maintain more than a pretense of offensive activity, General Leese, the Eighth Army commander, then brought forward from his reserve the I Canadian Corps headquarters and the 4th Indian Division. But by 30 January, when Alexander called for the 4th Indian Division to cross the peninsula, General Leese realized that the loss of four divisions from his forces, plus the difficult terrain and the miserable weather, would compel him to forego any thought of major offensive operations at least until spring. With two divisions now forming his army group reserve, Alexander began to think of using them in combination--he regarded the New Zealand division as particularly capable of long-range exploiting operations, while the Indian division was especially well trained for mountain warfare.23
Before committing all or part of his reserve force, General Alexander waited for a breakthrough of the Gustav Line. For a while, in the early days of February, the 34th Division seemed about to achieve it.
Still trying to get his two-pronged attack under way on 1 February, General Ryder sent the 133d Infantry against the Italian military barracks area at
REMAINS OF THE BARRACKS
Monte Villa, where fierce fighting took place at close range. He passed the 135th Infantry through the 168th Infantry on Hill 213 for a push toward Monte Castellone, while the 36th Division's 142d Infantry on the right flank attacked westward toward a piece of rugged high ground, Mass Manna, about two miles northwest of Monte Castellone and the same distance southwest of French-held Monte Belvedere. A heavy fog helped the assault units operating in the mountains, and both regiments moved to their objectives virtually unseen by the Germans.
On the following day, as troops of the 135th Infantry and 142d Infantry consolidated their positions on Monte Castellone and Mass Manna, the 133d Infantry finally took the barracks area. An infantry battalion, supported by the 756th Tank Battalion, immediately set out from the barracks for an advance down the shelf toward the town of Cassino. The troops had hardly started when German machine gun and antitank fire brought their movement to a halt.
Despite this check, the presence of troops less than two miles from Cassino and the substantial advances to Monte Castellone and Mass Manna cheered General Clark. "Present indications," he informed General Alexander, "are that the Cassino heights will be captured very soon." Since the capture of the Cassino massif meant entry into the Liri valley and the opportunity to exploit, Clark asked for instructions, specifically how Alexander wished him to employ the New Zealand division.24
Hoping that the way was at last about to be opened for exploitation, General Alexander decided to combine the New Zealand and Indian divisions into a provisional corps. On 3 February, he established an ad hoc corps headquarters under Lt. Gen. Sir Bernard Freyberg, the New Zealand division commander, put both divisions under the corps command, and attached what was called the New Zealand Corps to the Fifth Army. Once II Corps took the hills around Cassino and opened the Liri valley, the New Zealand Corps and CCB of the 1st Armored Division were to launch a long-range drive to make contact with the Anzio beachhead. To facilitate the maneuver, General Clark placed the 2d New Zealand Division in the area immediately south of Highway 6, near Sant'Angelo, and relieved the 36th Division for commitment elsewhere. Wishing to have some troops in reserve under his own control, Alexander directed General Leese to be ready to release the 78th British Division from the Eighth Army within seven to ten days for movement to the Fifth Army zone.
While these shifts took place, the 34th Division continued its attack, trying to complete the breakthrough that would make possible the long-range exploiting thrust. To that end, the division began to turn definitely to the south. The 135th Infantry took one of the innumerable peaks of the Majola Hill mass; the 142d Infantry, after turning over its high ground to French troops, slipped from Mass Manna to Monte Castellone. The 133d Infantry again moved along the shelf toward Cassino, reached the northern edge of the town, but was unable to remain because of strong German fire.
Combat in the northern outskirts of Cassino was street fighting of the most vicious sort. On the afternoon of 3 February, for example, Company I, 133d Infantry, supported by a composite platoon of riflemen from Company K and by a platoon of five tanks, attacked toward the northern edge of Cassino, which was blanketed with smoke. A few riflemen of Company I preceded the lead tank. The rest of the company was divided into three groups, each following one of the three leading tanks. The company headquarters followed the third tank, while the attached platoon of Company K, split into two groups, followed the fourth and fifth tanks.
As soon as the troops reached the outlying buildings, most of which were of two-story construction, they started to clear each house individually, five or six men working together against a single building. Three men would creep close to the house under cover of fire from the others, throw one or two hand grenades into the lower rooms, and then rush the doors or windows as soon as the grenades exploded. Surviving Germans would have to be upstairs, so the covering group fired rifle grenades through the upper windows to drive the Germans downstairs where they were killed or captured.25
This technique carried the troops into the town to the first crossroad. There they came under machine gun and antitank fire, which knocked out the third tank in file. Blocking the road to the rear, the destroyed tank prevented the first
MORTAR SQUAD FIRING INTO CASSINO
two from pulling out. As these two tanks put out a heavy volume of fire, the infantry pushed forward and seized two large buildings joined together on the north side of a small square.
Because the flanks of the approach that the company had used to enter the town were open, at least two men had to be posted in each cleared building to prevent the Germans from reoccupying the houses and cutting the route. By the time the men were deployed in the houses along the avenue of entry, only six men were available to hold the double building on the square. This they did throughout the night. But when the two leading tanks found a way of getting around the destroyed tank during the night and when no reinforcement seemed to be in sight by morning, the company withdrew from the town.26
The combat on the Cassino massif during the early days of February was no less savage. Small groups of men picked their way carefully across ridges, up slopes, and through ravines, avoiding shell-swept avenues, shunning open approaches, and measuring their advances in yards. Always the assault against the advantageous German positions required careful preparation, patient maneuver, and overwhelming firepower. The artillery rendered the American troops virtually unceasing assistance--8-inch howitzers fired more than 12,000 rounds in direct infantry support during the first two weeks of February,
240-mm. howitzers put out nearly 900 rounds, and 105-mm. howitzers expended nearly 100,000 shells. Artillery of all calibers would fire almost 200,000 shells during this period. The Cannon Company of the 135th Infantry would alone fire 22,200 rounds.
The rocky ground of the massif made it impossible to dig foxholes, and the soldiers piled rocks around themselves for protection. The weather stayed cold and wet. Snow and ice made mountain trails treacherous. Trench foot and respiratory diseases were common hazards. The only replacements were men from motor pools, kitchens, and headquarters companies. Unable to move from their individual positions during the day because of enemy observation, loath to budge during the night because of enemy shelling, many men were reluctant to leave because of sniper fire even when relief arrived.27
Yet so close did the 34th Division seem to a breakthrough, so evident did it appear that the artillery and tank fire was about to smash the Gustav Line positions, that the attack continued on 4 February without respite. A battalion of the 135th Infantry found an opening and made a sudden advance to Monte Albaneta, little more than a mile northwest of the abbey on top of Monte Cassino. Another, attacking along the ridges immediately west of the town of Cassino, came to within several hundred yards of the abbey, engaged in a day of confused fighting at close range, with hand grenades exchanged across stone
walls, then was driven back. At the northeastern corner of Cassino, the 133d Infantry again tried to penetrate into the town. Although the 151st Field Artillery Battalion fired 4,568 rounds in direct support of the regiment, the shells of the 105-mm. howitzers proved ineffective against the concrete and steel bunkers constructed among the massive stone buildings. When six German tanks suddenly appeared and opened fire, the American infantrymen turned back.
By the end of 4 February, the 34th Division was seriously depleted, the survivors hopelessly weary. A halt was necessary. For three days riflemen rested while artillery pieces and mortars exchanged fire with the enemy. Meanwhile, General Ryder prepared an all-out effort to take Cassino and the massif west of the town.
This attack was to be part of a larger action planned by General Keyes. Moving the 36th Division to the right of the 34th Division, he extended the envelopment around Monte Cassino and strengthened the enveloping force. If the 34th Division captured Cassino and, together with the 36th Division, crossed the massif to the flank of the Liri valley, the way would finally be open for exploitation.
General Clark asked General McCreery to attack on 7 February from the south toward the Liri valley. He also asked General Juin to attack. General Juin agreed that a simultaneous effort by the three corps in line was necessary to gain a decisive victory. But he believed that his French troops were too exhausted to participate.28 The 10 Corps
TROOP POSITION NEAR CASSINO
attacked during the night of 7 February, but the troops failed to make a decisive gain. At the break of dawn, 8 February, the II Corps launched its attack.
Moving directly from the north into Cassino, the 133d Infantry, with a battalion of tanks accompanying the assault companies and several 8-inch howitzers firing in direct support, penetrated 200 yards into the northern outskirts.29 There the shattered houses and heaps of rubble that filled the narrow streets and courtyards, and the enemy fire that swept the few open areas, brought progress to a quick end.
The assault troops used a new technique of firing bazookas through the walls of buildings, but the stone walls
34TH DIVISION MP DIRECTING TRAFFIC FROM A ROADSIDE DUGOUT north of Cassino.
of the houses were so thick that as many as nine rockets were needed to blow a hole three feet in diameter. The concrete walls of the German pillboxes were somewhat less formidable--only six or seven shots created a hole of the same size. Armor-piercing ammunition used in direct fire was effective, particularly when fired by 155-mm., 90-mm., and 3-inch guns. All the projectiles, even those fired from 75-mm. tank guns and 57-mm. and 37-mm. antitank guns, created sufficient concrete dust and smoke to neutralize German return fire from embrasures. Indirect fire at long ranges proved ineffective.30
For six more days the 133d Infantry would try to blast its way into Cassino. At the end of 14 February, the regiment would still be confined to its small foothold in the northeastern corner of the town. On the high ground of the Cassino massif, the 135th Infantry and the 168th Infantry tried to pinch out Monte Cassino. There, too, success eluded the troops. And on the right, on the rugged mass of Majola Hill, General Walker committed increasing numbers of his 36th Division who tried, to no avail, to advance the mile and a half from Monte Albaneta to the northern edge of the Liri valley.
The enemy defenses, the stubborn resistance, the ground, the weather, and the constant attrition of the 34th and 36th Divisions brought all attempts to nothing. Violent rains and heavy snowstorms
reduced visibility and aggravated discomfort. Drivers, clerks, and antitank troops formed provisional units to act as reserves for the rifle companies. During the second week of February, the infantry units were too exhausted, too numb from the cold, too battered by the German fire to do more than await relief.31
General Alexander had sent his American deputy, General Lemnitzer, to talk with unit commanders and troops in order to determine whether the constant fighting was eroding morale. After visiting the front, Lemnitzer reported that the troops were so disheartened as to be almost mutinous. They would soon have to be pulled out of the line for rest.
Yet since General Alexander was reluctant to commit the balanced forces of the New Zealand Corps in anything less than an exploiting role, he continued to hope for a breakthrough. After conferring with General Clark, Alexander agreed that if II Corps failed to crack the Gustav Line, he would give the task to the New Zealand Corps. Perhaps the fresh troops could break through and exploit on the momentum of their attack. The limit beyond which the II Corps should not go, both commanders concluded, was 12 February.32
By that date, the offensive efforts of the two divisions of the II Corps had run out. In a single day, 11 February, the 141st Infantry had expended more than 1,500 hand grenades in a vain attempt to break through the German defenders of the Albaneta Farm who were fighting virtually with their backs to the northern edge of the Cassino massif overlooking the Liri valley. At the end of that day, the 1st and 3d Battalions of the regiment had a total of 22 officers and 160 men. Two days later, it was estimated that all the infantry regiments of the 36th Division averaged less than 25 percent of effective combat strength.
The 34th Division had suffered equally. In the three weeks between the first attack to take the Italian barracks area and the final effort in the northeastern corner of Cassino, the 3d Battalion, 133d Infantry, had captured 122 prisoners but had lost 52 killed, 174 wounded, and 23 missing in the rifle companies--30 men remained in Company I, 70 in Company K, and 40 in Company L. The 10th Battalion, 133d Infantry, was in even worse condition. By the night of 7 February, the total strength of the three rifle companies numbered 7 officers and 78 men.33 The 168th Infantry was hardly stronger. On 10 February, the 1st Battalion had a total of 154 effective troops, the 2d Battalion had 393, and the 3d Battalion had 246; a provisional rifle company created to form a regimental reserve had a single officer, the antitank company commander, 7 men from the regimental headquarters company, 8 from the antitank company, and 15 just returned from the hospital. In the 135th Infantry, the average number of men in each rifle company was 30.
The fighting that had brought these casualties had also brought II Corps to within a mile of Highway 6 in the Liri valley. A breakthrough was within reach. But now it would be up to the New Zealand
AIMING A BAZOOKA AGAINST A STONE HOUSE
Corps--the 2d New Zealand and 4th Indian Divisions--under General Freyberg to force an opening through the Cassino defenses into the Liri valley.
1. Clark Diary, 23 Jan 44. See also Chapter XIX, above.
2. Ltr, Clark to Alexander, 29 Jan 44, Weekly Summary of Opns, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl.
3. II Corps OI, 23 Jan 44.
4. Except as otherwise noted, the following is taken from the official division and regimental records.
5. See 15th AGp Narrative, 29 Jan 44.
6. 133d Inf FO, 23 Jan 44.
7. Rpt 139 (Col H. J. P. Harding), AGF Bd Rpts, NATO.
8. See II Corps Ltr, Opns, 26 Jan 44, II Corps G-3 Jnl.
9. See Capt James A. Luttrell, The Operations of the 168th Infantry (34th Division) in the Rapido River Crossing, 28 January-10 February 1944, Advanced Infantry Officers Course, Ft. Benning, Ga., 1948-49.
10. Ltr, Clark to Alexander, 29 Jan 44, Weekly Summary of Opns, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl. See also Carpentier, Les Forces Alliées en Italie, p. 74.
11. Ltr, Juin to Clark, 29 Jan 44, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl.
12. See II Corps Ltr, Opns, 26 Jan 44, II Corps G-3 Jnl.
13. See Lt Col John L. Powers, Battle Around Cassino (2d Bn, 168th Inf), OCMH; Lt. Col. John L. Powers, "Crossing the Rapido," Infantry Journal, LVI, No. 5 (May, 1945), 51-53. See also 1st Lt Belford H. Gray, The Crossing of the Rapido and Occupation of Positions Above Cassino by Company I, 168th Infantry (34th Division), 27 January-15 February 1944 (hereafter cited as Gray, Crossing of the Rapido), Advanced Infantry Officers Course, Ft. Benning, Ga., 1947-48.
14. 3d Algerian Inf Div Opns.
15. II Corps Surgeon Ltr, 5 Feb 44, Corresp, Surgeon II Corps.
16. 34th Div AAR, Jan 44.
17. Clark Diary, 30 Jan 44.
18. Ibid., 31 Jan 44.
19. Gray, Crossing of the Rapido.
20. Peninsular Base Sec to NATOUSA, 31 Jan 44, AG 470.
21. Vietinghoff to Kesselring, 1300, 31 Jan 44, and Kesselring to Vietinghoff, 1900, 31 Jan 44, both in Steiger MS.
22. See Fifth Army G-2 History, Feb 44.
23. Wilson Despatch, pp. 15, 22, 24; Alexander Despatch, p. 2914.
24. Alexander Despatch, p. 2914. See also Clark Diary, 1 Feb 44.
25. Pfc. Leo J. Powers of the 133d Infantry was awarded the Medal of Honor for acts of extraordinary heroism that permitted his unit to enter Cassino briefly.
26. AGF Board Rpt 139 (Col H. J. P. Harding), OCMH.
27. Gray, Crossing of the Rapido.
28. See Ltr, Juin to Clark, 7 Feb 44, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl; Carpentier, Les Forces Alliées en Italie, p. 78.
29. 2d Lt. Paul F. Riorden was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism during the fighting in Cassino.
30. Fifth Army Memo, 10 Feb 44, sub: Artillery Ammunition Against Reinforced Concrete Pillboxes, AG 475.1.
31. See Fifth Army Rpt of Cassino Operations.
32. Intervs, Mathews with Alexander, 10-15 Jan 49, OCMH.
33. See Ltr, Pfc Powers to Capt Nathan Kessler, 7 Apr 45, OCMH.