The Bombing of Cassino
To the Allied forces, the Anzio beachhead toward the end of February was a defensive liability that placed great strain on naval and air resources. Yet it threatened the enemy's major supply routes south of Rome; a comparatively short Allied advance from the beachhead would imperil all the German troops on the Tenth Army front. The strength of the barrier erected at Anzio by the Germans ruled out such an advance for the moment. Was it then possible that the strong German effort at Anzio had been made at the expense of weakening the Gustav Line? If so, it was time for the Allies to make another effort to get into the Liri valley.
After the bombardment of Monte Cassino on 15 February and the subsequent ground attack, General Alexander considered the New Zealand Corps capable of making one more attempt to break through. But if the corps failed again, and Alexander was hardly optimistic, offensive operations would have to be brought to a halt--"after the New Zealand Corps has shot its bolt, a certain pause in land operations will be essential to enable troops to be reorganized and prepared to continue the battle."1
While the New Zealand Corps prepared to renew its attack, Alexander continued to regroup his forces to provide the overwhelming strength needed to break the Gustav Line. Since the troops of Fifth Army were divided between Anzio and Cassino, they were too weak to exert decisive pressure at either place. The Eighth Army, already stripped of units, could do little more than maintain the Adriatic front.
How to find fresh reserves was settled during a series of conferences at General Alexander's headquarters in late February, which set into motion a large-scale shift of forces to the area west of the Apennines. Eventually the Fifth Army zone would be narrowed to the coastal area, where the II Corps and the French Expeditionary Corps would be located under Fifth Army control, along with the VI Corps at Anzio. The Eighth Army, after moving across the Apennines to the Cassino area, would take control of two British corps, the 10 and the 13, as well as of the 2 Polish Corps and 1st Canadian Corps--the provisional New Zealand Corps would be disbanded. The 5 Corps operating directly under Alexander's 15th Army Group headquarters would remain on the Adriatic front.2
Before these new arrangements were
completed, Fifth Army would try once more to break the Gustav Line in the Cassino area. The attempt would be made by General Freyberg's New Zealand Corps in mid-March.
To General Freyberg, there were several reasons for the failure of the experienced mountain fighters of the 4th Indian Division to capture Monte Cassino in February: the Indians could not attack on a broad front and the Germans were therefore able to shift reinforcements quickly to threatened areas; the Germans could concentrate defensive fires quickly and effectively because they had the advantage of observation; the Allies had found it virtually impossible to conduct effective supply operations on the Cassino massif. Believing that a major attack across the high ground was impractical, General Freyberg looked to the town of Cassino. Possession of the town, he felt, would allow an easier approach to Monte Cassino and access to the Liri valley. By putting the 78th Division into the left portion of the New Zealand Corps zone, south of Highway 6, Freyberg could concentrate the 2d New Zealand Division in depth on a narrow front directly before Cassino. The New Zealand division, attacking from the east in the main effort, was to take the town, while the 4th Indian Division assisted by striking into Cassino from the north. Then, while these two divisions advanced to seize Monte Cassino, the 78th Division and CCB of the 1st Armored Division were to enter the Liri valley and begin a drive toward Valmontone. As in the earlier attack of the New Zealand Corps, air power was to come into play--the ground troops were to attack Cassino immediately after a heavy bombing of the town.
General Clark was "really shocked" by General Freyberg's idea of starting the exploitation before the reduction of the Cassino massif, and particularly Monte Cassino. "It is absolutely impossible," he wrote, "to mass for an attack down the Liri Valley without first securing the commanding elevation on one flank or the other." Since 10 Corps had too few troops to seize the heights dominating the Liri valley from the south, Clark felt strongly that the Cassino spur had to be in Allied possession before troops could enter the Liri valley. This seemed to be the principal lesson of the failure to cross the Rapido River at Sant'Angelo in January. General Wilson agreed that it was necessary to secure the high ground before, as he put it, sticking one's head into what otherwise would be a Liri valley trap.3
What explained Freyberg's interest in Cassino and his proposal to bomb the town, Clark believed, was Freyberg's deepening conviction that Monte Cassino was impregnable. "He has weakened from day to day," Clark wrote in his diary, "in his [belief in his] ability to take the monastery." But as a result of discussion between Clark and Freyberg, the corps commander altered his plan. Although he retained Cassino as his primary target, he now included a simultaneous attack to secure Monte Cassino.4
Issuing his order on 21 February, General Freyberg outlined his attack in four phases: (1) the 4th Indian Division was to capture a hill 500 yards due north of the abbey of Monte Cassino and from there cover with fire the western edge of Cassino and the eastern slope of Monte
Cassino; (2) aircraft were then to strike the town of Cassino in a heavy bombardment; (3) the 2d New Zealand Division, with CCB of the 1st Armored Division attached, was to capture the town of Cassino and seize a bridgehead over the Rapido at Highway 6, while the Indian division captured Monte Cassino and cut Highway 6 several miles west of the Rapido River; (4) while New Zealand tanks under 78th Division control passed through the Rapido bridgehead and captured Sant'Angelo from the north, CCB was to exploit westward along Highway 6 in the Liri valley, the 78th Division was to cross the Rapido near Sant'Angelo, and the 36th Division was to keep one regiment in readiness to support the exploitation.5
The air forces were to set D-day and H-hour any time after 24 February, but General Freyberg insisted that a weather forecast of three successive days without rain be a prerequisite. This would give the planes good visibility for the bombardment and for subsequent supporting attacks and the tanks dry ground and good traction for the exploitation. Air and ground commanders decided to execute the large scale bombing in the morning. The ground attack would follow at noon. The date would be announced when the weather conditions were suitable for air and ground forces alike.6
At a meeting held at the New Zealand Corps headquarters on 21 February, General Freyberg discussed his plan of attack, with special attention to the role of the air forces. In attendance were General Brann, the Fifth Army G-3, Brig. Gen. Thomas E. Lewis, the Fifth Army artillery officer, Colonel Hansborough, the Fifth Army air support control officer, Col. Stephen B. Mack of the XII Air Support Command, and several New Zealand officers. At the outset of the conference, Freyberg declared that he would not attack "unless a large scale air effort was made." He wanted at least 75 tons of bombs to be dropped to level the town of Cassino and permit his infantry and tanks "to walk through." Colonel Mack assured him that planes could destroy the town. They could drop that amount of bombs on a single target in about three hours, but no less, for the bomber groups would have to wait for the dust and smoke to clear between attacks. As for what General Freyberg hoped the result would be, Mack stated his conviction that the infantry "could advance [only] with difficulty" after the bombardment and that it would be impossible "to get tanks through the town for two days" because the streets would be blocked with debris. Freyberg impatiently "brushed aside" Mack's statement. He expected his tanks to be through the town in six to twelve hours.7
Like General Freyberg, the commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, General Arnold, hoped for a great victory through the use of air power. Early in March, he wrote from Washington to suggest to General Eaker, who commanded the Mediterranean Allied Air
Forces, that a massive air attack be launched:
We are all very greatly disturbed here at the apparent "bogging down" of the Italian campaign. I admit that I am looking at this from a great distance away from the actual scene of battle . . . .
The Ground Forces are at almost the exact position in which they found themselves during my last visit. The hill overlooking Cassino is still in German hands. That hill apparently dominates the military situation in that it must be taken before we can hope to effect a juncture between the main army and the beachhead force. With different terrain, the desert force found itself in similar positions during its fight across the top of Africa. They solved the problem, I believe, by convincing the Ground Forces that they could and would blow a hole through the opposition providing those Ground Forces were ready and set to take advantage of the opportunity . . . .
What he recommended was gathering together all the aircraft of the Coastal Air Force, all the heavy bombers, medium bombers, and fighters of the strategic and tactical air forces--including crews in rest camps, those not yet quite ready for battle, and those in Africa--to establish a force "which, for one day, could really make air history." Withdraw the ground forces temporarily, General Arnold continued, and use all the available air power to "break up every stone in the town behind which a German soldier might be hiding. When the smoke of the last bombers and fighters begins to die down, have the ground troops rapidly take the entire town of Cassino."8
General Eaker was somewhat dubious. He thought this was easier said than done, and he wrote to General Arnold:
It was clearly demonstrated in the bombing of the Abbey that little useful purpose is served by our blasting the opposition unless the army does follow through.
I am anxious that you do not set your heart on a great victory as a result of this operation. Personally, I do not feel it will throw the German out of his present position completely and entirely, or compel him to abandon the defensive role, if he decides and determines to hold on to the last man as he now has orders to do. It may, however, and I hope will permit the present line [at Cassino] and bridgehead [Anzio] to join up. From our [air] point of view that is the first and major consideration. The bridgehead [at Anzio] is so limited that we are forced to abandon our landing strip in the bridgehead. We lost twenty-four airplanes before we gave up . . . .
. . . . It apparently is difficult for anyone not here to understand the full effect of the combination of terrain and rainfall on the battle. The streams are swollen; there are no bridges, these have all been destroyed; the land is a complete quagmire--it will not support foot troops let alone heavy equipment. Everything must move on the few important roads and these, of course, are in the battle zone and completely enfiladed by heavy artillery fire . . . . we must remember that the terrain and the weather conspired to bring about an entirely different situation than that which pertained in the desert. In the desert campaign flanking movements were always possible. The weather and the terrain made that possible. Here, both the weather and the terrain have forced any advances to be made through mined defiles with heavy artillery concentrations on the high ground on either side. That makes a different picture out of it entirely . . . .
The picture with respect to the future is this and you can rely on it . . . . We shall go forward and capture Rome when the
weather permits . . . and not before; we shall be able, with Spring and Summer weather, to contain the German divisions now in Italy.9
If General Eaker was far from optimistic about the effect of a heavy air attack at Cassino, he had high hopes for the efficacy of a sustained bomber program directed against enemy coastal shipping and the road and rail nets used by the Germans. Operation STRANGLE, as it was called, was designed to cut German supply routes to the divisions located south of the Pisa-Rimini line. Eaker had sufficient aircraft to carry out the plan over a period of six weeks to two months. All he needed was good weather. With this operation he was sure he could help the Allied ground forces take Rome and compel the Germans to withdraw into northern Italy.10
The details of Operation STRANGLE were worked out as early as the first days of March; the operational directive was issued later in the month. The XII Air Support Command, charged with the primary responsibility for this large-scale interdiction program, would be unable to throw its full weight into the task until after the breakthrough attack at Cassino, which required top priority for close support missions.11
Despite General Eaker's conviction that a bombardment of Cassino would be of little practical help to the ground troops, he tried to make the operation a success. After studying photographs of a B-24 attack on marshaling yards and airfields, he reminded Maj. Gen. Nathan E. Twining, the Mediterranean Allied Strategic Air Force commander, early in March, that he "was again disappointed at the scattered bombing and poor results obtained . . . . we need to press very hard to improve accuracy, formation flying and leadership."12
As finally ordered, General Freyberg's attack would have the 2d New Zealand Division capture the town of Cassino and break out into the Liri valley near Highway 6, while the 4th Indian Division assisted by neutralizing enemy positions on the eastern slopes of Monte Cassino, maintaining pressure to prevent the enemy from moving reserve forces against the main effort, and capturing Monte Cassino. The daytime attack by infantry and tanks was to follow a heavy air bombardment of four hours' duration and an artillery preparation in maximum strength. The bombing was to increase in intensity and reach a climax at H-hour of the ground attack. A total of 360 heavy and 200 medium bombers was expected to level Cassino, and fighter-bombers would be on hand to support the developing ground operation.13
Hoping to avoid getting his tanks bogged down in street fighting, General Freyberg directed maximum use of fire and movement, not only by his tanks but also by his self-propelled artillery. To prevent tanks from being hit by friendly fire, those vehicles moving from the direction of the enemy were to elevate their guns to maximum height. These instructions applied to the New
Zealand elements and also to two predominantly American task forces that were to exploit the breakthrough of the Gustav Line. Both task forces were composed mainly of units from CCB of the 1st Armored Division.14
CCB had been ready to exploit an opening into the Liri valley as early as January. The terrain had been thoroughly studied and preparations carefully made--radio-equipped control posts established, routes of advance delineated, wreckers and recovery vehicles stationed at appropriate points.15 For a week in mid February, CCB had remained on a 6-hour alert near San Pietro, Ceppagna, and Monte Trocchio, awaiting word for commitment across the Rapido River.16 Now once again the troops were ready. "We are scheduled to go around the corner from Cassino," General Allen, the CCB commander, wrote to General Harmon, who was at Anzio with the bulk of the 1st Armored Division, "with the First Tank Group leading, followed by some armor of the New Zealand Division, after which CC 'B' proper pushes on." He had conferred with New Zealand officers on the plan of attack, and he had conducted command post exercises, though he had been unable to have demonstrations or field exercises. Allen was not entirely optimistic about the prospects of the new attack. His letter to Harmon continued:
The weather here has been terrible and the valley is a sea of mud. I don't believe that any medium tank will be able to venture far from firm standing under the conditions that now exist, and operations [will be] restricted to roads, only a few of which exist in that valley . . . .
. . . nor can I give you any dope on when this planned operation will go into effect. We sit at the end of a telephone on a two hour alert with the engineers . . . ready with matériel for the bridging. Our artillery is in position firing some missions as are the T.D. battalions . . . . everyone is anxious for the attack to start the push up and rejoin the Division for the march into Rome.17
The weather continued to be miserable, and Freyberg continued to wait for a forecast of three clear days. Impatient after the first week in March had gone by, General Clark urged the New Zealand Corps commander to go ahead, to stop waiting for ideal weather. "I fully realize that we are not going to completely break through," the army commander wrote, "and the tanks will
play only a small part in this attack."18 But General Freyberg was immovable. More time passed. One of the difficulties was the variation in weather within the theater. When it was clear at Cassino, it might be zero visibility at the airfields--foggy in Naples, raining in Foggia, and cloudy over Corsica, Sardinia, and North Africa.19
The meteorologists finally produced the proper forecast. At 1800, 14 March, the Mediterranean Air Force headquarters announced D-day for the following day. During the night, New Zealand and Indian troops withdrew 1 ,500 yards from their most advanced positions for safety during the bombardment of Cassino that would start the next morning.20
To drop a minimum of 75 tons of bombs on Cassino in the shortest possible time, and to have the most destructive effect on the stone houses and concrete pillboxes in the town, the aircraft would use nothing less than 1,000 pound bombs, with fusings adjusted to penetrate the buildings to basement depth. Bombers would attack in waves, striking every fifteen minutes from 0830 to noon. The artillery, which would fire between the bombing waves, would deliver at noon a final concentration lasting forty minutes. When the infantrymen jumped off, a creeping artillery barrage would precede them, the fires moving through Cassino 100 to 200 yards ahead of the assault troops. Fighter-bombers would assist by attacking selected targets, especially the railway station, the ancient coliseum at the base of Monte Cassino, and Monte Cassino itself.21
On the morning of 15 March, General Clark drove to Cervaro to witness what would be, up to that time, the greatest massed air onslaught in direct tactical support of ground forces. Together with Devers, Alexander, Eaker, Freyberg, and others, he watched Cassino, plainly visible a little less than three miles away. Like all the troops in the Cassino area, he heard what someone later would call a "locust-like drone [that] came from afar." The "uncertain murmur swelled gradually; a steady, pulsing throb." Then "the specks began to appear, high and small against the sky."
First to arrive at 0830 were the medium bombers, B-25's and B-26's, in flights of a dozen or more, escorted by fighters flying high above them and marking the sky with vapor trails. The bombers approached the target, almost passed, then turned left. The bellies of the planes opened, and the bombs tumbled out. Then the planes wheeled again, this time to fly home.
About 80 percent of the bombs dropped by the aircraft in the first wave fell into the heart of Cassino. The others landed nearby, a few short ones coming to earth on the Allied side of the Rapido River. As the bombs struck, "stabbing flashes of orange flame" shot through a holocaust of erupting smoke and debris.
Next, at 0845, came the heavy bombers, the Flying Fortresses, along with the dive bombers. As the pilots roared over the town, already obliterated from
BOMBING OF THE TOWN OF CASSINO
view by smoke and dust, the bombardiers let go their loads. Bright orange bursts appeared over Cassino, Monte Cassino, and the Rapido valley. Only the impact of the first bombs was visible. The bombs of the later strikes were lost in a billowing ocean of gray and white dust and smoke.
The ground for at least five miles around Cassino shook violently as though in an earthquake. How could any human being in the town "survive such punishment and retain his sanity"?
Almost without interruption, the bombs fell until noon. Between the waves of planes, artillery pounded the target.
Finally came the 40-minute cannonade, joined by every field piece in the area--American, British, New Zealand, Indian, and French. An artilleryman's dream, the target was in plain sight, the range was virtually point-blank, the calibration was exact, the registration perfect. The artillery thundered, the gunners perspiring in the chill winter air.
Monte Cassino seemed to jump and writhe under the detonations. Great holes appeared in the few walls of the abbey still standing. Huge chunks of masonry flew through the air.
When the artillery barrage ceased and the ground troops moved out in the attack, "Surely, there were no defenders
left with any fight in them. Surely it would be but a question of bodies and prisoners, perhaps very few of either."22
Between 0830 and 1200, 15 March, 72 B-25's, 101 B-26's, 262 B-17's and B-24's--a total of 435 aircraft--bombed the Cassino area. The planes dropped more than 2,000 bombs, a total weight of almost 1,000 tons, in an unprecedented bombardment of awesome proportions.23 There was little flak at Cassino, and no German planes appeared to oppose the bombing. The Allied aircraft suffered no losses.
The medium bomber attacks were generally punctual, their bombing concentrated and accurate. The heavy bombers were often at fault on all three counts. Thus, the target received less than the full weight of the bombs dropped. Only about 300 tons fell into the town of Cassino. The remainder landed on the slopes of Monte Cassino and elsewhere. Only half in all found the target area. In addition, there were frequent and long pauses between the attacking waves.
Even this imperfect bombardment demolished Cassino, toppling walls, crushing buildings, and covering the streets with debris.
Some heavy bomber pilots were unable to identify the target, and twenty-three returned to their bases with their bombs intact; two jettisoned their loads in the sea. Rack failure on the leading plane of one formation sent forty bombs into Allied-held areas, killing and wounding civilians and troops. These short bombs and others inflicted about 142 casualties--28 were killed--among the Allied units in the Cassino area. Ten air miles away, several planes bombed Venafro by mistake, killing 17 soldiers and 40 civilians, and wounding 79 soldiers and 100 civilians. The bombing errors were an "appalling" tragedy that General Clark attributed to "poor training and inadequate briefing of crews."24
The artillery firing went as planned. A total of 746 guns and howitzers delivered 2,500 tons of high explosive immediately ahead of the assault troops and an additional 1,500 tons on hostile batteries and other preselected targets. Between 1220 and 2000 that day, artillery pieces in the Cassino area fired almost 200,000 rounds.
General Freyberg and other commanders expected the air bombardment and artillery shelling to pulverize Cassino, destroy enemy strongpoints, disrupt German communications, neutralize hostile artillery, and inflict heavy casualties on the Germans--in short, to so stupefy, daze, and demoralize the Cassino defenders that the ground troops would attain their objectives and occupy the town quickly with hardly any losses.25 Contrary to their anticipations, "plenty of defenders remained; plenty of fight, plenty of guns, ammunition, observation points, and plenty of perseverance."26
The air attack had come as a surprise to the Germans and had tossed men about "like scraps of paper." But the demoralizing effect of the bombing lasted only a short time. The stone houses in Cassino gave excellent protection against all but psychological strain. The men of the 1st Parachute Division, who had moved into Cassino on 26 February, were exceptionally well trained and conditioned, and did not panic.
At 1040 that morning, in the midst of the bombardment, Vietinghoff phoned Senger to instruct him to stand fast. "The Cassino massif," he said, "must be held at all costs by the 1st Parachute Division." Senger had every intention of doing just that. Although prisoners taken by the Allies would later report that the bombing had inflicted a considerable number of casualties, the defenders at Cassino actually sustained comparatively few losses. Their heavy weapons and artillery fire were only partially neutralized. Against the New Zealand and Indian infantrymen in the first assault, the German paratroopers put out extremely heavy mortar and machine gun fire. The paratroopers also found that the bombing had its compensations--toppled walls formed effective bulwarks for defense.27
Not only the hostile fire but the immense destruction wrought in Cassino impeded the Allied attack. When tankers in immediate support of the assaulting infantry advanced, they found their routes blocked by debris and craters. Some commanders and staff members had realized that progress through Cassino would be slowed by the bomb holes and the wreckage of the buildings, but the actual conditions were far worse than they had expected. Rubble choked the narrow streets, and some craters were so large--forty to fifty feet in diameter in a few instances--that they had to be bridged before the tanks could pass. Since the New Zealand Corps headquarters was a provisional entity, it lacked organic corps engineers, and the improvised engineer units were inadequate for the tremendous task of clearing avenues of advance. Germans concealed in ruined houses picked off engineers trying to do their work.28
More aircraft--120 B-17's and 140 B-24's--arrived over Cassino early on the afternoon of 15 March to help the ground troops, but heavy cloud formations covered the area and prevented the pilots from finding their targets. They returned to their bases without
releasing their loads. Lighter planes had better success. Between 1300 and 1500, 49 fighter-bombers dropped 18 tons of bombs on the railroad station in Cassino. Between 1345 and 1630, 96 P-47's, A-36's, and P-40's struck the base of Monte Cassino with 44 tons. Between 1500 and 1700, 32 P-40's and A-36's hit the forward slopes of Monte Cassino with 10 tons. And 66 A-20's and P-40's loosed 34 tons on various targets at different times during the afternoon.
The massive support from the air had little result. New Zealand infantrymen fought a bitter house-to-house battle in Cassino and came close to reaching Highway 6 along the base of Monte Cassino, but they were unable to break through to the Liri valley. Other New Zealand troops on the massif won a hill quite close to the abbey of Monte Cassino, but could go no farther. Indian troops trying to fight their way into Cassino from the north made little progress.
As dusk fell on the afternoon of 15 March, the clouds that had moved over Cassino became dark and menacing, the weather broke and the rain came. Contrary to the forecaster's predictions of three days of clear weather, a torrential downpour beat upon the battered town. The bomb craters and exposed cellars soon filled with water. As the rain continued throughout the night, it became obvious that tanks would be unable to pass through Cassino for at least thirty-six hours. And General Freyberg was depending to a large extent on the power of tanks.29
During the night the tankers could hardly form up to renew the attack. New Zealand infantrymen stumbled
RUINS OF THE CONTINENTAL HOTEL
through mud-filled craters and crumbling debris, their communications deteriorating because water had damaged their radio sets and enemy fire had cut down wire teams.
There was no progress in Cassino on 6 March, as confused fighting took place around the Continental Hotel and the railway station. Indian troops advanced toward Monte Cassino but could get no closer to the abbey than a half mile. Planes dropped 266 tons of high explosive to help the ground troops, but with no effect on the situation.
It was the artillery fire that the Germans found devastating. Of the ninety-four gun barrels that the 71st Projector Regiment had started with on 16 March, only five were left at the end of the day--the rest had been knocked out by counterbattery fire. To the defenders, the Allied forces seemed to be employing "the tactics of El Alamein; namely,
concentrated fire from planes and guns, and infantry attacks on a narrow front." But the Allied strength massed at Cassino failed to overwhelm the Gustav Line.30
The pattern was much the same on 17 March. New Zealand troops, fighting at close range, sought to clear the southwestern corner of Cassino. Indian troops attempted to gain the slope of Monte Cassino. Planes dropped about 200 tons of bombs in direct support of ground operations without noticeable effect. General Clark noted that day:
The battle of Cassino is progressing slowly. Freyberg's enthusiastic plans are not keeping up to his time schedule . . . .
I have repeatedly told Freyberg from his inception of this plan that aerial bombardment alone never has and never will drive a determined enemy from his position. Cassino has again proven this theory, for, although no doubt heavy casualties were inflicted upon the enemy in Cassino, sufficient have remained to hold up our advance and cause severe fighting in the town for the past two days . . . .
Due to General Alexander's direct dealing with Freyberg and the fact that this is an all-British show, I am reluctant to give a direct order to Freyberg . . . .31
By the night of 17 March, the situation at Cassino was thoroughly confused. The difficulty of locating and reporting forward positions made effective artillery support impossible. Tanks still could not maneuver. Highway 6 was still blocked.
Yet the attack continued in this grim and desperate battle in the weird ghost town of Cassino and on the slopes of the Cassino massif surrealistically decorated by ravaged trees and the debris of combat. The forces remained deadlocked. The Germans held two principal centers of resistance in Cassino, one in the northwest, the other in the southwest corner of the town, immobilizing and grinding down six battalions of New Zealand infantry. The Germans also held the principal ridges protecting the approaches to Monte Cassino and had completely isolated New Zealand and Indian forces on two hills.
By 21 March, as the battle of Cassino entered its seventh day, some commanders, General Juin for one, believed that the attack was proving too costly and should be stopped. General Freyberg was unwilling to call it off. At a conference during the afternoon General Alexander supported Freyberg--if the New Zealand Corps could keep up the pressure for twenty-four or forty-eight hours more, the German defense might collapse. General Clark admitted he had been discouraged about continuing the attack until he had talked with some of Freyberg's subordinate commanders, who were determined to fight until the objective was gained. General Leese agreed with Freyberg. Alexander decided to review the situation each day to see when to call a halt.32
Although no one wanted to admit defeat--"I hate to see the Cassino show flop" was the way General Clark put it--it was apparent two days later, on 23 March, that the New Zealand and Indian divisions were exhausted. Freyberg agreed with Clark, and recommended that the attack be halted. At a meeting with Leese and Clark, Alexander gave the order.33
There was no other choice. Despite the unprecedented air bombardment of Cassino, the expenditure of almost 600,000 artillery shells and the loss of 2,000 New Zealand and Indian troops in nine days--almost 300 killed, nearly 250 missing, and more than 1,500 wounded--the latest attempt to break the Gustav Line and gain entrance to the Liri valley had failed.34
General Alexander's chief of staff explained the reasons for failure. There had been too much optimism about the effect of the air bombardment on the German defenders, and this in turn had led to employing too few Allied troops in the attack. The heavy rain had bogged down the assault elements, particularly the tanks. And the enemy resistance had been stubborn.35
General Allen, together with his troops of CCB, was waiting to enter the Liri valley when word came on 16 March that the New Zealanders would probably not be able to provide him with a bridgehead. He decided that if CCB were now committed, he would try to gain a bridgehead himself. CCB continued in alert status until the morning of 18 March, when Allen was informed that the exploitation "planned for months" had become impossible. Although in reserve, CCB had nevertheless suffered casualties--several German dive bombers attacked and destroyed the tactical command post of the 1st Tank Group, completely demolishing a small building housing the headquarters and all the vehicles around it, killing six men and badly wounding five, all of them key noncommissioned officers. On 24 March orders arrived for CCB to withdraw from the Cassino area for movement to Anzio.36
One company of American tanks had participated in the battle for Cassino. Before the battle General Freyberg had asked whether General Allen could provide an armored force to help the Indian division and whether he could do so without weakening CCB to the point of hindering the projected exploitation. Allen made available a company of light tanks. In the hope that the "appearance of tanks, and the fire we could deliver, would cause chaos and panic among the Germans," 1st Lt. Herman R. Crowder, Jr., commanding Company D, 760th Tank Battalion, received the mission of spearheading an infantry attack in the Cassino massif and providing impetus for a final thrust to the abbey of Monte Cassino. The attack was first delayed, then changed to an assault on one of the spurs of Monte Castellone.
In rough terrain that caused four tanks to throw tracks at once and against heavy German mortar fire, the tank company jumped off on 19 March, but soon had to retire. The tankers then gave supporting fire to Indian infantrymen. Early in the afternoon the company moved forward again, the tankers firing as they advanced. Despite shell holes, bomb craters, and enemy artillery and small arms fire, the company had started to move along a trail directly toward Monte Cassino when the lead tank ran over a mine and was disabled, blocking the column. Although the appearance of tanks
in such difficult ground seemed to surprise and disconcert the Germans, no Indian infantrymen moved up to consolidate the gain. Crowder ordered his tanks to pull back slowly. During the withdrawal, his company lost four more tanks--one was destroyed by a mine, another by antitank fire, and two bogged down in mudholes.
All together, ten tanks were lost that day. Hoping to recover some of them, Crowder tried to get a small force of infantry and engineers to accompany the tankers. The G-3 of the Indian division refused to make the infantry and engineers available--the Germans, he said, had probably already mined and booby-trapped the tanks. Crowder estimated that the tanks were no more than 150 yards ahead of the front, but an advance of this distance, he later reported, the Indians "considered a major operation." Crowder's tank company, in the opinion of the division staff, had nevertheless given valuable assistance.37
The failure to break the Cassino defenses disappointed ground force commanders but positively shocked the air forces commanders. General Eaker, who had watched the bombardment, had returned to his headquarters that afternoon and had at once conferred by radio teletype with Maj. Gen. Barney Giles, General Arnold's chief of staff in Washington.38 The conversation was apparently amplified in a letter Eaker sent several days later to General Arnold to describe and explain what had happened.
The air phases of the Cassino battle, General Eaker wrote, went according to plan until about 1500, when an abrupt break in the weather prevented most of the remaining missions. Despite the rain, low clouds, poor visibility, and the cancellation of some missions, the air bombardment, according to ground force commanders, had provided the destruction desired. Prisoners of war indicated that the bombing had come as a great shock and surprise to the Germans and "really knocked their ears off." Yet about 300 troops living or taking shelter in a long tunnel deep under Cassino and other Germans equally well protected had survived the bombing and had resisted the ground advance, continuing to fight even though some infantry companies numbered less than thirty men. Significantly, Eaker stated, the defenders received no reinforcements during the battle.
"I think," General Eaker continued, "if I had been sitting in Washington and had been unfamiliar with the terrain at Cassino, I would have wondered what this Cassino battle was all about." Since the map showed Cassino to be a compact town at the foot of a mountain and astride the main highway into the Liri valley behind the mountain, why had the Allied command not bypassed Cassino in the broad valley to the left? This would have perhaps been possible in dry weather. But the ground during much of the first three months of 1944 had been a morass of mud that bogged down not only tanks and motor vehicles but also foot troops. That was why Cassino was a roadblock and why it had to be taken before any large-scale
offensive could be made through the valley. Furthermore, the ground commanders felt that they had to have the high ground north of Cassino before striking through the valley in order to prevent the Germans from placing fire on the rear of the exploiting forces, from launching counterattacks, and from using the heights as observation posts.
General Eaker had watched the tanks and infantry move into the eastern edge of Cassino and come to a stop. The bombs had created tremendous craters that soon filled with water. These had to be bridged or filled before the tanks could proceed, for cliffs and impassably wet ground prevented the tanks from going around the holes. "You will remember," Eaker wrote, "that I warned you in a letter written before the battle of Cassino not to expect a large-scale breakthrough as a result of this operation. That estimate of the situation has proved correct." Nor was it possible, with the forces available, with troops who were weary and depressed, to anticipate a large-scale advance in the Cassino area until the ground dried. Even as he wrote, Eaker commented, it was "raining buckets full."
General Eaker was aware that some persons outside the theater might attribute the ground force failure to poor performance by the air forces. Inside the theater, there was no such feeling. Considering the weather, Wilson, Devers, Alexander, and Clark all felt that the air forces had done everything possible.39
Air officers in Washington were sympathetic. General Giles sent congratulations and assurance that General Arnold and everyone else in the Army Air Forces headquarters were pleased with the "very fine showing you made with the air power at Cassino." Their displeasure was directed against the ground boys, as Giles called them, who did not follow through. Air commanders, he said, had "never guaranteed [the ability] to land on top of the rubble and occupy the ground." The air forces people felt that the ground follow-up of the bombing was "puny" in comparison to
the greatest concentration of air power in the world. It is too bad that our ground forces did not build up strength in depth consisting of three or four divisions in column and push on through Cassino or go around it. I believe that if we could find a few jugs of corn liquor of the same brand that General Grant did so well with, that situation could be cleared up in a few days.40
There was, nevertheless, a persistent feeling that something, somewhere, had gone wrong. And someone was going to be blamed. To repudiate comment appearing in the press that the unsuccessful outcome of the Cassino battle was due to air force failure, General Clark sent General Eaker a letter stating categorically, "I do not share that view." The tendency to blame the air forces, he wrote, "has not been inspired by my headquarters." No bombardment, in his opinion, could eliminate determined infantrymen occupying good defensive positions in a fortified area.41 Bombing could be demoralizing for a short time, but it had no lasting results when prepared positions protected men from
concussion and gave them a sense of security. The effect of the bombardment of Cassino, "though potent, was of relatively short duration and intermittent."42
General Twining wrote:
Cassino is not an indictment of the value of heavy bombs in close support of the Army. Their ability to land a knock-out blow, without warning is still an advantage which no other form of attack enjoys, but . . . there are limiting and controlling factors for this as with all other types of fire support.43
The outstanding performance at Cassino was that of the German paratroopers. To Senger, the XIV Panzer Corps commander, their "iron tenacity and unswerving resolution of true soldiers had overcome a concentration of matériel on a narrow front which probably had no precedent in this war." Their constant optimism, during even the most critical phases of the battle, was a source of amazement and inspiration to corps and army headquarters. "No troops but the 1st Parachute Division," declared Vietinghoff, the Tenth Army commander, "could have held Cassino."44
Three times the Allied forces had tried to break the Gustav Line and get into the Liri valley, and three times they had failed--in January the frontal attack across the Rapido, in February the attempt to outflank the Cassino spur, and in March the effort to drive between the abbey and the town. They would try again, but only after the weather cleared and the ground was firm, after the troops had rested. Only then, in May, would they again take up the struggle.
1. ACMF Appreciation 1, 22 Feb 44.
2. ACMF Min of CofS Mtg, 1430, 28 Feb 44, dated 4 Mar 44, AG 337; Ltr, Alexander to Clark, 18 Feb 44, sub: Regrouping; Ltrs, Alexander to Clark and to Leese, 22 Feb 44. Last three in AAI 17/3/44 - 10/10/44.
3. Clark Diary, 19 Feb 44.
4. Ibid., 21 Feb 44.
5. New Zealand Corps OI 5, 21 Feb 44; 36th Div Ltr, 9 Mar 44, sub: OI, 36th Div File; 4th New Zealand Armd Brigade OI 4, 16 Feb 44, Amendment 1, 18 Feb 44, Amendment 2, 23 Feb 44, and OI 5, 9 Mar 44. Last two in 4th New Zealand Armd Brigade File.
6. Fifth Army Ltr, Air Support, 7 Apr 44, Cassino Study.
7. Memo, Hansborough to Brann, 31 Mar 44, Cassino Study.
8. Ltr, Arnold to Eaker, undated (early Mar 44), Mathews File, OCMH.
9. Ltr, Eaker to Arnold, 6 Mar 44, Mathews File, OCMH.
11. XII Tactical Air Command Operational History, 1 January-30 June 1944, pp. 14-43. See below, p. 451.
12. Ltr, Eaker to Twining, 10 Mar 44, Mathews File, OCMH. See Craven and Cate, eds., Europe: ARGUMENT to V-E Day, p. 326.
13. 2d New Zealand Div Opn Order 41, 23 Feb 44.
14. See 4th New Zealand Brigade OI 4, 16 Feb 44, 4th New Zealand Armd Brigade File. Task Force A consisted of the 13th Armored Regiment, with the 1st, 2d, and 3d Battalions and the Reconnaissance Company, the 636th Tank Destroyer Battalion, the 16th Armored Engineer Battalion (Provisional), the 434th Antiaircraft Battalion (Provisional), the 6617th Mine Clearance Company, and a platoon of the 1st Armored Division Military Police Company. Task Force B was composed of the 1st Tank Group, with the 753d Tank Battalion, the 760th Tank Battalion (less two companies), the 776th Tank Destroyer Battalion, a company of the 48th Engineer Combat Battalion, a troop of the 91st Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, and the 21st New Zealand Infantry Battalion. In support of the two task forces were four battalions of 155-mm. howitzers under the control of the 6th Field Artillery Group headquarters. 1st Armd Div CCB FO 1, 2100, 14 Mar 44.
15. See CCB Paper, Movement of Assault Elements to the Rapido, 22 Jan 44, CCB S-3 Jnl File.
16. 1st Tank Group (later 1st Armd Group) AAR, 13 Feb-26 Mar 44. During part of this time, CCB was also alerted to the possibility of going to the Anzio beachhead. See Keyes to Allen, 1130, 25 Jan 44, CCB S-3 Jnl File. See also CCB Liri Valley Plan (Cassino Phase), 3 Jan 44, revised plan, 4 Feb 44 and CCB S-3 Msg, 4 Feb 44, CCB S-3 Jnl File; 36th Div Artillery Annex 3 to FO 45, 1200, 4 Feb 44.
17. Ltr, Allen to Harmon, 4 Mar 44, CCB S-3 Jnl File.
18. Clark Diary, 8 Mar 44.
19. Ibid., 10, 11 Mar 44.
20. Fifth Army Ltr, Air Support, 7 Apr 44, Cassino Study.
21. Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force Report, Attack on Cassino, 15 March 1944, dated 11 Jul 44, AFHQ G (Ops), Lessons from Opns, vol. II.
22. Fifth Army Engr History, I, 28; Clark Diary, 5 Mar 44.
23. Four months later in Normandy, on two different occasions, more than three times as many strategic bombers in direct support of tactical operations would drop much more than three times as many tons of high explosive. (See Martin Blumenson, Breakout and Pursuit, UNITED STATES ARMY IN WORLD WAR II (Washington, 1961), pp. 191, 234.) And in November 1944 the largest operation of this sort in World War II would take place. (See Charles B. MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, UNITED STATES ARMY IN WORLD WAR II (Washington, 1963), pp. 403ff.)
24. Quotation from Clark Diary, 17 Mar 44; figures from New Zealand Rpt, Bombing of Cassino, 23 Mar 44, Cassino Study; Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force Rpt, Attack on Cassino, dated 11 Jul 44, AFHQ G (Ops), Lessons from Opns, vol. II; Fifth Army Ltr, Air Support, 7 Apr 44, Cassino Study. The Fifth Army Report of Operations for March gives the figure as 1,400 tons of bombs dropped on Cassino. General Clark recorded in his diary on 15 March that 334 heavy bombers, 255 fighter-bombers and light bombers, and some medium bombers had dropped a total of 1,320 tons of bombs. According to figures received by Clark and recorded in his diary on 15 and 16 March, there were 138 Allied casualties lost to short bombs in the Cassino area--3 Polish, 7 British, 64 French, and 45 New Zealand soldiers were wounded, 8 French and 14 New Zealand soldiers were killed. On 17 March, he recorded totals of about 75 Allied troops killed and 550 wounded by the bombing.
25. Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force Rpt, Attack on Cassino, 15 Mar 44, AFHQ G (Ops), Lessons from Opns, vol. II.
26. Fifth Army Engr History, I, 28.
27. Vietinghoff to Senger, 1040, 15 Mar 44, quoted in Steiger MS; Vietinghoff MSS; New Zealand Rpt, Bombing of Cassino, 23 Mar 44, Cassino Study.
28. Ibid.; Fifth Army Engr History, I, 31ff.; Clark Diary, 16 Mar 44.
29. New Zealand Rpt, Bombing of Cassino, 23 Mar 44, Cassino Study.
30. Steiger MS.
31. Clark Diary, 17 Mar 44.
32. Clark Diary, 21 Mar 44.
33. Clark Diary, 23 Mar 44.
34. The 4th Indian Division lost 4,000 men in the fighting around Cassino during the months of February and March. The Tiger Triumphs, pp. 62-64.
35. General Harding's Press Conference, 25 Mar 44, Cassino Study.
36. 1st Tank Group (later 1st Armd Group) AAR, Feb-26 Mar 44; Fifth Army Msg, 24 Mar 44, Fifth Army G-3 Jnl.
37. Rpt by Crowder, 24 Mar 44; Memo dictated by Gen Allen at 1130, 11 Mar 44; Ltr, Galloway to Crowder, 21 Mar 44; Allen Memos, 12, 21 Mar 44. All in CCB S-3 Jnl. See also Rpt (Col Devore), The Attack on Albanete House, AGF Bd Rpts, NATO.
38. Eaker Diary, 15 Mar 44, Mathews File, OCMH.
39. Ltr, Eaker to Arnold, The Cassino Battle, 21 Mar 44, Mathews File, OCMH.
40. Giles to Eaker, 29 Mar 44, Mathews File, OCMH.
41. Clark to Eaker, 5 Apr 44, Mathews File, OCMH. See Ltr, Gruenther to Alexander, Preliminary Rpt of Bombing of Cassino, 31 Mar 44, Cassino Study; Fifth Army Rpt on Cassino Opn, 5 Jun 44.
42. Fifth Army Rpt of Cassino Opn, 5 Jun 44; Fifth Army Rpt on Effect of Bombing and Shelling of Cassino, 27 Apr 44, AFHQ G (Ops), Lessons from Opns, vol. II. See also AFHQ Lessons from Opns, vol. I.
43. Twining Memo 5, 4 Jun 44, AFHQ Files. See also Memo, Hansborough for Brann, 31 Mar 44, Cassino Study.
44. MS # C-095b (Senger), OCMH; Vietinghoff MSS; MS # T-1a (Westphal et al.), OCMH; Vietinghoff to Kesselring, quoted in Steiger MS.