The attack on Monte Cassino was a bloody affair and one that was dubbed the Stalingrad of the Italian front. It was split into two phases as the first phase petered out and the Allies had to alter their tactics. The main thrust for Monte Cassino started on February 2nd 1944 when the US 135th and 168th Infantry Regiments started their attacks. By February 4th, the 135th was less than 1000 metres from the monastery that dominated Monte Cassino. They came under intense mortar fire and suffered many casualties. However, they refused to withdraw and continued their advance. On February 5th the 135th captured some German prisoners who informed them that men from the III Paratroop Regiment had been brought in to reinforce Monte Cassino. An attempted assault over loose rock came to nothing. On February 12th, the Indian 4thDivision was brought forward to relieve the 135th and 168th Regiments. Out of a total compliment of 3,200 men only 840 remained – such was the intensity of the fighting.
It quickly became clear that the Allies were going to have to fight for every foot they took of Monte Cassino and that casualties were likely to be high in what the Germans termed the second Battle of Monte Cassino. During a short lull in the fighting due to the weather, the Germans reorganised their defences. Monte Cassino was under the command of Colonel Heilmann, who led the III Paratroop Regiment. Faced with an experienced enemy, the Allies decided to use brute force in an effort to defeat the Germans. 600,000 artillery shells were deployed and General Eaker, commander of the Allied air force in the Mediterranean, offered every available bomber to the attack. On March 14th 1944, Allied troops were pulled back from the front line to take them away from the projected artillery bombardment. At 08.00 the first wave of bombers attacked German positions at Monte Cassino. 775 aircraft were involved in the four-hour bombing. 1,250 tons of high-explosive bombs were dropped on the town of Cassino and the area surrounding it. The last bomb exploded at 12.30 and was immediately followed by the artillery bombardment. 195,969 shells were fired from 748 guns in a seven-and-a-half hour time period.
The attack had a devastating impact on the men of the II Battalion, III Paratroop Regiment who were stationed in Cassino. Out of 300 men, at least 160 were killed, wounded or lost underneath the debris. In a short lull in the bombardment, the reserve VI Company moved out of Cassino to the safety of nearby caves.
An infantry attack led by the New Zealand Corps started at 15.30. However, they met unexpected heavy resistance from surviving paratroopers that greatly slowed down their advance. Accurate German artillery fire was also a major problem. The New Zealanders had placed great importance on their infantry receiving armoured support. However, the ground had been so churned up by the artillery and aerial bombardment that vehicles simply could not advance. “The ruins of Cassino were piled high in mountainous heaps, while deep craters yawned in the streets and in the open ground round the town.” (Rudolf Bohmler, German officer at Cassino)
By the evening of March 15th, two-thirds of Cassino was in the hands of the New Zealanders. On the 16th, the Germans sent reinforcements to the town to bolster those men who were still alive. By the 17th, the town was encircled.
While the New Zealanders attempted to take Cassino, the 4th Indian Division attacked Monte Cassino itself. Men from the 1st Battalion of the 9th Gurkha Rifle Regiment got to within 400 metres of the monastery. German paratroopers tried to fight them back but failed to dislodge them. Rudolf Bohmler, commander of the I Battalion, III Paratroop Regiment, was later the write about the fighting tenacity of the Gurkhas and their refusal to pull back from their positions despite the odds against them. A joint Gurkha/Indian/New Zealander attack on the monastery was planned for March 19th. However, the loss of 19 tanks that were to have supported the infantry ended in this assault being postponed. It was started on March 22nd but quickly suspended as no real gains were made.
Allied commanders had to rethink their strategy. A very intensive bombing campaign was started against German supply lines in Italy in the hope of denying supplies to the defenders at Monte Cassino. More men were brought up to the front line including men from the Polish 2nd Corps. The British 13th Corps relieved the New Zealand Corps and a major part of the British 8th Army was sent to Monte Cassino. The next attack on Monte Cassino started at 23.00 on May 11th and included 21 full-sized divisions. 2,000 artillery guns opened the attack and one hour later the infantry started their assault. When daylight broke on May 12th, a major air attack was started.
The French Expeditionary Corps made significant gains around Monte Cassino, which threw the Germans into disarray, as a route was now open to Rome.
By May 13th, the Allies had started to make solid gains in and around Monte Cassino. All available German reserves were pushed up to the front line but as they moved forward they were caught in a ferocious Allied air attack. However the Allies still suffered major casualties when they tried to assault the monastery on top of Monte Cassino and Polish units especially suffered to such an extent that the Polish 5th Division was withdrawn. However, the bravery and fighting spirit of the Poles was recognised even by the German defenders and in the battle to capture Mount Calvary, to the northwest of Monte Cassino, only one officer and seven soldiers out of a whole battalion were capable of continuing the fight. Cleverly camouflaged German artillery had caused many deaths amongst the Polish units attacking Mount Calvary.
What caused a great deal of damage to the German defenders was the success of the French in capturing vital areas around Monte Cassino. The French, commanded by General Juin, used men from the Moroccan 4th Mountain Division and Goumiers, a special force of North African mountain dwellers who found little difficulty in conquering the very difficult terrain. Their success effectively cut off the Germans who were still fighting at Monte Cassino. The part played by the French and those linked to their army was recognised by German paratroop commander Rudolf Bohmler who later wrote:
“The extremely skilfully commanded breakthrough by the French had really won the battle for the Allies. The German XIV Panzer Corps had suffered an annihilating defeat.”
The French, whose success had been to the north of Monte Cassino, had also opened the route to Rome so that the continuing battle to capture Monte Cassino lost its importance. On May 17th, German forces in Monte Cassino were ordered to affect a withdrawal. On May 18th Polish forces entered the monastery but found no German paratrooper there – only wounded German soldiers.
The capture of Monte Cassino came at a high price. The Allies later stated that 114,979 had been killed or wounded during the four months campaign while Bohmler claimed that the true German losses would never be known. However, over 20,000 German graves can be found at the German cemetery at Cassino – though these include the graves of those killed elsewhere in Italy.
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