Hotel Continental was one of the key defence points in the town of Cassino. Advancing New Zealand troops fought fierce fights to take it, but eventually failed.

Monte Cassino was one of the greatest battles of the Second World War, and the greatest one on the Italian front. It was the key point of the Gustav Line, which resisted Allied attacks for half a year, blocking their advance up the Apennine peninsula.

During the Casablanca conference (14-16 January 1943), the Allies agreed upon the operation Husky - namely landing in Sicily. It was a partial success of the British prime-minister Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, who insisted that landing in the Balkans could hasten the fall of the German Reich and liberation of East European countries. The American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt insisted, that the offensive against the German forces in Europe had to be driven along the shortest path - across the English Channel and West Europe.

On 12 May 1943 the Germano-Italian forces in Africa surrendered, and the Husky could start. The operation was commenced on 9 July, and on the next day the 15th Army Group landed in Sicily. Allied forces comprised the American 7th Army (Gen. George Patton) and the British 8th Army (Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery). On 25 July the fascist government of Benito Mussolini in Italy was overthrown, and king Victor Emmanuel III appointed a new government with Marshal Pietro Badoglio in van. On 8 September was announced armistice, secretly concluded earlier between Italy and the Allies. The first points of the armistice declaration provided for immediate cessation of all hostile activity by the Italian armed forces, and stipulated that Italy would use its best endeavours to deny to the Germans facilities that might be used against the United Nations.

At night from 8 to 9 September German forces entered Italy and started disarming Italian troops. The royal family left Rome and made for Brindisi. On 9 September started the operation Avalanche - landing of the American 5th Army (Gen. Mark Clark) on the beaches of Salerno. Simultaneously, the British 8th Army landed in Calabria and Apulia. The success of the Allied landing forced the German command to order withdrawal of the German forces up the Apennine peninsula.

At the end of 1943 German forces, retreating under the pressure of the Anglo-American 15th Army Group, stabilized the front along the line Ortona - Cassino - Minturno. On that line the commander-in-chief of the German forces, Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring, decided to resist further Allied push towards Rome. On 21 November 1943 he ordered to build in the mountains a system of fortifications, known as the Winter Line. Its primary position, the Gustav Line, ran across Italy from the point where the River Garigliano flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west, through the Apennine Mountains to the mouth of the River Sangro in the east. The centre of the line, where it crossed the main route north to Rome (Highway 6), which followed the valley of the River Liri, was anchored around the mountains towering over the town of Cassino, including Monte Cassino, on which was situated a Medieval abbey that dominated the entrance to the valley (the only route to Rome), and Monte Cairo which gave the defenders clear observation of potential attackers advancing towards the mouth of the valley.

From the military point of view it was a perfect defence position: located in the narrowest point of the Apennine peninsula, where roads and bypasses are scarce, and the only plain is on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was connected with the rest of the country by only one road - Road No.7 - easy do block by the enemy. Over that plain towers the Aurunci massif, practically deprived of roads, so the attacking forces were not able to make use of mechanized equipment. Whereas the Germans had a well-developed system of roads in their rears. It enabled manoeuvring with reserve units and introducing tanks in menaced sectors.

On the other hand, the Allies were able to introduce their armoured troops only in the Liri valley. But no sooner than they forced rivers Rapido and Garigliano. Whereas Monte Cassino locked the Liri valley, and the Road No.6 running to Rome. From the summit of Monte Cassino, with the Medieval abbey on top, the enemy could control the whole valley, and keep it under artillery and mortar fire. Inaccessible mountainous terrain, where the Germans had built a system of fortifications, seemed to be impassable. As to the sectors east of Monte Cassino, all the way to the Adriatic Sea, their strategic importance was of lower value, since there were no roads running to the "Eternal City". Additionally, the Allied advance along the Adriatic coast between Ortona and Ancona was hampered by numerous rivers running across the peninsula, with nidi of malaria. The Allied command, concerned about a possible outbreak of epidemics, decided that further advance in the Adriatic sector would be possible only after the taking of Rome.

On 12 January 1944 Gen. Harold Alexander ordered to commence the strategic offensive on Rome (The Battle of Rome). During that operation the task of the American 5th Army was to force German troops to retreat north of Rome, and destroy the bulk of the enemy forces fighting in the south. At the same time the British 8th Army had to contain in fights as many German units as possible, to prevent their use in front of the 5th Army. According to the original plan, units of the 5th Army received the following assignments:
  1. the British X Corps to force River Garigliano in the coastal sector, and then move across the Aurunci mountain range into the Liri valley near San Giorgio to meet the American II Corps, which, after crossing the River Rapido near San Angelo and in the south of Cassino, had to clear the Liri valley;
  2. the right-wing French Expeditionary Corps to outflank German positions across the mountains towards hamlet Atina;
  3. American VI Corps to land at Anzio, and strike through the Alban Hills directly to Rome.
The first battle of Monte Cassino began on 12 January 1944 with the advance of the French Expeditionary Corps (Gen. Alphonse Juin) into the mountains against the German positions in the north of the abbey. Secretly prepared attack of the Algerian and Moroccan troops encountered there strong resistance of the German 5th Mountain Division (Gen. Julius Ringel). After an exhausting battle the French Expeditionary Corps was forced to pull out.

On 17 January, after an intensive artillery barrage, divisions of the British X Corps and American II Corps from the 5th Army entered the action. Their objective was to grasp bridgeheads on the rivers Rapido and Garigliano, and facilitate further advance on Rome. The British spearhead 5th Infantry Division of the X Corps on the second day of the offensive took towns Minturno, Tuffo and Tremensuoli, and created a bridgehead in that sector. At the same time the 56th Infantry Division on the right wing of the X Corps in course of bitter fights broke the defence of the German 276th Infantry Regiment and grasped another bridgehead. That success was coupled with commandoes' operations in the rears of the German 94th and 71st Infantry Divisions in the mountains of Aurunci. But then came the crisis in the British offensive - on 20 January it was stopped by a counter-attack of four German divisions from the 19th Army (Gen. Hans von Vietinghoff).

The task of the American II Corps proved more difficult: its objective was to take Cassino and get to the Road No.6. The 36th Infantry Division had to grasp a bridgehead on the banks of the Rapido near the town of San Angelo, and from there strike against the German positions. Rapido, although no more than 15m wide, was a serious obstacle in the way of the American troops due to its high and steep banks. American infantry was opposed by the troops of the German 15th Armoured Grenadiers Division reinforced with strong artillery units. What illustrates the ferocity of the fights is that it was not after four days of advance that the American 141st Infantry Regiment took San Angelo and created a bridgehead there; however, a counter-attack of the armoured grenadiers threw the Americans back. On 22 January, under the pressure of the advancing troops of the 15th Division, the Americans had to retreat.

On 24 January the II Corps renewed its advance, while the French Expeditionary Corps was given the task to cover the American northern wing, and take hills Belvedere and Abate. After the debacle of the 36th Division, Gen. Geoffrey Keyes engaged in fights the 34th Infantry Division, which had to attack San Angelo from the north along the western bank of the Rapido, and grasp hills Colle Miola, Monte Castellone and San Angelo, and attack the abbey from the south-west. Control over those hills would enable getting to the rears of the German defences around Cassino.

The battle with the German 44th Infantry Division was so pitched that it was not until seven days later that the American troops took some hills around village Cairo. From there they could advance to Cassino. General Clark reinforced American troops with the French Expeditionary Corps.

However, the defence of the 44th Division in Cassino was organized so well that after two weeks of fights the Allies were able to take only few houses in the outskirts of the town. Regiments of the 34th Divisions attacking the abbey were more successful, as on 1 February they took most of Castellone. Four days later, despite of the fierce barrage of the German artillery, American troops approached to the abbey at a distance of up to 900 metres. But at the same time the southern slopes of Monte Cassino were not attacked, the Germans were able to move some of their troops against the 34th Division, and regain some terrain. It became obvious that the system of hills dominating over the Cassino valley was the key position of the German defence system. The 34th Division suffered such a casualties that it was not capable to continue its effort, and had to transfer gained terrain to the New Zealand II Corps. The French Expeditionary Corps, which on 26 January took hills Belvedere and Monte Abate after heavy fights, also suffered heavy losses.

On 22 January commenced operation Shingle - the seaborne landing of the American VI Corps (Gen. John Lucas) on the beaches of Anzio and Nettuno. Alexander reported to London: We appear to have got almost complete surprise; Churchill signalled back his appreciation for the news that the VI Corps was pegging out claims rather than digging in the beach-heads, [Churchill W. S. L. (1986e).] and did not fail to announce a great success to the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. At once it seemed that the Allies indeed had surprized the German command and opened the way to Rome. But instead of developing his success and actually taking th eroad to Rome, General Lucas started digging in the beach-heads. Years later Churchill resented it bitterly:
But now came disaster, and the ruin in its prime purpose of the enterprise. General Lucas confined himself to occupying his beach-head and having equipment and vehicles brought ashore. General Penney, commanding the British 1st Division, was anxious to push inland. His reserve brigade was however held back with the corps. [Churchill W. S. L. (1986e).]
And then Kesselring launched the operation Richard prepared for the case of an Allied landing around Anzio. To push the Allied troops from the bridgehead back into the sea, the commander of the German 14th Army, General Eberhard von Mackensen, sent the units of the I Parachute Corps and LXXVI Armoured Corps, yet, despite of numerous counter-attacks, the Germans were not able to eliminate the bridgehead. In th ecourse of few weeks of fights the German divisions suffered casualties, which made them unable to resume serious offensive actions. Therefore, both sides failed to achieve their goals. Gen. Lucas was dismissed in result.

On 15 February started the second battle of Monte Cassino, whose main goal was to relieve the VI Corps fighting at Anzio. The New Zealand II Corps (Gen. Bernard Cyril Freyberg) was designated to take Monte Cassino. For starters, Freyberg requested that the abbey be bombarded; 229 bombers, in this 142 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses, dropped 576 tons on the abbey hill, without the desirable result, as the German troops just in time left the abbey for the shelter in the caves, while the historic abbey was turned into a rubble, easy to defend, and difficult to storm. Before the air strike, advanced troops had to pull back from their positions, including the Hill 593 that the Germans did not fail to reoccupy. After the air strike and artillery barrage, the Indian 4th Infantry Division rushed to storm the Hill 593 and the abbey. Thanks to the bravery of the Ghurkas after several hours of fights there was taken hamlet San Onofrio and the slopes of the Hill 593, while the New Zealand 2nd Infantry Division failed to take the railway station in Cassino. The II Corps lost 2,400 men killed and wounded, and effectively lost its offensive capabilities.

At the end of February Alexander issued orders to prepare the third battle for Monte Cassino. However, the Allied Forces Headquarters had not drawn any conclusions from the failures of the two previous operations, and that put in question the success of the third one before it had even commenced. The battle had to start from a massive bombardment of the town and the monastery hill. Taking the massif of the Monte Cassino was the most difficult task. Many commanders had serious objections against attacking in that direction. Gen. Juin insisted that his divisions would be more successful in breaking a rather weak defence in the sector of Atina. Colonel Rudolf Böhmler, a highly decorated officer of the German airborne troops, remembered Juin as being a formidable enemy and said that the direction of his initial offensive could have pierced through the German defences: If he reached the Atina Basin he might march unhindered to Rome, thereby unhinging our whole defensive system. [Böhmler R. (1964).]

So, the original plan of assault on the Monte Cassino massif was not changed. On 15 March commenced the third battle of Monte Cassino. In the sector of the American 5th Army there was again engaged the New Zealand II Corps, which had to take the monastery hill and from there strike against the rears of the German troops defending Cassino. At 8:30 the Allied assault was preceded by the air raid of 775 bombers , which dropped 1,000 bombs on the area of The bombing lasted three and half an hour. Apart from Cassino, the Allied air forces bombed many objects in the rears. The beginning of the operation did not foreshadow further troubles. At 13:00 the New Zealand 6th Infantry Brigade and 19th Armoured Regiment commenced the attack at Cassino. The attackers did not expect that despite of the heavy bombardment the forces of the paratroopers defending the town retained their combat capabilities. There were deployed 300 men from the 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Parachute Regiment. During the air raid paratroopers withdrew to the shelters dug in the mountain slopes. The bombs inflicted terrible damage to the town, and destroyed four out of five assault guns, but as soon as the bombing was over, paratroopers quickly assumed defence positions in the ruins.

The 3rd Battalion repelled all the attacks of the New Zealanders on that day, and held its positions in the south-western quarters of the town. Successful was only the assault on the Castle Hill on the northern outskirt of Cassino, which was taken at 16:35. In the evening there came battalions from the 4th Essex Regiment, 6th Rajputana Rifles Regiment, and 9th Gurkha Rifles Regiment from the 5th Infantry Brigade of the Indian 4th Division (Gen. Francis Tucker). The 1/9th Gurkha Rifles (Maj. George Nangle), was to secure Hangman’s Hill. It was taken at night with the forces of one company. The only point of the battlefield that resisted all the attacks was Point 236. Also at night the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Parachute Regiment was sent to Cassino to reinforce its defence.

Heavy rains hampered further advance on the railway station. The attack was resumed on 16 March, and lasted all the day. Nevertheless, the attacking New Zealand troops failed to clear the town. German paratroopers retook their positions in the northern quarters, and from there opened fire on the Castle Hill. At the same time problems occurred with the supplies for the Gurkhas holding the Hangman's Hill. The only supply route found itself under the fire from the Point 236.

In order to make a break-through in the fights for the railway station, the New Zealand command introduced tanks, and after fierce battle the railway station was taken. Yet, the railway station was still under the enemy fire from all the sides, mostly from the south-western quarters. Main points of defence - hotels Continental and Des Roses - were connected by covered trenches, which make it possible to shift troops quickly and invisibly.

At night from 16 to 17 March New Zealand engineers started clearing the approaches to the hotels Continental and Des Roses in order to make space to introduce tanks. On 18 March companies from 25th and 26th Battalions of the 6th Brigade commenced assault on the hotel Continental. However, the German defences were so solid that the New Zealanders suffered very heavy losses before they were able to approach the hotel.

In the afternoon Allied planes dropped supplies to the Gurkhas holding the Hangman's Hill. Holding that point was crucial for resuming advance farther to the Monastery Ridge. On the Monastery Ridge was deployed one company from the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Parachute Regiment.

On 18 March in the evening Gen. Freyberg decided that next day there would be the final attack on the town and mountain Cassino. The capture of those two key positions of the German defence was the main objective of the attack. However, the German command anticipated further Allied moves, and ordered to stage a counter-attack on the New Zealand positions on 19 March in the morning. The initial attack on the Castle Hill caused panic in the Allied ranks. But when the effect of surprise was gone, the 1/4th Essex through the concentrated mortar and machine-gun fire forced the paratroopers to pull out. Nevertheless, Freyberg radioed his troops to call off the planned Gurkhas' attack on the Monastery Ridge.

In order to relieve the troops attacking Cassino, the command of the New Zealand II Corps ordered the 20th Armoured Regiment to start advancing along "The Gorge" to the farm Masseria Albaneta. First the tanks moved along a road built by the engineers; later the way was along mountainous paths, where tanks could move only in a column one after another. Masseria Albaneta was held by the 3rd Battalion of the 4th Parachute Regiment, and the 14th Parachute Anti-Tank Company. At the exit from "The Gorge" the New Zealand tanks got under the fierce fire; simultaneously, the first tanks drove into the minefields. Knocked-down tanks blocked the way out of "The Gorge". The Germans used the opportunity to stage a counter-attack with paratroopers and anti-tank guns. The panic spread on the Allied side. Paratroopers managed to knock down another few tanks. The attack of the 20th Armoured Regiment failed. German sources report 22 destroyed Allied tanks.

At the same time the New Zealand 28th Maori Battalion tried to outflank the Continental hotel, but without a success.

The day 19 March became the critical day of the third battle for Monte Cassino. The New Zealanders consolidated their positions in the town. Due to heavy fire and broken supply lines, the Gurkhas withdrew from the Castle Hill and the Hangman's Hill. Overall the Indian and New Zealand troops lost about 2,000 killed and wounded. On 20 March weather changed rapidly, which is a normal occurrence on that part of Italy, and snowing started in the mountains.

On 25 March the Allied command was forced to make a pause in the operations on the Italian front. That allowed Kesselring to reinforce his troops and consolidate the defences. Of course, the end of the third battle of Monte Cassino did not mean the end of the Allied offensive in Italy. The Allied air forces and artillery took advantage of the lull to hammer German positions along the whole Gustav Line. Allies' superiority in the air lowered the morale of the German troops substantially. And what is more, that morale was already low as the troops were reinforced with second-rate recruits, poorly trained or drafted in the occupied areas annexed into Germany. Nevertheless, the core of the German troops deployed on the Gustav Line consisted of élite armoured, mountain, and airborne troops, experienced in fights and fanatically devoted to the nazi régime.