Heavy fights for Cassino. Despite of the heavy casualties suffered in house-to-house fights, the Allies eventually failed to win the Third Battle of Monte Cassino.



As the American 5th Army advanced northwards along the Apennine peninsula, it reached the river with the symptomatic name: Rapido. Swollen from the winter rains, it posed a serious obstacle. And on the other side of its murky waters there were stretching mountain massifs, where the Germans had installed their defence positions.

On 12 January 1944 Algerian and Moroccan Arabs, fighting under the French banners, went to the first Cassino offensive. They struck against Monte Cassino, in the north of the town of Cassino. Arab divisions from the French Expeditionary Corps formed the right wing of the 5th Army. On the left wing British divisions moved along the coast. They entered action on 17 January, supported by two cruisers and seaborne troops. Some of those troops actually landed in the British rear, instead of behind the German lines, and caused a lot of confusion, but eventually the situation was clarified and the British gained some terrain with the town of Minturno.

Yet the commander of the 5th Army, Gen. Mark Clark, assigned the main task of the land operations to the American units. On 20 January the 36th Texas Division was set in motion to establish bridgeheads across the Rapido. Yet, well-entrenched Germans overpowered the American advance. Before the engineers built a bridge to let the tanks cross the river, German artillery shattered their construction to pieces. Companies that got to the other bank were bleeding in the enemy fire. In that battle the Texas Division lost 2,000 men killed and missing alone.

The strike in the mountains was coupled with a major seaborne operation. On 22 January a fleet of 250 ships of various classes approached the port in Anzio and surrounding beaches in the place located merely 50km away from Rome. The landing was supposed to take the mountainous barricade in pincers. Before the evening as many as 50,000 men landed to form the American VI Corps (Gen. John Lucas). They met practically no resistance. Lucas might march all the way to Rome. But he had wasted completely the 48 hours he had before any serious German forces counter-attacked at Anzio. The enemy remained astonishingly passive, noted former Kesselring's chief of staff, General Siegfried Westphal. Apparently his hands were kept quite full by the task of consolidating his bridgehead. It was therefore possible to build up a new front to oppose him. Here, Generaloberst von Mackensen took command with the staff of the High Command of the 14th Army, previously in Upper Italy. [Westphal S. (1951).]

Within a week more troops landed at Anzio, but there they encountered a firm line of German defence. Whereas the suicidal head-bumping on the Rapido did not improve the chances of the landing, wasted already at the onset due to its command's lack of imagination. On the other hand, Lucas' snail prudence at Anzio did not help troops fighting in the mountains.

On 24 January, in the fights on the Rapido was engaged the American 34th Infantry Division, which tried to take Cassino and wedge into the mountains. Americans were attacking in poor weather conditions, and in extremely difficult terrain. On the left wing they had the town with the towering abbey mountain. On the right wing there was a chaos of mountain ranges with the summit of Monte Cairo. And ahead they saw a gorge between two mountainous massifs. At the opposite end of that gorge there was a farm called Masseria Albaneta. And strictly speaking, the farm was already on the opposite slope of a mountain ridge - the one facing the direction of Rome. Over the gorge leading to the farm, later known simply as "The Gorge", is towering a peak without a name, and marked on the military maps simply as the Hill 593 from its height over the sea level. The Hill 593 is a secondary peak at Monte Cassino, merely few hundred metres away in a straight line, but elevated above some 80 metres (approx. 30 storeys). On the opposite side of "The Gorge" the San Angelo mountain (601m) towers over an unnamed plateau stretching towards the Rapido; when American troops eventually reached it, they called it the "Phantom Ridge".

It was not until February that the soldiers of the 34th Division took control of the Hill 593 and a part of Cassino. They had no idea that they were at the heart of the Gustav Line, storming one of its key positions. They did not know yet that holding that position would not be possible without simultaneous suppression of the positions on the neighbouring ridges. The Germans eventually threw the Americans away on 10 February. The 34th Division had to abandon that position after it sustained losses of about 80% of manpower.

Almost simultaneously with the Americans moved the French Expeditionary Corps, whose 3rd Algerian Division entered into action somewhat farther to the north. Fierce Arabs took and held two important hills: Castellone and Belvedere dominating over the northern positions of the Gustav Line. Yet the success came at a huge price. Casualties of the 4th Tunisian Rifle Regiment alone amounted to 1,500 soldiers and 150 French officers and NCO's; for short, the regiment ceased to exist.

Thus, after a month of incessant fights, in February the efforts of the 5th Army to overcome the mountainous barricade had extinguished with rather meagre gains.

Meanwhile the situation at Anzio was getting worse day after day. Combat conditions there were horrible to the American soldiers used to comforts. All days round they were stuck up to the waist in cold mud; the shower of shells and bullets of all calibres made it impossible to move around another way but on the knees. Air forces easied the German pressure, but the spirit of defeat was in the air. The whole Allied strategy went upside-down. There was a large landing made to avoid bumping head-on against the mountainous fortifications, and now the troops had to attack those very mountainous fortifications to save the landing forces. And another landing operation in Italy was out of question, as all the ships and landing crafts were being transferred to Britain for planned landing in France.

For the second assault on Cassino the commander of the 15th Army Group, General Harold Alexander, assigned the New Zealand II Corps composed of two excellent divisions - 2nd New Zealand and 4th Indian - experienced in the African battles, as well as American armoured units. But before they went into battle, there was the decision to be made, what to do with the abbey.

The abbey of Monte Cassino is a formidable, fortified structure, expanded and reinforced for centuries, and making one of the oldest centres of the European culture, with collections of irreplaceable treasures. Yet, the infantrymen, dug in mud, and under the constant rain and enemy fire, were easily losing their vigour in view of the towering mountain with the fortress atop. There was no time for detailed scouting and preparing alternative plans; the Germans were determined to make short with the bridgehead at Anzio, and 80,000 Allied soldiers stuck there were facing death or captivity. Therefore, psychological reasons had decided about the abbey's fate - it had to be destroyed.

On 15 February in the morning started air strikes, that took eight hours. For the first time heavy strategic bombers were carrying the tactical task of supporting ground forces. But imprecise bombing hit advanced Allied troops too. Before the end of the day the abbey had turned into a rubble, but it did not help the attacking troops. Ruins made excellent defence emplacements. Despite of fierce attacks that the New Zealanders repeated again and again at the railway station in Cassino, and the British and Indians on the slopes of the Hill 593, they did not break the German defence. The Germans were holding the position, which had been considered impossible to take since the Antiquity. On top of that this position was thoroughly fortified; and half a million of mines were laid in the forefront. The only, although non-negligible, effect of the second battle of Monte Cassino was halting the German counter-attack at Anzio and Nettuno. The Germans, menaced in the mountains, had to transfer there the forces concentrated for assault on the bridgeheads.

The third battle of Monte Cassino began on 15 March. It was again the New Zealand II Corps that started it. The assault was preceded by a massive bombing of the whole Cassino area. As much as 1,100 tons of bombs were dropped, but without a significant harm to the defenders, who hid in the rocky hide-outs. The New Zealanders finally took the railway station of Cassino, and the American tanks approached "The Gorge", while the Indians seized the lower range of the monastery hill. However, ultimately that battle also suffered full fiasco. Casualties of the II Corps amounted to 30%; the corps had to be disbanded. The 5th Army assumed defence.

But the mountainous barrier that so far so efficiently blocked the Allied offensive in Italy had to be broken through eventually. Allied commanders realised how impregnable was the obstacle that they had encountered. Alexander decided then to launch a major offensive along the whole front from the Tyrrhenian Sea to Cassino. Both armies, 5th and 8th, had to be engaged with the forces of five corps in the first line, and the sixth one in the reserve. Alltogether they numbered 450,000 men. The American II Corps had to advance along the coast, towards Anzio. The French Expeditionary Corps was the most numerous one (it had 100,000 men) but technically weakly equipped. Yet, it comprised units of the Moroccan highlanders, and was sent to the Aurunci massif, that is the sector of the Gustav Line so difficult to access that the Germans had not fortified it at all. Further to the right operated already the British 8th Army, which engaged in fights the XIII Corps and the Polish II Corps. The British corps had to take the valley of the River Liri, while the Poles had to storm the massif of Monte Cassino. The American VI Corps, although besieged at Anzio, since February had been expanded to four motorized divisions, one armoured division, and one independent brigade. It received the task to cut off the routes of enemy retreat once the 10th Army's defences in the mountains would collapse, and encircle it in a gigantic cauldron. In fact, the destruction of the forces under the command of General Albert Kesselring, not the march on Rome, was the objective of the operation. Because the liberation of Rome, would be a great propaganda success, even considering its node of airfields built around the city, while encirclement and elimination of the German forces in Italy could bring the end of the war substantially closer.

The key to the whole operation, wrote the British historian Fred Majdalany, was pinching out of Cassino by the British and Poles of the Eighth Army. Success on the Fifth Army front could be helpful but it could not be conclusive. It would be fine if the Americans scored a swift success against the German right wing. It would be excellent if the French achieved surprise (as they were intended to do) by advancing across trackless mountains which the enemy would consider impracticable for a large-scale attack. Success at any one point of this co-ordinated attack would be helpful to those elsewhere along the front. But the vital news for which the High Command would be waiting the next morning would be that one or both Eight Army thrusts to pinch out Cassino had made a decisive start. For it was along the Rapido and in the mountains behind Cassino that the greatest strength of the Germans was still concentrated. It was desirable that the Poles should break through the mountain strong-points near Monte Cassino that night. But it was absolutely essential that the British divisions should be across the Rapido by daylight. For failure there would give the Germans a whole day in which to recover from the first shock of surprise and the following night the river crossing would be more difficult than ever. It was therefore on the performance of the Eighth Army that this opening phase of the offensive depended. [Majdalany F. (1957).]

On 11 May 1944 at eleven o'clock at night a gigantic lightning lit up the skies over Italy. As many as 1,800 guns of the 15th Army Group started the artillery barrage; 1,100 guns were aiming their barrels at the valley of Liri and Monte Cassino massif. Alexander had built up triple superiority over the enemy in troops, and many-fold superiority in tanks, although in the mountainous terrain the advantage of the armoured troops was practically nullified. Superiority in the air was more important. The Allies exercised almost absolute command of the air. Before the offensive commenced, the commander of the 8th Army sent to his troops the words Admiral Horatio Nelson signalled to his fleet in the battle of Trafalgar (1805): "England expects that every man will do his duty".

Advances of the two corps of the 8th Army at the initial phase of the offensive had to bypass Monte Cassino like two streams of a river flowing around a dangerous rock. It was expected, and quite rightfully, that the tide of the offensive would eventually flood it. It did not come easily. The first charge of the Polish battalions did not take the massif, although the Poles surrounded the Hill 593 and held the captured positions, including "The Gorge" and San Angelo, for 40 hours. Yet, the commander of the 8th Army, Gen. Oliver Leese next day judged that the Polish soldiers had carried out their task. Having containing the Germans in fights on the Monte Cassino massif, the British managed to break through to the Liri valley and grasp an important bridgehead on the Rapido. No ground had been gained, wrote Majdalany. But the Germans had been badly mauled. By their sacrifice in the mountain tops the Poles had eased the burden of the British divisions operating in the valley. [Majdalany F. (1957).]

Meanwhile the Arabs from the French corps managed to pass an inaccessible sector of Aurunci an catch the Germans in surprise. The XIII Corps had advanced into the Liri valley. On 16 May Polish infantry resumed its attacks in daylight and with the new tactics: the Poles did not try to throw whole battalions into the charges, but operated in smaller, looser assault groups. Heavy fights continued the whole next day. Main strongholds of the Gustav Line, Hill 593 and San Angelo were completely overwhelmed. At the last phase the battle had turned into a systematic extermination of the remnants of the German parachutists and alpine rifles. On 18 May 1944 a Polish patrol hoisted the Polish flag over the abandoned ruins of the Monte Cassino abbey. As the Hill 593 was taken few hours earlier, the Germans withdrew from Monte Cassino to avoid encirclement, and the abbey fell into the Polish hands.

War in the mountains has it that taking the summits decides about the success, but that success must be consolidated in the valleys. The struggle of the Polish troops to contain the Germans in the fights helped the British to move along the Highway 6. And by night it was evident that if they could keep it up on the following day - and at the same time the Poles delivered a new attack through the mountains - the "coup de grâce" would be near. [Majdalany F. (1957).] And so it happened.

After the battle, in the address to the Polish troops Gen. Alexander said: It was a day of great glory for Poland, when you took this stronghold the Germans themselves considered to be impregnable. (...) Soldiers of the II Polish Corps, if I had been given to me to choose the soldiers I would like to command, I would have chosen the Poles. In the battle of Monte Cassino out of 46,000 soldiers and officers the Polish II Corps lost 9% of its men, in this 1,269 killed and missing in action.

The Germans stricken out of the Gustav Line tried yet to rebuild their defences on a new, provisional defence line, but their efforts were quickly frustrated. In the fights for the heavily fortified hamlet Piedimonte, the key position on that provisional line, known as the Hitler Line, were engaged armoured troops. The advance of the 8th Army resumed on 23 May literally wiped the German defence from the mountains. Americans, who were advancing along the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, finally joined their comrades in arms at Anzio. There they were supposed to make a thrust across the Apennine peninsula to cut the routes of retreat to the German 10th Army tumbling across the mountains. Instead, General Clark intended to run directly to Rome to enter the city in the van of the American troops. Against the received orders, against the personal intervention of the British prime-minister Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, he turned the 6th Corps on Rome, and indeed entered the city on 4 June. Yet with that insubordinate manoeuvre he deprived the Cassino cauldron of the cover. The 10th Army did not encounter any Allied forces east of Rome, and pulled most of its units northwards. The tedious pushing along the narrow Apennine peninsula was bound to go on for many long months.

Four battles of Monte Cassino, also known as the battle of Rome, costthe Allies 120,000 troops, huge quantities of equipment, ammunition and supplies, as well as a lot of effort. And at the end, in result of the wilfulness of the American general, it failed to achieve a strategic success.