November 8, 2010

REMEMBRANCE: BATTLE OF MONTE CASSINO

Monte Cassino (00:04:06m)




On September 3, 1943, the Allies had captured the island of Sicily. From there the next step was to land on the Italian mainland and liberate it from the Germans. On September 4, British, Polish, and Canadian troops landed on Calabria. Four days later, Italy capitulated.

In the Battle of Monte Cassino, the Allies faced insurmountable obstacles in their mission to break down German defenses and liberate the Eternal City of Rome. In co-ordinated military operations, the British, French, Americans, Indians, New Zealanders, Moroccans, and Polish Regiments converged on key German strongholds in a bitter struggle that lasted several months and cost the lives of thousands of men.The only two roads leading to Rome, the Via Appia (Highway7) and Via Casilina (Highway 6) were fiercely defended by a series of impregnable German fortifications running across the width of Italy, from the Garigliano River on the west coast to the Sangro on the east coast. The strongest of their defenses, the Gustav Line, made it virtually impossible for the Allies to advance without suffering heavy casualties.The Gustav Line was erected by the Germans along the course of the Rapido, Gari, and Garogliano Rivers, behind which the Germans were solidly dug in.

General Wladyslaw Anders

Their positions were further secured by garrisons posted on every peak of the surrounding mountain ranges.Dominating the landscape is Monte Cassino, towering to almost 1,700m (5,500 ft), surrounded by smaller but no less imposing series of mountains.This natural terrain gave the Germans an excellent vantage point from which to observe and attack Allied positions.To obstruct the Allied advances, the Germans dammed the Rapido River causing it to flood the Liri Valley. The combination of natural terrain, bad weather, forced flooding and solid German defenses all conspired to frustrate and defeat Allied efforts time and time again. It took all of six months of the most bitter of fighting for the Allies to penetrate enemy lines. The Battle of Monte Cassino was carried out in four stages by a vast number of regiments and divisions under the banner of many nations, foremost Poland. The losses to men and material were staggering.It turned out to be a "see-saw" battle, where Allies, having captured key German strongholds, lost it shortly thereafter to the enemy and then succeeded in recapturing it. It was not until the last phase of the Battle, when all other Allied efforts had failed so dismally, that the II Polish Corps, under the command of Lt. General Wladyslaw Anders was finally called into action. Their mission was to capture Monte Cassino and Piedimonte, which up until then could not be achieved by any other military units. Now everything depended on the Polish units.

Polish Soldiers Monte Cassino

Battle of Monte Cassino - Phase Four



The fourth phase of the battle code-named Operation Diadem would be launched by the US II Corps, by an attack up the coast along Route 7 towards Rome. To their right the French Corps would attack from the bridgehead across the Garigliano. (The bridgehead was originally created by X Corps in the first battle in January into the Aurunci Mountains. It formed a barrier between the coastal plain and the Liri Valley.) In the center right of the front, the British XIII Corps would attack along the Liri valley. Meanwhile, on the right side the 2nd Polish Corps (3rd and 5th Division) commanded by Lt. Gen. Władysław Anders,would attempt to isolate the monastery and push round behind it into the Liri Valley to link up with XIII Corp's thrust and pinch out the Cassino position. The 4th Indian Division had attempted this mission but failed. Allied Command hoped that a much larger force than the Indian Division would be able to saturate the German defenses thereby preventing the enemy to give supporting fire to each others positions. Success of the Operation depended on this pinching manoeuvre. That and improved weather were important factors for the mission to succeed. Canadian I Corps was held in reserve pending a breakthrough. Once the German 10th Army would be defeated, the US VI Corps could break out the Anzio beachhead and cut off the retreating Germans in the Alban hills.
Polish soldiers charging up Phantom Hill
It took two months to set up troop positions and movements to prepare for the last phase of the battle and it had to be carried out in small units so as to maintain secrecy and wield an element of surprise. The ruse was on: the U.S. 36th Division was sent on amphibious assault training. Road signposts and dummy radio signal traffic were created to give the impression that a seaborne landing was being planned for north of Rome. The purpose of this was to keep German reserves held back from the Gustav line.

Troop movements in forward areas were conducted under darkness and as armoured units moved from the Adriatic front, they left behind dummy tanks and vehicles so that vacated areas appeared unchanged to enemy aerial reconnaissance. The deception was successful. As late as the second day of the final Cassino battle, Kesselring estimated the Allies had six divisions facing his four on the Cassino front. In reality there were thirteen.

The first assault was launched on Cassino at 23:00 hours on May 11th with a massive artillery bombardment of 1,060 guns on the 8th Army front and 600 guns on the 5th Army front, manned by British, Americans, Poles, New Zealanders, South Africans, and French. Within an hour and a half all four sectors were on the move. By daylight U.S. II Corps had made little progress, but their 5th Army colleagues, the French Corps, had achieved their objectives and were fanning out in the Aurunci Mountains toward the 8th Army to their right, rolling up the German positions between the two armies.

On the 8th Army front, XIII Corps had made two strongly opposed crossings of the Rapido (by British 4th Infantry Division and 8th Indian Division. By morning, the engineers of Dudley Russell's 8th Indian Division had succeeded in the critical task of bridging the river which enabled the armour of 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade to cross and provide the vital element (so missed by the Americans in the first battle and New Zealanders in the second battle) to beat off the inevitable counterattacks from German tanks that would come.

Point 593 or Snakeshead Ridge (Monte Calvario) above Cassino was taken by the Poles only to be recaptured by German paratroops. For three days Polish and German troops conducted ferocious attacks and counterattacks resulting in heavy losses to both sides. The Polish Corps lost 281 officers and 3,503 until the attacks were called off. At the end of the battles the Poles erected a memorial on the slope of the mountain.

Polish Soldiers Monte Cassino

May 1944: Over 1,500 Poles were killed in 3 days
By the afternoon of May 12, the Rapido bridgeheads were increasing despite furious counterattacks meanwhile the attrition on the coast and in the mountains continued. By May 13 the pressure was starting to show. The German right wing began to give way to the 5th Army. The French Corps had captured Monte Maio. They were now in a position to give material flank assistance to the 8th Army against whom Kesselring had thrown every available reserve in order to buy time to switch to his second prepared defensive position,the Hitler Line, about eight miles (13km) to the rear.



On May 14 Moroccan Goumiers were advancing through the mountains parallel to the Liri valley and were able to outflank the German defense materially assisting XIII Corps in the valley. (The area was undefended because it was considered impossible to traverse such terrain.) The Goumiers were colonial troops formed a year earlier into four Groups of Moroccan Tabors specialised in mountain warfare. On May 15, British 78 Division came into the XIII Corps line from reserve passing through the bridgehead divisions to execute the turning move to isolate Cassino from the Liri valley. On May 17 the Polish Division renewed their assault in the mountains. By the early hours of May 18, 78 Division and the Polish Corps had rendezvoused in the Liri valley 2 miles (3km) west of Cassino town.

In the early morning of May 18 a reconnaissance group of Polish 12th Podolian Regiment found the monastery defences abandoned and raised a Polish flag over its ruins. With German supply lines threatened by the Allied advance, German paratroopers had withdrawn from the monastery during the night and took up new defensive positions on the Hitler Line. The only remaining defenders were a group of thirty wounded German troops who had been unable to move.




The 8th Army units advanced up the Liri valley and the 5th Army up the coast to the Hitler defensive line (renamed the Senger Line at Hitler's insistence to minimize the significance if it were penetrated). An immediate assault failed and 8th Army took some time to re-organize. Over the next several days it took an effort of monumental proportions in getting 20,000 vehicles and 2,000 tanks through the broken Gustav Line. The next Allied assault commenced on May 23 with the Polish Corps attacking Piedimonte (defended by the redoubtable 1st Parachute Division) on the right and 1st Canadian Infantry Division (fresh from 8th Army reserve) in the centre. On May 24, the Canadians had breached the line, and 5th Canadian (Armoured) Division poured through the gap. On May 25 the Poles took Piedimonte, and the line collapsed. The way was clear for the advance northwards towards Rome.




On May 23,the Canadians and Poles launched their attack. Meanwhile General Lucian Truscott (who had replaced Lt. Gen.John P. Lucas as commander of U.S. VI Corps) launched a two pronged attack using five (three U.S. and two British) of the seven divisions in the bridgehead at Anzio. The German Fourteenth Army facing this thrust had no armoured divisions since Kesselring had sent his armour south to help the German Tenth Army in the Cassino action. The 26th Panzer Division was also unavailable to fight as it was in transit from the north of Rome where it had been anticipating the non-existent seaborn landing that the Allies had faked.

The Tenth Army was in full retreat by May 25 and the Allied VI Corps were headed eastward to cut them off. By the next day they would have been astride the line of retreat and the Tenth Army with all Kesselring's reserves committed to them, would have been trapped. At this point, surprisingly, General Mark Clark ordered Truscott to change his line of attack from a northeasterly one to Valmontone on Route 6 to a northwesterly one directly towards Rome.  The reasons for his decision are unclear and controversy continues to surround the issue to this day. Most commentators believe that it was due to Clark's ambition to be the first to arrive in Rome however others suggest that Clark had to give the necessary respite to his tired troops. (notwithstanding the new direction of attack required his troops to make a frontal attack on the Germans' prepared defenses on the Caesar C line). Truscott later wrote in his memoirs that Clark "was fearful that the British were laying devious plans to be first into Rome, a sentiment somewhat reinforced in Clark's own writings. However, Alexander had clearly laid down the Army boundaries before the battle, and Rome was allocated to the Fifth Army. The 8th Army was constantly reminded that their job was to engage the Tenth Army, destroy as much of it as possible and then bypass Rome to continue the pursuit of the German Tenth Army, which they did for six weeks covering some 225 miles (360km) towards Perugia.

The Allies lost an opportunity. The seven divisions of the Tenth Army retreated to the next line of defence, the Trasimene Line where they then linked up with the Fourteenth Army and began to make a fighting withdrawal to the formidable Gothic Line north of Florence. 

Rome fell June 4, 1944, just two days before the Normandy invasion.

EPILOGUE

The capture of Monte Cassino came at a high price. The total Allied Fifth and Eighth Army casualties spanning the period of the four Cassino battles and the advance to capture Rome on 4 June were 105,000. Of a total of 51,000 Polish soldiers, over 4,000 lost their lives on Monte Cassino.


Polish Cemetery Monte Cassino







Suggested Link:
The Battle of Monte Cassino (series); Introduction

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