May 19, 2011

The Battle of Monte Cassino: Phase One

The Hidden Truth of WW II: Monte Cassino (full documentary)

Battle of Monte Cassino    Phase One
January 17 - February 11, 1944

Lt. General McCreery
On January 17, the British X Corps, under Lt. General McCreery initiated intense bombardment on German positions across the lower Garigliano, supported by artillery fire from the HMS Orion and HMS Spartan.  Allied forces were supposed to land at the Bay of Gaeta, behind German lines, but the assault troops landed behind British lines by mistake.  Under heavy German fire, the X Corps made it across the Garigliano and held the bridgehead outside Castelforte (at the base of Mt. Faito). The German XIV Panzer Corps was under threat of total collapse.  The Germans depended on a swift counter-attack to dispel the Allied advance and were able to do so because of the arrival of more German reinforcements to the area.

From January 17 to 18, the US 141st Regiment, under the command of   First-Lieutenant Navarette, penetrated 800m (850 yards) west of the Rapido on a reconnaissance mission to gauge German defenses.  When his men had approached the opposite riverbank, the Germans suddenly opened fire. Within twenty minutes almost all the Americans were either dead or lay wounded.  A few survivors were able to return to their units.  None were able to detect the German positions, so well camouflaged.

The entire Cassino front was fiercely defended by the German 44th Infantry Division.  The Gustav Line spread out along the course of the Rapido River posed a formidable obstacle due to the torrential flow of the river and its vertical slopes at every point.  Irregardless, the Allied plan was to cross the river north and west of Sant'Angelo - but from higher ground.  The crossing was disastrous.  The wooden boats were not easily maneuverable in the quick current, while the rubber dinghies were vulnerable to gunfire.  The US II Corps did make it across the Rapido River and was positioned to invade the Liri Valley, while the French Expeditionary Corps advanced to the mountains on its' right flank. In total darkness and silence, the men of the 36th Texas Division carried heavy boats, weapons and equipment over the slippery terrain.  The order was given to cross the Rapido and surround Sant'Angelo 8 km (5 miles) south of Cassino.  They were to precede the US 1st Armored Division in order to prepare for their breakthrough into the Liri Valley.

Rapido River viewed from Monte Trocchio

On January 20, the 141st and 143rd Regiments struggled to make their way to the bank of the Rapido, carrying their boats.  Due to artificial flooding and torrential rain, the meadow between Allied positions were a virtual swamp. Moreover, orientation was hampered by dense mist. The Allies were under heavy fire in the open terrain and suffered heavy casualties from mine-fields.  The Allies eventually were able to reach the Rapido but could not initiate gunfire. Some of their boats were caught by enemy fire and sank, while others capsized and were swept away in the torrent.  Only a few boat crews managed to reach the opposite river bank. To allow reinforcements to reach them from other Allied positions, the engineers constructed an emergency footbridge using the remains of bridges that had been blown up.  Only two companies had time to cross over before the Germans hit them again with artillery, cutting off all communications and radio contact between the Allied divisions.

At daybreak the Germans had a clear view of the American positions, and were able to attack the bridgehead.  The commanding officer of the 143rd Regiment, in order to save his men, ordered them to abandon positions. The US 34th Infantry Division, positioned north of Cassino succeeded in crossing the Rapido and were able to maintain its position there.

An Allied invasion, code named Operation Shingle set out on January 21 from Naples, heading towards Anzio and Nettuno.  The armada, 243 vessels in all, under the joint command of Rear-Admiral Troubridge (RN) and Rear-Admiral Lowry (US Navy) carried 50,000 troops and 5,000 military vehicles. Their objective was to land the US VI Corps behind German lines. Major General Walker ordered the 141st Regiment to cross the Rapido under a smokescreen but it was several hours before they would be able to do so.  Meanwhile the 143rd Regiment failed in its second attempt to establish another bridgehead and had to retreat.  The Germans took 857 prisoners of the 141st Regiment, reducing the size to only 40 men.  The US 36th Texas Division lost 2,066 men.

US Army Troops landing at Anzio during Operation Shingle late Jan 1944
General Juin, Commander of the French Expeditionary Corps received orders to alter the plan of attack. His men were to take Monte Belvedere first, then veer south to join the Americans. By so doing, the French could attack the enemy from the rear. It meant having to cross the Rapido and Rio Secco, ascend two hazardous mountain ranges, and make one descent - all under Germans observation. Enemy artillery was aimed on all footpaths and ravines. The mission was especially hazardous because the region was completely treeless and provided no coverage whatsoever.

Again the 143rd Regiment launched an attack on the German line but was forced to back down.  The Germans took over 500 prisoners.  Despite the losses, the Allies succeeded in at least pinning down German forces.

German Panzergrenadieren in Liri Valley near Gari River

On January 22, the US and British divisions crossed the Alban Hills and landed at Anzio, 96 km ( 60 miles) behind the Gustav Line. The objective was to bomb Highways 6 and 7, upon which the Germans relied for supplies and communication. The landing was relatively easy as only 200 Germans were in position and completely unaware of an impending attack. The Allies did not realize it at the time, but Rome was practically undefended and could have been easily captured. Instead they focused on establishing a beach-head.

3rd US Infantry Div unloading at Nettuno Jan 1944

Allied troops landing at Anzio Feb 1944

On January 22, the Allies landed at Anzio, numbering 36,000 men and 3,100 tanks. German gunfire failed to prevent Allied buildup of the area even by the launching of its radio-controlled glider bombs, the FX 1400 and Hs293. The American destroyers, Woolsey, Frederick C. Davis, and Herbert C. Jones, were able to emit strong radio signals to jam the remote controls of the glider bombs however a few succeeded in reaching their targets anyway.

The British destroyer Jervis was hit by a Hs 293 bomb and despite the damage made it back to Naples. By evening the bridgehead at Anzio and Nettuno was heavily fortified by Allied men and materiel. The German position was in jeopardy as 50,000 Allies had landed at Anzio-Nettuno on January 25. German Field Marshal Kesselring drew his reserves from units already fighting along the vital Cassino front, and sent them to attack the bridgehead to prevent further Allied landings.

Goisland de Monsabert
January 24. The 3rd Algerian Infantry Division of the French Expeditionary Corps, under the command of Major-General de Goisland de Monsabert were able to pin down German positions on the Cassino front and rear. They targeted Mt. Belvedere, Colle Abate and the village of Terelle. Meanwhile the US 34th Division was fighting in the Rapido Valley, and the French Corps attacked German flank positions a few miles north.Tunisian infantrymen stormed Monte Cifalco but failed in their attempt, by strong enemy resistance. Other battalions of the Tunisian 4th Rifle Regiment crossed the Rapido and while ascending Monte Belvedere, they came under heavy fire from the Germans positioned on the adjacent Monte Cifalco.

Allied M4 tank stuck in mud near Rapido River
Jan 25. Lt-General Clark ordered the 34th Infantry Division to attack the town of Cassino from its northerly point. To do this the men had to cross a 3 km (2 mile) wide marsh, forge through an icy river and engage a frontal attack on Monte Cassino. The first initiative was to be taken by the 133rd Regiment. Its goal was to take two positions at the foot of the mountain. The 168th Regiment was given the task to take Monte Castellone, Colle Sant'Angelo and the Albaneta farm. The 135th Regiment had to take the town of Cassino 2.5 km (1.5 miles) away, by travelling the road parallel to the Rapido and mountains. The US units had a most difficult mission. Awaiting on the opposite side of the river were imposing vertical cliffs and the formidable Gustav Line. As soon as the attack commenced, disaster struck, as tanks were stuck in the mud and the 135th Regiment ventured into a mine-field. Other units succeeded in crossing the Rapido but suffered heavy casualties. The Tunisian 4th Rifle Regiment hoisted its tricolore victoriously on the peak of Monte Belvedere. The US 34th Division attempted several crossings of the Rapido but retreated under heavy artillery fire because of the lack of tank support.

On January 26 only one company was able to cross the Rapido. The Tunisian 2nd Battalion captured Colle Abate and Point 862, nearing Terelle. Running out of ammunition, with no hope of getting more supplies, the Tunisians suffered horrible casualties, defending themselves with only knives and bayonets against the Germans.

Jan 27. The U.S. 168th Infantry Regiment tried to extend the bridgehead already established by the 133rd Regiment. Only four Sherman tanks were able to cross the Rapido, the others stuck fast in the mud blocking the way. The Germans fired on the tanks destroying them and driving back the entire remaining company. Though the Germans succeeded in recapturing Colle Abate, the Tunisians were able to hold on to Monte Belvedere with only grim determination.

Jan. 29, US Infantry reached Pts. 56 and 213 capturing them by nightfall. Simultaneously the Algerian 7th Rifle Regiment attacked Colle Abate and Pt. 862. At Anzio, the Germans fired 2 Hs 293s on Spartan, the British anti-tank cruiser and the freighter Samuel Huntington, both lying at anchor. The Spartan was hit and sank immediately, while the Samuel Huntingdon was in flames for several hours. The next morning the freighter exploded destroying it and its cargo of ammunition and fuel.

Jan. 30. The US 168th Infantry crossed the Rapido and captured Cairo village at the base of Monte Cairo. The US 3rd Division, the US Ranger Battalion and the US 1st Armored Division all made advances in the beach head but suffered severe casualties and were driven back. The Allied invasion at Anzio-Nettuno bridgehead increased to 70,000 men and 356 tanks. The Germans had sealed off the area. It was 5 German divisions, without air support, against three and a half Allied Divisions with air support.

Feb 1. In a dense fog, three regiments of the 34th Division launched an attack on the Cassino front. The 168th Infantry Regiment had as its task the capture of Monte Calvario (Pt. 593), a key tactical point. The 135th and 142nd Regiments captured Monte Castellone and Colle Maiola. But Colle Abate and Pt. 862 were again taken by the Germans in a fierce assault.

Feb. 2. The 133rd Infantry Division, in thick fog advanced to within 3 km (2 miles) of Highway 6 (Via Casilina).They captured the northern part of Cassino and Rocca Janula (Pt.193). The soldiers were pitched in bitter hand to hand street fighting with the Germans and were able to drive the enemy back to the north by almost 1000m (3/4 mile)

Feb 3. Allies were not able to penetrate into Cassino even with artillery support. Nevertheless they captured Pt. 175 and several houses on the periphery. Meanwhile German paratroops, known as the "Green Devils" clashed with Allies in fierce mountain warfare. Germans counter-attacked at Nettuno driving back British troops to Aprilia and Carroceto halting American advances at Campoleone. The Anzio Express ( German guns mounted on railways) opened fire on transport ships at the Anzio harbor. The landing beaches were an open target.

Feb 4. The US 135th Infantry Division captured Colle Sant'Angelo, but was driven back by enemy fire. The 168th Infantry Division successfully reached Monte Calvario (Pt. 593). The New Zealand II Corp was formed under the command of Freyberg. He was given the order to capture Cassino and Monastery Hill, enter the Liri Valley and block Highway 6.

Feb. 5. The 135th Infantry Regiment advanced as far as the Monastery atop Monte Cassino, but Allied soldiers would not have another opportunity to come so close again until mid-May.

Feb. 6. The 3rd Battalion of the US 135th Infantry Regiment captured Monte Calvario (Pt.593). It was the key to Monte Cassino, and provided a clear view of the whole town. The Germans still controlled the last heights towering over Via Casilina. Once the Americans captured this area, they would have Cassino in their control.

Feb. 7. The Germans recaptured Pt. 593 sustaining heavy casualties but two days later it was back under American possession. German divisions then stormed the Americans on the western slope of Monte Calvario and took back Pt. 593. It remained in German hands up until the middle of May.

Feb 11. The Americans tried again to capture Monte Calvario and Monte Cassino by way of a frontal attack. The 36th Division had as its task to capture Massa Albaneta and Monte Calvario. The 34th Division was to take Monastery Hill from a northerly position. But just before the attack began, a severe blizzard hit, eliminating visibility to zero and suspending all lines of artillery support. German paratroopers waiting in their dugouts decimated the 142nd Infantry Regiment, wiping out the 141st Infantry Regiment before they had even reached Albaneta. Casualties were severe as wave upon wave of Allied troops were mowed down by German gunfire. The US II corps gave up the fight for now. Their numbers were cut to barely 100 men.

The first battle for Monte Cassino was a victory for the Germans. But the battles gave the Allies the much needed experience to plan subsequent assaults more carefully. Unfortunately in the ensuing months, these lessons were frequently overlooked.

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