Battle of Monte Cassino
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseThe Allies reached the western end of the German Gustav Line in Italy in mid-Jan 1943. The main German positions generally ran along the valleys created by the Rapido River, Liri River, and the Garigliano River. German troops established positions on the hill of Monte Cassino, which dominated over the valleys, but they had stayed out of the nearby historical Benedictine monastery per orders of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring.
ww2dbaseBritish X Corps, consisted of 56th Infantry Division and 5th Infantry Division, attacked first on 17 Jan 1944, crossing the Garigliano River near the coast on a 20-mile-wide front. Two days later, British 46th Infantry Division attacked near the junction of the Garigliano River and the Liri River. In response, German 29th Panzergrenadier Division and 90th Panzergrenadier Division were called in from the Rome, Italy area to reinforce the defenses, arriving on 21 Jan. What was considered to be the main assault, conducted by US 36th Division, began shortly after sundown on 20 Jan 1944. Troops of US 141st Regiment and 143rd Regiment were able to cross the Rapido River, but timely German counterattacks by German 15th Panzergrenadier Division caused heavy casualties, and the Americans were eventually pushed back across the river by mid-morning on 21 Jan. After sundown, the two US regiments established new footholds on the far side of the river, only to be eliminated again after dawn on 22 Jan; those established by US 143rd Regiment were destroyed in the morning, while those by US 141th Regiment were destroyed in the evening. In these failed attempted to cross the Rapido River, US 36th Division suffered 2,100 casualties. On 24 Jan, US 34th Infantry Division, with French Moroccan colonial troops also in its ranks, crossed the Rapido River north of Cassino where the terrain was unsuitable for vehicles for both sides. Infantrymen engaged in bitter fighting for the following week, and on 1 Feb, troops of German 44th Infantry Division which had opposed the Allies fell back toward Monte Cassino, finally allowing the Allies a solid foothold on the previously German side of the river. Tough fighting continued, but the Americans were generally able to push forward, capturing Point 445 on 7 Feb and attacking (but failing to take) Point 593 shortly after. A renewed attack toward Monte Cassino was launched on 8 Feb, but after three days of heavy fighting and no apparent success, the assault was called off on 11 Feb. While the Americans suffered very heavy casualties in the failed attempts to advance, the Germans suffered similarly. In fact, the German front line divisions had suffered such a high casualty rate that some German generals wondered if the western end of the Gustav Line should be abandoned in favor of the next defensive line to the north already being prepared, but Kesselring rejected such notions.
ww2dbaseMeanwhile, the Allies launched Operation Shingle which landed 36,000 men at Anzio, Italy on 22 Jan 1944. In an attempt to assert pressure on the Gustav Line in coordination with the attack on Anzio, Operation Avenger was launched. Similar to the first attempt to take Monte Cassino, the Allies, largely consisted of New Zealand and Indian troops in this offensive, suffered heavy casualties to accurate German artillery shelling into the valleys. Since the artillery fire came from up above, Allied leadership believed that the Germans must have observation posts near or within the Benedictine monastery. Aerial reconnaissance missions conducted over the abbey did not consistently produce evidence that there were German troops stationed inside. Some of the Allied generals believed that even if the Germans were not already using the high ground at the monastery grounds, all efforts should be expended to prevent the Germans from doing so. On 11 Feb, Brigadier Harry Dimoline, acting commanding officer of Indian 4th Division, requested aerial bombing of the monastery, which was passed on by Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg to the air forces. The bombing was approved and conducted on 15 Feb, with 229 US heavy and medium bombers dropping 1,150 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs, demolishing nearly all structures; the aerial bombing was augmented by artillery shelling as well. On the following day, while artillery shelling continued, 59 fighter-bombers attempted to destroy whatever remained standing. Point 593, the German strongpoint beneath the abbey that the Allies attacked but failed to take in early Feb, was nearly untouched by the attacks. Interestingly, the Allies failed to immediately launch a major ground assault immediately after the bombing (though a company of 1st Battalion of British Royal Sussex Regiment of Indian 4th Division did indeed attack Point 593, failing to take it). With the Monte Cassino monastery in ruins and thus no longer of cultural and historical value, troops of German 1st Parachute Division moved in and precisely used it as an observation post as Allied leadership had feared. In the night of 17 Feb 1944, Indian 4th Division and the New Zealand Division attacked Monte Cassino in strength; a parallel attack by 28th (Maori) Battalion of the New Zealand Division successfully established a small bridgehead across the Rapido River, but this bridgehead would be lost again on the following day.
ww2dbaseThe third major Allied attempt to take Monte Cassino was launched on 15 Mar 1944, which began by a heavy bombardment that lasted more than three hours. When the New Zealand troops spearheaded the attack, they were met with a stronger German defense than what they had expected. Although the initial attacks did capture several positions including Castle Hill, Point 165, and Point 236 through 16 Mar, heavy rain slowed the Allied progress. By the end of the day on 17 Mar, a battalion of Indian Gurkha troops, having captured Point 435, were within 250 meters from the monastery while New Zealand troops were threatening to capture the town of Cassino. Several attacks were launched successively over the course of the next several day; while limited progress were made with each attack, by 23 Mar, signs of exhaustion in the Allied divisions were obvious, and on that date Harold Alexander and Bernard Freyberg both agreed to pause the offensive. On the other side of the line, German 1st Parachute Division was begining to feel the pressure as well; many of its units were now grossly under-strength.
ww2dbaseThe fourth and what was to become the final offensive on Cassino, codenamed Operation Diadem, was launched several weeks later in the night of 11-12 May 1944. An impressive artillery bombardment by British, American, Polish, New Zealand, South African, and French guns opened the operation, and by the dawn on 12 May some of the Allied units had made significant advances, particularly the success of Indian 8th Division in establishing a bridge over the Rapido River to bring forth tanks of Canadian 1st Armoured Brigade. During the day of 12 May, Polish troops briefly captured Monte Calvario, codenamed Point 593 by the Allies, but by the end of the day the position would again be lost to the German paratroopers. By 13 May, Germans lines began to buckle under pressure as French troops captured Monte Maio while US 5th Army overran several German positions in the Liri River valley. As German positions along the Liri River valley began to fall one by one, troops of the Polish Corps launched what was to become the final attack on Monte Cassino on 17 May; they would succeed in taking the ruins of the mountaintop monastery by the following day after the Germans evacuated their positions overnight, leaving behind only thirty seriously wounded men to be captured.
ww2dbaseGerman troops fell back from the Gustav Line to the Hitler Line 13 kilometers to the north, which was quickly renamed the Senger Line (ie. removing Hitler's name from the defensive line) as the Germans knew it would only be a matter of time before these positions would have to be abandoned. Polish and Canadian troops assaulted the line on 23 May, and on the following day the line was breached, forcing the Germans to fall back toward the Caesar C Line, the final line of defense south of Rome.
ww2dbaseThe four-month long campaign for Cassino cost the Allies about 55,000 casualties. Though defeated, the Germans suffered only about 20,000 casualties.
Last Major Update: May 2013
Battle of Monte Cassino Interactive Map
Battle of Monte Cassino Timeline
|5 Nov 1943||In Italy, Lieutenant-General Richard McCreery's British X Corps reached Monte Camino, a 3,000-foot pinnacle overlooking the River Garigliano and the entrance to the Liri valley. Here, and in the surrounding hills, the Germans had laid extensive minefields and set booby-traps as well as blasting artillery, mortar and machine gun positions out of the solid rock. After several days of savage fighting in the cold and wet, Harold Alexander called off further action in order that the front-line divisions may be rested before trying again.|
|2 Dec 1943||The British 56th (London) Division, which had already been badly mauled in earlier fighting for Monte Camino, Italy, launched a new attack and reached the summit under cover of darkness, but it would take another four days of hard fighting before the position could be secured completely.|
|12 Jan 1944||General Alphonse Juin's Free French Expeditionary Corps launched an attack inland of Monto Cassino towards Castel Sant'Elia in Italy.|
|15 Jan 1944||Free French Expeditionary Corps reached Castel Sant'Elia, Italy.|
|17 Jan 1944||British X Corps attacked the western end of the German Gustav Line in Italy.|
|19 Jan 1944||British 46th Infantry Division attacked German positions near the junction of the Garigliano River and the Liri River in Italy.|
|20 Jan 1944||After sundown, US 141st Regiment and 143rd Regiment attacked across the Rapido River in Italy.|
|21 Jan 1944||In the mid-morning, German 15th Panzergrenadier Division wiped out the US beachheads along the Rapido River in Italy, forcing the survivors to withdraw back across the river. During the day, German 29th Panzergrenadier Division and 90th Panzergrenadier Division arrived in the region as reinforcement. After dark, US 141st Regiment and 143rd Regiment crossed the river again and established precarious footholds.|
|22 Jan 1944||German 15th Panzergrenadier Division wiped out new beachheads on the Rapido River in Italy established by US 141st Regiment and 143rd Regiment through the previous night.|
|24 Jan 1944||Adolf Hitler ordered that the Gustav Line in Italy was to be held at all costs. Meanwhile, French forces attacked north of Monte Cassino and US 34th Infantry Division attacked across the Rapido River north of Cassino.|
|27 Jan 1944||Germans launched a counter attack against French troops near Cassino, Italy.|
|31 Jan 1944||US 34th Division crossed the Rapido River in Italy. Nearby, French Moroccan colonial troops were halted by troops of German 5th Mountain Division near Cassino and Monte Belvedere, Italy.|
|1 Feb 1944||German 44th Infantry Division fell back near the Rapido River toward Monte Cassino, Italy.|
|5 Feb 1944||US forces reached the outskirts of Cassino, Italy, but were held out of the town.|
|7 Feb 1944||US troops reached Point 445, a hill 370 meters away from the monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy.|
|8 Feb 1944||US troops began an major assault toward Monte Cassino, Italy.|
|11 Feb 1944||The US II Corps attack toward Monte Cassino, Italy was halted by German troops. Major General Harry Dimoline of Indian 4th Division requested the aerial bombing of the abbey atop Monte Cassino.|
|12 Feb 1944||Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg requested Allied air forces for the bombing of the abbey at Monte Cassino, Italy.|
|13 Feb 1944||The monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy was given advance warning of the aerial bombing to come.|
|15 Feb 1944||142 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, 47 B-25 Mitchell bombers, and 40 B-26 Marauder bombers dropped 1,150 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the historic Benedictine monastery atop Monte Cassino, Italy. The aerial bombing was augmented by artillery shelling as well. In the evening, a company of 1st Battalion of British Royal Sussex Regiment of Indian 4th Division attacked neraby Point 593, but failed to capture the position.|
|16 Feb 1944||Fighter-bombers attacked the already-destroyed historic Benedictine monastery atop Monte Cassino, Italy.|
|17 Feb 1944||Indian 4th Division attacked Monte Cassino, Italy, failing to make advances and suffering heavy casualties. In parallel, Maori troops of the New Zealand Division established a small bridgehead across the nearby Rapido River.|
|18 Feb 1944||German tanks eliminated the 28th (Maori) Battalion bridgehead on the Rapido River in Italy.|
|2 Mar 1944||On Mount Trocchio near Cassino, Italy, walking down a path that was supposed to have been cleared, Major-General Howard Kippenberger, the admirable commander of the 2nd New Zealand Division, stepped on one of the vicious little wooden "Schu" mines. One of his feet was blown off and the other had to be amputated.|
|15 Mar 1944||At 0830 hours, the third major Allied attempt to attack Monte Cassino, Italy began with a heavy bombardment that lasted more than three hours.|
|16 Mar 1944||Allied troops continued the attack on Monte Cassino, Italy.|
|17 Mar 1944||New Zealand troops captured the train station at Cassino, Italy. Nearby, Indian Gurkha troops captured Point 435 (nicknamed Hangman's Hill).|
|18 Mar 1944||New Zealand troops mounted a failed armored attack on Cassino, Italy, losing all 17 tanks in the process.|
|19 Mar 1944||British and New Zealand troops attacked German positions in the Cassino, Italy area, making very little progress in the face of German 1st Parachute Division.|
|20 Mar 1944||British 78th Infantry Division joined in the attack of Cassino, Italy.|
|22 Mar 1944||General Alexander ceased the frontal attacks at Cassino, Italy.|
|24 Mar 1944||The Allied attacks on the Gustav Line were persistently repulsed by German defenders.|
|26 Mar 1944||The New Zealand Corps headquarters, currently near Cassino, Italy, was dissolved. Surviving troops were incorporated into British XIII Corps.|
|15 Apr 1944||The German defensive Gustav Line in Italy began to fall.|
|11 May 1944||Operation Diadem, the fourth Allied attempt at attacking Cassino, Italy, was launched at 2300 hours with 1,660 artillery pieces firing on German defensive positions. Troops of US Fifth and British Eighth Armies advanced toward German positions behind the artillery barrage.|
|12 May 1944||Near Cassino, Italy, engineers of Indian 8th Division successfully established a bridge to allow tanks of Canadian 1st Armoured Brigade to cross the Rapido River, while Polish troops engaged in fierce fighting with troops of German 1st Parachute Division at Point 593.|
|14 May 1944||French Moroccan colonial troops outflanked German defenses in the Liri River valley in Italy.|
|15 May 1944||British 78th Division joined in on the attack of Cassino, Italy as German troops withdrew from Gustav Line to Hitler Line 30 miles to the south of Rome, Italy.|
|17 May 1944||German troops evacuated Cassino, Italy. Meanwhile, the French penetration of the Gustav Line reached 25 miles. Nearby, Polish troops launched what was to become the final attack on Monte Cassino.|
|18 May 1944||British 78th Division linked up with the Polish Corps in the Liri River valley 3.2 kilometers west of Cassino, Italy. Later on the same day, Polish troops captured the ruins of the Monte Cassino monastery.|
|19 May 1944||French Moroccan colonial troops plundered villages near Cassino, Italy.|
|23 May 1944||Troops of Polish II Corps and Canadian 1st Infantry Division attacked Piedimonte, Italy.|
|24 May 1944||The German Senger Line south of Rome, Italy was breached by troops of Canadian 1st Infantry Division, Canadian 5th Armoured Division, and II Polish Corps.|
|25 May 1944||Polish troops captured Piedimonte, Italy.|
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» Alexander, Harold
» Dimoline, Harry
» Duch, Boleslaw
» Freyberg, Bernard
» Kesselring, Albert
» Leese, Oliver
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