Needless to say, the Division had not been brought over behind the Cassino front for nothing. The New Zealand Corps, working under the Fifth Army, and consisting of 4th Indian and 2nd New Zealand Divisions, were to capture Cassino and the Monastery, while our role was to break through the bridgehead, which they would have formed.
I knew the sector pretty well. Cassino, the Monastery, the River Rapido (Gari), the Liri and the River Garigliano, as it was called above the Rapido (Gari) junction with the Liri, had all been familiar places to me when commanding the Hampshire Brigade. I had seen, and taken part in, abortive attacks in this area, and a mighty unpleasant place it was. The General said that we would remain in our present area until the New Zealanders’ break in took place. My immediate comment was that we had a good chance, without any reflection on the New Zealanders, of staying where we were for quite a long time, which proved to be only too correct.
The attack on Cassino was due to start with a colossal air bombardment as soon as the weather permitted. The weather did not permit this for some time. As soon as the ground showed signs of not being tank proof, owing to the mud, down came another imperial storm. Air visibility was of a very uncertain nature at this time of the year. In fact, everything combined to be against a “weather permitting” operation. Slowly, but surely, the Division started to get sucked into this battle front before zero day. 11 Brigade took over a sector on the Rapido on 23rd February and 36 Brigade moved up on the 26th.
We were to stay put in our comfortable surroundings, as the Brigade Commander’s ankle was still far from being battle worthy. This, of course, gave me a certain unmerited popularity among our own warriors, who were quite prepared to see that I had another accident if the same results were likely to arise from it.
To look ahead a little, we did not in fact move finally until the 22nd of March. I had a month, therefore, with the brigade before we had to do anything; and a very useful month it proved to be. We got really stuck into individual training and except for trying out tank cooperation and river crossing exercises, we were able to keep the training on that low but vitally important level.
There was some very spirited inter battalion boxing competitions, football matches and a sports meeting. Some may have looked upon visits to Naples as the most important item of all and I think everyone succeeded in having a look at that overrated city. Our style was rather cramped by the abominable weather and torrential rain, snow on the hills and other clemental discomforts, but fortunately the majority were quite well housed.
Soon after I took over, Bala Bredin went to command the “Skins” and John Horsfall, who had recently returned from an SOS course at home, went as Second-in-Command to the Irish Rifles.
The day I arrived, I had seen the Brigade Pipes and Drums performing en masse at the football match. We certainly had a high potential morale raiser in the Brigade Pipe Band, who had vastly improved since our rather pathetic efforts at Guelma. We had been foolish in North Africa in taking Pipers into battle, often with their pipes. The result was that at the end of the North African campaign, we found ourselves badly depleted in both musicians and instruments.
In order to put the Pipes and Drums on a proper brigade footing, I asked each battalion to nominate a Pipe President to run the show. They all sent in a name but added a rider that the only way to run it was for someone at Brigade HQ, who knew about the Pipes, to take it on, otherwise a certain amount of inter Regimental suspicion would be attached to the Pipe President. As I was the only member of Brigade HQ who had the necessary knowledge, I found myself filling the job of CO Pipes and Drums. I had done a great deal of this sort of thing, and enjoyed doing it when I was Adjutant, so I rather liked the idea of having this sideline to look after. The Pipes and Drums made its debut under new management on St Patrick’s which was quite appropriate.
On the 15th of March, the battle for Cassino started with its terrific air onslaught. The results in some ways were disappointing with only about 40% of the bombs falling on the target area. It seems questionable, if one wishes to attack a town or village, whether the right thing to do is to smash it up first or not. If streets were an unrecognisable wreck of rubble, two bad things happen – you cannot drive down the streets with tanks and it quite impossible to know well which piece of rubble holds the enemy. On the other hand, if streets are open, there are obvious advantages for the attacker, and if the houses are intact, you have got some chance of knowing where it is physically possible for an enemy to be. In Cassino, the bombing had an added disadvantage as the Rapido runs under the town and the bombs went through and loosed it all over the place causing the most impossible obstacles.