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13th / 14th May.
Saturday 13th May ended with our own three battalions holding a strong line between the two Massa de Vivos in 8518 and 8417 – right 2 Royal Fusiliers, centre 6 Black Watch and left 1 Royal West Kents – and 2/4 Hampshires, who had come under command during the evening, were well established behind the north – south stretch of the Piopetto looking out towards Vertechi 8417 by first light.
2 DCLI on pt 63 were linked with the right of the brigade and the other two bttns of 10 Brigade were back on pt 36 and along Queen Street in reserve.
The next task was to advance to the Red line at 0500 hrs the following morning and in preparation for this, all bttns sent forward patrols during the night towards the objective. The general impression gained was that the enemy was holding in no great strength and perhaps no more than standing patrols, positions 200 – 300 yards in front of our FDLs. Noise of tracked vehicles moving north east along the road might well have been the tanks or SP guns, which appeared in the course of the following day.
The attack went in as planned and again with the more than welcome support of the tanks of the Lothians; but the combination of early morning mist, our own smoke and the enemy’s, reduced visibility to a matter of a few yards and made contact with our units as difficult to maintain as the correct line of advance. Nevertheless, by 0730 hrs, 2 RF and 6 BW, who had less distance than 1 RWK to go, reported themselves on the objective and consolidating. Enemy artillery and mortar DF was again the chief means of resistance and there was some MG fire and sniping, but it soon became apparent that this time a determined counter attack was to be launched from both the north against 2 RF and from the reverse slopes of Vertechi. Thereafter, a good deal of confused fighting continued for most of the morning, but although at times the enemy appeared very close to our own positions and one particular tank, a hundred yards or so in front of the 2 RF, was very worrying until it received a direct hit from a medium gun, all his attacks were successfully broken up and the Lothians were knocking out SP guns at a rate of about one an hour. Some support was also available from the MGs of 2/4 Hampshires on the east bank of the Piopetto and unstinted artillery concentrations on enemy forming up places effectively discouraged him from putting in a more aggressive appearance on several occasions; but to the Lothians, who went anywhere in difficult country and stayed in unenviable for as long as needed, must go the chief thanks of the infantry for their joint achievement. Casualties were not light and, by the end of the day, the regiment had 28 runners left, though of the remainder, there will no doubt be a fair proportion recovered when the advance continues. By this time, tanks of 19 NZ Armoured Regiment were crossing the Gari in order to relieve the Lothians, but in fact both regiments were still in action at the end of the afternoon.
The enemy did not quickly abandon his idea of retaking some of the lost ground and during the afternoon, both the massed artillery behind Trocchio and ‘Rover David’ struck very heavily at the Piopetto valley in 8316 on reports that Germans were assembling there: 1000 rounds were fired into the wadi by four forward and five medium regiments, not to mention David’s bombs.
At 1815 hrs, the final attack of the day began with the objective of finally establishing 1 RWK on Red and pushing forward. 2/4 Hampshires reverted to command of 28 Infantry Brigade at 1215 hrs – on to the Vertechi rise. After initial trouble in crossing the Piopetto, the NZ tanks were able to support the advance, which proceeded without serious infantry opposition, but accompanied by some unpleasant sniping. At first light, 1 RWK were consolidating just short of pt 86 (833174), 2/4 Hampshires were on Vertechi and the third of the division’s four original bounds had been reached.
The bridgehead over the Gari, won at no small cost by 10 and 28 Brigades on the opening night of the attack, has now, after three days of further hard and continuous fighting, been extended to a depth of 3000 yards, firmly established as a base for the next advance. All the bttns of the brigade have been engaged without respite during this period, under heavy shell and mortar fire for most of the day and night and frequently harassed by small enemy pockets or individual snipers left hidden behind the FDLs in the extremely close and difficult country. The tanks of the Lothians and today, of 19 NZ Armoured Regiment, have been with the brigade’s infantry the whole time both to assist them on to their objectives and to help repel enemy counter attack that has threatened.
At dawn, 15 May, a heavy concentration of mortar and artillery was brought down by the enemy on the area held by 2 RF exactly as a previous warning had indicated, but after about an hour, our own shelling, mortaring and HF MMGs on enemy positions ended the trouble.
1 RWK, still somewhat short of pt 86 at the cross tracks in 8317, were engaged from 1030 hrs onwards with NZ tanks in an attack towards this dominating feature, to which the enemy with MGs and support from A/Tk guns positioned further west was obstinately clinging. The houses at pt 86 were eventually reduced at 1400 hrs by fire from the tanks and 1 RWK finally controlled the objective by establishing fire positions nearby. During the attack, the Browning fire of one of our own tanks directed into a haystack was seen to ricochet; and upon AP being fired an enemy tank was seen to have been hit there.
In the course of the afternoon, 2 RF, now organised in two composite coys of W and X, Y and Z, south of Massa di Vivo in square 8518 observed some enemy attempting to infiltrate between their right flank and 2 DCLI on pt 63. The NZ tanks were called up and the situation was generally restored with the destruction of enemy MGs. A fighting patrol from 2 Beds and Herts sent to investigate the area, made no contact. The enemy still occupies positions a short distance north and north west of 2 RF and MGs were located firing from a bridge at 853186 and from 400 yards further west. It is also quite evident that the very thickly wooded and undulating country behind the positions we occupy still harbours a small number of enemy who are prepared to fire on anyone making their way up to the forward positions.
Later in the afternoon, another enemy attack from a north easterly direction was set and broken up by our MG fire and tanks; and from these skirmishes, one PoW of 721 Jager Regiment was taken, a well as a number of enemy killed.
The day ended with the relief of 1 RWK by 5 Northamptons (11 Infantry Brigade, 78 British Division) and their move into brigade reserve in the Evangelista area 8518. 78 Division, with 26 Armoured Brigade under command are now disposed with 38 Brigade forward on the line of the road south west from pt 86 and are preparing to pass through and advance north west to Highway 6, thus completing the original intention of 4 Division. Tomorrow at 0900 hrs, 12 Brigade are losing the Lothians, who after having fought so splendidly in our support, revert to their own armoured brigade.
‘Rover David’, who controls the air cab rank from Trocchio was today given three German HQ positions on a marked map taken from a parachutist officer. They were at Roccasecca, Arce and 818184; the latter is known to have received six 2000 lbs bombs.
15th –17th May.
At dusk on 15 May, the brigade was disposed with all three bttns up in a wide arrowhead facing north east astride the road Cassino to Pignatoro, the tip of the arrow represented by 6 BW in their tight circle around pt 66 839181 and on the flanks of 2 RF and 1 RWK in the area of 835185 and pt 66 838176 respectively.
By this time, it had become clear that a rapid and vigorous follow up of our initial hard won success by fresh troops would complete the enemy’s discomfiture and already the leading brigade of 78 Division had concentrated forward of the Gari and 5 Northamptons were moving up to relieve 1 RWK. The positions at pt 86 (8317) was still somewhat obscure and before 1 RWK could withdraw into brigade reserve south of Evangelista 8518, there was further fighting to establish 5 Northamptons on the road itself. At the same time, the bttns of 38 (Irish) Brigade were advancing on the left with the Piopetto as an approximate centre line and, by evening, had reached the line of the road as a jumping off place for their attack towards Highway 6 the following day.
The night 15/16 May was quiet only if freedom from actual fighting with considerable and accurate mortaring and shelling can be thus described.
In the morning, interest centred chiefly on the fortunes of 78 Division on the left, who were troubled from early on by A/Tk guns firing from pt 69 (837183) and down the road from approximately 842183. However, by midday, the first bound had been made good and thus for the first time since our committal, we felt that the enemy’s attention might possibly be diverted a little from our own FDLs. Progress was no means rapid, but it was judge opportune for 1 RWK to make a limited advance in the evening to secure the line of road south west from Cassa Cigante 8418 in order to close what have before been an inviting gap for the infiltration tactics of the enemy and to conform with the attack of 2 Beds and Herts through 2 RF on to pt 50 and pt 58.
There was no obvious signs, at the time, of enemy withdrawal on a large scale, but it was not anticipated that resistance would be as determined and costly as in fact it was. Both attacking bttns reported heavy MG fire soon after they had crossed the SL, very difficult to locate in the close country and bad visibility and the assistance of the NZ tank squadrons In support was more than welcome.
The stubbornness of the defenders is witnessed by the fact that two Shermans were knocked out by the enemy in this action, probably with “ofenrohre”, the German version of the American bazooka, which from PoW accounts has proved an all too effective weapon in the hands of those sufficiently determined to use it at close quarters.
It is very possible that a German attack – no doubt, of a spoiling nature – was timed to go in at the same time as our own, since an unusual amount of movement was observed and there were reports – some of them unduly alarmist – of penetration of our positions between 2 RF and 6 BW and even of tanks in our rear battalion areas. However that may be, it was not found possible for either bttn to get quite so far on as they had intended, and at last light, they were ordered to consolidate on the line reached, the left of 1 RWK in contact with 6 BW on the road and the forward troops of 2 Beds and Herts on pt 50.
PoWs taken during the attack were a mixture of parachutists (1 Para Rifle Regiment), 721 Jager Regiment and 85 Recce Unit; few of whom in captivity showed any sign of doggedness of their defence. The Jager had for the most part little or nothing to eat for three or four days and were perfectly content to be out of the fighting for good.
Chief interest during the night centred on the position at Cassino. It must now have been evident to the enemy that he was faced with but two alternatives, either to withdraw as speedily as possible all his troops left in the town, in the face of greatly increased HF by MGs, mortars and artillery on the exit routes; or to leave the valuable paratroopers to fight literally to the last for the sake of the prestige value of such a sacrifice. The end of the grim story of Cassino was obviously foreshadowed.
Events on the left of the brigade, where 78 Division were steadily ploughing forward, and the serious losses since May 11 had now convinced the enemy that his situation, already bad, was getting desperate; and on that night (16/17 May), he withdraw what was left of the odd conglomeration of units south of Route 6.
Suspecting as such, we sent forward carrier patrols from 6 BW early on 17 May, while 2 RF and 1 RWK advanced again with tank support – to the objectives of the previous evening and beyond. Between the former line of our FDLs and Route 6, cut by 2 RF and 1 RWK in the square 8419 about midday, the only enemy found were those who had stayed only to put up their hands; among them a very young Pole of 721 Jager Regiment, indignant about his German uniform and earnest with the information that his regiment had all been withdrawn the night before to a defensive position ‘three or four kms back’. Of the paratroopers, he could give no news, although they had been so closely mixed up in their former line.
Whereas previously snipers led a disconcerting if perilous existence behind our lines, active many days after their comrades had been overrun, now the isolated Germans found in ruined houses and deep dug out gave us no trouble at all and in many case quite definitely pleased to be taken prisoner.
The battlefield of the last few days was as given in its way as the remains of Cassino; the fields and orchards torn with shell and bomb holes, the lanes and tracks littered with shattered branches, discarding equipment, every former farmstead on its commanding little hillock battered into rubble and all too often the discoloured hull of a burnt out Sherman where the German A/Tk gunners had succeeded before themselves being overrun and killed. The bodies of those who had died still lay in the grass and the ditches, perhaps a crater to show the manner of their death or nothing at all by the scarlet poppies in which they had fallen.
At the approaches to Cassino from the south west, there was no movement to be seen. On the right, the Beds and Herts and DCLI pushed forward to occupy pt 55 and the railway embankment, still almost without opposition and with very few casualties. A NZ tank rolled forward through the trees, stopped just under the Monastery, fired its 75 into the Baron’s Palace and swept the line of the railway with Besa bullets; still no reaction; so the crew got out, brewed up and had lunch, watching the bursts of the heavies on Monastery Hill when the Poles were once more attacking.
The bttns consolidated and dug in; further to the east leading troops of 78 Division had also reached and cut the road; everyone prepared for the final enemy effort – the break out from Cassino, which its garrison must surely, it seemed attempt. Just before nightfall, 2 RF moved north across Route 6 and took up positions in the lower slopes of Monastery Hill itself; 1 RWK were astride the road and the railway; 6 BW in depth 500 yards to the east. A/Tk guns, 4.2 inch mortars and MMGs were brought right forward; the tasks were allotted and we waited. Better to control this final stage, Brigade HQ moved forward in the afternoon to north of Evangelista.