National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand : Military History & Army War Museum

Hell at Cassino

In some ways Cassino was a battle of the First World War with the weapons of the Second. Official Histories: Italy, Volume I

On the 18th May 2014 New Zealand marked the 70th anniversary of the Cassino battle with a special service of remembrance for 38 veterans at the Cassino Railway station and later at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.

Monte Cassino was the strongest point in the Gustav line, which was the logical route north through the German defensive line. The Germans had spent months making the position virtually impregnable by flooding the valley and fortifying the hill with well sited bunkers, weapons and obstacles.

The battles for Cassino consisted of four attacks between January and May 1944.  In January, US forces unsuccessfully tried to capture the town of Cassino and Monte Cassino, the hill behind the town.  In February and March, New Zealand Corps, comprising New Zealand, Indian and British troops, twice tried unsuccessfully to storm the position.  In May, after the position had been partially outflanked by American troops, a determined attack by Polish soldiers was finally successful.

In mid-February, the New Zealand Corps made its first attempt to capture Cassino.  The attack was preceded by one of the most controversial events of World War Two, the destruction of the Monastery of Monte Cassino.

The Monastery of Monte Cassino was founded by St Benidict in the 6th Century and was well known for its grandeur and collection of classic manuscripts.  In 1944 the building loomed over the attacking troops who thought it must be part of the German defences.  On 15 February 1944, the Allies destroyed the Monastery by bombing.

After further assaults showed little sign of breaking through the defences, General Freyberg decided that the attack should be halted.  New Zealand Corps was disbanded on 26 March 1944 and not long afterwards the New Zealanders were withdrawn from the Cassino sector.

The cost to the New Zealand Division was significant with 343 killed in action, 1211 wounded in action and 42 captured.

Here’s what some of the troops had to say….

First light broke on a ghastly scene. Huge railway engines, boilers with jagged holes, twisted rails, dragging telegraph wires, crumbled building and masonry, surrounded us. The dead lay everywhere. The wounded were being taken to the rear … a pall of smoke hung over everything and the smell of gunpowder and blood was sickening …. Ngapuhi and Arawa lay side by side and died. Tommy guns spat and grenades exploded and screams curdled the blood.  George Sutherland, 28 (Maori) Battalion

Our four days and nights were absolute hell; mortar bombs continued to rain down; we had a nebelwerfer rocket through our roof; and the never-ending smoke shells meant that we were living in a world where there was no day. Our nerves were stretched to breaking point, hands shaking so much that cigarettes were hard to light. Hot meals were impossible, as was washing and shaving. My diary notes, ‘it takes all our nerve to move from our position to Company Headquarters 25 yards away. C W Hollis, 21 Battalion