The Third Battle of Monte Cassino

New Zealanders at the Third Battle of Monte Cassino

After the destruction and fortification of the Abbey, the uncoordinated attacks by the 4th Indian Division failed to dislodge the Germans on the Cassino front in mid February. For the next month, cold and rainy weather prohibited any further Allied attempt.

On 15 March 1944, the skies cleared briefly and for three hours, thousands of Allied bombers and artillery pieces turned the area around Monte Cassino into a roiling mass of smoke, dust, fire and debris. The Allies thought that surely no one could have survived. But if there was one lesson the Allies would refuse to learn during the Second World War it was that no matter how devastating and intense the bombardment, there was always some stubborn fool who refused to die, and emerged from the rubble to defend with a vengeance against dumbfounded attackers. As it was at Tarawa, so it would be at Monte Cassino.

Unlike the Second Battle, the Fifth Air Force properly coordinated with Gen Freyburg’s New Zealand Corps. As soon as the bombing ended, Freyburg’s troops hurled themselves toward the monastery and against the dazed German paratroops, with some success. They were assisted by tanks that arrived over a road laboriously cut over the mountain. The Indians captured Castle Hill. The Gurkhas secured Hangman’s Hill (named for the broken cable car cable that hung from a pole on the hill which made it look like a gibbet). The Kiwis captured most of Cassino town, although the center was still in German hands including the railway station, which dominated the entrance to the Liri Valley.

The air bombing however, destroyed any roads and trails and made resupply and further armor support difficult. Furthermore, fire from the abbey and incessant German counterattacks prevented any further gains. The Allied attacks ground to a halt, they were within 250m of the monastery.

After the initial two days, the Third Battle of Monte Cassino could be likened to two punch drunk fighters wearily flailing away at each other. Unfortunately, the Germans landed the last punch before the bell rang. Heavy rains on 23 March convinced both exhausted sides to stop fighting. But the writing was on the wall: the Green Devils of the German 1st Fallschirmjaeger (Parachute) Division were now horribly under strength and there was very little prospect of replacement or relief.

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