It was not until after the failed attack by II Polish Corps on the German positions at Monte Cassino on the morning of 12th May, 1944, that the Allies ever properly understood the layout and structure of the German defences on that mountain feature. For four and a half months, American, British, Indian and then Polish troops had battered their heads against an apparent brick wall, and while the odd brick had been dislodged, it had proved otherwise utterly unbreakable.
The Poles had moved into positions on Monte Cassino at the end of April in preparation for their part in a massive offensive that was due to begin on the night of 11th May along a twenty-mile front. Surprise was seen as being paramount to the success of the offensive and so Allied planners aimed to keep the enemy as much in the dark about troops dispositions as possible. Consequently, the Poles had to keep their arrival on Monte Cassino a secret; and this meant that while they could build-up supplies in preparation for battle, they could undertake no patrol work of the area whatsoever, for to do so would expose them to the risk of capture.
After the first Polish assault failed, however, and with the Allied offensive in full swing all along the front, there was no longer any need for secrecy and so the Poles were able to patrol very actively over the ensuing four nights – and with intriguing results.
Analysis of this reconnaissance work was extremely revealing. The Germans, it seemed, had two â€˜rings’ of defences. The first ran around Point 593, Phantom Ridge, Colle Sant’ Angelo, Pt 575 and the Albaneta Farm. The second, ran from Point 593, the D’Onifiro Ridge, Point 569 and Monastery Hill itself. In other words, the two rings were more like a figure of eight with Point 593 as the fulcrum of both. The German strongpoints were positioned all around the circumferences of these two rings so that they could cover each other and the area within the rings by mutually supporting fire. This meant that attacking troops would achieve little by penetrating only a part of these rings, because the other strongpoints would be able to pour fire onto the attackers’ front and flanks and force them back out again. Furthermore, inside the rings, the Germans kept reserves for immediate counter-attacks and also a wealth of hidden mortars and artillery. The Poles concluded that the only way the German defences could be broken was by capturing at least half of one of the rings in one sweeping attack.
This was spectacularly achieved by the Poles when they launched their next attack, and soon after Monte Cassino was at long last in Allied hands. Yet because until the Poles discovered the secrets of the German defensive system, Allied commanders continued to see Monte Cassino in terms of the lines and dispositions they had marked up on their maps.
Never was this more the case than at the beginning of February 1944. On 24th January, the American 34th Red Bull Division, had broken through the outer defences of the Gustav Line in the Upper Rapido Valley to the north of the Cassino spur. In the following days, they had achieved much: they had captured the village of Caira, nestling at the foot of the mountains, then had pushed up onto the massif itself, taking Colle Majola, Monte Castellone – overlooking Monte Cassino – and had pushed the enemy almost back to the Monastery itself. Looking at their maps, Allied commanders saw that three-quarters of the Monte Cassino spur was now in American hands. The Red Bulls had done well, very well; the Monastery was now within touching distance. Surely, with new, fresh troops, they would prevail…
The Monte Cassino position, overlooking the six-mile wide Liri Valley, had been rightly identified by the Germans as the key to a formidable defensive line that ran across the entire width of Italy. There were realistically only four possible thrust lines for the Allies to take to reach Rome, and although British Eighth Army had been advancing along one of them that ran along the Adriatic Coast in the east of the Italian peninsular, it was obvious to both the Allies and Germans that the Via Casilina, running through the Liri Valley, was the shortest and most practicable line of advance. With this in mind, Field Marshal Kesselring, the commander-in-chief of all German forces in Italy, had ordered the Gustav Line, as it was known, to be at its strongest at this point. Mines, wire, bunkers and gun emplacements had all been constructed, but on the Monte Cassino spur, this isolated wedge that ran down from a far larger and wider massif, Kesselring’s engineers had been able to also make the most of superb natural defences. Here, on this rocky outcrop, there were hidden gulleys, ridges, and jagged, precipitous slopes. And crowning the end of this feature was the ancient Benedictine monastery, which had been gazing down on the valleys below for more nearly fifteen hundred years.
The Monastery, founded by Saint Benedict, could be seen for miles around, its creamy white walls contrasting against the sullen grey of the mountain, and drawing the eye. Indeed, it seemed to look down, mockingly, at those in the valleys below; the most perfect observation post the enemy could hope for. And regardless of whether there were German troops within the Monastery walls, they were certainly around it. No wonder, then, that Allied commanders soon became fixated with the need to capture it – for while the Germans occupied the ground around this eye that seemed to always be looking down on the valleys below, it was felt the Allies would be unable to burst through the Gustav Line and break into the Liri Valley to Rome.
It was at the beginning of February that the newly formed New Zealand Corps arrived in the Cassino sector, moved from Eighth Army to bolster General Clark’s American Fifth Army. Crucially, they gained no extra staff for this, and so a divisional staff suddenly became a corps staff as well, doubling up the task of looking after two divisions rather than one. Commanding this new corps was General Bernard Freyberg, a Victoria Cross winner from the First World War and a man highly popular with Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The New Zealanders had already had a brief taste of corpsdom in North Africa when, in March the previous year, they had been bolstered with British 8th Armoured Division, and together had been instrumental in outflanking German positions along the Mareth Line that protected Southern Tunisia. Thereafter, however, the New Zealanders had lost their armoured component and had reverted back to a division.
Freyberg had commanded the New Zealanders throughout the North African campaign and all British forces during the Battle of Crete, and during that long command had consistently failed to prove himself as a man of any great tactical or strategic understanding. At Crete he had panicked, ordering the withdrawal of British troops from the tactically key Maleme airfield even though each and every man had a weapon with a range at least 250 yards greater than any of the German paratroopers; and soon after lost the island. In North Africa, his efforts as a commander had been at best workmanlike and had lacked flair. Had he not had a VC to his name, and more importantly, had he not been a New Zealander, he would have surely been pushed to one side long before the New Zealanders ever reached Cassino, let alone been promoted a second time to corps commander. However, politics have always played their part in decisions of war, and General Alexander, commander of Allied Armies in Italy (AAI) was in no position to sack the senior military commander in the field of a coalition partner.
Freyberg had nonetheless been fortunate to have the 4th Indian Division as the other half of his new two-division corps. Not only were they trained mountain troops, they had repeatedly proved themselves to be one of the most effective infantry divisions the Allies had. At Mareth, at Wadi Akarit and at Medjerda, they had struck swiftly and effectively and routed the forces in front of them. Moreover, they were commanded by one of the very best divisional commander the Allies had, Major-General Francis Tuker.
â€˜Gertie’ Tuker is something of a forgotten figure these days, but had circumstances been different, he may well have had a far greater impact on the Cassino battles and hence the Italian campaign as a whole. That he did not was to cost the Allies many, many lives, and to consign the Cassino battles as one of the most disastrous episodes of the Allies’ war. He was certainly a complex figure. Having survived the First World War, he had briefly considered giving up the army to become a painter. However, he stuck with it and saw further action in Iraq, Assam and Northern Iran as well as border operations along the North West Frontier and Waziristan. Always a great student of warfare – both ancient and modern – he spent much time during the interwar years thinking about the shape future wars might take. He also despaired that so few appeared to share his outlook; he was appalled, for example, by the low standard of teaching during his year at Staff College in 1925.
During the 1930s in India, he devoted much time to infantry training and his methods were considered so successful that they were adopted by GHQ India for use throughout the Indian Army; indeed, by 1940, he had been appointed Director of Training for the Indian Army, much to the annoyance of many of his contemporaries: mavericks and free-thinkers like Tuker were generally regarded with suspicion and were not popular.
Journals such as the Royal United Services Institute Journal published forward-thinking essays, but again, little notice was taken of these and the authors were usually seen as show-offs, a vice considered in those pre-war days to be extremely bad form. Tuker personally got around this problem by publishing many of his articles anonymously under the pseudonym of â€˜John Helland’ or â€˜Auspex.’ On one occasion, he submitted an essay on the use of combined air and armoured forces – precisely as later used by the Germans during the Blitzkreig – to the United Services of India Magazine, but it was rejected for being too â€˜controversial and against the settled policy of the day.’ (It was finally published anonymously in the same magazine in 1941, under the heading â€˜Found In A Bottle’).
On arriving to take over 4th Indian Division in North Africa in November 1941, his extremely sensible opinions on how Eighth Army might decisively overcome Rommel’s Axis forces had been disregarded, as were his subsequent thoughts on General Ritchie’s battle plan for Gazala the following May. When he was finally allowed to use his own troops in the manner of his choosing, they were spectacularly successful. The final battle plan for the Axis defeat in Tunisia was entirely his and was so overwhelming a victory that it is often forgotten that a sizeable Axis army was utterly routed as a result. He understood all facets of modern armed warfare from artillery to air power, had a keen intellect and quick mind and was adored by his men. And yet despite this, by February 1944, he was still only a two-star general and divisional commander.
Although when Montgomery left Eighth Army at the end of 1943 there were those who thought Tuker was the man to take over, the truth was that he tended to rub his superior officers up the wrong way. Outspoken and quick to show his frustration at what he viewed were the shortcomings of others, he never endeared himself to those who could have rewarded him with higher command. Furthermore, he had the misfortune of suffering from chronic rheumatoid arthritis, severe attacks of which periodically struck him down and forced him to retire to his sickbed.
Nonetheless, he seemed in good shape when he reached the Cassino sector at the end of January and wasted no time in making a thorough examination and assessment of the entire Fifth Army front. He was immediately concerned that the Allied Higher Command seemed to be losing sight of the object of the operations that Fifth Army was undertaking. It was clear to him that they were becoming obsessed with attacking and capturing Monte Cassino and the Monastery head-on when, in fact, the object was to force a withdrawal of enemy forces from that position, which could be achieved by either forcing a breakthrough elsewhere, or by isolating the position and thus rendering it useless. Indeed, he was also mindful that the main and immediate objective of Fifth Army’s continued attack at Cassino was now to relieve the pressure at Anzio, where the Allies had made an amphibious assault on 22nd January and had subsequently established a bridgehead. Intelligence had warned them the Germans were preparing a counter-attack there around the middle of February. An Allied defeat at Anzio was unthinkable.
Tuker also spent time discussing the possibilities of mountain warfare with General Juin, commander of the French Expeditionary Corps. Juin’s French troops had proved themselves to be fine mountain warriors during the last days of January, when they successfully knocked the Germans from Monte Abate and the Belvedere massif a few miles to the north of Monte Cassino. These peaks, as with the Monte Cassino spur, rose to form the biggest mountain of the entire chain, Monte Cairo, nearly 1,700 metres high.
Crucially, however, the German defences were less developed up on this higher ground either side of Monte Cairo. Furthermore, after a steep initial climb, the mountains then rose more gently and widely. Here, there were fewer gulleys and jagged ridges as there were at the end of the spur around Monte Cassino. The ground was more open, too, with fewer hidden folds in the ground. Juin’s troops had run out of steam – and ammunition and supply-carrying mules on Belvedere, but he believed that high on this less well defended ground there lay the key to an Allied breakthrough.
So too did Tuker, who proposed attacking just to the south of Cairo, through what he termed the Castellone spur. His idea was to attack over the entire spur and cut the Via Casilina the other side, thus isolating the German troops on Monte Cassino. At the same time, he suggested an attack across the River Garigliano to the south of Cassino. There, he argued, the Allies could bring their massive advantage in fire-power to bear far more effectively than they could up in the mountains. X Corps had successfully crossed the Garigliano to the south a couple of weeks before and had maintained a bridgehead, and while the Americans had failed to cross at Sant’Angelo, a few miles to the south of Cassino, Tuker saw lack of planning and co-ordination of fire as the main reason. â€˜A penetration through the hills to the east of the Cassino feature,’ noted Tuker, â€˜or across the Rapido lower down, somewhere near St Angelo, would have brought the Axis hurrying back from Anzio far more readily than bashing one’s head against the rocks of Cassino.’
Freyberg embraced Tuker’s plan wholeheartedly, but then, on 2nd February, Tuker fell ill once more and was evacuated to hospital in Caserta. Immediately, Freyberg’s confidence in the plan began to waver, even though Tuker was still sending missives from his hospital bed. The Corps commander worried there were not enough mules for the task Tuker had proposed, and in any case, the more he looked at the map, the more he began to think a continuation of the direct assault was the best approach after all. The Americans were already there, and from the map it was only a very short distance over which the fresh and experienced troops of 4th Indian Division would have to attack. He didn’t understand mountain warfare and was conscious the Texans had been slaughtered on the Rapido a fortnight earlier. And General Clark favoured a direct attack as well. Freyberg had never been particularly good at fighting his own corner. Who he needed during his planning meetings with Clark, as he later confessed, was General Tuker…
Freyberg issued his plan of attack on 9 February, the day that the 34th Red Bulls won and lost Point 593 eleven times, each time piercing the fulcrum of the double ring, but each time being forced back again by the brilliance of the still-secret German defensive system. Tuker, still in hospital, groaned further when he realized Freyberg had abandoned his plan. Last time he had seen the Corps commander, he had stressed that a direct assault should be used as a last resort only, but this was what his men were now being asked to do.
Tuker, in full agreement with his brigade commanders and the acting divisional commander, Brigadier Dimoline, the Commander Royal Artillery in the division, made it clear that if his division was to make a direct assault on Monte Cassino, the area had to be flattened first. He also needed more information about the Monte Cassino spur, including details of the construction and size of the Monastery.
To his astonishment, he was told that neither Corps nor Fifth Army Headquarters had any information about the Monastery building at all. He then promptly despatched a subaltern post haste to Naples to scour the bookshops there. Eventually, he discovered two books, one published in 1879, the other in 1920, that described the construction of the Monastery in some detail, and which confirmed it had been rebuilt and strengthened as a fortress in both the 14th and 17th Centuries with further additions in the early 19th century.
Tuker managed to raise himself on 12th February and saw Freyberg, â€˜and at least twice thumped into him that there must be no compromise in the air etc bombardment…ALL or nothing and no direct attack.’ He also spelled out, in a series of memos, precisely what he and his divisional staff had in mind. Not just the Monastery, but the entire Monte Cassino spur, including Point 593, had to be pulverised. The Allies had overwhelming aerial supremacy, with both tactical and strategical air forces in Italy, and a considerable arsenal of guns. â€˜It can only be directly dealt with by applying â€˜blockbuster’ bombs from the air,’ he stated emphatically, â€˜hoping thereby to render the garrison incapable of resistance. The 1,000 lb bomb would be next to useless to effect this.’
This specific request with regard to the ordnance to be dropped was not at all unreasonable. What he meant by a â€˜blockbuster’ was what were officially termed â€˜high-capacity’ bombs, and within MASAF’s arsenal there were a number of 2,000lb HC bombs as well as the 4,000lb HC bomb, better known as â€˜cookies,’ both of which could have dropped by MASAF’s bombers. As it happened, they also had supplies of 1,900lb and 2,000lb General Purpose bombs.
Tuker also made it clear that the bombardment from both the air and artillery and the subsequent infantry attacks all needed to be closely co-ordinated. â€˜The essence of the bombardment,’ he noted, â€˜should have been its obliterating weight, suddenness and duration and the immediate continuance of the bombing by artillery bombardment and infantry attack early in the night under the artillery bombardment.’
His final memorandum concluded with a terse admonition. â€˜When a formation is called upon to reduce such a place,’ he wrote via his divisional chief of staff, â€˜it should be apparent that the place is reducible by the means at the disposal of that Div or that the means are ready for it, without having to go to the bookstalls of Naples to find out what should have been fully considered many weeks ago.’ Freyberg and his staff may have blanched at such a comment, but it was fair point, all the same.
Tuker’s meeting with Freyberg and his memoranda of 12th February were his last opportunity to affect the battle. The following day – no doubt having exhausted himself with his efforts – he succumbed further to his illness and took no further part at all in the subsequent Second Battle of Cassino.
At any rate, thereafter, just about everything that could have gone wrong did so. Freyberg’s battle plan called for 7th Indian Infantry Brigade, who were to lead the attack, to take over from the Americans on Monte Cassino on the night of 12/13th February and for the attack to go in two nights later. The Germans, however, counter-attacked towards Monte Castellone on the night of 12/13th, and so the Indians had to postpone taking over from the otherwise engaged Americans until the following evening. When they finally attempted this, they discovered two things. First, Point 593 was not in American hands as they had been led to believe – it had been successfully counter-attacked yet again – and second, that a number of Americans were so exhausted they could not physically move. Instead, about twenty of them had to be stretchered back down the mountain, taking up valuable time when the Indians should have been digging in and reconnoitring the terrain.
Brigadier Lovatt, commander of the 7th Indian Brigade insisted that Point 593 had to be captured before any attack could be made, (having correctly recognized that it was the key feature despite having no understanding of the German defensive system), and so suggested the feature should be assaulted on the night of 15/16th February, and then Monastery Hill attacked on the night of 16/17th, two days after Freyberg had originally suggested.
Freyberg agreed with Lovatt’s assessment and on the afternoon of 14th February visited Fifth Army Headquarters to discuss the change of plan. There, he was told that the heavy four-engine bombers of the Strategic Air Force were going to bomb the Monastery the following morning. He protested that his men would not be ready, but his concerns were shrugged aside; such a bombardment needed to be accurate and according to the meteorologists there was only going to be a brief window of opportunity during the next few days, and that was on the morning of 15th February.
Freyberg never wrote down his version of events apart from a brief letter to Tuker sent in 1950 on the publication of Mark Clark’s memoir, Calculated Risk. In this note he mentions asking Clark to drop some light bombs close to the Monastery first as a warning to those inside, but claimed Clark â€˜ridiculed the idea and ordered heavy bombers to bomb it with 1000 lb delayed action bombs.’
In this one sentence, Freyberg betrays just how out of his depth he was. It was as though he had not listened to one word Tuker had told him. The 4th Indian Division commander had pleaded for both surprise and saturation with bunker busters of greater power than 1,000 lb bombs. Yet Freyberg never pressed this upon Clark and his staff, nor did he argue that 1,000 lb bombs were too small; rather, he suggested dropping much, much smaller incendiaries.
This meeting on the afternoon of 14th February was Freyberg’s chance to put the kibosh on the whole thing. His battle plan was already going horribly awry and he must have known that there could be only one way the battle would now go – how could it be any other way when his battle plan was unravelling before his eyes? It was nothing less than sending good men to the slaughter. Admittedly, political pressure from London and Washington was intense and nerves were running high that the Anzio bridgehead would be lost, yet a battle that failed to achieve its aims would not help those at Anzio. No request to cancel the attack was made; no formal complaint about the bombing plan was ever put down on paper. Instead, Freyberg returned to his HQ and told Dimoline and Lovatt that the bombardment would be the following morning and that was all there was to it.
The Mediterranean Allied Strategic Air Force (MASAF) was unused to operating with the ground forces in Italy; that was the job of the Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force (MATAF). However, most of the Tactical Air Force was tied up at Anzio, and anyway, they did not have heavy four-engine bombers capable of dropping weighty bunker busters. But the men planning the operation would have had little understanding of the needs of infantry and artillery or of co-ordinating an attack. Moreover, details of precisely what they were to bomb and with what had somehow got muddled during the chain of requests that had begun with General Tuker, then gone to the inexperienced New Zealand corps staff, and which had ended at MASAF Headquarters on the other side of Italy.
These Chinese whispers were disastrous. There seems to have been no co-ordination between MASAF, Fifth Army and the New Zealand Corps whatsoever; no clarification of precisely what was needed. And so the bombers bombed not the Monte Cassino spur but just the Monastery, albeit that some fell wide of their mark. Between 9.25am and 1.32pm, two waves of bombers dropped 500 tons of bombs. Of these, 257 tons were 500 lb bombs, and 59 tons were 100 lb incendiaries, all of which were next to useless against stone and rock. During the second wave, 283 1,000 lb bombs were dropped. And that was it – no bunker busters at all and only partially on the target. The Monastery was destroyed, along with several hundred civilians sheltering there, but the effect on the Germans dug in around their defensive rings was negligible.
Later that evening, long hours after the bombardment was over, 7th Infantry Brigade attempted to take Point 593 and failed. They tried again the next night, and failed again. The battle was over before it had started and not only had 7th Infantry Brigade suffered nearly 600 casualties, but the recriminations over the bombing of the ancient Monastery had already begun. And as it turned out, it had all been for nothing anyway, because the German counter-attack at Anzio that had caused so much anxiety was almost as badly planned and executed as the Allied attack at Monte Cassino. The bridgehead held even without any enemy troops being moved to the Cassino front. As both sides were discovering, it was a lot easier to be the defender than the attacker in Italy.
The debate about the bombing of the Monastery has raged ever since. It has been argued that the building was never used by the Germans until after it was destroyed, and that the rubble was then easier to defend than when it had been standing; that only civilians were killed as a result; that the Allied lost the moral high ground by destroying such a sacred place and ancient artistic treasure. Yet this is to miss the point, as Tuker wrote shortly before his death in 1967. â€˜The destruction WAS in fact unnecessary,’ he noted, â€˜and an act of vandalism, because the plan was so bad that the Monastery and its surroundings were not obliterated along with the garrison and the sketchy damage we did with 500 tons of bombs was wasted.’
One of Tuker’s great adages was that if the approach to battle was correct, the chances of success were good. For that, the commander and his men needed time to properly plan; staff work had to be thorough and detailed; the men had to be properly trained for the job in hand; intelligence had to be gathered in order to implement that essential of any attack: surprise. And every man had to know precisely what he had to do.
Yet at the Second Battle of Cassino, the approach to battle was nothing short of a disgrace. No wonder Tuker was so horrified by what had happened.