17th February 1944 – The Assault at the Cassino railway station lead by the 28th Māori Battalion.




17th February 1944 – The Assault at the Cassino railway station code named “Operation Avanger”, lead by the 28th Māori Battalion.



The 28th (Māori) Battalion was part of the 2nd New Zealand Division,  during the Second World War (1939-45).

A frontline infantry unit made up entirely of volunteers, the Battalion usually contained 700-750 men, divided into five companies: four rifle companies of about 125 men each and a headquarters (HQ) company of around 200 men. Each company was commanded by a major or captain. The Māori Battalion's four rifle companies were organised along tribal lines, partly following the boundaries of the four Māori parliamentary electorates. Each company had its own nickname, reflecting the history and character of its main recruiting area.


The two companies tasked to advance at the railway station were A Company and B Company.


•A Company, drawn from Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whātua and other northern iwi, was known as the Gum Diggers (Ngā Kiri Kapia) due to the long history of kauri gum digging in the north.


  •B Company, centred on Te Arawa and the Mataatua tribes, was the Penny Divers (Ngā Ruku Kapa) - a reference to the practice of diving for coins to entertain tourists in the Rotorua thermal region.


THE PLAN


Major General Bernard Cyril Freyberg, VC, Commander of the 2nd NZ expeditionary Forces, on 6th February 1944 ordered reconnaissances of sites for bridges across the Rapido and found out that there were a number of points were the river could be bridged if only firm approach could be built. The whole floor of the valley however was sodden and waterlogged from deliberate flooding and from rain, in some places the water lay an inch deep.


There were only two possible ways to of approaching Cassino town.


One was along highway 6 and was tactically too obvious to the enemy. The other was the embankment which carried the railway line to Cassino railway-station.


The station was about a mile south of the town’s centre. This embankment was thirty feet wide and it had been breeched by 12 demolitions in a distance of a little over a thousand yards measured from the railway-station towards the Allies’ front. The rails and sleepers had been removed.


The New Zealand attack on Cassino town as well as the 4th Indian division’s attack on Monastery hill, was the first phase of Freyberg’s plan to pass a substantial force into the “Liri Valley”.


If the breaches in the embankment were repaired to make it a road and if the bridges were thrown across the Rapido and then the Gari the way to Rome was open. To solve this problems was the task of Brigadier Kippenberger who 9th February took the command of the New Zealand division in the acting rank of Major-General. By the 11th February his plan was ready for the assault at Cassino Railway Station. Two Companies of the 28th Māori battallion from Kippneberger’s own brigade were given the task to advance along the embankment during the night 17th February and capture the railway station. Simultaneously the 6th and 8th Field Companies New Zealand Engineers would repair the breaches in the embankment and the bridges over the Rapido and its tributary before dawn on 18th February. The 19th NZ regiment and some anti-tank guns would go forward to support the Māori Battallion.


THE ATTACK AT THE CASSINO RAILWAY STATION.

On 17th February 1944, At 8:45 pm the A company and B Company of the 28th Māori battallion began their approach to the start line as planned. B company was on the right, A company on the left. B company’s first objectives were the train station and the engine shed, and a group of houses in the north, about three hundred yards from the station; A company objective was a group of mounds three hundred yards south of the engine-shed and named the “Hummock”.

To reach the train station was not an easy task:  scattered mines were disconcerting, the embankment was choked by the engineers and paraphernalia and the going on either side proved to be deeper than expected.

The Germans were vigilant and soon opened defensive fire with mortars and machine guns. Men began to fall in both Māori companies.

The advance was painful and very slow. The hummocks were defended by high and very wide diches, with flood water protected by wire and covered by machine gun fire. Day began to break but orders came from Kippenberger that the Maoris must hold their positions no matter how exposed they might be.

By 5 am the Engineers had bridged the Rapido – five hours behind the time. Two large demolitions still barred the way of vehicles to the railway station, but with the daylight engineer work became impossible under observed fire. The engineers had lost their race against time. The two Māori companies were now in an unpleasant position. Soon after sunrise at 6 am on the 18th February a small German force was starting to counter attack. The NZ Artillery fired about 9000 rounds of smoke. Under the smoke a platoon was sent to reinforce A and B companies and their wounded were brought back. The Germans did not expect that but they soon reorganized. At 3:15 pm with a handful of tanks from north and infantry from the south-west under heavy covering fire from guns, mortars and machine-guns attacked the train station. The Māori companies’ communications with their battalion headquarters had broken down, and the appearance of German tanks decided the battle because the New Zealander Infantry had no tanks or anti-tank guns with which to oppose them. Between 4 pm and 7 pm A and B companies retreated across the Rapido.

About 200 infantry men had attacked on 17th February and 130 became casualties, killed, imprisoned or injured. The German were relieved to see the New Zealanders retreat because their own casualties had numbered 192 and the garrison, in spite of the reinforcement was in no condition to withstand a heavy attack.


AFTER THE BATTLE.

Of all the battles involving the Māori Battalion in the Second World War, none was more brutal or costly than the struggle for Cassino. They came from so far away to defend my country  and died for its freedom, their sacrifice won’t be forgotten!

They came  from the same village or area,  they were related,  friends and they certainly knew each other. They are buried far from home, at the Commonwealth war Cemetery of Cassino, they fought together, they shared the same ideal, same fears, same destiny and they will rest forever one next to the other.


WE HONOR VALOR THEIR SACRIFICE


There will always be A strong tie between our countries, between Italy and New Zealand!


Their Motto is:

Ake! Ake! Kia Kaha E!

Upwards! Upwards! Be Strong


E kore ratou e koroheketia, Penei i a tatou kua mahue nei.

E kore hoki ratou e ngoikore, Ahakoa i nga ahuatanga o te wa.

I te hekenga atu o te ra. Tae noa ki te aranga mai i te ata.

Ka maumahara tonu tatou ki a ratou. Ka maumahara tonu tatou ki a ratou*




They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. We will remember them.



*Kindly translated by Zac & Teena Te Maro



References:


- Website: http://www.28maoribattalion.org.nz/


-History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series, The Mediterranean and Middle East, Volume V, The Campain in Sicily 1943 and In Italy 3rd September 1943 and 31st march 1944 by Brigadier C.J.C. Molony