Kiwis in the battle of Cassino



From New Zealand to Cassino


A trip to remember the forgotten heroes!


In the winter of 1943-44, the Allies found themselves confronting the Gustav Line, which crossed Italy south of Rome. For much of its length the line ran along rivers, with the Garigliano, Gari and Rapido strengthening its southern sector. It crossed Route 6, the Rome-Naples highway, which ran on to Rome along the Liri valley, between the Abruzzi and Aurunci mountains. The entrance to the Liri valley was dominated, then as now, by the great bulk of Monte Cassino which is crowned by an ancient Benedictine monastery. Behind the monastery, the ground rose even more steeply to form what the military historian John Ellis has called 'a vile tactical puzzle'. In front of the hill stood the little town of Cassino, and the rivers Gari and Rapido.

Progress onwards to Rome would require feats of the utmost endurance and bravery. The German defenders were hanging on grimly at Cassino - Hitler had determined the region of great significance to the war’s outcome. The advance had to be stopped here at all costs.

The Battle of Monte Cassino was fought in four major engagements over a four month period.

The first phase of the operation (the First Battle of Cassino) comprised an attack across the Gari south of Cassino by the US 36th Division, which was savagely repulsed. Then a longer thrust into the mountains north of Cassino by the US 34th Division, and an attack by the North African troops of the French Expeditionary Corps on the high ground further north.

 In the second battle in February, the 1,400 year-old Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino was bombed to ruins, a controversial act that required later justification. The Germans were not at the time using the hilltpop monastery for their defences, and its destruction was more about preventing its future use.The defending forces were in fact stationed in the town of Cassino and their gun placements were at vantage points below the monastery.


New Zealand Action at Monte Cassino

 The Kiwi soldiers’ biggest involvement came, in the third battle, with the next major assault which started on 15 March. The town was almost totally destroyed by a massive bombing raid, following which the 2nd New Zealand Division forces advanced under cover of an artillery barrage. With German defences recovering from the bombing more quickly than expected, with access difficulties over the rugged terrain now compounded by destroyed buildings and bomb craters, and with torrential rain falling, the small successes gained were remarkable. But the March battle was no more decisive than the destruction of the monastery had been. It would be another two months before the German Wermarcht was dislodged from Monte Cassino.


Conditions were miserable for the men fighting this drawn-out campaign.

The losses on all sides were horrendous, in fighting that took place in the middle of a bitterly cold winter and over terrain that looked every bit as devastated as scenes from the Western Front in World War I.

In his book ‘New Zealanders at War’, Michael King quotes a correspondent for the NZEF Times describing the soldiers coming out for rest at the height of fighting: “These are men who have spent hours in direct heavy shell fire against German strongpoints often 200 yards or less from them. All these incidents have been part of their everyday life - hunted by snipers on the slopes above them in daylight, mortared and shelled in the darkness”.

In early April the New Zealanders withdrew from Cassino, having suffered almost 350 deaths and many more wounded. In May 1944 the town finally fell to Allied forces - there had been a heavy cost all round. D-Day was moving into operation and forces were concentrated on that, so the Italian theatre had become of secondary importance. Rome was taken on 4 June, two days before the Allied invasion of Northern France.


Cavendish Road

Lost opportunity at Cassino

The Cavendish Road was a tank path built by Indian and New Zealand engineers from Caira village (north of Cassino) to a forming up area between Phantom and Snakeshead ridges that would facilitate an attack on Monte Cassino in the middle of March 1944. On 19th March 1943, 37 tanks from the New Zealand armoured division were assembled into a deep bowl on the Cavendish Road called Madras Circus, and from where they would be able to sweep around to the rear of the monastery. The intention was to launch the attack after a assault just below the western wall of the monastery at Hangman’s Hill had commenced but due to lack of coordination, that attack had been postponed. Despite this delay, the tanks set off as planned and passed to the west of Colle Maiola which marks the northern end of Snakeshead Ridge. They then pushed along a narrow defile, which overlooked the vast expanse of the Liri Valley and which leads to the rear of the monastery. The tank force was not accompanied by any infantry and the German 4th Parachute Regiment, which was positioned behind the monastery, was able to stem the attack by disabling the first dozen tanks near to the medieval Albaneta Farm, and the remaining ones were forced to retreat.  Overlooking Albaneta Farm is the southern end of Phantom Ridge, which is topped by the 601 metre Colle San Angelo. 

The area near to Albaneta Farm was also the scene of a thwarted attack by the Polish Corps on 12th May 1944, before it became one of their routes of attack on the 17/18th May when they were finally able to break out into the Liri Valley after the 78th and 4th British Infantry Divisions had broken through the main body of the Gustav Line and cut Route 6.

New Zealand had a major role in two of the four battles for the liberation of Cassino, its contribution ought to be remembered and passed on to the future generations.

New Zealand's casualties at Cassino from February 1 to April 10, 1944, totalled 1695; 343 killed, 1211 wounded and 42 prisoners of war, a very high tally for this small and distant country. 

Out of  343 New Zealanders killed in actions were included a  a disproportionate number of 28 (Maori) Battalion. In an early attack on the railway in the town, Maori suffered 130 casualties out of the 200 who set out.


       New Zealand Quick Facts and Figures:

  • The population of New Zealand in 1940 was about 1,600,000. 

  • About 140,000 New Zealand men and women served, 104,000 in 2NZEF, the rest in the British or New Zealand naval or air forces. 

  • Approximately 12,000 New Zealanders (0.73% of the940 population) lost their lives in WW2, a much higher percentage than either Australia, (0.57%) Canada, (0.40%) and the UK (0.57%). 

  • Post-war calculations indicated that New Zealand's ratio of killed per million of population (at 6684) was the highest in the Commonwealth (with Britain at 5123 and Australia, 3232). 

CAVENDISH ROAD

Lost Opportunity at Cassino!


The Cavendish Road was a tank path built by Indian and New Zealand engineers from Caira village (north of Cassino) to a forming up area between Phantom and Snakeshead ridges that would facilitate an attack on Monte Cassino in the middle of March 1944. On 19th March 1943, 37 tanks from the New Zealand armoured division were assembled into a deep bowl on the Cavendish Road called Madras Circus, and from where they would be able to sweep around to the rear of the monastery. The intention was to launch the attack after a assault just below the western wall of the monastery at Hangman’s Hill had commenced but due to lack of coordination, that attack had been postponed. Despite this delay, the tanks set off as planned and passed to the west of Colle Maiola which marks the northern end of Snakeshead Ridge. They then pushed along a narrow defile, which overlooked the vast expanse of the Liri Valley and which leads to the rear of the monastery. The tank force was not accompanied by any infantry and the German 4th Parachute Regiment, which was positioned behind the monastery, was able to stem the attack by disabling the first dozen tanks near to the medieval Albaneta Farm, and the remaining ones were forced to retreat.  Overlooking Albaneta Farm is the southern end of Phantom Ridge, which is topped by the 601 metre Colle San Angelo. 

The area near to Albaneta Farm was also the scene of a thwarted attack by the Polish Corps on 12th May 1944, before it became one of their routes of attack on the 17/18th May when they were finally able to break out into the Liri Valley after the 78th and 4th British Infantry Divisions had broken through the main body of the Gustav Line and cut Route 6.

From September 1943 the Cavendish road that starts from Caira to the Albaneta farm is accessible again. Please enquire for further information about this trekking tour!