Friday, June 19, 2015

Monte Cassino

German prisoners captured by New Zealand troops are held beside a Sherman tank. After repeated unsuccessful assaults, the Allied offensive was again called off on 22 March.

First Battle: Northern Sector 24 January – 11 February 1944

To the individual combat soldier, the bitter cold weather of January had added to the discomfort of fighting in mud and water. 'Vet foxholes were the rule, freezing nights the norm, and trench foot and illness the result. A sharp rise in artillery expenditure rates during the last ten days of the month seemed to have little effect, and, added to other causes for concern, gave "every evidence that the enemy intends to prevent, at all costs, the occupation of Rome and juncture of the main Fifth Army with the Anzio forces."  

The estimate was correct. On 31 January, when Vietinghoff informed Kesselring that he intended to continue to hold his ground, he indicated that the focal point of his defense was the Cassino massif. If he needed to reinforce the XIV Panzer Corps to prevent the Fifth Army from breaking through, he would weaken the LXXVI Panzer Corps by taking troops from the Adriatic front.

Kesselring was satisfied. "In full agreement with intentions as reported," he said.

At the beginning of February, the Germans had a dual task: eliminate the Anzio beachhead and hold the Gustav Line. The Allied lodgment, if expanded sufficiently to threaten the major lines of communication running south from Rome, would compel the Germans to abandon the Gustav Line and give up southern Italy. Yet the Allied pressure around Cassino to gain entrance into the Liri valley made it impossible for the Germans to divert forces to Anzio from the Gustav Line. In fact, the attacks against the Gustav Line required that more strength be concentrated along the Rapido-Garigliano line than had ever before been committed against the Fifth Army, so much more that Kesselring would have to draw on his strength at Anzio to bolster the Gustav defenses early in February. If the Gustav Line could be held until enough units were gathered at Anzio to eliminate the beachhead, the situation in southern Italy would remain the same as it was before the amphibious operation. The Allied forces would have suffered a crushing defeat and would still be a considerable distance from Rome.

The four German divisions that had been fully committed along the Gustav Line early in January had been increased by the beginning of February to an equivalent of about six divisions, and additional units would appear almost daily despite the requirements of Anzio. Opposite 10 Corps, the 94th Division occupied the coastal area, its eastern flank bolstered by part of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division. Against II Corps were parts of the 15th Panzer Grenadier, the 71st Infantry, and the 3d Panzer Grenadier Divisions, all of which also had units at Anzio, and the entire 44th Infantry Division. Facing the French were part of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division and the entire 5th Mountain Division.

All these organizations except the 29th Panzer Grenadier and 71st Divisions had been in the line continuously for at least a month and most of them for longer. All were seriously depleted, the 71st in particular, and not enough replacements were coming in to return the units to full strength. The 44th Division for example, had received approximately 1,000 replacements in January but had lost the same number as prisoners.

In the critical sector, the area immediately around Cassino, the 44th and 71st Divisions, as well as a few units of the 3d Panzer Grenadier Division, had received a battering as they held tenaciously in the hills north and west of the town. To augment these troops and at the same time permit the relatively strong 29th Panzer Grenadier Division to move to Anzio, Vietinghoff would transfer the 90th Panzer Grenadier Division to the Cassino area from the Adriatic coast; units would begin arriving piecemeal around 7 February. A day or so later the 1st Parachute Division would come from the Adriatic front, to be joined at the Gustav Line by units of the division that had earlier been rushed to Anzio. The veteran paratroopers would take positions in the hills behind Cassino. Monte Cassino would become their fortress.

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