German Panther tank camouflaged between buildings, near Monte Cassino, Italy, Apr-May 1944.
In an effort to break the disastrous stalemate at Anzio, the Allies launched Operation Diadem on 11 May 1944. The key Allied armoured formations involved in the battle were the US 1st, Canadian 5th and British 6th Armoured Divisions, as well as the Polish 2nd Armoured Brigade.This was an all-out armoured thrust designed to pierce the German defences; it also served to distract Hitler from the impending invasions of Normandy and the French Riviera, and the massive Soviet offensive on the Eastern Front. After months of deadlock the honour of taking Monte Cassino would eventually fall to Polish Shermans.
Operation Diadem called for a rapid penetration of the Gustav Line at Cassino and a joint thrust northwards. Lieutenant General Oliver Leese’s British 8th Army was to push up the Liri valley as far as Sora and up the Sacco valley as far as Valmontone, southeast of Rome. Lieutenant General Mark Clark’s US 5th Army was to drive along the coast to link up with the US 6th Corps, which would break out from the Anzio beachhead and strengthen the final push on Rome.
On the left two British divisions were to push up the coast to pin down the 3rd Panzergrenadiers, and in the meantime the US 1st Armored and 3rd and 45th Infantry Divisions were to conduct the main attack towards Campoleone. The fighting was heavy, with the Americans losing a hundred tanks, and little progress was made until the 1st Armored Division finally pieced the Caesar Line.
During the fierce battles for Cassino tanks proved to be of limited value; in the town itself they were hampered by rubble and craters which prevented them from moving freely. During the First Battle, when the houses and streets of Cassino were still recognisable, tanks losses were high because they made suicidal frontal assaults and blundered into anti-tank ambushes and well laid mines. In just twelve days of fighting the US 756th Tank Battalion had twenty-three of its sixty-one tanks knocked out, with another twenty-one damaged. An armoured sortie into the Cassino massif early in the Third Battle was hopelessly mismanaged, resulting in considerable losses.
The defenders had no intention of surrendering any ground. During March and April the German paratroopers toiled on Cassino’s defences, hauling up their anti-tank guns to protect the most vulnerable sectors, as well as manning the fortified dugouts and bunkers that overlooked the approaches to the top of the Cassino massif. In addition, between Cassino and Rome the Germans had constructed a whole series of defensive lines upon which they could fall back. One of the strongest was the Hitler Line; this was studded with Panther tank turrets embedded in concrete, which were ready to exact an appalling toll on Allied tanks and infantry.
Captured German Fallschirmjäger parachute troops file past a Sherman tank of the New Zealand Armoured Brigade at Cassino.
The battle for Monte Cassino comprised four major engagements, involving American, British, Canadian, French, New Zealand and Polish forces.The centrepiece of the battle was the struggle for the monastery overlooking the town of Cassino. By early 1944 the western section of the German Winter Line was held by their forces in the Rapido, Liri and Garigliano valleys, and the surrounding mountains and ridges known as the Gustav Line.The Germans did not occupy the monastery and incorporate it into their defences until after American bombers flattened it in mid-February.
After struggling for six weeks through 7 miles of the Bernhardt Line at the cost of 16,000 casualties, the US 5th Army finally reached the Gustav Line on 15 January. The first assault was launched two days later. Although US troops got across the Rapido, tanks were unable to reach them, leaving them at the mercy of the panzers and self-propelled guns of General Eberhard Rodt’s 15th Panzergrenadiers.
When the Third Battle commenced on 15 March it was hoped to launch a decisive blow on the German defences in the monastery and town. This included a surprise attack by the British 20th Armoured Brigade moving up a track from Cairo to Albaneta Farm towards the monastery. The conditions were completely unsuitable for tanks. A German counterattack from the monastery left the tanks stranded round Castle Hill; lacking infantry support, by mid-afternoon they were all knocked out.
The final battle commenced with Operation Diadem on 11 May and saw the British 8th Army make two opposed crossings over the Rapido river. Once this was bridged, tanks of the Canadian 1st Armoured Brigade moved up to support the infantry – armoured support had been lacking during the first two battles. In the meantime the Polish Corps fought against the German paratroops in and around Cassino in what was clearly a grudge match.
While the Polish Corps consisted of two infantry divisions, the 3rd Carpathian and 5th Kresowa, they had the normal allotment of divisional tanks and were supported by the Polish 2nd Armoured Brigade.The latter consisted of the 1st and 2nd Polish and 6th Kresowa Armoured Regiments, equipped with American-supplied Shermans. In total the Poles mustered 50,000 men, who had arrived in Italy between December 1943 and January 1944 and first went into the line in March. Around 80 per cent of these troops were former Russian prisoners of war, but they were strengthened with Poles from the Carpathian Brigade that fought with the British 8th Army at Tobruk. A Polish armoured division was formed but this was committed to the Normandy campaign.
After the failure of the assaults by the Americans, New Zealanders and Indians, the same formidable defences confronted the Poles. In particular, the monastery, the south and west of the massif, and part of the town were held by the paratroops, whose key strongpoints were situated at Colle Sant’ Angelo – Point 706 – Monte Castellone; in the monastery and the upper reaches of the town; on Points 593 and 569; and around Massa Albaneta.
The German 1st Parachute Division holding Cassino had considerable firepower. It was supported by 242 Assault Battalion, 525 Anti-tank Battalion (equipped with self-propelled 88mm guns), four artillery battalions from the 10th Army and one from the 90th Panzergrenadier Division. In addition, 71 Werfer Regiment had forty 150 and 300mm mortars near Pignataro and thirty 150mm and 200mm mortars at Villa Santa Lucia. The Nebelwerfer or ‘Moaning Minnie’ six-barrelled rocket launcher was a particularly devastating weapon.
The Poles had great difficulties in concentrating their men at the forward jump-off points, and were assisted by five Cypriot mule companies and two British jeep platoons in moving up their stockpiles for the attack. The 3rd Carpathians had the job of storming the monastery ruins after securing Point 593 and Albaneta Farm to the northwest. The 5th Kresowas were to assault Phantom Ridge and Sant’ Angelo to the south. The going was tough for all the Allied forces committed to the offensive. Astonishingly, within 20 minutes of the opening Allied barrage the Carpathians were on Point 593 and the Kresowas had gained Phantom ridge, though they suffered fearful casualties in the process.
Polish tanks with names like Claw, Pygmy and Pirate advanced on Albaneta on 15 May firing on burnt-out Allied tanks, the remains of the March attack, which were being used as enemy machine-gun posts. They were soon halted by mines, and sappers had to crawl under the tanks for protection from snipers as they worked to clear them. ‘We were in utter despair,’ said one Polish tank commander, ‘being unable to reach our comrades dying in front of Albaneta. With real fury we blasted away at the ruins, and at every suspicious bush or pile of stones.’ The tankers took no chances and showed no mercy. Anything that moved was deluged in machine-gun and anti-tank gun fire by the Polish tanks. On the night of 17 May the determined Poles finally gained all their main objectives, including Point 593, but not Albaneta, where the Germans clung on to the last.
Polish troops moved into the monastery on 18 May to find it abandoned.The 1st Parachute Division had called it a day. Lieutenant Casimir Gurbiel and a platoon of Uhlans from the Podolski Lancers were the first Poles to enter the monastery. The only remaining Germans were the badly wounded; when asked why they had held out so fanatically, they replied they had been told the Polish did not take prisoners. Nearly a thousand Poles died in the two attacks.
Six days later the Canadian 5th Armoured Division breached the line, opening the route to Rome. The Allies hoped that this would break the deadlock that had blighted the Italian campaign to date. It was not to be.