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Fallschirmjäger: Monte Cassino

The monastery of Monte Cassino being bombed by Allied aircraft on 15 February 1944

The monastery of Monte Cassino being bombed by Allied aircraft on 15 February 1944. One result of the bombing and shelling of the hill and town of Cassino was to create cover for the German paratroopers and more problems for the attackers. It would take a lot to dislodge the paratroopers, as Major Rudolf Böhmler, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Parachute Regiment, 1st Parachute Division, later stated: "One must appreciate that the fighting at Cassino was mountain warfare; and in mountain warfare the inevitable rule is that whoever is master of the hill is master of the valley." At Cassino the 1st Parachute Division comprised: Divisional Headquarters (General Heidrich); 1st Parachute Regiment (Oberst Schultz), made up of the 1st Battalion (Major von der Schulenburg); 2nd Battalion (Major Groschke); and 3rd Battalion (Major Becker). The 3rd Parachute Regiment, commanded by Oberst Heilmann, comprised: 1st Battalion (Major Böhmler); 2nd Battalion (Major Foltin); and 3rd Battalion (Major Kratzert). The 4th Parachute Regiment, commanded by Oberst Walther, comprised: 1st Battalion (Hauptmann Beyer); 2nd Battalion (Hauptmann Hubner); and 3rd Battalion (Hauptmann Maier). Other divisional elements comprised: 1st Parachute Artillery Regiment (Major Schramm); 1st Pioneer Battalion (Hauptmann Fromming); 1st Parachute Antitank Battalion (Major Bruckner); 1st Parachute Machine Gun Battalion (Major Schmidt) and the Parachute Medical Section (Oberst Dr. Eiben).

The Allied bombing of the monastery did not kill the German defenders

The Allied bombing of the monastery did not kill the German defenders. The ruins were assaulted between 16-18 February by units of the Indian 7th Brigade. They were summarily repulsed by a combination of artillery and Fallschirmjäger
small-arms fire.

Generalmajor Richard Heidrich (standing) with Field Marshal Albert Kesselring in the Italian theatre, mid-1944

Generalmajor Richard Heidrich (standing) with Field Marshal Albert Kesselring in the Italian theatre, mid-1944. Heidrich assumed command of the Cassino sector on 20 February 1944, with Cassino and Monte Cassino being entrusted to Oberst Heilmann's 3rd Parachute Regiment (Heilmann would assume command of the 5th Parachute Division on 17 November 1944). The Third Battle of Cassino commenced on 15 March, when a total of 775 Allied aircraft bombed Cassino and its immediate vicinity, hitting German artillery, supply centres and bridges. As soon as the aircraft had finished, Allied artillery opened up. The bombardment of the town lasted till 15:30 hours, but for the ruins of the monastery it went on into the early hours of 16 March. One Fallschirmjäger commander, Hauptmann Foltin, moved his 6th Company into a nearby cave as soon as the shelling started. His initiative saved the company from destruction, and he would later win the Knight's Cross for knocking out 10 enemy tanks and holding an exposed position between 15-20 March.

Oberjäger Kush

"We had numerous individual weapons such as rifles, submachine guns, hand grenades and antitank guns. Unfortunately, all our heavy equipment was destroyed during the air and artillery bombings which the Allies had unleashed at Cassino and its surroundings." (Oberjäger Kush, 1st Parachute Antitank Battalion)

A German tank at Cassino

A German tank at Cassino. The men of XIV Panzer Corps were expert in using buildings as shelters in which their tanks could hide. Allied armour could also be devastating. During the Fourth Battle of Cassino, for example, the British 2nd Armoured Brigade, supporting the assault of the 15th Carpathian Brigade, wiped out the paratroopers of the 3rd Company, 3rd Parachute Regiment.

The rocky, coverless terrain around Monte Cassino

The rocky, coverless terrain around Monte Cassino aided the defenders and ensured attackers suffered heavy casualties. In addition, the Germans were in control of the heights of Monte Cifalco to the north, which gave a view of the entire offensive area of the Polish II Corps.

A lone British soldier escorts two German prisoners into captivity

A lone British soldier escorts two German prisoners into captivity after the fall of Cassino and the monastery in May 1944. With the breakthrough of the French Expeditionary Corps and the US II Corps farther south, the German Tenth Army was threatened with encirclement from this direction. Thus Field Marshal Kesselring gave orders on 17 May for the entire Cassino front to be evacuated. During the following night the 1st Parachute Division started to pull back west over the mountains. During the morning of 18 May the Poles stormed the ruins of the monastery. The losses on both sides in the Cassino sector amounted to a massive 200,000 killed and wounded. General Harold Alexander had the following to say of the Fallschirmjäger defenders of Cassino: "There are no other troops in the world who would defend their positions with the same obduracy and courage. These are bold and highly trained men, hardened through numerous engagements and campaigns."

At the beginning of 1944, the US Fifth Army and British Eighth Army were ready to launch their first major effort against the Gustav Line, link up with a projected amphibious landing at Anzio and then sweep on to Rome. Five months of bitter fighting ensued, as the Fallschirmjäger refused to budge from a place that would enter military legend - Monte Cassino.

Of all the Fallschirmjäger actions in World War II, it was the battles to hold the monastery of Monte Cassino and the town of Cassino below that have entered military folklore. The men of the 1st Parachute Division earned the title "The Green Devils of Cassino" for their performance during a battle described by Hitler as being "a battle of the First World War fought with weapons of the second".

At the beginning of 1944 the Allies accelerated plans for an amphibious landing behind German lines at Anzio, to be undertaken by the US Fifth Army's VI Corps (see Chapter 7). In the same month the newly formed French Expeditionary Corps under General Alphonse Juin had arrived and took up position on the Fifth Army's eastern flank, with the US II Corps in the centre and the British X Corps in support. The Fifth Army was ordered to break through enemy lines to link up with the beachhead, but to do so it had to breach the Gustav Line. The latter lay along two rivers - the Garigliano and the Rapido - and the Fifth Army would draw enemy forces away from Anzio by attacking towards the two rivers, crossing them, taking the high ground on both sides of the Liri Valley, and then driving north to link up with the beachhead. The British Eighth Army, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese, would support these operations by crossing the River Sangro and taking Pescara, further tying down the enemy.

First assault on Monte Cassino

The Liri Valley is a long, flat plain through which flowed Highway 6, the main north-south road to Rome. Unfortunately for the Allies, the Germans had fortified every key point in the valley and they held the heights which guarded the mouth of the valley: Monte Cassino and Monte Majo. The Allied assault began on 17 January. II Corps' 36th Infantry Division spearheaded the crossing of the Rapido near Sant'Angelo, but the failure of X Corps and the French Expeditionary Corps to dislodge the Germans from the heights on both sides of the Liri Valley meant the attack failed with heavy casualties. All attempts to cross the Rapido had ended by 22 January, but the necessity of relieving the Anzio beachhead forced Clark to renew his attacks.

The new assault took place over the high ground northeast of the town of Cassino. The British X Corps resumed its attack from the Garigliano bridgehead, while the US 34th Infantry Division, with the help of the French Expeditionary Corps and a regiment of the 36th Infantry Division, endeavoured to outflank Cassino and storm the Benedictine monastery on Monte Cassino above the town. The result was that US and French units gained a precarious foothold on the northeastern slopes of Monte Cassino itself, while the 34th Infantry Division had crossed the Rapido by 26 January.

In early February 1944, the 34th Infantry Division renewed its attacks on Cassino to prepare for another attempt at the Liri Valley by the recently created New Zealand Corps under Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg. However, after days of savage fighting the Germans still held the town, and the New Zealand Corps relieved the Americans.

Thus far the Allies had spared the monastery from air, artillery and ground attacks, even though it was a crucial strategic point. However, sightings of German troops within its walls, plus enemy emplacements and strongpoints nearby, prompted Freyberg to request its reduction by air and artillery attack. This took place on 15 February, when 230 bombers and II Corps' artillery pounded the historic site. However, though much of the monastery and its outer walls were destroyed, the bombing did not destroy the subterranean chambers where the defenders were sheltering. Thus when the 4th Indian Division attacked on the night of 15 February it was repulsed with heavy loss. The next three days witnessed further Indian assaults, all to no avail and with considerable casualties. Though the 2nd New Zealand Division, supported by the artillery of the 34th and 36th Infantry Divisions, had made some headway into Cassino itself, the terrible losses halted further operations.

The ensuing lull in the fighting gave the Germans an opportunity to reorganise the defences. On 20 February, Generalmajor Richard Heidrich's 1st Parachute Division moved into Cassino and the monastery. The town itself was occupied by the 3rd Parachute Regiment under Oberst Ludwig Heilmann. The division itself was not at full strength, having suffered in the fighting round Ortona. The average fighting strength of its battalions, for example, was around 200 men.

Citadel of stone

Monte Cassino stands 518.2m (1700ft) above sea level, and it dominates the surrounding countryside and what was Route 6, which snakes around Monastery Hill. It looks down on the town of Cassino, but is not the only high point in the area. In fact it is surrounded by other peaks and hills, all of which were to be the scene of heavy fighting. Directly behind the town stood Castle Hill, on the top of which was a dilapidated fort known to the Allies as Point 193, or Rocca Janula. Hangman's Hill, or Point 435, was on the slopes of Monte Cassino itself, while 1km (.625 miles) to the northwest was Point 593, or Calvary Hill. To the north of Calvary stood Snakeshead Hill, or Point 445.

For the next offensive the Allies assembled a massive arsenal. The commander-in-chief of Allied air forces in the Mediterranean, General Eaker, had been instructed to use every available bomber in theatre in the attack, while the quartermaster of the US Fifth Army had gathered 600,000 artillery shells for ground support purposes. Freyberg intended to use both the 4th Indian Division and the 2nd New Zealand Division in one small area for the attack. The New Zealanders were to take Cassino and Point 193. The Indians were tasked with storming the steep sides of Monte Cassino and capturing the monastery. The British 78th Division was to cross the Rapido each side of Sant'Angelo in Theodice and push ahead into the Liri Valley.

The Third Battle of Cassino

The aerial bombardment began at 08:30 hours on 15 March and ceased at 12:30 hours. It was followed by a mass artillery barrage involving 746 guns, which fired over 200,000 shells on the town and hill. The 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Parachute Regiment, commanded by Major Foltin, was stationed in the town and took the brunt of the attack. Out of 300 men around 160 were killed, wounded or buried under the debris. The 2nd New Zealand Division, supported by armour, then began its assault, and immediately ran into intense and heavy fire. This was totally unexpected, as the Allies had believed that any defenders still alive after the air and artillery attack would be so shattered psychologically that they would be incapable of further resistance.

By the evening the New Zealanders had captured Point 193 but had failed to dislodge the Fallschirmjäger from the town, especially those in the Hotel Excelsior and around the railway station. In addition, the bombardment had churned up the ground so much that Allied tanks were unable to support the infantry. In addition, Heidrich directed fire from the division's artillery regiment and the 71st Mortar Regiment around Cassino. The latter, plus a detachment of 88mm antiaircraft guns near Aquino, were particularly useful in blunting the New Zealand attack.

The 4th Indian Division advanced over Point 193 during the evening of 15 March and up to Point 165. This created a gap in the defences of Monte Cassino, at the time in the hands of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Parachute Regiment, as the 2nd Company of the battalion had been wiped out on Point 193. Indian troops tried, and failed, to take Point 236, while a detachment of Gurkhas captured Point 435, within 400m (1312ft) of the monastery itself. In Cassino the railway station was captured by Allied troops on 17 March, which meant the town was all but encircled. The Fallschirmjäger mounted a counterattack from the monastery on the night of 18/19 March when the 1st Battalion of the 4th Parachute Regiment attacked Point 193. After heavy fighting, however, the paras were forced to retire.

The savage resistance prompted Alexander to hold a conference on 21 March to consider a halt in the offensive. Freyberg opposed this, but fresh New Zealand attacks the next day brought no success and so Alexander halted the battle the same day. The temporary cessation of hostilities allowed both sides to reorganise. The Allies launched Operation "Strangle" in the third week in March: an air campaign designed to disrupt German supply routes by bombing bridges, roads and railways. Meanwhile, the German Tenth Army was regrouped. The overall command from the Tyrrhenian coast up to the River Liri was entrusted to XIV Panzer Corps, commanded by General von Senger-Etterlin, while the divisions between the Liri and Alfedena were placed under General Feuerstein's LI Mountain Corps. The Cassino area was still defended by the 1st Parachute Division, but the 4th Parachute Regiment now occupied the town and monastery hill itself. The 3rd Parachute Regiment was deployed to the northwest. The 1st Parachute Regiment, with two panzergrenadier battalions attached, was held in the rear as a divisional reserve.

The Allied Fifteenth Army Group also regrouped its units. The French Expeditionary Corps was moved to the upper reaches of the Garigliano, where it had taken over the British X Corps' bridgehead. General Anders' Polish II Corps moved into the hills north of Cassino, while the US II Corps (the 85th and 88th Divisions) stood ready on the lower Garigliano. The New Zealand Corps was relieved by the British XIII Corps with the Canadian I Corps behind it. The British X Corps was shifted to the upper Rapido, and so a major part of the British Eighth Army was assembled in the Cassino area.

Preceded by the usual massive aerial and artillery bombardment, the Fifth and Eighth Armies began their attacks on 11 May 1944 - the Fourth Battle of Cassino had begun. Allied gains to the south of the Cassino area were good, especially in the French sector. However, Anders' corps was having a hard time of it. His 5th Division had attacked on the night of 11/12 May towards Sant'Angelo but was repulsed with loss. His 3rd Division had taken Point 593, but throughout 12 May the German paratroopers attacked the Poles and threw them off the hill. The Poles attacked again on 13 and 14 May, but a combination of Fallschirmjäger doggedness and German artillery defeated them. In addition, the German gunners had observation posts on the 914m (3000ft) peak of Monte Cifalco, which commanded a view of the entire offensive area of II Polish Corps. Developments on the right flank of the 1st Parachute Division, though, were causing the Germans concern.

On 17 May units of the British XIII Corps took Piumarola and reached the Via Casilina, effectively severing the rear communications of the parachute division. Worse were the activities of the French, who had taken Monte Petrella by 16 May and were just south of Pico on 19 May. The Germans were reeling as the US II Corps took Formia (17 May) and Monte Grande (19 May). Monte Cassino was now the last pillar in the German defence line.

General Anders resumed his attack on 17 May, heralding the beginning of a 10-hour battle for possession of Mount Calvary. All Polish attacks were defeated by the paratroopers, who likewise destroyed all attempts by the British 4th Division to take the town below. The "Green Devils of Cassino" were putting up an heroic fight. The irony was that Monte Cassino had long lost its tactical significance. Due to deep penetrations by the French Expeditionary Corps and US II Corps, the Tenth Army was threatened by encirclement from the south (it had lost 40 percent of its combat strength in three days). On 17 May Kesselring issued orders that the entire Cassino front be evacuated, and during the following night the 1st Parachute Division began its retreat west over the mountains. When troops of the Polish 12th Podolski Regiment stormed the ruins of the monastery early in the morning of 18 May, all they found was a group of seriously wounded paras who could not be evacuated.

Losses had been heavy: the Germans had lost 25,000 men in the defence of the Cassino sector, while the Poles had lost 1000 killed in the attacks on Monte Cassino alone. The 1st Parachute Division, battered but defiant, was able to make a successful withdrawal to fight farther north as Germans forces retreated. It left behind a legend.

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