The last battle for Monte Cassino begins

Third Phase 11 - 18 May 1944: Allied 4.2 inch mortars in action at the start of the final offensive on Cassino.

Third Phase 11 – 18 May 1944: Allied 4.2 inch mortars in action at the start of the final offensive on Cassino.

The Allied hopes for a swift march up Italy had long since evaporated. Instead they had found themselves stuck on the Gustav Line in a bloody stalemate that had become a battle of attrition. The mountains of Italy had proved to be ideal defensive territory, and the Germans had taken every advantage of it.

Ultimately the Allies had the resources to dominate the battlefield. Now 1000 British guns and 600 US guns were brought up to support an attack where the ground forces outnumbered the Germans by three to one.

General Mark Clark, commanding the US 5th Army was amongst many who were watching:

As soon as it was dark a steady movement of troops began behind the 5 Army lines, as well as behind the British Eighth Army lines to the north.

Everything else went on in as near the normal routine as possible. Patrols were out. There was occasional artillery fire. It was just as it had been on the previous evening and for many evenings before.

On the German side everything went on as usual, too, except that they were in earnest about it. We weren’t. We were waiting and preparing for the hour before midnight.

At eleven o’clock about a thousand big guns from Cassino to the sea fired at approximately the same moment, their shells aimed with great care at enemy headquarters, communication centres, command posts, and other vital targets that had been quietly located by air reconnaissance during the previous month.

The ridges in front of 5 Army seemed to stand out momentarily in a great blaze of light, sink again into darkness, and then tremble under the next salvo. It was perhaps the most effective artillery bombardment of the campaign.

It simply smashed into dust a great number of enemy batteries and vital centres; so that for hours after the Germans had overcome the initial shock of an attack where they least expected it they were still confused and unable to establish good centralized direction of their defence lines.

See General Mark W. Clark: Calculated Risk

In the middle of it all was Fusilier F. R. Beacham of the 1st Royal Fusiliers, who were engaged in a river crossing assault as soon as the guns opened up:

Immediately our troops began to place their boats in the water and the first ones started to cross. The shells whined overhead incessantly and it was difcult to hear anything above the din. I saw the first of our troops start to clamber up the fairly short, but steep, bank on the far side and then the enemy replied.

Large mortar bombs started to explode all around us followed, almost immediately, by heavy artillery fire. The enemy infantry opened up with his machine guns and tracer bullets whipped and whanged their way a few feet over our heads. I prepared to return the fire but found that, as our troops were now in my line of fire, I was unable to do so. I could see them reasonably clearly moving forward just across the river and all we could do was to watch as the machine gun bullets arched and swathed across the crossing point.

The enemy had obviously fixed their machine guns to fire on fixed lines so as to cover this crossing point. Had I known where that particular machine gun was located, I could have returned fire if I had positioned myself to the left of the crossing point instead of to the right.

The amount of artillery being fired now by both sides was tremendous and a gradual mist and smoke started to envelop the battleeld. Mortar bombs were continuing to fall all around us. The bullets were flying in droves about us and it was becoming increasingly apparent that I would not be able to return the enemy’s machine gun fire from that position and there was the real prospect that at any moment one of the mortar bombs would find its mark smack in the middle of our backs.

I suggested to Bill that we find somewhere a little bit safer and he agreed. We crawled back a relatively short distance from the bank and found a large shell hole, it still smelt strongly of cordite but on the presumption that no two shells fall in the same place, we stayed put.

The shelling continued unabated and it was whilst we were in this shell hole that we heard a cry for help coming from from somewhere to our right. It was a plaintiff [sic] cry repeating over and over again ‘Help me, I’ve been hit’. We had orders not to stop in the event of anyone getting wounded as they would be dealt with by the Red Cross stretcher bearers. We did not go to the aid of this person and it may well be that he was killed in the continuing enemy bombardment for after a few more minutes, the cries stopped.

This account appears in Michael Carver (ed) Imperial War Museum Book of the War in Italy: A Vital Contribution to Victory in Europe 1943-1945.

A Sherman tank waiting to move forward duirng the battle for Cassino in Italy, 13 May 1944.

A Sherman tank waiting to move forward duirng the battle for Cassino in Italy, 13 May 1944.

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