Third battle of Cassino, 15-22 March 1944

The third battle of Cassino (15-22 March 1944) was the last attack at Cassino to be carried out by the US Fifth Army alone, but the attack failed after a week of bitter fighting (battle of the Gustav Line).

The second battle of Cassino was the most controversial of the sequence, as it started with the destruction of the ancient Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, perched on top of a dominating height above the town. Not only was this a controversial act, it was also ineffective, as the attack wasn’t timed to coincide with an infantry assault. The 4th Indian Division, which had the task of attacking the monastery hill from ‘snakehead’, a ridge just to the north-west, had only just taken up its position and was lacking mortar shells and grenades and the 2nd New Zealand Division, which was to attack Cassino town, wasn’t ready for a full scale assault when the bombing took place on 15 February.

Detail from Battle of Scheveningen by Willem van de Velde the Elder
New Zealand Wounded, Castle Hill, Cassino

There wasn’t originally meant to be a gap between the second and third battles of Cassino. After the failure of the assaults that followed the bombing of the monastery of 15 February, Freyburg put in place plans for a renewed assault, once again using the 4th Indian Division to attack the monastery and the 2nd New Zealand Division to attack Cassino town. All of the preparations were in place by 24 February, but three weeks of bad weather then intervened, delaying the new attack into March.

The attack finally began on 15 March. It began with a second massive air attack, this time involving 435 aircraft that dropped 1,000 tons of bombs around Cassino. Another 4,000 tons of shells were fired into the area by 750 Allied guns. Once again this massive bombardment failed to live up to expectations. Allied tanks struggled to operate within the ruins of Cassino, where the Germans had built bomb proof bunkers and steel shelters. The defenders, from the 1st Parachute Division, lost much of their heavy equipment, but were still able to make a determined defence of the town. The 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Paratroop Regiment did lose half of its men, but remained a coherent unit.

The New Zealanders did make some progress. By the evening of 15 March the 25th Battalion had got into the north of the town, and captured Peak 193. The 26th Battalion attempted to advance through the town, but was held up north of the main highway. The Germans concentrated their artillery fire around the town, which slowed down the New Zealanders. By the end of the day the Germans held the centre of the town and the railway station, the New Zealanders the north of the town. The Germans were able to get reinforcements into the town. On 16 March the New Zealanders were held in the town, but on 17 March they managed to advance down the eastern side of the town and captured the railway station.

Detail from Battle of Scheveningen by Willem van de Velde the Elder
Monte Cassino
from the air, 1944

Part of the division managed to advance down the eastern side of the town and took the railway station. Another part captured the Castle Hill, which overlooked the town from the north-west. The centre of Cassino remained in German hands.

The Indians launched their attack from Castle Hill, and managed to get to within 250 yards of the monastery ruins, but the paratroopers were able to hold them off around Peak 435, known as ‘Hangman’s Hill’ to the Allies (to the south-east of the Monastery ruins). On the night of 18-19 March the Germans counterattacked north-east from the Monastery and captured Peak 193 (the Rocca Janula, north-west of Cassino town). The Gurkhas on Peak 435 were cut off and had to be supplied from the air.

On 19 March the New Zealanders attempted to bring tanks into the battle, following a route that had been laboriously cut across the mountain. The Germans were briefly surprised, but managed to knock all of the advancing tanks before they could affect the battle. 

Freyberg launched one last attack on 22 March, but this made no more progress, and later in the day Alexander cancelled the offensive. After a week of bitter fighting, the attack had failed.

This would be the last time that the Fifth Army attacked alone at Cassino. General Alexander now decided to move the bulk of the Eighth Army from the Adriatic coast to the Cassino front, and carry out an attack along the entire 25 mile from the sea to the mountains above Cassino, in the hope that the German line would finally crack. This took time to organise, and as a result the decisive fourth battle of Cassino didn’t get underway until May.

Monte Cassino: A German View, Rudolf Böhmler. Very good on the nitty gritty of the fighting carried out by Bohmler’s paratroops, who were responsible for much of the determined defence of Cassino monastery and town, so we get a good feel for the day-to-day experience of the paratroops. Not so strong on the overall picture or the political background, which is sometimes dominated by a desire to rehabilitate the reputation of the German army in a Cold War context(Read Full Review)
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (12 September 2018), Third battle of Cassino, 15-22 March 1944 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_cassino_3rd.html

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