Artillery and Air Support of Ground Attack

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tigre
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Artillery and Air Support of Ground Attack

Post by tigre » 27 Nov 2005 04:54

Hello to all, I know that a post about Mte Cassino already exists, nevertheless this article focus it from another point of view.

Artillery and Air Support of Ground Attack
Cassino - 1944
Major James W. Walters, Jr., Field Artillery
Former Instructor. Command and Staff College

0 N 15 March 1944, elements of the Fifth Army in Italy made an attack on the German stronghold of Cassino. This assault, being preceded by a four-hour aerial bombardment and accompanied by heavy artillery support, was a rather unique operation in World War II. It demonstrated that a heavy preparation prior to an attack does not always insure a complete success.

Fifth Army, after its landing at Salerno in September 1943, had fought its way across the Volturno River seventy-five miles northwest through Italy until it was stopped in December before the German Gustav Line and Cassino. The town of Cassino, with the high ground to its immediate northwest, was a key strongpoint of the Gustav Line. It was situated astride the best road to Rome, Route 6, and commanded the entrance to the best approach to Rome, the broad Liri Valley. During the months of December, January, and February, numerous attacks were launched in the Cassino area either directly or indirectly at the town itself. By early March, these attacks had succeeded in forcing a small bridgehead across the Rapido River at Cassino and about one tenth of the town was held by our troops. In addition, Allied troops had managed to take and hold some high ground to the north of Cassino. The general situation in Italy just prior to 15 March is shown in Figure 1.

Terrain.

Cassino was a very easily defended locality. Just in front of the town there was a natural obstacle, the Rapido River. The town itself was of very sturdy concrete and stone construction, honey-combed with caves, tunnels, and deep cellars. Directly behind the town was a sharply rising hill called Castle Hill, or Hill 103, the top of which was 100 meters above the town. Approximately 1,200 meters southwest of the town and over 500 meters above Cassino was Monastery Hill on which was located the famed Monastery of Montecassino. This monastery, together with Monastery Hill, afforded the Germans superior and practically unlimited observation of the terrain in all directions.
Monastery Hill was definitely the key to Cassino. Cassino would be untenable by the enemy if this hill could be taken and held.

Defenses.

The Cassino area was defended by elements of the 1st Paratroop Division, one of the best divisions in the German Army. The 3d Regiment of this division was well emplaced in Cassino proper and on the hills between Cassino and the monastery. This regiment was generally disposed with its 1st Battalion on the slopes of Monastery Hill, its 2d Battalion in the town itself, and part of the 3d Battalion defending the area just south of the town generally along the Rapido River. Units in Cassino had organized their defense carefully. They had taken full advantage of the sturdy buildings and had utilized the reinforced cellars of demolished structures as strongpoints. The caves and entrances to tunnels in and about the town afforded the troops excellent bomb shelters, ammunition caches, and gun positions. The 4th Paratroop Regiment of the 1st Paratroop Division defended the high ground north and west of the monastery jvhile elements of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division held the mouth of the Liri Valley to the south of Cassino.

General Plan.

The attack against this position was to take place 15 March 1944. The mission was to blast out the Germans with an intense aerial and artillery bombardment followed by an attack by New Zealand infantry supported by tanks. Following the capture of Cassino and Monastery Hill, Combat Command B of the 1st Armored Division was to exploit in the Liri Valley to the Adolf Hitler Line, eight miles to the west.

Will follows. Regards. Tigre.
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Artillery and Air Support of Ground Attack

Post by tigre » 27 Nov 2005 05:32

Air Support.

The aerial bombardment phase was to commence at 0830, 15 March. From 0830 to 1200, bombing attacks on Cassino were to be made at fifteen-minute intervals by eleven heavy groups of the Mediterranean Allied Strategic Air Force and five medium groups of the Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force. During the afternoon when the ground attack was to be launched, heavy and medium bombers were to attack targets west of Cassino, and fighter bombers and light bombers were to attack point targets in the battle area on call
by ground troops. At exactly 0830 the first formation of bombers appeared over the target and dropped their bombs. From 0830 to 1200 the Cassino area was attacked by approximately 500 B-25’s, B-26’s, B-17’s, and B-24’s dropping over 1,100 tons of 1000 pounds instantaneous high explosive bombs. Nearly 100 P-38’s patrolled the area during the morning bombardment. There was no enemy opposition by either fighters or antiaircraft artillery. Ground observers reported that the medium bombing of Cassino was most accurate and concentrated; whereas, attacks by heavy groups were less concentrated, but generally very effective. Approximately fifty per cent of the bombs fell in the town itself.

During the afternoon a cloud cover over the Cassino area precluded further bombing by heavy and medium bombers. However, from 1300 to 1700, light bombers and fighter bombers, principally from the XII Air Support Command, participated in direct support missions for the ground troops. During this time, fifty-four tons of bombs, ranging from twenty-pound to 1000-pound bombs, were dropped with very accurate results. The principal targets attacked were the south side of the town of Cassino, the Cassino railroad station, and the slopes of Monastery Hill. In addition to these direct support missions, approximately 100 fighters patrolled the area with only slight opposition.

Artillery Support.

The artillery support of the attack against Cassino commenced at 1200, 15 March and continued until 2000. During this eight-hour period, 890 guns and howitzers fired close to 200,000 rounds in the Cassino area. The artillery support was divided into two separate categories.

The first category was more or less direct support firing by 144 twenty-five pounders of the New Zealand Corps. These weapons maintained a rolling barrage in front of the attacking infantry which was planned to creep through Cassino from one end to the other. The New Zealand infantry battalions followed this wall of fire from 100 to 200 yards. (See Figure 2 for rounds of artillery expended.)

The other category of the field artillery support of the attack was general support firing by artillery of the French Corps, The United States II Corps, and the British X Corps. This phase consisted of a preparation of prearranged scheduled fires directed against German strongpoints, heavy weapons positions, and observation posts. It also included long range interdiction fires and extremely dense counterbattery fires assisted by continuous surveillance and adjustment by P-51’s of the 11 lth Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron.
Our artillery received practically no counterbattery fire on the first day; it was only after the attack had bogged down that any German artilhzry fire commenced falling on our gun positions.

Opinions of Prisoners of War.

Captured German soldiers who were in or near Cassino on 15 March gave the Fifth Army interrogators considerable first hand information of the result of the bombing and shelling from the German soldier’s point of view. In general, the prisoners stated that the aerial bombardment and the artillery fire were equally effective. They thought that the artillery and mortar fire was well directed and extremely accurate. Also, the artillery fire probably inflicted more casualties after the bombing had reduced quite a bit of the cover.

Effect on Defenses.

The prisoners reported that the bombing and shelling of the last two months, together with German demolition work, had already reduced to ruins most of Cassino’s buildings before the 15 March assault. The cellars of these structures had been relatively untouched and, with some improvements, made excellent shelters and strongpoints. During the bombing of 15 March any houses that had been left standing were soon flattened by the direct hits or enormous blasts. Most of the standing houses that were destroyed were used only
as sleeping quarters and had little military significance. Quite frequently, though, men in houses or in cellars were buried in the rubble and managed to extricate themselves only in time to be taken prisoner. The defense of Cassino also included mobile pillboxes called “crabs” that were designed to hold two men. During the bombardment, however, the prisoners reported that as many as six people took shelter in these pillboxes. When a bomb fell only a few yards away, the pillboxes were often lifted out of position but still the occupants were not badly injured.

Numerous weapons under light cover were destroyed, or the sheltered gun crews were cut off from access to their pieces hy falling masonry. In many cases one's left their individual weapons unattended in their haste to seek refuge and were unable to retrieve them later. All telephone communication was completely disrupted.

Casualties.

According to reports made by prisoners, the casualties in Cassino during the bombing and shelling varied with the locality of the reporting troops. Prisoners from the 2d Battalion of the 3d Paratroop Regiment, which bore the brunt of the bombing, told of huge casualties. One survivor believed that less than ten of an original sixty in his organization escaped with their lives. Another prisoner of war said he was the only survivor of his group of fifteen to twenty men. Some surviving prisoners were surprised to learn that other German soldiers had been taken alive in Cassino. On the other hand, troops which were either sheltered in well protected cellars and caves or in areas not asseverely hit as the north part of town did not describe heavy casualties* They inferred that the bombing produced a short term demoralizing effect and a sense of confusion and that it temporarily disorganized the defense, but few casualties were suffered. Those who were sheltered in deep bomb-proof caves had no casualties other than a few split eardrums.

Mental Effect.

A special psychiatric report made on five prisoners from those troops captured in Cassino stated in general that the bombing had slight effect on the Germans mentally. However, these troops in the 1st Paratroop Division were a special group of highly trained men and were far superior to the average German soldier. Also their prepared positions gave them considerable protection against concussion. Lastly, it was stated in this relport that war neurosis rapidly disappears when the prisoner realizes he‘ is safe and out of the war.

Regards. Tigre.
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Artillery and Air Support of Ground Attack

Post by tigre » 27 Nov 2005 12:59

Ground Troops Report.

Despite the heavy aerial and artillery support, the ground attack by the 6th NW Zealand Brigade, supported by the 19th New Zealand Armored Regiment, failed to accomplish the desired results. Cassino was never entirely taken nor was a breach in the line created through which the armor could exploit in the Liri Valley.

Initially, there was slight opposition in the greater part of the town proper. But upon reaching the main enemy defensive area, which was located in the south and wiht portions of the town, fierce opposition was encountered. The New Zealanders seized Hill 193, and elements of the 4th lndian Division, operating on the right flank, of the New Zealand Brigade, captured several points on the slopes between the monastery and the town. The lndians were cut off almost immediately by the enemy and had to be supplied by air. Eventually the Indians withdrew from these forward positions. On the fifth day of the attack the Cassino railroad station was taken from the west. As days went by, the 3d Paratroop Regiment was heavily reinforced by the remainder of the division, and the action soon became a stalemate. Small forces of enemy troops were constantly appearing behind our lines which resulted. in fierce house to house fighting with no definite front line recognizable.

When the attack was finally called off after about fifteen days of fighting, our troops had advanced to the dotted line shown in Figure 3. The artillery barrage, it was stated, had little effect in keeping the enemy’s head down since his strongpaints seemed to be constructed with shell-proof ceilings.
Because the infantry was slowed considerably by enemy fire shortly after reaching the west part of Cassino, they found it impossible to follow the artillery barrage all through its course. However, several repetitions of the barrage at certain points were requested by the New Zealanders and were accomplished by the artillery. Although smoke was used successfully in the attack against Hill 193, enemy observation posts all along the slopes of Monastery Hill could not be smoked enough to prevent observed fires on our troops.

The effect of the aerial bombardment in the morning was brought out by a battalion commander of an assault battalion who stated he believed the majority of the Germans withdrew to the cellars and caves during the bombing. It was felt, therefore, that because of this the bombing did not attain the desired casualties among the enemy that had been anticipated.

All vehicular movement to and in Cassino was restricted. This was due partially to continued enemy sniping and shelling, but due particularly to the fact that the roads and bridges had been thoroughly destroyed and cratered by our own bombing. Because of this destruction, the selected route of advance for tanks of the 19th New Zealand Armored Regiment was blocked entirely, and a substitute route had to be used. Even then, movement forward into the town was impossible without engineer work. This work had to be accomplished under constant enemy observed fire. Altogether, the armored forces, hindered by bomb craters, found the going extremely slow and never did penetrate the main defensive position of the enemy.

The New Zealand Corps, under which the 6th New Zealand Brigade was operating, stated that a great deal had been learned from this attack:

“( 1) Heavy bombers operating from 14,000 feet are not accurate enough for this class of close support. Medium and light bombers are excellent. If the air force could have used more medium bombers and still kept up the weight of the attack, the results would have been better.

“(2) The number of infantry put in was limited by the narrow approach from the north, more infantry must be employed, and mopping up must be done by parties detailed to each building, if necessary.

“(3) The destructive power of heavy bombs makes the terrain impassable to tanks, and all exploitation by armor must be clear of the area which is bombed on this scale.”

Conclusions.

The ground attack was not successful. True, initial successes were scored, and portions of Monastery Hill were taken, but few of the positions taken initially could be held. The artillery and aerial bombardment support was not without flaw. For instance, it was reported after the attack that the artillery fire was not completely effective in neutralizing the enemy strongpoints. Furthermore, the ground troops stated that the bomb craters completely stopped any movement of armor through the town. But there was one factor in favor of the enemy that could not be neutralized or destroyed by any amount of artillery or air support.

That factor was terrain, specifically Monastery Hill. With the enemy having this superior observation, it was impossible for our troops to advance and hold ground; Even ten times the weight of bombs and artillery shells expended could not have effectively reduced this observation.

The bombing and shelling of Cassino on 15 March 1944 did not assure's complete success by the ground troops.

However, the lessons learned from this attack served to make later operations of this nature completely successful.

Cheers. Tigre.
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