GERHARD AND THE STUG III AT CASTLE HILL
Sometimes, out of the mists of time, new stories emerge after a long time, tales that would otherwise remain unknown for ever; small events like
this make their contribution to history.
In September 2001 we met a German veteran, Gerhard Wignanek, born 1925. He belonged to the MG Abteilung of the 1st Fallschimjager Division. At the end of January 1944 he was moved from the Ortona front to Cassino. He travelled by lorry at night to Arce and then on foot for three days to Cassino carrying the tripod of his MG42. He eventually arrived to where he had been assigned: the Rocca Janula castle near the town of Cassino.
His MG team was assigned to the defence of the castle against the many attacks of the allies which were due to be launched in the following days.
Clinging to his position, hidden behind the thick stony walls, he fired his MG nord-eastbound, towards the prison town.
For his MG he had 20 ammunition boxes. During the raging attacks launched by the New Zealanders, the Germans always wondered who were the commanders that had decided to slaughter their soldiers, obliging them to advance with no cover.
As Gerhard was into drawing, he saved two sketches which he had made in those days, as well as a picture of Castle hill, a place that certainly marked his life for ever. These two sketches are very interesting as they show one particular aspect of the soldier on the Cassino front.
Among the number of stories which Gerhard told us, one was of particular interest. Gerhard told us that in February 1944 a STUG III was hidden
behind the walls of Castle hill, pointing northbound towards the lower slopes of monastery hill. One night, an American commando managed to destroy
it using explosives. The men who performed this sabotage operation vanished into the darkness before the Germans could fire a single shot.
Apart from the disappointment and the amazement for the outcome of the attack, the German paratroopers had to bow to the courage shown by the
Americans, not previously considered fine soldiers by the Germans.
From his story, we tried to find out as many details as possible. At night most of the times it was impossible to sleep for the risk that the Gurkhas, armed with their kukri, would penetrate the enemy lines and kill the occupants of the garrison with no mercy. On March 15, he was a passive spectator of the bombing of Cassino; the occupants of the garrison at Castle hill survived the bombing as well as the hail of the salvoes fired, at a constant rate and at the same hour, from the battleships anchored in the bay of Scauri.
During the attack the unit commander was badly wounded; with no hesitation, he carried him on his shoulders to the first-aid post inside the abbey, where he left him. As a token of his gratitude, his commander gave him his ring, which at the time was only given to officers, that today Gerhard shows with fierce pride. In May 1944 he was taken prisoner at Cassino by Indian soldiers; taken to a prison camp in Cairo, he was released in August 1948. In this prison camp he had the opportunity to write a little journal together with the other inmates.
Eventually,we took him to his hotel, we warmly said goodbye, with the hope of meeting again in Cassino.
The most interesting aspect of Wignanek’s story is definitely the presence of the StuG III at Castle Hill.
No book has ever mentioned the fact that a tank had been placed near Castle Hill.
Everybody knows about the STUG III in the Hotel Continental as well as the ones that were destroyed during the bombing of 15 March 1944, but so far nobody was aware about the STUG III at Castle Hill.
March 2003. I was in Cassino with an enthusiast who owns some interesting Polish books I had never seen before about the battle. I opened one at random and I saw a photo of a destroyed STUG III with Castle hill in the background !! I nearly had a stroke !! There it was !!
The photograph is very detailed and some interesting details can be noted: first of all the walls of the castle appear to be intact. These are the
northern walls that overlook the abbey, therefore less hit by allied shelling.
The walls were more destroyed by soldiers of the Engineer Corps than by shells. Their actual state enables us to understand, at least partially, why the massive German Fallschimjager counterattack on the castle failed. The attack was launched towards this part of the castle which always represented a strongpoint for the defenders, which was almost impossible to take ! A closer look at the photograph shows that the STUG exploded from the inside. This proves that the STUG was sabotaged and not destroyed by shelling. When stories are supported by photos, it is always much easier to understand what really happened.
Anyway dear Gerhard…. we would have believed you anyway!
Roberto Molle and Alessandro Campagna
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RESEARCH of Livio Cavallaro
Livio Cavallaro, a keen and expert reader of the site, wanted to deepen the research about the mistery of the StuG III. I am glad for his contribution, and I add his comments to the article.
During an attack began at 06:45 on 8 February 1944, the American infantrymen of the “C” Company
100th Battalion, 133rd Regiment approached the hairpin bend of point 165 from the north, in the attempt to attack
the castle from the same direction in which the photo of the destroyed STUG III was taken. In reality, the
attacking soldiers were not entirely Americans; they were of Japanese origin, the so-called “Nisei”. The “C”
company never launched an assault on the castle; this company advanced more rapidly than the other American
battalions which were fighting with little success in the ruins of the town, and therefore, received the order
to stop. However, the Nisei had noted the presence of two German armoured vehicles between the castle and the
road bend of point 165. One of them was certainly a Sturmgeschutz of the 242nd Brigade.
From the regiment headquarters arrived the order that the two armoured vehicles had to be destroyed. Private Awakuni (“C” Company) crossed an open area of about 50 metres and launched two rockets with his bazooka. The first hit the tracks immobilising the vehicle. The second hit the target but not with the desired effect. The Germans opened up on the “American – Japanese” soldier who had the courage to fire another rocket, which hit the target killing the 5 crew members. It was 9 o’clock.
Awakuni hid himself behind the rocks for 10 hours while the Germans were concentrating their fire at him. With his arm severely wounded, he eventually joined his comrades. For his outstanding bravery in this action, he was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross. Later, at about 11, also the other vehicle was hit by a rocket fired from another bazooka, which damaged the tracks.
Bibliography (from official documents):
Traslated into English by Sandro Vazon Colla
Nel caso in cui il testo derivi sempicemente dall'esposizione, con o senza traduzione, di documenti/memorie al solo fine di una migliore e più completa fruizione, la definizione Autore si leggerà A cura di.
Prima del loro ritorno a casa, i militari del 100/442, vennero ospitati dal Presidente Truman nei giardini della Casa Bianca e in quella occasione egli disse: Vi siete battuti non solo contro il nemico ma anche contro il pregiudizio e voi avete vinto.
Livio Cavallaro approfondisce le fase del contrattacco tedesco al castello di Rocca Janula, il 19 marzo 1944.
I cannoni d'assalto di questi reparti giocarono un ruolo importante nell'appoggio delle truppe tedesche impegnate a Cassino. In questa pagina cerchiamo di fornire delle informazioni che siano anche di supporto durante la visione delle numerose immagini e filmati che ritraggono questi mezzi corrazzati.