OPERAZIONI DEL 1° PLOTONE, 3ª COMPAGNIA, I BATTAGLIONE PIONIERI PARACADUTISTI, NELLA SECONDA BATTAGLIA DI ...
Data: 12-03-2005Autore: VARIListe: ARTICLES IN ENGLISHCategorie: Le battaglieTag: #marzo 1944, cassino, fallschirmjäger, germania, unità-reparti

OPERATION OF 1ST PLATOON, 3RD COMPANY, 1ST BATTALION PARACHUTE ENGINEERS IN THE SECOND BATTLE AT MONTE CASSINO.

A document from the German view point: three battles.

At the beginning of the Second Cassino Battle 3 Company, under the command of Captain Jacobeit, was assault reserve and situated on the reverse slope of Colle San Angelo. We took up positions in crevasses and under overhanging rocks – not a comfortable position but safe from artillery and mortar fire. What, however, was not so good was having to fetch our rations and every drop of water from our supply point some 3 kms away on the Casilina Road, and then carry it up the mountain. On the way to and from the supply point we had to constantly reckon with artillery bombardment, as the enemy naturally knew that all supplies for the Cassino front had to come along this single route. When not assigned to this supply duty it was possible to enjoy the March sunshine.

With the air attack on 15 March this idyllic existence ended, however. 1 and 2 Platoons of our company were placed under command of the 1st Battalion of the 3rd  Parachute  Regiment commanded by Major Rudolf Boehmler and on the late afternoon of the 16th we were on our way, led by Captain Jacobeit. We passed the Massa Albaneta, progressed along the reverse slope of the Kalvar Mountain and then onto the monastery. On the way we were mortared twice but luckily suffered only two light casualties. On arrival at the monastery we reported to Major Boehmler and received our orders.

2 Platoon was ordered to attack the Indians, who had broken through and occupied the high Point 435 on Hangman’s Hill from where they would be able to storm the monastery. 2 Platoon’s objective was to recapture this point but due to the Gurkhas’ superior numbers this was unsuccessful.

We of the 1st Platoon, 26 men under Corporal Saam, were ordered to clear both hairpin-bends, which were being defended by the Rajputanis and, if possible, to re-occupy Rocca Janula. At 0100hrs we left the monastery loaded down with ammunition and hand grenades, in order to carry out an attack in the early hours. Almost silently we edged our way downwards in the darkness and at about 0400hrs we reached the high Point 236 slightly above the upper bend and where the last 6 men of 3 Company 3rd Regiment were doggedly defending against the Rajputanis, who had worked their way to within 20 metres of this point. After a short briefing from Lieutenant Haering, officer commanding 3 Company, we attacked immediately but were met with heavy machinegun fire. Many of our grenades also hit tree stumps and came back at us. The second attack was however more successful. Two three-kilo charges thrown by Franz Draeger tore apart a machinegun position manned by the Indians and we immediately stormed into this gap firing our machineguns from the hip. The use of further high explosives enabled us to drive the Rajputanis from the lower hairpin bend. We then had to clear Point 192 to the left of us, which we managed, and pushed on to the saddle connecting Rocca Janula with the slope of Monte Cassino. Here we came to a halt. We remained under heavy defensive fire and as it was now becoming light we pulled back to Point 196 and the upper hairpin bend. We dug in here and covered the only connecting route leading to the Gurkhas on Point 435 with our machineguns. The heavy resistance that we had to overcome led to the conclusion that the Indians were prepared to fight to the last man on Point 236 in order to keep the route free to Hangman’s Hill and the monastery. With our assault group we helped speed up this plan. We did however pay the price for this action with two killed and two seriously injured. Our medical orderly, who was only about 20 metres from us, was captured by the Indians without us being able to intervene.

The position in which we found ourselves was not an enviable one. Seen from the monastery we were at the point of a very small wedge. To the left there was a very steep gorge, which ran from the monastery hill passing behind Rocca Janula to the town. This separated us from an Indian Brigade. In front of us was the castle and to the right and above us were the Gurkhas on Hangman’s Hill. For this reason our movement during the day was very restricted. Whoever broke cover during the day was a victim of the Indian snipers or the English on Rocca Janula, not to mention the artillery as well as tank fire from the town, which would be directed against anything that moved on the hill. We were, however, given cover from the monastery, which lay high above us. The Gurkhas on Hangman’s Hill were in a similar situation. During the day they too had to make themselves scarce otherwise they brought down well-directed German artillery and mortar fire from the monastery.

The whole situation meant that all attacks and counter attacks took place at night, which for our small number was an advantage. Immediately darkness fell we had to defend against the first attack, which on this particular night was followed by a further one. The enemy certainly did not want the door to the monastery, which was already nearly open, closed by our small contingent. The successful defence against these attacks was only possible due to changing our fire positions often, and the use of engineer explosive charges. At the start of the new day we had to creep back into the holes that we enlarged with the tips of our bayonets whilst we endured artillery and mortar fire. Then as soon as darkness fell the murderous close-quarter battle began again. We had to let the enemy approach within three to four metres before we could recognise him from the shape of his helmet. Furthermore hunger and thirst became an issue because the little water we had was reserved for the wounded, and then only issued in a dire emergency. To collect water or rations from the monastery was out of the question; everyone was needed during these nights to defend against the fierce attacks.

In the early morning of the 19th or 20th March the 1st Battalion of 4 Parachute Regiment with a strength of approximately 180 men came to us from the monastery with the objective of recapturing Rocca Janula under any circumstances. After about 10 minutes the men of 4 Regiment overran the Rajputanis on the lower hairpin bend and stormed the walls of the castle, where terrible hand to hand combat broke out just like in the middle ages. The men attempted to scale the walls and they succeeded in blowing a hole in it. However, their opponents from the Essex Regiment who were defending the castle fought with the same doggedness and succeeded in driving back the attack, but with heavy losses. The courage and the readiness to make sacrifices of the men of 4 Regiment was of no use, the castle was not to be taken. Half of the men paid with their lives and the others had to withdraw to our positions. The English and the Indians, however, had also suffered such heavy casualties in this battle that they had to give up their aim of capturing the monastery through this route. On this day a ceasefire lasting several hours was agreed to enable the dead and wounded to be recovered. This had not been possible during the days before. During this lull in the fighting we exchanged cigarettes with our opponents and they helped us with bandages. The English even lent us stretchers to take our casualties back to the monastery. The Gurkhas on the other side brought their wounded through our positions in the Rocca Janula. A short time later these men who had helped each other as comrades were once again the bitterest of enemies. What an irony!

Since we were now supported by the 1/4 it was possible to return to the monastery during the night to collect food, water and ammunition. In the following days the English attempted to supply the Indians, who were surrounded at Point 435 from the air. This was, though, unsuccessful, because the aircraft had to drop their loads from too great a height and their parachuted supplies were blown towards us. Added to the trials of the previous days came a further plague and that was the smoke screen delivered by the English and American artillery to hinder our observation from the monastery. The smoke burnt our eyes terribly and caused coughing and breathing difficulties.

On the evening of the 24th March we engineers suffered the worst blow of this operation. An enemy artillery and mortar bombardment saw a shell hit the entrance to a small cave in which were 9 to 10 men of our platoon – all that was left of the platoon except for three men. The shock wave caused 20 hand grenades and a shell cartridge to detonate. The result was catastrophic – three dead and the rest seriously injured. The last three of our platoon, of which I was one, thanked our luck since we had already left to collect supplies. The next day during a renewed ceasefire we removed our injured comrades back to the monastery. Amongst the casualties were our platoon commander Stamm, and Franz Traeger, who unfortunately died a day later. He was buried by his comrades of 2 Company in the monastery yard at the foot of a palm tree that had been felled by enemy fire.

From the next day the Indians were to bring their wounded to the monastery and we assumed that they would also manage to take active men from Point 435 to the castle at the same time. However, they made  a second journey to the castle and we let them pass, turning a blind eye - the same blind eye that came from having suffered the same experiences and grief as they had.

During the following night the few Gurkhas who were still on Hangman’s Hill slipped past us on the Rocca Janula and we allowed this to happen. The next few days saw a further lull in the fighting and in the early half of April we three engineers left the mountain which had cost so much life, blood and sacrifice together with the men of Boehmler’s battalion. Sappers Lang and Richter went for a few days rest and I, Lance Corporal Valentin, went to the field hospital in Fiuggi with malaria.

Rudolf Valentin

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