For the newly promoted and well deserved 2NZEF Chief Major-General Howard Kippenberger the Cassino railway station assault code named "Operation Avenger" was his first planned set piece attack and attempt at breaking through the solid defensive Gustav Line as the 2nd NZ Divison's head.
But it was against his better judgement and instincts that he firmly believed this attack was potentially a very expensive mistake and he advised General Freyberg such. Kippenberger believed we should bypass Cassino altogether and go through and attack the enemy up the Liri valley mountain pass, which was what actually happened months later. He was also firmly against the air bombing of the Monastary and Cassino town itself, which transformed the town into an impassable pile of rubble. Both his recommendations were eventually ignored and General Freyberg as the N.Z.Corps chief ordered both the Cassino railway station assault and very controversally the air bombing by the USAF.
Strategically the Cassino railway station was of important value to the NZ Corps because the German Kommand had defensively flooded most of Cassino town and its outlying areas leaving only the railway track exposed. So logically the raised train track was decided to be used as a modified causeway road for the hundreds of awaiting tanks, supporting systems, men and material to advance further into the Liri valley and Cassino township. The obvious difference of the Kiwis to the Americans was our preference to attack at night which would be the case in our first attack against the Gustav line. Like US Lt. Gen Mark Clark before him it unfortunatley was to become Major-General Kippenberger's first painfull failure.
Mount Trocchio which over looks Cassino and the surrounding Liri valley was also to prove some weeks later a real tragedy for the whole Division when Major-General Kippenberger stands on an anti-personnel and difficult to detect wooden box "shu" land mine, a bad omen for the 8th Army mobile warfare specialists the 2NZEF Division. Like others I found this event very unusual for a man of his high capability,knowledge and experience. A taped mine cleared pathway was created by his engineers on Mt. Trocchio for him to observe the situation yet he chose to go over the taped path and into an uncleared and dangerous area with devastating results for the NZ Divsion as a whole. He must have been frustrated, tired or even depressed at that time because no one appears to have effectively listened to him.
So the combined Kiwi brass chose the 28th (Maori) Battalion to the spearhead as part of the 5th infantry Brigade leading the attack planned to begin in the night of 13-14 of February 1944 who were to combine with 4 Battalions of the 4th Indian Division to work in conjuntion to drive the skilled and highly organised Germans of Field-Marshall Kesselring's 1 Para Regt. and 211 Regt. back over the intentionally flooded area of Cassino town and the Rapido river to allow the 2NZEF engineer sappers to create a causeway bridge-set to out flank and go around the Cassino Monastary and into the Liri Valley. With an American combat team of 180 tanks with 21 Battalion under command the Maori Battalion would make the initial strike and create a bridgehead. Unfortunately the ground was very marshy covered in places with more than inch of water making it impossible to dig in supporting heavy weapons so the attack was postponed by Divisional HQ until the nights of the 17-18th of February to allow the ground conditions to improve.
The Railway Station attack began on a bleak winter night with the 4th Indian Division battalions initiating the pincer movement from slopes above the station with hard fighting and sustaining casualties just getting to the planned start line where they were ready to attack on the night of 17-18 February 1944. The conditions were wet, muddy and was compounded by the initial crossing of the cold Rapido river, so the Maori companies were uncomfortably soaked to begin with in the 600 metre advance to the railway station. It is fairly well known the Maori's fought magnificently gaining and holding most of their objectives, they swept their German strongpoints, cleared a line of houses and held the station but were unable to take the neighbouring hummocks, all important small hills that availed broad outlook and defensive German fire.Essentially the fog of war decended upon the members of A and B companys who became isolated and cut off with all wondering why the planned follow up support had not arrived, communications broke down and it simply became a complex battle to get back out.
The Kiwi desert nemisis of North Africa such as the failure of expected tank support on the Ruweisat Ridge during 1942 when English tanks failed to support superb NZ Division advances creating unneccesary disaster had once again impacted directly, this time the NZ A and B companies of the 28th (Maori) Infantry Battalion and its supporting NZ Division Engineers were to pay the price. Distinctly the blame this time can be placed squarely upon our own command planning in its failure of vital mobile armour support, in my opinion primarily because only 1 company of Engineers were assigned a role that far out weighed the numerical abilty of 1 Coy of Engineers, as brilliantly as the worked. Not only were the engineers over worked but they fought against the onset of day break, where day light would certainly lead to increased devastaion..why were another company of Engineers and additional equipment not used? at least as replacements of men and equipment. With 30 brave sappers perishing during the station battle and the remaining 70 odd very nearly succeeding in the extremely difficult road making duties, it certainly is a mystery to me why more sappers were not scrapped up from where ever and from whom ever.
The severly battle damaged Maori combatants, although nevertheless reasonbly successfull in their objectives were naturally expected also to protect the un-armed Kiwi sappers as they worked clearing mines, booby traps, many German demolitions, filling shell/bomb holes (some 20 metres wide) and working heavy loaded trucks and multiple machinery types to cross flooded channels and bridge the Little and Main Rapido rivers. This all was incredibly planned to happen in one night, but many varied delays unfolded with 1 bulldozer being shelled on a bridge and another swinging off damaging another bridge, the attack went well on and into most of the next day under massive numbers of hastely obtained smoke rounds of artillery delivering hours of critical smoke screen in moving wind directions. They used every available weapon, at one point holding the Germans to almost allow enough protection for the feverish sappers to complete the causeway along the railway track for the eagerly waiting lines of 19th Battalion and supporting 140 Sherman tanks to follow through. But all to no avail the German offensive resistance was co-ordinated determined and on 18 Feb. at 15:45hrs 5 Brigade reported that German panzers and supporting infantry were now coming forward counter-attacking forcing the Maori's to withdraw, and thus recapturing the railway station as well as the bridges built across the Rapido. The Division's bridgehead across the river was lost, and the extensive operations depending on it were suspended. Interestingly post war, the German Kommanders of the Cassino zone at that time were happily surprised that our NZ corps failed to win what they saw as an extremely close run battle and were amazed their counter attack succeeded, knowing the Allied logistical reserves waiting to come forward.
One encounter would never have been forgotten for some of the Maoris as they were clearing the last few houses leading to their railway station objective at around 01:00hrs. Some of the engineer mine lifting sappers working often ahead and at best in conjunction with the Maoris had to shelter from heavy incoming fire from machine-gun, mortar and panzer tanks. While doing so noticed what looked like a group of Maori that had mistakenly wandered off path and into an uncleared minefield zone becoming stranded and were locked on the deck in cross fire. One of the leading Kiwi sappers a Lieutenant Martin noticed this and very carefully worked his way back clearing and marking a track through coiled belts of barbe wire and booby traps to an uninspected German demolition. With this path hopefully cleared he come through to the trapped Maoris where he brought them all safely back out the same way under fire. Lt S.M.F Martin (later Capt.) born in Thames, Coromandel was awarded the Military Cross for his coolness under fire and devotion to duty, and no doubt a concise debt of thanks from the surviving A an B Coy guys.
Of the 200 A and B Company boys who started the attack only 40 North Auckland and 26 Bay of Plenty boys were able to walk out with a few battle dazzed stragglers finding there way out under cover of the next night including very heroic efforts of determined will and effort to return. The 28th Maori Battalion suffered 128 casualties and the valiant un-armed Kiwi sappers lost 30 souls with the galant 4th Indian Division battalions suffering very high casualties and could do absolutely no more. 27 years before the 4th Indian Division fought very bravely along side the Kiwis, at a place called Chunik Bair, Galipoli.. we were knocked back then as well.
As humble as this railway station memorial may appear it has huge significance to the Maori and indeed to 30 Pakeha families here at home, where a few 1000 metres away from it their boys lie at the beautifull Cassino Commonwealth War Graves Cemetary, proudly part of the town of Cassino.
As stated above Major-General Howard Kippenberger after only five weeks as overall NZ Division Commander of the 2NZEF disastrously walked onto a German land mine ending his combat days on the 2nd of March 1944. The 28th (Maori) Battalion on learning of this quickly decided to send a letter of condolence and wishes as a mark of high regard for the General for a rapid recovery from his wounds they being, one foot blown off and the other leg amputated below the knee. The letter of address was signed by the Officers and NCOs of every platoon in the Battalion. The General in spite of his condition insisted on replying and later had the 28 Battalion letter framed.
Lt Col R.R.T. Young, Officers, NCOs and Men of the 28 (Maori) Battalion
I have recieved with pride your message. It will always be one of my most treasured possessions. Further battles lie ahead of you, but mine are finished, and no more will I share in planning your battles and it will fall to others to help you in your tasks. I will still, from a distance, glory in your deeds, and grieve over your losses. I know that you will always remember that in the hands of each rests the fame of your great battalion and the honour of your people. It has been one of my proudest privileges to have had the Maori Battalion under my command in so many battles. now the time has come to part. I thank you and those who have served before you and wish you well. I thank you with all my heart.
NB. New Zealand casualties at Cassino itself was nearly 1700.