Jonathan Fennell is author of Fighting the People’s War: The British and Commonwealth Armies and the Second World War, which was published by Cambridge University Press in February 2019.
Three quarters of a century ago, soldiers of the British and Commonwealth Armies were embroiled in one of the iconic battles of the Second World War – the struggle to take the town of Cassino in Italy and the famous monastery that lay atop the imposing mountain that overlooked it. Historians have long argued about why the Allies failed on three occasions to unlock the German defences, before eventually breaking through to Rome. New research shows, for the first time, that it was not just matters on the front line that influenced the outcome of these great offensives, but issues far away on the home front – in New Zealand.
The Cassino Battles
Cassino guarded the entrance to the Liri Valley, the best route available to the Allied armies on their advance towards Rome in 1944. In the first battle of Cassino in January 1944, US and British forces had tried to prise the Germans out of their formidable defences through manoeuvre – involving a landing on the beaches of Anzio behind enemy lines. When that failed, the battle was handed over to 2ndNew Zealand and 4thIndian Divisions, two of the most experienced formations in the British and Commonwealth Armies in Italy. The second battle was, much like the first, a costly failure; the use of massed bombing from the air backfired when the monastery, as a consequence of this controversial course of action, was turned into a fortress of rubble by the Allied bombers.
For the third attempt, a new plan was devised. This time, rather than going straight for the monastery, 2nd New Zealand Division would capture the town itself and a height above it that would provide 4th Indian Division with a firm base from which to attack the ancient monastery. Major-General Alexander Galloway, in temporary command of 4th Indian Division, stressed the extent to which the success of this new plan was dependent on the New Zealanders. Unless 2nd New Zealand Division could protect theleft flank of the Indians by clearing Cassino town, his job would be ‘almost impossible’.
The assault, which went in on 15 March, was preceded by a massive aerial blitz; 514 aircraft dropped 1,140 tons of bombs on the town. Some 900 pieces of artillery added their fire in a prolonged barrage that allocated 4 or 5 tons of explosive for every German defender. At first, the assault met little opposition and casualties were light. Prisoners taken were stunned by the sheer weight of Allied firepower. However, progress slowed in the crater-strewn rubble, and when 4th Indian Division moved forward, Cassino town had not been cleared. As Galloway predicted, the attack failed. The speed and initiative necessary to overcome the formidable German defences had been sorely lacking.
What went wrong? The relative numbers of troops engaged at Third Cassino cannot, in itself, explain the performance of the New Zealanders – who, at the key point had a numerical advantage as high as perhaps 8-1. The plan, too, was perfectly workable. In fact, a large part of the cause of the setback lay 11,500 miles away from the maelstrom unfolding in the Apennines.
Home Front: The Furlough Mutiny
By 1943/4, the British and Commonwealth forces fighting in the Mediterranean were, according to one report, ‘tired, not only in body, but in spirit also’.At the start of August 1943, censorship reports on the mail of soldiers identified that many believed that their long period in action ‘morally entitle[d] them’ to leave. In light of the prevailing mood, the New Zealand Government decided to give 6,000 men in the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF) furlough, or leave, back home. This equated to about 20 per cent of the New Zealand forces in theatre and a third of 2nd New Zealand Division.
The New Zealand Government had promised to avoid conflict about equality during the war; powers to conscript wealth were to equal those to conscript men. However, in reality, the war served to exacerbate inequalities. By 1943, there were 35,000 Grade ‘A’ men at home, fit enough to go overseas but who held jobs in ‘essential industry’. The 6,000 furlough men were stunned by this situation when they returned home and insisted, in the interest of fairness, that these men had to replace those who had already done their duty in the war in Europe. ‘No man twice, before every man once’ became the battle cry of the furlough men.
The Labour Government refused to bend to the furlough men’s wishes, leading to a revolt that resulted in only 13 per cent of the men returning to the Mediterranean. The ‘Furlough Mutiny’, as it became known, arguably represented the most severe outbreak of indiscipline in any British and Commonwealth force in both world wars.
Battlefront: Crisis at Cassino
The mutiny had two key consequences: the 2ndNew Zealand Division had to go into battle without a significant cohort of its most experienced veterans; and those that were left to fight suffered a serious crisis in morale. By the start of January 1944, the censors reported that there were ‘definite signs of war weariness and homesickness in almost 25% of the letters’ sent by the division. By mid-January, 50 per cent of letters had a ‘homesick’ tone. Ten per cent of letters showed a distinct sense of dissatisfaction at the unequal sacrifices being made in the war effort. A sergeant wrote:
It’s foolish to try and blink the fact that men over here are becoming more and more aware of the extent to which they have been ‘carrying the baby’ for years for lots of people at home.
By the beginning of the Second Battle of Cassino, there had been a ‘decided drop in morale’, and letters were ‘distinctly gloomy’. The prevailing conditions had ‘made the men “furlough conscious”’ with many letters referring to the mishandling of the scheme in New Zealand and the thousands of ‘essentials’ that could be used to replace them on the front line. In the run-up to the Third Battle of Cassino, the censors again noted a ‘drop [in morale] over the whole of the Div’.
The sickness rate in the division, a good barometer of morale, rose in the lead up to the third battle. Between embarkation for Italy and March 1944,the sickness rate for other ranks in 2ndNew Zealand Division increased by 96 per cent, that for officers by a remarkable 162 per cent. The battle exhaustion rate was also alarming. Whereas cases of battle exhaustion had accounted for 9 per cent of casualties in the heavy fighting in Italy in December 1943, they amounted to 34 per cent of casualties in February and 36 per cent in March 1944.
Turn Around: The Liberation of Rome
By any standards, this evidence indicates a catastrophic collapse in morale. Lieutenant-General Bernard Freyberg, the commander of 2ndNew Zealand Division, wrote to the New Zealand Prime Minister after the battle that, ‘I have come to the conclusion that the time may well be opportune for the complete withdrawal of 2NZEF’ to New Zealand. The success of the fourth battle of Cassino was in no small part built on this understanding.
In many ways, the British and Commonwealth Armies in Italy had finally reached the limits of endurance. The men, many of whom had been away from their families for between three and five years, longed for a break. Harold Alexander, the Commander of the Allied land forces in theatre, decided, therefore, to almost completely replace the fighting formations of his forces. Four British and Commonwealth divisions (two British, one Indian and one South African), two armoured brigades and one tank brigade were sent for from the Middle East. These were joined by the Polish Corps, two US infantry divisions, and two French infantry divisions. The new plan was to concentrate these formations on one side of the Apennines and attack the enemy with overwhelming force using almost completely fresh formations. It worked, leading to the liberation of the eternal city in June 1944. When the British and Commonwealth forces in Italy were most in need of a lift, when they had almost reached the very limit of their power and endurance, the power and scale of the Empire, and its allies, had played out with decisive effect.
Image: Third Phase of the Battle of Cassino, 11 – 18 May 1944: A low aerial view of the Monastery showing its complete destruction, via wikimedia commons.