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80 years since the brutal Battle of Cassino

Cassino Contingent 3

May 2024 marks the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Cassino, which was one of the most brutal and costly battles involving New Zealand forces in the Second World War.

Situated at the head of the Liri Valley, Cassino was a key point in the Gustav Line — a chain of German defences in the Italian mountains south of Rome.

Augmented by the Germans' meticulous deployment of minefields, fortifications, and flooding from the demolition of stop-banks, Cassino was a defender's dream and an attacking army's nightmare.

Adding to the New Zealand Corps’ woes, the aerial bombardment took place a day and a half before the corps was prepared to mount an attack. They nevertheless proceeded with the plan, which involved the Indian Division attacking Cassino from the north, while the New Zealanders were to attack the town from the south with the hope of punching an opening for the Allies into the Liri Valley.

Due to the Germans’ demolition of floodbanks south of Cassino, only one New Zealand battalion was able to cross the flooded Rapido in the southern attack. It fell to the 28 (Maori) Battalion to initiate the attack on the town's well-defended railway station south of the town on 17 February.

After one of the fiercest and costliest battles fought by the unit during the war, men of the battalion seized positions in and around the station. The engineers following behind them were unable to clear a path through the flooded terrain for reinforcements.

Without support, the isolated Māori soldiers were forced to withdraw after a withering counter-attack by German infantry backed by tanks. New Zealand’s efforts there through February and March 1944, proved to be among the most
costly battles of the Second World War for the 2nd New Zealand Division. Of the 1,481 casualties, 343 lost their lives.

Cassino finally fell in May 1944 to British and Polish troops, with support from New Zealand artillery.

The Gustav Line was at last breached. Allied forces entered Rome on 4 June, two days before the D-Day landings in Normandy.

To mark the 80th Anniversary, a contingent of 25 New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel will be in Italy to honour those who fought and died at Cassino.

Leading the contingent is Major Alex Bowyer, from the New Zealand Army’s 2nd/1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment.

A man in a ceremonial army uniform, with medals and a hat. He is posed beside a large mural painted on a wall. The mural is of the Royal New Zealand Infantry badge.

Major Alex Bowyer, from the New Zealand Army’s 2nd/1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment

“It really will be special to experience this place with the contingent and recognise its significance in our nation’s history from World War Two.”

On 18/19 May, the NZDF contingent will support the New Zealand National Commemorative Service at the Cassino War Cemetery and a New Zealand Service of Remembrance at the Cassino Railway Station.

The Regimental Colour of 2nd/1st Battalion, which bears the Battle Honour CASSINO I, will be paraded at both services, along with the 28 (Maori) Battalion Banner.

Note: The traditional spelling of 28 (Maori) Battalion, which includes no macron on the word ‘Māori’, reflects the spelling used at the time and in historical records.


15 May 2024