The four battles of Monte Cassino between January and May 1944 saw men from many Allied nations come to fight their way up the road to Rome, dominated by the massif of Monte Cassino with the monastery which looked down like the eyes of the enemy on the battlefields below. Much of the fighting was in the hills, often up mule tracks, and a lot of it static. But throughout the battles of Cassino both sides used tanks, with varying results.
The Americans led the way in the First Battle of Cassino in January 1944 when they advanced on the town, to the Rapido and foothills to the north and the Rapido/Gari River to the south. M4 Sherman tanks from US Armoured Regiments moved up, but took heavy losses as the close terrain in the countryside and in the town favoured the defender, and the dominance of Monte Cassino meant that any movement could always be oberserved.
In the Second Battle of Cassino in February 1944 much of the fighting took place opposite the monastery around Hill 593, but by the time of the Third Battle of Cassino New Zealand tanks were used to advance up the Cavendish Road to try and outflank the high ground, and some were also sent down into the town. By this stage the town was very heavily bombed, and many of the tanks knocked out in the early fighting were destroyed or buried.
The Germans also used tanks at Cassino, or rather Assault Guns. They did not employ Tigers or Panthers, or even Panzer IV tanks in the first three battles, but they did bring up Sturmgeschütz or Stug Assault guns. These were likely from some of the Panzer Grenadier regiments that were attached to the Fallschirmjäger, German Paratroop forces, that were engaged throughout the battles. The one shown below appears in several period photographs and was positioned in buildings at the foot of Monte Cassino overlooking part of the Rapido river, which was the front line area in the town for much of the battle. Here these guns could fire at almost point blank range over the British positions, but could not come out of cover or manoeuvre as they would be vulnerable to artillery fire, and the rubble here prevented much movement of any kind.
The real time for tanks at Monte Cassino was in the Fourth Battle of Cassino, the final assault in May 1944 when a huge British and Commonwealth Army advanced up the Liri Valley, the Poles took the monastery, and French mountain troops advanced over the foothills and American units, including Armoured forces, assaulted the Gustav Line at Minturno.
In the Liri Valley British and Commonwealth forces used both M4 Sherman and Churchill Tanks to good effect. North Irish Horse veteran Gerry Chester describes the Chruchills in this interview (above) and it was found that their heavy weight was good for breaking through the dense undergrowth in the valley. This was also the first time British tanks had come up against German Panther turrets mounted on concrete bases as part of the Hitler Line defences (see below). They caused some significant tank casualties in certain parts of the assault on these positions.
In the Polish II Corps attack on the Monte Cassino monastery the 4th Polish Armoured Regiment, known as The Skorpions, were in the vanguard of the flank attack which broke through the German positions at Albaneta Farm and moved up the track towards the monastery itself. They lost heavily from mines and one M4 Sherman commanded by 2/Lt BIAŁECKI was completely destroyed in crossing this minefield. He and his crew were killed and today are buried in the Polish Cemetery at Cassino; and their tank is now a memorial, the only tank used in combat at Cassino still left on the battlefield.
The total losses of tanks at Cassino is not known, but despite being a static front for so long, smashed by artillery and bombing, they were used time and again, and the wrecks covered the battlefield in 1944: today the graves of their crews are to be found in many cemeteries.