When you tell someone that you have had a week’s holiday in Italy, they will probably start thinking of sun, sand and warm seas, or museums and art galleries, or perhaps Roman and Etruscan ruins. But my wife, Eunice, and I recently went on an Italian holiday with a difference - a trip back sixty years.
Most ex-service people tend not to speak of their wartime experiences, and I suppose I am the same. But recently there has been a lot of talk of lottery grants for visits to the battlefields. As I had served in Italy for much of the 1943-45 campaign, I applied for one to visit Cassino, my first battle experience.
My recollection of that time is scanty. I was attached to the 56th (London) Division, the ‘Black Cats’, as Interrogation Officer, halfway through the Cassino battle, and most of my memories were of what others who were there had told me, and even of tales from some German soldiers we captured later on. I cannot vouch for any inaccuracies of detail, but have checked official records as carefully as I can. Opinions are not necessarily mine, but were those in general circulation at the time.
I little knew what an emotionally draining experience I was in for. Firstly, we had to find a means of getting to Cassino. After much research, we decided to go with Saga, who had a comfortable, conveniently placed hotel with an excursion to Cassino. I must give them full marks for their excellent support.
The Abbey as it is today
We first visited the newly rebuilt Montecassino Abbey, the mother church of the Benedictine Order. This was most impressive. It has been reconstructed as nearly as possible to the old building. From there, we were able to see the Polish Cemetery, and indeed, there were two coaches from Poland in the coach park as we left. Afterwards, we went down to the British and Commonwealth Cemetery, beautifully kept by the small group of gardeners. It holds some 4600 graves, and it was poignant to see that most of these appeared to be for fallen soldiers in their early twenties.
Captain John Oswald - Intelligence Corps (WW2)
The visit to the cemetery brought back many memories of those days. I had heard of the approach our troops made to Cassino through sticky mud and minefields in that wet winter of 1943. I had been told tales of the many different types of mines sown by the Germans, and in particular of the much-feared ‘S’ mine, which jumped out of the ground and exploded in front of you. 56th Division, in the forefront of the attack, was all but wiped out in this approach.
I had also heard of the destruction of Montecassino Abbey, perched on a mountaintop some 1000 feet above the town. Whilst waiting for the final push, discussion was rife as to whether this had been necessary. The surrounding hills were just as effective observation points as the Abbey had been.
The devastating air attack by the USAF in March, during which our own troops became hidden inside a thick cloud of dust, only to be virtually destroyed by the second and third waves of bombing, was the origin of the unfortunate reputation the US have for ‘friendly fire’ attacks and unfortunatly still have.
In the meantime, the Anzio bridgehead had been successfully held, but the US General Lucas had not developed it as planned. Supplies to the Germans in Cassino, which should have been halted, continued to come in, prolonging the battle, and our troops’ misery, for months.
In the end, determined but costly attacks by our Indian Divisions and the two Polish Divisions were able to put an end to this terrible slaughter. The Battle of Cassino had been going on for almost six terrible months.
Polish Military Cemetery - 1000 graves
Once again, the US forces let us down. Two divisions under General Mark Clark were to have carried out a quick ‘left hook’ and cut off the German retreat from Cassino, so that we could take them all prisoner. The General preferred to claim the glory of ‘liberating’ Rome, which had been declared an open city. The Germans were able to retreat in some semblance of order, to fall back on the ‘Gothic Line’ further back, once again prolonging the war by more months.
Commonwealth Military Cemetery - Casino
Memories, memories! The Battle of Cassino was overshadowed by the euphoria of the Normandy Landings. Someone at home, conveniently forgetting that a serviceman goes where he is sent and not where he would like to go, dubbed us the ‘D-Day Dodgers’.
On the coach taking us back to the hotel, I was asked
by our courier to say a few words about the battle. I did this on the
lines of the above article. There were a few other ex-servicemen in
our party, as well as relatives of men who had been killed at Cassino.
I hope my short talk was at least enlightening to them.
Copyright Text: John Oswald
Copyright Images: Keith Petvin-Scudamore