A place to sleep on the Italian front line

A New Zealand 6-pdr anti-tank gun in action against enemy positions at Cassino, 15 March 1944.

A New Zealand 6-pdr anti-tank gun in action against enemy positions at Cassino, 15 March 1944.

While Roger Smith was troubled by the threat of German mines, another New Zealander faced the more basic problem of finding somewhere to sleep. John Blythe was also in the Italian hills in front of Orsogna and he describes an equally bleak and miserable existence.

Blythe knew only too well that ‘digging in’ was often the better choice even if a rather more comfortable shelter was available. As a Signaller attached to an artillery unit he had seen all too many of his colleagues cut up by shellfire in Africa. He cast an experienced eye around the position before choosing his spot, even if it was not very quiet:

Where to sleep? The armoured car was operational, so that was out. Looking around we found as usual that the Adjutant and Colonel had secured the best accommodation in the farm house and why not? They were doing the picking.

We were invited to sleep in the signal office, but it was crowded and stuck up like a pimple on the upper floor. I had noticed most of our guns were behind us in gullies down the slope and ahead of us was a ridge. If Jerry decided to go after them with his 88s I could visualise shells clipping the signal office roof on their way down. The telephone exchange would also be manned twenty-four hours a day and that did not appeal, so two of us decided to dig in on a steep slope behind a large haystack.

The stack was already occupied by two gunners who had burrowed into it. We found the ground awfully wet and as we dug, water oozed into the hole. This was a problem but at some stage I found a large wooden door which we lowered into the wide trench on to three or four bricks, and placed the pup tent over it. Wrapped in our cocoon-like bedrolls there was just room for us on the door providing we did not thrash around.

The sides of the trench glistened wet inches from my face as moisture ran down to form a pool beneath the door; lying still watching it, one could only speculate what friends back home would make of this accommodation. It was hardly five-star.

Because of the steep slope we had been obliged to build up the entrance with sandbags and this was preventing the water from getting away. A large empty jam tin brought in to use as a chamber pot proved handy, and as the water crept to within a couple of inches of the door one of us would sit up and bale out over the tops of the sandbags.

The seepage was permanent whether it rained or not, but we stayed dry although there were times when I felt like a water baby sleeping on a lily pond. It was also awfully cold, but we were better off than the two steaming inside the haystack. They were plagued by field mice and sundry other pests, and frequently there were shouts, curses, hilarity and furious rustlings from inside the stack.

It would be interesting to consider the effect of an 88-millimetre armour-piercing shell upon the stack but my mind refused to entertain the thought.

It is amazing what the human frame can stand when necessity demands, and what circumstances one can sleep through. About fifty yards down the slope behind us we looked straight into the muzzles of our guns. That first evening at twilight as we crawled into bed they opened fire. Even if you have stood to the side, or behind, an artillery piece when it is fired you will not have experienced anything like the ear—splitting blast which reaches you directly in front. As I said, we were virtually looking down the muzzles.

‘Let’s hope they don’t have any prematures,‘ said my mate. Premature explosions happened occasionally and in this position we could buy it.

Going to bed meant removing our boots and climbing into the blankets; by eight o’clock we were reaching that slightly dazed state that constant concussion brings. No civilian in a million would sleep through that din but we did. The constant roar obliterated everything and numbed the mind.

One can usually sleep through barrages but never during harassing fire, raising the question of just who is being harassed. A single gunshot every fifteen minutes could almost drive one insane, particularly if the enemy answered back. It seemed so pointless yet could go on for hours and nobody ever got much sleep on nights when it took place.

See John Blythe: Soldiering on: A Soldier’s War in North Africa and Italy

Monte Camino November - December 1943: 25 pounder guns of 146 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery in action on the night of the start of the second assault on Monte Camino.

Monte Camino November – December 1943: 25 pounder guns of 146 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery in action on the night of the start of the second assault on Monte Camino.

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