In Italy the Allies had come up against the formidable defences of the Gustav Line and the obstacle of Mount Cassino. Here the German defences had been well prepared and they dominated the high ground – and so they dominated the battlefield. It was a forbidding place to make an attack especially as the Garigliano and Rapido rivers had also to be crossed. Yet it was essential to pull the Germans into the area – away from the forthcoming Anzio landings.
On 17th January Stanley Scislowski and his comrades in the Perth Regiment were adjusting to their first day in combat. The artillery had opened up at 0530 and Dog Company had moved off at 0700 to back up the Companies who had made their first attack. The day had not gone well and they spent most of it pinned down under machine gun fire – the Germans had been largely unaffected by the first artillery barrage. Most of the day had been spent in watery slit trenches.
As they regrouped and collected their wounded they were ordered to make a second attack, this time moving off while the guns were still firing:
Sharp on the stroke of 1600 hours the heavy orchestra behind us burst loose in a symphony of cannonading that came pretty close to equalling that which had opened the battle early that morning. The twenty—five pounder batteries banged away nonstop till the sky between us and the charcoal-gray low-hanging clouds hummed and throbbed to the heavy surge of shells on their way to the Jerry lines.
This time, we were directly under the flight paths of the shells at the point in the trajectory where they were on their downward journey. It was ten minutes of listening with awe and fearful doubts as they whirred over our heads and plunged into the target area with a drumbeat roll. And then we were on our way for what we thought would be the decisive thrust that would end the agony our regiment was going through.
The sky above us was a crowded highway of shells all going in one direction, some so low on their downward journey that we feared one of them would come down on top of us. For all the infernal racket of guns behind us, the whir and whistle of the shells speeding by overhead, the bass—drum beat of the hundreds of shells crashing in the valley, the machine-guns, both ours and theirs clattering at a furious rate, the rifle fire snapping past our ears and mortars crumping on the open ground just off to our right, Dog company ran resolutely on towards the valley of decision.
Although we were all as “green as grass” when it came to combat and our nerves rubbed raw from prolonged exposure to instant death, not a single man hung back.
We ran along a well-worn path at the edge of a chewed-up olive grove, pockmarked everywhere with craters. We dodged, we hurdled and sidestepped around tree-limbs lying in our way. It was strange how thoughts of the Somme could it across my mind as I hurried by with my eyes focused on the back of the man ahead.
As we plunged on closer to the valley, the din from tons upon tons of high explosive going off grew louder at every step. Sharp pops kept going off close to my ears, the work of individual riflemen or perhaps even a sniper trying to pick us off. I expected the next stride, or the one after that, would be my last.
To my right I caught a glimpse of a small group of our Charlie Company boys stumbling back from the slaughterhouse of the valley, two of them with
wounded draped over their shoulders.
Then suddenly, there before my eyes was the wide sweep of the Riccio
River valley: the far slope was a boiling mass of shell bursts, the valley thick with smoke and reeking of the stink of HE.
I hesitated, my mouth agape as a line of machine-gun bullets kicked up the dirt past my boots, so close I felt the vibrations through the double soles of my boots. I tried to spot where the firing had come from and then started downward, sidestepping in the wake of my section. A second burst ripped into the slope less than three feet from me. I hit the ground head first and rolled all the way to the bottom where I came to a jolting halt against Gord Forbes’ backside.
I thought the whole section had been killed, but then Gord Forbes snapped out at me sharply, to get my goddamned boot out of the crack of his ass and I knew they were still with it.
See Stanley Scislowski: Not All of Us Were Brave, this is just a small part of his description of this battle.