In Italy the assault on the Cassino lines continues. The days following the 17th January saw some of the deadliest fighting of the campaign as first the French, then the British – a term which encompasses the Canadians, the Indians and the New Zealanders – and then the Americans, tried to break through.
Spike Milligan spent the war as a Gunner with the Royal Artillery. His popular memoirs, based on his wartime diaries, were full of the absurd humour that would later make him so famous. Sometimes reading them you might think he treated the whole experience as one long jest. However, much of it was a reaction against the dangerous circumstances that he found himself in.
On the 17th he had gone forward with Battery Observation Post and had a terrible foreboding of death, writing in his diary ” I died for the England I dreamed of, not the England I know” but had survived unscathed. He only had a brief period of rest that night:
JANUARY 18, 1944
Somewhere in the small hours I heard explosions in that distant sleep-ridden way; I heard Spike Deans say in a sing-song voice like Jiminy Cricket, “Oh Spikeeeee, We’re being shelleeddd.”
I remember my reply, “Fuck ’em”, and dozed off but then … my diary tells the story:
0220 hrs: Awakened by someone screaming coming from the guns, pulled back the black-out and could see the glare of a large fire, at the same time a voice in pain was shouting “Command post, for god’s sake somebody, where’s the Command post?” it was someone with his hair on fire coming up the path, he was beating it out with his hands, I jumped from my bed sans trousers and ran towards him, it was Bombardier Begent.
I helped beat the flames out. His face and hands were badly burnt, I helped him up the ladder to the command post and I blurted out to those within, “there’s been a direct hit on the guns.” I realised then I was late with the news, wounded gunners were already being attended to. Everybody looked very tense, behind me flames were leaping twenty feet in the air, I rushed back to my dug-out dressed in a flash.
Took my blankets back to the command post to help cover the wounded. I then joined the rest of the battery, who were all pulling red-hot and burning charge-cases away from those not yet affected. They were too hot to pull by hand so we used pickaxes wedged in the handles.
Lieutenant Stewart Pride was heaping earth on them with his hands. Gunner Devine seemed to be enjoying it, he was grinning and shouting, “this is the first time I’ve been warm today.” It never occurred to me that some of the boxes that were hot might still contain unexploded cordite charges, fortunately they didn’t go off and that’s why I’m able to write this diary today.
It was a terrible night, four Gunners died and six were wounded. All suffered burns in varying degrees. The work of subduing the fire and tidying up went on until early dawn. It was terrible to see the burnt corpses. There was little Gunner Musclewhite, he’d been killed sitting up in bed. He was burnt black, and his teeth showed white through his black, fleshless head. Sgt. Jock Wilson too, Gunner White and Ferrier…
A burial party under BSM Griffin were starting to dig as dawn came up. I went on duty at the Command Post.
What had happened need never have been so bad had we all not become careless. The Gunners had dug themselves a dug-out and covered it with a camouage net, but they had surrounded their dug-out with Charge Boxes. The first shells must have hit the charges, which blew up and ignited the camouage net that then fell in flames on top of those trapped underneath…