The impasse in Italy continued, both at Anzio and at Cassino. After much deliberation the Allies finally decided that the Monastery that dominated not only the town but the whole area would have to be bombed. It was a controversial decision as the Germans were claiming that they were not using it, out of respect for it’s religious importance. General Freyberg, leader the New Zealanders, insisted on it before he sent his men in for the next attack. Most of the rest of the Allies had already concluded that it would need to be bombed sooner or later anyway. An artillery barrage accompanied it, as a prelude to the infantry assault.
Between 0830 and 1200, 15 March, 72 B-25’s, 101 B-26’s, 262 B-17’s and B-24’s – a total of 435 aircraft – bombed the Cassino area. The planes dropped more than 2,000 bombs, a total weight of almost 1,000 tons, in an unprecedented bombardment of awesome proportions. There was little flak at Cassino, and no German planes appeared to oppose the bombing. The Allied aircraft suffered no losses.
The artillery firing went as planned. A total of 746 guns and howitzers delivered 2,500 tons of high explosive immediately ahead of the assault troops and an additional 1,500 tons on hostile batteries and other preselected targets. Between 1220 and 2000 that day, artillery pieces in the Cassino area fired almost 200,000 rounds.
Shortly after the bombing of the Monastery Fred Majdalany went into the line. His regiment took over from a Gurkha unit that had sustained many casualties on the bleak mountainside. It was a long hard trek up the mountain, at night in difficult conditions, carrying a heavy load, including ammunition. Majdalany arrived safely after this trek, unlike Ray Ward and his mule. They might have expected that Spring weather would soon be arriving on the mountain, it was not to be:
I awoke shortly after first light, wet and frozen, with a large sharp stone in the small of my back, and a black hate towards all Germans.
Heavings to my right denoted that Jimmie was also coming to life. I ‘It must have rained hard,’ I said. ‘I’m soaking.’ ‘Rain be damned,’ Jimmie said. ‘It’s snow.’
I wriggled out of the blanket. It was indeed a bowl, where we were. A natural amphitheatre between three hillsides, with a flat space at the bottom big enough for a hockey pitch. The area was covered by a thin carpet of snow. So, I noted for the first time, were our blankets. It is odd to be snowed on in one’s sleep and not wake up.
Jimmie, who seemed to take the snow as a personal affront, just lay there puffing at a cigarette, darkly muttering: ‘Bloody snow! Bloody snow!’.
Then there was a scream and a whistle and eight shells landed in a neat line across the other side of the Bowl, about a hundred yards away. The rest of our party awakened with considerable abruptness.
Coarse and falsely cheerful greetings echoed up and down the slope. Blasphemy gave the morning air its only warmth, and men became busy with little tins and fires. No power on earth can stop the English breakfast.
After breakfast John and I went forward to find the headquarters of the battalion we were relieving. As we climbed the spur on the far side of the Bowl, we saw what appeared to be rows of little boots. Then we saw that it was a cemetery. At the head of each grave was a steel helmet: at the foot a pair of tiny boots. We couldn’t understand the tiny boots at first.
Then we saw a file of men approaching carrying stretchers. They were Gurkhas, the little fighting men of Nepal, from the battalion we were relieving. They were bringing more dead to that desolate little cemetery. In an hour there would be another row of little boots.
I couldn’t help wondering what they thought about it all, these small brown men from Nepal with the flat Mongol features. I wondered if it made any sense at all to a Gurkha, to find himself brought all the way to Italy to help Englishmen to kill Germans.
This musing was cut short abruptly, for at that moment we cleared the crest of the spur, and there, staring us in the face, was the Monastery. Two rough, evil-looking prongs of masonry sprouting from an untidy chaos of rubble – all that remained of the southernmost tip of the building — like jagged fangs. This first close-up view was unexpected and slightly startling, and we edged over to the right so as to get out of sight of it.
As we worked our way up the terraced, shell-torn slope towards the ruin of a building that looked like the headquarters we were seeking, the smell of death – the old familiar smell – became increasingly powerful. The most immediate cause turned out to be a mule, in an advanced stage of decomposition, and black with feasting flies. (Wags later used the mule as a signpost for visitors. They used to say ‘bear hard right when the mule begins to smell really strongly’.)
When you smell that smell, then you know you’ve arrived. You are once again in the world of the Infantry. It is universal and haunting. It is the same, whether it is caused by dead Englishmen, dead Americans, or dead mules. This place was worse than any we had ever known…