Delivering harassing shellfire at Cassino

Smoke from American shells hangs over the town of Cassino while on the hill above and behind it is the Monastery.

An image from earlier in the campaign, before the monastery was reduced to rubble. Smoke from American shells hangs over the town of Cassino while on the hill above and behind it is the Monastery.

Front view of 240mm (9.4 inch) howitzer of Battery `B', 697th Field Artillery Battalion, just before firing into German held territory. Mignano area, Italy. January 30, 1944

Front view of 240mm (9.4 inch) howitzer of Battery `B’, 697th Field Artillery Battalion, just before firing into German held territory. Mignano area, Italy. January 30, 1944

The slugging match in Italy continued. At both the beach head at Anzio and the mountain top battles at Cassino the front line was largely static. On both fronts the exchange of artillery fire was the constant companion to daily life. At Anzio British troops were sitting out the battering in their trenches. It was a very similar story at Cassino.

So the men in the trenches welcomed the return fire that their own side delivered. Isolated high above Cassino British troops gave names to the different calibre guns that were firing in their sector. Their principal support came from the Royal Artillery’s 25 pounders, nicknamed ‘Harry’. When they were joined by a battery of US Army 8 inch howitzers that got the nickname ‘Horace’. They were so pleased with the performance that they got a message to the American unit:

The Americans were delighted that Horace was so popular with us. In due course a signal came through that the American battery commander who owned Horace would be coming up to spend a day in our O.P. and carry out some shoots from it. He was expected to arrive that night. Around midnight Brigade ’phoned up and said: ‘Your American guest has just checked in here. He appears to have nearly had it. We’ve advised a short rest and a drink. Then we’ll bring him on up to you.’

He was a tall, pale major. He wore those fragile-looking rimless spectacles which America appeared to adopt as soon as the rest of the world adopted America’s horn-rims. Like all other men making the mountain ascent for the first time, the major required a minute or two of repose before his powers of speech returned to him. We gave him a drink. And when he seemed reasonably composed again we broke the news that his climbing was not yet at an end.

It would be necessary for him to go up to the O.P. in just over two hours to get there before dawn, as it could not be approached in daylight. He smiled weakly and said nothing surprised him any more. He was quite resigned to climbing for ever. Harry then went into a huddle with him, and explained the artillery set-up in detail.

Listening to their technical chatter, it was amusing to compare their respective Artillery slang. A British gunner never talks about ‘firing a few rounds.’ He announces that he is going to ‘slap a few on the deck’ or ‘put one or two on the floor.’ American gunners, too, have their picturesque way of paraphrasing their lethal intentions. When the American wished to say that he was looking forward to firing some shells at the Germans from our O.P., what he actually said was that he was looking forward to ‘slinging some hot ivy at those God-damned Krauts.’

The major got to work soon after breakfast. He was registering Horace on to some new places. His fifth round landed plumb on top of the southern wing of the Monastery. The effect was catastrophic. Stones and debris were cascaded into the air, and dust and rubble poured out of the windows like thick smoke. Both our other O.P.s excitedly came through on the ’phone to give graphic eye-witness accounts of the spectacle.

The importance of this shot was that it had landed on top of the building. Our other guns, because of their flatter trajectory, could not do this. They could batter away at the walls of the building. But they couldn’t land on top. Horace, being a howitzer, sent its huge shells high into the air, so that they descended steeply on to their target.

This was another trick for us to play on the Herrenvolk. The future role of Horace in the nightly harassing concerts was settled! – There was no stopping the major after this success. He decided to make a job of the Monastery – working his way systematically along the top of it in twenty-five-yard lifts.

This was excellent from our point of view. Hitherto we had been rationed to ten shells a day from Horace. (A shell economy was now in force, to build up stocks in readiness for future events.) But the major was in no mood for shell economies. He plugged away steadily till the late afternoon, by which time he had planted exactly forty-three shells on the building. In his own words, he’d ‘churned the bastard up plenty.’

In the evening, before he left us, the major said there was one thing he wanted to ask. Why was the name Horace conferred on his gun? It was just an affectionate nickname, we explained, such as the British soldier is always quick to give to inanimate objects that take his fancy. The major shook his head slowly. ‘I don’t get it!’ he said. ‘

We discovered later that the crew of the gun (‘the boys,’ as the major used to call them) had a name for it too. It was painted on the side of the barrel in six-inch letters. It was ‘BELCHING BITCH.’

See Fred Majdalany: The Monastery. An account of the assault of the Abbey of Monte Cassino in 1944.

Aerial view of Cassino sector showing Monte Trocchio, Cassino, Monte Cairo, Monte Albaneta, the Via Casilina (the road to Rome also known as Route 6) and the Rapido River.

Aerial view of Cassino sector showing Monte Trocchio, Cassino, Monte Cairo, Monte Albaneta, the Via Casilina (the road to Rome also known as Route 6) and the Rapido River.

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

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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