When the Allies had landed in Italy in September it had been hoped, even expected, that they would be in Rome by Christmas. The natural defensive territory that they encountered, and a German determination to make them pay for every advance, had long since caused a major revision in thinking. But now Rome was a good deal closer and it seemed that perhaps just one more big push might give them a breakthrough.
A closer acquaintance with the terrain as seen from the ground was cause for yet further revisions in expectations. Rising up high above the line of advance, and dominating the surrounding countryside for dozens of miles around, was Monte Cassino, on top of which lay the Monastery. It was to loom large in the thoughts of Generals through to Privates for the next six months.
Sergeant V.G. Brailey was amongst the first to see the new obstacle as he went forward to survey a new observation post for the Royal Artillery during late December:
Thanks to the enemy’s thoroughness in blowing up every bridge, large and small, we had to walk back six miles to Campo, where we had arranged to rendezvous with our trucks. The village was absolutely packed with infantry and carriers, some reliefs and some resting for a day or two. But there was a large stable waiting for us and something to counteract that gnawing pain I’d begun to get in my stomach; fortunately for me, too, someone had made my bed.
That night we were introduced to our mules, one per post. What staunch friends these gallant hybrids have turned out to be, never flinching come what may, and never hesitating in any weather. ‘Heads, he bites you; tails, he kicks you!’ was a libel invented by field artillery drivers. In the same class of faithfulness we must put the muleteers, too. They all came from North Italy and were of the best type. If they were afraid of anything on this earth, they never mentioned it to anybody.
Early next morning the mule, his master, three surveyors and myself journeyed forth into a far country (so it seemed), but unlike the Children of Israel, not into a land flowing with milk and honey. We covered the first five miles together, and then one surveyor and I went on farther to see what was what.
Along the track we had already passed the bodies of seven mules which hadn’t been able to ‘make it’ and had either died or been shot by the more humane drivers. Ours, fortunately, was still going strong. A further half-mile brought us ‘over the top’, the ridge at this point being only about four hundred and fifty metres high and some half-mile from Cocuruzzo.
Despite the unfortunate conditions under which we viewed the scenery, we had to admit that from a purely aesthetic viewpoint it was wonderful. To the left, the great Majo massif rose three thousand five hundred feet above the Garigliano meandering round its foot to the sea. To the right, Monte Cassino, backed by the gigantic Monte Cairo, hid the central mountains. Straight in front lay the main valley – Ambrogio, Pontecorvo and on to Frosinone. We could see some forty miles before a ridge, dimmed by the distant mist, blocked the view to Rome.
Across this valley stretched small hillocks with farms and scattered houses breaking the level of the intervening plain. I sat for many minutes admiring it all, the war far from my mind, until suddenly that all-too-familiar whistle presaged the arrival of a shell, twenty yards above me on the hill.
Egotistically I thought that shell had been meant particularly for me, but I learned later there were three gun O.P.s on the top of the ridge. This hill, the only decent place for a flash-spotting O.P., was an obvious target for Jerry’s artillery, as we came to know only too well.
There was one other minor difficulty about this post. Ever since We had left Calabritto, some miles back, we had been ‘hit in the face’ by innumerable red notices, one every hundred yards or so: ‘Keep to the Track’, ‘Verges not Cleared’, ‘Danger S Mines’, etc.
What of the weather? It was fairly temperate to begin with, until the wind veered to the north and made life a real hell. The sun went and the rains came. Despite wearing all the clothes available, two, perhaps three, pairs of socks, long pants, short pants, shirt (or shirts), overcoat over battle-dress, a blanket around our feet, it was still impossible on some of the colder nights to sit at the instrument for more than half an hour without walking round to revive a few odd fingers and toes and the general blood circulation.
But what a contrast to get back into the tent after a spell of duty and have a tot of rum!
Sergeant V.G. Brailey was later killed in action. This account was first published in the Royal Artillery Commemoration Book 1939-1945, London, 1950.