Under shellfire in the shadow of Cassino

A Vickers machine gun crew of the 2nd New Zealand Division in action during attacks on German positions at Monte Cassino.

A Vickers machine gun crew of the 2nd New Zealand Division in action during attacks on German positions at Monte Cassino.

As the situation became critical on the Anzio beachhead there was no improvement further south at Cassino. Here the giant monastery loomed over the battlefield. Whether the Germans were occupying the building itself or merely the surrounding hilltop, they had an excellent vantage point from which to direct their artillery.

Life under shellfire was to become the usual existence of the troops here. The Allies were stuck up against an natural defensive positions and the Germans were going to punish them as they sought to find a way round.

John Blythe was a corporal with the New Zealand Division which had just moved into the line alongside the Americans:

Not a great deal of enemy fire was coming our way in daylight, but there was enough to keep us on our toes at times, when we crouched behind banks and the stone remnants of buildings as wicked 88s slashed the foliage and fragments of steel and stones whizzed overhead to rattle against the gun shields and buildings.

On one occasion I got caught out in the open with nothing deeper than a wheel rut to try to press into. There is nothing worse than high-velocity shells landing just short of you, sending hideous screaming pieces of metal over your head. It was pretty hard to take because as it arrived like the roar of an express train, one felt each shot was the end and they were keeping it up. As holes and white wounds appeared in the small cactus a metre from my head and the juice began to drip I really believed this time I was going to buy it. Pinned down for half an hour with the acrid smoke stinging my nostrils I think I aged ten years.

There was another occasion when I was standing by the armoured car and a shell fragment slammed into the armour and whined wickedly away. I looked at the gouge in the heavy metal; it was six inches from my hip, about level with my navel. The Americans with whom I had been gossiping melted away to their gun pits where they usually sheltered during shellfire. We normally crouched wherever we happened to be, if there was something reasonable to cower behind, so I stayed by the car. On my belly, of course.

But if the shelling was sporadic during the day it was a different story at night, from a big gun thought to be a 170 millimetre. There is no doubt about the prowess of the German soldier; they must be about the best in the world, but they were predictable. Every night they moved the big gun up and at about midnight or a little later the cannonade would start; shell after shell whooshing over our heads like goods trains, just clearing our already demolished roof.

This would go on for an hour and a half and it was nerve-racking lying tense in our blankets on the floor speculating when Jerry would drop one to clean us out. This went on every night for many weeks. Presumably they ranged on the crossroads below us to get our transport bringing in supplies but we were directly in line of fire and many landed short in our lines.

Between times, just for variety, they added horrible mortar bombs from their nebelwerfers. These were ghastly multiple mortars of large calibre which sounded like gigantic moaning elephants, and one mortar bomb which landed at the foot of the wall of the farm house certainly shook the Yanks trying to sleep on the other side of it. Another yard either way and it could have been the Adjutant, signal office, or the Sergeant Major.

Sleep under such conditions was a problem but there was plenty of rough red wine so each night we sat around the stove in the light of a hurricane lamp drinking and talking until sodden with wine we would go to bed on the floor and fall asleep. But the shelling always woke us up; no one could sleep through the noise and there was nothing we could do except grin and bear it.

There was a more-than-usual grimness about this particular operation which made it worse than the Orsogna Front where, although bogged down by snow and mud, we had felt that once the weather improved we would make progress. Here, we were confronted with a task of different magnitude and we knew the Americans had suffered terrible casualties which had broken their hearts.

See John Blythe: Soldiering on: A Soldier’s War in North Africa and Italy

A New Zealand anti-tank gun in action against German positions on Monastery Hill

A New Zealand anti-tank gun in action against German positions on Monastery Hill

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Editor February 5, 2014 at 7:30 pm

Its a good point. There are no other clues available really, this being the original caption.

bluetaco February 5, 2014 at 6:44 pm

I am completely ignorant when it comes to this subject, so please excuse me if this is a stupid question: isn’t that New Zealand anti-tank gun firing from a completely exposed position? It seems from the photo that there is no ridge immediately in front of them to hide them, requiring a spotter, but rather that they are directing their own targetting at German positions on the heights across the little valley in front. Perhaps there was no time to dig an emplacement?

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