Although it was certainly possible to survive severe artillery bombardments they were practised for their effective lethality. They were to become the constant presence on both the Anzio beach head and the hills of Cassino. In both situations the Allies were under observation and any untoward movement could attract a storm of fire.
Major Malcolm Munthe was fighting an unconventional war. At Anzio his job was to try to get an Italian volunteer across the lines from German occupied Italy. The man had found a route through, via a cave right on the perimeter line where the Irish Guards were holding him.
On the 6th February 1944 he set out to bring the man back, accompanied by a young officer, Michael Gubbins, who had volunteered to accompany him, although his presence was not strictly necessary. Perhaps not being in the ordinary line of command they were not fully aware how much the lines had shifted in the face of the recent German attack. They waited for a lull in the fighting, and then, late in the afternoon, made their approach:
The road branched off to the right of the main road. It lead to a roundabout with a cross in the middle. We crept in the ditch on the west side of this road. It was pitted with holes and slit trenches – German slit trenches – ahead stood that tall black cross, twelve or fifteen feet high. To the left and west of us lay “the factory” – Aprilia, silent (and empty?) but still in German hands.
Out of a slit trench stuck a big broken branch. It waved in the wind and, as we brushed by, it fell to one side and I saw a man behind it. He was leaning against it, his feet in the trench, his arms spread-eagled out against the branches, on his head a German helmet, at his collar the embroidered badges in black and silver. He was moving. His eyes were open but dry. Two rows of teeth were showing, yellow, not shiny. His broad face was wax coloured. A baleful place.
We ran towards the cross. A machine-gun opened up to the north of us from Aprilia – a German gun. To reach the cross and over the roundabout, to get to our cave, would have taken three or four minutes, but we would have been exposed the whole of the way.
Then the “moaning minnies” started. “Slit trench!” I shouted to Michael. The nearest was the one with the dead German in it: “Not that one!” Five yards further back was an empty trench; we leapt in, shoulder to shoulder. The moaning minnies grew louder; to drown them Michael sang his song, “The sons of the Prophet were hardy and bold and quite unaccustomed to fear”, “Abdul the Bulbul” his favourite.
He was on my left side. The flat field all around was spluttering earth every time a mortar shell landed. There were a large number of them, for the field appeared as though invisible mushrooms were popping up everywhere, sending up sprays of earth.
The mushrooms crept ever nearer; they were popping around us now. The enemy had found the range. Michael took something out of his trenchcoat pocket – a pair of silk stockings he had bought in Naples to send home, and had forgotten to pack away. He showed them to me and we talked.
The minnies were now closing in on us. Sprays of earth were rattling down my helmet. A shell fell into the next trench and flung the dead soldier, together with his pine tree, high into the air.
Quietly, Michael sang on, “But of all the most reckless of life and of limb was Abdul the Bulbul Ameer”. He was crouching forward, his helmet level with the top of the trench. He turned in my direction, muttering his song and screwing his face into a wry smile – that was the last time I was to see him alive.
A whine was coming down to the left of me. I shut my eyes. A tremendous thud filled our trench. A thud as though someone had hurled a dining-room table against my heart. That’s done it! I thought, with absolute clarity.
I was certain I was dead. I was enraged. They had got me after all! There was nothing in the world I could do. A rage of disappointment at the finality of defeat evidently seizes one at the last instant of life. Never in my worst moments, I now felt, had I plumbed the very bottom of despair. And there was nothing I could improvise again.
Crystal clear, I saw a string of pictures: my mother; I could do nothing to help; the house at home; our nursery; the box hedges with their scent, in my mother’s garden — I would neither see nor do anything about them ever again – this then was death.
My mind came back to the slit trench with a sense of Michael pressing against me. I opened my eyes and, to my astonishment, could see. He had turned. He was on his back, his face looking up, unaltered, but his eyes were open and a fringe of red appeared round the roots of his hair. The helmet was off. The rest of his body was crimson. I saw I was crimson too. I shook his shoulders and called him.
I did not notice the moaning minnies any more. The world had stopped – perhaps I was temporarily deafened – I felt nothing unless extremely light.
See Malcolm Munthe: Sweet is war (to them that know it not). A memoir that deserves to be better known.