Japanese Americans hammer Germans in Italy

Lt. General Mark Clark of the 5th Army pins ribbon awards to each member of the 100th Infantry Battalion to designate the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation. Vada Area, Italy. (27 July 1944)
Lt. General Mark Clark of the 5th Army pins ribbon awards to each member of the 100th Infantry Battalion to designate the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation. Vada Area, Italy. (27 July 1944)

Whilst thousands of Japanese-Americans suffered internment during the war, many of their sons were determined to to prove their loyalty to the United States. Japanese-Americans troops were not sent to the Pacific theatre, a move that avoided their likely victimisation should they ever get taken prisoner. In Europe predominantly Japanese-American units were to distinguish themselves in a several actions during the last year of the war.

Katsugo Miho was member of the 522nd Field Artillery, 442nd RCT advancing in Italy. On the 5th July they were engaged in the fierce battle for Hill 140 (there was also a battle for Hill 140 in Normandy, the number was simply assigned on the basis of the height of the objective):

This was an extremely critical battle for the 442nd because the Germans had been fully entrenched on this hilltop. You know, the battles in Italy, the American forces were always at a disadvantage, with the Germans always on the mountaintop and the Americans trying to dislodge them from the mountaintop. When you got through with one mountain, they were on the other side of the other mountain, and it was a battle of yard by yard… in Italy, it was really rough because the Germans were always in position with higher ground, and we struggled to dislodge them, yard by yard.

Hill 140 was, as we later learned, it was one of the most fierce battles of our entire campaign.

We never did [experience] that type of intensive firing, the rest of my experience. As an example, in one twenty-four-hour period, July 5 and 6 according to our record, which was at the height of the Hill 140 battle, the three batteries fired 4,500 rounds of cannon fire in support of the infantry.

Time Fire It was at this Hill 140 that the 522nd established its reputation as a time-fire expert. This is when our time firing was so fierce that the infantrymen would tell you that they felt so pitiful for the Germans because they were near enough to hear the Germans crying out because they had no way of hiding from the fierceness of the time fire. And we established our reputation in the field as experts in time fire.

In the ordinary projectile, you would fire, and it hit the ground, impacting on the ground, and bursting. So you almost have to have a direct hit on the person. People can get hurt with shrapnels and all that, but by that time, the Germans are all in foxholes. So as long as they’re in the foxhole, unless you have a direct hit above, in the foxhole, there’s no casualty by the Germans.

But the time fire is a projectile that had a timing fuse on the projectile itself that after the projectile leaves the gun, within so many seconds, it would burst in the air. And in the air, bursting, all the shrapnel would go down to the ground so there’s no protection for the Germans in the foxholes. I don’t think the Germans knew about our proficiency in the time fire up until that point. But it required consistency in setting the fuse on the projectile.

The projectile had a timing fuse which was like the inner working parts of an Elgin watch. We set the fuse by the number of seconds it would burst in the air after it left the gun. I remember it was something like, close to twenty seconds, the average timing was. We would have to set it with a gauge, wrench, that would set it according to the seconds that are on the projectile. Unless we are consistent, that people adjusting the fire could not make it ideally twenty yards above the ground to fire. So between the fire direction center and the gun crew, both of us had to be consistent in order to adjust the fire. Without that consistency, you would not be effective because at some maybe fifty yards up in the air, that would be just about useless.

We had to be consistent so that the fire direction center would work on the consistency of the gun crew. Instead of one setting at nineteen seconds, one setting at eighteen seconds, they have to depend on the nineteen seconds being accurately placed on the projectile itself. This is where our boys took extra care to make sure that we were being correct, doing things according to what it’s supposed to be.

The Hill 140 is a good example [of prolonged shooting causing gun barrels to overheat]. The barrels of our guns became so hot that we had to stop firing. We had to stop firing on A gun to let it cool off a little bit, and the other guns would fire. But it was so hot you couldn’t touch the barrel, you would get burned. Well, we were thinking, how can you [cool the guns]? So we tried a couple of times. What we did was we would lower the gun barrel a little bit and we poured water in the barrel to see if it would help cooling off the gun. But it never did help at all. Basically, the gun was too hot. So we just had to let it idle and cool off by itself. But that’s how bad it was during that 140.

The 105 Howitzer had two legs, which would brace the gun from the recoil. You know, the old World War I guns, it had no recoil, the gun would jump back, and that was the recoil. Remember the pirate ships, you would see the gun, and the gun would be rolling back, ten feet back, and then they roll it back forward. Well the 105 had a recoil system where the gun barrel would recoil. The cannon, which the Cannon Company used, had no recoil. But there was that much of a difference. But that was the short-distance gun.

The 105 had a recoil mechanism, which was a big help.

But as I said, in 140, we were firing so many rounds that the guns had to be always readjusted. We had to brace up the two shovels that we have on the back of the gun and reengage the gun, reregister the gun, because of the fierce firing that we constantly [did], without rest.

As I said, in that twenty-four-hour period, we fired close to five thousand rounds, and you figure, twenty-four hours and five thousand rounds.

Read the whole account at THE HAWAI’I NISEI STORY

Americans of Japanese ancestry of the 100th Infantry Battalion, rest on a street in Leghorn, Italy, after a gruelling Fifth Army advance, which terminated with the fall of this important seaport. (19 July 1944)
Americans of Japanese ancestry of the 100th Infantry Battalion, rest on a street in Leghorn, Italy, after a gruelling Fifth Army advance, which terminated with the fall of this important seaport. (19 July 1944)

Another day in the destruction of Army Group Centre

An image used in Soviet post war propaganda to illustrate the 'fight to the death' when Russia was on the back foot - but actually taken in the summer of 1944 when they on the offensive.
An image used in Soviet post war propaganda to illustrate the ‘fight to the death’ when Russia was on the back foot – but actually taken in the summer of 1944 when they were on the offensive.
Fighting in Belorussia, summer 1944.
Fighting in Belorussia, summer 1944.

In 1941 the Wehrmacht had swept into Soviet Russia with huge encircling thrusts that captured whole sections of the Red Army. The Soviets casualties were appalling and few of the 3 million men taken prisoner that year would survive in captivity. Exactly three years after the Nazi invasion the Soviets launched their largest counter-offensive yet – Operation Bagration.

Now the tables had truly been turned. The overwhelmingly strong Soviet forces smashed into the German Army Group Centre and destroyed it – a series of encircling actions through the remainder of June and July would wreak havoc. German casualties were far in excess of their losses at Stalingrad, the main German forces in the east were effectively broken:

Heinrich Haape describes the death of his regiment:

A new spring and a new summer swept across Europe into Russia and the Red Army launched a mighty offensive against the dogged German Army. On 28 June 1944, 6 Division was encircled near Bobruisk. At their backs flowed the river of Napoleon’s final defeat – the Beresina. And on the other bank, between 6 Division and their homeland, stood the Russians.

The last order was given: ‘Redundant weapons to be destroyed; only iron rations and ammunition to be carried. Code word “Napoleon” – every man for himself.’ The men of Infantry Regiment 18, every man of the proud 6 Division fought like devils. Little Becker fell, so did Oberfeldarzt Schulze. Major Hoke fought and died at the head of his regiment; heavily wounded, he saved his last bullet for himself.

A few crossed the river and slipped through the Russian trap; most died on the banks of the Beresina; a small remnant was captured and marched away into captivity. Perhaps a hundred men, not many more, struggled through the Pripet Marshes and reached their homeland — a hundred from the eighteen thousand men who had marched into Russia under the Bielefeld crest. 6 Division, the heroic Regiment 18, had ceased to exist.

See Heinrich Haape: Moscow Tram Stop, London, 1957

Adolf Hamann
Adolf Hamann served as commandant in occupied Orel (June 1942-August 1943), Bryansk (August-September 1943) and Bobruisk (September 1943-June 1944 ).
Extraordinary State Commission in its report “On the atrocities of fascist invaders in the city of Orel and Orel region,” published September 7, 1943, called Adolf Hamann among the main organizers of the mass murder of innocent civilians.
Captured in early July 1944 , in July 17, 1944 he was part of the mass of German prisoners who were marched through Moscow.
In December 1945, Adolf Hamann was sentenced to death by a military tribunal on charges of causing the death of 96,000 Soviet POWs and 130,000 civilians when in charge of the Bryansk garrison, as well as in the deportation of 218,000 Soviet citizens to work in Germany
Hanged at Theater Square Bryansk December 30, 1945.

The following day Nikolai Litvin was part of a Soviet assault battalion that reached the northwest suburbs of the city of Bobruisk, along the Minsk highway:

The Germans defending Bobruisk were now caught in a noose. Two kilometers from our positions to the east were two small vil- lages. Inside them were the remnants of surrounded hostile forces that had not yet been destroyed. We expected that under the cover of darkness, these Germans would make an attempt to break through to the west, across the Minsk highway and into the woods beyond.

From our positions, a thin belt of woods separated us from a large rye field that stretched to the two villages. We placed our machine gun on a small hillock on the edge of the woods overlooking the highway, so that in case of necessity, we could sweep the high- way with fire in either direction, toward Minsk or toward Bobruisk. In front of our position, a gap in the woods about thirty-five meters wide gave us a clean field of fire toward the rye field, across which the Germans would be advancing.

Suddenly a large column of Germans moved from the village toward the Minsk highway, perhaps 10,000 strong. They were marching in column, as if on a parade ground. The column was 100 to 120 meters wide, and perhaps no less than a kilometer long. It was heading to our left.

There were two vehicles in the middle of the column, each one mounting American Oerlikon guns.7 Most likely, these guns had previously been ours, but we had let them slip into German hands. The guns were pouring fire into our positions. The column apparently planned to break through our lines here, cross the Minsk highway, and pass through the woods we were occupying.

As it approached the highway, the column deployed into a human wave and rushed forward. From our position, the left flank of the German line of advancing men was about 1,200 meters away. We opened fire on the Germans, not permitting them to turn in our direction. The Germans were packed so tightly together, and in such a mass, that it was simply impossible to miss.

When our command found out that a German column was attempting to break out here, they rushed an antitank battery to our support. Twelve cannons unlimbered before the column and began to fire at it over open sights. They fired fragmentation shells first, and then when the German avalanche had approached within range, switched to case shot.

Once they had expended all their case shot, the guns switched to whatever they had remaining, even armor-piercing rounds. The fighting was desperate and continued until nightfall. Having lost perhaps half their force, most Germans fell back to the village. Per- haps 1,500 Germans managed to break through our lines and escape.

On the field of battle remained piles of German corpses and the seriously wounded.

In the morning, we woke up and looked out upon the field of carnage. It was quiet. There was no shooting. The rye field was a mousy color from all the fallen Germans in their field gray uniforms. Their corpses lay piled upon one another. It was another hot day. Our machine gun remained pointed toward the village to where the remnants of the trapped German force had retreated. By 11:00 A.M., a stench began rising into the air.

See Nikolai Litvin: 800 Days on the Eastern Front: A Russian Soldier Remembers World War II. For a review of this memoir see Kansas Press.

Images courtesy Russian War Album

Soviet soldiers in battle on the streets of the city of Polotsk.
Soviet soldiers in battle on the streets of the city of Polotsk.
Soviet mortar platoon firing at the enemy in the area of ​​Baranovichi.
Soviet mortar platoon firing at the enemy in the area of ​​Baranovichi.

Operation Bagration – the Red Army begins its revenge

'Fusilier' infantry  and Panther tank in action somewhere in Russia,1944,
‘Fusilier’ infantry and Panther tank in action somewhere in Russia,1944,
A 'Raupenschlepper' or caterpillar tractor hauls an artillery piece across a river.
A ‘Raupenschlepper’ or caterpillar tractor hauls an artillery piece across a river.

Exactly three years before Hitler had launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Soviet Russia. The Germans had been told they only had to ‘kick in the door’ and the whole corrupt communist regime would collapse, victory would be theirs with a matter of a couple of months.

It hadn’t worked out like that. Two years before the German offensive had got sidetracked into the Stalingrad offensive. One year before the last major German offensive, at Kursk, had come to nothing. They had been falling back ever since.

Now it was the turn of the Soviets to mount a major offensive. The Germans had expected an attack but they did not anticipate the massive assault that was now thrown at them. Despite the appalling losses that they had suffered the Red Army now had well over 3 million men to throw into a broad attack on the German Army Group Centre. Under the weight of this attack the main German forces in Russia would be decimated – suffering far heavier losses than at Stalingrad.

Armin Scheiderbauer had just returned to the Eastern Front after completing his officer training course:

To the north of Vitebsk, where we were, the Soviets began their offensive in the early morning of 22 June. On a front extending 64 kilometres, the IX Army Corps with Corps Detachment D and the 252nd Infantry Division were conducting the defence. There, eight divisions of the Soviet 43rd Army attacked. To those were soon added the first division of the 6th Guards Army.

It was intended to achieve a breakthrough some 25 kilometres wide. Along with the offensive divisions of the Red Army there rolled two armoured brigades into the focal-point of the breakthrough area. The two offensive wedges encountered the right-hand and central sectors of the 252nd Infantry Division.

In the course of the night of 21 June and in the early hours of 22 June, the Russians pushed up nearer and nearer to our position. At 4am the enemy’s heavy barrage began and at 4.20am they attacked on a wide front. Breakthroughs were made in the sector of the 1st Battalion Grenadier-regiment 7 and the Division’s Fusilier battalion.

As I recall, the hurricane broke at 3.05am, on the dot, just as it had in 1941. The fire was concentrated mainly on the main line of resistance. Only isolated heavy-calibre shells dropped in the village. We had long since left our quarters in houses, and were waiting in the cover trenches beside them. I had been woken by the crash of bursting shells after just an hour’s sleep. That action began for me with a thundering within my skull, weakened by schnapps and tiredness.

Towards 5am the battalion received orders to move into the second line, that is, the trench that was planned for that purpose. It was good news, because as soon as the enemy attacked up front, we could expect the fire to be moved to the rear. Then it would be mostly the firing positions, villages, and roads, the position of which had been long established by enemy reconnaissance, that would be under fire.

We moved forward, the bombardment ahead of us and the impacts of heavy-calibre shells behind us. In the event, the Division was divided into two halves. Under its command remained Infanterieregiment 7, the divisional Fusilier battalion, and our 2nd Battalion 472. But of these, the 5th Company deployed on the left, the 1st Battalion, the regimental staff and the whole of Regiment 461 were pushed north-westwards. Even on the next day there was no news whatsoever of the 5th Company. In the meantime the second line had become the main line of resistance and the gap that had opened on the left urgently needed to be blocked off.

Visiting our main line of resistance, Hauptmann Muller and I found an 8.8cm Army anti-tank gun, commanding the road to Lowsha from a clearing in the woods, on which the Russians were bringing up tanks. A T-34 passed by; one shot, and it was in flames. The second followed straight behind it. The next shot hit it, it stopped and from the turret an oil-smeared figure twisted itself out. A third tank came up and drove slowly past its comrades. The number one gunner of our anti-tank gun watched with a tense expression and once again pressed the firing button. Once again the shot scored a direct hit and from the tank the whole turret blew into the air. High flames shot up.

Only two days later, after virtually no sleep, Scheiderbauer was to witness the near disintegration of German units near him. With the Russians pressing hard and their positions still under artillery attack German Landser abandoned their posts to try to get on a goods train leaving for the rear. Only when the Engine was hit by shellfire did the panic end.

See Armin Scheiderbauer: Adventures in my Youth

A half track with a Nebel-werfer.
A half track with a Nebel-werfer.
A flak gun mounted on a half track.
A flak gun mounted on a half track.

Follow up waves arrive on the Normandy beachhead

General Sir Bernard Montgomery passes German POWs while being driven along a road in a jeep, shortly after arriving in Normandy, 8 June 1944.
General Sir Bernard Montgomery passes German POWs while being driven along a road in a jeep, shortly after arriving in Normandy, 8 June 1944.
German prisoners being marched along Queen beach, Sword area, 6 June 1944.
German prisoners being marched along Queen beach, Sword area, 6 June 1944.

The Allies still only had a slim foothold on the French coast. The Germans were stiffening their response, even though Hitler was retaining very significant forces in the Pas de Calais area, waiting for the ‘second invasion’. Those Panzer divisions that were ordered to the front were making slow progress as they encountered the Allied tactical airforces, just as Rommel had predicted.

Jack Swaab was an artillery officer with the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division. He had kept his diary throughout the North African campaign and his unit had then returned to England. They arrived off the coast of Normandy on the 7th June and it was some time before they could get ashore:

8th June 1944

1330, near Bayville: Eventually our L.C.T. cast off at about 2300 just as it was getting dark. We spent the night on her in the harbour. The Skipper, a very decent Sub. Lt. R.N.V.R. gave us stew, pudding and coffee and we spent the night on deck with one blanket. Noisy night with the intermittent air raids. The harbour a mass of coloured flak. One or two bombs too close for comfort. 2 ships set on fire and a huge green fire on the beach.

Up early today and bleary eyed. We had to go about 120 yards in 3 foot 6 of water, but made it O.K. and soon after 9 set foot on the sands of France. (I did remember my promise to C.) The beach was covered (it was low tide) with broken obstacles and ‘drowned’ vehicles. All over the upper beach where they had landed at night tide lay the L.S.T.s, L.C.T.s and multiple other craft looking like the skeletons of prehistoric animals.

Then on inland, where all the houses are smashed, tanks lie broken everywhere and all the usual relics (human and otherwise) of war were on view. The few remaining locals were friendly enough and waved a greeting. Signposting and general organisation first class, and the long line of trucks, halftracks etc. rolled inland on the dusty road almost without pause. Mines were numerous beyond belief.

1740: I had to dash off on Recce as I wrote the above. We are now in action near Revier. Bayeux has fallen to us. Have a bloody headache. Yesterday too. Am taking too many Veganin.

Midnight:

Only now am I able to return to this as we’ve been in action since my last bit. Now, at midnight, I am getting tired. Outside comes desultory shellfire, or a shower of flak as a raider comes over and unloads. I can hear the heavy beat of bombs at the moment. Also one can hear m.g. fire and occasionally a nearby rifle or Sten shot as nervous sentries shoot at shadows — or each other — for snipers are still in evidence.

The Middlesex on our position have already had casualties this way jerry resistance seems to be stiffening according to local reports and he is said to have 2 Armoured Divs. in Caen.

I saw about 200 prisoners being marched back today. Some were very young (16 or so), others fairly old. They did not look cowed, but rather defiant, and were being firmly handled by their Canadian guards.

Among things I noted coming ashore were the lovely fields of wild flowers enclosed by barbed wire and the grim skull and crossbones sign of the word ‘MINEN’ — MINES …a wonderful bunch of huge red poppies growing alongside some white peonies … the dusty roads which made one’s jeep throw up a dust wake like a destroyer.

This is a good position overlooking a bakery and in some trees. My Command Post is in an orchard. Stand to at 0545 tomorrow so I’ll turn in soon for some needed sleep as I had only 3 uneasy hours last night and no shave till 1100.

To hear the radio reports of flowers and joy you’d think this was a carnival. Still it’s good to hear the news bulletins if only through knowing one makes them!

See Field of Fire: Diary of a Gunner Officer

A German prisoner captured by Canadian troops of 1st Battalion, North Shore Regiment, Langrune-sur-Mer, 7 June 1944.
A German prisoner captured by Canadian troops of 1st Battalion, North Shore Regiment, Langrune-sur-Mer, 7 June 1944.
German prisoners of war being held in a tank landing craft beached on Jig Green beach, Gold area, 7 June 1944. In the background is LCT 886 which was heavily damaged on D-Day.
German prisoners of war being held in a tank landing craft beached on Jig Green beach, Gold area, 7 June 1944. In the background is LCT 886 which was heavily damaged on D-Day.
Naval beach demolition party in their jeep, with the driver holding a mine shell removed from the top of an obstacle.7 June 1944, Courseulles

Jack Swaab was travelling in a Jeep, as was Montgomery pictured above.

The Jeep was ubiquitous in Normandy

It fulfilled any number of transport roles for the Allies. For those interested in military vehicles, whether to restore vehicles or to build models, the Landcraft series of publications provides all the information anyone might want and more. Published in 2019 The Jeep: Second World War (LandCraft 1)gives the full history of how the vehicle was developed, much technical detail about its construction and a wealth of original photographs of Jeeps in the field, restored Jeeps, and models.

The Jeep was only 52 inches (1.32m) high. The fold-flat windscreen would become a well-used feature, not least as it reduced reflection from the upright glass, a giveaway to enemy spotters. Some Jeep units even had specially tailored canvas windscreen covers to mount over the windscreen and its frame to eliminate the chance of reection from the glass.

The tilt, or hood was made of fabric dyed as close to olive drab as possible, although some beige hoods have been cited. The canvas hood could easily be folded and its steel hoops collapsed. A hood storage locker was supplied in the cabin. The hood’s material was chemically impregnated with a waterproong compound and with an anti-mildew substance. Fire-resistance came from chemical treatment, but this had a short life when exposed to the elements.

A strong, welded-steel mounting pintle was placed between the seats to provide a mount for guns or even a rocket launcher/ bazooka. Perhaps by accident, it allowed a large degree of elevation for such weapons.

Of note: after D-Day, Jeeps in Normandy and its locale were soon seen with a strange vertically mounted metal ‘post’ standing over five feet high from a mounting and bracing on the front bumper. This was a wire-cutting device that would cut any wires placed at head-height across a road that could decapitate the driver and occupants. This trick was a desperate late-1944 tactic deployed by some German units in France and required a swift, ‘bolt-on’ solution by the Allies after several Jeep crews were killed driving at high speed into such razor-wire traps

The addition of the vertical steel wire-cutter was
a vital life saving device in European and Pacic theatres. It was mounted and braced upon the front bumper and saved manyleep occupants from their enemies sabotage habits.

The last battle for Monte Cassino begins

Third Phase 11 - 18 May 1944: Allied 4.2 inch mortars in action at the start of the final offensive on Cassino.
Third Phase 11 – 18 May 1944: Allied 4.2 inch mortars in action at the start of the final offensive on Cassino.

The Allied hopes for a swift march up Italy had long since evaporated. Instead they had found themselves stuck on the Gustav Line in a bloody stalemate that had become a battle of attrition. The mountains of Italy had proved to be ideal defensive territory, and the Germans had taken every advantage of it.

Ultimately the Allies had the resources to dominate the battlefield. Now 1000 British guns and 600 US guns were brought up to support an attack where the ground forces outnumbered the Germans by three to one.

General Mark Clark, commanding the US 5th Army was amongst many who were watching:

As soon as it was dark a steady movement of troops began behind the 5 Army lines, as well as behind the British Eighth Army lines to the north.

Everything else went on in as near the normal routine as possible. Patrols were out. There was occasional artillery fire. It was just as it had been on the previous evening and for many evenings before.

On the German side everything went on as usual, too, except that they were in earnest about it. We weren’t. We were waiting and preparing for the hour before midnight.

At eleven o’clock about a thousand big guns from Cassino to the sea fired at approximately the same moment, their shells aimed with great care at enemy headquarters, communication centres, command posts, and other vital targets that had been quietly located by air reconnaissance during the previous month.

The ridges in front of 5 Army seemed to stand out momentarily in a great blaze of light, sink again into darkness, and then tremble under the next salvo. It was perhaps the most effective artillery bombardment of the campaign.

It simply smashed into dust a great number of enemy batteries and vital centres; so that for hours after the Germans had overcome the initial shock of an attack where they least expected it they were still confused and unable to establish good centralized direction of their defence lines.

See General Mark W. Clark: Calculated Risk

In the middle of it all was Fusilier F. R. Beacham of the 1st Royal Fusiliers, who were engaged in a river crossing assault as soon as the guns opened up:

Immediately our troops began to place their boats in the water and the first ones started to cross. The shells whined overhead incessantly and it was difcult to hear anything above the din. I saw the first of our troops start to clamber up the fairly short, but steep, bank on the far side and then the enemy replied.

Large mortar bombs started to explode all around us followed, almost immediately, by heavy artillery fire. The enemy infantry opened up with his machine guns and tracer bullets whipped and whanged their way a few feet over our heads. I prepared to return the fire but found that, as our troops were now in my line of fire, I was unable to do so. I could see them reasonably clearly moving forward just across the river and all we could do was to watch as the machine gun bullets arched and swathed across the crossing point.

The enemy had obviously fixed their machine guns to fire on fixed lines so as to cover this crossing point. Had I known where that particular machine gun was located, I could have returned fire if I had positioned myself to the left of the crossing point instead of to the right.

The amount of artillery being fired now by both sides was tremendous and a gradual mist and smoke started to envelop the battleeld. Mortar bombs were continuing to fall all around us. The bullets were flying in droves about us and it was becoming increasingly apparent that I would not be able to return the enemy’s machine gun fire from that position and there was the real prospect that at any moment one of the mortar bombs would find its mark smack in the middle of our backs.

I suggested to Bill that we find somewhere a little bit safer and he agreed. We crawled back a relatively short distance from the bank and found a large shell hole, it still smelt strongly of cordite but on the presumption that no two shells fall in the same place, we stayed put.

The shelling continued unabated and it was whilst we were in this shell hole that we heard a cry for help coming from from somewhere to our right. It was a plaintiff [sic] cry repeating over and over again ‘Help me, I’ve been hit’. We had orders not to stop in the event of anyone getting wounded as they would be dealt with by the Red Cross stretcher bearers. We did not go to the aid of this person and it may well be that he was killed in the continuing enemy bombardment for after a few more minutes, the cries stopped.

This account appears in Michael Carver (ed) Imperial War Museum Book of the War in Italy: A Vital Contribution to Victory in Europe 1943-1945.

A Sherman tank waiting to move forward duirng the battle for Cassino in Italy, 13 May 1944.
A Sherman tank waiting to move forward duirng the battle for Cassino in Italy, 13 May 1944.

In the trenches with nightingales and a dead German

A 25pdr gun crew
A 25pdr gun crew of 115th Field Regiment at Anzio, 8-9 March 1944.
shallow dugout on Anzio.
Wireless operator, Bombadier S Williams operates his radio from a shallow dugout on Anzio.
Dummy Bofors gun
Dummy Bofors gun and crew in the Anzio bridgehead, 21 March 1944.

In ‘late April’ the BBC reporter Wynford Vaughan Thomas visited a battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment in the front line at Anzio. Their positions lay in the sand dunes and scrubland near the mouth of the Moletta stream. He experienced the ‘strange atmosphere of danger, boredom, dirt, courage and humour’ with the troops dug in very close to the German front line.

Two battalions of the Wiltshire Regiment had fought at the Somme in the First World War, they would have been familiar with the situation their successors now found themselves in:

The Boche wants no trouble here: the American combat engineers told the British as they left, ‘You leave that guy alone and he won’t get mad at you.’ The men camp in dug-outs amongst the dunes and on a warm night a single nightingale pours its heart out somewhere in the sweet-smelling bushes.

The forward platoon of the Wiltshires lived within fifty yards of the enemy, and I went on hands and knees down a shallow crawl trench to visit them. Their position was just a series of sand-bagged holes sunk amongst a tangle of shrubs and small trees, but by peering cautiously through a slit between two of the sandbags I could see the wire in front of the German line: it seemed so close that there was no need of the warning to talk in whispers.

A youngster of nineteen murmured quietly to me, ‘Come and see our German.’ I wriggled farther forward still, crawled beside him into his look-out post and immediately sensed a foul reek, sickly sweet, like a pile of rancid butter left too long in the sun — the unmistakable, clinging smell of an unburied corpse. There he lay right under our noses, for it was impossible to get out to bury him; all the Wiltshires could do was to sprinkle creosote over the body at night and try to get used to the stench.

Few people could get it out of their nostrils and out of their memory. ‘Two more out there amongst the minefields.’

I crawled back into the next sap. ‘Listen,’ said the sergeant, and in the quiet of the evening with no gun firing for miles around I heard a hoarse cough and a shuffle of feet. ‘It’s old Ted,’ said the sergeant. (Ted, from the Italian Tedeschi, is the new term for the ‘Jerries’ out here.) An eerie business to hear your enemy, the man you are supposed to kill, scuffling around in a slit-trench as cramped as your own, feeling as you do the evening nip in the air, thinking as you are thinking of the chance of getting leave and escaping from it all.

It’s easy to feel venomous about Old Ted when he comes charging towards you with a gun in his hand, but when he coughs and scuffles, unaware that he’s been overheard, he becomes suddenly human, a fellow man caught in the same predicament as yourself.

The strange, inconsequential sounds of the Anzio night were all around us. A sudden chattering from a Spandau began somewhere ahead of us in the darkness and ceased as pointlessly as it began. The dirty blanket that served as the dug-out door was carefully pushed aside and the sergeant squeezed in with two cups of cocoa, thick and sugary but consoling in their warmth, as we gulped the scalding liquid down, and then thawed out our numb fingers around the cup. The sergeant checked on his watch — ‘They’re putting down the big stonk on the Germans north of the “Boot” in a few minutes, come and watch.’

We followed the sergeant out into the trench and looked towards the north-east; the night was very clear and full of stars. There was a swift flash from somewhere away along the sea-coast, then another and another until the whole sky seemed lit by sheet-lightning which, after a few seconds’ interval, was followed by the overwhelming thunder of the guns.

The noise seemed to roll in on top of us – an awe-inspiring rumpus of cracks, crashes, thumps and then the muffled thuds of the shells exploding out in the distant German lines. Over five hundred guns are now crowded into the Beachhead, and our artillery fire is so perfectly synchronized that, in the central sectors, every single gun can be brought to bear on one selected target and send five hundred shells smashing down on it in a matter of seconds. Flare after flare went up from the Germans side of the line to the north.

The barrage ceased as suddenly as it had begun.

‘What are they firing at?’ I asked the sergeant. ‘Who knows? Some poor bastard’s copping it.’

Our war is confined to the few yards of soil around the mouth of the Moletta, and the most cosmic-seeming events can be taking place a few miles away and we still neither know nor care. But in the silence that follows the barrage the nightingales began to sing, a lone bird at first, then a whole chorus of them until the air seemed to throb softly with their tiillings and flutings. A young sentry standing beside us said, ‘Lovely, bloody little birds, the more guns there are the more they sing. I can tell ’em – they sing like that near Horsham where I come from.’

See Wynford Vaughan-Thomas: Anzio

 a 155mm 'Long Tom' gun fires
US artillerymen protect their ears as a 155mm ‘Long Tom’ gun fires from a dugout during fierce fighting resulting from German counter attacks.
80th Medium Regiment (Scottish Horse) in action at Anzio
A camouflaged 5.5-inch gun of ‘D’ Troop, 111 Battery, 80th Medium Regiment (Scottish Horse) in action at Anzio, 8-9 March 1944.

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.

Surviving harassing shellfire at Anzio

Anzio Beachhead Area, Italy. Captured German ‘one man submarine’ converted from an ordinary torpedo from which the war head has been removed and a control cockpit substituted. Beneath this is fastened a regulation torpedo which can be released at a target and the ‘one man submarine’ returns. This one landed on Anzio beachhead where the 17 year old Nazi pilot was captured.
Anzio Beachhead Area, Italy. Captured German ‘one man submarine’ converted from an ordinary torpedo from which the war head has been removed and a control cockpit substituted. Beneath this is fastened a regulation torpedo which can be released at a target and the ‘one man submarine’ returns. This one landed on Anzio beachhead where the 17 year old Nazi pilot was captured.
Close up of torpedo war head. Photo by Blau. 163rd Signal Photo Co.” Anzio Beachhead Area, Italy. 21 April 1944
Close up of torpedo war head. Photo by Blau. 163rd Signal Photo Co.” Anzio Beachhead Area, Italy. 21 April 1944
 Fifth Army, Anzio Area, Italy. 101st Ordnance Co. M. M. placing the tube on the carriage of 155 mm rifle, a 10 ton carriage is used to swing the barrel into position while the crew of men guide the barrel into its cradle. Tube weighs 9000 lbs.
Fifth Army, Anzio Area, Italy. 101st Ordnance Co. M. M. placing the tube on the carriage of 155 mm rifle, a 10 ton carriage is used to swing the barrel into position while the crew of men guide the barrel into its cradle. Tube weighs 9000 lbs.
Carrier crew of the 2nd Sherwood Foresters reconstruct an action in the Anzio bridgehead, 2 - 3 April 1944. They are firing a 2-inch mortar from the vehicle.
Carrier crew of the 2nd Sherwood Foresters reconstruct an action in the Anzio bridgehead, 2 – 3 April 1944. They are firing a 2-inch mortar from the vehicle.

The impasse in Italy continued. In the narrow bridgehead at Anzio everyone was effectively on the front line with no ‘rear areas’. The whole of the bridgehead was within range of German artillery which routinely shelled the entire area. The already wounded and nurses in the field hospitals were as likely to be hit as anyone else – and did suffer casualties.

Every position had to be well dug in. It was possible for the majority to survive even sustained artillery barrages in well protected foxholes, even if some would inevitably fall victim to direct hits. It was the sustained nature of such attacks that deprived men of sleep and wore at the nerves.

Major Jago was the second in command of the 2nd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. In his diary he was was briefly noting every barrage and their impact:

April 21.

Woken up about 0500 to sound of air raid & shelling of Reg’l area. aircraft made direct attacks on us, & bombed us with anti-personnel & med bombs. Enemy shellfire in area simultaneous, – designed to keep our Bofors [AA gun] quiet. Cowered in my bivvy whilst the stuff dropped all around.

One small piece of A.P. entered/my hole, via the mosquito net. Several fell just outside. Mess dugout hit, RHQ office tent & about four bivvies. 42 Bty had one man killed. RHQ 3 wounded, incl 2 signalmen & Cpl Thorley, the cook. Sloped [?] about in the mist in the valley collecting stretchers & putting them into ambulance.

Meanwhile a U.S. ammo dump nearby had been hit, & was going off continuously until about 0700 hrs, bits of metal whizzing all around. Another raid about 0615, fighter bomber quite low. Our O.P. saw one plane crash, bearing 7 deg about 0615 hrs.

The nightingales in the valley sang hard throughout the whole time, midst bombs and shelling. The old cockerel belonging to the Sig Section also was undismayed.

Had a look around the area during the day, & found hundreds of A.P. bomb holes & also large craters.

22 April.

Awakened after two hours sleep to sound of shells bursting in Reg’l area. Conc of 88’s and 105’s between 0200 & 0230 with one break.

Checked up, & no cas[ualties] returned to bed. Shelling started again. Got up again & checked up. One man from 42 Bty killed, & one broken thigh. Bivvy hit & collapsed. Went to bed again: again shelling started in the area.

Got up & afterwards remained fully dressed to doze fitfully until 0700 hrs.

Altogether Regt shelled 8 times between 0200 &: 0700 hrs. A bad night. Lucky not to have more casualties. Area covered in craters. Vehicle casualties, one m/c. Cookhouse equipment damaged.

Div Comdr (Gen Penney) accompanied by Lt Col Frankie Read (Scottish Horse) acting CRA, visited Regt in the morning & went to every gun pit. RI-IQ spent the morning improving their bivvies protection & digging; in the p.m. all vehs & equipt were further dug in. 1400 hrs C.O. held B.C.’s confce on courses & odd points.

1500 hrs two young malaria officers looked at our marshes, & promised RE help to drain them. During this I sank deep into the mire!

Spent remainder of day, until 2030, rebuilding and deepening my dugout. When all finished found bed did not fit!! More excava- tions required. Went to bed at 2045 hrs, very tired.

Shelling started about 2100 hrs, went on intermittently until 2300 hrs. Could not sleep altho’ very tired & aching after days work. Came on duty at midnight.

This account appears in the Imperial War Museum Book of the War in Italy: A Vital Contribution to Victory in Europe 1943-1945.

The rubble of an oft-bombed town gives a dilapidated air to Anzio, site of the Allied beachhead where many lives have been lost on both sides since the original ‘leap-frog’ landing. In the foreground, a landing craft is docked to unload ammunition for the Allied guns.” Italy. 25 April 1944
The rubble of an oft-bombed town gives a dilapidated air to Anzio, site of the Allied beachhead where many lives have been lost on both sides since the original ‘leap-frog’ landing. In the foreground, a landing craft is docked to unload ammunition for the Allied guns.” Italy. 25 April 1944
Fifth Army, Anzio Area, Italy. 34th AAA camouflage and concealment - 40 MM Bofors anti-aircraft gun dug in.
Fifth Army, Anzio Area, Italy. 34th AAA camouflage and concealment – 40 MM Bofors anti-aircraft gun dug in.

The Red Army chases the Germans out of the Ukraine

A Soviet 122mm Howitzer on the move in the spring of 1944.
A Soviet 122mm Howitzer on the move in the spring of 1944.

In the Soviet Union the Red Army was still making good progress chasing the Germans westward. As the spring arrived and the weather improved the pace accelerated. It was no less exhausting of the Soviet troops to be doing the chasing. They had to maintain the pressure, not giving the enemy time to pause and prepare proper defensive lines.

Petr Mikhin was an artillery officer advancing with the front line infantry, ready to call in artillery fire as needed. At the beginning of April he was in the Kirovograd area in central Ukraine. they had already pushed through thin German defence lines several times in the last few weeks.

We were now pushing towards the Dnestr. The Germans had to abandon one defensive line after another. Even now, under our pressure the Germans were yielding a trench line ahead of us.

We, the survivors, were so exhausted by the three previous assaults on this line that we weren’t running, but slowly strolling towards the German trench under a bright spring sun. The sun was so hot by eleven o’clock that morning, that we were uncomfortable in our unbuttoned overcoats. The riflemen sat down on the edge of the German trench, dangling their legs into it, and lazily wiped their sweating faces with their side caps. To hell with the Germans; let them run away, no one had the strength to chase them again.

… [the telephone line to their artillery behind them was temporarily cut]…

The 45—year—old Mineev from Penza was beyond joy that the line had been fixed; he roared so loudly as he passed my orders to the gun crews that my receiver started to crackle.

Some twenty seconds later, we could hear the rustle of our rounds passing, over our heads, and then dozens of powerful explosions covered the field through which the Germans were running. Our riflemen immediately stirred and craning their necks, they looked out across the steppe in front of them.

When the dust raised by the explosions dissipated, instead of the running Germans we all saw scattered bodies here and there across the field. Some of the bodies remained prone on the grayish—yellow field, but some of the survivors among the fallen rose to their feet and started to run for their lives again. There weren’t so many of them, and they clustered in small groups of three or four men. I saw glee on the faces of our riflemen; they were so excited that at first they couldn’t say a word. Then they all started to cheer at once, looking back at me. Abaev was also happy. He grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me delightedly: ‘Hit that group over there! Look how many of them there are!’

A command to the battery followed, and a shell swept away the fleeing Fritzes. The soldiers kicked up an even louder row, and now each man was trying to point out to me the group of fleeing Germans to shell next. The joy of revenge quickly restored their energy, freed them from the fear that they had experienced in the attacks, and softened their sorrow over the comrades they had lost in the fighting. Watching the enemy die in front of them was like balm for their rattled nerves.

So, the Germans had been destroyed and the riflemen had gotten a rest and had cheered up. Abaev ordered his battalion to move out, and we all set out in a rare crowd across the barren, unploughed field. Gradually the battalion’s remnants shook out into an attacking line, with Abaev and me running on the left flank. Shtansky could barely keep pace, hampered by the roll of cable on his shoulders and the field phone dangling from his hand, which kept swinging and hitting him in the legs. I grabbed the phone so that it was easier for him to run.

Crossing a hillcrest, we spotted a new German trench line in the distance. I thought to myself, ‘How many more of these trenches would we have to take on our road to Berlin?’

The Germans spotted us and a machine-gun burst sprayed us, as if warming up for battle. Then a German howitzer battery, deployed in the open behind the trench, opened fire. We took cover.

Shtansky had already connected the field phone to the cable and I called in fire on the German howitzers. They were not dug in; they must have just deployed to fire in a hurry. This made our job easier. Powerful explosions covered the entire battery. It immediately fell silent as the crews took cover next to their guns.

Just in case, I fired another volley at the battery and then I shifted my fire to the German trench. My shells exploded along the whole length of the trench. The German infantry couldn’t withstand it, clambered out of the trench and fled again. I gave them the chance to run away and then hit them again, to ensure they wouldn’t try to return to the trench.

Then I again shifted my fire to the German battery to make sure it wouldn’t resume firing. The fleeing German infantry reached the battery and the surviving artillerymen joined their flight. Abaev immediately ordered the battalion to charge, and we raced after the retreating enemy.

See Petr Mikhin: Guns Against the Reich: Memoirs of an Artillery Officer on the Eastern Front

As they pushed on they captured two German 105mm artillery pieces. They were delighted to be able to fire German guns at the retreating Germans and their battery took possession them for the remainder of the war, which they used alongside their Soviet 122mm guns. There was a plentiful supply of German ammunition from the position they had captured, and, as they advanced they were able find similar supplies again and again.

PanzerGrenadiers from the SS 'Viking' Division  near Kovel in the Ukraine.
Panzergrenadiers from the SS ‘Viking’ Division, near Kovel in the Ukraine.

Relieving the Gurkhas in front of the Monastery

The combined air and artillery barrage on Cassino which began a further Allied assault on 15 March 1944.
The combined air and artillery barrage on Cassino which began a further Allied assault on 15 March 1944.
The town of Cassino shrouded in black smoke during the Allied barrage on 15 March 1944. Over 1,250 tons of bombs were dropped on this occasion
The town of Cassino shrouded in black smoke during the Allied barrage on 15 March 1944. Over 1,250 tons of bombs were dropped on this occasion

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.

See U.S. Military History

A New Zealand 6-pdr anti-tank gun in action against enemy positions at Cassino, 15 March 1944.
A New Zealand 6-pdr anti-tank gun in action against enemy positions at Cassino, 15 March 1944.

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…

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

A reconstruction (staged for the photographer during the lull in the fighting in April 1944) showing the unsuccessful New Zealand assault on Cassino town during 15 - 22 March. Infantry are shown engaging enemy positions in the ruins of Casino.
A reconstruction (staged for the photographer during the lull in the fighting in April 1944) showing the unsuccessful New Zealand assault on Cassino town during 15 – 22 March. Infantry are shown engaging enemy positions in the ruins of Casino.
German prisoners captured by New Zealand troops are held at gunpoint on a road beside a Sherman tank. After repeated unsuccessful assaults, the Allied offensive was again called off on 22 March.
German prisoners captured by New Zealand troops are held at gunpoint on a road beside a Sherman tank. After repeated unsuccessful assaults, the Allied offensive was again called off on 22 March.