Friday, February 24, 2006
Return to Cassino, March 2005
Photo shows: The Monastery looks down over the British Cemetery
I was last here between February and May in 1944.
I was then a humble wireless operator in the 49th Light Ack Ack Rgt, which at the time was attached to the New Zealand Div.
My Battery, the 84th, was busy with three roles. Laying a smoke screen at Speedy Express Highway, providing air cover for the New Zealanders and, when it had nothing else better to do, being loaned out to the Infantry as stretcher-bearers.
To get back however to today, the 9th of May 2005.
It was 10:34 am, I had just arrived by train from Rome, this time with Nita, my wife and partner of fifty-five years and we had come here to do a job.
Back home in London I had volunteered to take photos of headstones for any relatives or friends of the fallen and about half a dozen people on the BBC website had taken me up on the offer.
In addition, I had been approached by AJEX (Association of Jewish Ex-Service Men and Women) to perform a similar service for them and in particular to bring their own records up to date.
Shortly after arriving at Cassino station I had negotiated with a local cabbie to take us first to the Abbey, perched high above us, wait for us there and then take us to the British Cemetery which was about a half mile outside of town.
The road to the Abbey snaked furiously ever upwards and what with the rather ancient taxi we were glad to arrive at the top. The Abbey itself was very imposing, stark, white and almost prison-like in appearance. There was however a huge PAX sign over its portals and who could argue with that sentiment?
Fifteen minutes was enough for us, we had work to do down below.
At the cemetery below visitors were arriving by coach and car.
In deference to the fact that I was visiting hallowed ground and conscious of the respect that was due to the fallen I was suitably attired with a black beret, regimental tie and a full set of medals. As a direct result of this, when Nita and I started our research, groups of people were coming over to us, asking us what we were doing and whether or not I personally had been involved in the battle for Cassino some sixty one years ago.
They also spoke of their own losses and told of relatives they had come to visit. Several people said, “Can I shake your hand?”. At first this shook and worried me but then I realised that I was acting as a representative, albeit a poor one, of those 4000 men who lay around me and I was pleased to be of some small service
It was starting to get very hot and the Cemetery is huge, Helped by Nita I took photos of some 25 headstones and was able to make detailed notes for use by AJEX.
Despite the research I had done back in London it was not the easiest of tasks to make sure that we were not missing specific grave sites. The Cemetery is very functional and there are no seats to be found or watering points for elderly visitors.
By 1.45 pm, the time I had arranged for our cab to pick us up, we were both mentally and physically shattered and my earlier plans to visit a small town called Carovilla (where I had been stationed in 1944) were sensibly abandoned.
We trudged back to the Cemetery gates and were glad to soon see our returning taxi.
On the train back to Rome I had a chance to discuss with Nita what my feelings had been on returning to Cassino and what it was like to have lived under the shadow of the Monastery.
Sixty-one years after the event there is still talk as to whether it was right or not to have bombed the Monastery and whether or not the Germans had used its position as an observation tower.
Speaking purely for myself and not owning to any military research expertise, I have but one comment to make based on personal experience.
We were down below, the Monastery was up there above us.
If we moved during daylight hours we were promptly shelled and a large number of those who’s graves we had seen today had been killed in that manner.
I saw the Americans bomb the Monastery and along with many of my comrades had mentally cheered their efforts.
I was glad to be able to go back to Cassino.
I will not be returning again.