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.

1 comment:

ritsonvaljos said...

Hello Ron,

I've read through this posting again and you really have done an excellent job in putting everything together 'for posterity'. Regarding your reference about 'allegedly incorrect' articles posted to the "People's War" website, it is sometimes difficult establishing exactly what is correct and what is not.

For example, I came across a recently published book which puts a German Corporal by the name of Franz Goeckel defending Juno Beach against the Americans on D-Day. The book even has the IWM symbol on the front, indicating it is presumably sanctioned by the IWM. Yet, I know for certain exactly which bunker that Franz was in on D-Day, and it certainly was not Juno Beach. He was defending what the Allies called 'Easy Red' Sector of 'Omaha Beach'. I've read most of this gentleman's own personal contributions about D-Day and seen most of his original letters and photographs from the war in the Archives at the Memorial Museum, Caen.

There are some other things in the same book that I am fairly sure are not wholly true, because it seems to be based primarily on people's memories alone. There are times when I have come across instances when I have felt the 'official' record is incorrect or incomplete. Sometimes, although not every time, basic facts can be checked fairly simply.

Hopefully, people reading any articles about the war will be rational enough to evaluate the articles and any supporting evidence. Thanks for sharing some really interesting and original memories!