13

Cassino

Cassino was a terrifying and formidable barrier to the Allies. There was an open and exposed plain, in front of which every movement could be observed by the Germans. There was the Rapido River to cross and then, above the town the almost perpendicular rocky sides of Castle Hill. Beyond that, towering higher still was Monastery Hill, 1676 metres high. It looked absolutely impregnable and it nearly was ... To attack Cassino was the awful task that faced the New Zealand Division. The town was already in ruins, a shambles of broken walls and heaps of rubble where men lived and fought like moles.

Peter McIntyre, Peter McIntyre: War Artist

Maoris Attack at Cassino

N.Z. War Correspondent

Image 74

New Zealanders staged their first direct assault on the Fifth Army front when, on the night of February 17, Maori infantrymen crossed the Rapido River and fought their way up to the Cassino Station, which is several hundred yards from the town itself, but is connected to it by a good roadway...

The Maoris had to make their advance through soggy ground on the left side. There was no moon in the early stages of the attack, and the advance was not long – about 1000 yards – but the fighting was hard all the way. It was preceded by a great artillery barrage from many more guns than the New Zealanders have seen concentrated in one place for some time ... As they advanced up the railway the fighting came to closer quarters, and nearer the station the water was deep enough to conceal all evidence of mines and wire with which the enemy surrounded the position he held to the left of the station. The Germans were still there when the Maoris captured the station.

The engineers wasted no time in bridging and filling in enemy demolitions. There were 12, ranging in width from 60 to 80 feet. The Rapido was bridged with a structure that had been constructed further back and dragged forward into position by a tractor. Nearer the station the sappers came under machine-gun fire from German positions to the left and mortar and machine gun fire from Cassino. This was so severe that the sappers were unable to complete the work on the last two demolitions.

Early in the afternoon enemy infantry had infiltrated to ground obscured from the Maoris’ view, but only about 200 yards away – too close to risk any artillery concentration. Soon after tanks appeared from Cassino ... they opened up at only 50 yards, and a combination of this and heavy machine gun fire forced the Maoris to withdraw shortly after 4 o’clock. The bridge over the Rapido remains intact. The Maoris took prisoners and inflicted many casualties on the enemy.

6 March 1944, NZEF Times

Wounded Officer’s Ordeal

Clutching a piece of broken stick in each hand, a young Maori officer, wounded by a mine and with one leg severely shattered by an explosive bullet, dragged himself across almost a mile of shell-raked no-man’s-land to reach a New Zealand outpost on the first day of New Zealand action on the Cassino front. After 17 hours’ slow, painful struggling along an exposed railway embankment, across a girder bridge, and through minefields, all under fire, he crawled from well within German territory to our front line. He had been missing for 24 hours and was believed to be almost certainly a prisoner.

Digging his two pieces of wood into the ground he began his struggle back towards our lines at 11 o’clock at night. By dawn he had covered some hundreds of yards. Though in great pain, and suffering from loss of blood, he had enough strength to go on. It was five o’clock that afternoon when he reached a New Zealand infantry outpost.

Another Maori soldier, with a severe chest wound pretended to be dead when the Germans tossed grenades about his trench. They dragged off his jacket and boots and then left him. Although in terrible pain he had convinced them he was dead. In the darkness he escaped by hiding in every ditch and hollow he found, and reached the safety of our lines some hours later.

6 March 1944, NZEF Times

Padre Harper

William Thompson

During the battle for Cassino it had become my responsibility to establish and register a small burial ground near the Dressing Station on Route 6. At daybreak on my birthday, 22nd February 1944, I had just laid to rest several men killed in action when Keith Harper, a fine young Anglican Padre, arrived on a similar mission. After the brief ceremony I invited him to my truck where my driver had prepared a brew of cocoa. In declining, Keith said he was concerned about his men in the rear ‘B’ Echelon, whom he had not seen for several days. Within an hour his body was brought back covered in stone-dust, for the building had been demolished by a large calibre, long-range shell. [Harper was the only NZ chaplain killed in Italy and North Africa.]

1976, The God Botherer

Tenacious Enemy Resists Grimly in Cassino

N.Z. War Correspondents

In ten days of fighting, as fierce as any they have ever known, New Zealand troops, opposed by the cream of the German Army, have fought their way, street by street, through bomb-shattered Cassino in the face of fanatical resistance.

Fifth Army Front, March 15

As great clouds of smoke and dust lifted across the mountains from the rubble of Cassino Village after its four-hour bombardment, New Zealand troops today began one of the most difficult tasks they have been given in three years of hard campaigning.

Theirs was the job of attacking key points in deep defences even more formidable than the German winter line they fought through a few weeks ago on the Adriatic front ... Even after the morning’s tremendous concentrations of explosions had been showered on them, German defences were ready. Machine guns and mortars lashed at the advancing New Zealanders down the same slopes as had been alive with blood-red bomb bursts.

Spectacular Storming of Castle Hill, March 16

The most spectacular feat of the battle was the storming and capture by a Wellington battalion of the rocky fortress, Castle Hill – Point 193 – a natural obstacle. Supported by a terrific barrage, and by tanks, our men went across ground cratered by hundreds of bombs. After less than an hour they were past their previous positions and pressing on towards the formidable bastion. So far there had been no casualties.

As they came under the hot fire of the defenders, it was found that Castle Hill presented a sheer, unscalable face to the north. They worked their way round to the easier south side and by 1pm were past the building known as the Nunnery – a particularly strong defensive position – and climbing steadily towards the summit. Half an hour later two tanks forced their way through great piles of rubble and craters 30ft deep and 40ft wide and engaged the castle. They decreased their range until they were blasting away point blank. Meanwhile the climb continued in the face of heavy fire. After 3pm the tank-men saw a small group of infantry gain the summit and charge across, and soon after, the ridge was cleared, and in the possession of our troops.

Dawn Attack, March 17

In a misty haze, New Zealand tanks prepared the way for the infantry by 15 minutes of concentrated fire. The battalion which opened the day’s fighting was the one which took Castle Hill in the previous day’s assault. Despite persistent harassing fire, our men pressed on through indescribable masses of bomb-blasted stone. By 7.30am they had reached the botanical gardens. Two hours later they had killed nearly a score of snipers and taken a dozen prisoners.

The second phase was carried out by a southern battalion, who yesterday killed over 50 Germans in grim hand-to-hand fighting for a church. This time they were required to capture and clear the railway station and roundhouse and take the low features at the extreme left of the town, known as the hummocks, which they occupied by 2.30pm.

27 March 1944, NZEF Times

Battling for Cassino

Sam Donald

We moved out at the appointed time into my first action, after so many years of training and preparation. Historians have written all kinds of reports on the feelings of soldiers going into battle for the first time. I always thought ‘Here we are, let’s make the most of it’. Everyone has their moment, and it is only a couple of days later, when there is time to think, that you realise that you are one of the lucky ones.

The first day and night was very tough as the heavy bombing and artillery strikes had made the conditions very tricky for the tanks, with many large craters. We spent the night in the former Botanical Gardens in the middle of town, which was all bomb craters with a few battered palm trees ... There was no real front line, with German and Allied troops on different floors of the same buildings and through the walls. The infantry would request us to put shells in strategic places, as the German snipers were everywhere amongst the ruins of the town. The anonymous poem, ‘Cassino Town’, describes our feelings.

Sitting in Cassino, on a sunny April morn

Tedeschi up the mountain, playing on his horn.

The Piat mortar cracking, and knocking houses down,

And there is tons of fun for everyone in town.

Each night we do our piquet, two hours at a time,

The stiffs around the corner, smelling mighty fine.

The blow flies come a buzzing,

And the shells they scream and moan,

And the Cassino rats are gnawing on their bones.

Tanks around the corner, getting stonked by night and day,

McKinno’s tossing hand grenades in the other guys’ doorway.

We’ve beaten back the trooper, or so they always say,

When we’re on the job, down old Cassino way...

After this first encounter with the real horror of war, I did a lot of thinking about where my life was going. I took the opportunity to write again to Melva, this time asking her if she would wait for me to get home. Not being demonstrative, especially in words on paper that the censor was likely to read, I didn’t really propose to her. The circumstances were as romantic as could be expected, as I was sitting up a cherry tree in full spring blossom. After a number of weeks a letter arrived from Melva, written lovingly, to say that she would be there waiting when I arrived back. I wrote to my brother Bonny, who was looking after my financial affairs whilst I was away, and asked him to send Melva some money to buy herself an engagement ring. And here we are after 58 years of marriage still getting along!

2004, Mangaheia to Monfalcone

Cassino I

Roger Smith

The company packed up and we moved down to the mouth of the valley, to wait there through a long, long day ... The road was never clear – those forward were moving under a hail of enfilading fire and were suffering casualties at every step. There was an emergency call for stretcher bearers and we sent one section from the platoon forward for this duty. The rest of us ate hard rations at dusk and then the company went to bed in a couple of ruined casas that marked the mouth of the valley...

As the sky paled to the breaking of a steely winter dawn, the signal came. The company shook itself out, platoon by platoon, and we went down to the road that skirted the shoulder behind Cassino. Forward we marched – cold, wet, wary and apprehensive. Rain had fallen during the night and the road was slushy underfoot. We marched with our shoulders hunched against the raw wind, half crouched with stomachs drawn in to try and compress the disquiet of fear that seemed to knot intestines like a balled fist. Fear, fear of fear, and the shame of feeling afraid. That merciless enemy born of memory and imagination that can twist your mind until your body shrinks with the tingle of apprehension. Your palms sweat. Your arm involuntarily flinches at a remembered vision, flashed on your inner retina, of a gory sleeve with a severed arm beside it, still twitching on the sand. Is any man immune? Can anyone face the imminent danger of violent death or deformity with complacency? To be disembowelled by a clamouring blast of shell fire, to be chopped in half by a streaming squirt of Spandau, to be maimed and torn by a bayonet through your groin or grenade between your legs, to be blinded, to be hunted, to be shot at – and to hunt and shoot in return, to suddenly find yourself a raging berserk crouched over a lashing tommy gun, mad with the desire to kill. That is the worst of all – where lies the glory in such horror?

We rounded the bluff to look upon the soaking ruin of what had been a fair town only 24 hours previously. Not a single building remained complete: in the whole of the area there was no roof, nor was there a wall undamaged or a road not blocked ... While moving into the town across the causeway, we met our first fire from the castle. We dropped and went forward on our bellies, crouching against the six-inch high kerb, Spandau bullets rattling off the stone and singing away from the road bed as they streaked across our backs and plucked at our haversacks. There were bodies all the way – New Zealand bodies, newly killed. Our company left five more to swell their ranks before we reached the shelter of rubble inside the town.

I crawled slowly at the tail of the platoon, thankful that at last we were engaged. That oppressive dread that seemed to sap my whole moral fibre, and always presaged action, had disappeared with the call for constructive action. Fear remained, but it was normal fear, the wariness of a soldier rather than soul-destroying apprehension. I collected identity discs from two of the platoon, then rolled their still-warm bodies into the gap in the kerbing that had killed them. Poor devils, but in death they made a bulwark that saved many lives that day.

Suddenly I found big Blondie Spence crawling beside me. He’d been in yesterday afternoon’s stretcher party whom we’d left at battalion headquarters with orders to rest and rejoin us that night. I turned on Blondie furiously, demanding what the hell he thought he was doing, but he only gave me an apologetic grin and crawled past to take up his position in the platoon. Blondie had joined us in Maadi just before we left for Italy; he had come over from New Zealand as a driver in the Army Service Corp, but after serving briefly in North Africa with the ASC was transferred to an infantry battalion. When taxed for an explanation of such madness he said in his slow way: ‘If I’ve had to give up my farm for years, I want to fight the bastard who made me do it.’

His big muscular posterior bobbed awkwardly along in front of me and flattened quickly as a bullet flicked the dust from his battledress pants. That glorious man ducked his head and peered back at me under his arm with a huge grin. I chuckled and shouted, ‘What price the ASC now, Blondie?’

He only made a rude gesture and a ruder noise at imminent danger of getting his bottom pricked again, and crawled on. The line checked as we came to a nasty broken patch where a culvert had been blown in; we lay glued to the paving, bullets wasping around our ears, unable to move because of the log-jam of men ahead. I rolled quickly across the road into a jumble of concrete where culvert, causeway and dyke had been blown together. Blondie followed and we squatted just above the water, sheltered by the masonry and rolled a cigarette each – the first for what seemed like hours. It looked possible to make the last few yards into the rubble of the town by crouching above the flood in the lee of the causeway, and I went across and yelled to the next two soldiers, who were very exposed, to roll across and join us. They did so successfully and were very thankful for the respite. It is awful to be under fire in meagre cover, wondering how long it will be before the Spandau starts nicking bits out of you ... knowing there’s no relief even if you’re wounded, for once the hunter’s aim is on, he won’t leave a target that’s still moving.

2000, Up the Blue

Hide-and-Seek

March 21

‘It would be just like some sort of game – if the stakes weren’t so high,’ commented a New Zealand officer on the most bitter and protracted street fighting the Division has seen. He was referring to the tactics of German paratroopers in Cassino itself, where ground taken one day by our troops has had to be recaptured again and again from enemy troops, which filter back behind our lines in the darkness.

‘Every German soldier is now apparently equipped with a rifle and a white flag,’ said a New Zealander. ‘When we attack he gives us everything he has – and when [we] get in close, up goes the white flag.’ That the German paratrooper is not a game fighter when confronted face to face is indicated by the fact that 12 New Zealanders captured 50 of them in a group of houses. The trouble is, finding them.

Great difficulty is being experienced in evacuating the wounded, who often have to be carried down the hillsides by relays, before being placed aboard jeeps, which have been fitted by New Zealanders to carry stretchers. These vehicles work under constant small arms and mortar fire, and have suffered considerably, though plainly marked with red crosses.

27 March 1944, NZEF Times

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Cassino II

Roger Smith

One afternoon I was lying in the back kitchen, sleeping against the porcelain cooking bench, when the boys called me. There had been a lot of Red Cross activity on the road each day and we had honoured the German orderlies as they marched out, burdened with stretcher cases. I crawled through the dividing walls – some impressive holes had been made by a seventeen pounder – and sneaked forward to a Bren post sited back from a battered window embrasure. Another gun was a little to the left while the third was held in reserve to guard our back door. I eased myself down beside Murray and Buster and let my gaze follow theirs. We looked across a strip of water, over a row of German-held houses, and up to the road beyond. There I saw what was worrying them. In the last day or two there had been an increasing amount of traffic back into the town by medical orderlies carrying stretchers. This was a case in point: there were four Huns on the road, all wearing brassards and loaded with two stretchers. Load is the operative word: the stretchers were bulging and obviously heavy. ‘What do you think, Rod? Is it straight or are the bastards putting it across’ asked Murray.

I shaded my eyes and stared intently, wishing I had a pair of binoculars. ‘No one else fired?’ I asked ... the boys shook their heads, I could feel Buster quivering with tenseness as he lay with the stock of his Bren locked against his cheek and his target framed in the aperture sight.

Raising myself, I glanced down the half-gutted building amongst the broken pillars and debris to see Des poised in a replica of Buster’s position, wriggling gently around so he could move his gun in a slow traverse while keeping the target covered. The rest of that section squatted beside him, peering forward with an obvious question in their minds. Harry Williams was looking down to me, his eyebrows raised in query.

I looked across to the road again: if those Germans were carrying medical supplies, the apparent weight of the stretchers represented a helluva lot of morphia and bandages, and they weren’t the first to go by that day. I glanced once more at the blokes besides me. There was a vicious feeling in the air – life in Cassino was not pleasant. I let the open palm of my right hand fall across Buster’s shoulders and said, ‘Drop them.’

The Bren barked instantly, the harsh echoes clamouring from the ceiling and walls as Des’s gun joined the stuttering chorus. It was all over in one burst – the Germans staggered for a moment in a grotesque two-step then collapsed in untidy bundles against the kerb. We all came to our feet and moved to the outer wall of our building to peer intently at the burden spilled from the stretcher; it looked to me exceedingly like a load of narrow Spandau ammunition boxes, but there was no way of being certain. At least we were sure there was no wounded man in that stretcher, and I think that is the test of immunity laid down by the Geneva Convention.

Suddenly we dropped to the ground together, curiosity forgotten in the interests of survival as three enemy Spandaus started to hose our place with fire, bullets twanging through the air like angry bees as they ricocheted from pillars and walls. Des and Buster met fire with fire and for a long while kept up a vicious exchange. Then the artillery got interested and friend and foe alike sought shelter while Allied guns indiscriminately blasted the front with high explosive. After that we allowed medical orderlies to pass into the town only if they walked singly and carried their stretchers rolled, over one shoulder.

I felt more than a little apprehensive that night when we went down to fill our water tins, wondering if the Huns would try some retaliation. Both sides were observing a mutual truce every evening while collecting water from either side of the chain-wide floodwaters. It was a funny business – we went down unarmed, and while we dipped our two-gallon tins, the dimly seen grey clad figures opposite sank and retrieved their big jerry-cans. I always felt a tingly naked feeling while I worked. It was hard not to rush and panic, and curse Harry for his calm, deliberate methods. And big Blondie Spence gave me a glorious lesson one night by returning quietly just as we had finished, to spend five minutes looking for a lost screw cap. Personally, I had always had an overwhelming desire to get out of it and could not have less about a dozen screw caps. However I did my best to hide the urge to run and duck, though I’m afraid that my commands became a little brusque if there was any unnecessary delay...

Each night the platoons took it in turns to supply collection parties for company rations and ammunition from the church. It was quite a trek. We went armed with tommy guns and rifles, carrying a couple of spare magazines in our pockets: keeping our equipment as light as possible for ease in lugging back the gear. I usually met Pat O’Sullivan when I went – he seemed to make the trip down Highway Six into the town a nightly occurrence. We invariably had a snort from Pat’s water bottle of cognac when we met.

There was some compensation on this carrying fatigue – the warm friendly lantern light of the crypt while we broke out the rations. It was good too, working and yarning alongside other faces for a brief spell in comparative safety. The crypt and church were a hive of activity at night; all troop movements passed through there. Rations and ammunition came in and were moved out, the wounded were sent off in a constant stream down the highway, and the various unit commanders were visiting the tough colonel’s headquarters. This South Islander was a marvellously human type: rugged yet with great understanding. He always managed to poke his way into our corner before we left, to wish us Godspeed and send his regards to the Major.

We hoisted the heavy packs onto our backs, picked up the boxes of grenades and other odds and sods, and with a mighty moral effort stepped reluctantly out into the threatening blackness of the chilly night ... The major was in a stone ruin built against the bank of a causeway. Architecturally it was a dark, damp dump. But militarily it made a grand headquarters, being well protected and nicely central in the area. While the gear we had brought was being re-sorted I told the major of our bit of excitement. A couple of officers from one of the units on our flank were visiting, and one of them talked to me afterwards, asking me the usual soldiers’ questions as to where my position was in relation to his own. Suddenly, when he’d pinpointed our post, he said to me accusingly: ‘So you jokers are the bastards who shot up that Red Cross party yesterday, are you?’

I started to defend myself volubly, as I had been feeling pretty lousy about the episode ever since it happened – whether the Germans were doing what they considered legitimate work or whether they’d been pulling a fast-one, they’d still been very brave men. It must have taken a lot of nerve to walk up that road under our guns, and they had virtually been murdered. On hearing our raised voices, Major Treherne, who had been talking to his other visitor, asked sharply for an explanation and I told him the story.

He turned on me at once, saying, ‘Do you mean to tell me, sergeant, that you have been letting men march into Cassino and are still doing so?’

‘Yes, Sir,’ I replied.

‘Then you will no longer do so. If necessary you will allow them to carry their wounded out, but no one will pass into Cassino across my company front while it is possible for my company to prevent them. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, Sir.’

‘They may be playing fair,’ he went on in his quiet incisive way, ‘or they may not, but if you allow people so much freedom there is a strong temptation to take advantage of it in an emergency. They could replace a battalion commander by putting a brassard on his arm. It is a temptation from which the Hun shall be delivered on this section of the front,’ he concluded with a quirk to his lips. ‘Let him get his medical orderlies up after dark under the same conditions in which our boys work.’

I enjoyed the major’s reprimand: it amounted to his approval of our action and at the same time it most effectively shut up the visiting officer. I did not forget to give him the colonel’s regards; then we picked up the platoon’s share of the gear and for the second time left a warm headquarters to step into the cold night.

2000, Up the Blue

Image 76

The Guns – Cassino

J.C.R.

They never sleep; from sunrise till last light,

On and on through darkest hours of night,

– like monstrous, fierce primeval beasts at bay;

Tensed and quivering, straining for the fray–

Their angry voices snarl a warning mumble

That quickly swells the ever-growing rumble

And becomes a threatening wave of sound,

Sweeps on up through the valley; and around

The jagged mountain peaks the echoes awaken.

Louder grows the thunder, earth is shaken.

Men pause and look about with sudden dread,

As the full fury of the guns breaks overhead.

1 May 1944, NZEF Times

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Cardito – Terelle

Roger Smith

We stayed on our hilltop eyrie for some days, and then our old friends the Maoris came up to relieve us. The platoon commander came forward 24 hours before his men and stayed with us to become familiar with the sector. There was a steep re-entrant at the back of the position down which we threw our empty tins and rubbish. It was too steep for comfort, but with care it was possible for a man to skirt the rubbish and take a shortcut to battalion by daylight. The Maori officer left down that gully at dusk to meet his company and guide them in. The Hun was mighty touchy at last light, and Captain Castors warned the officer: ‘Be careful of all the tins. If you make a row we’re sure to get beaten up with mortars.’

‘She’s right, Sir. I’ll go like a mouse,’ he replied, launching his sixteen-stone frame down the gully like a Sherman tank. In about thirty seconds we heard a shocking curse, followed by a terrific crash and a long drawn out avalanche of sound that faded into the distance and ended in soft individual tinkling. From way down below in the gully came a gusty bout of laughter and a great hail drifted up to us. ‘I found your tins – cleared most of them away.’

Three hours later the Maoris reported in and the relief started. It was a touchy business. It is always hard not to let the enemy know something is doing when the fronts are less than fifty yards apart, and during a relief you are usually in the awkward predicament of having twice as many men on the ground as there are holes for. Our sections were coming out and regrouping near platoon headquarters when a nasty mortar stonk started. We got them off at once and they were all under way when I heard O’Sullivan call down the track. Two or three of us rushed to his aid to discover that he, Buster and Ginger had been caught in a bad poultice.

Pat was unhurt, but Buster and Ginger were both grievously wounded. We lugged the poor devils as far as company headquarters, where there were stretchers. The medical orderly bound them up roughly and we continued down to battalion. Being carried on a stretcher round the boulders of that goat track can have only been one degree more comfortable than a fireman’s lift.

The doctor was at the RAP and he took immediate charge of our casualties. After he received attention, Buster’s stretcher was placed across a jeep and he started the long journey back to the casualty clearing station. There was no point in subjecting Ginger to such a gruelling trip ... He was alone on a stretcher in a little alcove at the back of the RAP. He opened his eyes as I squatted beside him. The doctor had made him comfortable: he was no longer in pain but was very, very weary. It took him seconds to blink, and the smile he greeted me with took minutes to develop. Time – and very little of that – was all there was left of this life for Ginger. He seemed to consciously squander each second with an appreciative luxury, as if it would last a hundred years.

I grinned back; there didn’t seem to be much I could say under the circumstances. Slowly, slowly, he spoke to me, with no distress or sense of urgency, enunciating each word clearly and pausing between phrases. ‘It’s damn silly, Rod – the crazy bastards. Blow great holes in a bloke, and then expect him to live. Can’t be done, Rod.’

There seemed to be no point in contradicting a statement we both knew to be true, so I just asked him if he would like me to roll him a smoke. With great economy of effort he nodded his eyelids. I took out my tin of weed, glad of something to do, and rolled and lit a cigarette. I turned to put it to Ginger’s lips and discovered that I was alone. Let those who mourn remember in sad comfort that the men who did not return so often proved themselves greater by the very nature of their death.

2000, Up the Blue

Close Action behind Crumbled Walls

N.Z. War Correspondent

Cassino Front, April 10 (Delayed) – It is early morning; weary and unshaven men in dusty battledress, rifles and machine guns slung over their shoulders, are plodding in file along the road in the last hours of another week in the intense, oppressive battle for Cassino.

For a week they have spent 24 uncertain hours every day with the sheer heights of this great Gibraltar-like feature towering above them. Sleepless nights guarding against German patrols and days of hiding in low cellars have left these men tired and strained. Every man walking along this road has experiences he’ll never forget. Two of them were guarding a shattered window in Cassino a few days ago. Their sergeant, believing they were exposed to enemy fire, moved them and took their place. A few minutes later they saw him fall to an enemy sniper’s bullet.

Others saw stone walls crumbled by German anti-tank rockets, and felt the ground lift and shake beneath them as heavy shells from long-range guns crashed among the ruins. There are men who spent hours directing heavy shell fire against German strongpoints, often 200 yards or less from them. All this has been part of their everyday life – hunted by snipers on the slopes above them in daylight, mortared and shelled in the darkness.

For a short time they will have rest – the luxury of hours of undisturbed sleep in blankets, bodies and clothes washed – among the trees behind the line. For others, a week in the battle of Cassino has begun.

17 April 1944, NZEF Times

The General and the Nightingale

Dan Davin

...‘Jesus,’ he suddenly said. And put down his mug. ‘There’s the Old Man’s jeep. He’s back early.’

The others stared in the same direction. The sun was already down behind the Casole hills which the French had bitterly fought for that winter. But there was enough light in the basin that held the camp for them to make out the Divisional Commander’s flag on the bonnet of the Jeep. And as the Jeep passed, the provost on point duty saluted with unmistakeable smartness.

‘Well his bed’s made and everything’s OK,’ said Plugger. But care had returned to his face. Once the General was within the borders of the camp he was Plugger’s responsibility. And Plugger had to watch him like a hawk to make sure he was kept in good trim and didn’t want for anything. It wasn’t a sinecure because the General combined absentmindedness with considerateness so that you couldn’t tell which was which. And he had a trick of asking you what you would do if you were Kesselring, which was a bit tough, especially before breakfast. So you had to keep on your toes...

The General had got out of his seat beside the driver. The G1 and ADC vaulted from their perch in the back of the Jeep and then bent over it again to get their map-boards. All three began to climb up the slope towards A Mess. The driver, left alone in the Jeep, swung her round and drove off towards the Car-Park. Plugger and the other two watched him get out there and stand for a moment looking towards the men’s cookhouse. There’d be something hot kept for him. But then he half turned and his gaze swivelled across the slope. It stopped on them. He began to walk firmly in their direction.

‘Nose like a bloody greyhound,’ said Plugger. ‘Well here goes for the last of the whitebait.’ With resignation he began to prepare more fritters. ‘Well, you pack of bludgers,’ was Alec’s greeting. ‘Can you spare a bite for a front-line troop? Nothing fancy. Anything will do for a man who’s been in the saddle since dawn.’ His eye had taken in the frying pan and his nostrils were twitching.

‘Bludgers, what the hell do you mean, bludgers?’ said Plugger. ‘You’re the bloody bludger round this outfit. Touring round the country all day and bludging their rations off the brigades and now you come and take their last bite from your old cobbers who used to know you when you were nothing better than a sanitary corporal’s assistant. Don’t think you’re getting a clean plate, though, even if you’ve been hobnobbing with the big shots. You can pig it off mine.’ And he flapped a couple of fritters on to the plate.

‘Good old Plugger,’ said Alec. ‘Too old to be anything but a Base-wallower himself but never lets the fighting-man down.’

‘Jesus, just listen to him, will you?’ Shorty reached over for the loaf of bread Plugger had scrounged. ‘He’ll be telling us he’s a soldier next.’

‘He wouldn’t be talking so big if he knew what a day we’d had here, would he, Shorty?’

‘My bloody oath he wouldn’t. D’you know what those bloody Teds have been up to? They’ve been bloody well shelling us. Air-burst at that. On top of all the nervous strain of an important HQ job we’ve got to put up with air-burst. Takes a man back to Sidi Rezegh, doesn’t it, Plugger? But of course you were only a red-arse in those days, weren’t you, Alec?’

‘So that’s it,’ said Alec. ‘I thought I noticed a lot of new holes dug. Suppose no one thought of digging one for me?’

‘Well, you know,’ said Plugger, ‘you being such a glutton for it and all that, we thought you wouldn’t want us to bother.’

‘Not after today. I’m a changed man.’

‘Why, what happened today? You ought to be used to the Terrelle Terror Ride by now. We are, hearing you talk about every day since we got here.’...

Alec had finished his fritters and skipping the tea, which by now had an oily film on its surface, armed himself with a mug of plonk. He put this beside him and began to roll a cigarette from Plugger’s makings.

‘So nobody’s interested in my day of peril,’ he remarked bitterly.

‘Not if it’s one more of those yarns about how with a savage twist of the wheel you wrenched the Jeep away from the bursting shell and tears came into the General’s eyes as he thanked you,’ said Pongo. The others said nothing.

Alec looked at the three of them sorrowfully. Clearly he would have to shift the emphasis of his speech away from himself.

‘You know he’s a queer old cove, the General’, he said and took another dip into his mug.

‘What’s he been up to now?’ Plugger asked...

‘Well, we decided to go by the Inferno track because old Ted’s been knocking hell out of the top road lately. Got all those loops absolutely taped. So the next thing we’re belting through Aquafondata and then on to the Inferno. I thought the General might kick up a bit about the way I took that one in five grade part but there wasn’t a murmur out of him. But it was bad luck on old Harry and the G1 in the back. They were bouncing about like fleas.

‘At that rate, it wasn’t long before we were at the Hove Dump. You should have seen the glare the Old Man gave at all the burnt-out trucks and stores. As if he’d like to wring the neck of the Jerry that got his guns on to the dump that night.’

‘He would too,’ said Plugger, and the others nodded their heads.

‘Well, from there it wasn’t long before we were out in the Bowl. I must say it looked as pretty as a picture. All the mud’s dried up now, and the corpses in that knocked-out Sherman have stopped stinking and there are poppies all over the place. You could see Cassino as close as if you were looking through glasses and the old monastery up on top looked as if it were full of monks instead of Fritzes. But I must admit I wasn’t thinking about the scenery just then. That’s the worst part of the trip, just round there. There’s no cover, just the flat and the road going through it and you know you’re in plain view of every OP he’s got from the monastery to Cifalco. Not to mention that bloody great Mount Caira. Makes you very queer in the guts, believe me, to think that if the OP officer has had a bad night on the booze and wants to work it off on someone he can bring down Christ knows how many guns down on you in a God-awful stonk.’

‘Not for just one Jeep,’ said Shorty. ‘He can’t spare the ammo. At least that’s what Gunboat, the IO’s batman says.’

‘All bloody well for the IO’s batman. You wouldn’t catch him out in the bloody Bowl by himself though, let alone with a General in his Jeep. But when I saw the stretch of flat all round us, as bare as a baby’s bottom, and thought of those bloody Jerries up there watching us through their glasses and perhaps getting a fire order ready just for fun, I put my foot down on the accelerator and gave her the gun just the same. And just as I was thinking to myself: only another mile and then the Terelle staircase road and we’re jake until the return trip, what do you think happens?’

He paused.

‘You hear the whine of a shell. With a savage twist of the wrist–.’

‘Don’t be a bloody fool all your life, Shorty,’ said Plugger.

‘I hear the GOC’s voice,’ said Alec, ignoring Shorty. ‘And he says: “Stop, Alec, stop.”

‘Well you know, when the Old Man gives an order there’s only one thing to do about it – do what you’re told. So I stopped. And there we were, in a miserable bloody Jeep under all those guns, a sitting shot. No one says a word. I couldn’t see how Harry and the G1 were in the back but I could sort of feel they were thinking along the same lines as I was. As for me, my ears were pricked waiting to hear that shell coming, and my eyes were swivelling all over the place looking for some hole in the ground to make for when the time came to bolt.’

‘Listen,’ says the General, as if we weren’t listening already. I reckon we could have pretty near have heard the Jerries sliding the shells into those guns of theirs. We could hear them eating their breakfast sausage up in Belmonte. I could hear Kesselring say to his own ADC, ‘Isn’t that Alec Kane down there?’ Yes, we were listening all right. We must have been sitting there a full minute, as stiff as statues, except inside, listening.

‘Then the General pipes up again: “Was that a nightingale I heard?”

‘Well, I thought to myself, it comes to us all sooner or later, I suppose. Only most of us don’t have to start hearing little birds to know it’s a mug’s game. But he deserves a rest if anyone does. He’s had a tough war, two tough wars, in fact. And then the Sangro and Cassino on top of everything else, and a stinking bad winter. Making this Terelle Terror Ride twice a day every day this month has just about sent me crackers myself.

‘But I wasn’t so crackers I wasn’t still listening for that bloody stonk to come screaming down on us.

“I think it was a blackbird, sir,” said Harry at the back of me. Good for you, Harry, I thought to myself. You’re not an ADC for nothing. Humour him. That’s right. That’s the presence of mind that makes an officer. If I had my way I’d make you G1. Now we can get cracking to hell out of here.

‘But I ought to have known the Old Man better. And the G1 too, for that matter. He was too shrewd to make Harry’s mistake. Because, of course, it only made the Old Man determined to prove he was right.

“Nonsense, Harry, nonsense,” he says, “I know a nightingale when I hear one. Of course it was a nightingale, listen!”

‘So we start listening again. As if we’d ever stopped. Suddenly I gave a jump, and so did the two in the back. It was only a mortar away over in Mortar Alley but all strung up like that we didn’t have time to stop ourselves.

“Keep still, will you,” says the old man to me. “You’ll frighten the bird.”

‘I ask you, frighten the bird. When I was in such a state that that I’d have taken off myself if only I’d had the wings.

‘And then out of a bit of bush about 50 yards away we hear it. And it’s a bloody nightingale all right, singing away like as if he’d burst. I haven’t heard a nightingale sing like that since that morning we skeltered through Athens trying to get to the beaches before the sun and the Stukas were up.

“There you are Harry,” says the General. “I told you so, didn’t I G1?”

“That’s right sir,” said the G1 in that poker voice of his. “Drive on Alec,” says the General. And, believe me, no one ever got into top gear quicker than I did and, by Jesus, we were halfway up the Terelle staircase road before I remembered to change down.’

‘The old scamp,’ said Plugger with delight. ‘Isn’t he an old scamp?’

‘Well I suppose I might as well have another jorum of your plonk before my hair turns white,’ said Alec, reaching out.

A low flying plane grumbled slowly overhead, looking for a target. It was now quite dark, the General must have come to the door of A Mess. They could hear that peremptory, carrying voice.

‘Put out those lights.’

They covered their cigarettes. All over the camp chinks in the blackout suddenly disappeared, the way a light goes out.

‘The old scamp,’ said Plugger.

1986, The Salamander and the Fire

Image 78

Cassino III

Roger Smith

Our remaining days in Cassino passed quietly. The nights were busy, though the work going forward with rations and ammunition was a good deal more pleasant with the luxury of sneakers on our feet [felt-soled boots]. I went on two or three trips to the crypt for various reasons, but in the general change-round of troops, the personnel there had been changed and the place didn’t seem the same without that blunt South Island lieutenant colonel poking his way around.

Then one night our relief marched in – a company from the Maori Battalion. The platoon relieving me were the first into position: they were commanded by a very keen officer who was hopelessly dissatisfied with my disposal of troops when I showed him round. It was quite inadequate, as our entire strength only just equalled that of one of his sections, and the tasks that had kept us fully employed would only use up a third of his strength...

I reported to John [Suter] that I was clear and he told me to ‘beat it’, so I picked up the boys and we set off down Highway Six at a rapid pace. The night was not peaceful as Nebelwerfers still droned over, churning the road at the bridge approaches. We came to the danger area during a relatively quiet spell and I dropped to one side and counted the platoon past, telling them to move fast and keep moving. It was nightmare stretch – a gauntlet the ration parties had run every night. The road was just a pock of shell holes, the bridge a battered catwalk across the torn structure, and the many, many pieces of men that could not be salvaged and no longer had identity, smelt with a vomit-making purulence along with the reek of explosive.

We were all safely out, and as the trucks ground their way down the highway, we looked back on the netherworld, framed in the canopy’s opening. Already a feeling of unreality was spreading over us. Could those distant creatures seen on the mind’s inner retina, creatures who crouched beneath a steel helmet, weapon in hand, who trod warily on padded feet among the rocks and canyons of the flickering inferno, ears deaf to all but the heralding wail of thunderous destruction, eyes flat and hard, with emotions curbed, seeking enemy to kill so they might live – could they be us? They were. Yet, thank God, they were no longer.

2000, Up the Blue

We’re a browned off lot of Kiwis and we’ll say farewell, we’re through.

Cassino town we feel – We’ve had you.

Anon. Mangaheia to Monfalcone

28 Years On

Gordon Slatter

I made a special trip from Rome to Cassino where the only visible evidence that there had ever been a battle there was the light tank mounted as a memorial outside the railway station. The Italians were expert at rebuilding bombed towns.

The three military cemeteries were located well outside the town, one each for the British, the Poles and the Germans. I had an argument with an Italian in a local shop who said there were no New Zealanders in the British cemetery. Perhaps he thought I was talking about Dutch troops. Undaunted, I set off on the long walk and on entering the gate of the Cimitero Militaire Inglesi I was appalled at the sheer size of it, overwhelmed, completely shattered. It was the saddest but also the most beautiful cemetery I had ever seen, located in that lovely country overlooked by the unforgiving monastery.

In the New Zealand section, New Zealand being the small community it is, there were so many names that I knew, including two men who played for the All Blacks, George Hart and Jack Harris, but what affected ne most were all those magnificent Maori names and I jotted a few down in my diary, Perenara, Heke, Te Keena, Rikiriki, Hapeta, Herewini, Te Kura, Takurua, Wiremu, Te Whata, Maaka, Taurere, Kaire, Paurini, Rakau. I went to every headstone and read the name and rank out loud while the tears ran down my face. It was more than just watching the Maoris marching up the strada into the line, it was more than just hearing their regular Brens on our flank, it was more than just the harmony of their voices in an army concert. I could not put it into words. Perhaps it was something of a guilt complex; I was a European and had some reason, however tenuous, for being involved in a European war but they were Polynesians, all volunteers, and their Turangawaewae was far away in the South Pacific. Perhaps it was something of a guilt complex for having invaded Aotearoa and turning it into New Zealand, some would say a good idea gone wrong.

In sombre mood I walked back to the town, cursing when caught in a sudden spray of water flung over the narrow road from a market garden, which was not much to complain about in view of what those men lying in the cemetery had been through. I had lived more than twice as long as most of them with little enough to show for the extra time I had been granted. I took some morbid satisfaction in telling that cocky Italian in the local shop that he was wrong, there were many, too many, Neozelandesi in the Cimitero Militaire Inglesi.

1995, One More River

Spring

Demolition: Liri Valley

Les Cleveland

The Allied Military Government

will pay damages, I said

and swung the axe.

It was good swinging that axe;

the six-foot lengths of oak

split clean at every smack.

‘Stop!’ yelled the priest,

‘Barbarians make war on churches!’

‘The flock are cold

and your bloody old church is Kaput.’

‘Antichrist!’ moaned the priest.

‘Scapare via’ I said,

‘no priest tells us what to do’.

‘Bandits!’ he shouted

and went to look for the CO.

But first he cursed us in medieval Latin doggerel

that crackled like dry bones

around our arrogant ears.

Before we left for the line

we chopped up every stick

in the mortuary, coffins first

Then beams from the roof.

Pregnant Maria and family

had warm fires and food

while we caroused in their kitchen.

It was a good spring.

1979, The Iron Hand

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