Through the Hitler Line

The next day, the 18th May, was more peaceful. 36 Brigade were to go through us to see what could be done with the Hitler Line. Our only task was Colin Gibbs and F Company of the Irish Rifles, with some tanks, doing a sweep on our own flank. Some equipment was destroyed and a few Huns shot, otherwise nothing of note occurred.

The B Echelons had had a pretty hairy time throughout this and lost a number of vehicles from shellfire. In fact, everyone was involved in this battle. However, those excellent battalion administrative teams produced everything that was wanted without fail.

Pioneer Platoons had done a good job of work in mine clearing during the last three days. Fortunately, AP mines had not come up in any way to expectations.

The main feature of this day was the capture of the Monastery by the Poles. This was a great relief to everybody; our right flank had been a big worry. It gave such excellent observation to the Germans.

My next HQ, about half a mile from Piumarola, was about the deepest and best thing I have ever seen. It was magnificently furnished, electric light fittings, ventilation shafts and everything else one could want. Some very big shot must have lived here. Even a block buster would not have done it much harm. There was a booby trap in one of the neighbouring dug outs but we spotted it before any harm was done. On the whole, there were not many booby traps. The Hun had had plenty of other things to think about – a speedy departure being one of them.

That evening, the 18th, I held an ‘O’ Group cum bottle party in the ex Hun General’s subterranean palace.

Our job the next day was to cover the north flank of the Division’s thrust towards Aquino and the Hitler Line and the hills dominating Highway Six and the railway. It was wet the next morning and with mud and mined tracks, it took a bit of time for everyone to get into their new positions. Fortunately, no fighting was required to do this though shelling was distinctly unpleasant. The Irish Rifles’ gunners, Paul Lunn Rockliffe and John Lockwood were both wounded, which was a bad blow to the battalion. During the morning, Frank Wood of the Irish Rifles took a very good patrol from H Company across the railway to make sure all was well.

It had been misty for the first part of the morning.

John Horsfall’s description of what he saw when the mist cleared is worth repeating here:

“The mists cleared and the view to say the least of it was awe inspiring. Just in front of us was Piedimonte perched up and being slammed by our heavies and burning fiercely. Hanging miles up over our heads was the monstrous mountain mass of Monte Cairo. Talk about domination. Monte Cairo, of course, we know from the Castellone days when we were south east of it. Here we were due west and at the bottom of it.

The mountain, itself, is most impressive and had the same atmosphere of sinister foreboding as Longstop, only on a larger scale to the south of us was the black mass of Monte Cassino and perched on the top of the monastery, looking white in comparison, and very strange and silent. One got an inward satisfaction of seeing it thus and looking at it from the north, after having set so close on its other side for so many weary weeks. It was odd seeing it quiet when, in the past, there was always a pall of smoke over it, dotted by the red black burst of our shells.”   

Smudger Maxwell, Second-in-Command of the Skins, had arrived yesterday to take over command. During the evening of this day, elements of my old 12th Brigade decided that they were going to attack the Skins. I could not quite make out what was happening when Smudger Maxwell called me up on the ‘blower’ to say that he was being attacked by some “bare arsed barbarians”. After some questioning about who these people could be, I began to see the light and asked if he referred to those who dress themselves in the same way as my Brigade Major. He confirmed that they were. It was Brian Madden and his Black Watch. With some difficulty, but without any untoward incident, we managed to fend them off and indicated the general direction in which they might expect to find Germans. I do not believe they found any, which must have been discouraging for them. We have often fought the English, but seldom the Scottish, and I was glad not to have broken a good record in this respect.

During the next couple of days, the Faughs enjoyed almost uninterrupted peace, but the Skins and the Irish Rifles both had some unpleasant shelling. I was about to call them up to see if Smudger was in. He had just taken a header out of the window and dived into some lower room to avoid a 170, which was threatening to come in at his window. Rollo Baker was there too playing this sort of hide and seek game. They told me it was no place for Brigade Commanders and, anyway, they did not want to see me. I was quite easily discouraged from the visit.

On the 20th, everyone had a grandstand view of the ferocious battle for Piedimonte, which was being fought desperately by the Poles on the other side of Route Six. This battle distracted the Germans’ attention from us for a day or two. That evening, we were able to pull out the Skins and the Faughs, to make room for the Indian Division coming up to our right. They were able to get into houses to make themselves comfortable. The Irish Rifles had to remain where they were until the next evening, then they were relieved by 56 Recce Regiment. The 11 and 36 Brigades at this time were ahead of us facing Aquino Aerodrome and the Hitler Line.

The Divisional Commander came to see me on the 22nd to talk about possible ways and means of attacking Aquino. On this day, we made our first contact with Lieut-Colonel Purvis and the 11th Canadian Armoured Regiment. These were a magnificent lot of chaps. Their Squadron Commanders and Troop Leaders lost no time in visiting the battalions to whom they were affiliated and getting down to drinking parties with them. This is the way real co-operation is born and with this regiment it grew into very fine proportions.

In the meanwhile, the war was going very well. The Poles had cleared Piedimonte and were swarming about on Mount Cairo. The Indians had come up on our right flank between the Poles and ourselves; the Canadians, who had relieved the Indians on our left, had captured Pontecorvo on the 23rd. The French had done simply magnificently and had come right through the mountains liquidating Ausonia and San Giorgio and coming down on the River Liri well to the west of those places. They had put in the bag all those Huns and all the guns in Ambroglio, Appolinare and Vallamaio. I had a particular spite against those Germans. They had been shooting at me in one way or another since December. The Americans on their left had done equally well. Gaeta and Formia on the coast had fallen and they too were now striking across the mountains in the general direction of Frosinone. The thing was looking promising. On the 24th, the Canadians had reached the River Melfa.

Just about this time, we had another of those most unpleasant night raids. I had just gone to bed in my caravan when the business started. Brigade HQ was very much in the open. We were beyond the range of Bosche guns and had forgotten about aeroplanes. Their technique was to drop flaming onions and then AP bombs on anything that they saw. I think the thing that saved us was that we were tucked under the few trees that were about in order to get a bit of shade during the day. The only safety precaution I could take was to lie under my caravan.

When I got there, I found Rollo Baker was already underneath his car a few yards away. There was quite a lot of competition for the underside of my caravan, but I managed to get a place all right. We had a magnificent view of the proceedings. The bombs fell in every direction but nothing nearer than about 300 yards from us. The Irish Rifles had one or two unfortunate casualties, but I think Divisional HQ got it worse than anyone else. The ADMS, who was a bit slow getting out of his caravan, in spite of his powerful frame, was unable to force a way among the congested ranks beneath it.

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