Preparing for Battle

We left for our first concentration area at Presenzano on the evening of the 10th and, by 0400hrs on the 11th, the brigade was harboured there. Presenzano was not a bad concentration area at all in that it was well out of the range of shot and shell, and perhaps more importantly, the racket of our gun positions.

Our group consisted of all the normal people, Rollo Baker with his 17th Field Regiment, Arthur Welden (‘Whiskers’) with his 254 A/Tk Battery, ‘Ding Dong’ Bell (the Gentleman) with his 280 Light AA Battery, Ronnie Denton and his 214 Field Company, Bob Lyttle and 152 Field Ambulance, Philip Marshall with Dog Support and last but not least, the very welcome addition of the 16/5 Lancers. It was a good crowd and all of them had only one aim in view and that was to help everyone else. It was in this atmosphere of splendid cooperation that the battle started and continued throughout its duration.

THE BATTLE OF CASSINO (NA 14733) Third Phase 11 – 18 May 1944: Allied 4.2 inch mortars in action at the start of the final offensive on Cassino. Copyright: © IWM. 

Sometime before the war, I heard a distinguished General lecturing on infantry and tank cooperation. He summed up his discourse by saying that if either or both parties were blighters, then cooperation could never be brought about, but if both chaps were good fellows, cooperation would always exist. This is the fundamental secret, above all else, of successful cooperation.

The Pipe Band had been left behind to finish off engagements to play at hospitals, but when it seemed likely that we might not move for a day or two, I sent for them. They played round the battalion areas the night before we moved.

Ion Goff asked me to have supper with the Irish Rifles the evening after they arrived here as a goose was on the menu. There was a sad story about this. The wretched bird had walked over, full of confidence, to pay a call on some unscrupulous rifleman who had seized and then slain it. Shortly afterwards, some Medium Gunners came round asking if anyone had seen their goose. It wasn’t long before they spotted its corpse. It was an awful moment. The goose had been their regimental mascot since before Alamein and was the pet of everyone. They all doted on it. The generous rifleman prepared to sacrifice their dinner and offered it back. This added insult to injury. The idea of eating their goose seemed sacriligeous to the gunners. It was a real tragedy – but Ion Goff and his warriors enjoyed their dinners.

Shortly before midnight on the 11th of May, the great battle of the Gustav Line began, and we came onto four hours notice to move at 0900hrs the next morning. Ours was the first Brigade Group in the Division to take the field, 11th Brigade were to be second and 36th Brigade third.  The Divisional Commander and I visited each battalion in turn on the morning of the 12th and talked to all the troops. He told everyone what our role was to be and explained the battle generally. He then retired out of earshot to give me a chance of saying a few words that I thought members of the Irish Brigade would like to hear before an all out party of this nature. Everyone was in excellent heart and there was a feeling of considerable confidence.

At 5am on the 13th, I was summoned to meet the General and learned that the situation was now such that our breakthrough role might be launched. We were accordingly ordered to move at first light on the 14th to a forward concentration area behind the Rapido (Gari). We set out for our last drive up Speedy Express. We were to tuck ourselves in behind Monte Trocchio. This mountain was a strange tooth of a thing, the last of three high bumps which we passed as we went along the valley. I had seen it captured by the Americans in January. The congestion was something terrific in this area. There were hundreds of guns all over the place, which were brassing off all day long. The Germans, needless to say, were shooting back. The racket of shells passing in both directions was considerable. The fog of war was on.

My old 12th Brigade, now commanded by Algy Heber-Percy, whom we had all known as CO of the 3 Grenadiers in North Africa, was operating in the bridgehead across the Rapido (Gari). Algy had all sorts of ideas about where his warriors really were, and every time he got a report of even one German, he would order up 8 inch Howitzers to shoot this straggler up, and then aeroplanes to go and bomb him. I thought he was doing all this dangerously close to his own chaps but I gather no harm came of it. I did, however, make it clear that once I had crossed the river, I would like him to confine those attentions most rigidly to his own front.

With regard to the use of aircraft at this time, close support bombing was running in a very excellent way. A senior Air Force officer sat on the top of Mount Trocchio overlooking the whole battlefield. He called himself ‘Rover David’. Rover David kept what he called a cab rank. This cab rank was a bunch of fighter bombers that hovered about in the sky waiting for someone to give them a fare. On call, they plunged immediately onto their prey. In this way, bombing was nearly as quick as shelling. If they did not get a call during their tour of hovering, they went off and loosed their load on whatever target they had a fancy for, before going home.

The smoke canisters were doing great business at this time too, and very necessary they were. The bridges we had put across the Rapido (Gari) were all in full view of the Monastery or San Ambroglio, or both. In fact, that smoking had to go on so long as the Germans held the Monastery, which was for several days yet.

I think that the day we spent behind Trocchio was one of the most unpleasant of the whole party. It was not that we had casualties, but there we were, a mass of men and vehicles all in the open, keyed up for we know not what, having great difficulty in getting firm information and with an appalling racket going on all the time. I always find that anticipation is almost the worst part of those things and we had plenty of scope to saviour this to the full. We had expected to get, at any rate, recce parties over the Rapido (Gari) in the early morning, but there had been bridge trouble and they were held up for about a couple of hours. We got their report back by 1000hrs that the tracks were very bad and there was going to be some difficulty in finding areas for transport.

At this stage of the proceedings, the bridgehead varied in depth from 500 to 1500 yards. Our attack was largely planned tactically from defence overprints and air photographs. The Germans had had several months to prepare their positions and they had made a very thorough job of them. Their Gustav Line covered the River Rapido (Gari). The Hitler Line, which was supposed to be the real thing, ran from Aquino to Pontecorvo, some nine miles to the rear, and between the two were a series of defended localities, very thoroughly prepared. If the Germans had had all this time to prepare these positions we had had the same time to photograph their development, and in spite of elaborate attempts to camouflage, these defence overprints proved to be almost infallible.

In the early days in North Africa, we had experienced what it was for the other side to have air superiority. Even the odd vehicle moving by day was in danger of being shot up and German reconnaissance planes were continually over, keeping an eye on us and bombing anything that seemed worthwhile. What would have happened if the Germans had enjoyed any form of air strength at this time, I shudder to think. Those vast concentrations around Mount Trocchio and elsewhere might well have been all smashed up before anything happened at all. As it was, one practically never saw a single reconnaissance plane during the hours of daylight. Our Air Force had achieved absolute mastery. It is well to pause and remember that these battles could never have achieved the results they did if the Air Force had not done such a very fine piece of work in preparation.

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