While we were facing the Germans in the San Angelo area, plans had already been started for us to get a more pleasant view of them from the mountains north of the Monastery on the foothills of Mount Cairo.
On the 26th, the General told me that we would have to take over from the French in this area and that a reconnaissance was to be made straight away. As he anticipated, hill walking might be necessary, a thing I still could not do, so he told me to send James Dunnill to have a look round. He and John O’Rourke accordingly set forth on what they thought was going to be a pleasant motor drive. It turned out to be anything but. The Rapido valley ran due north past Cassino and formed a branch valley running up between St Elia and Atina.
This valley was about one mile wide and fairly bare. Our forward troops and the Germans were on one side of the valley, which included the foothills and the Monastery, while our Administration Points were in the hills on the other side. The result of this was that a horrible no man’s land lay between us and the needs of life. This was situated round the area of San Michele and the unpleasant crack in the hills called The Inferno and Portella.
At a pre arranged rendezvous, they met a French LO and then set off for the HQ of the 4th Regiment Tiraileurs Tunisienne, which was situated in the much battered village of Caira. They followed the French LO in his jeep, which disappeared down a track known as the San Michele Road at an incredible speed. This was one of the main supply routes to Cassino and the positions north of it. It was a perfect day. The track and all the surrounding countryside were in full view of the Monastery.
Everything was quite peaceful going through the villages of San Michele and Portella, but even so they viewed with a considerable amount of misgiving the notices which read “Shell Trap – No Halting”, which were placed at intervals along the road. On leaving Portella, they descended into the Rapido Valley, which was completely dominated by the Monastery and they both entertained considerable mixed feelings at they followed the French LO towards the Monastery, which by now seemed as if it was towering above them.
The speed of the two jeeps down the “Mad Mile” – well named – broke all records. James remarked that he had done some cheeky things in his life, but this about took the cake. Eventually, however, they turned off right through the village of Villa, but met a warm reception from the Bosche gunners going along this stretch. They reached the village of Caira and caught up with the French LO and heartily cursed him for the exciting experiences that they had been through. The French LO remarked that it was quite all right – there was nothing to worry about. He knew where the bad spots were and so he went little bit faster.
On arrival, all military matters were suspended for the ritual of dejeuner. This lasted for nearly two hours. There were seven courses and adequate liquid refreshments. The orchestra was not lacking either. It was provided by shells of all sizes arriving about. The Huns thought this was a sound place to shoot at, an idea that they never got over. After a brief squint around and hearing what the form was from the French, the gauntlet of the return journey had to be run. This, fortunately, was uneventful. When these two heroes returned to Brigade HQ, I can assure you that the horror of all they saw lacked nothing in the telling.
The next day, the brigade now being clear of the line, I felt I must go and visit this paragon of places myself. James Dunnill and I accordingly set forth to visit General Monsabert, commanding the 3rd Division Indigene Algerien. This was an experience I would not have missed. We went along the San Michele road, James taking very good care to point out all the places where the shells had a habit of dropping.
We eventually reached the “Inferno”. Much to my astonishment, we then went up this strange canyon by a jeep track that the French had made. In places, it was cut through the rock with just room for a jeep to get through. Eventually, we arrived at the mountain fastness where the French Divisional HQ was. I was expecting a sort of “hugger mugger” establishment and had a haversack ration in my pocket. I need not have worried. Outside the General’s house was a large sign emblazoned ‘Les Trois Croissants’, just like a good old English pub. It was like a pub in more ways than one. The first room I went into was a bar in which was every conceivable size and shape of bottle and I was duly pressed to sample several. Well heartened by this refreshment, I was then told I was to be presented to the General.
On entering his office, I saw a very good looking little man with silver white hair, bristling white moustache, flashing eyes, absolutely dapper from the head to the foot of his full five feet. He was absolutely charming and bubbling over with life. There were quite a number of beautiful ladies present. I discovered afterwards that these were ambulance drivers, who had been imported specially. In the two hours during which we sat at the meal, the flash in the General’s eye became more and more pronounced. We started singing. First of all kisses were blown to the fair sex, then hands were kissed and later cheeks.
The logical outcome of this, I was unfortunately not permitted to see, as the General decided it was time to visit his observation post. From this point of vantage, the whole war lay beneath us with the exception of Mount Cairo, which towered above from the other side of the Rapido Valley. There was the Monastery some hundreds of feet below. This was the only chance I had of looking down at it, except a long time afterwards from an aeroplane. In that clear, concise, logical way the French have, General Monsabert explained the ground, positions of his own troops and the Germans. We were some distance away but it was the most comprehensive view I had ever had of that battlefield. By the time, we have returned from the OP, I had to make tracks from home if I was to get there by daylight. It had been a most interesting and amusing day, but the prospect of sitting on those hills didn’t appeal to me at all.
This position had nothing to commend it except that it was a springboard for the big offensive in the then distant future. The machinery of carrying out this relief with the French was in it itself most complicated. It was impossible, obviously, to use the Rapido Valley in daylight. Having crossed it, it took, in some cases, as long as four hours for the troops to get into their positions on the mountain tops on the other side.
We, therefore, had to move one day into the San Michele area, and then the next night get across the valley and carry out the relief. We were told that we would have to hold this position for about one month.
In order to give people a rest, we started by holding our frontage with three battalions up, each less one company, in order to be able to ring the changes. This system worked reasonably well in most cases. It was obvious that our main battle was going to be one of administration. It would be a question of jeep trains, then mule loads, and eventually man packs before food, water and ammunition could reach the forward companies. Very strong administrative teams worked from San Michele, with ‘B’ Echelon about ten miles behind them.