The COs’ groups went 24 hours ahead to tee up the takeover in each area. Only one battalion could be relieved on any one night owing to the limited track space.
The Skins started off from Mignano on the 28th, followed by the Irish Rifles and then the Faughs. The relief was not completed until early on 1st April. Brigade HQ was in one of the small houses on the edge of the Caira village. The top storey had been blown off, but there was still the ground floor, which the French had taken some trouble to strengthen. It was very small and the fewer people we had over there the better. Our party eventually consisted of Jimmy Stewart the BM, Johnny O’Rourke the IO, Ronnie Laming the Signal Officer, and the two LOs Frankie Lyness and Johnny McClinton. In addition to these, we had Rollo Baker, commanding the 17th Field Regiment. There were a few small outhouses tucked about and we managed to fit in under cover. We even had two sections of the Defence Platoon to see that we did not get beaten up by a Bosche patrol in the night.
We spent three amusing days with Colonel Gilbaud, commanding 4 RTT, and his staff. They passed a good deal of the time asleep. 10 to 12 and 2 to 4 were good sleeping periods. We soon began to see the sense of this; for sleep at all hours of the day and night was apt to be rudely broken by the arrival of a salvo of what Rollo called “enormous bricks”.
At one time or another, a “brick” hit every house in our immediate neighbourhood except our own (I think it was largely saved by not having a top storey on it), which would undoubtedly have been hit by the ones that passed close overhead to fall on the mule track below. The French were very graphic in their descriptions. After some hideous salvo had gone off outside, they would shout in unison “La Piste” or “Sur les quatre-fours”, or “Sur Les Goums” (an unfortunate company of those bearded warriors were holding some positions below). This would immediately be followed by a graphic description of which particular battery of German guns had perpetrated the crime. We admired their sense of direction at first, but found as time went on that we could even add to these things by giving the bearing of the German battery that had fired without reference to a compass or any of the normal aids.
The Skins’ positions which was the nearest to the Monastery covered one of the few tracks from the hills into the German positions, and it was here that most of the clashes occurred. “Phantom Ridge” became a local playground for Skins beating up Bosche when they got bored. Unfortunately, the armies of about three different nations had, at one time or another, laid mines in this area, and some very good chaps were lost in this completely sickening way. Their HQ was the only one we could drive to in daylight. Even going there, it was anything but comfortable on account of the unpleasant mountain called Cifalco from which the Huns peered down behind us.
The Irish Rifles held the key feature, Mount Castellone, which was a most inaccessible pinnacle 2,300 feet high. Owing to the observation we had from the Castellone ridge, the Bosche used to shoot shells of an enormous calibre onto the crest. When they missed it, they came to pay Brigade HQ a visit. We used to find these unexploded monstrosities from time to time. They rather brought home the inadequacy of our tumbledown home.
The Faughs were somewhat better off as they held the valley running up from Caira to Mount Cairo and were not nearly so much cocked up in the air. All their positions, though, were to some degree overlooked. They did not have the advantage of reverse slopes that the others had. On the whole, they got less shelling than the other battalions except for their HQ. This came in for nearly as much as Brigade HQ, which undoubtedly held the record for this period. The trouble was, there was nowhere else Brigade HQ could go. It was a good place to be away from and there was quite a lot of competition to go visiting. Unfortunately, I was unable to enter the visiting stakes as I still could not walk and contented myself with an occasional jeep ride to the Skins and, towards the end, a walk to the Faughs. The Irish Rifles, I never saw. Nearly every day, Rollo Baker and one or more of our own chaps visited the battalions by route march, about a four hour round trip.
Jimmy Stewart, our Brigade Major was indefatigable in this visiting and mountain hiking. Not content with daily expeditions he would sally forth at night to try and improve matters with mule convoys etc. Frankie Lyness or John McClinton usually went with Jimmy and often on their own. John O’Rourke was at it too. They all did great work and were always full of cheer. I often awaited their return with some anxiety when I heard noises and was relieved to see them again. I really thought John McClinton had it one night when he was trying to sort out a traffic muddle near the ADS. Those mule convoys at night were no fun – kicking mules and hills are a poor combination. I think everyone appreciated Jimmy’s untiring efforts very much – I know I did.
Ronnie Laming and his linesmen were a constant source of acute anxiety to me. Salvos would come down cutting his lines and off he and his bold warriors would go. I am full of admiration for linesmen. Cpl Occomore was grand.
The nights were really the worst part for everybody. The administrative convoys which set out at dusk each night really had a nightmare journey.
We were more than grateful to the chaps that came over every night. It was a nerve racking journey – far worse than just being there at night. How they got away with it, I don’t know. Providence was very good to us throughout this time, as indeed always.
The mule convoy going up to the Irish Rifles seldom arrived intact. On a dark night it needed tremendous vigilance to make sure that these animals had not slipped their loads by their own design or their drivers’ before they got to their destination. The Battalion’s administrative teams really came into their own during this period. There was some magnificent work done by the QMs and CQMSs and all the people who helped them earned the very highest praise. The Irish Rifles’ bakery, which never failed to produce appetising cakes for the warriors on the mountain top, was a great tribute to Dave Aitkenhead and his minions. The administrative area was very far from safe. Nothing but a thin covering of olive trees obscured it from the Monastery. They had a rotten time there. It was a matter of extremely hard work and thought by Paddy and everyone else to keep supplies going, but it was extremely well done. The lessons they learnt in endurance, guts and improvisation during this very difficult month probably paved the way to the magnificent administration that was a feature of the big advance later.
The counter mortar organisation was going full blast the whole time we were in this area. Goodness knows how many 4.2 inch and 3 inch shells were fired back whenever the Bosche were bold enough to loose off mortars at us. In addition to this, we kept Divisional and Corps counter battery staff pretty hard worked. When one is doing little else than being shelled intermittently most of the day and night, it is extraordinary how interested you get in counter battery organisation. There was no need to ask anyone for shell reps. They were only too keen to get them in. Rolle or I were continually badgering the CBO to ginger up the counter battery work. I do not think that we were able to reach the really big chaps. We took quite a keen interest in these. One morning, John O’Rourke and I were travelling up a track to see the Skins when we found an enormous hole on it making it quite impassable, and just beyond a huge dud. A couple of 210s had evidently lit in the small hours of the morning just before Brigade HQ.
The Faughs took over a most unfortunate site with their 3” mortars. It just happened to be just above Brigade HQ. Any shooting by them had a most unfortunate effect for it must have been quite obvious to any Bosche on the opposite hill where they were. The Faughs were rather pained when I gave strict orders that these mortars would only be used in a defensive fire role. We had so many others it really did not matter.
The Skins’ 3 inch mortars did a lot of excellent work during this time from a very good position well up in the mountain and just off the jeep track. They could easily be supplied with the considerable amount of ammunition and they liked using it. Roy May of the Kensingtons, our ‘D’ Support Group, did very excellent work with his 4.2s, and Phillip Marshall, the Support Group commander and he spent a lot of time hatching counter mortar plots. The Bosche hates our 4.2 inch mortar. In that sort of country, mortars are about the only thing that can get into the wadis and behind the crests. The Germans used howitzers quite a lot. Our equivalent to that was 25 pounders firing in the “upper register”, but they didn’t seem to be a great success.
The French had done a magnificent job in capturing these hills we were on, at the end of their long advance through the mountains in January. They were a very business like lot of chaps and excellent soldiers but they did not seem very clever at stopping the Bosche patrols taking liberties with them. Our chaps very soon put this right. After a day or two, word soon got around among the Herrenvolk that patrolling among the Irish was a pastime that did not pay. In fact, the boot was very soon on the other foot. The Skins, especially, put up some very fine performances.
On the first occasion when the General came to see me, he asked me to think out a plan for capturing the Monastery. We had nearly been let in on this project a little bit earlier on and it was one that I did not altogether take to. I said I thought the best plan was for someone else to capture it. When it transpired that this really was the idea, I was quite prepared to advance suggestions, which I knew I would not have to put into effect. On another occasion, he wanted a plan for capturing Mount Cairo. This one, too, I was quite prepared to consider under the same terms of reference. However, these things gave me something to think about. As a matter of fact, we really did not need much, for we never seemed to be short of some subject about which we argued interminably.
The interesting thing was there were seven of us cooped up in this ghastly little house for a month and yet none of us ever got on the other’s nerves. It was a most amicable and pleasant party and if it had not been for all the German shelling and the stink of dead mules and French sanitation, it would have been a pleasant show. During all this time, Rollo Baker and Jimmy Stewart were simply splendid, doing all the things that I could not do owing to my state of immobility.
We were very glad when some Poles started coming over to have a look around. They were being given the unenviable task of capturing the monastery and breaking through the mountains behind it when the big battle came off. Their senior commanders seemed very good chaps and either spoke English or French. We did all we could to help them for we felt most grateful that someone else would be cracking this unpleasant nut.
Their attitude towards this battle was unusual. Their General expounded the big plot to them, which required one brigade to attack and the other to stay put initially. There was some questions about which brigade was to lead the ball. One Brigadier rose to his feet and asserted, with much vigour, that his men had fought at Tobruk, were seasoned warriors and would do the attack. The other Brigadier at once rose to his feet and said no, he was the senior, therefore his brigade would do the attack. Feeling became so strong that I believe compromise was impossible until the brigades were split in half and the Brigadiers commanded part of each. Such a show of keenness to attack in our army might be misinterpreted. They were also to relieve us in our current positions in time to give us a breather before the big push.
Some people used to get a break from Caira. Most of the companies got out for a few days, all the COs had a spell out. James Dunnill flying to the other Cairo. Rollo Baker used to have pressing engagements with his guns, which required a couple of days over the other side now and then. When Rollo was away, he was relieved by a gentleman, who became known as “George Porgie”. Georgie had an unfortunate habit – he would talk in his sleep. He even snored and when our sleep was broken in this way in addition to so many others, it was really too much. Georgie was told he would either have to sleep outside or cure himself. On the other hand, he had some really good qualities. No soon had a shell alighted within the confines, then he would rush out, take a bearing, shout for counter battery and demand an air OP. All that was very encouraging and Georgie (who was really Second-in-Command of 17 Field Regiment) well earned his keep.
Visitors were frequent at Brigade HQ as soon as it got dark. They all got fed and then had a drink, they needed it too. Visiting that Brigade HQ was no fun, day or night. These visits really reached a climax when Harry Slessor, whom I had known in 6th Armoured Division and who now commanded their A/Tk Regiment, arrived at 0200hrs to sell me some of his SP A/Tk guns. I was all in favour of these, and anyway I like Harry, so I forgave him and his strange hours of calling and received him in pyjamas. We had a few Canadian tanks already and these M10s with them provided a nice little party to seal the track through the Skins area and keep a few more in reserve at the bottom of the hill.
Shortly before our relief by the Poles, and during it, we had a lot of trouble with our own smoke shells. For some obscure reason, which no General was ever able to get to the bottom of, we started a nightly programme of firing smoke shells at the monastery. Unfortunately, those that fired them, who they were remained a mystery, were not very clever and kept dropping them amongst the Skins’ positions. This, Rollo assured me, was an error that no reasonable gunner should countenance. I got very angry about these smoke shells and no doubt the Skins got even more angry. Two nights running, I disturbed the General’s evening with vituperations against this nuisance. He tried his best to stop it, and I gather so did the Corps Commander, but still they went on. Whether they shot the Poles up or not, I never heard.
The time of our relief was now drawing close. Our relief by the Poles was going to be a very tricky and difficult position. However, we were prepared to overcome any difficulty to get out of that sinister place. The 6th Lwow Brigade were the people to relieve us. Their commander, Colonel Nowina, paid a preliminary visit two days before. He was a very good chap and most cooperative.
It took three days to carry out the relief. Three very difficult days for each battalion in its turn. The business of putting the Poles to the right place in time, with no known language in common and a fair amount of German shelling to impede progress, was no ordinary undertaking. Muddles occurred at almost every stage of the proceedings. Muddles were at once put right by the chap on the spot, whether he was a private soldier or a commanding officer. The whole essence of this relief was a race against time. The hours of darkness were barely sufficient to get the new unit across the Rapido Valley into position and the old one out and back across the valley before daylight. The margin was so small that chances could not be taken and to avoid the risk of a battalion being caught in the open at dawn, we had a series of smoke canisters across the valleys, with chaps standing by them, which were lit before dawn if there was any danger of the outgoing unit not making it in time. Sometimes, it was thickened up by the 25 pounders. This smoke plan saved both the French and ourselves on more than one occasion. Cassino itself was kept in an almost continual pall by this means. The main thing was that we eventually got out and affected an unscathed relief.
No one’s job was easy, but the Irish Rifles really had a formidable task to run their relief. Ion Goff thought out every possible contingency and scope for muddles; and it was largely due to his careful forethought and sound arrangement that things went so well.
The Faughs’ relief was an awful shambles, due to no fault of theirs. In fact, it was thanks to their firmness that things went as well as they did. They were last out, and when I caught them up the next morning and saw Hughie Holmes, commanding in James Dunnill’s absence on leave, he told me that there had been two casualties. One man slightly wounded and one kicked by a mule but as the latter had got up and kicked the mule back, they reckoned he was alright. It sounded likely.
I doubt if any of us were ever more thankful to get out of nowhere. I remember well my final rush across the Rapido Valley in the early morning light after everyone else had gone. One drove with the feeling in one’s mind that it would just be too bad to get pipped on the post and my jeep, with trailer behind, travelled at no ordinary speed, doing bending races through derelict cars, which had been smashed up a night or two before. For some extraordinary reason, the Bosche fired no shell my way that morning.