Irish Brigade

The story of the 38th (Irish) Brigade in the Second World War

San Angelo

By now, it had become evident that the New Zealand Corps’ plan for the capture of Cassino and the Monastery had failed and it would be necessary for considerable regrouping to take place before the major offensive could be resumed. From December till the big push in May, some parts of this particular front had not changed at all.

There had been a limited success in January near the mouth of the Garigliano River by 10 Corps and there had been an advance by the French and the Americans in December which placed them in the neighbourhood of Cassino. The French had done magnificently in the mountains to the north of the Liri Valley and had got up behind Cassino and the Monastery onto Mount Castellone and Belvedere, mountains of over 2,000 feet and sub features of the mighty Mount Cairo which towered above them. These features were captured in order to facilitate operations against Cassino and the Monastery, but while these places remained in German hands, a pre war Staff College instructor would have labelled ours untenable. Cassino, the Monastery and Cairo remained in German hands.

At this time, the French had been sitting in this unwholesome area for a month. The Monastery was undoubtedly the key position. It completely dominated the French line of control, Cassino and the Liri Valley. On the other side of the Liri Valley, the village of San Ambroglio also dominated the lower ground. I had endeavoured to capture this place in January with the Hampshire Brigade but had been thwarted by the Germans having opened a dam at the psychological moment, making the river completely impassable in front of Ambroglio.

It will be seen from this, that the Germans enjoyed unpleasantly good observation over the Allied positions. The Rapido (Gari), a tributary to the Garigliano ran straight across the Liri Valley from Cassino to Ambroglio and it was on either side of this river that the opposing armies, as they concerned us, sat. The ground rose gradually from 50 to 100 feet on either side of the Rapido (Gari) and the Monastery looked at it all. There was a fair amount of cover owing to the undulation of the ground, with a certain number of broken down houses.

Our job on 22nd March was to relieve 11 Brigade in the middle of the Liri Valley on the banks of the Rapido in front of the village of San Angelo. In the early days, road movement was the greatest problem on this front. Highway Six and the main Rome to Naples railway were both on our axis and had been well demolished in many places. Movement off the roads after rain was disastrous. There were also plenty of mines about.

By the time we came into the picture, Highway Six had been mended, the railway had been converted into quite a good road known as “Speedy Express”, and a certain number of minor tracks had been strengthened. The forward concentration area for this part of the world was around Mignano, from which Highway Six and Speedy Express diverged towards Cassino. Mignano used to receive the unwelcome attention of 170s, especially during the hours of slumber. Speedy Express and Highway Six also had their drawbacks. As one got close to Cassino, these drawbacks became more evident and more noisy.

The normal form of transport for people like myself was a jeep driven as near as 60mph as the road surfaces or track surfaces would permit. We also had about 600 guns varying from 250 to ordinary field pieces in this neighbourhood. Unfortunately, they seemed at this time to have unlimited ammunition and the din was quite appalling. ‘Long Toms’ were apt to creep up behind one’s HQ in the dark without reference to anyone and suddenly start loosing off. I think this was almost worse that the contribution sent over by the other side. There were still a few German aeroplanes playing about but their role seemed to be mostly reconnaissance, though they occasionally had a crack at one of the many gun positions. The ack-ack fire that went up at these odd German reconnaissance planes was of no ordinary intensity.

By the 23rd, the Irish Rifles and the Faughs had taken over from 11 Brigade, while the Skins remained well back in reserve. It was difficult country to defend economically and it was overlooked to an uncomfortable degree in its forward areas. Mortars were the chief nuisance to the forward troops at this time and we started a counter mortar organisation to deal with this. What it really amounted to was the plotting of German mortar positions and infantry positions as far as we could possibly get them, then the moment any German mortar was sufficiently ill advised as to fire, we sent back about a fifty to one bombardment onto all known German positions using everything we had including the invaluable 4.2” mortars. This policy certainly paid quite a good dividend and reduced German harassing fire to a very considerable extent.

Nothing much happened while we were in this sector except what the BBC calls “artillery duels and patrolling”. This always sounds a matter of small interest on the news, but if you happen to be a participant in it, it is one of the most unpleasant forms of war there is, especially in an area like that where there are immeasurable unmarked minefields. By the 27th, we had handed over this place to the New Zealanders and moved back to the Mignano area before indulging in what proved to be the most unpleasant month the brigade has ever spent.

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