The Irish Brigade spent April 1944 on the slopes of Monte Castellone to the north of Monte Cassino. CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan describes his nightly ordeal of crossing the Rapido Valley with a supply train and ascending to the summit of Monte Castellone, where 2 LIR were perched on the 2,000 foot mountain top. After moving back to reserve positions at the end of the month, Edmund succumbed to a reoccurence of the malarial fever that had afflicted him since the campaign in Sicily.
“I was taken with my supplies to San Michele and here I was allocated about 30 mules which I loaded with tools, food and water and some of the men’s kit. Following immediately behind the company in pitch darkness, we climbed down the hill and came to a mysterious cavern which I was told was called ‘The Inferno”. From here we continued towards the town of Cassino and crossed the Rapido by a stone bridge. When we were in the middle, a salvo of shells landed on the road. At this point, we had difficulty controlling the mules and the drivers.
We set off again, slowly following the overladen soldiers. After getting so close to Monte Cassino that we felt we were almost under the monastery’s walls, we started climbing a precipitous path to Monte Castellone. We had to take particular care as the nervous muleteers were attempting to ditch their loads. I finally arrived at the top with about half a dozen mules. Loads were spread along the track behind us. The whole thing was a tactical mistake. The companies should have moved in first and the mule trains followed after they settled.
E Company’s position was the summit of Monte Castellone, and like the monastery hill, a foothill of Monte Cairo. It was located on a salient behind Monte Cassino that had been taken by French and American troops at tremendous cost. Slit trenches could not be dug in the rock, so sangars were built from the vast amount of rubble. The place stank. Holes could not be excavated and excrement was thrown everywhere. Each sangar had a large food tin as a latrine. Major Davies set the men to work to clear up the sordid mess after they had salvaged the abandoned mule loads.
I had to leave as dawn was breaking. If I was not back in the village of Caira, the battalion headquarters, before sunrise, I would have to walk across the wide valley in full daylight. I made my way from there back to the mule point at San Michele in a jeep. As soon as I arrived, I had to start preparing for the next trip. Daylight disclosed the full panorama of the vast battlefield. The valley of the Rapido was covered in smoke punctured by shell bursts. Monte Cairo dominated the landscape. The next evening’s journey was carried out more efficiently and a small escort accompanied us. Taking a different route, we avoided the stone bridge and the muleteers were not so panic-stricken. We arrived at the summit and discovered that nearly all the earlier loads had been rescued intact.
As dawn approached, we seized the opportunity to get some sleep. We had barely settled in our blankets after a hard night’s work when we were heavily bombarded by shells. When the shelling ceased, I went around checking casualties. I sent them to the field hospital. Finally, I went down to where our two officers were still deep in their massive dugout. They enquired: ‘Anyone hurt?’ They were safe, but the truth was that the dugout was too large to offer protection from shell bursts and they were lucky that none had exploded there.
We had a three day rest after Monte Castellone. My cousin Danny Hanlon visited us. Before we sent him on his way, he was introduced to Bob Doonan’s speciality: red Italian vino in an unwashed jerrycan. Doonan thrived on it. I had injured my knee during my nightly journeys into the mountains and it had swollen so much that my escort had to carry me to see Major Davies. He ordered me to rest and loaned me a senior NCO to make the daily run to Monte Castellone until I recovered. Soon after, we were relieved by the Poles who were going to use our hill as the start point of their attack on the monastery. We were not sorry to leave the mountain.
The division was taken back to train with their tank support for the impending offensive. I went down with malaria and I was taken back to a general hospital in Naples where I remained a couple of days. I was then shipped to Bari on the Adriatic. There, the hospitals were being cleared ready for the heavy casualties of the coming battle. Once more, I decided to discharge myself from hospital.”