The Irish Brigade celebrated St Patrick’s Day in 1944 out of the line. By the end of March, they had taken up defensive positions on the Gari River near to San Angelo and CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan describes his first sight of the badly damaged Abbey of St Benedict on the summit of Monte Cassino.
“One evening in March, I could see smoke, steam and lava streaming from the crater of Vesuvius. It was an awe-inspiring sight. Vesuvius had been almost quiescent since AD 79 when the caldera exploded and completely destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Since then, the new volcano had risen to a height of 2,300 feet, although that was a fraction of its former massive proportions. Its balmy slopes were the sites of convalescent homes for sick and wounded soldiers and these had to be hurriedly evacuated during the night. I thought then, and still do, that both Etna and Vesuvius had become lively after so much use of heavy explosives during the war.
We were warned that our time had come again but the brigade had been allowed to celebrate St Patrick’s Day out of the line. I was MC at the Brigade Mass. The celebrant was Father Dan Kelleher, a former amateur boxer who had sponsored boxing in the brigade. He and I became firm friends. Brigadier Scott was present, as were all the officers of the Irish Fusiliers, the Catholic Skins and London Irish officers. That evening we had a party in the sergeants’ mess marquee and the officers were invited. As usual, it developed into rugger scrums and a brawl. Shades of Didlington, I thought, as I went off to bed.
We were in the line once more, on the banks of the Rapido (Gari), where we relieved the New Zealanders. To our right was the monastery and, towering above, the mighty massif of Monte Cairo. Before the start of the second battle for Cassino, General Freyberg had decided that the Germans were using the ancient building as an observation post. He had called down saturation bombing on 15 February, during our stay at Santa Maria. I had watched vast armadas of flying fortress bombers on route to drop their loads on Monte Cassino and many hill towns that resembled it. The result was the creation of a strongpoint which was now almost impregnable.
From our positions on the Rapido (Gari), we could see coloured smoke which identified Allied positions. Every now and again, there would be a lull in the fighting and ambulances with large Red Cross flags slowly drove up the track and back. The monastery was a complete ruin, stark and forbidding in the sunlight. We had just settled in behind the thick walls of a farmhouse in our positions close to the Rapido when we were treated to a heavy bombardment. The dust had barely settled, when an Italian lady walked through the door, asking ‘Lavare?’ The Italian ladies were so brave and hard working.
Probably the most international army in the world formed that year in Italy. There were English, Irish, Scots, Americans, French, Indians, Poles, Canadians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Brazilians, Algerians, Tunisians, Jews, Italians and, even, Japanese-Americans. There were Australian and Rhodesian air force units. Against us was an army with many members conscripted from occupied Europe. It was a vast international array and a complete waste of humanity and resources.”