Major Desmond Woods – Liri Valley I


H Company.

Now, we were brought back and it was a question of what was going to happen next. We all felt that eventually we were going to get involved in the battle of Cassino and we came back to prepare for this – first of all to get  a bit of a rest after Monte Castellone and then to start getting ready for what lay ahead. And that was going to be quite a battle.

Major Desmond Woods

Now, they had been at least three abortive attempts to try and take the monastery at Cassino and they’d failed. General Alexander eventually decided that he was going to bomb the monastery and Flying Fortresses came over and the place was absolutely plastered with bombs and shattered. The trouble was that the masonry and the part of the monastery all fell down but it didn’t achieve anything, I‘m afraid really, because the Germans merely moved down to the cellars below and, if anything, this strengthened their positions. The town of Cassino itself – I don’t think there was a house left standing in Cassino by the time we got up to that area – it was absolutely shattered. The look of the houses – they were all blasted down and it was the most terrible looking sight but the most awesome thing of all was this monastery towering above us.

Commanded by General Charles Keightley, 78th Division had earmarked to attack the centre of the Gustav Line, and he had the Irish Brigade, commanded by Pat Scott, who had taken over from Nelson Russell, to spearhead this attack. On coming down from Monte Castellone, we had a breathing space to prepare ourselves for this bloody battle that lay ahead. My Company – H Company – had never looked back after the river Moro when I think they realised that I would not sacrifice their lives unnecessarily and I had managed to replace some of the men who were battle weary by fresh blood.

Now, I would like to tell you a little bit about some of the personalities in H Company.

Lt Michael Clark MC

Michael Clark, one of my platoon commanders, was probably, I think the longest serving officer in the company. He had won the Military Cross in previous fighting – he was a young man, a retiring type, but extremely stalwart and I would have put my shirt on him. The men were very fond of him – he might possibly not have shone at a cocktail party but what lay ahead of us was to be no cocktail party. I was extremely lucky to have him commanding one of my platoons.

One of the other platoons was commanded by Geoffrey Searles. He was a completely different character; he was an American, he had quite a lot of social graces, very tall, spoke with a slight American accent, tremendous personality and equally his men would have gone anywhere with him.

My third platoon was commanded by a sergeant – one of the best I had. I can’t remember his name now fifty years on but he was about the best I had in the company. But, at the same time, I always felt no matter how good a sergeant was, the men always preferred to be commanded by an officer but there was at this time a shortage of officers. My Company Sergeant Major, Sergeant Major Long was a great big man, very jovial expression, he had a good sense of humour and a great chap to have round you in a tight spot. I can remember on occasions when the shells were raining down he would say, “Everything in the garden isn’t exactly rosy now, Sir,” and I would say “I think you’re right there sergeant major.”

Of the nine section commanders these were all young men, absolutely dedicated. They were fit and it was very difficult to choose between them all but if I was asked to say now one of them who might have been the most outstanding, I would have said Corporal Barnes. He was a young man, who came from near Keady in County Monaghan. He was full of life – always smiling – every time you met him he would greet you. He was great when we were out of the line – a keen footballer and the best type of young corporal you could possibly have. They were then the nine lance corporals – seconds in command of sections. They were good men as well and the riflemen themselves had all been tested and I was very pleased with them.

Now, it is important that there should be no weak links in the company. In the chain of command right down from myself there had to be no links that were missing whatsoever. One weak link and something could go wrong. I had spent a great deal of time getting H Company up to the peak they were now and they probably were as well trained at this particular time as I could possibly get them. It is so necessary to put in the time to get them ready for battle. They were very fit, their morale was high and I had one hundred per cent confidence in them.

I knew that once they were committed they would really go and this is exactly what they did. The time had now come to prepare to attack this mighty Gustav Line.