Battlefield visit: Cassino

Photograph of Monte Cassino with the the Cassino memorial at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in the foreground.

More than 100 Irish Brigade soldiers are buried here.

Visiting the location of Irish Brigade actions in the Cassino battlefield.

The battlefield of Cassino is familiar to veterans and those with an interest in the Allied campaign in Italy in 1943-45. The town of Cassino is at the foot of Monte Cassino, a 1,700-foot mountain where St Benedict built one of Christianity’s first monasteries at the start of the 6th Century.

The mountains above Cassino in 1944 were major strongpoints in the German Gustav Line, a formidable, connected series of fortified positions that stretched from the coast of the Adriatic Sea near Ancona, across the Appenine Mountains and into the valley of the River Liri, and through the Abruzzi Mountains and onto Italy’s west coast at Gaeta. The first battles for Cassino took place along the River Rapido, and across the River Garigliano in January 1944 and the attacks were repulsed. The second and third battles centred on Monte Cassino, and in the town of Cassino during February and March 1944. The fourth and final battle for Cassino began on 11 May and involved about 200,000 Allied troops. All told, the battle for Cassino was the longest battle of the 2nd World War and involved the highest number of casualties suffered by Allied forces in all their campaigns on the Western fronts.

Detailed battlefield maps of the Cassino and Liri Valley areas showing the positions of the Irish Brigade during May 1944 can be found by clicking here.

A strategic overview of Operation Diadem, or the 4th Battle of Cassino.

The Irish Brigade was given responsibility for leading the breakthrough into the Liri Valley

Visitors wishing to visit the site of Irish Brigade actions in the area should first head towards the town of Cassino, which is on the main express line between Rome and Naples. The alternative route by road takes about an hour from the Italian capital. The Liri valley and the views towards the surrounding mountains are very picturesque indeed.

The town of Cassino was totally destroyed during the battle and is today largely made up of modern buildings built since 1945.

Cassino Monastery

The starting point for Irish Brigade battlefield visitors should be the monastery of Monte Cassino which is open throughout the year and on the road up to it, there is an opportunity to view the entire Cassino battlefield.

Across the Liri valley

This is an excellent place to gain a clearer understanding of the scale of the battlefield and to see the key landmarks in the Irish Brigade advance up to and through the Gustav Line in May 1944.

Trocchio looming large – the view from Monastery Hill.

The Irish Brigade sheltered on the other side of the hill on the night of 14 May 1944 before advancing to Congo bridge over the Gari which is on the far right of the picture.

From Monte Cassino, you can see the huge bulk of Monte Trocchio, behind which the brigade sheltered on 14 May 1944. The main railway line and Route Six are clearly visible in the valley below. You should also be able to see the line of the River Rapido  which the brigade crossed early on 15 May just north of the village of San Angelo in Theodice, which was one of the main German strongpoints in the Liri Valley. Those with binoculars will be able to look north towards the hamlet of Sinagoga and the village of Piumarola, both fortified strongpoints attacked by the Brigade between 16 and 18 May 1944.

The view of the monastery from the Polish War cemetery. The Polilsh Corps attacked across the land beyond the monastery and suffered heavy casualties during the 4th Battle of Cassino which began on the night of 11 May 1944.

Adjacent to the monastery of Monte Cassino is the Polish war cemetery which occupies some of the land that the Polish Corps advanced over during the 4th battle for Cassino, and the cemetery is overlooked by Snakeshead Ridge,which looms high above. Here is found probably the most important expression of national feelings outside Poland itself and there are usually many Polish visitors honouring those who lie buried.

Cassino war cemetery where more than 100 members of the Irish Brigade are buried. Monte Cassino is in the background.

It is suggested that visitors should now return to Cassino town to find the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery; a moving monument to the Allied troops who died fighting in the Cassino area. It contains the graves of all the Irish Brigade soldiers killed in the battle and is beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. From the cemetery, the view north perfectly profiles the monastery and it’s bells can be heard ringing clearly in the valley below,

Visitors can then drive about a mile to the village of Caira, which was the site of the Irish Brigade headquarters in March and April 1944 when the Brigade was deployed on Monte Castellone, and which looks down on Monte Cassino, although deep gorges prevent easy access from one peak to the other. A path can be walked up to Monte Castellone, and across the ridge towards Albaneta Farm, which is the back door to the monastery but this should only be attempted by those fit enough for some hard climbing. It is suggested that a local guide should also be hired to aid navigation and background knowledge. Caira village also contains the German war cemetery.

The Blessing of the Waters of the Gari held annually in May.

The next step is to take the road along the River Rapido (known locally as the Gari) to San Angelo, which provides an excellent panoramic view of the front line from the German perspective in May 1944.

The Gari near the site of Congo bridge. In May 1944, the river was a critical element of the German Gustav Line.

San Angelo stands on a bluff above the Rapido and was the site of bitter fighting involving units of the 8th Army in the early days of the 4th battle for Cassino.

Visitors can then find their way to the point on the Rapido where a bridge crossing (Congo bridge) was built in a horse shoe bend in the river and which was used by the brigade on 15 May. Looking north, you will be able to see the landscape that confronted the brigade on that day, across largely flat farmland but interspersed with a succession of low ridges, and with the Piopetto river lying across any advance northwards.

The road to Sinagoga: it was at the centre of the 2nd Battalion’s advance on the morning of 16 May 1944. This photograph was taken about 400 yards south-east of the Casa Sinagoga, the principal target of the London Irish attack. H Company, which led the advance, was deployed on either side of this road.

You can drive or (if very energetic but probably not recommended) walk from there along the axis of advance of the Skins on 15 May towards the Cassino to Pignataro Road. This is where the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish spent the night of 15 May.

Casa Sinagoga in August 2010. On 16 May 1944, it was the principal target of the London Irish advance. After bitter fighting, it was taken by H Company and then held from counterattacks mainly coming from across the Piopetto River, which lies on the other side of the Casa.

The landscape from there has been altered by roads built since 1945, but the original road from here to Sinagoga, and which was the axis of advance of the London Irish remains and can be followed by foot from the Cassino-Pignataro Road.

Franco and Clara Sinagoga receiving a plaque of commemoration in May 2009 on the 65th anniversary of the battle at Sinagoga from Nigel Wilkinson of the London Irish Rifles Regimental Association and local historian Alessandro Campagna

This leads to the hamlet of Sinagoga, which was the centre of the German positions on 16 May. Some German entrenchments still exist and London Irish trenches dug after Sinagoga was taken can be found to the right of the hamlet.

From Colle Monache looking towards the Rapido river. A photograph taken in August 2010 looking towards the route of the advance of G Company which was on left of the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles’ advance on the morning of 16 May 1944.

The lane from Sinagoga passes a left turn where a bridge crosses the new highway towards Colle Monache (pronounced Monarchy), and which was held by E Company of the London Irish on the night of 16 May.

Roman ruins in Piumarola. The town was taken by the Skins on 17 May.

Further down the road, it descends to the valley of the Piopetto stream along which the Faughs advanced and here lies the village of Piumarola, which was the site of a successful attack by the Skins on the evening of 17 May.

The view from Roccasecca towards Cassino

There are many other places of interest in the area including the Aquino airfield, which was a German strong point; the town of Piedemonte north of the Via Casalina and Roccasecca, which was the headquarters of the Germany Army’s commander-in-chief Albert Kesselring during the Cassino battles.

Thomas Aquinas gazes serenely down onto the Liri valley

Roccasecca is also the birthplace of Thomas Aquinas and an enormous modern statue depicting him stands in its centre. From here, there are further magnificent views across the Liri valley and you can look down onto the Melfa river gorge.

Looking towards Hill 255 and Ripi

Looking towards the north from here, you can see Monte Grande and Piccolo, and then further onto Hill 255 and San Giovanni, near to Ripi, which was the scene of some bitter street fighting for the Irish Brigade towards the end of May 1944.

The Cassino municipality is familiar with visits from many veterans and other visitors, and there are numerous hotels and bed and breakfast facilities in the area. An alternative is to stay at a seaside resort in the Gaeta area, which can be reached in one hour by car.  Despite the terrible damage inflicted on the area by Allied bombing and shelling, the people of the region are welcoming and extremely hospitable.

Peter Doughty plays a lament for the fallen at the Polish war cemetery on the 65th anniversary of the final assault on Monte Cassino


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