Sherman tank near Albaneta Farm.
View over the Liri Valley.
The Cavendish Road was a tank path built by Indian and New Zealand engineers from Caira village to a forming up area between Phantom and Snakeshead ridges that would facilitate an attack on Monte Cassino in the middle of March 1944. On 19th March 1943, 37 tanks from the New Zealand armoured division were assembled into a deep bowl on the Cavendish Road called Madras Circus, and from where they would be able to sweep around to the rear of the monastery. The intention was to launch the attack after a assault just below the western wall of the monastery at Hangman’s Hill had commenced but due to lack of coordination, that attack had been postponed. Despite this delay, the tanks set off as planned and passed to the west of Colle Maiola which marks the northern end of Snakeshead Ridge. They then pushed along a narrow defile, which overlooked the vast expanse of the Liri Valley and which leads to the rear of the monastery. The tank force was not accompanied by any infantry and the German 4th Parachute Regiment, which was positioned behind the monastery, was able to stem the attack by disabling the first dozen tanks near to the medieval Albaneta Farm, and the remaining ones were forced to retreat. Overlooking Albaneta Farm is the southern end of Phantom Ridge, which is topped by the 601 metre Colle San Angelo.
The area near to Albaneta Farm was also the scene of a thwarted attack by the Polish Corps on 12th May 1944, before it became one of their routes of attack on the 17/18th May when they were finally able to break out into the Liri Valley after the 78th and 4th British Infantry Divisions had broken through the main body of the Gustav Line and cut Route 6. Today, we were accompanied by the President of the Gustav Line Association Benedetto Vecchio, who is a well known local musician, historian Alessandro Campagna. Damiano, Marisa and Birillo again joined us for another day of splendid and emotional exploration and adventure. The route along the Cavendish Road starts near to Caira Village and immediately there is quite a steep slope in the well defined track, and the path soon enters a narrow gorge with Colle Maiola, the start of Snakeshead Ridge on the left side, and the lower slopes of Monte Castellone on the right hand side. After a short while, the route narrows markedly with a few interlocking gorges joining the path from both left and right hand sides, with Wild Cat Hill looming high over us on the right hand side. After some distance of clear pathways, we now encountered heavy undergrowth, which blocked the way and required a range of clearing methods including the use of scythes and knives. After about an hour, we were able to fight through the vegetation and come to a plateau area and it was clear that we had reached Madras Circus where tanks had formed in advance of the assault of 19th March 1944.
To the right and slightly behind us now, but clearly visible, was the peak of Monte Castellone and beyond that we were overlooked, as always, by the familiar towering shape of Monte Cairo. To the left and in front of us, Snakeshead Ridge now dominated the area with a monument commemorating the Polish Army’s assaults in May 1944 now becoming visible. Further into the distance and at the southern end of Phantom Ridge could now be seen another monument to Polish bravery erected high on Colle San Angelo. At the far end of Madras Circus was an abandoned tank which had been dedicated to the Polish tank assault although the tank, itself, was an abandoned Sherman from another time period. Here a plaque had been installed to commemorate the courageous members of the Polish Corps, and both a Polish and Italian flag flew from the top of the gun turret. Following a picnic lunch, and a short siesta we continued along the path towards Albaneta Farm. We first came across some modern farm buildings, and about a quarter of a mile further along the path we found the ruins of the medieval Albaneta Farm which had seen extensive amounts of fighting during March and May 1944. On the left hand side now, Snakeheads Ridge now looked directly down over us. At this point, we started to probe the area looking for any 65 year old war debris. During the search they were able to find an American metal piercing bullet and several remnants of food containers.
The final part of our route now took us right under the sheer limestone cliffs below Snakeshead Ridge with many markers helping visitors from Poland to find areas of historic remembrance interest including a path leading up to Point 593. Towards our right hand side, now, were the slopes of Death Valley and thence down into the wide expanse of the Liri Valley. We could only begin to imagine the route taken by the escaping German troops when they finally evacuated the monastery area during the night of 17/18 May 1944. Several birds of prey flew over and some collapsed caves were seen on the left hand side as we walked the path towards the entrance of the monastery and within half an hour we found ourselves in the car park next to the Polish war cemetery, with the restored walls of the monastery high above. At this stage we were surprised and delighted to meet with Dom Germano, one of 20 Benedictine monks who remain at the abbey today and who had been a trainee seminarian when he was evacuated from the abbey in 1943. He spoke to us for about 45 minutes about his memories from the war time period and further illuminated many points of interest including the fact that the Germans had used caves directly below the abbey’s walls to store ammunition and supplies during the period in question. The drive down from the abbey provided the usual stupendous views of the whole breadth of the Liri valley across to the Aurunci mountains to the west and also to the south including the massive peaks of Monte Camino and Monte Difensa, the scene of so many very difficult battles during Dec 1943. In the way was Monte Trocchio, a rather ugly blot on the landscape standing close to the railway and Via Casalina, and seemingly staring vacantly across the Gari river towards Monastery Hill. By gazing downwards towards Cassino town the CWGC cemetery could be seen clearly in the evening sunlight and the rows of grave markers and memorials displayed their perfect symmetry from the heights of the massif.
Start of the Cavendish Road near Caira.
View eastwards towards Caira.
Towards Mt Maiola.
Gorges near Wild Cat Hill.
Towards Caira village.
Mt Castellone from the Madras Circus.
Death Valley towards the Liri valley.
Towards Snakeshead Ridge and Pt 593.