March 30th/31st to April 25th 1944.
From Mt Castellone towards Cassino monastery.
Across the Rapido valley to San Michele.
Monte Castellone formed the most northerly point on what was known as Phantom Ridge and was held in strength by the Germans until early in February 1944 when it was captured by the American 135th Regiment. It was the scene of a major German counterattack on 12 Feb 1944, and a truce to collect the dead on the battlefield area near Castellone was arranged for the morning of 14th Feb 1944 (Valentine’s Day). The Americans were relieved on Castellone by elements of the French Expeditionary Corps (FEC) in late February, before the Irish Brigade was brought forward from 28th March 1944 onwards, with 2/LIR taking up position on the summit of Castellone, itself, during the night of 30/31 March.
John Horsfall described the scene in his diary:“… lately I have been resident in one of the most remarkable places I have ever been in. Just like sitting on the top of the world with the surrounding countryside mapped at one’s feet… Although the Germans are in residence nearby there is an impossible chasm between us…2000 ft deep, so where are you? One can hurl abuse and that is all, some places are so deep one would need scaling ladders and one could carry on successful defence heaving thrown down rocks and boiling pitch..” He went onto say:“Digging in along the tops of the mountain was virtually impossible as the key parts of the feature were the living rock. Because of this, our pickets and observation posts had to lie up behind rough sangars build out of loose boulders. Most of these were pushed together during the night in the vain hope of protecting our men from small arms fire…E Company held the most southerly of our posts, and Mervyn Davies said that he spent his day there looking down on the monastery and keeping it under the closest watch. At times it seemed close enough to reach out and touch in the clear mountain air…He said that after his month on top of the mountain he was never more thankful to leave any place.”
To supply the infantry companies who were positioned close to the summit of Castellone, the supply column had to cross the Rapido valley from an area near to San Michele, and to then use a pack of mules to bring supplies up the 2000 feet from Caira village. Edmund O’Sullivan describes the first day of supplying his men on the peak of Castellone:“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 over laden 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, like the monastery hill, a foothill of Monte Cairo. It was located on a salient behind Monte Cassino that had been taken by French 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, near to 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 none had exploded there.”
In 2011, we started the climb to Monte Castellone from Villa San Lucia to the west of the mountain and under the watchful eyes of Monte Cairo, at 1667 meters the dominant peak in the Cassino area. This side of the mountain was close to the supply route that the Germans would have used to service their front line troops stationed near to Monte Cassino during February to May 1944. The initial climb followed a clear pathway but soon came to an area deeply enmeshed with undergrowth, and which required the cutting down of branches and having to force a way through bushes which had grown tall through the summer months. It was clear throughout the climb that any enemy positions on or around Monte Cairo would have continuously provided a threatening overview of the whole area. In the distance could be heard the bells of cows and goats which were roaming in the area and on some occasions, distant gunfire rang out caused by local hunters. As we neared the summit, the slopes became much more boulder strewn, and it was clear how difficult it would have been to create safely guarded trenches in this inhospitable environment. One notable difference between the days during April 1944 when 2/LIR guarded the slopes of Castellone and our rather leisurely ascent was that today’s climb was taking place in the most beautiful weather with clear blue skies and temperatures well into the 70s, rather than the drizzle and occasional sleet showers of 1944.
As we reached the summit area, there appeared to be several rocky cairns and after referencing a GPS monitor we were able to confirm that we had finally reached Pt 771. Here we lit a small candle and said a few words in recognition of all those who suffered here during those three months in the spring of 1944. A verse of the Garryowen was duly sung (rather badly). Oh, for a piper or two to add further resonance to the occasion. Due south of the main summit of Castellone was a saddle area which formed quite an extensive rocky desert and it was here that the full vista experienced by 2/LIR showed itself with clear outlooks across to Colle San Angelo at the southern end of Phantom Ridge and to its left the monastery of St Benedict sitting on the summit of Monte Cassino. Behind us was the looming shape of Monte Cairo and it was immediately clear that any movement in this area during day light would have resulted in German counter strikes.
All in all, it was a most overwhelming scene – and one that mirrored Mervyn Davies’s recollections from that period. Steve Job’s invention now came into its own as we were able to send a video of this marvellous scene to my brother Edmund, who was working that day in Riyadh, and he was able to respond within five minutes with the word “Magnifico”, a sentiment shared by all of us. Across the saddle of open rocky ground was another area of deep undergrowth and here we were able to find the remains of the medieval castle that gave its name to the mountain – one of 47 which had been built during the middle ages to protect the approaches to Monte Cassino. This area, too, had been the site of bitter hand to hand conflict when the 6th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (6/Inns) had been positioned here during the April 1944 period. The lovely autumn day now lent itself perfectly to a picnic of prosciuotto baguettes, followed by a leisurely walk down the mountain as the sun started to recede into the Liri valley in the distance, with the reflections of glass from many buildings and vehicles giving an impression of a vast lake in the valley hundreds of feet below. Several wild horses approached us at this point which added to the serenity of a most perfect day. We could only marvel at the scene and I made sure that I took a further pause for reflection on the sacrifices made by so many within this small area of ground.
Towards Mt Castellone from Villa San Lucia.
Near the summit.
Towards the upper Rapido valley.
From Castellone to the Liri Valley.
Towards Cassino monastery.
Mt Castellone from the north.