March 21st to March 28th 1944.
Towards San Angelo – Mt Cairo and Mt Cassino in the background.
From San Angelo east over the Gari river.
The 2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles (2/LIR) took over defensive duties from the 2nd New Zealand division in front of San Angelo in Theodice on 21st March 1944 and remained in position for the next 7 days before being moved to the Castellone mountain sector.
CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan recalls:
“We were in the line once more, on the banks of the Rapido (sic), 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 called down saturation bombing on 15 February, during our stay at Santa Maria. I had watched vast armadas of flying fortress bombers drop their loads on Cassino and many towns that resembled it. The result was the creation of a strongpoint which was now almost impregnable.
From our positions near to the riverbank, 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 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.”
Lt-Col John Horsfall also writes:
“In the course of the reconnaissance I had my second close up of Monastery Hill. Down near the Rapido (sic), it seemed to hang over the top of us, with the garrison breathing down our necks. Relatively quiet at the time, it was even more sinister in the intervals of silence. However there was smoke all over the place and the Germans were shelling near the river bank here and there below us intermittently…
The area… was a difficult one to defend anyway, being overlooked by enemy in front of us who could see down into our most forward positions. San Angelo itself sat perched up on a bluff in the centre of the sector immediately opposite us. Smack in the middle of the valley entrance it held the western bank of the Rapido secure for the enemy so long, but only so long as they held possession of it. Heavily defended and long prepared San Angelo was the principal German frontier fortress downstream of Cassino.”
(Note: The name of the river downstream of Cassino town, although referred to in history books as the Rapido, is actually more properly called the Gari, before its confluence with the Liri river when it becomes the Garigliano).
The open plain in front of the Gari river bridge at San Angelo has a clear view of (and has clear visibility from) the monastery 2/3 miles to the north. On the eastern side of the river there is a huge bell that is rung every May at the “Blessing of the Waters of the Gari”, which is a commemorative event organised by the commune of Cassino. The modern day Gari river flows very strongly at the bridge below San Angelo having passed through a small upstream weir. The village of San Angelo, itself, even at 50 feet above the level of the river, seems to tower above, and has commanding views of the surrounding area. From the riverbank, an excellent view can be gained by walking into the central area of the village where there is a commemorative statue in honour of the US 36th (Texan) Infantry Division which had suffered so dreadfully in their failed attempt to cross the Gari in January 1944.
Monument to US 36th Infantry Division at San Angelo.
River Gari below San Angelo.