A VISIT TO THE ITALIAN BATTLEFIELDS
MONTE CASSINO - ANZIO - SANGRO RIVER - GOTHIC LINE
The purpose of this diary is to chronicle our visit to the main Italian battlefields of the Second World War in the hope that it will help and guide those who wish to follow a similar journey. It is a purely personal diary in many ways, but I hope reflects an interesting trip made special because all four of us had personnel connections with these battlefields: myself having a father who served here, Clive Harris having an uncle who took part in the Pescara Raid, and John Mogie whose uncle was killed at the Sangro. John Dray, an old friend who had walked many battlefields all over Europe with us, was himself a veteran of the Italian campaign - which gave us a unique insight into the fighting, the ground and the events of 1943-45. John served with the 5th Northants at Cassino and the Liri Valley, and the 2/7th Queens on the Gothic Line and near Faenza. He was wounded twice.
If you have any questions, feel free to email me.
Day 1 - Arrival
We flew from London Heathrow on a mid-morning flight with British Airways, which took us into Rome at lunchtime. Having picked up a hire car, we took the motorway out of the airport, and headed anti-clock wise round the Rome ring-road until we picked up signs for the A1 autostrada (motorway), which would take us directly down to Cassino. This was a toll-road, which only cost us just over 5€ for the entire 125+ KM journey. En-route we made use of one of the excellent Italian motorway services, which provide a variety of cheap food and drink, and are highly recommended.
Approaching Cassino via the Liri Valley John Dray was able to give us an insight into the fighting there as he began to recognise the names of many places he had fought over in May 1944. We came off the motorway at the exit for Cassino and drove into the town to find our hotel. We had chosen the Hotel La Pace, which although it looked fairly shabby on the outside, it proved to be excellent on the inside with very helpful staff and clean, large and well suited rooms - and a super restaurant as we discovered that night. It also has free internet access and has a good display of WW2 battlefield relics recovered from the surrounding; above it sits Castle Hill and it is only minutes from all the main sites - we found it excellent for this part of the trip.
Before the day was over we had a chance to visit the Cassino War Cemetery.
Having visited hundreds of British and Commonwealth
cemeteries all over the world - this was one of the most amazing battlefield
settings I had ever found. Looming above the cemetery was high ground on which
sites the abbey of Monte Cassino - and around you the rows and rows of graves
from the fighting here in 1943-44: graves dominated by men who had fallen in the
four battles for Cassino itself. Here we found the grave of John's company
commander, Major R.W.Cook MC (see photo, left), and the men who died when they went to look for
his body. Having a veteran with us to add some colour to the men buried here was
already making this a special trip. As the sun began to set, we returned to out
Day 2 - Monte Cassino
After a good breakfast we headed up the long winding road to the monastery of Monte Cassino. The views from the road where quite incredible, and the commanding positions the Germans had here was soon realised. At the monastery we found the parking, and made our way inside. Rebuilt since the destruction of 1944, it was an impressive structure, and from one of the balconies were able to view the Snakeshead Ridge where John had been with the 5th Northants: surveying the ground we made a decision to try a walk up to this position.
Driving down to the Polish Cemetery, we parked up and spoke to the car-park attendant. He indicated the route up to Snakeshead and Hill 593 - but it was guarded by a locked gate. He agreed to open it up for us, as John was a veteran. The walk began. We climbed the hill, and almost at once began to find reminders of the war; a German cartridge there, a slit trench here - and later a mortar pit (see photo, left) and piles of ammo boxes. It was quite a slog up to Hill 593, but one I was determined to do as the 1st Royal Sussex had fought there in February 1944, and this was a unit I was researching. From the Polish Memorial that now dominates this high-point, we had fine views down into the Liri Valley.
But our main objective was Snakeshead Ridge; so we went back down Hill 593 and took a farm track to some buildings, which John identified as his former battalion headquarters. The family who owned it came out, and showed quite some interest - and John, in his 1944 soldier's Italian was able to explain he was a veteran. At that they brought out the red wine, and we spent some time chatting - they were really friendly, and agreed to let us wander around at will. In doing so we found John's old route up, the well he had used in 1944, the Bowl where the reserve positions were and the site where his sangars were located. Although John had been back to Cassino several times, this was the first time on Snakeshead Ridge since he was there sixty years ago, and it made the trip for us all. We started the long route back down, and headed for a late lunch in Cassino.
In the afternoon we visited the German War Cemetery north of Cassino, and tried to find the Rear Echelon positions and approaches to the Bowl and Snakeshead around the village of Caira, but failed - our aim was to find better maps and return the next day. The journey was wasted - in many of the farms there we saw ammo boxes and other items left behind since WW2.
Day 3 - Monte Cassino: Following the Tanks & The Jeep-Head
We returned to the village of Caira, and retraced our steps, having found more information from the map in the New Zealand Official History. We also took with us the After The Battle issue for Cassino, which described the advance of the tanks in March 1944. Our aim was to try and follow Cavendish Road, a track up the hills (see photo, left) made by Indian and New Zealand engineers to allow the passage of a NZ Armoured column to try and outflank Hill 593 and reach the Monastery with tanks. Parking the car as far as we could go, we began the ascent; it was tough going in the heat, but we were all experienced walkers and gradually made our way up. We found the road still in good condition after nearly sixty years - but marveled at how tanks had been brought up here in the first place. The After The Battle team had made it right up to the battlefield area around Albaneta Farm with no problems in 1976, but we found that Cavendish Road came to an end at the remains of a stone bridge over a small, but dry at this time of year, stream. Disappointed, we aimed to view the other end of the road the following day; and began our return to the car.
After some lunch, we returned to the area north of Cassino, and sought out the 'Jeep-Head' which John Dray had known in 1944. This was as far as wheeled transport could go en-route to Snakeshead Ridge, and was a supply dump and Regimental Aid Post. Using the same New Zealand map, we found the re-built barracks (now deserted), and soon found the track John had taken to and from the line. We followed this and located the site of the Jeep-head, and continued to a small plateau covered with trees, where there were visible signs of sangars and other positions.
Day 4 - Crossing the Rapido - The Garigliano & En-route to Anzio
We started the day by finding the position south of Cassino where John's unit - 5th Northants - had kicked off the May 1944 attack. Here they crossed the Rapido river and began the advance up the Liri Valley. This was found using a wartime map, and from here we set off for Minturno. The visit here was two-fold; to see the cemetery and find a bridge over the Garigliano where a veteran Clive knew had been wounded. The Minturno War Cemetery was found without trouble, and we all remarked that it was one of the most beautiful we had ever visited. The bridge was found to only be a short distance away; and now closed and preserved, but still showing much of the battle damage from the fighting there in 1943-44.
We then headed off for Anzio, and journey that took over two hours from Minturno; the road systems were proving frustrating to use and the lack of a decent map didn't help either! Arriving in Anzio late afternoon, we head for Anzio War Cemetery (see photo, left). Here I was able to pay my respects to a whole row of men who had served with my father - I must confess it was strange to see the graves of men whom he had lived and fought with nearly sixty years ago. We also paid a visit to the Anzio Beach-head War Museum, where they kindly presented me with a veteran's scroll for my father. The day ended at the Beachhead War Cemetery, before returning to Cassino.
Day 5 - Across to the Adriatic Coast
Before leaving Cassino we made a last visit to the war cemetery, and then headed off for the Adriatic coast. Our journey took us threw some beautiful countryside, and en-route we stopped at the French War Cemetery neat Volferino. Coming out into the Sangro River valley, we looked at the operation there in November 1943. John also told us about his time here when he first joined the 5th Northants, and could remember crossing the river on the remains of the bridge over which we crossed it (see photo, left). We then went up to the Sangro River War Cemetery for John Mogie, whose uncle was buried here. Then following the fighting for nearby Ortona, captured by the Canadians, we ended the day at the Moro River War Cemetery before finding our hotel near Pesara. This was located on a beach resort at Montesilvano, which reminded us all of Miami! It seemed a world away from the battlefields we had been visiting this week, but the hotel was good and we found a good restaurant. The friendliness of the Italians came across again, as the restaurant owner even drove us back to the hotel at the end of the evening!
Day 6 - The Gothic Line and Urbino
We left Montesilvano early and headed up the Adriatic coast. This got us to the hotel in Urbino by lunchtime, and from there we went out onto the Gothic Line. Some time ago I had acquired the collection of Lieutenant Robertson, 1st Royal Sussex Regiment, and I had with me his original operational map for this area - annotated with details of the fighting in September 1944 leading up his wounding. We followed this to a steep downhill road close to a farm where - according to the map - he had been wounded on 7th September. It was amazing to think that this map had returned to the spot where it had been used nearly sixty years ago!
We then had hoped to visit the Gothic Line Museum in Auditore, but for some reason it was closed (it should have been open!) and despite me and some of the locals telephoning the museum authorities, they would not open up - even for a WW2 veteran! Disappointed we decided to push on to Gemmano, and here viewed the battlefield.
We ended the day with a look around Coriano Ridge War Cemetery. This was a costly battle, especially for armoured units - something that was obvious from a visit to the cemetery. While we were just about to leave, an elderly man appeared and asked if we were English. This was Aldo Balacca (see photo, left), who had worked for the CWGC for 38 years. He had also served with the Italian Artillery in the Western Desert, and had been taken prisoner there - ending up in a POW camp in South Africa. Aldo had come to work for CWGC in 1946, and now his son had followed in his footsteps. It was a fascinating moment to get two veterans of opposing sides together, and despite our worries, both A and John were soon discussing gardening! It was a fascinating and rewarding end to the day.
Day 7 - Faenza
Returning to the Adriatic coast, we followed the motorway to Forli, and visited the Forli Indian War Cemetery - here were the graves of men from the the three Indian divisions which served in Italy: among them we noted a Budist from Ceylon!
The main focus of the day was to see the ground around Faenza, where John had fought his last battle with the 2/7th Queens (56th Division) in December 1944. In Faenza War Cemetery we found the graves of men from John's unit, and then made our way out to the farm where John was when he was wounded. He had last visited it in 1965. Amazingly, it was still in the hands of the same family, and the son who was five years old in 1944 was still living there! They greeted us warmly, and John was able to show us the part of the adjacent orchard where he was wounded by an S Mine strapped to a tree (see photo, left). It was an incredible experience; the house, the farm, the orchard, was all as John had remembered it; a fine way to end our tour, following in the footsteps of the D Day Dodgers.
En-route back to the hotel in Urbino, we stopped at one last cemetery - Gradara War Cemetery, which was in a unique setting, on a tiered hillside. It was also full of men who had fallen in the Gothic Line fighting, including many from John's Queen's Regiment.
It was a great first trip to the Italian battlefields: we learnt a lot about the ground, the battles and paid our respects to the dead of both sides. What made it all the more interesting was being in the company of someone who was there, and we were grateful to John for that experience.
Like all good battlefield trips, as soon as we were back there was the immediate desire to return: we are already planning our next visit for next May for the 60th Anniversary of Cassino!
©Paul Reed 2003-2006