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A Soldiers View on the Bombing of Cassino Monastery

Discussion in 'The War In Italy' started by Jim, Aug 26, 2010.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    In battles spanning the months from late 1943 to May 1944, Italian locals and British, Polish, American and German servicemen witnessed the effects of steady attrition on the town of Cassino and the razing to the ground of one of the great centres of the Christian world.

    Douglas Lyne, age 20, was a gunner in the Royal Artillery, acting as Observation Post Assistant in the 57th Field Regiment, part of X Corps. To him the destruction of the Cassino Monastery had a special significance, his ancestor Father Ignatius of Llanthony having founded a Benedictine monastery in Wales based on this very edifice.

    Douglas Lyne, one of many cheering the fall of the monastery but who would later work for reconciliation and restoration.

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    Suffice it to say that by the end of January, beginning of February, no real progress had been made towards the capture of Cassino Monastery, without which it was impossible to proceed along the road to Rome. It was about this time that my own regiment of artillery was posted into the line there, in support of the 201st Guards Brigade. Monte Cassino was on the height of about 1,500 feet and we had to climb up to an observation post at about 2,500 feet. From there we could see across the valley, whenever weather permitted, this shining monument of Cassino Monastery, which, I must say, did look in a way menacing and odd, in so far as it was the only un-destroyed object in a vast waste of destruction. It was rather like seeing Buckingham Palace in the middle of Passchendaele. On 15 February we'd been up there about a week and were feeling absolutely miserable, it was terrible weather. In the occasional breaks in the clouds we saw this monastery all the time, and it got on our nerves, to be quite frank. It became, from being a thing of beauty, a thing of monstrosity, an excrescence, and somehow it was the thing which was holding up all our lives and keeping us away from home. It became identified in an obsessional way with all the things we detested. Remember, I had been about two years in almost continuous action, and action is barbarising and our sensibilities were blunted. Suddenly out of the mist of the south, on this really rather nice morning, just after breakfast at about 9.30 hours, appeared this vast armada a huge bomber force, mainly Flying Fortresses, some 250 of them.

    Polish gunners prime shells during an attack on Monte Cassino.

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    We were wondering where on earth this vast armada was going, when all of a sudden, the bombs started dropping out of these things, and came bashing down on the jolly old mother of monasteries of St Benedict, about ten miles away over the valley. I must confess it was a gigantically stimulating sight, to suddenly see this sort of Barnum and Bailey's kind of Brock's benefit, it must have been comparable to seeing the early Christians being eaten by lions in the Coliseum, I suppose. We all started cheering wildly and hugging each other. We went mad and everybody thought it was the greatest thing since the eruption over Pompeii. But there was, with me, a remarkable Welshman called Tom Roberts, who'd been my constant guide, philosopher and friend since the earliest days when we went around the Cape of Good Hope to get to Suez. He was a man of great spiritual merit who knew all about my connection with Father Ignatius of Llanthony. After I'd stopped trembling and the laughter and hysterical gaiety faded, he sat me down at one side and said, 'Steady on Doug, I mean, it's all very well, but are we really in this war for the business of bombing monasteries. What would old Father Ignatius think of that?' Suddenly, I had a sort of complete bloody double-take. I thought, 'What the hell are we doing, up on this bloody hill and surrounded by destruction and mayhem, and everything gone to pot? What are we fighting for or against? Here we are, cheering the destruction of one of the great monuments of Christendom. One's mood changed from exultation to a peculiar sort of horror and self questioning, which was very disturbing ...
     
  2. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Sergeant Herbert Parkin with the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles was based at a holding position high on a mountainside, facing Cassino. His company depended totally on mule trains getting through for all their supplies. Herbert Parkin of the London Irish Rifles was involved in the Cassino struggle from the early days.

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    We landed at Taranto naval base towards the end of 1943 and we reformed just outside Taranto to move forwards through Italy. The terrain wasn't easy, it was all valleys and ridges and you couldn't advance too fast in case that you had no back-up. We came out of the line at a place called Inferno Valley, which was a mule point. Inferno Valley was the start line and from there we got into position on a mountain facing Cassino. We were well within firing distance of the enemy. The Germans were up in the monastery with a bird's eye view of everything. You couldn't move without them seeing you.

    Mules carry all-important food and ammunition to the troops holding positions on the hill, as a means of supply it left a lot to be desired.

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    The Royal Engineers used to put up smoke screens from the valley pots and pots of smoke, but you could only blind the Germans for so long before the wind carried the smoke away. The Germans would let the ambulances through, but everything else was shelled. They used the old moaners, we called them 'Moaning Minnie’s' which were six-barrelled mortars. There were six at a time and they moaned like anything. The Germans were pretty accurate with them, and they did a lot of damage. Our mortars were with different companies at the time. I was therefore acting as infantry on the forward slope, in case the Germans came through. Although the Germans were in the monastery, they were right the way around as well, dug in. You had no idea where they were. It was worst at night because, of course, you couldn't see anything in the dark. You had to listen and try and make out what the noise was. You couldn't start firing, though, because you didn't know if you were going to hit one of your own patrols. Everything came up to us by mules, our water, rations, first-aid everything. We could see the mules clearly from where we were, coming along the valley. If they got shelled or started misbehaving, they would dance about and sling their loads off their backs. It was uncomfortable on the mountain, but we always got our meals. Our cooks were very good. They would send hot food up to us in boxes and looked after us very well.

    It may not be haute cuisine, but the chef of the Royal West Kent Regiment makes the best of facilities in a quarry on Monastery Hill.

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    We couldn't dig in to the soil because it was too stony and scrubby. We built sangars instead from the loose rocks. Although the ground was uncomfortable, you managed to sleep. You had a blanket and a ground sheet and you just put your haversack down and pulled your blanket over you and your tin hat over your head, and tried to get down. When the Poles came to take over from us, we picked up the rest of the battalion and marched across to Inferno Valley where we had a mug of tea and formed up to move back behind the lines.
     

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