Thursday, 12 June 2014

Monte Cassino 70 years on

May sees the 70th anniversary of the final Battle for Monte Cassino in which the Allies were engaged in a 5 month battle to dislodge well dug in German troops in a bitter and protracted fight. The last assault involved 20 divisions including British, American, Moroccan New Zealand, Indian and Polish soldiers.

On top of the mountain ranges that dwarfed the valleys was the 6th century Abbey which was an excellent viewing point for defenders in the early weeks of 1944 it  was demolished by bombing. Unfortunately the rubble proved an excellent defensive site for the German Parachute troops who defended their positions resolutely.

In total there were 4 separate attempts to take Monte Cassino. It was during an early attempt that local soldier Tom Beardmore of No 9th Royal Marine Commandoes of Cheadle was killed in February. In the woods above the Ramblers Retreat at Dimmingsdale a shrine exists to honour Beardmore’s memory. His son- also called Tommy- describes his last action 

 “The Germans had been dug-in and prepared for months, and while No. 9 Royal Marine Commando stormed to the top of Monte Ornito to secure it and other points, the No. 9s stealthily went around the eastern side of the slope to take and secure the base of Monte Taito, a 3,000 feet mass of rock with no cover at all, only the boulders, which would splinter when hit by shell-fire and the rock fragments killed and maimed many a good soldier.

When No. 9 Commando reached their target, the whole sky lit up with German Verey lights, bombs, shells, and anything else they could throw at them.

German snipers found their target time and time again and my poor father was hit by shell fire or land mine, either way he was badly wounded on his lower leg, and while being carried or dragged back to the safety area a machine-gun opened up and he was killed”.

It was incredibly hard fighting in exceptionally cold weather in which many suffered appallingly. My partner’s father Robert Davies in the Cheshire Regiment took part in the campaign. The 7th Battalion took part in the crossing of the swollen Rapido River and he told me of the terrible conditions soldiers of all nationalities suffered in freezing conditions.

The final assault on four fronts began on the 11th May with fierce sometimes hand to hand fighting undertaken with constant artillery and machine gun fire directed from the fortified positions above the Allies. North African soldiers skilled in mountain warfare were used in the final assaults, but the honour of capturing the citadel fell to the Poles who raised their nation’s flag from the heights. Among the Polish soldiers who must have taken a great deal of pride in defeating the cream of the German Army including units that had taken part in the invasion of Poland in 1939 was Priest Pawel Sargiewicz who later would become Priest to the Polish community on Blackshaw Moor until his untimely death in a road traffic accident in 1967.

Over 100,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded and around 25,000 German soldiers. The capture of the heights ensured the road to Rome was free.