RETURN TO THE ITALIAN BATTLEFIELDS
MONTE GABBIONE - ORVIETO - MONTE CASSINO - SALERNO
Last year we vowed we would return in the 60th Anniversary year of the Battles of Monte Cassino - and we did. Like the previous diary (click here to read it) the purpose of this is to help those who are planning their own visits to the fascinating and moving battlefields of the Italian Campaign. Once again our party consisted of myself, Clive Harris, John Mogie and John Dray; who had served in 1944 with the 5th Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment, part of 78th Division.
If you have any questions, feel free to email me.
Day 1 - Arrival
We flew from London Heathrow on a lunchtime flight with British Airways, which took us into Rome in the late afternoon. Unfortunately half of our luggage had been left behind in London, and this delayed our departure for Orvieto. The airline agreed to deliver the luggage to our hotel, so we picked up our hire car and headed off. The journey took just over two hours, and we found the Hotel Orvieto very quickly after leaving the Autostrada (motorway). After a few beers, and planning the next day, we retired ready for our first day on the battlefields.
Day 2 - Montegabbione
After breakfast we left for Orvieto War Cemetery. In a beautiful location, with spectacular views to the hilltop town of Orvieto, this was a special journey for John Dray, as many of his mates from 5th Northants were buried here. Indeed we noticed many 78th Division burials in this cemetery, one of the smallest we had been to in Italy. However, despite its size and isolated location, it appeared to be on a walker's route, as it had several visitors in the hour or so we were there. John (see below) left a Poppy cross on the grave of Jack Warner, who had been killed alongside him, by a German sniper, in Montegabbione.
We then took route 71 via Fiscule, and followed the passage of 5th Northants up towards Montegabbione. This was the location of one of John's toughest battles, fought here in June 1944 after the breakout from the Liri Valley. His battalion, with tank support from the Wiltshire Yeomanry, was given the task of clearing the village, which sat on top of a small hill. The men became bogged down in a firefight in the village, and when John went up they were making their way below the village walls when a sniper killed his mate Jack Warner. John then got holed up in a house in a nearby street, where they fought across the road with Panzer Grenadiers. The house got set on fire and the only way out was to jump the balcony! John had never been back here before, and we were delighted to track down exactly where all this had taken place.
We then had an al-fresco lunch in the only cafe in Montegabbione, where we were welcomed by the 81 year old owner who had many happy memories of British troops in WW2. In our basic Italian we were able to communicate that John had fought in the village and as usual, the locals treated him like royalty!
The ended on the shores of Lake Trasimino, where John's battalion had finished up after the fight at Montegabbione. It was a beautiful place, and the journey was across some picturesque terrain. The lake now seemed to be a popular holiday resort. We returned to Orvieto, and found a nice restaurant alongside the hotel.
Day 3 - Cassino via Bolsena
We left early, and headed out to Bolsena, which wasn't too far from Orvieto. Our aim here was to visit Bolsena War Cemetery, located in an area fought over in June 1944 and later the site of a military hospital. There were many interesting graves here, including Yugoslavian partisans and many South Africa casualties. It was also a very long walk down an all marble path, and parking was very limited indeed, on a busy road. Coaches would find it difficult here, and those with walking difficulties would find it an effort to reach the cemetery. However, like all these beautiful 'gardens of peace', it was more than worth it. We also ventured into the nearby town of Bolsena, set on a lake, for lunch - very touristy, but we had a great lunch!
From here we moved on to Cassino. The journey took around three hours, using the motorway around Rome and then east for Cassino itself. After checking in at the Hotel Pace in central Cassio, where we stayed last time, we went into town for a few beers. The hotel had improved again since last year, and once again the staff and owner was very friendly and helpful - and it was nice to see the display of WW2 relics was still there.
Day 4 - Liri Valley
After some rain, today we planned to work our way up the Liri Valley, following the route of John's battalion in May 1944 - in fact, almost exactly to do the day, sixty years ago! We began at Cassino War Cemetery, and from here we followed a lead we had picked up at the hotel for a new 'Cassino War Museum'. This we found on the outskirts of the town, alongside a military shop and not well signposted - but well worth a visit! It was packed with uniforms and equipment, and some great photos.
From here we went down to the start line of 5th Northants during the Liri Valley battle, and followed John's route. We found the farm where he had taken up a sniping position, but the current owners were not very helpful and didn't seem to know anything of its past history. However, John was able to tell us the terrain had changed little since he had scanned it through the sights of his rifle! It was not far from here that his company commander had been killed, and we had once again visited his grave at Cassino earlier that morning.
We then went in search of the site of Fusilier Jefferson's Victoria Cross action in May 1944. Having been sent some very usul material from a member of the WW2 Forum, we were able to track it down exactly. The photo of Jefferson standing by the tank he had knocked out with a PIAT matched the surroundings exactly, and Clive and John Mogie found some relcis of battle in the fields nearby. One house owner came out to ask what we were up to and again in basic Italian we were able to tell him something of what had happened and I was able to give him a copy of the photo of Jefferson!
Following lunch we went up the Liri Valley to Acquino Aerodrome and using a wartime map were able to work out where John had dug in and been wounded by a German sniper. The areodrome was no longer in use, except by model aircraft, but some of the original buildings were still there. The day ended at Roccacasa railway station, where John recalled a sad incident in July 1944 when an Unexploded Bomb went off alongside a troop train containing his battalion, killing several men.
Day 5 - Monte Cassino & The Snakeshead
We had decided that we could not resist a return to Snakeshead Ridge, and this time were armed with a number of 1944 aerial photos of the position I had found in the National Archives in London. We parked up at the Polish Cemetery, and paid a visit, before we were able to gain access through the gate onto the private road that led to the Snakeshead. Reaching the farm below Hill 593, we popped in to see the people we met last time and John left them some photos; they were very kind to us again, and we all sat down for drinks before exploring the Snakeshead with the aerial shots. We were amazed to find that the layout of the terrain had not changed one bit, and this time found the remains of several 'Sangars', positions made by the units that dug-in on the ridge. We also found some bullets on the nearby track, both British and German.
From here we then went down to Albaneta Farm, which had been the scene of the tank attack by New Zealand armour. Using the regimental history which I had managed to find on Ebay, we were able to follow the story and see the remains of a Polish Sherman, now a memorial, close to where much of it had taken place. We also explored the far end of Cavendish Road which we had attempted to walk last year and were able to confirm that the section we had finished up in last time was a huge thicket and there was no longer any way to walk through it.
With rain now set in, we went down into Cassino for a late lunch and to visit the temporary WW2 exhibition in the local library, which had many interesting photos.
|Polish War Cemetery.||John on the Snakeshead||Remains of a Sangar.||Polish Memorial, Albaneta Farm.||Exhibition in Cassino Library.|
Day 6 - Caserta & Salerno
We had kept one day spare to visit and early ceremonies for the 60th anniversary, but none we taking place, so we decided to visit the Salerno area instead. Clive had lost an uncle here, and it was an area that we hadn't seen before. En-route we visited the Caserta War Cemetery, which took some finding, and also some getting into! You had to phone the CWGC office in Rome for a combination to get in! It was a well kept cemetery, with many interesting graves, including many British POWs who had died in camps in Italy, many of them taken prisoner in the Western Desert.
At Salerno we visited the Salerno War Cemetery, where we visited the grave of the Duke of Wellington - grandson of the famous General, and who was a Commando officer! Clive visited his uncle's grave, and we spent some time walking round the headstones. We drove down to the beachhead area, and worked away along the British sector into the American one near Paserta. Here we stopped for a drink, as it had got very hot, and Clive and John Mogie visited some of the Roman remains here. We also found an excellent publication on the battle, full of photos and maps and in English and Italian, which we hope to use in exploring the area again properly another time.
Day 7 - The Return
We had quite a late last night, discussing the week over a few drinks! The journey back to Rome was only a couple of hours, but en-route we were already planning our next visit. The Italian battlefields are a magical place, and it was once again great to be there in the company of someone who was actually there, and almost exactly sixty years since it had all happened. When I got home there was a little mention of the ceremonies at Cassino on BBC Radio, but nothing on TV. Once again, the 'D Day Dodgers' had been forgotten... but not by us.
ŠPaul Reed 2004