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Journey Towards Christmas

(2) Apollyon in the Path

(2) Apollyon in the Path

Unlike El Alamein, which from being nothing but a railway station in the desert became almost overnight nearly the whole world, Monte Cassino had enjoyed moderate fame for some centuries before it was given the freedom of every newspaper, every tavern, and every sound wave.

In the fourth century before Christ the Romans founded a colony on the banks of the Vinius (now the Rapido) and called it Cassinum. Though destroyed by Hannibal in 216 BC it grew into a town of luxury villas, and Mark Antony for one had some pleasant nights there.

In the sixth century St. Benedict came to Cassinum, changing the statue of Apollo for the Cross and the pagan temple for a church dedicated to St. Martin. That was the beginning of the Benedictine Order and of Cassino monastery.

Times were no better then than now, but with two great saints to watch over it (one the patron saint of bachelors, the other of millers) the monastery could expect great things or at least a fate different from this: to be destroyed by Lombards, sacked and burnt by Saracens, besieged and taken by Normans, smashed by earthquake, pillaged by French soldiers, and at last turned into an observation post by German officers.

Sharing house-room with chalice, altar-cloth, and illuminated missal, the Germans trained their field-glasses on American positions and spoke into their telephones. Catholic gunners volunteered to bombard Monte Cassino but for some weeks the Allies vacillated, page 330 loath to do irreparable damage to a place so venerable and so sacred.

Fifth Army troops, meanwhile, had landed at Anzio, thirty-two miles south of Rome and sixty-two miles west of Cassino, biting into the enemy's right flank and straining towards his lines of communication. The plan was to join hands with the rest of the Fifth Army and capture Rome, but success was unlikely as long as the enemy held Cassino and Monte Cassino (Monastery Hill).

Most New Zealanders know Peter McIntyre's fine painting of the scene. Monte Cairo of the almost perfect white cone is out of sight, but you get Monastery Hill (with the monastery under smoke), and you get, forward of this and a little to the right of it, Castle Hill. The once-white, once-bright town that straggled over the slopes in the foreground is represented by tooth-like stumps, for the painting was done after the bombardment.

This, then, was Cassino. Like foul Apollyon it was straddled right across the way.

The Americans had done well. They had captured at heavy cost one key to Cassino, Monte Maggiore, but they had failed to make headway against the town or Monastery Hill and now they were no longer in shape to continue the battle. Therefore, on 6 February, the New Zealand Corps—a strong force that had been formed recently and which included the 4th Indian Division, British, Indian, and American artillery units, and some American armour—began to take over their sector.

A few days earlier Lieutenant Delley and one ammunition platoon had opened an ammunition point thirteen miles south-east of Cassino on the famous Route 6, highway to Cassino and Rome. A plan to establish a dump only four miles from Cassino had been abandoned and ammunition intended for this was diverted first to the point and later, when that was choked, to our unit area. On 7 February No. 1 Platoon started to establish a Corps dump a few miles from the point, but late that night was ordered to stop, the new plan being to form an artillery dump (with the code name of spadger) in the 6th Brigade's area. This was on Route 6 and about six miles south-west of Cassino. The next day we moved to an area nine or ten miles west by south of Alife so as to be near the main page 331 road. We called it the Vairano area, borrowing the name from the nearest village. During the next four days the transport was employed in building up Spadger dump with ammunition brought from Capua (eighteen miles north of Naples on Route 6) and from Nola, and in replenishing the point. At this time the artillery was shelling Cassino and targets south of it.

Our Indian summer was over now and the weather was horrible and the new areas seas of mud. The roads were in a bad state, too, and we were allowed to use them only at times laid down by Fifth Army Movement Control, convoys of from twenty to twenty-five vehicles being released at intervals of a quarter of an hour. This was irksome but it prevented accidents and saved time in the end.

From 12 February on we were able to draw ammunition from the Teano railhead, some six miles south-east of the Vairano area, and that halved our work by eliminating the long trip to Capua and the much longer one to Nola. There was no way of halving the rain or of doubling the size of our muddy and congested areas—they were small because a great mass of transport had to be parked close to Route 6—and there was no way of dealing with contradictory orders except by obeying them. They were contradictory, or seemed so, because the work of one insignificant transport unit had to be dovetailed with a large and ever-changing plan; but sometimes we forgot that. And remember, please, it was raining.

No matter. When the New Zealand Corps went into action against Cassino it would have all the ammunition it needed.

February the 15th was a fine day. The sky was egg-shell blue and against it the summit of Monte Cairo stood out like a splash of whitewash. The monastery, 4000 feet lower but still seeming to be perched among the clouds instead of on its dun-coloured ridge, could be seen clearly from the hills behind the ammunition point. Here a group of our drivers was watching with field-glasses.

The first flight of Fortresses wheeled in the sky—very slowly it seemed—and dropped their bombs. The watchers saw great white mushrooms sprout on and around the monastery and more than a minute later they heard a sound—a hollow rumble as of thousands of tons of gravel dropping into a steel barge. Waves page 332 of heavy and medium bombers came over and the monastery was destroyed. Only its great walls were left standing.

Two nights later, while Indian troops fought in the mountains north-west of Cassino, Maori infantry crossed the Rapido south of it and advanced to the railway station. This was the New Zealand Corps' first direct assault on the Fifth Army front, and the plan was to take Cassino and Monastery Hill so that American and New Zealand armour could enter the Liri Valley, one of the gateways to Rome. All night long our artillery fired in support of the attack and by eight in the morning 17,000 rounds of 25-pounder had been cleared from the ammunition point in seventeen hours. Throughout the day the heaviest demand was for smoke shells and these were responsible for the white mist that clung to the slopes of Monte Cassino, blinding observation posts.

The Maoris fought in the railway station until four in the afternoon and then German tanks appeared. Our own tanks, in spite of heroic efforts by the engineers, had been unable to come forward because of demolitions and bomb craters, and the Maoris had no choice but to withdraw across the river. The Indians, after fighting supremely well, had failed, too.

Apollyon was still straddled across the way and the position of the Allies at Anzio was serious.

A little grimly, and with no further thoughts of an immediate dash to Rome, we settled down to hard, slogging routine. On 19 February No. 1 Platoon moved to an area next to the ammunition point, which from then on it was responsible for replenishing, each lorry fetching two loads from the unit area every day. The rest of the transport worked between the unit area and Teano railhead.

Daily we cleared 105 loads from Teano and by the end of the month the position was very sound. Besides having met the hour-to-hour requirements of the entire Corps—with the help, of course, of the 2nd Ammunition Company and of transport attached to us—we had accumulated at the ammunition point stocks equal to our entire second-line holding.

But it was dull work and cold work. We were seldom warm and comfortable except when we were crouched over primuses or tiny charcoal braziers in the backs of our lorries with the canopy raised page 333 just enough to prevent us from being suffocated. Dry boots were the most important things in our lives—dry weather we had ceased to expect.

For some of us the monotony was broken during the second week of March by the establishment of a forward reserve dump on Route 6 about seven miles from Cassino. The nearest village was called San Pietro and the whole area was under enemy observation.

The first convoy—fifty lorries loaded with 25-pounder—went forward after dark on the 9th, the drivers taking with them enough green branches to camouflage their loads. Everything went smoothly for two nights but on the third there was a bright moon and some shelling. No ammunition was brought up on the fourth night and the transport was engaged in shifting some that was already there, neighbouring units having complained that it was too close to them. A night seldom passed without shells landing near the dump, and the party in charge of it—a detachment from No. 4 Platoon under Captain May—used to retire to the ammunition point at sunset and stay there until dawn.

On the night of the 12th-13th the weather changed. A high wind got up, scattering rain clouds, levelling tents, and playing such puckish tricks as rolling an empty hogshead all the way from Workshops to Headquarters. The morning dawned clear and sunny and the next day was even better.

The 15th was another good day, and at half past eight the bombers came over, heading for Cassino. They came over in tight formation, wave after wave—Fortresses, Liberators, Mitchells, Marauders. Our eyes ached from counting them. ‘Look! More Forts! Five-six-seven….’ The sky sang with engines and every quarter of an hour or so we heard the long mutter—the long, collapsing mutter—of bombs. And the singing and the applause—thunder of feet and voices, far off, from some appalling stadium—went on for four hours. During that time more than 500 heavy and medium bombers of the American strategic and tactical air forces dropped over a thousand tons of bombs in an area of less than a square mile, and Cassino, which at dawn had been just another badly-battered town, was reduced to rubble. All artificial landmarks—Continental Hotel, Hotel des Roses, Botanical Gardens, Baron's Palace—disappeared. They lived on as names because one heap of masonry had to be distinguished from another but they page 334 weren't there any longer. There was nothing but stones and splintered wood and huge craters and rubbish.

This time the New Zealanders were to attack the town from the north, and the 5th Indian Brigade was to move in behind them and take Monastery Hill.

At noon, advancing behind a creeping barrage, the 6th Brigade entered the town. At first the opposition was slight, but later the Germans resisted strongly. They were paratroopers, some of the best soldiers in the world.

By evening we had Castle Hill and most of the town. Then it rained.

We lay in our lorries in our safe areas and it came down in bucketfuls. It thundered on canopies, rushed in rivulets between stacks of 25-pounder, filled petrol tins cut in half for wash-basins. It roared and gurgled and it tinkled like cracked bells, and we lay in our beds cursing it. We hoped and prayed that it would make only a little difference; but it made all the difference.

Instead of moonlight there was darkness and roaring confusion in Cassino. The Germans, who knew the town inside out, asked nothing better than this, but our men were blinded and bewildered. Engineers, struggling to bridge craters fifty to seventy feet wide to clear a path for the tanks, found their bulldozers almost useless against rubble stiff like wet concrete.

At dawn the enemy still held parts of Cassino, and although the Gurkha Rifles were on Hangman's Hill, a point below the Monastery, they were not strong enough to advance. Surprise had been lost for good and with it the chance of making a quick breakthrough with armour. Now Cassino would have to be cleared house by house.

The fighting that followed was as bitter as any in the whole war. By day the battle swayed backwards and forwards under a dark pall, by night under a waning moon. Our artillery was in action all the time, shelling gun positions and strongpoints and laying smoke-screens on Monastery Hill. The demand for ammunition was very heavy.

While our men fought in Cassino, British and Indian troops repelled counter-attacks in the surrounding heights, and the Gurkhas, isolated now on Hangman's Hill, were supplied by parachute. From the ammunition point and from No. 1 Platoon's area we watched page 335 American Warhawks as they flew over with ammunition, water, and food. After dark we would count the gun-flashes and estimate how busy we should be the next day.

‘Goin’ well tonight,’ we would say. ‘Might stroll up tomorrow—have a couple of quickies at the Continental.’

The Continental was now as famous as the Ritz.

Vesuvius had erupted the day before and over it hung a mass of smoke, coiled and motionless and for all the world like an enormous pearl-grey periwig. Monastery Hill, as usual, was dotted with white puffs and hazy with the smoke of battle, but at the ammunition point all was peace under the warm, golden sunshine. Washing fluttered from clothes-lines strung between stacks of ammunition, and our drivers were taking their ease after lunch. Almost the only movement in the area was round the salvage dump, backed against which were half a dozen three-ton lorries from the 18th Tank Transporter Company. The great sprawling pile of empty ammunition boxes and used shell cases should have been growing smaller daily—for our drivers were supposed never to go to Vairano or the railhead with empty lorries—but in practice the opposite was happening, the task of carting salvage, especially on cold, wet days when the stuff was awkward to handle, being one that nobody liked and some avoided, either apologetically by carting a token load or brazenly by carting no load at all.

March the 19th, however, was warm and sunny and the boxes were flying into the lorries with a brisk clatter.

Suddenly there was a quick, rustling sound and the whole area was fanned by a hot breath. Looking up from their books, their washing, their afternoon naps, our drivers saw that the salvage dump was a sheet of bright yellow flame. Their thoughts flew at once to the thousands of little blue and white bags of cordite—rejected or unused propellants—that were a feature of all our salvage dumps. Only cordite would burn as hotly and swiftly as that without exploding. Two lorries were already doomed, but others were moving off with a shriek of gears. One was unattended page 336 and just starting to burn, so Henry Blomfield1 drove it to safety, helped to put out the flames, and went straight back to the fire.

With the first hot gust nearly everyone had made an instinctive movement towards the hills—there were thousands of pounds of high explosives in the area—but after a moment of panic non-commissioned officers and drivers rallied under Lieutenant Delley and formed human chains to clear crates of 75-millimetre ammunition from stacks near the outbreak. In the salvage dump there were many rejected 25-pounder shells—the tendency, of course, had been to load empty boxes rather than boxes with something in them—and one after another these exploded, scattering burning fragments over a wide area.

The fire had started at half past twelve, and at one o'clock Lieutenant Delley and his volunteers were joined by two teams from an American fire-fighting unit stationed at Vairano. There was now every chance of confining the fire to the salvage dump and half an hour later success seemed certain.

Then an explosion threw a burning fragment on to a stack of 75-millimetre ammunition and flames spread from crate to crate. A fire-engine was rushed to the spot, and Henry Blomfield, seizing the hose, stood within a few yards of the stack and played water on it. He was protected only by a breastwork of crated ammunition. When the flames were almost under control the water supply began to fail. It shrank from a jet to a trickle and there was nothing more to be done. The fire flared up, exploding shells and cartridges and setting alight to neighbouring stacks. From these it spread to some stacks of 105-millimetre ammunition, also wooden-crated.

By now nearly everyone had taken cover except the American firemen, Lieutenant Delley, Sergeant Bev Hendrey, Arthur Howejohns,2 Henry Blomfield, and ‘Brinny’ Vedder.3 From the first they had been moving vehicles to safety, fighting the main outbreak at close quarters, and extinguishing many lesser fires. As long as there was work for them to do they did it, undeterred by the fate of three American firemen—two were killed and one badly wounded page 337 —and indifferent to whizzing shrapnel and showers of ammunition boxes.4

The rest had been ordered to safety and they watched entranced from the shelter of ditches, stone walls, and tree trunks, and from the hills at the back of the area. Because of these, and because the only track to the main road went past the salvage dump, it had not been possible to move all the lorries to safety and some of them were taking bad knocks from shell cases and lumps of shrapnel.

Other units had fared worse or better but all were now out of danger. A platoon from the 1st Petrol Company had got clean away from an area on the far side of the main road, which was now being swept by shrapnel, and elements of the 2nd Ammunition Company, with two men hurt, had fled from an area right by the dump, leaving four tents to the flames, some ammunition, but no transport. Two men from the 18th Tank Transporter Company had been burnt in the first minute, one of them badly.

Behind the ammunition point there was a gentle slope, and here, hedged in by the hills and by a deep gully that separated them from the fire, No. 1 Platoon's domestic vehicles were parked. Lumps of metal had been landing in the gully for some time and now the fire began to creep towards it. Drivers who were sheltering there shot into the open like rabbits and made a dash for the hills. Then the flames leapt the gully, devouring tents and bivouacs on both sides of it and setting fire to a lorry that was under repair and immobile. The cooks' lorry was saved by ‘Brinny’ Vedder, who drove it far up the slope.

There was now more noise than any of our drivers had ever heard in battle. Armour-piercing shells, with a woof-woof-woof-woof, were trundling through the smoke and landing with a dull thud in fields and on hillsides a quarter to three-quarters of a mile away, most of them passing right over the transport and the heads of our cowering drivers. Jagged lumps of metal lopped branches from trees and smaller lumps hummed wickedly like spent bullets, while ammunition boxes and shell cases described great arcs in the sky or rose vertically to nose-dive into the flames. As a background to the larger effects burning small-arms ammunition crackled all the while. A great column of smoke, leaning over drunkenly at the top, had risen from the heart of the fire and could be seen for page 338 miles, and above it, slowly expanding, there was a smoke ring through which you could have driven twelve lorries in a line. At a lower level smoke covered the whole area, making a murky twilight in which flames shone luridly. Here and there this twilight was daubed with blotches of red, orange, and violet from coloured smoke shells. The earth shook; the air trembled; the atmosphere was thin and sour.

Heads popped up and down as explosion followed explosion. There was so much to watch, and through the smoke it was still possible to catch glimpses of the Americans at their heroic task. The Brigadier5 and Major Sampson arrived and proceeded to stroll round the area, the former missing decapitation by inches when a square something slammed past his head.

Time wore on and our drivers spoke longingly of a cup of tea. Those whose lorries were sheltered started to boil up, and others, with a contempt for death and wounds that was pardonable only under the circumstances, dashed into the danger zone to collect primuses, tea, milk, sugar. Jerseys and overcoats were in demand also, for there was no longer any warmth in the sun and many of us were wearing nothing except shorts and singlets.

By five the noise had abated and it seemed probable that the worst was over. By a quarter to six all but a few badly scared drivers were standing by their lorries and inspecting torn canopies and dented mudguards, picking up hot splinters to see if they were hot, and waiting while the billies boiled. Ever and again they ducked as the last shells exploded in the burning stacks.

By six all danger was past. It was now possible to get some idea of the damage.6 It was far smaller than anyone would have dared to predict while the fire was at its height but even so the ammunition point presented a desolate appearance. A black mess in which embers glowed redly was spread over hundreds of square yards, and beyond this the ground was littered with shell cases, ammunition boxes, and bits of metal. Where the salvage dump had been there was a pile of hot rubbish and the smoking skeletons of two lorries. Tree trunks were burnt and blackened and still ringed with page 339 little circles of yellow flame, and here and there bits of canvas and of woollen underclothing smoked and glowed with the unpleasant persistence of burning string. In Headquarters' area the small, splintered corpses of eight bottles of the best Canadian beer had been laid out in a pathetic row.

To shut out this sad scene and the smell of burning, our drivers closed the backs of the lorries before settling down to supper and the task of conducting the preliminary enquiry and making a rough apportionment of praise and blame. It was agreed that the American firemen had done splendidly and that Henry Blomfield and the others had behaved with outstanding courage. It was agreed—for tolerance was in the air—that it would be proper to overlook the slight impropriety of their conduct in behaving in an outstanding manner when most people had thought it wiser to live privately and in retirement for a period. It was agreed that the Brigadier had narrowly escaped decapitation by a 4.5 ammunition box and that he had shown remarkable composure. It was agreed that the fire had been started by a cigarette butt, by Italian saboteurs, by friction; and it was agreed, vaguely and by implication (for the proposition was hard to frame) that it was to the credit of the company as a whole and to No. 1 Platoon in particular that ammunition should have exploded at the ammunition point rather than petrol at the petrol point or M&V at the supply point.

Everyone was cheerful and talkative. Everyone consumed rather more supper than he could manage comfortably (for the administrative sergeant had been truly generous with the rations) and then went happily to sleep. It had been a tiring day and a memorable one.

The ammunition point was open again by eight the next morning and later in the day a new salvage dump was formed four miles up the road.

By now the railhead had reached Mignano, which was two and a half miles closer to the front than the ammunition point and over ten miles in advance of the unit area at Vairano—an unprecedented and highly undesirable situation. Wet weather had prevented us from moving earlier, but on the day after the fire No. 2 Platoon was able to occupy an area near the ammunition point, which it page 340 took over from No. 1 Platoon on the 25th, and on the 26th the rest of the unit moved to an area two and a half miles in advance of the point. The forward ammunition point at San Pietro had been handed over to the Artillery two days before.

Our new area, flat near the road and terraced where it sloped up into the hills, was a pleasant place, and there was room for dispersal. We were glad of this because the rear areas had lately been coming in for some shelling. The Luftwaffe seldom bothered us now and when it did it was chased all over the sky by ack-ack gunners. Nearly every American lorry mounted a .5-inch machine gun.

Smoke over Vesuvius and smoke over Cassino; but nature had shot her bolt and so had the New Zealanders. On 23 March the New Zealand Corps had been ordered to abandon the offensive for the time being and reorganise its line so that what had been gained could be held—a firm bridgehead across the Rapido, nine-tenths of the town, and Castle Hill.

After that we were not busy, the chief demand being for smoke shells and smoke canisters.

We had time to play football, to welcome back the first group of ‘Ruapehus’—seventeen other ranks—and to climb the mountains at the back of our area and note how the white puffs blossomed on the slopes of Monastery Hill, the flanks of Apollyon. The ‘widow-makers’—8-inch American guns—slammed their great shells through the blue sky, and ringing circles of sound, hoop upon brassy hoop, expanded and hit the mountains, smashing to pieces. Below us, on our improvised range, rifles snapped cheekily, and from the playing fields beside Route 6 a sound of cheering came to us on the stiff breeze.

And the air in the mountains was like iced soda-water and in the valleys the green leaves uncurled and there was no more winter.

1 L-Cpl H. C. Blomfield, m.i.d.; truck driver; Auckland; born NZ, 21 Mar 1917; wounded 3 Aug 1944.

2 Dvr A. J. Howejohns; taxi driver; born Cardrona, Central Otago, 15 Jun 1916; died on active service, 10 May 1944.

3 L-Cpl A. A. R. Vedder; boot repairer; Thames; born Thames, 12 Dec 1909.

4 All were commended in a routine order for their gallantry.

5 Col Crump had been promoted in September 1943.

6 Two drivers were also wounded.