Remembering the battle for Monte Cassino, and the role played by Newfoundlanders

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Brutal campaign was overshadowed by D-Day, writes Carbonear native and historian

When I signed up for the 589 Air Cadet Squadron in 1959 my drill instructor was an authoritative, fit-looking, middle-aged man.

Neil Earle

When I signed up for the 589 Air Cadet Squadron in 1959 my drill instructor was an authoritative, fit-looking, middle-aged man named Leroy (Roy) Noel. My father quickly clued me in: “Roy was at Monte Cassino.”

He was. He was indeed as his daughter Leslie confirmed last summer. His picture is in the photo room at Carbonear Legion No. 23. One shot shows him in khaki sorts in front of his 25-pounder gun, a dead giveaway that this was either the North African or the Italian campaign of the Second World War.

It turned out that Roy Noel was in both theatres of action. His fellow 589 staffer Lloyd Powell was there as well. In fact, the 166 Newfoundland Field Regiment comprised the only Canadians (as our boys would later become) to see ground action in North Africa.

As the 70th anniversary of the Battle for Monte Cassino proceeds (January-May 1944) it is good to remember the contribution of the 166.

A name that echoes in infamy, Monte Cassino, located in south-central Italy, was the scene of 330,000 casualties in 1944, the bitterest winter in Italian memory and the longest battle of the war.  

Growing up, I always knew that my South Side pal Gene Laing had an uncle, Jack Oates from Crocker’s Cove, who was at Cassino as well. “He never talked much about it,” Gene reported recently, “but one day he showed me a web belt he kept in the pantry with a hole right through the middle of it. A memento of a poor guy who got it right in the stomach.”

“The Spaghetti League”

So let’s revisit this tale of what author Matthew Parker titled “Monte Cassino: The Hardest Fought Battle of World War II.” An American writer just released “Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell” which dovetails with the account of Daniel Dancocks, the late great Canadian war historian. He told the tale in “The D-Day Dodgers: The Canadians in Italy, 1943-1945.”

But why remind ourselves of all this again?

Well, for one thing cruises and battlefield tours are already being lined up for the Normandy beaches — scene of the D-Day invasion in June 1944. This noble remembrance drives home, however, that what was nicknamed “the Spaghetti League” in Italy often gets laid aside in popular memory. But it should never be remembered as a colossal effort in the war that preserved Western civilization.

For another thing, the Newfoundlanders were there — and the few survivors remember it clearly.

Dancocks' title reinforces how the British Eighth Army and the US Fifth Army finally pushed away from Cassino to take Rome on June 5, 1944 only to be upstaged by the D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944. Normandy led to a war of mobility — at least in the press where Patton-like dashes across France grabbed the headlines. But long before D-Day the Italian campaign had taken on overtones of Stalingrad, a brutal throw-back to the trench warfare of 1914-1918.

But Italy was no side-show. Insightful historian Andrew Roberts follows Winston Churchill in estimating that Italy held down at least 23 crack German divisions and relieved pressure on both Normandy and the Russian Front (The Storm of War, page 393). Also, from captured airfields in Foggia, Allied bombers opened another air war in Germany and upon oil-rich Romania.

Daniel Dancocks paid this tribute: “If the Canadians were successful in northwestern Europe, much of the credit belongs to the lessons learned in the Spaghetti League” (page 220).

Two Newfoundland Regiments

Monte Cassino in south-central Italy was the strongest fortress in Europe. Its 5,000 feet of height guarded the Liri Valley and the road to Rome. Men from 12 armies fought there in four costly battles and the Newfoundlanders were in the thick of it. It is a curiosity that while our island’s First World War military narrative is fairly well-known (Gallipoli, Beaumont Hamel, etc.) our Second World War contribution sometimes seems diffused in the public imagination.

In 1939-1945 our island was then under British direct rule and could not afford to mount a separate regiment at first. This meant that many of the first 400 recruits were assigned as artillery forces under the British Army

But soon the 1,430 fresh recruits from places such as Corner Brook, Grand Falls, Harbour Grace — these were eventually bracketed into two units, the 166th Royal Newfoundland Artillery Regiment (in Italy) and the 57th Newfoundland Heavy Regiment.

In the 57th, young Carbonear hockey players named Jack Lee and Jack Keneally sloshed ashore in Normandy a month after D-Day and ended the war south of Hamburg. That’s a story for another time.

But the 166th. made up a branch of the service that in Italy would often prove to be the emperor of battles (versus the infantry as “queen of battles.”)  As intelligence officer Farley Mowat (a future adopted Newfoundlander) reported in "And No Birds Sang," commanders in Italy soon leaned that the terrain was mightily unforgiving. Attacks moved to a pattern. First came a reconnaissance by observers (Mowat’s detail) then an air bombardment, if possible. Then a strong artillery barrage to soften up the defenses before the engineers and the tanks and infantry went in.  

The Allied gunners were also trained in “counter-battery fire” aimed at knocking out the opposing high quality German guns, pillboxes, tanks and mortars. Mortars called “moaning Minnies” were used to deadly effect. Some German guns could spit out 90 rounds per minute.

Sometimes the engagement called for steady harassing fire from massed guns at the rate of 1,000 shells per hour. No wonder Jack Oates had hearing problems the rest of his life. In Operation Diadem, launched on 11 May 1944, which proved to be the fourth and decisive push for the monastery fortress at Cassino, 1,700 guns were involved. Dick Whittington from Calgary, later a Member of Parliament, reported: “I didn’t have a newspaper but I had a bunch of papers and I could read them in the flashes that were going back and forth across the Front.”

Dancocks summarizes: “The Canadian artillery’s ability to bring down intense fire on German defensive positions was a key factor in the advance.”

The advance to where? The area around Monte Cassino, this “God-awful piece of real estate,” in the words of one Cape Breton Highlander. Let’s scout it out.

The Hellish Terrain

Monte Cassino was a mountain and a monastery. It was perched on top of the spur of a mountain ridge that stood out like a rocky fastness in south-central Italy. “There was something titanic about the scene,” Andrew Roberts reports, “frightening in its vastness, somber under the low cloud and drizzling rain that gave the slopes a menacing  appearance of evil.”

In 1943 it anchored the Nazi’s Gustav Line, which guarded the Liri valley, preventing Allied tanks from speeding on to the Eternal City.

The Newfoundlanders attached to the famous Eighth Army and sometimes Mark Clark’s U.S. Fifth Army would get to see it all up close. After giving artillery support to the Indians, Gurkhas and Canadians in their epic victory at Ortona on the Adriatic, the 166th was dispatched across the Apennines to the Cassino area on Jan. 31, 1944.

They had already seen enough of the detritus and damage of the Italian campaign. Dancocks wrote of “the shattered farmhouses and villas, burnt haystacks, and shell-pocked field, sodden with the winter rains and befouled with unburied dead and a litter of equipment, shattered cannon, burnt out tanks and vehicles” (page 214).

Now they were expected to support the New Zealanders in the second push up the slope.  Fighting was fierce and close. One Canuck claimed he caught his head cold from a German dug in nearby.  

From January to May, 1944, the ghastly fight for Cassino tip-toed back and forth. The Newfoundlanders weren’t wearing their khaki shorts this time. More likely their battle dress was a cold clammy shroud, board-stiff from the frost till a man’s body heat converted it back to a smelly mush of sodden wool.

There were 16 artillery regiments involved in the five month struggle for Cassino, and G.W. L. Nicholson has that story in his 1969 effort “More Fighting Newfoundlanders.”

Nicholson’s maps can give the impression the Newfoundlanders were safely across the valley lobbing shells up at the abbey. But 92-year-old John Pinhorn from Winterton will soon set you straight on that.  “We were down in the vallley shooting upwards and always exposed to the German firing back at us,” he remembers. “All we had were dugouts and slit trenches to crawl into at night.”

This exactly squares with the official reports. The Newfoundlanders and their 25 pounders were a source of story. British officers told tales of two men lifting a 9.2 –inch shell weighing 300 pounds while one gunner raised a 12-inch shell of 750 pounds weight with a rope looped around his neck.

Also, the 166th preferred to unload ammo by hand in the daytime back from the gun batteries since German gunners could spot the tracks of their vehicles to align their sights.  

Lance Bombardier John Pinhorn liked his weapon.

“The gun was fast. It could fire 10 rounds a minute and took a six-man crew to keep it operating,” he commented.

Places to hide

Nicholson documents how they had already fired 15,904 rounds in December, 1943. More was ahead. The New Zealand assault of Feb. 15-18, 1944 failed in spite of the massive aerial bombardment of the monastery.

Elite German troops simply had more places to hide in the rubble. So the 166th moved up to support the 4th Indian Division four miles to the east. From a forward slope, Newfoundland commander Colonel Hitchcock saw the monastery “looking like a pink edifice floating on a sea of white fog.”

The guns of 137 Battery “E” were probably the nearest artillery to the target in the entire Eighth Army (Nicholson, pages 225-227).  On March 5, two gunners were killed and two wounded amid the unceasing German fire.

The third battle came on March 15-23 when 600 guns opened up. Firing was intense, mortars needed to be neutralized, smoke screens needed to be laid out and in spite of it all some Newfoundlanders celebrated St. Patrick’s Day when the Padre handed out green weeds instead of shamrocks.

Three men from Corner Brook-Port au Port area earned the French Croix de Guerre when a French anti-aircraft battery came was under murderous attack from the new German Focke Wulfe fighter. Sweet, Jessau and Benoit held them off by manning the Bofors guns in spite of murderous fire.

Upper Register Shooting”  

After this failed third attack the 166th was chosen for an experiment in “upper register shooting.” The mountain sloped at about 26 degrees of angle. It was felt that time-fused shells exploding over the target zone in mid-air might be effective against the 60,000 Germans still on the heights.

The dashing Harold “Fish” Lake from Fortune told this story in his lively memoir “Perhaps They Left Us up There.” As an assistant to forward observer “Cam” Easton from St. Johns, Lake drove a Bren gun carrier up the steep and winding trail barely cut out of the mountainside.

Driving down a “mad mile” of open road — so-called because it was constantly shelled by the enemy — Lake paused his vehicle, calculated where the rounds were falling and drove on ahead through dead corpses and mules.

That next week in ”the jaws of hell” subjected the team to such intense shelling that the horror never left him. Years later, safe home in St. John’s, he would often crawl under his bed, shaking. “We would lay a wire under cover of darkness,” he reported.

Information would then be relayed by wireless back to the regiment. Constantly shelled while darting from place to place to change locations and surviving on the barest rations, Lake remembers the brave signaler “Chic” Kelland from Victoria losing his life up there. What a relief when the 166th was sent back to the Adriatic front. That was in April and Cassino finally fell in May after an assault that had involved 10 armies, 27 divisions, 1,900 tanks and 4,000 aircraft.

Lake got the Military Medal for his efforts. Later, back in St. John’s, when the team wondered how they even got back to base down that infernal road, gunner Joe Bennett, quipped, "perhaps they left us up there.”

That surreal comment comes close to exposing the fright and shock of battle as reported honestly by both Harold Lake and Farley Mowat. Back on the Adriatic front that July 1, the Newfoundlanders gathered for a remembrance service to the men of Beaumont Hamel.

“O God our Help in Ages Past” and "The Ode to Newfoundland” were sung with gusto. The war had less than a year to go but the 166th had been more than serviceable. A British officer saluted their “energy and courageous cheerfulness,” throughout the whole affair. Cassino had fallen. The road to Rome was open. And this needs remembering as the D-Day celebrations draw near.

— Neil Earle is an adjunct history professor at Citrus College in Glendora, California, but calls Carbonear home.

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  • Wanda Grzesik
    March 12, 2014 - 15:34

    I have been travelling to Monte Cassino every 5 years with a group of Polish Veterans that fought there . Not sure if any of the Vets will make it this year , however friends and family are welcome to join us to pay tribute on May 18th at the Polish Cemetery and also at the Commonwealth Cemetery on the 19th ( or late on the afternoon of the 18th - TBA ) details at www.chopintours.com

  • Bob Boone
    January 18, 2014 - 14:11

    An awesome and inspiring account. I've been there in peace time and the challenges faced by all allies were abundantly obvious even in peacetime.

  • gord
    January 16, 2014 - 22:13

    Nice story, thanks I enjoyed your information. My father was there too serving with the 166. I remember him talking about it.