The Italian Campaign of 1943-45 is a largely forgotten part of WWII. Nevertheless it was extremely bloody and was the scene of a nightmarish battle: Monte Cassino.
In an attempt to march on Rome Allied armies became bogged down in the Italian mountains by fierce German resistance particularly around the mountain of Monte Cassino, which was crowned by a beautiful medieval monastery.
The battles in this area were some of the most intense and bloody of WWII. Between January-May 1944 Allied armies of many nationalities desperately fought to dislodge the German forces that were based in and around the monastery. If Monte Cassino could be taken the road to Rome would be open and the push north could continue. By the time the Allies broke through the deadlock in May 1944 they had lost 55,000 casualties compared to lighter German losses of 35,000. One of the approximately 240,000 Allied soldiers who fought at Monte Cassino was Welsh Private Theo Davies who served in the British Army in the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. Born in 1924 and now aged 92 Davies saw significant action and spoke to History of War about his experiences fighting at the heart of Italy.
When did you join the British Army?
I was called up in early 1943 and did my initial training at Brecon and then sent to Shrewsbury for my infantry training where they put me in the Shropshire Light Infantry. I did advanced training with them in Norfolk, which I did until about August 1943. The next thing I knew I was sent on embarkation leave and I was going abroad. In the beginning of September we went out on a convoy into the Mediterranean.
About halfway across six Welsh boys including myself were picked out and told that we were no longer in the Shropshire’s but were now in the Queens Own Royal West Kent Regiment. We were transferred as reinforcements. The whole idea was that you were placed in regiments and then you were sent on afterwards to wherever you wanted. In some cases you stayed in your original regiment but it wasn’t to be for us. Incidentally the Queens Own Royal West Kent’s cap badge is the same badge that “Dad’s Army” used but we were the young version and better commanded!
When and where did you arrive in Italy and how did you feel about going into combat?
We landed in the southern part of Italy and went up the east coast on the Adriatic side and went up as far as the Sangro River by December 1943.
In terms of combat, you just to had to get on with it. You’ve got to do it and you became accustomed to it. That’s your duty and what you’re here for. It was “work” effectively.
What were conditions like fighting in the winter of 1943-44?
They were getting worse from September. We had a terrific amount of rain; people don’t believe how much mud there was. The conditions were horrible. We were there in the Sangro and were pulled out and given a rest.
We then went to a place called Campobasso and I was sent on a detachment with some other men in the company to guard an ammunition dump. When we were there on patrol some Italian farmers shot a sergeant and myself because I think they thought we were going to raid their place. There had been a lot of theft around the area. That was the first time I was wounded with a load of pellets in my arm. It wasn’t a good start.
We then came back into the line and went into position high above the Sangro still on that front in the mountains in the snow. We were really in it and were there for about two months, January-February 1944 in positions. I then went down with malaria. They reckon it was because we were sleeping in the hay that would be there in the barns and that the beetles were in the hay. I recovered pretty quickly, I didn’t have it seriously.
When did you arrive at Monte Cassino and what were you told about the battle?
In March they started to prepare us and towards the end of March they started taking us in a big convoy one night and we didn’t know where we were going and we ended up at Cassino. Nobody told us our destination.
What was your first task upon arriving?
We were initially held in reserve. They pulled everybody back because they started bombing the place. However they bombed us as well! Our unit wasn’t hit particularly hard but a lot of other units had bombs dropped on them. American planes mostly did this but there were British planes in there as well.
We were in reserve for a while in two valleys around Cassino after the bombing but we hadn’t got into Cassino itself and one night they came and they said we were going in. We had to walk of course across that big valley which was two or three miles to get to Cassino. We marched up and you’ve got to go in the dark because the Germans had all the coordinates and they could shell and bomb you. We got up to Cassino and of course we were going up to Castle Hill. As far as I know it was the Essex Regiment that took it and we relieved them.
We had to climb up this hill and take as much ammunition as we could. We had porters to carry this up for us to get up there. It took about two hours to get up this rocky hill and of course we were under the observation of the Germans so we had to keep in the dark and in the shadows. A white line was put down all the way to show us the path where there weren’t any mines. If you stepped off away from that line you risked being blown up.
Can you describe your first experiences of fighting on Castle Hill?
Once we were inside the castle we were shown our positions but we were told we were going into attack that night. We were going into attack because as far as we knew there were a dozen Ghurkha soldiers cut off up on Hangman’s Hill and we were going up to try and get them out. We went straight into attack and went down. In this castle during the battle there was only one bit of wall standing. Two walls were down and one part was standing at the back. We went down the rocks and got to a road. We couldn’t see anything, it was pitch black.
Once we got on the road there were explosions starting left, right and centre and we were in the middle of a minefield. The road was heavily mined so the attack was called off. We couldn’t get all of our wounded out so we had to get back up into the castle which was a climb up. We were told to retreat up there.
I was wounded myself. It was not a specific wound but I had cuts everywhere on my face. What you’ve got to remember is there was so much rock at Cassino that it wasn’t so much the shrapnel we were receiving from the shells, it was what they were sending up from the stone rock. I didn’t have a bit of shrapnel in me but I was cut to bits by pieces of rock.
A friend of mine, Cliff Lloyd from Port Talbot, was very badly wounded and we got back into the castle and of course we had to watch then for a counterattack. The wounded were evacuated the next morning and we went down under the flag of the Red Cross and all the firing ceased. I was parted from my friend Cliff Lloyd who was sent to Naples because he was critically wounded. However I was patched up and was back up there in ten days once all the cuts had healed up.
What happened when you went back into the front line after you recovered from your wounds?
The day after I had left with the wounded there was a German counterattack but all our boys were waiting in a square for them and they were repulsed. They never counterattacked us again all the time we were there which was about six weeks. We’d be there off-and-on of about four-eight days depending on the conditions and how good the relieving troops were. We were there until about the end of April and they pulled us out of the line again and we went back to train with the Canadian tanks.
We had some training there for a few weeks and then they brought us back up again because the weather was improving. The rain was still coming and it was very wet and boggy but it was getting a bit warmer. The Rapido River was still high and flooding. When we came back to Cassino we were out towards the valley, we weren’t in the town. We were ready to go in behind the Canadians when they broke through with the tanks. This was in May and we had a breakthrough around the 18th.
What was your opinion of the Germans fighting ability?
The Germans we encountered were all paratroopers in Cassino. They were strong fighters without a doubt. Not only that but they were seasoned fighters who had been brought from the Russian front. In a similar way to our units I expect they’d been reinforced as well because they were losing men the same as us. They kept on ramming reinforcements. It was easier for them because they kept going back to prepared positions. They knew what they were doing the moment they were withdrawn from Salerno, they were preparing their positions all the way back and still prepared them after it.
The Germans knew exactly where we were going. They were ruthless people and would make sure that they forced the Italians into preparing their positions for them. They knew exactly what they wanted and if you know the terrain of Italy it’s an easy place to defend: every place you go is a hill. It was a marvellous place for the Germans and we fought them tooth and nail all the way up it. Many an infantryman has said since, “I know Italy, I’ve walked it all!” We saw these beautiful villages in Italy on the top of hills but they all had to be cleared.
What was your interaction like with the local population? How did they respond to the Allied troops that were coming through?
The Italian people were very good; in fact they were very nice to us. I found that if you treat people right they would do the same to you. They were kind.
The British were only one of at least ten nations fighting the Germans at Monte Cassino. What did you think of the fighting abilities of the other Allied forces such as the Americans, Commonwealth, Poles etc?
You could admire them all because you knew very well what they were doing. I very much admired the Indian divisions. The Americans were good fighters but the only thing was that they were a bit undisciplined. When it came to being relieved they’d leave a couple of troops as guards and they’d be gone in no time whereas we’d stay and follow our opposition until anyone else took over.
You must remember there were hundreds of thousands of troops there and all those divisions. We were known as “The Freiburg Force” and in it was the 4th and 8th Indian Divisions, New Zealanders and us the 78th Division. That’s four divisions and each division is 10,000 men so that’s 40,000 men just in the Freiburg Force. You can imagine the numbers in the other divisions as well!
What did you think of the commander of the US Fifth Army General Mark Clark?
All the pundits seem to say that it was a mistake for the Americans to liberate Rome. I’ve read it many times that when General Mark Clark broke out of Anzio he was ordered to turn and cut off the Germans coming up Route 6 but he didn’t do that and went for Rome instead. Whether it was right or wrong I don’t know but if he’d turned and cut the Germans off he would have bagged a few divisions of them. It wouldn’t have ended the war but it would have put a lot more pressure on the Germans and they would have had to bring in more replacements. At the time the thinking was that everybody thought it was a big mistake and not long afterwards Clark was replaced.
What were conditions like on a day-to-day basis at the battle?
It was so bad on Castle Hill that you couldn’t move in daylight. You were looking at that monastery all the time but you couldn’t see any movement in it and our sight was obscured by a back wall. Our officers did the observing and they were the only ones who could see what was happening on the hill. We were in our sangars. “Sangar” is the name we gave to our slit trenches but we couldn’t really dig them because it was all rock. We would build up a kind of shelter instead and we’d put up any old props that we could on the top that would give us protection.
On a day-to-day basis you had to be there to observe all the time and Jerry would be mortaring you constantly. You had to make sure that if he came you were ready to repulse him. It was always a relief to see on a fine day the spotter plane coming up to locate German artillery positions because it stopped all the enemy mortars and guns firing on us. If they kept firing the artillery officer and the spotter plane’d spot them so it was a relief to see the aircraft coming up as it gave us a short quiet period of about 20 minutes. It was a little old biplane that used to fly high overhead but it was a good relief.
We didn’t do so much actual fighting because there was nothing to shoot at but the mortars were going all the time. I remember one incident where there were two other fellows in the sangars and myself. In the daytime you would do rotate duty one-on, one-off and I was having one of these men to come out and relieve me and I was bending down to go into this sangar and there was a terrific explosion behind me and felt a terrific bang in my backside. I let out a yelp and I turned around and I thought I’d been hit. I had actually been hit by a big bit of shrapnel but it hadn’t even cut my trousers. It hadn’t cut me at all. I think this happened mainly because I had been bent down to get into the slit trench. Whether the tautness of my backside repulsed it I don’t know but I was very badly bruised for a while afterwards.
What happened during Operation Diadem (the final battle) up the Liri Valley and what was your part in it?
We were going in behind the Canadians, mopping up and breaking through the resistance. It was normal infantry training and fighting. The resistance we encountered was the usual thing of machine guns and infantry fire. You just had to keep on going. Sometimes they strafed you and you had to keep your head down but then you’d fire and drive them back. The only way you knew you’d been successful was when you were passing dead Germans.
We went up the Liri Valley for a while and got up as far as Frosinone along with the Canadians and we were pulled out then. We were given a rest and we didn’t go back into action until the liberation of Rome then. The Americans went into Rome but we didn’t have the honour.
How did the war end for you?
I carried on past Rome and I was wounded again on 19 June at Lake Trasimeno. That was the third time I was wounded. I was out for a long time in hospital. I rejoined my division but then left them in January 1945 up near Bologna and I went down with shell shock. I was wounded three times altogether in Italy but only once at Monte Cassino. When you look at it I was 19 and wounded three times before I was 20.
What do you think the legacy of Monte Cassino is?
After the battle we used to get so little write up in the press back home about Italy that there was a song written called “D-Day Dodgers”. It was supposed to have come about, I don’t know whether it is true or not, because Lady Astor said something in the House of Commons about the men serving in Italy were nothing but “D-Day Dodgers” because we “didn’t want to go” to D-Day. But we were out there because we were sent there! I don’t think the story is true and I suspect it was probably sent out by German propaganda but of course the morale of the boys out there was so low they were bound to believe it.
My personal thoughts about Monte Cassino are that it was a terrible place. It’s a pity that there was no way that we could bypass it. In my opinion is that it wasn’t the breakthrough with the Poles running on the monastery. Instead it was a breakthrough by French Moroccan Goumiers and the American 5th Army on the other side of the valley went up in the mountain where they didn’t think they could go. However they started taking positions and the Germans were then afraid of being cut off across the valley. I think that influenced their decision to pull out and that’s why it was easier for the Poles to go from Hill 593 and across. You must remember that the 78th Division was up on Hill 593 before the Poles. The French colonial troops were tribal and used to have horses and even their wives with them. Why the commanders didn’t think of going round to that valley before instead of taking the bastion I don’t know but then again I’m only a Tommy soldier!
Do you think there has been enough recognition of the contribution at Monte Cassino?
No I don’t because it was a terrific battle. I wouldn’t say it was as big as the D-Day Landings but it’s a battle that has been forgotten without doubt. It was terrible and definitely the worst battle in the Mediterranean in my opinion. Every other battle that I was in I thought I’d survive but I never thought I’d survive Monte Cassino. There was constant bombardment, you couldn’t move and we were under observation all the time. The casualties were high. We were sitting ducks but we had to hang on to every foothold that we had, it was essential that we hung on. If we hadn’t we wouldn’t have gone as far north as we did.
The contribution that the Italian campaign made to the war was fantastic because it kept those German armies occupied. The Americans weren’t in favour of going to Italy but I think it was one of the wisest moves. When they got up to Italy in places like Foggia there many American and British medium-sized bombers and they were supplying partisans in Yugoslavia and Greece from Italy. They were also doing terrific damage doing bombing raids into the Balkans; it was a big contribution to the war. I personally think the Italian campaign was a big success because in some of the Adriatic ports we were sending fishing boats across to Yugoslavia and Greece and supplying the partisans.
We were draining the Germans bit by bit. If we hadn’t been in Italy there would have probably been another 20 divisions on the Russian front and the war might not have finished as quickly as it did. There would have been extra troops at D-Day as well. We can all form our opinions better after the event whereas when I was in the line I was ignorant and was thinking more about survival.
The full story of Monte Cassino and Theo Davies’ experiences can be found in History of War issue 35 or you can subscribe now and save 25% off the cover price. Special thanks to the Monte Cassino Society.