The Battle of Monte Cassino – what do I know?

At the battle of Monte Cassino in 1944 my father-in-law, Bert Mathers, was wounded and captured. It led to his spending a year as a prisoner of the Nazis. I have published his account of that time in Came the Dawn, the Record of a Yorkshireman in the Black Watch. Here is his account of that battle. He did not have the vantage point of a general. He experienced it as an officer leading an ill-fated platoon. I may publish a few more extracts, but you might like to read the whole thing. I found it relevant to our situation today as I explained in a previous post.

The Battle of Monte Cassino

22nd April 1944

Take Over

The position was taken over on the night of 22nd April without any unusual occurrence. The platoon moved from the debussing point a few miles from Cassino to their positions in canvas shoes owing to the proximity of the enemy. A short halt occurred at the Crypt where section guides were awaiting the platoon. More warnings about the necessity for quiet were given. Then followed the short trek to the positions along narrow tracks between the rubble and around bomb craters, past the position to be taken up by 16 Platoon where there was a particularly dangerous spot and where I was warned by a Cockney whisper to keep my fatherless head down if I wished to retain it. Over a stream or pond, I know not which, on a precarious length of corrugated iron, and at last the position was reached.

I was guided by the hand down a steep slope of soil, rubble and litter, into a cellar – my platoon headquarters. It was too dark to see whom I was relieving, for no light whatsoever could be permitted. An impression was gained, however, in the few minutes I conversed with the relieved platoon commander, that he was, indeed, very relieved. We had carried individual rations for the next 24 hours, so had no visits at all that night. The platoon position had many peculiar aspects and in my worst nightmares I had never anticipated having to cope with so many peculiarities at the same time. Platoon HQ had no field of fire, owing to the height of rubble in front of the position. No section had an observation post by day, as any firing slit or OP could have been easily fired into by the enemy, occupying nearby dominating features. There was no mutual support between sections, as no section could see any of the other sections. Each was therefore an isolated and independent section without any means of communication with the others. An unplotted minefield lay between the three sections and the enemy.

By day, the following were manned: listening posts inside Positions 1 and 3 and listening post outside Position 2 (Platoon HQ). The man outside Position 2 could crawl to his position from Platoon HQ and had to sit below the four foot wall with his back to the wall and enemy, facing our own lines. Light machine-gun with two men 20 yards to left of Position 2. These men could crawl to their position under cover. They had no observation forward. The light machine-gun could assist in the event of an attack from the left flank, could not cover that flank, but could fire across 16 Platoon’s front. Position 2 occupied by Platoon HQ was in a cellar, the upper floors having been completely destroyed. Piles of rubble were mounted on top of the structure still left. The top of the cellar walls were approximately three feet above ground level. The size of the cellar was approximately 15 feet by 9 feet.

23rd April

Came the Dawn

Came the dawn, a grey light spread across the cellar. An investigation of a blocked-up loophole revealed a few chinks through which could be seen Castle Hill in the distance and a few square yards of the upper half of a building, 30 to 35 yards away in the direction of the enemy. This view was the only relief one could get and I looked so often I can still remember the pattern of an iron grill over a door, which I assume led onto a balcony. The loophole in question had been blocked up, as the Bosche could fire into it from his positions, and could also approach under cover to within a few yards, from where he could easily lob grenades into the aperture.

A stock of empty urine cans rested on a ledge near the entrance but the capacity was found to be inadequate and a search of the position produced a German respirator container, which, it was thought, would, in a case of necessity, serve a dual purpose. I forced the lid off, to my regret, for the contents were showered over my hands and battle dress. It had already served in a dual capacity and I was immediately forbidden to approach the rations and was treated with great reserve. I hope the men enjoyed my predicament – it was the last amusing incident they were to witness for some time.

The floor of the position was a mixture of soil, excreta, uneaten food and bloody blankets. (The position had suffered casualties the day before we took over). Unopened mail was found amongst the litter, and some I recognised as being the property of an officer with whom I had undergone training a year previously and had not seen since.

A telephone and 18 set rested on a box in a corner of the cellar. Reception on the 18 set was poor and the aerial could not be placed upright, the set being inclined with the aerial suspended by string from the ceiling. Company HQ repeatedly asked me to talk louder on the set. I refused, but my action was received with bad grace until the post had been visited the next night.

The rations were good but appetites abnormally small. Obviously, preceding troops had experienced the same, for there was a large accumulation of canned food and three-quarters of a sack of tea rested in a corner. I resolved to send some back with the porters some night, also to carry out as much as we could (without burdening ourselves overmuch) on our departure.

The day passed quietly. Light machine-gun and listening post men were changed over at regular intervals.

The night of April 23/24


The ration party duly arrived with the cans of water and three sandbags containing rations, one for each position. The company commander made a visit – the last time I should see him for nearly three years.

The night could hardly have been worse for the physical condition of the men, for soon after our visitors had departed we were smoked out of the position. Earlier in the evening, the smoke from our own artillery had fallen too near and had been a nuisance, but nothing worse. Now, however, the situation became really serious.

A clutch of smoke cannisters descended on the position, one unfortunately against the partially blocked loophole. The cellar was immediately filled with smoke and we had to evacuate. When the first men reached the outside, they paused for air, blocking the way for the others still below, and consequently the last out received an extra ration of the smoke. There was considerable noise caused by coughing and all, but the first few to get out were violently sick.

Ten minutes or so later, the position was again occupied, but the air remained foul. The smoke was lifted fifty yards at our request, but nevertheless I laid on a drill for a speedy evacuation just in case. It is well that the precaution was taken, for about twenty minutes later another cannister dropped near. The position was evacuated for only a few minutes on this occasion and to our great relief the smoke screen stopped altogether shortly afterwards.

Private McOwatt, my stretcher-bearer, was unconscious as a result of the smoke. For a few hours, during odd moments of consciousness, little sense could be got out of him, but about half an hour before first light his condition improved and he rejected an offer to be replaced by a stretcher-bearer from Company HQ.

The day sentries were put into position about 0530 hours as near as I can remember. I looked through the partly blocked loophole. It was a beautiful morning and I longed to be able to walk out into its freshness. I lay down in the corner near the telephone and wireless set. All seemed well and presently I began to doze.

The Attack

I had not yet fallen asleep when three severe explosions rent the air, part of the building caved in and the air was filled with dust and the smell of explosives. The day sentry on the listening post above the position shouted for Sergeant Beaton, and at the same time made a dash for the entrance of the cellar. They met halfway down the sloping entrance as a grenade burst on the platform feature above, wounding Sgt. Beaton in the cheek and jaw.

It was not until this first grenade burst that I fully appreciated the situation. In the few seconds that had elapsed between the initial explosion and the grenade bursting, thoughts had raced through my mind. Charges laid against the wall and not to be repeated was the most optimistic. With the throwing of the grenade, the grimness of the situation was appreciated, with nine of us trapped in the cellar without firing positions and no solid expectation of assistance from the two sections or light machine-gun position. It was known also that neighbouring platoons could give no help. The one hope was in our keeping the enemy at bay until artillery-fire could be brought to bear. The situation would have been vastly different had the attack come in by night.

The air was thick:  smoke-and-dust-filled, and although the initial explosions had split upon the wall adjacent to the blocked loophole, and thrown the filling of the loophole into our midst, it was impossible to see across the cellar. Two positions only could be taken up. One against the gap which had been blown and which I will now refer to as ‘the gap’. The other by the official entrance leading from the platform above and which was still the only space through which the enemy might force an entrance.

As far as I can remember, Private Foley took up the former position immediately, and remained at that post. He was certainly there for most of the action. I took up the position by the entrance. Sergeant Beaton was by the wireless set and telephone, endeavouring to contact Company HQ. Later, Private Low was used for carrying ammunition and to act as replacement in the event of Private Foley or myself being put out of action. Privates Hancock and Cairns were outside in the light machine-gun position.

The remainder, five in all, had no task – more would be allotted to them. McOwatt, stretcher-bearer, in his normal role of course, was waiting to attend to any casualties. To those five fell the horrible lot of just waiting and hoping for the best. A demoralising affair, with the enemy just yards away.

Grenades were thrown by both sides. Meanwhile, Sergeant Beaton was still working on the wireless set and telephone. They had both been damaged in the initial explosions and it was with great hope that we awaited the establishing of contact with our company. At last, Sergeant Beaton had to admit that he could not get through.

More firing of small arms and throwing of grenades had taken place and we felt sure the attack would be known of by our company and the artillery could be expected any moment. A position could not be found from where a Very pistol could be fired to any advantage, otherwise we would have endeavoured to fire SOS lights.

Throwing grenades was exceedingly tricky, especially from the entrance side. Movement on the rubble overhead had to be dealt with from this side, as the gap on the other side only permitted a straight throw. An overthrow from the entrance side would result in the grenade bursting near the gap or could even roll back into the cellar from that side.

We knew we had inflicted casualties. It offered some form of encouragement, particularly when one paratrooper received a Tommy gun burst as he dashed through the opening onto the platform feature at a range of about five yards.

Casualties were occurring and the expected artillery was long overdue.

There were moderately long pauses at times and we hoped on each occasion that the attack was being drawn off, though even during these pauses the occasional slight crunching of gravel overhead reminded us that it would be foolish to be unduly optimistic. Cries of ‘Come out!’ greeted us at intervals.

Private Foley set a fine example by his aggressive attitude. One instance, which I suppose reflects a lighter side, was after a grenade had been thrown in (if it was a grenade – it did not explode) and I had yelled, ‘One in!’ and whilst everyone was lying face down awaiting the explosion, Foley was searching about in the dark amongst prostrate figures, shouting, ‘Where is he? Which is him?’.  He had thought I had shouted, ‘Hun in!’. We didn’t see the lighter side at the time.

By now, Foley, Low and I had been hit, though not sufficiently to need replacing. Sergeant Beaton, in spite of a painful wound, was still endeavouring to make contact with Company HQ. Of the remainder, whose job it was to keep out of the way as much as possible, one, Private Windett, had been badly wounded. I did not know of this at the time.

The attack continued and after a particularly heavy throw of grenades, some of which exploded inside, phosphor-type grenades burst into the cellar.

This was the end. It had taken approximately thirty-five minutes to come about. There is a limit to human endurance and, although one can compete to a certain extent with high explosives, smoke and fire have no equal. I make no apology for the disorganised evacuation which followed.

The last hope was that, in the smoke and confusion which reigned outside, one could find some external hideout. The chances were remote.

As I stumbled through the smoke, I now saw enemy in large numbers. I was surprised at their thickness on the ground. A cry of ‘Offizier’ went up as my rank was recognised and I was grabbed on both sides and hurried away, along planks over the rubble-filled street and behind a high wall (where there was a full platoon lined up) into a building which I took to be a Bosche platoon headquarters.

There the reception committee awaited our arrival. I perched myself, doubled up in pain, on a three-legged chair. Lance-corporal Latham entered a few seconds later, came across to me and had commenced to bandage my wounds when he was pushed away.  At that moment, I heard screams and shouts from the area we had just left and at that time thought either the reserve platoon of D Company was counter-attacking (a preposterous thought, I now realise, of course) or that the Bosche were putting in their final assault on the remaining sections of the platoon. I am now of the opinion that it was the Bosche giving their cries of jubilation on the success signal.

Soon afterwards I was given an injection and passed into unconsciousness.

Came the Dawn begins at the battle of Monte Cassino in April 1944 and ends a year later.

Came the Dawn begins at the battle of Monte Cassino in April 1944 and ends a year later.