Reminiscing, World War II

Thirty-one years ago, in December, 1943, the fighting on the Cassino front in Italy was building in intensity. The British 56th (Black Cat) Division, a battle-weary veteran unit of the long Africa Campaign and continuously in action since the Salerno Beachhead, had successfully secured Mt. Camino, and was moving onward toward the Garigliano River, which had to be crossed before Cassino itself could come under direct attack. After another two months of bitter fighting there under the most miserable weather conditions (and with the Cassino line still unbreached), the 56th was pulled out. Without any significant period of rest, it was shuttled up by sea to the beleaguered Anzio Beachhead south of Rome. The Division reached there just as the Allied forces, already reeling after the first German attacks, were making frantic preparations to withstand the major German effort that was soon to follow.

We met Maurice Harvey for the first time on the evening of February 21, 1944, when his 217 Battalion of the Queen's Royal Regiment (West Surrey), 56th Division fought its way up to the Anzio caves where the remnants of our own battered battalion, after ten days of mortal combat behind the German lines, still struggled to survive. The valiant effort was not overly successful, as the Queen's lost all of its equipment and more than half of its men in attempting to rescue us.

Two days later, Dr. Harvey and I found ourselves uncomfortably quartered in an 8 by 10 foot earthen bunker dug into the bank of a dry stream-bed, helping grizzled but kindly Feldwebel Herbert Mihler from Chemnitz-Am-Sachsen run the medical aid station for the Wehrmacht's 1027 Panzer Grenadiers. We were kept there for two weeks, finally traveling together next to the temporary prison cages at Rome's Cinema City, and then onward by truck and boxcar through Bolzano and the Brenner Pass to the prison camp at Moosburg, close by Munich. We parted company in May 1944 when the American officer prisoners in Moosburg were shipped north to Poland.

Two months ago, the Bulletin printed a poem by Dr. Harvey, along with some of his observations about the National Health Service in Britain. Recently, he sent us another contribution - this time a nostalgic, wartime reminiscence about those miserable but somehow wondrous and inspiring days of combat in the war-torn Italy of December 1943.


During the rough and tumble years of the War, one made many acquaintances, and even a few real friends, only to lose touch with them, as often as not, suddenly, and with startling finality.

It was in Italy in December 1943 - not the sunny Italy of romantic fancy, but the Italy where the more fortunate armies of the ancients used to go into winter quarters. An Italy of rain and sleet and even quite a lot of snow, especially on the high ground. An Italy that was not at all a pleasant place for a winter campaign, especially sleeping in the open, as one was forced to do on occasion. It was in this real Italy of December 1943 that I was posted to an infantry battalion which had its headquarters in a village where life was reasonably safe, provided that one was careful. That is to say, provided one ran as fast as possible across certain places where gaps between houses left one in full view of the Germans not far away on the other side of the river. For reasons best known to himself, Jerry did not often shell the place at that time.

As I have said, the weather was vile, but we were fairly comfortable and had the place almost entirely to ourselves, most of the inhabitants having betaken themselves elsewhere, very sensibly.

Among my fellow sufferers of all ranks, there were many whom I remember well, though seldom by name. There was the C.O. Some said he was too reckless to be a good unit commander, and perhaps they were right, but he was far less careless of the safety of those under his command than of his own. He was the only man whom I have ever had the chance to observe closely and yet remain in doubt whether he really knew fear. Perhaps he was a convinced fatalist, perhaps merely supremely unimaginative. Some called him "Stunter" - behind his back - and said that he was an exhibitionist. But if he was acting a part, he acted it superbly. He never seemed to take the most elementary precautions for his own safety, yet he came through the whole war without a scratch. I could not help wondering what would have happened had he been wounded, however slightly.

Then there was another officer, whose name I forget, so I will call him simply "the Major". The title is apt to conjure up the vision of an elderly, red-faced warrior, a bottle- (repeat), bottle-scarred veteran with a white moustache, whose dreary reminiscences are the despair of unwilling audiences in saloon bars and similar places. But the Major in question wasn't like that. Everyone-liked him. He was in his early twenties, efficient and conscientious without being officious. And he was able to keep the friendship of older men with longer service, even after being promoted over their heads. I can imagine few better testimonials.

Soon after I joined the unit, we were sent to cross the river. It was a nasty little river, very cold and muddy looking, that ran westwards through a broad valley between high hills. The hills looked very pretty no doubt in their snowy mantles, but it was difficult to wax enthusiastic when we had to spend hours on end on our bellies in the mud or in a wet slit-trench. In the valley there was no snow, but plenty of cold, sticky mud, not quite so bad as that of Tunisia, but bad enough.

According to the precedent, Division had made elaborate plans that were marred by Division's own failure to take into account various simple, easily ascertained facts. The result of this oversight was that things did not go according to plan, but only according to precedent. However, our battalion did get across, somewhat the worse for the experience, and a good twelve hours late. But nobody else got across at all, apart from a few Polish commandos sent with us to cut telephone lines and throats behind the German lines. We saw few of them again, and were left marooned on the north side of the river, surrounded by very irritated Germans and on the wrong side of an almost equally angry little river. No doubt the Poles had annoyed the Germans, but we had done nothing to the river except to cross it.

However, the position was not too bad. Most of us were on the reverse slope of the hills just out of reach of the presents that Jerry kept lobbing over to us. My RAP was in a school, solidly built of stone and facing downhill, away from the enemy. It is true that the top had been blown off and the back rooms were full of debris, but the big classroom in front was intact and watertight. The only snag was that we had to keep the door shut and the windows shuttered to keep out flying fragments from the shells always exploding a little lower down on the hillside.

On one occasion, having been called out to treat a casualty and doing what I could, I was doubling back to the RAP, and, on rounding the corner, saw the Colonel sitting comfortably on a stone beside the path. He was not even wearing a steel helmet, but had his service cap comfortably on the back of his head and a cigarette in his mouth. He was contemplating the shelling with apparent interest. Doubtless to a disembodied spirit it would have proved fascinating, but I did not feel inclined to linger and enjoy it. However, he called to me as I came past and began to chat quite calmly on matters of no importance. Personally, I wished him in a warmer climate than that of Southern Italy in winter, but it is not easy to argue with the C.O. of the unit to which one is attached. I did venture to remark that, for medical reasons at least, the wearing of tin hats was the fashion locally, but the hint was beneath his notice. So there we remained for some minutes, talking of supremely unimportant matters, and watching shell after shell land on a broad muddy patch near a spring at the foot of the hill.

I observed how the fragments from each shell would tear up the turf and the peculiar pattern formed in every case. Most of the fragments flew forward in the general direction of the shell's flight, very few more than about thirty degrees on either side, and fewer yet backwards. This observation proved important, for presently one shell landed nearer and on hard ground. A considerable amount of earth and pebbles fell all around us, and some of it on us. The Colonel grinned cheerfully and remarked that it was getting a trifle warm, so perhaps we had better move. I agreed heartily, and we parted. I hurried off towards the safety and comfort of the RAP, while he strolled off quite happily in the opposite direction. Probably he was whistling. If he was acting a part, he carried it off magnificently. And all for an audience of one - or two, including himself.

But while things were not too bad for the rest of us, the Major and his company were certainly catching it. Theirs was the uncomfortable cask of guarding the one, very inadequate river crossing by which we could get supplies. So they had to dig in on the wet, flat ground nearby, exposed to constant, heavy shelling. The Major and his batman had dug an extra long trench for the two of them, as was often done to reduce the amount of work.

Some while after my chat with the Colonel, a runner summoned the Major to Battalion H.Q. for conference. So off he went, at the double, like any sensible man, and arrived safely at the dilapidated house that served as H.Q. Afterwards, he returned to his company, also on the double, to find a large hole where his trench had been. A shell had landed in it and the unfortunate batman had been blown to pieces. But such tragedies were too frequent to cause more than passing comment, whereas the Major's escape seemed providential.

A few days later we were relieved when another unit got across the river a few miles downstream. We were withdrawn for a brief rest, and then sent back to relieve our rescuers. Things were much quieter now, and there were even a few days of fine sunny weather that seemed almost warm after the rain and sleet of the previous weeks.

On such a day, the Colonel and the Major were walking with two others, I forget why, on the south side of a steep, terraced hill, comfortably out of sight and reach of Jerry. Their route took them from one terrace to another higher up the hill. The Colonel went first, and then the other two. But before the Major could follow, a short, stray shell arrived out of the blue. It was a mere harassing shell, fired at a venture, but, like the arrow that felled King Ahab, it found its mark. The other three were unharmed, but the Major was dead before they could get down to him. I think his death depressed all ranks, for he was generally liked. And yet I have forgotten his name.

This story proves nothing, of course - but that should be a refreshing change in an age of statistics that prove anything, according to how they are cooked.

(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's Lounge", Dec 1974, Vol. XVIII No.7, p.8

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