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Monte Cassino - "Smoke Trains".

by PeterGreen

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Contributed by 
PeterGreen
People in story: 
Herbert Green, Gnr RA, 1697587
Location of story: 
Monte Cassino, Italy.
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A8738003
Contributed on: 
22 January 2006

Herbert Green Gnr, RA, 1697587 - Monte Cassino, Italy 1944.

My winter of 1943/44 was spent in desperate conditions within the Apennine mountains in the Sangro area of Italy. The snow was thick on the ground, but fortunately offensive action was out of the question, as both sides tried to survive the winter conditions. We spent our days foraging for wood to keep the fires going, eating and sleeping. A form of “R and R” you could say, but the weather made us all feel miserable.

In February 1944 we were pulled out of the mountains and the 78th Division regrouped around the Capua area — not far from Naples. The plan was to move up to Mignano, ten miles south of Cassino, and be part of the “big push” to take the town and the monastery on the heights of Monte Cassino. The road to Rome would then be open and the first Axis capital would fall. Well that was the plan …

In the mean time our, Light “Ack Ack” Bofors teams received orders to undertake training on making smoke using smoke canisters. The canisters were about the size of a small five-gallon oil drum. They were ignited by a fuse wire attached to the lid. One drum would make thick grey smoke for about four hours. The idea was to fill the valley in front of Cassino so the Germans could not see our troop movements and the engineers constructing Bailey bridges over the River Rapido.

At the commencement of our stint in the Cassino line we witnessed the 1,000-bomber raid, which came in to soften up the town and the monastery. Wave upon wave of allied bombers — Mitchells, Bostons etc. flew over for more than three hours. After the smoke had cleared the town and monastery was just one heap of rubble, but the Germans were ready and came out fighting. Our infantry had a tough time, with many dead and wounded.

The time came (far too soon) for our gun teams to assist the smoke sites in the valley. We went with the team we were relieving for two nights, on the job training, taking smoke canisters and laying them at strategic points about the site. Our site was on the left of the valley, in front of the River Rapido and between the railway track and Highway 6.

On our first night I was driving a jeep with three trailers in tow. The trailers were full of smoke canisters — in total about 90 canisters in the three trailers. We travelled along part of Route 6, heading north, across the valley (the infamous “Mad Mile”, named as such because of the exposure to the German guns). The Germans were continually sending flares into the night sky and shelling at random. When we turned off the road we had about 500 yards to travel to our site near the railway track. We dodged shell craters, knocked out tanks (American Shermans) army trucks and field artillery pieces. The German flares helped us to see our way across the difficult terrain. We arrived at the site, off loaded the smoke canisters and then dashed back to base for the second load. Route 6, the “Mad Mile”, was full of troop movements, both ways, including pack mules with supplies for the infantry in the surrounding hills.

The name given to our jeeps and trailers was: “Smoke Trains.” There must have been about 30 trains out per night. Each one had to undertake two trips every night. After two nights of ferrying smoke canisters to the sites, we were given 48 hours rest. Then it was our turn to go out, live in slit trenches, and make smoke.

We had a very early breakfast (04:00) and received rations for the day: tins of corn beef (“bully”), baked beans, soup, boiled sweets, chocolate, cigarettes, tea, dried milk, water bottles and “Tommy cookers.” The “Tommy cooker” was a round tin with a removable lid, filled with methylated spirits and cotton wool, which would burn long enough to boil a pint of water.

We were again taken out in jeeps - passing some of the smoke trains on their return journey. We had to be on site one hour before daybreak to commence making smoke. There were three men to a slit trench, two from our team and one of the “veterans” from the team we were relieving. We wasted no time in getting the fuses lit on ten canisters. When daylight came, the valley was filling up with smoke and the morning mist from the river. From then on we would light three canisters every thirty minutes. The Germans knew something was going on and would increase the shelling and mortaring, especially when we were out in the open lighting the fuses on the canisters. We did plenty of “ducking and diving.”

The days were long and, in between making smoke, our time was spent baling out water from the slit trench; our feet were cold and soaking wet all day. We made improvised shelves in the side of the slit trench to put the “Tommy cookers” and the rations on.

However, most days we didn’t have much of an appetite because of the stench from decomposing bodies and body parts, which were strewn all around our position. We could not get away from the smell, awful. Worse was to come as the days became warmer; decomposing flesh has a rotten eggs smell that I remember to this day. With the coming of the warmer weather, we were invaded by thousand upon thousand of flies, much the better from feeding off the dead bodies. We could not bury our comrades, and they lay on the battlefield for weeks.

We were glad, after our two days in slit trenches to be informed we were to be replaced. We commenced walking back to the “Mad Mile” to meet the jeeps. Upon arriving back at camp, we took a hot shower and a meal. Then we received a briefing from the smoke officer. He told us we were having 24 hours off then going back, on nights, delivering smoke canisters. He also informed us the engineers were making excellent progress with the construction of the Bailey bridge across the river, on the site of the old railway bridge. The plan was then to use the old railway track and the bridge to get tanks across the river. In the mean time, the engineers were dumping old Bailey bridge parts by the road crossing, on the “Mad Mile”, to make the Germans think we were trying to get into Cassino by road.

The day arrived for us to go back to make smoke. The same drill as the previous day, up for an early breakfast, water bottles full and haversack rations for two days. The jeep driver, who was taking us out to the smoke sites, had some bad news. One of the slit trenches had taken a direct hit from German shelling, killing all three men in the trench. The news certainly concentrated the mind and the realisation of the dangerous task we were undertaking. When we got to our site it was still intact. Straight away we got the fuses lit on the canisters. I noticed some old railway sleepers near by. I said to the lads, “What about putting some over our trench, it might save us if we get a direct hit from a mortar round.” They all agreed, without question. We covered the trench with sleepers, leaving an opening at one end to get in and out of. We then put layer upon layer of earth and mud on top of the sleepers to make the roof watertight and, most importantly, shell and mortar bomb proof, well we hoped so. Over the next couple of days we continually improved our “lodgings”.

As we were getting the first railway sleepers, we met infantry stretcher-bearers bringing casualties back to the field dressing stations. They told us it had been a bad night. All the casualties had hideous chest and leg wounds, mainly from mortar rounds, as the German front line was only yards from our own positions.

We now felt a little safer in our trench with the roof on listening to the whistle of shells and whine of mortars. We experienced intermittent shelling and mortaring for our two-day stint, however, our “lodgings” stood the test.

Eventually, my small part in the Battle for Monte Cassino drew to a close and the day came when the division relinquished the task of holding the line. The 2 Polish Corps replaced us. We saw some of these men moving up to take over our positions. A fair number were so young, mere schoolboys. But they turned out to be very good soldiers and the Germans were always afraid of them — for the Poles, memories of 1939 were still fresh in their mind. The Poles wanted no prisoners, they only wanted dead Germans.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Monte Cassino - "Smoke Trains".

Posted on: 22 January 2006 by Ron Goldstein

Dear Herbert

Delighted to come across your article as we of the 49th LAA are few and far between on this site.

Go to my Personal Page on:

U520216

and have a shufti at some of our similar experiences including a few items I quote below.

Apr’43 Liverpool, S.S.Frankonia, The ship that took us to North Africa. Algiers.

Posted to 49th Light Anti Aircraft Rgt. at Tunis
(08) Not my worst night, by any means (A1996860)

(09) Algiers, April 1943, Our first sight of Africa (A7050520)
Cap Matifou, Ghardimeau, Medjes El Bab, (Tunisia)

May ’43
(10) A Driver/Op in Light Ack Ack (A2077274)
June ‘43 Carthage, Guelma, Hammamet Boarded ship for the invasion of Sicily.

(76) Dining out in Guelma

(11) Sicily, then on to Italy (A2370674).

As you probably know, this site will close for further submissions at the end of January this year.

On my Personal Page I have give a few alternative sites on which postings can be made AFTER that date

Best wishes

Ron Goldstein (84th Bty and later RHQ)

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