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The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944icon for Recommended story

by Andy Stephens

Contributed by 
Andy Stephens
People in story: 
Private. Albert Leonard Stephens, ‘A’ Company, 2/7 Battalion, The Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiment
Location of story: 
Monte Cassino, Italy - Salerno Landings, Crossing the Garigliano River, Castleforte
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A2937387
Contributed on: 
22 August 2004

I've always been fascinated by the life experiences of others, the more extraordinary those experiences are, the more fascinating I find them. The human spirit is never so great as when it is faced with adversity, and war by its very nature provides the willing listener with the most fascinating of stories. My father's experiences during the first battle of Monte Cassino (18 to 21 January 1944) is one such story.

September 1943, and 23-year-old Private Albert Leonard Stephens, Army No.6351005, 'Bert' to his pals, had just arrived in Italy from North Africa, where he had originally landed on 14 March 1943 as part of the 1st Army. He and the rest of 'A' Company, 2/7 Battalion, The Queen's Royal (West Surrey) Regiment had just landed on the beaches at Salerno, having suffered a dreadfully rough crossing of the Mediterranean in flat-bottomed boats, everyone was ill. Ahead lay the conquest of Italy, which it was believed, would prove to be the 'soft underbelly' of Fortress Europe — it wasn't.

The American General Clark, who commanded the operation, had assured the men of the 5th Army that the Germans were finished, and that they, the victorious Allies, would be in Rome within weeks. What he didn't tell them was that the Germans sat behind one of the most formidable defences in Europe — the Gustav Line. This defensive line used the natural topography of this mountainous region, and together with barbed wire, concreted machine gun and artillery positions, and over 24,000 landmines, made the German position all but impregnable.

On 18 January, the attack began. The British X Corps was to direct its attack to the area east of the line, known as Castleforte. The 2/7 Queen's, together with the 2/5 and the 2/6 Queen's, made up No.169 Infantry Brigade. Their task was to get across the river Garigliano and attack the enemy positions on the opposing bank. The river itself had become swollen by the torrential rain, and was icy-cold and fast moving. The men of the Queen's, mostly Londoners, had to get across, twelve at a time, crammed into small boats. The enemy positions were less than 1,000 yards from the far side of the river, and although this was to be done at night, and under the cover of smoke, they were nonetheless very exposed.

Untypical of that night's events, the Queen's managed to get across relatively safely, and once formed up on the opposite side of the river, set about their individual tasks. My father's battalion - 2/7 Queen's had to clear the enemy from the heights around Mt. Castelluchio and Mt. Valle Martina. The weather was bitterly cold, and as they advanced it soon became apparent that the climb itself was taking its toll. Men were laden with all the heavy equipment of war, and in the wet, freezing conditions the going was slow, and very tough indeed. Ahead of them lay the German 10th Army.

Commanding the German Forces was Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. A soldier of the old school, it was his particular brand of leadership that was later to play such a significant part in saving my father's life. However, for now 'Smiling Albert' Kesselring was forced to commit his strategic reserves in order to ensure the integrity of the line. Two veteran divisions, the 29th and the 90th, were immediately despatched south. Because of delays, it was only the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division that managed to arrive on the 21st, immediately counter-attacking the British advance.

By this time, my father's battalion, after two days of heavy fighting, had secured its objective. However, they were cold, wet, and near to exhaustion, and could do little more than dig in, or rather attempt to. The rocky terrain afforded little protection, and my father was forced to pile up rocks and stones in an attempt to give some cover from the constant enemy machine gun and sniper fire. Also, the enemy would inevitably be counter-attacking with grenades and sub-machine guns, so they had to be ready. My father shared his stony hollow with a pal, each taking turns to sleep while the other stayed alert. Unfortunately, both soon fell into an exhausted sleep, and in so doing failed to hear the order to pull back. The decision was taken to get the spent soldiers off the exposed mountain top, and to shell it once the Germans reoccupied it.

The men of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division had arrived in strength and were advancing on my father's position. Now fully awake, and aware of their predicament, both men stayed as low and as quiet as possible. They could hear the Germans talking to each other, although they appeared to be somewhere below their own position. Suddenly one of the Germans called out to them, 'Tommy!' This was followed by a few rocks, which landed amongst the two men. The enemy clearly knew they were there, or perhaps they were simply checking? This was too much for my father's companion, who decided he'd had enough, and attempted to make a run for it. No sooner had he got to his feet, when he was shot dead.

Armed with only a rifle, my father knew his only chance of escape was to try to run as well, but after what had just happened to his friend, he didn't fancy his chances. More rocks were thrown up. 'Tommy, hello Tommy!' called the German voice. My father felt he had to do something and decided he'd try and confuse the enemy for a few vital minutes by shouting something in German. All he could remember was 'kamerad'. This was it, now or never. He shouted out, 'Kamerad, kamerad!' Jumping to his feet he knew he had only moments to escape. As he scrambled out of the hollow, he was suddenly deafened by a terrific bang, the force of which threw him bodily through the air. Hitting the hard ground he remembered rolling, eventually falling over a shallow ridge, where he evidently blacked out.

Regaining consciousness he was able to survey his wounds. The rock-throwing German had evidently decided to throw a stick-grenade instead, and this had exploded just as my father was attempting his get away. His wounds proved far worse than he'd supposed. He described his left boot as being bloated and distorted, and his left lower leg being little more than shredded skin. He told me that his main concern was his left arm, which he described as if the whole arm had been dipped in a tin of red paint. He believed he was going to die. As he waited for the inevitable, he tried to make himself as comfortable as possible. He began to feel the severe cold and isolation of his lonely spot on the side of an Italian mountain. He was wearing a cap-comforter under his steel helmet, which he pulled down over his face. And so he waited.

Meanwhile, as the Germans regained the high ground the Allied shells came whining in. My father, drifting in and out of consciousness, was suddenly roused by the ferocity of the shelling, which was exploding all around him. Suddenly, after what must have seemed an eternity, the guns fell silent. He wasn't able to say how long it was after this that they came, but when they did he remembers it well. Suddenly he was being pulled out of his ditch by his battledresses shoulder straps. There were four or five of them. They placed him on a groundsheet cape, which had been spread upon the ground, and each took a corner. At this moment the shelling started again. With explosions all around these men were now running for their own lives, still carrying my father. One of them fell, and my father dropped painfully to the ground. Then a German voice spoke out, and the corner of the makeshift stretcher was again retrieved and the perilous journey continued. Down the mountain side they went, through the exploding shells, until they reached the relative safety of a cave. Then they were gone.

My father looked around, and in the gloom could see the interior of the cave was full of wounded German soldiers. It wasn't long before a medical orderly attended to my father's wounds, although due to a lack of bandages he was forced to use toilet paper to dress the wounds. In due course the wounded were evacuated to a proper hospital, where my father's left leg was amputated below the knee. His left arm wasn't as bad as he'd initially thought, and once all the shrapnel was removed he was able to make a full recovery.

Private 'Bert' Stephens was repatriated on 14 September 1944, after being a prisoner of war for eight months. My father never forgot the courage of those anonymous German soldiers, probably of the 29th Panzer Grenadiers or the 94th Infantry Division, who risked their own lives for the sake of an unknown enemy soldier. It's worth noting, that knowing my father as I do, he'd have done the same if the roles were reversed.

He died on 23 June 1992, aged 72.

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Message 1 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 22 August 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

I read your well-written account of your brave father's wounding with great interest. You bring out the grim reality of that 'forgotten' front.

However, you state that Field Marshal Albert Kesselring was "An honourable soldier of the old school". Unfortunately that was far from being the case. Kesselring was a convinced Nazi and whilst he was a good soldier he was also merciless when dealing with the civilian population in Italy or with Italian Partisans and in 1944 he ordered what became known as the Ardeatine Caves massacre. In that sickening massacre 335 (anti-fascists, partisans, Jews, including some women and children) were taken, mainly from Coeli Prison, in Rome to the Ardeatine Caves, and there gunned down in batches as a reprisal for the killing of 33 German soldiers by partisans. They stated that they would shoot 10 Italians for every German killed, but they didn't even stick to this grim calculation, adding an extra five. All the 335 shot were already in custody when the German soldiers were killed.

Kesserling's history goes back a long way. It was he who directed the bombing attack on Rotterdam and it was he who ordered the heavy bombing attack of the remnants of the BEF on the Dunkirk beaches in 1940.

In 1947 Kesserling was put on trial in Venice by a British Military Court for war crimes. He was found guilty and condemned to death, subsequently commuted to life imprisonment. He was freed in 1952 and died in 1960.

You will find full details of his trial here http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/WCC/kesselring.htmAbout links

Kind regards,

Peter

 

Message 2 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 22 August 2004 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Wodensman -
I can only concur with Peter as to "Smiling " Albert's character...he was a true blue Nazi - brilliant Lufwaffe General transferred to the army and did a fantastic job for his country in the Desert - Tunisia and Italy - but still a killer - as the Andeatine caves will always bear witness. This action really shocked all of us in Italy at that time..but merely emphasised who and what we were up against.

Your Fathers experience at the Gari
was not an isolated case as there were some Germans who did not want to be there !

The crossing of the Gari is well written in John Ellis' book - "Cassino - the Hollow Victory" The casualties were horrendous and it took both the Brit. 46th and 56th divs. sometime to recover, all because - basically - of one man's ego and inefficiency and total lack of war experience... not to mention - stupidity !

It's this sort of story which - unfortunately - is becoming less and less known, when in actual fact - it should still be headlines particulary for those people " who don't believe in war ".. your Father probably didn't believe in war either but he made a tremendous contribution, at a high cost !

 

Message 3 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 22 August 2004 by Andy Stephens

Hi Peter,

Thanks for that, I tried very hard to ensure the story remained as my father told it.

Regarding Kesselring's war record. My assertion that he was an 'honourable' C-in-C was based on the testimonies of others, friends and foes alike. I've read the trial details, and to be honest, it tends to bear out my premise that Kesselring was of the 'old school' of soldiery, and that his view was indeed to 'respect human principles'. This is also born out in his orders, which stated, " All counter measures must be hard but just. The dignity of the German soldier demands it."

I am of the opinion that all wartime C-in-Cs, by the very nature of the responsibility that they assume, are liable to indictment for war crimes. War is a terrible, and very brutal undertaking that requires a degree of ruthlessness to see it through. If you lose, then you're offered up for judgement by the victors, those very same people who are eager to point the finger of guilt away from themselves.

You mentioned Kesselring's guilt in the bombing of Rotterdam, and the Dunkirk beaches. So what of our beloved and glorified 'Bomber' Harris? Surely his crimes against humanity, if compared with Kesselring's, must be of monstrous proportions...but then he was on the winning side.

Best regards,

Andy Stephens

 

Message 4 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 23 August 2004 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Wodensman -
it's all very well to say that Harris is also guilty of crimes against humanity and to the victor lies vengeance etc.
No doubt you are aware of the statement of Harris as he watched London being blitzed in the early days - " they are sowing the wind - they will reap the whirlwind " Or the words of Monty as he was accepting the surrender of the Germans on Luneburg Heath when they asked for a cessation of the Bombing of Hamburg - I think it was - " do you not remember Coventry and how you bombed women and children " ? They surrendered !
I happened to be in Coventry - thankfully after they were blitzed - and I saw many - far too many -communal graves there ! The department store of Owen Owen was said to have sheltered more than 300 people - all dead ! - also Birmingham where communal graves were the only thing to do with the shattered and unidentified bodies.
ALL war is a crime and I trust that you do not undergo the horror and pain of your Father, or go and have a look at the Garigliano - Rapido - Liri - Sacco - in January and put yourself in your Father's boots !

 

Message 5 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 23 August 2004 by Andy Stephens

Hello Tom,

Thanks for your replies. My father was indeed a brave man, and would have been regardless of his wartime experiences. He believed in doing his duty, even though (as you've already guessed) he found war an aberration. His own father, my grandfather, had fought in the First World War, during which he was badly gassed. Both found the political justification for the deaths of so many young men very hard to swallow. In my grandfather's case, he accepted that the Great War was 'the war to end all wars' and this made the loss of his youth somehow acceptable. To then see his young son being forced through the same 'meat grinder' some 20 years later, was very hard to take. It's also worth noting that in 1940 my grandparents were to lose their Bermondsey home to German bombing.

The point I was trying to make regarding 'Bomber' Harris, wasn't whether he was a criminal or not, as that would inevitably cast an unfair finger of duplicity upon the brave aircrew that actually dropped the bombs - 57,143 of which never returned. I was simply attempting to address the imbalance of justice, which occurs following war. Dreadful acts were committed by both sides, and lets not forget that Stalin's Soviet Union was our ally and therefore a contributor to our war effort. The political decision to ally ourselves with that murderous regime wasn't taken out of any kind of moral supremacy - but rather political expediency. The fact that the Soviet Union also invaded Poland (the reason for war against Germany) seems to have been overlooked.

Of course the war criminals needed to be rooted-out and punished, that's beyond question. My concern is that some brave men were wrongfully dishonoured whilst others, with blood on their hands, had statues erected to them.

Regarding Coventry, my maternal grandfather — William Latham, served in the Auxiliary Fire Service in Coventry, so I am aware of the suffering of those affected. Perhaps it’s because of this that I find the deliberate targeting of German civilians so difficult to justify. If it was indeed a tit-for-tat response, then why was the destruction metered out so disproportionate? The facts speak for themselves: more Bomber Command aircrew died than there were civilians killed during the whole of the Blitz, 57,143 aircrew as opposed to 40,000 civilians. German loses have been estimated at 600,000 civilians killed, and six million homes destroyed or seriously damaged.

My father told me that after the operation to remove his leg, the German surgeon spoke with him. They chatted, and the surgeon commented that Germany would win the war. My father, having already lost his home in blitz, many of his pals, and now his leg, was able to say with great conviction, “no one wins wars”.

Best regards,

Andy

 

Message 6 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 23 August 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Andy

Do you really believe that shooting 335 civilians, including a man of 70 and a boy of 14, taken in trucks with their hands tied behind their backs, to a dark cave, and there shot in batches of five in cold blood, kneeling and waiting for a shot in the back of the neck, is the act of someone who believes 'in human principles'? and that this is borne out 'in his orders, which stated, "All counter measures must be hard but just. The dignity of the German soldier demands it." '? This was his reaction to the killing of 33 SS storm-troopers, out of an armed group who were able and did fire back. The words you have quoted are the words put forward by Kesserling himself, through his defence, at his trial.

It is only one of the many massacres carried out under Kesserling's orders in Italy in 1944 and early 1945. To give just one example out of 147 attrocities investigated in 1945 by the British Army: 29 June 1944, at Civitella: reprisal for two (2) German soldiers killed, between 150 and 200 Italians shot and finished off with bayonets, their homes burnt down.

You do realise that when Kesserling ordered the bombing and destruction of Rotterdam it was an open undefended city in a neutral country, don't you? It occured on 14 May 1940, whist surrender terms were being discussed, and came to represent Nazi wantonness and terrorism at its worst.

Regards,

Peter

 

Message 7 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 23 August 2004 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Andy -
Most of us involved in the war thought it was all the fault of the politicians, who seldom fired shots !
My Father also fought in the War to end all Wars - and wounded three times - in France - Dardanelles and again France, so he was not too happy to see his two sons go off to war.

As you say political expediency created some strange bed fellows, the strangest being with the Stalin regime - which - I have to say we in 8th Army did try to correct by planning to go through Yugoslavia - Austria - Hungary and to stop their hordes from entering Europe. Unfortunately... the political expediency of our other Ally, prevented us from doing so and thus Communism entered Europe for the following forty years.

All it means to the common man is that he must choose his friends very carefully - and avoid wars !
cheers !

 

Message 8 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 23 August 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Andy

Rather than entering a long polemic about 'Bomber' Harris, could I recommend one book to you? It is "The Bomber War - Arthur Harris and the Allied Bomber Offensive 1939-1945" by Robin Neillands (John Murray, 2001).

Since the war (that gives me away, I actually typed that and decided to let it stand), I meant since WW2, the argument about the bomber offensive has shifted. First it was wondered whether Bomber Command was up to the task it was charged with, then, from about 1950 there was a subtle twist and the argument centred on whether the bombing of Germany was a failure. Then, beginning I think with the revisionist historian David Irving's best-seller "The Destruction of Dresden" the entire debate shifted from effectiveness to morality, it was argued that the bombing of Germany was immoral, Now it is increasingly alleged that Harris and Bomber command should not have bombed German cities at all, and that it was an inexcusable war-crime.

This is very much like the vitriol poured on the heads of the Allied generals in WW1. Once they were safely dead and out ot the way their reputations were ripped to shreads.

Neillands does not seek to argue the opposite, but he does restore balance by setting out the facts. The view of right and wrong, as Neiland says, was more clear-cut in WW2. I never met anyone in WW2 or immediately after who condemned or criticized in any way the bombing of Germany.

Regards,

Peter

 

Message 9 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 24 August 2004 by Ron Goldstein

Andy

I recently got involved in another thread in which the possible bombing of railway lines to concentration camps was mentioned.
In my short reply I made clear my attitude to the current attacks on Bomber Harris.
I see now that I should rightly have made my point on this thread and so I hasten to make it now.

Peter says "I never met anyone in WW2 or immediately after who condemned or criticized in any way the bombing of Germany."

Peter is usually correct in these matters and in this case he has got 100% right.

One would have had to lived through those times (1939-1945) to have appreciated how we felt towards those who threatened our very existence and Bomber Harris was our answer to the Luftwaffe.

Ron G.



 

Message 10 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 24 August 2004 by Andy Stephens

Regarding the Kesselring thing, according to my late father, Kesselring was viewed by the ordinary British soldier in much the same way as Rommel. However, with specific regards to the Ardeatine Caves Massacre, it is clear from the outline of the case notes that the order for the killing of Italian hostages came directly from Hitler. In passing on this order Kesselring is guilty of duplicity, but what of his attempt to ensure that only those in Rome's prisons already sentenced to death were to be selected? It must have been a difficult decision to make, not a situation I'd like to be in. On the one hand he could have refused to obey Hitler - no doubt a suicidal decision for him and his family. Or he could try to limit the excesses of the directive, which he did. Unfortunately, someone had to be punished for the massacre and Kesselring fitted the bill. I think honest folk need to ask themselves what they'd have done in similar circumstances. The problem one gets into with these debates, is that whenever one tries to understand the motives of someone like Kesselring, one is immediately targeted by the zealots as being in defence of the crime!

With regards to the bombing of German cities, it was indefensible, as was the bombing of Rotterdam, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, or indeed the deliberate targeting of any non-combatants. Surely this is what this debate is all about, that the deliberate killing of innocents is morally wrong, regardless of whether it might ‘shorten the war’, ‘destroy morale’, or ‘make us feel better’. How can anyone be justified in ordering the killing of hundreds of thousands of old men, women, and children? Whether the perpetrator is German, British, or American, how can it ever be justified?

Ron mentions that being able to retaliate was a morale booster. I can understand that, my bombed-out homeless grandparents would have certainly shared that sentiment. But I know they would have been sick to the stomach had they been able to witness what that sentiment actually meant to ordinary German people going about their lives. It takes a very singular individual to meticulously plan the mass killing of fellow human beings — and then to see it through, year after year with increasing efficiency.

Peter commented that “I never met anyone in WW2 or immediately after who condemned or criticized in any way the bombing of Germany.” Well Peter, perhaps you should have visited the once beautiful city of Dresden on the morning of 15th February 1945, I’m sure you’d have found someone with a different opinion…my be even yourself.

Andy

 

Message 11 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 24 August 2004 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Andy - Peter - Ron -et al

I was wondering just when the "Dresden" thing would come up - I am sure that if the meteorologial findings of that event were to be studied it will be seen that it was not only the weight of bombs dropped but the main weather conditions as well which created the firestorm which occurred killing many less people than was actually claimed.

Dresden may have been beautiful, but then so was the Monastery at Montecassino beautiful(even more so to-day) but not neccessarily to Ron Goldstein who sat there looking at it for weeks on end as both Gen Freyburg of the N.Z, corps and Gen Tuker of the 4th Indian Div. concluded that it should be bombed - erroneously ! These things happen in war.... you may of course be right about the A bombing of Japan - to save American Lives... we had a similar conclusion to many decisions... especially when the Americans thought all of the German Army would be waiting for them in the "Southern Redoubt" of Bavaria !
Decisions are made - and lived with !
.... and argued about for ever !

 

Message 12 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 24 August 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Presumably I'm one of the 'zealots' you refer to Andy. My first reaction was to not respond further since you are clearly set in your beliefs regardless of any evidence to the contrary. This is mainly directed at other readers of this thread. I shall deal with Kesserling first. You say:

"what of his attempt to ensure that only those in Rome's prisons already sentenced to death were to be selected? It must have been a difficult decision to make, not a situation I'd like to be in."

Given that the Germans usually executed within the hour or at most a few days after sentence, do you not wonder why there were 280 inmates under sentence of death in Coeli Prison, Rome? What crimes do you think these Italian Jews, political prisoners, and suspected partisans had committed? There were in fact over 20 'crimes' which attracted the death panalty for any male between the ages of 14 and 70. These ranged from killing Germans to tearing down posters or being out after curfew (usually 9 in summer or 8.30 PM in winter). Courts martial were carried out, of course, by junior officers, but Kesserling insisted on personally checking every death sentence.

Yes, Hitler decreed that 10 hostages should be executed for every German soldier killed, but Hitler wasn't Stalin and he seldom if ever intervened in a civil decision made by his generals. Could you quote me a single case? He was remarkably lenient and lax with generals of proven Nazi faith.

So Kesserling had 280 under sentence of death, it was a neat solution and he could have left it at that. But no, he was lacking fifty to fulfil the 10:1 ratio. A further batch was rounded up, but in their zeal 55 were brought in instead of 50. The total he had killed was 355, 5 more than required by Hitler.

In fact Kesserling imposed a reign of terror on Italy unkown since the Middle Ages. Most of the prisons in Italian cities held prisoners awaiting public execution in their main squares. Let me quote you one of his orders, it is of course an English translation, but I shall give the full source.

It is Kesserling's Order of 20 June 1944:

"In my appeal to the Italians I announced that severe measures are to be taken against the partisans. This announcement must not represent an empty threat. It is the duty of all troops and police under my command to adopt the severest measures. Every act of violence committed by the partisans must be punished immediately. Reports submitted must give details of countermeasures taken. Whenever there is evidence of considerable numbers of partisan groups a proportion of the male population of the area will be arrested, and in the event of an act of violence these men will be shot. The population must be informed of this. Should troops etc. be fired at from any village the village will be burnt down. Perpetrators or ringleaders will be hanged in public.
[signed] Kesserling" [WO 204/11496]

This is from a subsequent long addendum:

"(c) If crimes of outstanding violence are committed, especially against German soldiers, an appropriate number of hostages will be hanged. In such cases the whole population of the place will be assembled to witness the execution. After the bodies have been hanging for 12 hours, the public will be ordered to bury them without ceremony and without the assistance of any priest." [WO 204/11496]

The full texts are to be found in the Appendix to "War in Italy 1943-1945 - A Brutal Story", by Richard Lamb.

As for Dresden. For a balanced view see "Dresden - Tuesday 13 February 1945" by Frederick Taylor (Bloomsbury, 2004).

Peter

 

Message 13 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 24 August 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

panalty?? penalty - typos again!

 

Message 14 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 24 August 2004 by Andy Stephens

Hi Peter,

You say, and I quote, “Presumably I'm one of the 'zealots' you refer to Andy. My first reaction was to not respond further since you are clearly set in your beliefs regardless of any evidence to the contrary. This is mainly directed at other readers of this thread.”

Well perhaps the problem here Peter is that we’re both zealots —

A Definition:

\Zeal"ot\, n. [F. z['e]lote, L. zelotes, Gr. ?. See {Zeal}.]
One who is zealous; one who engages warmly in any cause, and pursues his object with earnestness and ardour; especially, one who is overzealous, or carried away by his zeal; one absorbed in devotion to anything; an enthusiast; a fanatical partisan (ironically)

In my submitted story, I described Kesselring as he is/was commonly known, certainly as my father knew him. The believe the war in Italy, as far as the combatants were concerned was an honourable affair — relative to other fronts. Even during the most brutal fighting, truces were negotiated, which allowed the wounded to be collected. And of course there is my father’s account of being rescued by enemy soldiers amidst exploding shells — that is my evidence for Kesselring’s ‘old school’ mentality. I accept that this may not have extended to his treatment of partisans - but that is another story. In an attempt to return the attention once again to the real story — that of my father’s wartime experiences, I have deleted the word ‘honourable’.

Having now (hopefully) settled that particular issue. With your kind indulgence, I’d like one last attempt to clarify the point I’ve been trying to make these past few days. And that is the glaring inconsistencies with which wartime moral and ethical violations were, and are still, judged. Not having lived through the war I’m naturally free of the emotional ties, which such a life event must indelibly leave behind. I therefore approach such events from a very different perspective, and inevitably come up with different conclusions — as did the later generations that were so critical of the general staff of WW1.

I recently came across a fascinating article entitled ‘Killing Noncombatants’ by Sheldon Richman, September 1995. This piece exactly expresses my point. The full text can be read here: http://www.fff.org/freedom/0995d.aspAbout links However, I feel the concluding statement is worth showing here. (It is directed at an American audience but is just as applicable to us):

‘When Allied misconduct in World War (or any war) is pointed out, many Americans become defensive, as though acknowledging government's moral lapses is bad manners, if not outright treason. That attitude is unbecoming to the political heirs of Jefferson and Madison, who understood the dangers intrinsic to the state and who grasped that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Those who wish not to dwell on Allied atrocities often respond that the enemy was engaged in such horrors as the rape of Nanking, the Bataan death march, the bombing of Rotterdam and Warsaw, the Holocaust.

So that is what it comes down to: Dresden? Tokyo? Hiroshima? Nagasaki? They were no worse than the crimes of the Japanese imperialists and the Nazis. At that point, a plea of innocence is hard to distinguish from a plea of guilty.’

Mr. Richman is senior editor at the Cato Institute in Washington, D. C., and the author of Separating School & State, published by The Future of Freedom Foundation.

Best regards,

Andy

 

Message 15 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 25 August 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Andy

A final word on Kesserling. You say "I accept that this may not have extended to his treatment of partisans - but that is another story." One might excuse his invariable execution of partisans as 'justified' since they were irregular troops, volunteers, and knew what to expect. But you should realise that his 'hostages' were never partisans, they were ordinary civilians from the age of 14 to 70.

On bombing, I have carefully read the link you gave. It is a good example of revisionist history. I shall just comment on an a paragraph below, and then on Dresden.

Sheldon Richman says: "In May 11, 1940, Great Britain made a fateful decision in its approach to fighting the second world war. On that night, eighteen Whitley bombers attacked railway installations in the placid west German province of Westphalia, far from the war front. That forgotten bombing raid, which in itself was inconsequential, has been called "the first deliberate breach of the fundamental rule of civilized warfare that hostilities must only be waged against the enemy combatant forces" (See Advance to Barbarism [1953] by F.J.P. Veale)."

This was indeed the first raid on a German town, although the facts are not quite as stated. On the night of 11/12 May 37 aircraft (19 Hampdens and 18 Whitleys) raided Mönchengladbach in Westphalia to attack road and rail communications, this was the first raid of the war on a German town. Four people were killed including an Englishwoman living there. Two Hampdens and one Whitley were lost.

What your source fails to point out to those who may not know is that 10 May 1940 was the start of the Blitzkrieg and that both neutral Holland and Belgium had been invaded and that Mönchengladbach is the intersection close to both the Dutch and Belgian borders nor does he explain that the target was the road and rail infrastructure used by the invading army. Saying that they "attacked railway installations" gives it a different slant, doesn't it? As does the emotive phrase "in that placid west German province of Westphalia, far from the war front". Westphalia is a huge region (Land Nordrhein-Westfalen) stretching east from the Dutch and Belgian borders and whilst Padderborn in eastern Westphalia could be described as 'far from the war front' one cannot possibly say the same of Mönchengladbach. Nor is it explained that the raid was part of a series started on 11 May with the bombing of the Maastricht bridges and continued until 15 May, all the targets being bridges and road and rail communications, all near the battlefield. But the biggest omission is that despite the seriousness of the situation and the ferocity of the assault the bomber raids were restricted to locations west of the Rhine by political order until 15 May, the day the Germans bombed Rotterdam, when the British War Cabinet finally allowed the bombers to cross the Rhine. There were, of course, no British or French troops anywhere near Rotterdam, in neutral Holland, the nearest being on the Dyle line in Belgium.

Your source makes no mention whatsoever (at least in the extract quoted) of German activities. Could I fill that lacuna? Here is a communiqué from the Warsaw Garrison dated Tuesday, 26 September 1939:

"The raids on the night of the 24th and the following day were the worst our capital has suffered so far. The Germans undertook the systematic destruction of Warsaw by heavy artillery and air attacks. From dawn onward, German aircraft flew over the city in dense waves and dropped bombs over the center, starting hundreds of fires. ... It is impossible to estimate the toll of the victims. Warsaw consists of nothing but ruins." This is an official report, source: the English translation of "Luftkrieg 1939-1945" by Janusz Piekalkiewicz (Südwest Verlag GmbH, München, 1978).

Regarding Dresden, Sheldon Richman says "Some 135,000 people, including children in holiday carnival costumes, were killed". This hugely inflated figure has been bandied about for years, sometimes reaching as high as 400,000. It started in 1952 with the publication of Axel Rodenberger's "Der Todt von Dresden" where he gives an estimate of between 350,000 and 400,000. The book is entirely without historical value but it was widely read and aroused interest in the west about inaccessible Dresden, it being in Communist Eastern Germany, behind the Iron Curtain. In 1963 came the publication of David Irving's "The Destruction of Dresden", which initially gave a figure of 135,000 dead, subsequently revised up to 202,000 registered dead and 250,000 anticipated, in the many following editions. Irving based his figures on TB47 (Tagesbefehl No.47, which we now know conclusively to be false, the figure on TB47 was originally 20,200 and 25,000 to which a zero had been added for propaganda purposes by Göbbels. In a letter to "The Times" Irving admitted that the "TB47" was probably a Nazi fake. The story is long and complicated told in great detail in Appendix A in "Dresden - Tuesday 13 1945", by Frederick Taylor, and in Chapter 5 of "Telling Lies About Hitler - The Holocaust, History and the trial of David Irving", by Richard L. Evans.

The truth could not finally be established until the fall of the Iron Curtain when western historians, Germans and others, finally had access to the Dresden archives as well as to the "Final Report" of the Dresden Police. This report contains exact details of the dead and all the material damage sustained. The key passage reads:

"Until early 10.3.45 established: 18,375 fallen, 2,212 badly wounded, 13,718 slightly wounded; 350,000 homeless and long-term requartered."

However, that was an interim report and the death toll was higher. From later official reports it is now known that the total buried in the Heidefriedhof is 17,295 including the ashes of those incinerated at the Altmarkt. An additional 3,462 were buried at the Joannisfriedhof, and 514 buried in the Neue Annenfriedhof - a total of 21,271 registered deaths. Including reported missing persons not accounted for, historians now accept a figure of 25,000 casualties. This figure is of course horrendous, but it is nowhere near the spurious 135,000 still widely quoted and circulated.

"Dresden ... no military value whatsoever"?. The Germans themselves seem not to have know this. Frederick Taylor says "According to the 1944 handbook of the German Army High Command's Weapon Office, the city of Dresden contained 127 factories that were important enough to be assigned their own three-letter manufacturing codes, by which they were always referred to(for example, Zeiss-Ikon = dpv; Sachsenwerk = edr; Universelle = akb). ... An authority at the Dresden City Museum describes the handbook's code list as 'very incomplete', and it did not include smaller suppliers or workshops that were not assigned any codes. Even by this measure, however, Dresden was ranked high among the Reich's wartime industrial centres." To give but one example, J.C.Müller Universelle-Werke in Zwickauer Strasse employed 4,000 including many forced foreign workers and, in the latter half of 1944, 700 Jewish women from Ravensbrück concentration camp. The factory made a variety of armaments, including machine guns, search lights, aircraft parts, directional guidance equipment, and torpedo tails.

Regards,

Peter

 

Message 16 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 25 August 2004 by Jim - WW2 Site Helper

Hi Gents

I hope you don't mind me joining in this fascinating thread. I am fortunate that I have not had to do what Tom or Ron did or even live through such a traumatic time in my youth like Peter.

I can't disagree with Andy that if the axis powers had won then Bomber Harris could well have been treated as a war criminal and I think that that aspect of his debate has been forgotten.

However I don't wish to apply blame / criticism / support of the strategic bombing campaign as it was the right thing to do at the time. Hindsight is great for writing history but it was not available in the 1940s. I'm sure the guys in the frontline wouldn't care what was thrown at the enemy as long as it resulted in fewer casualties for their units and brought the end of the fighting closer. One only has to read postings like Andy's or Tom's to realise the horrors that occurred.

Whatever the current views of the use of nuclear weapons, what must have been the relief of the allied soldiers, and their families, tasked to invade the Japanese mainland and how many casualties, military and civilian, did this ultimately save? Unknown but a valid question.

When issues like Belsen, Oradour, The Burma Railroad etc came to light were the Allies wrong to use every means available to bring the war to an end?

My Dad served in the North West Europe Theatre, saw death and destruction and, like probably every serviceman, didn't want to be there. He was in the RAF, not aircrew, but it would have horrified him to be associated as a war criminal when all he would have wanted was to get the war over and go home. (I know Andy is not laying this accusation against aircrew)

Regards

Jim

 

Message 17 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 26 August 2004 by Andy Stephens

Hi Jim,

I wondered whether others might be reading this debate, and I'm very glad you've contributed.

You're right, I would never attribute blame to Bomber Command's aircrews, they had the question of their own survival to consume their ever waking moment. I'm sure they, like every other British and Commonwealth serviceperson going about their duty, believed what they were being told by the establishment. It's only later on that the whole dreadful picture emerges, and we as a nation are faced with the grim reality that not all was as it seemed. I'm sure the Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials would have welcomed the defence of 'hindsight', but a plea of temporary moral ignorance is really no defence for the deliberate targeting of German civilians. It is only when we, as a people, accept our shortcomings that we can level the finger of blame at others. How can we expect the modern day Japanese government to apologise to us for their war crimes, if we then erect a monument in Parliment square to remind everyone of ours?

 

Message 18 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 26 August 2004 by Jim - WW2 Site Helper

Hi Andy

Can't disgree with a word you said, although we must remember it was a different time. Personally I don't understand the need for current day politicians to apologise for history. It's done and dusted; the crime would be not to learn from it and allow it all to happen again. Sadly politicians seem poor learners.

Jim

 

Message 19 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 26 August 2004 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Andy -
You appear to be stuck on a very high moral plane,which is no doubt, a very noble place to be. Could you therefore take another step upwards and discover that someone once said - mind you a very long time ago -" that there would be wars and rumours of war". Being just little men, we appear to be stuck with the problem no matter how much we blame the politicians, who are - just like ourselves. We can all agonise how Bomber Harris dropped his bombs on civilians - note I do not say "innocent" civilians as according to you - we are all guilty. So be it !

You have heard of the Baedecker raids by the Germans who dropped their bombs on those people who had the temerity to live in secluded tourist towns which - unlike Dresden - were not packed to the gills with munitions factories. I didn't hear too many apologies at Nuremberg.
If - as I suspect the sight of statues in Parliament Square offends you - then for goodness sake - change your route !

It all happened - it's over - we are all sorry it happened ! What we and I mean Peter, Ron, Jim, Frank,and many others are now concerned with is the fact that we have experienced all this - as did your Father - we shall attempt to pass on to the youngsters coming up without the benefit of being taught the truth at their own Schools.

I beleive it was Pilate who asked " what is truth".... then we fast forward to just last year when during an address to graduates of the finest Catholic College in the U.K. we have Cormac Cardinal Murphy O'Conner - who should know better - telling them that "Unity is more important than Truth" - WOW ! Wait until he meets the author of that old phrase " I am the Way - the Truth - and the Life"

Don't know where your Father got the idea that ALL British soldiers held Kesselring at the same level of esteem as we did Rommel... I certainly didn't....when I had the time to think about it, that is !

Cheer up lad - it might be your turn next time !

 

Message 20 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 26 August 2004 by Andy Stephens

Thanks for that Tom, although not being a christian your biblical quotations are wasted on me.

As for being 'stuck on a very high moral plain'...far from it, although I do believe that my argument has moral validity. I happen to agree with Jim that latter day politicians apologising for something that happened before they were born is political correctness gone mad. However, I also believe that if we intend to continually attack other nation's moral shortcomings, we should firstly acknowledge our own - as painful as that might be.

Best regards,

Andy

 

Message 21 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 26 August 2004 by Ron Goldstein

Gentlemen all
Tom says:
"Don't know where your Father got the idea that ALL British soldiers held Kesselring at the same level of esteem as we did Rommel... I certainly didn't....when I had the time to think about it, that is !"
Me neither!
Ron

 

Message 22 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 26 August 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

It is quite pointless arguing with you Andy, you are completely fixed in your view and nothing whatsoever is going to change it. I have pointed out where the 'facts' you rely on are either totally wrong or distorted several times, but you simply make no comment whatsoever. I explained about that first bombing in Westphalia and about the spurious Dresden figures, just two examples in a website, replete with errors, which you referred me to. And do you think for a moment that Hitler would not have used his V1 and V2 rockets on British cities had they been ready in 1940? The first V1 tests were in 1941, and from then on they went flat out to get them working and production started, thankfully they were not ready until 1944.

You seem to believe that it is the victors who write history and who determine who war criminals are. You agree that if Germany had won, Harris would have been put on trial as a war criminal. Of course he would, along with many other officers and every politician in Britain; some several hundred would have been hung in public. The list of prominent people to be immediately arrested in Britain, prepared by the Gestapo, runs to hundreds of names. Don't for a momnent think that this was just Allied propaganda. Several thousands were hung in Italy in a very short period of time. In Poland the entire intelligensia was all but wiped out, from school teachers to artists, and the Nazi record in Russia towards civilians staggers belief. It is impossible to separate Nazis from war, the entire creed is wrapped up in it - peace was merely viewed as a period in which to prepare for war. Faced with this world menace everything had to be done to defeat it, and bombing the Reich was part of that gigantic struggle. Had your morals forbidden you from participating in WW2 you could have registered as a Concientious Objector, had you tried to do so in Germany you would have swiftly found yourself in a concentration camp. Neither Britain, France, nor America wanted war, no sane person did. They were faced with it and had to deal with it. But once started it had to be faced and dealt with with every means possible, and that included mass bombing.

Peter

 

Message 23 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 26 August 2004 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Ron - Peter - Jim - Mick - Mac - Paddy - Wack -
I threw Andy a bone but I must give up on the lad as he apparently sits upon his high moral plane and declares that my version of Christianity and Biblical Quotations are lost on him. As a consquence I do believe the lad is lost and possibly beyond redemption as we have time and time again - as Peter has pointed out - admitted our guilt in going to war and dropping the odd bomb here and there, and yes we should have all been put on trial,
as in my own case, I do recall killing some innocent Germans with my Churchill Tank as I thought they were pointing a 'panzershreik ' or it might have been a 'panzerfaust'at me ... I didn't think to ask them !

 

Message 24 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 17 February 2005 by Michael Skeet

Gentlemen, I have read the many comments regarding Area Bombing in WW2 and its justification or otherwise. However one question remains in my mind, why was it that the men of Bomber Command were denied the grant of a Campaign Medal for their Efforts and Sacrifices. They contributed to the War effort just as much as all the other forces involved and yet it is only recently that Bomber Harris had a statue erected in his memory. The majority of the Aircrews of Bomber Command and the public were kept in the dark about the effects of their activities, and yet we are now expected to believe that they were in someway vilified for the atrocious horrors they caused. In addition there were many who silently felt great degrees of concience about what they were being asked to carry out but were silenced and subjected to humiliation without mercy.
It is well known that some commentators now claim that the Bombing of Dresdeon in 1945 was justified due to the existance of armament production in that city and yet it is also well known that Churchill distanced himself from the policies of Area Bombing soon afterwards. I fail to understand the logic that on the one hand history criticises the policy and yet on the other with hindsight seeks to justify it. I believe it is about time the valiant Men of Bomber Command were properly recognised for their efforts and sacrifices and should take their rightfully honoured place in the annals of WW2.

 

Message 25 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 17 February 2005 by Ron Goldstein

Dear Michael

I came across your article by pure chance as it seems to have been posted on to the wrong thread (Cassino being the heading under which you have posted).
Having said that, I write now to endorse your comments.

One of the problems on this site is the lamentable 'search' facility, particularly when looking for something on a previous 'thread' but I managed to find something I had previously written which I now repeat.

166 Sdrn Bomber Command
Posted Nov 10, 2003 by Ron Goldstein - WW2 Researcher
My late and much missed brother Sgt.Jack Goldstein was shot down over Nuremberg on the 15th March 1945 and died from his wounds.
Over 900 fellow Air Crew were killed during the war from this Squadron alone.
It is an unforgivable insult to his and their memories that a campaign medal was never issued to Bomber Command.

More power to your elbow

Ron

 

Message 26 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 17 February 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Michael -
I have read your personal background with great sympathy and can appreciate your concern that Bomber Command air crew be given a proper recognition for their efforts.You mention a campaign medal for Bomber air crews... they had the same right to a campaign medal as all others did who actively served in a particular campaign such as the Africa - Italy NW Europe - Burma - Atlantic etc. Many air crews were honoured for particular actions and the amount of DFC's DFM's AFC's and other honours always appeared to us to be in excess of anything the Army ever admitted. One always had the feeling that any heroic action on your part had to be witnessed by the Army Commander himself before it was awarded ! Taking it further ...there would be a medal for being shot at in a Tank...another medal for the REME mechanics who patched up that same Tank and saved the country a great deal of money, or the Ack Ack men who shot down a Dornier etc.
Only the Americans were lavish with their medals, as I recall in Tunis meeting up with recently arrived American G.I's with chests full of medals... for firing a rifle, for firing a machine gun etc etc.. that really demeaned the honour system, and quite frankly I think the British were justified in not being lavish, although this appeared to change slightly for the better, in the Falklands War. The statue of Bomber Harris, as I understand it, was held up owing to the controversy attached to his actions. We can sympathise with the 55,000 air crew members who were lost but ... are there any figures for Tank crew losses ??? They always seem to be lumped in with general casualties for a particular battle and like the Infantry didn't go back to bacon and eggs plus white sheets and pillows to rest upon!

 

Message 27 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 07 April 2005 by validatingbertpink

FROM bert pink. I remember the time in Italy .your father was in 169 part of 56 london div [the black cats].I was in 167 brigade and was on the guns ANTI/TANK 6PDR
supportng the 8th&9th fusiliers Did you know the division lost 5000 killed wounded& missing & 6000 evacuated through illness during the first three months of fighting in ITALY? this was over half of the strength of the whole division ..

 

Message 28 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 07 April 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Bert Pink -
you are quite right so your memory can't be all bad although I had to go back to the beginning of this thread to find that Andy Stephen's Father was indeed in the Queens reg
t of which there wwere three battalions 2/5 - 2/6 and - 2/7 Queens in 169 Brigade. We have been wandering around with Bomber Harris and re - bombing Dresden etc in the meantime
The 56th as well as the 46th Divs took a pasting ( we all did) all the way through to Anzio before having a rest and then being thrown in again at the Gothic Line over at the Gemmano- Croce area - which again was a tough one for both divisions.
I met an ex 56th type when I was visiting the Coriano Ridge Cemetery last september... can't be many left !
Cheers Bert
Tom Canning

 

Message 29 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 09 April 2005 by validatingbertpink

TO TOM CANNING it was so good to here from an old black cat I remember the Senio battles,Menglino;the river Marano,Sensoli ridge the
Fiumicino,in Sept /Oct 44 the div had over 4000 casualties in two months of action.before a welcome rest in Macerata and the surrounding villages
BY the way I joined up in feb 41 i was only 17 so put my age up 2 years and signed up for 12 years, and was a seargent No 1 on guns whan i was 19 i was made up to sgt at Salerno as our No 1 was badly wounded on the LST.
BERT.

 

Message 30 - The First Battle of Monte Cassino - January 1944

Posted on: 09 April 2005 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Bert -
Sorry - I seem to have confused you - I was a member of the 21st Tank Brigade which was the Tank support for the 1st Canadian Div. after Cassino we were mainly up the middle and over on the Adriatic side all through the Gothic Line and over to the Senio until they left Italy to go to join the other Canadians in Belgium in the Jan/Feb of '45 when we took over the 8th Indian Div's Tank support.
I have nevertheless read a great deal about the 'Black Cats'and the other Div's at Anzio etc. and I was always surprised to see them re-appear after some of the pastings they received.
But then again - we all took pastings at some time or other !

best regards
tom canning

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