- 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:
- Article ID:
- 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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