Thursday, 6 June 2019

A Schoolboy in Portsmouth - Memories of D-Day

Watching the media coverage of the 75th anniversary of D-Day it struck me today how much my father would have enjoyed the coverage. Before he succumbed to what proved to be a terminal illness he jotted down some recollections of his childhood in Portsmouth during the war years. I thought I'd digitally transcribe what he had to say about D-Day. The picture shows my father and his mother (my Paternal Grandmother) strolling in Southsea a few months before the start of the Second World War.

"Early in 1944 Portsmouth became the centre for the D-Day preparations with the planning staff located just to the North at Southwick House. The Harbour, Spithead and the Solent were crammed with warships, freighters, tankers and landing craft each flying an attendant barrage balloon as a defence against low flying intruders. There were also giant sections of Mulberry Harbour which we found quite puzzling. We had only limited access to the seafront as it was isolated with concrete blocks and rolls of barbed wire. Many temporary piers were constructed to allow the troops to file onto transports.

We schoolboys did have access to Clarence Pier where we could watch the strange sight of Italian prisoners-of-war filling in the moats around Old Portsmouth to provide hard standings for the for the thousands of armoured and other vehicles parked for embarkation. We would beachcomb in this area and on one occasion we found the beach awash with American electric light bulbs and on another oranges - both presumably 'lost overboard' (incidentally these were the first oranges I'd seen since I found one in my Christmas stocking in 1939).

Amongst the measures taken to protect this armada and the city, harbour and Southsea Common were dotted with ant-aircraft rocket guns. These were of a very simple, sturdy design and when they were abandoned at the end of the war most of the local youngsters acquired the rubberised grips from the control handles and installed them on their bicycle handlebars. The ear shattering noise when these rockets were in action was extremely disturbing.

Action was frequent as in these were the days of the V1 Flying Bomb. Many of these 'doodlebugs' came over the coast on their way to haphazard destruction well inland. The distinctive 'phut phut' sound of their motors and their ominous shape and black colouring with the Luftwaffe Iron Cross symbol made them an eerie sight. On one occasion I can remember an RAF Meteor jet fighter pursuing a V1 as it crossed the promenade just opposite Eastney Barracks. RAF fighter planes tipped the wings of the V1s so they tipped harmlessly into the sea".

Michael Curme - Schoolboy Portraits

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Walking the Cavendish Road at Monte Cassino

A couple of weeks ago I fulfilled one of my ambitions by walking the Cavendish Road - a converted mule track which runs up to Massa Albenetta near the Abbey at Monte Cassino from a small village called Caira. The road was built by the Allied 5th Indian Division with considerable help from the 6th New Zealand Field Company of Engineers in February 1944.

The Start Point - Cavendish Road, Caira

The road was originally created to provide a supply route for mules and jeeps up to Snakeshead Ridge during the Second Battle of Cassino. Later it was widened and improved to take armoured vehicles and on 19th March 1944 Operation Revenge launched a mixed force of Indian, American and New Zealand tanks up what had previously been a series of treacherous single path mule tracks.

Cavendish Road - Monte Castellone

This audacious attack was rebuffed by the German paratroopers defending the peaks around Monte Cassino but the creation of this 'back door' route laid the foundations for eventual success in the final Battle of Cassino two months later in May. During Revenge and indeed later, tank losses were extremely high. This narrow mountain road was difficult to navigate - even in perfect conditions but with their observation hatches closed (because of enemy snipers) and in the heat of battle many vehicles came to grief on the steep inclines and ravines.

Caira - from the Cavendish Road
The first three or four kilometres of the trail from Caira through the Valle Pozzo Alvito to Colle Maiola is extremely hard going. The incline is extremely steep and over the years erosion has left parts of the path quite tricky to navigate. The path is easy to follow though and at the time of our visit small Polish flags had been painted onto rocks to show the correct route. The path is perhaps ten kilometres long and when we walked it we were alone apart from an incredible assortment of wildlife including wild boar.
Bovine Road Block

Throughout the walk, but particularly near the top, one can discern the gently jangling of cow bells. This didn't stop us being surprised when our path was blocked by a very large animal at the second bottleneck in the shadow of Phantom Ridge! On the way up we looked for the site of Madras Circus - an area of flat ground used as a tank mustering point in a natural bowl between Monte Castellone and and Colla Maoila. We must have walked through it but even with the aid of Google maps I failed to identify the exact location (to see the map click here).

The Cavendish Road - Top section
Towards the top as one gets closer to Snakeshead Ridge the path widens and flattens out. Clearly once the tanks got this far they had more room for manoeuvre but as the various accounts tell us, they were incredibly susceptible to anti-tank fire from the surrounding heights - Points 593 and 569 in particular. The various archives are full of pictures of disabled Shermans in this area of the battlefield.

The image below shows the viewpoint from the top of Calvary Hill - Point 593. The route from the top of the Cavendish Road winds around the ruins of Massa Albaneta.

The Ruins of Massa Albeneta from Point 593

Breaking out from the Cavendish Road into the valley behind Monte Cassino, in the Albaneta Farm area there is an extremely poignant memorial to the men of the Polish II Corps who eventually took the Abbey during the final stages of a battle which had involved Allied forces from a wide range of countries - Americans from Iowa, Texas and Minnesota - French Colonial troops from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria - New Zealanders - British troops many of whom had fought their way through North Africa and up from Salerno - Indians and Gurkhas and of course the Poles. It is a Sherman tank still sitting where it was knocked out on the 12th May 1944.

The Albaneta Farm Tank Memorial

The Polish 5th Kresowa and 3rd Carpathian Divisions - 'Anders Army' - were supported by tanks of the 2nd Polish Tank Brigade. The tank that is still on the battlefield was the lead vehicle of the Skorpion Regiment's 4th Squadron. It is believed that the tank fell vistim to a double teller mine which completely blew off the turret killing all five crew members. The wreck was turned into a memorial by mechanical engineers from the Skorpion Regiment using tank tracks to create a cross on top of the hull.

View Point on Calvary Hill, Monte Cassino
We ended our walk at Point 593 (Calvary Hill) which was eventually taken by the Polish 3rd Carpathian Division in the final stages of the fourth Battle of Monte Cassino. The Abbey is behind our group and to the right lies the Liri Valley through which runs the strategically important Highway 6 - The road to Rome!

Note: We walked the route in reverse as it is much easier to traverse that way but I've turned the story around in this narrative to align it with the wartime events and dates.

The Cavendish Road Walk images can be found here.