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.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

The Continuation War (1941-44): Finland's Dilemma

The launch of Germany's Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 posed a dilemma for the relatively young nation of Finland. The 1939-40 Winter War had left a painful legacy despite the fact that the Finnish Army had fought incredibly well against an invading Soviet army which had eventually triumphed through the deployment of overwhelming numbers of men and material. Finnish Karelia had been ceded to the USSR at the end of what had been a bitter struggle.

Carl Gustaf Mannerheim's Office - Mikkeli, Finland
The modern day and almost universally accepted narrative is that Finland's alliance with Nazi Germany was a pragmatic 'marriage of convenience' and that the Finnish Army's sole objective was to reoccupy land lost during the Winter War. Some historians have questioned this and describe the approach taken at the time as something more akin to 'wait and see'. It remains unclear as to whether Finland would have pushed into Leningrad from the North or cut the vital Murmansk to Moscow railway in the East had the Axis forces maintained momentum and succeeded in their war aims i.e. the creation of a 'Greater Germany' with an Eastern border anchored on the Urals. 

Situation Map - War Room - Finnish Army HQ, Mikkeli
My personal view is that a limited war was probably the default option BUT that had Barbarossa been more successful then Finland's territorial ambition might well have grown. With this in mind the series of maps in the old Ops Room in the Mannerheim's wartime headquarters in the old Elementary School in Mikkeli give a fascinating insight into how closely the progress of Heeresgruppe Nord was being monitored. Every week the various maps were overdrawn with colour coded areas to denote 'progress' being made. One can almost sense the tension that would have been in the room as the attacking forces began to falter in late 1941.

The Headquarters Museum in Mikkeli
Just around the corner from the building that housed Mannerheim's wartime headquarters, the site of the associated military communications centre has been carefully restored. The 'Lokki' complex is located in a cave quarried into the Naisvuori Hill.

Lokki Personnel - 1943
 The Centre was made up of HQ Comms, the Air Surveillance District Centre, a German Signals Station and various facilities for the personnel. Whilst visiting we met an elderly lady who had worked in the centre in 1944. She told of us of the tense but businesslike atmosphere in the HQ during those difficult times.
Lokki - June 2018
The Lokki (in English: Seagull) communication hub became operational when the Headquarters of the Finnish Army was transferred to Mikkeli as the result of an order issued 24th June 1941 (four days after Barbarossa was launched).

The staff cohort consisted of between 100 and 130 people, mainly members of the Women's Auxiliary Service. It operated 24/7 on a three shift system. The telephone exchange, which was located at the back of the cave had three hundred subscribers and sixty long distance lines.

Lokki Operators - 1943
After the war the cave complex was used by the Finnish Army for a number of years and the last cable terminals were removed in the 1960s. During the following years the complex we neglected and fell into decay. In the late 1980s restoration was discussed and after the replacement of rotten timbers and a careful restoration of the interior features the rebuilt Communications Centre was officially opened on the 4th December 1995.

During our visit in Mikkeli we stayed at the nearby Kyyhkyla Kartano. This historic building - now a hotel - was converted into a rehabilitation facility by the Association of Finnish civil War Veterans in 1927. During the Winter War it was retained by the military authorities as a place of respite for recovering soldiers and as a convenient meeting venue for senior military personnel - including German liaison officers.

The same terrace in June 2018
In the restaurant we discovered a war time photograph taken on the 6th June 1943 and by pure coincidence we uncovered the exact spot where it was taken whilst relaxing after dinner. The photograph above shows General der Infanterie Waldermur Erfurth (German Liaison Officer to the Finns 1941-44) at the head of the table. The man in the civilian suit with decorations is Onni Nisonen, the Director of the Sanatorium, the Finnish officer is Major General Verner Gustafsson, Chief Attendant of the Finnish Forces and the other German officer is Obersleutnant Zimmer (Thanks to Mikko Härmeinen for the identifications).

Mikkeli Finland: Continuation War 1941-44 (Flickr Collection)