The battles for the Mountain on which sat the Benedictine Monastery of Monte Cassino were vital to the Allies progress up the boot of Italy – but apart from Ortona they were also the most difficult and costly battles in the entire Italian Campaign. British, Canadian, American and Polish forces all suffered.
I had studied the Battle for Monte Cassino while attending the two-year Army Staff College in Kingston, so when posted to the NATO Defence College in Rome I found an excellent opportunity to turn academic study into a battlefield study!
At every opportunity I visited the Monastery and was soon recognized and accepted by the Monks as an interested historian rather that as a tourist.
An Italian Brigadier in my Class had been involved in transporting Allied supplies north to the battlefield following Italy’s surrender. He became a valuable asset in that he gave me the full picture of what was happening behind the Allied lines at the Company and Battalion level.
My knowledge of the battle soon became common knowledge and groups of students and their families had me take them on tours – each visit increasing the details of my knowledge and familiarity of the ground.
On day my German DS told me to report to the Deputy Commandant – what sort of trouble was I in now?
The Deputy was General Ost of the German Army.
I knew his father had been Admiral Carnaris’ Deputy and had been executed with him by Hitler.
“I hear you have been taking people on tours of Monte Cassino?”
“Yes, Sir I have. It was one of my two specialty studies at our Staff College – theatre being Arnhem.”
“Are you busy on Saturday?”
“No, Sir”. Where in Hell was this going, I asked myself?
“Would you do me the great honour of taking you on a tour there myself – you see I was Chief of Staff of the defending German Division.”
We spent the whole of Saturday, and then some, in going over the entire battlefield from the German point of view. Gen. Ost remembered the location of every machine gun, every dug-in tank turret, and every slit. And amazing man!
What an opportunity to see “what was on the other side of the hill!”
Later, when showing Daph about the Monastery I was approached by an elderly Monk. He asked if he could show us about the Chapel – where St. Benedictine and his sister are entombed.
The old man was one of three who had remained in the cellers during the bombing instigated by US General Mark Clark.
Yet another side of the story!