Tag Archives: italy

Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters honours the father he never knew

I just caught this story at the end of tonight’s ITV News, and I’m glad that I did.

Earlier today Roger Waters, ex of Pink Floyd, unveiled a memorial to his father, near where he was killed at Anzio, during the Italian Campaign in the Second World War – 70 years to the day after the death of the father that he never knew. Waters had had no idea about when and how his father had been killed, but thanks to research by another veteran, Waters now knows the exact location and manner in which his father, Lieutenant Eric Waters, died.

Waters wrote frequently about his fathers death with Pink Floyd. I’m mindful of one particular set of lyrics, from ‘Another Brick in the Wall part 2′:

‘Daddy’s gone across the ocean, leaving just a memory’

Read the Telegraph story here

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Voices From the Front: The 16th Durham Light Infantry in Italy, 1943 – 1945 by Peter Hart

This is the first book I’ve read in the Voices from the Front series. It’s based on an Oral History project that recorded the memories of many old Durham veterans. Peter Hart has been the Oral History specialist at the Imperial War Museum for many years, so is probably better placed to write a book like this than anyone else.

I’m glad that such a prominent book has been written about this Battalion for two reasons. Firstly, the 16th Durham Light Infantry were a service Battalion, and hence largely made up of soldiers who were conscripted into the Army during the wartime. Secondly, the Battalion served in Italy rather than in North West Europe, and the Italian campaign has received a chronic lack of attention from Historians over the years.

Excerpts from oral history interviews are interwoven with commentary on the overall history of the war, which provides good context. The interviews with junior officers and other ranks are particularly welcome, as these are two sections of the Army whose experiences are often maligned. And the experiences of the 16th Durhams were quite remarkable – unusually for a conscript Battalion, the unit seems to have developed a very strong espirit-du-corps, forged through tought fighting up the spine of Italy.

What I really find interesting are the little human stories that really give us an idea of what it was like to fight as a foot soldier in the Second World War, and not necessarily the stories about fighting. Its thoughts about uniforms and rations, officer-men relations, the locals and even fireworks displays on VE Day that really make a book like this stand out.

I cannot help but think how blessed we historians would be if a book like this was written about every Army unit during the Second World War. Oral History is a fantastic way of capturing not only the memories of an important generation, but also the essence and tone of their life experiences. The Voices from the Front series is very commendably indeed.

Voices from the Front: The 16th Durham Light Infantry in Italy 1943-1945 is published by Pen and Sword

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Monte Cassino by Matthew Parker

Monte Cassino certainly does deserve the epitaph ‘ Stalingrad of the West’, something that Parker advances very well here. By 1944 the focus of the war in Europe might have shifted to the invasion of Normandy, but the campaign in Italy still tied down some of the Germans toughest units, and more than a few able commanders, especially Kesselring.

This is primarily a Soldiers book. Parker describes the strategic background adequately, but does not allow the Generals to overshadow the Privates. Hence we are afforded a rich seam of oral history interviews from eyewitnesses and participants, that are very valuable indeed for those of us trying to gain something of the ‘smell’ of the battlefield from a distance of almost 70 years. The impression I am left with is that the Italian Campaign had much in common with the Western Front of the Great War – the terrain gave the Generals little option but for full-frontal assaults. The ground was very difficult for vehicles, making a maneouvre war very tricky to bring about.

So many different nationalities fought over the monastery – Brits, Americans, Indians (including Gurkhas), New Zealanders (including Maoris), and Poles – that Monte Cassino was perhaps the most ‘allied’ battle of the Second World War. That it took four bloody attempts to finally capture the mountain shows not only what difficult terrain the allies were fighting over, but also how tenaciously the Germans fought. And the terrain did lie in favour of the defender. Steep mountains, perilous tracks, deep ravines and wide open valleys were perfect for setting up defensive lines, which the Germans did right through the Italian Campaign, forcing the allies to break themselves in order to smash through.

The controversy of the bombing of the monastery is also dealt with ably. Whether it was militarily justifiable to destroy the priceless monument will be debated by historians for hundreds of years to come. Yet wisely Parker does not allow his narrative to become bogged down in the controversy. Of course, whether it was right or wrong depends on your point of view, and is encumbered with the baggage of objectivity.

Militarily, several things appear to jump out to me. Commanders should not be rushed into attacking an objective without making prior preparations. Montgomery would never have allowed himself to have been rushed in such a way. Full-frontal assaults of mountains and fortified defences will always result in heavy casualties. And notice how the Germans only pulled out once pincer movements to the north and the south, through more open ground, made the monastery untenable. The sad thing is, that Cassino in itself was a worthless objective, but it became such a symbolic target in a grimly self-perpetuating manner thanks to the losses that it incurred.

I have been researching a number of Portsmouth men who fell at Monte Cassino, and this has added to my understanding of the battle immesurably. One Portsmouth man in particular, Major Robert Easton DSO MBE, played a brave part in the breakout in the Liri valley that led to the final fall of the monastery in May 1944. Rick Atkinson‘s ‘The Day of Battle‘ might give a broader view of Siciliy, Salerno, and then the advance on Rome, but Matthew Parker has made a fine effort of capturing the essence and importance of Monte Cassino.

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Thoughts on the war in Italy

Monte Cassino Abbey from Polish cemetery

Monte Cassino today (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve been reading up on the campaign in Italy during the Second World War. The Italian campaign has undoubtedly been a poor relation in terms of historiography. We hear so little about it. There was no glamour, and no incidents or battles really jump out credibly. Yet is was, according to most reports, an extremely tough theatre on all who took part in it. 

Was the fighting in Italy worth it? History tells us that Churchill, Brooke and the Brits were obsessed with the Mediterranean, while the US top brass viewed Italy as a pointless distraction. How many men were killed, and what did it achieve, in strategic terms? The aim was, loosely, to tie down as many German Divisions as possible away from the Western and Eastern Fronts. Hitler played into the hands of this aim, with his blinkered refusal to give up even the merest foot of ground. Yet with its rugged terrain of mountain lines and rivers, Italy suited the defender perfectly. The Allies spent months banging their heads against Monte Cassino incurring huge casualties, and endured very traumatic amphibious operations at Salerno and Anzio. Could the war have been won solely via a liberation of Italy? probably not, at some point the allies had to set foot on Northern European soil. But in 1943 it was the only feasible way that the western allies could fight the Germans on European soil, and that was important from a morale point of view.

Something else we need to consider, is the very real threat of communism in the latter stages of the war. In France post-D-Day and Greece after liberation, Communist partisans were a very real presence and had to be held down. If the Allies had not cleared Italy, who knows what kind of regime might have taken hold in a strategically important country? Even if the Germans had remained in Italy, look at what happened in Yugoslavia – Communist guerillas under Tito effectively liberated the country.

A proportionally high number of men from Portsmouth were killed in Italy. Four Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment fought in Italy – three of them grouped into a Hampshire Brigade – compared to only two in North West Europe from D-Day onwards. 126 Portsmouth men are buried or commemorated in Italy, as opposed to 139 in France – and that figure includes men killed in 1940, and RAF aircrew killed over France.

The Hampshires suffered significant losses at Salerno – Five men from Portsmouth alone being killed on 9 September 1943 – and then steadily as the allies advanced up the Italian peninsula. The Hampshires escaped the heaviest of the fighting at Monte Cassino, but incurred significant casualties in the Battle for the Gothic line in September 1944. The location of War Cemeteries, from Siciliy up the boot of Italy, show how slowly and doggedly the fighting progressed.

In fact, Italy was the scene of some brave deeds for Portsmouth men. Major Robert Easton of the Royal Armoured Corps won a DSO in the breakout in the Liri Valley after Monte Cassino, before being killed in September 1944. Captain Bernard Brown, a Medical Officer, had won a Military Cross in the Desert before he died of natural causes in Italy in February 1945. Lance Bombardier Edward Wait, a Signaller with the Royal Artillery, won a Military Medal at Anzio, and Private Mark Pook of the Hampshires won a Military Medal at Salerno.

While we’re thinking about Italy, is Mark Clark the most over-rated Allied General of the Second World War? The only person who seems to have had any regard for his ability was Clark himself. Some of the things he is on record as having said about the allies under his command were shockingly out of touch. A British General would never have been allowed to talk or behave like that - Montgomery has been vilified by American historians for far less serious misdemeanours. Like Patton, Clark seems to have had more regard for his own image than the lives of his men.

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Wojtek the Soldier Bear to be honoured

A picture of Wojtek ov Voytek the bear-soldier

Wojtek the Soldier Bear (Image via Wikipedia)

Wojtek the soldier bear has to be one of my favourite stories from the Second World War.

Adopted as a cub by Free Polish soldiers who were serving in Iran, Wojtek the Brown Bear grew to 6 feet tall and 500lbs, and went on to serve with Polish Forces in Italy, helping carry ammunition throughout the mountainous terrain in Italy. After the war, when Poles who had served with the allies were not allowed to return home, Wojtek saw out his days in Edinburgh zoo in Scotland.

It’s such a heartwarming story, in fact I’m surprised that Disney have never made a film about it. When Prince Charles, William and Harry visited a Polish Museum and the curator showing them round started to explain about Wojtek, Prince Charles told the curator that the young princes were familiar with the story.

Now a £200,000 monument is planned to commemorate Wojtek. A maquette of the planned work, by sculptor Alan Herriot has been unveiled, showing Wojtek and his handler, Peter Prendys. Herriot has deliberately chosen to show the interaction between man and animal, rather than the usual image of Wojtek carrying shells. He must have provided a welcome relief from the horrors of war. I hope the project happens, as I’ve always had a soft spot for the Poles during the Second World War.

Animals have always had a poignant role in war – not having much of a choice, but serving loyally none the less. The play War Horse is receiving rave reviews in the west end at the moment, and the animals in war monument in London is incredibly moving. Wojtek has to be one of the most heart-rendering stories of animals serving during war.

Thanks to John Erickson for the tip-off on this story, which came from the Daily Telegraph.

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‘D-Day Dodgers’? Portsmouth’s war dead in Italy

Catania War Cemetery, Italy

Catania War Cemetery, Italy

When people think of the second world war in Europe, their attention tends to naturally gravitate towards D-Day, Arnhem, or maybe the Eastern Front. However, there was also a sigificant campaign fought in Italy, from the Invasion of Sicily late in 1942 through to VE Day on 8 May 1945. Statistics show that almost as many Portsmouth men died fighting in Italy as did in France on and after D-Day.

The war in Italy found various Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment fighting. The 1st, 2nd, 2/4th, 1/4th and 5th Battalions were all there at some point or other. The 1st and 2nd in particular would probably have been made up of pre-war soldiers, regulars who had joined up before 1939. And although local recruiting did fall away during wartime, it does seem that more Portsmouth men fought and died in the Hampshire Regiment than in any other infantry unit.

The war in Italy was a long, bloody war fought in varying conditions, and without the public attention of the battles in France, Belgium and Holland. In some quarters men who fought in Italy were often referred to as ‘D-Day Dodgers’. Arguments even raged amongst the Allied command as to how effective the war in Italy was. For an excellent appraisal of the war in Italy, have a look at Rick Atkinson’s ‘The Day of Battle’.

So far I have found these Portsmouth men who died in Italy while serving with the Hampshire Regiment: Private Frank Vaughan, Southsea; Corporal Alfred Buckner, 25 and from Cosham; Private Herbert Edwards, 19 and from Cosham; Lieutenant Rupert Deal, 31 and from Paulsgrove; Private Frank Osman, 25 and from Southsea; Lance Corporal Albert Vear, 22 and from Southsea; Lance Corporal Harry Adams, 24; Private Alexander Kinkead, 25 and from Southsea; and Private Victor Devine, 28 and from Buckland.

They are buried in War Cemteries up and down Italy, at Caserta, Catania, Minturno, Naples, Montecchio and Coriano Ridge.

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