'There were acres of unmarked crosses'

Southland-bred World War II veteran Alex McBurney returned to the horrors of Monte Cassino to honour his fallen comrades.  

A trip back to the battlefields of Cassinowas "fairly emotional stuff" for Southland-bred World War II veteran Alex McBurney.

McBurney, 94, of Queenstown was part of a large group of Monte Cassino veterans who made the trip back to Italy in late May.

Cassino was known as one of the most savage theatres of battle in World War II, and Kiwi soldiers including the Maori Battalion distinguished themselves with valour in a series of battles in 1944 that turned the tide against the Germans in southern Europe.

"There were acres and acres of crosses, many unmarked for unknown warriors just blown to bits - fairly emotional stuff," McBurney said.

"Seeing the the Italians lined up eight or nine deep for the Maori Battalion ceremony, watching the Maori performers and calling "grazie" [thank you] was great - I suspect quite a few had a bit of Maori blood in them."

The Germans were hold up in the monastery, the Abbey of Montecassino, which was levelled by the Allies.

But going to the rebuilt monastery was "a waste of bloody time", McBurney said. "Some old girl told us all about what the monks used to get up to ages ago. All we wanted to do was get to the windows and see where we were when the Jerries were dropping bombs on us, but we weren't allowed."

The 15-day trip began in Auckland on May 11, with stop-offs in Darwin, Malaysia, Dubai and Rome.

Although the Maori Battalion ceremony was a highlight, the Commonwealth service a day later did not have the same feel.

"There were too many lords and sirs there, McBurney said.

"The Maoris were better. I shook hands with that Prince Harry - he was a bit pasty, but had a decent handshake.

The terrain had changed drastically in 70 years.

"We were in bombed out olive groves. Nothing but mud, stumps and roots. The Rapido River was a raging black torrent. Now everything's grown over and settled again, and the Rapido's like Horne Creek [which runs through Queenstown]. So we didn't get to tread the exact same ground.

As a 19-year-old Invercargill lad, who had never ventured further than Gore, McBurney was conscripted into service, but not deployed overseas until he was 21. Two months after his 21st birthday he was serving in Cassino.

He and his now deceased wife, Elma, moved to Queenstown 30 years ago. McBurney has two sons, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

The Southland Times