Cassino: 'Impossible hurdle' (audio)

BY CHE BAKER
Last updated 18:27 24/04/2009

Gore man Colin Baynes talks about his experiences at Cassino

Colin Baynes

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Cassino would prove the most tragically elusive prize of the entire Italian campaign for the New Zealanders. They marched across to the other side of Italy to join the Allied forces massing before the town of Cassino. Gore man COLIN BAYNES was there.

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Colin Baynes was called up for service at the age of 19 and sent to Italy in World War 2.

He spent three Christmases there.

After the United States forces received heavy casualties in their attempt to take Cassino they were withdrawn and the New Zealand division was sent in to attack.

"I believe Cassino was an impossible hurdle and should never have been assaulted, with the result being thousands of casualties," Mr Baynes said.

Two years ago Mr Baynes travelled back to Italy on an organised tour with a group of old soldiers to attend the 60th Anniversary of The Battle of Cassino.

"What a difference, a whole new town was born with very little evidence that once the town was devastated," he said.

Visiting the immaculate cemeteries with gravestones was very hard on the nerves for Mr Baynes.

Many of the dead had been school friends and sports buddies from his years growing up in Southland.

This is his story:

I have been asked to speak about some of my experiences in Italy.

These ranged from three times Christmases in the war years to the return trips to Italy a couple of years ago to attend the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Cassino.

Route 6 in Italy ran from Naples to Rome; Cassino set astride this highway, barring the passage to Rome of Allied Forces, who, in the main, were from America (the American 5th Army) the 2nd NZEF Division, a Polish Division and also a Free French Division.

The Germans had blown up a dam on the Rapido River, which flooded the whole plain from the mountains to the sea.

This blocked any other route north, other through the main highway of route 6 through Cassino.

After the Germany army was knocked out in North Africa, they retreated to the mainland of Sicily and Italy.

The Americans invaded a cleared Sicily reasonably quickly and the moved on to the mainland.

The NZ Division landed through Taranto (in the instep) and moved up the east coast to Baris.

Meanwhile the Germans had established a formidable fortress and barrier to the north at Cassino.

The US Forces received very heavy casualities in their attempt to take Cassino and were so badly mauled that they were withdrawn to rest.

A NZ Division was moved across from the east coast. The average Kiwi's theory was that Freyberg told General Alexnander Commanded of the 8th Army "let my boys have a crack at it".

Truth or not nobody knows.

Our division suffered very heavy casualities, also.

The Germans held all the high ground including Cassino Abbey, and had observation of the whole plain to the south, which was the ground over which the 5th Army had to move to attack Cassino.

I believe Cassino was an impossible hurdle and should never have been assaulted with result being thousands of casualities.

Eventually the army chiefs did what they should have done in the first place, and that was to land an army further up the coast of Anzio.

This landing at Anzio forced the German Forces to evacuate Cassino and retreat north through Rome to avoid being cut off by the US 5th Army which was moving towrd Route 6. The German chiefs need not have worried. I read a German opinion of the Allied Forces, which said that they were a force of Lions lead by donkeys.

True to this discription, the 5th Army did not cut route 6, which would have trapped the whole German forces holding Cassino.

Instead, once the US 5th Army had established a presence on the mainland of Italy, they took the first road leading to Rome, a captured Rome, which had been declared an open city; not subjected to bombing or other attackes.

Allied Forces made a great proganda victory out of this, as the first Capital of the Axis forces of Germany, Italy and Japan, to be captured.

The victory was worthless. Meanwhile the whole German Army pulled out of Cassino, and escaped to the north at great speed. The propaganda victory of Rome, simply meant we had to battle the German Army at almost every river from Rome to Irieste, most notably the Senio where we were bogged down for a whole winter after the massive water barrier of the po river.

I was in Cassino, the day after the Germans pulled out, as a member of a burial party to pick up, identify and give temporary burial to our own unit casualites.

The marked graves were later moved to a large cemetery, the cost of which was provided wholly by the Italian people.

I walked along one of the stopbanks fo the Rapido River which ran past Cassino. German machine guns with belts of ammunition laid out beside were dotted every few yards along the bank, the German Forces had left so fast they never waited to pick up their guns.

At one stage of the Cassino battle it was claimed that the enemy forces occupied the monastry which stood high up on the mountain and thus had a wonderful observation post from which they could observe all movement on the plains leading up to Cassino.

This ws said to be unture, according to civilians living in the area after the war.

The Allied Chiefs decided that the monastry had to be bombed to wipe out an observation post.

I sat on the side of Mount Trochio, which is directly opposite Cassino.

The previous bombing raids on Cassino had blown off the roofs of every house in Cassino, the size of which I can only guess at about 2500 peple at least.

The bombing of the monastry was totally unnecessary as the whole mountainside behind Cassino was a million observation posts. After the bombing, the German Forces decided they might as well occupy the monastry, seeing that they were expected to.

The 10 or 20 feet of rubble after the bombing afforded the enemy a perfect cover for their rooms on the lower floors and cellars of the monastry.

At the south entrance of route 6 to Cassino, stood two hotels opposite one another, The Continental and Hotel Des Roses, I think they were called.

The Continental Hotel had the south facing wall knocked out an into the room on theground floor Jerry had backed in a 50 ton tiger tank with an 88mm gun looking straight down the south and route 6 from Naples. This was the main road into Cassino. The German 88mm gun which they had at the beginning of the war was said to be a better gun than any gun developed by the Allies even at the end of the war.

ITALY 2004: Five years ago we decided as a family to take a trip to Italy with a group of old soldiers going on an organised tour of the lower half of Italy.

What a difference.

A whole new town was born, with very little evidence that once the town was devastated. The only relic of war we saw was an old model of a Sherman tank, parked in a corner of the main square. Our group stayed at Frosinone which was a town a few miles north of Cassino. Froisnone reminded me of an old army song called Rolling Wheels.

It sang about the travels of the NZ Division across North Africa and Italy.

One line endng was verse was "Frosinone fare thee well".

The last verse was `Rolling wheels across Italia, I will be hard to think its real, when we see the blue pacific, rolling back beneath our keel".

I wish I could remember all the versus of the song which was a very good history of the 2nd NZEF.

Our whole NZ Group of ex-soliders did a march around the block at Cassino and received a great ovation from a large crowd which filled the streets and many people waving from every window of the surrounding buildngs.

After the Cassino visit we travelled across Italy to the east side and then journeyed north along the east coast.

We visited several cemeteries on our way.

They were all immaculate but it was pretty hard on the nerves, looking at grave stones of young fellows we had gone to school with, or had close ties with as youths playing cricket, football, going to dances etc.

Three graves stones in particular, really brought sad memories to me.

One was Peter Bagries, who was one of only three boys in my class right through primary school at Brydone. He had been followng a track around the mountain at Cassino. This track had been cleared of mines by the engineers.

However, Peter took the chance to cut a corner and stopped off the track for a few yards and stood on a mine.

The second gravestone was of a young officer from my regiment Frank Mathies, a very popular man and a good soldier.

I had a photo of a German tank which was knocked out by rockets by the RAF. This German tank as the tank that knocked out Frank Mathias killing him.

The third gravestone was of a private from the 22nd Ba, a newly established infantry unit, previously equipped with staghounds, a useless vehicle.

At daybreak about 6am I walked around a house and and saw a stretcher against an outside wall, with a body on it, covered with a blanket.

An infantry man told me the story. Private Tucker had been pursing a German panther tank, a 50 tonner in pitch darkness. He was throwing smoke granades on to the back of the tank hoping the grenade contents would be sucked through the grille above the engine at the rear of the tank and hopefully set it on fire, while he was chasing the tank, in pitch blackness of the height, the tank crew were firing their 88mm gun aimed behind them.

They got away eventually and Private Tucker escaped being killed but sadly he walked around the corner of a house into a burst of fire from an enemy sub-machine gun - a sad end for one who might have well earned a VC.

In the Northern half of Italy we went as far as Venice where everyone travels by boat around the city, a very unique city. We then travelled across country to Florence, another beautiful city, reported to have a higher proportion of English people then any other city in Italy. The city sits astride the Arno River with many bridges, the most famous of which is the Ponte Veccio,which means "old bridge".

In their retreat from south to north, in Italy, the Germans destroyed a great many bridges over the main rivers. The Po river, the biggest in Italy was one that did not have a single bridge left.

We were held up for several days, while our enginers built a Bailey Bridge over it. After this was built, I saw a gun battery on the south side of the bridge. One part of the crew told me that, their job was to watch out for mines which the enemy was apt to float down-stream, from the upper reaches of the river, which they still held. They had anti-aircraft guns for the job. We were amazed at how quickly our engineers built rafts which could carry a 32ton sherman tank across the Po. All members of my tank squadron took the opportunity to "pee in the Po".

From Florence, we headed back south again to Rome and from there travelled home with an over night stay in Hong Kong.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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