Bloody campaign remembered

ESTHER ASHBY-COVENTRY
Last updated 05:00 03/06/2014
Charlie Kenny
JOHN BISSET/FAIRFAX NZ
BEER RATION: Former soldier Charlie Kenny holds the label of a bottle of beer ration from 4/4/1944 which he shared with five 23rd Battalion comrades in the skeleton of an engine shed at Cassino station in Italy during World War II.

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The bloody battles of Monte Cassino in 1944 left more than 50,000 Allied soldiers dead, but Timaru's Charlie Kenny survived, and recently returned to Italy to commemorate 70 years since that unforgettable campaign.

The 92-year-old former soldier and radio operator from the 23rd Battalion said the two-week trip enabled him to pay his respects to his fallen comrades and visit the rebuilt basilica. The monastery was destroyed in the war.

Mr Kenny grew up in Winchester and became a territorial soldier at 18. He also started a carpentry and joinery apprenticeship.

"Once a month we had to parade and we got 6 shillings. That's why we joined," he said.

In May 1940 all the territorials had to undertake three months training at Burnham military camp. "It was rugged there was no toilets just holes in the ground in a row and no hot water."

At the end of the strict regime the young men were told to " go and grow up".

After the Japanese started fighting in the Pacific in December 1941 Mr Kenny was called to the First Wellington Regiment and machineguns were set up around the coast as the capital prepared for a potential Japanese invasion.

The following year he was on a ship with 5500 troops heading for Suez. "Though I was trained as a Vickers gunner they couldn't get volunteers for signal school so I got sent for three months training."

He first saw action in Italy and after moving from the Adriatic coast to the Volturno area he recalled divisional second-in-command Howard Kippenberger stepping on a mine on Mt Trocchio, injuring his legs so badly he had to have them amputated.

"He called out to our boys, ‘there are mines here men'. Medic Bill Green responded ‘F... the mines' and dived in to help patch him up."

After moving closer to Cassino, on March 15, 1944, the soldiers stood and watched until they were ordered to lie down as 500 planes dropped 10,000 tonnes of bombs on Cassino.

"The noise was terrific, no wonder so many went deaf in our battalion."

Though his battalion never got to the monastery much of the time it was a stalemate with major loss of life on both sides. "We hated the monastery. From every angle it was looking down on us and used as a machinegun post."

At one stage there was no communication so Mr Kenny and a couple of others had to make their way at dusk to Cassino station which was being used as army headquarters.

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They were under fire from German Spandau machineguns and couldn't get through a hole in the embankment.

A sergeant, corporal and the company commander were killed and one of the battalion's men was missing after the gunfight.

The missing man had taken the full blast of a mortar and "been blown to pieces".

Mr Kenny took a photo of his grave on his recent visit but said he knows he is not actually resting there.

Though the stench of decaying bodies and the filth of human faeces still lingers in his nostrils all these years later, there were some lighter times.

He recalls an advance in Bologna Highway later in the same year and coming across a vermouth factory. Thinking they would get some of the alcohol for Christmas Mr Kenny and a couple of others grabbed what they could.

"The vermouth was 18 inches deep on the floor and a Gurkha went down the sump hole and we had to pull him out."

One of the other soldiers used an umbrella to open a valve to drain some of the precious drink into a container which the men rolled up the main street.

"That night a spy in the square bell tower reported (Lieutenant General Bernard) Freyberg was in a nearby building. So it was bombed but the half that was damaged was not the half he was in. Everyone rushed to the cellar but I couldn't, I was too drunk."

When Mr Kenny attended the recent commemorations he said the crowd stood up and clapped as he and 37 others walked towards their escorted seats.

- The Timaru Herald

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