The cemeteries and memorials in Italy cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission are some of the most beautiful in the world. They are a permanent reminder of the bitterly fought campaign which took place across the country during the Second World War.
The Italian Campaign
On 10 June 1940, Fascist Italy declared war on France and Britain. Over the next three years Commonwealth and Italian forces fought at sea, in the air, and on land, most famously in North Africa. After years of desert fighting, in early 1943 the German and Italian forces in North Africa were finally defeated.
The Battles of Cassino
Two Allied formations were deployed to Italy: the American Fifth Army and the British Eighth Army. Both had served in the deserts of North Africa and during the invasion of Sicily. They epitomised the multinational nature of the Allied war effort.
The Gustav Line
The Apennine Mountains that form the spine of the mainland forced the Allies to advance along two narrow corridors, each flanked by the sea on one side and steep mountains on the other. The Germans fought determined delaying actions to slow the Allied advance, all the while constructing a belt of formidable defences, the strongest of which was the Gustav Line.
Stretching across Italy, from the mouth of the Garigliano River in the west, through the Apennine Mountains to the mouth of the Sangro River in the east, the Gustav Line was built to be impenetrable. Taking full advantage of the imposing natural terrain the Germans built concrete bunkers, hidden gun emplacements and machine gun nests, laid thousands of mines and used miles of barbed wire.
Dug in amongst their daunting defences the Germans could dominate the valleys below, blocking any advance north. At the head of the Liri Valley and on the path of the Route 6 highway to Rome, Monte Cassino was a lynchpin of these defensive positions. On 17 January the first assaults on the Gustav Line were launched, and over the following months tens of thousands would fight in the shadow of the mountain, attempting to break through.
The first attempts to break through at Cassino in January were costly failures. In an attempt to subdue the German forces, Allied commanders ordered a ferocious aerial bombardment to eliminate their defences. On 16 February, the Benedictine monastery which stood on Monte Cassino was largely destroyed, and in March bombers targeted the town of Cassino. Rather than reducing resistance, this eventually enabled German troops to occupy stronger positions amid the debris.
Charlie Hapeta was born to Mr & Mrs Charlie Hapeta of Okaihau, Auckland. He was the husband of Ngareta Hapeta of Horeke and together the couple had four children. Charlie enjoyed boxing and worked as a labourer before enlisting. He left New Zealand in July 1943 and joined the 28th (Maori) Battalion, then serving in Italy.
On the night of 17/18 February 1944, Commonwealth forces launched ‘Operation Avenger’, the second major attempt to capture Monte Casino. The 28th Maori were in the forefront of the assault, crossing the Rapido River and pushed on towards the Cassino railway station. After a night and morning of heavy fighting the Maoris captured the station but, lacking support, they were forced to retreat during the afternoon, in the face of counter attacks by German tanks.
During the fighting Charlie was killed along with nineteen of his unit. He was 24 years old. Today he is buried alongside his comrades in Cassino War Cemetery.
Photo courtesy of Charlie's family.
With the Allied offensive facing the formidable obstacle of Monte Cassino, an amphibious assault to the north at Anzio, codenamed Operation Shingle, was designed to open the way to Rome.
In the early hours of 22 January, on calm seas under clear skies, Allied forces landed almost without opposition. The British 1st Division, supported by Commandos, landed to the north, with the US 3rd Infantry Division, along with US Rangers, to the south. By midday, all of the initial assault objectives had been secured, but Allied commanders chose to consolidate their position rather than advance. Meanwhile, eight German divisions rushed to close off Anzio, surrounding the Allied forces.
A long-awaited attempt to break out from the beachhead began on 30 January. By then, German defences were well-prepared, and concentrated mortar, artillery and machine-gun fire held back the assault, while exhausted Allied soldiers clung on in hastily constructed forward positions, subjected to frequent counter-attacks.
Victory at Cassino
The burden of the fighting at Cassino fell on men rather than machines. Water, rations and ammunition had to be brought by hand to forward positions, while getting a hot meal, washing and shaving was often impossible. Those wounded at the frontline were particularly vulnerable and evacuating them proved perilous.
After the failure of piecemeal attacks over the preceding weeks and months, Allied commanders planned a major effort in May to finally break the stalemate. On 11 May a combined Allied offensive was launched, codenamed Operation Diadem. With the aid of reinforcements, the town and the heights were secured within a week. Men of the Polish II Corps raised their flag above the ruins of the monastery on 18 May, and Allied forces linked up in the Liri Valley.
The Allies lost over 50,000 men killed and wounded at Cassino, and more than 2,000 of the Commonwealth servicemen laid to rest at Cassino War Cemetery died during the final efforts to take Monte Cassino in May. The capture of Monte Cassino opened the route to Rome, but German resistance would continue further north along the Gothic Line. Many of those who would fall in the battles to come are commemorated on the Cassino Memorial.
Roderick Kenneth Macdonald
Reporter Roderick Kenneth Macdonald worked as war correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald during the Second World War. Macdonald was born in Scotland, emigrating to Australia with his family as a toddler. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Roderick was educated in Sydney, NSW, and he went straight into the newspaper business from university in 1931. Macdonald achieved fame when he landed with glider troops at Sicily, was captured by the Italians and later escaped to tell his tale. He published a book in early 1944, entitled Dawn Like Thunder, recounting his adventures as a war correspondent in China and West Africa.
On what would be the final day of the Battle of Monte Cassino (18 May 1944), Macdonald was travelling up to the front lines behind the advancing Eighth Army with British reporter Cyril Bewley of Kemsley Newspapers when their jeep came under German artillery fire. They sought cover in a roadside field where they set off a mine and were instantly killed. Macdonald and Bewley were initially buried where they fell, and their graves were later brought to Cassino War Cemetery.
The Liberation of Rome
After the capture of Monte Cassino, Allied units pursed the retreating German Army, while those in the Anzio bridgehead were ordered to break out and cut off the German retreat. But rather than continue the pursuit, American General Mark Clark diverted his troops north-west towards Rome.
On 4 June, after a few skirmishes in the suburbs and outskirts of the city, the first Allied servicemen entered Rome, which was spared destruction as German troops retreated. But while Rome’s citizens and its liberators celebrated, the bulk of German forces in Italy escaped north to continue the war.
Rome became the first major European capital to be liberated, but the Allies would face many more months of gruelling warfare in the mountains to the north. Over the following weeks, Commonwealth forces pursued the retreating Axis units as they withdrew behind successive lines of fortifications. By early August, the Allies were closing up to the next major German defensive position, the Gothic Line.
The End of the Italian Campaign
By August the Allies were drawing up to the Gothic Line, a series of machine gun nests, casemates, bunkers, observation posts and artillery positions, which stretched from near Massa on the Ligurian coast across much of the Apennine Mountains north of Florence and south of San Marine to Pesare on the Adriatic coast. Allied soldiers faced weeks of gruelling fighting across mountains, rivers and ravines, and through ruined towns and streets, meeting determined German resistance at every turn, until the winter halted offensive operations.
On 6 April 1945, the Allies began their final offensive in Italy, Operation Grapeshot. On 22 April, the Allies began crossing the River Po, and on 25 April Italian partisans began uprisings in the cities of northern Italy, supported by Allied air supplies and special forces. While Commonwealth forces advanced north-east towards Venice and Trieste, the U.S. Fifth Army pushed toward to Genoa, Milan and Turin.
Over the course of the fighting in Italy, German forces suffered around 435,000 casualties, killed, wounded and captured, while the Allies lost some 311,000, including 123,000 Commonwealth servicemen fighting as part of the British Eighth Army.
Louis de Soissons
Architect and grieving parent
As early as July 1944, while fighting still raged in the north of the country, Louis de Soissons was surveying potential sites in southern Italy. Employed as the Commission’s principal architect for the country, de Soissons was best known for his work at Welwyn Garden City in the UK.
Born in Montreal, Canada, in 1890, he was raised in London and trained in Paris and Rome. His work was greatly influenced by the architecture he saw during his time in Italy. He designed more than 40 CWGC cemeteries in Greece and Italy, and two memorials to the missing – one at Cassino, and the Athens Memorial in Phaleron War Cemetery, Greece.
De Soissons had a son, Philip, who served in the Royal Navy during the war. On 23 May 1941 Philip was killed when his ship, HMS Fiji, was sunk by German bombers off the coast of Crete. Along with over 220 his ship mates, he has no grave but the sea, and his name is inscribed on the CWGC’s Portsmouth Naval Memorial. Philip de Soissons was just 17 years old when he died.
Eric Fletcher Waters
Second Lieutenant Eric Fletcher Waters was born in County Durham in 1914. He and his wife Mary had two sons: John, who later became a taxi driver, and Roger, who became one of the founding members of the rock group Pink Floyd. A devout Christian, Eric was a pacifist and was originally excused from military service as a conscientious objector – he instead served as an ambulance driver in Cambridge in the early years of the war. However, after joining the British Communist Party his ardent anti-fascist beliefs drove him to reconsider military service.
He enlisted as a Second Lieutenant with the 8th Battalion Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) and went on to see active service in Italy. Eric was killed on 18 February 1944 during the fighting at Anzio. His body was never recovered, and so he is commemorated on the Cassino Memorial. His son Roger was only five months old at the time of his father’s death. Roger wrote a song, When the Tigers Broke Free, about his father’s death at Anzio.
Lance Serjeant Victor George Baker
Lance Serjeant Victor George Baker was the son of Ernest George and August Leigh Baker, and he grew up in Carshalton, Surrey. ‘Vic’, as he was known, played the violin and enjoyed gardening and woodwork. When war was declared, his two brothers immediately volunteered for service. Vic, however, waited until he was called up – volunteering to drive a tea van in the interim.
Eventually conscripted, Vic served with the Royal Armoured Corps in North Africa and later in Italy. He landed at Salerno during Allied invasion of Italy and his was the first Allied unit into Naples in early October 1943. After advancing up the peninsula it was then tasked with holding positions between the Sangro River and Abruzzi mountains from March 1944. On 9 June 1944, Vic was out on patrol when a comrade stepped on an ‘S’ mine. The explosion only wounded Vic’s comrades but killed Vic. He is buried in Sangro River War Cemetery. Both his brothers survived the war.
Subedar Subramanian was born in the village of Keezha Ottivakkam, near Kanchipuram, India on 18 December 1912. A married man, he enlisted in the Queen Victoria’s Own Madras Sappers and Miners on 15 October 1932.
On 24 February 1944, Subramanian was serving in Mignano, around ten miles south-east of Cassino. His team were working their way through a minefield with mine-detectors, clearing and marking a pathway for following troops, when one of his comrades accidentally stepped on a mine they were marking. Subramanian instantly threw himself onto the mine moments before it detonated, protecting the rest of his team from the blast.
His remains were recovered by his comrades and cremated in accordance with his faith. He is commemorated by name on the Sangro River Cremation Memorial. Subramanian was posthumously awarded the George Cross on 30 June 1944 – the first Indian serviceman to receive such an honour. His widow was presented with the medal at the Red Fort in Delhi by the Viceroy of India.
John was born in 1923 in Cumberland, England, before his family moved to Southern Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) where his parents ran a hotel. John worked for Imperial Tobacco before joining the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) in October 1941. After initial training in Rhodesia he was posted to the Middle East in January 1943. His brother William also served with the RAFVR, and was killed in December 1942 in England when his plane crashed returning from a bombing raid on Turin. William Casson is buried in Gosforth (St. Mary) Churchyard.
John was deployed to Italy, where in May 1944 he took part in an attack on German ground vehicles. Despite intense opposing fire, Casson continued to attack but his aircraft was hit by a shell. He was badly wounded in the thigh but, although faint through the loss of blood and shock, he flew his damaged aircraft to base. As he was lifted from the controls, he collapsed and died. John was posthumously awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, and is buried in Minturno War Cemetery
Charles Otis Parker
Charles “Charlie” Otis Parker was born on 21 April 1919 near Middleton, Nova Scotia. He grew up on a farm with his parents and four younger siblings. He was very musical and played the banjo, guitar and the mouth organ. He married Mildred Smith in 1938, and they had two children – Etta and Ralph. Charlie enlisted with the West Nova Scotia Regiment in October 1939 shortly after declaration of war. In December 1939 he left Canada for England, when his children were aged just 1½ and 4 months old.
Charles served in Sicily before being deployed to mainland Italy. He wrote home as often as he could, and made frequent references to the quality and quantity of food available. He was particularly fond of Italian fruit, such as grapes, oranges, figs, pears and watermelons.
In early 1944, Charles and his battalion were holding the line near the town of Ortona. His family received his last letter in mid-January 1944, before he was reported missing on the snowy night of 12 February 1944.
Maurice Albert Wyndham Rogers
Sergeant Maurice Albert Wyndham Rogers was born in 1919 in Bristol, England. He joined the army in 1934 at the early age of 14 as a drummer boy, and at 18 became part of the regular army. He served with the 2nd Battalion Wiltshire Regiment, and helped the battalion’s athletic team win the Northern Command Athletic Championship in 1937.
Maurice saw action in France in 1940 and was evacuated from Dunkirk. During a short period of leave in London in 1941, Maurice married Lena Stone in Bethnal Green. In March 1942 his battalion left England and took part in the assault on Madagascar before going on to serve in India, Iran, Syria, Palestine and Egypt before landing in Sicily in July 1943. In March 1944 the battalion was sent to reinforce the Allied landings at Anzio.
During the night of 2-3 June 1944 Maurice and his battalion attacked high ground held by the German forces, sustaining heavy casualties under intense fire. Rogers continued to advance alone, penetrating 30 yards inside the enemy's defences, drawing their fire and throwing them into confusion. Inspired by his example, the platoon began the assault. Serjeant Rogers was blown off his feet by a grenade and wounded in the leg, but continued to run on towards an enemy machine-gun post, where he was shot and killed at point blank range. His platoon went on to achieve their objective.
Maurice was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for most prestigious gallantry. He is buried in Beach Head War Cemetery.
John & Thomas Cairncross
John and Thomas Cairncross were twins from Newburgh, Fife, Scotland. They had joined the army in October 1943 – on their 19th birthday – and enlisted initially with the Black Watch before transferring to the 1st Battalion (London Scottish) Gordon Highlanders.
They were sent to Italy and took part in Operation Shingle, the Allied landings at Anzio, in early 1944. Their unit was sent ashore in February after the initial landings as reinforcements. They took over positions about 10 miles inland near the village of Carroceto. On 4 February, one of the twins was killed early in the day, and the other swore vengeance against the enemy for his brother’s death and threw himself into combat. He was killed later that same day. Today both brothers are buried in Anzio War Cemetery