The Vancouver Museum of Military Medicine
“Monte Cassino in Italy in 1944”
The following is a transcription of the notes of a presentation given by Col EJ Bowmer - regarding his service at Monte Cassino.
Lecture to be given to 2nd Year Medical Students, at Pharmacology Department on Wednesday, 28th February, 1945, at 1: 45 p.m., by Ernest John Bowmer, Major, R. A. M. C.
“ASSAULT ON CASSINO”
I want to try to tell you this afternoon something of my impressions while serving with the 4th Indian Division in Italy. I shall tell you something of the history of the Division, a little about our training and a lot about Italy and particularly the part assigned to the Division in the assault on Cassino in February and March of last year. I wish to give you a picture of an Indian Infantry Division and the part played in it by the medical services.
The 4th Indian Division had fought its way all through the Northern African campaign from 1940 onwards. Unfortunately I only joined the Division after its North African triumphs. They were resting and recuperating near Alexandria. The North African campaign has been well described in a recent publication called The Tiger Strikes. The division was at Keren and at Alamein; they were at Tobruk and at Mareth. They took part in that wonderful outflanking movement in Tunisia, which took some of our finest divisions from the 8th Army in the south to join the 1st Army in the north. It was troops of this Division that captured the German North African commander, Colonel General Jurgen von Arnim.
This division, like other Indian divisions, is composed partly of Indian and partly of British troops. An Indian Diviston normally consists of 3 Infantry Brigades, and each Brigade has one British Battalion and 2 Indian Battalions. The Divisional artillery is usually British. The Reconnaissance unit of Armoured cars, the Engineers, Signal troops, Medical Services and Transport are all usually Indian.
The troops of the Indian army are in general drawn from the so-called martial races who are warriors by tradition and descent. The Army is recruited entirely by voluntary enlistment and, in peace time, when the establishment is limited, most of the regiments have long waiting lists. Many of the applicants for enlistment are those whose fathers and grandfathers before them have served in a particular regiment, for the Indian Army is an old and distinguished organization. It was first raised almost two hundred years ago in 'Sepoy' battalions to defend the first English trading posts in India. Two of the hattalions which served in the 4th Indian Division were originally raised in 1775. They are the third battalion of the 1st Punjabi regiment and the 1st battalion of The 6th Rajputana Rifles. The 9th Ghurka Rifles were originally raised in 1817 and the 4th battalion of the 6th Rajputana Rifles in 1820.
The men of the Indian Army are of many races and of various religions. In the ranks of the 4th Indian Division Hindus and Moslems fight side by side with Sikhs with equal devotion to duty and equal courage in the face of all types of difficulty. Some battalions contain all 3 of these major religious groups in a single unit. The 3rd battalion of the 14th Punjabi Regiment has a Sikh company. a company of Punjabi Musselmen and two Hindu companies, one of Rajputs and one of Dogras.
The Indian Army knows no politics. It fights for its King-Emperor on most of the battlefields of the world. It is itself a symbol of the essential unity of India and of the possibility of Indians of all faiths, all classes and all races co-operating in a common purpose.
In our own Division we could see the close interest and friendly rivalry between the Brigades, and inside the Brigades, between the individual battalions. For a long period the Division had fought with only two Brigades, the third having been largely captured when the Germans re-took Tobruk. Our Brigade consisted of one British battalion, one of the Punjabi Regiment and one of Ghurka Rifles. The Sappers were Bengalis. The Gunners British. The Recce Squadron was mixed British and Indian. Our own medical unit although essentially Indian had many British stretcher bearers attached to it. I would stress that the fighting prowess of any Indian formation owes much to the close harmony and friendly spirit that exists between British and Indian personnel.
Johnnie Ghurka is a loveable little chap. He stands 5 foot nothing, has high cheek bones and Mongolian features. His greatest characteristic is his constant smile under all circumstances. He has a very great respect and liking for his own officers, who are all British, but has very little time for other troops either British or Indian. He recognizes that his peace-time battalions are not quite a match for our regular units, but feels himself superior to the recently enlisted British troops. Although Johnnie Ghurka only speaks Ghurkali he always seems to be able to make himself understood by signs and other means. He is not very intellectual, but he is as brave as a lion. His wonderful sense of humour carries him through the worst of difficulties. German propaganda pamphlets shot over in shells cause him great amusement, and he is often to be seen reading such propaganda and roaring with laughter. Armed with his Khukri, a short curved fighting knife — and a tommy-gun Johnnie is a fearsome opponent in battle. He knows his jungle craft and is as agile as a mountain goat in the hills. Although short in stature, he is as strong and hardy as his Indian cousins.
Up to October 1944 the Victoria Cross had been awarded to 107 officers and men of the Navy, Army and Air Force during this war. Of these at least 12 were earned by Indian solders, and several recent awards have been made to Indians.
The language difficulty is fairly considerable. The official Army language is called Urdu, all troops are expected to learn it. But this is impossible in war time. One sometimes has to seek out one's modest knowledge of Urdu with strong language which seems to be a fairly international alternative. Lal Hussain was my bearer for some months. He spoke Punjabi and I spoke a little Urdu, so we frequently misunderstood each other.
I have often said that when serving with British troops one gives an order and it is carried out, whereas with Indian troops one gives an order and carries it out oneself. This is very true as the Indian will do almost anything for you if he likes and respects you, but otherwise it may be very difficult. In a medical unit there is little of the fine fighting tradition of the battalions and less of the battalion's team spirit. But the Indian is just grand to work with, as long as his limitations and one's own are fully appreciated. The northern Indian is a fine sturdy fellow, and his brother from the south is softer physically but more mentally alert, and therefore more easily trained.
Training in Palestine and Syria.
After lazing in Egypt for some weeks our Brigade went to the hills about Jerusalem and to the Cedars of Lebanon to toughen up and learn the arts of mountain warfare. Here we dashed up mountains at break neck speed, routing imaginary enemies; we evacuated mock casualties in less time than it took to record their names in a book; and we frequently got lost on mountain sides and in orange groves. I was always getting into trouble because I had never seen an Infantry Brigade functioning and I wanted to know just how much the medicals would be kept in the picture. I regret to say that the medical is chiefly welcome when his professional services are required, but is frequently forgotten in the hurley-burley of sham-battle. During this period we learned a lot about Indian motor convoys. They really have to be seen to be believed. Imagine your young brothers aged say 10 to 14 placed in the driving seats of tanks, armoured cars, 3-ton lorries, water-trucks, jeeps and motorcycles and told to drive 120 miles in a day, observing all the rules of the highway code plus many military convoy rules as well. Now you have some slight conception of the chaos that reigns. Add to that, narrow precipitous roads with wretched surfaces and you have the complete picture. The young Indian is not a good driver - as in many other things, he lacks a sense of proportion. You say go slow. and he dawdles along at 5 miles per hour. You say go a little faster and he is quite likely to take the next hair pin bend at 50 miles per hour, and laugh his head off if he gets round intact. I have often seen a straight stretch of road with no sign of a corner or obstruction - lying on the road side with its wheels in the air is an overturned 3-ton lorry, and sitting on the chasis an ever smiling Johnnie Ghurka, waiting to he helped out of his predicament.
TRAINING WITH MULES.
Our training was divided into unit training and collective or Brigade training. For some weeks we practiced loading mules onto lorries, not nearly as easy a task as it may sound. 6 large or 8 small mules can be 'topped and tailed' across a 3 ton lorry. Then we loaded our equipment onto mules. We had to be prepared to move our company of 50 men either by motor convoy, or by animal transport or by man carriage. We usually had three 3-ton lorries for moving men and equipment and extra lorries for the mules. The lorries were always loaded tactically so that we could proceed with minimum delay by animal transport. Mule loading tables were carefully worked out. Mules are great beasts of burden and we came to know and like them. We dealt at various times with Indian, Cypriot and Italian mule companies. The mules are of two kinds, small-animal transport mules for carrying equipment in suitable containers (total load not more than 100 lbs. each side, and carefully balanced) and large ambulance mules (often called Mountain Artillery mules, which can comfortably carry one man on each side about 200lbs a side).
Ambulance mules are equipped with either adjustable folding stretchers for lying cases or with cacolets for sitting patients. The latter are not comfortable and are not very useful. If a man is seriously wounded he is a lying case, if not he is a walking ease. The advantages of these mules are many. They can carry two average sized soldiers a distance of 15 miles over difficult ground in a day. They can negotiate steep up and down slopes and uneven ground easily. They can ford a 3 foot stream without the patients getting wet, and they are all thoroughly trained not to shy or bolt at the noise of battle. There are however limitations to their use. With stretchers open they need a path 7 feet wide. The motion is jerky and plenty of morphia must therefore be given to patients. Mules require a rest every 3-5 miles and the patients must be off-loaded. All stretchers bearers have to be carefully trained in the loading and off-loading of patients. Our company was photographed tending wounded, man-handling them over rough ground, loading them onto ambulance mules with litters and cacolets and leading the mules off the dressing station. One muleteer looks after tow mules, and always stands at the head of the foremost. The two mules are loosely linked together with a chain. When approaching the mountain around Cassino, I remember seeing the second of two mules stagger after being hit in the belly by a shell fragment. Before the chain could be unlinked the poor beast had lost its footing and pulled its fellow over the mountain path. We didn't see either of those mules again and we had lost their loads as well. Mules are often hit because there is no cover for them, and they make a very good target. Feeding and watering of mules is a considerable problem in the mountains. A mule will drink up to 9 gallons of water at a time and this weighs 90 lbs. One always hopes to find water on the spot.
The ship-sewage system broke down on the way to Italy. Being by now somewhat prepared for the difficulties of mountain warfare, we were rapidly equipped with modern transport including jeeps and moved to Italy for the finishing touches and then the real thing. We spent a pleasant Christmas in the mountains of southern Italy. It was very cold. Every newly arrived Division started off by holding a quiet sector of the line first. We were accordingly sent for 3 weeks to the Orsogna front, where owing to the bad weather there was little more than patrol activity. This was a period of house warfare. All that could live in houses owing to the weather and if we didn't shell the German- ccupied housed he left us alone. Casualties were few, but frequently had to be carried for distances of 2-3 miles over muddy fields and through small copses usually in the dark, as so many of the forward positions were overlooked by the enemy. This was very strenuous manual labour for the unfortunate stretcher bearers who earned unstinted praise for their work. In these weeks we were able to see how all our schemes worked out in practice. Serious casualties took rather a long time to reach us so blood transfusions and plasma transfusions were given at the dressing station which was quite near to the Regimental Aid Posts of the battalions. Roads were ill-constructed and often inches deep in thick gluey mud. It was here that we had our first experiences of the hill-climbing performance of the jeep. The jeep has frequently been described as the greatest contribution of America to the Allied cause. Jeeps fitted with special stretcher gear were absolutely invaluable in mud and in hilly country. With their four-wheel drive and skid-chains they can cover the most difficult of ground. Often the ambulance cars were unable to get through the mud but the jeeps always made it. The surgical units were usually situated 4-8 miles back from the front and were in buildings.
We were now told that we should soon move to the other side of Italy and take over the line in the neighborhood of Cassino. The Americans had taken the forward approaches to the hills around the Monastery of Cassino, and had done a wonderful job. The Gustav line of which Cassino was the lynch pin, had been constructed by the Germans making full use of the natural defenses of the rivers and hills. The line ran almost due north and south from Monte Cairo to the Mediterranean Sea. Monte Cairo was a tall snow-clad mountain sweeping down to Monte Castellone, Monte Majola and Monte Cassino. The Germans had fortified the Benedictine Monastery on the summit grubbed under ground through the old passages and tunnels that riddle the valley and the sloping hills, strengthened them, and turned them into channels of communication with surface defensive positions in the town of Cassino and the mountain tops. From the town of Cassino the line followed the river Rapido and the Liri valley to the sea some 20 miles away. On several occasions the Americans had attempted the assault on this impressive line of natural defenses, but each time unsuccessfully. We were to put in two attacks in February and March but without success.
The move-up and take over from the Americans took several days. The Division had to be rested, fully equipped and ready to move. As most of the approach march a distance of some 14 miles was under direct enemy observation from the mountain tops, most of the moving had to be done at night. We crossed the wide valley and then the river Rapido and entered the small village of Cairo nestling under the lofty Monte Cairo and the Monte Castellone feature. In this village we opened a dressing station. After a couple of days spent in settling in, the battalions started the ascent of the mountain and took over the American positions. We opened two further dressing stations one at the foot the mountain track in an old farm house with substantial stone walls and the other near the summit of Monto Majola, about a mile and a half from the Monastery and just out of view of it. The task allotted to our Brigade was the capture of the Abbey of Monte Cassino and the destruction of the enemy in that area. The attack went in at night over very difficult mountain paths where little reconnaissance had been possible. At the same time the New Zealand Division, one of the finest Infantry Divisions of the war, was to attack the town of Cassino from the Rapido River. Both attacks were moderately successful at the beginning but it was impossible to dislodge the enemy from his rocky fastnesses. The attacks had been preceded by large scale bombing of the Monastery and town of Cassino. This did a lot of damage to both objectives, but the town was such a mass of rubble and craters that tanks were unable to get through. The weather broke in a day or so and we were back in the positions from which we had started.
The medical problems were considerable. No vehicles could get up the mountain tracks, and mules were not practicable owing to the narrowness of the track. We had the casualties, wounded and sick from a large Brigade group to get down the mountain side. Any who could walk, did so. The remainder had to be carried on stretchers the whole way. Seventeen stretcher bearers' posts were established on the mountain side. The four bearers at each post lived at the post and carried stretcher cases from their own post to the next post down the hill, returning with an empty stretcher and four blankets. When casualties were heavy this work was very tiring, and the bearers had to be relieved every 48 hours. Thus, on occasions, we had as many as 150 men acting as stretcher bearers at the same time. The fact every single able bodied man in the Division not employed on essential duties was made into a stretcher bearer or a porter. A soldier wounded at the front was treated by his comrades with first field dressings until arrival of his unit stretcher bearers who man-carried him about a mile to the Regimental Aid Post in our Field Ambulance Dressing Section. His own Medical Officer then treated him and evacuated him by our stretcher bearers over very rough and steep ground to the Second Dressing station, through a depressing area usually referred to cheerfully as Death Valley: From the dressing station to the foot of the mountain by 17 relays of bearers; then by stretcher-fitted jeep to the village of Cario; and finally a further 6 miles by ambulance care to a surgical unit in the Headquarters of the Field Ambulance still in the range of long range guns. The delays were many and the difficulties considerable, but surprisingly even abdominal emergencies stood up to the rough handling remarkably well. Hard though the stretcher bearers worked, Indian and British bearers learned to respect and admire the guts of the previously despised P.B.I. Getting hot food daily to the bearer posts was a serious problem. The British troops were quite happy on their hard-scale rations, but the Indians expected to have their normal diet of Rice, Chupatti and Dahl, twice daily, punctuated by frequent cups of their weak, milky sweet tea.
With the break in the weather we were left holding the line. It was terribly monotonous and we were constantly getting casualties without any apparent gain, which was bad for the morale of the men. But they stuck it out magnificently, for over 6 weeks. At about this time we heard that there was a lot of discussion in the outside world as to whether the Monastery should or should not be bombed. We had no doubts about it; we reckoned that the loss of one building however beautiful or historic was of less importance than the loss of Allied lives. I shall always remember the Monastery. I saw it before the bombing, a beautiful almost unreal building perched on top of a conical mountain, overlooking and dominating the little town of Cassino, and visible from nearly any part of the long approach march. I saw it during the bombing enshrouded in dirt and smoke — the air for miles around filled with great clouds of dust. I saw it after the bombing, a ghostly relic of its former beauty, frequently the target for our field and medium guns.
It was known by us that the Monastery was occupied by a large number of Italian civilians, farmers, monks, tradesmen from the town. Before the American Air Force bombed it, the Italians were warned by pamphlet shell to clear out. The Germans who occupied defensive positions around the Abbey would not allow the Italians to leave the building. In fact one poor woman who had just been through the ordeal of bombing informed us through an interpreter that they were all locked in by the German soldiers who left the Monastery before the bombing and returned after it was all over to reoccupy their positions.
We may pause here for a moment to consider the historic importance of the Abbey of Monte Cassino. It has rightly been called the Cradle of Western Medicine. Before the bombing the Monastery itself was a large mass of buildings containing great cathedral church and a series of beautiful cloistered courts of various dates. The whole building was connected to the little town of Cassino by a funicular railway, crossing a gorge which would take the whole of a tiring day to cover on foot. The Castle, of more recent construction, was built on another conical mountain in the gorge. The Monastery was founded in 529 A.D. by St. Benedict of Nursia, who died there in 544.
Monte Cassino has had a varied and stormy history. In 580 it was sacked by the Lombards and rebuilt in 720. It was nearly destroyed again by the Lombards in 884 and was again rebuilt in 950. It reached the height of its influence under its great Abbot, Desiderius, who became Pope Victor III, in 1087. Monte Cassino is acknowledged as the first centre of Western Monasticism. The Benedictine order has always been associated with the promotion of learning. It was Constantine who first carried the Arabic medical methods to the West. He was born in 1020, he came to Southern Italy in 1072, and acted as Secretary for Oriental languages to the then Norman King, Robert. Having become a Christian, Constantine retired as a monk about 1080 to the Abbey of Monte Cassino. There he spent his last 7 years translating Arabic medical works into Latin. This Eastern influence on modern medicine is seen in the use of such anatomical terms as Basilic, Cephalic, and Saphenous, words of are of Semitic origin. The writings of Constantine were the first of their kind. They include translations of the works of Isaac the Jew of Kairouan in Tunisia on such subjects as Fevers, Diet, Urines and Philosophy, dated 855 to 955. There still remain some fourteen hundred manuscripts of great antiquity. Many of these are medical and date back to the time of Constantine himself. These documents were removed to safety long before the bombing occurred.
And so we waited for a month, during which the rain poured down and every one was miserable. We were waiting for the sun which never seemed to come. The winter in Italy can be very severe and the nights very cold. It was pathetic to see the sturdy mules loaded down with stores essential for the troops slithering on frozen mountain tracks. Often they fell, often the stores were lost, and often the mules were injured. Every scrap of food, supplies and ammunition had to be carried either by the mules or by human porters. And towards the end of our stay in these parts water was running short and it had to be carried in containers up the steep mountain. Our dressing stations were all very lavishly plastered with large 40 foot square red crosses. There was no doubt that the German was respecting the Geneva Convention in this respect. We developed a ridiculous faith in these flags as time went on, and all houses not so marked were gradually razed to the ground. The stretcher posts, on the mountain side were built of rocks and made comfortable and as water-proof as possible. Stretchers and blankets became a problem; towards the end of our visit we had 400 blankets in our various dressing stations and stretcher posts. One morning before sun rise we were called out urgently to collect 20 casualties from a forward Regimental Aid Post just below the Monastery. I had with me sixteen stretcher bearers and my medical haversack. In the dark I was unable to check its contents. When examined, I found to my dismay that my all glass morphia syringe was completely stuck, and I could not move it by any means. Then I had a brain wave. I thought if only I had some hot liquid; that would shift it. Well I'm ashamed to admit that I used the only supply of hot liquid available to me at that time and in that place. It worked! Completely practical but not very hygienic. While we were waiting for the weather to change, our Engineers built an amazing road, wide enough to take tanks, running right up from the floor of the valley north of Cassino town to a house called Albaneta up in the mountains of the Castellone feature. From this house you could actually look down on the ruins of the monastery. The construction of this road was a great feat of engineering, as it was hewn out of the rock of the mountain side during the height of battle. It was a night job, and the Germans who overlooked the position could plainly hear the sound of the working parties; but the road went on. Finally the road was completed and a tank column of Indians, New Zealanders and Americans reached the dominating position of Albaneta only to be forced back by lack of numbers. This gave rise to a curious legend still current among the Germans, that the Allies were using mountain-climbing tanks.
We had to improvise the medical arrangements for this tank battle. As we had never seen the inside of a tank, we spent an interesting morning being shown the works of a Sherman tank. All members of a tank crew wear a special harness, by which they can be dragged out of the tank should they be wounded. Each tank has its specially equipped medical box, with morphia and a tourniquet and dressings, and all tank crews are instructed in elementary first aid. When the tanks went off into battle, we set up a small dressing station at the top of the tank track. Over the radio telephone we could hear a running commentary on the battle. Whenever a tank was hit, the tank commander withdrew from battle and we sent out a Bren gun carrier with fitted stretchers to meet it. Casualties were transferred to the carrier and rapidly brought to us for treatment. Stretcher-bearing jeeps ran a regular shuttle service from the top of the tank track to the dressing station at its foot.
At this stage, some of the drugs we used definitely saved life and limb. Whole blood or plasma transfusions were given at the earliest possible stage in the long evacuation route. In cases of severe shock resulting from loss of blood or from wounds and fractures, we tried to transfuse two pints. The cases travelled remarkably well with large doses of morphia. The Americans frequently administer morphia in simple syrettes already prepared and containing a sterile solution of half a grain? of morphia. This is slightly more than the normal maximum dose of morphia, but has no injurious effect on badly shocked patients.
Sulphonamide was extensively used on open dirty wounds. Penicillin being in fairly short supply was only issued to the surgical team's further back. Tetanus and Gas Gangrene were common in cases of very extensive wounding, so we used a lot of anti-tetanic serum and anti-gas gangrene serum.
While our Brigade was sitting up in the mountains, the other Brigade was forming up for an attack on the town of Cassino itself. They had less to contend with in the way of natural barriers but plenty in the way of man-made obstacles. The Infantry were able to get right through the town and occupy one of the heights overlooking the town, called Castle Hill. Owing to the damage due to bombs in Cassino itself, tanks were unable to get through to support the Infantry. The Germans were driven from Castle Hill and the hill held by one Company. Further reinforcements could not be got through to them and by the second day they were surrounded. For at least 3 days this company was completely isolated from its supplies. We watched with great interest supplies being flown in by the R.A:F. In the evening a formation of twenty or more planes would come in gracefully, bank over the town, hover for a moment and drop the canisters containing ammunition and food. These floated gently down on gaily coloured parachutes. Only a small percentage actually fell on the castle. The Germans got a large proportion of them and those that fell on Castle Hill could not be retrieved until night fall. A company has of course got very limited medical supplies and no medical officer. Casualties were accumulating in the Castle. One medical officer volunteered to take a party of stretcher bearers and medical supplies through under the protection of a Red Cross flag. To reach the Castle the party had to pass through the enemy lines. On approaching a house occupied by Germans, they were halted, ordered to stand with their hands in the air against one wall of the building and carefully searched. They all felt that this was to be their end. But apparently the Germans were satisfied, for a German officer came out of the house, shook hands with the medical officer and provided the party with a guide to the foot of Castle Hill. The party got through, and the casualties were treated and evacuated. At one stage during this operation casualties on both sides were mounting up, and a two hour truce was arranged, during which British, Indian and German stretcher bearers worked side by side. Allied wounded being moved into the Castle and Germans to the German positions. The Americans who fought in this part of the line before us had a similar experience, when a company of theirs which was attempting to form a bridgehead across the Rapido River met with devastating fire from the German fixed lines.
Thus our two unsuccessful attacks came to an end. Everything seemed to have conspired against the Division. The weather had been appalling, the country difficult and the Germans tenacious. Two months later a much larger force eventually broke through this almost impenetrable mountain barrier. A British Division attacked across the Rapido River. The Polish mountain Division sealed Monte Castellone and captured the Monastery on Monte Cassino by the same route used by our tanks. And further to the south, American, French and British troops broke through the low-lying part of the line nearer to the sea. This natural defensive line had held up the Allied advance from November 1943 until May 1944 nearly seven months. With the impetus gained by breeching the Gustav Line the Allied Armies very rapidly got the measure of the Adolf Hitler Line only a few miles further on and within 3 weeks they had covered the 76 miles to Rome and captured it. There is little doubt that the landing at Anzio only 30 miles south of Rome was a potentially sound operation. This took place in January. Had the landing been timed to coincide with a frontal assault on the Gustav Line the dreary months of waiting might have been shortened. The Anzio beach head was a dangerous threat to the lines of communication of the German forces manning the Gustav Line. The 4 Indian Division was not privileged to take part in the final and successful assault on Cassino. She was licking her wounds. I have heard though that she has acquitted herself well in the fighting in the Florence area.
There are many things that I have not told you, and there are details I have left out. If there are any questions that I can answer, do please ask.
This website was created by KFD&Associates Consulting Services