Diary of Writing Italy’s Sorrow

Cassino, May 18, 2004
Got up early and headed straight to Cassino.  I’ve seen many photographs of the town and the monastery looming above it, but I stunned by seeing it all for real for the first time.  It looks a ridiculous place to try and fight a battle.  Monastery Hill is an unbelievably formidable natural obstacle, but even that pales substantially when compared to the massive Monte Cairo behind the string of mountains beyond that.

Met up with Wolf von Kumberg at La Pace Hotel without any problem.  Wolf then introduced me to his father, who looked younger than his years.  He spoke with a soft, gentle voice.  Wolf is here with a number of family members and all of us soon headed up Monastery Hill for the Polish Service of Remembrance.  The service was very grand but afterwards former combatants of all sides stood around chatting.  I was introduced to Rudi Valentin, like Hans a former German paratrooper.  He seemed very good humoured and genial and happy to talk about his experiences.  Hans and Rudi began talking to Bill Hawkins, formerly of the Essex Regiment, part of the 4th Indian Division.  Bill had fought through much of North Africa as well as Italy.  It turned out that Rudi and Bill had probably directly fought one another at Cassino, but here they were now posing for photographs arm in arm.

With the service over, we met up with some local Italians, Dr Alessandro Campagna, and Roberto Molle, a lawyer.  Both are very involved with the museum to the battle in the town and also the Associazione Battaglia Di Cassino, and were happy to take Hans and Rudi – and hangers-on – to see various remains of the Caesar Line.  We set off in a convoy, with Hans joining me in my car so we could chat.  ‘What was the point of it all?’ he muttered at one point.  I got the impression Hans had been as moved as all of us by camaraderie between the former enemies.

Alessandro and Roberto took us to see old bunkers and gun positions down in the Liri Valley, which was fascinating.  After retreating from Monte Cassino, Hans and Rudi had made a stand here along the Caesar Line.  Hans could clearly remember fighting off a Canadian attack.   From my point of view, it makes a big difference interviewing people at old battles sites because it sharpens their memories enormously.   Later Roberto took us to his house where he has a shed full of battle relics that he has picked up over the years: machine guns, rifles, jerry cans, mess tins, buckles, shell casings etc etc.  Then we were off again, this time up to Monte Cairo.  We kept seeing re-enactors and nearly all wore German parachute uniforms.  I do think dressing up in war kit is fine if you’re a young boy, but quite odd in grown men.  And why does everyone always want to dress up as Germans?  Hans was as bemused by this as me.  I felt a terrible tag-along all day, but it really was very interesting and I managed to stick my voice recorder under the noses of Hans and Rudi and get really good interviews.  Neither could have been more helpful; and although this was clearly an important family occasion for Wolf, he was once again charm itself.

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