A few years ago, some 25 years after my father’s death, I had cause to apply to the Ministry of Defence for a listing of the medals he would have been awarded. My dad, James Richard Middleton, had served in North Africa and Italy during World War II.
From the MoD correspondence, I learned that he served with the 39th LAA Regiment and, once North Africa fell, he landed somewhere on the Adriatic side of the Italian coastline
In June 2009 thirty three Italy Campaign Veterans left for a seven day visit to Rome. The oldest veteran in our group was 91 years old and I was the second youngest at sixty! It had been decided that our trip would coincide with the 65th anniversary of the Liberation of Rome by Allied Troops on 4 June 1944.
The areas we proposed to visited had seen some of the fiercest battles of WWII at Salerno, Anzio and Monte Cassino and the combined hard struggle up to Rome by the Allies, Polish and Commonwealth troops saw thousands of lives lost, severe weather conditions and general deprivation.
We, however, had a very packed week, full of new friendships, much laughter and some extremely emotional moments. We were all invited to attend a reception at the UK ambassador's residence, where we were received by Colonel Charlie Darrell, the defence attaché, who gave us a guided tour of the public rooms and the beautiful gardens of the Villa Wolkonsky
The main reason for our visit to Rome was to attend the 65th Anniversary Service of Remembrance at the impressive Vittorio Emanuele Monument, that dominates Rome's skyline as is sometimes referred to as ‘the wedding cake’ The Mayor of Rome and other dignitaries, members of Partisan groups and public services were in attendance. Wreaths’ were laid and we as we had been invited to attend another service, to remember an SOE agent, Gabor Adler, who had been captured by the Gestapo and held in the infamous Via Fosse Head Quarters until he and thirteen other prisoners were spirited away and shot in cold blood when news came that the Germans were to withdraw from Rome. Gabor Adler had always been referred to as the 14th Man, or ‘the Englishman’ by locals until it came to light about, three years ago, that Mr Adler was in fact an Austrian Jew who had been living peacefully in Italy until the Germans arrived, he managed to travel to Gibraltar where he joined the British Army and later the SOE.
After the formal visits of the day, our guide took us into Rome for a tour. We stopped at St Peter's and the beauty of statues, fine art and the all-encompassing greatness of the Basilica is something I would heartily recommend to anyone.
Day four of our trip took us all via coach to the Benedictine Monastery of Monte Cassino. Nothing prepared me for the first view of this famous place. From the motorway, a small group of hills grew into mountains, some 6,000 feet above sea level. The switchback road leading up to the monastery had been built by monks, to encourage visitors to come and enjoy the calm and peaceful cloisters and to take in the impressive views. Now, it allowed us to pay homage to the thousands of soldiers from at least 18 nationalities that had fought and died here in order to break the German fortification, known as the Gustav Line, opening up the Liri Valley and the road to Rome.
Strolling around this restful place I found it hard to visualise the fierce battle and consequent carnage that took place over a five-month period, starting in January 1944. The winter of 1943/4 had been the most severe of the century, only to be surpassed by that of 1944/5 when it would be later suggested that the conditions were likened to those of the Somme in 1916.
To the west, more than 1,000 Polish soldiers lay at rest in the Polish War Cemetery. The cemetery is laid out in the shape of a cross and at the centre is a very large section of white marble onto which has been carved the Polish Eagle. Behind the cemetery stands a gigantic white obelisk and to one side there is a platform that has been inscribed with the names of Polish soldiers who died during the fourth battle.
The obelisk, which surmounts the platform, bears the following inscription: ‘For our freedom and yours, we soldiers of Poland, Gave, our soul to God, our life to the soil of Italy, our hearts to Poland.’ which sums it all up most movingly.
We took our leave and made our way down the mountainside to the Commonwealth cemeteries. Both of these are lovingly cared for by members of the by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The headstones are laid out neatly in regimental rows and as I wandered among them, I noticed that several bore the inscription: ‘A British Soldier, known only unto God’. It was a humbling experience to think that these young men had died before their time and had missed so much and I was most grateful for their sacrifice.
A wreath was placed in the cemetery on behalf of the Association and as we left, it was mentioned by one of our veterans that he liked to think that as dusk fell, these young men woke from their sleep and gathered together to discuss who had visited them that day. A beautiful thought.
Day six took us to Anzio. The Beach Head Cemetery is another looked after by the CWGC and is beautifully kept. My visit here was very emotional and I don't know why. Our Association’s chairwoman, Patricia White, mentioned that every person she has known who has visited this particular cemetery is always moved to tears on the occasion of their visit. So many graves marked: ‘Known only to God,’ and all dying at such young ages.
A small reception had been arranged for us at the Anzio Museum, and when we entered a group of Italian visitors were watching a film of the landings. When they saw our veterans, splendid in their blazers, berets and medals, they spontaneously stood up and clapped. Many came over, hugged and shook hands with our gentleman.
I felt honoured to be among them, but also sad that my father would never know that I had visited for Italy on his behalf, but I was so very proud of our veterans as they stood and enjoyed their moment.
Having met, spoken and travelled with some of the veterans who took part in the Italy Campaign, a book, recounting the Veterans memoirs is currently being put together. These fine gentlemen are hardly ever recognised for their services to this country and it is hoped that this will be rectified very shortly, so watch this space!
If any Veteran or a family would like to contribute to the book or join us later this year for a trip to the Battlefields of Northern Italy then please email me:
Look forward to hearing from you.