RETURN TO ITALY
CASSINO TO FAENZA 1944 - 2003
John Dray served with the 5th Bn Northamptonshire Regiment (78th Division) and 2/7th Queens (56th Division) in Italy from 1943-44. He had joined up under age in 1943, but as he had volunteered he was allowed to choose his unit. Although he was from Devon, John selected the Northamptonshires as his father had fought with the regiment in the First World War. Following training, he was posted to the 5th Battalion, part of 11th Brigade, 78th (Battle Axe) Division following the Sangro River Battle in the autumn of 1943. In December that year John celebrated his seventeenth birthday on active service.
The battalion was transferred to the Cassino front in May 1944, and John's company took over positions on Snakeshead Ridge. They reached this via the 'Jeep Head' a position north of Cassino town on the reverse slope of the high ground in front of the Abbey, which was as far as a vehicle could go. From here it was on foot or by mule. Once on the Ridge they occupied 'Sangars'; small stone structures, which served as foxholes for the men in the line here. Movement was restricted, but occasionally there was some patrol work. There were also regular mortar bombardments - 'stonks' - but thankfully John's battalion wasn't one of those thrown into an attack on the Abbey itself.
After Cassino, John took part in the advance up the Liri Valley, where he and his battalion crossed the Rapido. In this action John served as a company sniper. As they pushed up the valley, they witnessed the Poles take Monte Cassino; John could remember seeing a flag go up on the ruins, which they all thought was a Red Cross flag, but which was in fact a Polish one. Eventually they reached the Acquino aerodrome, a circular airstrip with several wrecks of Italian aircraft scattered around. While picking some grapes on the edge of the aerodrome, John was wounded by a shot from a German sniper.
John soon returned to the battalion. Meanwhile Rome had fallen, and the battalion moved to Monte Gabbione, where John took part in the fighting there.
A rest in Egypt followed, and when the 78th Division returned to Italy in September 1944, some men were sent as replacements to fill the ranks of battalions which had suffered heavily in the fighting for the Coriano Ridge. John therefore found himself posted from the 5th Northants to the 2/7th Queens, of the 56th (Black Cat) Division.
John fought his last battle in Italy with 2/7th Queens on 7th December 1944, in the advance on Faenza. Advancing through the orchard of a small farm, a trip-wire was sprung and one soldier killed, and several wounded by mines strapped to the trees. John was hit in the ankle, and dragged into the nearby farm buildings. After being patched up, he was evacuated by jeep down a road to the nearby Aid Station. The stretcher was on the bonnet of the jeep, and John could remember looking down into the ditch by the road, seeing German soldiers sheltering there!
From here John was passed down the evacuation chain to a large
base hospital, where his serious wound threaten his life on more than one
occasion. He was finally discharged in 1946. A regular visitor to the WW1 and
WW2 battlefields all over Europe, where he often worked as a battlefield guide,
John has been back to Italy several times. He hopes to return with us again for
the 60th anniversary next year.
|John at Cassino War Cemetery. Here we found the grave of his former Company Commander, Major R.Cooke MC, who had been killed going up the Liri Valley. John could recall Major Cooke had been buried by the road with the others who fell near him, but the graves were moved here after the war.|
|Although he only ever saw it from a distance in 1944, we took John up to the Monte Cassino Abbey, where he was able to enjoy the view the Germans had of his battalion's positions on Snakeshead Ridge in May 1944. Here John is pointing to the ridge. The white farm buildings of his former company HQ are just visible.|
|We then took a walk up to Snakeshead Ridge, the first time John had done this properly since the war. On the way up we found numerous artifacts from the battle, and here John is examining a German 7.92mm cartridge case found near Hill 594.|
|As we came onto Snakeshead Ridge, we found the farm buildings that were once the company headquarters of John's unit. These were the original buildings, and John could pinpoint where some of his sangars had been.|
|The Italian family which owned the farm buildings came out to greet us, and kindly gave us all a drink. Using the Italian he had picked up as a soldier in WW2, John was able to explain that he had fought there sixty years before. The family then let us explore the grounds of their farm, in search of where John had been.|
|It was during this walk around we found the old stone well, where John and his comrades of the 5th Northants drew water at night. Little had changed since 1944.|
|After being up on Snakeshead Ridge, we also went in search of the 'Jeep Head', the place where the march up to the ridge began. Using some wartime maps we were able to do this, and here John is pictured standing close to where the Jeep Head was in 1944, close to the track that took them up to Snakeshead Ridge.|
|A few days later we went down to the Liri Valley, and visited the ground where John crossed the Rapido River. From here they pushed on to a small ridge beyond; John is pictured looking over the ground where he served as a sniper in May 1944.|
|When he first joined the 5th Northants, John crossed the Sangro River in late 1943, not long after he had been taken. He remembered the main bridge across had been destroyed, but had been repaired so that infantry could cross. Here John is standing on the modern road bridge across the Sangro.|
|When we visited the Coriano Ridge War Cemetery, we met Aldo Balacca (pictured left), a CWGC gardner, and a veteran of WW2 who had fought in the desert with the Italian Army, until taken prisoner. He and John chatted about their service in WW2, and Aldo kindly invited us into his house for a drink.|
|The final part of out trip was to visit the battlefield around Faenza, where John's war had come to end in December 1944. John had taken part in an attack on 7th December following the Tringo River towards the town of Faenza. In the Faenza War Cemetery, we found the grave of one of John's comrades who had been killed the day he was wounded.|
|In the 1960s John had retraced his steps around Faenza, and found the farmhouse and vineyard where he had been hit. He wondered whether it would still be there - and his excellent directions quickly took us to the site, and showed that indeed it was - and that the same family still had it.|
|When we indicated why we were here, the family wrote a date on a piec of paper - the date John was wounded! They took us out into the vineyard, and here John was able to show us the exact spot where he was wounded, when a trip-wire exploded a mine strapped to one of the trees. One of the balls from the mine hit John in the ankle. Pictured left is myself talking to John, and the farm owner, who was a young boy in December 1944.|
|From the orchard he was dragged into the nearby farmhouse, and into one of the rooms for treatment. There were mortar rounds exploding outside, so it was a safe place to be. Here John points to the doors where he was taken inside - nothing had changed since 1944!|
|John pictured with the Italian farmer, who as a boy in December 1944, had helped to evacuate the wounded of 2/7th Queens from the vineyard. John is holding a photo of himself, taken not long after he had joined the Queens.|
|A jeep arrived and John was placed on a stretcher on the front of the vehicle. The jeep sped off to the Regimental Aid Post, located in a nearby church. As the jeep went down the road, both sides stopped firing and John remembered seeing Germans sitting in the ditch by the side of the road! He is pictured here at the church (now a house) where the RAP was located. John's war was now over, but he wouldn't get back to England until 1945.|
Images and text ŠPaul Reed 2003