The tale of Monte Cassino

Recently, as a tourist to Washington DC, I sauntered along like many others, rapidly past the WWII and Vietnam War memorials, taking in a superficial view of days gone by and sacrifices long forgotten. Oh, It was not my war, I thought, the Washington DC sun is hot; let me get a move on before the Washington monument line opens up…That was probably a bit callous, I agree.

A fellow blogger (thanks to GVK’s introduction) Abraham Tharakan steered me towards a long forgotten war where many thousands of Indians died fighting a foolish & stupid battle, the ‘Battle of Cassino’. This one took me to the Liri valley, where unfortunately over 5,000 Indians perished in a war that they had nothing much to do with, really.

Which country provided 2.5 million soldiers for a war, soldiers who wanted to be soldiers, many Punjabi’s and Nepali’s, bearing in mind that not a single one of them was a conscript? It was India and the war was WW II. Who remembers the 35,000 or more Indians who laid their lives for that war? Very few, I assume.

I decided to investigate, and nothing more touching than what Lord Wallace of Saltaire stated in the British House of Lords on 17th Nov 2005, can start the story rolling. He said as follows “My wife and I were at the Monte Cassino war cemetery some years ago with a young Asian (Indian?) Couple on their honeymoon who thought that that had nothing to do with them, until we took them to show them the six pillars of names of Indian soldiers who had died in the battle for Monte Cassino…. Years later, at the parade, I saw no Indian veterans marching past the Cenotaph (London). We have forgotten that the largest army in the British Imperial Armies, after Britain, in both world wars came from the Indian subcontinent.

A little background on Cassino - Historians judge Monte Cassino, where the Germans had dug themselves in around a 1,400-year-old Benedictine abbey, as one of the decisive battles (1943-44) of the Second World War. Monte Cassino was the birthplace of the Benedictine order founded in the sixth century. The allies were fighting their way up from southern Italy towards Rome, and the monastery of Monte Cassino stood at the strongest point of a powerful German defensive line. The battle took four months, and by one estimate it left a quarter of a million dead or wounded. Wrongly assuming that the Germans were using the Monte Cassino monastery for military purposes, the Allies dropped tons of bombs on the abbey destroying the fortress. After the destruction, the Germans held the abbey ruins for three months before Allied forces stormed the complex and eliminated the Germans suffering even more heavy losses.

The Indians who fell at Monte Cassino were buried “there itself. There are three cemeteries in the area — a total of 5,000 plus Indians are buried there.” The Indian army website states simply ‘At Cassino, the best that the German Parachute Regiment had were slowly reduced by equally motivated Indian troops of all shades’.

In the bloody six months, after large numbers of Americans were decimated, the Indians were sent up the hill on a frontal attack. The six-month battle for Monte Cassino was Britain's bitterest and bloodiest encounter with the German army on any front in World War Two. In a battle that became increasingly political, symbolic and personal as it progressed, more and more men were asked to throw themselves at the virtually impregnable German defenses. It is a story of incompetence, hubris and politics redeemed at dreadful cost by the heroism of the soldiers.

Comprising four battles, the opening salvo resulted in the allies losing over 2,220 Americans, The second land attacks followed the heavy controversial aerial bombardment resulting in very heavy New Zealand and Indian deaths as they tried to take the hill front on, climbing the slopes under treacherous conditions. The third followed after yet another bombing, but this was the most difficult part where man to man fighting ensued with Germans occupying the rubble. The fourth finally saw victory on 11th May.

Here are some excerpts of the fighting…While these document bravery of a few Indians, the rest of the 5000+ sadly died without a mention in history books. Their living friends and compatriots never recorded their lives or acts, Indians were I guess never taught to consign memories to books & diaries….

As the Gurkhas attempted to worm through the copse, the leading platoon blew up on the mines almost to a man. A hail of bullets and grenades followed. Two-thirds of the leading companies were struck down within five minutes, yet the hillmen continued to bore in, reaching for their enemies. Naik Bir Bahadur Thapa although wounded in a dozen places emerged on the enemy’s side of the copse with a few survivors and established a foothold. It was to no avail; in that deadly undergrowth dozens lay dead, many with four or more tripwires around their legs. Only a handful remained to be recalled to defensive positions at dawn. Stretcher-Bearer Sher Bahadur Thapa traversed this fearful undergrowth no less than sixteen times in order to bring out wounded comrades. (He was killed soon afterwards.)

Rain froze into sleet, sleet turned to snow, snow to blizzards followed by high winds and torrential downpours. “The wind,” wrote an officer, “holds up everything except the men’s tents.” Never has a severer task confronted Indian troops, and never have they borne hardships and dangers with greater fortitude. Baz Mir, a dhobi washerman of camp follower category, from whom combatant services were not expected, volunteered to serve as a stretcher bearer when casualties had depleted the field ambulance detachments. He crossed a minefield under heavy fire, and pushed through to Hangman’s Hill. Next day he volunteered again, and although intercepted by an enemy post, was allowed to proceed. His award of the Indian Distinguished Service Medal was alike a tribute to his bravery and a portent of the new India to come, in which merit will surmount the barriers of caste.

Naik Mohammed Yusef I.O.M., I. D.S.M., a Moslem from Rawalpindi, organized the evacuation of wounded along a track from Castle Hill which was systematically swept by artillery and mortar fire. He was afterwards presented to the King Emperor, who complimented him on his bravery.

Naik Babu Raju, a Hindu from Madras, gained the Military Medal for tending wounded in the open with utmost contempt for danger. These instances of gallant behaviour by Britons and Indians of diverse creeds are illustrative of the spirit of all ranks of the Indian Medical Services

Nila Kantan was brought up in Andra Pradesh, and volunteered for the Indian Army in 1940 at the age of nineteen. He saw service with transport and supply units on a wide range of fronts ‘I was doing a porter’s job - no vehicles could go where we were. On our shoulders we carried all the things up the hill. The gradient was 1:3; almost on all fours we had to go. I was watching from this hill all the bombers going in and unloading their bombs there. still can’t forget the Cassino ruins. There was nothing but rubble. The bodies were still trapped, stinking - I had to cover my nose as I passed through. I saw legs there, blown off the stomach. I have never seen such a number of dead bodies in any battle. I counted more than 800 - then I gave it up. They were just there in the rubble, covered with a blanket. I felt very sorry. I didn’t know where they were born, how they came there, whether they were enemy or our own troops - they were all mingled together. So many New Zealanders, British, Germans, Indians... Seeing that, I felt there should never be a war again. I abhor war. I hate war.

July 10, 1944. 5th Maratha Regiment's Yeshwant Ghadge, all of 22, was caught in a mortal combat in the Upper Tiber Valley of Italy. Except for his commander, his platoon had been wiped out by enemy machine-gunners. With no alternative left, Ghadge rushed the machine gun nest, lobbing grenades, knocking off the gun and the gunner. He charged, shot another enemy. With no time to change his magazine, Ghadge clubbed to death two remaining enemy gunners. Ghadge finally fell to an enemy sniper.

Sepoy Kamal Ram - 8th Punjab Regiment, Indian Army - "B" and "C" Companies crossed the river, and came forward to make good the gains. With Major Wright missing, Subedar Sumera Ram took command of "B" Company and Major Gardhari Singh assumed overall command of the assault. The advance was pinned down by a sleet of fire from front and flanks. Movement meant death, until the shining heroism of young Kamal Ram saved the day. This nineteen-year-old sepoy of Karauli State, in action for the first time, crouched near his Company Commander when the machine-guns swept the Punjabis to the ground. A gun firing from the right flank was particularly vexatious. The officer called for a volunteer to deal with it. Kamal Ram crawled through the wire and leapt upon the gun crew single-handed. He shot the gunner and bayoneted his feeder, swinging about to kill a German officer who sprang at him from a slit trench firing a pistol. With the post silenced he pressed on. Having sniped the gunner of a second nest, he bombed the remainder of the crew into submission. Together with a havildar he attacked a third machine-gun post and dealt with it in a similar fashion. The line was open. The Punjabis moved forward to secure their objective. Later, in a forward reconnaissance, Kamal Ram wiped out a fourth machinegun nest---an unsurpassed day's work which earned this gallant youngster the Victoria Cross

Two of the stealthiest peoples in the world---both expert woodsmen and trackers---roam nightly in No Man's Land, giving the Germans the jitters. They are Gurkhas and North American Indians from the Canadian Rockies. One of the North-American Indians---who looked very like a Gurkha himself except that he was taller---said to me in a broad Canadian accent: 'This is the first time that we have seen the Gurkhas, and boy, are they good? I thought I knew a bit about tracking, but I can't teach those boys anything. I'm mighty proud to be associated with them.'" So near to one another are the German and Indian troops in this sector that they have taken to conversations. The other evening a German called out, 'Hallo, Indians! Why don't you go home?' An enraged V.C.O., who spoke English, shouted back, 'I did not come all the way from El Alamein to go home. It is you who will go!' The Germans went next day, driven back by this Subedar and his men."

Curiously, from most accounts, I got the opinion that Indian soldiers enjoyed working in the British army, they were fed (Indian food including Chappatis & Dal were regularly airdropped) and clothed well and got along well with their peers, though there were racist reports here & there. Mark Tully’s radio interviews with some veterans are testament to that.

The comprehensive Monte casino story – The tiger triumphs

The official 60th anniversary report -

Vikarm Seth’s book ‘Two lives’ covers the story of his grand uncle Shanti Seth who was involved at Cassino.

German propaganda trying to win over India during this period is quite interesting, take a look.

Various pics - courtsey linked sites

On German surrender, by a Brit veteran - The funny thing was, we had a lot of these men come to us because they would deliberately make their way along the line until they came to where they knew they could give themselves up to a British soldier. They all said that they felt that they would get fairer treatment from the British soldier than from anyone else. They certainly didn't want to give themselves up to the Indian Ghurkas or the Moroccan "Goons" or even the Americans or Canadians. They tried to reach us and many did.

Tactically Cassino was absurd, strategically it was senseless, the worst battle of the Second World War.


diyadear said…
oh.. mr maddy,
i too neevr knew there were so many indians involved in WW2. the post was most informative(as all ur posts r always!!)
thanks for sharing..
Maddy, that's a remarkable piece of work - good reading, and reference material for historians.

Far removed from the actual events, one wonders whether Monte Cassino was militarily all that important.

I strongly suggest that you should compile all your articles - posted ones as well as those in the pipeline - and publish as a book. I am sure many would be interested. Do reserve a copy for me.
Maddy said…
Abraham, Diya - Thanks a lot

a quick rejoinder

Monte Cassino was strategically important because of its height (600 mts). Secondly it was the center of the Gustav line – a line that marked the edge of the German defenses that had to be breached. Also in front of the mountain and in the way of the Allied troops was the Rapido river that was very difficult to cross & very visible to those snipers occupying the upper ridges of Cassino. Beyond Cassino, it was relatively smooth sailing into the capital, Rome (which would assure allies a great morale boosting victory in Italy). But bombing of the Benedictine monastery itself was pointless and based on wrong information that Germans were present and occupying it.
harimohan said…
great post
very informative
iam a second world war fad or so i call myself but the facts i found in this post made me wonder what i knew
Pradeep said…
Good piece, as always. I am sure, my father will enjoy reading this. Wish he was a bit tech savvy, at least to read a few web pages! I will give a printout to him.

By the way, I have tagged you. I hope you don't mind. Kindly pick it up, if it's okay with you. Please click here.
indianadoc said…
Dear Maddy, everytime I read your posts I am amazed by your details...i can find a lot of research work here...hmm...engineers are better historians??.....and I envy that you still take time out of your busy schedules to update your blog so regularly.... unlike me...I'm sure going to be stoned left n right by all the fellow bloggers for not posting...the to be on the safer side...I removed all the snaps!!
Naveen said…
thanx for this wonderful post ... the british indian army did play a role in WWII... being a soldier myself your post generated a strange emotion in me ..... "wish i could have been soldiering in that era" .... the "character" of our armed forces is steadily getting diluted for a variety of reasons .... perhaps we need to see a war again ..
Maddy said…
Pradeep - Most definitely I will pick it up & respond..
Indiandoc - longtime no hear - glad that all is well in britland..thanks a lot, as you know, you are the gold standard for malabar chicken biryani!!!
navin - very nice of you to drop by..are you by any chance ex SSKZM?
Naveen said…
no, i'm not an ex-sskzm ...but an ex-nda hailing from ekm ..
Maddy said…
thanks naveen...i have many classmates who are now in the armed forces...
Maddy said…
Guys - Glad to inform you that the Italian government has decided to honor the Indian soldiers - Check this out
Dear Maddy, This is brilliant writing. The saga of Monte Cassino should always be there on the minds of anybody with some interest in Indian Military history. As someone who collects british war medals, terms like IDSM, MM, VC and their citations are always a passion within. You mentioned a few soldiers from South India too about whom I had not heard earlier. One again , thanks for this most informative article.
Dear Maddy, This is brilliant writing. The saga of Monte Cassino should always be there on the minds of anybody with some interest in Indian Military history. As someone who collects british war medals, terms like IDSM, MM, VC and their citations are always a passion within. You mentioned a few soldiers from South India too about whom I had not heard earlier. One again , thanks for this most informative article.
Anonymous said…
Hi Maddy,
I was very interested to read your account of the Indian troops at Cassino. My father was in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Italy campaign and was a participating witness to the battle. He was always full of admiration for these resolute and formidable soldiers and saw at first hand the terrible cost of their bravery.
I, for one, will always remember their sacrifice and those of the rest of the 'commonwealth of heroes' who fought there.
Maddy said…
Thanks Frank..

It is nice to hear from sources close to the action..For they are the only ones who see & mentally record these tales of valor..
phantom363 said…
my mother who grew up on badagara north malabar, used to tell me about the war years, the scarcity of rice and introduction of makka cholam (from the usa) to their diet.
she used to mention the sudden disappearance of young men, in the neighbourhood. on enquiry, it was found that these had joined the pattaaLam.
for the rural youth, the 2nd world war was a way out - out of poverty, boredom, unemployment, and above all offered excitement of their lives through travel to far off lands and possible bravery.
many did not come back and with poor communications of those days, the families never where their youngsters fought or died. many came back shell shocked - according to my mom, these used to band together in groups, still in their uniforms and muttering nonsenses - sad effluents of a war that indians seldom understood the cause, but joined with a passion not found in many parts of the 'white' empire like french canada or south africa.
Maddy said…
thanks phantom363..
I can grandpa was one of them, fortunately he was ok, in fact he settled down, worked hard and cleared up a lot of monetary issues the family had then..
Prateek Sharma said…
" I got the opinion that Indian soldiers enjoyed working in the British army, they were fed (Indian food including Chappatis & Dal were regularly airdropped) and clothed well and got along well with their peers "

Please check about the Royal Indian Naval Mutiny of 1946.
Maddy said…
Thanks Prateek - I guess you took out the perspective by taking a part of the sentence. Anyway I think the naval revolt which took place later (at a time when the British were feeling threatened in India and being asked to quit) was laregely fuelled by patriotic fervor though there are a few mentions of beef curry and sukka chappati being served compared to better british rations.