“I’m not bitter about the D-Day celebrations at all,” said Ivor Gaskill. “I just wish they’d give us the same recognition because if hadn’t been for us there probably wouldn’t have been a D-Day, at least not on 6 June.”
Ivor, now 95 years-old, was speaking five years ago on the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings soon after he returned from Italy where he was one of ten veterans at the commemoration of the anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino. Despite being one of the most gruelling campaigns of the Second World War, lasting five months and resulting in 54,000 Allied casualties, the battle has largely been eclipsed by the D-Day landings which happened a fortnight after the Italian breakthrough.
I first met Ivor in Umbria where he was making his annual pilgrimage from his home in Kent to the medieval village of Vaiano, the site of a three-day battle which cost the lives of 61 members of his regiment, the Royal Hampshires, including that of his best friend, 19-year-old Leslie Edwards.
“He died right beside me,” recalls Ivor. “We were on stretcher duty that evening and were sent to retrieve some poor fellow who’d been shot by a sniper.” They crawled out through a corn field, found the wounded man and put him on the stretcher. As they were dragging the stretcher back towards to their trench, they came under sniper and mortar fire.
“There was an almighty explosion and a mortar must’ve landed right on the guy on the stretcher ‘cos there was nothing left of him,” says Ivor. “I had shrapnel in my legs, arms and head. I looked round and saw that Leslie didn’t have a scratch on him. He looked as if he was sleeping. But he was dead."
Ivor lay next to his fallen friend all night passing in and out of consciousness. “It was the longest night of my life,” he says. “I was so close to the German line that I could hear their mess tins rattling.”
When he came to, he found a soldier standing above him with a pistol aimed at his head. “I realised he was a Canadian but because I had very blonde hair and my uniform had been blown-off he must’ve thought I was a Gerry. ‘I’m English!’ I cried and he lowered his gun.”
Ivor and Leslie had met as recruits aged 17 in 1942 and been stationed together in Bolney, Sussex. “One day in March 1944, we were suddenly given 48 hours leave and we all knew that we’d be on the move,” says Ivor. “I went back to Southampton to say goodbye to my old mum and then the whole regiment took the train to Liverpool, boarded a troop ship and set sail as part of a large convoy.” They came under frequent attack from U-boats and the Luftwaffe and, in the 16 days it took them to reach Naples, 13 of the 52 ships in the convoy had been sunk.
Ivor and Leslie were sent straight to the front line where they found trenches there were so shallow, that they had to construct their own ‘sangers’ – raised dug-outs built of rocks. The town of Cassino was a key component of the German’s Gustav Line with heavily fortified mountain defenses overlooked by a monastery perched on the top of a mountain. “It wasn’t so bad to start with,” says Ivor, describing his first experience of combat. “But then you see your comrades killed around you and you realise how close the shells are landing, your nerves starts to go”.
After two weeks of fighting, the troops were brought out of the line for a five-day rest. “We would just lie there in this field the whole time. We were so exhausted,” says Ivor. “We didn’t get much sleep mind ‘cos the field was also being used by the Royal Artillery.”
The Allies finally broke through the German line at Cassino and advanced quickly whilst the Germans beat a fighting retreat, laying mines and booby traps. The Allies made steady progress until they hit the German’s Trasimene Line, a fortified series of defences of which the village of Viano was a part.
The Allied soldiers in Italy were some of the first troops since Dunkirk to see active combat in Europe and fought a fierce campaign which lasted more than a year-and-a-half, resulted in over 320,000 casualties and produced 20 Victoria Crosses. And yet they are not well remembered and were not feted at the time.
Indeed, a British Member of Parliament, Lady Astor, referred to the troops fighting in Italy as “D-Day Dodgers.” Some say Astor used the phrase after mistakenly believing it to be a nickname with positive connotations, but Ivor Gaskill is convinced she held a grudge against troops fighting there.
Ironically, the term was eventually adopted by the troops and it gave rise to a jaunty song - 'The Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers’ – sang to the tune of Lily Marlene, which became popular at the time.
“Memories of that time in Italy still give me the shivers,” admits Ivor. “Sometimes I can’t keep them out of my mind. I look at the students wandering around Canterbury - kids the same age as Leslie was when he was killed - and I think to myself how lucky they are never having to have experienced the horror of war.”
Stefan Simanowitz is a writer, journalist and human rights campaigner.
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