The Experience

One of the most sustained, difficult, and costly offensives of the Anglo-American armies in Europe unfolded from September 1943 to June 1944 in the least likely of regions: the steep mountains, deep valleys, narrow coastal littoral of Italy's Apennines south of Rome, made virtually impassable by the rains and snows of winter.

Montgomery, to be knighted as the victor of Alamein, was then, in the fall of 1943, the most celebrated of the Allied field commanders. His equally famed Afrika Korps rival, Field Marshal Rommel, had been transferred to the defense of the "West Wall" in France, to be replaced by Marshal Kesselring, former Luftwaffe Chief of Staff with field command on the Russian front. He was appointed German Commanding Officer, South, in the summer of 1943. A master of detail, he proved to be a skilled tactician exploiting to the fullest the Italian terrain. Montgomery himself would leave for Second Front preparations in the next year.

Eighth Army in Italy was built around famed 10th Corps and its "desert rat" armored divisions. With two additional Corps, 13th and 5th, and troops from the Commonwealth and other nations, it was a representative United Nations force. The Canadian 1st division became heavily and heroically engaged. Punjabis, Sikhs, Gurkhas of the newly arrived 8th Indian division supplemented those of the storied Indian 4th. From the UK came a new division, the 78th; also the colorful Irish and Scotch brigades. In addition to the New Zealand division, already famed for its service in Africa, there were fighting men from Poland, Morocco, Senegal; and all of these made the difference in the eventual breakthrough for Rome at Cassino, May 18, 1944.

We AFS drivers with Eighth Army in Italy, posted to these various nationalities, found in Italy "old friends" from the African campaigns, and continued our impromptu "studies" in inter-cultural relations.

Charles P. Edwards. Part 6. An AFS Driver Remembers.. [draft] New York: AFS, 2002.

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IF THE planning and conduct of the campaign in Sicily were bad, the preparations for the invasion of Italy, and the subsequent conduct of the campaign in that country, were worse still.

It will be remembered that the next task after clearing the Axis Powers from Africa was to knock Italy out of the war. As a first step we were to capture Sicily but there was no plan for operations beyond. There should have been a master plan which embraced the capture of Sicily and the use of that island as a spring-board for getting quickly across to Italy, and exploiting success.

We proposed to invade the mainland of Europe without any clear idea how operations were to be developed once we got there. The decision precisely where we were to land in Italy was not firm till the 17th August, the day on which the campaign in Sicily ended. So far as the Eighth Army was concerned I was to launch it across the Straits of Messina on the 30th August, but was given no "object." On the 19th August I insisted that I must be told what I was to do in Italy. My object was given me on the 20th August, ten days before we were to land in Italy.

The Memoirs of Field-Marshal Montgomery. Chapter 12. New York: Signet. 1959 (1958).


George Rock. History of the American Field Service, 1920-1955. New York 1956

ITALY 1: Termoli, Volturno-Monte Camino, Trigno-Sangro-Ortona. (October 1943 to January 1944)

"As General Montgomery passed an ambulance on a road at the front today, he stuck his head out of the window of his staff car and, in his typically uninhibited manner, shouted 'The American Field Service! Hooray!'"

ITALY 2: Garigliano, Anzio, Winter on the Adriatic (January to April 1944)

"The Gustav Line, although turned at its eastern end, held for the rest of its length. Stretching from Ortona on the Adriatic to Minturno on the Tyrrhenian Sea, it was most favorable to the enemy. Its hills and mountains offered a series of natural obstacles across the width of Italy. There was no easy way to break this line. It could be out-flanked only by sea, and on land there was only one road along which an army could hope to advance north to Rome. This was the valley of the Liri River, a tributary of the Garigliano. The entrance to. this valley is guarded by Monte Cassino---a rocky spur jutting abruptly from the eastern mountains."

ITALY 3: Cassino to Rome (February to June 1944)

"Work with the Italians was something new. It was not particularly arduous and offered striking differences to anything before encountered. Evacuations were highly dramatic affairs, sometimes involving an entire family, all expressing the deepest emotion. Things shook down, of course. The early morning eye-opener in the shape of a glass of brandy was not repeated, and ways were discovered to deal with the language problem, even to using German in a pinch. As consolation for any and all inconveniences, the Italian cooks were said to perform miracles with the staid British rations."

ITALY 4: North to Florence (June to August 1944)

"From then on it was up to us. And the fellows who drove those 30 cars did a wonderful job. They won us honorary membership in the Division and the right to wear the famous Divisional insignia---on our shoulders and on our ambulances. This singular distinction for the AFS, was presented to me, as OC of the Platoon, at a victory party celebrating the fall of Perugia. The rooms of Perugia's best hotel were crowded with the men who had led the battle this far. Champagne flowed. Suddenly I became aware of high officialdom looming above me, chiefly by the way the conversation I was having came to a dead stop. I was wearing the Div flash at the time (not without some misgivings), and here was the General himself---a huge man decorated with the ribbons of many campaigns and highest gallantry in action. Before I could find my voice, which had mysteriously disappeared, the General smiled down at the flash and said: 'Bloody fine show! Tell all your lads to put it up. They deserve it! Then, as he turned, he added: 'Oh, yes, if you ever have any trouble staying with the Div . . . just come to me and I'll arrange it. We'd like to have you with us as long as possible!"

ITALY 5: The Gothic Line (August 1944 to March 1945)

"One thing pleases us very much: the Tommies invariably say that the Yanks give them the smoothest rides of all the ambulances they ride in. A smooth ride---or as smooth as humanly possible---is one of the first notions you get in the AFS and it haunts you all the time. You go slower over a road the longer you use it. You study the ruts, you know them all, you are afraid you are going to jolt the hell out of the lads. It helps to have a change of scenery, a new road or track over which you have not become fanatically self-conscious. If you used the same track for more than a month, you would probably be afraid to use it. ."

VICTORY 1: Italy (March to July 1945)

"The withdrawal of 567 Company in mid-March had left 485 Company with the opportunity for a great deal of forward work. Company HQ moved up to Faenza, where A and B Platoons already were established. A was then working with 2 Polish Corps (except for C. S. Satterthwait, who was detached to AMG in Faenza) and B with 10 Corps. C Platoon, with headquarters in Prada, was assigned to 5 Corps. While D, working with Italian troops in 13 Corps, kept its HQ in Castel del Rio"

Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy. J.B. McKinney. Wellington, NZ: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs. 1952.

"The first convoy of wounded came in. They were carried in the Dodges of the American Field Service drivers, who had come over dreadful roads through torrential rain. They were mostly Indians from the sector in the hills on our left. They had had terrible casualties, and a fair, good-looking English major with both feet mangled by a Schu mine told me he was carried from the field by the last remaining four sepoys of his company. We all worked on these stoical Indians, who were so silent and yet so grateful for any attention. After they had gone we rested a little. As usual in the Eighth Army, it was an international affair. The Indian doctor stood by the fire talking to "Butch", who was an unmistakable Kiwi. A tall, smooth-faced Texan was helping to reset our table, and chatting to an English orderly. To complete the picture, a Pole, wounded slightly in his seat, was noisily gesticulating as he was carried in, and ineffectually telling people in Italian that he was a Pole and not a German. . . .

"Each American ambulance carried four stretcher cases and perhaps a couple of sitters. They were often with us, these Yanks, and were old friends of the desert. The first two cases we unloaded from the next convoy were both traumatic amputations of feet. An infantryman, while moving up, had stepped on a Schu mine and blown a foot off. Unhesitatingly, a Yank driver had gone to his assistance. He also lost a foot on a Schu mine. Stretcher-bearers had got them both out of the minefield and they had travelled down together. Both were shocked and wan. The Boss transfused them both, and as they looked at each other across the table, the Yank said, " Blood brothers, huh? " They went on together to Forli....

"Now rows of Indians and New Zealanders on stretchers lay side by side in the hall, and the sitting wounded had spread into every room. They were methodically examined. Field cards were attached to the clothing of each man, with entries on them telling of wounds and treatments, morphine given and tourniquets applied. Bill and Butch were lighting cigarettes for some; giving hot cocoa, steaming from the cookhouse, to others."

Fred Majdalany. The Battle of Cassino. New York: Ballentine. 1957.

In time the identity of Cassino is established by a consideration of the Italian campaign as a whole. Because of the nature of the country this was a campaign in which the initiative was always held by the defending army. It was the defender who dictated where it would be fought. Cassino was where the Germans chose to make their main defensive effort. Retrospectively, therefore, the campaign is seen to fall into three parts. Everything that happened before Cassino was a prelude to it: Cassino was the climax: everything that happened afterwards was anticlimax. For the battle of Cassino became the battle for Rome. Two days after the fall of Rome the Allies invaded Normandy and the Italian campaign became of secondary importance. Cassino was a climactic trial of strength fought to a finish at a time when Germany did not consider the war yet lost.

A Mother's Scrapbook: John Newlin Hobbs and the American Field Service, 1942-1945.

With the Eighth Army, Somewhere in Italy, Nov. 1 (Delayed).---American Field Service volunteer ambulance men and stretcher bearers are right up here behind the advanced lines of the Eighth Army bringing back British and German wounded to the casualty clearing stations.

They are under the command of the youngest A. F. S. leader, 22-year-old Major Arthur Howe Jr., 20 Ridgeway avenue, West Orange, N. J. He is regarded as one of the perfect liaison officers with the British, for though he was graduated from Yale, he went to Rugby School in England,

Major Howe has been with the A. F. S. from its early days with the Eighth Army. He has been platoon officer, company adjutant and was finally known as "Officer Commanding, the Desert Company," in the days when A. F. S. was following Gen. Montgomery's Army across North Africa.

AFS Letters, 1943-1944. Published at AFS HQ, 60 Beaver Street, New York.

No. 18: October 1943.

It is great news that AFS has rejoined Montgomery's Eighth Army in Italy and is once again serving on the European continent. Great news, because the volunteers are going ahead in their chosen work; and great news because it means the renewal of the fraternity between the American volunteers and the Tommy soldiers. The road home is a long one and rough. The Field Service men are on it, but they have stepped onto the far edge.

No. 19: November 1943:

My cars are spread over 150 miles which makes keeping track of them almost impossible, In the past 5 days I've done over 600 miles in a truck that won't go over 30 miles an hour. I suppose the country we are in is not scenically exceptional but to our desert warped standards it is a fairyland. Much of it is hilly ---up to 3000 ft. in height ---,and the towns built in feudal times with an eye to security are all on the tops of the steepest, most jagged hills to be found in the region; and evidently the builder of the roads was determined that the tourist miss none of the sights for they wind their way up every hill and thru every town. As you leave one town you can see across a valley another town on a neighboring hill perhaps three miles away; after 6 miles and half an hour of serpentining you find yourself there. Each town perched on top of its peak is white and gleaming and looks like an illustration in East of the Moon.

No. 20: December 1943:

A little human interest? A German Sergeant-Major (a Sergeant-Major is an "old Army man") died the other night while being taken care of as best we could here. Any man gets the best and same treatment, of course. He had been shot apart completely in the middle. A good soldier he was. In a friendly but grim table atmosphere, (operating table) a fellow said, 'Why are you fighting, and for what, old man?' In blunt English the reply was this: "Hitler says fight, and I fight. Churchill says fight, you fight. War is war! --- You treat me well, better than I was told I'd be." When told he'd die, he said "Thanks anyway --- I know --- but---.!"