Italian job 5 – Monte Cssino

I sat with Mr Hawthorn on a bench.  To say I was confused is putting it mildly.  I had been asked to come and see an old man who had left home without reason with a view to getting him to go back.  I had not bargained for a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

The two redeeming features of the day were that my vase head hurt less and the the sun had come out and it was actually a very pleasant day.

I decided to adopt a no nonsense approach.

“I am here to try to resolve a number of issues, so Why don’t you tell me what you know and let me see what I can do?” I said very bluntly.

“I am not sure you can do anything” He said with an air of resignation, “It’s all gone to far down the line”

“Well as it is my job to sort this out why don’t we wait and see on what can and cannot be done shall we”

He started to speak and I have tried to tell the story as he said it.

“You know its funny how life goes.  Here we are in peace and tranquillity, but at the time of the battle this was the scene of some of the most terrible blood-letting man kind has ever seen. Looking at it now I cant believe let alone start to describe the raging of man-made forces that ravaged the towns, valleys and the mountain slopes. So many many men came here just to kill each other.   Every day they carried away the dead, wherever and whenever possible, and buried them in temporary graves nearby. You could not go anywhere without tasting, hearing, and smelling the hot fetid breath of bursting shells and mortars.  The bloated remains of long dead men and mules. The suffocating stink of their rotting flesh permeated everything. But you know despite all that,  a man’s mind could still remain rational and his nerves intact despite the extreme physical conditions and the daily confrontations with violent death and for me that underlined the miracle of the human spirit”
He looked up at the Abbey.

“Of course that is not the original Abbey, the one that burnt itself on the minds of the suffering troops whose misfortune it was to find themselves within the shadows of its menacing hulk. The original was destroyed in the pinpoint bombing administered by American B-17 Flying Fortresses, Mitchells and Marauders on the 15th of February, 1944. It was destroyed on my intelligence reports alone.  They were made up because that is what General Clark wanted and then Freyberg the , its what .  My orders were to make sure my reports got through and were listened to and the British reports were silenced or discredited.  Clark and the high commands wanted the Monastery destroyed.”

His voice dropped to a barely audible whisper

“What was not generally known except to a few of us was the fact that the Abbey was not occupied by the Germans. There’d been only a dozen monks and close to 1000 civilians inside its walls. The Italian peasants and inhabitants of the town who could not leave had sought refuge from the fighting going on around their homes. Not a single German soldier had been inside the Abbey. When the last bomb had fallen and the last numbing blast’s echo had faded away into the hills and valleys, over 300 people lay dead beneath the huge mounds of rubble. The wounded exceeded three times that of the dead.”

In fact a few Germans  had entered the Monastery just before the bombing.  They had gone in to arrange for the transfer to Rome for safekeeping all art works, books, and religious documents and they had moved some very sick people and nuns and  a new born baby to safety.  The man who did this was apparently Lutheran corporal”

He gave a hollow mirthless laugh.  “It was only after the Monastery had been reduced to rubble that the Germans took over the ruins and utilized it in their defence system. It was one of the greatest  Allied high-level blunders ever because it gave the enemy an outstanding strong fortress position. Once the building was destroyed the enemy had no qualms about using the ruins for defensive purposes. What made matters worse was the fact that the ruins were taken over by elite German paratroopers from the First Division.  These were not ordinary soldiers by a long shot. They used their battle skills to the very hilt, turning every rock pile into a miniature fortress.  On top of this they deeply believed that to die for their Fuhrer was the greatest honour they could achieve. In the months that followed, the Allies were bled white trying to dislodge the Germans from the ruins and the surrounding heights, with little to show for their efforts.”

He was silent for what seemed an age.  I had a shed load of questions but I don’t think he would have heard me.  He was back at the the battle.

He stood up and started walking.

We passed a woman, a touch of grey in her hair kneeling beside a grave stone. A widow, a sweet-heart, a sister? I didn’t know which. Her  hand rested on top the stone where she had placed a rose. Her head was bent in prayer. She knelt there for a few minutes, and then, as she braced herself to stand I saw teardrops kiss the flowers on his grave.   Gone but not forgotten

I went with him back to Gretagos grave.

“I came here to try to makes things right. I tried to say a prayer, to say something appropriate, but no words came to mind.  It brings to mind that awful moment when Hawthorn died and how close I came to being killed along with him. Only a few seconds and a scant few feet, the difference between life and death. Words are irrelevant at that moment.”

I was confused again.  “Cratego, Hawthorn which is it”

“I am afraid This is where it gets complicated” he said.

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