Avery special week in Italy
In May 2018 a small pilgrimage party of 17 Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and Royal Sussex veterans spent a very instructive week led by Diana Home exploring the areas close to where former battalions of their regiments fought in 1944 attempting to break through the German held line, tying up a substantial German army before finally breaking through to win Rome for the allies. This was probably the last of many such trips made exclusively either by veterans who actually fought there or those who served in more recent years. In future they will involve many more actual serving soldiers in order to keep this vital period of the 2nd World War alive in more of our memories.
Past experience had shown that taking time to set the scene greatly enriched the actual visits themselves to the many places, today long since restored and developed for homes, fresh farms, factories, hotels and even universities, where the actual landings, battles and final victories were won in those months between autumn 1943 and May 1944.
Flying in to Rome on a lovely summer’s afternoon, the city that American General Mark Clark was determined to be the first to reach from among the armies of the allies, we drove by coach to our usual delightful 4 star sea side hotel, Laplaya at Sperlonga. Here we received the warmest of champagne welcomes from the friendly and caring staff of this privately owned hotel who have looked after us so well over many years. Sperlonga has a long and delightful beach and a charming old town built on the steep hillside that divides the promontory. It is small and ancient, including as it does the beautiful cave which Tiberius Caesar used as his week end residence! Filled with small shops, restaurants and coffee bars it makes a perfect place to settle down in on Sunday before the trips to places of military interest begin in earnest.
Monday took us northwards to the remarkable pair of museums at Piana delle Orme which in vast hall after hall display with brilliant and graphic clarity the story of the area from a topographical perspective on the one hand and the military one on the other. A perfect background to scene set for a trip of this kind. Mussolini in his early well planned years of power after the 1st world war did a huge amount to improve the appalling state of the Pontine marshes, riddled as they were with mosquitoes and farming poverty. How he did this is shown with models of farming community members, their buildings, the actual farm equipment, better drainage and well planned villages. This is backed by clear audio commentaries, many highly typical personalities, printed explanations, and contemporary music and appropriate musical background.
The complimentary series of museum halls about the story of the development of fascism in Italy, the fighting in Africa and the full story of the Sicilian and Italian campaigns are extraordinary in their reality. Packed with realistic scene setting including actual tanks, vehicles, aeroplanes, ships, landing craft and buildings they use contemporary reports, pictures, film, audio broadcasts to enlighten the visitor with all the minutiae of the actual day to day fighting that packed these anxious weeks and months.
Well prepared with visual and audible imagery we set off next morning for the ANZIO BEACHEAD with Gos Home reading to us on the coach from Wynford Vaughan Thomas’s brilliantly vivid history of it all. He had landed as the BBC’s correspondent and participated fully in the battles that followed. His ability to judge the characters and qualities of the commanding British and American senior commanders was outstanding . He also penetrated the truth behind the difficulties in decision making of the partnership with Churchill envisioning what should be done while finance, inherent attitudes and personal vanities got in the way. In particular he recognised why the American General Lucas was so timid in not seizing on the opportunity to advance after the surprise of an undefended landing. Our first port of call was the rarely visited Beach Head Museum, small and yet packed with
historical artefacts. Imagine our surprise when on warmly welcoming us the Curator wound down a film screen, got us seated and then showed us the film made by, of all people, Wynford Vaughan Thomas on his post war return to Anzio!
A visit to the British Cemetery and our customary Remembrance Ceremony was followed by lunch in various favourite” eateries” on the harbour where so many troops landed as well as a brief visit to the magnificent American War Cemetery.
The next day found about half of us in Rome seizing on seats on the open topped deck of a tour bus which with commentaries plugged in to our ears took us on a fine and relaxed tour of the” heavenly city” while allowing us times when we hopped off to go on foot to the Trevi Fountain or to St Peter’s and the Vatican. We had declined to spend 40 Euros each plus a dawn start in order to catch a brief glimpse of the Pope. Apart from a sudden shower and the purchase of umbrellas which appeared from nowhere we had a perfect day.
Thursday was our big day with a cloudy start as we set off to Monte Cassino which turned into a day of Italian beauty just as our friendly driver of previous years, Roberto, drove us into the Liri valley and the monastery at Monte Cassino emerged from the clouds. This part of the tour was compered by John Turquand who gave us a splendidly clear tale of the complexities of the never ending battle by British, Polish, American and Commonwealth forces to finally capture this mighty mountain. A charming Italian tour guide gave us the history of St Benedict and St Scolastica and of the monastery itself on a morning of utter perfection and the bluest of skies. We stopped at the Polish Cemetery en- route for lunch at our favourite restaurant, a farm named the Agriturismo Selva which gets better every year in providing a fine meal, and gallons of wine for a modest 23 Euros apiece.
And finally after many pleasant dinners we went out onto the moonlit terrace for an especially prepared and “engraved” cake and champagne on the house followed by a series of readings and memories given by members of our party which were the most moving we can recall from all the trips we have made to this exceptionally interesting and beautiful part of Italy. These tours are great for making friends, sharing memories and getting to know each other across many years and many varied experiences of life and this plays its part when the vagaries of modern flights cause some fairly long spells for drinking endless cappuccinos in Rome’s magnificent airport! We wish all our successors equal joy in the years ahead as they in turn remember our fallen and all those who made D-Day as successful as it was by their tenacity in a country created by nature to bedefended from attack.
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