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From Nas ni Riogh to Monte Cassino.


James Durney

Growing up on the Caragh Road in the 1960s I looked forward to Fridays when my mother brought home my weekly treat – the Victor war comic. The Victor featured a true war story on the front and back cover, usually about a World War One or World War Two medal winning hero or fighter ace. Coming from a military family background with a keen sense of my Irishness I was always on the look out for an Irish angle to these stories. At times I was rewarded when the Victor featured an Irish-born VC winner or war hero. I had a hunger for local history and one day my mother told me a story about Jackie Sheridan and Mickser Mahon, two lads from the town, who had enlisted in the British Army at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. They had fought with Monty’s 8th Army against the Desert Fox Rommel and the Afrika Korps in North Africa, before going on to Italy. Mickser Mahon was a regular visitor to our house, but what about Jackie Sheridan? His family lived at St. Brigid’s Terrace, at the top of Caragh Road, where was he? Jackie was buried in Italy, I was told. He was killed in the horrific battle of Monte Cassino. The seeds of this story grew into a lifelong interest in the history of local soldiers, which led to the writing of Far From the Short Grass. Originally it was to be a book about the two pals, but it became the story of all Kildaremen who fought in both world wars.

Jackie Sheridan and Mickser Mahon were boyhood friends who in the autumn of 1939 left Naas to join the British Army. Both left Naas one bright autumn morning to go to Belfast to enlist, as indeed many Kildaremen had already done, in the British Army. Like everyone else they thought the war would be over before Christmas and they wanted to get a taste before it was too late. Little did they know that the war would drag on for six long years. In the summer of 1941 the two friends returned home for their last leave together. The two friends could have easily stayed at home and few would have blamed them. They had seen enough action, enough horrors of war. Jackie was twenty-two, Mickser was twenty-one. They had their whole lives ahead of them. Jackie was engaged to Dina Kavanagh, a Naas girl serving in the British Auxiliary Territorial Service. But the bonds of duty and comradeship dragged them back. Reluctantly the two friends said goodbye to their families and headed back to England and shipment to war in the Western Desert. As serving "Tommies" in the Royal Sussex Regiment the two friends were present at Monty’s victory over Rommel at El Alamein in North Africa, where Mickser nearly bagged the Desert Fox. Then the American and British armies began preparing for the next big campaign – the invasion of Italy.

In the winter of 1943-44 the two pals were ensconced in freezing water-logged trenches facing the impregnable heights of Monte Cassino. Here the German Gustav Line held up the Allied advance on Rome. The Benedictine Abbey sitting atop Monte Cassino was bombed by the Allies in one of the war’s biggest blunders. It was believed that the Germans were occupying the strategic monastery, but the Germans only entered the abbey after the Allies bombed it. The bombing made the abbey and the surrounding town and hillsides more impregnable, creating obstacles for Allied armour. Several Kildaremen were fighting in and around Cassino. Dennis Carroll, from Maynooth, was with the Inniskilling Fusiliers on the slopes of Mount Caira, a position quite close to the monastery. Half-a-dozen Naas men were there with Monty’s 8th Army; Johnny Doran, from Fair Green, Mattie Higgins, Dublin Road, Barreller Byrne, Rathasker Road, John de Burgh, Oldtown, Robert Gill, Yeomanstown, and Martin Butler, who knocked out a German machine gun nest. The famous comedian Spike Milligan was also present at the Cassino battles.

"God made gentle people as well as strong ones," Spike Milligan wrote. "Alas, for the war effort, I was a gentle one." After several weeks of combat Spike was taken out of the line suffering from battle fatigue. "I suppose in World War 1," Spike said of his sergeant, "the bastard would have had me shot. It was a wretched time." He was posted back to Naples to finish out the war as a clerk.

Eighteen different Allied nationalities tried and failed to break through the Gustav Line. In February 1944 it was the turn of the Royal Sussex. In two days of fighting the battalion, which had fought since the earliest days of the war, was shattered, losing 174 men, a third of its strength. One of those killed, was Private Jackie Sheridan, Naas. The Sussex had formed up on Snakeshead Ridge, overlooking the monastery from the left. As they left their positions for the attack on the monastery British artillery landed among them. It was one of the many tragedies of war. Jackie Sheridan was mortally wounded by his own shells and died on March 20 1944. With his belongings sent home to his family was his paybook, which he kept in his breast pocket. The paybook was torn where a piece of shrapnel had entered his chest.

Dennis Carroll said, "All you could do was build a little sanger of rocks around yourself for protection. I met a nineteen year old, whose hair had turned pure white from the constant bombing and shelling at Cassino. There was no cover. The rocky terrain made the shelling worse, as not only was there shrapnel from the shells, but little pieces of rock added to the chances of injury. We picked up a ginger-haired interpreter, which was unusual for an Italian. He was brilliant. He organised billets for us, and so on. One night we had to attack across the Garigliano river. We had to get into canvas boats and pull ourselves across by rope. As we lined up to get into the boats the Germans bombed us. Their fire was very accurate and we lost thirty blokes that night. It turned out our ginger-haired Italian was a spy for the Germans. He disappeared that night, but was later seen in Rome and picked up. He was shot for spying."

Major John de Burgh had won the Military Cross in North Africa, but the fighting around Cassino was the worst he would ever see. He said: "The bombing of Cassino abbey was a tactical failure, but regrettably good for morale. We could not get through with our tanks. The French had Moroccan and Algerian troops with them, who were great mountain troops and superb fighters. They got around the mountains, leaving the Germans little choice but to retreat."

The honour of taking the heights of Monte Cassino was given to the Polish Brigade who had also suffered terribly in the campaign. But the bulk of the Germans had left quietly during the night and the Poles found only the dead and wounded remained. As the Gustav Line collapsed the 16th/5th Lancers were given the objective of cutting off Highway 6 – the route of escape of the Germans from Cassino. German resistance was strong and had been stiffened by a number of veteran paratroopers withdrawn from Cassino. The Allied infantry and tanks fighting through cornfields and terraced olive groves came under a deadly storm of mortars, artillery and machine-gun fire. Major Robert Gill, Yeomanstown, Naas, serving with the 16/5th Lancers, was killed on May 17 when his tank was blown up as the Lancers tried unsuccessfully to cut off the German retreat from Monte Cassino. He lies at rest only a few feet away from his fellow Naas man.

A young Canadian veteran, Stan Scislowski, 5th Canadian Armoured Division, summed up those hideous days: "Where there's now tranquillity, there was once a terrible blood-letting, a monstrous raging of man-made forces that seared and ravaged the towns and laid waste the valleys and the mountain slopes. Here, many men came to kill each other, and every day they carried away their dead, wherever and whenever possible, and buried them in temporary graves nearby. Here men were brutalized to a point beyond comprehension. Four long and agonizing months it was that the killing, the maiming and the destruction went on. Nowhere could a soldier hide without tasting, hearing, and smelling the hot fetid breath of bursting shells and mortars. Nor could he shut out from sight and ears the fearsome slash of the murderous MG 42. Everywhere around him Death was present in the bloated remains of long dead men and mules. The suffocating stink of their rotting flesh permeated everything it came into contact with, and after a short time spent in this ploughed-up graveyard, this horrible garden of cadavers, a man soaked up enough of the stink till he smelled as though he too came from the grave. That a man's mind somehow could remain rational and his nerves not collapse under the extremes of physical conditions and the daily confrontations with violent death was in every way a miracle of the human spirit."

Before the great battle was over 200,000 German and Allied soldiers had been killed or wounded at Monte Cassino. 40,000 Allied troops never returned home. Another 25,000 Germans died in the battle. Jackie Sheridan and Robert Gill are buried with thousands of their fallen comrades in the Commonwealth War Cemetery near the town of Cassino. The Cassino War Cemetery is situated close by the base of the height of Monte Cassino just a mile south of the rebuilt and relocated town of Cassino. The cemetery is overlooked by Monte Cassino and the Benedictine Abbey on the right and by Snakeshead Ridge, where Jackie was mortally wounded, at the lower end. We were lucky to meet the gardener when we arrived in the cemetery. He brought us straight to Jackie Sheridan’s grave and then after giving us a few minutes he brought us over to that of Robert Gill. This gave us a few extra minutes to look around, as there are over 4,000 soldiers buried here. On and on we went, row after row, plot after plot – reading the names – so many, so young, 18 years old -19 - 20 - 21, on and on. A country's future. Most were young, too young. I think for a moment on what their lives might have been had there been no war - the years of love they missed and the families they would have raised. The future they would have had. They probably would have died in their seventies and eighties, a full live lived. Instead they lie in a foreign field far from the Short Grass. I asked Mickser one time if he was glad he went. His answer was, "Well, if we didn’t go Jackie would still be alive today." After writing Far from the Short Grass in 1999 I made a promise that if I was ever in Italy I would visit the grave of my fellow Naas man whose death sparked a lifelong interest in local history. On August 3 2005 I fulfilled that promise. I brought some soil from the Sheridan family’s front garden to sprinkle on Jackie’s grave and brought some soil from there back to Naas. It was just a simple ceremony for a local man I never met, but one I knew so much about. A local lad who went off to war and never returned.


















A talk given by local author James Durney on the involvement of Kildaremen in the battle of Monte Cassino in World War II. James will be on location in Kildare Town for the Book Fair on Sunday 19th November (details on this site).

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