17 May 2019
Descendants of New Zealanders who fought at the Battles of Cassino in Italy during the Second World War have marked the 75th anniversary of the battles.
The Battles of Cassino, in which the 2nd New Zealand Division participated in February and March, 1944, were among the most gruelling New Zealand troops participated in during the Second World War.
The division suffered more than 1600 casualties, including 343 deaths, and soldiers described fighting through a maze of rubble, in appalling weather, as “absolute hell”.
The battles were remembered today at the Cassino War Cemetery, first with a United Kingdom-led Commonwealth Service and then a New Zealand Service.
New Zealand Ambassador to Rome Anthony Simpson spoke of the ordeal of the war years for the people of Italy, who saw much of their beautiful country laid to waste.
However, friendships blossomed amid the hardship and danger, laying the foundation for the warm relationship the two countries enjoy now.
Chief of New Zealand Army Major General John Boswell said the New Zealanders who fought at Cassino came from all walks of life, and many had fathers who had fought in the First World War.
“We are humbled not only by their service and sacrifice in this place but also their ongoing contribution to our nation. Although few remain, their legacy will endure,” Major General Boswell said.
Minister of Defence Ron Mark said commemorating battles such as Cassino was a vital way of remembering those who fought, and what they gave up for our nation.
“The last veterans of the Battles of Cassino, and of the rest of the Italian campaign, must one day pass but we shall, as both a duty and an honour, always remember them,” Mr Mark said.
The 28 (Māori) Battalion played a crucial part in the Battles of Cassino and the last surviving member of B Company, Robert Gillies, was at today’s service wearing the magnificent New Zealand Defence Force Ngā Tapuwae kahu huruhuru (cloak).
He recited The Ode in Māori as the sun broke through following steady rain and thunder throughout the service.
Mr Gillies remembers Cassino well, especially the battle for the railway station, in which the 28 (Māori) Battalion played a crucial role.
Mr Gillies, who served for 4-1/2 years, was just a teenager when he went to Italy. The shrapnel in his arm is a lasting reminder of his time there, as are the memories of the good men and women he served with.
“It’s always there in your mind. It never leaves you,” he said. “It’s good to pay my respects to those who didn’t come home.”