12 May 2019
A New Zealand Defence Force contingent has left for Italy, to honour the memories of those who fought in the Battles of Cassino 75 years ago.
The contingent will participate in commemorations at sites including the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cassino War Cemetery, the Abbey of Montecassino and Cassino Railway Station.
Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Childs is leading a contingent that has many personal connections to the Battles of Cassino, which were among the most gruelling of the Second World War.
One soldier who can attest to that is 96-year-old Les Wright, MBE, who said of his first impression of Cassino:
“As we turned the corner, the thing that I remember most is this great Christmas tree of twinkling lights,” he said.
“It wasn’t until the next day that I realised what I was looking at was Montecassino, the mountain with the Abbey on top, and the lights were bursting shells.”
Mr Wright, who served in the New Zealand Army for 36 years and became a brigadier, also told of entering the Abbey after the Allies took it and coming across two war cemeteries, each containing about 10 graves – one Indian and one Polish.
The Germans had carefully marked the graves with crosses and written the names of the fallen on them.
“One could have asked for nothing more than that. It was an indication we were all similar people on different sides of the fence,” Mr Wright said.
Fellow soldier Corporal Fred Fergusson, 97, lost many school friends in the Battles of Cassino and considers himself lucky, despite once being “blown up by a bomb dropped from a German plane”.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what I did,” Mr Fergusson, said. “But I was lucky, you know – there were so many times I could have not been here. Or I could have been here but in a lot worse condition than I am.
“I would always hope people don’t have to go to a war. I’m thankful my children didn’t go to a war.”
Mr Wright and Mr Fergusson can no longer make the long trip to Italy but the last remaining member of 28 (Māori) Battalion B Company, Robert Gillies, 94, will be there to pay his respects to all those who fought there.
All those men will be front of mind for Lieutenant Colonel Childs and his contingent during the commemorations.
“I want to do those who were there justice. I want to make sure that we do right by them and be as good as we can be and represent their service and duty and sacrifice,” Lieutenant Colonel Childs said.
“The contingent all feel that way. Many of them have personal connections or understand just how nasty it was over there, and how many men made the ultimate sacrifice.”