South African Sappers at Monte Cassino … one of the fiercest battles of WW2

South Africans are seen in this historic image taking part in one of the most bitter battles of World War 2 – Monte Cassino.  Overlooked by the ruins of the historic hill-top monastery, South African engineers of 11th Field Company, South African Engineer Corps, clear rubble from ‘Route 6’, the main road through Cassino. The final German resistance had ceased only hours before.

The Battle of Monte Cassino (also known as the Battle for Rome and the Battle for Cassino) was fierce – it was a costly series of four assaults by the American, Polish, Free French, British and Commonwealth Allies against the Winter Line in Italy held by Nazi German and other Axis forces during the Italian Campaign of World War II. The intention was a breakthrough to Rome.

The above images show German soldiers holding their positions in Cassino and a British soldier with a Bren gun assaulting an Axis position amongst the shattered rubble of the  Monastery.

Between 17 January and 18 May 1944 the Monte Cassino and the Gustav defences were assaulted by Allied troops, the last Allied assault involving twenty divisions attacking along a twenty-mile front. The German defenders (including crack German airborne troops) were finally driven from their positions, but at a high cost. The capture of Monte Cassino tolled some 55,000 Allied casualties, with German losses being far fewer, estimated at around 20,000 killed and wounded.

Polish troops entered the shattered hill-top monastery, a symbol of German resistance at Cassino, the morning of the 18th May 1944.

The images show the British and Polish flags on top of the Monastery at Cassino on the final day of the assault and surrendering German soldiers.

This is the monastery before and after it was destroyed. Repeated pinpoint artillery attacks on Allied assault troops caused Allied leaders to conclude the monastery at Cassino, which had existed as a benedictine monastery  from 529 AD was being used by the Germans as an observation post.

Fears escalated along with casualties, and in spite of a lack of clear evidence, the monastery was marked for destruction. On 15 February American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of high explosives, creating widespread damage. The raid failed to achieve its objective, as German paratroopers occupied the rubble and established excellent defensive positions amid the ruins.

The monetary has since been rebuilt and is a national heritage site.

Image copyrights – Imperial War Museum, reference wikipedia


4 thoughts on “South African Sappers at Monte Cassino … one of the fiercest battles of WW2

  1. HI Peter. Re the SA sappers at Monte Cassino. I met, sometimes in the 1960s, with Lt Colonel Jack Scott (MBE and DSO if my memory serves me correctly) through friends in the Dunning family. You may have heard of their mother Doreen Dunning, she did sterling service in the WAAF. They were related to Colonel Scott. From them (like all old soldiers he never discussed the war) I heard that during the war he was OC of a unit of Sappers who had been tasked with clearing a very densely mined field ahead of the infantry units at Monte Cassino. For this difficult assignment he requested air support from an American air force unit who were to do a saturation bombing to help to clear the field. Whilst awaiting this support he, together with his adjutant, attended an order group at the local military headquarters. On his return he discovered that the Americans had missed the intended target completely and had instead virtually wiped out his entire regiment. Totally distraught by this he was sent home by his commanders – it was apparently suggested that they feared that he may try to take revenge. I have not been able to gather any further information about this bit of history – perhaps you may some have access to resources that can throw some further light. Jack Scott was quite a character. A major shareholder in Rand Mines (two of their shafts were named after his children), he lived in a beautiful home in Young avenue, Mountainview, in Johannesburg. I stayed over in his home a few times – the only time in my life that I was served breakfast by a real butler! The Shah of Iran was accommodated for his safety in this home during the 2nd world war. Sometime later the Iranian government bought the house from Jack. At that time it was the most expensive house ever sold in Johannesburg – at R650 000-00! Jack owned a farm bordering on the Hartebeespoort dam. He built Sappers rust as a venue for military engineers to get together on a part of his farm. The venue is still there, now a Lodge I believe. For all his riches Jack was dogged by bad luck. He also lost his beautiful actress wife at a young age (during childbirth I think) and finally lost all his money. He spent his last days living in the butler’s quarters in his beautiful home. Regards Ludi

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  2. What a fascinating piece of information. Thank you. My Father was a Sapper and we visited SappersRust for many years. I have so many beautiful memories of this place and the beautiful farmhouse on the property alongside SappersRust…perhaps belonging to Jack Scott. It lay abandoned for a number of years and as teenagers we used to peer through the windows marvelling at the beautiful rooms with their heavy drapes. My parents Bert and Sue Stockton were Assistant Managers at SappersRust after they retired. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Regards Carol Gainsford nee Stockton.


  3. My father Bill Vincent , was a tank driver during the assault on the casino. the battalion was led into a trap up a hill and a battle ensured from the forest which the enemy lay in wait. My dad’s tank was hit between the turret and the tracks. He sustained a large hole in his chest and very bad burns. He was saved and attended to when somebody threw him over a fence and an Italian family took him and treated his injuries until they could attract the attention of The south Africa army. He was then shipped back to Durban on the deck of a hospital ship. He recovered but was never bitter about what happened to him. He passed away in 1998.


  4. I worked for the Colonel in South West Africa back in the ’70s and have great memories of him divining water and minerals in the Namib Desert. He would fly into camp bringing Bluegum honey from the Sappersrust farm, just the thing to break the monotony of desert living.
    Once, when asked about his rank, he mumbled something about the War and promptly changed the subject. A true “old soldier”.
    I visited both the Shah’s house in Mountain view and the farm prior to deploying to Strathmore Tantalite in the Namib Desert. The Colonel would fly in periodically and we visited his other mining holdings in which he had held partnerships (with Ben du Preez both Senior and Junior): Henties Bay, Strathmore Tin, Toscanini Diamonds and Oil, and Terrace Bay. He was extremely proud of the electrical workmanship at the Terrace Bay works, praising the German electrician as we toured the mothballed facility.
    All in all, he was a good boss and didn’t deserve the eventual loss of everything.


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