Tears flowed freely as the voice of Private Hettie Adams soared over Italy’s Cassino Railway Station this morning, as several hundred New Zealanders gathered to commemorate the Battles of Cassino.
Seventy-five years ago 200 members of the 28 (Māori) Battalion went into battle for the well-defended railway station. Fewer than 50 were left unscathed.
Historian Sir Wira Gardiner this morning spoke of the soldier who died as he tried to apply a tourniquet to his legs, which had been blown off, and of the soldiers lying dead in a row facing the Abbey of Montecassino, having been scythed down by enemy fire.
The last remaining member of 28 (Māori) Battalion B Company, 94-year-old Robert Gillies, lost friends in the battle and remembers the comradeship, the loss and the fear.
He was joined at the railway station today by many descendants of those men who tried to take the station, and the emotion spilled over as PTE Adams’ rendition of Angel hit home.
“You’re in the arms of an angel. May you find some comfort here.”
The Battles of Cassino, in which the 2nd New Zealand Division participated in February and March 1944, were among the most gruelling of 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 75th anniversary of the battles has been marked this week with services at the Cassino War Cemetery and the railway station, concluding with a rare non-denominational service at the Abbey of Montecassino.
New Zealand Defence Force contingent commander Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Childs told the service the only way to remain faithful to the memory of those who fought in Cassino and other WWII battles was to unite and to value justice, freedom and peace.
“Our responsibility to them and to each other, as members of the Defence Force and as members of our communities, is to make the most of the freedom they had the courage to defend. Find a place in your hearts for them as you go about your lives.
“Lest we forget.”