‘It was like walking into hell’: Monte Cassino veteran from Upminster remembers battle on eve of return

Jim with a painting presented to him by the Ilford branch of the Parachute Regimental Association.

Jim with a painting presented to him by the Ilford branch of the Parachute Regimental Association. - Credit: Archant

An Upminster veteran will join other Second World War heroes from across the country on a historic pilgrimage to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino, the epic struggle to capture a vital German stronghold and open up the way for the allied advance into Rome.

Jim was 16 when he first joined up

Jim was 16 when he first joined up - Credit: Archant

Recognised as one of the most dogged and ferocious actions of the war, the five-month struggle claimed more than 50,000 lives.

Jim, far left, with friends from the Paras in Italy. Picture: Jim Knox

Jim, far left, with friends from the Paras in Italy. Picture: Jim Knox - Credit: Archant

Jim Knox, 89, from Upminster, was still a teenager when his regiment, 4th Parachute Battalion, landed in Italy at Taranto in September 1943 and moved up the west coast to the Sangro river to join forces with a New Zealand Division patrolling the Gustav Line.

Jim with his war medals. Picture: Jim Knox

Jim with his war medals. Picture: Jim Knox - Credit: Archant

“The most frightening time of the war for me was going into Monte Cassino for the first time,” said Jim. “There was a tremendous noise from the mortars and this hideous yellow smog. The sky was lit up red and yellow and we could see flames. It wasn’t until we got closer that we realised that was Vesuvius erupting. It was like walking into hell. The stench was horrible from dead mules and dead soldiers. It was terrifying.

“We were with a New Zealand division at the railway station and Germans were dug in just a few yards away at the Continental Hotel. We were so close that we shouted abuse at each other.

“You could hardly move – and you only moved at night. And we constantly worried about treading on a mine. The mortaring was constant from both sides. It was a bit like trench warfare at the First World War – a stalemate - no one could move.”

Jim is travelling with the Monte Cassino Society which was awarded a £28,535 Heroes Return grant by the Big Lottery Fund.

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The grant allows WW2 veterans from across the world to pay their respects to fallen comrades at official ceremonies around the battle sites.

Big Lottery Fund has to date awarded more than £26.6 million to more than 54,000 Second World War veterans, widows, and carers under its Heroes Return 2 programme.

Peter Ainsworth, chairman of the Fund, said: “We are proud to remember and honour the immense debt of gratitude owed to those brave veterans who endured one of the most arduous campaigns of the Second World War.”

The battle of Monte Cassino was pivotal to the success of the Italian campaign and the greater allied advance into mainland Europe.

It eventually led to the destruction of the formidable Gustav Line, the spine of German fortifications across Italy.