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Monte Cassino 80: My Grandfather’s battle for Monastery Hill

Today the country commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino, a crucial battle fought during World War Two, specifically as part of the Italian Campaign.

The battles raged from 11 January to 18 May 1944, and Montecassino a hilltop monastery located on a rocky hill overlooking the town of Cassino and the surrounding area, a key defensive position for the Germans.

To try and bring this to life for us today, there are many parallels between Cassino and the fighting that has been occurring throughout the winter in Ukraine, over the last two years.” Brigadier Justin Stenhouse, DSO MBE, 11th Security Force Assistance Brigade

Some of the greatest confrontations with the enemy during the Second World War were fought during the four battles to secure Monte Cassino, the linchpin of the Germans’ Gustav Line set up to defend their occupation of Rome.

Brigadier Justin Stenhouse, DSO MBE, Commander 11th Security Force Assistance Brigade, reflects on his ancestor’s service during the savage conflict often called ‘hell on the hill’:

“My grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) Edward Ernest Stenhouse DSO, was with the headquarters of The Bengal Sappers and Miners at Roorkee in India, part of the 4th Indian Division. He assumed the appointment of Commander Royal Engineers (CRE) of the division in 1942, and was sent to the Middle East, and arrived in Taranto, Italy in December 1943.”

The division spent weeks building diversions, constructing roadblocks, and defended and undefended river crossings before they joined the Fifth Army, engaged in a bitter battle at Cassino, 50 miles south of Rome.

In February 1944, Lt Col Stenhouse, known as Ned, was tasked with building the track up the very steep hill from near the town of Cassino, which zigzagged up the precipitous slopes of limestone to the rear of the Benedictine Abbey.

His grandson Justin, who enlisted with the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards in 1998, explained: “The Indian and New Zealand engineers were engaged building mule tracks and turning a small route, previously only wide enough for a jeep, into a road large enough to take 30-ton tanks to the top.

Just the physical challenge of building the road, made even more demanding by the snow, sleet and heavy rain, shell holes and mud is difficult to comprehend, let alone doing it under heavy fire. Their bravery is just extraordinary.” Brigadier Justin Stenhouse, DSO MBE, Commander 11th Security Force Assistance Brigade

“I don’t know how long it took but as I understand it, they were under fire most of the time, and completely overseen by the high ground. Just the physical challenge of building the road, made even more demanding by the snow, sleet and heavy rain, shell holes and mud is difficult to comprehend, let alone doing it under heavy fire. Their bravery is just extraordinary.”

“He called the track Cavendish Road, after the street in Bournemouth where his father lived.”

According to a diary entry from one of Ned’s colleagues, work began on the road on 1st March 1944, four platoons blasting the rock and widening it from 8 foot to 12 foot, “mortar ‘stonks’ were a daily feature and the gullies provided refuge as it was impossible to dig slit trenches. Somehow casualties were light.”

All sections were completed on Saturday 11 March, and “Sunday was a day of rest after non-stop labour since their arrival on Friday 15th February.”

In the early hours of 19 March, 43 Sherman, Stuart and Honey Tanks moved up the road, “the Shermans had to withdraw as they couldn’t negotiate the steep going but the light tanks pushed on.”

The track remained in use for the rest of the battle and was utilised by the Poles for their own tank advance in May, the final assault and capture of the rubble that was Montecassino Abbey.

Having visited Cassino last year for the first time, Brigadier Stenhouse who has deployed to Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, said: “As you look at the terrain, particularly if you visit when the sun is shining, it is difficult to imagine today, the considerable challenges they faced in the horrific conditions of March ‘44.

“How they fought their way up the hill. And then for the Indian Sappers to deliver a significant feat of engineering, I find it awe inspiring.”

... [the] gut-wrenching fear of being under enemy contact while trying to build a road, makes any of my operational experiences pale into insignificance.” Brigadier Justin Stenhouse, DSO MBE, 11th Security Force Assistance Brigade

“Being cold and hungry is unpleasant at the best of times but add to this gut-wrenching fear of being under enemy contact while trying to build a road, makes any of my operational experiences pale into insignificance.

He added: “To try and bring this to life for us today, there are many parallels between Cassino and the fighting that has been occurring throughout the winter in Ukraine, over the last two years. I feel it is important to bring some of this history to life, to highlight the horror of war.”

Four generations of Stenhouse’s have now served in the Army covering both the First and Second World War. Brigadier Justin’s father served for 18 years in 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, the same Regiment as him, and this shaped his conscious decision to join the Army: “It is a nice touch when there are connections which are personal through history, helping us learn from our predecessors whilst being proud of what they have achieved. Having served in 11 Brigade which also fought in the Italian Campaign and knowing that my grandfather was there, is one of those personal connections.

“We must never forget our history; it helps us prepare for the challenges to come and our ancestors have much to teach us from the incredible things they have achieved.”

As well as British and American soldiers, the Allied Forces in Italy included 14 other nations: Algerians, Belgians, Brazilians, Canadians, Czechs, French, Greeks, Indians, Italians, Moroccans, Nepalese, New Zealanders, Poles, and South Africans.