A Village and a Plain
Shortly after his arrival in Presenzano, Patrick Maybin wrote:
“We’ve come down out of the mountains and are in a broad flat river valley, with the hills rising steeply at the sides. The high crags still have snow on them, but here it’s sunny and windy and there are violets and primroses. Corn fields and vineyards and olive groves all around. We’re under canvas again, so fortunately it gets rapidly warmer.”
Presensano, a commune of around 1,800 people, had been selected as the forward Allied headquarters for US Fifth Army for the Battle of Monte Cassino. The army camp was located on the plain that you can see below the village in the picture. It was here that Patrick Maybin worked.
Presenzano from the plain below
The battleground itself was about 30 Km to the north-west, beyond the mountains that rise behind the village. With Allied air superiority this provided good protection from the German forces to the north. However, it did not provide protection from friendly fire. During the bombing of the Abbey of Monte Cassino in February 1944, sixteen bombs had struck the Fifth Army compound and exploded only yards away from the trailer where the commanding general Mark Clark was doing paperwork at his desk. Wherever they were in the war zone, everyone was at risk.
If Patrick Maybin’s time in Campobasso had been too quiet, he was now fully occupied. The War Diaries for 19 CCS in April 1944 report between 100 and 160 casualties being admitted from the front every other day, totalling around 1,800 for the entire month. The manpower in 19 CCS was augmented by about 40% with the addition of multiple field surgical units and field transfusion units.
Even by the middle of April the mud and rain that so characterised the Battles of Monte Cassino had not entirely abated. In a letter that also bemoaned the international outcry over the destruction of the Monte Cassino abbey, he wrote:
The protests about Monte Cassino cause a certain amount of mild irritation here. Men are expected to live in mud and cold and monotony and constant danger of violent death and spend a large part of their time blowing strange Germans to pieces – and then all this fuss about an old monastery, and talk of sacrificing hundreds of their comrades lives to save it. I think myself that human lives are much the most important things; destruction of works of art is a pity; one should have thought about that sooner.
I seem more than usually solemn this evening, Thunderstorms and rain and thick sticky mud have created a certain amount of depression. But most of the time we have sun and high windy days with cloud shadows on the blue crags and wildflowers everywhere; the lizards have woken up and bask in the heat in the dry ditches.
My half day in Presenzano
Monday 16th April was the first day I could legally drive on higher ground without winter tyres. As I headed out of Campobasso into the Apennines the mist and clouds lifted. The road swept between the higher mountains, eventually following the valley of the Volturno river. With the Biferno river in the east it had provided the Germans’ first line of defence in Autumn 1943. Today the Volturno’s forces are harnessed in a hydroelectric plant about a kilometre to the east of Presanzano village.
I had no idea what to expect at Presenzano. It was obvious from the map and from the absence of any hotels in the area that it was a small place. Maybe a few farmhouses built around a crossroad surrounded by fields? Instead I arrived at this lovely sunlit village on a hill, overlooking green fertile pastures that stretched out below to distant hills.
From the Piazza dei Caduti in the village there was a wide view over the plain where the army camp was located.
The plain from Presenzano village
Outside the church in the piazza itself was a memorial that included the names of all those from Presenzano who lost their lives in both world wars. Above the piazza rose narrow streets and alleyways that continued nearly to the top of the hill.
Presenzano War Memorial
Once again in Presenzano I was frustrated by my lack of spoken Italian. An elderly couple stopped to talk: as an outsider and particularly as a non-Italian I must have appeared an oddity in their village. When I had finally communicated why I was there, they were delighted and wanted to know far more. Alas I was unable to tell them.
The village ended close to the top of the hill, and beyond there stood the ruins of a castle from the Norman era. These ruins were inaccessible when I visited but the climb and the views were well worth the effort.
Presenzano Norman Castle
Patrick Maybin’s departure from Presenzano
Despite the many casualties arriving every other day in Presenzano, April marked a 1944 lull in fighting. After the ineffectiveness of the Third Battle of Monte Cassino, the Allied forces were preparing for the fourth and final battle, which in May would see them oust the German forces from Southern Italy.
But before this took place, Patrick Maybin’s rôle was to change. On Wednesday 3rd May he received the following order, and by the weekend he was in Naples.
Patrick Maybin’s Posting Orders 3 May 1944
This was a welcome change from the lack of privacy and autonomy in the casualty clearing station. On 3rd May itself, he described his new job to John Hewitt in a letter.
I’ve been given a Field Transfusion Unit … I’m greatly pleased about this – no promotion or extra pay, but very many advantages. An F.T.U. is one Medical Officer, two R.A.M.C. orderlies, a driver, a truck, and all the equipment for doing blood and plasma transfusions etc. We are attached to other medical units whenever they’re likely to need a lot of transfusions, but apart from that are completely independent responsible only to the Base Unit and to the Corps or Army D.D.M.S. … I’ll be sorry to leave 19 C.C.S.; but we’ve had a lot of changes recently, and though as long as I stayed here I was sure of doing what I wanted, I might have been posted at any moment to any job.
So when the Fourth (and final) Battle of Monte Cassino started in mid May, he was no longer directly treating its casualties, but instead collecting the blood needed to keep many of them alive.
My departure from Presenzano
Patrick Maybin’s journey splits from mine for almost five months here. The summer of 1944 found him in Naples, Vasto, Bari, and Vis in Yugoslavia. I’ll cover it in a later post. Meanwhile I was headed for Cassino and the site of the most crucial action of the Italian Campaign.
Patrick Maybin: 29th March 1944 to 6th May 1944
Neil Maybin: 16th April 2018
WO 177/655 – 19 CCS War Diary, July 1943 to December 1944 (National Archives)
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 3 April 1944
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 11 Apr 1944
Letter, Patrick Maybin to John Hewitt, 3 May 1944
Capture of Campobasso, October (Canadian Divisions’ website)
The Battle of Monte Cassino (Wikipedia)