North of Scotland branch visit to Anzio, January 2014

This is an account of our visit from 17th – 24th January 2014, having just returned from a hectic but most interesting experience at Anzio. The branch consisted of 20 members from Aberdeen, Buckie, Elgin, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Wakefield. Six were veterans (five of the Italy campaigns; Chairman Alex Munro, Vice Chairman Tom Forrest, Willie Gerrie, Jenny McIlwraith, Jack Hearn and Babs Forster). Others were sons, daughters and friends of veterans. Most of the group had visited Anzio many times before and have become good friends together, and also with the citizens of Anzio, who make us so welcome. Giuliana, who is an Honorary Life member of the Association, organises everything before we arrive and is also our tour guide, as well as translator, during our visit. Others who assist us during our trips are: Reverend W McCulloch, Sabina, Patrizio, Enrico, Anita, Renzo and Simonetta. At times you find the experience very emotional, especially when walking around the cemeteries and seeing the headstones with names of those mostly in their twenties, and particularly headstones that have no name but state purely: “Known unto God”.

On Friday 17th January we all met at Heathrow for departure to Rome and onwards to our hotel for the trip, Hotel Lino dei Pino at Anzio.

Saturday 18th January had been allocated as a day of rest from our travel, but the committee met to finalise the coming week’s events!

Sunday 19th January. We began the day by attending the Church of Scotland in Rome where Reverend Willie McCulloch is the minister. Irene, one of our members on the trip read one of the lessons. After the service we were invited by the congregation to join them for a snack lunch and a “blether” (which for the Scots, means to swap news). In the afternoon, along with the British Attaché, Colonel D Venn, we held a service at the Liberation Monument in Piazza Venezia, Rome, where the Chairman laid an Italy Star Association wreath and Jenny McIlwraith and Irene Munro laid a wreath on behalf of the Royal Engineers. It was the first time our branch had seen the monument, as each time we had visited Rome before it had either been in storage or moved whilst road reconstruction works were being carried out. All members were most impressed with the monument and happy at its final resting place. Many thanks must go to Harry Shindler for all his hard work and perseverance to see his dearest wish become a reality.

From the centre of Rome we continued on for a visit to Aprilia caves which had been arranged by Enrico Canni. Everyone found it hugely interesting to learn what had happened there during the Anzio campaign.

Monday 20th January. We made a two hour journey to visit Monte Cassino Monastery, the Polish cemetery, Cassino museum and Cassino WWII cemetery. An Italy Star Association wreath was laid by Willie Gerrie, Hazel Park, Jack Hearn and Babs Forster. Our tour guide for the day was Michele Di Lonardo, whom we have known for many years. It was a very long day but a worthwhile visit and especially so for Alison from Buckie, who found the final resting place of her Great Uncle.

Tuesday 21st January. This was allocated as a sight-seeing day to either Rome or Anzio. Everyone had an excellent day at whichever place they had chosen to visit.

Wednesday 22nd January. This day was the 70th anniversary of the Beachhead landings (22nd January 1944) and our day started with a service at the Beachhead cemetery. Heather Sangster, Ruth McIntosh and Ann Copland (whose father was in the Scottish Horse) laid a Scottish Horse wreath. Tom Forrest, John Reid and Lisa Pritchard laid a Royal Marines wreath. John Reid’s father is laid to rest in this cemetery. John has no memories of his father as he was just 13 months of age when his father was killed in action.

We then went on to visit the Commonwealth cemetery which is on the edge of Anzio town and was the first cemetery of the Anzio campaign. Gillian McDonald (whose father was in the Scottish Horse) as well as her husband Alastair, and Alison Mair, laid a wreath on behalf of Scottish Horse. Other wreaths were laid by Ian Forrest, Ross Munro, and Ian Sangster. Allan Mornement and his daughter Hannah (who joined us here, were visiting Italy to undertake research into Allan’s father’s involvement in the Anzio campaign) laid a wreath on behalf of the Royal Marines.

Many soldiers of the Scottish Horse and Gordon Highlanders regiments were killed within a few days of the landings and are buried here. One such soldier was Sergeant G Cormack of the Gordon Highlanders. His daughter, Margaret, never knew her father. John and Thomas Cairncross were twins and both served in the London Scottish regiment. They were both killed in action (within hours of each other) on 4th February 1944, having landed a day or so before, to replace the heavy losses which the Gordons had incurred. They are buried (albeit, sadly in separate graves) at the Anzio Commonwealth cemetery. On a previous visit in January 2009 we were accompanied by a school party from Newburgh, Fifeshire, together with their teachers who were researching the Cairncross twins, as they had come from Newburgh.

Our next stop was a visit to HMS Spartan Memorial which is at Anzio harbour where we held a service and laid wreaths.

Then on to the American cemetery at Nettuno where over 9000 Americans are buried, or noted on the memorials as missing. We had a service and laid wreaths here too.

We returned to Anzio and the Harbour Square for a parade and service during which our branch Chairman, Alex, laid an Italy Star Association wreath and gave a brief talk about his experience during the Anzio campaign in 1944. He ended by thanking the citizens of Anzio for their hospitality during our many visits over the years we have been returning. Taking part in each of the services and parades were the Italian Armed Forces, citizens of Anzio, the police force, nurses, standard bearers and the Armed Forces band, all standing side by side as one group.

A veteran Italian soldier dressed in his North African uniform on the opposite side of the square spotted Alex and came over to stand beside him for the rest of the parade. It turns out he had been captured at El Alamein, and as Alex was also a veteran of El Alamein, they had a lot to talk about and enjoyed a good conversation. To see them both standing together at the front of the parade really touched everyone.

The Harbour Square service and parade was really impressive and we felt honoured to be part of it. There were rows of primary school children all waving flags of different nationalities. Our lady members handed out ISA pens as well as key rings, (which had been donated by Aberdeen and Glasgow City councils) to the children. Reverend W McCulloch along with ministers from Anzio took part in all of the services that day.

The Mayor of Anzio invited the ISA North of Scotland branch for a lunch which consisted of several wonderful sea food dishes; after a long morning the refreshments were much appreciated.

After lunch we visited the REME workshop at Lavinio. Reverend W McCulloch took a short service here and Willie Gerrie and I laid a REME wreath. This is where Harry Shindler, the representative for the Italy Star Association (now living in Italy), was stationed during the Anzio campaign. Unfortunately, Harry was unable to join us for the service due to poor health.

From Lavinio we went to Peter’s Beach where there is a memorial dedicated to the Gordon Highlanders and held a brief service. We had asked Giuliana to lay a wreath on behalf of the ‘Gordons’ as they are dear to her heart. Peter’s Beach is where the ‘Gordons’ landed on 22nd January 1944. Sadly we did not have an ex Gordon Highlander in our party this year. Numbers of that regiment have declined so much now and ill health prevents those who still survive travelling back to Italy.

During the afternoon we had been invited through the British Attaché, Colonel Venn, along with Harry Shindler, to a get-together and tea at the Ambassador’s residence. It was an excellent way to finish what had been a hectic day, particularly when you realise that the veterans are all in their late 80s and early 90s!

Thursday 23rd January. Whilst some of us visited the Anzio war museum, some of the ladies did a little shopping! During a stop for coffee at a local café, Chairman Alex sat beside an Italian lady and started chatting to her in Italian – then went on to sing her a song in Italian! She was suitably bowled over and all those present applauded and had a good laugh!

In the evening, we held a dinner with 15 invited guests. The hotel put on a marvellous meal at the end of which several attendees gave speeches. Our branch Chairman presented Giuliana with a banner which has the Italy Star Association badge on it, along with the names of the battles fought during the Italian campaigns; the banner was attached to a bagpipe drone. Alex also presented Colonel Venn with a Glenfiddich hip flask and whisky miniatures. Giuliana and Filiz (the Colonel’s wife) were presented, by our treasurer Ann, with a bouquet of flowers. Each of the ladies attending was presented with a single red rose, and the gentlemen received a whisky miniature. Colonel Venn (on behalf of the guests) thanked the branch for the invitation and gave special thanks to the veterans, admiring their spirit and for them providing first-hand information relating to the Italian campaigns. We held a raffle from which most of our guests won prizes, most of which related to something Scottish. On retiring to the lounge, the evening was rounded off with a sing-song which of course had to include the ‘D-Day dodgers’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

The dinner ended a remarkable and memorable visit, and our guests thanked us for a most enjoyable evening and invited us back next year!

Friday 24th January we departed from Rome airport to Heathrow, where we went our separate ways back to our homes. It had been so good to return and pay our respects to the men and women who never came back, and to meet up with all our dear friends in Italy whom we have known for so many years.

“When you walk in peaceful lanes so green, remember us . . . . and think of what might have been – we do remember them”.

Written by Ian Leslie – January 2014