Major Toby Taylor, 1st Battalion, the East Surrey Regiment, recalls the desperate advance through Italy, butterfly spotting around Cassino and British army rations, 1944.
Toby Taylor
Major Toby Taylor

Well what happened was when we landed in Sorrento and the Queen’s Brigade landed at Salerno and we formed up there and there wasn’t really very much going on. The Germans were building a line of defences what they called the Gustav - is it the Gustav line? - I get mixed up now - anyway they brought down from Germany all these slave labourers building pill boxes, built a fantastic sort of Maginot line right from the sea across through Cassino to the Adriatic which was where they were going to hold us. Well we were fighting there for month after month after month. That was why that was like the First World War. We were fighting then went back and had a rest and then have a rest and come back. It was just no movement at all. Then eventually the, well the New Zealanders failed to capture Cassino and we eventually we were up north, Cassino and the Bowl where there is no vehicle, you were 5 miles from even a track. Everything came up by Indian porters, we had Indian porters with stuff on their head and mules of course, endless mules and that was in the Bowl and then we handed over to the Poles. Because the Poles were now very much on our side and the final capture of the monastery was done by the Poles and we were a bit south of Cassino when the town, the monastery was broken and we had a second in command called Vino Fisher, well Major Fisher, well we called him Vino Fisher, and the Commanding Officer Fisher was taking us out on a patrol in rather long grass to see the lie of the land like an ordinary reconnaissance, all the company commander and Vino Fisher suddenly said “Stop!” and we all hurled ourselves to the ground and he said “There is a Camberwell Beauty” - he’d seen some special butterfly. He was a butterfly collector or something. We all got to our feet again. But I think I told you yesterday also when you do get down, you come under fire, you do get down and you do tend to automatically to try and dig yourself in. It is most peculiar, you just don’t lie still like that, you try to, it is funny how it automatically sets in, you try and be a mole. Everyone I talk to always remembers that side of it and of course today they always make the mistake of, if you hear you are being shot at you get down, but of course the bullets you hear are only a mile behind you. You are shot, you are killed by the ones you don’t hear way past you, sound travelling so slow. You don’t know you are being fired at until you suddenly get casualties. Then a second or so later you hear a crack of the shots. It is no good waiting for the bang and then getting down, that bullet has already sailed away behind you. There is quite a long pause, the time that sound travels is quite slow.
Your were talking about your rations and the Americans. Could you explain that again?
Well the Americans had a rapid turnover. They always had endless troops. So they could turn their troops. If we went in the front line we were there a week or two. If the Americans they were only there for a day or two. They could keep rotating. Therefore they need not give them proper food. They had a thing called K ration which were biscuits and chocolate, sweets and chewing gum, enough to live on for a day. It was cold. There was presumably lemonade powder or something like that. They could use their water bottle but it only lasted a day or two and then they were relieved and they could go back and have proper food but if they were going to stay in the line the length we did we wanted proper food and we had marvellous food brought right up to the front, we had our cookers with us in the front line. There were number one burners, you know them yourself.
With the containers you shove a row of containers, you put the tins in, put the number one boiler roaring away and the rations were marvellous. Compo rations. There were a box of rations, one man for 14 days or 14 men for one day. You know all this. Of course you do and it was lovely quality.
They were rather envious?
Oh absolutely. Never seen anything like it. Steak and kidney pie in a tin.
Which makes a change for them usually having everything.
Yes and of course they had no booze and we had a bottle of whisky, gin, whenever we could. Also in a place called Benevento the army took over the distillery and they turned out Benevento gin eventually from odds and ends of scraps and you could buy this Italian gin. It was not any good but it was all right. Our doctor had a hypodermic needle you know and he would inject gin into our oranges which is a useful thing for a doctor to be able to do. We had oranges quite often so we could pee a gin and orange occasionally.
The Americans were never allowed drink?
No they were never allow booze in the army, navy, air force …. no never at all. Never allowed drink around them. I mean there was local wine you could occasionally get, but the Germans had taken most of the wine. Of course the Italians kept running out saying the Germans had taken everything and they had more or less. The Germans were called … [quotes a bit of Italian] and you give them some biscuits, cigarettes and sweets, but they were very good the Italians. I think if you have got to fight a war anywhere, select somewhere like Italy. Lovely climate, nice countryside.
Another strange thing about the Americans is that when our soldiers were killed we buried them as soon as we could on the spot, put up a little cross, or a sign, made a mark on it and handed it back to headquarters so later on they could all be gathered up but you weren’t allowed to do that with the Americans. You had to leave dead Americans where they were and eventually they would send up people to get them but you weren’t meant to put them into graves, you had to leave them on top of the ground. So, anyway, at Cassino you could go on and you could find a dead American there, go left and see two dead Americans - you could use them as sign posts all over the place. Funny that. Well they came up fairly soon. The American Grave Commission were nearly all Philippinos and people like that, they were marvellous, coming up in their jeeps and take the Americans away in the middle of a battle if they could but we buried ours you see and gave a grid reference and cross if possible, but I feel very guilty after that Fort Macgregor thing, when we were burying those German paratroopers, that I did not bother to take their identity disks and I think back now a lot of them, the padre and other people were doing that, shovelling them in a bit quick and I think there must be German children now wondering what happened to Dad just because I did not bother taking the identity disk off when I buried them, just missing you know.