Personal diary of Gnr Arnold Day
"Apparently the Jerry has been ordered to hold on at all costs."
When we think of diaries of battles, the first thing that springs to mind are usually the official war diaries, and these are very useful. However they don’t give the colour and depth of some of the personal diaries written by ordinary soldiers.
The Museum has recently been given a collection of papers belonging to Gnr Arnold Day, of 75 Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery. They were kindly donated to us by his daughter, Dorothy Day, and include the diaries which her father wrote between 10th May 1944 and 13th May 1945.
The diary starts with the last attack on Monte Cassino. This was the location of a hilltop monastery in Italy, south of Rome. The site’s height and position made it an important part of the German defensive line, and severe fighting with heavy casualties had been taking place in the area since 17 January 1944.
Taking the monastery seemed to be an insurmountable feat. On 11th May Arnold watched the infantry troops leaving for the new offensive:
"When we saw the infantry leaving at tea-time we all felt like rushing over to them, shaking them by the hand and wishing them the best of luck, but they were laughing and joking as if they were going to a picnic instead of into the jaws of hell. It was rather a depressing sight to see the red cross men following on. …. At 2255 we stood outside the dug-out and dead on the stroke of 2300 hrs the very heavens seemed to open with an earsplitting nerve shattering roar, the sky was lit up as if by a very powerful yellow arc lamp and the whole countryside seemed alive with spurts of flame from the guns flitting across the place for all the world like a mass of gigantic fireflies."
The next day the 4th Infantry Division and 8th Indian Division managed to establish bridgeheads across the Rapido river and the nearby village of Saint Angelo was captured. On 18th May 1944, four months after the beginning of the battle, the monastery was finally taken by troops from the Polish 2nd Corps. Arnold reports seeing over 150 German paratroopers as prisoners and states that they were "a sorry looking crowd". The Battle was over but the tragedy remained:
"There was an overpowering smell of death, decay and burnt flesh it was sickening. I could see where the men had dropped in their tracks after they had been hit, their bloodstained kit scattered around. In one place by the side of two graves, there was some kit scattered around, among it were two air-mails. I picked one up, it was addressed to Pte Howes, and looking at the back I saw it was from Mrs Howes, from Camberwell. I could not resist opening it to find out if it was his mother or wife, and here are the last two lines, which is all I saw of the letter, “Take care of yourself, and come back to us. From your Loving Wife and little Daughter. xxxxx” I stood there trying to picture the little home in Camberwell, whose world lay under that heap of stones with the little rough wooden cross. I could picture the home alright, but by some queer twist the occupants were Glad and Dorothy (Arnold’s wife and daughter) and my stomach seemed to turn a complete somersault, and I hurried away."
Arnold’s Regiment moved into the Cassino area before successfully advancing on the next German defensive line. Day was discharged from the army on 12th September 1945.