Laurence Rees: Albert Price served during the war with the 2nd battalion, the Royal Fusiliers, as a member of an anti-tank platoon. And in 1944 he found himself in Italy, about to launch an attack on one of the most famous German mountain strongholds of all, the monestary of Monte Cassino, a crucial part of the Gistav line, the German fortifications south of Rome.
Words of Albert Price: There was a big lecture, battalion lecture by the Lieutenant Colonel of the Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Evans, just prior to the big final push to break the Gustav Line as it was called, and he was telling us all about it: “It’s gonna be preceded by the biggest barrage ever, bigger than Alamein” oh, that’s nice yeah, blah, blah, blah. And then finally I remember him saying this: “We’ll go through the Germans like a knife through butter,” and we were walking back and my mate Ted said, “I’ve heard all this before Albert, don’t like the sound of it, we had that in North Africa and it ended up bloody awful”. And he was right. Coz we didn’t go through them like a knife through butter.
Laurence Rees: The main British assault on Monte Cassino was made on the 11th of May 1944.
Words of Albert Price:While were sort of waiting there, going up towards the front some of our first in action very early on, they were coming back and they were passing us and there was none of this “aye, aye mate you alrite?” none of that, they were all shattered. I’ve never seen anybody looking so grey and shattered walking back up, I thought oh dear, it doesn’t look very good does it? Anyway, we had these 6 barrel mortars that were coming over us and most of them were going over and missing us, but I felt this - a blast came - I thought ‘Christ!’ So I ran up and one bloke was, I forget his name he had ginger hair ah, ginger and I could see his face, he was dying.
Laurence Rees: Albert and his comrades did their best to shelter in slit trenches from the German shells.
Words of Albert Price: And I heard a voice and a pair of feet, I stood there and looked up and it was Lieutenant Colonel Evans, and he had one of these you know thumb sticks like Baden Powell, like the Boy Scouts, a thumb stick, he had one of them and he was right there and he said, ‘are you alright boys?’ and we said ‘yes sir.’ ‘Oh, you’re doing well, just stay there stay where you are you’re doing well boys’ and off he went and I thought he’s walking around here as though he’s on manoeuvres! Well you talk about, ah, did you see anybody brave or anything? Well he was brave, coz to do that, to walk around in that lot was amazing, was incredible I thought. He walked round to all the positions you know cheering us, boosting the men’s morale - I thought that was fantastic and sadly, 5 days later I think when they were pulling out he was in the field and a stray shell hit him and killed him outright. Now isn’t that sad, fate, you know? I was quite upset when I heard about it coz last time I’d seen him he was keeping us going and the last day of pulling back this bloody stray shell got him.
Laurence Rees: Albert, as part of an anti-tank unit, soon found that he and his comrades were a particular target for the Germans.
Words of Albert Price: And you could hear, it was this roaring sound, you could hear, boom! Right in the distance. And you could hear this shell coming like an express train - the noise it made, now that did put the wind up me. The noise of it was horrendous; boom! The ground was shaking, there was craters you know, enormous, and I thought wooh, I don’t like the sound of this. And they’d come by every 2 or 3 minutes, one of these shells would come across and there was all the other going off small arms fire, Spandau’s and all that stuff - but this was something different. Somebody told me later that it was a railway gun, that they’d pulled into the railway, so they couldn’t be bombed or anything then it would come out and they’d load it up, a great big 500 millimetre shells or something. But they frightened me. Anyway after I don’t know how long, I heard one coming and I got a nasty feeling you know ‘this is it, this is coming straight for us, they’ve got our range now’.
What they were doing, obviously they’d been getting messages from the monastery lining us up. I heard this one coming whoooooof, its tremendous Boom, boom, boom, a noise like house coming in on you. And when it finished it was just blackness. And I thought right, I mean I was pretty strong at the time, I mean we obviously we’d got a load of debris on us and I couldn’t move a muscle! I couldn’t move anything! All I could move was me eyelids and I thought oh, oh dear. And it was black. But what I felt was relief - that we were still alive. I was a bit worried when I couldn’t move anything you know I couldn’t move myself, I thought ‘God’. We were like sardines in a tin and I thought god I don’t wanna die like this thank you. What had happened apparently it overshot us, by not much probably about 6ft, and all the debris came in and buried us. I don’t know how deep it was but Taffy, I’m not trying to criticise anybody or bring him down, but he was crying and screaming, ‘get us out, get us out’ and I had a go at him I said, ‘shut up! They’ll get us out, shut up you’re using up all the air....’
We hadn’t much oxygen as it is, that’s what I thought anyway, and to be honest how long it took I don’t know it could have been 5 minutes, 10 minutes, quarter of an hour, I just don’t know - but I know that eventually I heard a voice, I could hear a voice faint and apparently it was an officer, whoever he is I take me hat off to him because he was saying ‘come on we’ve gotta get these blokes out’. So they knew we were there, but these shells were coming in and everybody was diving for cover you see. But anyway eventually I felt a spade clonk on me tin hat, I though, that’s the loveliest sound that I’ve ever heard in my life - that clunk on my tin hat I thought, oh my god. And eventually Taffy were facing me and his face with his tear stained cheeks and all the mud had gone down him and I was probably a bit hysterical, I just burst out laughing, and he was a bit annoyed he said, ‘what are you F’ing laughing at, you’re no oil painting neither are you’, I said, ‘I can’t help it Taffy!’ It must have been the shock and relief...
Laurence Rees: As he sat, recovering from this ordeal, he saw another German attack launched further down the valley.
Words of Albert Price: Anyway it must have been, midnight or 1am or whatever and all of a sudden about a 100 yards away this tremendous explosion, oh, rumble, oh, it was like a big firework display. An ammunition truck of ours had been hit got a direct hit, woof, and it went up, motor pumps and bullets and everything all going up for about half an hour you know burning out this thing. Now next morning we were told to go back over the bridge to be examined and have an interview there. And on our way there we passed this horrible sight, the driver had obviously been hit and probably petrol was all ablaze, and he was ablaze and he was kneeling at the side of his cab and he was just a cinder, he’d been burnt - I mean completely burnt - and he was still, and nobody had been to move him or anything. That turned me stomach to see that. And a bit further on there was an anti-tank gun and it obviously had a direct hit by a big shell - 88millimetre I suppose - and one half of the barrel was upside down and the other part was separate and then there was one chap there who had been blown in two actually, cut in half - and this another chap was laying there just on his back, no wounds but his face, the blast had taken all his face away.
Laurence Rees: When the war came to end, Albert found that his terrible wartime experience cast a long shadow.
Words of Albert Price: Oh, I was traumatised, I was traumatised. There’s this strange feeling that I was a stranger, coming back now. I was a stranger and its difficult. And it was difficult to settle down again. I found it so for quite a long time after being demobbed - I couldn’t gel with it somehow –Well you missed all your mates. It was back to square one and nobody seemed to care, nobody seemed to bother: ‘yeah, yeah, we won the war yeah ok you won, you and a few thousand others – yeah, ok’. It was difficult to get back with it you know. Difficult.