After the fall of Naples and the crossing of the Sangro and Volturno rivers, in October-November 1943, fighting between the Anglo-American led United Nations and German occupation forces in southern Italy entered into a temporary stalemate.
With winter setting in the Germans were able to consolidate their “Gustav Line” defences, which ran across the peninsula south of Rome. By now several thousand Batswana were at the front.
The winter itself was especially bad, with floods along the Adriatic adding to the misery of constant sleet and snow. In the forward areas the Batswana, along with other frontline troops, were often forced to abandon their relatively comfortable billets (metal prefab shelters) for tents dug into the mud.
These at least provided greater security from enemy shelling. All along the line the Germans continued to enjoy the advantage of holding the high ground.
Perhaps the most interesting event to break the monotony of the dreary 1943-44 winter was the sudden eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The 1977 (Bangwato) and 1980 (Bakwena) Companies were camped at the foot of the volcano when the “rivers of fire” began to flow and had to thus be hastily evacuated.
Both Companies were then being transferred to the multinational US 5th Army to take part in the great battle for Monte Cassino, a historic 6th century hilltop abbey which dominated the nearby town of Cassino and the entrances to the Liri valley, which served as the route for Highway 6 leading to Rome.
The need to take the mountain became all the more desperate when an American attempt to outflank the Germans by landing at Anzio, north of the Gustav Line, became bogged down.
Batswana called Monte (Mount) Cassino “Marumong”, in this context meaning “place of bullets/shells”. The name was appropriate given that over 75,000 men were killed in the fierce five-month engagement. The battle consisted of four UN offensives, three of which ended in frustration.
Batswana, more especially 1977 Company, were prominent in the third offensive in March 1944 when they provided smoke cover for the advancing 2nd New Zealand Division.
Initially all went well with Cassino town and railway station being secured by the New Zealanders, while its castle fortress was overrun by the 4th India Division.
But, the Germans atop the strategic Monte Cassino could not be dislodged. From the now bombed out monastery they were able to pound the attackers with their artillery.
It then became the task of 1977 to dodge machine gun fire in order to establish smoke screens in front of the enemy lines.Notwithstanding their determination in the face of heavy enemy fire, the Batswana were not very successful.
High winds prevented the maintenance of a proper smokescreen. As a result they apparently received some unfair blame.
This scapegoating is noted by R.A.R Bent, who in his book 10,000 men of Africa gives a rather weak and altogether unnecessary apology for the failure. In fact, none of the other smoke Companies that were also engaged on the day enjoyed any greater success.
In the end Gustav Line was only overrun in May 1944 after a massive, bloody assault by the Polish and American 2nd Corps, British 13th Corps and a Free French Corps made up mostly of Moroccans and Algerians.
After the capture of Monte Cassino the UN forces in Italy pushed the Germans out of central Italy, taking Rome on the 4th of June 1944.
The enemy then fell back to its “Gothic Line”, a series of defences 16 kilometres deep stretching over 200 kilometres across some of the highest mountains of the Apennines. Veteran Julius Segano would later recall:
“The Gothic Line was too terrible. It was in June when we bombed that place, though the Germans we were pushing back had dug into the mountains.”
To the north was the Po valley, where industrial heartland of northern Italy was located. Beyond were the Alpine passes that led into Germany proper.
A million German troops manned the Gothic line, which came under sustained assault from August through October 1944. Keeping such large numbers of the enemy pinned down was a major allied objective.
For their part the ranks of the allied 5th and 8th Armies had been both qualitatively and quantitatively reduced to meet the demands of “Operation Overlord”, the great cross channel invasion of France.
The services of the Batswana, along with Basotho, British Indian and Mauritian, Pioneers were thus in especially high demand all along the frontline.
In August the renaissance city of Firenze (Florence) fell in bitter fighting to the 5th Army’s South African division. Within days the Pioneers of 1969 (Bakwena) Company had erected Bailey bridges across the Arno River.
Elsewhere Batswana Pioneers were busy manning ammo and petrol dumps, unloading ships, cutting roads and servicing RAF bases.
By the end of 1944, with the decline of enemy air activity, many of the Batswana H.A.A. gunners were once more assigned field firing roles, taking part in long running artillery duels.