It was one of the bloodiest campaigns fought by New Zealanders in World War II.
The freezing cold, the cloying mud and the trench warfare conditions of the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy invited comparisons with the worst of the Eastern Front.
This weekend, 70 years after the Allies finally smashed through the German forces who had dug themselves into the ancient abbey of Monte Cassino, around 40 New Zealand veterans will remember their fallen comrades at services to commemorate the anniversary of the battle.
They will be joined by Prince Harry, who will meet not only the veterans from New Zealand but also former soldiers from Britain, the US and Poland.
On Sunday the Prince will visit Monte Cassino abbey, a Benedictine monastery which was founded in the 6th century and sits atop a 520m high promontory.
It was pulverised by Allied bombers during the campaign and had to be rebuilt almost from scratch after the war.
The Prince will then attend a commemoration service for the New Zealanders at the Cassino Commonwealth War Cemetery, where he will lay a wreath.
He will be joined at the cemetery, where 456 New Zealanders are buried and another 55 whose remains were never found are commemorated, by the Governor-General, Lieutenant-General Sir Jerry Mateparae.
“It will be an honour to share this significant commemoration with veterans of the Italian campaign and to acknowledge their service to the war effort. We will also pay homage to the 2176 New Zealanders who did not return from the battlefields of Italy,” the Governor-General said.
With the youngest of the New Zealand contingent aged 89 and the oldest 98, it will probably be the last time that any veteran will visit the battlefield on which so much blood was shed.
The battle of Monte Cassino – or more correctly battles, because there were four distinct engagements between January and May 1944 – continues to loom large in the collective consciousness of New Zealand, said Trevor Matheson, the ambassador to Italy.
“I think it’s very significant for us,” Dr Matheson told the Herald this week in Rome. “It’s the battle in Italy that New Zealanders remember most because of the tragic losses. There was a great deal of blood and sacrifice.”
The abbey of Monte Cassino, and Cassino, the town beneath it, were the last major obstacles for the Allies as they tried to push north to liberate Rome following the landings at Salerno and Anzio.
But the Germans were battle-hardened, determined and well dug-into the limestone crags and ridges of the mountain, which gave them superb views of the ground below.
“Like a lion it crouched, dominating all approaches, watching every move made by the armies down below,” recalled one American veteran, Harold Bond, who served as a young lieutenant.
The Germans flooded rivers in order to obstruct armoured vehicles, laid minefields and barbed wire, and made buildings into lethal redoubts from where they directed machinegun fire at attacking Allied troops.
The Allies faced “some of the most difficult and forbidding ground ever to confront an army”, according to one account of the campaign. “It was a truly formidable prospect.”
The winter of 1944 was particularly harsh, increasing the misery and discomfort for the Allies, an eclectic combination of US rangers, Moroccan and Algerian colonial troops and imperial Indian units as well as historic British regiments such as the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Seaforth Highlanders and the Grenadier Guards.
The 2nd New Zealand Division, under the command of General Bernard Freyberg and described by one official history as “an elite formation, highly experienced and with an impressive fighting record”, was thrown into the second and third of the four battles.
The division included the famous 28th Maori Battalion, which suffered crippling losses in the fighting.
The New Zealanders attacked Cassino town and railway station while the 4th Indian Division launched an assault on Monte Cassino itself.
Under intense mortar and machinegun fire, the Kiwis had to engage in desperate street fighting, trying to take the town, which had been shattered by a massive aerial bombardment, inch by inch.
It was not until May 18, 1944, that the monastery was finally taken by Polish troops, who found that the battered German forces had simply melted away in retreat.
It is the anniversary of this victory that the New Zealand veterans, along with Polish and British contingents, will commemorate on Sunday.
“The Maori Battalion suffered phenomenal losses at Monte Cassino – more than any other New Zealand unit,” said Dr Matheson. “Freyberg was given an almost impossible task with the numbers of men he had.”
The bravery of the New Zealanders and their high losses means that the Battle of Monte Cassino ranks as one of the best known campaigns of the war.
“It’s up there with Crete, El Alamein and Tobruk,” said the ambassador.
The fact that so many dead and wounded came from a nation which at the time had a population of just over two million makes it all the more poignant.
“The sacrifice from such as small country was immense,” said Dr Matheson.