Brothers in arms return to frontline

By Steve Deane

Kiwi veterans to visit for grim battle's 70th anniversary

Veterans (from left) Brian and Eric de Lautour and Ron and Harry Taylor are heading back to Cassino. Photo / Richard Robinson
Veterans (from left) Brian and Eric de Lautour and Ron and Harry Taylor are heading back to Cassino. Photo / Richard Robinson

Eric de Lautour wouldn't be here today had his brother Brian not "claimed" him off the front lines in North Africa during World War II.

The army's policy that siblings could choose to serve together saw Eric move out of the infantry and join older brother Brian in a signals unit.

The pair were posted to Italy, where they avoided the worst of the mayhem that raged around the strategic monastery town of Cassino between January and May 1944.

The brothers are among a group of 39 Kiwi veterans from the Italian campaign who today return to Italy to attend services marking the 70th anniversary of a series of battles that claimed hundreds of New Zealand lives.

"From my point of view Cassino wasn't too bad," said Brian de Lautour, who at 98 is the oldest member of the touring party. "In the artillery we got shelled and we shelled them back. We had a few casualties but it wasn't too bad.

We had a bit of fun, too."

That fun included making "brandy, I suppose you'd call it" after a member of his unit made a still out of copper tube.

Others weren't as fortunate. Fought during the harsh Italian winter in a narrow valley that made a perfect defensive position, the four major battles at Cassino took place in atrocious conditions reminiscent of World War I trenches. Casualties were high on both sides.

Of the 2176 New Zealanders who died in Italy, 456 are buried in Cassino. A further 55 perished but do not have graves because their bodies were never recovered. Their names are instead etched on the Cassino memorial. The famous 28th Maori Battalion suffered as heavily as any unit, with 130 of the 200 soldiers who attacked the town's railway station either killed or wounded.

Like Brian de Lautour, Ron Taylor believed Cassino's notoriety was mainly due to the bombing of the 1400-year-old Benedictine monastery, Monte Cassino, that overlooked the town, and the success of the German forces in holding up the Allied advance.

"I had no problem with [Monte Cassino] being bombed," said the now 92-year-old Mr Taylor, who served as a driver throughout the entire five-month battle. "There was no doubt it was being used as an observation post. We couldn't move anywhere in the daylight."

Other phases of the Italian campaign were just as brutal. During a coach trip around northern Italy 10 years ago to mark the surrender of the German forces at Trieste, Mr Taylor visited about 10 military cemeteries.

"I looked up the graves of 27 people who were at school with me [at New Plymouth Boys' High]."

Again like Mr de Lautour, Mr Taylor claimed his younger brother, Harry, allowing the pair to serve - and survive - together.

"It will be the first time I've seen Cassino standing up," 90-year-old Harry Taylor said. "Initially when we went there it was all lying down."

Time spent in Rome on leave provided Ron Taylor with his favourite memories of Italy.

"I'm hoping to sneak back in for a few hours this time when we go back," he said. "It's not on the schedule, but what are they going to do to us?"

Who knows, the de Lautour brothers may just tag along.

"It's great to meet these chaps again," said Brian. "We talk the same language."

- NZ Herald

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