King pays tribute to ‘courageous’ soldiers who lost their lives at Monte Cassino

Three veterans at the ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of Battle of Monte Cassino
Three veterans at the ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of Battle of Monte Cassino - ALBERT ZAWADA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Shutterstock

King Charles paid tribute to “the courageous men and women” who lost their lives at Monte Cassino on the 80th anniversary of the pivotal Second World War battle.

The King’s tribute was delivered by the Duchess of Edinburgh as she joined 100-year-old veteran Jack Hearn at a service hosted by the British Embassy in Rome and Ambassador Lord Llewellyn at the Cassino War Cemetery.

“Coming together to honour the fallen in this hallowed ground, reminds us that the rights and freedoms we enjoy today were won at a great cost, and bring with them great responsibilities for our generations and those yet unborn,” the King said in his message.

Such sacrifice can never be forgotten.”

The King spoke of the “immense sacrifices” made by British and Commonwealth soldiers during the bloody battle, which raged from January to May 1944, noting their victory was a vital contribution to the Normandy landings that followed just a few weeks later.

“Let us pause to reflect on the immense sacrifices made by so many for the cause of freedom in Europe – perhaps ever more poignant today,” he said.

The King's tribute was delivered by the Duchess of Edinburgh
The King's tribute was delivered by the Duchess of Edinburgh - ALBERT ZAWADA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Shutterstock

Mr Hearn, who fought with the Northumberland Fusiliers in Africa and Italy, is one of the few veterans from the Battle of Monte Cassino still alive today. The highly decorated soldier attended Sunday’s ceremony with his sister, Val, and his son John, himself a veteran who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Thousands lost their lives here in Italy, and many who returned home were never the same,” Mr Hearn said in a brief address. “We remember them all today and the bitter cost of freedom.”

The Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders, used the occasion to reinforce the importance of alliances in Europe today.

“We are fortunate that allies of the past remain allies today,” he said. “In Europe, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our Nato partners, resolute in our continued commitment to European security and the freedom won by those who fought and died at Monte Cassino.”

In early 1944, British and Commonwealth troops from Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa fought and died alongside French and Polish soldiers in the campaign to wrest control of the mountain stronghold from German troops in freezing winter temperatures and heavy snow.

A total of 4,271 British and Commonwealth soldiers are buried at the Cassino War Cemetery, 289 of them unidentified.

The scene following the long and brutal Battle of Monte Cassino
The scene following the long and brutal Battle of Monte Cassino - Pictorial Parade

“It was the most horrific battle in the war,” Mr Hearn told The Telegraph by telephone from his home in Northumberland before he left for Italy. “We were terrified.”

Monte Cassino, located 85 miles south of Rome, was critical in the Germans’ efforts to hold the defensive Gustav line and it had to be taken if the Nazis were to be forced out of Italy and defeated.

Intense fighting raged for weeks around the sixth-century Benedictine abbey, which sits on a rugged 1,700 foot mountain above the town. The Germans had dug in and they turned the mountain into a lethal defensive position with mines, machine guns and booby traps until they were finally overcome by Allied soldiers.

During Sunday’s service, the Duchess of Edinburgh laid a wreath at the cemetery, together with the mayor of Cassino, Enzo Salera.

General Sanders led representatives of the armed services, including personnel from the Royal Tank Regiment, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and the Honourable Artillery Company, who also provided the Guard of Honour.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Torch of Commemoration also appeared at Cassino War Cemetery for its first official event since it was unveiled by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.