Herbert Fries

May 2004, the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of Cassino. Amongst the veterans present we noticed a German paratrooper wearing an iron cross around his neck…something we hadn’t seen in previous years. The day of the German ceremony at Albaneta other veterans greeted him, some asking for his autograph. At last the mystery is solved, it is Gefreiter (corporal) Herbert Fries, one of the youngest holders of the Knight’s Cross in WWII, the Knight’s Cross being awarded on the 5th of September 1944. He was part of II Fallschirmjager Panzer Jager Abt. 1 and spent the days of the 21st and 22nd of May 1944 in a Panther turret in Piedimonte S. Germano.

This small town was one of the strongholds on the Senger line which, at a changeable distance of 5 and 10 kilometres, was behind the Gustav Line. After the final breakthrough of the Gustav line the Allies flooded into the Liri Valley and the Polish troops fought hard to take Piedimonte S. Germano.
Then Fries, firmly ensconced in his turret, which the Germans called "Panzerthurme", in two days slowed down the Allied advance and, together with the other soldier in the post, destroyed some 17 Polish Sherman tanks that were advancing along Route 6, Via Casilina.

On the 22nd of May 2004 I find myself in Roccasecca with Alessandro, on the banks of the Melfa river, with two Canadian veterans who had actually fought there. It is already late afternoon when a telephone call comes from our friend Luca Verrecchia, who is with Fries. He is looking for the spot where Fries was located but has not found it. We shoot off like rockets, but not before collecting the book by J. Y. Nasse “The Green Devils” which has a photograph of the position of the Panther turret.

This turns out to be on the slopes of the hill where Piedimonte S. Germano has spread westward, another two points were found at the same height in the easterly direction, towards Cassino. We go around a little, but finally the search is successful; Fries recognizes the fountain where he got water, and soon after this we arrive at the exact point where he was positioned. Now there are houses around it and the ground is cultivated.

It is 60 years since that time and the places so are changed that they have become almost unrecognisable. The site is in a dominant position overlooking the Liri Valley and Route 6, Via Casilina, providing a broad and remarkable range of fire. Now there are houses and trees, but in war time from that position it was possible to hold advancing troops in check with an effective field of fire, as happened then.

Fries recognizes the exact place, looking far down the valley to locate where the abandoned turret must have been.

He tells us that the Allies had arrived in the valley far beyond his position and he was at risk of being surrounded. After having destroyed 17 Polish tanks, whose fallen are remembered in a monument on the summit of the hill, he withdrew as had his companions.

While we look at the area the inhabitants of the nearby houses approach, being curious. As soon as they know the story, some say that they remember the distinctive turret with the cement base that was later covered with earth and now has a vineyard growing above it.

We remain until nightfall. Today too the hunting was productive.

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