On August 30 1944, the 1st Battalion moved up once again through Sassoferrato to Urbino. By that time the battle was on and was going well. The prepared defences were swept aside and it looked very much as if the Gothic Line had been broken. By September 1, the division was committed, with 168 Brigade in reserve. On September 4 the London Irish moved up, and then it became clear that all was not going as well as had been hoped. The Queen’s and 167 Brigade were having trouble. Some unpleasantly high features were proving a nuisance, and the River Conca was ahead.
For twenty-four hours the London Irish sat in their troop-carrying vehicles, moving only six hundred yards in daylight. At nightfall they started off in a long column, and progress was slow. The London Scottish and the Irish advance party were ahead, and daylight found the convoy climbing and crawling on bad roads in hilly country with the vehicles stretching for miles, nose to tail. The battle could be heard, and it was apparent to the old stagers that the shells were not all going the one way. Suddenly and unpleasantly the column came under shell-fire and everyone debussed and scattered. This was the battalion’s first taste of the enemy since Anzio, and it was far from welcome because nothing could be done by them in response: the Germans were still far away.
Heavier and faster came the shells and some casualties were caused, but on the whole the battalion was lucky. It became clear that there was confusion in front and there came the news that the London Scottish had been caught in their vehicles by very heavy shelling, and that Captain Harry Gallaher, Officer Commanding of the London Irish advance party, who had only recently returned to the battalion, had been wounded. The Commanding Officer and his “O” Group went on ahead, and the column followed, luckily without much more shelling.
On arriving at Morciano the London Irish heard they were urgently needed and that the battalion was to pass over the Conca, which had already been forced, and to concentrate at Croce. All went well until the leading companies reached a crossroads below Croce. They were heavily shelled and mortared from Croce and from Gemmano, a nasty-looking hill immediately to their rear. It was realised that not only was Croce very far from being captured, but that the London Irish were completely overlooked from all sides. They dispersed widely, and eventually two companies and Tactical Headquarters worked their way past the cross-roads up a hill-side which formed the ridge leading to Croce. They dug in and found themselves amongst a Royal Fusilier company who, it had been thought, were already in Croce.
In the meantime, battalion vehicles following up behind approached the crossroads, which afterwards became known as “Stonk Corner.” As the leading jeep reached it, a Spandau opened up with that peculiar viciousness so well known to those who had been under its fire before. Very soon hell was let loose on “Stonk Corner,” with eighty-eights, mortars, and the rest of the German bag of tricks. The leading drivers were brave and cool, and the whole column performed the amazing feat of turning in its own length and tore back two miles or so down the road to safety. Not one man or vehicle was lost.
Orders were received from Brigade that an attack was to be put in on San Sevino cemetery and Point 168, which was five hundred yards along the ridge to the south and in the direction of Croce. The Commanding Officer, Lieut-Colonel Baucher, had just time enough to make his reconnaissance in fading light, and was forced to point out the objectives to ‘B’ and ‘D’ Company Commanders in light so bad that the tasks were given from the map and by the aid of a compass bearing on a burning haystack. The platoon commanders, of course, had no chance at all of seeing anything but the fire, their objectives were a matter of some hazard. It was a lamentable and noticeable feature of the conduct of the campaign at that period that time for reconnaissance was rarely given by higher authority, the mistaken impression still persisting that the Germans were on the run in spite of obvious evidence to the contrary.
‘D’ Company set off, followed by ‘B’ Company. The route lay over the ridge upon which the battalion was dug in, across a valley, and up to the San Sevino Ridge. The advance of ‘D’ Company began with 18 Platoon, closely followed by the Company Commander and Tactical Headquarters. Everything was unusually quiet as the company deployed in readiness for the attack. In the stillness of the evening the surrounding countryside sprang suddenly into life. From positions very carefully concealed on their left flank, the enemy opened up machine-gun fire and pinned the entire company down. The situation was awkward, and after several fruitless attempts to go forward there was no alternative but to wait until total darkness. Supported by the gunners the company resumed its advance at 2100 hours, and when they succeeded in reaching their objective they discovered that some of the enemy had withdrawn. As 18 Platoon in the centre got almost to the top of the ridge they were fired on heavily from a house only fifty yards away. Lieutenant M Spiller, with 16 Platoon on the right, made a quick appreciation of the situation and ordered two sections to attack with grenades and Bren guns. The Germans in the house were taken completely by surprise. In a few minutes the house was more or less surrounded and all exits covered. About two hundred yards away, 17 Platoon were having a stiff fight with strong groups of Germans still holding out in houses on the outskirts of Croce. A fire plan was scarcely completed when the enemy counter-attacked, but thanks to the vigilance of the section commanders they were beaten back. Shortly afterwards there was a stronger attack, the enemy being obviously determined to sweep the London Irish from the ridge.
The company fought back magnificently in the darkness, but enemy superiority in numbers and automatic weapons gradually made itself felt and the London Irish had to fall back a hundred yards or so. In covering the withdrawal, 18 Platoon, under Sergeant S Henry and Corporal LJ Martini, fought the Germans to a standstill. For their outstanding leadership and courage they were each awarded the MM. Their platoon, also, had ultimately to move back to new defensive positions. There was hardly time for the company to recover from the two previous shocks when the Germans attacked in greater strength and for the third time. By now the London Irishmen were weary and almost exhausted, having had not a moment’s respite since launching their original attack. The Germans closed in, but every man in the company stood aggressively in his position. For fifteen minutes there was a tense struggle and suddenly, in spite of their strength, the enemy withdrew. There was a brief silence, and then a German officer shouted out that he and some of his men wanted to surrender. Major T Sweeney went forward to accept the surrender, but they.. then challenged him and without hesitation shot him down.
To avenge the death of their leader, to whom all ‘D’ Company were devoted, the men charged from their defences and although ammunition was running short shot up all the Germans in sight. After about half an hour, encirclement was threatened by German reinforcements and the company withdrew from Point 168 entirely. Seventeen enemy dead were left behind. Throughout the engagement CSM McDaid acted with conspicuous gallantry in rallying and holding his men together. He was awarded the DCM. Fine work, too, was done by the company stretcher-bearers, and another award was the MM to Rifleman WJ McDonald, of the regimental aid-post, for outstanding courage in tending the wounded. The fighting quality of each member of the company was splendid and individual praise would perhaps be unfair, but mention should be made of Rifleman Warren, of 18 Platoon, who although wounded and unable to walk covered the company’s retirement with his Bren gun and helped to ward off the enemy.
While ‘D’ Company had thus been in the thick of things, ‘B’ Company, under Major D Neill, moved through mortar-fire in the valley and reaching the cemetery put in a spirited attack upon the ridge. On reaching the “German” positions they found to their mortification and surprise that it had already been taken by elements of an armoured division on the right of the battalion. Next morning, after ‘D’ Company had been re-formed on the slopes of Croce, under Major R Hedger, MC., a further attack on Point 168 was planned. As the Commanding Officer and the two remaining Company Commanders were going into the scheme, a passing tank drew fire from the enemy. A shell landed in the observation-post, where the “O” Group were, killing three other ranks and wounding the others. Thus in twenty-four hours of re-entering battle the London Irish lost their Commanding Officer and three senior officers. In the party, also, was Major Alec Smith, of 445 Battery, 65th Field Regiment RA. He, too, was wounded, but he refused to be evacuated until he had passed on the Commanding Officer’s plan to Major DAT Brett, the Second-in-Command, who hastened up on a motor-cycle from B Echelon and took over.
The need to take Point 168 was imperative, and ‘C’ Company, under Lieutenant J Prosser, was launched at once on the hill, after a pounding from the gunners. The attack was brilliantly successful, and the hill firmly secured. The attack was made across open country under heavy fire. Sergeant R Gamble led his platoon with such dash and courage that all the Germans holding six Spandau posts were either killed or captured. Lieutenant Prosser (unhappily later killed) and Major Alec Smith received the MC as the result of this action, and Sergeant Gamble was awarded the MM. Almost all the Germans who had made the counter-attack on ‘D’ Company were disposed of, but that was a small consolation for the loss of the Commanding Officer and three Company Commanders in the first twenty-four hours of action. The Company Seconds-in-Command arrived to take over ‘C’ and ‘A’ Companies, and despite casualties to the senior officers and consequent disorganisation the battalion was prepared to stay in its positions indefinitely, and if necessary to advance.
In the meantime, the London Scottish had passed through into the valley beyond and up on to the next ridge, to occupy a farm called Il Palazzo. The 1st Welch Regiment now held the village of Croce, and thus the brigade were on a horseshoe-shaped ridge with Croce in the centre, and II Palazzo and San Sevino at the open ends. Gemmano, overlooking the London Irish from the rear, was still in German hands. This made the situation unenviable. Any movement of any sort by day brought retribution in the form of shells and mortars of all calibres. That night the London Irish buried their dead, and they lie in a cemetery near Morciano cared for and be-flowered by the local inhabitants.
After last light, surprise was caused by an order to withdraw to Morciano, leaving ‘A’ Company to cover the right flank of the London Scottish. The withdrawal was by march route by companies across country to the Conca crossing and then uphill to Morciano, a journey with more than its share of danger, but the move went fairly smoothly. ‘A’ Echelon and the Quartermaster did a splendid job, meeting the battalion with hot tea, food, and blankets. The next day it was learned that the situation was far from happy. ‘A’ Company had been heavily attacked in the morning, but had managed to hold on to a precarious but vital position. The London Scottish had failed to hold II Palazzo, and their positions in the valley were continuously and devastatingly “stonked.” But Gemmano had finally fallen to 167 Brigade, and the Welch, despite heavy casualties, still held Croce. It was not surprising that in the evening after only sixteen hours’ rest the London Irish once again set out across the Conca to return to the positions they had left the previous day.
It was realised that the San Sevino Ridge was the key to Croce, and that Croce was the key to the whole Corps line. The battalion stayed on for three days, enduring heavy bombardments and throwing back strong German patrols probing at danger-spots.
THE FINAL RECKONING
Casualties were heavy. Lieutenant Johns in the Support Company was wounded by our own twenty-five pounders; ‘D’ Company lost several killed and Lieutenant Michael Spiller and others wounded in a direct hit on a house. ‘B’ Company suffered the battalion’s greatest loss during that period, when CSM Keenan, a magnificent soldier and man, was killed in his slit trench by a mortar bomb bursting in the trees above. Lieutenant Bob Goodall and Lieutenant John Gates were wounded, and Lieutenant Alan Soutar, a newly joined officer, was killed while on a two-man patrol to find out the position at II Palazzo. That patrol had been sent out regularly every day at last light, and Lieutenant Noel Dorrity did it successfully twice across the shell-swept country, and the third time Lieutenant Soutar set out. He was accompanied by a non-commissioned officer, and his orders were to lie up on the position and to report back by wireless what he had observed. When he got within four hundred yards of his objective Lieutenant Soutar told his companion to remain in a ditch under cover, while he went forward alone.
Soon afterwards the non-commissioned officer heard Spandau fire and grenades explode. There were loud cries in German, and then in the light of a flare he saw Lieutenant Soutar firing his Tommy gun from the hip. At that moment a “stonk” came down from our own artillery behind. When it ended the non-commissioned officer found no trace of the officer, but discovered two dead Germans. Lieutenant Soutar did not return, and it was confirmed later that he was killed during his single-handed combat with the enemy by whom he was out-numbered. Lieutenant Soutar came to the London Irish from a battalion of the Highland Light Infantry-a capable and fearless officer. During the battle for the ridge the mortar platoon did some very good shoots, but drew heavy return fire which caused losses to men and carriers. Sergeant J Coduri was badly wounded when the Germans made another direct hit on a house.
On the night of September 10-11, the battalion was relieved and moved back along the old familiar road to Morciano, where vehicles took them to a delightful spot near the coast away from the shells and smells of battle.