In early December 1943, news then came that the 56th (London) Division had been selected to take part in a further attack on Monte Camino, the operation coinciding with an attack by the Americans on the twin feature of Monte la Difensa. Monte Camino, rising a sheer three thousand feet from the surrounding valleys, was crowned with a small monastery, and the whole feature was about six thousand yards wide and seven thousand yards in depth. The Americans were on the north-east section and the British on the south-east. The mountain was rocky, steep, and bare, and on the British side the only approach for laden men was up a steep, zigzag mule-track leading from a village called Mieli. The existence of this track was well known to the Germans and was marked on all the maps.
On the western side Monte Camino was less steep, and on the German side it sloped down to the Garigliano River. Rocca D’Evandro, a village connected by a twisting road to the valley below, was on the western side. This road was invaluable to the enemy because they could transport supplies by lorry, while our so-called mule-track was largely too steep and rough even for mules, and everything had to be manhandled. A patrol base was established in the Mieli area, and on one occasion Rifleman W. Garrod, a mechanic in the transport section, escorted three bantams carrying rations to the patrol. While leading the way in the darkness his motor-cycle and two of the bantams drove into a large shell crater filled with water. The trucks were immobilised by the water, but Rifleman Garrod repaired the damage in the dark and they set off once again. The rations got through.
MILLION DOLLAR HILL
The second attack on the mountain was timed for December 3. 169 Brigade (The Queen’s) was to attack the Monastery Peak on the east of the feature and a knife-edged spur leading south from it. 167 Brigade was to go in north and north-west from Mieli, up the axis of the mule-track, with 168 Brigade passing through later. 201 Guards Brigade was to capture the south-western part of the mountain. At the same time the 46th Division had to clear the low ground to the south-west, while the Americans, on the right, tackled Monte la Difensa. In the first part of the operation the London Irish were placed under the command of 167 Brigade.
The attack opened with a tremendous shoot by the gunners, which was the biggest bombardment since El Alamein. Everything passed overhead on to known enemy positions. The night was lit up by Bofors tracer and the cannonade from six hundred guns brought a lurid glare to the sky. General Mark Clark subsequently observed that Camino should be called the “Million Dollar Mountain” as so many shells were fired at it. The total was estimated at one thousand three hundred tons, an amount of explosive equivalent to a major air-raid on Berlin or other large German city.
The fight was a bitter one. The infantry had an almost super-human task for, despite the terrific bombardment, the Germans held on grimly to their mountain fortress. In the darkness and in drenching rain the heavily laden infantry slowly climbed the wooded lower slopes of the mountain towards the rocky barren crests. Above them, the enemy sheltered in entrenchments which had taken weeks of forced labour to prepare, and in machine‑gun posts which had been excavated out of solid rock. Lightly equipped fighting patrols went on ahead and the, assault troops followed. Air and long‑range photographs of the mountain had been studied in great detail and the way upwards had been carefully planned to a time‑table. One complete brigade passed through a narrow gap in single file. There was only room for one man at a time, but the long approach climb was carried out as planned and almost to the minute. Jumping‑off places for the assault were below the jagged peaks. There was some cover, but it was impossible to dig in. Rough sangars were hastily built, but they were inadequate against the enemy’s fire and many men were hit. The attack went in and the Germans resisted fiercely. Small vantage‑points were gained after bloody combat, but progress was slow. Almost every yard might cost a life.
For eight days everyone clung on. Rain came in torrents and the nights were intensely cold. Gradually a strangle‑hold was obtained when the Allied troops took vital ridges overlooking the German supply‑lines. The London Irish did their part. ‘A; Company captured Formelli, a small village on the track to Rocca D’Evandro, the Germans’ supply artery. 201 Brigade and 169 Brigade manfully made frontal assaults among the heights, and when the American 11th Corps secured most of the Monte la Difensa, it was the beginning of the end.
Captain DA Gibson, of the London Irish mortars, directed and co‑ordinated the mortar fire of four battalions in an all‑out effort to subdue the enemy on Monastery Hill. There was enemy counter‑fire, but the men at the mortars remained steady and their accurate shooting added to the gradual demoralisation of the enemy. The defenders of the Monastery Peak realised they were losing all chance of escape and one night the monastery was unexpectedly abandoned. Within a day or two the Germans had left the whole feature. The London Scottish passed on to Rocca D’Evandro and the London Irish were withdrawn, very wet, tired, and dirty after an eight days’ gruelling attack. They had been in it longer than anyone else, though chief credit for the success of the well‑planned operation must go to the Queen’s of 169 Brigade, the Royal Fusiliers of 167 Brigade, and the Guards, who fought with great dash and spirit despite heavy losses.
The London Irish were fairly fortunate in their casualties, which totalled about eighty. Among the killed was Lieutenant Terry Barry, a capable and gallant officer. It had been a very hard battle, requiring dogged endurance, with none of the exhilaration of the quick attack. The carrying-parties had a gruelling time. Every night almost the entire personnel of ‘A’ and ‘B’ Echelons carried supplies of all kinds up the Mieli mule‑track under constant shelling by the enemy. It was most exhausting work and the journey took several hours. Many men did it twice in a single night, a remarkable test of stamina and endurance.
The stretcher‑bearers of the battalion again worked splendidly in succouring their wounded comrades. During the occupation of Formelli a signaller of the gunners’ observation‑post party was wounded while putting down a line on the track leading to the village. Piper E Riley and Rifleman H Hughes, the stretcher-eaters of A Company, volunteered to bring him in. German machine‑guns swept the road and twice they were forced back. Undeterred, they made a third attempt by another route, reached the wounded man, and brought him back to the London Irish lines safely. Excellent work, also, was done throughout by the signals section of the London Irish under Lieutenant HD Miller. He led frequent parties to repair lines broken by enemy fire. Communications were vital, and when they were interrupted they never remained so longer than could possibly be avoided.
Many men died on Monte Camino, in the two attacks. Several months later French mountain troops trained there for the attack on the main Gustav Line, and they were so impressed with the achievement that they erected on the summit a memorial to the fallen.