The second attack on Monte Camino 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.
With the capture of Monte Camino an important change‑round took place. The 46th Division took over that sector of the front, and the 56th Division moved to the coastal sector facing the Garigliano. We were sorry to see 201 Guards Brigade leave the division, for they had been stalwart comrades.
The London Irish had by this time reverted back to 168 Brigade, and the brigade went out of the line for the first time for two months.
The closing weeks of 1943 saw the battalion in billets in Cascano, a pleasant little town six miles from the Garigliano. The billets were poor in themselves, but luxuries to those to, whom a roof and a dry room were a palace. The second Christmas overseas was enjoyed there, and Captain Bonham‑Carter took the opportunity of presenting the battalion concert party, the “Liricals,” in an excellent show, the chief memory of which was the leader representing the Spirit of Monte Camino, and singing a song that ” They’ve put ‘S’ mines at the bottom of my garden.” It was indeed extraordinary that in between bloody and fearsome battles, in which they played their full part, the men of the concert party could produce topical jokes and sketches, and sing and dance. That, perhaps, is a gift peculiar to the British.
Throughout its war service the battalion was deeply grateful to Captain Bonham‑Carter and his assistants, notably the “Two Twerps” (Sergeant S Handcock and Sergeant E Thurston), CQMS Robinson, Corporal Hone, Rifleman Odell, and the other members of the concert party, who spent so much of their leisure hours working on behalf of the men of the battalion.
Reinforcements came to the battalion, and among the changes at that period were the appointments of Major WE Brooks, MC, as Brigade Major, Lieutenant S. Sharp as Brigade Intelligence Officer, Major Cummings taking over C Company, Lieutenant A Mace, Battalion Intelligence Officer, and Captain Crozier succeeding him as Mechanical Transport Officer.
THE COMMANDING OFFICER’S THANKS
In a special message to all ranks in the battalion, the Commanding Officer, Lieut‑Colonel Good, spoke of the two exacting trials which the battalion had undergone during the month. The first was the holding of the Sipicciano position, a long, rather inactive task under most trying conditions of weather. Owing to the wide deployment of the battalion it was not possible for much rest to, be obtained by any individual.
“With hardly a break the battalion was then committed to a mountain operation of a most exacting nature,” wrote the Commanding Officer.
“Quite apart from the physical strain of this operation combined with the most appalling weather conditions, the role of the battalion in reserve to 167 Brigade meant that our tasks and orders changed rapidly with a changing situation. As it turned out, at no time did we have the satisfaction of having a task to do and completing it to, our own satisfaction and knowing that we had achieved something definite and tangible. All the time we had to sit and ‘take it’ from enemy artillery and mortars without being able to, do very much in return. I know of no harder test of any unit.
“I have been most impressed with the magnificent way the whole battalion has come through these tests, no matter what the conditions of weather, shell‑fire, and so on were. Companies, platoons, and individuals stuck it and stuck to their job without flinching. The Brigade Commander has told me, too, how very impressed he and others have been with the cheerfulness and willing spirit apparent throughout the battalion during the whole period.
“I would like to give a special word of praise to the mortars. I am quite convinced that their accurate shooting on to Monastery Hill during the day when the Huns finally abandoned it had a great deal to do with the final quitting of that feature by the Huns. A very special word of praise and thanks is due, too, to, those from Headquarters Company, A and B Echelons, who did porter duties up the hill night after night. They were grand, and we should be more than grateful to them for their efforts.
“To all of you I should like to express my heartiest congratulations and grateful thanks for the way you have carried oil, keeping the traditions of the London Irish Rifles right at the top, where they should always be and where 1 have no doubt they will always remain.
“We have not yet quite finished with this party but I hope that we shall get a period of proper rest soon. Meantime I am sure that anything we are called on to do we can do, and that better than anybody else.”
After the capture of Fossacesia, the 2nd Battalion moved on, and a patrol from E Company found the bridges between Fossacesia and Rocca still intact, and Major Peter Grannell and G Company went forward to seize them and prevent demolition. Rocca was duly occupied, but the delaying tactics of the enemy held up a further advance a mile and a half north of the town.
Here a bridge had been blown, and a deep ravine with precipitous sides had to be crossed before a protective screen could be placed to cover the repair work. During a morning reconnaissance, Major Lofting of E Company was wounded, and later Lieutenant Gentle, who had taken over the company, was hit by shrapnel and Lieutenant Wilson took command.
There was a sharp fight to, force the ravine and the high ground beyond, and when eventually a bridgehead had been made the London Irish were relieved by a Canadian battalion and switched to the flank to clear an area down to the River Moro. This was done after several minor scraps. The battalion was firmly established along the line of the river by December 4, and though they were heavily shelled and mortared they felt secure. The Sangro Battle was over and the enemy had scuttled back five miles since the attack on his Winter Line had begun. The Irish Brigade, ably supported by the veteran 4th Armoured Brigade, had had a good, successful fight and they went to the back areas to rest.
At the end of 1943 Lieut-Colonel Ian Goff took over command of the 2nd Battalion from Lieut-Colonel H Rogers. Major HEN Bredin, DSO, MC (Royal Ulster Rifles), had earlier joined the battalion as Second-in-Command.
LIFE IN THE APENNINES
Christmas 1943 was spent by the 2nd Battalion in the lower Apennines. The battalion was scattered among the mountain villages of Pietra, San Marco, and the town of Campobasso, where they spent the nearest approach to a peace‑time Christmas that was possible.
The festive season was short-lived. On December 27 they started a move which eventually brought them into the line again in the hills near Montenero. New Year’s Eve came, and with it a blizzard which those who experienced it will never forget. The snow fell all day, gradually getting thicker and thicker. At 1600 hours G Company came across a German patrol, some forty strong, and a sharp encounter ensued. But visibility was so bad that little could be seen of the effect of the fire or of casualties to the enemy. They eventually retired and disappeared into the blizzard. At night the snow was three to four feet deep, and the next morning permission was given to withdraw the forward companies to Montenero.