1ST BATTALION: THE EPIC OF ANZIO.
TOWARDS the end of 1943 the weather throughout the battle areas was appalling and the enemy, profiting by the mountainous country, the snow, rain, and mud, the poor roads and the flooded valleys, had successfully slowed up and eventually halted the Allied advance along the whole Italian front, from the Apennines to the sea. The natural defences north and south of Cassino and the lower Garigliano Valley gave the enemy an advantage, and here the Germans established the strong Gustav Line, manned by many new troops, notably highly trained mountain fighters.
Their firm resistance showed that they intended to stand on that line for the rest of the winter.
The Allied Command knew that a frontal assault would, on its own, be long and costly, and that the best chance of an early success would be an outflanking movement coupled with a frontal attack. The Germans, it was thought, would be forced to react to meet the new threat by withdrawing entirely from the main front to avoid being cut off, or to counter with reserves from such vital places as France and Yugoslavia. The Fifth Army’s right flank, based on some of the highest *mountains in central Italy, was bad country for an outflanking move, and the only alternative was a sea-borne operation. So it was decided to land an outflanking force on the western coast of Italy, about thirty miles south of Rome in the neighbourhood of the two ancient towns of Anzio, formerly Antium, birth-place of the Emperor Nero, and Nettuno.
A combined British and American force was chosen for the operation. Two divisions were to be employed in the early stages, the 3rd US Division, commanded by Major-General Truscott, which had been withdrawn from the southern front and concentrated north of Naples, and the 1st British Infantry Division, which had come to Italy from Tunisia and was concentrated south of Cerignola, on the Adriatic coast.
The secret of the 1st Division’s switch from the Eighth Army to the Fifth had to be kept closely guarded, and in due course, with its divisional signs obliterated, the 1st Division Headquarters found itself at Fifth Army Headquarters, in the royal palace of Caserta.
The plan of operations was for landings to be made on the Nettuno beaches, in the port of Anzio, itself, and on the beaches north of Anzio. The objective was to secure an initial beachhead with its right flank on the Mussolini Canal and the left flank on the Diavolo River, and possibly move forward to the dominating feature of Colli Laziali, the historical Alban Hills that loomed over the entire beachhead, and then to control the two main roads that led from Rome to, Frosinone and to Cassino. Rome, the glittering prize, lay thirty miles to the north-west.
The Alban Hills, fifteen miles from the coast, were a volcanic mass two thousand feet high, and they dominated the two roads leading to the south. One, Highway Six, passed through Valmontone and Frosinone, and the other, less important strategically, was the famous Appian Way, which ran a straight course from the Eternal City, through Cisterna and Terracina, to the south. Farther east, Cisterna was overshadowed by the massive Lepini Hills, which in places were three thousand six hundred feet high.
From Anzio a straight Roman road went due north to join the Appian Way four miles north-west of Albano. It was well made, with a good surface, and was the only good short cut. All the other roads in the beachhead area, where they were not mere tracks, branched sharply cast or west after leaving Anzio, and reached the Appian Way only by circuitous ways. As a result of there being only one main road north from the coast most of the subsequent fighting centred round it, and that was where the 1st Battalion London Irish Rifles and the rest of the 168 Brigade had their most ferocious and bitter fighting of the war.
To the cast and west of the road was a dense mass of woodland, mostly cork-oak, and all matted together by tangled undergrowth. Once unhealthy bog land and part of the notorious Pontine Marshes, large areas had been reclaimed and farming settlements had been formed. One of these was known as Aprilia and was on the main road about nine miles north of Anzio. By common consent the settlement buildings became known as the “Factory”, and they were the centre of much fierce fighting.
In the beachhead area were also numerous canals and irrigation channels and deep wadis which, when the rains fell, became quickly flooded. Some of the wadis were fifty feet deep with sheer sides, and below there was undergrowth as dense as a Central American jungle.
Preceded by mine-sweepers and guarded in the air and on the sea, the landing force set off in convoys from Salerno Bay and the Bay of Naples on the night of January 21. Enemy resistance at first was slight and the port of Anzio quickly fell to the Americans. The enemy had been taken completely by surprise. There was only a thin screen of infantry outposts and coast-watching patrols, mainly supplied by tired units sent to rest from the front farther south. But a strong counter-attack force, including seasoned paratroopers and tanks, was readily available. The weather for the first two days of the landing was perfect and the Anglo-American forces were able to build up their stores, transport, and the rest. The American 3rd Division advanced north-cast towards Cisterna, and the 1st British Division proceeded northwards up the main axis of the Anzio – Carroceto – Albano road.
The Germans reacted quickly to this new threat and a line of resistance was built up round the whole beachhead. With the help of tanks and artillery they began to contest with determination all Allied attempts to secure a firm baseline from which to branch out. Ten days after the first landing the British troops were about thirteen miles north of Anzio, and the Americans were about the same distance to the east. On the western flank the numerous parallel ridges and wadis offered adequate cover from ground observation and provided assembly areas for the enemy, as did the wadis running roughly from north to south on the other flank. The Germans had strong, natural defensive positions on the northern tip of the beachhead, which faced the snow-clad heights of the Alban Hills.
The enemy realised vividly the potential danger of the landing, and it became known that the Fuehrer himself had ordered that not merely should the Allied forces be contained but that the beachhead be expunged. It became the over-riding priority on the list of German military engagements, and reinforcements were sent not only from north Italy, but also from Germany and elsewhere. It was estimated that a counterattack force of four divisions, including an armoured division, had been assembled to drive the British and American forces back into the sea. It was in the face of this enemy build-up and the imminent threat of a German offensive on a large scale that 168 Brigade arrived at Anzio on February 2. By the evening of the following day the enemy began their effort, heralded by intense concentrations of artillery.
Their initial attacks were on the somewhat vulnerable flanks of the salient formed by the 1st Division. The intention was to cut off the salient at the root and to isolate the forces at the northern end. In the fighting that followed, men of the 24th Guards Brigade, the Gordons, the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, and others put up a magnificent fight, but the Germans succeeded in infiltrating on both flanks with tanks and heavy-calibre anti-tank guns, as well as with infantry.
There were constant thrusts, and early on the 4th, with the general position critical, 168 Brigade came under the command of the 1st Division and stood by to help.
The 1st Battalion of the Regiment had had an uneventful voyage from Pozzuoli, although there had been reports of enemy submarine activity between Anzio and Gaeta. There was also a tip and-run raid by German aircraft prior to their landing at Anzio, but the battalion suffered no harm. They landed on February 3, and the next day began to “dig in” in what was regarded as a corps “stop-line.” Heavier German attacks were expected and this line was ordered as a precaution. Hardly had the two forward companies started on this task than a change of plan was announced. The Commanding Officer received orders to take the battalion at once into the line and relieve a regiment of the Reconnaissance Corps in the area of Aprilia, or the “Factory,” on the road south of Carroceto.
By this time the formidable enemy attacks had cut across the 1st Division’s salient and the 3rd Infantry Brigade in the north prong had virtually been cut off. In addition, the enemy were developing their attacks southwards, but were being held by the 24th Guards Brigade in positions west of Aprilia to the Buonriposa Ridge. To enable the 3rd Infantry Brigade to withdraw, a counterattack was launched by the London Scottish with the assistance of the 46th Royal Tank Regiment. Good progress was made, and while fourteen British tanks stood on the former German positions, the three battalions of the 3rd Infantry Brigade were withdrawn. Despite the great difficulties of such a move in comparative daylight-it was 1715 hours and in close contact with the enemy the operation was successfully carried out. Every effort was made to bring back heavy equipment, such as anti-tank guns, but some had to be abandoned.
In order to straighten the line the London Scottish and a battalion of the Gordons were ordered to disengage from the enemy and to withdraw slightly south, together with remnants of an Irish Guards battalion who had been putting up, a great fight against heavy odds.
That was the position when the London Irish, under cover of darkness, went forward to take over from the Reconnaissance Regiment. The Germans, by sheer weight of numbers in men, tanks, and guns, had succeeded in pushing the forward troops of the 1st Division back a couple of miles, but they had failed in their main object, which was to isolate and then destroy our forces in the Campoleone area on the road north to Albano.
Aprilia stood on rising ground a little to the south-west of Carroceto and completely dominated the surrounding country. It was composed of modern houses of light construction, part of a “garden city” and with a large factory building, a school, and a church of solid construction. The “Factory” was such a prominent and favourite target for German artillery that the policy was followed that no troops should be in it but that it should be held from positions astride to east, north, and west.
D Company dug in near a road junction about half a mile to the north of Aprilia and along a spur, to link up with a Guards battalion on the left flank. Deep wadis or ditches ran almost parallel on either side and these had constantly to be patrolled day and night. B Company was on the right of Aprilia, from a road bridge across the Fosso Della Ficoccia to a road junction on the fringe of the “garden city”. C Company was directly south, between D and B Companies, also at a road junction, and they had to be prepared to support either or both of the other companies. A Company was placed to guard the left flank and to link up by strong patrols along the west side of the “Factory” area. Four anti-tank guns were sited to cover the approaches to D and B Companies from the north. There were also Vickers guns from the Carrier Platoon and mortars in support.
Battalion headquarters was established in a house to the rear of C Company, with the carriers in reserve. Here the intelligence section, under Captain Mace, had an observation-post on the upper floor and from it constant watch was kept on suspected enemy positions and movements, and also on gun flashes. The Germans, of course, were not backward in this respect too, and though they did not at first suspect that the house was being used in day-time, it was unsafe and unwise to appear. For that reason the steps outside the building leading to the upper floors could not be used in daylight, and the intelligence staff sent messages to the Commanding Officer below by telephone. B Echelon was in the rear near Anzio, and it was necessary to build up stocks of ammunition and other needs for several days in readiness for the heavy attacks which the enemy were expected to resume in force at any moment. Supplies had to be sent forward mostly at night, as the main road north was constantly being shelled. A particularly unpleasant spot was a fly-over bridge which the enemy had been prevented from destroying. The bridge was shelled day and night, and this made the job of the company quartermaster sergeants a tricky one.
The first night in Aprilia was ominously quiet. Outposts were fully manned, patrols were sent out, and everyone was on the alert. From the forward positions signal linemen worked in the utter gloom, laying a network of wires to battalion headquarters. The next day also was quiet, and enabled minor adjustments to, be made in the general defensive lay-out and to strengthen the company positions. The weather was bad, with a great deal of rain which flooded the irrigation ditches and the trenches. The whole battalion area was extremely flat, and as the Germans could see everything from their observation-posts in the hills to the north, no movement was possible by day except by single individuals making use of the wadis and ditches. The second day passed without any great alarm, and mines and wire were laid as part of the defence scheme. Hitherto, the beachhead forces had been advancing and so the supply of defence stores was meagre, but the best was done with a limited supply. During the nights of February 5-6 and February 6-7, patrols had brushes with enemy patrols, but it was obvious that the general and comparative quietness was only an enforced pause while the enemy completed his preparations for the next attack.
Shortly after two o’clock on the morning of February 7 a message was received from Brigade stating that the Germans were reliably expected to make a major effort at 0400 hours. The London Irish stood by with fixed bayonets but, apart from attempted infiltration by strong German patrols between the company positions and the 10th Royal Berkshires on the right flank, nothing serious developed. These movements by the enemy were dealt with without much difficulty.
Then shelling increased and enemy aircraft made several strafing raids on the “Factory” area. Reports continued to come in of increasing concentrations of infantry and tanks in areas off the main road two, or three miles to the north. It indicated that perhaps the Germans intended to stage a “break-through” along the road leading south to the sea. In their path were the London Irish positions at Aprilia.
Soon after 0500 hours, under cover of smoke and heavy artillery fire, the Germans attacked. D Company got the first onslaught, and then B Company. Simultaneously the Royal Berkshires on the right and the Guards on the left were also attacked.
At first the attacks were made by infantry only and they made no progress. The defenders fought grimly at close quarters with rifles, bayonets, grenades, and automatics. The attacks were kept up at intervals throughout the day, the enemy probing and testing various points in turn.
A few tanks began to appear, and by the evening D Company’s situation had become precarious. No touch was possible with the Guards on their left in daylight, and evening patrols were unable to make contact anywhere near the areas where the Guards were last known to be. It appeared that the Germans had penetrated forward and covered all approaches. In addition, enemy machine guns had been lodged in a cemetery opposite B Company, and from the shelter of the cemetery walls fire was brought down on the eastern flank of D Company. It became obvious to the Commanding Officer that the Germans were in a good position after dark to cut off D
Company completely without the rest of the battalion being able to do anything very effective to prevent him. Permission was asked to withdraw D Company slightly to conform more solidly to the localities held by A and B Companies, but this was refused. The policy was that no ground whatsoever should voluntarily be given up. That was the order throughout the beachhead forces, who thus stood in comparatively small numbers with their backs to the sea and a powerful enemy ahead.
Casualties had been mounting steadily during all the attacks, and the troops had been able to have little sleep since landing and were getting tired. However, they were confident of their ability to fight back and keep the enemy off.
Throughout the night of February 7-8 the Germans kept up the pressure both on the flanks of the 1st Division’s salient and on the centre. On the left they succeeded in surrounding positions held by the North Staffordshires, and in spite of vigorous resistance were slowly gaining possession of the tactically important Point 80 on the Buonriposa Ridge, west of Aprilia.
In the darkness they made small penetrations into, the “Factory” area, though no direct attack was made on D Company that night. The utmost vigilance was needed to distinguish friend from foe, and at times the fighting was most confused. Corporal Matthews, mechanical transport corporal of A Company, took a fifteen-hundredweight truck loaded with food and ammunition to A Company headquarters. With him as escort was a member of the Intelligence section. Nearing his destination he stopped to check the route with the dim figure of a sentry standing in the shelter of a near-by house. Corporal Matthews strolled across, unarmed, to speak to the sentry, and to his astonishment found himself addressing a fully armed German. With admirable self-possession, the corporal knocked the sentry down with his fist and the Intelligence-section escort despatched him with his pistol.
One party of Germans penetrated in the darkness as far as the London Irish mortars, one detachment of which, under Corporal E Allen, tackled them with rifles and grenades. Corporal Allen coolly propped his mortar almost vertically on ammunition boxes and fired bombs with considerable accuracy, using the primary charges only. This was an operation of extreme hazard to himself, but it succeeded and wrought great damage to the enemy.
Heavy shelling and small infantry attacks supported by tanks gave the enemy one or two small local advantages on the 8th, and though there were groups of Germans in the “Factory” area, the London Irish still controlled the approaches from the north and the lateral road leading eastwards. But the situation westwards on Buonriposa Ridge was more obscure than before.
At ten o’clock that night the Commanding Officer visited the forward companies and found their positions still intact though their numbers reduced by casualties, and the men very tired. A little later D Company reported that their forward platoon locality was empty. There had been no sound of firing and the Company Commander could only conclude that they had collapsed through utter exhaustion and had been surrounded and captured before they could put up any resistance.
That unpleasant discovery made the situation of the rest of the company more difficult, and permission was again requested to withdraw slightly to positions where mutual support could be given. But again came the order that no ground was to be given up, and the company remained at their precarious posts. Attempts to get through to D Company by patrols from the road junction held by B Company to their right were prevented by strong forces of the enemy who had infiltrated between the two companies. In the meantime, B Company were being worried by constant small attacks, and were unable to keep contact with the Royal Berkshires to the right. The main source of worry in that sector was the Fosso Della Ficoccia, which the London Irish had been unable to close with mines and into the two branches of which the Germans had penetrated.
To sum up this day, the 1st British Infantry Division’s account of the Anzio operations records: “Throughout February 8 hard and bitter fighting for the defence of Carroceto continued. Enemy pressure was extremely violent all along the front. The enemy, newly identified as the 1st Parachute Corps, using battle groups in regimental strength, had at its disposal elements of four different divisions with a total of six regiments. In addition the attack was supported by a large number of tanks and a heavier weight of artillery than had ever before been experienced in the bridgehead. The positions held by the Royal Berkshires and the London Irish astride the lateral road and in the ‘Factory’ area itself were constantly harried all day by the enemy, and especially by enemy tanks. Frequent counter-attacks were put in wherever the enemy looked like gaining ground, and although small parties did succeed in reaching the ‘Factory’ and our positions along the lateral road, no significant losses were reported in this sector. The enemy’s attempts to take the ‘Factory’ during February 7 and 8 had not succeeded in the face of 168 Brigade’s constant and stubborn resistance.”
There was little rest for the defenders on the night of February 8-9. They were by then worn out by two days of very hard, bitter, and almost continuous fighting. At 0130 hours on the 9th the two remaining platoons of D Company were heavily attacked. There came a brief message that the fight was on and then radio and telephone communications ceased.
The Germans came in at close quarters from all sides, and the platoons were cut off from the rest of the battalion. That possibility had all along been feared, but permission to withdraw the company to sounder positions had been refused. Attempts to make contact with them made no headway, even a troop of Shermans could not face the short-range fire of enemy anti-tank guns. German machine-gun fire covered all the approaches.
Attacks developed to the right and left of the London Irish front, and it was impossible to find any troops to launch an attack strong enough to break through to D Company. At daylight, still with no message from them, it was concluded that they had been completely overrun and that those who had survived the frenzied onslaughts of the enemy had been taken prisoners. It was later learned that the survivors were overwhelmed after a desperate fight in which their Company Commander and last remaining officer, Major P McMahon Mahon, was captured. Later he was severely wounded by our own gun-fire.
With the light there was no abatement in the German pressure, in fact the attacks on all sectors were redoubled in intensity and fury. The enemy put new, fresh troops into the fray, well supported by tanks and a great preponderance of artillery. Occasionally they launched explosive charges in miniature tracked vehicles operated by remote control, but they proved to be ineffective owing to the difficulties of the ground and the accurate fire from the defence.
The overwhelming of D Company allowed the enemy a means of entry into Aprilia of which he made full use to support the continuous attacks he now made on B Company and the Royal Berkshires. By about 0645 hours B Company’s plight was critical, as the left forward company of the Royal Berkshires had been subdued after a gallant fight. Two German battalions, with numerous tanks, attacked in this sector and in spite of all B Company could do, and with its Commander, Captain DA Hardy, badly wounded and many other casualties among all ranks, they were forced back. Drastic action was now called for, and the Commanding Officer took the risk of moving A Company complete from the left flank, where things appeared to be quiet, and putting in a counter-attack to regain the lost ground. Little time was available if there was to be any hope of success, and after a hurried arrangement for artillery support, A Company launched their attack. The Germans had prepared for a counter-attack and they resisted strongly. With great determination A Company managed to make some progress and reached a line along an irrigation ditch a little to the south of B Company’s lost positions.
That period will long be remembered by those who survived. There were many individual acts of gallantry by all ranks. The Germans smashed their way into one house, but were driven out by fire from a Piat gun fired by Lieutenant RM Haigh, and Rifleman Stiles, of the signals section. The officer was wounded, but he continued to direct the defence of the position, which was retrieved. At another point the paratroopers got within fifty yards of the London Irish defences and obtained a foothold in a gully which gave them temporary cover. From there they fired a machine-gun at close range, but they were put to flight after suffering casualties by Major Brooks, who fired a Bren from the upper windows of his headquarters.
All the officers of A Company were wounded, except Captain Ray Mullins. The enemy penetrated into the company positions and Captain Mullins hastily reorganised the survivors of the company and drove the Germans out. He afterwards led an assault with grenades on the Germans, who had the headquarters of B Company almost within their grasp. The enemy were again driven off with heavy losses and thirty-three prisoners were taken. During these exchanges’ Captain Mullins was wounded. At battalion headquarters Lieut.-Colonel Good and his staff were keeping in touch with the confused battle as the enemy switched their attacks in order to find a weak spot. From B Company came this message by wireless: “I am, doing all I can but it looks as if this is our last fight.” But A Company’s counter-attack eased the situation, and later the officer wirelessed: “I must apologise for my earlier despondency”.
Although they had achieved some success the enemy had been thwarted in their main design-to break through to the sea. The magnificent fight put up round the vital road leading to the south had completely foiled the plan, and there came a lull in the fighting while the enemy recovered from the severe mauling he had received.
The London Irish had suffered the loss of D Company; both A and B Companies had each been reduced to less than one-third strength; while C Company had also suffered losses, though not so grievously as the others. Three Company Commanders had become casualties, as well as a high proportion of platoon officers.
It was decided, therefore, to group A and B Companies together under C Company, and a weak company from the London Scottish came under command of the London Irish Rifles, and took over positions on C Company’s right. The main “Factory” building had been given up, and the remnants of the battalion grouped themselves round the road junction south of Aprilia near C Company’s original posts. Two composite platoons from Headquarters Company and B Echelon were formed to assist battalion headquarters in holding a central group of houses along the road leading east towards the Fossa Della Ficoccia, which was covered by the London Scottish company. The latter linked up with all that was left of the Royal Berkshire battalion, who in fierce fighting had lost even more heavily than the London Irish. They, too, had fought manfully, and the period had been most exhausting to both battalions. Later, Lieut.-Colonel Baird recorded his tribute to the “magnificent help, encouragement, and inter-regimental comradeship that existed with our friends of the London Irish.”
The enemy had taken over Buonriposa Ridge to the west, and two counter-attacks with the help of tanks had been only partly successful. The swampy, broken country had restricted the use of tanks, which were mainly directed on to the road and to house fighting.
During the evening of the 9th and 10th, the 1st British Infantry Division, taking advantage of the lull, rearranged its order of battle. 168 Brigade was south of the lateral road running east from the “Factory” area, the 24th Guards Brigade still covered the hamlet of Carroceto in the centre, and farther to the left the 3rd Infantry Brigade held positions along a wadi south of the Buonriposa Ridge. While these changes were in progress and the troops were digging in and wiring, the enemy resumed the offensive in the area held by the Guards west of the London Irish. The continued defence of the Carroceto sector by the Guards was proving an obstacle to the German plans. Although tired and weakened the Guards stood firmly, but a battalion of Scots Guards in danger of being surrounded withdrew from the battered hamlet into the perimeter defences formed by the Grenadiers across the main road below Carroceto. For his valiant defence of Carroceto Major Sydney, of the Grenadiers, was later awarded the VC.
Despite their heavy losses the Germans occupied the railway station and consolidated in the area. It seemed that with the capture of Carroceto, after three days of desperate fighting, the first phase of the enemy’s offensive was nearing its end.
At this vital period large-scale support by the British and American Air Forces came as a great relief to the beachhead garrison and gave them fresh heart. An attack by heavy bombers on the forming-up areas of the enemy was extremely accurate and effective. The bomb line appeared to be only five hundred yards in front of the Allied troops, and at battalion headquarters of the London Irish the ground shook violently throughout the attack. So tired were some of the officers and men that many of them continued to sleep in spite of the shattering noise and the trembling of the ground.
On the night of February 10-11, 168 Brigade went out of the line for a much-needed rest. Only one company of new men was sent to relieve the London Irish, yet it was stronger in numbers than the members of the battalion left in the line after the battles.
For the next few days the London Irish rested and reorganised. Reinforcements equivalent to one and a half companies arrived, but they were mostly new and inexperienced troops and included only a few old members of the battalion who had recovered from earlier wounds. The most welcome among them were Major Cantopher, who had been ill, and Captain JR Strick, fortunately well again after his wounds received at the Garigliano.
Though at rest, the area occupied by the London Irish was well within range of the enemy guns and it became very uncomfortable at times. German aircraft developed a nasty habit nightly of spraying the ground with butterfly bombs, together with a few high explosives. Unluckily these raids caused a number of casualties by direct hits on the slit trenches.
On February 15 General Alexander, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies in Italy, visited the battalion. An old friend of the London Irish from pre-war days, he said how glad he was to be able to congratulate them on their fine fight during a very critical period of the battle. This visit by the Commander-in-Chief and the days of rest greatly cheered the battalion and helped it to be ready for the next phase of the battle. In the meantime the remainder of the 56th (London) Division had arrived in the beachhead, and they went into line on the extreme westerly flank from the sea along the Fosso Della Moletta, to below Buonriposa Ridge. 168 Brigade then passed from the command of the 1st Division and became reserve brigade in the 56th Division.
While the London Irish were resting, counter-attacks were put in by British-American forces to drive the enemy from Buonriposa Ridge and also from the “Factory” and Carroceto. The “Factory” buildings and Carroceto were reduced to ruins by the heavy artillery and bombing raids of the Allies, but the enemy could not be dislodged though the “Factory” changed hands twice.
By February 15 five days had elapsed since the last German attack, and while it enabled him to reassemble his forces and prepare a firm base for the next stage, it allowed the Allied forces in the beachhead to be strengthened and regrouped.
Reports came of constant traffic on the roads and railways into Rome and on the roads leading south and south-east into Albano and Genzano. Much activity was observed in the German rear areas, and it was safely deduced that their build-up for the next phase of the all-out offensive ordered by the Fuehrer was soon to come. According to prisoners a final crushing blow was planned to split the beachhead in half and to break through to the sea at Nettuno.
At 0630 hours on February 16 the second onslaught began, and the main axis of the German attack was down the Anzio – Albano road, with diversionary thrusts on the flanks.
The plan of attack was in two phases. The first, a thrust by three divisions with two more to exploit whatever success had been achieved. To support the projected “break-through,” twenty Tigers, eighty Panthers, and a variety of assault guns and self-propelled howitzers were scheduled to be in attendance, according to plans subsequently found on an officer prisoner!
The enemy’s objectives were: the Fosso di Carrocetello, about two thousand yards down the road south towards Anzio; next, the lateral road farther south on which had been established the Corps defence-line; the third bound was the Bosco di Padiglione, the stretch of country east of the main road and which would lead to Nettuno and thus sever the Allied forces in two.
The first round in this decisive battle went to the enemy. After hard and bitter fighting, and with the help of twenty to thirty tanks, they made some progress against the 45th US Division who covered the main axis of advance. To the west 167 Brigade suffered some slight penetration from German attacks launched from Buonriposa Ridge, but further penetration southwards was prevented. The thrusts continued throughout the day, and as they gained in weight the respite given to the 1st Division and to 168 Brigade was ended.
At 0700 hours on February 17 the London Irish and the rest of the brigade moved forward into the sector held by its parent division. The battalion occupied a reserve position, this time west of the Anzio-Albano road in flat country below Buonriposa Ridge. In a direct line they were less than four miles from the sea.
The flatness of the country was deceiving. It was interspersed with wadis and ditches which, though invisible from more than a few yards away, were very deep and steep, with a mass of tangled undergrowth at the bottom. That they were there had been obvious from the map, but that they were such considerable obstacles to movement or helped to conceal movement was not realised until later. German tactics showed that they knew the ground well.
The London Irish had hardly reached their new ground than orders came to move immediately to the Buonriposa Ridge area and relieve the 7th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who were reported to be cut off and surrounded. This entailed a daylight advance, and a circuitous route was chosen in order to get reasonable cover along the wadis. The advance began at midday and at first only desultory shelling was encountered. It progressed well until in the wadis the going became heavy and slow. There were also a multitude of wide ditches which were unexpected because they did not appear on the maps.
As the leading troops emerged from the protection of the wadis they came under savage artillery, mortar, and small-arms fire, and were unable to make further progress. Casualties among officers and non-commissioned officers were heavy, and that led to some disorganisation. Since January there had been an eighty per cent. change in the personnel of the battalion owing to the need to replace losses among officers and men. Few of the new arrivals had seen each other before joining the battalion and had, in fact, been hustled into battle almost before knowing the names of their section or platoon leaders. So when more casualties among the officers and non-commissioned officers occurred, it was a more serious matter than would normally have been the case.
The situation was reported to Brigade, but most insistent orders came that the battalion must find and bring out the remnants of the Oxford and Bucks.
Strong patrols went out at night, but every effort to find the Oxford and Bucks in their reported position failed. The enemy, too, was active, but there was no major clash and in the morning the position was unchanged. The Commanding Officer visited the companies and found most of them very exhausted from a very gruelling twenty-four hours in wet weather. The new men, particularly, had not had an opportunity to get hardened or tuned up and had not thrown off the “softness” occasioned by long journeys and many days spent in reinforcement and transit camps. In addition, some of the old members of the battalion had recently come from convalescent centres.
On February 18, further efforts were made to trace the Oxford land Bucks with no result, except to bring more casualties to the battalion. That night, Lieut.-Colonel Good, exhausted by many days and nights with no sleep and little rest, was ordered by Brigadier Davidson to have a respite.
The position at that time was that in accordance with a plan prepared by the Brigadier, the London Irish, despite heavy shell and mortar fire, had got up forward as far as it possibly could. A strong, powerful blow would be needed to dislodge the Germans from their positions on the higher ground ahead.
Owing to the shelling, battalion headquarters had lost touch with the companies. Tactical Headquarters, commanded by Captain TJ Sweeney, the Adjutant, and accompanied by Captain A Mace and about ten personnel of the carrier platoon acting as headquarters defence, struggled all that night to reach the companies. They finally joined them at first light and found them sheltering in a wadi. Everyone was extremely weary and all further attack was out of the question for the moment. A Company now numbered about thirty-five men and C Company about the same. About an hour later the battalion suffered another severe blow. A stray shell landed near the resting men and Captain JR Strick, a very popular and efficient officer who had been with the London Irish from pre-war Territorial days, and CSM Flavell, were killed and Major Brooks severely wounded.
To this depressing scene arrived Major Stopford, who as Second-in-Command had assumed control of the battalion in the enforced absence of Lieut.-Colonel Good.
For a period there was now so little sleep that all days seemed to run into each other, which has made the subsequent recording of successive happenings very difficult. It was ascertained that battalion headquarters of the Oxford and Bucks were still holding out in a culvert about four hundred yards from the London Irish wadi. Part of one of their companies, also, was holding out in a ditch on their right. The Germans were very close, almost all round, and they frequently sent over showers of grenades which were unpleasant but not very effective.
Elsewhere along the beachhead line other reserve troops were brought up to make, if necessary, a final stop-line through which the enemy must not pass. If they did it would mean complete and utter disaster to the whole Anzio venture.
While the London Irish were still trying to extricate their comrades of the Oxford and Bucks the enemy resumed their main attacks down the Anzio-Carroceto road. They reached a road junction one and a half miles south of the posts held earlier by B Company in the “Factory Battle”, and started to fan out east and west of the main road. They made a heavy attack on the Allied troops on the right of the London Irish. Their effort was repulsed, but on the other side of the Anzio-Carroceto road they made some gains southwards by pushing in fresh reserves regardless of the heavy cost. Sixty tanks were used in this sector by the enemy, and two Tigers penetrated to a point on the road about half a mile behind the London Irish positions!
Fortunately they were well away on the flank, with impassable country in between! By nightfall on the 18th the battle had subsided, with the enemy holding a dangerous bulge in the apex of the beachhead. A counter-attack by American medium tanks failed to restore the position.
The enemy’s next move was rather an obvious one. It was to seize control of the fly-over bridge on the Anzio road and the lateral road running east and west from it. That move would mean a direct attack on the Corps defence-line, behind which the stop line manned by composite companies of the RASC, the REME, and the North Staffordshires, with the 3rd Infantry Brigade in reserve at the B Echelon areas. So crucial was the manpower position in the beachhead that fitters, mechanics, electricians, drivers, and transport maintenance men were thus called into the line. They dropped their spanners and seized their rifles. Even the staff of a mobile laundry had to prepare for action.
At this critical period Major-General Penney, commanding the 1st British Infantry Division, was slightly wounded by a shell near his caravan, and Major-General GWR Templer, DSO, OBE, Commander of the 56th (London) Division, took over command of the entire British sector.The next phase of the German offensive was a thrust by the LEHR Regiment 309, a crack demonstration unit which had been rushed down from Doberitz in northern Germany. The attack was against the Loyals in the east section of the lateral road. Stout-hearted resistance and judicious counterattacks threw the enemy back. Two hours later, after large bodies of German men and tanks had been observed and engaged by the gunners of the 1st Division, the enemy renewed their attacks on the Loyals. At one time hand-to-hand fighting took place in the darkness on the fly-over bridge but no ground was ceded. For over two days the fight for the bridge and the road to the cast went on, but the German effort foundered on the resolute defence of the 2nd Infantry Brigade. In the struggle at the bridge two hundred prisoners were taken.
By February 20, the back of the German offensive in the open country east of the Anzio road appeared to be broken. A breach had been made in the outer defences, but the enemy did not break through.
While this vital struggle had been going on, the London Irish and the rest of the 56th Division to the west of the beachhead had been in constant touch with the enemy, who by a process of infiltration in force sought to harry the defenders.
Outside the protection of the wadis the ground was under German observation, and any movement in daylight drew machine-gun and mortar fire, as well as artillery bursts. There was consequently a constant trickle of casualties.
Conditions were made more difficult by the fact that direct communication with brigade headquarters was impossible, except by runner. In very heavy going, and scrambling through bushes and across waterfalls, it took about two hours to get back to brigade. A telephone line had been laid but it proved to be useless. The signalmen going back along it found seventeen breaks due to the heavy shelling. There was contact by wireless, but security needs made it unwise to give a true picture of the situation.
Throughout the struggle fine work was done by brigade and also by the London Irish signals section.
At night the Germans penetrated both sides of the Irish companies and there were frequent clashes in the darkness between patrols. The result of these moves by the enemy was to break off the slender contact between the London Irish and their comrades in the Oxford and Bucks.
A plan was devised at brigade to enable the survivors of the Oxford and Bucks to be withdrawn, and this involved an attack by the London Irish on the end of a wadi held by paratroopers. They were a powerful, well-armed group, and they barred the effective rescue of the Light Infantrymen.
The London Irish by this time had again become desperately short of officers and experienced non-commissioned officers. Captain Alan Mace, the Intelligence Officer, took command of A Company in place of Major Cantopher, who was wounded. Among those left were Captain Sweeney, the Adjutant, and Captain Crozier, who had been in command of the brigade defence platoon and now had C Company, which had been reduced to between thirty and forty men. Lieutenant Little, of the Mortars, was busy extricating his carriers from a series of bogs, while Captain Miller, the signals officer, was in charge of a section at battalion headquarters slightly to the rear. At B Echelon, besides a depleted Quartermaster’s staff, there were Major H Lofting, who had only recently come out of hospital and had hardly recovered from wounds received at the Garigliano and was not at all fit, and a new officer, Lieutenant Birkenhead.
Captain Crozier and his men were ordered to clear the Germans from the wadi by means of a left hook and to come on to the wadi from that side. They set out, and none of them was seen again. Years later it became known that the company overreached the wadi and ran slap into the main German positions. Many, including Captain Crozier, were killed and many wounded and captured.
That night a reinforcement company under Major P Corbally arrived with two or three other officers. They were all from a variety of regiments, and like previous new arrivals they had had no chance of being gradually broken into battle.
The Germans now tried a new plan to break up the beachhead. It seemed that they had abandoned all hope of a break-through in force as being too costly. With fresh troops sent from Germany they tried to extend their salient to the west of the Anzio, road by insidiously gnawing off small areas of ground. The broken country held by the 56th (London) Division and the 45th and 1st American Armoured Divisions offered excellent opportunities, especially against tired troops. One such attempt was made at dawn one day, when the Germans came over in parties of twenty or thirty. One group made for battalion headquarters of the London Irish, and everyone there was on the alert. They opened fire with everything, forcing the Germans to scatter. The London Irishmen followed them up in a close encounter which finally routed them.
The Germans took refuge in a house, where they were shelled. Three Sherman tanks came up, and after a few rounds the enemy had had enough. Those who survived came out with their hands held high.
The Germans later retaliated and dropped mortar bombs into the London Irish wadi and several men were hurt. But this series of attacks petered out and a further attempt was made to extricate the Oxford and Bucks. Major Corbally and his company of new men, Y Company, tried to sweep the enemy from the wadi which still barred the way to the beleaguered men. Some progress was made, but after Major Corbally and most of his officers had been wounded the operation was called off until daylight.
Still, the London Irish had not finished. They were determined to get out the men of the Oxford and Bucks. One more attack was planned, this time in conjunction with the London Scottish and a troop of tanks. The London Irish were now very weak. The tour rifle companies were organised into one company under Captain AF Mace, with Lieutenant Riches, Lieutenant johns, and Lieutenant Sutcliffe. The staff at headquarters, including the drivers, brought the total strength up to about another company.
The attack was made in two stages. Lieutenant Sutcliffe with a small platoon captured a building known as “OP House”, on the edge of the wadi. Lieutenant johns with another platoon passed through and with the assistance of a tank, mopped up the paratroopers, and the Oxford and Bucks were safely extricated. The action was completed with only a few casualties, one of them being Lieutenant Johns, who was wounded.
At night there was a good deal of mortar fire and shelling and the Germans resumed their infiltrations. The natural defences or obstacles in the wadi were so thick that without a full-scale action it was impossible to eject them. An attack was made by the enemy on “OP House” and Lieutenant Sutcliffe and his party disappeared. It was presumed they had been either killed or captured. The Germans set up a Spandau post in the house, and a section under Corporal C Hill, crossing four hundred and fifty yards of open ground, put in a spirited counter-attack. Despite heavy fire the building was regained.
Shelling continued and there were further losses. Captain Mace and RSM J Cairns were wounded, and Major H. Lofting went forward and took over the London Irish company, which yet again was reinforced by young, inexperienced soldiers. Luckily there came a short respite and the London Irish were withdrawn from the line, only to be sent to new positions elsewhere in the Corps perimeter. While the changeover was being made a curious incident occurred at a house which the London Irish had been using as a forward casualty station, and up to then its Red Cross had been observed by the Germans.
On the previous day a section of Germans under a non-commissioned officer had tried to take possession of the regimental aid-post. The Medical Officer of the Royal Berkshires, a Czech, happened to be visiting the centre and with great courage he lectured the Germans in their own language on the contents of the Geneva Convention. He impressed the Germans so much by his harangue that the non-commissioned officer apologised and withdrew with his men. But the enemy tried again to take over the building. With a flourish of rifles and automatics another German non-commissioned officer announced that all the British personnel would be taken prisoners.
There were a number of London Irish and Royal Berkshire casualties in the regimental aid-post, and soon the Germans began to bring in their wounded. They reached an agreement with the medical orderlies that the seriously wounded on each side should be evacuated to their respective lines.
An ambulance arrived, and some of the British wounded were taken away, but the enemy found that their track back was impassable. They were thus in a predicament. The opportunity was too good to be missed, and Major H Lofting, with a section of men, rushed the German sentries and not only rescued our own wounded but captured a number of Germans.
Thus, in two days, the regimental aid-post was twice captured and retaken, once by the tongue and once by the sword.
IN February 1944 the Irish Brigade moved to the Cassino sector which, with its famous monastery and the vast bulk of Monte Cairo towering in the distance, had long held up the Allied advance towards Rome. At this time there were several changes in command. Brigadier TPD Scott, CBE, DSO, who had relinquished command of the 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles in the previous July on promotion to command 12 Brigade, returned to lead the Irish Brigade. Brigadier Nelson Russell, who had fought with the brigade for nearly eighteen months, had had his health undermined and he was ordered into hospital.
The 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles was then commanded by Lieut-Colonel Ion Goff, with Major HEN Bredin, DSO MC, as Second-in-Command, but the latter became Commanding Officer of the 6th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and was succeeded by Major J Coldwell-Horsfall, MC.