At the end of January the 2nd Battalion had a very acceptable rest in the Florence neighbourhood, after which they moved with the rest of the 78th Division over the mountains to the plains of the River Po at Forli. F Company was re-formed under Major Fitzgerald and Captain Desmond Fay before the battalion went into the line once more at the beginning of March.
As spring came, the battalion found that on the plains it had come into a new kind of warfare, a war of tunnelling, sniping, and periscopes, but with the luxuries of dry roads, houses, and good weather. The surprisingly dry spring was a good omen for the decisive battles to come, and the good fortune was deserved by the veterans of the Eighth Army who had had two grim winters in Italy.
A RAID AMONG THE FLOOD-BANKS
The 2nd Battalion also had a spell on the Senio flood-banks, where they were introduced to a type of warfare which had never been taught at the battle schools at home. The river was full of bends, which were helpful to both sides. At one spot it enabled a troop of Field Artillery to be deployed in such a way that the guns could be fired from the flank straight into the river with remarkable accuracy. But the bends also enabled the enemy to see everything that was going on behind our side of the banking.
It was essentially an infantryman’s war. The Germans in places were only ten yards away, and in the daytime sniping was the popular pastime. The marksmen had to be cunningly camouflaged and to fire at considerable range, otherwise they would have found difficulty in getting into position without being seen.
Anyone who unwisely poked his head over the banking in daylight, instead of using a periscope, asked for trouble. Some never did it twice. At night there were grenade duels and machine-gun and mortar “stonks,” which made life uncomfortable. The London Irish learned several good points very early. They learned not to throw grenades from established posts, but from places picked at random. They got to know, also, at what spots the German snipers fired and so avoided them.
The Senio was sunk well below the level of the ground, and below each flood-bank was a flat shelf about ten yards wide before the final drop into the river. The London Irish held the near side of the flood-bank, but in no place were they established on the inner or river side. German posts dug well in on the inner side dominated both sides of the river.
One such enemy post nestled in a bund, a form of flood-bank slightly higher than the rest and bulging in a semicircle from the river. The Germans felt secure in their post, and the London Irish decided it must be wiped out. A raid was carefully planned under the command of Lieutenant Salter. The only way into the bund was over the top, which was under constant enemy observation, or through a gap about fifteen yards wide in the centre. This gap was well covered by German snipers.
So a tunnel was started into the bund at a point near where it joined the main flood-bank. The tunnel was dug very stealthily and it was found to lead into an unused enemy dug-out on the inner side of the bund. That solved the problem of hiding the tunnel opening from the vigilant Germans. The raid was planned for three o’clock in the afternoon, when it was thought the Germans might be relaxing. The operation began with twenty-five-pounder shells exploding accurately on the far flood-bank, with the intention of keeping the Germans under cover. The raiding party then filtered through the tunnel and lined the inner side of the bund and facing the German post. A covering party scaled to the top of the flood-bank and remained hidden until an assault party of a corporal, five riflemen, and two pioneers went over the top at a selected spot under the cover of a smoke-screen. Inside a minute it was all over. Five Germans were captured, one killed and several wounded. While the pioneers hurriedly searched for mines, another section dug new protective earthworks and the bund had new masters. For this highly successful and model action Lieutenant Salter was awarded the MC.
The flood-bank war had its amusing moments. Both sides introduced verbal propaganda in the other’s language. The Germans frequently inquired: “Why sit on the flood-bank with your wives in England?” They obviously did not realise the ambiguity of the question. From our side the enemy were told: “Why be fools and wait to be annihilated?” They were also warned to reduce the number of stretcher-bearers they were using. We suspected that post reliefs were being carried out under the protection of the Red Cross armlet.
When St. Patrick’s Day came the 2nd Battalion was out of the line, and a parade was held at Forli. It was notable for a display by the massed pipes and drums of the Irish Brigade and also the pipes of the 1st Battalion.