2ND BATTALION – SMASHING THE GERMAN WINTER LINE.
The 2nd Battalion went out of the line while the two other brigades of the 78th Division swept on to the Sangro, along the north bank of which the enemy had built powerful defences. It was a good defence-line, with the ground forming several natural intermediate outposts. There was the river itself, fast flowing from the incessant rain and the melting snow on the hills. It was deep, with an average width of one hundred feet. The exact distance could not be accurately determined because the flow and height of the torrent varied overnight. During the day the river might be fordable, but after rain had fallen it would rage along, flooding its banks, and become not a hundred feet, but a hundred yards, wide.
Uncertainty was an additional handicap and, with the river, formed a weighty obstacle to an early advance. There was also a wooded escarpment about a thousand yards from the river and fifty feet high. This, curiously enough, offered an advantage to the attacker, because it gave complete cover from the main ridge above on which the main defences were built.
Most of the surrounding country was plough-land, thickly wooded in parts and with small, knobby hills. Towards the summit of the ridge there were wide terraces. Altogether it was bad country for tanks, and three towns, Mozzagrogna, San Maria, and Fossacesia, formed main bastions in the defences on the summit of the ridge. On the other side it gradually sloped down to the east coast and the Adriatic.
The first task was to destroy the perimeter defences along the escarpment and this was accomplished by the two other brigades. Then came the main attack on the Winter Line, and the Irish Brigade was ordered to smash the right half along Fossacesia Ridge, supported by the 4th Armoured Brigade, while the 8th Indian Division was to smash the left half.
Plans were prepared in great detail, and orders were discussed on a cloth model with the majority of the German defences pinpointed. In the meantime Mitchell bombers gave the ridge a thorough pounding.
On the night of November 20, the battalion moved forward from Casalbordino, carried on the tanks of the 44th Royal Tank Regiment. As dawn came rain started to fall and the tracks and fords leading down to the Sangro became impassable. The battalion was due to cross the river the following night, but the attempt had to be postponed as the tanks could not go on. The morning dragged as further orders were awaited, and then they were told to concentrate near the village of Paglieta. This proved to be a very gruelling cross-country march up hill and down dale, across rain-sodden plough-land and along narrow uneven tracks. Plans were again changed and three days later the London Irish were back at Casalbordino waiting for the weather to clear.
Conditions improved in a few days and when the London Irish once more reached the Sangro they crossed and found the tanks waiting for them. That night the attack on Mozzagrogna and San Maria, the left bastions of the Winter Line, was made by the 8th Indian Division. It did not altogether succeed, and to meet a confused situation plans were hurriedly readjusted. The Irish Brigade and the 4th Armoured Brigade were ordered to tackle San Maria and Li Colli, a hill to the right of the town, and then sweep through the defences of the ridge to Fossacesia.
At dawn on the 29th the 6th Royal Inniskillings and the City of London Yeomanry advanced on San Maria and Li Colli. The opposition was formidable and tank progress was slow. It was nearly dark before they had successfully completed their tasks. Meanwhile, the London Irish and the 44th Royal Tank Regiment had left the comforting shelter of the escarpment and moved forward a mile. Their object was to reach the San Maria – Fossacesia road and to smash the German defences up to and in Fossacesia.
This phase was to go in at 0830 hours next morning, and the plan had divided the German defences into seven blocks each eight hundred yards deep and four hundred yards long. All available artillery was to bombard the opening line for half an hour and then concentrate for ten minutes on each block in turn. As soon as the guns lifted from a block a squadron of tanks and a company of the London Irish were to enter it and clean up any enemy who had survived. The last three blocks in the plan were each two hundred yards deeper, so that the whole village of Fossacesia would be in the fire plan.
Squadrons and companies worked together as follows: A Squadron and F Company; B Squadron and H Company; C Squadron and G Company; while E Company was kept in reserve in the first stages and would be available to clear the northern part of the village if necessary.
Except for the fact that the tanks, which had to go forward by road through Mozzagrogna to the start-line, were delayed by a German counter-attack on the 8th Indian Division, the preliminary moves were made without difficulty. Zero hour, however, was put back an hour to 0930 hours.
The guns opened fire to the second and the attack went in in waves as arranged. It was completely successful, and by 1300 hours the ridge and Fossacesia had been cleared. The artillery had demoralised the enemy and this, coupled with the appearance of tanks and infantry from a completely unexpected direction, finished them off. Their defence fire was all prepared for a frontal assault and when put down was many hundreds of yards from our troops. Much material and many prisoners were captured at a cost of only two killed and eight wounded. It was a triumph for planning and organisation.
The Faughs completed the clean-up down to the sea, while the London Irish battle patrol mopped up the scattered farms and buildings. In the close country their work was hard, but prisoners were brought in all afternoon and evening. Some gave themselves up, others were found in wells, dug-outs, underground tunnels, in fact in every conceivable hiding-place. At one stage battalion headquarters was close to a large dug-out, which was explored by Sergeant Oakley. A party of Germans lurking in the darkness inside shot him and a guard was immediately clamped down on the shelter throughout the night. A German was caught trying to escape, and he revealed that a lieutenant and twenty men were still below. These men would not respond to calls to come out and surrender, even when the sappers started to dynamite the entrances. Later a bulldozer was brought up to block all the exits to the dugout, which became the Germans’ grave.
The next job for the London Irish was to advance through Roccamonfina and to capture Sipicciano, a village on the northern slopes of Monte San Croce and overlooking the valley before Monte Camino. It involved a trek along a mountain track on the slopes of the mountain. Enemy rear-guards were brushed aside in a brief action by B and C Companies, and as the sound of Spandau fire echoed through the woodland it was difficult to know where the main body of the enemy was. Colonel Good called a halt, his intention being to rest battalion headquarters for five minutes, but the pause actually lasted a month!
The general situation had become obscure. We held a bridgehead in the valley, and in front was Calabritto with the vast mass of Monte Camino above. Towards the left could be seen the Gari River, which became the Garigliano after merging with the Liri River. Far beyond was the great white bulk of the Monastery of Monte Cassino, with Monte Cairo towering behind. The whole panorama was one of bold grandeur, and no one then knew that they were looking at what became one of the bloodiest battle-fields of the war, where many thousands of brave men died.
Before us loomed the Gustav Line, which was regarded by the Italian Staff College as a perfect defensive position. Monte Camino was the outer bastion, and this had to be captured before any attack could be launched on the Gustav Line itself.
It was now November 3, 1943, and the Italian winter had settled in. This belied for ever in the minds of the troops the slogan “Sunny Italy.” Living in the open, two thousand feet above sea level, they learned to their cost that the Italian rainfall was a good deal heavier than our own.
The advance towards Monte Camino was complicated by the absence of decent roads, and as the stop at Sipicciano lengthened, the track there became a major supply-route and required constant rebuilding, all of which took up valuable man-power.
Meanwhile, it was necessary to find out what was happening on the left flank. Lieutenant Morley Mower, a fluent Italian speaker, was sent on a patrol to find the nearest unit in that direction. He was away all night and his absence caused some anxiety, but he turned up next morning full of information gathered from the local inhabitants. He ascertained that there was no unit on the left for several miles.
The next vital stage in the fighting on this part of the front was to be the capture of Monte Camino, a gigantic task calling for the highest possible courage and planning. The London Irish had to reconnoitre the route and it became a period of patrols to gain information in readiness for the attack. The battalion took up positions in the vicinity of Sipicciano, with battalion headquarters in the woods where earlier they had halted for “five minutes.” Most of the patrols were carried out by Captain John Strick and his battle patrol. In England he had trained “X” Platoon, a small body of picked men expert in scouting, field-craft, and commando work, with a view to possible raids across the Channel. While at home that opportunity had not come, but here in Italy Captain Strick and his happy and faithful band of warriors proved their worth.
Captain Strick had been slightly wounded in Sicily, but after a spell in hospital he had returned to command the Carrier Platoon. When orders came to form a special battle patrol he was obviously the man for it, and he selected all those who remained of his original “X” Platoon.
Now, facing Monte Camino, Captain Strick and his men carried out a number of daring and hazardous patrols, sometimes going out on to the mountain for two or more days, closely observing enemy movements and positions.
On one occasion he went out with only three men to ascertain whether the Germans still occupied a hamlet in the hills and to note their defences. With threatening rain-clouds scudding over the mountain top the party set out. All went well for two hours. They slid down precipitous cliffs, scrambled on all fours like mountain goats across steep slopes when a slip almost certainly would have meant death, and sometimes they were forced to crawl. Then the clouds burst. It rained in torrents, and as there was no cover they were soon drenched.
Bruised and scratched, they managed to snatch a short rest at occasional clumps of gorse, and eventually reached a wooded gully where they could take a longer breather and get on their feet.
While they were resting the small party heard running footsteps. They fell quickly to the ground and a German crossed their path only a few feet away. He did not see them, and after he had passed the patrol crept forward stealthily and discovered an enemy mortar post fifty yards away. It was apparent that not only were the Germans still in possession of the village, but that it was well and cunningly defended.
Without being discovered they completed their survey of the German positions and started their equally perilous journey back. The outward trek had taken them five hours, but with the advantage of having passed over the ground before their return was a little faster. They slithered down gullies and slopes and, wet through but remarkably cheerful, they reached their company lines and after a report had been sent through they had the satisfaction of hearing the German posts being thoroughly pounded by the divisional artillery.
During another patrol, which was out for thirty hours, Captain Strick was wounded in a clash with a small party of Germans, but the enemy were forced to flee and the patrol got back. Among the members of Captain Strick’s intrepid band of adventurers were Sergeant G. Murphy, Lance-Corporal J. Short, Rifleman William Scott, and Rifleman Jack Armstrong, his batman. Several of them later were killed in action.
THE BATTLE OF MONTE CAMINO.
THE first attack on Monte Camino took place in November 1943, and was carried out by 201 Guards Brigade. The attack started from the positions of the 1st Battalion London Irish in the vicinity of Sipicciano, and despite very gallant efforts the Guards were unable to complete their task. It was a stupendous one for a single brigade and eventually they were withdrawn. Their magnificent fight was in the Guards tradition, and though they were ordered back they did so coolly and methodically. Some of the ground they had taken at the foot of the mountain was held, and it became the jumping-off place for the second attack.
During the whole of November, therefore, the 1st Battalion remained around Sipicciano. There was some shelling but casualties were light. Visiting the companies on their wide front was a lengthy job and involved traversing open ground, which often drew mortar fire. This was more disturbing than accurate.
Announcement was made at this time of Lieut.-Colonel Good’s DSO, which he had been awarded for the action on Catania Plain. The irrepressible Corporal Newcombe, familiar to all 1st Battalion men as “Corporal F.,” the Post-Corporal and Piper, decided to obtain the necessary ribbon for the decoration. Inquiries at division were fruitless, but a journey to corps headquarters brought news of a Brigadier with a DSO. How he negotiated the matter with the Brigadier’s batman is not known, but “Corporal F.” obtained a DSO ribbon from one of the Brigadier’s tunics and he presented it to the Commanding Officer.
The month was very wet and the battalion still lived in “bivvies” in the open. The most common bed was leaf-mould, which though soft was seldom dry. Sleep of necessity was short, because of the need regularly to “stand-to.” If one did not happen to he on duty in the period immediately before, to get up needed considerable effort. That, of course, was part of the routine of a soldier’s life and applied to all ranks.
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.