October 1943

INTO ITALY.
THE invasion of southern Italy began on September 3, 1943, with the Eighth Army crossing the Straits of Messina and landing in the heel and toe of Italy. Then followed the 5th Army’s assault in the Gulf of Salerno. It was a success, but a slow and costly one. When the landing was planned there were no German troops in the Salerno area, and the 5th Army might have driven across Italy, cut off the German divisions in the south, as well as pushing north to Rome. As it was, the enemy were prepared for the landing and a bitter struggle followed.


2ND BATTALION.
Good progress had been made by the two Armies by the time the 2nd Battalion London Irish sailed from Messina to Taranto on September 24. The short voyage was uneventful, and Taranto harbour in those early days was an extraordinary sight. It looked small and insignificant on approach, but on passing through a canal underneath an ancient swing-bridge the vast inland lake was revealed.

Here were at anchor all that remained of Mussolini’s Grand Fleet, and they looked very shiny and new, having spent most of their time in harbour and not venturing far because of the ever-vigilant Royal Navy which, despite air and submarine attacks, retained control of the Mediterranean throughout the war.

After camping for five days outside Taranto, the battalion moved south of Barletta and prepared to make a further move north by sea. The transport, carriers, and anti-tank guns went by road.

Here were at anchor all that remained of Mussolini’s Grand Fleet, and they looked very shiny and new, having spent most of their time in harbour and not venturing far because of the ever-vigilant Royal Navy which, despite air and submarine attacks, retained control of the Mediterranean throughout the war.

After camping for five days outside Taranto, the battalion moved south of Barletta and prepared to make a further move north by sea. The transport, carriers, and anti-tank guns went by road.

The invasion of southern Italy continued steadily but slowly. Along the Adriatic coast it was particularly slow, because the Germans were blowing up every bridge, culvert, and road, and as there was a bridge almost every half-mile along the only main road of the coast the German plan to delay the Eighth Army worked only too well.

To prevent further delay and to expedite the invasion it was decided to land a force at Termoli, farther up the coast, and thus force the Germans to give ground in the south. The Irish Brigade took part in this move, and when they sailed from Barletta on the morning of October 5 everyone looked forward to a pleasant sea cruise with maybe a few quiet days at Termoli. But those days were not so quiet, for the reason that Termoli was well garrisoned by the Hun.

When the craft carrying the brigade arrived off Termoli harbour at 2230 hours on October 5, they were shelled from the shore. The gun-fire had more of a nuisance value than being an accurate bombardment. Commandos carried out the initial assault, followed by 36 Brigade, and then after a day or two the three Irish battalions landed.

The Commandos and 36 Brigade had been strongly counterattacked by tanks and infantry and the invaders could make no progress beyond the town. The London Irish were ordered to capture a cemetery and a small hill about three-quarters of a mile from Termoli. H and E Companies carried out the attacks and both objectives were taken after a spirited fight, in which Major Bill Westcott, commanding H Company, was wounded.

Operating with the 78th Division at this stage was the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, and a troop of the Three Rivers Regiment was attached to the battalion. They were absolutely first-class in every attack, and there was not a building, haystack, or suspicious piece of ground that did not receive their whole-hearted attention whenever an opportunity came.

The rest of the Irish Brigade made progress on the left, and then for twelve days they all remained outside Termoli while plans were made to widen the bridgehead.

There was intense patrol activity, which gradually reached Petacciato, eight miles from Termoli, while engineer parties removed the mines which the enemy had laid in the vicinity. Much useful information about the enemy and the surrounding country was obtained by the patrols. One, a battle patrol led by Lieutenant Douglas Seymour, killed a couple of suspicious-looking “civilians” who were found to be Huns in disguise and belonging to the 1/64 Panzer Grenadiers whom the battalion had met earlier in Sicily.

Sergeant H Donaghy, MM, and his patrol ambushed an enemy truck as it was returning to the German lines after delivering supplies to the forward troops. They fired heavily on the vehicle, wounding one of its occupants, but did not manage to stop it.

Petacciato, a small village on the top of rising ground on the north side of the River Sinacra, had to be taken to provide a jumping-off ground for the next major assault—the crossing of the River Trigno.

A battalion attack on a two-company front was planned, F Company on the right and G Company on the left, with E Company protecting the forming-up position and H Company in reserve. A squadron of the 44th Royal Tank Regiment was in support. At 0100 hours on the 19th a barrage opened and the attack began. F Company pushed forward; the leading platoon with Major Gibbs, brushing aside all opposition, arrived in the town five minutes after the barrage had lifted. They found the enemy still recovering from the effects of the bombardment, with most of them hiding in the houses and other buildings. They had “gone to ground.” Among them were the gun-crews of the seventy-five’s guarding the roads into the town, but most of the enemy managed to escape, as the task of systematically clearing each building was a slow one.

Later, Lieutenant O’Connor, with the leading platoon of G Company, advanced to the southern end of the village, clearing a few machine-gun posts on the way, and by dawn the rest of G Company, who had been held up by enfilade fire, succeeded in occupying the southern half. F Company also moved up during the early hours, and Petacciato fell. The battalion suffered no casualties in the actual attack, and nineteen prisoners were taken.

The next obstacle was the River Trigno, about seven thousand yards from Petacciato. On the whole it was shallow, about five feet in its deepest part, with odd sandstone patches in mid-stream. It was wide, with scrub and cover on the south side, and thickly wooded on the opposite side. The main bridge across it was still intact, but the problem whether or not a charge had been laid was not cleared up until the sappers with a platoon from E Company went down and after a short scrap with German rearguards reported that it was safe, so far as they could tell, but a thorough inspection was impossible.

An attack went in at once, led by the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and as soon as they reached the bridge it was blown up and a few culverts in the vicinity as well.

A small bridgehead was formed by the Faughs and for four days in very bad weather the London Irish waited by the river for the next move. During a temporary break in the clouds they were bombed and strafed by a few F.W. 190s, but not much harm was done.

About four thousand yards beyond the Trigno was the small town of San Salvo, which nestled comfortably on the top of a long hill. The London Irish and the Faughs were ordered to take the town, while the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers were to tackle the railway station by the side of the hill.

The attacks were made at night after a preliminary bombardment, but heavy rain made the conditions appalling. From behind the protection of dense minefields the Germans fired into the confined space of the bridgehead. F Company had a bad time. The leading platoon, with 2nd Lieutenant Marmorschtein at their head, was caught between the enemy defence fire and a minefield and had heavy casualties. The platoon tackled a German machine-gun post very bravely, but the platoon commander and most of his men were lost.

It was no use going on under those conditions. The Faughs were having a bad time too, and possibly were suffering heavier casualties. They lost their Commanding Officer, Colonel Butler, that quiet little man with an indomitable spirit who was greatly liked throughout the brigade. They had also lost two Company Commanders, Major Paddy Proctor and Major Dennis Dunn, both from the Regiment. The London Irish lost Major Geoffrey Phillips, wounded, and many good chaps, especially non-commissioned officers.

The attack had been repulsed and so the two battalions, both badly mauled, got back to the bridgehead.

The next morning in the woods alongside the Trigno the battalion suffered a great loss. Major Kevin O’Connor, the Second-in-Command, was killed by a shell when he was supervising the bringing up of supplies. Fearless, a charming and delightful personality, he was held in high esteem by everyone. The great work he did for the battalion he loved so much will live after him. The cross on his soldier’s grave beside the banks of the Trigno bears the simple epitaph ‘‘A Gallant Gentleman.’’

All that very wet day, October 28, the battalion remained on the defensive, frequently shelled by the enemy, who had amassed scores of guns. The attack on San Salvo went in again on the night of November 2—3. This time the Skins were to do it in conjunction with 36 Brigade.

They went in and this time the enemy, faltering under a terrific bombardment, lost ground and San Salvo fell.


1ST BATTALION.
The 1st Battalion left Messina two weeks after the 2nd Battalion, and their journey was not so comfortable or smooth running. They drove from Piedmonte to Messina in the first light rain of autumn, and it turned to a steady downpour by the time they reached port. The Commanding Officer and an advance party had gone on ahead, and Major Stopford, the Second-in-Command, had charge of the battalion and also of several hundred men from other battalions and formations in the brigade.

When he reported to the Movements office he was told they would have to remain at Messina until shipping became available. “Stop where?” inquired Major Stopford, and a staff-sergeant in the office pointed to a mud-flat, already awash and without the slightest sign even of a tent. Like so many Movements personnel, he was either indifferent to or ignorant of the problems of maintaining large bodies of men, and he informed Major Stopford that although the London Irish were likely to be there several days, they could not possibly use some school buildings near by, and further that the few odd lorries the battalion had with them had to sail for the mainland that night.

Major Stopford records that despite the attitude of Movements, he gave orders to move the men into the school buildings and endeavoured to retain one or two lorries to hold cooking equipment. “The Navy never alters its convoy arrangements,” said Army Movements, so Major Stopford went to see the Naval Officer-in-Command. There he got an entirely different reception.

Of course you must keep your trucks,” he was told. That, he thought, was a welcome change from the inexcusable bureaucracy of Army Movements!

In a day or two he was informed by Movements that six LCIs were available for his large party. He inspected them and found that they were intended each to hold two hundred men, but two thousand men into six LCIs just would not go. The flotilla Commander confirmed that view, and together they saw the Naval Officer-in-Command. “My dear chap,” said he, “you cannot possibly go in six LCIs,” and gave orders for Malta to be signalled so that more could be obtained.

They duly arrived and the London Irish and the brigade personnel embarked. Outside Messina Harbour the Commander asked Major Stopford: “Now, where do you want to go?” They both discovered that neither had received any orders to proceed anywhere in particular. The situation of the Brigade “O” Group was also wrapped in mystery. “I gave my guess, which was Salerno, but the Commander thought it was probably Naples, which had just been captured,” said Major Stopford later. “Well, let’s go to Salerno, and then we can have a look at the Sorrento Peninsula on the way to Naples,” replied the Commander. So off they sailed, making a slight deviation to see Stromboli in partial eruption.

In the morning they approached Salerno. “Ten LCIs carrying 168 Brigade; request berthing instructions,” was the signal from the small convoy. “What have you come for?” was the surprising reply. That was too much for the Commander. “A summer holiday,” was his response!

However, the 1st Battalion landed on the mainland of Italy and marched to a camp outside Salerno.

They spent several rather damp days in a bivouac camp near Salerno, and many visits were paid to Pompeii. Vesuvius was also seen at a distance.

By this time Naples had fallen, and 168 Brigade received orders to move to an area round Caserta, just south of the Volturno. Brigade headquarters and the 10th Royal Berkshires were in the Palace, a magnificent Baroque building, reputed to be second only to Versailles for size among the famous palaces of Europe.

English-speaking guides were in attendance to show the “invaders” round the state apartments, an example of the remarkable change that had come about in the Italian mind and outlook. Yesterday our enemies, to-day our “allies.” They were, of course, following the flowing tide of the war and wanted to make sure they were not left high and dry on the rocks!

After two or three days in this area, enlivened by performances of the very popular 56th Division Concert Party, “The Cat’s Whiskers,” in a miniature opera-house within the Palace, the London Irish rejoined the division over the Volturno. The 56th Division now consisted of 167, 168, and 169 Brigades, and the 201 Guards Brigade, and Major-General GWR Templer, formerly of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, had taken over command from Major-General Graham.

By the middle of October the Volturno River had been crossed and, supported by powerful air-raids on the railways in north and central Italy and on road transport behind the battle areas, the Fifth and Eighth Armies were pushing the Germans slowly back on the whole line from the west coast to the Apennines and across to the Adriatic.

The advance beyond the Volturno was proceeding with the 56th (London) Division on the right and the 46th Division on the left, with the 7th Armoured Division as a pivot.

On the left was flat plough-land. The main road from Naples to Rome, Highway Six, crossed the river at Capua, where the Allies had built a temporary bridge to replace the one blown up by the retreating Germans. Highway Six continued north-west across the plain for a few miles until it forked. One branch, still Highway Six, continued north and north-west towards Cassino; the other, Highway Seven, the ancient Appian Way, proceeded in a westerly direction towards the coast.

The flat country along the coast was dominated by a ridge of mountains rising to about two thousand five hundred feet from the river, and parallel to Highway Six. About ten miles from the Volturno a ridge of lesser hills, in the Calvi Risorta area, branched at right angles to the main ridge, crossing Highway Six and ending near Francolise on Highway Seven. The Germans were fighting a delaying action across both highways, concentrating on holding the high ridge on the right of the 56th Division.

It was essential to clear the ridge before the remainder of the two British divisions could make progress in the valley below. 168 Brigade crossed the Volturno near Caserta and assembled near Pignatore, while 201 Brigade carried out a series of actions, clearing the ridge on the right. The London Irish took over a forward position near Calvi Vecchia, where Highway Six crossed a deep ravine by a bridge which the Germans had destroyed. The battalion’s stay there was without incident except that any tendency to walk on sky-lines drew some very unpleasant attention from the nebelwerfers. On one of those occasions the battalion “O” Group was gathered round the orderly-room truck, and everyone scattered with remarkable rapidity. Luckily the “flying drain-pipes” were more noisy than lethal.

The Scots Guards reached the mountain village of Rocclietta, where they had been held up by strong resistance from the Germans on the Calvi Risorta ridge. The plan was for the 1st London Irish to move at night into the hills to a gully behind Rocclietta and to attack the next day through the Scots Guards. The Royal Berkshires were ordered to attack farther along the ridge towards the highway, both moves having the support of the divisional artillery. The first part of the plan involved a night march up a steep goat-track. It was a precarious journey in single file, when no body of troops is well prepared for battle. Except for an odd patrol or two there were no troops on the left flank between the London Irish and the enemy, hut the march went off well, in complete silence, which was essential.

The attack was timed for the next morning, but when the London Irish went in it was found that the enemy had withdrawn under the weight of the gunners’ fire.

Going into brigade reserve the battalion spent a few days south of the hills while preparations were made for the next move forward. American troops advanced towards Cassino on the axis of Highway Six, while the 46th Division moved parallel to the coast along Highway Seven. The 56th (London) Division was given a route along a secondary road through Teano to Roccamonfina. This village was at the foot of a large, wooded mountain, Monte San Croce, which overlooked the lower reaches of the Garigliano River. To reach it a winding road with innumerable gullies and bridges had to be traversed.

The first objective along the road was Teano, and as the London Scottish advanced towards it they met a good deal of opposition. The London Irish were given the job of capturing high ground to the east and overlooking the town, after which the Royal Berkshires were to press through towards Roccamonfina.

During a preliminary reconnaissance near a fork on Highway Six the area was bombed with some violence by American dive-bombers, causing a few casualties. On protesting to higher authority, the London Irish were not much appeased on hearing that the road-fork had been mistaken for another thirteen miles away!

After several changes in plan the attack was made, and the London Irish reached the high ground east and north of Teano. It had been held by a strong German rear-guard, some of whom were captured. The London Scottish entered an abandoned Teano, while the London Irish moved over the hills to the main road below, and the Royal Berkshires took Roccamonfina. The plan had gone very well, though there was some delay caused by enemy demolitions. They had done these with typically German thoroughness. Dozens of small bridges had been destroyed and hundreds of trees had been felled over the roads, but the Pioneer Platoon of Headquarters Company under Lance-Sergeant W. Woolf worked magnificently in removing mines and booby traps.

It was during the battle of Teano that tactical headquarters of the battalion was bombarded by enemy mortars, machine-guns, and by a thirty-seven-millimetre four-barrelled flak gun. With admirable coolness, the Adjutant, Captain T. Sweeney, the Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant S Sharp, and their staff carried on. This steadiness under fire and devotion to duty—which throughout the Italian campaign was shown by all ranks at forward headquarters—was a notable contribution to the battalion’s success.

Enemy guns also shelled the vicinity of the observation-post held by Captain LH Crocker, of the 408th Battery of the 146th Field Regiment R.A. (Royal Cardiganshire Yeomanry), on the forward slopes of the ground captured by the London Irish. Though exposed to German fire, particularly from the flak gun at short range, Captain Crocker directed the fire of his battery until the enemy guns and mortars were silenced. For his courage and outstanding coolness, which was of the utmost value to the London Irish attack, Captain Crocker received the M.C.

As the division went forward the country, with its gullies, hills, and ravines, aided the enemy in their steps to delay the advance. Progress by the Allies seemed slow to the outside world, but it had to be won with great effort on the part of all ranks, and not without losses.