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The Gothic Line: The Battle for San Martinaicon for Recommended story

by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Contributed by 
Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper
People in story: 
Tom Canning
Location of story: 
Italy
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A2221804
Contributed on: 
21 January 2004

In the Battle of the Gothic Line in Northern Italy during aug/sept of 1944, we were given a two day respite for rest,recreation,replacement of vital equipment and reinforcement of losses sustained so far in the Battle, which had started for us some eighteen days before. This time the 'rest' came first which was unusual,to say the least.

We enjoyed this in the company of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, whom we were supporting with our Churchill Tanks, during Sept 13 -15th, at the small Town of Cattolica with it's white sandy beaches and blue Adriatic Sea. The rest of the 21st British Tank Brigade carried on with the battle with unfortunate results for the 12th Batt. RTR, who were mauled by an 88mm German a/tank gun from the south end of Rimini Airfield.

So in the late evening of the 15th we were once more on the move to take up our positions ready for another phase of the Battle for San Martina which was proving a very difficult nut to crack, as a major feature of Coriano Ridge which along with the San Fortunato feature were contributing a great deal of Tank killing practice for the German 88mm A/T gunners.Two troops had been detailed for the next attack by both "A" and "C" companies of the Seaforths, our 5th Troop 'A' squadron 145th R.A.C. led by Lt.Graham Douse and #3 Troop led by Lt. Geof. Reynolds, whose brother was commanding 'C' Squadron.

Early on the 16th there was still a problem with this 88mm gun and so we stood down while the Artillery had a few stonks in that direction. They obviously failed to knock him out and so the Royal Navy sent up two destroyers who blasted away for half an hour before departing. It was then the turn of the RAF who made a few fighting passes and strafed everything in sight, but promising to return in the a.m. to finish him off.

As good as their word ,three spitfires appeared and strafed us as we were having breakfast which did not improve our mood. When they were sorted out they strafed the 88mm. gun area and assured us that it was taken care of and that we could proceed, unmolested with our little 'skirmish'.

So at 13:30 hours the Infantry moved off up the hill and we followed shortly afterwards to arrive at the top by 14:00 hours. By 14:05 we realised that we were in a killing ground and that the Infantry were being cut to pieces and I was running out of smoke bombs to fire over them. This was completely ineffective as a breeze from the Adriatic was wafting it away .

Around 14:10, Alf Spence,Troop leaders W/op. announced that Lt. Douse was dead and he had fallen over Cockney Taylor who could not operate his guns and so they were withdrawing. The squadron Leader, Major Lyall Lusted of Dorking Surrey, was reporting the loss of Graham to Colonel E.V. Strickland when we were hit, and the force of the shot knocked me to the floor of the turret from where I heard Sgt Trevor Williams of Bradford yell "bail out'.

I was somehow propelled upwards and outwards without apparently touching the Tank and as I passed I noted that the shot had penetrated the engine and the exhaust was perpendicular. As I landed another shot hit the turret where I normally stood ! On running around to the port side I noticed that both the Driver Charlie Bailey of Keighley , Yorks and Harold Whattingham of London were well clear and long gone !

On reaching the rear of the Tank ,I just had time to acknowledge both Trevor and Harry Gray, our gunner from Halifax Yorks. when a shell/mortar bomb landed between and scattering us. As I ran back to our lines the nebelwerfers were raining down and I was hit again. I lay there for a minute until the next salvo and was hit for a third time. All of a sudden another body was alongside and when I asked him who he was - he replied Dave Gear - I joined yesterday as a reinforcement !He was unhurt he claimed only for us to meet agin in the Hospital at Ancona where he was sporting the blackest eye I have ever seen he then said that he must have hit his head on the gun when the were knocked out !.Finally getting back to where some infantry were lying with harry Gray, who was badly wounded as I could see his kidney pulsating. I jammed his field dressing into the wound and gave him his shot of morphine ,meanwhile the Infantry were swearing at me for moving around as the firing was intense.

The firing subsided and I could only lay there and watch five of our six Tanks blazing away with the ammunition 'cooking' off for hours. Trevor was moaning and obviously in great pain but was too far away to assist and I surmised, he went into a coma and died later in the evening. I then redressed harry's wound with my field dressing and injected him with my morphine and he settled down.

We were then picked up after darkness had finally descended
and taken to the Seaforth's RAP and some sergeant jammed a cigarette into my mouth as I was obviously in shock - I didn't smoke until then !

Harry was among the first to go off and I followed on a four stretcher jeep with two other Seaforths and a Van Doo ( Quebec 22nd Regt) who had lost both legs and his morphine was wearing off.
As we passed a field the whole place was lit up with the first experimental "Artificial Moonlight", which was supposed to blind the enemy forces and allow our Infantry to just walk over the Battlefield and subdue the enemy. Instead we watched in horrified fascination as we saw a battalion of our Infantry of the 4th Div. being slaughtered.

By dawn I was tucked up in bed - on my stomach - in the CCS at Ancona, after a very long day. three days later I was thrown out to a convalescent camp where the shrapnel entry wounds and blast were coming out in a rainbow effect which meant I was unable to sleep, dress, wash or feed myself and I was thankful for the assistance of some Infantrymen. I was not able to walk far and so kept missing the M.O. Days later I caught up with him and discovered that a large burn on my left calf had become septic and was soon back in the Hospital at Ancona. A week later to the 33rd Brit. Gen Hospital in Bari where I arrived with a case of malaria, and finally an annexe to 33rd Brit, Gen at Catania Sicily for surgery, where in January 1945 I was declared fit to fight once more !
What we did not know on september 16th was that the Van Doos( Quebec 22nd regt from 3rd Brigade) had taken over the main buildings at San Martino late on the 15th when the German paratroops moved out ! When we and the Seaforths were held up by the Artillery, Navy and Air Force in hunting for ONE 88mmA/T gun on the 16th - the van doos thought we were not coming to relieve them and so moved out ! Therupon the German paratroops moved back in with 50 men - three nebelwerfers - umpteen spandaus and direct contact with THREE 88 mm A/T guns which caused all the damage. The fog of war !!!

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Telling it as it was

Posted on: 21 January 2004 by Ron Goldstein

Hi Tom
This is a first class description of what it was like. It is stories like this that justify the setting up of the site. Please keep them coming.
Best wishes and do keep well
Ron Goldstein

 

Message 2 - Telling it as it was

Posted on: 21 January 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Tom

What can I say? A magnificent account from a magnificent man.

To perhaps help others understand a little of the peril you faced, daily I might add, the German 88mm was perhaps the most successful gun of WW2.

It was designed as an AA gun. Highly manuverable, it was unusual in that it could be swung down horizontally and used as an anti-tank gun; it started to be used like this in the Western Desert. But either in its AA or A/T role it was formidable. The Germans also mounted the 88mm on a modified tank chasis as a tank destroyer, this was known at first as 'Hornet, then as 'Rhinoceros'. It came into action in February 1943; basically it was PzKpfw IV tank chassis mounted with an 88mm PAK 43/1 gun.

The 'nebelwerfer' mentioned by Tom was a German rocket launcher; a six-barrel weapon, firing six rounds every 90 seconds. The rockets produced a screeching sound, hence its allied nickname 'screaming meemies'.

I can just imagine the hellish cacophany of all these weapons going off and the allied response. Yet men, like Tom, somhow lived through this hell. We owe them a great deal.

Peter

 

Message 3 - Telling it as it was

Posted on: 21 January 2004 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Thank you both Ron and Peter for your kind comments. Some of the time we did have a bit of fun as told in my tale of "Green Envelopes at Rimini"

The big tragedy of the 88mm was ....as I understand the case....was that prior to the war, when our 3.7 AA gun was introduced we sold our 3inch AA gun to the Russians who used them as A/T guns ! Some of these were captured by the Germans and used against us in the Desert on Rommels first foray from Al Ageila,this was replaced by the 88mm shortly thereafter... ALL of the Tank men were screaming for a better gun than the 2 pounder and so the 6 pounder was brought into action - this was virtually useless against their Mark 1V. The 17 pounder was then introduced late in 1942 but there was only a few available ! Finally the 3.7AA gun was converted into an A/T gun and introduced at the battle of the Bulge in 1945 - way too late to save countless Tank casualties ! One of the idiotic excuses used by someone at the War House was that the 3.7 AA gun stood too high off the ground ! - That clown had never seen an 88mm standing at 11 feet off the ground with its 19 foot barrel pointing straight at him !

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