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- 06 July 2004
ITALY — THIRD VISIT
On July 17th, we arrived at Taranto.
This, my third visit within the past twelve months, will always remain in my memory as it began with a five mile march carrying our kit uphill all the way. It was hard work, but we survived and on arrival had a good wash and soon settled into the tented area that had been allocated to us. Needless to say we were all to bed early and slept like logs. We were to spend five days here and the next morning were surprised and shattered to be awakened at an unearthly hour by a bugler playing reveille in the next field where there was a contingent of infantry. The London Irish Rifles I believe.
Peering out of our tents, an awful sight came into view. Soldiers were rushing about, falling and falling out, doing everything at the double. I am sure that I was by no means the only one present who was very grateful to be an artillery man. Inevitably I was very grateful to be an artillery man. Inevitably I was in charge of the guard on my second night here. It was a very monotonous duty because there were no civilians about, we had no equipment that needed watching over, but of course it was unfortunately an essential part of army life. However, the evening I came off duty I was able to get a lift into Taranto and saw both a show and a film. The last whole day here was spent quietly and I occupied the evening with a walk over to the nearby NAAFI to sample the Marsala but it was of poor quality, like the tea!
On July 22nd, we struck camp in the morning and were taken by lorry to the railway station at Taranto. Eventually we all piled on to a train and left the town at 1930 hours. Conditions on the train were fairly crowded. We were in enclosed trucks not unlike those shown in the many pictures of people in Nazi Germany being sent to the gas chambers although of course we were not packed in to the same extent. I believe the density was about twenty five men per waggon. In fact I managed a good nights sleep considering all the problems of wartime railway travel. We pulled into Naples after a journey lasting twenty-four hours. It was a Sunday and after a short break to stretch our legs and have a bit to eat we were off again.
It was really another of those endless wartime train journeys, stopping many times and travelling very slowly. Whenever the train did stop, all the waggons shunted into one another with that familiar clank of buffers hitting buffers and anyone standing up promptly fell over, naturally to be sworn at by the recumbent bodies who softened the fall. A number of times the train came to a halt among orchards or groves of peach trees. The lads then warmed out of the waggons, gleefully collected as many ripe peaches as possible and scrambled back on board. And as far as I can remember, no one was left behind!
We finally reached our destination the next afternoon after being transferred to army trucks somewhere along the route and being taken to a large farm near Tivoli a few miles from Rome. We were informed that Tivoli was out of bounds due to the inhabitants not being very friendly, having been bombed in error by the US airforce and having suffered a lot of casualties. Whether or not this was true, I do not know. Somewhere near to the camp were the well known sulphur spring and heated pools. I never saw them, but quite a few men from the battery bathed in them. They were told the water was good for the skin and may be it was, but they acquired a most peculiar odour!
Well we quickly settled in here, met some very friendly Italians and went to their house for a chat, a glass of vino, to share our cigarettes with them and have a good old laugh over our dismal efforts to speak their language. Indeed, given half a chance, we always got on well with the Italians, especially if they had a daughter or so. July 26th and 27th were spent on sorting out and cleaning equipment and doing personal washing. In the evenings we visited our new friends and shared their seemingly endless supply of Vino Madre.
On July 28th I fulfilled a wish insofar as the historical side of my nature was concerned by obtaining a day pass to Rome, the centre of an empire as great in its time and certainly more durable than that created by the British. It too had its troubles with the Germans who had a part to play in the decline of both edifices. Hadrians tomb, the colosseum, the site of the ancient city and many lesser treasures were packed into a really busy day.
We all attended church parade on Sunday July 30th and then had to march a few miles to a rendezvous where we were inspected by HM King George VI. The second occasion since leaving the United Kingdom. That night I was in charge of the guard and by the time I came off duty the following afternoon I was tired out and went to bed early.
We were then allowed two or three peaceful days. I was able to organise the necessary transport for a visit to the dentist where I had a tooth filled. At this time my watch, which was less than a year old, sopped owing the mainspring breaking. I was able to motorcycle into Rome and have it repaired, while I waited in a little jewellers in a side street running off the junction of roads by the Colosseum. The cost was a mere one hundred lire equal to five shillings or twenty five pence. And whilst in Rome I should mention that Edie and our sergeant major had sufficient energy to climb up to the orb at the top of St Peter’s.
August 4th arrived and reluctantly we had to leave this pleasant part of Italy and the area of Rome driving northwards on a long and tiring journey lasting eighteen hours. The sometimes winding and often undulating road took us via Terni to Foligno where we established our new camp and turned in soon after our arrival at about 23 hours.
I awoke to find that I had been posted battery orderly sergeant which in the circumstances was a fairly easy duty and during the day I was able to erect my “Bivvy” alongside a row of vines bearing some delicious black grapes. The following day, a Sunday, I went to the open air church service and afterwards had to make a trip to Regimental Headquarters to get my boots repaired. Normally such matters would be dealt with through each battery quartermaster but on this occasion whilst the regiment was on the move, other arrangements had been made. Our “snob” was a north country lad who worked alongside “waxy”, the equipment repairer.
That afternoon in the middle of an Italian summer it simply poured with rain and with nothing else to do most of us turned in early. Over the next five days the regiment carried out further maintenance, practised laying out “track plans” and finally made preparations for an exercise. During this period we received a great deal of rain and one quite heavy storm, but on one of the mornings which was both sunny and very warm, my group went for a long uphill walk on a map reading exercise which we thoroughly enjoyed.
August 12 came and with it the exercise we had been preparing for. We were out all day , but seemed to have little to do although we did manage to find some very nice apples and greengages growing wild in this luscious part of Italy. Sunday 13th began with a church parade, but during the afternoon several of us visited nearby Assisi, the birth place of the Franciscan monks. Unfortunately the church dedicated to St Francis was closed but we were able to enter the church of St Clare and I was impressed by her long hair which was on display. It having been removed when she became a nun, I presume. Her preserved body was also there and was not a pretty sight I am afraid. The next morning I went to the dentist for another filling.
That same day, in the afternoon, the officers, warrant officers and sergeants of the regiment were assembled in a saucer shaped depression and were given details of the coming battle by General Sir Oliver Leese. The one item I still remember is that we were expected to reach Bologna, some twenty to thirty miles from our start lines and the other side of the mountains in which the Germans had built their “Gothic Line”, in three days. In fact it took eight months and thousands of casualties before it finally fell! So much for all the plans of mice and men
On the 15th we heard over the radio that the Allies had landed in Southern France. Were we envious! A trip to the Côte d’Azur, shall we say in the Cannes area would have been so much more acceptable than plodding through Northern Italy. What we did not know at the time was that the landing comprised five divisions of USA troops taken from the Allied armies in Italy just when we needed them and when the Germans were reinforcing and building up their defences. Not only did they have the pick of the defensive features as they slowly withdrew into previously prepared positions, but they also had more troops and later on in the year more ammunition as the British and Americans almost ran out of shells!
But to get back to day to day events. After listening to the radio announcement I finished packing up my vehicles and then went for a cooling off swim in a nearby stream. That evening we all gathered to see an open-air film called “On the edge of darkness” starring Ann Sheridan and Errol Flynn. In the morning we had little to do except put finishing touches to the packed trucks but in fact we did not move off until 2045 hours and drove all through the night in almost total darkness for our vehicle light were very dim with a small white light underneath at the rear and the usual but also dim red stop light. I can remember that at one point we came to what we thought was the rear light of the halted vehicle in front and stopped for quite a while until some enterprising person, goodness knows who, put his head through the side flap of our 15cwt truck and told us to move on. The red light in front was placed over an obstruction at about the same height as an army vehicle. We finally arrived at our new positions at Tolentino at 0600 hours on August 17th. We had journeyed only about forty miles in an easterly and slightly northerly direction, an average of five miles an hour. The reason for the nocturnal crawl was to hide from the enemy our return to the battle zone area. For the remainder of that day and over the following two days we were busy on general maintenance and other duties. We took part in a short survey scheme and one member of the regiment was injured that night when an armoured car overturned.
On August 20th, we were told that we were “in reserve” and on twelve hours notice. I celebrated the news with a sleep in the afternoon for in the present circumstances we never knew when we might be rushed off somewhere and it was wise to be a as fresh as possible if some such happening occurred. It was just before 1400 hours on the 21st that we moved off towards the front line. W e drove through some beautiful country and the Italians looked at us somewhat curiously and in general were quite friendly. In this part of Italy they had been very lucky, the war having passed them by because the Germans had not fought over their land, but had withdrawn further back to their Gothic Line Fortress.
By dawn we had just passed Sassofarrato and were approaching Pergola. May be the evening before we had had some sandwiches that had lost their pristine freshness, for, as the column halted, from every vehicle without exception there disembarked a soldier with a spade hastening into the tobacco plantation that fringed the road: organic faming was enjoying it’s birth pangs! We were now some seventeen thousand yards from the front. That morning we spent most of the time making a carrier for our jeep and in the afternoon were lucky enough to find some delicious pears, have a short sleep and then do some washing.
The morning of the 23rd was occupied by the specialists with making sure that all the battery night signs were in working order. At night, when in battle, it was most important that the two troops of guns and the battery command post could be found and identified. For this purpose we used inverted biscuit tins, each about two fee high and one foot square. Our identity number was pierced on the sides by a series of holes made by a four inch nail and a hurricane lamp was placed inside. This could been seen by anyone approaching at night either on foot or by vehicle. In the daytime our unit sign indicated who we were as it was painted on the four exterior faces of the tin. No matter what happened the signs had always to be in position and working properly. They were of particular importance to quartermasters who were forever travelling with stores, spares, rations, mails, ammunition or personal kit, looking for the battery or troop command posts.
On August 24th we moved off at 0500 hours and after a long ride had to leave our vehicles, for what reason I never found out except that perhaps the roads had not been given the all clear by the Royal Engineers, and continue on foot carrying essential equipment. After a while we had to halt and await further instructions and whilst my officer and signallers stayed on one side of the single track road, I wandered over towards the other and dumped my equipment on a shallow bank of grass and just stood and waited. A few minutes later both troop sergeants major came along and joined us as they would be needed to go back and collect the guns. I moved from my position, which was not at the edge of the road because we had been warned to keep away from such areas, and took up a similar position on the other side.
The sergeants major stopped very roughly where I had been and almost immediately there was an explosion which momentarily stunned me because there was no whine of a shell or bomb and both SM’s were lying on the ground at my feet. What had happened was that one of the SM’s had stood on and exploded a mine shattering his foot and the other had been hit in the head by stones. At that moment an officer in the Scottish Hose, I believe, drove up in his jeep and jumped out with a first aid box and both men were rapidly bandaged up. We were lent the jeep and driver and I took the casualties back to the first aid post some five miles to the rear. After seeing them in good medical hands I returned immediately and soon found the location of our battery position. That night I reckoned we had only one hours sleep. There was a lot of work to do producing “fireplans” in support of our infantry and the enemy took the opportunity to fire a few salvos in our direction.
The next four days were relatively quiet, our infantry not calling for a great deal of artillery support. I was able to make up some of the lost sleep by having half hour or so catnaps when the opportunities occurred. I had a mass of maps to sort out. We worked from those on a scale of 1/25,000 and a sheet about a yard square covered only a few miles or so in each direction. One of my jobs was to look after the main stock at the battery command post, making sure they were always in good order, so when on the move I seemed constantly to be engulfed with the things, sorting them out, changing them around, issuing and withdrawing them. They were kept in a tube shaped container which I must say preserved them in good order and kept them completely dry and clean.
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