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Reminiscenes of a Veteran Sapper - 6icon for Recommended story

by sapperawgh

Contributed by 
sapperawgh
People in story: 
Lt Andrew William Gray Hunter, MBE
Location of story: 
Italy
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A3776312
Contributed on: 
11 March 2005

5.4 Rimini, Cesena and the Po Valley

After this the pace became very hot and I was kept busy.

When our forward troops reached Rimini they halted on its outskirts as they had heard an ominous loud ticking sound and feared the Germans had left a large mine. I was sent in to see to it but all it was two metal rods banging together under the tide action in the river.

The town had been completely evacuated with all the population herder over to the north bank of the river with the only bridge demolished. When I got to the bridge site I found my batman had put up a tent for me right next to the site where the Company was building a replacement Bailey bridge and I collapsed on to the bed after some four days without sleep. I lay there for a full 18 hours dead to the world. During this time the bridge had been erected and the whole population had crossed back with much jollification, singing and drinking, and I slept right through it!!

After Rimini we moved up the main road towards Bologna and were involved in what was the last major action against the enemy at Cesena, where the 8th Army executed a left hook action around the town. Here again Basil Le May and I met up in a to-do. They had come to a mined road in poor shape which was essential for bringing round the heavy artillery and his unit had not the equipment or time to handle it. This was late at night and Brian Thompson, also a seconded South African officer of our Company, and I decided we should have a look at it while we waited for our men to join us.

We soon found it was heavily mined with mines which were quite new to us; it appeared that the Germans had run out of their fancy Teller mines and were using improvised mines not very different from those we had dealt with in East Africa explosive in a sheet metal oblong box with a loose cover lid and detonated by spikes driving down into detonators. The difference was that once armed by withdrawing a safety spike they could not be made safe by reinserting the spike. We spent the rest of the night by pulling the mines out into the adjacent ditches using a rope we purloined from a nearby Italian farm house. Believe in or not but we did this by tying the rope to the mine's handle, then standing in the ditch back to front with the rope over our shoulders and to the chant "hold him down you Zulu Warrior"' we jerked the mines out. This was done to the accompaniment of the occasional burst of machine gun fire and the odd shell, none of which came near us and we could only assume that our singing put the gunners off!!

The next day from first light things hotted up as our people battled their way along the road opposed by what we later learned to be remnants of the Afrika Korps. While this was under way we busied ourselves bringing up rubble from shell demolished houses in the nearest village and laying it on the road for about half a mile to where the road did a sharp right hand back towards Cesena with the enemy strong point just beyond the turn where they had machine gun entrenchments. The rubble was tip spread by tippers doing a running tip, which had to go to the corner and then back to town, and followed by gangs of Sappers on their bellies spreading the rubble to allow the next tipper through.

This technique at first was strange to the drivers and while I was explaining the procedure to the first tipper driver through his door window he was hit by a sniper and I had no option but to climb into his seat and take the tipper through, tipping the load on the way. We got the job done in record time (there is no better way of getting a job done than to do it under fire!!) and the Artillery sped through to their positions. At the start of the hot section of road there was a Military Policeman, standing in a deep hole he had made with only his head and shoulders above ground, who controlled all the traffic tippers and later the Artillery. I was able to ensure that none of my men ever had trouble with the MP's again right through to Austria by putting him up for a Military Medal.

At this time I learnt that I had been awarded the MBE when my OC told me that I had been put up for a Military Cross (MC) award but that this had been rejected because, in accordance with British Army award regulations that a lower order award could not be made when a higher award was held, I then held the MBE which is rated only less than the Victoria Cross and the George Cross.

While in Casena my fellows had found a deserted mansion and moved in. It was most impressive but what charmed them most of all was the fact that it had a well-stocked cellar. It was obvious that we would not be allowed to keep it and I was right for we were immediately told to vacate, as the palace was required for the Corps HQ. Needless to say in vacating a considerable quantity of the cellar contents mysteriously found their way into the platoon stores and this came useful for our Xmas dinner held shortly afterwards when in the Pommy tradition the Officer and his Sergeants served the other ranks with their turkey and plumb pudding. Just after the dinner was ended and while the servers were doing the washing up the enemy visited us with an air raid when they dropped a bomb on our explosives magazine, which we had located, in an empty area adjacent to our billets. No one was injured except we found the platoon cook lying flat and rigid near the cookhouse. We thought he had been the only casualty and rushed him to the medics, but he returned the next morning diagnosed as being drunk! Regardless of this he had done a wonderful job, always providing hot food for the working Sappers when they needed it under impossible conditions; I put him up for a mention, which he well deserved.

One incident inured us with the locals. Their Cathedral bell tower had been badly damaged by shellfire while being used by the enemy as an artillery observation post. Since it was dangerous I was given the job of demolishing it. The local Bishop was very concerned over the bell, which was very old and begged me to try and save it. I placed two rings of explosive around the tower, one inside and the other outside at about two feet apart, and when detonated as an implosion the tower crumbled down with the Bell unharmed on the top of the rubble. The Bishop almost felt it was a miracle and we were the objects of a ceremonial blessing by the entire congregation.

After Cesena, I with my platoon was attached as Engineer support to a Squadron of Lancers based at the village of Saint Alberto on the south side of the Valli di Comacchio, a large shallow lake just south of Ferrara on the Po River. A river with high flood banks on each side runs between Saint Alberto and the Valli and opposite the village there was a narrow spit of land leading up into the Valli to a farm called Casa del Bosco Forte. Our job was to hold three miles of the front at that point through the winter. The road running along the south side of the river inland was the front and I had to mine all the bridges along our area of road.

The mining was carried out with initiation by both electric and fuse detonation and it was necessary to have Sappers on a 24 hour watch at each bridge, with the watches changed at intervals. My Lance Sergeants controlled the changing of the watches, but I had to inspect each bridge for any damage to the initiation lines at both first and last lights. This I did invariably accompanied by a Lancer Officer who had his guard to see and who also was a South African on secondment. I do not recollect his name but I will always remember him as he had the disconcerting habit of wanting to discuss the latest Johannesburg Stock Exchange prices while we walked along the bridges with spandau fire ricocheting of the bridge girders!!

The nights were spent in odd excursions over into enemy areas either removing booby traps they had placed in the odd farmhouses which our patrols had discovered, or placing our own booby traps in retaliation.

One exercise we had was to recce and clear any mines on the spit running up to the Casa Del Bosco Forte which was planned to be used for an amphibious assault across the Valli to the east bank. We did this by night after the moon had set, going out for three or four nights. We had to be very cautious on this as the enemy had a machine gun emplacement on the north bank close to our crossing point at the start of the spit, and because the enemy had armed motor boats on the Valli to counter the active action of the our "partigani" who used the Valli as their route for bringing escaped or rescued airmen across from Ferrara, and the machine gunners kept a regular lighting up of the area with flares, which meant that we had to freeze repeatedly. The procedure was for me to lead, prodding my way ahead with a surveying arrow, and followed in my footsteps by a Sapper with a reel of white tape on his back, which unrolled as we proceeded leaving a line for the follow up Sappers. When I found anything I was to signal for the follow ups to proceed towards me prodding as they came. When my Sapper and I reached the end of the tape the first night and signalled we waited but no one arrived; after about an hour I sent the Sapper back to find out why and when he did not return I went back to find the group of Sappers busy lifting mines. In all I found he and I had walked through three "S" mine fields in both directions, which was enough for one night! On the subsequent nights we were more cautious.

On the last night we reached the Casa Del Bosko Forte and had a terrifying experience; as we crept up to the shell demolished buildings we heard the loud noise of tumbling masonry and imagined that the enemy were there waiting for us. Then we heard the bleating of hungry goats scrambling through the rubble. When the assault eventually took place the spit was clear. The only memento of two that I brought back from Italy was the map of the spit I had used on which is marked the position of the mines we cleared.

At the end of that winter our section of the front was taken over by three battalions of Italians; the area then became somewhat dangerous as the Italians got themselves into foxholes and when ever they thought fit would stick their rifles over the edge and fire away irrespective of direction.

My platoon and I were at the same time helping the local Partigani as engineering support, which was mainly mine clearing. The group was about 30 strong, with one woman, Maria, who was their cook and bottle washer, under the leadership of a magnificent man who went under the code name of "Colonel Bullo" and who was eventually awarded the Italian equivalent of the D.S.O. They kept the escape line open with boats across the Valli di Comacchio from Ferrara for escaped prisoners and shot down airmen, as well as providing harassment to the enemy in the area. Maria kept me supplied with ricotta cheesecakes, which she swapped for bottles of "Ish" brandy.

One memory I have of these Partigani was dinner in an old farmhouse where we all sat in a room at tables arranged around a massive bed in which an old woman lay dying, oblivious of the mob around her. We drank Vino Christi especially stolen under the nose of the enemy and imported across from Ferrara whilst we ate grilled mutton chops well spiced in garlic and served in a large platter born in from the kitchen by a Partigani who resembled a pirate with his red scarf around his head. We all wore our red scarves and I still have mine.

In the spring the troops made their way to Ferrara and the Po River with an advance through Saint Alberto, which was held up for held up for some time by our favourite enemy machine gun post on the north bank.

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