- Contributed by
- People in story:
- John Cory
- Location of story:
- Italy - Gustav Line
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 October 2005
We arrived at the RHQ of the 8th, Survey in time for lunch and after this we surveyors, six in all, were collected by the transport of ‘Don’ Troop of the sound ranging battery. Thus, the long journey from the UK. had ended.
The Troop was at rest, in Carano village, in front of the Massico Ridge occupied by the enemy. From the top of the church tower the front could be seen including Cassino and Gaida, 7 miles away.
After being introduced to all and sundry we were given a talk about the Regiment. It was formed at the beginning of the war, the nucleus being a territorial counter-battery intelligence unit, the home-base being in south Wales.
They have served in North Africa and had taken part in the greatest artillery barrage of all times up to then, resulting in victory at El Alemien, when the German Afrika Corp and the Italian army were soundly beaten, resulting in total surrender of enemy forces in North Africa.
The enemy immediately occupied Italy by pouring in troops form Germany. The Regiment was in the invasion of Italy which took place on the beaches of Salerno, South of Naples. It was a touch and go affair, to establish a foothold, and then fighting on all fronts, except the sea, against a determined defence.
Allied forces eventually became stuck northwards in front of the enemy’s defence position — the ‘Gustav Line’, stretching across the mountains, from Gaeta to Ortona.
Churchill secretly decreed that the war in Italy must be pursued vigorously, to force the enemy to commit the maximum number of divisions to Italy, at the time of ‘Overload’ — the invasion of Europe, over the Channel.
With this in mind and to break the deadlock up against the Gustav Line, a further beachhead invasion took place, this time at Anzio. Unfortunately crack Panzer troops happened to be in the area who were able to contain the invasion to a confined pocket and with the help of artillery made the area a very unhealthy one for the Allies.
Hitler proclaimed that the Gustav Line would be held at any sacrifice, ensuring that Rome would not fall to the Allies. He also realised that further Allied occupation of territory north would enable two-way bombing by Allied airforces to take place over Germany, including the southern cities and industrial areas.
Both sides sent in reinforcements resulting in 25 Allied Divisions facing 23 German Divisions, the latter having terrain advantage in defence.
The Gurkas who had valiantly held the forward slopes to Cassino suffered heavy losses and had been withdrawn. Three further attempts to take Cassino had failed, first by US Troops, then by the New Zealanders when the monastery itself was bombed, then again by the New Zealanders when Cassino town was bombed. Heavy casualties were suffered on each occasion.
Thus the situation became static and the enemy felt they had contained the Allied advance northwards, and could expect a victory at Anzio.
The stage was set for the secret plan ‘Diadem’ agreed by the Allies, a concerted three front attack, along the Russian Front, the break through the Gustav Line and capture of Rome, and the commencement of the second front, ‘D’ day, invasion of Europe from over the Channel.
A huge amount of artillery began to move up towards the Gustav Line, well hidden from the eyes of the enemy.
Settling in with Don Troop — Village Life — First spell of Action
The majority of Surveyors in the troop had been teachers in civvy street, including the three officers and the No. 1 sergeant, by the name of Netley. We six newcomers joined the troop as replacements. We were soon put through our paces to find out what we know. We did observing and computations and dummy HQ work. I was offered the chance to be a draughtsman which meant more work in speeding up.
For a short spell we moved back, to Casaluce, a village south of Naples. A visiting MO. gave us all a Typhus injection and then we went to RHQ for a bath. The latter turned out to be three showers in a tent and a good size boiler outside with a fire underneath, which looked as though it would blow up any minute. We had to take along our water wagon, to give back the amount of water used.
A journey of 80 miles followed, north for awhile, then along the 8th. Army front, over the Apennines and through a pass to Spinete. This village commanded a good view of a range of snow-capped mountains. My billet was a farmhouse, perched on the mountainside.
Mike and I had a look around the village and found a piano and looked forward to a good play. Mike was one of the original members of the regiment and had been a classics and music master at a public school. Very gifted, as a pianist and in languages, but hopeless in Maths. He failed the standard. He begged to be allowed to stay on in the regiment and became a driver. And so he remained, somewhat absent-minded but perfectly happy. He had to be watched, he had the habit of playing a tin whistle whilst driving.
The 7th of April begin Good Friday, a procession took place around the village in the morning, representing Calvary. Headed by a blood-stained cloth held high, then an effigy of Christ on the Cross, followed by that of the Madonna, the locals kicked up a noise, which was supposed to be chanting.
Yesterday we were paid, which was fortunate as most of us were short, in the moving about we had gone without for a fortnight. Allied forces pay was in Military Lire ‘AMGOT’, paper money in various denominations, geared to Sterling for rate of exchange at the time of being paid. It was freely interchangeable with the civilian Lire which was being de-valued almost every two weeks, due to the war situation. We drew what money we wanted for the time, and left the rest in ‘Credits’.
We heard that we would be going into action and I was to be part of the advance party to setup the HQ. So off we went, a 30 mile journey to a mountain village, called Acqua Viva.
The first job was to secure billets for the troop and a suitable place for the HQ. We looked around the village requisitioning the best houses, usually one or two rooms per house. This had to be done in a gentle manner, unlike the Germans who would have thrown all the inhabitants out onto the street. We put up regimental signs on our properties.
We imposed a curfew on the population, 8.30pm and got the local policemen to nail a notice up in the square.
A valley swept below our mountain up to a further range in the hands of the enemy, being part of the Gustav Line. Our village was on the side facing away form the line, Cassino was to our left flank. We had the village to ourselves, but Polish troops were in the area, also an Indian Mule company that carried ammunition and food into the mountains.
Except for the odd shell or two passing over from both sides the front was quiet, perhaps the reason being our Poles were facing Poles on the other side. The latter were officered by Germans and mostly were pressed men. As and when they got the chance many deserted to their fellow countrymen on our side, and I understand, joined the Polish Free Forces eventually. The enemy go fed-up with their Poles and withdrew them from the line.
Survey work was progressing in setting out the base and having some spare time helped the wirers installing one of the Mics and wiring back to HQ. Then it was back to work, as I was to prepare the board. As and when survey results came in and were computed my work began, finishing at 10.00pm.
The base was in action 1 ½ hours later but I had retired to my bed — or I should say my two blankets on the floor, to try and get some sleep.
I was on first shift in the morning, 8.00am to 4.00pm, as draughtsman, then next day 12.00pm to 8.00am, followed by 4.00pm to 12.00pm. This was the pattern, 8 hours duty per day for 3 days, followed by a day off. It was more like a civvy job.
Things started on the slow side but as the days progressed began to hot-up. A new procedure followed. Each evening as darkness settled some of our artillery started up all along the line, drawing fire from the enemy. We managed to get some good plots. This regular bombardment died down after an hour and the front became silent, allowing the enemy to go to bed.
We found out that the billet housing our HQ team had belonged to the Doctor, the local fascist leader. He had died but his widow was very disagreeable, she carried on a war of evil looks and gestures. We had not been lucky in selecting this house and had to look elsewhere to get our washing done.
In our off duty periods we could spend the time as we wished, rambling in the countryside or just lazing about. We could arrange a trip possibly to the sea or a town in the rear where we could go to a forces club or see a film.
During the period I went on trips to Campo-Basso and Isernia, also back to Spinetti for an egg hunting expedition, calling on farms and trading in rations obtained form the cook house.
Eggs were short on our menu, and we came back with enough for the troop, one each, plus a few extra for ourselves and the cook.
A village custom seemed very strange to us, women carrying large copper pitchers of water balanced on their heads. Water was not laid on to the houses.
Our OC assuming the post of ‘town major’ became concerned with the untidy and filthy state of the village, the stench from sewage was becoming unbearable, the mobile collecting tank service had broken down.
He gave the villagers three days to clear the place up, or no rations. A small detachment of RE’s were having similar trouble getting enough men to mend the unsurfaced roads and tracks around the village. Although a paid job some did not turn up and others disappeared after awhile. With the aid of the policeman, they were threatened with prison. It was important that the potholes were filled in, these roads and tracks would get some heavy traffic, later on.
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