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64th (7th London) Field Regiment Royal Artillery 28

by vcfairfield

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06 July 2004

1945 cont.

April 17th saw us on the move again, another few thousand yards forward over vitally important ground our infantry had forced the Germans to concede. The infantry had performed miracles and I would mention that in this last decisive battle 56th London Division consisted of:-

167 Brigade - 9th Royal Fusiliers, 1st London Scottish, 1st London Irish Rifles

24th Guards Brigade - 2nd Coldstream Guards, 1st Scots Guards, 1st The Buffs

169 Brigade - 2nd/5th, 2nd/6th, 2nd/7th Battalions, Queens Royal Regiment

My regiment of artillery had always formed part of 167 Brigade and remained so until the end of the war.

Our command post on the 17th was an old wooden stable which we seemed to be sharing with some infantry. I think it was a company headquarters and in one corner there was a pile of officers kit, no doubt belonging to soldiers who were up forward. Quite close to us an artillery battery was in action. It was part of the Cremona Group which was one of the three Italian formations now serving with the British Army in Italy. When I had a few minutes to spare I strolled over to watch them firing and they were very smart indeed. During that night there was a great deal of firing in both directions and I felt very vulnerable in our flimsy old stable. Even more so when a German plane decided to join in the fun with some strafing.

There then followed twenty four hours of comparative calm so far as we were concerned because the infantry had now broken through the Argenta Gap and the 6th Armoured Division had taken up the chase of what was rapidly becoming a beaten enemy. At first we had sufficient to do with frequent calls for fire but the demand faded out during the day as the battle moved out of range. This gave me a chance to wash and dry some clothes.

It is also an opportunity for me to include two incidents that happened to one of our OP officers at about this time. “Towards the end of the campaign I was involved in an operation near Capparo. Supported by tanks we advanced on a farmhouse, shot it up, setting its roof on fire etc, only to find it inhabited by, I should say, a collection of Italian peasant families. Nobody seemed to have got hurt. We moved against the next farmhouse, this time without firing. Here without a shot fired we took about twenty prisoners whose officers had not been able to enthuse to offer resistance: their grandstand view of the first operation had been sufficient.

And in the last few days of the war we were counter-attacked in some strength. I put down a lot of defensive fire and kept it going spasmodically till dawn. At which point a platoon or so of Turcomans surrendered, claiming to have been pinned down by our artillery fire. This I felt, was an impressive testimony to the efficacy of our arm but then I noticed a horse grazing with complete unconcern and apparently unscathed, and I had my doubts. The sniper who shared my window drew my attention to a semi-comouflaged self-propelled gun pointing straight at us. This I started to engage as a Close Target; someone tried to get to it but him the sniper dealt with. Finally, after I had nearly hit it — but not nearly enough — someone got to it from behind and managed to get it away!

But to continue with my narration, April 19th dawned another warm and sunny day and it wasn’t long before we were on our way, this time to a new position near Porto Maggiore. It was a very difficult move, the roads were blocked by knocked out German tanks, some destroyed by our aircraft and the signs of our six hour barrage were everywhere. At one time the whole area from horizon to horizon in this now undulating countryside was a scene of death and destruction with many of the enemy having been caught in the open trying to escape or find shelter.

Our command post was established somewhat late in the morning in a rather grand house compared with others in the area. The building formed a letter L with the short side appearing to be made up of homes for the workers. We chose a downstairs rear room in the house itself which had little in it in the way of furniture. I asked the owner’s wife to take me upstairs to see what there was in the way of sleeping accommodation. She was most reluctant to do so and when finally I persuaded her I was quite astonished a the sheer luxury of the bedrooms of which there were five or six. Indeed it was quite obvious that there was no point in spoiling the place and I decided we could sleep on the floor of the room we had chosen for a command post. I imagine the mistress of the house was terrified that we would loot everything in sight but she recovered and spent an hour or so with us in the evening talking to one or two of the lads who had acquired a reasonable knowledge of Italian.

On April 21st we moved again, we were all feeling rather tired. The journey was quite long, and to a position somewhere north of Porto Maggiore. We stayed there for only twenty four hours when everything had to be packed up, including of course our portable loo and off we went again not having fired a shot!

We established our new position somewhere about as far north as Farrara but to the east of it. It was here that while I was out surveying the gun position a smoke shell landed very close indeed, in fact within a couple of yards or so. It happened to be one of ours fired by another regiment to mark a bombing run for the airforce. It was obviously an odd shell that had gone wrong and had fallen a few thousand yards short and I pondered on the irony of the situation if, at this last stage of the war I had been hit by my own side!

It was also at this position, so far as I can remember, that I could have run into another little bit of trouble. Somewhat later that morning while waiting for the guns to arrive I wandered over to a nearby village that appeared to be deserted. It was some four or five hundred yards away and having established that there was nobody about I strolled out again. Much to my surprise I ran into a platoon or perhaps two, of guardsmen crouching in the ditches on either side of the road preparing an attack. Having recovered from my surprise I was able to tell them that the village was empty which I hope speeded up things so far as they were concerned.

At 0600 hours on April 23rd we moved yet again to a position only about three and a half miles south of the River Po and it was probably in this position that F Troop of 444 Battery fired the regiments last rounds of World War II with two direct hits on a German machine gun post.

The next day we moved up close to the River Po and were amazed to discover the mass of equipment abandoned by the enemy before fleeing across the river. There were miles of trucks of all types neatly parked one behind the other at the side of the road in a quite thickly wooded area. We had a grand time rummaging through them although we took nothing away, having enough military equipment of our own.

We spent three days here whilst our infantry and some armoured vehicles crossed the river and went tearing on up north. It was now simply a matter of occupying ground already surrendered and taking over the whole of what was left of northern Italy as quickly as possible. At this time there was talk of forming a mixed column of infantry, armour and artillery to press on up into the Alps where rumour had it that the Germans had constructed a fortress for a final, final stand. All of which proved to be a figment of somebody’s imagination but at the time talk of forming part of a “flying column” was quite serious and provisional plans were drawn up as to who and what would take part. Whilst in this position one of my group found a Volkswagen car from among the abandoned vehicles of the enemy which we added to our own strength. Not for long however as driving through the night the car ran into a large rock at the side of the road and broke a front axle. So it was left behind and it was goodbye to our only item of loot.

We moved at 2315 hours on April 27th, did a slow stop and start all night march and crossed the River Po early the following morning on a pontoon bridge some six hundred and twenty feet long which was built by 8th Army engineers in twelve hours. Then on through Rovigo, across the River Adige and finally coming to a halt nowhere in particular and staying there for a couple of days, mostly in the rain.

In the meantime the 2nd New Zealand Division who had been switched to our right went rushing on towards Trieste and on the way entered Venice on the 29th together with the “Queens” of our division.

On May 1st we were off again in the afternoon and finally arrived at the village of Compagna Lupia at 22.30 hours after a long and wet journey. In the morning I was able to find a very suitable house for my specialists and we worked hard all day on maintenance. This continued on May 3rd and whilst doing so we were amused to see Italian partisans wandering about loaded down with rifles, ammunition and grenades while we, the conquering heroes did not carry a gun between us. Very soon a notice was put up forbidding the carrying of arms by all civilians which rapidly cooled the situation. Also there was an attempt to shave the heads of Italian girls who had courted Germans but that was stopped as well.

That evening whilst having a drink with an Italian family somebody came in with the news that the Germans in Italy had surrendered and the war in this part of Europe was over. They brought out a supply of their best wine “Vino Negro” and all present had one big fiesta! Much later we discovered that the surrender had taken place on the 2nd but the news had not filtered through to forward elements. This small town was the only place where I was offered Vino Negro and I presume that it must have been a local brew. The quality was good and the colour a very deep red. There were other differences such as calling a lire a franc etc, probably due to the local dialect.

In the morning it was back to reality and later in the day I was in charge of the guard. All our guns were lined up in a part of the town square and they needed watching but everybody was very friendly. They had not been harmed by the war and no doubt were very thankful that all they had to endure was a few hundred British soldiers for the time being. Whilst on guard, late in the evening we had a long chat with some partisans who drifted along, no doubt curious about these strange soldiers from distant parts.

On May 5th I had a really enjoyable and interesting day — a trip to Venice. The New Zealanders, as already mentioned had occupied it briefly, in passing, and had rounded up the few Germans left there and then moved on towards Trieste. For the time being it then came into the area occupied by the 56th London Division. We were therefore almost the first British troops to arrive. We had a wonderful day and thought it a marvellous place. Most of us took a trip on the Gondolas and bought a few presents. The weather was very warm and I happened to meet and have a chat with a Gurkha by one of the canals. I remarked on the weather which I said no doubt suited him being quite hot but much to my surprise, at that time, he said no, it was far too warm! Another incident that day involved one of our batmen who appeared most of the time to border on the alcoholic. Apparently he and some of his mates were acting the fool in a gondola when he fell overboard into the canal and the story goes that he was fished out rather promptly, given artificial respiration and so on which was said to produce no water, only vino! On return to Compagna Lupia I was told that I was going on leave to Rome the next day together with our motor transport sergeant. It seemed that we were the only two members of the battery who had not taken a weeks leave since leaving England almost three years ago.

So on May 6th we moved off on a long journey by lorry and then by train. What with the bad roads, sadly lacking maintenance and worn out rolling stock we were relieved to get into bed that night in a special leave camp somewhere along the way and needless to say we slept very soundly indeed. During that day we had been driven through a saucer shaped valley simply crowded with German prisoners of war as far as the eye could see. Presumably waiting to be sent to properly organised prisoner of war camps. It was most fortunate that the weather happened to be fine and sunny, goodness knows what could have been done so far as providing shelter had a rainy spell occurred. And of course there were so many of them in Italy. The numbers on each side being almost equal so far as the fighting troops were concerned but there were many enemy soldiers in rear areas bringing their total up to nearly 1,000,000 men.

However to continue with our journey, we left for Rome fairly early the next morning and arrived around midday at the 51st Rest Camp and Bob and I, being too tired to visit the city, spent the remainder of the day relaxing and chatting with other new arrivals. One of the first soldiers we met was a gunner called Paddy who was an old member of our regiment way back in 1940 but who had left us probably because he was too old for active service in an artillery unit. He was not a person with whom I had been in close contact and it was nice to know that he had survived the war. He was interested in what had happened to the various people he knew in our battery and we had several talks during the week we were at the camp.

We spent between six and seven days in the “Eternal City” and I doubt whether throughout its long history any soldiers that passed through it had been in battle continuously over such a long period as the British who passed through this camp or the Americans in their own leave camps. Or for that matter had any of the earlier armies suffered so many casualties as the Allied total of some 312,000 in killed, wounded and missing since the first landings at the toe of Italy.

During our stay in Rome we visited all the sights and who wouldn’t with its profusion of ancient ruins and churches. On our first day after arriving we went to the British “Alex Club”, then to the pictures, bought some lemons, I don’t know why, listened to the band in the evening, in one of the parks, and afterwards just wandered about. We had been in many countries since leaving England and had seen many sights such as the Pyramids and Pompeii but Rome was different and lets face it we were on the winning side.

On the second day our programme was roughly the same except that we did not leave camp until after the midday meal. We saw the film “White Cliffs of Dover”, listened to the band, saw the ancient city and went for a walk in the evening. All this was followed by a day in the rest camp. We were tired out and had not realised just how much we needed to take things easy, particularly Bob who must have been fifteen years or more older than myself and not built for such an active life. And so Thursday was a day of rest, reading and having a quiet drink and I suppose unwinding, for we and for that matter everybody on active service here had been wound up for years. It was not just the active service part but that for years it had been a routine of parading for this or that, of always being on time and with the threat of retribution if anything went wrong. Not that we had been particularly conscious of such matters but that it was an alien way of life that I doubt whether many enjoyed. But now of course it was all over bar the shouting and with the war finished nobody was going to take army life very seriously.

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