- Contributed by
- Hitchin Museum
- People in story:
- Reg Howlett
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 25 October 2005
The war in Italy had moved slowly over a year with many abortive battles and fearful loss of life.
The troops had been deadlocked in Casino. Then from the end of September 1943 the battle moved to Salerno until in May 1944 the battleground moved up to Lira Valley. Much ingenuity was required there to get round the marshes of Cassertes. It involved the taking up of railway tracks and cutting through embankments.
I was in Rome when I heard D-Day announced - “about time too!” From Rome the division went to Rimini and Cattolica for replacements and reinforcements for strengthening equipment (and a brief respite in Florence).
It was from Rimini and Cattolica that Field Marshall Alexander ordered the “last push” through the Argenta Gap on 12th April 1944. Alexander warned the troops that they had to keep going as “there was nobody behind them”. Any shortage of men and they would have to “call up the cooks!”
The Sixth Armoured Division of the Eighth Army consisted of three battalions and each battalion was made up of three brigades; Infantry; Rifles — The Kings Royal Rifles; Guards Brigade; Ghurkhas Brigade; Tanks; and 21st Lancers; Derby Yeomanry, and The Hussars.
I was among the first troops to cross the River Po ahead of the main division making the last push through the Argenta Gap in April 1945 as one of the six scouts. The Brigade relied upon the scouts to make observations of enemy positions and possibilities for advance and to report accurately. The scouts could summon up artillery by sending map references by radio telephone; the message in scoutspeak being “send us over a stonk”, and the shells headed where they were required.
Much organisation was involved. The “system” for the division included the use of Mustang aircraft which were combined Bomber/Fighter planes, and spotter planes. Photographs were taken, developed, and delivered by despatch rider. These foolscap-sized photographs were very detailed indicating where buildings and pathways were.
On this occasion the scouts were ordered to take a weeks rations and fight to the river Po. They were required to keep in contact by radiotelephone. They went in two armoured vehicles — bren gun carriers with extra powerful guns - and they were also equipped with flame-throwers and mortars. Each team consisted of a driver, a gunner and a radio operator. I was a driver (perhaps faring better than the radio operator for every time a gun was fired the empty cartridges went down the neck of the radio operator!).
To get to the River Po at this point in time required getting behind the enemy lines in front of us. Cutting across country we saw a column of Germans, with equipment and ambulances carrying wounded, retreating ahead of us. We stopped and spoke to the Germans informing them that they were surrounded (not quite true!), and told them that if they stayed where they were they would save their lives. The German officers agreed and stopped. We moved on to the River and arrived at noon, and made observations until dusk, sending back the vital information. Then we sat some prisoners on the tops of their vehicles as a form of protection, and then drove back to meet the Brigade.
As bridges over the River would be subject to strong defence, and to avoid the likelihood of detection, the site chosen for the crossing was between the bridges. Two strong swimmers from among the New Zealand Troops went back to the River in the evening. They took across the first constructions of pontoon boats - thick canvas pull-up sides with struts to hold in place (like canvas buckets). More troops soon followed pulling themselves across on the boats to guard on the north bank. The pontoon boats were moored together, with big duckboards on top, to form a floating platform for the crossing and amphibious tanks made their own way across.
However, the enemy had not been totally hoodwinked and a mine was floated down river which blew the pontoon apart. It took another hour to rebuild and then the vehicles started getting across. The tanks, troops and armoured vehicles went on right down the road and stayed and met in an orchard. Hardly any lives were lost. On 24th April 1945, the River Po had been successfully crossed.
Over the next ten days the “push” took us to Padua, Venice, Udine in Slavenia, Villach, Klazenfant and on to Graz there to meet up with the Advancing Russian forces on 6th May 1945.
Of such a journey there are many more stories to relate.
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