- Contributed by
- Clare Edwards
- People in story:
- Tony Walsh
- Location of story:
- North Africa, Italy
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 June 2004
On the way to Benghazi (January 1942)
Written by Tony Walsh
Submitted by his daughter
Read part one of this story
El Alamein and on to Libya
On 23 October 1942, the Battle of El Alamein commenced. For over two weeks fierce fighting raged. I was a gunner layer on one of our four troop guns (four guns to a troop). We lost two guns in our troop due to enemy counter-artillery fire. Many were killed and blown to pieces; I seemed to have a charmed life. At last our armoured division broke through and Rommel slowly retreated. And so we pushed back over the old familiar ground of good and bad memories. Our advance towards Libya was now so fast that there was a risk of ground troops outrunning their air support, but the RAF quickly got the forward landing grounds in working order again.
On about 12 November 1942, our division (7th Armoured) crossed the boundary between Egypt and Libya for the fourth and last time. The advance from Alamein to Tripoli across over 1,200 miles of desert took from October 1942 to late January 1943, with many minor battles and incidents including booby traps, mines and ambushes along the way. After heavy fighting we occupied Tripoli, the first city west of Alex. It was taken after heavy fighting by our division's tanks, the Queen's infantry and New Zealand troops.
Later, the population, mostly Arabs, emerged on the streets, waving a welcome as they did no doubt when Rommel's Afrika corps drove through a year or so before. Some of the cafés and bars soon opened again and for a couple of evenings I forgot the war with Muscatel wine and Cypriot belly dancers, doing what they knew best - and how well they did it! Needless to say, they were for watching only.
After a brief few days we pushed on to Tunisia. As we closed in on Medenine the enemy hit back and heavy fighting developed, with some loss to the division. We eventually broke through and approached Wadi Akrat, the last enemy defence line in Tunis. The attack developed with much loss on both sides with a barrage of about 400 guns. Tanks and artillery were brought in to the battle to support the 51st Highland Division. In a determined assault by the 51st, the Camerons and Seaforth Highlanders went in with the bayonet.
Enemy counter-attacks made the situation dangerous. Our battery was firing continuously for over 16 hours in support of this assault. Then the Black Watch Regiment came through and overran the German positions. And Rommel's last fight back in North Africa had ended. In Tunisia alone he had lost over 17,000, killed or wounded, and about the same number taken prisoner. Later we moved back through Tripoli to Homs for rest and repair.
Some time later I was told that what remained of the Fourth Field Regiment was being split up to strengthen other units. My posting was to the 146 Field Regiment RA, newly arrived from England, and attached to the 7th Armoured Division; so I was very happy to be staying with my old division. There was also the news that 146 Regiment would be supporting 201 Guards Infantry Brigade, a fine unit with a great fighting reputation.
Sicily, by this time, had been occupied by Anglo-American forces. Rumour now had it that our next task was a landing somewhere on the Italian mainland, and hurried preparations were much in evidence. We spent the last few weeks in August 1943 taking it easy and writing letters home.
Some lighter moments I recall from this time: my mother, always anxious that I was getting enough food, posted a parcel to me containing a cooked chicken! Needless to say, by the time this reached in the searing heat of the desert it was in an advanced state of decomposition! On another occasion she sent me a hot water bottle, for the cold nights - much hilarity at this - water was rationed and we drank every drop we could find.
We found a broken-down shop selling bits of everything and I bought a tin of French zinc ointment. I even managed to get a new glass for my precious watch, damaged some weeks earlier. The shifty Arab shopkeeper also had a special line in spicy postcards. He preferred payment in corned beef rather than cash. By the time we left, his stock of bully-beef must have been enough to feed a regiment.
Landing at Salerno
In early September 1943, we embarked on beach landing craft with guns, limbers and quads. After some hours at sea our destination was made known. We were to land in the Italian port of Salerno and come under the command of General Mark Clark, American 5th Army. As dawn broke on 9 September, we saw Europe again for the first time in almost two years. As we neared the beach, heavy bombardment from covering warships started up, and a smokescreen was laid down by advanced landing craft. Enemy shells began to fall in the landing area and some craft were hit, even before reaching the shore. Amidst all the chaos of the landing, we managed to get our guns and transport ashore. We pushed on inland for about a mile from the beach, before a fierce German counter-attack forced us to halt and bring our guns into action, supporting our infantry, who were having a hard time trying to move up the sloping ground ahead.
After a couple of days of holding on to our positions, a dangerous situation developed when numerous enemy tanks started to move down from the hills surrounding the bay. Only heavy naval gunfire from the Warspite battle-cruiser and three destroyers helped to prevent us being thrown back into the sea. Without this naval support we could never have held the Panzers back. The Germans suffered serious loss from this continuous bombardment together with our own artillery fire. The 22nd Armoured Brigade (7th Armoured Division) eventually landed and engaged the enemy armour on the outskirts of Salerno. After heavy opposition we thrust through Salerno, and down into Naples, on 1 October 1943.
See you in Rome, fellas!
The city was mainly undamaged apart from the docks area. We sped through into Aversa, and on to Santa Maria la Fossa, and Capua. The drive forward from Salerno to Capua took us through many peacetime holiday resorts, including Amalfi, Sorrento and Pompeii, all strangely quiet. Looking to our left across the sea, romantic Capri was plainly visible. The Italian climate, though hot and mosquito-ridden, provided a welcome change from the African desert. There was much vegetation; crops of pear-shaped tomatoes, and grapes, black and green, for the taking - the vineyards deserted by their owners in the battle area.
About mid-October, General Mark Clark (5th Army commander) ordered a full-scale attack across the Volturno river, just forward of our positions at Capua. The battery was in continuous action throughout the day because of enemy resistance from the opposite riverbank. Later, under cover of darkness, the Americans threw a pontoon bridge across the river and the 201 Guards Brigade, after some bitter fighting, dashed across and formed a small bridgehead on the other side.
Further up the river, the 7th Queen's Battalion attempted to cross by boat but were met with heavy fire and the attack was called off. Some time later they tried again and managed to establish a bridgehead. Next, one of our armoured units found a fordable site and got across with waterproofed tanks. By late October, the enemy pulled back and both British and American forces were well across the Volterno in strength. We then pressed on towards the next German delaying position on the river Garigliano. Heavy rain and deep mud now made life uncomfortable, and movement from one position to another very difficult. It often proved impossible to tow the guns out and so the quad's winch was used, usually with success.
On one occasion when we were hopelessly bogged down, the Americans gave us a helping hand. A group of Sherman tanks had stopped in a lane close by. I asked the sergeant of the nearest tank about a possible tow. 'Sure,' he replied, 'No problem. Hop on and just point the way.' The Sherman swung into the field, flattening a hedge and gatepost. He pulled us out in no time, with the quad and gun bouncing about as never before. On leaving, one of the tank crew shouted, 'Anytime! See you in Rome, fellas!' I hoped we would.
We then moved down the Mignano gap towards Mount Camino, the last obstacle before Cassino (the Big One). Camino was eventually taken by 201 Guards Brigade at very high cost. As we moved our guns forward towards Cassino, groups of guardsmen involved in the Camino attack lay sprawled in the slush - the cream of our infantry, their boots still polished and brasses gleaming.
Just before the victory at Cassino we were sent up to the Anzio beachhead to help lessen the resistance of the German Cassino defenders. The battle at Casino had taken over five months and the victory was due to the soldiers of many nations, fighting and dying, and finally to the Poles, who stormed the summit, and left decimated bodies in hundreds to prove it. Many books have been written about the Cassino battle: first battle - British troops; second battle - Americans; third battle - New Zealanders; fourth battle - Indians, and lastly the Polish corps, who at last broke through. At the summit they left a message on their memorial: 'We Polish soldiers died for our freedom, and yours. We have given our souls to God, our bodies to the soil of Italy, and our hearts to Poland.'
The gateway to Rome was now open, and the eventual taking of this city took place on 4 June 1944 by the 5th (American) and 8th (British) armies, with the D-Day invasion of Normandy taking place on 6 June.
We became just a sideshow in the world now. Our regiment, the 56th Black Cat Division, was transferred to the 8th Army, Adriatic Coast sector to join the Poles and the Canadians. The Germans were now retreating in some areas but strongly defending others. They were using any kind of delaying tactic: demolition, land mines, booby traps. We occupied San Marino, Rimini, Ravenna, always a little nearer to what must be our next serious obstacle: the River Po.
The Canadians were a wild bunch, tearing round in their jeeps and on motorbikes. The Poles were a little more laid back, and deeply religious. They liked nothing more than a good old Polish sing-song, helped along by the local red wine topped up with Vermouth. They had no love for the Germans or Russians after their ruthless attack on Poland in 1939, and their sacrifices and final victory at Cassino proved they had not forgotten. They were both a great lot of lads to have on your side when the shot and shells started flying!
We captured Forli in September, then pushed on to Faenza, our battery supporting New Zealand infantry. Appalling weather now slowed down our movement, and the New Zealand troops described Faenza as 'a bitch of a place to occupy'.
We also had good reason to remember this godforsaken position one freezing night. Just one gun, our number three (four guns to a troop), was engaged in what was called 'harassing Jerry': one round banged off every few minutes onto a fixed target - it could be an enemy-held bridge, crossroads, building or other target. The night was long and deadly cold and many were the moans that emerged from the gun pit. My mate shuffled in to do his stint, proclaiming 'Oh dear mother it's a b*****d!' A reply came from the darkness 'Oh yes my son, and so are you!' Those old army gags never died.
But the night was about to be split open. German batteries two or three miles away must have got a bit fed up with this odd shell we lobbed into their area every two minutes or so. A series of bumps were heard in the distance, and within seconds shells came tearing onto our position. It was a nasty counter battery 'stonk' - heavy shellfire onto a concentrated area. The German artillery had a device which, when used at night, could record the flash our guns made in action, which would give them an exact range and reading of our guns' position, and they made good use of it.
It was by now November 1944. Heavy snow was falling and no forward movement was possible. The nights were long and cold and I snatched some sleep when I could. The guns were firing on and off, day and night, as numerous enemy targets were fired on as requested by the forward infantry. There was a small, damaged and deserted farm close by with a lean-to, occupied by a couple of oxen. When given the chance I'd slip away and grab a bit of sleep, stretched out by my four-legged friends, a bit smelly but the warmth - beautiful!
Ferrara and the River Po
With the weather now improving, our brigade moved up towards the Lake Comacchio area. Attempting to advance on Ferrara and the River Po, our division came up against a tough German paratrooper unit who fought savagely, both sides taking heavy casualties. With air superiority and our Spitfires constantly strafing the forward and rear enemy positions, and our heavy and prolonged artillery bombardment, the German forces pulled back to the River Po. We then occupied Ferrara against little resistance, and pushed on towards the river.
On reaching the river we were met with a horrendous scene of death and destruction. Enemy convoys, attempting to cross a bomb-damaged bridge were at a standstill with nowhere to go, and the Spits had found them and turned the vehicles and most of the occupants into a smoking mass of flames and carnage. Had a quick look round for a chance of picking up a Luger pistol but it was not to be - the infantry lads had been just ahead of us, and good luck to them - the generals may do the thinking but it's the infantry that do the winning, and often the dying. (But I did come across a useful find in the maze of wreckage: a German MO's portable set of surgical instruments, which I later lost during one of our many instant and hazardous moves to establish new gun positions).
It now became clear that this hard-fought Italian campaign was coming to an end. On 29 April 1945 all German forces in northern Italy and western Austria surrendered to the Allies. It was then that Marshal Tito and his partisans who had always battled with the Germans, decided they should have something for their efforts, and decided that Trieste in Italy, close by and just over the border, would do nicely.
Alarm bells began to ring for us, stationed near Trieste, and at short notice we drove into Yugoslavia for about 20 miles, and formed a garrison at the seaport of Pola. The sight of our 'cool-it' formation - our Division 56th Infantry (Black Cat), together with 78th Infantry Division (also alongside was the very welcome 29th New Zealand Armoured Brigade) - seemed to have a very sobering effect on the wily Tito. All his 'Jug' (and Partisan) units were grudgingly withdrawn from the Trieste area. That was how the situation remained until later in the year when wider negotiations were agreed to. I remained at Pola waiting for my 'ticket'.
Finally, back to the UK
The great day came in early September 1945, when my papers arrived for immediate transit to the UK. I said farewell to many lads I'd soldiered with. Jimmy Cameron was a proven friend on many occasions; we arranged to meet sometime, somewhere, back in Blighty. From Trieste I was transported by train down to Rome airport where there were groups of Lancaster bombers scattered about. I spent one evening in Rome, marvelling at the clean streets, and so many clean and smartly-dressed civilians. But there was little time for 'la dolce vita'!
Next morning, back at the airport, our section of 18 was checked off, we were given a number and our kit bags were dumped into the Lancaster's bomb bay. We then climbed up in order onto the plane, looking for our numbered circles marked on the flooring, and then we dumped ourselves down for the next two to three hours. Once airborne we were permitted, one at a time, and just the once, to stretch our legs along to the rear gunner's station (now vacant) and spend about five minutes looking around. Vision was on all sides, and top and bottom. From the front and rear, as far as the eye could see, there were Lancasters flying along in single file, and no-one shooting at us!
Somewhere over France the co-pilot came through and handed us a note from the skipper (the engine's noise made the tannoy system useless). It said that one engine was malfunctioning and slowing us down; the remaining three should get us home, but we would be coming down on an emergency landing ground near Woodbridge instead of the original destination. He ended by saying, 'Cheer up! Big drinks tonight!' I rather wondered whether, after surviving all these years, we were now destined to splash into the Channel.
The news was passed through that we were now flying over England - and that wonderful feeling of being close to home sweet home was hard to describe. Soon after we were circling Woodbridge, and then swooping lower, coming in on a wing and a prayer. I can only say that pilot must know all about dodgy landings - we glided in like a bird, not even a bump on touchdown.
The pilot's forecast of big drinks that night was spot on, and it unanimous - there's nought like British ale!
Next I found myself in Woolwich Barracks awaiting demob, but first came 14 days home leave to meet my mother again - still gallantly keeping the shop going, and sister Maureen growing up and now attending the convent in Wrexham. It was so hard to believe and accept the comforts of home again, with such a welcome from family and friends. Back at Woolwich my demob and discharge came through in early December, well in time for that special Christmas, not to mention my free suit - very utility and fitted where it pinched!
And that, dear reader, is a little about what happened in those six years of war. I learned a lot about human nature, the good and the not so good - and that people matter and not things. Many years later my two children would often ask me about the war. I would say, 'Well, it's a long story. I will tell you a bit about it some day. But of one thing you can be damn sure - it was no trip to Disneyland!'
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