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- James H Hughes
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- 23 October 2005
The following is the 6th installment of the Memories of my Uncle Jim who served in the 1st and 8th Army, who as agreed that they may be posted.
STILL IN ITALY
We returned back over the River Sangro, which took us three hours longer than it took to get over ten days before, when the enemy were trying to stop us. We arrived at a rest area on 12th December and were able to get a bath, clean clothes and a chance to unwind. We were also getting new drafts to make up the Battalion. The ‘Skins’ were at a place called Campobasso. I remember I was in charge of a party and we were in a large empty church or monastery. There was a nunnery in the same grounds where they looked after children. I bought several handkerchiefs off them — they needed all the help they could get.
We said farewell to our Colonel on the 9th December, who left on promotion, to be succeeded by a major from a Support Battalion. We had some first-class Commanding Officers, but I didn’t think a deal to this particular one. Somewhere around the 20th December we moved to a place called Isernia and were billeted in empty houses. There was snow on the ground at the time. Christmas dinner was provided in a large building, and as is the custom we Sergeants, Warrant Officers and Officers carried the food to the men. Unlike the Christmas we had in North Africa which consisted of bully and biscuits, this meal had the lot: turkey, pork, ham, vegetables, pudding, beer etc. The cooks excelled themselves. One of my mates said “Are you going to have your dinner here?” I replied “If they have this lot, what are we going to have in the Mess?”, as usually we used to do a little better. I was soon to find out. We had a house for the Mess. The chap who was supposed to be the cook would have been better as a blacksmith, all we got was a tin of M and V, and to top it up the RSM had put the drinks in a wardrobe and somebody had taken the back off and taken the lot! I never got the chance of a dinner like that again in the rest of my service.
On 22nd December the ‘Skins’ were ordered to got to the village of Capracotta, 5000 feet up. We set off from Isernia and if my memory serves me right I don’t think it was more than five or six miles. When we got to the village we had to wait outside while a ‘recee’ unit came out. It started to snow again, and by the time they got out, we had a job to get in the snow was that deep. In the morning the carrie3rs etc were completely buried. My Platoon was in what had been a school, and we found some little potatoes amongst the rubble, put them in a tin with melted snow and had a meal. We were completely cut off, and had to be supplied by aircraft. Other companies were out in other villages. I took eight men and eight mules loaded with supplies to one of the companies. As we left the village we started to climb and the snow was so deep the mules couldn’t walk and had to keep lunging. Eventually we got to the top, and down the other side it was a forest. Coming out of the forest we crossed a small plain then started to climb up to the village. Like most of the villages it was perched on top of a good hill.
Having found the CSM and handed over the supplies, I prepared to return to the Company. It was now well into the afternoon. I told each man to get on a mule and I would walk in the front. We got nearly to the top when I decided to check my men. As they passed me I counted only seven. I asked the last one if he had seen Fusilier Kelly. He replied “He was behind a while back”. I took my top coat off and gave it to him and said I’d wait for him. After a while I decided to go back to the village but he wasn’t there. Again I started back. By this time I was feeling rather tired, then it started to snow again and the temperature dropped. I got into a state where I could hardly keep my eyes open and kept thinking “I’ll just have five minutes sleep” then I realised if I did I wouldn’t wake up again. Then it came into my mind “What if there are wolves in this wood?” I was so cold I couldn’t get my Tommy Gun from my shoulders and what with the magazines in the pouches it weighed a ton. I kept plodding on but every few yards I would fall and would lie there struggling to keep awake . One time I realised that I was stuffing snow in my mouth. I kept going and eventually reached the top. Wondering which way to go, I went off to the right and saw a village in the distance. Being in my fuddled state I thought “That’s not the village I want, it should be on my left hand. But I’m going down, I don’t care if Jerry’s there”. I set off down the hill and I could see two men standing outside the village and the last thing I remember was lifting my arm up until I cam to in one of the cottages.
I was sitting in a chair in front of a big fire, panting like a dog. An Officer was there and asked me who Kelly was. I must have been rambling on about him. The answer was, instead of following the others, Kelly had taken another track which by-passed me. In all my service I never felt so alone. It was a worse feeling than any action that I had been in.
During this period Sergeant Paddy Sullivan took a patrol of six men out and his body was found days later in the snow. He had crawled nearly two miles before giving up. Also another man died. The rest were found alive but one had to have his legs amputated. In retrospect it was only my willpower that saved me from a similar fate.
The Christmas break for the Irish Brigade ended 27th December when they started the journey back to the line, to take over from other troops. By the evening of 31st December snow was falling and a blizzard was blowing, said to be the worst in thirty years and continued until the afternoon of New Years Day. My Battalion, 6th Inniskillings, didn’t join the other two battalions of the Brigade until mid-January, the 19th, and were put in reserve as we had had a rough time in Capracotta. On 23rd January we came out of reserve to take up position. On 22nd our Battalion Echelon had been attacked twice by RAF Kittyhawks and later by American P38 Lightnings. Who needs enemies when you’ve got friends like that?
On 2nd and 3rd February we were relieved by the Polish Brigade. Then we went to a village called Bellona, which was near Caserta. I remember this place for several reasons. Firstly they were selling little cards for the Martyrs of Bellona. I understood the Germans had murdered a number of the men. I bought one but lost it. It was St Patrick’s Day, 17th March. On this day we would receive a bunch of shamrock, and also the Sergeants would play the Officers at football. Having had a party in the Officers Mess the night before a good number would still be under the influence. So the match would be a comic affair. Some might be riding on a donkey, or they might defend the goal with a Bren carrier. As you will understand we did not often have a pay parade as there wasn’t anywhere to spend it in the line. But this was one occasion when we did.
The Sergeants decided to have a card school, so we went to the house where the Anti-Tank Platoon was billeted. The first question was “How much have you drawn?” There were different amounts stated. When it came to me I said “Ten bob”. “That won’t last long” was the reply. The game was pontoon, which I wasn’t too good at. Anyway the outcome was that I finished up with a wad of lire, I cleared them all out. But I set them all up again. My mate had a pocket watch which a chap in Cumnock gave him before we left. I don’t think it would have cost a pound when new, but I gave him eight pounds for it. I gave it to my Dad when I came home.
This mate, who was also a sergeant, thought we should have a party so we gathered all the Fusiliers into a room. And another sergeant went off to buy some vino. I had to provide the money, although I didn’t drink. He came back with a glass carboy in a wicker basket. We, at this time, had plenty of cigs so this mate decided to have a competition. He had a few young lads so the idea was so many fags if they could drink a mug of vino without stopping. They had all on to drink one, but he insisted that they had another, there was more running down their chins than down their throats. When all the cigs had gone we put money in the kitty. This mate had plenty of vino himself and was very indignant because I was writing a letter to my wife at such an important time. Between them they drank a good amount of wine, so the room reeked. In the room was a pen containing a number of fowls, even they were drunk. Also there were four big earthenware pippins. These got broken. When the old woman who owned the house came and saw the state of the place and the broken jars it was “Mama mia”. My mate was well drunk by now and said “Don’t worry Mama, the Sergeant will pay you”. So it was a good job I had got some money left.
Although we knew our next job was Cassino, we didn’t know just when. This must have been 21st March, because the next day we were told we were moving to join the 2nd New Zealand Corp for Monte Cassino.
My mate who had a motor bike was still under the influence so I said “Give me the bike, and you get on the truck”. He wasn’t having that. From where we were billeted down to Company Office was a long narrow street. He set off swaying from side to side, making the Italians scatter. Five minutes later a Fusilier came up — “Sergeant Hughes has got to come and place Sergeant X under arrest.”
It was around this time that our Brigadier Nelson Russell left us due to ill health. He had led the Irish Brigade from our landing in Algiers, through Sicily and up Italy as far as Cassino, and I don’t remember us ever losing a battle. His place was taken by Brigadier Pat Scott, another excellent Irish soldier.
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