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64th (7th London) Field Regiment Royal Artillery 17

by vcfairfield

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06 July 2004


On January 25 the ship docked at Taranto right down in the toe of Italy and by 1300 hours we were all ashore and had moved into billets just outside the town. And yes, I was in Casa number thirteen! Two more days were spent here in this Italian naval equivalent to Portsmouth during which I was able to visit the town and take a good look at its very large harbour where, earlier in the war, the Fleet Air Arm sank several Italian warships in a really brilliant attack. I was able to see a film “Andy Hardys Private Secretary”, did some washing and had my third Typhus injection.

My little group of thirteen were then moved to Castellaneta a dozen miles or so north west of Taranto where we stayed or rather hung about for ten days. I suppose the military knew what they were doing and maybe there were many reasons why there were so many delays but if only the army could have speeded up troop movements by cutting out say half the time wasted at each staging post they could have had a lot more soldiers in the place where they were needed, i.e. at the front end. During these ten days the weather turned to a much more seasonal cold with grey skies, heavy rain and hailstones. In one of the drier periods we went for a long route march and in another we saw the inevitable film, this time “Cottage to let” with Alastair Sim. We also saw a show of the vaudeville type put on by some Italians and which was very good entertainment. We then moved back to Toronto, hung about for a day or so and then caught a train for Naples at 1800 hours on February 7th. We travelled all night along the west coast of Italy and arrived at our destination just after midday. As there were four of us in our carriage I agreed to sleep under one seat which was comfortable enough except that when I awoke in the morning, I felt very claustrophobic and could not get out from under quickly enough.

Well on arrival at Naples we were taken to 159 Transit Camp which was literally at the foot of Mt Vesuvius and higher than the surrounding countryside and therefore giving a good view for several miles but being winter things looked rather glum.

Whilst here I was able to hitchhike to nearby Pompeii which I found to be quite fascinating and in one particular villa I was shown some rather naughty murals not normally disclosed to tourists. I arrived back to the camp at 1730 hours and was delighted to bump into Ernie who was on his way to rejoin our battery after having been ill in hospital. We could only have a few words together as he was on the point of departing.

On February 11th it was wet and miserable but it was a red letter day nevertheless for I was able to get a lift on an HQ Royal Artillery truck at midday which took me to HQRA of 56th Division at Lauro where part of the Division was still in action. I had just missed my Brigade which had moved off on its way to Anzio.

Lauro was a small town, or rather a large village near the River Garigliano and the whole area in every direction was very muddy indeed. I spent that night in a dilapidated empty house in the village and had a fairly good sleep except that from time to time I was disturbed by some nearby 7.2 inch guns which banged off with a thunderous roar but eventually I got used to them. I spent nearly two days here trying to keep warm whilst reading a “Saint” book. The winter in Italy had been very wet and cold and there was no heating in my present home but my most vivid recollection was watching the poor Italian women of the village walking along the wet and muddy main street with bare feet and their shoes delicately balanced on their heads. Obviously they could not afford getting the precious leather damaged by the water underfoot.

During the evening of Sunday, February 13th we pulled out and after a somewhat risky journey along roads that were almost unrecognisable from the weight of endless traffic, for which they had not been built, we arrived at our staging area at Naples at about 2100 hours. It had rained all the way and we had many uncomfortable moments particularly when the lorry ran into stretches of shell pocked road. After a hot drink and a good night’s sleep the following morning was spent looking round the city which in itself was not particularly attractive at that time. However after climbing up various steep roads to a higher level I found one place where I could obtain an unforgettable view of part of the Bay of Naples. I had a most enjoyable lunch and including half a bottle of vino. The total cost was two hundred lire or ten shillings in English money. Not particularly cheap but the fixed rate of exchange greatly favoured the Italians in my opinion. A lasting memory was that many shops were full of delicious cakes.

In the morning we moved to our staging area near the docks and we passed the time playing cards, mostly “Solo”. I lost ninety lire which was all my available loose cash. After an early night we were up and moved to the docks by 1000 hours. I was in the front seat of a truck with the driver, in a long column of vehicles just waiting in the rather narrow street to drive on to the landing ship when we were visited by a charming little Italian girl aged nine, a really lovely child who shared some of our food and sweets. At roughly 1600 hours we went on board and I was able to have a shower and a good meal.

But let us return to the regiment which, during the few months I had been away had been fighting slowly but surely up the western side of Italy. Several old comrades from 254 Battery have kindly helped me to build up a short account of this period as accurately as I can establish bearing in mind a time lapse of nearly fifty years since the events took place.

The Italian winter of 1943 was very wet and the constant heavy traffic of war turned the countryside into a muddy quagmire. Three major obstacles had to be overcome on the way north, these being the Volturno and Garigliano rivers and Monte Camino, a major defensive pivot to the west of Monte Cassino. The Germans, experts at all aspects of war, defended every position that was worth holding as they grudgingly fell back and made life as difficult as possible for the Allied army.

From its position in front of Battipaglia and following the slow withdrawal of the enemy the regiment moved forward and gun positions were reconnoitred at Pontecagnano where delighted Italians pressed upon our troops fruit, wine and embraces. After a brief encounter the next move was to a deserted brick works near Baronissi which is situated about eight miles due north of the town of Salerno. This position was in full view of the enemy. Concealed mortars raked our whole area and 254 Battery Command Post received a direct hit and surprisingly no one inside was hurt. The regiment suffered twenty one casualties in the engagement and had three guns and seven vehicles put out of action. Three Military Medals were awarded for bravery during the fighting.

On October 2nd 254 Battery moved 20 miles to a “harbour” in sight of Vesuvius and were impressed especially by the bursts of flame at night. Then to a new gun position near Capua twenty miles north of Naples in order to support the crossing of the river Volturno. At this time a fellow “specialist” was killed descending from a water tower early in the morning after all night duty at an observation post. I was very sad to hear of his death on my return to the unit.

A toehold on the northern bank of the river was obtained on the 13th and the 9th Royal Fusiliers with observation posts from 254 Battery crossed the river on the 15th. D Troop OP party, on reaching the northern bank moved forward for a few hundred yards through a lightly wooded area but was suddenly confronted by a German counter attack. They raced back to the river bank and into some confusion with men falling into the water because of the backward crush. However an infantry officer quickly rallied the troops who then drove off the enemy enabling the OP party to retrace their steps and find a suitable farmhouse for use as their observation post.

On October 18th the guns of 254 Battery also crossed the river preceded by my friend Alan in a light boat to reconnoitre and establish a command post. On the 22nd the battery moved to Pignatoro and from there a general advance brought the regiment through the mountains to its next and almost month long position at Roccamonfina, east of the Garigliano river.

A couple of hundred yards to the west of 254 Battery the road from Teano via Camino lay festooned with many, many telephone lines, all parallel all close packed. Thanks to “induction” one would hear various bits of conversation and eavesdrop on other people reporting their misfortunes such as “we have had a premature the gun looks like a peeled banana.” From a Medium battery no one knew where!”

During this period D Troop OP again found itself receiving personal attention from the enemy when it undertook a reconnaissance to a particular mountain ridge to the north of the town and was spotted by a party of Germans. A rifle and grenade battle ensued during which one of the OP party was hit when about to throw a grenade. It fell at the feet of the group but luckily did not explode — it was a dud! The Germans retired and D Troop OP party returned safely to its base.

From Roccamonfina the regiment was to move to Saluccio in preparation for the second attack on Monte Camino which overlooked the area where the Liri and Garigliano rivers met. A menacing elongated mountain of three peaks and barren ridges rising over 3000 feet from the surrounding villages. It is some 6000 yards wide and 7000 yards long and from which the enemy had a commanding view of the British lines.

Advance notice to move forward was received on December 3rd and to some extent the new Gun Position must have been preselected because the night before the move was occupied in preparing a “Crest Clearance Trace”. This took a long time and disclosed that there would be a lot of dead ground which could not be covered by our guns. At Saluccio the Angle of Sight to the “Monastry” near point 963 was 13 45’ elevation. Since the dial sights would not be operating in the horizontal plane but in the “upper register” it was necessary to apply a correction based on experience gained at Keren in Burmah. For the technically minded the formula was something like:- Angle between Line of Fire and Gun Aiming Post or 90 less this angle, whichever be the less, multiplied by the square of the Angle of Sight in degrees and divided by 125, is the correction in minutes. To be applied so far as can be remembered “towards the GAP”.

The weather had been very wet and the guns had to be extracted from the general quagmire by bulldozers before they could move. It was equally difficult to occupy their new position. Finally, after about thirty six hours, the regiment was able to fire a round of troop fire. It wasn’t all that satisfactory! A and B Troops still stranded by a crossroads and forbidden to move before dark. C Troop No. 4 gun out of action. D Troop all ready to open fire, E troop sunk to the trunnions in mud and F Troop “can’t clear the crest”. It subsequently transpired that a German OP by the “monastry” at Point 963 had had the sad experience of watching these goings on but through lack of communications being unable to punish them!

On December 4th, during the battle for Monte Camino our Commanding Officer Colonel McCracken DSO, MC, was mortally wounded. He had commanded the regiment since June 1941 and was very much liked and respected by all ranks.

Two days later the enemy, who had suffered unacceptably high casualties during the attacks on Monte Camino, abandoned its mountain positions and withdrew.

In due course the regiment moved again, a little to the south and 254 Battery established a Gun Position at Rongolisi while our infantry moved up to the River Garigliano opposite and below Sujo. The battery did not have an active role but there was a German outpost on our side of the river at Maiano di Sotto and the idea was to attack it after a suitable bombardment. But where was it? Was it correctly positioned on the map? To answer these questions and to establish by shooting, the coordinates of the village, a number of “pistol guns” i.e. single pieces of artillery, were deployed and surveyed in and these were ranged on to the target by various Ops in turn, none of whom had a very good view of the area and all of whom had considerable difficulty in identifying the target. Indeed it is possible that some never did. There was the further complication that the Americans had taken over compilation of the “Meteor Telegram” as the resulting corrections, for air temperature, speed and direction of wind etc., were out of line with all our experience. How the attack fared is not recorded but at the conference held beforehand the Battery Commander most nearly involved cautioned his infantry opposite to keep his men at least 500 yards from the target when the guns opened up!

From Rongolisi the battery eventually moved forward to Lauro and it was from this position that the crossing of the Garigliano River on the 17th to 19th January was supported. During this assault our OP parties found themselves having to fight alongside the infantry and G Masters MC, took command of the 9th Royal Fusiliers when their battle HQ was attacked and their C.O. taken prisoner.

Following the crossings and a short rest period of a few days it was back again to the Garigliano with 254 Battery gun position now at Fassani, an area thickly sown with mines. The battery command post was established on the first floor of a house after being lavishly treated with DDT which was just as well. Everyday the family sat in the sunshine — a pleasant change — at the foot of the outside stairway leading to the Command Post, the elders nit-picking the younger generation. At Fassani the battery had Heavy AA as neighbours; they were easy to “sound range” and attracted quite a bit of hostile attention. The main problem though was access; this was by way of a rather dilapidated track. Ammunition Dumping tended to start at last light and persist till dawn; every other vehicle having slithered off the track either coming or going and there was a lot of winching going on. And our Battery Sergeant Major lost a lot of sleep!

On or about February 9th 1944 the whole regiment was pulled out of action and sent back to Pozzuoli en route to Anzio. Pozzuoli, no doubt due to all the invasion traffic was the worst sea of mud since the latter days of the battery’s sojourn in Roccamonfina.

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Message 1 - Lieutenant Colonel McCracken

Posted on: 07 July 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Details of Lieutenant Colonel Angus Murray McCracken, Sgt Hyland's commanding officer, are here links Wounded on the 4th of December he died on the 12th.

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