- Contributed by
- Gordon Bingham-Hall
- People in story:
- Gordon Bingham-Hall
- Location of story:
- Anzio, Italy
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 18 November 2003
How luxurious it was to draw back a few miles from the front line to an Italian farmhouse although still within shelling range yet overlooked from the surrounding hills and mountains.
Just two tanks and ten men; our third tank of the Troop had hit a mine yesterday which was pulled under it's track by two Germans in the ditches each side of the road using a thin rope with the mine between them as we advanced up the road.
I had met this before, so had the commander I think, because as he shouted over the intercom 'left, left' I crashed down the steepish bank while one of the crew exclaimed 'what the hell....'? The answer came a few seconds later, a loud bang and the following tank lost it's track, with the third tank veering down the bank after us.
We went on to approach a very hot and close head-on encounter between another Squadron, fifteen tanks, and four or more German Tiger tanks which were superior to our American Shermans in most respects. However, our approach from the side went unnoticed until we fired, and it is easier to knock a Tiger out from the side and still easier from the rear.
All that only explains why we were only two tanks at the restful farmhouse, able to wash and feed; some sleeping on removed doors resting on diesel drums while a wire was run from a 24volt tank battery giving one light.
I slept in a manger to get away from the rats; not many, not like WW1.
Dawn always saw us up to warm our wonderful reliable GM. diesel engines.
At about 7am. I was at the rear of the building 'abluting', trousers down, froglike position. The sun was at a low angle but something was creating a vague shadow and while I turned my thoughts to what it was 'it opened up 'its' engines........yes a plane, an ME109 gliding in and heading for me and us. The Allied air force had air supremacy so here is one German earning an Iron Cross by knocking out one of our tanks; he only carrier one bomb I believe, and he knows that we will be the ones who will be counter attacking. Why us, because a very successful attack had taken our front line out.
Unbeknown to me, the two crews, less myself, were being briefed at that moment at the front of the building.
The pilot was greedy, fortunately, for he spat a few bullets at me before aiming his bomb which missed, just! No one was hurt because of the warning shots. What I seemed to do is not what I did. Froglike, I felt that I rounded the corner of the building in one magnificent leap. The pilot must have smiled to himself on his way home.
On joining the others, no time for talk, we were going up to Sh'one't Farm, Rose farm in the newspapers, because it had changed hands many times and was known as a real hot spot. I did not know that a really strong force had found the join between the American troops and ours and pushed the Americans back enabling them to get at the back of our front line infantry; liason was too slow or asleep, drinks I suppose, anyway too slow to warn our troops at midnight. A school friend, a major in the infantry up front, later confirmed this and told me that his only warning he had was when his right wing platoon radioed in with a few words " they're at the back " before going off the air. He went left fast but no action could be taken at such short notice; the front line was taken out. A neighbour in our village asked me where the tanks were; I replied that we were blind at night but in Monty's Eight Army, our Regiment had advanced well over 1500 miles from El Alamein, we would have known before first light and counter attacked at dawn.
A few miles up the road past the Flyover, the Romans fast road to their summer resort with dirt track slip roads, I turned into the iron gates of Rose Farm. As I did so, and as I had my head out with helmet on so that I could see better than working through a periscope, rifle bullets were striking the metal around me. To close the heavy hatch you had to expose head and shoulders but I made up tools from scrap metal, bent in our tracks, for just such an occasion, to hook the hatch over.
One hundred yards to the farm archway and through into the courtyard; lots of burning vehicles and bodies, no time to stop, onwards into the orchard shooting anyone running. My commander, Capt. Roberts, MC. and two Bars, I believe; a very brave, ambitious and forceful man, directed me to run over the first trench which had the effect of making many others run thereby giving good targets. I half missed another trench and reversed to complete the job; this was the only time I felt sorry for the Germans, because of the writhing mass of flesh.
Capt. Roberts called halt because directly in front of us was a dip in the ground from which two arms appeared showing sleeves of red and gold on a grey uniform, no camouflage. Very slowly the body appeared, minus hat, but with slightly greying hair and a Prussian square head.
My thoughts were ' shoot him ' , we were shooting everyone else, but kudos and medals become vital to some regardless of cost. Even more slowly this gentleman unbuckled his 'Sam Brown', our term for an officers leather belt holding his revolver. Unbeknown to Capt. Roberts, who was letting his thoughts run to further medals, a German soldier climbed onto the back of our tank and after a short struggle, he dropped a potato masher, our term for a German hand grenade, into the turret. His natrual reaction was to put his foot on it because he probably realised his error.
I knew nothing of this.............on regaining consciousness I found that my co-driver, Bill Taggart, was laying across my lap and the turret was full of smoke but no feet. The turret crew had got out, miraculously, uninjured except that Capt. Roberts foot was hanging off; he saved us but of course he caused it.
I passed out again but awoke when the first 88mm. tank shell came through spraying me with welding like sparks...........I passed out again. How many times times I lost consciousness I don't know but each time a shell came through they hit our shells, there were fifty around the drivers, splitting the cases and causing the cordite to burn; the instrument panel was well alight.
With enough heat the whole thing blows up in a fireball!
Panic does not exist in a half conscious state but I realised that Bill was no longer on me so I assumed that he had got out; I should have known better because his body juices were over me. In retrospect he obviously slipped back over the large gearbox between us and slumped in the corner. I hope he died instantly.
Time to move, definitely coming too now but the hatch won't open, a shell had gouged the metal just above my head and jammed it. Adrenaline causes strength.......I hit the catch.........it just moved!
Pushing the hatch upwards I followed but something held me with only my head and shoulders out. Not thinking well yet.......the flames enjoyed the new supply of oxygen and were around me, but what was holding me.........of course the headphones.........can't get back, too hot.........put head down and somersault down the front of the tank.
Thinking well now.........bullets were spraying over my heels as I tumbled out.........a Spandau [600 rounds a minute] machine gun from down the hill left, over the road under a bridge..........couldn't hit me here, he could only hit the crest of the hill or up on the tank. Jumped into an empty mortar position, 6ft. square, to gather my thoughts. Poked my head up only to find nearby troops taking pot shots at me.........duck quickly.........must get down to where our trackless tank was even though it was towards the Spandau; travelling right meant facing German trenches and the dreaded Tiger tank. Poked my head up again to find two Germans approaching with fixed bayonets; one was over 6ft. tall while the other was 5ft. with specs. Whow!!
My confidence shot up; why, because they didn't handle their rifles in an assured manner; the Herman Goering paras had initiated the attack and they would soon have sorted me out.
Being unarmed I grabbed one of the four German rifles left in the mortar trench, minus firing bolts and magazines, they are much lighter than our rifles, and threatened them at thirty yards. They dropped their rifles and put their hands up; I knew now that they had been sent and were glad to have a reason to give up. Their friends didn't shoot at me at this time and I only guess that if they missed as before I might shoot these two. Can't have them near me so I pointed towards our trackless tank. Giving them time to get down the hill I followed fast, and I mean fast; school running showed me as fast as most. The run was speeded up initially by rifle bullets following me and after the crest the Spandau spat a hail of bullets right at my heels urging me to even greater effort! One bang from the 75mm. gun of the tank I was running to and the Spandau was no more. I joined my prisoners.
It only struck me long afterwards that I had assumed that the crew would be there and not taken prisoner, whereas they had had a truly truamatic experience as well as showing great courage and typical Liverpudlian toughness. Big Eric, we had two Sgt. Williams in the Squadron, could not believe that no reinforcements were coming up because he and his crew had stayed in the tank all night, locked in, while the Germans sat on the tank smoking after failing to set the diesel alight. The slightest noise of moving feet would have been heard whilst certain body functions had to be performed by passing a blanket round........get your thoughts around that enviroment!
I told him that there was a Tiger tank over the hill but having held out all night and gunned everyone in the morning, much to the amazement of the German infantry I am sure, he was loathed to give up this important position even though the last truck had long gone from our now non-existent front line. I left and started walking back as there was nothing I could do but in fact another truck came along and took them, together with many prisoners who were happy to give up, homeward.
Knowing that I had to pass high ground on my right, which almost certainly the HG. paras would have occupied, I remembered from a map a tunnel running roughly parallel to the road. I found it and also an infantryman wandering around the entrance which was about 12ft. diameter; a flood tunnel for the mountain melting snow. My new friend did not look as if he would use his rifle so I took it from him and told him to follow.
Entering the tunnel meant that we would be silhouetted and a perfect target so I tried speaking loud and confidently hoping that anyone inside would take the option of hiding against the wall in the pitch darkness. I had not foreseen that there would be very large boulders everwhere; the water was only inches deep but progress was very slow, stumbling and falling constantly.
As the light from the entrance receded to a pinpoint the slight angle in the tunnel showed an equal pinpoint, our exit. From memory and guess the tunnel was half a mile long, but, getting confident now I had the advantage of silhouetting and surprise; be very quiet I said.
In due time we approached the exit to find that the gully was some 7m. high and 10m. wide but like a hospital ward, front line style. There was enough ground on either side of the stream to lay down and many wounded had done just that; blood stained blankets, kit and uniforms from both armies were everywhere but no bodies or troops.
Carefully clambering up the gully side and eyeing up hill I found that I was near the Flyover and possible safety but my companion would not budge, he felt safe in the tunnel. His fate must have been hunger then capture at best for the Germans took this area later that day and for the next four months.
Stupidly I relaxed my vigilance at seeing an MP.[not a Member of Parliament] under the bridge. He was there because some nights earlier a Jeep carrying officiers returning from a briefing, complete with Anzio plans, had driven through at night and on to be captured. They too had stupidly relaxed their vigilance.
Walking straight towards the MP. I should have known better, and did know that the area had been fiercely disputed and therefore mined; no notice on my side but as I climbed through the barbed wire the MP. drew his revolver. My uniform was not easily recognisable from the front; my co-driver,welding sparks, flames and mud from the tunnel. He gave me a cigaratte, we had a few words, and I went on my way.
Almost immediately a Humber Supersnipe approached; a top staff car with Field Marshal Lord Alexander aboard; he seemed to look at me as if I was a piece of rubbish, and without a hat too!! The car turned in front of me to a farmhouse, his forward HQ. I presumed.
I felt great annoyance at the startling difference between our time with Montgomery's Eight Army with the feeling of confidence that he was often seen around to this overdressed man. Further than that, what time was this, 10 or 11 o'clock, when the front line had been taken out at midnight last night.
My second thought was, can I help, do I know anything up front that could help; presumptuous I'm sure. Anyway I swallowed my annoyance and wandered down to the farm only to be met by two rather large gentlemen on the door, MPs. They looked amazed, sympathic and later probably amused.
Off I went to my next incident where I came across American lads outside a house; lots of noise and laughter, women; I did not see a woman all my time on Anzio. A brothel obviously, but how ignorant can these Americans be gathering together, so I quickly explained that Gerry had every inch of this road taped from the Popes Summer Palace and surrounding hills and if a target is worthwhile and he has time............off I went but I was listening and flat in a deep ditch as the first shell screamed in....just behind the truck!
At fifty yards I was safe but able to look round to see bodies and parts of same scattered. Screams and panic from the house and out came more nutters. The second shell was slightly short and only wounded others before everyone jumped on the truck which sped away; my final vision was a stump of leg hanging out of the back of the truck pumping blood.
Up and walking on for possibly a quarter of a mile to find our Colonel's tank at a vantage point backing on to a wood, an ideal camouflaged position and just where we stopped for a 'brew' on D day morning, waiting for others to catch up.
Next stop, two or three miles on, was because I saw our unit sign and there at the back of a wood was our MO. Dr. Green with his armoured car and two orderlies whom I knew well. He gave me one look and gave instructions to get me back to the forward tented hospital but his attitude of seemingly being too frightened to get out of his vehicle prompted me to comment that he would be of more use nearer the front; rather stupid of me! This did not go down very well so his Assistants ushered me back to the road and stopped a Jeep driven by a major who was interested in discussing events since last night and we knew that a serious catastrophe had taken place. He dropped me at the hospital but fortunately our Squadron base was opposite so I wandered in there; two farmhouses etc.........luxury!
My very good friend Maurice Thyer, our radio operator, imparted the news that Capt. Roberts was in hospital screaming his head off that I should be court-martialled for abandoning the tank without permission. This is far from the first time that I have abandoned a tank and I can't recall a commander giving these instructions; it's usually so obvious that none are needed, or anyone gives the necessary warning over the intercom.
Fortunately I had long since learned from experience that choas, panic and wounds leads to misjudging the facts and in the short term is very excuseable.
The best cure for me, it was decided, was food and plenty of looted wine poured down. Patches of disturbed earth round farms indicated hidden barrels. Two blankets, one over and one under, luxury and better than WW1 by a long way. I don't know what time this was but before I got to sleep our Squadron Leader had come over to our farmhouse to tell me that I was to see the Colonel at ten o'clock in the morning and that he would collecting me to go down the hill together.
From experience the best and safest sleeping area was in an outside corner of a building because everyone knew that if a tank returned from the front it would park across a corner of the building, also running a 24volt light.
Now again, if a counter attack was to be made, we, the only British tanks on the beach head and only 50 of us while I understood that the Americans had well over a thousand armoured vehicles, would be the battering ram for them to take Rome. This is not an unusual practice by any army because the main group are Regular units and go after kudos and medals.
Midnight and a large explosion woke me; it was very near but experience saved us because a tank had returned and parked as expected, luckily on my corner. All was dark but as I opened my bleary eyes the floor seemed to move as it was completely covered with returning crews all now hastily donning clothing, or not, before rushing to the trenches outside.
Panic, not really; the amusement of seeing many Jo Blogg's bare bottoms etc. diving headlong into the trenches was too much.........a great laugh was had by all!
The cause was another single plane, one bomb just at the other side of the parked tank and the wall from me........safety at work paid off!
To add a little noise an American ack-ack unit had positioned itself nearby and we had seen nothing like it. Four long barrel 70mm. linked guns mounted on a power driven platform letting rip at this plane.......whoo, get back to bed.
Promptly on time Major Andrews collected me, now with a new uniform; washed but not shaved because of the measle like welding spots,and we went down to see the Colonel. On the way he asked me to salute smartly, perhaps I wasn't very good at this.
So the three party pre-court martial took place, the Colonel sitting in the driving seat in his 5 ton Dingo scout car which has equal speeds forwards and backwards; an excellent scout vehicle. I believe that he was seriously injured on the following day sitting in the same position, but elsewhere.
Colonel Eric Offord was a Regular; tough, frank, very approachable, fair and definitely brave, always up front. I admired him greatly and had no worry in facing him.
With the Squadron Leader at my side I duly saluted and was quietly asked to give my recollections of the previous day at Rose Farm; no mention of abandoning others. His attitude and pleasant comments at the end of my outlining the events seemed to conclude the matter: so now what?
Oh, Yes..........another smart salute!
This event and in Major Andrews words " other unusual situations, I have just one four day leave off Anzio and I would like to offer it to you ". Little did I know at the time that this was his leave, just a quiet comment that I should mention it to no one. Major Andrews earned the title of a 'True Gentleman' in my book because he treated his men as equal yet still showing authority; a true leader. His treatment towards me seemed to be extra special. I believe he was a Public schoolmaster.
A MTB [motor torpedo boat] was waiting at Anzio docks to travel south at night through 100 miles of patrolling German E boats [their MTB's] waters to land at Amalfi, a picturesque Italian town; on up the hill to an excellent hotel, kit following. The room was about one of the best, en suite, and looking out straight over the Mediterranean. Super luxury!!!
The town seemed to be an officers only recuperation area so my presence caused a mixture of great annoyance, polite inquisitiveness and friendly amusement. I decided to give myself four days of not waving my arms about; no complaints to me.
During my absence our tank was hit by Anzio Annee, a 290mm. railway gun with a range of thirty miles, opening it like a tin can.
A friend, Eric Starky, told me that he walked into the back of the tank but could not find the two big diesel engines; he was standing on them; they had been blasted through the bottom armoured plate and into the sand at ground level.
He attempted to remove 'me' but 'my' overcooked head came off so he put it in a body bag with the only remains he could find of my very good friend Maurice...........a shin bone!
Later, Harold Pardy, the office clerk, when handing out mail, went pale when he saw me because he had already filled in the necessary papers!
You don't get very far in the Services with a stammer.
ADDENDUM. Never done on of those and uncertain whether to do one now but in all the years have found the subject caused by my experience related here very interesting and very thought provoking, yet entirely against my thinking.
Firstly I have to consider into what category I fit: heathen, agnostic, atheist or scientologist; probably the latter. If only religious beliefs were truly what they say because I find it difficult to reconcile the wording of many religions and possibly all, to what they practise.
If humans are equal why have ALL religions been hi-jacked by men: the most recent inclusions of women horrified many and is a crime in most.
Who or what is God?
Christians believe that Jesus is His Son thereby leading many to believe that God is in human form, yet Jesus was a Jew and they don't believe him to be the Son of God, but a prophet; sounds reasonable.
I go along with my good friend Ken, a very pragmatic person, who long ago sorted the matter out in my mind.........God is Whatever made our wonderful Universe; religion follows through myth, tales and translations to suit each sect.
Go back to the beginning, my experience described here; roughly, unconscious in flame and noise, and then...........I found myself travelling down a silver lined tunnel, very fast, on a journey that I wished to carry on to the very very bright light at the end. My body then glowed with a warmth that was not from the surrounding flames: a wonderful and different warmth giving me a complete outline of my body. Then, words, very clear words: could they have those of my Father who was in the Royal Flying Corp and killed while flying a bi-plane when the family was in Egypt in 1925; or my brother Donald, a pilot officer in the RAF and shot down in 1940.
I can hear them at anytime by just closing my eyes........."Let go..it will be alright".
I wanted to hear more, to further enjoy the warmth and to reach the bright light but yet another shell woke me and the rest I have written. I would dearly love to have the experience again; but only that!
' I think I have to think it out again !'
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