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64th (7th London) Field Regiment Royal Artillery 18

by vcfairfield

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06 July 2004


After an uneventful journey through which I slept we docked at 0900 hours on February 17th and I made my way back to my regiment and of course to my battery. I settled in immediately. The command post had already been dug in a wooden area consisting mainly of saplings of Cork Oak. It was quite close to No. 4 gun of D Troop, had the usual tarpaulin over and an entrance that turned out to be in not quite the right place because while not facing the enemy it was not facing completely away from it. I had only been there a short while, an hour or so, when shells started coming over and it was obvious that we were the particular target for the enemy. But I did not mind in the least. I was back in my army home, where I belonged, and that was all that mattered.

It was Salerno all over again with the Germans in an irregular semi oval surrounding the allied army on three sides with the sea protecting the fourth. In these circumstances we had only a limited amount of land available for the whole army and its back-up services whereas the enemy had all the space it needed and being on higher ground with observation posts in the foothills, could follow every move we made. Our guns were probably less than two thousand yards from the enemy and the ground was damp, there having been lots of rain and more to come.

The initial landing had taken place on January 22nd and fierce fighting had gradually reduced the strength of the 1st British and 3rd US Divisions and their subsequent reinforcements. Elements of my division the 56th London had begun landing a week or more ago and my own unit during the past day or so. As a result of the constant enemy attacks a vital part of the UK/USA front was being held rather precariously by the 56th London and the American 45th Divisions. The 56th Division faced the “wadi” country from Buonriposo Ridge towards the sea at the mouth of the River Moletta while the 45th American held a line from Padiglione to the Anzio-Albano Road.

I had landed in the middle of a determined German attack against the UK/US armies and that morning there was a lot of bombing of the enemy facing the Americans who were on our right. We did not know it at the time but the Germans had massed one hundred and twenty five thousand troops with the intention of eliminating the bridgehead. On our side I suppose there were roughly one hundred thousand soldiers and the situation was becoming desperate because there were so few reserves available and casualties were not being replaced.

That night was relatively quiet with only sporadic “Fire plan” shells going in both directions. In contrast the following day was both noisy and dangerous with regular shelling on and off all morning, dive bombing in the late afternoon and bombing at night. The enemy obviously knew exactly where we were but artillery fire is not absolutely accurate and luckily my battery received no casualties but a lot of near misses. So far as the science of gunnery was concerned at that time, getting on for fifty years ago, calculations could be made with the utmost care but certain other imponderables came into play such as the precise extent of wear on the bore of the gun barrel, the condition and exact weight of the charge that projects the shell, a significant change in air temperature or speed of wind at the moment of firing and so on. Therefore after every possible calculation and allowance had been made there was still a zone into which the shells would fall which was somewhere around one hundred yards long by fifty yards wide. This of course, refers to a single gun and obviously the more guns used on a single target the greater the chance of hitting it.

I did not feel at all strange for coming back into the command post after quite a long absence, indeed I just carried on from where I had left off as if nothing had happened. Neither did I have any particular feeling about moving overnight from a safe to a most dangerous area. And of course I was no exception and everybody that I came into contact with appeared quite philosophical about events and so far as I can remember the subject was never discussed at any time.

February 19th was a quiet day so far as enemy activity was concerned but we were all very busy as there was a constant need to give protective fire to our infantry who were being very hard pressed indeed. We later discovered that the Germans were mustering elements of ten divisions against our four and that Hitler was insisting the beachhead be eliminated. That night there was some bombing and the enemy was using what was known at that time as a “butterfly bomb” which opened up to eject lots of little bomblets. These hit the ground, bounced six feet into the air and exploded. During one of these bombing raids at night my command post officer and myself took some shelter by holding one of the wooden forms that we usually sat on, over our heads as there was only a tarpaulin between us and the sky above. It was really quite silly and we had a good laugh when the German plane moved away, realising the futility of our action. During this part of the war we in the command post were up most of the night. In fact we had a system of two on duty and the remainder resting or sleeping except on those occasions when the pressure reached a certain level when it was necessary for everyone to lend a hand. I doubt whether we ever had more than four or five hours sleep during the night at Anzio, possibly less, but I cannot remember feeling tired. Probably the constant activity and excitement kept us going and of course we were all young and very fit. I would also hasten to add that similar conditions applied to everyone else in the battery.

The next day, a Sunday was relatively quiet. This is apart from continuous activity by our guns. There was also the usual outburst of our antiaircraft fire when enemy Messerschmitts came in low out of the morning sun and attacked some unfortunate targets, usually road transport for everything else was dug in and well camouflaged. But it was also essential that those of us on the battery gun position were kept supplied with food, the guns fully stocked with ammunition and all the other necessary replacements provided. This necessitated daily journeys from the “waggon lines” a mile or more behind us to the battery position and the very few roads that could be used were subject to much intermittent shell fire and hit and run air attacks. And when that happens there is nowhere to go, no cover and no warning to the unfortunate occupants of the trucks involved. Furthermore they know they are the particular target for destruction. So each quartermaster became adept at timing his dashes to his respective battery to coincide with lulls in the shelling.

That afternoon we were visited by a party of two officers and a sergeant major from one of the other battery command posts in the regiment. They were not impressed with our dugout particularly as it had only a tarpaulin cover. Their own command post roof had been constructed of chopped down trees on top of which they had placed a further cover of sandbags and earth and was felt by them to be much more suitable. Late in the evening, just before darkness set in we were again the target for some very heavy shelling and indeed it was a miracle that nobody was hit. I believe it was during this particular onslaught that I counted twenty-seven duds that buried themselves in the soft earth but failed to explode. This could have been caused by the use of old ammunition but a more likely explanation was sabotage by slave labour in the German factories.

The nearness of the previous night’s shelling gave me much food for thought the next morning and later in the day I set about improving the safety of our command post which felt more vulnerable each time the enemy had a go at us. Therefore I organised the collection of steel boxes, each containing a full complement of used cartridge cases made of brass. These littered the area around the gun pits, being thrown to one side for collection and stacking by the gunners after firing off the appropriate shells but the guns had been so busy that they were beginning to get in the way. I suppose each box was about two feet six inches long, a foot wide and eighteen inches high. These I had placed to form a wall along the side of the command post facing the enemy to provide an obstacle against any shells coming in at an angle of about thirty degrees which was roughly the angle of descent of an 88 or 105 mm shell. This wall of cartridge case boxes was to prove very useful on the day we pulled out and when the command post was crowded with our own personnel and key officers from 5th Division.

That night I was off duty for a few hours and slept in my personal slit trench which was as narrow as I could bear, about two feet deep but warm enough. I managed a fair night’s sleep disturbed only by some shelling and bombing. However the trouble with sleeping alone was that during the shelling I tended to develop an uncontrollable tremble. This never happened at other times and was no doubt a manifestation of fear. And strange things did happen. One member of the battery had had a “feeling” and had spent the night with the Light anti-aircraft guns. On returning to his bivouac he found it wasn’t there! Instead there was a large crater made by a 210 mm shell! And there was a gunner who, after his duty at the gun returned to his tent only to find under his bed an unexploded 88mm shell.

In the morning and indeed all next day there was spasmodic shelling. We were so far as we could make out, the target for an enemy troop of three guns and we could hear them firing before the shells arrived. The standing joke while we were at Anzio was that it was quite safe to go about our business if we heard “boom, boom” or even “boom, boom, boom, boom” but everybody dived for cover when we heard “boom, boom, boom”.

During the afternoon the strongly built, logged and sandbagged roofed command post of one of the other batteries in our regiment received a direct hit causing the deaths of two officers, a battery sergeant major and a bombadier which brought home the fact that survival in war, as in peace is all a matter of “when your time is up, it’s up!”

February 23rd was fairly quiet probably because both sides were taking a deep breath prior to limbering up for another go at each other. The following day was also quiet until the early evening when we were very heavily shelled and a signaller killed. He was by no means a youngster and had two elderly parents. He was held in some respect for his religious fervour and would stop each morning at around 0800 hours and say his prayers in orthodox fashion. Afterwards all was quiet except that somebody was calling out help! from not very far away, I climbed out of the command post and wandered around, shouting out now and again but there was not a soul to be seen until quite suddenly our Major appeared, I never knew from where, and we decided there was nobody else about and returned to the command post. However we did her on the “grapevine” that the shouting came from a nearby crossroads where a Military Policeman had gone somewhat “bomb happy”.

The 25th was relatively quiet so far as enemy activity was concerned but we in the command post were kept busy all day long on routine matters, infantry support being needed constantly. This meant that the gunners and signallers had plenty to do. In the evening we were able to rest once the firing programme for that night had been worked out, the noise of our own guns firing from time to time having no disturbing effect.

It rained all the next day and some of the time was spent reorganising the command post, going out only to collect our meals or to relieve ourselves. We were shelled again briefly during the afternoon and the sergeant of a nearby gun of D Troop was killed and one of his gunners wounded. Being a gunner, that is a member of a gun crew of six was sheer hard work when in action. They had first of all to dig the gun pit, a hole in the ground some 2 feet 6 inches deep with a circumference to allow for sixty degrees of traverse, thirty degrees to left and right, then a shelf for ammunition, stack up the shells, clear away empty cartridge cases, restock and all in addition to the basic work of loading and firing the guns. During enemy shelling they could find themselves in a fairly exposed position and not always able to take cover quickly enough. And of course those of the crew on duty were always exposed to the elements.

They next three days brought the same old medicine over and over again. Lots of shelling by day and the odd bombing and or shelling at night. Sadly a gunner was killed in our Waggon Lines who was the brother of a sergeant killed at Salerno. We were in receipt of some very heavy rain during this period and at one time a lot came into our command post when part of the tarpaulin roof near the entrance collapsed. On another occasion one of the gun sergeants lost his pipe so I lent him my cherrywood but I never got it back because it became a casualty of war — broken in action!

On March 1st there was again a great deal of shelling on our regimental area although the other two batteries were the main target. I was lucky enough to miss some of it because I had to accompany my command post officer on a reconnaissance, in the pouring rain, to find an alternative battery position. This we managed to do and discovered an excellent place for a command post if required.

Actually my command post officer had been out previously on the same task but had got his Jeep stuck in the mud. Some US Army soldiers offered to extract it, brought up a Jeep, it got stuck. Brought up a Prime Mover and it got stuck. They then brought up another Prime Mover which anchored firmly and managed to winch the other three vehicles clear. The Americans were usually very generous with their time and anxious to help and relationships were very friendly on the beachhead.

We began to dig out the alternative command post next day and continued all the following day as well but as luck would have it we were told on our return in the evening that the 92nd Regiment RA of 5th Division would be relieving us on the beachhead. Our Divisional infantry battalions had suffered such heavy casualties that they were no longer effective fighting units. There were no reinforcements readily available in the depots and no chance of replacing casualties before the end of the month. We did not know it at the time but the Germans also were exhausted and had accepted the permanency of the Anglo American army.

The next day saw more digging out of the new command post but whether it was ever occupied by the 92nd Field Regiment I shall never know. Certainly the past two days had been quieter than what we had come to expect as the norm but Anzio was an eerie place and one never knew when a salvo of shells was about to crash down around the area. I think the reason our casualties were not much higher in number was the result of every gun and command post being well dug in, nobody going above ground unless they had to. Also there was a great deal of luck and that we could always tell when something was about to come our way by the distant boom, boom, boom.

At this point I think it appropriate to give some information about life at the “sharp end” and the following article from the signaller involved gives a graphic description of the trials and tribulations of an OP party.

“Everybody was in the front line at Anzio. The OP’s were never very far forward of the gun position. It was a hazardous business to even move from one spot to another because of the perpetual shell fire. At night we could see the German guns firing and, dug into the side of an embankment on a narrow road, we flash spotted to try to ascertain distances, the time taken from flash, etc., as the shells whooshed over our heads.

One of them crawled up to my slit trench and said that they had lost contact and could I come and see what was wrong. I went with him to their trench, crawled in and got the set back to the correct frequency. Just as I was about to go back an almighty “stonk” of German shells fell on the area. It ceased after a few minutes and I raced back to my fox-hole.

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