- Contributed by
- Mike Spence
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 November 2003
This account was written by my late father, Lieutenant Sidney Spence of C Company, 8th Platoon, of the 1st Battalion, ‘The Buffs’:
The action of 13 April 1945 had its beginnings on the evening of the previous day. The final offensive in Italy had been in progress for some three days. The 1st Battalion was grouped in an assembly area at Madriole (in Italy), around some farm buildings adjoining the flooded extension of Lake Comacchio where the amphibious, armoured troop carriers, code named Fantails, had been gathered.
Major W S Riley, C Company Commander, called his order group that evening, and we listened to our part of an attack planned for the following morning with increasing horror and disbelief. C Company was to be one of the two leaders in the proposed attack. Our objective was the main bridge across the canal, the Fossa Marina, together with the surrounding buildings and the irrigation pumping station that formed the hamlet of De Bando, which was at that time some two miles behind the enemy front line.
To achieve this we were to embark in the Fantails before dawn — each Fantail carried one platoon — to be transported across the lake to a small dry beach some 30 metres (100 yards) from the buildings whence to secure the bridge. Simultaneously, the 2nd Parachute Brigade would drop in the area immediately ahead of us, and No. 9 Commando would also land on our right, all of which was comforting news.
Despite reassurances to the contrary we felt that our objective would be well defended, which would make the whole operation extremely chancy. After all, our H hour was to be in the broad daylight of 12pm, after an approach of not less than eight hours cooped up in the Fantails. Fantails had been used twice previously in the past few days in similar operations. Our arrival in them would surprise no one, least of all 29th Panzer Division!
Putting this across at subsequent Platoon O group was not easy. The fact that the day, 13 April, was also a Friday did little to encourage the more superstitious among us.
Friday, 13 April, dawns
That night in the field of the assembly area the troops slept in rows under individual mosquito nets — there were plenty of insects around those marshes. Each net was supported at the head end by a wooden cross. Viewed in the moonlight I felt that I was looking at a cemetery. The next day was to prove me right, tragically right.
Reveille came before dawn. It had been a cold night with an early morning mist. I'm sure that I was not the only one who could not face the inevitable meat and vegetable stew for breakfast at 3.30am.
In spite of some understandable confusion in the mist and darkness we eventually embarked in the correct Fantail, much hampered by the extra overload of arms, rations and additional ammunition that we were required to carry. As we were about to move off it was reported to me that the machine-gunner member of my Fantail crew had gone ‘missing’ in the darkness. I did not require two guesses to know what that meant!
I appointed the Platoon Sergeant, the solid and dependable Ernie Hacker, to the job for the duration of the trip. I'm afraid his training on a .5 browning consisted of being shown the position of the safety catch and trigger.
Embarking across Lake Comacchio
The journey across Lake Comacchio was not unpleasant. After the sun came up it was a glorious spring day. Not a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind, and the only ripples on the water were those caused by the considerable commotion generated by the fleet of Fantails. What incredibly noisy, cumbersome, unwieldy vehicles they were! I doubt it they could do more than 0.5km an hour (3mph) when afloat and driven by the tracks. However, we had an ample supply of cigarettes so the tension relaxed.
I received a few calls on the radio during the trip from my Sunray, that is from Wally Riley of Company HQ. The first of these being the information that the 2nd Parachute Brigade landing had been called off, followed soon afterwards by the news that the 9th Commando landing had also been cancelled. By now we had the increasingly uneasy feeling that we — The Buffs — were being left to do the job on our own.
Then on the radio up comes Wally to tell me that (and I quote), ‘There will be white stuff on the VP.’ Now this caused some confusion since my knowledge of jargon did not include that term, and my shouted enquiry to the rest of the platoon of ‘Anyone know what white stuff is?’ brought no response. It was only after Wally's repeated and anguished requests to me to ‘Think of Players, Sidney. Think of Goldflake!’ that the penny finally dropped, and my involuntary reply of ‘Oh, you mean smoke’ did nothing to preserve what little secrecy may still have existed. Fortunately, his reply to that gaffe was lost in the static.
In the event, C Company arrived early at the point from where we were to make our final run in, so we stopped about 300m (1000 yards) offshore to await the artillery bombardment. We could hardly have given the opposition a better opportunity to prepare for our arrival.
After some 15 minutes we resumed our approach in formation of ‘Two Up’, that is Nos.7 and 9 platoons leading some 10m (30 yards) apart, with No.8 Platoon, which included me, 10m (30 yards) behind them, closely followed by Wally with Coy HQ.
From where I sat on the ramp of the Fantail I could see shells landing around the buildings of our objective. There was no great volume, but what was there was accurate. The promised smoke was completely useless. I saw only one canister land between us and the target, and the smoke from that just petered out. From my vantage point, I was able to give some sort of commentary to those in the body of the vehicle, who could see nothing.
Now in the last 60m (200 yds) of our approach, in about half a metre (18 ins) of water, we travelled parallel to the flood bank of the canal, which was about 10m (30 yards) to our right. Only then did I notice that we were passing a machine-gun pill box that was set into the bank. It appeared to be unmanned — Wally had suggested that our objective might not be defended — and with overwhelming relief the thought flashed through my mind, ‘Wally’s right after all.’
‘They got tanks!’
That relief was immediately shattered by bursts of fire from Spandaus, apparently sited near the road on our left. Suddenly, all was unbelievable bedlam. When they hit the Fantail it was like being inside an empty oil drum with a horde of demented woodpeckers trying to break their way in.
To encourage everyone — myself very much included! — I ordered Hacker to open fire with the Browning. Well, not quite like that, I regret to say. My fire order of ‘Let ’em have it, Sarge!’ is not to be found in any training manual. However, it worked, and he opened fire in the general direction of the road.
It was then I saw an enormous furrow cut across the surface of the water alongside and thought, 'That's a high velocity round'. There followed immediately a shout from the American crewman, ‘They got tanks!’, and I saw what I took to be two tanks on the road along the shore line ahead of us.
A moment later we were hit. I didn't heard the bang. In fact there seemed to be an instant of complete silence before I found myself pinned against the ramp watching the front of the Fantail rearing upwards. I thought we would capsize before it fell back and halted. It must have been an HE shell that hit us, because an AP shot would have passed clean through. Another shout from the American crewman followed immediately, ‘The driver's dead!’ There was now considerable chaos inside the Fantail with casualties up at the mangled front end.
The loading order for Fantails was such that the platoon commander was at the rear in order to release the ramp and be first out with two section leaders. The blast had sprung the ramp, which was now held by the safety chains. We attempted to close it in order to release the chains, but it was jammed immovably, leaving no option, since fuel oil was now burning, other than to evacuate the vehicle over the top.
Dash to the bank
Getting over the top was not very inviting since we and the other Fantails were receiving bursts of fire from the Spandaus, but we were only about 10m (30 yards) from the flood bank, which I thought would offer cover. My order ‘Get to that f***ing bank!’ is another not found in any manual, but, even so, those still able, made a dash through the shallow water around us.
On reaching the bank we found it to be covered by a Spandau firing from the road. I saw one section get their Bren into action, but the Spandau got them before they could fire more than half a magazine, and both they and the Bren slid into the ditch at the base of the bank.
Meanwhile, I could see A Company arriving to a similar but less intense reception some 150m (500 yds) away to our left. After disgorging its platoon one of their Fantails made an attempt to get away, only to be hit in the centre of the star painted on the ramp. Probably an AP shot — there was no explosion, just a hole.
By now I was feeling, irrationally, quite detached from the events around me. Dazed, almost elated. In this incomprehensible state I looked at the man lying next to me on the bank and saw that half his battle-dress blouse was missing together with a large part of his left arm. On seeing this, my immediate thought was, I never realised an elbow joint was so complicated — something that has stayed vividly with me.
Of the group on the bank there was now only one alive but wounded. Seeing the holes in the water bottles and the equipment of others lying around me showed me the appalling error of my having directed them to the bank. There was now only fire from a sniper. It felt like being marker on the butt of a rifle range. The deafening crack made by the passing bullet was followed by the comparatively slight pop of the distant weapon.
Between two flood banks
All movement from the burning fantails had now ceased, the only sound being the crackle of exploding ammunition as the fire reached it. The sniper appeared to be getting more persistent — and accurate — so, taking a rifle from one of the dead, I made a quick scramble to the top of the flood bank, from where I saw Wally Riley and the survivors of Company HQ between the two flood banks.
Wally shouted to me, ‘Where's your platoon?', and my reply, ‘They're all dead,’ did nothing to help matters. He had his problems, too, with a number of badly wounded men around him. The sniper had just killed our stretcher-bearer while he was attending to one of them, and our radio was damaged and could only make intermittent contact with A Company. Our position between the two flood banks, overlooked by the pump house, was completely untenable, but there was nothing better.
I made my way back to the Fantails in an attempt to assemble any others, but I found only dead and wounded. Among the wounded was my friend and fellow platoon commander Ronnie Horton. He seemed to be paralysed from the waist down and was lying on the dry beach among others of his platoon. Having made it to within 30m (100 yards) of the buildings, a shell or mortar had landed among them, killing or wounding most of them.
'Get the MO, Sid’
I returned to Wally to collect some of the morphia syrettes he carried. Then I got back to Ronnie Horton. There was little I could do for him. The occasional shell or mortar was still falling near by — the splinters buzzed by us. Ronnie said to me, ‘Get the MO, Sid.’
I'm afraid to say I told him the easy lie, which was, ‘David's on his way up here.’ He died shortly afterwards.
Among the others I found my radio operator, Private Walsh, wounded and pinned down in a drainage ditch by the weight of the ‘38’ set and his equipment. Our joint effort got him over the bank near the others. I left him with a water bottle, which I took from one of the obviously dead.
Having lost track of time I can only say sometime during the afternoon three Typhoons appeared and proceeded to beat the place up. We had laid out yellow markers, and they avoided us by a comfortably generous margin.
Wally sent me down the bank to find a place from where we might wade back across the floods after dark. A junction with a secondary canal seemed to offer possibilities, and from here C Company — now reduced to Wally, me and eight or nine others, plus two most willing German ‘prisoners’ — made its way across the floods in the darkness. We spent most of the night on a half-submerged straw stack, from were we watched the action ashore. Someone had a good supply of tracer!
After dawn on the 14th, since most of our group could not swim Wally sent me back to retrieve a damaged assault boat that we could see floating near by. I was accompanied on this excursion by one of our ‘prisoners’. He was a much better swimmer than I was. With the non-swimmers and our clothes and equipment aboard, the rest of us swam across the flooded area and slowly propelled the boat to where, soon after 12pm, we saw a jeep on a spit of dry land. Wally went on in the jeep to find battalion HQ, and the rest followed on foot.
My mood of elation promptly evaporated, to be replaced by utter exhaustion, and I told the others to go on without me. Two of the chaps whom, I suspect, had already guessed why, turned back and said to me, ‘Come on, Sir, we'll help you.’
In battalion HQ — a derelict barn — someone, I think it was Simon, gave me a white-enamel mug containing a lavish measure of whisky. Unfortunately, it did not have its usual effect.
The price to pay for VE Day
I awakened next in hospital in Assisi with three weeks’ growth of beard. Others in the ward were talking of the war being over. I'm told there was a VE Day. I know nothing of it, but I'm sure I missed a wonderful celebration.
Set among the cypresses, some two miles from the scene of the action I’ve just described, the Argenta Gap Military Cemetery is now to be found. This was a battlefield cemetery started by the 78th Division, which was later extended to include UK and Commonwealth dead from the final offensive in Italy. From the total of 464 British Army dead who are buried there no fewer than 50 are from the 1st Battalion, The Buffs. Final victory inevitably exacted its price. The headstones bear witness that no small contribution to that price was made by The Buffs.
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