- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Horace Godwin (known as Ray)
- Location of story:
- Vis, Yugoslavia
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 08 July 2004
EX 10540741 Sgt. H. B. GODWIN
R.E.M.E. ATT. 64TH H.A.A. Regt. R.A.
The Dalmatian Islands
Our part in the North African Campaign finished, the 64th H.A.A. Regiment embarked at Phillipsville for a journey to the Italian Port of Taranto, and we were then immediately transported to the Naval Base of Bari on the Adriatic coast. The regiment was equipped with 3.7 mobile Anti-Aircraft guns and supported with a R.E.M.E. workshop section. We were deployed within a 5-mile radius of the port and its defence. I was, at that time, a Corporal Instrument Mech (A.A.) with the workshop section. My job was keeping the gun dials, Nolrange finders, T.I.’s and other instruments in operation out on the sites. The 8th Army was now moving up the Adriatic coast, air activity was decreasing over the port, and, as a result of this, orders came for part of the regiment to be deployed to another area. This caused much speculation, until the name Vis was mentioned. Vis is a small island, part of a group of islands called the Dalmatian Islands, off the coast of Yugoslavia. It was the only island unoccupied by the Germans, it was the furthest away from the mainland, and had been liberated by Marshal Tito and his partisans. Mainly consisting of Serbs, with other Slavs, they had fought in the mountains of the mainland against the Germans, and also Mikilovitch, a force of Croats allied to them. Fighting behind enemy lines they had suffered terrible hardships, and if captured, tortured, even by the Croats (Utashi). The partisans had retaken Vis, and were now forming a base there. The island was about 14 miles long and 8 miles wide, with a mainly hilly perimeter, with a plain in the centre covered with vines, part of which has been removed to make way for an airstrip about 750 yards long, from which 4 Spitfires of the Balkan Air Force were operating. At the west end of the island was the Port of Komiza, while at the other end was the Port of Vis, these were connected by the only good road running across the plain.
The 3.7’s and G.T.V.’s along with our mobile workshops were transported by L.C.T.’s from Bari to Komiza, the guns then being sited at either end of the island. The workshop then travelled to the centre of the island to set up on the hillside in the yard of a little stone Church, overlooking the plain. While we pitched our tents round the outside of the wall surrounding the churchyard, the British force, already on the island, were called Land Forced Adriatic, and were under the command of Brigadier George Daly, which comprised of the 40th and 43rd Royal Marine Commando, 2nd S.A.S. Brigade, Highland Light Infantry (part of the 51st Highland Division) and other support troops. Operating from the two ports were several Royal Navy crafts, Marshal Tito’s forces numbered about 2,000 and were mostly men, but there were quite a number of women and boys, all dressed in khaki battledress with grenades hooked around their waist and Sten guns over their shoulders. Some of the 26th Partisan Division were in huts near to our camp.
I had an occasion to visit a hut one morning, to find about 30 men, women, and boys all fully dressed lying side by side on the floor asleep; they had been out on a raid to the mainland during the night. Fraternization in the partisan army was forbidden, and if disobeyed, either man, or woman, would be sent back to the guerilla’s behind the lines on the mainland. When a successful raid had been carried out the partisans would light little fires on the sea walls around the island, also on some of the occupied ones under the nose of Jerry. They would also dance around large bonfires, singing Titos’ praises and partisan songs. Some of the women were of ample proportions, quite a strain on the seams of the battledress!
Our presence on the island was to protect it from the straffing of the Messerschmitts from the Luftwaffer base on the mainland, and also against a possible invasion of Vis. Brac (the largest island of the group) was situated between Vis and the Yugoslav coast, it was mountainous and had been heavily fortified by the Germans, many more troops were now being brought there, and it appeared that an invasion was very near. Both Commando’s and Partisans were making frequent raids, sabotaging installations, bringing back information on troops and defence positions, and many prisoners. The Royal Navy was playing an important role, ferrying the troops in small crafts to their objectives, and supporting them. They also took on a buccaneering approach among the island, capturing small schooners from the enemy and using them for the raiding parties. The navies main force was a small destroyer and about 3 M.T.B.’s operating from the port of Vis. These had assembled with a fair number of landing craft outside the port. It had been decided by the command that, to forestall a German invasion of Vis, the allies would invade Brac at dusk. The attach commenced with a force of 40th R.M. Commando’s, Highland Light Infantry and 26th Partisan Division in small boats, protected by the Navy skirting the western end of Hvar, and landing on the south side of Brac.
The first attack was made by the H.L.I. on a German observation post against heavy fire from concrete emplacements, on which their mortar and sten gun fire had little effect, they fell back, reformed, and tried again, but were repulsed with heavy casualties. The Commando’s and Partisans were also finding it difficult to make progress against the enemy who were in well fortified positions firing down on them and pinning them down. The main battle for Brac came with rocket firing Hurricanes attaching and subduing the enemy artillery, while the 43rd R.M. Commando’s attack the sides of the enemy’s main strong point, but took too long to get through a minefield, and had to abandon the assault in the face of heavy gunfire. The Partisans captured a heavily fortified hill top, but were unable to hold it for long; lack of artillery seemed to be the cause of failing to establish a foothold on the slopes. Commando’s and Partisans continued attacking the positions, and suffered heavy casualties, wounded and dying strewn on the slopes. Next day, reinforcements were sent from Vis consisting of the 40th R.M. Commando’s and Partisans, both took turns in attacking the stronghold, again shattered by the murderous fire, and had to take cover. The combination of both forces was not very successful, language and tactics seemed to be the problem, attacks were often delayed.
The 43rd Commando’s had now managed to cut their way through the minefield, with machine gun and mortar fire blasting them from every side, consolidated the position, then beat off the counter attack. Unfortunately another attack divided them, they lost contact with Headquarters and had to withdraw. Half an hour later the 40th Commando’s attacked the same objective, and took it for the second time that night, but were again counter attached by the enemy with machine gun and mortar fire from every direction. The force had lost most of its officers and had to retreat from the hill, dragging their wounded behind them, and were down to a few rounds of ammunition.
On the third day of the battle, with losses mounting, a decision was made to withdraw from Brac! With no reinforcements available from Italy, it was now important to protect Vis if invaded by Jerry. The withdrawal was made in daylight, and in full view of the German coastal guns on the mainland and the E boats in the harbour of Maraska. The evacuation was carried out by L.C.T.’s and other small craft, protected by two destroyers and the M.T.B.’s, while the troops boarded under the covering fire of a few Commando’s and Partisans who were the last to leave. Vis was now on ’Invasion Alert’. Life went on with maintenance and repairs to the A.A. guns and instruments, keeping them in action against the enemy aircraft. Every afternoon the sky over the island would be dotted with aircraft, at about 30,000 ft. They were the B17 Fortresses and Liberators of the American Air Force, returning to Bari and other bases in southern Italy from raids over the occupied countries of Europe. As each wave passed over the island, one or two from each formation would break away and start its descent towards the airstrip, these would be planes that had been shot up, probably with wounded on board, and did not have much chance of reaching their bases. Sitting on the hillside we would watch the drama taking place, the Spitfires of the Balkan Air Force also using the strip, probably returning from a sortie at the same time and having used up most of their fuel, were desperate to land. Red flares were sent up to keep the Yanks in the air until the Spits landed. This worked, but there were a few near misses. The bombers would come in to land with one or two engines knocked out, holes in the wings and fuselage. It’s a miracle they stayed in the air! Sometimes the wheels would collapse and the plane would ‘belly’ along the runway. The American ground crew would then rush and drag it clear with a tractor. The most amazing incident happened when a Liberator had crashed at the end of the runway, the wounded had been taken out, but the plane was in the path of a Fortress coming in to land, its wheels were down, its three remaining engines reducing power. When the pilot saw the crashed plane he managed to repower them to lift the plane about a foot above the Liberator, turning to struggle over the hills at the end of the runway, vanishing out of sight over the sea. We lost the sound of his engines and thought he had gone into the drink, but a few minutes later he came roaring over the hills onto the beginning of the airstrip to make a perfect landing. On the sea bed, near the harbour of Vis, lay a Liberator, its ghostly shape visible when swimming over the spot. Several hot up bombers crashed into the sea around the islands, some of the crews were lucky enough to be able to bail out and be picked up by the Navy.
It was a hot sunny morning in June when the camp started to hum with excitement, a message had come through that the allies had landed in France, and the invasion had begun. As the weeks rolled by our situation appeared to be improving. Tito and his Partisans had liberated Korcular, taking 800 prisoners, and there were signs that other islands were being evacuated. There was intense activity on the mainland, troop convoys were moving north along the coast road, probably from Greece and Albania. The Russians had now driven the Germans from Hungary, and were on the Yugoslav border. On the 28th September Tito allowed them into his country to continue the fight. Brac had now become important to the allies; it was very close to the mainland and ideal to shell the coast road.
The strength of the German forces on Brac had been reduced greatly, and were proving no opposition to the British and Partisan invasion of the island. There were isolated pockets of resistance but they caused us no trouble when we landed with a troop of 3.7’s and a small workshop section by L.C.T.’s when we moved into the centre of the island. We set up camp and a workshop in the pouring rain which lasted a day and night, and with Bivouac’s our only shelter it was very uncomfortable, still, we did get a rum ration out of it! The 3.7’s were moved to the east side of the island, opposite the coast road and the port of Split on the mainland. They were soon in action against the troop movements and also shelling of the port. One of the 3.7’s had been sited in a former German gun position, this was disastrous, after firing a few rounds it received a direct hit on the gun post, badly wounding the Gunner Weeks and slightly wounding others of the crew. The regiment’s M.O. worked in vain to save his life, he died the next day. The No. 1 of the gun was awarded the M.M. in this action. Staff Sergeant Williams, Cfn. Jock Barrett and myself were sent as a Light Aid Detachment to the troop, and were billeted with a little old lady in her cottage. She used to supplement our rations with goats milk and grapes, but got very upset when we were shelling Split, she made us understand that the Germans would take reprisals against her relations there. Although our billet was near to the guns, travelling to them was hazardous; the road ran around the side of the hills and in full view of enemy artillery on the mainland. Any movement along this road in daylight brought a reply from the German coastal guns. As 1944 drew to a close Russian and Partisans had now liberated the eastern part of Yugoslavia. Belgrade had been freed and the Germans were leaving Albania. Greece had been liberated by British forces, and with the taking of Dubrovnik our operation had come to an end.
We withdrew from Brac back to Vis and to a weeks leave in Rome. On our return we found that relations with the Partisans had deteriorated, more Russians were on the island, and communism was taking over. A party of British troops were returning from leave in Italy, arrived at Komiza and were jailed by the Commissar of the port who alleged they were reinforcements for the British to take over the island. Two of the party escaped back to their unit to report, and only with a great deal of discussion between officers of both sides were they released.
I remember another occasion when a Royal Naval destroyer was refused permission to enter the port by the same man, the Captain sailed into the harbour with all his guns trained on the town, and sent a message back saying he was a member of the British Navy at war and would sail where he wished.
Our time on Vis now finished, and we were preparing to return to Italy, during out time there our cook ’Butch’ Gudgeon had an Italian prisoner of war loaned to us by the Partisans (they did not take many prisoners), he used to clean all the utensils in the cookhouse, his name was Alberto and he was desperate to get back home. My transport was the Instrument Machinery Truck, Joe Woods was the driver, in the back was Jock Brown amongst kitbags, tents and other equipment, and under the workbench was hidden Alberto.
We drove down from the churchyard to Komiza to the L.C.T.’s waiting on the beach. We were ready to drive aboard when two Partisan Guards came along and were checking each truck as it boarded. We were really sweating. Fortunately they passed us by and we were able to continue aboard and sail back to Italy. Arriving back at Bari we took Alberto to the Control Commission, and, I believe, he was sent home. The rest of our Regiment, who had stayed in Italy were ready and waiting for us to join them in convey to Livorno, apparently L.S.T.’s were taking us to the south of France.
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