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Italy : A Soldier's Experience.

by Mr Libertyship

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Contributed by 
Mr Libertyship
People in story: 
Mr Reginald Horace Northcote
Location of story: 
Italy 1944
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A3228590
Contributed on: 
05 November 2004

My Father was in Italy during the war as a driver with the North Devon Yeomanry and was attached to the British Fourth Division. He saw the bombing of Monte Cassino and entered Rome as part of the Liberation force. As a boy he used to tell me the odd stories of his wartime experiences in Italy which were fascinating. In his truck cab he told me he had a motley collection of liberated weapons: an Italian rifle, a Beratta pistol and his pride and joy a German P38 automatic. He used them regularly for target practice.
In 1944 the German army was retreating in Northern Italy and the lines were very fluid. He was in his truck driving through a wooded area when he saw some soldiers in the distance puncturing oil drums and pouring the contents away. He thought they were American soldiers by the shape of their helmets.Has he drew nearer he realised that they were soldiers of the elite Herman Goering parachute regiment. The german soldiers went for their rifles which were stacked nearby and my father said he did the fastest reverse in history with rifle bullets whizzing past him.
He told me about the legendary german 88s which played havoc on the mountain roads : knocking out the first truck of a convoy and then the last before proceeding to take out the middle : a ghastly logic of elimination. On another occasion a german 88 was causing "difficulties" at their O.P. post.An Officer who was assigned O.P. duty put his hand in a truck door and slammed the door on it so he was injured and would be excused duty : my father witnessed this. German booby traps were another problem : poisoned wells, explosive devices disguised as fountain pens and left on tables. Also the dreaded S anti personnel mine. The germans observed that British Soldiers never walked through rain flooded ruts on the road and always put these mines on the edge of the ruts. It was a horrible weapon. In the north of Italy near a place called Forli the germans had a huge railway gun. During the day it hid in a railway tunnel and then at a precise time it was trundled out and fired huge shells into the Allied positions.The gun was eventually captured. Near that place in a village my father remembers a german staff car passing through with German generals in.They were surrendering that area of the front.These are just a few memories of the stories he told me,after Italy it was on to Greece and Athens where he was suddenly thrown into the vacuum of civil war caused by the retreating Germans. It was Greek against Greek with the British in the middle. But thats another story.

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Message 1 - Italy 1944

Posted on: 05 November 2004 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Sir,
The name of the Northern Italian City would be FORLI !

 

Message 2 - Italy 1944

Posted on: 05 November 2004 by Mr Libertyship

Thanks Tom for that : I will correct it. Cheers Roger.

 

Message 3 - Italy 1944

Posted on: 05 November 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Roger

I read your account of your father's service in Italy with great interest. It is a neglected campaign. Even now, few modern tourists realise the rugged mountanous nature of Italy, terrain that is relatively easy to defend but near impossible to surmount and vanquish. Any man who served there deserves and has my greatest respect.

It is in that spirit that I hope you will accep the following points:

You say that "In 1944 the German army was retreating in Northern Italy and the lines were very fluid."

But that is not the case. Operations were greatly hampered by unusually heavy rainfall during the last three months of the year in Italy in 1944. On the night of the 1st of October, for example, approximately 8½ inches of rain fell in the Po Valley in 10 hours, reducing the countryside to a quagmire. I remember Lake Maggiore flooding coastal towns, and I remember using a rowing boat on the main waterfront road in Porto Valtravaglia. During the late autumn and winter the battlefront remained generally inactive and generally stood on the Gothic Line, although the Allies did make some progress on their right along the Adriatic coast. Forlì was captured on 10 November, and Ravenna on 5 December.

You also say that "In the north of Italy near a place called Forli the Germans had a huge railway gun. During the day it hid in a railway tunnel and then at a precise time it was trundled out and fired huge shells into the Allied positions".

I am completely unaware of any such gun near Forlì. So far as I know, there were only two such guns as you describe in Italy. The railway guns involved were two 28-cm K5(E)s that had originally been sent to Italy for shipment to Tunisia, that campaign ending before they could be moved there. The guns were then stored in the Milan area and were sent south to the Anzio area via Rome at the end of January 1944. Once in position only one gun could be kept in action at any one time for, although a near-perfect firing point for a railway gun was found, it could accommodate only one gun at a time. This position was not far from Albano on the main Rome to Nettuno railway line at a point where the track entered a tunnel. The K5(E) could be kept under cover in the tunnel, being pushed out to fire and immediately pulled back in again once the round had been released. Although the track in and out of the tunnel was a double one at the site it was deemed safer to operate only one gun at a time with the other gun kept in another tunnel farther to the north. The fire from the guns was so regular that the Allied troops nicknamed the guns "Anzio Annie" and the name has stuck, despite the fact that 2 guns were involved. After cassino, both guns were captured almost intact ready to move out. One gun was damaged by its crew before capture but the other was found almost complete and this one was subsequently sent to the United States for examination and test firing.

You mention the German "dreaded S anti personnel mine". I had an opportunity to examine one of these devices in detail whilst on an advanced engineering course in 1949. This was the "SMi 35" (Schrapnellemine 35) introduced in 1935 and known as the 'schu' or S-mine. It was cannister shaped with three detonating prongs and filled with 350 steel balls. Once activated, by stepping on it, it was blown upwards to a height of a meter by a small charge and then detonated spewing the steel balls for a distance of upto 150 meters. It was known as 'the silent soldier' when first encountered by Allied infantry.

Regards,

Peter

 

Message 4 - Italy 1944

Posted on: 05 November 2004 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Roger - I have to go along with Peter - as always - after all - both he and i were there at the time - he was a civilian though and still at school.

The rains he mentioned were and are - unforgettable - I was there this past September at Riccione arriving on a Monday evening - on the Tuesday
a beautiful sunny day I spent wandering around the Coriano Cemetery visiting my old comrades - the Wednesday the monsoons started and didn't let up until the early Saturday. The only advantage was that it finally got the German Tourists out of the beach deck chairs !

A Shu mine killed my best friend and he is buried at Cesena cemetery - they were extremely nasty types of mine, bouncing up to waist high and killing those nearest and injuring anyone within 50 yards...it wasn't so much the killing which one imagines is instantanteous but the dying from a bunch of small white hot balls in all your organs, a man could last a couple of hours in agony, as my friend did.

Anzio Annie was always a topic of conversation for those lads at Anzio - it's just as well only one could operate at a time - we would have lost that beachead !

I think it was the monotony of the terrain that got to most people - you crossed a river - you fought your way up the mountain - you fought your way down the other side - you then crossed another river - fought your way up a mountain...ad infinitum !!!

regards
tomcan

 

Message 5 - Italy 1944

Posted on: 26 November 2004 by Nevasa

Thanks Peter for your comments on my piece re my father's experience in Italy.I am 57 now and he died in 1980.Most of these stories came out in dribs and drabs.
You are probably right about the railway guns being in the Anzio area : things get confused in "the fog of war". He originaly joined the North Devon Yeomanry :was that incorporated in the British Fourth Division? I seem to remember him saying he was attached to a unit with Indian soldiers in it at one stage. He did have a division shoulder patch. It was a circle ( red possibly) with a tranche cut out of it. I have seen some film locally of the North Devon yeomanry in action in Italy. It was being shown in the local Museum in Barnstaple. The footage was of self propelled guns in action "somewhere in Italy".

I have a particular interest in the Italian sea borne landings because when I was in the Merchant Navy I heard about one of our companys ships which was sunk by a radio controlled bomb dropped from a Heinkel in the landing areas.Was it Anzio or Salerno? The Company was the British India Steam Navigation co : and the ships name was the s.s."Rhona". Her sister ship the s.s. "Rajula" was still running up until the early 80's.
The "Rhona" was loaded with American troops and there was a large loss of life. The Captain of the "Rhona" was quite a character and there was a story going around in Company circles that he could not find his tin helmet at the start of the air attack. His Indian steward rushed up to him and provided him with a galley coliander which he proceeded to wear on the Bridge.Even in sudden death there is black humour!
Best Wishes
Roger
26.11.04

 

Message 6 - Italy 1944

Posted on: 26 November 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Roger

You say that I am "probably right about the railway guns being in the Anzio area" - may I stress that there is no doubt whatsoever about that?

I am not sure what you mean by the "North Devon Yeomanry", they served in WW1 but in 1920 they were amalgamated with the Royal 1st Devon Yeomanry, to form the 11th (Devon) Army Brigade, RFA. Then in 1924 they became the 96th (Royal Devon Yeomanry) Field Brigade, RA, and in 1938 the 96th (Royal Devon Yeomanry) Field Regiment, RA. Finally, in the big army expansion of 1939 they formed the duplicate 142nd Field Regiment (Royal Devon Yeomanry), Royal Artillery. The 96th Field Regiment was in the 4th Infantry Division. The shoulder patch you describe is indeed the formation sign of the 4th Infantry Division: a red circle with a quarter (4th) segment partly out on a white background. The division was in Italy from 21 February to 12 December 1944.

The SS Rhona wasn't at Salerno and she was sunk well before the Anzio Landings of 22 January 1944. She was, however, used for the Sicily Landings after which she was docked in Algiers as an accommodation ship. She then sailed from Oran carrying some 2,000 American and 13 British troops bound for India in convoy KMF 26, but was struck by a radio-controlled glider bomb and sank in 15 minutes with the loss of 1,149 lives, off Bougie, on 26 November 1943. This was the 2nd greatest British shipping disaster (after the Laconia), and the 16th most serious of WW2. There is an extraordinary co-incidence of dates, the first SS Rohna was sunk by a U-Boat off Guernsey on 27 November 1916.

You mention that you served in her sister ship, the S.S. Rajula. Although they were sister ships there were major differences in their power plants. Both had reciprocating steam engines, though the installations were not the same. In the Rhona there were two quadruple-expansion engines, whereas the Rajula had triple expansion machinery of a slightly higher power and correspondingly higher top speed.

Kind regards,

Peter

 

Message 7 - Italy 1944

Posted on: 26 November 2004 by Trooper Tom Canning - WW2 Site Helper

Roger -
Once again I go along with Peter on the 4th Inf Div's insignia as the red circle with the quadrant as my own Brigade - 21st Tanks - fought alongside in North Africa for a spell and cleared up after them when the suddenly moved to Italy in the middle of the night !

 

Message 8 - Italy 1944

Posted on: 10 December 2004 by Mr Libertyship

Peter,
Thanks for information regarding the sinking of s.s."Rhona"., Devon Yeomanry and shoulder flash .Unfortunately I did not sail on the "Rajula" she was just the oldest ship in the B.I. Fleet when I joined the Company. I did sail on the "Devonia" in 1967 : she was the former Bibby Line troopship "Devonshire" : she had a magnificant array of regimental badges in the passenger smokeroom. She went to scrap in La Spezia in 1967. I was on the last voyage and I believe the badges were removed prior to the "disposal" voyage and stored in the B.I. Head office in One Aldgate London.The second ship I served on was the "Nevasa" sister ship of the Bibby Line "Oxfordshire" She was ex troopship and again had a magnificant collection of badges.
One of the smaller ships I sailed on was the m.s. "Canara" 7000 tons. She had a plaque on board listing her war service in the Pacific as logistic support vessel for the Americans on their island hopping campaigns.She was scrapped in 1968.

Anyway best regards and have a good
Xmas.Thanks again for the information and clarification of subject matters.

Roger

 

Message 9 - Italy 1944

Posted on: 10 December 2004 by Mr Libertyship

Tom,
Thanks for your message, appreciate the information. I still have the shoulder patch at home., along with a lot of his personal demob information. I also have a special pass issued to him to use a truck to drive into Athens. The truck was a Canadian Ford he called "Josephine"
He was eventually sent back to the U.K. on a train. It was an horrendous long journey but they were issued with a very strange little travel guide which gives touristy type descriptions of the countrys and cities they were passing thro. Surreal really when you think most of these countrys were blasted to hell, cities in ruins etc.
Have a good Xmas
Roger

 

Message 10 - Italy 1944

Posted on: 10 December 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

What a coincidence! The Devonshire was the troopship I sailed on to Hong Kong in January 1950. I remember the deck I was on: Lower 4L. It was one of the last troopships to still have messdecks (long tables) and hammocks. The route was Southhampton - Port Said - Suez Canal - Red Sea - Aden - Indian Ocean - Colombo - Malacca Straights - Singapore - South China Sea - and finally, Hong Kong; a five week journey.

You arrived with your knees already brown. :)

Peter

 

Message 11 - Italy 1944

Posted on: 17 December 2004 by Mr Libertyship

Peter,

Re "Devonshire" : what a small world : as "Devonia" she was converted to Educational cruising and all the troop decks were made into individual dormitories to accommodate the schools we carried.The main passenger accommodation, public rooms were kept much the same. I seem to remember she had strange lifeboats on board propelled by what they called "Fleming gear" :each occupant in the lifeboat had a vertical lever in front of him/her which he/she propelled backwards and forwards : this connnected to a prop shaft. With say 10 people on the "gear" you could get up to a fair lick of speed. A good idea really because rowing with lifeboat oars requires special skills.
The scrapping of "Devonia" in 67 was a sad affair. It was at La Spezia Italy. As we left the ship there was a hue and cry from the scrapyard officials : a pair of Zeiss Binoculars which were included in the bridge inventory had gone missing.
They would not let us leave until they were found. We were all lined up on the quay with our luggage. It was like a scene from "Colditz" : our baggage was inspected by their security men. The binoculars were still missing. Then someone confessed that they had taken them. I was expecting him to be shot on the spot as an "example" : anyway they then let us go to the coach for the drive to Genoa airport.
She was a very happy ship. I would love to know the final fate of all those badges. Has the collection been broken up or is it still in the P & O vaults London?
Best wishes
Roger

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