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64th (7th London) Field Regiment Royal Artillery 27

by vcfairfield

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06 July 2004

1945 cont.

As I remember this fortnight the weather was just about on the turn, the chill had gone from the air and some days were quite warm. Our first day after settling in was a Sunday and very restful. Up late a leisurely breakfast, pottering around until lunch, a sleep in the afternoon followed by a walk among the different streets and alleys in the town. We then had two days on the inevitable maintenance which included checking all the stores. This sounds fairly straightforward but first of all the trucks had to be unloaded and their contents sorted out and humped away into safe places some of which were rather out of the way in one building or another. Then of course each item had to be checked to ensure it was in good working condition, be suitably cleaned and ticked off against the quartermasters inventory. And it all took quite a long time.

March 14th and I was on battery duties which kept me busy all day. Then came three days on general work such as getting our range tables up to date, working out a command post scheme, running classes and cleaning up all our quarters for parades and inspections. In the midst of it I was detailed for guard duties. Nevertheless we were out of range of enemy guns and could relax mentally and to help us do so, on the evening of the 17th we all went to see a film “Halfway Inn” starring Tom Walls.

Sunday 18th was yet another of those never to be forgotten occasions for an invitation had been sent out to one of our infantry battalions, The Scots Guards, for their sergeants mess to visit us that evening. In preparation I was detailed as sergeants mess caterer mainly because I seldom drank, having not long ago had jaundice. Except when I fell by the way side or when I had the odd glass of beer. To provide sufficient drink for the whole party of I suppose thirty five or more it was decided to assemble half a dozen or so fire buckets. These were thoroughly cleaned and filled nearly to the top with local white wine i.e. vino bianco and into each bucket was also poured our rather meagre supply of gin and whisky. This produced a rather more lethal drink than anticipated for halfway through the evening the odd man here and there turned rather pale and just slithered out of his chair on to the floor. All that notwithstanding we had a very enjoyable time and when our visitors were due to leave the RSM of the Scots Guards gave the word, all his sergeants stood smartly to attention, some swaying gently, and marched out to their awaiting transport.

However there was a climax. All the gun crews and ancillary personnel were billeted in what was known at that time as the Duke of Forli’s palace but was, I am sure from its vast size compared with everything else in the town, the Palazzo Paolucci which was built in the 17th century. Sadly at some time or other a bomb had been dropped on it making a large hole through the roof and through every floor down to the ground. In the middle of the night a certain NCO got up to look for the toilet, fell through the hole from the first floor to the ground and broke his leg. The outcome, so I understand, was that he was borne off to hospital and ultimately to England where he was finally discharged and given a small pension. After the war he returned to Italy, married an Italian and I believe, lives there to this day!

The following morning we were involved in a command post exercise, enjoyed a quiet afternoon and in the evening several of us went off to see an Anglo-Polish Ballet which was mostly Polish and very enjoyable to watch. On March 20th after a fairly easy day we all saw a film called “Cover Page Girl” with Rita Hayworth and of course in Technicolor. As I first went to see films in the early 1920’s when they were “silents” I have lived through all the changes via “talkies” to colour.

The next day we were called out on a reconnaissance to the north of Ravenna. The weather was warm and sunny and we were not the least bit concerned to be so near the front line because everything looked so lovely in the first touch of Spring. I was certainly glad that the area selected was abandoned, and we left it without regrets in mid afternoon because although everything looked so very nice the grass we walked through was alive with misquitos. They were very large and flew about in clouds as we tramped across the fields. Regretfully we never got the chance to look at Ravenna apart from travelling through the town. Being at one time the capital of the western half of the Roman Empire from the beginning of the 5th century AD, after the fall of Rome and then later on the Ostragoth and Byzantine capitals it is in relics of the past and I would have enjoyed a day there.

On March 22nd there was a troop exercise which was always referred to as a “Troop Drill Order” and I was detailed to be an umpire which meant a nice easy morning for yours truly. We were back for lunch, had the afternoon off and saw another film called “Beautiful Cheat” which was very good. The 23rd duly arrived and saw me off on another reconnaissance with my officer, signaller, driver and Jeep as usual. It was a dull and dismal day and I had no idea of what was going on. It all seemed very hush hush and I had long ago learned not to be too inquisitive over such matters. The general feeling quite often expressed was “why worry about the war when we had colonels and upwards who were paid far more than us for doing so!” That evening I was able to obtain a very good supper at the Sergeants Club back in Forli and which helped to round off the day very nicely.

All this was followed by three rather messy days and these included a stint as Battery Orderly Sergeant with a lot of hanging around but not very much to do and Forli in those days was not of very great interest. We had a day on the firing range which also left me more or less unemployed except when some shells came uncomfortably close. For some unknown reason I felt very tired when we all returned to our quarters. On the third day I had to go to the dentist for a tooth extraction. It was all quite painless at the time but it ached a lot later. The dental attention we received was generally quite good but there was no system of regular inspection. In this respect I missed the very good dentist I used to go to before the war.

March 27th was a regimental sports day which was held in Forli Stadium and I undertook to run the last leg of the relay, a distance of 220 yards. I had always been a good runner but was not really tall enough to make a name for myself in the sport. And certainly not at the comparatively old age of twenty seven years. The race was exciting. There were four teams taking part and I was handed the baton last. About two thirds of the way round I was able to overtake two of my opponents but could not quite reach the winner and finished about a yard behind him but gaining all the time. Although I came in second I was more than satisfied with my performance but I would have loved to have been first. For after all is said and done if you are not a winner then you are just another loser no matter how well you do. The sporting afternoon ended with several of us going off to look for food, all in a jolly mood following the session in the sports arena which was a complete change from normal duties.

On March 28th, as late in the day as possible, we were ordered back into action and in fact arrived at our allotted battery position after dark. What we did not know at the time, although no doubt my command post officer knew, was that we were taking up positions to support an attack by 2nd Commando Brigade who were holding the narrow neck of land between Lake Comacchio and the sea. A position at the extreme right of the 8th Army and of the entire Allied army in Italy.

The following three days were spent settling in. Everything was very heavily camouflaged, vehicles were driven back to the rear areas and supplies were ferried up at night. We had found an abandoned old house which was ideal for use as a command post. It was very dirty and a lot of time was spent cleaning out the inside, at the same time ensuring that the exterior was not disturbed. On the 30th we had a little celebration by cooking ourselves a big supper in the evening using food we had brought with us from Forli.

Our position now was just south of the River Reno and one or two of us had some fun trying to get an old and disused boat to work. April 1st was spent most of the day preparing for the forthcoming attack which was due to go in on the following morning. It was also worth a note in my diary because we were served eggs for breakfast. The attack started later than expected and went on all day and was very successful. The commandos succeeded in destroying the entire garrison of twelve hundred men capturing over nine hundred prisoners including a high proportion of the German Cadres forming part of the 162 Turkoman Division which was composed mainly of Russians bolstered up with the hardcore of Germans. During these operations which went on for several more days two Victoria Crosses were awarded posthumously to Commandos. One at the Valetta Canal and the other further north on the night of April 8th roughly between Porto Garibaldi and Comacchio.

The next day April 3rd we moved forward on to the spit of land north of the River Reno and were very busy all day re-establishing our command post and working out the necessary data needed by the guns for their firing programmes. There was a lot of firing during the night and we were extremely busy the next day when, among other things we unearthed, a couple of Turkomen from the 162 Division, out of a dugout. They were each given a cigarette and sent on their way to our Regimental Headquarters somewhere back in the rear. I also came across a new book just issued to the army in Italy by the Germans entitled “Umkampftes R
Römisches Land”. It was a gift by the enemy propaganda ministry and dealt with the fighting, as seen by the artist author and had many water colours of the various battle areas from Cassino northwards.

No doubt because we were up alongside Lake Comacchio and also very near to the Adriatic the weather was bright but very windy in this particular position. On April 5th all the activity had receded and we took the opportunity to do some packing up in anticipation of a move which did not immediately materialise. On the 6th our Division, the 56th, completed the first part of its tasks towards the final battle in Italy by successfully attacking the “wedge” north of the River Reno and in fact this and the attack of the commandos which we supported turned out to be the prelude to final victory in Italy. It tended to confirm enemy suspicions that the allies might well try a landing north of Venice which in fact the powers that be had no intention of doing.

There followed two fairly quiet days and on the night of the second day the bulk of the regiment left the area and our battery was the only artillery on this narrow neck of windswept land. On April 9th we worked out and fired a mock fireplan at night making a great deal of noise but with no intention of moving forward. In fact the next morning we pulled out from the “spit” leaving in each gun pit mock-up guns made from wooden poles etc, underneath the camouflage nets so that the Germans would think we were still there. The weather had suddenly become very fine and sunny and we made the most of it after the long winter. We went back into action south of Lake Commachio and was the target for persistent enemy shelling that evening.

However to return to the previous day the 8th Indian and 2nd New Zealand Divisions were due to commence the main 8th Army offensive over to our left and that afternoon we could clearly hear in the distance the succession of bombardments and could see some of the aircraft coming out of their bombing runs several miles away higher up the River Senio. Over fifteen hundred guns and eight hundred and twenty five heavy bombers took part. These were reinforced by one thousand medium and fighter bombers from the Desert Air Force and the XXII Tactical Air Command. It was all very cleverly arranged. For an hour and a half the heavy bombers dropped fragmentation bombs on the enemy rear areas and at the same time the fighter bombers attacked many individual targets such as enemy gun positions. Then around 1600 hours the supporting artillery began their fire programmes. These consisted of five barrages each lasting just over forty minutes with ten minute intervals in between. During the intervals the fighter bombers swept along the enemy front line attacking anything that moved or didn’t move. The very clever part was that after the fifth artillery barrage the fighter bombers again swooped over the enemy front line and at the same time our infantry began their attack supported by a large number of tanks mounting flame throwers. Caught with their heads downs, expecting to be strafed by our fighters yet again, they discovered too late that the planes were not firing this time. Nevertheless the Germans fought well as usual but by the morning of the 11th the Kiwis and Indians had smashed their way over the River Senio and had reached the River Santerno.

We were very busy also on the 11th in support of one Brigade of our Division which crossed the flooded ground to the west of Lake Comacchio in “Fantails” that could go on land or water and landed at Menate three miles behind the enemy lines capturing the town of Longastrino. Our guns were busy most of the day and we had many Fireplans to work out and one of them given to us in the middle of the night kept me awake for quite a while. On the afternoon of the day following we were ordered to move and were on the road for a long time because of the jam of vehicles. On the way we passed lots of dead cattle, both cows and horses caught up in our artillery barrages and also, from time to time masses of German dead. Finally we got into action again at about 2200 hours near the small village of Menate and by that time we were feeling tired from just hanging about.

In the morning, after breakfast I managed to have a most enjoyable washdown in the sunshine and did all my personal washing which dried within an hour or so. For the remainder of the day we were occupied in the command post as our guns were constantly being called upon by the infantry who were now pressing the Germans very hard. April 14th saw us on the move again to a position about three miles west of Menate to support an attack on the key town of Argenta and late that evening and well into the early hours we were busy working out a long barrage to be fired the following day.

And so after a very short sleep we were up very early on the 15th, a Sunday, to put the final corrections to the barrage that began at 6am and went on non-stop until midday. It was quite a sight. The area around our command post as far as I could see was dotted with trees and had at one time been an orchard and as the barrage progressed everything was shrouded in smoke and cordite fumes. Then, sometime during the morning the 6th Armoured Division passed by close to our position and on into the smoke. An awe inspiring sight which I could not take my eyes off until it finally passed out of sight, tank after tank after tank. In the afternoon, tired out from the previous nights work, I was able to snatch some sleep for an hour or so.

We were again busy the following day doing our small part in the plan which was for our 56th together with the 78th Division to force a way through what had become known as the Argenta Gap and where the enemy had thrown in its main reserves consisting of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Division. We of course were well aware that the enemy was nearing breaking point and morale was at its highest.

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