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Tommy Ward: Air close support of 8th Army in Italy

by TCDWard

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Major Thomas Leslie Ward
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27 January 2006

Major Tommy Ward

Thomas Leslie Ward: Air close support of 8th Army in Italy

After successfully defeating the Germans in North Africa, in July 1943 we went to Malta to get the vehicles waterproofed for the planned invasion of Sicily using vehicle landing craft. Later in the month we invaded south-east corner of Sicily where there was no resistance which was very welcome. I remember driving my staff car off a landing craft onto the beach. My role was Officer Commanding Rover Paddy operating as forward control directing kittyhawk and hurricane fighter-bombers onto targets. Rover Paddy had a quiet time in Sicily although other troops had an active time capturing Syracuse and other parts. We went through the Catania Plain, near to Mount Etna which was erupting and caused concern to everyone nearby. We had to go round Mount Etna to get round to Messina Straights for the next step of invading Italy.

In Sept 1943 we went to the toe of Italy where we were to spend the next 21 months fighting our way up through to the north of the country. The Italians surrendered at the time of the allied landings in Italy and I came across some of them cheekily trying to hitch hike a lift - I had great satisfaction in driving several into a ditch.

We did not meet much resistance in the toe of Italy. The first real battle was the River Sangro in Nov 43. Our next operation was at Monte Cassino but Rover Paddy was not able to function effecively as we were unable to have confidence in knowing exactly where our troops were as they were hidden under the vegetation and trees where the enemy were also located with their machine guns. We were on standby in case of situation altered and opportunities arose. The heavy bombers and light bombers had the main workload, and one of their activities was flattening of the Monastery in Feb 44.

In the period of five months during the advance through the Gothic Line, Anzio to the River Senio Rover Paddy operated as forward air control for Close Support Fighter Bombing directing over 900 Cabrank operations (a formation of six aircraft) onto targets in direct support of 5 Corps. One of the messages of congratulations quoted 200 troops surrendering due to effectiveness of the air support.

I was mentioned in despatches in 24 Aug 1944. Jack Profumo, who was in charge of Army Air cooperation at General Alexander’s Middle East HQ, wrote to me and congratulated me on this. After the war he became Minister for War in the MacMillan government, he was later involved in the ‘Profumo affair’ with Christine Keeler.

In Sept 1944 I was out looking for an observation point in my jeep. There was lots of shelling and Stuka dive-bombing, which was an experience similar to the Dunkirk beaches. I came across photographer in trouble in a ditch with his arm hanging off held on only by his flesh. I had a dickens of a job getting him into the jeep as he was a dead weight and I delivered him to a forward dressing unit with his cameras. By coincidence he was put into a bed next to friend of mine. I was surprised to receive a letter a month or so later thanking me for my efforts signed by a Baron Nahum, he was extremely grateful for his rescue and that his arm had been saved. Some ten years after the war, at the hairdressers I read an article in the Hull Daily Mail about the death of the royal photographer — Baron Nahum. The name struck a surprising chord and I dug out the letter of many years earlier to confirm my suspicions. I later read his memoirs and I was surprised to read the rescue story in which he recounted that he was about to photograph a tank that had a tame white pigeon travelling with it when he was blown up by an enemy shell. He recalls:

‘Then came one of those moments which gives war its fascination, the unending arrival of the unexpected. A jeep, pitching and bumping swerved past the smashed truck and stopped when I hailed it. Inside was an officer, as calm as if he were taking a little drive in the country. ‘Want a lift?’ he asked me asked me agreeably, although the bombardment was now reaching a crescendo of fury. ‘Yes, please’ I said. He pulled me inside and I suppose I lost consciousness.’

I am sure I was not as calm as stated but it makes a good story.

The war in Italy went from river to river and was hard to make progress. I was always looking for the next move and new observation points. What I looked for was cover for the vehicles such as farm buildings. It was a help if the farmer was friendly, however, my sergeant always had to check the buildings for a radio in case the farmer was a spy.

It was particularly gratifying during this time for 2/5 Army Air Support Control to receive a signal from the 8th Army Commander Leese as follows: ‘I should like to congratulate you and all ranks of 2/5 A.S.C of the high efficiency of your wireless communications system. Your good work has greatly contributed to the invaluable air support, which the 8th Army has had from the Desert Air Force throughout our battles. With my thanks and best wishes to you all.

Half way up Italy I managed to have a few days in the beautiful Isle of Capri as I was recuperating from an attack of jaundice. I bought a lovely cocker spaniel puppy and named him Capri. He used to sleep in the bottom of my sleeping bag and became very popular with my men. One time he went missing in San Marino, my sergeant reported that he had seen an army officer put him in his vehicle. Immediately a four-man squad was sent in pursuit vehicle with a successful outcome I am pleased to say. A few months later, in a farmhouse about midnight, Artillery Captain John Watson came in and said he was joining us for a few days; he was the cousin of my future wife although I did not know it at the time. That same night Capri appeared with a friend wagging his tail looking very pleased with himself. A negotiation with the farmer ensued which resulted in Capri having a mate whom we called Paddy. Later on they had a family of six pups who were all sold to Rover Paddy staff.

I was not so lucky in the Po valley in the north of Italy. We were using an ex fascist headquarters as an observation post and I was on the third floor when the building got hit by shelling. I fell through to the floor below, another shell followed and I went through a second floor and finished up in the kitchen on ground floor much to the surprise of the Indian troops there. I was badly injured, bruised all over, broke my finger and sustained a back injury which caused me a lot of problems in later years. They took me to a forward dressing station, and then I was transferred a to field hospital. The Corps commander sent message that should not go any further down the line away from the front, as he wanted to keep my expertise for the Rover Paddy operation. I went back to the unit as soon as I was able after a few weeks; I was keen not to be transferred away from my unit.

Many signals were received from forward troops congratulating the skill of the pilots hitting their targets and Rover Paddy passed them on to the pilots. A typical message to Rover Paddy was as follows: ‘Personal from Brigadier Shoosmith, Commander 10th British Infantry Brigade. Please accept my very sincere thanks for your splendid help and cooperation during the last three days. Your precise and efficient briefing produced some of the closest and most accurate close support straffing I have ever seen. Thank you also for your advice and for all the trouble you took to give affect to our requests.’

I will always remember what a privilege it was to be associated with the Royal Air Force. The leaders of Cabrank and other Air Force crew and staff concerned were terrific, very brave and extremely efficient. Most had come from England and had saved our country during the Battle of Britain. We developed quite a rapport and were kidding each other all the time. ‘Come on you lazy guys get out of bed’ was a typical insult on the wireless from the pilots above.

In North Italy the US army commander Mark Clark was so impressed by the Rover Paddy operation that he requested a similar operation that was called Rover David.

On the 2nd May 1945 there was unconditional surrender by the enemy in Italy. Lt. General McCreery GOC Eighth Army recorded in a special message the surrender and I am particularly proud that he stated ‘This battle has been a model of Army and Air co-operation, at every stage the gallant and daring pilots of the Desert Air Force have given us wonderful support. The destruction along the south bank of the Po is striking evidence of their work.’

On the 8th May 1945 as we passed through the Brenner Pass, the German troops were surrendering. A period of relaxation then followed by the lakes of Austria, which we considered was well deserved and this was helped by my Sergeant Hawley finding a well-stocked German provisions store with chicken, pork and wine. A few weeks later I was travelling back to England and arrived at the end of August. After a period of leave on 3 Oct 45 I was appointed as Brigade Major to be based in Pembroke, South Wales. I spent about five to six months in Wales then I was demobbed and it was back to civilian life.

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