Chapter 6: The NIH in Italy - Part One- At War

Discussion in 'North Irish Horse' started by Gerry Chester, Jul 24, 2006.

  1. Gerry Chester

    Gerry Chester WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    The North Irish Horse - By Gerry Chester

    [​IMG]

    The Regiment Assembles


    When all had disembarked, the roll was called and it was all aboard the Bedfords for the short run to Afragola, about ten kilometres north-east of Naples, where the Brigade Transit Camp was located. The following morning it was off on the long journey, over the Italian Backbone, to the Brigade's Concentration Area at Lucera, a short distance north-west of Foggia, where we came under command of Canadian 1 Corps, resting from their recent brilliant victory at Ortona on the Adriatic coast.

    Two memories of our relatively short stay in the Concentration Area, one being the constant roar of the engines of planes of the USAAF and Desert Air Force taking off and returning to the nearby Foggia Airfield. Second and more important, we were drawing on the Canadians for rations, which brought back memories of the voyage to Africa in the Duchess of York. As far as grub goes, the grass is always greener!

    As the Regiment was now part of 8th Army it was time to get down to business, we hadn't been shipped to Italy simply to enjoy Canadian hospitality and gaze upon contrails criss-crossing a very blue sky. Consequently, for three days, we took part in firing exercises with regiments of 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, 'B' Squadron with the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. There was, of course, much speculation as to what lay ahead, the consensus being that our Brigade's task was to support the Canadians in a drive, up the Adriatic coast, to capture the port of Ancona.

    A sea-side drive it was not to be as, by 22nd May, almost the entire 8th Army had secretly moved under cover of darkness, from the Adriatic front and concentrated in front of the Hitler Line near Cassino. On our two-day journey west, during the daylight hours we harboured near the town on Benevento, home of the producers of Liquore Strega, of which more later.


    8th Army came under much criticism from 5th Army Commander for its "slow progress" to the West. It is this writer's opinion, considering the how few were the narrow winding roads crossing the Appenines available to 8th Army, the harsh words used were totally unjustified.

    During the night of 18th/19th the Regiment met up with our friends of 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade near Mingano Monte Lungo, the site of much bloody fighting towards the end of 1943. Here, we and 2nd CIB were in reserve while 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, supported by 51st RTR, engaged in the first phase of the assault on the Hitler Line, Operation Diadem.

    While it is not the intention to duplicate what is well documented elsewhere, information on which tank unit supported which infantry regiment, in Operations Diadem and Chesterfield, may be useful. For details see 1 Canadian Corps.

    Preparing for Battle

    As Operation Diadem was getting under way, I and my fellow counterparts - Sgt Wingfield ('HQ' Sdn) Sgt Mitchell ('A' Sdn) and L/Cpl Green ('C' Sdn) - were called to a meeting by the Signals Officer, Lt. R.B.M.King MC. Also in attendance was an Officer and three NCOs of the Seaforth Highlanders. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss methods of how best to effect communication, between tanks and infantry, when in action.

    The suggestion that trials, with a Highlander in the co-driver's seat equipped with an 18 Set, proved a failure. One, it was determined that leaving the hatch open, to allow the set's antennae to protrude, would be too dangerous. Two, the Highlanders found travelling in the tanks, for the two days of trials, to be too claustrophobic, the exact opposite of tank crews who always felt naked when on foot. The final decision was to set up a control centre at RHQ, consisting of batteries of 18 and 19 sets, under the watchful eye of Lt. King. During trials, even though it was necessary to regularly switch between RHQ and Squadron nets, this solution worked well.

    The Highlanders also practised using the Infantry Gong, a push button mounted on the tank's rear. Unfortunately, until the rear-mounted bins containing a telephone became available, this means of communication between ground troops and tank crews was never very successful. A Message from the Signal Officer is relevant.

    On the morning of 22nd May, Major Russell called the Officers and NCOs of his Squadron together to outline the battle plans for the next day. It was to be a joint assault by the two Canadian Brigades on the Hitler Line commencing at 05.00. On the left the 3rd would be supported by 51st RTR less 'B' Squadron, on the right the 2nd Brigade supported by the NIH with a follow up role for 51st RTR's 'B' Squadron. At the same time, the pent up forces in the Anzio were to break out from the beachead. If all went well, it was the expectation of the Supreme Commander, General Alexander, that the bulk of Germany's 10th Army, commanded by von Vietinghoff, would be trapped and prevented from escaping to the north. If achieved, possibly the war in Italy would come to a swift conclusion.

    Approaching the Start Line


    In my introduction I wrote about the extraordinary bond that existed between tank crew members. In North Africa, where I crewed a Churchill commanded by a Sergeant Roy Burns, the use of given names was the norm. I did not expect, when I joined the crew of Ballyrashane-4 that this practice would continue. We did not address Major Russell as "Gordon" but rather as "Skipper" which he preferred to his formal title. Of course, when not in action, military courtesies were always in place.

    As we were now back on Compo Boxes, the reason for including the previous paragraph at this time, hopefully, will become clearer. As may be remembered, the boxes included rations for only fourteen men but, for crews of five over three days, there was a shortage which was made up by supplies from the Squadron Cookhouse. For us, it was always a large tin of curry powder the contents of which, when it was Skipper's turn, he liberally applied to whatever food he was cooking for the crew.

    A word or two of explanation, as it may well be asked what is this all about on the eve of battle. Among the lessons learnt in North Africa was to leave tank interiors as free of clutter as possible, consequently much was carried [​IMG] outside in empty ammo boxes etc. including the tin of curry powder. The sound of our tanks approaching the start line - it was still daylight - alerted the enemy and we came under fire from Nebelwerfers, the infamous Moaning Minnies. This was our first encounter with this weapon which, although noisy, was not able to effect any damage to Ballyrashane-4 except, mysteriously, the tin of curry powder had been "lost in action."


    Knowing that petrol would not be delivered until well after dark, we all settled down to grab a few hours sleep. It seemed, that I had hardly closed my eyes when I was rudely awakened by someone shaking me most vigorously, it was SSM Docksey. Thrusting a tin of curry powder into my arms he said it was a present from Major Russell. Sadly, I was not to learn how Skipper had determined that I was the culprit!

    A short while later I was again awakened, this time by the bearer of a message from Lt. King. It contained, additional to the usual frequencies for the day, notice of a Regimental wireless netting at 03.30 hours. As any attempt at further sleep seemed pointless, I went about rousing the Squadron's operators to pass on the Signal Officer's orders. By the time all had been contacted, yours truly was not the most popular of fellows, particularly as some of the tank commanders had to be awakened in the process. Anyway, at the appointed time all of 'B' Squadron's operators were manning their 19 Sets, ready to commence the somewhat exacting procedures to ensure all sets were tuned to the same wavelengths. Although it was customary for one or more of HQF Squadron tanks to be on a Regimental net, this was the first occasion, in battle, when all the tanks were. There was much speculation why this was being done , however, as the events of the day unfolded, the decison to do so proved to be a wise one indeed.

    It may be questioned why the netting procedure had to take place 2½ hours before the batlle was due to commence. The answer is, while today receivers are accurately tuned by the simple pressing of buttons, back then the 19 Set was not so blessed. Consequently, a few words of explanation are perhaps necessary.

    While the 'B' Set was for communication by voice only, the 'A' Set additionally had two ways to transmit messages using Morse Code, Carrier Wave (CW) and Modulated Carrier Wave (MCW). Although slower, the latter was the more popular (when using Morse Code) and was the one used to ensure all Sets on the "Net" were on the same wavelength. At the appointed time, Control set would send out the "netting" signal for the day, then individually check that each receiving set was exactly tuned to the first allocated wavelength/frequency. Once successfully concluded, the whole process was repeated for the day's alternate wavelength/frequncy.


    The task of twice getting sixty tanks on the same wavelength, followed by each Squadron with eighteen, occupied quite some time before Lt. King was satisfied. Now all that remained for the operators was to wait for the signal to go.

    Despite the experience of having lost two Squadron Leaders in Tunisia, at this time the Regiment was still following the cavalry tradition that HQF Troops, headed by the OC's tank, should lead the way into battle. It must be confessed I was feeling quite nervous as, unlike previous battles when I crewed the third tank in line, shortly I would be aboard Ballyrashane-4 as she led the way. Her crew: Major G.P.Russell, commander; L/Cpl H.Jenkins, driver; L/Cpl W.Wheatley, co-driver; Tpr A. Hughes, gunner and myself, operator.

    At 05.40 hours the Royal Canadian Artillery commenced laying down a thunderous barrage. Fifteen minutes later came the order to advance.

    Assault on the Hitler Line

    The distance to the objective was a little less than a thousand yards, the first half of which had to be negotiated through a forest of small but closely packed trees. Visibility was so poor that we started off "heads out" which soon ended when we came under sniper fire. Sadly, Lt G.C.Brown MC was killed before he could reach the safety of the turret. Then followed an intense and continuing artillery barrage, despite which, the rest of the Squadron reached the northern edge of the forest unharmed. The unprotected infantry were not so fortunate, many were killed and wounded including all of their 18 Set operators. About 07.30 hrs (the enemy fire having slackened considerably) orders were received for the Squadron to regroup with the Seaforth Highlanders, in readiness for the next phase of the operation.

    At about 08.00 hrs, having concluded that the combination of smoke, dust and exhaust fumes, which had reduced visibility to but a few yards, would provide good cover, the order to move out was given. Ballyrashane-4 led the way out of the woods, followed by Capt. Pope's tank, which took up a position a short way to the left, and by Bangor, commanded by Sgt Roy Burns, moving to the right. Almost immediately, we received two quick hits on the starboard side. Although neither hit had penetrated the hull, Major Russell wisely gave the order to bail out.

    Bill Wheatley exited through the pannier door, with great presence of mind, bringing one of the tank's first-aid kits with him. I shot out of the turret to take up cover on our tank's port side. No sooner had I done so when another A/T shell destroyed the right track cover, mortally wounding Harry Jenkins and severely injuring our Skipper who fell off the turret on to the left track. Behind him, Alan Hughes managed to evacuate safely. No sooner had he done so, when another shot penetrated the turret causing the ammo to start exploding. While Bill and I were lifting Major Russell down, I was slightly wounded by some flying debris. By great good fortune, a few yards in front of us was a small wadi, which provided us with some cover, into which we managed to carry the dying Harry.

    While on the start line, Harry had voiced his feeling that he would not survive the day, sadly his premonition came to be. Shortly after injecting him with morphine, to ease the pain, a true, gentle and soft-spoken friend passed away. Harry came from the town of Glenageary in Éire. He did not die for his country, he gave his life so others could live in freedom. Rest in peace Harry, I have never forgotten you!


    It was obvious, unless we could quickly get Major Russell to an aid post he too would die. However, until there was a break in the very heavy enemy shelling, any attempt to carry him there would have ended in failure.

    While waiting for the shellfire to ease off (it seemed to be ages but probably was only about thirty minutes) suddenly there was a loud bang as Ballyrashane-4's 6-pdr fired an AP shell almost over our heads.
    As the barrage slowly grew less intense, about a dozen Germans jumped into the ditch beside us. Thinking we were about to be taken as POWs, to our relief, they were quickly followed by a rifle-carrying Canadian, the Germans were his prisoners. We should have enlisted their help to carry Skipper to safety, but everything happened so suddenly, they were up and out of the ditch before we could ask. Saying that he would be back, quick-thinking Bill Wheatley also jumped out of the ditch to follow the Seaforth Highlander and his prisoners. A short while later he returned having discovered, from another Canadian, the general direction to the nearest aid post about a mile distant.

    I cannot recall how far we had carried Skipper before spotting one of our Churchills, but I do remember we were nearly exhausted. Somehow, we gathered enough strength to lift him on to the front of the tank where, with myself holding on to him, we reached safety at last. More importantly, we had arrived in time for Major Russell's life to be saved. Little did I realise that Ballyrashane-5's new Commander and I would be making another such journey, just over four months later, with a less happy outcome.

    Within minutes, transport arrived to take us back to 'B' Squadron's Echelon where Corporal Stevenson cheered us up with mugs of hot sweet tea - never had the Army brew tasted so good! Later, SQMS Burke kitted us out with much of what we had lost, as he did for those of the Squadron who trickled back during the remainder of the day.

    Wednesday, 24th May 1944

    Despite the serious losses sustained during yesterday's battle, word came down that replacement tanks, some Shermans, would be immediately forthcoming. Sure enough, within a few hours our new Ballyrashane, a Churchill Mark IV, had arrived. Yours truly was told, until the arrival of 'B' Squadron's new OC, he was to be acting commander!

    On the same day, Brigadier Tetley, published an of Exchange of Messages between Canadian Corps, Division and Brigade Commanders and 25 ATB. Later in the year, we all received a reprint of two articles published, in the Belfast Telegraph, on the 24th and 26th June, [​IMG] entitled Award of the Maple Leaf. About the same time we also received a silver Maple Leaf to be worn on the right shoulder of our uniforms. The Maple Leaf was inserted in the diabolo, on 25th ATB's yellow and red shield. However, although the insignia was amended on some of the echelon vehicles, I cannot recall the Maple Leaf being added to the insignia on any of 'B' Squadron's tanks - with the constant flow of replacements there was little opportunity so to do.

    While at the aid post, having my minor wound attended to, I was able to make enquiries as to health of Major Russell. The news was that he, together with Capt Pope and the more seriously wounded NIH personnel, had been evacuated to a British General Hospital in Naples. Fortunately all, except Sgt R.E.Bone and Tpr F.A.Davage, subsequently recovered from their wounds.


    A Dying Tank Strikes Back!

    On being advised that ammunition to stock the new tanks would not be forthcoming until the morrow I asked for, and received, permission to see if anything could be salvaged from our knocked-out tank.

    What a difference a day doth make! Retracing our route from the start line through the forest with its shell-splintered trees, Bill Wheatley and I did so accompanied by the singing of birds and the hammering of woodpeckers upon tree trunks. On emerging from the woods, there lay before us a tranquil scene, only the aftermath of battle and the riven earth being evidence of what had taken place just one day before. To our surprise we saw a Canadian officer nearby with an easel busily painting away. It was not until many years later I found out who it was.

    We found that Ballyrashane-4 had been indeed hit four times, thrice on the side one of which had torn off the forward track cover which had killed Harry. The fourth hitting the turret exactly in the middle of the red square ('B' Squadron's insignia) obliterating HQF Troop's identification. There was nothing left to salvage, either inside or outside the tank.
    Yesterday, when visibility was but a few yards, we were not able see the dug-in Panther Turret that was sited just a few yards in front of us. Today we could clearly see that the turret had been pierced just to the right of its gun.

    Ignoring the sign Achtung Minen, planted just over the ditch in which we had sheltered, Bill and I made our way to the turret and climbed on in. On looking through the neatly drilled hole in the turret, there was the muzzle of Ballyrashane-4's main armament staring right back at us. That our dying Churchill had claimed a kill, was confirmed when we found a somewhat misshapen 6-pdr A/P projectile - my one regret is not keeping it as a souvenir!

    On our return, we told the powers-that-be of our discovery. Perhaps I will never know whether destruction of the Panther turret emplacement, listed on Page 35 of the Regiment's Battle Report, was credited to Ballyrashane-4. Whether or no, her dying effort could well merit a place be in the Guiness Book of Records!

    One notable aspect of the battle was the knocking out of two Panthers, by our Churchills, the first to be destroyed by tanks of the Western Allies. During the war, the NIH took many photographs, this is one of the Panthers taken the day after the battle and, rarely, one of the few in colour.
    [​IMG]


    Thursday, 25th May 1994

    After spending most of the day getting tanks ready again for battle, we paraded for a Service of Consecration, in the early evening, to say farewell to the thirty-two of our comrades and the many Canadians who had lost their lives two days previously. The Service, conducted by Padre Elwyn Hughes and his counterpart from Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, was held at the foot of a narrow strip of land, bounded on three side by trees, the site of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade Cemetery, Pignataro. (Regrettably, in my opinion, the dead were later removed from this hallowed ground to be reinterred in the Cassino War Cemetery.)

    As the Service progressed, a mist started to fall on the upper reaches of the Cemetery. As the two Padres gave their final blessings upon those assembled, the sounds of a bagpipe could be heard. Then, down the slope and out of the mist, came bearded Pipe-Major Edmund Esson MBE, of the Seaforth Highlanders, playing the Scottish Lament tearing many an eye. We learnt later that the Pipe-Major headed the team that recovered the bodies of the killed, of both Regiments, from the field of battle.

    An Opportunity Squandered


    During the day the Service of Consecration had taken place, the entrapment of the bulk of von Vietinghoff's 10th Army had become a reality. Highway 6, bounded by mountains to the east, was now virtually the only way for the Germans to retreat.

    With 8th Army advancing steadily from the south, led by units of the Canadian Army who had successfully crossed the river Melfa, and US VI Corps, commanded by the aggressive General Truscott, thrusting its way towards Valmontone on Highway 6 (Operation Shingle's second objective), the jaws of the trap were about to be sprung. Sadly it was not to be, as General Truscott was ordered to divert the bulk of his forces to advance north on Highway 7, Via Appia.

    In satisfying the ego of 5th Army's Commander to be the first to enter Rome, a great opportunity had been squandered. The responsibility for the subsequent loss of so many lives is General Mark Clark's alone - it is a matter for conjecture how many of the nineteen men of the NIH, now resting for ever in a foreign land, would have been reunited with loved ones. Of all that has been written about the events of May 1944, perhaps Dan Kurzmann's book The Race for Rome is the one most objectively written. However, it is not this writer's intention to dwell on what might have been, rather to record his personal recollections of the role played by the Regiment as it fought its way north, up the Appennines, through the Montefeltro massif and in the River Po Valley.

    Over the next few days, we were busily engaged in getting the replacement Churchill and Sherman tanks ready for further action. During this time I was fully occupied checking and re-checking the Squadron's 19 Sets - replacing valves where necessary and, in some cases, also the sets themselves. I lost count of the number of times the netting procedure took place!

    While all this activity was underway 'B' Squadron was introduced to its new Leader, Major W.M.MacKean MC and the 2nd I/C Captain R.S.H.Sidebottom. More intimate was the later meeting with Ballyrashane's new Skipper.

    On the morning of 29th May we gathered for a meeting with SSM Docksey. He told us that the Regiment had received orders for all the fully-crewed tanks to travel north to rejoin Canadian 2nd Infantry Brigade. He went on to say Ballyrashane</I> would be lead tank for the Squadron, as Bangor was not yet ready to move and Bushmill's Skipper was going on ahead with the OC.

    As darkness fell, the order came to move out. With the tanks having their convoy lights on, these being placed on the underside to be only visible from the rear, it quickly became obvious that the honour of leading the Squadron was no sinecure. However, when it became time for Ballyrashane to lead the way, following a taped path, through an extensive minefield, at least we were leaving our dust behind us!

    After a long and physically tiring journey we arrived at the small Commune di Pofi, home of the Museo Preistorico, where we harboured, camouflaged, during the daylight hours. As darkness fell, it was once more on the move, this time a lot easier, as we drove up Highway 6 to eventually join up with the Seaforth Highlanders on the northern outskirts of Frosinone.

    Just twenty-five miles north, the Hermann Göring Division commenced pulling out of the town of Valmontone. With the bulk of the German Tenth Army successfully avoiding entrapment, all that remained for the Regiment and the Canadians was the mopping-up of those left behind to fight a rear-guard action.

    The egocentrism of the 5th Army Commander, whose decision allowed so many of the enemy to escape and fight another day, is recorded by Eric Sevareid, a well-respected American war correspondent, when the 1st Special Service Force was held up on the outskirts of Rome, during the early afternoon of 4 July.

    <TABLE cellPadding=10><TBODY><TR><TD>Major General Geoffrey Keyes, II Corps Commander, arrived in a jeep and challenged Brigadier General Robert Frederick, 1st Special Force commander: "General Frederick, what's holding you up here?"
    "The Germans, sir," Frederick replied.
    "How long will it take you to get across the city limits?" Keyes asked.
    "The rest of the day. There are a couple of SP guns up there."
    "That will not do. General Clark must be across the city limits by four o'clock." "Why?" "Because he has to have his photograph taken." Keyes said. Frederick mulled that over briefly and replied, "Tell the general to give me an hour."

    </TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>
    After men of the 1st Special Service Force had silenced the guns, the way was clear for 5th Army commander to have his picture taken in the Holy City. His brief moment of glory was quickly overshadowed as, two days later, the events of D-Day unfolded.



    With the mopping-up successfully concluded, we moved into a harbour near Valmontone where the tanks that had been left behind joined us. The following morning Major MacKean gathered the tank commanders together (I was included). Without remembering the OC's exact words they were something like this:

    <TABLE cellPadding=10><TBODY><TR><TD>"First, I will be informing you what the Regiment will be doing next, then I have some good and bad news.

    The Brigade is now under command of 4th Division with the NIH being attached to 17th Indian Brigade. This means we will probably be fighting in the Appenines. The good news is that everyone will be getting one day's liberty in Rome over the next few days."

    </TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>

    When someone asked the Major what was the bad news, wearing a broad smile, he went on:
    <TABLE cellPadding=10><TBODY><TR><TD>"It's the end of Canadian rations for us. So, unless you're fond of tinned fish, curry and chapatis you're in for some interesting eating! Speaking of curry, I'm pleased to tell you that Major Russell is recovering well from his injuries." </TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>
    Surprisingly to some, the tinned fish was excellent enough to garner aficionados, Ballrashane's crew among them, to become a regular trading item whenever the opportunity for a spot of bartering became available.

    Buòn Giorno, Roma</B>


    Sure enough, despite all the activity associated with getting the tanks ready for further action, liberty runs to Rome commence after a few days had passed.

    [​IMG]

    An amusing exchange, destined to become Regimental lore, occurred when the first day's convoy, under command of 'A' Squadron's SSM, reached the city centre. On asking a Redcap directions as where to park the vehicles, the response was "You'll find parking in a field next to that bombed-out building," pointing to the nearby Il Colosseo. The "field" turned out to be a a surprisingly well-kept city park leading up to one of Rome's seven hills

    My turn came on day two. After dismounting from the Bedford 3-tonner, Dick Hayward and I explored the "bombed-out building" for about an hour. It was not difficult for us to visualise what had taken place there so many centuries ago, also as we later viewed the remains of the nearby Foro Romano.

    When we had become sated with ancient history it was time to satisfy the inner man. Armed with knowledge gleaned from those who had been there the previous day, we repaired to a NAAFI which had quickly set up shop on Via Nazionale. Somewhat to our surprise, we found a sprinkling of GIs enjoying NAAFI's great standby, "Char and Wads!" (Tea and buns). The grass is always greener or, perhaps more likely, food and drink was on the house. Either way, it brought back memories, whenever I was in London ever so long ago, of visiting the Canadian Red Cross Canteen to feast upon pancakes brimming with maple syrup.

    As we left the NAAFI we were approached by an Italian who had a camera bag slung by his side. In quite respectable English he offered to take us on a tour of Rome's most treasured buildings. Learning from our experiences in North Africa, the first reaction was to ask "Quanto costo?" "Niènte, my city is free, no more Tedesci!" An offer we could not refuse.


    But for the fact that our guide gave both of us a packet of his photographs, which included the one of the Colosseum and which I still have, it would be difficult to remember exactly all that we saw over a period of some three hours. I recall our first stop was in front of a monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, both Dick and I thought it looked much like a wedding cake. We then walked for perhaps a mile, alongside the River Tiber, to reach a bridge from which we could look across to St. Peter's square. A little further upstream came, what was the highlight of the tour for me, the entrance to Castel S. Angelo. At our guide's suggestion, we crossed the river on Ponte Elio from where we could see the castle in all its magificence.

    Continuing in a clockwise direction, our guide pointed out many more imposing edifices which, even with the photographs to help, I cannot recall. Towards the end of the tour we neared the entrance to the Catacombs which our guide infomed us were closed while the authorities were investigating what had happened there during the German occupation of the city.

    Eventually arriving whence we had departed, we nipped inside the NAAFI to purchase what we could, to give to our helpful guide (I wish I could remember his name), for him and his two bambinos which, despite his protestations, he accepted.

    After bidding our guide farewell, it was time for us to seek bodily sustenance for ourselves. The NAAFI was (and maybe still is) an amazing institution. Although it was only a little over a week since Rome was liberated, sausages and mashed potatoes were on the menu. Suffice it to say, despite the warmth of the day, two hungry corporals enjoyed the "bangers" immensely.

    As we still had about four hours to go, before returning to Valmontone, we decided to take in a movie being shown at a nearby cinema. Once again we experienced Roman hospitality as we were not charged for admittance. The film, an exciting spy drama with Italian sub-titles, was Journey Into Fear with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten in the lead roles. During the showing, the roof suddenly opened to expose a darkening sky - it was a first-time experience for me.

    The show over, we again returned for more refreshment being served by the friendly people at the NAAFI. Only too soon, the time came to make our way to the "bombed-out building" to climb aboard the waiting Bedford 3-tonner for the journey home. Although, much later, leave to once again visit the Eternal City was granted, for me it was Addio Roma!.

    Into the Hills


    A couple of days after the trip to Rome, Major MacKean called us together to announce that the Regiment's Sherman equipped Troops were now part of a composite squadron, under command of Major Welch MC, with orders to advance in a north-easterly direction towards Perugia. Departing the following morning, having averaged over forty miles a day for three days, the Shermans eventually reached the small town of Bastia, a few miles west of Arezzo, before encountering any signs of the enemy.

    A few days later, Major MacKean, having been ordered to relieve Major Welch, informed me that I was to go with him to join up with composite squadron. With Trooper Griffiths (known to one and all as "Griff") at the wheel of the Squadron's Humber Scout Car, the one hundred and thirty mile journey to the foothills of the Apennines, although somewhat cramped, went reasonably well. Happily the Compo Boxes, lashed to each of the rear fenders, had remained in place. During the journey I learnt that the Major had decided to use the scout car, which had a 19 Set installed, as his Tactical Headquarters.

    [​IMG]

    Humber Scout Car
    Photo courtesy Imperial War Museum


    Arriving in the early evening TacHQ was established on the lower slopes of Ripa, a mountain on which, at an elevation of 2,244 feet, sits the village of the same name. It turned out that I had nothing much to do as with the dawn, came the news that the squadron was being relieved. While waiting, for two days the Shermans acted as mobile artillery shooting off virtually all their stock of HE ammunition at targets of opportunity.
    Not being exposed to enemy fire, the scout car had performed well as a command centre, even though it was necessary to run the engine frequently to keep the battery charged. The general consensus was that the Shermans had also performed well except, not having the climbing ability of the Churchills, during the assault on Ripa.

    When relieved, as delivery of the 75mm gunned Churchills was imminent, the Shermans were left parked near Bastia, the crews being transported to Narni where the bulk of the Regiment was concentrated. As the OC used his staff car to rejoin his command, being less crowded, the journey in the Humber Scout Car was more comfortable for yours truly. When we arrived I told Griffiths, in a misguided fit of generousity, that he could keep the one unopened Compo Box still strapped to one of the rear fenders.

    Sojourn in Narni


    Although it had been only for a relatively short while, it was a good feeling to be back with HQF Troop and Ballyrashane. Not quite so pleasant, was returning to "dine" again on M & V which, despite all the efforts of Corporal Stevenson and his staff to disguise it, was still M & V. I received quite an earful, when the crew of Ballyrashane found out that I had given away a Compo Box. My feeble excuse, that if I hadn't it would have to be returned to the QM's stores, was greeted with the contempt it so justly deserved. We were the Squadron Leader's crew after all!

    No sooner had we settled in, orders came down that every AFV had to be checked down to the smallest detail. Those who thought, the amount of "spit and polish" employed getting the tanks ready for the Victory Parade in Tunis was the ultimate, were soon proven wrong. When the SSM came along to ask how things were going, the irrepressible Gordon Young, who was now part of Ballyrashane's crew, suggested that we should be given a supply of toothbrushes in order to do a better job. A day or so later, all became known when a team from the Vehicle Maintenance Inspection Board descended upon us. The only criticism levied against the condition of Ballyrashane</I> was that the fresh-water tanks were empty. Once again Trooper Young had something to say, telling the inspector that "Stale water maketh a poor cup of tea!"

    When it was realised that the Regiment would not be called on for about three weeks, leave to Rome was again established. Being too busy - installing 19-sets in the newly arrived Churchill Na75s et cetera - I was not able to revisit the Holy City. However, I twice was able to visit the ancient town of Terni, some eight miles upstream on the river Nera. The visits were made the more pleasurable by being able to enjoy the facilities of a Salvation Army canteen. I learnt while there, although at the time it seemed to be of just passing interest, that Saint Valentine was Terni's patron saint.

    Shortly before the day came when we were to leave the harbour, Griff came over saying that he had something to show me. Arriving at his scout car I was more than surprised to see emblazoned on each side, inside 'B' Squadron's red square, the words Tac HQ. Of course, I was most curious to find out why!

    We Return to the Hills

    Whether the VMIB had given the Regiment's tanks a clean bill of health or not, about the middle of the month, they were loaded on transporters bound for Arezzo. Despite an early start, the going was slow enough to necessitate the convoy coming to a stop in the late afternoon. Our transporter had pulled in, just outside the small village of Passignano, right on the shores of Lago Trasimeno. The day was still hot, so it wasn't long before many were cooling off in the lake. As the village was deserted, the sight of lots of naked bodies swimming and splashing around in the water could not offend the sensitivities of any of the local populace.

    Although there were only about thirty miles to go, the remaining journey took several hours as the convoy made its way up the narrow winding road to Arezzo sitting some 1,300 feet up. Several times, during the journey, we would dismount and walk alongside the transporters as they slowed down to one or two miles per hour.

    Recognising that the final approach to Arezzo was too steep, we dismounted from transporters to harbour for the night. Early the following morning, it was off on a journey of some fifteen miles, to Bucine, a village on a tributary of the river Arno, at the threshold of Tuscany's Chianti wine district. When Major MacKean and Captain Sidebottom were abruptly summoned to a meeting at RHQ, it was correctly surmised that we were about to see more action.

    Destination Firenze


    The surmise that action was imminent was confirmed when the OC called a meeting on his return from RHQ. We were told to prepare for action on the morrow and that the ultimate objective was to capture, intact, the bridges over the river Arno in the proximity of Florence. With the Pratomagno massif effectively restricting an approach on the eastern side of the river, the main attack was being launched on the west side up a narrow front between the river and Monte del Chianti.

    [​IMG] Over the nearly fifty miles lay many obstacles to tax the climbing capability of the Churchills. Before these could be tackled, the potentially formidable Castello di Meleto, sitting atop its hill, had to be neutralised. Sitting in a strategic position, directly controlling the underlying road connecting Valdarno and Chianti, capture of the castle was absolutely essential.

    [​IMG] The next day, with 'B' Squadron and 2nd Battalion Somerset Light Infantry in reserve, the battle commenced and, after two days, the obstacle to the centuries old castle had not been seriously damaged, but much of the village of Meleto, sitting on the road at the foot of the hill, had been destroyed.

    About this time, Major MacKean told me he had decided to use the scout car as his Tac HQ. as aerial photographs showed a narrow track, linking farms, running a few hundred feet up and parallel to the river Arno.

    However, although the track ran almost to the final objective, it was too narrow for tanks to use. As the Squadron was moving into a start-line after dark, Trooper Griff and I had just a couple of hours to get the scout car ready for its important role.

    Learning from our previous experience, the first priority was to obtain an auxiliary charger - this we "borrowed" from Ballyrashane. Next came the stowing of Compo Boxes, jerricans of petrol and water, etc. By the time the scout car was fully loaded and ready for action, it looked more like a gypsy caravan than a Tactical Hadquarters!

    The next fifteen days and nights were so hectic that it is difficult for this writer to recall much of what occurred. What is well remembered, however, was the day when Tac HQ became a target for enemy shellfire.

    The track, upon which Tac HQ made its way steadily north, went from one farmhouse to another in each of which, as the battle continued, the infantry would house their RHQ. It was at or near these farmhouses that we "set up shop" to ensure close tank/infantry cooperation. About a week into the battle, as the OC was about to go on one of his numerous foot recces, he told me not to wait for him to return but to go to the next farmhouse where he would catch up with us. On arrival, as usual, I reported to the 2nd Bn Somerset Light Infantry's Signal Officer who informed me that his signal unit was located in a barn uphill, behind the main buildings.


    Telling Griff to follow me in the scout car, I walked up to the barn. A few minutes later, while talking with my opposite number, a shell whistled overhead to explode harmlessly further up the hill. Suddenly, without any sound, I was enveloped in a red mist. Frightened and thinking my last days had come, I dashed out to throw myself under the scout car which Griff, wisely, had battened down. Feeling myself all over, for the expected injuries, I found none only that I was covered completely with a fine red dust. Subsequently, I found it resulted from a shell exploding upon impact on the barn's red-tiled roof. Fortunately, other than giving several members of His Majesty's Forces who had been in the barn, the fright of their respective lives, no one was seriously hurt. We were informed that an infantry spotter had seen two flashes, from what he thought was an SP gun, coming from across the river.

    Major MacKean arrived an hour or so later when, after informing him of the incident, the decision was reached that Tac HQ should move only after dark. It was apparent, despite our approach to the infantry HQ being a slow one to avoid throwing up too much dust, that our progress had been observed by the enemy who were retreating up Rte 69, before the 6th Armoured Division, on the east side of the Arno.

    Ever Onward!

    Day-by-day, despite heavy shelling, the many hills to be climbed and streams to cross, the attack inched forward gradually veering north-west away from the river, until coming up against a massif dominated by the Incontro Monastery sitting atop its highest peak. At this time the troops of 28th Infantry Brigade were relieved by regiments of 10th Infantry Brigade, who had had an easier time in their drive north, west of Monte del Chianti.

    [​IMG] The OC, on his return from a meeting at RHQ, informed us that an assault on the massif, by 'B' Squadron in support of 2nd Bn Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, was a go for early next day. Later, when he came to collect some of his gear from the scout car, he told me that Captain Sidebottom would be in charge of Tac HQ during the course of the battle.

    As soon as darkness fell, we cautiously made our way to the farmhouse where the DCLI had located their RHQ. While en route (as typically happened as the Kennelly-Heavyside Layer was descending) wireless communication had deteriorated, however, on this occasion to the extent that I had to employ Carrier Wave (i.e. Morse code) to report our arrival to RHQ. The next order of business, while Captain Sidebottom was in conference with the infantry CO, Lieutenant Colonel Musson, was for me to go over with the Signals Officer the communication procedures that had worked so well with the Somersets. Essentially this was keeping in touch, by use of 18 Sets, when Tac HQ was not in the immediate vicinity. Although the scout car was expected to remain at the farmhouse, during the course of the coming battle, this procedure was agreed to and set in place, fortunately as it turned out.

    After allowing about an hour for the Kennelly-Heavyside Layer to reach its lowest point when communication with the Squadron should return to normal, I found that it had not. Letting thirty minutes or so go by I tried again without success. Much concerned, I went to report the problem to Captain Sidebottom who was "dining" with the infantry CO.


    The Signals Officer, who was also present, said that his people had communications trouble, even prior to the layer coming down, which he attributed to the large quantity of farm equipment in and around the buildings. By moving the 18 Sets some distance up the small hill, upon which the farmhouse sat, the problem was resolved. As it was not possible for the scout car to go up the hill, he suggested by moving it, a few hundred yards further up the track, the reception may be better. He also cautioned us not to go past a small clump of trees otherwise, when it became daylight, we would be in full view of the enemy.

    With a partial moon, the night was not too dark to make the short journey up the track overly difficult. Once in position, communication with the Squadron was found to be "Strength Five" as was that to the farmhouse. Consequently, it was decided that we remain there and, as a back-up, we were to be joined by a DCLI signals chap - having two 18 Sets being better than one! Although, as previously stated, my recollections of the events of the past couple of weeks are hazy at best, those of the next day are well remembered.

    The Battle for Monastèro di Incontro - Phase One</I>

    It was an early start on Tuesday, 8th August 1944 as the daily netting procedure was set for 04.30, half an hour before the scheduled time to approach the start line. Usually, netting the allocated and "flick" frequencies took fifteen minutes or less, however, as two troops of 75mm Churchills (from 'A' and 'C' Squadrons) and RHQ's Sherman Troop were attached to give fire support, I allowed an extra fifteen minutes to do the task.

    As daylight dawned, we saw the advice to locate the scout car out of sight from the enemy was well given, the trees around the monastery could be seen less than a mile away. From our location, the noise generated by the tanks, as they made their way to the start line, was clearly heard as it must have been by men of the Panzer Grenadiers, surprisingly, it did not attract any enemy shellfire. The only tanks we were able to see, from our vantage point, were those of 1 Troop as they moved on the left flank of the main body.

    During the course of the battle, which had started almost on the allotted time, the farmhouse/scoutcar/Squadron wireless link worked perfectly, thanks to the support given by Griff and the DCLI operator. As a team, we made sure there would be no repetition of the World War One "Send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance."

    For the first couple of hours or so, despite the intermittent shellfire, the attack proceeded smoothly until reaching the edge of a deep wadi where it came to an abrupt halt. Up to this point, the radio traffic had been mainly confined to the passing of many requests from the infantry for the tanks to knock out trouble spots as they were encountered. This was about to change!

    The Battle for Monastèro di Incontro - Phase Two</I>


    Although one machine-gun post had been destroyed, for the infantry any attempt to reach the monastery, without tank support, would have been suicidal. A message to this effect from Lt Col Musson was relayed to Major Mackean from whom, some while later, came the word that he was about to go on a recce and that Captain Sidebottom was to take command of the Squadron.

    The following is my recollection of what the OC told us when the crew of Ballyrashane was reunited a few days later:

    <TABLE cellPadding=10><TBODY><TR><TD>He had ordered 4 Troop Leader, Lt KW Foott, whose tanks were nearest to the wadi, to see if there was any feasible way to effect a crossing. When the Lieutenant reported that he had found a possible route, the two of them, despite being fully exposed to enemy fire, went to assess whether the Churchills could first make it down and then up the other side. Despite the fact they were looking down a "damnedly deep gorge" (as the Major described it) Lt. Foott believed he could manage it, so he was given the go ahead. </TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>
    The wireless traffic went quiet as Lt. Foott led his Troop down the precipitous slope and, when he reported that his Troop had reached the monastery, the airwaves were filled with congratulations coming from all quarters. With the arrival of 2 Troop following the same route, despite some shellfire, the support was sufficient for the DCLI to quickly secure the monastery and its immediate surroundings. As the day came to a close, the massif was secured but for one peak which was taken, the following morning, without any resistance being encountered.


    Afterthoughts

    In little over two weeks, the Regiment had supported the infantry of the 28th British Infantry Brigade in the capture of numerous villages perched on their hilltops. With the Incontro massif free of the enemy, the ancient city of Florence had been saved from needless destruction. Once again the Churchill tanks had proved themselves to truly be "mountain goats" climbing to places where the Shermans (who throughout gave excellent HE support) could not.

    It is this writer's opinion that the capture of Monastèro di Incontro together with the final assault on Longstop Hill were the Regiment's two greatest military achievements of the war. No doubt some bias does arise as, in both instances, it was 'B' Squadron's 4 Troop that achieved the almost impossible. By stating this, it is not the intention to take away anything from the great victory, of some ten weeks earlier, when the Hitler Line was broken.

    [​IMG] Additional to the skilled handling of tanks displayed at both Longstop and Incontro there are some other remarkable similarities. First, the German Army did not believe that tanks could possibly reach their defences, consequently anti-tank weapons were minimal at best - the defenders of the monastery only having Panzerfausts. Second, none of the Regiment was killed as a result of enemy action. Finally, in both battles, the attached Royal Artillery FOO became a casualty.

    Justifiably, the DCLI are proud of what was achieved on that August day, as evidenced by the following extract from "The History of the Duke of Cornwall's Light, 1939-1945."
    <TABLE cellPadding=10><TBODY><TR><TD>"It is not often in a major war that a battalion can claim a battle honour to which it alone is entitled, but the Second's attack and capture of the Incontro Monastery near Florence is one example." </TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE>
    Sergeant Wallace Bray of the DCLI was awarded the MM for his part in the attack on the monastery.
    What Next?


    Early next morning, having spent the night harboured at the DCLI HQ, over the wireless came the order to rejoin the Squadron at a location overlooking the Arno and the city of Florence. Fortunately, having a large scale map of the area, finding the way proved to be not too difficult. On reporting to Major MacKean, whom I found talking to members of HQF Troop gathered around him, I was absolutely astonished, after he had returned my salute, when he proceeded to shake my hand. Not only did he thank me for the previous day's performance but also wished me a belated happy birthday. How he knew that it had occurred some eleven days earlier I never learned. However, I suspect Captain Sidebottom, who was present at the HQF Troop shindig held at Ain Mokra when I came of age, must have told him.


    Many of us had hoped to cross over one of the Arno bridges, in order to explore the historic "City of the Lily," however, it was not to be. Although we enjoyed a period of rest, most of the next two or three days were given over to getting our tanks into a road-worthy condition. During this time, it became known that the days of Griff's scout car being Tac HQ were over. Ballyrashane had resumed its rightful position as Squadron HQ with two new crew members, the effervescent Gordon "Tich" Young as gunner and Liverpudlian Glyn Collard (now a Lance Corporal) as driver. As may be recalled, it was Glyn who had "feasted" upon some very suspect chestnuts, what seemed a lifetime ago, in a cinema at King's Lynn. [​IMG] Maintenance completed it was off on a two-day trip, of one-hundred miles plus to the Brigade's concentration area. We were to be there supposedly for a period of "real" rest and a day's leave in nearby Perugia where everyone could enjoy, among other things, the facilities provided by the ubiquitous NAAFI. As it turned out, rest it was not and the institute's customers were not wearers of black berets! No sooner had we arrived, the CO and Squadron Leaders were called for an urgent meeting at Brigade HQ. On Major Mackean's return, some hours later, the Squadron was paraded before him. Without giving us any explanation, he told us that the Regiment had to prepare for immediate action and we had just over two days to do it. As we were many miles away from the enemy, where possibly could we be going was the question in everyone's mind. It soon became obvious that our normally forthcoming OC was not going to enlighten us! Before dismissal we were ordered not to leave the immediate squadron area, for any reason whatever, without the express permission from either himself or Captain Sidebottom.


    The work progressed steadily, until, on the morning of the third day, came the order to load the tanks on to the transporters which had been arriving over the course of the two days previous. As we set off in a south-easterly direction, I recall looking up at Perugia, perched on its hill, and thinking I would probably never cast eyes upon it again. As will be seen, I was mistaken. The Regiment was on its way to join up with the 46th British Infantry Division's 128th Brigade.

    On reaching Poligno, the convoy turned to the east, on a minor road, to eventually reach an area near the village of Mucca where we harboured for the night. While eating a meal, prepared by Corporal Stevenson and his trusty staff, the OC came over to put us in the picture. We, and a substantial part of 8th Army, were returning to the Adriatic coast to eventually assault the Gothic Line. Some four weeks later, while Ballyrashane was pinned down for over twenty-four hours on San Clemente Ridge, he told us all about the meeting at Brigade HQ that was held while we were harboured near Perugia

    The Top Level Briefing

    With the passage of years, although specific details of what Major MacKean related to us have been forgotten, those relevant to this narrative have not.

    [​IMG] Shortly after the parties from the NIH, 51st RTR and 142nd RAC had assembled at Brigade HQ, they were led to the rear of an AEC Armoured Command Vehicle, bearing the insignia of 8th Army, parked nearby. Brigadier Tetley, calling the party to attention, saluted the Commander XXX Corps as he emerged from the AEC who, to the surprise of most, was followed by none other than General (later Sir) Oliver Leese, 8th Army Commander-in-Chief. First complimenting the Brigade for a splendid effort south of the Arno, General Leese went on to say that it had been chosen to support the 46th Infantry Division during an upcoming assault on the Gothic Line. As the Churchill proved, once again, it could go places where the enemy expected tanks could not, the original decision to have 1st Armoured Division, with their Sherman tanks, in support, was cancelled.


    The assault was to take place up a narrow front between the Montefeltro Massif and the Adriatic Sea with 46th Division and the Brigade on the left, the Canadian 1st Corps in the centre and Lt. General Anders' PolCorps on the right. With the memory of battle for Ortona very much in mind, the main weight of the attack was to be inland from coastal Highway 16, with the expectation that Pesaro and the towns to the north would be strongly defended by the German Army.

    46th Division's objective was to capture then hold Coriano Ridge thus allowing the 1st Armoured Division to break out over easier ground into the Po Valley perhaps even, as Prime Minister Churchill hoped, to go as far as Vienna. (Viewing the map of the eastern end of the Gothic Line should be of help).

    </I>The Army Commander closed his remarks by stating, what had been discussed was to be "top secret" until such time as 8th Army was ready to strike.

    Operation Olive</B>



    Today, driving north on Autostrada E-2 (just inland and parallel to Highway 16) over the many river bridges, few will realise how extremely difficult was the crossing of each of the rivers just a few miles upstream. Indeed, it can be said that the crossing of many was a D-Day unto itself. [​IMG] The Regiment, led by 'A' Squadron, went into action early on the morning of Saturday, 26th August, eleven days later than was originally planned. The following morning 'B' Squadron's tanks sallied forth in support of the 1st/4th Hampshires. The North Irish Horse's role in Operation Olive was underway!


    On Monday, 28th August, the Regiment suffered its first casualties, not, however, as a result of enemy action. One of 'B' Squadron 4 Troop's tanks tumbled down over two-hundred feet into a ravine, killing the gunner Trooper James Ernest Bradfield. L/Corporal Moore and Troopers Dorman and Holt were injured but not as seriously as was Corporal Harry McCalmont the tank commander. Harry, a founding member of the Ain Mokra 8 (later Mustang) Rover Crew, was trapped with one leg under the edge of the turret which had become separated during the tank's fall. Fortunately, the turret had landed on very soft ground so Harry's leg, although badly damaged, was not severed. Thanks to liberal doses of the recently available pencillin, Harry's life and leg were saved. With the care that he received following evacuation to the UK, Harry recovered sufficiently to return to duty being reclassified as B.7.

    Initially Operation Olive went well. On 2nd September, after advancing seventeen miles, the river Conca was successfully crossed and, two days later and eight miles further on, the last obstacle lying before the Regiment's final objective, the San Clemente Ridge, was cleared of the enemy during the morning. Orders having been received to secure the position, preparatory to the 1st Armoured Division continuing the offensive, defensive positions were taken up just below the plateau which formed the crest. Ballyrashane was positioned some hundred or so yards short of a farmhouse sitting on the top.

    After a while, when things had quietened down, Skipper decided that he and I should go to the farmhouse for, as he put it, "a look-around." Once there, finding it was deserted and having a splendid view of the approaches to the Coriano Ridge and of the ridge itself, the decision was made to position Ballyrashane on its lee side.


    As Glyn was driving the Churchill towards the farmhouse, we went upstairs to find out what could be seen from a higher vantage point. From a window, facing the north-west, clearly could be seen a whole row of SP Guns sitting in what were hull-down positions, when viewed from ground level, less than a thousand yards distant. As we watched, two long-barrelled Mark IVs suddenly appeared with their guns pointing directly towards us. Beating a hasty retreat, we had just enough time to climb aboard our "faithful steed" before the first shells came our way. The enemy must have spotted Bally rashane making her way to the farmhouse as, for the remainder of the day and into the wee hours, they systematically set about destroying the building behind which we were hiding. Although we were in no real danger - the farmhouse was constructed well enough to stop any AP projectile hitting us directly - we remained battened down for several hours, as too much HE ordinance was also coming our way.

    After RHQ had been appraised of the situation, many hours were spent battened down, during which time we had to dissuade Skipper on several occasions from taking a foot recce which he was prone to do - whether it was a result our protestations or not, he stayed put. Later when the Major had concluded telling us about the meeting with the Army Commander (as previously recorded) I asked him why 1st Armoured had been given the task of clearing Coriano Ridge which had been the Regiment's intended objective. Apparently the powers-that-be, thinking that the terrain ahead to be a lot easier, had decided it was better to employ 1st Armoured's Sherman tanks rather than the slower Churchills for the next phase of Operation Olive. Surprisingly, the report by 46th Division that the ridge had been abandoned by the Germans was ignored, consequently, the delay in getting the 1st Armoured Division into position, gave sufficient time for the enemy to return to the ridge in strength. The battle for Gemmano and the Coriano Ridge had become a necessity!


    The assault on the farmhouse ceased about two in the morning, consequently, although it was prudent to stay battened down, we were able to sleep, albeit fitfully, for a couple of hours. However, it must be said, the two in the driver's compartment had a more comfortable time doing so than did we in the turret! As the day gradually dawned, we emerged to set about the important tasks of brewing tea and clearing the tank's deck of all the debris that had fallen upon it. The farmhouse, which had protected us so well, although severely damaged, was still standing - a credit to the skill of the stone masons that had constructed it.
    During the night we had heard the sounds of many engines coming from the west of our position. As the day lightened, the tanks of The Queen's Bays became visible, lined up in a V-shaped formation no more than six or seven hundred yards away. At the appointed hour, came the sound of the tank's engines starting simultaneously and the charge began, unfortunately so did the slaughter. We watched, horrified, as the Shermans were almost totally destroyed.

    The first of the Three Great Ridges had been captured with the loss of just two tanks, one of which was of my Troop, HQF, under command of Capt Hern Hern, acting 2nd I/C during Capt Sidebottom's temporary absence. Sadly, the operator, Tpr "Doug" Loxdale was killed, while Capt Hern escaped without injury, the other crew members were wounded - my good friend Dick Hayward (of whom more later) and Tprs Knight and Clatworthy. It had become more than obvious, the 1st Armoured Division having failed, that the capture of the second, Coriano, was to be no easy task. When the autumn rains came two days later, plus the fact that Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring, using lateral Highway 9, quickly moved divisions over to the Adriatic coast, Operation Olive effectively had come to an end.

    The Advance Resumes

    Following a period of rest, during which the 'B' Squadron's tank inventory had been brought up to strength, we found ourselves again under command of 1st Canadian Corps. However, expections that we would be drawing rations from the Canadian QM came to naught.
    The lesson of the previous failure having been learned, the Coriano Ridge was subjected to an intensive artillery barrage early on Friday, 15th September. When it was lifted, the 5th Canadian Armoured Division swept forward to successfully clear the ridge of enemy forces.

    [​IMG] Coincidental with the Canadian advance, the Regiment, led by 'A' Squadron, set about its task in support the 28th Infantry Brigade (also under command of 1st Canadian Corps) to capture the Cerasola Ridge. Early the following morning, 'B' Squadron, in support of the 2nd King's Regiment, moved out to play its part.

    Despite the fact that the Germans had made the Cerasola Ridge and the river Auso into a major line of defense, manned by elements of several divisions, in three days the ridge was cleared and the river successfully crossed. Much of the credit for the capture of such an important objective, accomplished in such short order while under almost continuous shell and mortar fire and spells of heavy rain, once again must go to the Churchill tank's unmatched climbing ability. During the operation, 'B' Squadron lost three tanks and the lives of Troopers David George James and Raymond Thomas Mitchell, who are buried side-by-side in Gradara War Cemetery.


    Two incidents, during the advance through the Gothic Line remain fresh in my memory. Losing our starboard track after going over a mine - speedily repaired by the crew of the Squadron's AVRE - and being buzzed twice by a Spitfire. What a scramble it was, after the aircraft's first pass, to get up and place the yellow identification flag atop the turret!

    Keeping to the foothills, the Regiment moved around the north-eastern tip of The Most Serene Republic of San Marino to then move westward. After tanks of 'B' Squadron had successfully crossed the Marecchia (the last river before the Uso, sometimes but incorrectly referred to as the Rubicon) operations ceased towards the end of the month.

    While our tanks were undergoing much needed maintenance and the replacements made ready, a leave programme was put in place. However, before many were able have a couple of days enjoying the facility set up by the Canadians in Riccione, the programme abruptly came to an end. The word had come down for the Regiment to prepare for immediate action! The crew of Ballyrashane were not among the fortunate few. On Sunday, October 1st, the reason for the cancellation became known, the Regiment had another river to cross and had been given only a few days to do it.

    The Month of October, 1944

    When it became known that the German Army had positioned elements of ten divisions (including those that had been driven off the Coriano Ridge), to form a formidable line of defence on the northwest side of the river Uso, it was obvious any attempt at a direct assault would be costly indeed. Consequently it was decided that the Regiment would come under command of the 10th Indian Division, effective 1st October, with its four experienced hill-fighting brigades. The Division had been ordered to immediately cross the rivers Uso and Rubicone, as far upstream as possible, then to advance to the north-east to cut Highway 9 (Via Emilia), thus blocking the enemy's only escape route. The Regiment, for its part, had a daunting task to perform - unlike the attack on the Hitler Line where each Infantry Regiment had a Squadron in support, this time it would be three Squadrons supporting four full Infantry Brigades! As the action progressed, in order to give as much support to the infantry as possible, Squadrons were at times split in two, sometimes three, units.
    To better follow the tracks of 'B' Squadron and of Ballyrashane in particular, over the next few weeks, please see Crossing the Rubicon. During this period, the Squadron's tanks were supporting the Gurkha, Mahratta and Punjabi Regiments.
    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Crossing the Rivers

    Time being of the essence, the Regiment went into immediate action and, having found the Ponte dell'Uso intact, 'C' Squadron successfully crossed the Uso on Tuesday, October 3rd. The next day, as elements of the Squadron advanced down-stream, before swinging to the west, to occupy Borghi, the remainder of the Regiment concentrated near Poggio Berni preparatory to crossing the river at a nearby ford.
    Soon after darkness fell, led by 'A' Squadron, all the Churchills had made it safely across, however, many HQ Squadron's Shermans failed to climb up the far bank under their own power and had to be towed up. While 'A' Squadron was making its way to take up positions south-west of Borghi, 'B' Squadron drove upstream to harbour a few hundred yards north of Ponte dell'Uso.

    Crossing the Rubicone

    Before we had settled down for the remainder of the night, Major MacKean had put us in the picture of the day's operations. Before any crossing of the river could take place the town of Sogliano al Rubicone had to be cleared of the enemy, prior to any descent being made to the bridge nearly one thousand feet below the town. Our Squadron's role was to give the impression that it would be making the main assault up the road from the bridge, whereas, in fact, the Gurkhas with Churchill and Sherman tanks in support, would launch the attack from the north-east along a ridge leading from Monte San Giovanni.

    As the day dawned, fully expecting to be heavily "stonked", the Squadron's tanks started to move as if preparing to advance, however, as no enemy ordinance came our way (the Gurkhas having quickly captured Sogliano despite some stiff enemy resistance) the Squadron continued up the road into the town itself.

    When it became known that the infantry had already crossed the river, the bridge being found intact, Skipper, having been told that the ridge on the other side appeared to be much too steep for any tank to climb, decided to take a look for himself. Ballyrashane and one other Churchill (if my memory serves correctly it belonged to 1 Troop) made their way down the steep winding road to the bridge where the Gurkhas had set up an HQ in a nearby stone hut. Once there, it was more than obvious that even a Churchill "mountain goat" could offer nothing more than moral support for the infantry who were already fighting their way up the ridge.

    Following a consultation with a Subadhar at the hut Major MacKean, having first instructed the two tanks to take positions with guns at full elevation a couple of hundred yards past the bridge, took off unaccompanied on a recce to look for possible way for the tanks to climb the ridge.

    Initially, during Skipper's absence, despite the continuous sounds of weapons being fired, we had nothing to do except to gaze upon the hillside before us. This ended when a Havildar came running up to tell us that a German position had been spotted just a few hundred feet above where we were sitting. Although neither tanks could see anything both let loose with their BESAs, with a few rounds of HE thrown in for good measure.

    Although shot and shell had landed but a hundred feet or so up the slope it was close enough for a white flag to suddenly appear. As the firing ceased, a German officer came down to discuss terms for surrender but, as a Hauptmann, he refused to do so with me, a lowly non-com, repeatedly saying "Offizier, offizier." Consequently, I, with "Titch" Young carrying a tommy-gun, escorted the German to the Gurkha HQ.

    On entering the hut, the Subadhar, recognising one of a superior military rank, came to attention saluting the German captain who failed to salute in return. From the arrogant manner in which the German conducted himself, it became increasingly obvious that he was not going to surrender to an officer of non-Aryan descent, especially one wearing only a lieutenant's pips. Consequently the Subadhar ordered two Gurkhas, who had been in the background caressing their kukris, to take the German, who was wearing a good-looking wrist-watch, up to the Gurkha Brigade HQ in Sogliano. In just a few minutes, before we had made our departure, the two returned both wearing big smiles and one a wrist-watch!

    As "Tich" and I made our way back, we espied Skipper walking briskly back from his recce, the three of us reaching the tank almost at the same time. Although we were anxious to tell the story of "our" prisoner, the Major had more important news to impart - a mile or so towards Roncofreddo, at the foot a steep hill, the road swung around the ridge's northern end, making it feasible for an advance south to assist the infantry. Pausing only to take a drink of water, Skipper went on to consult with the Subadhar. A few minutes later, a Gurkha came running up and, after the required "Tig hoi Johhny" (phonetically correct if not the spelling of the tradiional greeting) beckoned me to follow him to his HQ. Once there, Skipper ordered both Churchills to take up defensive positions at the top of the road, up which he had recently ascended, as enemy troops had been spotted moving into the Roncofreddo area. Additionally, he asked me to contact Captain Sidebottom to arrange for Trooper "Willie" Grant to bring the Squadron's jeep down to the bridge to pick him up.

    An hour or two later, could be heard the sound of tanks moving down from Sogliano and, led by 2 Troop and a few of HQ Squadron's Shermans, they lined the road behind our position way back to the bridge, perhaps even on the other side. The Major, who arrived shortly afterwards, told us that the Germans were retreating towards Cesena and, to protect their south-western flanks, had put substantial numbers of men both north of where we were and on Monte Farneto, a hill feature to the west between the rivers Fiumicino and Savio. The plan to cut Hwy 9 before Cesena had been abandoned, the 4th Indian Division being ordered to cross the Savio then to drive to the north-east to cut the highway, before the enemy could reach safety within the large town of Forli.

    Before darkness fell, Major MacKean and Captain Sidebottom accompanied by several infantry personnel set off to look for river crossings suitable for tracked vehicles to use, two being found, a few hundred yards apart divided by a small but fast-flowing stream. Consequently, it was decided to split the Squadron in three units, the Major's (a troop each of Churchills and Shermans) in support of the Gurkhas, would cross at the downstream location, the Captain's (two troops of Churchills) in support of the Mahrattas, at the one upstream. The third unit (two troops of Churchills) to be in reserve.

    Monte Farneto - 7th October 1944

    Two hours before first light, observing a strict radio silence, we set off down the road (steeper and more winding than the one down from Sogliano). It was pitch black which, coupled with intermittent rain, required the exercising of great care during the descent. It was especially difficult for Ballyrashane, being in the lead and not having the benefit of following a convoy light, however, guided by the infantry, we and all the other tanks made it safely down. Surprisingly, although it seemed to be much longer, it had only taken about a half-hour to reach the point where the Captain Sidebottom's unit was to move off the road.

    With the Gurkhas trotting alongside Ballyrashane, our unit made its way steadily forwards only to find that the bridge, carrying the road over the stream dividing the two crossing points, had been demolished. As there was no possibility of crossing the stream in the immediate vicinity, skipper ordered 2 Troop's Leader to take a patrol to look for a possible crossing between the bridge and the stream/river confluence. None was found, even if one had been the tanks would have become hopelessly bogged down before reaching it. The only alternative was to retrace steps and make the crossing at the upstream location. The Gurkhas in the meantime, the blown bridge being to them only a minor inconvenience, had pushed on despite the lack of tank support. As it turned out, it was a good decision as they, with the Mahrattas on their left, had quickly cleared Monte Farneto of the enemy.

    The move back to where Captain Sidebottom's unit has exited the road, while seeming to be a simple task, was very much the opposite. The road was too narrow for tanks to turn on, even for a Churchill which could turn on its own axis when in neutral. Some tanks which left the road's macadam surface were soon bogged down in the rain-sodden ground and had to be towed out. Skipper decided that he and I should board the rearmost Sherman and, even though it was becoming lighter, moving the tanks in reverse proved a tedious process but was nothing when compared with the difficulties that followed. Before setting off to follow the route taken by Captain Sidebottom, a recce party set off to check if a crossing was still possible. The river was found to have risen a little but not enough to prevent the tanks from crossing, however, getting down to it appeared to be somewhat difficult. Thus informed, Skipper decided to go to the river to see for himself, which was successfully accomplished despite several anxious moments when our Sherman nearly bogged down.


    No sooner had we arrived, RHQ came on the air with instructions to move the tanks, including those of the two troops in reserve, as quickly as possible on to Monte Farneto. Although the rain had stopped, the ground conditions were so bad that it took five or six hours for the order to be fully carried out. Despite the intermittent shellfire, we were all relieved to be on the drier ground of Monte Farneto which, despite its name, is more of a ridge rising to over 1,500 feet. The Squadron became an entity on joining up with Captain Sidebottom's unit which had made excellent time in support of the Mahrattas. The following extract is from TheTiger Triumphs - The Story of Three Great Divisions in Italy - Chapter 15: "At dawn the chug and roar of tanks announced the arrival of North Irish Horse, only an hour behind the infantry---a magnificent performance for tracked vehicles over such terrain."
    As the afternoon progressed news came that an German counter-attack was in the offing. Skipper, who had remained aboard the Sherman, decided to go on another foot recce - unfortunately it was to be his last. No sooner had he dismounted when a shell exploded near the tank, and he collapsed seriously wounded. When I reached him he was unconscious and obviously in need of immediate medical treatment. As the Sherman with its sloping front was not suitable, we carried him to a nearby Churchill placing him on the front.. Holding on to Skipper, while on the way to the Regimental Aid Post, I was praying that we would reach help in time as we were able to do when carrying Major Russell in similar circumstances the previous May.

    Sadly, by the time we reached the Aid Post, Skipper was too far gone for his life to be saved, he passed away shortly afterwards. When I was told, I believe by Billy Cleghorne (who had driven me to the hospital in Beja) I wept. Not only had the Regiment lost a brilliant and talented officer, I too, as far as military protocol would allow, had lost a friend. Major William Muir MacKean, at the age of twenty-six, never again would be "putting us in the picture."

    Utterly devastated, I set off on foot to rejoin the Squadron (the Churchill having already made its way back) to find it was no longer where it had previously been. On learning from some Gurkhas, sheltered in a nearby barn, that the tanks had moved to the top of the ridge, and as it was getting dark, I decided to stay with them for the night. I will always be grateful to those fearless warriors who shared their rations with me.
    Later, although quite exhausted, my thoughts were such that sleep was a long time coming - the noise of the barn's rats scuttling around in my immediate vicinity was not a help either. At last sleep came until, early in the morning, I was awakened by someone shaking me. It was a Trooper (I cannot remember if I asked how he found me) who had come to transport me to the Squadron's Echelon to join a group going to Riccione for a few days rest. Pausing only to locate Ballyrashane to retrieve my personal gear, that Sunday morning I was on my way to Sogliano to board a Bedford 3-tonner bound for a rest centre by the sea.

    Sojourn by the Sea

    [​IMG] Our destination was the Grande Albergo in Riccione. The hotel had originally been set up as a Rest Centre by the 1st Canadian Corps, however, following their capture of Rimini to the north, it had been handed over to our Brigade for their use. As we travelled towards the south-east the weather grew progressively better, so much so, when we arrived at our destination the sky was blue and the air delightfully warm. The favourable impression I formed, when first viewing the hotel located in a park facing the beach, was reinforced when given a room of my very own. Perhaps, even more so, was my joy on being told that my stay would be for eight days, rather than the usual four!

    During the journey, I was thinking that I would use the opportunity to catch up on notes about my experiences which had been neglected of late. Consequently, with materials obtained from the nearby NAAFI, I spent much of the time doing just that, particularly as I really wanted to be on my own. A favourite spot for doing so, was on the retaining walls of the jetty/canal through which the river Marano flowed into the Adriatic, easily reached aboard one of the many pedal operated boats available for hire.

    A word about food. Although the Army had provided the rations, members of the hotel's staff (recently returned) were the ones to prepare it and an excellent job did they perform. The meal at dinner that evening was superb, made especially so by being served in a spacious dining-room at tables complete with napery and an adequate supply of cutlery. Although the tablecloths only appeared on one occasion (as will be seen, it was the practice employing them to greet newcomers sitting down for their first meals) the quality of the meals served remained consistantly high. I am sure, even if they had been given the infamous M & V to prepare, we would probably be sitting down to a gastronomical delight. It was also rumoured we were enjoying meals better than those being served to officers staying at the nearby Albergo Corallo!


    By Wednesday I was feeling much better, that is mentally, and, as Glyn Collard was with the incoming group, the healing soon became complete. Of course he had news of the Squadron to impart - he had left it still on Monte Farneto where it had been subject to almost continous shelling since my departure. Fortunately, apart from suffering the discomfort of being battened down for long periods, no one was the worse for wear. He went on to tell me that Captain Sidebottom, having been promoted to the rank of Acting Major, was our new Squadron Leader. That evening, dinner was again served as it was the previous Sunday - I subsequently was told the table linen was hand washed, in cold water, by ladies in the town. Enjoying the delightfully warm weather, only too soon did the day for our departure come around. The time had come to return to the war!

    Back to Reality

    [​IMG]

    Leaving Riccione behind, after an uneventful trip, we eventually arrived at RHQ's location, from which the returning personnel were transported to their respective Squadrons. On reaching my Squadron I found it to be positioned in the immediate vicinity of Monteleone, a village clustered around a small medieval castle perched on top of a hill. HQF Troop had made itself at home in a building to the rear of the castle, containing several wooden bunks, probably designed to house casual workers during the grape harvest. I was pleased to find that a bunk had been reserved for me.

    At an elevation of over nine-hundred feet, the view from the castle of the surrounding countryside was spectacular. We could see Sogliano al Rubicone and, to the northwest about three kilometres distant, Roncofreddo the sodden approaches to which had presented so much difficulty for the Regiment's tanks. Periodically, the sound of gunfire could be heard far enough away, however, not to be of concern to the Squadron which recently had been the target of so much shelling.

    The River Savio and Beyond

    During the early hours of Saturday, 21st October, meeting no enemy resistance, 'C' Squadron made it safely across the fast-flowing river a short distance upstream from the confluence with the Borello, a major tributary. Later the same day, not without overcoming many difficulties, the Squadron also crossed the Borello to take possession of the town with the same name.

    Concurrently, much further downstream, in the face of fierce enemy resistance, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada also made it successfully across. It is of note that Private (later Sergeant) Ernest Alvia Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroic efforts in the subsequent defence of the bridgehead.

    Over the next couple of days, the remainder of the Regiment proceeded to cross the Savio/Borello rivers, taking up positions ready for the next phase of the battle, a two-pronged advance on Forli - the Canadians from the east, the 4th Indian Division from the south.

    The task facing the Regiment was a daunting one indeed, how best to support the infantry (over already difficult tank terrain considerably worsened by the heavy rains) as they made the twelve kilometre advance to the river Ronco which had to be crossed before swinging north towards Forli.

    Soon after the Squadron was assembled on the outskirts of Borello, we gathered before Major Sidebottom who commenced by saying he was going to put us "in the picture." Hearing these familiar words, for me, memories of his predecessor's death on Monte Farneto were almost overwhelming in their intensity. The Regiment's first objective was the capture of twin bridges, over the Ronco at Meldola. As 'C' Squadron's task was to capture the northern bridge, going the longer way via the village of Fratta, it was already on the way. For its part, 'B' Squadron would move out early next day, taking the direct route on the Monte Cavallo road, its objective being the seizure of the southern bridge, There was a collective sigh of relief when the Major concluded his briefing by saying that air reconnaissance had found no signs of German anti-tank weaponry east of the Ronco.

    To better follow the fortunes of 'B' Squadron over the next few days, please see a map of the Savio/Ronco area.

    Tuesday, 24th October 1944


    Before first light, with the Mahrattas in the van, 'B' Squadron and the Punjabis set off to tackle the natural barrier formed by the Teodorano massif. Although the weather had taken a turn for the better, it was slow going for the tanks, so much so, that the Mahrattas were soon far ahead. When we eventually caught up we found them below Monte Cavallo's lower crest, sheltered from the heavy enemy machine gun fire that had stopped their further progress. Skipper dismounted to locate the Infantry HQ and, having found it, signalled Ballyrashane to join him there.
    [​IMG]

    Before further progress could be made on the road to the Ronco, it was obviously necessary to first remove the Germans from </I>Monte Cavallo's</I> second ridge (nearly two-hundred feet above) prior to assaulting Castello di Teodorano, which dominates the whole area from its perch two-hundred and fifty feet higher up. Consequently, in order to formulate a plan how to best proceed, The Lord O'Neill (who had arrived in a jeep) and Major Sidebottom met with the Mahratta's Commanding Officer to discuss possible options.

    The conference over, the two NIH officers boarded the jeep for the short drive up to the hill. Dismounting just short of the crest, they had only walked a few yards when a shell or mortar bomb (both the driver and Skipper, on his return from hospital, said it was a mortar bomb) landed nearby, instantly killing Lt. Colonel The Lord O'Neill and wounding Major Sidebottom, fortunately not life-threatening. Miraculousy, the jeep's driver (if memory serves aright it was 'B' Squadron's "Willie" Grant) was unharmed.

    Major Sidebottom, after having his wounds dressed at the Mahratta's Aid Station, was evacuated to the Division's Field Hospital. As will be seen, he was to rejoin the Squadron some weeks later. The Lord O'Neill rests forever in the Coriano Ridge War Cemetery along with Major MacKean and Troopers Barwell and King.

    Two Bridges Too Far

    Early Wednesday morning the Squadron (now under command of Captain AKE Finch-Noyes) and the Mahrattas, without meeting any enemy resistance, settled down on Monte Cavallo's higher ridge. It was conjectured, later to be proven correct, without heavy weapons to stop our tanks, the bulk of the German army had retreated to take up positions across the river Ronco. As darkness fell, the Punjabi's moved through our position going on to capture the castle and its surrounding village in the face of little enemy resistance.


    Where to go next? Unlike the relatively easy going that 'B' Squadron had enjoyed thus far, 'C' Squadron had had extremely difficult ground upon which to advance. With the rain now coming steadily down, it was apparent that any hope of the latter's tanks reaching the northern bridge in a reasonable time was gone. The conditions were such that even the Gurkha regiments had almost accepted defeat. Later in the day, the powers that be came to a decision.

    A reconnaissance of the ground below the massif, where it swung to the north, showed it to be so water-sodden to make it almost impossible for the Squadron to reach the southern bridge directly. However, a reasonable alternative, to advance on a track, skirting the massif as it continued northwards, seemed distinctly possible. Thus, orders were received to move out at first light on the alternative route. See A on the map.

    Despite the still falling rain, we were all in good spirits as the Squadron moved northward with the goal to reach Monte Palareto, there to move the short distance on to the Fratta/Meldola road, becoming increasingly likely. Although the track was so narrow, requiring the utmost care to avoid hitting the high flanking stone walls with the tanks' louvres, all went well until the lead tank was stopped by a stream, in full flood, on its way down to join the river Ronco. There was no way across, the bridge was too narrow for the tanks to use! The Squadron could go no further and, with 'C' Squadron bogged down near Polenta, the Regiment's role was nearing its end.


    After a day or so of fruitless reconnaisance work, with the continuing heavy rain steadily worsening the already difficult supply position for the infantry and tanks, the operation came to an end. The two bridges that were ever so close were now much too far!

    The Long Road Back

    On Sunday, 29th October, the Squadron received orders to proceed, with utmost despatch, to the Cesena area for the purpose of performing much needed maintenance on the tanks. As the distance, even with the necessity of first back-tracking to Borello before proceeding north, was only about thirty miles, we all anticpated harbouring before nightfall or, at the worst, sometime the next day. Our optimistic outlook was soon proven to be ill-founded - five more days would elapse before the last of the Squadron's tanks reached Cesena.

    The difficulties that HQF and 2 Troop had experienced, three weeks earlier, while en route to Monte Farneto, were but thin slices of cake when compared to those the Squadron had to overcome, just to reach the Meldola/Borello road.

    I first heard of "Murphy's Law" during a visit to the United States in the 1950s. This so-called law, named after a fictitious mechanic, a real bumbler serving in the US Navy, is based on the assumption "That if something can go wrong, it will." Our Squadron's mishaps, during the course of the next few days, inadvertently confirmed the "Law's" basic premise!

    The many attempts to guide the rear-most Churchill backwards were soon abandoned as being too difficult to perform while the rain was falling so heavily. When the rain later eased up another attempt was made, but this too failed when the tank swung its rear end into one of the walls, reinforcing the fact that somehow turning the tanks around was a must.
    The next effort was to demolish a length of the walls and to use the stone to form a bed to prevent a tank sinking in the boggy ground. Despite the exertions of a large crew wielding sledgehammers and crowbars (they were carried on the Churchill's rear deck) the walls proved to be so strongly built that it was slow work. After an hour or so, as darkness was approaching, it was decided to call it a day.

    Usually it was my task to call the echelon with a list of needed supplies, however, as the Squadron was desperately short of petrol and food (nothing had been delivered the previous day) on this occasion Captain Finch-Noyes opted to do so himself. I do not recall to whom he spoke, but whoever it was he certainly received an earful! Thereafter, with expectations of better things on the morrow we settled down for the night - fortunately the rain had stopped completely.

    The next morning, under relatively clear skies, work resumed on the wall. This time, with the help of some well directed blows delivered by the Churchill, enough of the wall was soon demolished to enable the tank, minus its right front track cover, to make the 180º turn. After five or more other tanks, including Ballyrashane, had backed up to successfully do the same, everyone thought our troubles were over. It was not to be - the edicts of "Murphy's Law" were still very much in place.

    The first ominous sign that all was not well came when the commander of the Churchill, which had done such meritorious work helping to demolish the wall, called with a plea for assistance to repair his tank's broken right track. Next came word that one of the rearmost Churchills had run out of petrol while it was backing up and, to complete our misery, the heavens opened up with the heaviest rainfall yet and it was, oh, so cold.


    By the time that the jeeps arrived, not only was it pitch dark but the Squadron was spread out for over a mile on the track. Willing hands helped to unload the jeeps and the stacking of the 5-gallon jerricans of petrol. While no attempt was made to refuel the tanks, that was a task better left until the morning, a compo box was carried to each of the tanks. If we couldn't feed our chariots we could at least feed ourselves!
    As dawn came on the third day, the rain having stopped sometime during the night, the OC and the Troop Leaders met to discuss how best to allocate the limited supply of petrol available. The jeeps had not been able to deliver anywhere close to the minimum daily requirement of 2,500 plus gallons of POL (petrol, oil and lubricant) that the thirsty tanks needed. The consumption of petrol was not measured in miles per gallon, rather how many gallons were consumed per mile.

    The initial plan was to divide the petrol equally between the tanks with the expectation it would be enough to enable them to reach, or be close to, Teodorano village where they could be refueled. Unfortunately, it turned out we had still to operate within the laws laid down by the wretched Murphy! Our OC, when communicating the plan to RHQ, was told that it was not possible to deliver more petrol to us until the waters, that had flooded the dip in the road below Borello, had receded. The heavy rainfall had inundated the road deep enough to make it impassable for any wheeled vehicle.

    See B on the map.


    Having received orders from the CO that it was essential that the tanks make it to Cesena as soon as possible, a new plan was adopted. First, the tanks were to be fueled in a quantity sufficient for the rearmost to turn around and for the others to move along the track to make room. Next, the remaining stock of petrol would be divided into quantities sufficient for as many tanks, at the head of the column, to make it to Borello - it was anticipated that driving through the flooded stretch of road would not be a problem.

    Despite the crews being experienced in topping up the two 75 gallon petrol tanks in the rain (which had restarted) it was a slow process, taking up to the late afternoon to complete. I cannot remember how many tanks set off for Borello but Ballyrashane certainly was one of them. On reaching the flooded section of the road, as it was then dark, the decision was to cross in the morning. On the fourth day, after refueling at Borello, we eventually reached the Regimental harbour. Those left behind were less fortunate - the last of the Squadron did not arrive until two days later.

    To Forli and Beyond

    It was now the first week of November with the Regiment harboured [​IMG] in and around Cesena, a pleasant town perched on its hill overlooking the river Savio. It showed few signs of the Herculean, but unsuccessful, attempts to deny the German Army access to it by cutting Via Emilia. Although it had only been liberated since Friday, 20th October, it was returning to normal as much of the civilian population had returned. All the tanks were in such a bad shape, particularly ours and those of 'C' Squadron, as they had had little significant maintenance for nearly three months. With most of the tanks in the workshops and a leave programme in place, everyone thought that the Regiment was in for a well-earned break of a week or two. It was not to be. The euphoria we were experiencing soon evaporated a few days later, when orders came down from Brigade to prepare for immediate action. In a couple of days, the small force that was somehow scratched together, took off to assist in the clearing of German forces out of Forli, leaving the remainder of the Regiment behind.


    After the Liberation of Forli, as aerial reconnaissance had shown heavy artillery in place on the far bank of the river Montone plus a very large calibre railway-gun in Faenza, it was decided to switch the line of attack to the northeast. Consequently, as further tanks were released from the workshops, they were sent in units of two or three to assist the infantry (at times entire regiments) in the capturing of the many small towns and villages in the fertile triangle of land having the town of Ravenna at the apex with the highway betwen Cesena and Faenza forming the base.
    During the time we were in Cesena, waiting for our tanks to be released, the weather grew increasingly colder, so everyone set to providing fuel for the older civilians to burn in their stoves. With tools scrounged from many sources - the Canadians being particularly helpful - parties set about felling trees then sawing them into logs to be split into a useable size. Having acquired a superbly balanced Canadian axe, I spent hours on the log-splitting process. Although we were supposed to return the tools, I must confess that "my" axe was "requistioned" to become part of Ballyrashane's inventory.

    About a week later the Squadron, even though it was still only up to fifty percent strength, received orders to move with its echelon into Forli. On arrival, the tanks were parked on a small square in the town's industrial area, on the east side of which was located the offices and manufacturing facilities of Brecchi stoves. While we were settling down for the night in the offices, the Squadron's cookhouse crew was taking up residence in a small garage, located on the north-east corner of the square. As we had been warned to expect the town to be periodically shelled by a railway-mounted gun, Corporal Stevenson elected to bed down in the garage's inspection pit.

    Some time in the middle of the night we were awakened by the sound of a loud explosion - an incoming shell had penetrated the roof of the garage to detonate in the inspection pit. Amazingly, none of the cookhouse personnel was injured and little damage was done except to Corporal Stevenson's bedding - but for a call of nature, he would have been killed while asleep in the pit!

    A few days later, about 02.00 hrs, RQMS Docksey appeared (I happened to be Guard Commander) with instructions to rouse all personnel to prepare for a move. NCOs were to proceed to a meeting at RHQ which was located in a nearby building. Once assembled, a Major (I believe it was 'A' Squadron's OC but I am not certain) from lessons recently learned, instructed us how best to support infantry in the unusual circumstances of house-to-house fighting in the countryside.

    It was Sunday, 26th November, the Squadron had its eight available tanks ready to go - Ballyrashane and Bangor of HQF Troop, with 2 and 5 Troops commanded by Lieutenants Fleming and Mahon respectively.
    To better follow the tracks of 'B' Squadron, please see Map of the River Montone Area. During this period, the Squadron's tanks supported, in chronological order, the Durham Light Infantry, Gurkha and Baluch Regiments of 10th Indian Division and Le Royal 22e Regiment of 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]


    Having received orders to join up with the Durham Light Infantry west of the Montone, with A/Major Tony Finch-Noyes in command, we set off to eventually cross the river at Casa Boschi. As we drove over the Bailey Bridge, viewing the building nestled serenely in a clump of trees, it was difficult to envision that only ten days earlier it had been the scene of a fierce battle.



    [​IMG]
    It was the morning of 16th November. Men of the 48th Highlanders of Canada, while crossing the river (the bridge was blown) were [​IMG] greeted by intense machine gun and rifle fire from the far bank, particularly from several small buildings surrounding the casa, half-hidden among the trees. One, a brick shed, was particularly troublesome and it was due to the bravery of one man, Private Joseph Albert Bray, although twice wounded, that an enemy attack of great strength was defeated. Recommended to receive the Victoria Cross, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Sadly, he died of his wounds on 30th December not knowing of the honour that had been bestowed on him.

    With Ballyrashane leading, our small unit moved a short way to harbour for the night outside a tiny village of San Berardo, near where the Montone split into two on its journey to the Adriatic - it was there that Skipper decided to base his operational HQ. While we were in Cesena, stories had filtered down how our sister Squadrons were constantly called upon to assist the infantry clearing hamlets (at times even solitary buildings) sitting just a few feet above extensively flooded areas. It proved to be 'B' Squadron's experience also!

    A Tragic Saturday

    During the next two days, our tanks inched their way forward until being stopped by a blown bridge, over the northern arm of the Montone. The arrival of an HQ Squadron Churchill "Ark" (a bridging tank) soon got things moving again. During the days leading up to 2nd December, while supporting no fewer than four infantry regiments as they advanced, despite not being able to move off the roads, none of the tanks had been damaged by enemy fire, although one of 5 Troop's had dropped out with mechanical problems - it was replaced by HQF Troop's Bangor.

    The decision having been made to capture the small town of Russi (renowned for the quality of the red wines from its vineyards) at first light 5 Troop set off in support of Canada's Le Royal 22e Regiment. By late morning, Bangor, followed by the tanks of the Troop Leader and Sergeant Freddy Verso, set about clearing the enemy from the houses of a small village, sitting astride a junction with the road to Russi. While engaged in this activity, Bangor was knocked out by an anti-tank gun killing all but two of the crew. Almost immediately, the same gun destroyed the Troop Leader's tank wounding two of the crew in the process. Freddy Verso's Churchill, although left on its own, did a magnificent job helping the Canadians beat off a furious counter-attack.

    That morning, the Regiment lost the last of its personnel to be killed in the war. I lost the commander with whom I served during the Tunisian Campaign, Sergeant "Roy" Burns. He, with Troopers Norman Corbin, Robert Arthur Stafford and John Wood, rest for ever side-by-side in Forli War Cemetery, Vecchiazzano.

    Next morning we were relieved by 21st Army Tank Brigade's 48th RTR, as ordered, we then returned to Forli. Later we learned that our remaining tanks were the only ones of the Regiment still operational.

    Rest and Recreation

    Following a brief sojourn in Forli, a small convoy of tanks, including Ballyrashane, took off for Cesena where they were left in the Regimental Workshops. I well recall, on handing the tank over, making it absolutely clear that the Canadian felling axe was part of the inventory! A short while later we boarded Bedford 3-tonners bound for Riccione.

    We had hoped to be billeted in the Grande Albergo, instead we took up residence in a large house fairly close by. A nearby small hotel, its name escapes me, served both as a recreation centre and the Squadron's dining facility.

    During the five relaxing weeks we were in Riccione there was plenty to do. A few hardy souls went for a daily swim in the cold waters of the Adriatic, I was not one of them, instead spending a lot of time engaged in Rover Crew activities. For details please see the piece by Ken Cheater, our Crew Leader, on page 2 of the Mustang Rover Crew Magazine. As will be seen, in a true Scouting spirit, the Crew established a library for the enjoyment of others.

    [​IMG]

    On two occasions, a few of us travelled to Pesaro, the birthplace of Gioacchino Rossini, there to be entertained by a group of musicians performing in the G. Rossini School of Music. On both occasions there were several civilians in the audience who, unlike ourselves, had to pay an entrance fee. With passage of time, I cannot recall the titles of any of Rossini's works that were played except, on both occasions, we enjoyed excerpts from his opera, Il Barbiere di Siviglia. As food for civilians was still in very short supply, on our second visit, we gave the musicians some food which we had scrounged from Corporal Stevenson - we certainly hoped that they appreciated the tins of M & V more than did we!


    The Squadron, particularly the crew of Ballyrashane, had a most pleasant surprise one day as we were sitting down for a meal. Major Sidebottom walked in, accompanied by Major Finch-Noyes, to announce that he was resuming command of the Squadron - there was a call for three rousing cheers. Major Finch-Noyes also said a few words. First he thanked everyone for the work done while he was in command, then he wished us as much enjoyment while in Riccione as he and two fellow equestrians, Captains Hern and Pope, were having. Apparently the Regiment had been given some horses by a unit that had departed for Greece.

    It goes without question that both the Christmas and New Year celebrations were highlights of our sojourn in Riccione. For Christmas dinner we had chicken with roast potatoes plus all the trimmings.

    Wherever the birds came from, as with the meals of previous years served while in Wickham Market and Ain Mokra, their preparation certainly proved that Corporal Stevenson and his crew had lost none of their culinary skills.
    All good things, inevitably, come to an end. On Thursday, 11th January 1945, orders came down to prepare for departure on the morrow.


    The "Quiet Sector"

    As 'B' Squadron's tanks had been left in Cesena, we were the first to reach Ravenna (liberated by the Canadians 4th December) where we were subsequently joined by RHQ's newly created Recce Squadron. During the next several days, to bring the Squadron up to strength, half-a-dozen Churchill Mark Vs arrived, one of which became the last to proudly bear the name, Ballyrashane, T173256.
    <CENTER></CENTER>[​IMG]

    Turret L-R: L/Cpl Alan Hughes Me Major RSH Sidebottom
    Drivers L-R: L/Cpl "Darkie" Gault Tpr Tommy Bowers
    The North Irish Horse (now the senior regiment of the 21st Army Tank Brigade, commanded by Brigadier David Dawnay DSO who, as the Regiment's CO, led us to the victory in North Africa) had been given the task to relieve units of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division.


    Following the surrender of Italy in the autumn of 1943, apart from diehard Fascisti, more and more Italians came over to fight for the Allies. So effective were the efforts of the Partisans, that a suggestion was put forward to create a regular Italian fighting unit, thus, despite some misgivings, Cremona Brigades were created. It fell to the British to provide weapons training and equipment, even to clothing, except the battle dress was dyed green.

    It was now the NIH's responsibility to support the first Cremona Brigade as they manned a so called "quiet sector" extending from the upper reaches of the river Senio, as it flowed to the north, to the Adriatic Sea. As had happened in the Ardennes the German Army proved again their ability to exploit "quiet sectors" to their advantage. However, in the Po Valley it was not their intention to mount a major attack, rather to construct a series of river based defences, namely the Irmgard Line - River Senio, the Laura Line - River Santerno, the Paula Line - River Sillaro and the Genghiz Khan Line - River Idice.

    While these lines of defence were being put in place, to prevent a crossing of the river Reno was essential, consequently, the Germans launched a series of attacks south of the river capturing several areas held by the Italians. As it soon became obvious that the inexperienced Cremona Brigade was too thin on the ground, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade was called upon to relieve the pressure. Once more the Regiment was in the now familiar role of simultaneously supporting more than one brigade of infantry.

    During the few days we spent in Ravenna, some of us got the opportunity of viewing the mosaics of which the town is famous. Additionally, "my" Canadian felling axe was located and restored to its rightful place aboard our new Mark V.

    When the time came for the Squadron to move into action again, it was [​IMG][​IMG]to support the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in their efforts to recover the ground lost by the Cremona Brigade. During the seven or so days it took, the 95mm guns of the Squadron were extensively used. Despite not having any prior experience firing the guns (unlike those of the other Squadrons who had had gunnery practice while in Riccione) the shoots were very effective.


    3rd February was a sad day for the Princess Pats. Aided by supporting fire from 2 Troop, they took possession of a large house (Casa Baronio) after a brief but fierce battle. Unfortunately, it was not known that the casa had been booby trapped and, when it was blown up by remote control, thirty of the Canadians became casualties.

    Also on 3rd February, as the Germans had been discovered busily engaged in the flooding of the marshy ground, south of Lake Commacchio almost to the river Reno except for its western end near Argenta, the order came to suspend further offensive operations.

    Static Warfare


    For the next few weeks, the Squadron was holding a line of over several miles south of the river Reno, from west of the river Senio and eastward nearly to San Alberto, a village close to the southern shore of Lake Comacchio.

    Notes about the sketch, which obviously is not to scale:

    1. The river Reno is canalised between levees more than twenty feet high.
    2. There are many more unoccupied houses than shown, some being large enough to be called a casa. The area in which they are located essentially was a "no-man's land" being occupied periodically by both our troops and Germans.
    3. Except for 5 Troop, which had only one house in its location, tanks were sheltered behind separate houses except when in a firing position.


    [​IMG]

    The Squadron was about to experience, what was [​IMG] a different form of warfare, which soon became evident when men of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals arrived on the scene. As it had been realised, maintaining communication by wireless required constant manning of the tanks with a considerable drain on their batteries, the Canadians had been given the task to establish a field-telephone network. Upon its completion, I became responsible for maintaining both a miniature telephone exchange and literally miles of wire. The Canadians were not the only ones busy that day.


    Scattered around the two thousand yards or so of territory, between the river and where the Squadron's tanks were located, were many houses which had been abandoned by their owners. Previously, when German troops who had crossed the river during the night, were found occupying one or more of them, tanks of 'C' Squadron would be asked to lay down some HE fire - in the dark, it was very much a hit-or-miss effort!
    On relieving 'C' Squadron Major Sidebottom, having decided that our tanks firing from fixed positions could do better, ordered that every house be targeted by at least two tanks firing from fixed positions. Hitting houses, at a relatively short range and during daylight, presented little difficulty, the problem being how to duplicate the task during the hours of darkness - the solution was both simple and effective. Marks which were painted on the turret ring indicating the traverse position and the number of turns of the handwheel for the degree of elevation, were both recorded for each of the targeted houses.

    During the weeks the Squadron was employed in its static role, few were the nights without the sound of main armament being fired, often with the rattle of BESA machine-guns thrown in for good measure. The great expenditure of ordinance, coupled with that used on several shoots during daylight hours, created severe replenishment problems for the echelon. As the roads from both the east and south were subject to heavy shelling during the day, supplies had to be transported by night, fortunately, the difficult task was made somewhat easier as only a small amount of petrol was being consumed.

    In order to both man the field telephone "exchange" and to take care of any communication problems, I had assembled a team comprised of the operators from HQF and 4 Troops. To free them from the task of loading the main guns co-drivers were given that responsibility.


    Lest it should be thought we had an easy time (despite the many hours spent playing bridge) some explanation is necessary. Although we were not regularly firing on German positions, north of the Reno, they were unsporting enough to frequently send a lot of stuff our way. While no serious damage was done, only too often the phone lines were cut.
    Repairing lines, although time consuming, was not particularly hazardous, except when it came to restoring service to the Field Observation Officer and/or to 5 Troop, as the general area was subject to regular mortar fire. Twice, during the more than a dozen occasions, while effecting repairs mortar bombs fell disturbingly close.

    Finding breaks in a line was usully not too difficult except when it was not immediately visible, for example, if it was laid in a ditch. The procedure in such instances was to narrow the search by periodically tapping the line to ascertain in which direction it was open.

    On one occasion, finding the break proved to be most difficult. By way of explanation, the Signal's people, when they laid the line to the east, to cross the road where it turned north it was strung between two conveniently placed trees. On reaching the track, marked A on the sketch, poles were used to elevate the line over it.

    Early one morning, Trooper Sharples and myself set off to repair the line going east taking with us mail for 5 Troop, which the echelon had delivered during the night. We were in for an exasperating few hours - fortunately without being stonked in the process. We reached the FOO's house without finding the break but, on checking the instrument although there was contact with 5 Troop there was none to the "exchange."
    Following the line eastward two breaks were found and repaired, however, when checking Freddie Verso's phone only the FOO could be reached. We retraced our steps, periodically tapping the line on the way, until reaching where it was carried over the track, where, after lowering the two poles, the problem was solved. A piece of shrapnel had severed the wire but had left enough of the insulation intact for the break not to be visible from below.

    During the several occasions I visited the house in [​IMG] which the Royal Canadian Artillery observation post was located, I got to know the FOO quite well although, regretfully, I cannot recall his name. A Canadian citizen, he was born in Hoylake (about nine miles from my home town) site of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, upon which many an Open has been played until it was deemed to be an unsuitable venue due to the lack of adequate parking facilities. The links will always be dear to me as it was there that I recorded a personal best, the greatest number of strokes below par for eighteen holes played anywhere. But I digress, on a later visit the FOO had an amusing tale to tell.

    As can be seen on the sketch, the buildings housing the FOO and his German counterpart were separated only by the width of the river, only the upper storey being visible to each other. Apparently there had been a brief exchange of mortar fire which ceased with an informal agreement between both sides, that one would not direct fire on the other's building. However, the agreement only lasted until the day came when the Canadians could no longer tolerate the behaviour of one of the enemy. Evidently, each morning a rather fat German would appear on the levee to dump a load of rubbish into the river but, on his departure, he habitually made rude gestures that got progressively more offensive.


    A preface to the event of the day that caused the FOO and his crew to say "No more" is perhaps necessary. It may be remembered, while the Regiment was waiting to make the final push to Tunis, that a stray 25pdr shell fell uncomfortably close to one employing the facilty known as the "Most fertile spot in Tunisia."

    One morning (my recollection being it was one day after we had all the trouble finding a break in the wire) the "Grasso Tedesco" appeared carrying a trenching-tool which he promtly employed to dig a hole on top of the levee. To the astonishment of the watching Canadians, he lowered his trousers and squatted down. That was the last straw! The FOO ordered a mortar bomb to be lobbed over the river but not close enough to hurt the German. From all accounts, the sight of him departing as speedily as he could, with his trousers around his feet, was hilarious.
    On the last Sunday of February the Padre, Captain Elwyn M. Hughes, arrived to hold Church Services for each of the Troops. Happily, he was able to reach 5 Troop without attracting any mortar fire! The driver of his jeep (if memory serves me aright) took the photograph below, the tank was Captain HE Irwin's Mark V Churchill. Other than the Padre and Tpr Brindle, all are HQF Troop crew members.


    <CENTER>[​IMG] </CENTER><CENTER></CENTER>
    From Left to Right
    Front: Tpr Tommy Bowers, Padre Hughes, Tpr John Calvert
    Rear: L/Cpl Alan Hughes, Tpr "Titch" Young, Tpr Henry Dawson, Tpr Bert Brindle (B Sqn fitter) Tpr John Johnston, Cpl Billy Keville, Yours Truly.
    On Monday, 6th March, the Squadron was relieved by tanks of the Recce Squadron. Happily, despite some near misses, no one was hurt while during those weeks we were engaged in static warfare. 'C' Squadron was not so fortunate, having Sergeant Baker (4 Troop) and three Troopers wounded. After showing my counterpart from the Recce Squadron the workings of the "exchange" it was all aboard, bound once again for billets in Ravenna.

    Supporting the Commandos - "Operation Roast"

    [​IMG] A: Initial Crossing B: Intended Follow-up Crossing C: Alternative Crossing

    Map reproduced (with my additions) with thanks to a Commando Veteran Association
    member who also provided me with specific details relative to units of 2nd Commando Brigade.


    As a part of their network of river defenses (previously mentioned) the Germans had flooded the Valli di Comacchio to within about six kilometres of the </I>Reno</I>. As this dry area, which became known as the Argenta Gap, offered the only pratical way for 8th Army to break through to Ferrara and the River Po, it was decided to give the enemy the impression that the next offensive would be elsewhere, consequently, much thought was given to how to convince the Germans that the main attack would come in the form of another landing north of Lake Comacchio. As a preliminary, an attack would be launched north up the narrow strip of land between the lagoon and the sea, designed to convince Kesselring that a seaborne invasion was imminent while hiding its true purpose. The plan, Operation Roast that went into effect, in which 'B' Squadron played a pivotal role, was simplicity itself and, as so often happened to plans simple in nature, proved to be highly successful. Not only was Kesselring deceived - he ordered the move of German forces, including 29th Panzer Division, to the Adriatic sector - more importantly, the true purpose of the operation was successfully concealed from the enemy, to make the way clear for a right-hook, across the lagoon, to land troops of 56th Infantry Division behind enemy lines.

    Although not technically correct, the narrow strip of land was referred to as the "Spit." It is about eight miles long and, except for the southern three miles, is only about two hundred yards or so wide. During the month of March, as the southern section was subjected to heavy attacks by field artillery and from air, substantial German forces were moved from the Argenta Gap to face the expected attack by 8th Army.

    During the last two weeks of March, the Squadron trained extensively with units of 2nd Commando Brigade in preparation for the forthcoming [​IMG] [​IMG] attack on the "Spit." First with No.40 and No.43 (Royal Marines) Commandos who were scheduled to make landings across the River Reno, then with the Cremona Brigade who were to take part in a sham frontal assault. Concerning the latter, Skipper's account of the conference with the Italian commander, where a mixture of Italian, French and English was employed, was absolutely hilarious. Cremona's Commander, while rubbing his index finger up the side of his nose, kept repeating "Le char Churchill, tres formidable." It brought memories of the same comment made by the fair damsels of Tunis at the Victory Parade. (Richard Lamb, in his book War in Italy, records the support given to the Cremona Brigade by tanks of the North Irish Horse, Page 193).

    [​IMG][​IMG] On 2nd April, as darkness fell, two of the Squadron's Troops, which had been waterproofed, set out to cross the Reno near its mouth. (A on the map). However, the lead Churchill quickly discovered the river to be deeper than anticipated. Fortunately, the Royal Engineers had the parts of a Class 40 Raft nearby (Class 40 indicating, as with Bailey Bridges, the safe tonnage to be carried) which they finished assembling before midnight. Six tanks then moved across, advancing east until being held up by a deep ditch while awaiting the arrival of a Churchill Fascine Carrier.
    What was not realised, that due to the flooding activity of the Germans, the depth of water in Lake Comacchio was barely sufficient to float even shallow-drafted assault craft. Consequently, No.2 Commando which had set off on the night of 1st April from San Alberto, had a difficult time while avoiding and, sometimes running into, the many mudbanks. As a result of the problems encountered while crossing, all of the boats were late by several hours, however, their passengers made it ashore without meeting any enemy opposition. No.9 Commando embarked from the lake's south shore east of San Alberto at about the same time and also found themselves having to manhandle their lighter craft across the lake when the heavier craft being bogged down in the mud.

    Though No.9 encountered some enemy fire from the shore, suppressed by artillery fire and smoke, all Commandos were ashore by 05.30 at first light, some four/five hours late. No.2 quickly set about their prime objectives of securing the two bridges across the Bellocchio Canal, while No.9 headed inland and south to clear the south-west sector. When the Commandos, who had earlier landed without being spotted, were assembled, they advanced south. After a series of brisk fights, while receiving heavy support fire from the Squadron's tanks sited on both sides of the Reno, over one thousand of the enemy surrendered. One Churchill that had crossed the river, lost a track when it ran over a mine. Unfortunately, the driver forgot the hard-earned lesson in such situations to never dismount forward, he did and was badly wounded when he landed on another mine. Commando casualties during this part of the operation were moderate, most suffered by 5 Troop of No.9 in achieving position "Leviticus'.


    On 3rd April, when word came that the expected tank support had been delayed (for reasons as will be later explained) 43 Marines Commando opted not to wait, realising, as soon it became daylight, their presence would become known. With 'C' Troop in the lead, the Marines advanced almost to the Valetta Canal (designed to drain excess water from the lake into the sea) just south of Porto Garibaldi before coming under heavy Spandau fire from houses and pill boxes on the north bank. Although the houses on the south bank of the canal had been successfully cleared of the enemy, lacking tank support, the decision was reached to suspend further operations for the day. For his part in forcing the Germans to retreat north of the canal and for protecting his comrades while so doing, Corporal Thomas Peck Hunter was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He was the only Royal Marines Commando to be so honoured during World War Two.

    The original plan called for the Squadron to make two simultaneous crossings of the river, one near the mouth the other, further west, over to the narrow strip of land lying between the Reno and Lake Comacchio's southern shore (B on the map). Once the accompanying platoons of No.40 Commando were safely positioned, the tanks were then to make haste northward to support the other Commandos. This plan was cancelled when the raft that was to be employed, due to faulty intelligence being received as to the depth of the Reno, was diverted for use at the eastern crossing. Without a raft and, as darkness was falling, the crossing was postponed until the next morning. At first light on 3rd April, 3 and HQF Troops crossed the river, opposite the southern part of the "Spit" (C on the map) driving north to assist No.2 and No.43 who had been stopped before the strongly defended Porto Garibaldi.

    Despite being heavily shelled, one of 3 Troop's tanks being hit (fortunately no one was hurt), we were able to force the Germans to evacuate their positions north of the canal by using HE on the houses and AP ammo on the pill boxes. Later in the day, 2 and 4 Troops arrived on the scene enabling the Squadron to take up strong defensive positions.
    For most of the following day we were the target of intermittent enemy shelling which, happily, did no harm to any of the Squadron's tanks. The Marine Commandos were not so fortunate. By the greatest stroke of ill luck, a phosphorus shell exploded inside a Weasel in which several men were sheltering. As it was nearby, Skipper instructed "Darkie" Gault to drive Ballyrashane over in order to render any possible assistance. Sadly, there was nothing we could do to be of help, none of the Marines was alive having suffered the most horrible of deaths.

    http://www.nih.ww2site.com/nih/badges/10thRoyalHussars.jpg During the evening, word was received that on the morrow the Squadron was being relieved by The King's Own Royal Hussars. It was welcome news as most of our tanks were alarmingly short of ammunition. The next morning, after the Shermans of the Hussars had arrived, the Squadron made its way south to San Alberto whence it had departed a few days previously. The next few days saw the Commandos busily engaged in ousting the enemy from islands and shores of Lake Comacchio, once accomplished, all was set for 8th Army's right hook to take place. When the order was given to go, it took the Germans completely by surprise, Kesselring, ever aware of the potential dangers of an Allied water-borne assault, never considered the possibility of one across Lake Comacchio!

    The Spring Offensive - Operation Buckland


    Our sojourn in San Alberto was a short one. The following morning the Squadron took off on an eight-mile drive to the south-west, joining up with the Cremona Brigade headquartered in the village of Mezzano. At last, we had sufficient time available to carry out much needed maintenance on our tanks and for the repleshment of their depleted ammunition stocks. About the same time, the Regiment's other Squadrons took up positions in and around Bagnacavallo, a small town about fourteen miles west of Ravenna.


    <CENTER>http://www.nih.ww2site.com/nih/maps/Senio.jpg </CENTER><CENTER></CENTER><CENTER></CENTER>On the morning of our fifth day at Mezzano, Major Sidebottom addressed the Squadron to put us "in the picture." The plan was for the Regiment to first advance to the Senio over a four-mile wide front, the river would then be crossed, using Bailey Bridges, at three locations. 'B' Squadron, on the right flank, would cross near Alfononsine. 'C' Squadron would cross a short distance north-east of Fusignano, with 'A' Squadron doing the same further to the north-east. During the coming evening we could expect to hear the noise generated by a massive air bombardment softening up the enemy's positions. Finally, the OC made it absolutely clear that radio silence must be observed prior to the attack getting underway which was set for 04.00 hrs.


    Later, Skipper gave me the wavelengths for the next three days with instructions to net as soon as possible after darkness fell. I set the net for 20.00 hrs but did not, as had been instructed, give the operators details for the following two days. For most of the evening we could hear the throb of aircraft engines on the way to deliver their loads upon the enemy - the sound of bombs exploding seemed to go on for hours.

    03.45 hrs, Tuesday, 10th April 1945

    All was quiet as the Squadron waited for the word to go.Suddenly, a jeep came to a screeching halt beside Ballyrashane, the driver bringing an urgent message for Major Sidebottom. Without waiting for an answer, the Jeep turned around speeding off whence it came. When Skipper finished reading it, he ordered Alan Hughes (the gunner) to run over to 2 Troop to tell Cpl Wiggins to report to him immediately. Then turning to me, he said the never-to-be forgotten words, "Gerry, collect your kit, you are going home on leave!" Skipper went on to tell me to wait at the farmhouse (which had been the Squadron's HQ) where transport would be coming to pick me up. A few moments later, when Jimmy Wiggins appeared, being so thrilled by the news, I almost forgot to give him the frequencies for the next two days!
    As I was walking towards the farmhouse (it was a couple of hundred yards away) the Squadron's tanks started to move. A few minutes later, the sound of their engines was no more and there I was, left in the dark, feeling both excited and somewhat lonely. Perhaps thirty minutes later, I cannot recall exactly when, with headlights blazing a Bedford 15cwt appeared on the scene. It was driven by a very excitable Italian whose job it was to deliver me to RHQ, located in Bagnacavallo. The Bedford's headlights not having caught the attention of the enemy, I was safely away on the first leg of a long journey home.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 19, 2018

Share This Page