In Italy the Allies were planning to try to sidestep the stalemate that was developing along static lines. While they made their preparations their forces in central Italy had to keep the Germans fully engaged.
After a short break out of the line over the New Year the Durham Light Infantry were soon back in action. On the 9th January they crossed the Peccia river and made an advance of 1000 yards during the night. It took a German patrol to discover they had advanced so far, when the next day dawned with thick fog.
Lieutenant Gerry Barnett, of C Company, 16th Durham Light Infantry, had spent the night in some farm buildings with his platoon.
We were roused very suddenly about dawn by one of the sentries who had seen some German soldiers right outside the building. I rushed out, as I was, I didn’t even pick up my Tommy gun, I had my pistol on my belt of course.
I rushed straight out and there they were a few yards from the door – a group of 6-8 German soldiers. There were then something like half a dozen of my men with me including my Sergeant and we ran afthem. Two dropped to the ground in the ensuing melee and the others scattered and ran.
It was at that moment that this delightful Sergeant of mine, a Yorkshireman with an unbelievably big moustache danced round us waving his rifle and shouting, “Try to take prisoners, try to take prisoners!” It was such a startling intrusion that I stopped aghast at him – and then I felt absolutely delighted that such a humane action could take place at a time like that.
But it didn’t stop us of course — there wasn’t time to do anything about it. Two of the Germans had thrown themselves to the ground and were taken prisoner; the others were still running so I shouted to the men to fire and emptied my pistol myself in their direction — I didn’t hit anything of course – you can’t with a pistol! I snatched a rifle from a man, had a go myself and then they were all in cover, they’d all gone down the slope. All this was very quick and took only a few seconds of time — a minute at the most.
Almost immediately they’d gone to ground a German machine gun opened fire on us. For some reason I thought it was on the higher ground on the left on a knoll. I set off with a few of the chaps following me along this partly made road to look for it, thinking I was having a little bit of cover from the revetment on the left of the road where it was dug into the hill.
I’d gone only 50 yards when the machine gun hit me. I realised from the wound I received that I’d made a mistake and it was on the right down on the lower ground. I was hit in the neck and because of my crouching position the bullet went through the right of my neck and out through my left shoulder taking a lot of my shoulder blade with it.
The hole in the neck was very small but the hole in my back was fairly large. I didn’t know that then of course. It was a curious experience — I had time to reflect on it — I thought I was dead at first because all the consciousness of my body went. I could see and I could think and that was about the limit of it. I knew I was folding up because I could see I was slowly falling to the ground, my body was collapsing. I thought, “Well, this is yet another interesting experience to add to the list!”
I was wearing a new trench coat and a leather jerkin. Leather jerkins were issued in the winter but they didn’t have enough to go round, so we used to take it in turns to wear it — it had been my turn that day. I asked the men cutting my clothing off to get a dressing on my back, to ease me out of the jerkin rather than cut it, because it was a precious garment. It probably had a hole in the back of course! Consciousness went then….