With the U.S. Artillery in the hills of Italy

British artillery firing at night. A 25 pounder gun fires a round during the night barrage which enabled Allied tanks to cross the Sangro River.

British artillery firing at night. A 25 pounder gun fires a round during the night barrage which enabled Allied tanks to cross the Sangro River.

The mountains and hills of Italy was producing a different kind of fighting. There was little scope for breakthroughs and little room for tank warfare. Instead a series of smaller battles developed over particular hills and mountains. Here it was always the infantry in the lead, supported wherever possible by a softening up by the artillery, and where practicable with a rolling barrage that moved ahead of the troops as they attacked.

So the artillery drew closer attention from the Press Corps. Ernie Pyle had just returned to the battlefield at the beginning of November, from the comforts of Miami. He found contrast between the two situations hard to adjust to, but he knew how to paint a picture of what this type of warfare meant:

In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred an artilleryman never sees what he’s shooting at, and in nine cases out of ten he never even knows what he’s shooting at. Somebody just gives him a set of figures over his telephone. He sets his gun by those figures, rams in a shell, pulls the lanyard and then gets ready for the next one.

He usually shoots over a hill, and there in Italy the men said they were getting sick of going around one hill and always finding another one just like it ahead of them. They sure wished they could get out in the open country and just once shoot at something that didn’t have a hill in front of it.

The country where we were fighting then was fertile in the valleys and farmed up as far as the lower slopes of the hills, but it was wild and rocky on the upper ridges. The valleys were wide, flat, well-populated and well-farmed. Little stores, farmhouses and sheds dotted the valley and the hillsides. I never saw more beautiful country; I’d had no idea southern Italy was so beautiful.

It rained almost constantly and everything was vivid green. When we looked out across our valley, rimmed around in the distance by cloud-bound mountains — all so green in the center and lovely – even the least imaginative soldier was struck by the uncommon beauty of the scene.

Refugee Italians returned to their homes as soon as the fighting moved beyond them, and resumed their normal business right under the noses of the big guns. Women drove huge gray hogs past the gun pits, and the crews had to yell at them when they were about to fire. Small herds of gray cows that looked like Brahmans, except that they had no humps, wandered up and down the trails.

Little children stood in line at the battery kitchen with tin pails to get what was left over. Italian men in old ragged uniforms moseyed through the arbors. Now and then we stopped one and questioned him, but mostly they just came and went and nobody paid any attention. Like the Arabs, they seemed unconscious and unafraid of the warfare about them. That is, all except the planes. When German planes came over they ran and hid and quivered with absolute terror. It was that way in Sicily too. They remembered what our bombers did.

Those lovely valleys and mountains were filled throughout the day and night with the roar of heavy shooting. Sometimes there were uncanny silent spells of an hour or more. Then it would start up again across the country with violent fury. On my first night at the front I slept only fitfully – never very wide awake, never deeply asleep. All night long the valley beside us and the mountains and the valleys over the hill were dotted and punctured with the great blasts of the guns.

We could hear the shells chase each other through the sky across the mountains ahead, making a sound like cold wind blowing on a winter night. Then the concussion of the blasts of a dozen guns firing at once would strike the far mountains across the valley and rebound in a great mass sound that was prolonged, like the immensity and the fury of an approaching sandstorm. Then the nearer guns would fire and the ground under our bedrolls would tremble and we could feel the awful breath of the blast push the tent walls and nudge our bodies ever so slightly.

And through the darkened hodgepodge of noise we could occasionally pick out the slightly different tone of German shells bursting in our valley.

See Ernie Pyle: Brave Men

Men of 99 Medium Battery, 74 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery struggle to bring a 5.5 inch medium field gun into action through thick mud in the Camino area, November 1943.

Men of 99 Medium Battery, 74 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery struggle to bring a 5.5 inch medium field gun into action through thick mud in the Camino area, November 1943.

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