Having broken out of their bridgehead at Salerno and quickly moved into Naples, the Allied commanders looked at their maps and it still seemed possible that they might reach Rome by Christmas. Had the Germans chosen not to fight for every inch of the country and retreated to a redoubt in the north of the country, a strategy favoured by Rommel, they might well have done.
A closer look at the maps was to reveal the geography that gave the defenders a natural advantage. Aside from the mountains, which all too often overlooked the Allied advance, there were a succession of rivers to be crossed. Rarely would it be possible to strike around them, as at Termoli. The Volturno river had been reached on the 5th, and it had taken until now to prepare an assault across it.
Private N. Wray of the 6th York and Lancasters took part in 46th Division’s attack across the lower reaches of the river:
Slowly and silently we edged towards the river bank. Well hidden we awaited nightfall. By 01.00 hours on the 13th of October the battalion crossed without interference from the enemy. B Company crossed first, followed by A and D Companies, Battalion H.Q. and C Company last of all.
As A Company approached the crossing point I dimly discerned the far bank and dark water swirling swiftly past. The banks, about three feet high, were muddy and fell steeply into the water.
Stretched to the enemy side were two ropes. A line of ‘squaddies’ struggled across in the darkness. With both feet on one rope and grasping the higher one in a tight grip, we slithered into the water. Gingerly we moved towards the opposite bank.
Some of our own Pioneer Platoon were in the water helping, giving instructions and encouraging us to ‘get a move on’. Quickly the water got deeper and I could feel it eddying round me. The current strained to pull me off the bottom rope. Further into the river, water climbed past my thighs. In midstream the lower rope was above the river bed and the water was round my chest, just missing wetting my Africa Star ribbon.
We had orders to keep our rifles dry but they trailed over our shoulders. The three 2 inch mortars in their case were under water as I struggled to keep hold of the rope. Completely soaked we reached the enemy side where our pioneers and many helping hands pulled us up the bank.
Sodden but relieved we formed up in a soaked, shivering long line. The enemy had left us alone.
The operation arosss the River Volturno started the day before. At the estuary was 128 Brigade, with 139 Brigade further inland. Our battalion was put under the command of 139 Brigade for the crossing, to fill a space between the two units. A few tanks landed on the enemy side to give support cover in case of counter attacks.
We were in the line between the Hampshire Regiment and the Leicester Regiment. On our right the Sherwoods had crossed the river near Cancello, where some enemy tanks had countered the thrust, causing many infantry casualties, in a nearby wood.
With B Company leading on the left and us in A Company, we moved off to the plain. We squelched towards a canal which was a barrier across our front. As we stumbled along in the dark we were stopped by a heavy burst of tracer bullets.
First a bright line punctured the darkness on our left. It slowly traversed the plain and came towards us. It passed us. Then they were firing on our right. Repeatedly they swept back and forth across us. No one in 8 platoon was hit. In the confusion we dived into a very wet ditch. We were drenched already so lying in the shallow ditch didn’t trouble us.
I heard Sergeant Gill shouting encouraging advice, ‘Keep your head down and keep your arse down as well’. More than one weapon was firing. Lines of tracers came towards us whipping and whining, seeming only a few inches above our heads, cracking as they shot past. A little further up the ditch Sergeant Gill shouted, warning us that there were several ordinary bullets between the pink tracers. Men in other companies also shouted warnings to each other across the open spaces.
This account appears in Imperial War Museum Book of the War in Italy: A Vital Contribution to Victory in Europe 1943-1945.