Rum and Mules over the mountains of Italy

A 75mm howitzer of 461 Battery, 85th Mountain Regiment, Royal Artillery, on the Monte Di Rontana, 2 February 1945. The guns were firing at German positions in Isola. A mule train with Basuto muleteers bringing up ammunition can be seen in the background.

A 75mm howitzer of 461 Battery, 85th Mountain Regiment, Royal Artillery, on the Monte Di Rontana, 2 February 1945. The guns were firing at German positions in Isola. A mule train with Basuto muleteers bringing up ammunition can be seen in the background.

Whether it was in ships crossing the remote fringes of the Pacific or in the high mountain passes of Italy, huge armies of men, many times larger than forces on the front line, were devoted to bringing up ammunition and supplies. The war could not go on without them.

The Mule Corp in Italy had the manpower of more than five divisions, and more than 30,000 mules, was a vital part of the supply chain.

Sergeant J. Tuvey describes what the movement of an individual mule train over the mountains of Italy actually involved during November 1944:

We gathered at the mule point at Appolinare in the afternoon. Captain C. E. Cullen was in charge of our train, which consisted of forty mules, twenty Italian muleteers, five British soldiers, and myself. We loaded the animals with mortar bombs, machine gun ammunition, rations, wireless spare parts, etc., and, most important of all, rum!

There was another mule train also waiting near by, which was to leave before ours. In addition there were several other mule trains at Sassaleone which were to use the track to Ripiano as well, so timing was of the utmost importance.

We started about 1605 hours. Great, heavy clouds hung overhead, and any minute we expected our daily downpour. Far in front we could see the other mule trains crawling like ants over the mountains. The going was very hard in the mud, but we were making fairly good progress, and I had high hopes of eating in Ronchi by 1930 hours.

No one spoke, and the only sounds were the jangling of harness and the squelching of mud. Then suddenly, things began to happen. It was just about dark and the rain was starting, when there was a short whistle and a “crump”, then another, then another, and we realised that the first mule train was being well and truly “stonked”.

Captain Cullen immediately halted the column and we took the opportunity to adjust our gas-capes as the rain was sweeping down in great gusts. The shelling didn’t last long and in a few minutes we had started, bending forward against the rain.

Immediately we began to descend into Ripiano valley, I realised that nothing we had gone through so far was going to compare with what was to come. The mud got thicker and deeper, until in parts it reached up to my thigh. As darkness was now well and truly upon us, black as ink, I couldn’t see farther than the mule in front of me.

First one mule, then two, get stuck in the mire, and in their frantic efforts to free themselves they threw their loads. One man who got waist-deep in the ooze was pulled out minus his boots, socks, and gaiters. I, at the rear had only a vague idea what was going on from the shouts and yells.

I had previously fallen over the dead bodies of both Germans and Americans at the top of the ridge; what with those and the driving rain now worse than ever, coupled with the terrific job of getting one foot in front of the other.

I realised that the Italian muleteers wouldn’t stand very much more and would be deserting at any moment. I decided to go forward and give Captain Cullen a hand. By great luck I soon stumbled into him and he told me that he was going to try to find an alternative route. Many of the mules were now belly deep in the mud, and in the pitch darkness and rain it was impossible to know how many we had lost.

As I was floundering around trying to reorganise our column, I was suddenly confronted by a mule train coming the other way. In vain I tried to stop it running into ours. They just merged, and to add to the confusion the original train, which had set out before us, had now collected its scattered forces and was even now up to the rear of our lot.

So there were about a hundred mules and men, feet deep in mud, in a horrid tangled mess on a pitch-black night in driving rain. To this was added the fear of further shelling. It was just then, when things looked really grim, that I had my second stroke of luck. I stumbled into Captain Cullen once more, who told me that he had found a new way down the hill to the stream in the valley.

Mules were lying everywhere, their kicking had shot the loads off all over the place, and one mule, I remember, had fallen into a disused slit-trench with only its saddle supporting it on either side of the hole. We started to sort all this mess out, first collecting our own men and leading them on to firmer ground, and then by grabbing any Italian we saw and forcing him to follow. Finally, after what seemed an age we got under way again, and I still had the rum!

On reaching the river at the bottom of the hill, we again ran into further trouble. The rope across was still there, but the first step that Captain Cullen took into it covered his thighs. We managed to pull him out and I suggested a good swig of rum. This did the trick, for he made the other side first time. Then after endless trouble we got every-one else across and got to Ripiano without further incident.

There, we started to sort out the mules with the machine gun kit and those with the mortar kit, as Captain Cullen had still to go down the valley to Ronchi with the latter.

You can therefore imagine our astonishment when we found that we had six mules over and above our original number! The Italian muleteers had simply decided to follow the main party wherever it was going.’

This account appears in Brian Harpur: Impossible Victory: A Personal Account of the Battle for the River Po

Porters of an Indian Mule Company transporting supplies to troops in the mountains.

Porters of an Indian Mule Company transporting supplies to troops in the mountains.

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