7th Ox and Bucks wiped out holding the line at Anzio

Men of the 2/7th Middlesex Regiment in one of their machine gun carriers at Anzio, 21 February 1944

Men of the 2/7th Middlesex Regiment in one of their machine gun carriers at Anzio, 21 February 1944

A soldier with the 2/7th Middlesex Regiment shares a cup of tea with an American infantryman in the Anzio bridgehead, 10 February 1944.

A soldier with the 2/7th Middlesex Regiment shares a cup of tea with an American infantryman in the Anzio bridgehead, 10 February 1944.

The 7th Battalion Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, the ‘Ox and Bucks’ had fought through Tunisia before arriving in Italy. In the middle of February they found themselves fighting for the very survival of the Anzio bridgehead as the Germans launched attack after attack on the perimeter defences.

Sergeant William Heard was one of the few who survived to tell the tale, the exact dates are not mentioned in his account:

The Battalion had moved into new battle positions, in a wadi, during the night. At dawn, the enemy, spurred on by Hitler’s orders that the Allies must be swept from the bridgehead into the sea, launched a full scale attack. We were vastly outnumbered.

Machine guns swept ‘A’ Company’s position and the mortar bombs, which fell relentlessly, took a heavy toll. However, the Germans were also suffering heavily, as we were determined not to be pushed back.

Suddenly, we realised that the clatter of the machine guns was also now coming from the rear. The Company was surrounded. Despite our best efforts, sheer weight of numbers had carried the enemy through. The wireless operator reported to Battalion Headquarters – “We are surrounded just forward of the wadi”. Then silence.

Ten minutes later, other Companies reported that there were signs that the attack was diminishing. The initial onslaught had been held, but at considerable cost to us in men and in ammunition.

For the next five hours we were continuously shelled and mortared and under these tragic and trying conditions we had to prepare for the next attack. Many of the wounded had to bandage their own wounds as best they could and although some of the worst were prepared for evacuation, the majority chose to stay with us in the front line. This was the sort of spirit and comradeship which was much evidenced over the next five days and nights that we were to be surrounded.

Early that first afternoon, our second in command of the Battalion was killed (our commanding officer having been killed the day before whilst making a reconnaissance). Major Norcock therefore took over the now severely depleted ranks. Shortly afterwards, the attack that we had been waiting for started and this time it was our right flank which took the brunt. Even though we were so reduced in numbers we refused to fall back. We knew that this was the German’s main chance to break a gap in the shallow Anzio bridgehead.

For the next three hours, we tried to use our depleted ammunition sparingly and make every round count. However, two more of our forward positions were overrun. The attack finally stopped and we were able to take stock and snatch some rest.

At about midnight, the Germans resumed the attack, bringing up fresh troops to support them and so they surrounded two more of our companies. Battalion Headquarters had received no further messages over the air but for a long time the sounds of what was feared was a ‘last stand’ could be heard. However, as our ammunition supplies ran out, the whine of bullets and clatter of the machine guns died away.

But it was not the end! At 4.30am the next day we managed to send the following cheery message to Brigade Headquarters “Mother and child are doing well”. This meant that the Battalion HQ and our last remaining company were still holding on.

At dawn we decided on surprise and took the offensive. We stormed some houses occupied by the enemy and from where snipers had been giving us continual trouble. Near these buildings Major Norcock was wounded and Captain Closebrooks took over command of our very small, exhausted but by now exceedingly aggressive band of soldiers.

Inside a wired enclosure nearby, new positions were adopted and after further bitter fighting all during that day and night, the Germans launched yet another heavy attack at dawn. The field telephone rang at Battalion HQ and Captain Closebrooks heard the signaller say; “We’re in our sangers. The Boche is pelting us with grenades!” Subsequently, the sadly significant message was received; “We are turning it in now”.

That was the last contact Battalion HQ had with the last of our heroic Companies. Later, three sergeants and two privates who had been cut off from the rest of their company found their way to HQ.

The few of us who were all that was left of the 7th Battalion dug in and wired a tiny position in the wadi and took stock. Things were not looking good. Wireless batteries were almost flat and must be saved for emergencies or for calling up supporting artillery to repel any further enemy attacks. Our ammunition was low and every round had to be used to its greatest advantage.

Rations were desperately needed and we resorted to collecting up any crusts and scraps that we had thrown away during the previous days. We were unable to move during the day, as any slight movement brought a shower of bullets and this meant that we were confined to the narrow slit trenches that we had reinforced with rocks and stones. These were cramped and rapidly became unsanitary as we had to use these as our toilet as well.

The whole of William Heard’s account can be read at BBC People’s War. From over a 1000 men in the battalion at the beginning of the battle there were only 60 men left. Presumably with many replacements, the 7th Battalion continued to fight in Italy until late 1944, when it was disbanded and the remaining men sent to other regiments in the London Division. It may be for this reason that the history of the 7th Battalion is little known. The other battalions were to play a prominent role in Normandy and North West Europe later in 1944, starting with the airborne attack of 2nd ‘Ox and Bucks’ at Pegasus Bridge.

Lt Col D McVicar, OC 2nd UK Mobile Casualty Clearing Station, with a group of nurses, including one American, in the Anzio bridgehead, 15 February 1944.

Lt Col D McVicar, OC 2nd UK Mobile Casualty Clearing Station, with a group of nurses, including one American, in the Anzio bridgehead, 15 February 1944.

Reverend G B Fairhurst, Padre of the 2/5th Queen's Regiment, talking to two of the men in his battalion and an American soldier in the Anzio bridgehead, 20-21 February 1944.

Reverend G B Fairhurst, Padre of the 2/5th Queen’s Regiment, talking to two of the men in his battalion and an American soldier in the Anzio bridgehead, 20-21 February 1944.

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