Moving forward to the front line in Italy

Gunners of 1st Air Landing Light Artillery Regiment, serving with 5th Division, in action with a 75mm howitzer during the advance on Isernia, 3 November 1943.

Gunners of 1st Air Landing Light Artillery Regiment, serving with 5th Division, in action with a 75mm howitzer during the advance on Isernia, 3 November 1943.

Men of the 1st King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry climb a steep slope, 5 November 1943.

Men of the 1st King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry climb a steep slope, 5 November 1943.

General Alexander, the Allied commander in Italy now tried to co-ordinate more closely the progress of his two senior commanders, Mark Clark for the Americans and Bernard Montgomery for the British. They would alternate their attacks so that one would draw off some of the German reserves before the other attacked.

The British went first, moving forward for an attack across the Sangro River. Signalman H.A. Wilson was serving as a cipher clerk with the Royal Corps of Signals. He was attached to the 8th Indian Division Headquarters, where he found that they were now moving unusually close to the front line:

1st November 1943

Left for San Felice, encamping south-west of the town and facing the river Trigno. This time we are right up in front of the artillery. This positioning of Div (and other) Hqrs very near the front line is one of Montgomery’s innovations. He believes in close contact with the brigades and battalions. Jerry is entrenched behind the river and we can easily see the ridges he occupies.

We should never have arrived. We should have been killed on the road which was extremely treacherous, and we certainly would have been if the back wheels of the lorry hadn’t been equipped with skid chains.

Before the start of the journey Squithy warned us about the road, stating that an acting Provost Marshall [sic] had been killed at a certain point when his jeep ran over the edge. So did a tank and two soldiers in it were injured. ‘Angels and ministers of Grace, defend us!’ declaimed Heales, with his eyes on the driver. Squithy took a swig out of his whisky bottle.

Our convoy, all equipped with skid chains, was held up several times while vehicles were pulled out of ditches and off embankments. At the spot mentioned by Squithy our driver kept insanely hugging the edge of the cliff, and I and Spiers, peering anxiously out of the back, suddenly saw a void under our right-hand wheel as the truck leaped a culvert. ‘Jesus wept!’ cried Spiers, white as a ghost. The name of Christ is sacred to me but I thought its use justified on this occasion.

But as well as danger there was beauty in the Appenines, especially when the sun broke through the clouds to light up the woods of oak and saplings, the grassy glades on the hill slopes and the quaint little rustic dwellings.

Arrived San Felice 3.30 p.m. Cloth-head (Capt. McClaran) directed us to allotted places. Everyone began to dig in. Squithy came looking for his revolver. ‘They tell me I have to wear the damn thing. The Germans might send out patrols in the night. However our guns will be putting down a barrage to keep them quiet.’ Hardly any work. Spiers and I bedded down in the truck.

Tuesday 2nd

Got a frightful start at 4 a.m. when the guns opened up from behind. This was the first time they’ve been so near and my first experience of shells whizzing over my head. They soared through the air making a noise like a train steaming through a tunnel. The din was appalling and the echoes added to it.

Spiers and I smoked for a while, then we got used to it and went asleep again. I reckon you get used to anything in this world.

At dawn the guns woke us up again. Now I know why early morning tea is called ‘gunfire’.

This account appears in Michael Carver (ed) Imperial War Museum Book of the War in Italy: A Vital Contribution to Victory in Europe 1943-1945.

Artillery tractors, trucks and jeeps seen on a road near the river Trigno, 8 November 1943.

Artillery tractors, trucks and jeeps seen on a road near the river Trigno, 8 November 1943.

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