Fate and shellfire on the Anzio bridgehead

Gunners of 78th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery make use of 'liberated' sunshades to keep the rain off while making a brew, Anzio, Italy, 27 February 1944.

Gunners of 78th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery make use of ‘liberated’ sunshades to keep the rain off while making a brew, Anzio, Italy, 27 February 1944.

On the Anzio bridgehead the struggle continued. After the German attempts to breakthrough had failed the situation reverted to a battle of attrition. The Allies had plentiful supplies but struggled to bring them into the narrow bridgehead. Every inch of the territory was vulnerable to shellfire and it soon proved to a potent threat to anyone within the perimeter, not discriminating between front line soldiers or nurses and quartermasters at ‘the rear’. The ‘rear’ was only a few miles back at most.

V.C. Fairfield was with the 64th (7th London) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, he describes events on the 21/22nd February:

The next day, a Sunday was relatively quiet. This is apart from continuous activity by our guns. There was also the usual outburst of our antiaircraft fire when enemy Messerschmitts came in low out of the morning sun and attacked some unfortunate targets, usually road transport for everything else was dug in and well camouflaged. But it was also essential that those of us on the battery gun position were kept supplied with food, the guns fully stocked with ammunition and all the other necessary replacements provided.

This necessitated daily journeys from the “waggon lines” a mile or more behind us to the battery position and the very few roads that could be used were subject to much intermittent shell fire and hit and run air attacks. And when that happens there is nowhere to go, no cover and no warning to the unfortunate occupants of the trucks involved. Furthermore they know they are the particular target for destruction. So each quartermaster became adept at timing his dashes to his respective battery to coincide with lulls in the shelling.

That afternoon we were visited by a party of two officers and a sergeant major from one of the other battery command posts in the regiment. They were not impressed with our dugout particularly as it had only a tarpaulin cover. Their own command post roof had been constructed of chopped down trees on top of which they had placed a further cover of sandbags and earth and was felt by them to be much more suitable.

Late in the evening, just before darkness set in we were again the target for some very heavy shelling and indeed it was a miracle that nobody was hit. I believe it was during this particular onslaught that I counted twenty-seven duds that buried themselves in the soft earth but failed to explode. This could have been caused by the use of old ammunition but a more likely explanation was sabotage by slave labour in the German factories.

The nearness of the previous night’s shelling gave me much food for thought the next morning and later in the day I set about improving the safety of our command post which felt more vulnerable each time the enemy had a go at us. Therefore I organised the collection of steel boxes, each containing a full complement of used cartridge cases made of brass.

These littered the area around the gun pits, being thrown to one side for collection and stacking by the gunners after firing off the appropriate shells but the guns had been so busy that they were beginning to get in the way. I suppose each box was about two feet six inches long, a foot wide and eighteen inches high. These I had placed to form a wall along the side of the command post facing the enemy to provide an obstacle against any shells coming in at an angle of about thirty degrees which was roughly the angle of descent of an 88 or 105 mm shell. This wall of cartridge case boxes was to prove very useful on the day we pulled out and when the command post was crowded with our own personnel and key officers from 5th Division.

That night I was off duty for a few hours and slept in my personal slit trench which was as narrow as I could bear, about two feet deep but warm enough. I managed a fair night’s sleep disturbed only by some shelling and bombing. However the trouble with sleeping alone was that during the shelling I tended to develop an uncontrollable tremble. This never happened at other times and was no doubt a manifestation of fear.

And strange things did happen. One member of the battery had had a “feeling” and had spent the night with the Light anti-aircraft guns. On returning to his bivouac he found it wasn’t there! Instead there was a large crater made by a 210 mm shell! And there was a gunner who, after his duty at the gun returned to his tent only to find under his bed an unexploded 88mm shell.

In the morning and indeed all next day there was spasmodic shelling. We were so far as we could make out, the target for an enemy troop of three guns and we could hear them firing before the shells arrived. The standing joke while we were at Anzio was that it was quite safe to go about our business if we heard “boom, boom” or even “boom, boom, boom, boom” but everybody dived for cover when we heard “boom, boom, boom”.

During the afternoon the strongly built, logged and sandbagged roofed command post of one of the other batteries in our regiment received a direct hit causing the deaths of two officers, a battery sergeant major and a bombadier which brought home the fact that survival in war, as in peace is all a matter of “when your time is up, it’s up!”

This is part of a much longer account on BBC People’s War.

US artillerymen protect their ears as a 155mm 'Long Tom' gun fires from a dugout during fierce fighting resulting from German counter attacks.

US artillerymen protect their ears as a 155mm ‘Long Tom’ gun fires from a dugout during fierce fighting resulting from German counter attacks.

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