Spike Milligan returns to the front line

Guns and vehicles of 48 Field Battery, 146 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery sink in mud during the advance to the Volturno.

Guns and vehicles of 48 Field Battery, 146 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery sink in mud during the advance to the Volturno.

Gunners pick up shells in a flooded 5.5-inch gun position on the Volturno front, October 1943.

Gunners pick up shells in a flooded 5.5-inch gun position on the Volturno front, October 1943.

Bombardier Spike Milligan had arrived in Italy on 23rd September but had almost immediately contracted Malaria, and had spent most of the time in hospital and then recuperating. It was a very common illness that would affect many troops in Italy.

On the 19th he had rejoined his artillery battery on the front line. They were still very badly affected by mosquitoes, covering themselves with gas capes at all times to try to protect themselves.

It seems Milligan had not yet fully recovered from the Malaria, he awoke at 7am to discover he had slept through a dozen Germans shells that had arrived around their position during the night:

22nd October, 1943

We all realised as we drank our tea that the guns were silent.

“Is it a strike?”

“No,” says Bombardier Fuller. “There’s Jerries in the area supposed to be massing for an attack, and so we don’t give our position away, we been ordered to stay silent.”

“Oh,” I said, “are we talking too loud?”

“He’s up there,” said Bill Trew, emerging from under his gas cape long enough to point to a hill about 4,000 yards away.

“You mean he can see us?” I said.

“Yer,” says Trew.

I gave a cheery wave at the hill. “Hello, lads,” I called. It was amazing, Jerry could see us but wasn’t doing anything about it, a strange uneasy feeling; anticipating a Stonk by Jerry, we set to and dug a funk hole into the side of the ditch. A plume of black smoke is ascending from the Jerry position.

“He’s still got fags then,” said Edgington. We made a floor out of bits of wood that kept us off the mud. At the same time we were also involved in digging an alcove for the telephone exchange; also along the ditch was the Command Post, Cookhouse, Officers’ Mess and Battery Office. It looked very much like a World War 1 trench.

An incredible find by Edgington, a huge cupboard that we wedge into our funkhole — we sit inside with the door closed to avoid the mozzies.

At about 0930 the guns open up again and we could see our shells bursting on the hillside behind Sparanise. The siting of our guns was obviously good, behind a bank of trees that hid them from view, but we gunners walked about the fields in full view, like the silly sods we were.

A big attack is going in tonight. The Grenadiers and Scots Guards are the poor bastards. They’ve got to take the hill to our immediate right to deny Jerry observation and put our OP on it. The sirens have gone and an air raid starts on Naples.

0430: the Artillery opened up and fired non-stop until 0624, then a silence. From the distant hill we hear the dreadful sound of Spandaus and Schmeisers that are spraying the early morning with bullets, and I can’t but wonder at the courage of these lads in the Guards Brigade forward into it. What a terrible, unexplainable lunacy.

There must have been a lot of casualties as there was talk of us having to send gravedigging parties. In the end they sent some Gunners from the Wagon Lines.

When they came back they spoke of Italian civilians being shot out of hand by Germans. There must be a lot of needle between these two nations. I should hate to be a German prisoner thrown to an Italian mob…

During the day there was a story that suddenly, on one of our wireless sets, a German had been heard asking for information. The Signaller recognised the accent and said, “Fuck off, Fritz.” The answer was instant, “Alright, English bastards, Off.”

See Spike Milligan: Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall .

An Otter light reconnaissance car crossing a Bailey bridge over the Volturno river at Grazzanise, 14-16 October 1943.

An Otter light reconnaissance car crossing a Bailey bridge over the Volturno river at Grazzanise, 14-16 October 1943.

Men of the 10th Royal Berkshire Regiment move up to the heights of Calvi-Risorta, 27 October 1943,

Men of the 10th Royal Berkshire Regiment move up to the heights of Calvi-Risorta, 27 October 1943.

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