In Italy the bridgehead at Salerno had survived its most immediate threats, when the most serious German counter-attack had successfully been beaten off. There remained a lot of work to be done before the Allies could actually break out.
Fresh troops were now arriving to relieve those who had withstood the earliest onslaught. Amongst them was a young Coldstream Guards officer facing his first time in action, as were most of his platoon.
Michael Howard’s job that night was to lead an attack on a nearby hill, itself a diversion for a main attack going in elsewhere. He immediately experienced the confusion and disorientation of battle – ‘so wonderfully illustrative of Clausewitz’s “friction of war” that it is worth describing in some detail’:
First we had to find our way to the starting-point, which meant leaving our scattered slit-trenches after dark, still under spasmodic mortar-fire, shaking out into single file, and moving in the correct order over steep mountain paths to line up along the perimeter wall of the hospital. That took far longer than expected.
The files lost one another, the platoons somehow got into the wrong order. We eventually arrived at the start-line long after H hour, almost too late to catch up with the artillery barrage. Two out of my three sections had disappeared altogether, and turned up only as the attack began. From the dark hill facing us, streams of tracer bullets were already zipping over the low wall behind which we eventually formed up.
Everything thereafter became so confused that it is hard to make any coherent narrative out of it. We stumbled down the slope, dodging under the red lines of enemy fire, and began to climb the opposite hill. The first obstacle was a terrace-wall about six feet high, up which the faithful Johanson pushed me. There were flashes and ear-splitting detonations as the Germans lobbed down grenades. Fire was coming from a dark patch of trees in front, into which we plunged, firing blindly. There were only four or five men still with me and I roared abusively, summoning the others.
Once the wood was clear, we pushed on shouting like madmen and shooting at the dim figures we saw scuttling away ahead. By the time we reached the summit, the hill seemed clear. My training clicked in: as the rest of the platoon came up, I disposed them in good positions of all-round defence, our fire—power considerably increased by the capture of half a dozen Spandaus and a good quantity of grenades.
There was no time to relax. Almost at once the Germans started shelling us with great vigour, and we sheltered gratefully in their trenches. (One of the many military virtues of the Germans we did not share was that when they dug trenches they dug them very fast and very deep.)
Shortly afterwards, our own guns opened up an enormous barrage. The hills behind Salerno rumbled and ashed and shells whined swiftly over us like lost souls. Moan, moan, moan, they wept, and up the valley we heard the crump of their explosions. For ten minutes or so they fired unopposed; then three immense crashes on the hospital signalled the German reply.
Our own hill rocked under a stunning double punch from heavy guns, and we heard the German shells mingling their whines with ours in the air above us. I was caught in the open by one such burst. As the hill shook, I fell into my slit-trench and tried to burrow deeper into the ground while the shell—fragments above me buzzed in strange circles, like malicious insects. One seemed literally to circle above me as if waiting for its chance to strike.
I lay there for an hour or more, watching the pale moon shining through a bare tree above me and listening to the howls and groans and screechings in the air in this monstrous witches’ sabbath.
We stood to at dawn, In the first grey hints of light we buried the German dead. These were the first corpses I had handled: shrunken pathetic dolls lying stiff and twisted, with glazed blue eyes. Not one could have been over 20, and some were little more than children.
With horrible carelessness we shovelled them into their own trenches and piled on the earth. The scene still remains etched on my mind: the hunched, urgent diggers, the sprawling corpses with their dead eyes in a cold dawn light that drained all colour from the scene, leaving only mournful blacks and greys.
When we had finished, we stuck their rifles and helmets above the graves and scuttled quickly back under cover. It was a scene worthy of Goya.
Michael Howard was to go on to have an illustrious academic career after the war, see Captain Professor: The Memoirs of Sir Michael Howard. He does not give the date of this attack in his memoirs but from a close reading of it, it appears to be the night of 23rd/24th September – three nights after they arrived on the 20th. It was not the attack on Point 270 the similarly wooded hilltop position that was taken and then lost by the Grenadier Guards on the night of the 24th and then attacked again during the day of the 25th.