Italy – hilltop attack and room to room fighting

The three Humber armoured cars of 8th Army Tac HQ's Defence Company, 27 September 1944.

The three Humber armoured cars of 8th Army Tac HQ’s Defence Company, 27 September 1944.

Sherman tanks of 26th Armoured Brigade, 6th Armoured Division, lined up on the road north of San Benedetto, in preparation for the final push to Forli, 27 September 1944.

Sherman tanks of 26th Armoured Brigade, 6th Armoured Division, lined up on the road north of San Benedetto, in preparation for the final push to Forli, 27 September 1944.

In Italy the assault on the Gothic Line continued. It was a process familiar to most involved in this campaign – attacks on prepared German positions on higher ground. Sometimes the terrain offered the chance to bring up tanks in support but often it did not.

On 28th September A Company, 16th Durham Light Infantry were ordered to attack a group of farm buildings just below the Casa Ricci ridge. They were supported by tanks, although the infantry were ambivalent about their value, they were difficult to communicate with and changed the way they might otherwise have approached an assault.

When the Captain commanding the Company fell injured it fell to a young Lieutenant to take charge of the attack, Lieutenant Russell Collins:

I was told to take over. The assault was launched by then and we had to get on with it. The idea was that the tanks would fire smoke canisters and put down the smoke screen to protect us as we actually charged the buildings. Now as we faced the two buildings, we were approaching the one to the right of the road, in fact the whole of our force was. So perhaps we were coming in by the right flank a little bit.

I led the men right through this smoke area but the tanks were still firing these smoke canisters. They were things weighing about five or six pounds and dropping on you from perhaps a hundred feet in the air — it could have been very nasty. But I mean there was nothing for it but to press on, luckily nobody was hit by them.

We burst through and got into the right-hand farm house. The enemy had gone into the rear rooms, but we were able to get into the rooms nearer to us and I secured the first, the nearer building.

… [the tanks that were supporting them were driven off after coming under German 88mm gunfire]

We put around such defences as we could, but the right tactic would be to exploit beyond the objective to anticipate the counter attack. Although we had gained the objective, we were really very insecure there. They were massive buildings and they weren’t on the very top of the hill.

Obviously the Germans hadn’t given it up, they’d just withdrawn to re-group. There was a sense of foreboding, that the Germans were going to counter-attack again, they hadn’t given up, they hadn’t withdrawn and we were very exposed there.

I put out such machine gun posts as I could and observation posts. Our gunner OP was a chap called David Purnell, he had the whole thing under observation, he controlled the battery and he did it extremely well. But I remember him coming up on the blower to me, we had reasonable radio contact then. He was asking what protection we had because he was planning supporting fire. “How close could our shells fall? Were we sufficiently protected?” I just had to use my judgement about that, but he actually made the calculations and directed the fire.

When the Germans did counter-attack they just arrived in numbers, mainly from the left hand side as we looked forward beyond the building which we’d evacuated, so they got back into there.

Then they actually got into the building that I was in and the Italian family were still there in the building. There was an ordinary standard doorway about eight feet high and a kitchen dresser blocking across it.

I became aware suddenly of a great excited conversation going on on the other side — I could hear an Italian woman’s voice and a German man’s voice. So I got hold of a chair and got up on it. I looked over the top of the dresser and there, about eight feet away, was this very large German officer, with his steel helmet, haranguing this poor woman as to where the British Were.

So it was a question of what to do. I had no option really, I wasn’t going to draw attention to my presence. I drew my pistol and fired at him. You always have to aim a little low, I tried to fire at his head but I got him in the throat actually. He fell like a sack of coal, the woman screamed and they hid under the table.

I called to one of my soldiers, “Give me your Tommy gun!” I put that over the top and tried to make sure that I’d finished him off. He fell partly behind the door, so I then had to fire the Tommy gun through this rather thick door. A rather brave German soldier, only just visible around the doorway, dragged the officer away out of sight, and so that was that. That was how close the contact was there.

But in fact as their numbers were coming up, David Purnell brought down this divisional concentration of fire all around us. Really it was very good infantry and artillery co-operation, because I knew exactly what our situation was and was able to convey it to him.

Anyway the attack was repulsed and the main thing that broke it up was the artillery fire. We were really hanging on quite honestly by the skin of our teeth and were really pretty insecure.

See Peter Hart: The Heat of Battle: The 16th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, 1943-45

A Churchill IV (NA 75) tank of 25th Tank Brigade passes through the narrow streets of Montefiore, 11 September 1944. NA 75 versions of the Churchill were fitted with 75mm guns from salvaged Sherman tanks.

A Churchill IV (NA 75) tank of 25th Tank Brigade passes through the narrow streets of Montefiore, 11 September 1944. NA 75 versions of the Churchill were fitted with 75mm guns from salvaged Sherman tanks.

The Grant tank of 8th Army Tac HQ's Defence Company, 27 September 1944. This was General Montgomery's command tank at El Alamein and was a permanent feature of 8th Army Tac HQ.

The Grant tank of 8th Army Tac HQ’s Defence Company, 27 September 1944. This was General Montgomery’s command tank at El Alamein and was a permanent feature of 8th Army Tac HQ.

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