The advance through Italy was to be impeded by a succession of rivers running across the path north. It was natural to consider leapfrogging ahead with amphibious operations to seize the bridges and outflank the German defenders. Subsequent operations in Italy would demonstrate how fraught such manoeuvres could become.
On 3rd October 1943 the British, on the Adriatic coast, launched Operation Devon. This was an amphibious assault on the port of Termoli mounted by special forces from the SAS and Commandos. They achieved complete surprise.
Colonel Durnford-Slater, Commanding 3 Commando, arrived at 2am in the morning by landing craft:
Thus far, No. 3 Commando had landed and secured our bridgehead without the knowledge of the enemy. The large landing craft in which 40 Commando and the Special Raiding Squadron were to come ashore had struck on a sandbank which, again, had not been marked on our chart. I turned to a naval lieutenant who had come ashore with us, and pointed out the grounded craft. “ Can you get your small craft going to give them a reasonably dry landing?” “Yes, Colonel: I’ll get cracking.”
Soon these troops were passing through us on their way to work, and then the peace became an uproar. Spandaus, Brens, rifles chattered and cracked. Very soon our headquarters, on a sand dune half a mile from the town, was remote from the shifting battle.
There was fighting in the streets now, a lot of shooting, plenty of small stuff sounding crisp and harsh and deadly. “Let’s get on the move,” I said to Brian. In a few minutes we heard an engine making starting noises and, hurrying, found it facing in our direction. Brian and I performed an encircling movement. He jumped into the cab, pistol in hand. “Hands up!” he said in German to the driver.
The Jerry did as he was requested. His train never did make its scheduled trip northward. The coaches behind the engine were loaded with German troops, fast asleep. We woke them up and made prisoners of them. They took a lot of rousing and could scarcely believe what was happening. They thought they were thirty safe miles behind the front lines.
I had my headquarters set up in the back yard of a house near the station. The radio was just then on the move so we released a couple of pigeons with news of our progress. They merely circled and landed again. “Those damn Itie birds,” said Brian Franks in a tone of complete disgust, “they’re no better than their troops!”
There was a certain amount of desultory firing from the Germans in the area of the station now but nothing concerted. No. 40 Commando had cleared up most of the opposition here in the first rush. It was six in the morning. Meanwhile, 40 Commando and the Special Raiding Squadron had moved on. Our opponents were the German parachutists we had encountered before, in the Battle of the Commando Bridge.
Some of them seemed eager to fight until they died. I observed one lying in an olive grove partly behind a tree, about eight hundred yards in front of our position. Although obviously wounded – his actions were stiff and unnatural — he continued to fire at us regularly and accurately. We were unable to move anyone forward to take him prisoner. Instead, we returned his fire. He died where he fought, in the olive grove.
During the fighting General Heydrich, the German Parachute Divisional Commander, slipped out of the town on foot. He kindly left his car behind, a I939 Horsch, long, low, black and very fast. No. 3 Commando found it, cleaned it up, and presented it to me.
It has always struck me as extraordinary how the news of a battle sometimes fails to spread. Throughout the morning, German supply lorries kept coming in from the north. No. 40 Commando ambushed twelve of these at a northern cross-road, greeting each vehicle with long Bren bursts until it ran off the road and overturned, often in flames.