The campaign in Italy was characterised by assaults across the numerous rivers that lay in the path of the Allies moving north, or in assaults for hilltop and mountaintop positions. At the end of the day it was always the infantry that had to move in and take possession of the territory.
Sometimes it didn’t work. Sometimes the German defences were much greater than expected, sometimes they were hugely outgunned by tanks, long before their own tanks could be brought up in support. And if it went wrong, it often went disastrously wrong. The attacking force would decimated. The officers and NCOs stood much greater chance of being killed. Often there were very few left to tell what had happened, only the casualty figures telling the story.
The assault across the Volturno, in mid October, had been success for the Allies overall. But within that larger story not every unit was successful. The 5th Battalion Sherwood Foresters suffered terrible casualties. One valuable account of what happened did not emerge until some time after the battle:
3 Platoon B Company.
5th Dec 1943 Batt. Sherwood Foresters
Dear Mum, Dad
You must by now be concerned, not having had a letter from me for such a long time. Well the news of the landings in Italy must by now be well known all over England, so I am able to tell you that about seventy lads including myself were drafted into the Foresters to make them up to strength for the assault at Salerno.
[ Ron Hickman describes landing at Salerno, later entering Naples alongside the first U.S. troops. He then describes the attack across the Volturno River which they made using collapsible boats. His Company advanced about 700 yards and took their objective, German positions on an embankment. They then took over the German trenches. However the other Companies in his Battalion ran into stiff opposition.]
Except for the shelling, which by now was very heavy, we in B, company were well dug in and not fairing too badly. Myself and my mate with me spent some time calling out to our friends in the next trench a few yards away, when we heard a shell coming that we knew by the noise it makes was going to land close. Diving to the bottom of our hole, it landed, and after all the bits of muck had stopped falling on us we called out to our friends but got no reply. At first light I peered over the edge and could only see a red hole in the ground. The shell had landed right in their trench.
We were now aware of a lot of noise over to our right, heavy shelling and small arms fire. The shelling was also different, just a loud explosion as it landed no loud whistle as it came over. At first we could not understand why our artillery was not replying to back us up, then word came along our positions that our artillery officer, who radios back to the artillery, had been killed within the first hour of getting over the river, along with a war correspondent. So we then thought our own Battalion radio operator would get a message back. This did not happen.
The shelling now getting worse and machine gun fire heavy. Now we could hear the rattling noise made by tanks, and soon we saw the Tiger tanks moving along our front from the direction of C and D companies. Our Peart anti tank crews opened fire but were both blown up and killed. We now had nothing that we had any chance of stopping tanks with. By now it was full day light, and a runner came along to tell us that C and D companies had mostly been lost, chopped up and cut off by the tanks. All command and communications had broken down and it was every man for himself.
The tanks were now coming down behind us, as well as to our front, as I did not intend walking out in front of tanks with my hands up I decided along with the rest of our platoon to go for the river. Doing short monkey runs I made for a shallow ditch which we had passed along when advancing from the river, machine guns were now firing into our positions from the Tigers. As I dived into the ditch bits of the hedge above me were being cut off by the gun fire. Four lads ran past me shouting out ” come on Hickman, follow us “. I shouted back ” no thanks, I will take my time “. A hundred yards or so further on I had to crawl past and over them, a burst of machine gun fire or a shell had killed all four.
By belly crawling and short monkey runs I got near to the river bank. I now knew why we could get no support, our radio operator was lying on the bank part of him bobbing up and down in the river, the rest of him lying on the bank with his smashed radio. Now out of the ditch and in the open I could see two Tigers up river stationary and able to fire along the river. To my right about a hundred yards away was a small clump of trees and bushes. My only chance of cover, so again belly crawling and short monkey runs, I made for the trees, a lad in front of me doing the same.
Then I heard the familiar noise of a shell coming up behind me, and from the noise it was making I knew very close. I felt the heat from it as it went over my head. Then I went up in the air from the blast and came down with incredible force. The earth coming up to meet me. As all the mess stopped falling on and around me I looked up. The lad in front of me had disappeared, just bits of webbing and a tin hat swinging in the trees.
A lad out in the trees had gone over the edge. He was screaming out, “fix bayonets, fix bayonets, may as well have a hat pin against tanks, especially the Tiger”. I now crawled to left and to the river bank where three other chaps where lying in the grass. They said “what now? we can’t swim!”. I said “neither can I. Not that it would have made any difference, lads trying to swim were going under, either getting hit or could not manage, or did not have the strength left to fight against the flooded river.
We now decided that our only chance was to slip into the river, holding on to the grass and reeds, and keeping close into the bank. Knowing that we would not become prisoners still holding our rifles we let them go down to the bottom of the river, as we had always been instructed to do if in danger of being captured.
After a short while we noticed coming around a bend up river of us, the large branch of a tree that had been cut off by shell fire, so I suggested that we try and hold onto it as it came past. The current helped by pushing it near to our bank. This we managed to do. The river was being constantly hit by shelling and hit by the machine gun fire from the tanks. We decided to try for it and by kicking out with our feet and paddling with our free hand, holding onto the branch, which kept us afloat, we got across reaching the bank.
We then still had to climb a high and steep bank rising up from the river. This was also under shell and machine gun fire. When I reached the top I was on my own, so I don’t know if the other lads made it or not. I remember walking along a mud path. The next thing that I was aware of was sitting propped up against the wheel of a truck and someone talking to me. What they were saying I have no recollection of at all.
The next thing I became aware of is coming round laying on a stretcher in an American casualty clearing station, somewhere in a large white villa. Now I am in the British army hospital in Naples, and I do not remember how I arrived here. However do not worry now you know where I am and that I am alright. Seems that I am suffering from exposure and complete exhaustion. The rumour going round here is that about 25 or 26 of B, company Sherwood Foresters got away.
Much love to you all
The whole of Ron Hickstead’s account can be read at BBC People War.