The Commandos who had successfully taken Termoli in a surprise attack on the 3rd October now found themselves in a rather different position. The main British force moving up from the south had successfully linked up with them and they were preparing to hand over their positions. Then heavy rains fell on the 4th and the temporary bridge built over the Biferno river had been swept away. Suddenly all the disadvantages of using Special Forces to seize advanced positions emerged – they were a relatively weak force in an isolated position.
For Colonel Durnford-Slater, commanding 3 Commando, there was only one option, they would have to fight it out:
Confusion filled that day. With the pontoon bridge swept away, we were completely cut off from reinforcements. Things looked bad. Jerry had a complete Panzer division and supporting troops and tanks against, on our side, one infantry brigade and our Commando Brigade which was far from being at full strength. We were outnumbered three to two by the enemy. His supply lines were intact. Ours were non-existent.
The Royal Engineers rebuilding the bridge performed an epic feat. The Germans realised the significance of its reconstruction and showered shells on the sappers, who were hard at work over the roaring river. They completed the bridge by nightfall. Then our tanks crossed in strength and the tide of the battle began to swing in our favour. The weather also changed, and we were able to get heavy air support. I now knew that we were sure to win, but that it might take a little time.
We had not yet been able to locate the German artillery observer who had crept into the town. Movement of troops and vehicles, even a party of two or three men, was always a challenge to him and a danger to us. We cursed him, but could not find him. I sent a party out to search for him at noon. Finally, at five, they pinpointed his location to a church tower. They crawled up the tower. “Come down — surrender!” my men called.
The German answered with a shot from his revolver and scurried up on to the roof. Now we sprayed the roof with Bren gun fire, and, crawling up a minute or two later found him there, sprawled dead beside his radio set. He was a tough and brave man and, while he lived, a great threat to us in Termoli.
The fighting raged. No. 3 Commando, still out in front, were giving, during this German counter-attack, what was probably their finest performance of the war.
Hammered by tanks, pounded by guns, attacked by infantry, and left exposed and bleeding on their left flank by the retreat of another unit, they did not budge from their positions. I sent them a message that I would get them out of Termoli that night. Roy Farran was acting as Liaison Officer for the Special Raiding Squadron. He was quiet and efficient, having every quality needed by a young officer. The Special Raiding Squadron and No. 40 Commando had also held on to every yard of their positions.
George Herbert who had come into my headquarters as Liaison Officer, spent that night with us. About 4. a.m. he lay down on the floor for a sleep and nestled close to an animal which he took to be a dog, cuddling it for warmth. In the cold light of dawn the dog turned out to be a pig.
This damn,bloody ***** *****!” George roared, un-printably furious. I think, however, the pig was very pleased. He had had a warm and comfy night.
There was never any excitement, shouting or confusion in Commando Brigade Headquarters. I think that during the Termoli battle, all our Headquarters staff, whether sweeping the floor, controlling the battle, or dying, did their job well.
Before we left Termoli, Monty came to pay us a visit. I told him that my men had deserved a rest.
“Take them away to Bari for a good holiday,” the General said brightly. “There’s plenty of everything down there.”
This was the man who was supposed to be so austere, to disapprove of all frivolity. Monty was delighted that we had secured and held Termoli for him. The Commando Brigade’s action had helped the Eighth Army forward, and had saved him from having to fight for the line of the Biferno River. It had also secured a useful harbour next to the front line where men and supplies could be landed. It had been a very near thing.
The flotilla of landing craft had been lying off Termoli throughout the battle, where they had been continually dive- bombed and shelled. Their Commander had thought, not without reason, that he might have to evacuate us. The troops left in the landing craft for Bari and Molfetta, where they were all able to have a good rest.
Termoli was finally secured at around noon on the 6th. Durnford-Slater rather underplays the closeness of the action, for another account see BBC Peoples War.