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In the trenches with nightingales and a dead German

A 25pdr gun crew
A 25pdr gun crew of 115th Field Regiment at Anzio, 8-9 March 1944.
shallow dugout on Anzio.
Wireless operator, Bombadier S Williams operates his radio from a shallow dugout on Anzio.
Dummy Bofors gun
Dummy Bofors gun and crew in the Anzio bridgehead, 21 March 1944.

In ‘late April’ the BBC reporter Wynford Vaughan Thomas visited a battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment in the front line at Anzio. Their positions lay in the sand dunes and scrubland near the mouth of the Moletta stream. He experienced the ‘strange atmosphere of danger, boredom, dirt, courage and humour’ with the troops dug in very close to the German front line.

Two battalions of the Wiltshire Regiment had fought at the Somme in the First World War, they would have been familiar with the situation their successors now found themselves in:

The Boche wants no trouble here: the American combat engineers told the British as they left, ‘You leave that guy alone and he won’t get mad at you.’ The men camp in dug-outs amongst the dunes and on a warm night a single nightingale pours its heart out somewhere in the sweet-smelling bushes.

The forward platoon of the Wiltshires lived within fifty yards of the enemy, and I went on hands and knees down a shallow crawl trench to visit them. Their position was just a series of sand-bagged holes sunk amongst a tangle of shrubs and small trees, but by peering cautiously through a slit between two of the sandbags I could see the wire in front of the German line: it seemed so close that there was no need of the warning to talk in whispers.

A youngster of nineteen murmured quietly to me, ‘Come and see our German.’ I wriggled farther forward still, crawled beside him into his look-out post and immediately sensed a foul reek, sickly sweet, like a pile of rancid butter left too long in the sun — the unmistakable, clinging smell of an unburied corpse. There he lay right under our noses, for it was impossible to get out to bury him; all the Wiltshires could do was to sprinkle creosote over the body at night and try to get used to the stench.

Few people could get it out of their nostrils and out of their memory. ‘Two more out there amongst the minefields.’

I crawled back into the next sap. ‘Listen,’ said the sergeant, and in the quiet of the evening with no gun firing for miles around I heard a hoarse cough and a shuffle of feet. ‘It’s old Ted,’ said the sergeant. (Ted, from the Italian Tedeschi, is the new term for the ‘Jerries’ out here.) An eerie business to hear your enemy, the man you are supposed to kill, scuffling around in a slit-trench as cramped as your own, feeling as you do the evening nip in the air, thinking as you are thinking of the chance of getting leave and escaping from it all.

It’s easy to feel venomous about Old Ted when he comes charging towards you with a gun in his hand, but when he coughs and scuffles, unaware that he’s been overheard, he becomes suddenly human, a fellow man caught in the same predicament as yourself.

The strange, inconsequential sounds of the Anzio night were all around us. A sudden chattering from a Spandau began somewhere ahead of us in the darkness and ceased as pointlessly as it began. The dirty blanket that served as the dug-out door was carefully pushed aside and the sergeant squeezed in with two cups of cocoa, thick and sugary but consoling in their warmth, as we gulped the scalding liquid down, and then thawed out our numb fingers around the cup. The sergeant checked on his watch — ‘They’re putting down the big stonk on the Germans north of the “Boot” in a few minutes, come and watch.’

We followed the sergeant out into the trench and looked towards the north-east; the night was very clear and full of stars. There was a swift flash from somewhere away along the sea-coast, then another and another until the whole sky seemed lit by sheet-lightning which, after a few seconds’ interval, was followed by the overwhelming thunder of the guns.

The noise seemed to roll in on top of us – an awe-inspiring rumpus of cracks, crashes, thumps and then the muffled thuds of the shells exploding out in the distant German lines. Over five hundred guns are now crowded into the Beachhead, and our artillery fire is so perfectly synchronized that, in the central sectors, every single gun can be brought to bear on one selected target and send five hundred shells smashing down on it in a matter of seconds. Flare after flare went up from the Germans side of the line to the north.

The barrage ceased as suddenly as it had begun.

‘What are they firing at?’ I asked the sergeant. ‘Who knows? Some poor bastard’s copping it.’

Our war is confined to the few yards of soil around the mouth of the Moletta, and the most cosmic-seeming events can be taking place a few miles away and we still neither know nor care. But in the silence that follows the barrage the nightingales began to sing, a lone bird at first, then a whole chorus of them until the air seemed to throb softly with their tiillings and flutings. A young sentry standing beside us said, ‘Lovely, bloody little birds, the more guns there are the more they sing. I can tell ’em – they sing like that near Horsham where I come from.’

See Wynford Vaughan-Thomas: Anzio

 a 155mm 'Long Tom' gun fires
US artillerymen protect their ears as a 155mm ‘Long Tom’ gun fires from a dugout during fierce fighting resulting from German counter attacks.
80th Medium Regiment (Scottish Horse) in action at Anzio
A camouflaged 5.5-inch gun of ‘D’ Troop, 111 Battery, 80th Medium Regiment (Scottish Horse) in action at Anzio, 8-9 March 1944.

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