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A Gunner Subaltern's Recollections of the Italian Campaign
April 44 - May 45
by Brig LW Wright MBE
Late on April 28th 1944, I arrived at B Echelon of 6 Fd Regt located at Aquafondata, 7 miles NE of Cassino, destined for F Tp 30 Bty. Throughout that afternoon the Div supply column of vehicles had gathered and was marshalled on North Road on the reverse slope of a high range of hills to await darkness. All movement by day on the forward slopes was open to direct German observation from the Montecassino, Monte Castellone and Terelle features and attracted immediate artillery fire.
I rode forward on the 30 Bty Dodge water truck. Vivid in memory still is the scene confronting us as we rounded the top of the hill at the start of the journey. Below the horizon the blackness was a mass of twinkling pin pricks of light penetrated every few seconds by bursts of sky rockets. The twinkles were shell bursts and the sky rockets tracer ammunition. Because of the engine noise I was not conscious of the sounds of this spectacle until the vehicles had gone. Negotiating the steep descent and succession of hairpin bends in first gear while keeping station with the differential light of the vehicle in front for the four miles we covered had required great care on the part of the driver.
RHQ 30 and 48 Btys had been deployed in the Vallerotonda area the previous night (29 Bty was in rest behind Aquafondata) and Freddie Troop was located in a small depression about 30 yards from a large hairpin bend. After my deployment training I was somewhat surprised to find that the guns were almost on top of each other while the command post was dug into the remaining space in the depression in front of the guns.
My first daylight hours were spent with GPO Bill Roberts and the other Section comd. Geoff Bell, grasping some of the ropes and taking my turn on a shovel digging guns in and filling sandbags. The Troop was employed in harrassing fire CB and CM tasks until the night of 11 May with the only incoming shells directed at the hairpin bend in the road beside us. On 7/8 May we had a grandstand view of the destruction of the Hove ammunition dump which a lucky shot set alight causing it to become the focus of a lot more shelling.
Ammunition was stockpiled in early May in preparation to support a Polish Division attack on Montecassino spur NW of the abbey at 2300 hrs 11 May. We fired some 400 rounds per gun in the main programme and before the night was out repeats of some targets brought the total for the night to 500 plus rpg.
Our support was redirected after the Polish attack to helping 5 NZ Bde, facing Terelle on the Poles' right flank. Cassino was taken and the Regiment redeployed to face Sora and the Balsorano Valley early in June. Before leaving the Vellerotonda area, some of the troups visited the abbey. Destruction to ground level except for the four outer walls, was complete. Amongst the rubble, an arm and hand were clearly visible but below ground there were intact showcases containing bird specimens in what seemed to be a natural history museum. I looked east from one window which was formed by a widening tunnel in a thick stone wall and on the tunnel walls was a landscape drawing of the view from the window. On approaching the abbey from the north I was struck by the presence of far from fresh Polish and Indian graves at the foot of the abbey walls - so near yet so far.
The deployment into the Bellsorano Valley, narrow floored and very high walled, was conducted in clouds of white dust. We deployed to the east of the road and recorded zero lines. Having been told that the valley walls had been cleared by infantry, we became curious when British medium guns began shelling rocky outcrops on the hill over our right shoulder behind us. Curiosity became concern when we were shelled on the gun line by Germans. Clearly we were under excellent observation by competent field gunners with 105s. There were several wounding casualties in their first attack but that did not deter us from manning the guns to respond to calls for fire.
Overnight we worked furiously to get the guns dug in and slit trenches completed by morning to meet the inevitable at first light. It came as we went into action but like the previous day, despite more casualties, we maintained our commitments. Gunner "Cocker" Hamilton stood out among the many acts of gallantry and was awarded the MM. The cookhouse located in the basement of a casa in the gun line became a favourite shelter between shoots but it was also the scene of some casualties. Although the Germans appeared to be thinning out their Artillery resources it did not seem that way to us.
On 5 June we received orders to prepare to withdraw that night. The Quads arrived about an hour after last light, the inevitable noise drawing gun fire just as the guns had hooked up. Access restraints dictated that the guns must follow each other to the left, F4 leading. When the first driver automatically dived for cover as the shelling started, WO Bill Baker, supervising the hook-up, jumped into the Quad and led the guns out onto the road. Fortunately the Germans' fire lacked its daytime accuracy, falling around but not amongst us. The rest area south of Sora was a welcome sight.
I missed the Arezzo battle having gone to a RATT GPO's CPO's course somewhere near Caserta. On my way back to the Regiment I called in to see a wounded Duntroon classmate at the CCS, arriving there as a fresh group of casualties was being admitted. My 6 Fd Regt patch drew caustic comment from many of the soldiers which mystified me. Although my colleague had been wounded before Arezzo, he told me that the 6 Bde infantry claimed that many of their casualties were caused by 6 Fd Regt 25-pdr shortfalls, hence their attitude towards me. Those claims and the resulting investigations are well recorded in the official history. No fault or failure could be found and it seems that German field gunfire, coinciding with our fire plans in support of 6 Bde was responsible.
I rejoined 30 Bty early 2 August whilst it was firing the La Romola barrage and follow-up just in time to relieve the GPO who had not slept for 24 hours and was done. The high demand for fire also took its toll on gun Sergeants and crews. Our relief by the Americans and withdrawl to the Siena area for a rest was very welcome. I had visited Blackie Burns in a Tower OP overlooking the Arno and Florence before leaving. We could clearly see transport columns being assembled on the northern outskirts of this open City and it riled us that this assembly could continue with impunity.
After moving to the Rimini area in September and supporting the Canadian assault on the San Fortunata ridge, I went on to this ridge shortly after it fell. Its tactical importance to the Germans was obvious. I had seen other appalling areas but was very disturbed by the human price the Canadians had paid. I did not linger. I joined E Tp 30 Bty before Rimini as GPO and except for an incident at Bordonchio in late September, we fired river defence breaching programmes one after the other and received our share of enemy attention. During one of these periods of attention a lucky round set fire to some cordite and other material. The resulting column of smoke invited a short-lived but intense shelling causing neither casualties nor further damage. To our surprise the attack was not repeated.
On 25 Oct the Div Arty withdrew, in our case to Arreto d'Esi for a short R&R. I moved to 29 Bty to command B Troop.
The infantry progress, attacking river by river defences, kept the gunners busy with predicted and impromptu fire programmes. The mud and vehicle movement difficulties dictated that whilst I accompanied infantry companies and platoons, my OP crew were best left with the jeep to relay my orders passed by walkie-talkie. This system proved satisfactory and it maintained my ability to call for medium artillery opportunity targets or RAF cab-rank where needed.
Dec 17 saw 5 Bde facing the Senio River at Celle and me with the forward company of 23 Bn. Although we had encountered much haphazard harrassing gunfire on the way, the almost continuous nebelwerfer attack we received on our objective was observed rather than predicted. The only place from which we could be seen was a house just beyond the river which I engaged with one medium gun.
I had not fired this equipment before and along with the Company Commander was overjoyed with the result. In what seemed no time at all I had a 25 yd short bracket followed by 4 rounds gunfire all of which went through the roof of the house. The nebelwerfers were silent.
Most of the winter I spent with successions of forward platoons facing the Senio River opposite Felisio and as the weather improved, at the end of March '45 I was posted G3 designate at HQ 2 NZ Div Arty arriving in time to settle in and take part in the planning for and production of OO no. 15 dated 6 April. This was the Division's fire plan using ten field regiments, one SP regiment, 5 medium regiments, one heavy battery and assorted mortars to open the final offensive.
It is perhaps appropriate for me to close a Gunner's story with his clear recollection of his meeting with Brig Queree, the CRA 2 Div, when reporting for duty as G3. Amongst other things he said, "You may make an honest mistake but you may not make it twice".
HQRA 2 NZ Div 1945
Back Row: Capt Stenberg (Sigs) 2Lt Wilson (Sigs) Capt Chapman (EME) Capt Pledger (IO) Capt McSkimming (Sen.LO) 2Lt Webber (ACMO) Rev Marlow (RC) Lt Harris (LO) Lt Haughey (LO)
Front Row: Capt Hassett (SC) Capt Mullins (CMO) Maj Catchpole (BM) Brig Queree (CRA) Capt Webb (SC) Capt Moffatt (CBO) Capt Wright (G3)
|ACMO||Assistant Counter Mortar-bombardment Officer|
|CCS||Casualty Clearing Station|
|CBO||Counter Bombardment Officer|
|CMO||Counter Mortar Officer|
|CPO||Command Post Officer|
|CRA||Artillery Commander ("Commander Royal Artillery")|
|EME||Electrical and Mechanical Engineers|
|Fd Regt ||Field Regiment|
|G3||Staff operations appointment for a Captain/Lieutenant|
|GPO||Gun Position Officer|
|RATT||Royal Artillery Training Team|
|Sen.LO||Senior Liaison Officer|
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