October 1943 – May 1945
The Allies made rapid progress in Italy after the fall of Salerno. On the east coast Eighth Army pushed northwards from Brindisi and Taranto to Bari, which fell on 22nd September 1943. Five days later Foggia, with its complex of airfields, was also captured. It was not until Montgomery’s men reached the River Biferno that they encountered serious opposition, but from this point the campaign became a fight for the numerous river lines that traversed Italy. However, despite fighting relentlessly, the Germans were unable to stem the advance of the Eighth Army which enjoyed enormous superiority in men, munitions and supplies.
The pattern was similar on the West Coast. After the fall of Naples the Germans withdrew to Volturno and then, under continued pressure from the Fifth Army, to the River Garigliano.
In December preparations for the Normandy landings resulted in significant changes to the high command of Allied forces in the Mediterranean. Generals Eisenhower, Montgomery and Bradley returned to England while General Sir Henry Maitland-Wilson took over as theatre commander and Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese succeeded Montgomery as commander of Eighth Army. Several formations were also withdrawn to form the core of the D Day invasion force, but the Allies still enjoyed a superiority of 20 divisions to the Germans 10 in southern Italy.
The Battle of Garigliano began on the night of 17th/18th January 1944, but the Allies made little progress. On 2nd February 50,000 British and American troops, under General Mark Clark, landed at Anzio further up the west coast. However, instead of pushing inland and severing the Germans’ supply lines to Garigliano, Clark ordered his troops to dig in and consolidate his beachhead, a cautious approach which seriously impeded the Allied advance. The lessons of Anzio were not lost on Allied planners who were determined that a similar situation did not develop after the Normandy landings.
Meanwhile, along the Garigliano, the Germans dug in at the mountain fortress of Cassino. The Allies launched a major attack on the little town on 29th January but it petered out a few days later. The Abbey of St Benedict, perched on the top of Monte Cassino, was superbly placed to observe the battlefield below and was clearly a thorn in the Allies’ side. On 15th February 254 bombers turned the abbey into a heap of rubble, but failed to destroy the German bunkers and strongpoints within it. After another day’s bombing, the Allies mounted a fresh attack on 18 February. This, too, failed in terrible conditions which had begun to resemble the trench warfare of the First World War.
Another unsuccessful attack on 18th March saw supporting tanks become bogged down in water-filled craters and it was not until 17th May that Cassino finally fell to the Polish Corps. The same unit went on to capture Monastery Hill the following day. At the same time the Allies finally broke out from Anzio but failed to cut the German lines of communication. Indeed, so obsessed was Clark with getting to Rome first, that he allowed the bulk of German forces in the region to escape northwards.
Rome fell on 4th June 1944, prompting US President Franklin D Roosevelt to comment: ‘The first Axis capital is in our hands. One down and two to go!’
From June to August 1944, the Allies advanced north of Rome and captured Florence. They then closed on the Gothic Line, the Germans’ last major defensive position which ran from just above Pisa on the west coast, along the Apennine Mountains chain, to the Adriatic coast just south of Rimini.
On 25th August the Allies launched Operation Olive, a major offensive against the Gothic Line. Although the line was breached on both Fifth and Eighth Army fronts there was no decisive breakthrough. This was a blow to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who – despite the opposition of the Americans – had hoped that breaching the Gothic Line would open the way for an Allied advance northeastwards into Austria and Hungary, thereby forestalling any Russian advance into Eastern Europe.
A further round of command changes in October saw Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery succeed Leese as commander of Eighth Army. Meanwhile, General Clark took over command of all Allied ground troops in Italy from General Sir Harold Alexander who replaced Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson as Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean. Lieutenant General Lucian K. Truscott succeeded Clark as commander of Fifth Army.
The winter and spring of 1944 – 45 saw much partisan activity in northern Italy. There were two Italian governments during this period (one pro-Allies, the other pro-German), so the partisan struggle swiftly assumed many of the characteristics of a civil war.
Bad weather, heavy losses during the autumn and the need to transfer some British troops to Greece and northwest Europe meant the Allies adopted a strategy of ‘offensive defence’ in early 1945 while they planned for a final attack when conditions improved. That offensive duly came in late February – early March 1945 when the US IV Corps battled across minefields in the Apennines to draw level with the US II Corps on their right. They followed this by pushing the Germans from the strongpoint of Monte Castello which guarded the approaches to Bologna.
After attacks against enemy shipping in Venice harbour, the Allies launched their final offensive on 9th April 1945. Eighth Army forces in the east broke through the Argenta Gap and sent armour racing forward to link up with the US IV Corps advancing from Apennines in central Italy, trapping the defenders of Bologna which fell on 21st April. The following day the Americans reached the River Po.
With the Germans now retreating on all fronts, the Italian Partisans’ Committee of Liberation announced a general uprising. At the same time Eighth Army units advanced towards Venice and Trieste while US elements of Fifth Army headed north toward Austria and Milan and west on Genoa and Turin.
On 29th April 1945 General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, who had taken over as commander of German forces following the transfer of General Kesselring had been transferred to become Commander-in-Chief of the Western Front, surrendered to the Allies. Hostilities formally ended on 2 May 1945.
The Hampshire Brigade in Italy, October 1943 – January 1945
Crossing of the River Volturno, October 1943
After the fall of Naples the Germans withdrew behind the River Volturno, a considerable natural obstacle to the pursuing Allies. The task of crossing the river fell to Fifth Army, which included the 128th (Hampshire) Brigade.
On the evening of 10th October 1943 the 1/4th Battalion attacked and occupied the little town of Castel Volturno to secure the crossing places before the assault proper. This went in on the night of 12th October, with the 1/4th crossing the river in assault boats (one capsized and eight men drowned) and establishing a small bridgehead. The advance was then seriously slowed down by fire from enemy machine-gun posts. At first light on 13th October 2nd Hampshire crossed the Volturno and advanced through the 1/4th towards the Regio Agnena canal system (four canals, all close together). Sergeant E Carter and Sergeant A Hawes both distinguished themselves in the fighting and were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal respectively.
The 2nd Battalion eventually established a position some 2,500 yards from the Volturno where they were joined by 5th Hampshire on their right. B Company of 5th Battalion, commanded by Captain PM Mordaunt, reached and crossed the first canal, but then came under heavy fire. The Company dug in and held its position for some time before being withdrawn. Captain Mordaunt received the Military Cross for his leadership and gallantry.
A and C Companies were also pressing forward against strong German resistance. Captain NS Flower, commanding C, was killed and the Battalion CO, Lieutenant Colonel REH Ward, narrowly escaped death when his jeep was hit by tank fire. Sergeant PS York drove forward for more than a mile in another jeep while under fire, found Colonel Ward in a ditch beside the road, dragged him out of his jeep and into his own vehicle before returning to safety. Sergeant York received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery.
Throughout 14th October the three Hampshire battalions held out against frequent counter-attacks, shelling, mortaring and air attacks. The weather then broke, the rain turning the low-lying swampy ground into deep mud as it was churned up by tanks and other heavy vehicles. In these conditions the advance stalled and was reduced to a series of probing patrols with platoon and company attacks.
Despite the miserable mosquito-ridden conditions, 5th Battalion was well served by their Regimental Sergeant Major TA ‘Bismarck’ Barnett. While everyone else lived on tin rations, RSM Barnett organised the capture and slaughter of a heifer and several pigs, happily taking on the role of battalion butcher. The men of the 5th ate handsomely. This was typical of RSM Barnett, and his outstanding services to the battalion throughout the campaign were recognised by the subsequent award of the MBE.
The stalemate on the Volturno was eventually broken by a change in the axis of attack, which was now made along Route 7. The Hampshire Brigade was taken out of the positions it held and moved eastwards to Capua and across the Volturno there. It then advanced up Route 7 towards the Massico Ridge, south-west of Cascano. The Germans did little to hinder the advance and civilians turned out in the liberated villages to exuberantly welcome the troops with fruit and wine.
At one stage in the advance a signal reached Major TA Rotherham, commanding B Company of the 1/4th, that the Divisional Commander Royal Artillery was offering a bottle of whisky to the first officer to bring observed fire to bear on the far side of the Massico Ridge. The advance of B Company immediately speeded up and Major Rotherham himself, outpacing his Forward Observation Officer, was soon on the ridge calling for fire and won the bottle of whisky. Thereafter Massico Ridge was known as ‘Whisky Hill’.
The 1/4th and 2nd Battalions swiftly took the villages of Nocelleto, San Croce and Carolina and although there was a delay in front of Cascano this eventually fell to two Companies of 5th Battalion. At this point the three Hampshire battalions were taken out of the line to rest, reorganise and train for the difficult fighting that lay ahead. The Hampshire Brigade had fought for two months with little rest. Between 10 September and the end of October 1943 they lost some 1,100 all ranks. These were typical of the losses suffered by other battalions in the 46th and 56th Divisions and show the ferocity of the fighting in Italy.
Crossing the River Garigliano and Monte Ornito, November – December 1943
On 27th November 1943 the Hampshire Brigade moved up to take part in a new offensive in the Garigliano Valley. The three battalions spent the final days of the month patrolling in the San Carlo area and, although not a period of full-on fighting, it was nevertheless not without incident.
The Germans had sown the area heavily with mines and these caused several casualties, including Lieutenant GAF Minnigan, who had won the Military Medal at Sidi Nsir, the Distinguished Conduct Medal at Salerno, and had been commissioned in the field earlier in the month.
On 1st December 139 Brigade launched an attack aimed at capturing the village of Calabritto, supported by fighting patrols of the Hampshire Brigade. The attack progressed slowly in the bad weather, but on 6th December the 2nd and 5th Battalions reached Mortona on the banks of the River Garigliano. The following day the 56th Division captured the commanding position of Monte Camino after a ferocious fight.
The 5th Battalion spent a spirited Christmas at Campo, behind Monte Camino, but the other two Hampshire battalions had to make the best of things in uncomfortable forward positions overlooking the Garigliano. There then followed several vicious minor engagements as the Hampshires manouevered for better positions for the next move – crossing the Garigliano.
Towards the end of December the Hampshire Brigade was moved north, with Headquarters at Rocca d’Evandro Castle, just five miles south-east of Cassino. For two weeks, the battalions patrolled towards the river in bitterly cold weather. It was here, on 4 January 1944, that 5th Battalion’s padre, Captain the Rev CG Baalam, was killed by an enemy mine as he ventured out into no-man’s land to bury a dead German. The padre had been with the battalion since the previous May, and was a much-loved and respected figure.
On 11th January the Brigade was relieved and moved back to the Volturno for a short rest as it had been selected as 46th Division’s assault brigade for the crossing of the San Garigliano below San Ambrogio, part of Fifth Army’s plan for a full assault on the German ‘Winter Line’.
The crossing of the Garigliano by the 46th Division was made on a two-battalion front – the 2nd on the right, the 1/4th on the left, with the 5th in reserve. The operation began at 8pm on 19th January 1944 but almost from the start things went wrong. The Garigliano was flowing very fast, and although one Company of the 2nd Battalion succeeded in getting over and establishing a cable control for the boats which followed the cables became snagged, broke and the boats were swept downstream.
The heavy mist on the river also proved troublesome, with the boat crews losing sight of the banks and consequently their sense of direction as the fast-flowing water spun them round. It was the same story with the 1/4th who made a total of 14 attempts to get a line across the river. They had no more success when they tried to use the 2nd Battalion’s crossing. Try as they might, no troops got over the river other than the one Company of 2nd Battalion and as dawn approached the attack was abandoned and the battalions returned to their former positions.
On 23rd January the Brigade moved west to the front held by 56th Division, north of the Garigliano, where a crossing had been forced. The aim was for the Hampshires to extend the tenuous bridgehead by capturing Monte Damiano, from which the Germans enjoyed excellent observation.
The 1/4th Battalion, backed up by the 2nd, was assigned the task of clearing the position. The attack on 29th January was made in daylight to fit in with other operations and, although gallant, failed utterly. D Company led the assault by rushing the foremost enemy posts. They immediately came under heavy mortar and machinegun fire and lost all their officers and many men. B Company, who were supporting, met a similar fate, and C Company, attacking the other flank, made no progress and lost many men.
Losses among the 1/4th Battalion were very heavy – four officers killed and five wounded as well as 80 other rank casualties. Among the NCOs killed was a very gallant old soldier, Sergeant D Dicks, who died at the head of his platoon. He had been wounded twice previously, and had escaped from captivity.
On 2nd February 1944 the Hampshire Brigade rejoin their own division, taking up uncomfortable positions in the inhospitable mountains. There were to be no major actions for the 2nd and 1/4th Battalions, but the 5th Battalion – put under the command of 138 Brigade – was to take part in the memorable fighting for Monte Ornito and Monte Cerasola, part of a bleak and desolate range which 138 Brigade was ordered to capture.
Monte Ornito and Monte Cerasola, February 1944
For the attack on Mount Ornito the 5th Hampshire assembled in the wild mountain country behind Monte Tugo. There was no time for proper reconnaissance, nor did the battalion commanders know that a unit of Commandos had already attacked and captured Monte Ornito. Three Companies of 5th Battalion moved forward under cover of darkness and by midnight all had reached their objectives and relieved the Commandos. Ornito was a valuable vantage point and almost immediately the Germans sent out strong fighting patrols, but their attacks were all beaten off.
The 5th Battalion spent eight days on Monte Ornito and, later, on Cerasola, and during that time they suffered nearly 200 casualties from the incessant mortaring and shelling and enemy counter-attacks. In bitterly cold and wet weather the men lived in shelters constructed from rocks and groundsheets. As the days passed the number of German dead lying out on the rocky slopes increased as attack after attack was driven off.
Keeping the troops supplied was a major problem and on several occasions the battalion had to send down parties to recover loads which had been hastily dumped by the porters when shells began to fall too close to them. Meanwhile, Captain GE David, the battalion Medical Officer, worked tirelessly dealing with an endless stream of casualties. More than 200 men passed through his hands, and his skill and devotion to duty earned him the Military Cross.
The Germans launched their most dangerous attack on Ornito early on 6 February. In heavy mist they succeeded in establishing a post just 100 yards from the Hampshire positions. In the ensuing action Sergeant TH Cooke gallantly led his men up the open hillside, destroying a machine-gun post before engaging a German NCO no more than 30 yards away. The two men stood coolly firing their rifles at each other before Sergeant Cooke won the duel by shooting his opponent between the eyes. The Hampshires then followed Cooke up the to the crest of Ornito and overran the Germans there. Sergeant Cooke was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery.
At dawn on 7th February the 5th Battalion repulsed another determined attack on Ornito, inflicting considerable losses on the enemy. That night, as part of a general attack by 138 Brigade, they attacked the neighbouring mountain, Cerasola, which was still in German hands. The operation was quick and went without a hitch and the enemy was driven off Cerasola, though not without casualties to the Battalion. Among these was Lieutenant McKerrow, who died gallantly storming a pillbox on the crest of the mountain.
In a letter home one officer of the 5th Battalion vividly described the fighting on Ornito and Cerasola:
‘We have been fighting in the mountains at 2,000ft some considerable distance from any roads, where all supplies have to come as far as possible by mule and then on by porter. For some of the time we have had to exist without greatcoats, and blankets were never even considered although the temperature was quite low. It snowed and, the nights being quite cold, the endurance test alone was quite amazing. The Battalion have put up a truly wonderful show and praises have been showered on us from all directions. One of the finest days of my life, in spite of the hell around, was on our last day. We had been due for relief the night before but had to hold on. The picture was a horseshoe-shaped hill with the Battalion all around the heights about five hundred yards across the gap. The Bosche started shelling us during the night; at “Stand-to” at 05.30 he began in earnest and from then until 15.00 hours he shelled us with everything he had, finishing off with a terrific onslaught. In spite of our casualties our morale seemed to increase, and when the shelling ceased it was marvellous to see everyone move out of their little holes up on the crest to meet him as he attacked. On top of the hill fellows were shouting, “Come on, you dirty Bosche bastards.” It was a truly wonderful sight, and a battle which should add more laurels to the Regiment’s name.’
The 5th Battalion on Cerasola were relieved on 10th February, although they suffered more casualties from enemy shellfire in the process. The Battalion commander, Colonel JHH Robinson, was awarded a bar to his DSO for the operation. He also received a letter from General Richard McCreery, commanding X Corps, congratulating him and the battalion for the ‘fine fighting qualities and great toughness and endurance’ they had displayed. Another well-merited award was the Military Cross won by Major PR Sawyer who had rallied the men after the tragic affair in Hampshire Lane and demonstrated great coolness and determination in leading his company against constant counter-attacks on Monte Ornito.
On 17th February 128th Brigade moved up again to the area of Ornito and Cerasola which were still being bitterly disputed. ‘D’ Company of the 1/4th Battalion under Major CES Perkins was sent to assist the Coldstream Guards on Monte Ornito, only to be pinned down for nearly two days by relentless enemy artillery and mortar fire. Early on 19th February the Germans launched a determined attack aimed at driving a wedge between the Coldstream Guards and the Welsh Guards on Ornito. The result was the full weight of the assault fell on D Company of the 1/4th Battalion.
Large numbers of Germans reached the crest of Ornito, but were held up at point-blank range by the forward platoon under Sergeant E. Scott. For a while the position of D Company – outnumbered four to one by an enemy less than 30 yards away – was critical. But Captain Spencer Killick, who had only joined the 1/4th Battalion a few days earlier from the King’s Royal Rifles, saved the situation by leading the reserve platoon with bayonets fixed straight into the enemy. Suddenly the battle was over; the Germans laid down their arms to a man. D Company took 110 prisoners, and as many again had been killed.
D Company lost five killed and 32 wounded, including Captain Killick who received the Military Cross. Sergeant E Scott and Private EJ Smith, a stretcher bearer, were awarded the Military Medal.
On 20th February 128th Brigade relieved the Guards Brigade on Ornito, Cerasola and Tuga and for a week they endured the hardships of a bad winter in very uncomfortable positions before being relieved on the 28th. Finally, on 16th March, the Brigade sailed from Naples for the Middle East to enjoy a well-earned rest. It then embarked on several months of reorganisation, re-equipping and hard training in preparation for a return to Italy and the attack on the Gothic Line.
The Assault on the Gothic Line and Lieutenant Gerard Norton’s Victoria Cross, August-September 1944
After resting in Cairo the three battalions of the Hampshire Brigade moved to Palestine, Lebanon and Syria for battle training. On 27th June 1944, the Brigade – now brought up to strength – sailed for Sicily from where, after a further short training period, it moved up through Italy, passing the hills where it had fought through the winter.
On 10th August 1944, the 46th Division became part of V Corps in the Eighth Army. The Corps was given the major role in the assault on the Gothic Line – German defensive positions across the Etruscan Apennines – which began at midnight on 25th August. The operation order for the battle issued by the divisional commander, Major General John Hawkesworth, was simple and direct: ‘46th Division will BUST the Gothic Line.’
The Hampshire Brigade, along with the 46th Reconnaissance Regiment, led the first phase of the assault which went largely to plan. By 27th August the 1/4th Battalion had crossed the River Metauro and captured Monte San Bartolo while the 5th Battalion were fighting hard for Monte Grosso. By the end of the day the 2nd Battalion had cleared Monte Abullo. In the course of capturing these objectives, the three battalions had marched and fought for 25 miles and climbed some 1,500ft. The only serious opposition encountered was by the 1/4th Battalion which had to fight desperately to capture Montegaudio. Major JP Salmond, on detachment from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, was killed while gallantly leading his company and the Battalion commander, Colonel R Chandler, was wounded and sent back to hospital.
The Brigade were now at the Gothic Line proper, with the River Foglia in front of them and the imposing massif of Monte Gridolfo a couple of miles beyond. This was very heavily defended, with all cover – such as buildings, trees and vegetation – cleared to give the German gunners superb lines of fire. Roads and paths leading through the minefields were covered by artillery and machine-guns, the gullies filled with logs and bristling with wire. To assault Monte Gridolfo’s bare slopes in broad daylight appeared suicidal, but on 30th August the 2nd Battalion advanced on them with great vigour and by dawn the following day had captured the first ridge.
The 1/4th Battalion then leapfrogged ahead and carried on the furious assault, driving deeper into the Gothic Line. D Company, led by Major LL Baillie, spearheaded the attack and Lieutenant Gerard Norton, commanding a platoon in this Company, fought with such gallantry that he won the Victoria Cross.
D Company was ordered to assault German positions protecting the village of Monte Gridolfo. Lieutenant Norton led his platoon in an attack on one of the strong points which was constructed with well-sited concrete emplacements. The platoon quickly found itself pinned down by heavy machine-gun fire from a valley on the right of the advance. At this point Lieutenant Norton went forward alone and engaged a series of enemy positions in the valley. He attacked the first machine-gun with a grenade, killing the team of three, before working his way forward to a second position containing machine-guns and 15 riflemen. After a ten-minute firefight he wiped out both machine-guns with his tommy-gun and killed or took prisoner the rest.
Lieutenant Norton then led a party of men who had come forward in an attack on a house while under fire from an enemy self-propelled gun. Together they cleared the cellar and upper rooms, taking several more prisoners and putting the remainder of the defenders to flight. Although by this time wounded and weak from loss of blood, Lieutenant Norton went on calmly leading his platoon up the valley and captured the remaining German positions.
The official citation stated:
‘Lieutenant Norton displayed matchless courage, outstanding initiative and inspiring leadership. By his supreme gallantry, fearless example and determined aggression, he assured the successful breach of the Gothic Line at this point.’
This tale of great gallantry has a charming postscript. When Lieutenant Norton was taken back to the base hospital he discovered that the nurse who was to look after him was his twin sister. The next day was their birthday.
With the capture of Monte Gridolfo the Gothic Line was breached and the Hampshire battalions in among the German defences. On 1st September the 5th Battalion took the lead, capturing Meleto the following day. The GOC Eighth Army, General Sir Oliver Leese, sent a signal to the commander of 128th Brigade: ‘My best congratulations to you and your Brigade on your hard-fought four days’ advance, including the capture of Monte Bartolo and culminating in the forcing of the Gothic Line, and the capture of Monte Gridolfo. This was a fine achievement.’
The advance northwards continued and by 3rd September the 5th battalion had reached Ponte Rosso. The other two Hampshire battalions were brought up by transport and, although exhausted after ten days’ continuous fighting, were ordered into battle once more. The 2nd Hampshire crossed the River Conca under heavy fire on 4th September and dug in on the slopes below San Clemente. From here they fought their way up the ridge and on to Monte Annibolina.
The 1/4th Battalion followed up, passed through the 2nd Battalion and attacked and captured Monte Gallera. At midnight the 5th Battalion assaulted Clemente and Castelleale and was soon engaged in furious fighting. German resistance, however, proved too stiff and the battalion were pulled back, suffering heavy casualties in the process.
On 5th September 128th Brigade was relieved and sent to the rear for rest – the battle for the Gothic Line was over. The Hampshire Brigade had advanced 26 miles on the map, and around 50 marching miles. Casualties had been heavy among officers and men, but the enemy had been savagely mauled, illustrated by the fact that the 322 prisoners taken by the Brigade came from five different German divisions.
The 46th Division’s achievement in piercing the Gothic Line was fully recognised and received considerable publicity; it was quite justifiably compared with the smashing of the Hindenburg Line by the 46th Division in 1918.
Montescudo and Trarivi, September 1944
While the 128th Brigade rested, fierce fighting continued along the hills from Gemmano to Coriano as the Eighth Army pushed on towards Rimini and the Po Valley. On 11th September the 128th Brigade were back in the line and three days later joined the attack on Montescudo, signalling the start of another fighting advance.
At midnight on 14th September, the 5th Battalion passed through the Leicesters who had been involved in a bitter fight for Monte Colombo. The battalion advanced up the road amid the debris of the battle, passing dead bodies and abandoned tanks. The enemy facing them were crack Austrian troops of the 100th Mountain Regiment who had established strong defensive positions in Montescudo. For a while no progress could be made, but eventually Major LH Heald successfully led D Company against houses on the village outskirts. Major Heald, who was wounded, received the Distinguished Service Order, while Sergeant Cooke, MM, of the Ornito battle, won the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
At the same time C Company advanced on the north of Montescudo. Despite losing their commander, Major Williams, early on, the Company rallied under Lieutenant LR Roux and CSM R Maclean and pushed forward into the village.
The fighting in Montescudo was some of the bitterest the brigade had ever met. Every house had to be cleared and the enemy fought with heroic fanaticism even after tanks fired anti-personnel shells and shrapnel into the buildings. By mid-morning, however, the village was in the hands of 5th Battalion who were then ordered to capture Hill 475 that evening. This was a formidable task as the bare commanding feature was protected by strong defensive positions.
While the 5th Battalion were fighting for Montescudo, the 2nd Hampshire moved north towards Trarivi. They made good progress at first but were then held up some 500 yards from the village. They were relieved by the 1/4th Battalion who concentrated on the southern slopes of Hill 475 to join the 5th Hampshire in their attack on that feature.
The leading Companies of 5th Battalion came under heavy mortar fire as they began their assault and made little progress. Major J.C. Keane went on alone up the slope of the hill through the shelling, urging his men on, but he was killed and the attack was halted. Attacks by the two other Hampshire battalions also had to be called off due to the heavy artillery and mortar fire.
Throughout 16th September, the 2nd and 5th Battalions stuck to their positions in Montescudo and at the foot of Hill 475 despite incessant shelling. The worst tragedy was when the regimental aid post was hit; the Medical Officer, Captain MDM Bergin, the stretcher-bearers, the pioneers helping them and all the wounded men were killed.
During the night the enemy withdrew from the hill, and early on 17 September the 2nd Battalion occupied it.
Meanwhile, the 1/4th Battalion, had been heavily involved in the attack on Trarivi on 16th September. This was held up just short of the village which was then subjected to a barrage of hundreds of rounds of high explosive shells, pumped in by tanks and artillery. Major LL Baillie then led his Company in to Trarivi where they met more fierce resistance. Again, each house had to be individually cleared of the fanatical defenders – sniping continued to come from the church tower even after six shells had been put through it.
At 9pm Trarivi was finally taken. Patrols went forward and by dawn on the next day the 1/4th were firmly established well beyond Trarivi at Vallecchio.
With Montescudo, Hill 475 and Trarivi captured, German resistance in the immediate area was broken and the pursuit was on once more. This was undertaken by 138th and 139th Brigades. On 18 September 128th Brigade moved back to Taverna to rest and reorganise and receive reinforcements from the 1st Battalion, The Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment). Even so all three battalions were still short of men.
Crossing the River Fiumicino, October 1944
During the ten days that the 128th Brigade spent out of the line, the Allied advance continued, across the Marecchia and Rubicon rivers. On 28th September 1944 the Brigade returned to the line to the lead the crossing of the River Fiumicino which was swollen by heavy rain.
The Montalbano Ridge guarded the approach to the river, but the 2nd and 5th Battalions took this without much difficulty. Their attempts to exploit the slopes down to the river, however, were sternly resisted and the two battalions were held up for six days as vehicles and guns became bogged down in mud and tanks were unable to move.
On 7th October the weather improved enough for the attack to be made. The 2nd Battalion crossed the river under cover of a heavy bombardment and stormed the Montigallo spur. The 5th Battalion, meanwhile, forded the river on the left of the attack, below Montalbano, and captured the village of San Lorenzo. The 1/4th Battalion crossed the river at midnight, passed through the 2nd Battalion and advanced towards Longiano.
Heavy rain continued to fall and the river rose a further six feet in just two hours, putting the two fords out of action. Consequently, no supplies could reach the three battalions established on the far side of the river so the Fiumicino bridgehead could not be exploited. Instead the Brigade had to dig in and wait for the weather to improve. For two days the Hampshires were heavily shelled and Colonel A Boyce, commanding the 1/4th Battalion, was severely wounded by a shell blast while the Command Post of the 2nd Battalion was also hit.
Several enemy counter-attacks were driven off. In one, German troops surrounded a house in which a platoon of Hampshire men were established. The Germans advanced, firing, throwing grenades and shouting ‘OK, come out’. A sergeant-major, an ex-gamekeeper, led the reply by killing four Germans with four shots
The Hampshires held the bridgehead for 36 hours before, on 9th October, the weather improved and the river level fell, allowing a Bailey bridge to be completed and the follow-up brigades to cross.
An excerpt from the diary of Regimental Quarter Master Sergeant Smith of the 1/4th Battalion illustrates what conditions were like in the Fiumicino bridgehead:
‘Battalion in Brigade attack. Most severe stonking yet. Lieutenant Colonel Boyce wounded. River in flood. Great difficulty with mules. Had to manhandle all rations and munitions over rickety bridge. Then stiff climb to Bn HQ in liquid mud. BHQ in Montigallo church. Almost intact when they went in. Completely ruined and flattened when they left. All safe in vault under church. CSM Algie Fry very active sniping Germans.’
The crossing of the Fiumicino was a superb achievement, very largely due to the brilliant leadership of Lieutenant Colonel TA Rotherham, commanding 2nd Battalion, who received the Distinguished Service Order.
The 128th Brigade was given a short rest and then on 21st October the whole of 46th Division came out of the line for ten days. The Commander of V Corps, Lieutenant-General Charles Keightley, wrote to Major-General John Hawkesworth, commanding the 46th Division:
‘I would like to take this opportunity of congratulating you most sincerely on your brilliant successes in the fighting of the last few months. Throughout this phase of the battle of Italy, which has resulted in forcing the enemy through the much publicised Gothic Line, 46th Division has been engaged in all the toughest and most bitter actions. Throughout all your operations your commanders have shown skill in leadership and your troops the greatest gallantry.’
The Commander of the Canadian Corps, which had fought beside the 46th Division, said to General Hawkesworth: ‘I think if ever a Division has earned the title of “Iron Division”, 46 Division has.’
However, success had cost the Hampshires dear. They had lost many officers and men and Companies were down nearly to half strength. But all three battalions were in fine spirit and while resting up news was received of the award of the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant Norton. A Special Order of the Day was issued for the 1/4th Battalion on 26th October announcing this and also the award of the DSO to Lieutenant Colonel Boyce, one DCM, three MMs – and a battalion holiday.
San Martino, the River Lamone and Faenza, November-December 1944
On 1st November 1944 the Hampshire Brigade moved into the line again at the village of Bertinoro. The objective of the 46th Division was to help capture the town of Forli and its airfield. On the right of the 46th Division was the 4th Division, with the 2/4th Hampshires on its left. Thus, when the 128th Brigade went into action in the battle for Forli on 7th November, there were four Hampshire battalions in line.
Between the Hampshire Brigade and Forli stood the village of San Martino-in-Strada and this was the first objective when the attack began at 11pm. The 5th Battalion went for the village itself while the 2nd advanced on their right. The 5th Battalion was initially held up, but by dawn progress was swift and the assault became a textbook battle, with the infantry cooperating perfectly with the tanks of the 9th Lancers. By nightfall the Hampshires had advanced two miles and taken 150 prisoners.
The battle for San Martino saw the Brigade use two new weapons in battle for the first time. Rocket-firing Tempest aircraft attacked German tanks with great success while, on the ground, Littlejohn anti-tank guns – issued just before the attack – also proved their worth. The battle was also the last in which General Hawkesworth commanded the 46th Division; immediately afterwards he went to take over X Corps.
On the night 9th November the 1/4th continued the advance by crossing the River Rabbi near San Martino. By afternoon the battalion had reached the River Montone, but a storm quickly turned it into a raging torrent. It was not until the early hours of 12th November that the 1/4th Hampshire finally crossed the Montone at San Varano. The Battalion gained a precarious foothold on the far bank, where they held on under heavy shelling, trying in vain to enlarge the bridgehead.
The pressure was relieved when two other crossings further south were exploited, allowing the 1/4th Battalion to attack and capture San Varano. Here the 2nd Battalion passed through and advanced to within a mile of Villagrappa. The flat wine-growing country, with houses scattered everywhere, was excellent terrain for the German machine-gunners, tanks and self-propelled guns, but eventually the 1/4th captured Villagrappa. At this point the other Brigades of the the Division took the lead and for nine days they fought against tough opposition over the flat, muddy country.
On 24th November the Hampshire Brigade returned to action, leading the assault towards the River Lamone and the town of Faenza. Initially the attack was a triumphal procession through farms, where people turned out to welcome the liberators with cheers, wine and fruit. By 11am a Company of the 5th Battalion reached Borgo Durbecco, just across the River Lamone from Faenza, only to find all the bridges demolished.
With a crossing here impossible, the Brigade transferred further south where the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (under command of 128 Brigade for this operation) had forced a crossing of the River Marzeno which joined the Lamone. The 5th and 2nd Battalions got over the Marzeno in the late afternoon, but the small bridgehead soon became crowded and subjected to heavy enemy shellfire.
Despite heavy rain which caused the Marzeno to rise quickly and wash away the crossing place, the Brigade reached the Lamone on 26th November. It was necessary to cross the river in strength and for the next week the three Hampshire battalions had to wait in their positions while preparations were made for the attack.
This went in just after dark on 3rd December. The 2nd and 1/4th Battalions moved down to the river under cover of a heavy artillery barrage and patrols were soon in action, clearing houses of the enemy. The main body of the 2nd Battalion crossed the Lamone on a ladder bridge and two Companies began the stiff climb to the village of Olmatello, standing on a 500ft ridge. German machine-guns on the crest pinned down the Hampshires, but just before dawn Colonel TA Rotherham took the situation in hand and led the two Companies in a headlong charge up to the ridge and into Olmatello, sweeping the enemy off their feet.
On the left of the 2nd, the 1/4th Battalion also encountered heavy opposition after crossing the Lamone but pushed on to reach a position above the village of Quratolo. Meanwhile, the 5th Battalion passed through the 2nd at Olmatello and fought on as far as Pideura.
With the initial crossing of the Lamone complete, the sappers went into action to bridge the river while the three Hampshire battalions tried during the day to enlarge their bridgehead, but with little success. The operation to keep the bridgehead supplied was hampered by atrocious weather, but a lifeline was somehow maintained. Eventually, at dawn on 5th December, the 1/4th Battalion occupied Casa Poggio and that evening the 5th Battalion successfully stormed the ridge above Olmatello. The following morning the 1/4th Battalion advanced in heavy mist to capture Casa Nova. Although exhausted by this stage, the remnanats of one Company then went on and forced their way into Pideura only to be driven out again by a stiff counter-attack. The village was finally taken by the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, supported by tanks and artillery, after a day-long fight.
This was the last battle fought by the Hampshire Brigade in Italy. On 7th December they were relieved, bringing to an end the long campaign against the Germans from Tebourba to the outskirts of Faenza. From 24th August 1944, until it was relieved on 7th December, the total casualties of the 46th Division were 4,396, of which 3,797 were in the infantry. Of these 1,276 were of the Hampshire Brigade, including 20 officers and 172 other ranks killed.
In January 1945 the three Hampshire Brigade battalions – now known as ‘Tigerforce’ – arrived in Greece and set about disarming ELAS (the Greek People’s Liberation Army) which was trying to overthrow the Greek government.
The 2/4th Battalion in Italy, 1944-45
The Garigliano, February – March 1944
The three battalions of 128th Brigade were not the only Hampshire battalions involved in the Italian campaign. Having been restored as a fighting unit in December 1943, the 2/4th Battalion was assigned to 28th Infantry Brigade – part of 4th Division – in February 1944 and went into the line along the Garigliano, opposite San Ambrogio. This was the same country in which the 128th Brigade had served through the Italian winter. Apart from troublesome shelling, however, the enemy were fairly quiet and the 2/4th Battalion’s activity was limited to patrolling and mortaring programmes.
In March the Battalion spent an uneventful week in the line on Mount Ornito before retiring for a few days’ rest. This was followed by strenuous training programme – with special emphasis on river crossing – in preparation for the attack on the Gustav Line, which was dominated by Monte Cassino. After another comparatively quiet period in the line on the Belvedere feature in April, the 2/4th were assigned to positions along the line of the River Rapido, south of Cassino, on 5th May.
The Attempted Crossing of the River Rapido – 12 May 1944
The assault on the Gustav Line, the prelude to the battle for Rome, opened early on 12 May 1944. The role of 28th Brigade was to force two crossings of the River Rapido and then to capture a succession of four report lines – Brown, Blue, Red and Green – about 1,000 yards apart. D Company of 2/4th Hampshire was to act as ferry company for the Brigade while the rest of the battalion was given the task of capturing Red and Green Lines.
A huge artillery barrage signalled the start of the attack, but the Germans were well prepared and their own heavy guns targeted the river where D Company was positioned. Besides the shelling, the Hampshires were hindered by the swift current on the Rapido which made controlling the assault boats very difficult. It was decided to ferry the boats by line, carried over the river by D Company’s strongest swimmers. One of these, Private Grainger, swam the Rapido three times with ropes and also helped guide the assault troops into the boats while under intense fire. This brave soldier, who had been awarded the British Empire Medal, for saving a man from drowning at Salerno, was killed the next day, just one of 26 casualties suffered by D Company.
C Company was sent to assist with the crossing, but while the Company commanders were discussing the situation, the control point in which they were gathered received a direct hit and Major EC Henley, Major WCTN Way and three other ranks were killed.
The bravery and daring of the men at the river were beyond praise. The Padre of the Hampshire, Captain the Reverend R Edwards, swam across the Rapido several times during the night to succour the wounded. However, although two companies of the 2nd King’s did make it across the river they were pinned down by heavy enemy fire and could make no progress.
At daybreak, with the enemy dislodged from none of his positions, it was decided to abandon the attempted crossing and D Company was withdrawn from the river. The collection of the wounded on the river bank, which was constantly under heavy fire, presented a serious problem. On one occasion a jeep containing Captain Edwards drove along the approach track to the river until it was halted by machine-gun fire. Captain Edwards then got out, leisurely raised the Red Cross flag and unloaded dressings and a stretcher, and with the help of a stretcher-bearer, he began carrying back wounded men, cheerfully disregarding the enemy’s fire.
The Battle for Cassino and Captain Richard Wakeford’s Victoria Cross, 13th – 16th May 1944
On 12th May 1944 the 2/4th Battalion came under the command of 12th Infantry Brigade and the following day crossed the Rapido further upstream by way of an Amazon bridge. That afternoon the Hampshires, with bayonets fixed, advanced alongside the river accompanied by tanks. Germans in a nearby wood opened fire with machine-guns, but they were overwhelmed by 8 Platoon under Lieutenant JH Bowers who stormed the position and took 73 prisoners.
The Battalion then waded across the River Piopetta and continued the advance under covering fire from the tanks on the opposite bank. Faced by this onslaught, the enemy began to surrender in large numbers and soon long lines of Germans were seen doubling towards the Hampshires with arms raised.
Two Companies continued the advance. Captain Richard Wakeford, leading one of the Companies and armed with just an automatic pistol, pushed on ahead with an orderly to the unit’s objective. Here he killed a number of Germans, and when his Company caught up with him he handed over no fewer than 20 prisoners.
The Hampshires pressed on but were held up by an enemy strongpoint in a house. Captain Wakeford once more led his Company in the assault with grenades and tommy-guns. Twice Captain Wakeford was driven back, but with a final rush he reached a window and flung in grenades. Five Germans surrendered immediately; a sixth came out, apparently to surrender, but then shot a Hampshire soldier. He was immediately disposed of.
By late afternoon the Companies had taken up positions well beyond their original objectives. The operation had been a textbook example of a coordinated ‘set-piece’ attack involving infantry, tanks and artillery. The Battalion had suffered comparatively light casualties while capturing some 200 prisoners. The battlefield, meanwhile, was scattered with German corpses.
In the early hours of 14th May the Battalion began the advance to the next enemy position – Blue Line – some 1,000 yards to the west. German resistance was comparatively light and by 7am all objectives had been achieved.
At 6pm – with the Battalion returned to the command of 28th Brigade – the third phase of the attack on the Gustav position began. The objective was Massa Vertechi, some 800 yards away across the River Piopetta. The attack began badly: an attempt to set up light bridges across the river for tanks to use failed while the Companies advancing towards the river came under very heavy enemy fire and the assault began to falter. The Battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel JP Fowler-Esson, rallied his men and led them across the Piopetta in the teeth of fierce fire.
The Battalion continued to press on up the slopes towards their objective and it was at this point that Captain Wakeford came to the fore. He was already wounded in the face and both arms, but he led B Company up the slope, keeping them under perfect control through the withering fire.
Half way up the hill his Company came under heavy machine-gun fire. Captain Wakeford organised and led a party which charged and silenced the guns. As the Company advanced again, mortar bombs began to burst among the men and Captain Wakeford was wounded in both legs. But still he led on until he reached the objective where he organised and consolidated the remainder of his Company. Only after having reported to his Commanding Officer did he allow himself to be treated for his wounds. For his extreme gallantry Captain Wakeford was awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation ends with the words:
‘During the seven-hour interval before stretcher-bearers could reach him his unwavering high spirits encouraged the wounded men around him. His selfless devotion to duty, leadership, determination, courage and disregard for his own serious injuries were beyond all praise.’
Captain Wakeford’s batman, Private JC Baxter, also fought with conspicuous bravery, rallying a group of leaderless men and urging them on to their objective. He received the Military Medal.
Another Military Medal was won by Company Sergeant Major WF Pullinger who, in the final stages of the advance up the bullet-swept hillside, moved from platoon to platoon of his Company, rallying and encouraging the men. When the objective on the hill crest was reached he moved calmly from position to position, making sure that the men were digging in properly. Only when the position was properly consolidated did he take cover himself.
The Battalion’s objective was secured by 6.30pm, but the three phases of the attack on the Gustav Line had proved costly. The Battalion lost four officers and 18 other ranks killed along with 161 men wounded, including nine officers. Among these was Colonel Fowler-Esson, who was wounded in the thigh. On 16th May, the 2/4th Battalion was withdrawn from the line, ending its part in the attack on Cassino. This was captured two days later, leaving the gateway to Rome open.
Vaiano, La Villa and Lopi, June-July 1944
Following the Cassino battle the 2/4th Battalion spent three weeks behind the line, resting and then undergoing vigorous training. On 5th June 1944, the day that Rome fell to the Allies, the Hampshires were sent to Ceprano in the Liri valley, some 16 miles beyond Cassino. Over the next fortnight the Battalion moved steadily northwards as the Germans retreated, passing Rome and Viterbo, until they were called upon to go into action again on 22nd June.
The Germans were holding a line which ran through Lake Trasimene, north-west of Perugia. The Hampshires, part of 28th Infantry Brigade, took up positions south of Vaiano and for two days sent out fighting patrols to probe enemy positions. Early on 24th June the Battalion took part in a major attack by the 4th and 78th Divisions. The following day the Hampshires entered Vaiano without opposition before advancing towards the village of La Villa, two miles to the north-west.
The attack on La Villa was met with furious German machine-gun and mortar fire and throughout the day the Battalion’s Companies were engaged in stiff close-quarter fighting with crack troops from the German 1st Parachute Division. Shortly before midnight the farmhouse in which C Company Headquarters had been established was smashed in by bazooka shells and overrun by the enemy. C Company fought back furiously, throwing grenades and firing all their weapons, but were forced to retreat about 30 yards to positions in a ditch. At 1.45am on 26th June Captain DP Bichard gathered the remnants of his battered Company and launched a counter-attack which recaptured the farmhouse.
At dawn patrols found La Villa empty of the enemy and the Battalion occupied the village before advancing a short distance to the neighbourhood of Lopi. At this point the 2/4th were withdrawn from the line having lost two officers killed and four wounded, plus 18 other ranks killed, 64 wounded and 14 missing.
The Pursuit to Meleto and the Presentation of Captain Wakeford’s VC
After fighting its way through the German divisions west of Lake Trasimene 4th Division began a pursuit of the enemy in early July 1944. Between 1st and 10th July the 2/4th Battalion advanced rapidly, encountering little opposition while being enthusiastically received by the local civilians.
On 10th July the Battalion was relieved and moved back to Badicorte, 17 miles east of Siena. It was here, on 14th July, that Captain Richard Wakeford, the hero of Cassino, received the ribbon of his Victoria Cross from Lieutenant General Kirkman, commanding XIII Corps.
The following day the Battalion moved into the line again and continued the pursuit of the enemy towards Florence. Progress was steady until 22nd July when the Hampshires approached the town of Meleto up a wide valley, at which point they came under heavy mortar and machine-gun fire. The Battalion managed to seize a strong enemy position below Meleto from where they drove off two strong counter-attacks. During one of these the Germans brought up a machine-gun which they used to rake the Hampshire positions from just 100 yards away. Private A Churchill crept to within 30 yards of the machine-gun, then charged across the open firing his Bren gun from the hip. He silenced the gun and then returned to his platoon with four German prisoners. For this gallant action Private Churchill was awarded the Military Medal.
In another demonstration of bravery Sergeant John Savage took charge of his platoon when the commander was wounded during the assault. He led the platoon with such fury up the steep hillside through withering machine-gun and artillery fire that he overran the German defences, killing and capturing as he went. Having reached the crest of the hill, he then led his panting men to capture an enemy tank and artillery gun before reorganising the remnants of the platoon to break up a strong German counter-attack. Sergeant Savage was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
At this stage the attack on Meleto was postponed because of the strength of German opposition, but by the following morning they had abandoned the village and the 2/4th Hampshires were withdrawn from the line.
The Battalion was taken to Monte San Sevino and it was here, on 26th July, that Captain Wakeford received his Victoria Cross from King George V. It was a grand occasion; a 100-strong guard of honour formed up in front of a Guards band and the remainder of the Battalion as the King, accompanied by General Harold Alexander, commander of 15th Army Group, presented Captain Wakeford with his medal.
Immediately following the presentation to Captain Wakeford the Battalion moved back into the line at Gaville, 15 miles from Florence, in the Chianti mountains. As the Germans pulled back to their next strongpoint, the Gothic Line, the Hampshires were involved in several stiff engagements, notably at Santa Lucia which was captured on 30th July.
The advance northwards continued, skirting Florence until the Battalion reached the River Arno where it consolidated. On 10th August the 2/4th Hampshires were withdrawn from the line and sent back to Assisi where they spent the following month training and reinforcing.
The Gothic Line
The 2/4th Battalion returned to the line in early September 1944 when it joined in the assault on the Gothic Line towards Rimini on the Adriatic coast. The 28th Brigade was given the task of attacking across the River Marano and capturing the high ground to the west. The attack, on 15th September, was a success with the Hampshires seizing all their objectives – the village of San Patrignano and the farmhouses of Casa Guidi and Casa Bagli.
The Battalion’s next task was to attack the strategically important village of Cerasola which was perched on the top of an almost sheer drop. Two Companies attacked behind a heavy barrage early on 17th September and quickly reached their objectives taking many prisoners. The Battalion was relieved the following day. It then moved north behind Eighth Army’s advance, arriving in time to stand by to support the Hampshire Brigade’s assault on Forli in November.
On 22nd November the 2/4th attacked and captured a bridgehead over the River Cosina against heavy shelling. This was the Battalion’s last action in Italy. In every action in the campaign the 2/4th Hampshire Battalion had captured and held its objectives. However, losses had been heavy: of the officers with the battalion in February 1944, only one was still on the strength in December.
On 11th December the Battalion was flown to Greece to take part in operations against the ELAS Army. A month later the 2/4th Battalion was joined in Greece by the three Hampshire battalions of 128th Brigade.