The Italian Campaign, December 1943-February 1944 The Hampshire Brigade on the Garigliano and at Monte Ornito
Use Maps in Regt Hist p152 and p156
On 27 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 G.A.F. 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 1 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 6 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. C.G. 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 11 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 19 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 23 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 29 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 2 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, 2-28 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 G.E. 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 T.H. Cooke gallantly led his men up the open hillside, destroying a machine-gun post before engaging a German N.C.O. 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 7 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 [plpl 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 1500 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 10 February, although they suffered more casualties from enemy shellfire in the process. The Battalion commander, Colonel J.H.H. Robinson, was awarded a bar to his D.S.O. 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 P.R. 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 17 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 C.E.S. 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 19 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 Scott and Private E.J. Smith, a stretcher bearer, were awarded the Military Medal.
On 20 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 16 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-equiping and hard training in preparation for a return to Italy and the attack on the Gothic Line.