Shiny 7 War Diary 1944
01 January. Field Company organisation was altered. Sections became Platoons and Sub Sections became Sections. There would be in future HQ, 1, 2 and 3 Platoons each with a HQ and four Sections which were numbered through the Company. Two additional officers were added to the Company strength as Engineer Officers.
Intensive combined operation training was soon in full swing: small arms, demolitions, mines, physical fitness and trips up mount Ataka led by the OC, higher and higher, only the summit would do. In the evenings a visit to the NAAFI tent was a must, to supplement what were the Company’s worst rations issued over a long period. The only fresh rations they had was sweet potatoes. Still, they were better off than the local Arabs. They would come to camp and buy the swill and sell it on to the men, women and children working on the roads along the Bay of Suez. Bubonic plague was rife in Suez and was out of bounds by common consent.
12 January. The 7th moved to ‘Blue Lagoon’ Camp. All types of bridges built with standard and improvised material.
22 January. An experiment with a tank on the back of a bridge was a success so the original suggestion had borne fruit. Bridges of this kind were built by other units in the long trek up the leg of Italy. The next day the 7th returned to Ataka. The Company address changed to MEF. ‘Hercules’ had been called off.
31 January. At 0600 hrs the Company set off for Kabrit and at the same time a warning order for a move to Palestine was received. The CRE at Kabrit happened to be Lt-Col Vaughan-Williams, 2i/c of the Company in 1940. He made a point of meeting all those still with the Company from that time. About 30 in all. The CRE inspected the 7th and then granted a 48 hour pass in Cairo. Lt Cummings and CSM Gale, MM were posted to the Company bringing with them a sand storm, which halted the 7th on the Cairo road due to drifts of sand 10’ high. A NAAFI tent was also blown down and ripped to shreds. A good time was had collecting the provisions.
03 March. The NAAFI became a hive of cross talk as the advance parties of 46 DIV from Italy arrived to take over the Divisional equipment. They were due for a rest after being in action from the Salerno landings in September 1943, and were in no doubt where the 7th were bound - ‘Cassino’ a place everyone had heard about. So much for the preparations for a move to Palestine!
16 March. Reveille 0430hrs, Capri was sighted at 0700hrs looking green and inviting. The Germans had evacuated the island with barely a fight allowing the swift build up of airfields for use against targets in southern Germany. ‘HMT Devonshire’ Docked in the battered docks of Naples at 0900hrs and 7th disembarked quickly as a quick turn-round was required due to the shortage of shipping space.
The officers of the Company were:
OC Major R C S Low, 2i/c Capt C G Hodgart. 1 Pl, Lt A Hobson. 2 Pl, Lt A L S Bocker. 3 Pl, Lt M N Sharland. Recce, Lt B M Roberts. Recce, Lt P Smart.
The Shiny 7 were landing in Italy at the most crucial moment of the ‘Italian Campaign’ which was continually beset by inter Allied disagreement from the beginning to final victory in 1945. The directive to
General Alexander was to draw off and contain the maximum enemy forces, at the time of ‘Overlord’ the 2nd Front Invasion. 55 Axis Divisions were defending their southern flank. The Allied forces in Italy out-numbered the enemy only during the period May- June 1944, and German sources have recorded that 20% of their war effort was directed at their southern flank. A decisive factor, using up valuable reserves causing losses on other fronts. Hitler was determined to hold the Southern Flank at all costs as he believed it would postpone a 2nd Front, which in fact fell into allied strategy. This is a brief picture of the success of the ‘Italian Campaign’ in attracting German forces away from the main front with the minimum of force and was the whole point of the long slog up the leg of Italy.
In cold, damp streets near the docks, surrounded with wrecked buildings, the Platoons formed up to wait for transport to take them to Castrese south of a bridgehead over the River Garigliano, won by X Corps earlier in the year. Once transport arrived no time was wasted reaching the location and within minutes of arriving vehicles were emptied. 4 Division were under command of X Corps part of the American 5th Army commanded by General Mark Clark US Army. The other Army in General Alexander’s 15th Army Group was 8th Army holding the Eastern part of the front and commanded by Lt-General Sir Oliver W H Leese. The rear parties of 272 Fd Coy RE, 46 Division handed over vehicles, stores, etc. it was very worn equipment having been in continuous use since the previous September when 46 Division landed at Salerno. Billets were empty one storey houses with earth floors. A battery of guns close by introduced themselves with frequent stonks, and the enemy overlooking the valley was not slow to reply. By 1800hrs as darkness was falling the 7th were eating and taking in their new surroundings.
17 March. A day of checking, cleaning and preparing for a move by Platoons into the bridgehead. The 7th‘s task was to support 28 Bde. The 2/4 Hants brought the Brigade up to strength and were already in the bridgehead with No 1 Guards Bde on the right.
18 March. At 0730hrs. 3 Platoon led by the OC moved off on foot along Sun Track to the flat valley floor to cross ‘Skipton’ on FBE bridge capable of taking light vehicles. Sun Track was in full view of enemy observers, who brought down regular stonks. 2 Platoon left an hour later. The Platoons moved in single file well spaced out, dressed in marching order with two blankets. 3 Platoon passed ‘Skipton Dump’, winding their way up the mountain to a base at ‘Harrogate’ Valle Si Sujo. Coy Tac HQ was established and billets were broken ‘casas’. The method of supply was by Jeep Train to ‘Skipton dump’, where mules were driven by Italian troopers in a green uniform and Alpine hat with a large feather in the side of the hat. The mules hauled the loads to ‘Cheshire’ near the limit of the bridge head where Brigade HQ was established. Porters, ‘Basuto Boys’ took the loads further up. The forward infantry units provided porters to distribute supplies to the most advanced positions. From ‘Cheshire’ near Mt Tuga 2188’ high, all troops lived in sangars, these were walls of rock built into defence positions. They were lined with a ground sheet or bivvy or anything suitable to cover against the elements. During the day movement was out of the question and water was rationed to 2 pints, supplemented by melted snow. Some positions had screens in front to prevent grenades being tossed into them. The immediate enemy 71 infantry and 15 Tank Grenadier DIVS had a habit of firing leaflets to opposing troops in an attempt to undermine moral. Some quotes were, fair treatment and nourishing food. Other examples were to the affect,’ What is your wife doing when you are away from home’. After crossing ‘Skipton bridge’ 2 Platoon turned left on a metal road at the base of the mountains using a two storey ‘casa’ as a billet and HQ. Their task was similar to 3 Pl, construction and maintenance of ‘Jeep’ tracks and in addition the clearance of an A/P minefield laid in orange groves between the road and the river. The area was infected with ‘S’ mines dug in below ground level. When activated the mine blew up in the ground. The Polish mine detectors in use were virtually useless in the conditions, and could rarely pick the mines up, partly due to magnetism in the ground. There were a number of sulphur springs in the area suggesting volcanic content. In wet conditions these detectors needed to have the shoe covered with a water proof material and even then it was inadequate. One other characteristic was that near large areas of water such as lakes, rivers and the sea it worked in reverse so instead of getting a high pitched sound when a mine was picked up the signal was weak and faded. Mines was found in areas declared clear when the location was taken over. Luckily American detectors were issued and were more efficient though some casualties were suffered before they came into use. The enemy had laid some nasty surprises near buildings in the shape of A/T mines buried out of reach of the detectors. One blew up outside a building being used as a casualty station on the flat near the road. Vesuvius decided to erupt violently blocking the road to Naples and the local airfield. Enemy sources tried to make capital out of this saying the Allies had bombed the Volcano. The 7th‘s address was now changed from MEF to CMP (Central Mediterranean Force).
19 March. At the crack of dawn 0500hrs 1 Platoon began their trek to ‘Cheshire‘ where Coy Tac HQ was located, halting for the night at ‘Harrogate’ Recces were made on RAPs and water Points and work began as additional tasks.
21 March. The day after moving to ‘Cheshire’ Spr Spencer 1 Platoon was seriously wounded in the arm by mortar fire and evacuated. Evacuation of stretcher cases was a difficult job at any time, and from mountain areas it became a hazardous affair, sometimes taking eight hours from the top to the base of the mountain. At the base of the mountain Sprs Groves and Carroll 2 Platoon were slightly wounded in the orange groves by an ‘S’ mine. Ripe fruit could be picked by all units and sent up the mountain to supplement the compo rations. At this time 2 Pl brought an Italian woman out of a minefield who had lost the bottom part of one of her legs whilst picking oranges. This was a problem case as the British detectors were not working properly, and the ground had weathered concealing any evidence of mines. Spr Mann laid a tracing tape on the exact line of the sweeper’s shuffling feet and the remainder of the party were ordered to take cover. The woman lay quiet once the rescue began and a stretcher was passed forward. She was lifted out of the minefield much to everyone’s relief and taken to an RAP. American detectors then became available no doubt saving more casualties.
25 March. 1 and 2 Pl handed over to French troops of the 4th Moroccan Mountain DIV, and withdrew across Skipton bridge to San Castree. The next day Tac HQ and 3 Pl withdrew to San Castree.
27 March. 0300hrs the 7th moved in dark wet conditions arriving at Cereci, 20 miles south of Cassino at 0800hrs. This was the first of a number of moves made in great secrecy with wireless silence, part of a massive regrouping of 15 Army Group. The Division was now under the command of XIII Corps in 8th Army, and not V Corps as planned. One of 2 Pl’s trucks returned to the bridgehead via ‘Pately’ Bridge north of ‘Skipton’ collected some mine stores, and returned the same route. A stonk came down as the truck was chased back over the river and not surprisingly there was no sign of movement of any troops during the journey.
31 March. 1 Pl and eighteen Pioneers of the ILA, an Italian detachment, who were permanently attached, established a water point at Aquafondata.
Cassino town after the the Allied bombing raid 15 March 1944
German troops repairing a Panzer after it was damaged on the bombing of Cassino town
The bridge would be a 90’ DS Class 30, after each building of the bridge, suggestions to improve performance were tried, and from enquiries made the fastest time to which an assault bridge had been built was four hours. The OC welded the group into a first class team and to say that any member of the 7th could build a ‘Bailey’ in his sleep went without saying. At first the other arms were spectators, then they were involved. The message was accepted that it was important that everyone on site should put their shoulder to the wheel to lift, pull and push no matter what the job they were there for, each one give 100% plus. The final time in moonlight from a clear site, after knocking off minutes by putting the rollers, jacks, and base plates into the launching nose was one hour forty three minutes. After this effort the OC gave the NCO i/c C his chocolate ration which he had stored up to distribute to the carrying parties of 2 Pl.
1 Guards Bde and the 4th Recce Regt began to filter back into Cassino to relieve 12 Bde. The Cassino Garrison would not attempt to push forward, but in official language demonstrate and hold the enemy’s attention. The Guards said, “They would march out in daylight” 1ST German Para DIV considered Cassino their own and become something of a legend due to their defence of Cassino and would not give up their charge easily. They were an elite force, reckoned to be the best in the German Army and their moral was high. Their Divisional commander Lt General Heidrick, personally sent badges, necklaces to the wives and girlfriends of the paras to single them out in the fatherland. Two weeks service in Cassino, resulted them in being awarded the Iron Cross, which made them evermore determined to prove they were worthy of the award.
In spite of the Allied Air Force efforts to prevent supplies moving forward, the Germans had built up stocks of ammunition and rations to withstand a prolonged attack. They estimated an attack would be launched on or about 23 May.
09 May Tuesday. As the bridge was loaded for the last time each joint, panel pin, clamp was greased and the whole party joined by ‘B’ Echelon moved at 2130hrs to Company HQ at Mignano. In preparation 8 Fd Sqn RE went into Cassino and erected a platform and loud speaker.
10 May Wednesday. Between 0010 hrs and 0400 hrs 1 Pl lifted 67 Schu, and 5 Holz mines. This was the largest number of mines lifted in one night and an outstanding effort.
By good management a NAAFI ration was issued. The weather was much warmer with an odd shower. In a personal discussion the NCO i/c C was told that even if only six Sappers were standing on the bridge construction would continue. In truth the constructors had no doubt that the bridge would be finished. Bets were taken by the Americans that the assault troops would not stay over the ‘Rapido’ for longer than 24 hrs - the odds were 30-1. This in no way had any effect on morale and confidence both of which were at a very high pitch, ensuring the success of ‘Honker’.
At 2030 hrs Shiny 7 less two Sections of 1 Pl moved to a laying up area on Trocchio at Sant Lucia. Troops of a previous battle had dug slit trenches in the open and fox holes had been burrowed into banks of sunken track which ran through the location. After pushing some RASC vehicles out of ditches, all ranks were in their burrows or slits a little after midnight. Some Sappers fell into the slits as it was so dark. The location was well chosen, on a reverse slope, with open areas and small woods giving cover on the southern slopes of mount Trocchio. Monte Cassino (the Monastery) was about four and a half miles NNW.
11 May Thursday. Reveille was early at 0400 hrs with a slight stonk too close for comfort, but there were no casualties. Those facing their first major engagement were supported by others who had previous experience. Spr Kelman organised a sweep as to how long it was going to take to build Congo. It was not easy to get in on the two hour mark and he held the list and the kitty.
The CRE Lt-Col Nelson visited the 7th and read out General Alexander’s order of the day. In this order he praised the efforts of the Armies since landing in Italy and how they had drawn into Italy and mauled some of the enemy’s best Divisions and went on to say: (note these are extracts and not the full speech)
“ Hitler has admitted that his defeats in the east were largely due to the bitterness of the fighting and his losses in Italy - Tomorrow we can see victory ahead - The Allied armed forces are now assembling for the final battles on seas, on land, and in the air to crush the enemy once and for all. From the east and the west, from the north and from the south, blows are about fall which will result in the final destruction of the Nazis. To us in Italy, has been given the honour to strike the first blow. We are going to destroy the German Armies in Italy - the fighting will be hard, bitter and perhaps long. You will be supported by overwhelming air forces, and in guns and tanks, we far outnumber the Germans. No armies have ever entered battle before with a more just and righteous cause. So with god’s help and blessing, we take the field, confident of victory”.
The enemy then had his say with a stonk hitting 3 Pl area causing two casualties who were evacuated.
A number of ‘Battle Maps’ showing enemy positions were issued, (3 maps used at Cassino by the 7th are the basis of the maps on the battle). The last intelligence summary placed the 1st Para, covering Cassino, then south along the river line to a point just north of Trocchio where they joined 11/04 & 10/104 of 15 Panzer Div, and then a Bn of 576 Regt 44 DIV. It was expected that first counter-attacks would be mounted by 1st Para’s MG Bn, and two Bns of 104 Panzer Regt 15 Panzer DIV. These three Bns were the Liri Valley reserve. Kesselring knew that the Allies would have to break into the Liri Valley at Cassino. It was only here in the Liri Valley that the full weight and superiority of the Allied artillery and armour could be deployed and brought to bear, but it had to be squeezed through the Mignano gap first and this would take time.
Time passed by very quickly. Last meals were served from a single cookhouse sheltered in trees below the Company location. Water bottles were filled and checked as the evening closed in when a dull day give way to a clear night. The moon would rise 2330 hrs, fifteen minutes before the infantry began to cross the ‘Rapido’. Sappers prepared dressed in denims, battle order with a bailey tool slung over the heads to have it in a handy position. Vehicles and uniforms were cleared of divisional and tactical signs. The lights and horns on the vehicles were disconnected before the move to trocchio. The first party, L/Sgt Vincent with the Italian detachment led by a man named ‘Basil’ left to move the brushwood from the prepared track leading to Congo site. Nightingales were singing, swarms of fire flies hugged the water meadows leading to the river line. The gunners began to chop down trees in the line of fire of their carefully concealed guns. As normal at 2200 hrs 104 Fd Battery RA began to fire ‘CIGAR’ a smoke screen to cover ration, water and supply parties going forward to Cassino in gym shoes, a regular feature of weeks past, though on this night no supply parties went forward. ‘CIGAR’ finished at 2245 hrs, a complete silence settled on the forward area. A single gun was ordered to fire to break the unreal silence so as not to arouse the enemy’s suspicions.
The bridge builders of 2 Pl less drivers gathered fully dressed. Storeman, clerks, wireless operators, DRs all had a job to do as part of the construction team. For a full hour they lay around in a group enjoying jokes told of past times concerning the 7th.
Promptly at 2300 hrs the guns opened fire in unison crashing out their message, night was turned to day by their flashes concentrated on the valley. Within minutes everyone was on their feet cheering the gunners on, and at the same time looking towards the enemy where an avalanche of shells were exploding on their positions, HQs and strong points. The fall of shells was visible from the splash of red sparks as the shells exploded. In a short time the sky in front to left and right was lit up by enemy flares of every colour. L/Sgt Vincent’s party completed their task without incident, then took cover with the infantry of 8 Indian DIV. The leading Bn of 28 Bde, 2 Kings made their way forward along the taped lanes carrying assault boats to make their crossing some way north of the Congo site.
2 and 3 Pls formed up wishing each other good luck and 2 Pl moved off on foot in single file at 2345 hrs led by Lt Bocker the Bridge Commander. 3 Pl led by Lt Sharland filed off five minutes later. Lt Hobson and two Sections of 1 Pl were already at the CRE’s Tac HQ under the CRE’s command as a reserve. The OC’s Tac HQ, guides and wireless sets were in position as the Platoons moved forward.
At 2345 hrs the barrage on selected targets stopped, changing to a rolling barrage in front of the infantry now crossing the river on 10 Bde front. 2 Kings however, did not reach the river line on time, and were thirty minutes late missing the advantage of the rolling barrage. The Germans reacted bring down defensive fire on the nearside bank. It was possible to see glimpses of the river line as the 7th moved forward and there appeared to be far too many pin pricks of red explosions on the nearside as the enemy concentrated his fire with every available weapon.
12 May Friday. The smoke screen was building up, it became more and more difficult to see ahead, river mist, dust from gun fire, all contributed to thick fog, and the enemy added to this unexpectedly. Smoke canisters had been set in the river banks with trip wires, when tripped the canisters omitted a thick black smoke, indicating a crossing point, giving watching observers the targets they were looking for to shoot into, which they did with great fury. The enemy came up from their deep bunkers on which the barrage had little or no effect, and they now manned their weapons to fight like mad. 2 Pl made their groping way over the last few hundred yards to the Congo site through the enemy defensive fire on the track. Spr Henderson appeared crawling in the fog along a ditch, a field dressing covered a leg wound, he did not want assistance, he handed over his bailey spanner saying, “you can’t build the bridge without this.” On the site work was proceeding on the bank seat, the centre line was laid with tracing tape held down by long nails and one on two holdfast pins. Sections were in alarm positions on either side of the track in ditches only 18” deep and visibility was down to a few yards. The enemy now brought down a concentrated stonk of small arms and mortars on the site hitting the track with mortars as near as made no difference on the centre line. A number of people were hit including Lt Bocker, L/Sgt Venn and Spr Smith all recce party evacuated. There was now a period of defensive fire with mortars hitting the site and the odd burst of MG fire from Spandaus drumming out their 1200 rounds per minute. The infantry covering party a Section od 2/4 Hants had no answer to this even if they could have seen a target. The accuracy of the enemy fire was uncanny as in an atmosphere of almost total fog and smoke blanket, they hit the target. It was clear that unless the infantry cleared a few hundred yards of the far bank and held it, work would be difficult if not impossible on the site. Casualties were mounting, the enemy was cursed and called the worst names in ‘Sapper’ language when oddly enough his fire eased on the site. the recce officer Lt Barnes manned a Bren gun hoping to knock out one or two MGs but it was difficult to see the river (water) from the bank let alone the far bank. Lt Barnes had already taken a message to Bde HQ to say infantry cover was needed and was dressed down for such talk.
The OC ordered a check: Spr Moore was missing, ten others were wounded including Lt Bocker of 2 Pl out of 56 all ranks. A withdrawal was ordered to a point where the track to the bridge went through a small copse and joined the lateral road King Street. Firstly the wounded which included Sprs Craske, Hill, Kemp, Platt and L/Cpl Wragg were evacuated and then Sections withdrew. A dead soldier was found in a culvert on the bridge site, at first it was thought he was German until Cpl Ralph shone a torch, when it was possible to see that he was British. He had to be left for the time being, a few days later his body disappeared. Sappers did not move anything lightly whatever it might be. The enemy may have fought a clean fight at Cassino but he made a practice of booby trapping anything on the battlefield. A Section going along the river instead of away from it was turned around by L/Sgt Vincent walking along the field by the river bank. He had seen the area a number of times in moonlight and knew his way round the tracks etc. some way up the track near the copse Dvr Leonard was standing beside his blazing 30cwt CDF and was ordered to leave it and join his Pl. Nearby there was a RAP and a troop of Bofor guns pumping out a continuous stream of tracer on a fixed line to give the infantry direction. Due to the mist, smoke and dust on the river line few of the infantry saw their direction finders. No one was to know this at the time as the state of communications in and with the bridgehead was virtually nil. The enemy did his best to knock out the Bofors with a continuous stonk without success. Company HQ could only obtain information by runner, and made a number of requests for infantry support. A recce party went down to the bridge site and were sniped at. Until the far bank was cleared of the enemy there was no hope of bridging, and there was little prospect of that on the 28 Bde front. Due to the 2 Kings being late in making their crossing the follow up Bn, 2 SLI were held up in taped lanes leading to the river and were caught in the enemy defensive fire. The enemy swept the river with MG fire sinking the majority of assault boats, which caused congestion on the river bank. In spite of the ‘lash up’ the infantry rallied getting numbers across the river which flowed faster than the river they trained on. With wounded increasing in number on the far bank and little chance of reinforcing the slender bridgehead adequately the position was poor. Still they concentrated grimly holding on to the ground they had occupied short of their objective, in particular the ridge beyond the far bank. 10 Bde did have a foot hold. The 1/6 E Surreys gathered in groups and stormed their objective. Nothing could stop them taking Pont 36 (metres), a tough position with MG posts, mines and wire. They cleared it and prepared to hold until a bridge could be built to reinforce them with supplies, A/T guns and tanks.
At the 7TH ‘s Tac HQ which served as a control post with Lt Roberts o/i/c and wireless operators Sprs Turp and Tomlinson there was uncertainty and doubt as to what was happening to the bridging lorries only a few of which had passed the post. Unknown at the time was the fact that Dvr Butcher the wireless operator at the bridge lorry park was wounded early on and was off set and out of contact with L/Sgt Lambert who was responsible for calling up lorries as they required. Spr/Dvr J Smith drove his 15cwt truck loaded with small stores to within a few hundred yards of the site, he went on foot to the river bank to make his swim across the river to fix a cable, but was wounded and evacuated. One more effort to commence work on the site was made, numbers checked, working parties were reorganised, recce parties set out. Finally at dawn the CRE ordered the OC to withdraw the party to Company HQ and vehicles to their parks. The enemy must have been listening in, for as the movement got under way with Sections in single file well spaced out, the stonking was stepped up ‘Moaning Minnies’ were added to the shellfire. L/Sgt Lambert drove an abandoned bridge lorry to the vehicle park, and L/Sgt Vincent whilst driving Spr/Dvr Smith’s 15cwt back to its park was badly wounded in the arm and eventually evacuated to the UK.
At HQ, Platoon strength’s and names of casualties were reported - Sprs Moore and Herbert were missing from 2 Pl. Then followed breakfast, a good wash, shave and clean up, checking weapons, kit, and Bailey tools, collecting up the kits of the casualties kept everyone busy, after which it was foxhole time to rest as the guns maintained a continuous roar. The 7th were back were they had started with little or nothing to show accept losses, and it was now that the experience of all ranks some of whom had trodden the path of the 7th via Dunkirk and many others in North Africa, was a boon, lifting those if needed in their first battle. One thing everyone appreciated was that a bridge must be built to support the infantry holding across the Rapido. Spr T Appleby, known as ‘Doc’ was killed, and L/Cpl Morris had a lucky escape when a bullet passed through his steel helmet parting his hair.
A summary of the situation on the Divisional front was that the ‘59’ and ‘225’ had fared no better than ‘7’ in their bridging efforts. 28 Bde had had a severe mauling, with an all ranks strength of 250 combined of 2 Kings and 2 SLI across the ‘Rapido’, and as soon as the mist lifted they were subjected to heavy small arms and a continuous cascade of fire from guns and mortars. By midday the only way of crossing the ‘Rapido was to swim or use an abandoned cable found by the CO of 2 SLI. Some of the wounded were evacuated this way. Almost all of the assault boats had been sunk. The enemy had not lost one position. It was a very bleak picture on 28 Bde front.
In 10 Bde sector the 1/6 E Surreys were firmly holding their objective, Point 36 the right of ‘Amazon’ bridge site. The 2nd Bedfords on their left were on or near Queen Street the western lateral road. Their location was to the right front of Amazon. ‘D’ Coy, 2 DCLI held a small bridgehead of their own in no depth in front of the enemy stronghold ‘Square Wood’ to the left of the Amazon site, and ‘A’ Coy HQ with 10 & 11 Pls of 2 DCLI had crossed the Rapido, but were unable to link up with ’D’ Coy. The Bde had few if any boats left.
The enemy made local counter-attacks, but no organised infantry or tank attack. The only tank to appear withdrew under a hail of mortar bombs. Kesselring had been outwitted. His reserves were held back north of Rome to repulse a sea/airborne landing he was certain would come in that area. He thought that the ‘Rapido’ attack was a diversion. Major-General Ward decided that a bridge must be built at all costs. The plan of the CRE was to use the whole of the Divisional RE to build a class 30 bridge on the Amazon site the only site with any prospect of success. No rafts would be built. The Divisional operation order shows the bridge shows the bridge was class 30 and not class 40 as stated in some accounts of the battle. Each Company ‘225’, ‘7’, ‘59’ would make their effort and 2 Pl 578 Fd Coy Corps Troops would be on hand to assist if necessary and then maintain the bridge.
At 1430 hrs the OC called an ‘O’ Group of officers and NCOs in a ditch come sunken track near Coy HQ. A Class 30 bridge, ‘Amazon’ would be built. Major Gabbet OC ‘225’ was the Oi/c. ‘225’ who had recced, and planned the construction would prepared the site, lay the rollers ready for construction, and unload. They ‘225’ like the’7’ had tried to construct ‘Amazon’ during 11/12 May without success. The enemy had released a heavy smoke screen making movement difficult, and concentrated MG fire on approaches preventing the work going ahead. The ‘7’ would construct the bridge, and the ‘59’ would launch and the deck ‘Amazon’ down. ‘225’ would commence work at 1700 hrs on the site covered by a smoke screen, all available artillery would used to counter battery fire. This was the plan and the OC asked:
“Do you think this is a good thing?” a slight pause then:
“No we don’t think this is a good thing, but we are going to build this bridge.”
Orders were given that only volunteers would go on the job. In the event all of the ‘Congo’ construction team (2 & 3Pls) and 1Pl plus attached 2 RNF formed the ‘7’ contingent. Major Gabbot’s plan was based on a detailed recce report obtained at the third attempt by LT More after spending a day in ‘The Barracks’. (with Lt Severn) This was a building overlooking the river. The recce was completed by Lt More and Cpl Gibbs. The site was at the head of a bend in the river as per the map. The approaches were across a flat open field about 300 yards from the lateral King Street, high grass was growing in the field, and there were about eleven ditches to be crossed running right to left across the field between King Street and the river. There were some low briars growing on both banks of the river. The gap was 65’ at water level and flowing 7 to 8 knots, and 9’ deep. No place for non-swimmers. Both banks were shingle, the nearside bank was 8’ above the water level sloping gradually down to water level. The far bank was two feet lower than the nearside bank. 6’above water level and steep. The height of the river banks above field level was about 6’ on both sides. In the first place Major Gabbet made a flexible plan to build a DS bridge which could be 80’ to 100’ with a link in the first bay of a 50’ launching nose. He made his final plan on the 9th of May to build a 90’ DS and a 50’ launching nose with a link one bay back (10’)and if necessary the bridge would be increased to 100 DS. In view of the water gap and nature of the banks the bridge could hardly be less than 90’. The plan provided for a D7 dozer to cut down the nearside bank to within 3’ of field level and make a ramp up from field level 20’. The far bank was to be cut down 1’ lower than the nearside bank using explosives and digging and then to put in rocking rollers. It should be noted that despite a number of efforts no one crossed to the far bank until the bridge was across. The first building rollers were fixed at 40’ from the launching rocking rollers. The 2nd set of building rollers were fixed at 75’ from the launching rocking rollers. Therefore there was a gap of 35’ between the building rollers and not the normal 25’, and would therefore require 4 bays of launching nose (40’) to span the gap. Both sets of building rollers would be set on steel cribs and a timber sleeper grillage. Spanning this gap with the first four bays of the launching nose was the first of two difficult points in the construction, and would mean a dead weight lift of eight panels and at least three transoms equal to a sixty -six man load, then due to the angle of the first bay with its link great strength if nothing else would be needed to pass the link over the front building rollers. Due to the height of the nearside bank it was clear that the bridge would be constructed 4’ to 3’ 6” above ground level.
The organisation was sorted out: Lt Sharland was i/c Bridge, and Lt Hobson was his deputy. Lt Barnes the recce officer who was posted to the 7th on 5th May was responsible for leading the Company to a vehicle park at the northern end of Trocchio, and then on foot to the CREs Tac HQ which would be used as a ‘laying up area’. There were few if any questions just a feeling of “Let’s get on with it” as the group dispersed to their Platoons. Spr P Herbert who had been missing turned up safe and well at Coy HQ. He had fallen asleep in a ditch when his Platoon pulled back to a track from the copse the night before.
All was now bustle, to eat and make preparations to move off. The last word to everyone was to make certain every bolt, nut and clamp was tight before it was left. At 1700 hrs the OC’s recce party, Lt Sharland and NCO i/c C moved off and drove down Route 6 in a jeep, turning left on to a track around the base of Trocchio into some cover, and then on foot into a ditch at the double, in the open, north of Trocchio. The OC leading set a good pace trotting to the ‘Amazon site’. it was a bright clear evening, and the Monastery was in full view. There was time to give it the ‘Two finger sign’. The ditch led to the railway (Speedway) which was crossed and a further 500 yards on was the east lateral King Street. ‘Amazon’ site came into view after turning left on King Street. The OC halted at a steep sunken track up the lower slopes of Trocchio near the Bridge HQ ‘The Barracks’. He told the NCO i/c C to go to the top of the sunken track to find Lt Barnes and the 7th, and bring them down to the site. Lt Sharland went to Bridge HQ to report to Major Gabbot. A Platoon of ‘225’ waiting to go on to the site were laying up, well down the banks of the sunken track due to fire from snipers from the direction of ‘Square Wood’. At the top of the track the NCO met Sgt Clark HQ Sgt. The 7th were on their way from the vehicle park, and would come out on ‘Speedway’ and climb up the railway cutting to where there was an ADS in a small building. It was possible to look down on the site where ‘225’ and a detachment of 2 RNF attached to the ‘225’ were working on approaches and unloading bridge vehicles as they arrived at about 15 minute intervals. A D7 dozer was cutting the bank and making the 20’ ramp and did very good work until put out of action by MG fire when the driver was wounded. The D4 which had been working on the ramp from the road and the eleven ditches crossing the field to the river bank was brought up to finish the job. It looked like the 7th would have a long wait before taking over the site, which was a disappointment. The open field from King Street to the river was swept by MG fire and snipers were very active located in ‘Square Wood’ 300 yards to the left of the site, a very strong position with MGs etc. Whilst taking in this scene the CRE arrived looking rather pale saying Major Low had been hit, and was lying on a track running parallel to the sunken track about 150/200 yards away. Two NCOs went off at once to bring the OC to the ADS, enroute to the OC, a Jeep was found which appeared to be abandoned, and was not one of the ‘7’s vehicles, but a driver Spr/Dvr Pitt was quickly found. The OC was lying on the side of the track badly shot through the thigh. The CRE had carried him to this place after the incident. He was lifted onto the Jeep and was soon inside the ADS, where he was immediately attended to by a doctor. He was assured by his rescuers as they left, that the bridge would be built. Progress on the site was slow. The enemy now brought down a continuous stonk with shells and mortars on and near the laying up area.
Message from the Army Commander
The Gustav Line Initial Assault 11&12 May 1944
Amazon Bridge Sketch Map 13 May 1944
Lt Sharland came to the track, and held an ‘O’ Group with Lt Hobson, NCO i/c & HQ Sgt. The 7th would be called down to the bridge site in due course and would then unload and construct the bridge. It was not until after the ‘O’ Group that it be became apparent that Lt Sharland was wounded in the back, he had to be forcibly taken to the ADS to join the OC. Stonking was quite heavy as an involved discussion took place at the 7th’s Tac HQ near the ADS. The NCO i/c C wanted personnel left under cover on the railway cutting banks until required. The acting OC, Lt Barnes and HQ Sgt disagreed and left to bring up the Platoons to the area of Tac HQ where in a very tense atmosphere the NCO i/c C said to the leading PL (2 Pl):
“ Do we want this bridge?” Back came the chorus: “Yes” and then without further orders at 1930 hrs he gave the order:
“We are going down to build this bloody bridge”, leading the way to the site, where it was not quite as noisy. On the way down the party were warned about snipers by the ‘225’ Pl laying laying up in the sunken track, but barely took any notice. A driver of one of the bulldozers was carried up the track as the 7th moved down to the site. A small drainage ditch to the left of the first set of building rollers served as HQ. The construction Section took up alarm positions along the river bank on the right. The remainder under the command of the OC on the bridge site Lt Hobson, took over the unloading of bridge lorries from the ‘225’. The ‘Lone Sapper’sheltering in a ditch near the flood bank, thought to himself: “ We know what has to be done, we know how to do it, and we are going to do it.”
Apparently our own artillery decided to ginger up the 7th and brought down a stonk on the site and the enemy took the hint and added his quota, despite XIII Corps concentrated counter-battery, fire continued to harass the site from positions to SW on a bearing of 200 degrees.
It was found that the wireless set linking with the Bridge HQ had broken down, which caused a loss of time bringing up the bridge lorries as runners had to be used. A smoke party from 9 Section, 3 Pl were detailed as the RA smoke party were not on or had left the site. 9 Section began releasing smoke as the wind changed clearing the site of smoke accidently, giving the enemy a fake target to shoot into. At 2100 hrs the reserve 2 Pl, 578 Fd Coy RE Corps Troops, were ordered forward from their HQ to the ‘Amazon’ laying up area - the report that they took over the ‘Amazon’ from 4 DIV RE and built the bridge is incorrect. It was decided that they would take over the bridge when finished as the maintenance party, as per orders for ‘Honker’.
At this time 2100 hrs ‘225’ left the site having completed the approaches, unloaded much of the bridge and set the positions of the rollers, which were fixed at:
Launching Rollers Height (above field level)
RR 4’ 6” Plus
PR 40’ back from the RR 4’1 1/2” Plus
PR 75’ back from the RR 3’ 7 ½” Plus
Note: RR= Rocking Roller
PR= Plain Roller
2100 hrs Lt Hobson OC on site held an ‘O’ Group. The unloading was almost finished and construction parties were organised.
2145 hrs HQ Sgt supervised the final setting of the rollers.
2200 hrs in failing light the order to commence was given. A tremendous effort was made to complete the first four bays as quickly as possible to make sure that should there be a stonk at least the building rollers were spanned. Luck was with the 7th doing this, and in the completion of the first few bays of the bridge, the link was over the first ‘Building’ roller. Enemy fire now took its toll. L/Sgt Stamper, Cpl Ralph, Sprs R Smith, Burke and four others were wounded. Spr Watson 1 Pl, was unlucky to have a bridge lorry run over his foot. As there was no vehicle on site to evacuate the wounded, it was necessary to use members of the construction party. Lt Hobson asked for replacements and these were provided by ‘59’. One Section in number, who were detailed to work as transom parties, worked in that capacity until the completion of the bridge. Another party of the ‘59’ unloaded the last two lorries carrying decking.
The fearless, disciplined courage of the panel and transom parties carrying their six man loads set a very high standard. Due to the height of the building rollers from the ground, once the loads had been lifted it was essential to hold them as a team. It says a great deal that no injuries were reported by panels and transoms falling due to a member of the carrying parties letting go of their load whilst the enemy did their best to take them out. Without NCOs due to casualties, Sections led themselves without orders or pause.
Construction was slowed but not stopped by enemy fire from all weapons. At intervals white verey lights were fired over the site causing the personnel on site to be silhouetted against the river mist. Discipline was good, on command everyone stood still, remaining stationary until the verey light had spent itself, and ordered to carry on. As far as known no casualties were caused during these periods when the site was lit up. Sgt Clark and Spr Davidson bolting bracing frames on each side of the bridge laid flat as soon as a verey light went up.
13 May Saturday. It was now a question of when, not if the bridge would be finished. There was never any question in the minds of the construction party on this point. The problem of the high lift for the panel parties, when pinning their panels to the bridge was to some extent overcome by not pushing the bridge forward as it was built, keeping the point of balance much further back than it should have been. For the builders time had lost its meaning, and it was necessary to drive themselves to bring the last panels and transoms for the final bay when they thought that the bridge was finished.
0200 hrs. The body of the bridge was now complete. Plain rollers, baseplates and jacks were wedged into the launching nose for use on the far bank. No one had been able to reach the far bank during construction. In any case it was not expected they would be able to do so. This factor was discussed, in the early hours of May 12 when the 7th had been forced back from the ‘Congo’ site. it will be recalled that at that time visibility on the river line was virtually nil. Provided the centre line was well marked on the nearside the bridge could be built, moved to its point of balance and pointed in the right direction using the centre line and then launched. It would mean that some time would be lost waiting for the far bank to be prepared. Decking down would be done to its limit. So the fact of not having anyone on the far bank was not thought to be a problem. What was not known to the building parties was the intention to cut the far bank down to 1’ lower than the nearside bank which from water level was higher than the nearside bank that had been cut down. Lt Barnes, Sgt Clark and Spr Davidson lodged themselves in the launching nose ready for touch down. Some objects floating in the river downstream caused a stir, the whole party was ordered to alarm positions. Lt Barnes ordered the 7th to withdraw to the lateral King Street although a large number of the 7th did not hear or know anything about the order. Lt Barnes’ intention was to reorganise there and then to continue bridging. There was never any intention of withdrawing from the site until the ‘Amazon’ was completed. Spr Mann was dispatched to the CRE’s Tac HQ requesting infantry cover. Later an infantry Section took up a covering position. No infantry cover had been allocated either during construction or on completion. With the strong point, ‘Square Wood’ 300 yards to the left and enemy posts covering the site in an arc from ‘Square Wood’ to the right front of the site this must remain a mystery. The numbers on the site were restricted because of enemy action and every Sapper was needed for the task and was unarmed, Cpls and above were armed. A joint recce party from both the 7th and the ‘59’ confirmed that this was a false alarm and that there were no enemy in the vicinity. It was reported later that enemy parties did cross the river that night to the north of the site penetrating an area of the ADS and the CRE’s Tac HQ. An enemy post was known to exist about a half mile to the north towards Cassino on the nearside (east) of the river before the assault began on 11 May.
0230 hrs. 6 Section under Cpl Smiles the7th was ordered into the centre of the bridge to deck down, and continued on that task until the bridge was finally finished including ramping down on the far bank.
During the first stage of the launch ‘By Hand’ at a point when the tail was at the correct level having passed the last plain building rollers the enemy fired a burst of automatic fire down the bridge. This caused no casualties as the aim was too high, and in any case the tail of the bridge was about head height on an upward incline. The straining, pushing Sappers at the tail of the bridge were safe from this kind of fire. Lt Boston ‘59’ took command ordering all ‘Tommy Gunners’ (Section Commanders) to the river bank. L/Sgt Parry and a Spr of ‘59’ went looking for the enemy. The bridge was far enough across and over the far bank for Lt Barnes. Sgt Clark and Spr Davidson of the 7th pulled the plain rollers out of the launching nose and placed them as well as possible in the circumstances under the panel cords of the bridge.
0315 hrs. The bridge was decked to the fifth bay by 6 Section (the 7th) and as much decking as possible was loaded on the tail. A Section of infantry arrived to give covering fire.
‘Amazon’ was pushed as far as possible by hand, until the front transom of the launching nose and panel chords of the leading bay cut into the far bank pushing a way through it - manpower could do no more. 6 Section of the 7th continued decking, and the last available bulldozer a D4 ‘Weary Willie’ trundled up to the tail of the bridge for stage II of the launching. Now both Sappers and ‘Weary Willy’ pushed together. All went well until the engine of the D4 seized up due to a punctured radiator caused by enemy fire. ‘Amazon’ was 20’ short of its final position. Decking continued, and Lt Boston found the leading tanks 2 Troop, ‘C’ Squadron, 17/21ST Lancers. He hammered on the leading tank with his revolver and eventually Lt Wayne the Troop commander opened his hatch. His tank was to cross the ‘Amazon’ as soon as it was built, and then sweep to the right in support of 1/6 E Surreys holding out on Point 36. As the tanks moved to the bridge site a discussion took place under the tail of the bridge as to whether or not to jack the bridge down once it had reached the rocking rollers on the baseplates. It was decided to push it clean off the rocking rollers on to the railway sleepers which were laid in front of the baseplates and on top of the grillage already laid. A stonk of mortar fire hit the bridge area in a shower of red hot sparks of shrapnel. Spr Kelham decking down was wounded in the arm and carried from the bridge and later evacuated to the UK. L/Sgt Parry carried in Lt Neville of 8 Fd Sqn RE, 6 Armd Div, whilst two Sappers carried in Sgt Baker. The Lt and Sgt were a recce party which had crossed the bridge to recce a route through a suspected minefield on the right of the bridge leading to Point 36. Both were seriously wounded by MG fire whilst cutting wire of the assumed ‘Schu’ minefield. In this period, the first contact was made with the bridgehead when a patrol leader appeared in his balaclava, and was difficult to see. He was asked if it was possible to silence the MGs on the left and in front, he would do his best. A body went swirling down the river under the bridge near the far bank, it was not possible to do anything to help without depleting the very small decking party. Lt Boston was wounded and evacuated later. Sgt Clark ‘7’ was wounded near his backside saying in a surprised voice:”I’ve been hit in the backside Titch” Titch answered: “Ok Nobby get your trousers down so that I can put a dressing on.” This was done under the tail of the bridge in improving light. He was not evacuated and was treated over the next few days. The maintenance party of 2 Pl, 578 Fd Coy RE, Corps Troops arrived at the site in time to witness the first scene.
Stage III of the launching began when the leading tank drove up to the bridge, and a stringer was used as a ram from the front of the tank to the centre of the last transom. The transom was held firm by the decking. The Sappers were fascinated and delighted to see the bridge pushed forward and off the rocking rollers on to the sleepers laid ready for it.
0330 hrs. An order was given for all the ‘7’ and ‘59’ to leave the bridge site. Lt Barnes and Hobson, Sgt Clark, NCO i/c ‘C’, 6 Section, L/Cpl Horsley, Sprs Dodds and Davidson of the 7th remained and there were others bringing up decking for the ramp on the far side.
It was now essential to finish the work on the far bank before the mist cleared enabling the enemy to have a good view. Baseplates, Jacks were yanked out of the launching nose. it was not possible to take the panels off the launching nose, because the bank fell away steeply to field level. Lt Hobson assisted by Lt Boston and Lt Hon R G Cross OC of 2 Pl ‘578’ somehow lifted the transoms out of the launching nose. The sway braces had been slackened off and removed first by crawling out to the transoms. Until the next day when the launching nose panels were cut off by ‘578’ with oxyacetylene cutting plant they were pointing up to the sky like two huge arms in front of ‘Amazon’. The whole party worked like beavers and the task was completed with the ramping down done in record time. Everyone returned to the nearside and down came quite a stonk. The NCO i/c C and Sgt Clark crossed the bridge checking the ribband bolts on the decking. As they were checking, troublesome automatic fire hit the bridge sending a cascade of sparks in all directions. Then came another stonk. The enemy must have seen the tanks lining up to cross the bridge firing from a bearing of 230 degrees from the left.
0500 hrs. The nearside ramp was completed and the last of the 7th walked off the site. infact they were the last of the 4th Divisional RE to leave the site, climbing on to an already overloaded Jeep which had been purloined about eleven hours earlier driven by Spr/Dvr Pitt. Once he knew the way, he had driven the Jeep up and down to the site lifting the more seriously wounded to the ADS.
‘Amazon’ was finished ready to take the tanks of the 17/21st Lancers, there was a real doubt if it could do so. It had no baseplates, and on the far bank it was only bearing on the bottom cord of the inside panel on each side of the bridge with no packing on a shingle bank, and a very steep exit. At this point the primary objective before the operation began should be noted: “To build a Class 30 bridge capable of taking tanks.”
In spite of the doubts about its capacity to take its Class load, for two days it was used night and day, without pause, taking the tanks of 26 Armoured Bde, guns and supplies into, and wounded out of the bridgehead, quickly followed by the remainder of 2 DCLI 10 Bde, and then the 2/4 Hants of 28 Bde. As the infantry crossed snipers were still at work. Ably supported by 26 Armoured Bde, the Divisional infantry hit the enemy with attacks from all directions, resulting in the surrender of over 300 Germans many of them from the 1st Para Division. Their MG Bn was used to try and check the attack on Cassino, and they lost many MGs in the process, using the white flag judiciously, raising it as the tanks approached then putting it down to engage the infantry after the tanks had moved on. There was no stopping the infantry who stormed and took their objectives white flags and all.
2/4 Hants swept through capturing all the 28 Bde objectives and finally forced the surrender of a tough objective in the 8 Indian DIV’s sector known as ‘platform’ due to its shape. (The ‘Congo Bridge’ was pointed almost directly at the ‘Platform’). The survivors of the 2 Kings & 2 SLI assisted the 2/4 Hants attacks, and were then withdrawn from battle. Captain Wakeford of the 2/4 Hants was awarded the VC as a result of these attacks, the only VC awarded to the 4th Division in WW II.
The ‘Amazon’ had given the infantry a chance to show their paces and the Germans did not like it. The maintenance party of ‘578’ had a hard time keeping the bridge open. At one point it was closed for a short time whilst the decking was repaired due to it being chewed up by streams of traffic. Lt Hon G Cross RE, OC 2Pl ‘578’ was reported missing, later in the day his body was found, apparently he was killed by mortar fire.
It should be recorded that the detachment of 2 RNF worked with the 7th throughout the operation. The acting OC Capt Hodgart received a message of congratulations on the performance of the ‘Shiny 7’, from 8th Army Commander. When he came to write his dispatches for the Campaign Field Marshal Alexander commented on the efforts needed to build a bridge in the 4th Division sector. At least one historian believes Sappers saved the bridgehead.
It is generally agreed that the ‘Amazon’ changed the complexion of the fighting on XIII Corps front, and the Corps Commander considered it was the turning point allowing the battle to move on.
At Coy HQ the bridge builders could not believe their ears. After breakfast, the tea was laced with rum, lorries took them for mobile baths. A visit was made to a CCS where two of the 7th had wounds and the odd scrape dressed. They had a word with Spr Watson injured by a bridging lorry.(mentioned earlier). Back to HQ where numbers were checked, names of casualties handed in and a general make and mend ready for next session. Everyone then got down to sleep to the sound of a continuous crash of guns, but this didn’t prevent many from having a good sleep.
Lt A. Hobson MC took over OC of the Amazon Bridge
Photo by kind permission of Peter.Hobson
A message from Lt General Kirkman, Commander 13th Corps read thus;
Now that Cassino has fallen to your division, I would like to let you know how well I consider they have done. The assault across the Rapido was undoubtedly a most formidable undertaking, as the river, so aptly named, is swift and deep and the defences were well prepared and strong. The overrunning of the enemy’s positions was a magnificent effort, the work of’ your Sappers on the second night was first class, and the building of’ the bridge which allowed you to pass over your tanks was a turning point in the battle. Each subsequent advance which you were asked to do has been quickly and successfully carried out. What has been achieved will long be remembered as a credit to the 4th Division.
A fitting tribute from Field Marshall Alexander;
Here would appear to be an opportunity to pay a tribute to a distinguished British invention. Whatever the valour of the fighting troops, without the ‘Bailey’ to bridge the rivers and ravines of Italy, the campaign would have been abortive from the outset.
Amazon Bridge Recce Notes. Image Courtesy LT A Hobson MC, 7 Field Company Royal Engineers, by kind permission Peter Hobson
15 May. In the early hours the ‘Congo’ apart from the maintenance crew was deserted with no sign of the convoys it was hurriedly built for, 24 hours earlier. The intention was that 78 DIV should cross the ‘Rapido’ during 14/15 May with 11 & 38 Bdes ready to attack, and exploit the break in by 4 DIV and 8 Indian, in the event the attack could only be made by one battalion joined by one other during May 15, the main reason for this appears to have been down to staff work. The passing of so many formations through the ‘Mignano Gap’ a problem known long before the battle began. General Ander’s Polish Corps were waiting to unleash another attack on the monastery and the Canadian Corps were ordered into the Liri Valley with the objective of trying to bounce the ‘Hitler Line’, a formidable defensive work built with all the trappings of concrete, mines, wire and bunkers covering the river Liri. In the mountains across the Garigliano, General Juin’s French Corps had the key on their front mount Majo. The 2 & 4 Moroccan DIVS and 12,000 Goumier irregulars who had become something of a legend in North Africa traveling light with ponies. A Goum was about 100 men, three Goums formed a Tabour (Regiment) and they were commanded by French officers and NCOs. These mountain fighters were sweeping all in front of them ably supported on their right by the No1 (Motor) Algerian & 4th Mountain Divs. The French Corps had a large superiority over the enemy in their sector which was used to the full, confirming General Juin’s opinion of how the Italian campaign should be fought, always supposing that sufficiently trained, and equipped troops were available. The II US Corps on the extreme left of 5th Army were steadily pushing along the coast. On the Division’s front a large gun was firing its shells at the 17/21st Lancer’s laagers making craters large enough to bury a tank. Its target area was limited to a small locality and when the Lancers moved their tanks, they could hear the gun ploughing up the ground a hundred yards away.
0700 hrs 1 Pl continued to maintain ‘Congo’ with two sections until relieved by 78 Div RE at 0800 hrs.
1500 hrs. Major A. D Dawson was posted in as OC to replace Major Low, Lt Bocker returned from hospital, and CSM Gale MM evacuated.
16 May. 0800 hrs 1 and 2 Pls were hard at work making tracks down to the Pioppeto river marking the route with timber pickets driven into the ground, clearing the surface as they went forward. There was a complete change in the area. The smoke had cleared giving the enemy an unhindered view. The ground was more or less flat with hummocks to Cassino. Stonks began to arrive with increasing frequency, and snipers were on the scene but could not be located. Infantry were digging in as they were expecting a counter-attack. Smoke was requested and a smoke party from the pioneers of 2 Kings came forward to lay a screen to cover the area. Work continued using a Jeep found on 12th May on Amazon. (2 Pl managed to keep the Jeep for 2 months)
1700 hrs. The Platoons returned to Coy HQ, and orders were issued for a move back to Migano the Next day.
1800 hrs. 3 Pl crossed the ‘Congo’ into the bridgehead to work on tracks in the forward area where the 7th had worked since the 14th May. The area was under clear observation by enemy observers. Mechanical equipment was parked next to a scissors bridge , and the enemy wasted no time bringing down stonks. One operator was wounded and a bulldozer driver killed. L/Cpl Callow volunteered to drive the machine so that work could continue. The Platoon was subject to stonking throughout the night, and although there were no casualties there were a few badly shaken in the morning. Sometime previously the Americans removed the turrets from Sherman tanks and fitted a blade to the front of the tank, which was operated from inside giving protection from enemy fire, speeding up the work, resulting in a speed up of operations. The same can be said about forward gapping work and the clearance of minefields, and this is not hindsight, it was, and had been discussed years before. In the Anzio beachhead sappers spent time carrying out the same experiments as those the 7th had done at Crawley in 1941.
The enemy signalled a withdrawal bringing down heavy stonks in the Company area causing everyone above ground level to dive for cover. It appeared that ammunition was being used up, advertising the fact that he was not quite finished, but preparing to pull out.
17 May. Reinforcements arrived in time to return to Mignano at 1000 hrs when the 7th withdrew to rest, drill, make up lost equipment, and see a film show that evening. Tactical and Divisional signs were painted on vehicles.
18 May Thursday. The 1/6 E Surreys entered Cassino, at 0900 hrs. Earlier in the morning Major Thomas, 2 RF went up to the Monastery collecting a number of prisoners on the way, and met a Polish patrol which had just arrived. This link up of the XIII Corps and the Polish Corps marked the enemy’s defeat. One of the parachutists killed one of the Surreys with a grenade thrown from behind a white flag. Sightseers - press, photographers, the Army Commander and soldiers of all ranks including some from the 7th were soon on the scene. This came to a stop when a number of people were killed by a booby trap. The Cassino task force took over to clear a way through the town, and civilians came to look at the mass of rubble where they had lived.
The battle had moved on up the valley for the attack on the ‘Hitler Line’, it had taken five months to push the enemy out of Cassino, and the Guards marched out in daylight as they said they would do.
The 1st / 6th E Surreys enter Cassino town 18 May 1944 as the Allies penertrate the Gustav Line
Troops examine a knocked-out German StuG III assault gun near Cassino,
18 May 1944. Two 75mm AP rounds from a Sherman tank have neatly
penetrated its front armour.
New Zealand troops capture German Paratroopers Monte Cassino May 1944
The Medical Chain of Evacuation: An RAMC orderly makes his way forward under cover of the Red Cross flag to recover a casualty during fighting at Cassino.
A French family trapped in Italy tend the grave of an unknown British soldier Cassino Italy 1944
A Sherman tank moves through the ruins of San Angelo May 1944
Sherman tanks and infantry in the ruins of Cassino, 18 May 1944
Sherman tanks line up for the attack on the Gustav Line
15 May 1944
The Amazon Bridge By Terence Cuneo
This painting was commissioned by the Corps to commemorate the Italian Campaign in the Second World War.
The picture depicts the activities of the Sappers on the night of 12/13th May 1944, briding the Rapido River close to Monte Cassino. After a shallow bridgehead had been established it became imperative that there should be a bridge on 4th Division's front. This was acheived by Sappers from 7, 59 and 225 Field Companies building an 80 foot Class 30 Bailey Bridge under constant enemy fire, in under 12 hours.
Sadly 15 Sappers were killed and 57, including three officers, were wounded.
19 May Friday. The 7th prepared to move forward again but as the wheels were about to turn the order was cancelled. Instead at 1000 hrs a move was made with the remainder of the Division to a rest area at Piedmonte d’Alifa. The location was on a hillside overlooking the Volturno, entertainment by the ENSA, film shows, free issue cigarettes, NAAFI rations, issue of KD, church parades, baths, and a good rest came as a very welcome change. Platoons organisers got to work setting up laundry arrangements with the local population, goods in kind were bartered for local produce to supplement rations.
20 May. Colonel MC Richardson, paid a visit, he was then the commandant of the SME at Capua. A suggestion was put to him about building assault bridges well back from the river securely held by the infantry at least on the nearside, and to use tanks to push the bridge into position using a series of rollers. He wasn’t very enthusiastic, but few days later came the news of 8th Indian bridge ‘Plymouth’ launched on the back of a tank by the Canadian Sappers. The tank drove into the river with the bridge on its back and the crew bailed out of the tank as another tank at the tail of the bridge pushed into position. By this means at least some tanks were in the 8 Indian bridgehead early on the morning of May12.
A report on the ‘Amazon’ was ordered by the OC for Company History. It was to be a factual report prepared by Lt Hobson, NCO i/c C and HQ Sgt. A copy of the original which is unpublished follows:
7 Fd Coy RE Unit Tactical Recognition Sign
Regarding OR casualties, there is no source to obtain an accurate figure of the wounded.
As a result of the Rapido Operations the following immediate awards were made:
Major R C S Low MC, Lt A Hobson MC, Lt J V Barnes Mentioned in Despatches. Sgt F Clark DCM, Sgt T M J Riordan MM.
The group of pictures below are courtesy the Imperial War Museum
WORK CARRIED OUT BY 7 FD COY THE CROSSING OF RAPIDO
AMAZON BRIDGE - DAY 12- 13 MAY
1430 hrs. The OC called all officers, and NCOs to an ‘O’ Group to tell them all that 4 DIV Engineers would build Amazon Bridge. The Company was organised and moved off at 1700 hrs.
1830 hrs. The OC who was carrying out a recce with the CRE, was badly wounded leaving 3 Pl Commander as OC.
By this time all Sections had arrived complete in the “lying up area”. The acting OC who was on the bridge site collecting orders from 225 Fd Coy OC, was wounded. He returned to Coy HQ and held an ‘O’ Group with all officers and NCOs. It was not until after the Order Group that anyone knew the A/OC was wounded. He was forcibly persuaded to be taken to the ADS from which he was evacuated.
At this time the atmosphere was very tense, and the mortaring was very frequent during the Lying-up period.
1930 hrs. The order was given by the NCO i/c Construction: “We are going down to build This Bloody Bridge.”
1945 hrs. Unloading parties moved down to the bridge site to assist 225 Fd Coy unloading the bridge lorries.
The actual unloading took only 10-15 minutes. For some cause unknown there was a considerable time lag in the remainder of the bridge lorries arriving on the site.
2100 hrs. All lorries were unloaded excepting 2. At this time all 225 Fd Coy Sprs withdrew with the exception of the Bank Seat party. Building parties began arriving on site, at this stage the ‘38 Set’ which had been left for communication would not work. So runners were used to Tac HQ. This was not satisfactory, the reason was messages did not reach Tac HQ quickly enough.
The smoke party withdrew without giving any warning to the Bridge Commander, Lt Hobson who was now OC Company on the bridging site.
2130 hrs. An ‘O’ Group was held. 9 Section 3 Pl was detailed as smoke party. (the wind began to blow in the wrong direction, and continued to do so for the remainder of the operation.)
2145 hrs. Construction parties was organised. At this time HQ Sgt i/c Advance Party reported that the rollers were in position ready for building. 225 Fd Coy Bank Seat Party withdrew from the site.
2200 hrs. Orders were given to commence building. Casualties occurred NCO i/c Tightening and six Sprs. Sprs in building parties had to be used to take back wounded, thus causing a severe loss of labour, the Company Jeep had previously been asked for, arrived later to take casualties to the ADS which occurred later.
Immediately, replacements were asked for, later a Section of the 59 Fd Coy reported to the NCO i/c Construction, they were detailed for transoms and worked in that capacity throughout the construction of the bridge.
0200 hrs The body of the bridge was completed; some casualties occurred during the construction. Mortar, MG fire and Verey-lights at frequent intervals helped to slow down construction. The fact that the building rollers were 2’ 9” (they were in fact 3’ 7 1/2” and 4’ 1 1/2” per ‘225’ reports) above ground level necessitated a high lift for the panel parties. Between 2000, and 0200 hrs on the 13th May, 59 Fd Coy unloaded the two remaining bridging lorries.
During launching of the bridge on the Rocking Rollers, it was thought that an enemy patrol was trying to cross the river up stream of the bridge. Orders were given to take up alarm posts; A Spr was dispatched to Tac HQ asking for infantry assistance. (it appeared that no infantry had been ordered for guarding the bridge either during building or when the bridge was complete.)
A recce party from the 7 and 59 Fd Coys, ascertained that no enemy was in the vicinity of the bridge. Parties were recalled to carry on ‘Launching the Bridge’
0230 hrs. 6 Section, (2 Pl) 7 Fd Coy were ordered into the centre of the bridge to deck down. The remainder of the two Coys 7 and 59, carried up decking to the bridge. During this time MG opened fire down the centre of the bridge; the officer of 59 Fd Coy called all Tommy Gunners to the river bank. (it is felt that these actions caused delay, and disquiet amongst the men in the following ways. Majority of men with TS MGs were NCOs thus leaving their Sections without leaders. (the speed of work was decidedly slower after the incident).
0315 hrs. A Section of infantry arrived on site to give covering fire, the bridge was decked down to the fifth bay, and the remainder of the decking was placed on the tail as a counter- weight, the bridge was launched as far as possible by hand, as soon as the bridge touched the far bank, some of 7 and 59 crossed Bridge to position rollers. At this stage Corps Troops arrived on Site and began to assist in launching, and subsequent work.
0330 hrs. An order was given by someone for all 7 and 59 to withdraw. Bulldozer was used to launch bridge until it broke down; MG fire close to the bridge punctured the radiator. 6 Section (2Pl) 7 Fd Coy, who had not received the order to withdraw were ordered by NCO i/c Construction to complete Decking of Bridge. During this operation mortars dropped underneath the bridge giving everyone on the bridge a thorough wetting, and caused one casualty.
Decking of the bridge was completed and bridge was launched to final position by a Sherman Tank.
A section approximately of Corps Troops Coy, assisted officers and NCOs of 7 and 59 Fd Coys to ramp bridge down and take transoms and bracing out of Nose. (6 Section 7 Fd Coy also helped in this work.)
0500 hrs The Bridge was completed and handed over by Lt Boston to Corps Troops. This officer was wounded one hour before completion of Bridge.
During the whole operation the NFs who were attached to 7 Fd Coy worked throughout with Sprs.
(1)The terrain behind the building site was suitable for the following; building the bridge well back from the river edge, (approx 200 yards) and launching with tanks, without using Bulldozers to dose the near bank. The use of Bulldozers drew enemy fire.
(2)It is felt that RR should have been used for building because plain rollers did not allow the bridge to be spragged safely, when weight was in tail of bridge it had a tendency to roll back owing to the fact that the launch was up a gradient of 1 in 25 aprox.
(3)The NCO 1/C Construction, insisted that the bridge should have been fully decked before launching, as he felt that casualties would have been minimised by doing so, and would have saved time. It is a very difficult task to place Stringers on a bridge over a gap under fire. Also infantry could have crossed instantly the bridge was launched.
It is worthy of Note
That the bridge on the right hand side on the far bank, was only supported by first bay of launching Nose, and no packing of any description was under any part of the bridge, the river banks were made up and consisted of Shingle
22 May. A new directive was issued to General Alexander for the campaign of Italy.
1.The destruction of German Forces in Italy.
2.Seven divisions would be withdrawn for a seaborne landing ‘Dragoon’ in the South of France. This operation had been agreed provisionally sometime earlier in totally different circumstances than those prevailing now. If adhered to it would be a disaster for the campaign in Italy with the enemy in disarray. An opertunity to clean the German forces up would slip away.
By taking away over 25% of the allied force in Italy and at the same time say “destroy the enemy” could only have been political decision to ensure that there were no adventures in the Balkans.
23 May. 8th Army launched an all out attack on the ‘Hitler Line’, changed at the last minute to the ‘Senger Line’. At the same time General Alexander ordered 5th Army to break out from Anzio, and the agreed objective was Valmontone on an important road junction on Route 6, the main AXIS of the retreating beaten 10th Army.
24 May. The CRE addressed the 7th on the ‘Rapido’ Operation’, congratulating everyone on their efforts on the ‘Amazon’ calling it an ‘ENGINEER CLASSIC’.
25 May. A day in Naples was granted to all ranks, and a short leave granted to some of the 7th. It was possible to visit the wounded in hospital at Naples. One Sapper made the trip dressed as an officer with his driver, visiting a NAAFI to buy the correct tobacco for the pipe smoking OC, Major Low. There was consternation at the hospital when the RSM i/c administration and discipline made his tour of the wards; all was well, he: “Sir’ed” the disguised Sapper. The Americans great hearted as always could not do enough for the ‘Red Circle Boys’ who had remained over the ‘Rapido’ longer than the ‘Bookies’ 24 hours. ‘225’ Sgts generously apologised for leaving the 7th with a dirty job on the ‘Amazon’ and offered congratulations on the 7th’s efforts. EIGHTH ARMY NEWS and other newspapers printed their account of the ‘Amazon Bridge’.
This same day General Truscott commanding the Anzio Bridgehead reported that VI US Corps was advancing against light opposition and had taken 9000 prisoners. The Corps were through the German defensive crust, and expected to be in Valamontone he next day, cutting Route 6 along which they would head for Rome. At this time General Clark ordered a change of direction away from Valamontone by the main force, the commanders on the spot were staggered, instead of a Corps only a column was sent towards Valamontone. After issuing the Order through a third party to General Truscott, General Clark left Anzio and assured that he could not be contacted by General Tuscott. The Germans could not believe their good luck. 5th Army priority was to enter Rome first and not the destruction of the enemy. General Clark’s order meant that 5th Army would now take the direct route to Rome, never mind how many Germans might escape. The direct result of this change of direction was that the enemy were allowed to hold the main exit for the retreating 10th Army. Thousands should have been in the bag and not allowed to fight another day. This would cost the 15th Army Group dear in the very near future. To date General Clark has never satisfactorily explained his direct disobedience of agreed orders. As far as the Army Group Commander General Alexander was concerned it was ‘fail accompli’, and in any case the battle could not turn back. The enemy held 5th Army’s new thrust, and it was not until June 4th when the Germans agreed that Rome should be an ‘open’ City that General Clark could ride into Rome at the head of 5th Army. He has never said if his visit to see General Marshal in the USA during April had anything to do with his change of direction. When the news broke out later there was a deep sense of disappointment amongst the rank and file, and a feeling that something had gone wrong. This did not affect morale in any way but it was felt by them that they had been deprived of the fruits of victory.
Cpl A M Cloke and Spr A Robinson 1 Pl were injured using PIATS whilst training with the infantry and evacuated.
27/28May. Sadly Lt Wayne of the 17/21 Lancers, the tank commander of the tank that helped push the Amazon Bridge into position was killed near Acre. Its reported that he was in the process of being recommended for the MC as a result of the 'Rapido Operations'.
02 June Friday. A warning order to move was received at 0800 hrs. The 7th moved off at 1100hrs in glorious summer weather to Acre, from peace and quiet to within the sound of rumbling guns in the mountains. Enroute they passed the old haunts of Mignano, Trocchio and through the rubble of Casino with the wrecked Monte Cassino towering above. Buildings large and small were shattered with hardly a wall left standing. The countryside was wrecked every tree was a broken skeleton and the wreckage of war littered the area. The task force had a tough job on their hands.
The vehicles had hardly stopped in a field at 1700 hrs when 1 and 3 Pls left to double up two ‘Bailey bridges’ from one to two storeys.
03 June. By 0300 hrs 1 Pl completed their task on a 60’ DS. 3 Pl were unable to do their job on a 150’ DS as the wrong type of jacks had been sent out with the bridge. 2 Pl task was improving Route 82. Work continued on roads and bridges for the next few days.
04 June. Rome fell, and General Clark made his eventful entry into the city at head of 5th Army.
06 June. At 1215 hrs the 7th moved on a very slow journey west of Rome, arriving near Tivoli at 2300 hrs, and to add insult to injury, Rome was out of bounds to the 8th Army. News of the Normandy landings came through and gave everyone a lift. A lodgement had been secured, and the Germans had three fronts to think about and their homeland was under constant air attack.
07 June. Work began on water points which included testing suspect wells for poisoning.
08 June. 0001 hrs 2 Pl, still well under strength constructed a 30’ SS over a damaged culvert. 1 and 3 Pls worked on water points, roads and mine clearance.
09 June. The Division was now under command of X Corps, and 1Pl under command of ‘59’.
10 June. The remainder of the 7th moved to a location near the ‘Tiber’ using a school as billets. The 7th were now under command of 28 Bde in the ‘Brigade Group’. Lt Firsham returned from hospital, and was transferred to HQRE, Lt Reid was posted to ‘225’, and Lt Smart returned to the 7th.
15 June. Lt Roberts led 8 Section, 2 Pl reccing a new location at Grotte San Stefano near Viterbo. Care was needed choosing any laager, in particular buildings as the enemy had left some nasty surprises causing casualties to both the wary and the unwary.
16 June Friday. The 7th were on the move at 0400 hrs to Grotto San Stefano arriving at midday. In the early afternoon Platoons were working on roads, mine clearing. 4 DIV returned to the command of XIII Corps. Training at unit level began in preparation for brigade Group training. There were rest days, checks on kit, tools, stores and particular attention to MT. A massive ‘Make and Mend’ rounded off a thorough preparation for another operation. Time was found for a visit to Rome, the ban on the 8th Army had been lifted. And one group from the 7th made the most of an opportunity to see his Holiness the Pope. In their absence 2 Pl under Lt Hobson broke off from ‘Make and Mend’ to deal with an urgent call to clear a small minefield holding up a tank advance. About 40 Mk 2 Tellermines were lifted in a defile - the mines were laid between a steep hillside, across a road up to the banks of a river on the opposite side of the road. No A/P mines were found and the field was cleared in a couple of hours without incident.
21 June. The Division was scheduled to be in the area for at least 10 days as the Division was in XIII Corps reserve. The Corps were advancing towards lake Trasimine on a three Divisional front, right to left: 6 Armoured - 78 - 6 South African Armoured. Kesselring had gradually gained control of his forces, and they were told to hold at all costs in lake Trasimene area which he termed a tank track. In the meantime defences in the Apennines would be built up. This line was named the ‘Gothic line’ with the purpose of halting the Allies there to enable operations in Italy to continue into 1945, thus keeping the door into Southern Germany shut. Every means would be used to delay the Allied advance, destroying bridges, and communications as they withdrew. It was accepted that mines would be laid in profusion.
The Allie’s primary objective in the first stage north of Rome was to capture Arrezo, a large junction of communications which was the planned base for the attack on the ‘Gothic Line’. The effect of Kessering’s efforts was that the Division was ordered into action the next day with 28 Bde in the lead.
22nd June. The 7th were on the move halting at 1600 hrs with a further move the next day to a location vacated by 256 Fd Coy at Citta d Pieve. Platoons went out working on culverts and a water point. At this time the officers were:
OC, Major A D D Dawson. 1 Pl, Lt A Hobson MC. Recce, Lt B M Roberts.
2i/c Captain C G Hodgart. 2 Pl, Lt A L S Bocker. Recce, Lt P D Smart
3 Pl, Lt M N Sharland
23 June. 28 Bde supported by 12 Canadian Armoured Regt of 1 Canadian Armoured Bde, woul attack the 1 Para German DIV at 0945 hrs the next morning with 78 DIV attacking on the right.
‘O’ Groups were held, 2 Pl would send a Section to support 2 SLI & 2 Kings. 3 Pl were in support of 2/4 Hants. A steady trickle of casualties from the Rapido operations were welcomed back, and a number of reinforcements lifted the strength to something like normal. Moral was very high as the 7th prepared for the next day.
24 June Saturday. Sections made an early start to join the infantry. 7 Section, 2 Pl moved along a track in a ‘white’ scout car looking across a small flat valley at the enemy positions which were in standing corn. Heavy MG fire, firing directly over the ‘white’ car at the enemy confirmed that the Section was travelling in the right direction. They were glad to get forward to 2 SLI Tac HQ in a farm house at Strada which appeared to be a much safer place. The ‘white’ car was parked in a sunken road. The Section moved in with the cattle in a byre on the ground floor of the farm house. It was now a matter of waiting to be called for a task. The Canadian tanks in support swept forward down a slope from the area of the farm buildings. They crunched their way over a small stream which divided the corn field and ran right to left. The well trained Paras laid low until the tanks passed, then came to life as the infantry followed up, halting them at the stream by a torrent of MG fire. It was difficult to spot the enemy positions but when found by the tanks they were given short shift. Infantry casualties mounted, little if any progress was made during the day, though there was some progress I the evening. On the second night 25/26 June after a move forward to Badia via Poggio del Papa, the enemy brought his ‘Moaning Minnis’ into action, trying to stop the advance on Badia.it was easy to spot which farm was used for Bn Tac HQ with a column of all kinds of vehicles moving into the yard and around the buildings. A stonk began which hardly ceased. A counter- attack was mounted to push the SLI off the position they had won. The Section sat on the floor outside the main HQ room on call and prepared to fight as infantry but eventually they were stood down from one to fifteen minutes notice.
25 June Sunday. 2 & 3 Pls cleared wrecked vehicles, a tank, and lifted mines from the verges and generally supporting 28 Bde infantry. At 2100 hrs the OC and Lt Roberts were seriously wounded when their Dingo scout car blew up on an A/T mine. They were evacuated and eventually returning to the UK. 3 Pl cleared the track after this happened. L/S gt Lambert having a charmed life, hit a mine missed by the search party whilst driving a Jeep. He appeared to have contacted the edge of a mine and was uninjured. Captain Hodgart became acting OC and Lt Cummings acting 2i/c. the battle of Trasmine continued with heavy fighting for the next five days when the 7th in support of 28 Bde dealt with craters and opened up communications. Whilst taking food up to 2 Pl working parties Dvr P Maughan was wounded in the chest and evacuated. The enemy began to se the few aircraft at his disposal at night, machine gunning forward troops and they dropped cannisters of ‘Butterfly’ bombs. When the canister was dropped it opened discharging its load of bombs. The bombs had a stem with metal wings which whirled round causing the bomb to land lightly. They weighed 25 lbs , and were supposed to explode within thirty minutes of landing. They did not cause much disruption. In one attack 2 Pl down for the night in their shallow slits were attacked in moonlight. The aircraft had a look then attacked, the line of tracers could be seen striking the ground across the Platoon slits but no one was hit.
01 July. Major J H Bond MC became OC in place of Major Dawson. A running battle now ensued as the enemy pulled back to the Arrezo line on which he was determined to stand as long as possible. 8th Army needed this base as quickly as possible to build up for the assault on the ‘Gothic line’ before the winter rains came.
04 July. An officer and 30 ORs were attached from 91 Light AA Regt RA to assist with Sapper work. 2 Pl built an 80’ DS south of Dorna. The site was in flat open country, under observation by the enemy and on the main axis, but there was no enemy interference. On completion of the work the Platoon laagered on site for the night.
05 July. A recce party in the ‘Amazon Jeep’, drove as far as possible across country towards Tuori to 2 Kings FDLS, none could be found. The local population from Tuori fled down the slopes shouting ‘Tedeschi’ and there was a familiar stonk. Shortly afterwards an infantryman came lurching to the recce party’s OP. He was making unintelligible sounds and had obviously come to the end of his tether, but was not physically hurt. Unable to control his actions he was taken to the ADS and evacuated. Under the observation of the enemy, the Platoon filled in craters on the road between Dorna and Tuori without incident.
06 July. Soon after midnight (5/6 July) 3 Pl went forward to Tuori in support of an attack by 2 SLI who were trying to relieve 2 Kings. The Platoon was pinned down by observed shell, and mortar fire. Lt Sharland ordered a recce party to return, and check the road on a bend at the bottom of a hill leading up to Tuori from Dorna. L/Sgt Lambert with Sprs Thomas and Wilde moved off, and after being heavily stonked took cover in a house, where Spr Wilde was killed by a shell burst on top of a wall above an outhouse. Lcpl James made a number of journeys to the platoon who were trapped. Their wireless set was knocked out, and Sgt F Clark was wounded in the arm and evacuated.
07 July Friday. 3 Pl were able to withdraw at 0130 hrs, less one Jeep and a ‘21’ wireless set destroyed. As a result of the action at Tuori an immediate award of the MM was made to L/Cpl James. The battle of Arrezo continued for ten days until the 16 July. In the meantime work continued at pace. Movement in daylight was slow due to dust clouds into which enemy guns crashed down stonks. Platoons worked with only 50% of their number to enable the remainder to rest, bath, make and mend and sometimes watch a film show. Some managed to get to the 2 Kings HQ and watch an ENSA show from the back of a lorry.
16 July. At 0400 hrs the advance was underway. 28 Bde Group made a side stepping movement to the west and left of the divisional front taking over from the 12 South African Motor Bde of 6 SA Armoured DIV. The 28 Bde axis was now, Cennia-S Leolino-Galatrona- Mercatale-Riscasoli Hill overlooking Montevarchi. Riscasoli was known as the ‘Imragard Line’. The enemy had prepared a number of positions known by girls names in alphabetical order, and north to Florence they were: Imragard, Karen, Lydia, Maedchen, Olga and Paula. The Sappers were saying; “Roll on Paula”.
1 Pl supported the 2 Kings in the lead on the new axis named ‘Red Route’. North of Ambra they ran into both A/P mines & A/T mines. L/Cpl Tierney, Spr Lymes and another Spr were wounded by an ‘S’ mine one seriously. Two Sprs were wounded by the blast of a Tellermine, and all five were evacuated.
17 July. 2 Pl supported by a party from 91 Lt AA Regt RA took the lead. The roads were a mass of rubble, and then 3 Pl followed up building a 40’ SS. The next day 1 Pl built a similar bridge. Mine clearance, diversions, and water points were the order of the day.
19 July Wednesday. At 0200 hrs after doing a job at Mercatale Lt Sharland was mortally wounded in the head. After supervising the work of a bulldozer driven by Spr R Cherry (18 Fd Pk) his recce party were leading the bulldozer back with dimmed lights. Suddenly Lt Sharland fell sideways over the steering wheel and the vehicle went into a ditch. L/Sgt Lambert drove the vehicle out of the ditch, whilst Cpl Williams held Lt Sharland up in the passenger seat where he was sat. The only wound that could be found was a small hole in the head. Spr Cherry was left to find his own way back to the Platoon location. A stretcher Jeep was found to which Lt Sharland was transferred and then taken to the nearest ADS. Later the ADS contacted Captain Hodgart at Coy HQ to say he was dead.
20 July. 2 Pl took up the lead on Montevarchi-Cavriglia road supporting 2/4 Hants. 8 Section had an interesting view of a large enemy patrol withdrawing in a wood nearby. The Section laid low until the patrol passed, then they got on with the job of filling a crater. A number of enemy guns kept up a continuous stonk, and 3 Pl found that they were unable to use a D4 bulldozer due to stonking.
21 July. This was a ‘Red letter Day’ for the 7th- three ‘Sherdozers’ were attached from 2000 hrs, these were armoured bulldozers developed by the Americans and mentioned earlier. A Platoon of ‘225’ was attached, and built a 50’ SS apart from other road clearing jobs.
Lt Smart left HQ on an all day recce of bridges. His information before leaving in a Dingo scout car was that the enemy had withdrawn, but at the bridge the enemy appeared firing at the Dingo. Dvr L Dodge withdrew, and brought up some infantry. In the meantime Lt Smart was hidden by a partisan in a casa near the bridge. Later the partisan succeeded in bringing Lt Smart back to the leading infantry suitably fortified with vino.
22 July. Lt Barnes returned after a spell in hospital. He and Lt Smart were constantly doing forward recce, slowed down at times by small arms fire. The Canadian tanks supporting the Division were transferred to 8 Indian DIV, and replaced by 25 Army Tank Bde, equipped with Churchill tanks (Class 40), and the North Irish Horse was in support of 28 Bde.
24 July. 2 Pl built a 50’ SS at Cavriglia, dispensing with jacks, using transoms as levers to remove the rollers and fit end posts and lower the bridge on its bearings. They also built a 10’ SS one bay BB. The site was covered on the nearside by trees, and open on the far side where the road and ground rose steeply to a house overlooking the site. The enemy did not interfere, and must have been more concerned about withdrawing as the 2/4 Hants closed on Meleto, the ‘Karin’ line which they broke and were then withdrawn. When the advance pushed forward a German ‘Bazzooka’ (Ofenrohr) stove pipe was found loaded in a strong position facing the 10’ SS, BB, site.
27 July. Captain Hodgart the last of the officers who sailed with the ‘Shiny 7’ for North Africa in March 1943 left the 7th to take an appointment at the SME Capua as an instructor. Captain G E Corry returned as the 2 1/c. 28 Bde were through the ‘Karin’ line heading for Gaville. Frequent patrols were made with the infantry and sometimes the patrol included a partisan. One of the few prisoners taken by the 7th in Italy was taken by Cpl Ralph North of Meleto whilst searching for the Platoon who disappeared into the blue. The 28 Bde were now ordered to take an area of the Chianti Mountains, the advance was dominated by peaks of 2500’ and the Brigade axis wriggled, wound and twisted its way through the eastern foothills.
28 July. 2 Pl using two Sections and forty ORs of the attached 2 RNF built an 80’ DS on the road from Gaville to Pavelli opening the road to this village. The enemy stonked away with ‘Moaning Minnies’ causing one RNF casualty who was evacuated. The bridge was duly called ‘Northumberland Bridge’, the first named bridge built since the ‘Congo’, and was possibly unique being named after an infantry regiment, The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers who helped build it.
28 Bde closed on the river Arno near Florence breaking through the ‘Lydia’ line in the process. 2 Pl lost Spr Montgomery due to a wound in the foot and was evacuated. Whilst moving down to the river line on the nearside of the Arno the vehicle carrying a Section of 91 Lt AA Regt RA, received a direct hit. The vehicle was a ‘write off’ and the whole Section was either killed or wounded. Dvr Portsmouth was evacuated at the same time. Tanks were moving on the same route and always attracted maximum reaction from the enemy.
08 August. The Division’s task was completed, Paula had fallen, and the advance from Strada where it began was 65 miles as the crow flies and over 100 miles road, 1 DIV began to take over. Platoons withdrew from the river line in pouring rain during the evening to ‘7’ HQ. All Divisional and tactical signs were ordered to be removed from vehicles and uniforms, indicating a new pending operation which could be forgotten for the time being. The enemy declared Florence an ‘Open City’ destroying all bridges over the Arno except the Ponte Vecchio. Buildings were destroyed on the approaches to this historic bridge effectively blocking it.
09 August. In a typical dawn move the 7th drove away from Casciano, south via Route 69, passing through Figlini-San Giovanni-Montevarchi, to stir the memories of the advance and then taking Route 71to the northern shore of lake Trasimene-Assisi arriving in the Vale of Umbria at 1600 hrs, a quiet location facing west over the Vale. It was now a case for he Platoons to rest and be thankful. Camp was soon made, no need to dig in-a welcome change. This was the start of a three week period of rest, regular food, sleep, an immediate check, to bring kit, equipment, stores, weapons and vehicles up to scratch and prepare for a new task ahead. The welfare services went to work, backed and encouraged by the Divisional Commander, with sports, swimming at Foligno pool nearby where the Divisional Concert Party put on a popular show. Leave was granted for visits to Castel Gandolfo, (near Rome) and Lake Trasimene rest camps.
11 August. The Prime Minister arrived in Italy at 0630 hrs to give his not inconsiderable support to the new offensive planned.
16 August. 2 Pl went on detachment to Lake Piediluco, the place chosen as a permanent Divisional Rest Camp. The Platoon camped on the lakeside someway from the Rest Camp, opposite Piediluco on the other side of the lake. The work was a good change, erecting German sectional timber huts and general plumbing work in the main building. Sprs T Lawson and H Footitt had a Lucky escape at a later date, for some reason or another they were held up one morning, and consequently were not in the boiler room where they ought to have been when an undetected German booby trap in the heating boiler, blew up killing two of the 2/4 Hants.
Due to the Italian theatre taking a backseat and the 2nd Front total priority, various rumours circulated one of which took root and became the unofficial title of the CMF ‘The D-Day Dodgers’. A letter addressed to a prominent MP signed ‘D-Day Dodger’ cemented the title when the reply was received addressed to ‘D-Day Dodger’ the title was accepted as an accolade and as the ‘Lone Sapper’ would, say “Someone has to look after our interests”
Discussions about general procedures on recces took place with 28 Bde infantry formed in January, experience was being put to good use. 10 & 12 Bdes of the Division had worked together training for nearly three years before seeing action again in North Africa after the campaign in France and Belgium. All ‘Arms Recces’ were second nature to them but 28 Bde was catching up fast.
At this time the officers were:
OC, Major J H Bond MC. 1 Pl, Lt A Hobson MC. Recce, Lt J V Barnes.
2 i/c, Captain G E Corry. 2 Pl, A L S Bocker Recce, Lt P D Smart.
3 Pl, W E N Cummings
27 August. Lt General Sir Oliver Leese attended a Divisional church parade in the stadium at Foligno. Fifty all ranks represented the 7th under command of 28 Bde.
28 August. Spr L Kearns, 2 Pl was drowned in Piediluco Lake during the evening whilst returning from the village. Each evening one of the locals ferried a party across the lake to Piediluco from the Platoon camp. On the way back shortly after leaving the shore the boat capsized, all made it back to shore except Spr Kearns. A search was mounted for him that night and again in the morning at first light but his body could not be found. Eventually the body surfaced and 6 Section, 2 pl made a coffin and buried him in the local cemetery. Sometime later he was moved to the War Graves Commission Cemetery at Assisi.
04 Sept. 2 Pl less 6 Section moved to Company HQ in readiness to move forward. The intention was that the Division would remain in reserve and used for exploitation, once the break in the Gothic Line had been made. Maps as far as Vienna were issued, and NCOs were sent on courses to brush up their knowledge on river crossings with the river Po particularly in mind.
The attack on the ‘Gothic Line ’Operation Olive’ was primarily to tie down the enemy forces in Italy at a critical stage of the ‘Battle in the West’ where, it was hoped the Allies would launch the final blow to end the war- part of a grand design. The planners estimated that the 8th Army would take one month to break through to the lateral road, Route 9 Rimini-Bologna-Modena-Parma-Milan into what was thought to be good tank country? As much as they would have liked to, the 7th did not share this optimism. The county north of Rimini was marsh land recovered from the marsh by way of interlaced drains and canals, to say nothing of the river lines all crossing the intended line of advance. There was little difference in opposing forces strength. The Prime minister in Italy to see the battle commence was the only reinforcement received by the 8th Army from the UK since April 1944. There were no infantry reserves to use as reinforcements and ammunition was at a premium. The 8th Army required solid dry ground to use their superiority in armour. Fine weather was needed to show their paces. Landing craft were not available for a landing from the sea.
General Alexander agreed to the 8th Army plan ‘Olive’- to concentrate quickly and secretly on the Adriatic and punch through. He would then send the 5th Army into the Fray directed on Bologna. The 8th Army attack was going in at the hinge, and a vital point of the enemy line. Breakthrough would mean the enemy would be pressed back to the NW cutting his lines of withdrawal which ran NE towards the German Frontier.
The attack went in on August 25th and during August 26th The Prime Minister joined the Canadians in the bridgehead. The enemy had been caught on the hop as Kesselring admitted. He paid tribute to the 8th Army as magnificent fighters, and his hopes of using the Gothic line as a successful position against the decisive attack expected in the spring of 1945 were shattered. Until August 28th the enemy did not think that this was the attack by which the Allies expected to clear Italy. A number of their Divisions had not been committed, and a clue for them was obtained from a captured ‘personal message’ to the troops from the 8th Commander i.e the second paragraph. The full enemy force now entered the battle as the 8th Army approached Coriano a ridge leading to the mountains. There is little doubt that the enemy could not help but put his whole force into the battle at the point mentioned to slow down the 8th Army attack.
05 Sept. The Division was ordered forward. They would come under command of 1 Canadian Corps from September 7th and their task would be to assault in the area of Coriano. Once again the Division would charge the hinge of the enemy line which he must hold at all costs. At 2300 hrs the ‘Shiny 7’ rest cure was over, and they moved forward in inky blackness via Foligino-Fabriano-Sassoferrata, arriving at Sengallia in time for breakfast the next morning at 0730 hrs in an open field.
07 Sept. At 0030 hrs 1 Canadian Corps issued a warning order to move at 2300hrs, so anything could happen by that time and it did. The sky changed colour during the afternoon and a thunderstorm burst over a wide area changing ground conditions, and as it did so, at 1900 hrs HQRE were recording ‘ roads impassable’ owing to deep mud, heavy rain curtailed any further movement 2330 hrs ‘Shiny7’ bright as a button had prepared, and were on their way. At 2359 hrs all traffic was stopped frozen at the road side where they stood due to roads washed away and culverts destroyed. This same day the ‘Divisional sign’ was redesigned to appear in a new form, a red circle on a white square with the Fourth quadrant drawn out the centre, instead of the First quadrant been drawn out from the centre as it had been from the outbreak of WW2.
08 Sept. Weather conditions split the 7th‘s convoy. The move via Route16, Fano Pesarohad all signs of the recent battle with damaged vehicles enroute. Finally at 1430 hrs the convoy arrived at La Tombaccia halting in a large field. Vehicles were dispersed around the edge of a field and bivvies sprang up making camp. 1 officer and 24 ORs of the 61 A/T Battery RA, were attached to work with the 7th.
09 Sept. Water points were recced in the 28 Bde area, which was an immediate task whenever the BDE moved to a new location. For the next few days, running repairs, vehicle maintenance, checking maps, netting in the new No 22 wireless sets and fixing them into vehicles took place. Personnel had medicals and more innoculations. Clerks and the MO were then kept busy recording each Sapper’s AB 64, the compressed record carried by every soldier. Some of the information was off beam, once a name was incorrectly spelt it could rarely be corrected. One sapper found that his AB 64 Parts I and II (Pay Book) had adopted his Company nickname.
14 Sept. A short move was made at 1700 hrs to San Giovannia a small village. ‘A’ echelon remained at La Tombaccia. The rumble and roar of guns indicated that the battle was not far away.
15 Sept The 7th moved at 1000 hrs to a location three miles south of Coriano. Recces of the Marno river were carried out during the night of 14/15 September. The country was bare of cover, and the enemy had almost perfect observation of forming up areas, tracks and water crossings. It was a matter of attacking from one ridge to the next, with the attackers in full view of the enemy. The whole Corps artillery was used to support a battalion attack. The immediate enemy 29 Tank Grenadier, 98 infantry, and the familiar 1 Para DIV on the right flank were told: “hold on at all costs”. 29 TK Grenadier still had the majority of their tanks. when attacks were made the enemy appeared to allow so much time for his force to fight and be overwhelmed before bringing down heavy stonks on the captured objective. The ‘Lone Sapper’ explained: “ The ridge was captured, then we discovered that ‘Jerry’ had taken it back with him, there it was a few hundred yards ahead”.
16 Sept. 1 Pl had three casualties evacuated due to shell fire, Sprs R Smith, ANO, and Spr R Maietta who died later from his wounds on November 17th whilst in hospital and was buried at Naples. During the evening Coy HQ moved at 1900 hrs to within one and a half miles of Coriano and the enemy took exception bringing down a Stonk without causing any casualties or damage. The Platoons were out in support of 28 Bde’s successful attack in the area of Ospedaletto on the river Marno, and on to San Patrignano-Casa Arlotti-South of Frisoni ablaze with hay stacks burning brightly, billowing smoke. Enemy fire halted the attack and then all work which was mainly improving earth tracks, fords, and cutting through banks making defiles.
17 Sept. A new device was used to assist night attacks, searchlights were positioned on Coriano Ridge, and trained on the clouds above the objective across the Ausa river which gave a light almost as strong as a full moon and was reckoned a success. It certainly caused some consternation in the German Command who was unable to counter the device. The shrewd location of the searchlights reduced the effect of gun fire.
18 Sept. 28 Bde were now in reserve as 10 Bde led the attack towards that last river line on the Marecchia. 28 Bde had taken 130 prisoners and destroyed eight tanks including two ‘Tiger’ and ‘Panther’ tanks. The 7th found time to draw their pay, the problem was where and what to spend it on! The next day with the sound of battle all around, KD was exchanged for battledress. The Sappers dress for battle was denims and pullovers in reserve.
20 Sept. 2 Pl went ahead during the night September 20/21 in support of 2/4 Hants and 2 SLI attack across the Marecchia to the ridge beyond on the lateral road route 9 leading to Rimini one mile east from the objective Santa Gusta. The heavens opened up as if objecting to the searchlights, rain cascaded down dousing the searchlight beams, halting traffic, the tanks could not move. 2 Pl by a stroke of luck (judicious map reading) found a minor road which brought them on to the main lateral metal road south of the Marecchia to take shelter with the forward infantry in a large farm house heated by the number of bodies in it. The infantry left at first light leaving the Platoon with a very good billet and HQ.
21 Sept. Thursday. All non-essential vehicles were grounded. The Brigade took their objective and the Marecchia, a wide river had not presented the hazard expected. Work began at once improving the crossing places, roads and tracks on the approaches each side of the river. The 3rd Greek Mountain Bde trained to fight in mountains drove forward on the only piece of flat country on the whole front by the sea to capture Rimini, said to be the key to the Lombardy Plain. Coy HQ moved arriving at a location south of the Marecchia.
28 August. Spr L Kearns, 2 Pl was drowned in Piediluco Lake during the evening whilst returning from the village. Each evening one of the locals ferried a party across the lake to Piediluco from the Platoon camp. On the way back shortly after leaving the shore the boat capsized, all made it back to shore except Spr Kearns.
4 Division Rest Camp Lake Piediluco
22 Sept. The Division were ordered to stand fast. The routes into the28 Bde bridgehead were left clear for 5 Canadian Armd DIV to move up and take over from 28 Bde to launch ‘Cavalcade’ the advance into the plain (the Romago). The Platoons continued with maintenance of routes as more heavy rain fell.
8th Army had been sapped in the ‘Gothic Line’ fighting, when half of the 14,000 casualties were suffered by the infantry. 1 Armd DIV, was used to reinforce other formations. 56 DIV was reduced to two brigades, and all infantry Battalions throughout the Army were reduced from four to three rifle companies. A/T and A/A RA units were converted to infantry, and then used as reinforcements as none were forthcoming from the UK.
As rain came down in torrents the ‘Shiny 7’ continued to slog away improving routes over the river Ausa, forward to and across the Marecchia to route 9.
28 Sept. Hearts softened and a rum ration was issued. Swollen rivers washed away crossings on which so much effort had been expended- the answer appeared to be build bridges above flood levels.
01 Oct Sunday. An eventful day began with a church parade. 4 DIV returned to V Corps and at 2030 hrs the 7th moved to a new location near a small village of LA Villa south of the Marecchia. All vehicles were bogged down in a field during the early hours of Monday. After a good breakfast, vehicles were recovered and Platoons headed for the nearest ‘casa’. Vehicles clustered around the ‘casa’ and farm buildings on hard standings. Most of the casas had their own wine press, and fat arable fields grew abundant crops of water melons. All in all there was no shortage of drink of either one kind or another. Stone steps at the side of and built into the building led to a large communal room which in some ‘casas’ had small rooms on each side. There were two or three families living in one building supplemented by a couple of Sections, and they got on well together-usually the eldest female known to the Sappers as the ‘Gaffa Senorita’ controlled the cooking for the civilians, and not least the bartering, cost of laundry etc.
Lt General Sir Oliver Leese went to command 11 Army Group - SEAC and Lt General McCreery, X Corps Commander, was promoted to command 8th Army.
10 Oct. Work on roads and tank routes was handed over to 565 Corps Fd Coy and the next day there was a NAAFI ration, a sure sign that something was in the wind. A period of training began including work with the Plymouth Assault ‘Bailey’ Bridge carried on a turret-less tank, mine warfare, weapon training, drill, church parades, and soccer matches were played. Booby trap courses were part of a refresher campaign.
20 Oct. The 7th moved to a concentration area at Montiano. The conditions would be a severe test, apart from the enemy fighting as skilful as ever. Equal in numbers and supported by powerful artillery. It was easy for them to concentrate quickly at the danger point. 8th Army had received new equipment, heavier tanks, self- propelled guns and flame throwers, but they could not be used with real effect as they had been shipped without spare parts. Storm clouds began to gather over Greece, the German forces in that country were withdrawing leaving a political cauldron, and all the elements of a civil war. 3 Greek Mtn Bde, now called the ‘Rimini Bde’ were sent from Italy to Greece quickly followed by the 4th Indian DIV. Sometime beforehand the CIGS had estimated that Greece would absorb 50,000 troops if the situation turned sour. A surprise difficulty arose in connection with ammunition for the guns on which the Armies in Italy relied so much to force the enemy out positions and maintain pressure. This was entirely down to the planners getting their sums wrong, based on an incorrect estimate that the war in Europe would be all but finished in 1944. Once the cut in production was made it could not easily be reversed. The cuts were felt in Italy first, the 2nd front had priority. In simple terms the cuts meant that 7 out 10 shells were not available. Nevertheless 15 Army Group pushed on regardless of the difficulties advancing from one river line to the next in a limited offensive designed to create a springboard for a shattering offensive in the Spring. The immediate objectives to obtain reasonable winter quarters were 5th Army -Bologna, and 8th Army Ravenna.
4 DIV’s task in this scheme of operations was to thrust forward on the right flank of V Corps. The immediate task was to capture, and clear Cesena on Route9 astride of the Savio, both the 7th and ‘59’ were in support of 12 Bde making the assault.
21 Oct. Saturday. 1 and 2 Pl moved to the river line with ‘59’, 2 RF of 12 Bde. A supply line was required across the ‘Savio’, which was 82’ to 150’wide and 4’ to 10’ deep with a current of 5 knots. The banks were either steep or wooded, or soft and marshy. It was a formidable obstacle. There were two bridges in Cesena one of which was still standing with the centre span blown. The enemy was still holding out here and there, approaches, bridge sites, and fords came under heavy well directed shell fire supplemented by mortars. It was not possible to build a BB over the blown span on the bridge named ‘Keatings’ as the enemy kept up a continuous stonk, but an ‘Ark Bridge’ of four Arks over a ford enabled some tanks of 142 RAC to cross into the bridgehead. Heavy rain fell during the evening and the Ark crossing was awash. 1 & 2 Pl began building an FBE trestle bridge south of the Ark but stonks slowed work down.
22 Oct. the work was held up by heavy shell fire causing nine casualties in 2 Pl including Cpls Horsley and Smiles- Sprs Herbert and Pattison. Flood water swept the ‘7’s incomplete FBE bridge away into the ‘Ark causeway’ in which a gap was torn near the far bank. In the afternoon flooding of the river subsided. It was possible for the 7th to fill the gap in the ‘Ark causeway’ with sand bags, and then to build and operate an assault boat ferry, taking supplies across and evacuate the wounded.
23 Oct. Captain Corry recced the river line from 0200 hrs to 0630 hrs without incident. Due to the efforts of the 7th on the causeway Jeeps crossed the Savio with sorely needed supplies.
25 Oct. Company HQ moved into the town hall in Cesana and work was handed over to V Corps Troops RE. Platoons were literally glued in the banks of the Savio, having built FBE rafts, assisted with ‘Keatings’ Baily Bridge, and built an FBE bridge.
26 Oct. 278 DIV pulled back to the next river line the Ronco. The 7th moved forward to a large building in Forlimpopli south of the railway, and the enemy brought down stonks using SP guns on the location indicating he had excellent Ops. All units of 12 Bde were congratulated by the Army, Corps and Divisional commanders on their efforts in Cesena. The 7th apparently were too busy to record this as they filled craters, opened and maintained water points and recced the river Ronco for bridge sites on the ‘Gudrun Line’. A ford for tanks was found. As the first tank moved forward onto the nearside approach it was knocked out effectively blocking the crossing. The Loyals attached to 4 DIV and 2 DCLI crossed the river in pouring rain. Both Bns were cut off without support, and both bridgeheads were eliminated by the enemy using tanks causing a setback.
27 Oct. The 7th maintained Route 9, constructing a 40’ SS over a blown culvert and set up a water point. 3 Pl worked on the route with three ‘Sherdozers’.
30 Oct. Stonks caused inevitable casualties, Sgt A Little and Spr Hampshire 1 Pl and two ORs of the attached RA, were all wounded by shell fire and evacuated. The enemy kept up intense stonking of approaches, and FUPs. The next day a suitable site for a BB was found, and 1 Pl stood ready to bridge as soon as the 4th Recce Regt came forward to cross the Ronco.
02 Nov. work started on ‘Lords Bridge’ 180’ TS, a crib pier was erected on the nearside and subsequently swept away in torrential rain causing floods. Meanwhile three A/T mines were removed from the site and 2 Pl shooting a cable across the river with a PIAT made good progress erecting a SWR cable, and flying ferry in support of 10 Bde. Major Shore-Porterbecame OC in place of Major Bond MC. Next day the 7th finished the flying ferry and busily moved stores and personnel across the Ronco and ferried casualties back. working day and night continuously 60 loads were transported into the bridgehead. A second ferry was built with infanteers and the attached gunners of 91 Lt AA RA worked on appraoches.
04 Nov. it was decided to build a 190’ DT, BB at ‘Lords’ and not 180’ TS previously planned. The third storey was added by 2 Pl ‘59’(attached) using a Coles and Michigan crane. Lt Barnes assumed command of ‘Lords’. Infantry of 28 Bde laid Somerfield tracking on the approaches under supervision and at times work was held up by stonking. Lt General Hawkesworth was promoted to command X Corps.
07 Nov. ‘Lords Bridge’ was handed over to the‘59’ to complete. 50% of the launching nose had been removed. The bridge still had to be jacked down and some decking to be completed. A recce for a new site on the far bank was carried out and the 7th were now supporting 28 Bde attacking Forli airfield. Six store trucks sent to 2 Pl across the river were unable to return due to stonking and MG fire for some hours.
08 Nov. The OC left for the UK and Major S H A Johnson of ‘256’ 78 DIV was posted as the OC. In the attack on Forli airfield, Lt Barnes successfully blew down a bank with a ‘Wade’ charge to make a passage for vehicles. A ‘White’ Scout car was used to transport a Section of 2 Pl. an Ark and AVRE blew up on mines. A ‘Tiger’ tank made up for lack of excitement moving around buildings on the opposite side of the airfield. The assault party dodged out of sight taking cover screened by buildings, the cat and mouse situation continued for some time until the ‘Tiger’ veered off. The successful attack on Forli airfield was held as brilliant attack by General Alexander, showing as it did, outstanding co-operation by all arms.
09 Nov. Thursday. Company HQ made a move to a house near Forli, and were stonked. Rain was pouring down as they moved out after a direct hit on the building. Finally, finding a billet in the pitch dark. Shrapnel from a shell killed Sgt F Clark DCM, 3 Pl, as the Platoon returned to a billet after clearing a road up to Forli. ‘Typhoons’ blasted and machine gunned German positions, HQ s and stores dumps, in cab rank style with sustained fury. The enemy retaliated heavily stonking the area. The next day Coy HQ recovered stores, cooking equipment, and bedding from the rubble of their previous billet. Lt Cummings 3 Pl successfully recced the main bridge in Forli - the gap was 120’ and the Platoon cleared booby traps in the town when two Sprs were wounded and evacuated.
The enemy was taking a severe hammering, pulling back in disarray but they were saved a much heavier defeat, as snow and heavy rain closed down visibility grounding the air attack.
12 Nov. The Montone recces were completed without incident - Coy HQ received a direct hit on the cookhouse, Cpl E M Pirie and Spr G Spong were killed, Lcpl Brown and Spr Bradley were wounded and evacuated. HQ then made a prudent move to 1 Pl location. 28 Bde with the 7th in support were driving NW of Forli pressing the enemy back and beyond the Montone. The Division’s task was to push the enemy back to the Lamone river line which covered Faenza on Route 9, the 8th Army’s winter objective.
13 Nov. Coy HQ moved billets again into Forli, reported as less noisy, and a party went to a show in Cesena.
14 Nov. Cpl Pirie and Spr Spong were buried next to Sgt Clark. Mine clearing, filling craters, clearing nine pylons drooped across a road and the construction of a 40’ SS BB kept the 7th busy.
At 1900 hrs Lts Cummings and Smart under command of the 2 SLI recced the Montone river approximately three quarters of a mile NW of S Martino. The right hand recce party (Lt Cummings) was ambushed and six ORs of 2 SLI were killed - the left hand recce was carried out successfully, but enemy vehicles could be heard on the far bank.
15 Nov. During the night 2 Pl cleared the lateral road S. Martino - Villfranca of mines, obstacles, dropped pylons and trees. The 7th continued working on roads, water points, mine and booby trap clearing.
20 Nov. Platoons moved back in front of Forli between Route 9 and the railway line with the Montone flowing down the right of the railway, in support of 28 Bde who would exploit through the 10 Bde attacking towards Faenza between the railway and the river Montone. 10 bde would cross the Cosina a tributary of the Montone which flowed SW to NE at right angles across Route 9. The direction of the attack had the effect of outflanking the Montone. The 7th were busy sweeping areas and tracks up to the foremost infantry. Further back the cookhouse grapevine was well ahead of field forecasting that 4 DIV would soon be leaving Italy.
21 Nov. The 2 i/c Captain Corry left for an unknown destination with a party of 9 ORs.
At 0200 hrs 10 Bde attack went in. By dawn it was clear that the attack was not a success as only a few Platoons of the assault Bns had secured their objectives, and were under continuous attack. These attacks were broken up by 4 DIV’S guns. The infantry made a planned withdrawal to the southern bank of the Cosina. During the morning a new plan was made by the Army, Corps and Divisional Commanders- 4 DIV would take over part of 46 DIV front on the immediate left of route 9, across the Cosina and then wheel right pivoting on the far bank of the Cosina then continuing to and consolidating on Route 9 and if possible the railway. 28 Bde moved forward and took over the 46 DIV sector, 2 Kings made a firm base by sweeping the nearside of Cosina clear of the enemy.
22 Nov. The 7th sent recce patrols forward to the Cosina, 3 Pl worked on an artificial bank seat for an Ark bridge. A Section was attached to ‘59’ assisting them to make a diversion around a large crater. One Section of 2 Pl teamed up with an assault Squadron RAC/RE. 1 Pl moved to 2 SLI & 2/4 Hants to support the attack. 2000 hrs the attack went in meeting heavy resistance from the enemy in positions along the far bank of the Cosina.
2015 hrs. 2/4 Hants suffered many casualties in their FUA from shell fire, in spite of this they pressed forward. Searchlights in the 46 DIV area gave a little light, ground conditions were poor and no tank was to follow in the tracks of another. The infantry advanced into enemy positions over flat plough land and meadows. Nothing stopped them, and by daylight both Bns were firmly on their objectives waiting for crossings to be made for tanks and A/T guns to come forward to their support.
23 Nov. Sappers of the 7th and the assault RE worked strenuously to place Arks across the Cosina. Arks and tanks Arks and tanks bogged on the nearside. A few minutes after 0730 hrs the first crossing was open. ‘A’ Squadron crossed safely into the 2 SLI bridgehead, watched by Major-General Ward 4 DIV GOC. At 1100 hrs a second crossing was open, and although tanks bogged down as they advanced towards their objectives the enemy surrendered to 2 SLI.
1530 hrs. The second phase of the operation began as the infantry wheeled right, closing on Route 9 from Cosina Bridge, Piazzetta - Cosina Village and by nightfall all of 28 Bde objectives were securely held. Lt Hobson and Sgt Rogerson 1 Pl made a forward recce by-passed by the 2 SLI. They decided to check out a farm house, and found a wounded German on a rough bed with a wound in one leg. He could not be left and the problem of moving him was solved with a wheel barrow. A crude but effective sling tied around his neck supported his leg. They took it in turns pushing the wheel barrow to the nearest SLI HQ in a ‘Casa’. Bathed in sweat they went in and reported a wounded German prisoner in a wheel barrow. When they came out they found the wheel barrow was empty and the wounded German was fast asleep in a ditch.
3 Pl took over the maintenance of the Ark crossings under periodic stonks. One ‘white’ scout car was written off. 2 Pl with the assault Squadron RE were making fascines for AVRE’s to place in new crossing places. 1 Pl pushed on with 2 SLI & 2/4 Hants.
At home the Prime Minister demanded to know why the US forces in Italy were receiving 4 bottles of beer per week and the British only one. He gave instructions that the fighting troops were to have four per week immediately. In addition due to representations by General Alexander leave was to be given on a small scale to fighting troops. The PM insisted that this must be done, and ways had to be found to do it. Thus LIAP was born i.e. Leave In Addition to Phython. Python had been in force for a long time for soldiers with long service overseas.
During the hours of darkness there was a huge flash and explosion-bearings indicated that the enemy had blown the main bridge over the river Lamone indicating that he had withdrawn his heavy equipment west of the river.
24 Nov. Friday. The 2 kings continued 28 Bde’s successful advance to Corleto. There was no opposition, but delay was caused by mines, demolitions and debris strewn about by the retreating enemy. The final objective, La Palazzina about one mile west of the Cosina and Montone rivers were captured. The 7th continued in support, 1 and 3 Pls switching tasks, 2 Pl prepared with the Assault RE for a further operation in support of 4 Recce Regt now leading the advance to the banks of the river Lamone.
25 Nov. Routes were opened north to Route 9. At one point barrels were used in a crater, a method often used by Sappers in Wellington’s time. The Divisions on the left and right of 4 DIV also closed up to the Lamone. ‘59’ took over all tasks, mechanical equipment and attached troops exept the A/T RA who returned to their units to be trained as infantry.
26 Nov. at 1000 hrs the 7th left for Forli in convoy travelling south via Route 9 on to coastal Route 16, arriving at Porto Civitanova south of Ancona for tea at 1700 hrs. After a journey of 134 miles, which continued the next day to Citta S Angelo arriving at 1300 hrs. MT was spaced around a square in the town where billets were ready. the OC told the Company that they would be leaving Italy for a long awaited break, and that tools and transport would be taken over by 5 DIV, probably the most travelled Division in the British Army. 4 DIV would take over from them in Palestine. There was a big celebration that evening, and for the next three nights, tools were sharpened, store, equipment, vehicles were tested and cleaned looking the proverbial ‘Clean Bright and slightly oiled’. Surplus arms, salvage, and bedding was collected and taken to dumps. An order was given to burn all maps, and so it happens that there were no maps to hand in for that era.
01 Dec. General Alexander was promoted to Field Marshal back dated to the capture of Rome June 4th.
02 Dec. Lt Bocker was left in charge of the rear party, and the Shiny 7 left Citta S Angelo at 1700 hrs in a RASC transport for Ortona to board a train 30 to a truck. The train pulled out at 2030 hrs down the coast to Taranto where it arrived at midnight the next day. The 7th could put their kit down as they were to sleep on the train, marching off the next morning at 0800 hrs to Dowler Camp where a hot breakfast of M & V was waiting. Bivvies were issued for accommodation. transit camps are well known for its endless instructions, about tents, dress etc and Dowler Camp was no exception and transport was used for rations only. Kits were sorted out an passes were issued from 1800 to 2000 hrs for visits to the NAAFI. Baths were arranged at the docks in Taranto and MT loaned by 5 DIV arrived with Lt Bocker’s rear party easing the transport situation. Inter-Platoon competitions, and recreation was the order of the day as the 7th waited for ships to take them to Palestine.
09 Dec. Major-General Ward already in the Middle East received orders that the Division’s move to Palestine was cancelled and that the Division was bound for Greece. The cookhouse grapevine missed this losing its reputation for being in the know.
12 Dec. Lt Barnes and two Sections as Engineer support flew to Greece with 28 Bde less 2 SLI. The main body less the rear party embarked on ‘HMT Banfora’ sailing the next day at 1700 hrs. Elements of the 7th were in three countries travelling by Land, Sea and Air. Capt Corry’s party prepared to move from Palestine and catch up in Greece.
Ponte de la Viacchi blocked either end of the bridge with damaged buildings blown by retreating Germans 11 August 1944
Sherman tanks enter Florence
A column of trucks crosses a Bailey bridge
over the River Arno at Figline
11 August 1944.
Sherman tanks of 26th Armoured Brigade, 6th Armoured Division, lined up on the road north of San Benedetto, in preparation for the final push to Forli, 27 September 1944.
A line of supply lorries and their crews wait to move on during the breakthrough into the Gothic Line, 7 September 1944
Churchill ARK bridgelaying tanks passing through Forli 9 November 1944
Sappers of ‘225’ remove a shell placed by the Germans to destroy a cross roads on Route 9 to Faenza, 24 Nov 1944. British troops reached the area before the charges could be detonated.
7 Coy also worked on this road Nov 1944
An Achilles 17pdr tank destroyer crossing the River Savio on a Churchill ARK which was driven into the river, 7 Field Company RE worked on this ARK
24 October 1944.
This group of photos courtesy Imperial War Museum
2/4 Hants advancing on the Gothic Line August 1944
The Union Jack and the Polish flag fly over the ruins of Monte Cassino
18 May 1944
German Paratroopers in the ruins of Cassino
HMT Devonshire, The Shiny 7 sailed from Port Said 10 March 1944 and disembarked at Naples 16 March 1944
Shiny 7 War Diary 1944
RE Cap Badge during this period
King George VI
The above: Aerial photo of the Amazon Bridge 15 May 1944. Photo courtersy by Frank de Planta, www.cassinobattlefields.co.uk
06 March. Vehicles and stores were handed over to 46 DIV, and two days later the 7th were lifted by transport to Ataka railway station for the trip by train up the canal side of Port Said to a transit camp.
10 March. Shiny 7 embarked on ’HMT Devonshire’. At 1630hrs they set off passing a burnt out hulk of a ship on its side. The crossing was very rough as they passed through the eye of a storm. Many were sea sick and were very happy to sight land as they sailed through the straits of Messina then up the west coast of Italy to Naples. As the ship headed for the Messina Straits, it actually crossed the path of the 7th when it was enroute to the Crimea. They were landed on the ‘Golden Fleece’ at Gallipoli on April 1854 to build defence lines and then later sent to Sebastopol on December 2nd 1854. Many of the Company served with distinction and No 1078 Cpl William J Lendrim was the first O R in the Corps to be awarded the VC.
The Monastery was bombed 15 February 1944
01 April. ‘B’ Echelon headed for 18 Fd Pk Coy RE at Vitecuso, ‘A’ Echelon moved to Aquafondata, then four miles north, within striking distance of Cassino attracking a stonk by the 5th German Mountain DIV, the immediate enemy in the area. The OC and the Recce officers recced the new area, tracks, roads, crater points, materials etc. This area north of Cassino was won by the French and Americans, and it included a bridgehead across the river Rapido into the lower mountains guarding Cassino from the north. The positions were in full view of the enemy who held the formidable 5000’ high Mt Cairo, and a number of other mountains over 3000’ all of which dominated the area. During daytime there was no sign of life but then as dusk turned to darkness and until the morning mist cleared the next day, the whole area became a hive of activity. The Germans brought down the odd heavy stonk with shrapnel cascading down the mountain sides with hot metal showing up like big sparks from a fire. The takeover by the Division from the 3rd Algerian Division went quite smoothly providing it did not interfere with the ceremonies, three hour break for lunch by the Algerian DIV’S HQ staff.
Over the next two weeks the Shiny 7‘S HQ was located at Vallerotonda. The most forward location was at the northern end of the dry river ‘Inferno’ bed. French engineers had blasted a route through the narrow rock faced ravine with sheer sides, which made a secure laager. Platoons rotated between ‘Inferno’, and an assault bridge camp run by Canadian Sappers at Vairano. In the main this was a wet bridge camp using FEB. The 7th‘s strength was increased by 73 Indian Pioneers. A night task was to tour the tracks and roads towards Cassino in a scout car looking for any craters and damage to roads caused by shell fire. It was rare to see anyone on these runs and ‘Inferno’ was always a welcome sight. St Elia was absolutely dead and stank of decaying flesh. Buildings were wrecked and the odd burnt out vehicle littered the route across the valley to the foot of the mountain leading up to the village of Cairo.
16 April. HQ ‘A’ Echelon moved to Pietravairano. 2 Pl HQ and 5 Section were at Cairo and the remainder of the Platoon worked at night on roads in the valley beyond St Elia under command of 14 Fd Coy Canadian RE. Eventually recce parties of 2nd Newzealand DIV relieved the 4th Division and at the same time Polish recce parties appeared in the area.
19 April. The Company concentrated on training with Baily Bridge and FBE, the equipment was handled so much it was an automatic reflex to use any part of it. Both the Allied and German forces were preparing for better weather when the ground would be hard and less risk of a sudden storm sweeping away roads and bridges. The Directive issued to General Alexander in October 1943 required him to capture the airfields near Rome for Allied use in the air offensive against Germany. Hitler’s order to stand and fight ruled out any assault on the Balkans. Enemy forces could be held there on threat alone, achievement of the objectives in the Directive could only be won by accepting losses. The Germans were intent on holding the Allies at the narrowest point of the Italian mainland, Pescara on the east coast to the mouth of the Garigliano in the west. The whole front was mountainous except for the Liri valley guarded by Monte Cassino and the steadily rising peaks of the Appenines in its rear. Cassino was the hinge and prewar, the position was used as an example of an impregnable position by the Italian Staff. Intensive work was carried out by the Germans to give strength and depth in this line known as the ‘Gustav Line’, and at the same time the ‘Hitler’ switch line was built, later called the ‘Senger Line’.
Guns, tanks and MCs were dug in then protected with concrete, wire, mines and booby traps. Roads, tracks, likely observation points and river crossings sites were all accurately registered by guns and MCs. It was decided to attack the position on January 17th with a right hook through the mountains towards Mt Cairo, a river crossing one to two miles south of Cassino town, and X Corps making a push across the Garigliano linking with the Americans on their right.
On January 22nd ‘Shingle’ was launched at Anzio with the objective of cutting Route 6, the road to Rome, forcing a withdrawal by the Germans from the Cassino position. Surprise as expected was complete. The enemy moved Divisions from France, Northern Italy and the Balkans to seal off the landing, followed by a tremendous counter-attacks in an effort to sweep the Allied forces into the sea. The attack was halted by the Allied troops supported by the full weight of the Air Force and Navy .
Attacks across the Rapido by the 36 US DIV, and one by 46 DIV over the Garigliano just below the junction of the Rapido and Liri rivers were both repulsed. 36 US DIV was ordered to try again with the same result. The attacks by this Division were the subject of an enquiry by the US Congress after the war. The enemy far from withdrawing reinforced their position at Cassino.
Due to the situation at Anzio it was essential to keep up the pressure at Cassino. On February 15th the second battle of Cassino began with 600 ton bombing of the monastery, a highly controversial, much written about subject. The decision was an Allied corporate decision. General Clark was the 5th Army Commander under whom the attack was made and was as much responsible as anyone else.
To the soldiers on the ground the Monastery appeared to be the all seeing eye for miles. Enemy forces had defence positions near the Monastery, and the German High Command agreed that the Monastery lay in the direct line of resistance. They decided to hold the area and an officer of the Herman Goering Division removed most of the treasures from the Monastery before the bombing. Some lorry loads found their way to Germany, a lot of pressure was needed to have them returned to Italy.
2nd New Zealand, 4th Indian and the 78 DIV were formed into a Corps, commanded by Lt-General Freyberg. 78 DIV were held back to exploit after the initial attack, but the defenders held the attack and the enemy kept up his attacks on Anzio. General Alexander now decided to try something new, a different method and the Air Commander predicted that he would remove Cassino like an ‘Old Tooth’. On March 15th 1100 tons of bombs were dropped on Cassino Town coupled with an eight hour barrage of 180,000 shells. The Town barely a square mile in area was a mass of rubble, huge craters filled with water from the Rapido and the river Gari. The approach roads were flooded. Mobility was lost, Cassino was one big road block and the 1st German Para DIV came out of the rubble to successfully defend the Town. By March the 23rd the attack was called off. The accuracy of the bombing was at a premium, forward troops had to withdraw some way from the target, even so they suffered casualties, bombs fell 15 miles away destroying 8th Army HQ caravans. By now the Germans were down to about 500 operational aircraft, and by strike after strike their airfields were being pushed back towards Northern Italy reducing their effectiveness. Thus daylight superiority was won in the air. This gives a general picture of the situation and idea of the problems shortly to face 4 Division. The New Zealand Corps was withdrawn and 1st Guards Brigade took over Cassino to hold the ground gained. Major-General Ward, DSO, took command of the Division on April 20th. Promoted from a Brigade in the 5th Division serving in Anzio. He had risen to his present rank in fifteen years from the ranks, and at the age of 39 was one of the youngest Divisional commanders in the Army.
21 April. Whilst the 7th trained the OC recced the new location near Cassino. The regrouping of the Allied forces into national groups was almost complete and plans for a major offensive ‘Diadem’ were well in hand. The Adriatic Sector would demonstrate, a Polish Corps of two Divisions would strike from the S Elia bridgehead north of Cassino around the eastern side making for Route 6 to meet XIII Corps made up of 4th, 8th Indian, 6 Armoured and 78 Divisions. They would cross the Rapido south of Cassino. In the west four full strength French Divisions and a large force of Goums would strike from the Garigliano bridgehead into the mountains. Further west US II Corps would attack along the coast. A Canadian Corps and an American Division were held well back making preparations for a fake landing. The force at Anzio would be reinforced by the US DIV with the Canadian Corps and when ordered would strike for Route 6 and cut it at Valamontone an important junction on the road.
The objectives of DIADEM were:
1 Destroy the right wing of the 10th German Army on the main front.
2 To drive the 14th German Army north of Rome.
The whole objective was the destruction of enemy forces -places would fall as a result. It was estimated that Rome would be captured three weeks after the start of the offensive i.e. Before the planned date of the 2nd front, 5th June.
4th Division were on the right of XIII Corps commanding Cassino with 8th Indian on their left and both Divisions would make a bridgehead across the Rapido. 4th Division would then wheel right pivoting on the Rapido rolling up the enemy defences to Cassino and Route 6 to link up with the Poles.
Major- General Ward’s plan for the 4th Division attack ‘Honker’ was 10 Bde and 28 Bde on their left would make the initial attack over the Rapido with 12 Bde in reserve. 4th Recce Regt and 1st Guards Brigade under command would cover the right flank occupying Cassino. 26 Armoured Bde of 6 Armoured DIV would be under command supporting the Division’s attack with their Sherman tanks (class 30). In the period leading up to the attack 12 Bde would relieve 1 Guards Bde in Cassino and the 8 Indian DIV would hold the remainder of the Division’s front.
The weight of artillery would be greater than anything seen since the Great War, every possible site would be taken up by the guns and ammunition for the planned barrage.
A detailed, elaborate plan was prepared by the CRE Lt Col Nelson. Sappers would build rafts in 10 and 28 Bde’s sectors capable of taking small stores and guns across the river. At the earliest possible time three Bailey Bridges would be built.
To save confusion, it is as well to explain that the ‘Rapido’ river flows from the valley north of Cassino around the eastern side of the town, and the Gari flows through the western part of Cassino.
The Rapido joins the Gari at a point less than two miles from the centre of town.
From this junction of the Rapido and Gari the river is named as the Gari on,1:25,ooo maps. Wheras map 160 scale, 1:100,000 names the river as the Rapido to a point, eight miles from Cassino and about one mile south of San Angelo where the river Cesa Martino flows into the Rapido from the east, it is then called the Gari and becomes the Garigliano at the junction with the river Liri. The 4th Division history is one of the very few naming the river as the Gari. The operations officially become known as the ‘Rapido Operations’. In this account the river will be named as the Rapido - maps used to prepare the information was a 1:100,000 and two 1:25,000 maps used by the 7th at the time.
The bridges to be built from the north to south in the RE Plan were:
Amazon Class 30 225 Fd Coy 10 Bde
Blackwater Class 9 59 Fd Coy 28 Bde
Congo Class 30 7 Fd Coy 28 Bde
Under command 8 Fd Sqn 6 Armd DIV
578 Fd Coy Corps Troops
587 Fd Coy
8 Fd Sqn would support 26 Armd Bde.
578 and 875 would maintain, and mark roads and tracks east of the river up to and including all bridges. They would be ready to build at least one bridge, to strengthen and maintain others.
Smoke would be provided by the 99 Lt AA Regt RA using canisters provided by XIII Corps generating sites 50-60 yards up and downstream from the bridges on both sides of the river, and the clearance of Jeep tracks to the site cleared. Maintenance parties would carry respirators, and Liaise with 99 Lt AA Regt RA to move generators to neutral advantage as the wind changed.
Orders were issued with no fewer than ten appendixes covering all aspects; rations, water, malaria precautions, dress, (KD would not be worn) intercom, (with special diagrams) vehicles, mechanical machines, bridging material, reporting captured material, ADS for casualties and sick, localities for mobile baths, mobile laundries, cashiers, post office, report centre for British repatriated POW, cemeteries and salvage. Meticulous care had been taken to provide the ground work organisation. When the time came the whole of XIII Corps would have to move into battle along Route 6 through the ‘Migano Gap’. On the night no matter how many guns etc it would be down to the men on the ground. One point stood out - bridges were the key to the success of the operation as this was the only way armour and heavy weapons could cross the ‘Rapido’ flowing at 7/8 knots, with steep flood banks a width of between 50/65’ and depth of 7-9’. The nearest bank was exposed with no cover except flood banks which were low on the Congo site and shallow irrigation ditches. The ground sloped towards the river from the foot of Trocchio and was open for at least 400 yards. The far bank was broken ground , with ridges, streams and ditches some of which were A/T obstacles themselves. Wooden (schu) A/P mines were sown in large patches on both sides of the river and A/T mines infested tracks and ‘speedway’ ( railway line) running towards Cassino parallel to the river sweeping around trocchio from the direction of Migano. The Germans could be expected to have made the most of the time available to them, which was not inconsiderable to make the very strong defences. Strong enough to employ only light forces to defend the area directed by observers in excellent Ops secure in the mountains looking down on the battle area and far beyond the ‘Rapido’.
Trocchio afforded an excellent location for observation from the nearside and it was ’wick’ with OPs of all kinds.
23 April Sunday. Company HQ was set up at Mignano and Shiny 7 spent the next few days on intensive bridging, whilst Major Low and Lt Roberts led small parties on recces of the ‘Rapido’ to select a site for ‘Congo’. Major Low made several attempts to cross with a line until finally Sgt F Clark a very powerful swimmer swam across with the line to measure the gap, and recce the far bank. Lt Roberts party eventually contacted the escort patrol from the 3/5 Punjab Regt, of 8 Indian DIV holding the sector. The river line was about 500 yards from the patrol’s post and at this time the enemy had positions on both sides of the river, usually the patrols melted into the darkness and were very silent moving about and therefore as a precaution some sappers left their identity discs outside their uniform to indicate that they were British troops. The Password for the night was ’RICE’ and the answer was ‘PUDDING’. A halt was made at a slit trench so that two brothers could have a chat. Once this was done the patrol could move to the river bank. Lt Roberts used a Mae-West to make his crossing dressed in blackened KD, he had a problem with the steep river bank, but once the line was paid out by L/Sgt H Vincent he was able to climb up the bank to make the necessary measurements then slide down into the water for the return crossing but the moment he left the bank he was swept gurgling downstream. The line held him against the current, the river rising over his face. He slipped the line whirling further downstream, as the nearside loomed up there was no hand to grab and the current swept him on downstream whilst Spr Gardiner ran along the bank giving encouragement. Finally he was swept into a tree which he was able to grab, and was hauled out of the river up the bank to regain his breath. The two parties then met, moving up to Brigade HQ, where, as the recce had only taken two hours the OC decided to sleep there until 0500hrs the next day, when they continued to recce tracks until first light. The site they had chosen for Congo was about 850 yards west of the lateral road/track ‘King Street’ on the flat at the base of Trocchio.
26 April Wednesday. The main body of the 7th moved to Mignano, in pouring rain camp was set up and though the location was within shell range no shells fell on it. The location lay on the north side of Route 6 where the railway ran on the opposite side of route 6. Existing slits were improved, dug deeper so that with a bivvy over the top for cover against the weather, it was possible to stand up. Recces were completed for the clearance of mined areas to be used by 28 Bde. Tracks, roads and ‘speedway’ were noted as tasks for the period of preparation. Mines to be cleared were A/T Tellermines and the ‘Holz’, a wooden mine, A/P mine ‘Schu’, the detectors could not pick up the wooden mines. It was necessary to use either bayonets or prodders manufactured by 18 Sqn Coy. The prodders were simply pieces of steel drawn to a point, with a wooden handle. Most of the Sappers preferred to use a bayonet. Very few people had seen wooden mines before arriving in Italy. The 7th were lucky to have so much minefield experience. To give some idea of the extent of mining in the Cassino area, after capturing Cassino 500,000 mines were lifted in the town area alone by the Cassino task force.
27 April Thursday. Whilst showing Lt Hobson an area on the river line to be cleared of mines near the river line, Lt Roberts turned their Jeep near a small casa. Lt Hobson brought his party down unloading the truck some way from the casa which he approached on foot, and was about to open the door when there was a noise. He reported to ‘D’ Coy HQ of the Punjab’s. Block Sabib sent out a patrol but four Germans were escaped. A few nights later 1 Platoon’s escort of Indians opened fire on some forms seen in the distance. Luckily they missed the target which was a recce party of 225 Coy who had strayed out of their area.
In this period the three Platoons drove down Route 6 at dusk each evening turning off to the left along a track to ‘Speedway’ and the trucks unloaded on the lateral King Street. After contacting the Indian troops for covering parties the Sappers moved off to their tasks prodding for mines, making tracks good and then carefully covering the work with brushwood. Craters were filled in on Speedway, (railway lines) and attempts were made to unbolt the rails from the sleepers. Very careful inspection was needed beforehand and prodding to locate mines. To ensure railways could not be used, the enemy pulled a heavy trolley with a large steel hook at the back with the last engine. The hook lifted the sleepers broke them in two with the rails still attached, and placed the odd A/T mine here and there under the track in the ballast. 2 Pl found at least one No2 Tellermine. The Indian patrols were rarely seen until it was time to leave in the morning and to hasten departure salvos of ‘moaning minnies’ were fired at the sound of vehicles starting up. Once out on Route 6 - via Castilina cigarettes were lit to sooth tired nerves as the passengers slumped down in their trucks.
Sections of 1 Pl went off alternatively to 28 Bde Rafting Camp working with FBE. A Section of the 2 RNF was attached to 1 Pl working as Sappers, it should be mentioned that they remained with the 7th for a number of months doing invaluable work.
04 May Thursday. The OC with 2 and 3 Pls moved to a bridge site some miles from Mignano for special training to build Congo. A number of other units were attached for the operation, which were: 1801 Bailey Platoon and 343 G Pl T Coy, RASC and 10 ORs of 2 RNF to act as runners, a number of gunners from 99 Lt AA RA who would provide smoke, and a party of CMP to direct traffic. The location was a hideaway clear of troops and local population.
05 May. 1 Pl continued work on ‘speedway’. Spr S G Gunns was mortally wounded by a Schu mine which seriously injured both feet. Lt Roberts in command of the party and Spr Burke were slightly wounded but not evacuated. Spr Gunns was taken to an Indian ADS by Lt Roberts and Spr W Gardiner where an amputation was carried out, He showed great courage and managed a smile at the ADS. He was then moved to the 7 CCS where he died on the 9th of May at 1315 hrs.
At the hideaway bridge site the OC held an ‘O’ Group of all ranks including attached units giving the outline of ‘Honker’. 1000 guns were in support of 8th Army, and they would open fire at 11pm on May 11th with forty five minutes of counter-battery and stonks on HQs. At 2345hrs the infantry would begin to cross the ‘Rapido’ covered by a rolling barrage. ‘Bofors’ would be used to fire tracer as direction guides to infantry. 2 Pl would prepare the bank seat, and construct the bridge. Two Sections of 3 Pl would act as the bank party. Spr/Dvr J Smith dressed in a bathing costume under his denims was ready to swim to the far bank with a line. The bridge commander and others would wear tracing tapes to distinguish them in the dark, and the working party would carry their Bailey tools slung over their shoulders on a loop of spun yarn. Officers down to Section Commanders would be armed. Every aspect had been thought about very carefully, particular attention was given to the movement of vehicles from their parks and guides were detailed to lead bulldozers down to the site.
2000 hrs. Lt Barnes now in command of 3 Pl was ordered to recce the ‘Amazon’ and a cable ferry. The ‘Amazon’ appeared to be ok although an ammunition truck had been hit, on fire blocking the bridge. No one was using the cable ferry as the battle moved on. In this action Sgt Farrimond 3 Pl was wounded in the stomach by shrapnel, he was given first aid by L/Sgt Lambert and evacuated. The Italian attachment under their leader Basil, left the 7th, less two Italians per Platoon who would leave the 7th when the army reached the north where they lived.
About 2100 hrs. Orders were received by 4 DiV HQRE that the 78 DiV waiting to exploit the hole blown by 4 and 8 Indian Divisions would move into battle next day, 14th May. Another bridge was required immediately-this bridge was ‘Congo’.
2200 hrs. The OC of 586 Army Coy RE called in at the 7th‘s HQ for information about ‘Congo’. His Coy had been warned of the task to build ‘Congo’ whilst preparing for preparing for their ‘Annual Sports’ match. It will be recalled that the last time the two Companies had met was at Monkton - July 1942 in a sports match. ‘586’ were now under command of the CRE 4 DIV and they had to build the ‘Congo’ as quickly as possible for the move of 78 DIV into the bridgehead. The order given to them was to build 100’ TS Class 40 bridge. As much assistance as possible was given to them by the 7th including the help of the HQ Sgt on the site, where work began at once.
14 May Sunday. During the night the enemy sent in aircraft to bomb the bridges over the ‘Rapido’ in an attempt to damage the bridges and halt the traffic. The attacks were not successful. There was no other interference on the ‘Congo’ site. in the early hours the CRE expressed his dissatisfaction with progress, and decided to call on the 7th to do the job, but no mention was made of the change in the Class or length of the bridge.
0500 hrs. The 7th were ordered to take over the site - 1 & 2 Pls were called, washed, fed and moved off in single file to the ‘Congo’ once again, as they thought might happen.
0625 hrs. The party halted at the copse near King Street where cover was taken in the early hours of May 12th. An ‘O’ Group was held by the Bridge Commander Lt Hobson and construction parties organised with the same NCO i/c C. The bridge would be built as rapidly as possible as an assault bridge, and no one would go to the far bank until the bridge was far enough across for a Section to move over via the girders. The party were told the bridge was essential for the support of our infantry at the earliest time. This was the mood as the party strode on to the site, which was a shambles. Rollers had been laid, a few bays of the launching nose was complete, tools, stores, bridge parts lay here and there, in no order as if they had been dropped where they had been last used. In a short time the scene was changed with ‘Congo’ touching down on the far bank, and Cpl Smiles with one of the two combined Sections into which 2 Pl was now formed, clearing an area for the bank seat whilst the bridge was being decked down at the same time. The launching nose was rapidly stripped. Risks were taken in regard to mines on the far bank, but speed was essential, to complete the bridge before morning mist cleared exposing a prime target of some 70 Sappers beavering away in a small area. To cut time further the bridge was pushed off the launching rollers on to a grillage of sleepers, jacked to take the rollers out on the far bank and pushed off the jacks.
0830 hrs. ‘Congo’ a 90’ DS Class 30 bridge was ready for traffic 1 Pl remained on the bridge as maintenance party. 2 Pl made a thorough search of the area for Spr Moore missing on the first night without success. Only the body of a German was found. It had not been booby trapped. All of the 7th were pleased to have completed this task for which they had trained so hard, and especially the manner in which it was done. 2 Pl returned to Company HQ, where a Spr of 3 Pl was wounded and evacuated. Rather than strengthen either ‘Amazon’ or ‘Congo’ to Class 40 it was decided that ‘Blackwater’ would be Class 40. ‘59’ commenced work at 1700 hrs and completed a 70’ DS Class 40 by 2100 hrs. The opening of the bridge was delayed until 2230 hrs whilst the approaches were made 100%
About 1300 hrs.2 Pl now reduced to 1 Sgt - Cpl & L/Cpl, and 22 Sprs were ordered east of the Rapido to the DMA which was been set up on Queen Street at Point 33, to sweep the area of the DMA clear of mines. The Pl was able to sit comfortable in two Armd Cars. The track down to the ‘Congo’ was clear of traffic, 1 Pl gave them a cheer as they crossed Congo. They passed another RE Company clearing mines. A right turn was made at the Junction with Queen Street at the forward base of the ‘Platform’ to the DMA situated in a flat field beyond the ‘Platform’. There was a heavy haze covering the area, a sign of rain. A dead German and two mules were laid near the side of Queen Street as if they had been caught in the initial barrage. An RASC Sgt in charge of the DMA was organising a foxhole as the two Sections each working opposite sides of the field to the other, spread out in a line directed by their section Commanders laying a tracing tape as they prodded down the field of mines. The spindly trees in the area were all shattere and stripped of foliage. The enemy had dug into the reverse slope of the ‘Platform’ at track level (Queen Street), creating large underground rooms, big enough to house a Sapper platoon comfortably and suitably revetted. The barrage could not have touched this kind of lair. It was reported that a ‘Spandau’ kept firing bursts even saturated with small arms fire. The answer came when it was found the enemy took cover in the depths pulling a wire tied to the trigger.
2000 hrs. The work was finished without incident, and it began to rain. Queen Street became a sea of mud, and with the tanks of 19 Armoured Bde, 2 New Zealand DIV to relieve 26 Armoured Bde supporting 4th Division ditching themselves for the night alongside Queen Street, a convoy of about 40 15cwt supply trucks on their way to the DMA were bogged down trying to pass the tanks. 2 Pl trying to return to Coy HQ dismounted and bodily lifted the leading vehicle, a Jeep, out of and through the mud, and then set to work cutting channels into the ditches to drain the water from Queen Street, but this did not stop the flooding at the lower point of the road. Manpower could do nothing further to assist the immediate situation and the Sections were ordered to return to HQ. The convoy was towed through the mud one by one to the DMA.
M3A1 White Armoured Scout Car often used by the Shiny 7
Sgt F Clark DCM. KIA 9 November 1944
Youtube video: Cassino - A Bitter Victory