The Skins and the London Irish, when they had been in the Right Battalion area had had experiences on rather similar lines. The Sillaro Spur was a place we beat up occasionally. This could be shot at by tanks from 11 Brigade’s front, if the mood arose, but they had to move at least half a mile to get to the right place for doing this. The knife edge, known as 358 in front of Lucca, was a feature both battalions had been probing pretty consistently. Sometimes, it was alleged to be occupied and, at other times, it wasn’t. In fact, there were some sharp differences of opinion regarding whether there were slit trenches on it. After a bit, I discovered that this apparent difference was merely due to confusion about which particular knob on the knife edge Pt 358 really was. Once this had been clarified, opinion no longer differed.
The Bosche gave our foremost road position at Point 156 a certain amount of attention. There was no doubt that they made several attempts to retake this place, but owing to the activity of our patrols, who were normally operating up to the culvert three or four hundred yards in front and on the knoll to the left, all the enemy’s attempts were still-born. In positions, we had here, where there is no continuous front, the number of patrols required to keep the Bosche subdued is considerable and it was a very nice balance that had to be struck between the number of men required to be a hundred per cent alert at night in position and the number one was prepared to use on patrols. There was always a certain amount of “pull Devil, pull Baker”, between the two requirements.
On the 30th November the London Irish captured two Germans, who were carrying out the job of a ‘Listening Post’ on the Knoll. Most prisoners we got, either genuine captures or deserters, were prepared to do their usual business of saying where all their friends were. In consequence, the Germans positions were all well known to us and if we were feeling vicious, it was very easy to strafe them effectively.
About a week later, a party of Huns crept up to the Skins’ position near Sasso and very nearly captured Sketch McGrath. Fortunately, however, the Bard was none the worse for the episode and was removed from harm’s way. Welcome, though his services would undoubtedly been in a Stalag, we felt that charity began at home.
On the 7th, the Skins tried a novel form of recce patrol. They suspected a minefield along the road to Casa Nuova and wanted to pin point it. That evening, just after dark, a patrol of four cows was launched down the road towards the enemy. The noise they made caused the Bosche to put down their DF, which frightened the cows back into our own position. A little later, the performance was repeated, this time the cows got a bit further before the wily Teutons heard them and their DF came down behind them. This caused the cows to step on it and they careered forward towards the enemy through the suspected minefield, apparently unharmed. Next evening, the cows came sauntering back again and reverted to the Skins for future operations. They were none the worse.
In the latter part of December, the London Irish picked up a deserter from 2 Coy, 3 Para Regiment at Valley Farm, sometimes known as the Haunted House. He was a young lad from Luxembourg and was employed by his company as a runner. He naturally knew the positions of his company and passed them on to the best of his ability. We also discovered the locations of Headquarters, supply routes and other useful items. He gave us some good tips for improving our harassing fire. The most interesting thing he told us was the details for a raid that was to be carried out that night on Valley Farm. He knew the route to be taken, the time and everything else. We rather licked our lips over the prospect of intercepting the raid and made our plans accordingly. That evening, whoever, we picked up an intercept on the air, originating from the 1st Para Mortar Battalion saying that the patrol to liquidate Valley Farm that night was cancelled owing to a deserter and the chance of a betrayal. It was fantastic that the enemy should thus confirm the degree of reliance that could be placed on one of his own deserter’s statements.
The Para Boys were notoriously stupid over the air. Another instance arose during their abortive attack on the Indians on Monte Cerere, which was on our immediate left flank. The Para Boys had succeeded in capturing a house in front of the Indians’ positions, which would have given them complete observation of the whole our administrative set up behind Monte Grande. It was vital that they should be driven out. 1 Division were preparing a fairly elaborate plot to do this. About midday, the Huns in this house started bleating on the air that they were running out of ammunition and could not possibly hang onto their gains for more than an hour unless someone came to their help. This bit of news enabled the Indian Brigade to launch an immediate counter attack with confidence of success and they drove the Bosche out before that much needed assistance could reach them. The Para Boys also had the habit of passing their daily ration strength over the area, which kept us pretty well up to date over his manpower situation. What with deserters and the Para Boys’ wireless, we knew all that anybody could want to know.
I will now refer to happenings on other parts of the front. On 29th November, elements of 1 Para Division attacked 1 Division’s positions on Monte Castellare and captured the battalion area. Counter attacks to dislodge them were unsuccessful and the Bosche were still sitting there when we left that sector in January. The loss of this sub feature didn’t help the plan if we were to act in aid of the Americans, but didn’t matter much if it was aid of the 8th Army. In the meanwhile, the 8th Army were pushing slowly on. On 5th December, Ravenna was captured and, on the 17th, Faenza and the next day, the Senio river had been reached and, in fact, had been crossed south of Route 9. This bridgehead made by the Indians was withdrawn next day. Slowly, but surely, the 8th Army cleaned up to the Senio river except its northern end. The Poles were coming up well in the middle and it was still possible that Imola might be reached. In 13 Corps, the plan had undergone some modification. By the second week in December, it was decided that we were to fight in aid of the 8th Army. It was further decided, and logically, that the attacks should come in along the Corps front from right to left instead of doing an almighty surge all at once. 6 Armoured Division, therefore, attacked Tossignano with the Rifle Brigade on the night of the 13th with the object of seizing that place and trying to pierce the Vena del Grosso with the hopes that the Poles would turn be able to turn its Eastern end about the same time. Unfortunately, the Rifle Brigade were unable to maintain their positions on Tossignano and the operation failed.
On the night of the 14th, 36 Brigade made the first move in the Divisional attack, working on the basis of clearing from right to left, as the ground dictated that. They attacked Maggiore from the east but unfortunately this attack also failed. As the capture of this feature was a prerequisite to 11 Brigade’s attack and, therefore, ours, it became clear that our project was indefinitely postponed. Just to add to the general troubles at the time, Castel del Rio was shelled heavily on this night by 17cm and 21cm guns and Rear Divisional HQ’s transport and records were almost entirely written off. It was very fortunate that none of the battalion admin points in the same area suffered any damage.
Why the Germans hadn’t shelled Castel del Rio before was a mystery to everyone. The transport vehicles alone in its immediate vicinity invariably topped three figures. It transpired that about a fortnight before this, some illustrated newspaper at home had pictured a picture of Castel del Rio showing what a hive of activity the place was. Whether the German shelling was prompted by their having seen this photo, or by the obvious offensive gestures that were being launched from it, is difficult to say.
On the 8th December, we were visited by Mr Stokes, MP for Ipswich. Among other things mentioned to him was getting Irishmen to the Irish Brigade. As he was half Irish, he said he would look into them when he got home. Judging by telegrams alleged to have been sent by the Prime Minister to AFHQ on this subject, he seemed to have done his best.
Bosche air activity was very inconspicuous at this time. In fact, it created a great stir when a solitary aeroplane came over us on the evening of the 10th and dropped a bomb harmlessly on a nearby hillside to the accompaniment of a great fusillade from the under worked AA gunners. They seem to have made sufficient noise to deter future activity by the German airforce.