Attack on Sanfatucchio

On 20th June, I went out on a reconnaissance with John Kerr, John Horsfall and Colonel Bob Purvis, the CO of the Canadian tanks. After I had put everybody in the picture, I had a look around from one or two viewpoints. This part of the country afforded most excellent OPs from my point of view. One could see the battlefield from several different view angles. The best view was from the Faughs’ castle on the lake, which looked right into the grain of the country. From there, with the aid of air photographs, I had as good a chance of seeing what was happening as I was ever likely to get. The General would have liked to have joined me there, but his communications would not allow the chance.

11 Brigade were having a hard struggle. The Lancashire Fusiliers had done their best to take Sanfatucchio but had been unable to and were having a bad time from mortaring and shelling. The Northants lay on their right, between them and the lake. The whole front was hardening. The 6th Armoured Division was held up on our right in front of Perugia, we were held up, and so were the South Africans and the French. The Huns were making a stand and they seemed to have a lot of men to do it with. They were fighting in a most determined fashion. It was no longer a question of just driving down the road.

The Irish Rifles moved forward to their forward assembly area before dawn on the 21st, with a squadron of Canadian tanks in support. Brigade HQ was at Panicale. At seven o’clock, the Skins moved forward to a concentration area about Macchie. The remainder of the tanks were also in this area. The Faughs concentrated about Panicerola. The stage was set for what proved to be one of the bloodiest battles we had yet taken part in and one of the most successful.

I went to see John Horsfall about 7am, at a brick factory, where he was making his final preparations. From what he had learned from Mackenzie, commanding the Lancashire Fusiliers, it was evident that he was in for a fairly tough day. He was as confident as ever and his plan was the best for a difficult and exposed advance.

Here is his story:

“Our task was to break through at Sanfatucchio and strike as far north as possible. Little did we guess. We thought we were in for another show like the Ripi advance. It turned out to be far worse that the Gustav Line.

The stage was set on Wednesday 21st June and we set off at 0215. The final orders were given out from the brickworks at La Chiusa, while the battalion debussed about a mile south of Macchie on Highway 71. At the former place, we met Colonel Mackenzie of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who put us in the picture and it was there that we began to realise just what we were in for.

Our fellow conspirators included, besides Douglas and his B Squadron, some of Ronnie Denton’s sappers, a troop of M10 SP guns, Freddie Cullen and his Vickers’ guns, Shillelagh and his mortars and of course, Paul, Allen and Bob Carey with all the artillery within reach. Finally, we had Butters and his 17 pounders of 254 A/Tk Regiment.

The kick off for the battle was most unsatisfactory as all possible lines of advance were overlooked by the Bosche in the town, who had a view rather like looking down on a billiard table. Furthermore, a proper set piece fire plan could not be laid on as the forward troops of the Lancashire Fusiliers were too close to the target areas.

The initial plot was to establish in the rear of the town by outflanking it from the west, and then assaulting the town from the north. This provided the best cover and was also good tank going. Further, there was a detached block of buildings on that side, which we thought would fall easily to a combined attack with tanks thereby providing a means of unhinging the rest of opposition.

Zero was at 0730hrs and, apart from some delicate shooting with one troop ranging with single guns, there was no supporting fire. B Squadron led the ball, while E Company had the task of getting to the town and F Company of seizing the higher ground to the north. Heavy shelling began as soon as the forward movement started and both companies and the tanks ran into concentrated MG fire from many directions as soon as they crossed the railway. The tanks, meanwhile, reached the top of the ridge and there was no immediate trouble from Anti Tank guns to the north and east. However, by 930hrs, Douglas had got some of his tanks to their objective behind the town and this in the end proved decisive. By 1030, E Company, supported at point blank range by one troop of tanks, blasted their way into the first block of buildings after very bitter fighting at close quarters. Their own casualties were heavy but the majority of the defenders were exterminated. A few wounded prisoners were taken.

In the meantime, F Company were having a frightful battle at very close quarters with Bosche in large numbers in the corn. At the same time, Douglas and his tanks were blasting the town to bits from behind.

Paul, meanwhile, maintained a smoke screen over the centre of the town until he had no smoke left and then all our artillery weight was switched onto the Felice cemetery and Pucciarelli ridge area, which were troubling F Company and Douglas particularly.

Ronnie Boyd and E Company were fighting a very gallant action in Sanfatucchio gradually storming the village house by house with most stubborn resistance by the enemy. Many, who tried to escape, were shot by the tanks. The German OP party in the church tower were eventually killed after a shot by Douglas’ tank had blown out part of the tower and the spiral staircase below them.

By 1pm, resistance in the town collapsed after four hours of violent hand to hand fighting. About fifty dead Bosche were found in the town alone. E and F Companies had suffered heavy casualties. Both were then told to sit tight and hold their gains, while Paul put down ‘Uncles’ on the next objective. H and G Companies, who at this stage had not been committed, were then ordered forward, H to attack the cemetery and G to disinfest the area around the town, which was still crawling with German MGs.

Throughout the whole of the battle, all our support weapons had performed prodigiously. The Vickers’ Platoon was in action in the Sanfatucchio houses within an hour of its capture, while the Mortar Platoon was lining up their weapons in the main street and square. The town itself, of course, was being plastered with everything the Bosche could procure. The 6 Pounder Platoon under Fitzgerald had also rendered remarkable service by driving their portees and guns up the main road to Pucciarelli at zero hour, off limbering at 400 yards under fire from a good many MGs and getting into action over open sights. The effect of this fire was that the Bosche in Pucciarelli were entirely suppressed during the critical opening stages and were able to give no assistance whatsoever to their pals in Sanfatucchio. During this early part of the battle, they fired over four hundred rounds of AP and HE.

H Company began their assault on the cemetery at about 230pm. One of our troops had already penetrated very close to the church there and were blasting away at the defenders and a little later on, our troop of M10s got into action too, though they were mainly engaged in suppressing the Bosche on the flanks. H Company eventually broke in after half an hour hand to hand fighting inside the church itself and within the cemetery. By this time, the 3″ and 4.2″ mortars were in action dealing with the Bosche on the ridge and crossroads and beyond the cemetery. The Germans counter attacked the latter at about 330pm, but many were caught by the 17 Field and the mortars. Even so, a fight with grenades and pistols ranged along the cemetery wall for some time. Webb Bowen even shot one Hun at the range of less than a foot. Unhappily, John Hunter was wounded at about the same time.

By 4pm, the cemetery area was fairly firm and F Company was put in to seize the crossroads north of the cemetery and E Company was ordered to try and get a foothold on the Pucciarelli Ridge. At this stage, all three companies had lost about a third of their strength and our tank losses had been very heavy. In fact, Douglas had only seven left. Happily, Douglas himself was ok.

E Company took the crossroads after two hours fighting in the corn and orchards, where they killed and captured a lot of Bosche. George Dunseath was killed when leading his men in a charge across the corn at several Bosche MGs at very close range. One of the tanks put up a very gallant show here motoring down the road Besa-ing the corn from the flank in front of F Company. Finally, of course, it was hit by an 88.  

While this was going on, E Company was assaulting a group of buildings on a ridge having successfully cleared the intervening houses. These, they finally broke into at dusk having then forty men left. Just as it was getting dark, both E and F Companies were counter attacked. Both attacks were broken up by artillery and mortar fire and the tanks near the cemetery also had a very good shoot. Even so, a number of Bosche broke into the buildings held by E Company. After about an hour, these were all killed or captured.”

When they were attacking, I had a very welcome and unsolicited testimonial of their magnificent spirit from 11 Brigade. The Lancashire Fusiliers had telephoned back to say how full of praise they were for the way in which the Irish Rifles had gone in. It is a rare thing for one battalion to praise another in a different brigade and I think this was one of the highest tributes that they could have received, especially coming as it did, from such a fine fighting battalion as the Lancashire Fusiliers.

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