The Skins at Piumarola

While the Faughs were busy accomplishing their task, which they did with their usual dash, information about the Lothian and Border Horse had been very hard to come by. I was in almost continuous touch with their Brigadier. He alleged that they were well out, a mile or two at least beyond Piumarola on our front. If this was so, we must obviously exploit their success and the General accordingly ordered me to capture the ground overlooking Piumarola.

This task I gave to the Skins and their own account is worth reading:

“On the 17th, the battalion enjoyed a quiet morning as the enemy was concentrating his harassing fire further forward. By now, this valley was one seething mass of every kind of mechanised vehicle nose to tail. The battalion felt snug and far from the war.

But about midday, things changed. Bttn HQ became the centre of the beaten zone of a Nebelwerfer. Orders came through over the wireless for the battalion to move to occupy three prominent groups of buildings around the village of Piumarola. Information, as to whether this village was already in our hands or still in enemy hands, was sketchy. It was reported that the Lothian and Border Horse were somewhere in the area and the Derbyshire Yeomanry were doing a sweep towards Aquino. The preliminary ‘O’ Group for this attack was a memorable affair, each paragraph of the orders being punctuated by the arrival of a salvo of Nebelwerfer bombs. The CO then went off with the squadron commander of a new squadron of 16/5 Lancers to do a recce from the Irish Fusiliers’ area at Massa Cerro.

The Irish Fusiliers’ area was found to be equally unhealthy. The Faughs were on the line of the road at Massa Cerro facing roughly north. No one knew what the situation was for more than 400 yards west of Massa Cerro.

(NA 15030) Original wartime caption: 6th Bn. Inniskilling Fusiliers moving forward to ‘Leapfrog’ the 2nd Bn. London Irish Rifles. A tank of the 6th Armoured Division is seen in background.

Accordingly, the battalion was brought up to the Massa Cerro area while, at 1415hrs, a patrol consisting of a troop of tanks and a platoon of infantry was sent to report whether Piumarola was held by the enemy or not. At approximately 1530hrs, they reported that Piumarola was occupied by the enemy and that they had contacted some of the Lothians at a point 600 yards from Piumarola between the road and Cassa Pistropaola. The Lothians reported heavy opposition from anti tank guns and SP guns in and around Piumarola and from a Mark VI tank up north towards Campolargo.

The CO thereupon went on a recce to where the Lothians were located while the battalion followed up.

A plan was made to attack Piumarola itself with A and C Coys supported by the squadron of 16/5 Lancers with a heavy concentration on Piumarola and the groups of buildings round it. At the same time, D Coy was to attack north to take the group of buildings around Campolargo. The Lothians were persuaded to support this part of the attack.

The axis of the main attack was to be through the olive groves on the rising ground to the north of the road thereby avoiding the valley of the Piopetto to the south, on the other bank of which were numerous A/Tk guns. A Coy were to skirt the village to the north and capture a very prominent building to the west of the village, while C Coy went through Piumarola itself.

Zero was fixed for 1745hrs and the battalion endured a very bad half hour shelling and mortaring in the FUP along the road to Piumarola. The start line was the transverse track joining Piumarola to Campolargo.

At 1745hrs, the attack went in with an almost indecent rush. The troops were tired of the lane. The one crossing for tanks across the start line, which was a sunken lane, became a bottle neck and there was great speculation as to whether the Mark VI, which was reported to be present would take advantage of the melee and wade in.

By 1800hrs, the tanks were all across and both tanks and infantry were approaching the village. D Coy was advancing steadily towards their objectives, and prisoners were coming back in a steady stream. They all belonged to the 1st Parachute Division and their appearance with their hands up was unusual and heartening. They were old enemies.

A certain amount of fighting developed in the village but, by nightfall, the battalion had captured all objectives and was consolidating hard. There was no counterattack. The battalion had caught the enemy before he was quite ready, for these Parachutists had come from Cassino.

Over 100 prisoners were taken in the battle together with 3 SP guns, 1 being intact. Several A/Tk guns and numerous small arms were taken. A large number of the enemy was killed. Our own casualties were comparatively light, being 4 killed and 31 wounded, most of them being sustained on the move up to the start line.” 

This battle gave the final death blow to the Gustav Line.

Bala Bredin was unfortunately wounded in the legs on the Start Line, but for some time declined to all offers of evacuation. In fact, he stayed there until he was able to see that the action was going right. He was eventually collared by somebody after he had fainted and removed to the ADS before he had time to expostulate. I turned up at the ADS not long after his arrival and found him in a great state of excitement and indignation at having had to come away, but rightly proud and delighted with the way his chaps had fought. They did extremely well that day – it was their second major encounter in three days.

I always think that one of the highest tests of the spirit of a battalion is the way they can compete when their CO had been knocked out. Just like the Irish Rifles the day before, the Skins went through to their final objective with unwavering dash. John Kerr, the senior company commander, took over in the middle of the battle and not only did he succeed in capturing all the objectives given to him, but went one further and captured Piumarola as well. The capture of this place on that day proved to be of vital importance. We had beaten the Germans to it and they had no alternative but to pull right back to their Hitler Line defences about 6,000 yards to the west. That action certainly finished off the Gustav Line.

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