The Skins capture Grafton

At this juncture, we can take up the story of the Skins in detail, as recorded by them:

“Patrols were sent out after dark to the top of Massa Vertechi and towards Massa de Vendettis to gain information about our own troops and the enemy respectively. A patrol was also sent northwards but after going about 1,000 yards found nothing, except one lost West Kent, and returned. A patrol to the south contacted the Irish Rifles.

(NA 14891) Sherman tanks assemble for an attack during the assault on the Gustav Line at Cassino, 15 May 1944. Copyright: © IWM. 

Everything was peaceful except for a few mortar bombs, and the battalion was sleeping soundly in a perimeter position guarding our own squadron of the 16/5 Lancers until at about midnight when a message arrived from the brigade to the effect that the highest authorities considered it essential to the success of the operation as a whole, for the battalion to capture the line of ‘Grafton’ by dawn.

This was a bombshell, which caused everyone furiously to think, and produced one of the more morose and sleepy types of ‘O’ Groups at about 0030 hrs. There were several factors to be considered. Firstly patrol information had established that the Hampshires were in possession, but slightly precarious possession, of Massa Vertechi. Secondly, patrols reported the near end of Massa de Vendettis clear of enemy. Thirdly, only a few of the Hampshires’ tanks had got over the river Piopetto, as one had got stuck in the mud on the far side of the existing crossing place and completely blocked the crossing. Fourthly, the moon did not rise until 0130hrs and would not be effective until at least 0200hrs.

However, the original plan was adhered to, commencing at 0300hrs. The chief cause for concern was that the tanks would not be with us at the crucial time, ie at dawn. The sappers were working away at building a new bridge, which would not be ready before dawn. Ronnie Denton and his lads were as indefatigable as usual in bridge building.

At first, things went very quickly and well. By 0400hrs, both leading companies were on Massa de Vendettis without opposition and the other two were passing through. On approaching Massa Tamburrini at about 0445hrs, both leading companies came under machine gun fire and the advance slowed down. At dawn, the two companies found themselves about 70 yards from the enemy positions in the standing corn, with a thick blanket of fog all around and enemy tanks nearby. One enemy tank nearly ran over a platoon commander in the fog. These morning fogs were a feature of the next few days.

Meanwhile, the sappers had succeeded in building a new crossing, the Squadron Commander came up on foot to the forward platoons, while the tanks were guided over the bridge at 0800hrs through the fog and across the marshy fields by battalion guides to just behind the forward companies. All this took time and the forward companies were told to hold on where they were and not to attack further until the tanks arrived. At 0855hrs, the fog lifted and the tanks came through the corn, artillery concentrations came down, and the infantry rose to their feet and joined the tanks as they came through. During the hour or two between dawn and this attack, sharp exchanges of small arms and 2“ mortar fire were taking place around the houses of Tamburrini, while the enemy DF fire was growing in intensity.

By 0930hrs, Tamburrini, amidst much Tommy Gun work and tossing of grenades out of Sherman turrets, had been taken, and dead and live Germans were to be seen in increasing numbers. Three 75mm anti-tank guns were captured, together with several machine guns.

A hasty plan for phase three of the attack was now made, which entailed attacking the high ground at point 86 and consolidating the line of ‘Grafton’.      

For five minutes at 1000hrs, the Divisional artillery dwelt on point 86, while two regiments of SPs fired airbursts over the enemy defences south-east of point 86. At the same time, the entire squadron of tanks smothered the observed positions of the enemy with HE and machine gun fire. At 1005hrs, B and C Companies literally charged over the valley with the tanks and established themselves amongst the dug outs and ditches south east of point 86.

A large anti tank minefield was encountered at this stage and several tanks were immobilised and later destroyed by enemy SP anti tank guns firing from the west and north-east. D Company was brought up from Massa de Vendettis and went on through to establish themselves at 1150hrs just across ‘Grafton’ to the north-east of point 86. At 1110hrs, B Company moved onto ‘Grafton’, south-west of point 86, while C Company remained on high ground to the south-east. A Company had, since the early morning, been turning Massa de Vendettis into a strong base position where they were joined by the supporting arms of S Company who experienced some difficulty getting over the marshy ground by the river.

A Company was then moved into reserve, just north of Tamburrini and Bttn HQ moved up to a position approximately 200 yards south-east of point 86.

The battalion reported all objectives captured by 1210hrs, and it is doubtful whether any troops could have taken it by dawn in the circumstances. The battalion, with the squadron of 16/5 Lancers and some very effective artillery support killed approximately twenty Germans, took sixty prisoners, captured five anti tank guns and numerous small arms and knocked out 2 SP guns and 1 Mk IV tank. The tank was knocked out on the left flank down towards the river, while one of the SP guns was knocked out about 400 yards in front of the battalion’s consolidated positions on ‘Grafton’.

Casualties had been comparatively light for an attack, which breached the first real hole in the Gustav Line. They amounted to two officers (Lieut Jackson and Lieut Milner) killed, Lieut Baxter and Lieut Phillips wounded, nine other ranks killed and 57 wounded.

The remainder of that day, 15th May, was spent digging in and hourly expecting counter attacks. The enemy harassing fire gradually grew to a pitch which has seldom been surpassed in the African, Sicilian or Italian campaigns. Artillery, SP, mobile guns, mortars and Nebelwerfers all concentrated their fire on our positions and the valley leading up to point 86. All companies and Bttn HQ suffered casualties that afternoon, though D and B Companies perhaps caught it worst.

By 1600hrs, all supporting weapons were up with the exception of two 6 pounders, supplemented by two 17 pounders of the Divisional Anti Tank Regiment. Our squadron of 16/5 Lancers were rallied back in a little re-entrant by Bttn HQ. They had done magnificently but had lost five tanks and some good men. A counter attack plan was organised with the tanks and the reserve company, A Company.

Several of the carriers, including two company ammunition carrying carriers, stuck in the deep ditches on the way up the valley towards the battalion, but ammunition was replenished.

Wounded were carried about 400 yards from the RAP to a jeep point. Much assistance was obtained from German prisoners, who were put to carrying wounded. During that day and the next, no less than 150 cases were treated by the Bttn MO belonging not only to the battalion but to the London Irish and Northamptons, with a large number belonging to the enemy.

It is of interest to note that there was no sign of the West Kents or of any friendly troops on ‘Grafton’ when the battalion first arrived. There were enemy both north-east along the Cassino road and southward across the River Piopetto. In the evening, friendly pressure from the north-east made itself felt and some Germans were driven southwards into our hands believing that the road still to be open. The village at Kilo 36 on the road to Cassino was still occupied by the enemy until nightfall when they withdrew pursued by mortar fire and fire from the Bttn machine guns”.

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