San Oreste

The 1st of June was a memorable day as the whole Division came into reserve. The weather was lovely, the climate pleasant and we were in a good part of the country. Frosinone had just been captured. Frosinone had always been looked upon as one of the big land marks to be reached. It was good news. The brigade was well placed in villages and farms and we all made ourselves most comfortable. Parties were held by all and sundry. The ‘Long Toms’ had long since left. The war was moving swiftly on towards Rome.

Smudger Maxwell left during this interval and the Skins were now commanded by John Kerr. It was not a bad record from Company Sergeant Major to Commanding Officer in about eighteen months, and well justified the selection proved to be.

Murphy Palmer arrived about this time from England and went as Second-in-Command to the Irish Rifles.

We lay in uninterrupted peace until the evening of the 4th when we were warned to send a battalion to the 9th Armoured Brigade on a special job, towards Tivoli, a town some twelve months east of Rome. The Faughs were nominated and James Dunnill went next morning to see what the form was. The battalion moved to a concentration area west of Frosinone. In the meanwhile, the French had captured Tivoli and so this party died a natural death. Rome fell. The Germans were going north at full speed.

It was not until the 7th that we got another order to move, this time we were to concentrate to the north of Rome the next morning. I never had been greatly impressed by the joys of driving in convoy and this seemed a great opportunity to rush off and spend a night in Rome.

Having seen the Faughs and the Tac Brigade HQ get under way at Frosinone at 8pm, I leapt into my Humber with John McClinton and set out for the Eternal City. It proved to be a mighty long way, much further than I thought. By our speedy departure, we were able to forestall getting caught in the hideous traffic jams that were a feature of that road in the next few days. Even so, it was about 11pm before we reached there. Already, every hotel seemed to be reserved for Americans. However, John McClinton went into one of those and shot a line about a one star General, which opened the doors to us. He got rather good at this technique as time went on. After a noisy night, I found it quite impossible to get any breakfast, so we set off to find Tac Brigade, to the north of the city and got there at about half past nine.

This was the end of a phase – we had passed through Rome. A new Italy, quite different to the south, was opening up before us. Rome, like Tunis, had been our objective for so long that its capture was a great milestone in the war. Moreover, it was a very fine city. I had seen few better. A very fine city left comfortably behind you to go back to when an opportunity presents itself is a good thing to have. We had come a long way, we had fought some bloody battles, we had lost some very good chaps, but the battalions had added laurels to their records. The next phase was about to start.

We thought we were going to concentrate about six miles beyond Rome, but we had underestimated the speed of advance. We finally concentrated the Brigade Group in the neighbourhood of Monte Oreste, where Field Marshal Von Kesselring had had his HQ. That evening, we sent a platoon of Faughs about six miles further on to guard about five hundred and sixty wounded German prisoners, who were found in the hospital at Civita Castelana.

Next day, the 9th June, a platoon of the Irish Rifles took over the guard of Kesselring’s old HQ. When I was commanding the Irish Rifles in Tunis, I had found guards such as this a profitable concern and I was expecting at least a reasonable discount for having given them the job.

It was a most astonishing place, this German HQ. It was in a series of tunnels burrowed out of the hillside. There must have been a mile of them. The sort of tunnels you could drive a car along. The Germans had set fire to as much as possible before leaving and the atmosphere of smoke in most of the tunnels was pretty suffocating. This did not prevent Dave Aitkenhead and his rascals, to whom Murphy Palmer had now been added, from investigating the possibilities with the headlights of a jeep. Wines, liqueurs and tableware were all of the highest order.

The South Africans had captured this place the day before and they were now leading the chase on our left towards Viterbo. The 6th Armoured Division were on our right rear operating on the other side of the Tiber. Viterbo was a place, which seemed to hold a hideous attraction for all sorts of people. The South Africans and ourselves were coming at it from the south east, the French from the south west and nothing daunted, an American Task Force  swooped into it across our front from the west. This sort of thing had happened before. One never knew who was going for one’s objective in addition to one’s self. Sometimes, it would only be different brigades or divisions converging on one area at the same time. In this case, it was two armies. This sort of thing used to hold matters up rather. The untangling of this inter army nonsense was apt to take them. Traffic jams were difficult enough to avoid without that going on.

One gratifying sight on all the main roads going north from Rome was mile after mile of burnt out German vehicles, varying from Tigers and seventy ton Ferninands down to Volkswagons. One seldom went more than a quarter of a mile without seeing one of these edifying spectacles. Some of it had been caused by the advancing armies, but most of it had been done by the Air Force. It was a most impressive, visible tribute to their excellent work. The Bosche slit trenches, dug every four or five hundred yards along the road as funk holes from air strafing, were a tribute to the air activity that must have gone on for a longish period along these routes to Rome.

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