Preparing for the Final Battles

I finished my last story on Barrosa Day. I did this because I really could not go any further in telling the story at that time without incurring the wrath of the censors and possibly even worse. I can now tell the full story of the last phase of the war in Europe without any let or hindrance. It is only four months since that Barrosa Day. In retrospect it seems more like a year.

When I got back from leave, I found everyone talking about either the Spring offensive or about “D Day Dodgers.” I had not heard this expression before but now it was almost universal everywhere we went. Apparently Lady Astor was alleged – possibly incorrectly – to have referred in these terms to the Army in Italy. Anyway, it had been taken up, and even ‘Jon’, the 8th Army “Two Types” Cartoonist had produced a cartoon about D Day Dodger. Bala Bredin had reproduced this D Day Dodger business all over his jeep, which was not viewed kindly in some higher quarters. So popular did the theme become that people started to write songs and poems about it. Bill Cooper and the lads of 214 Field Company produced quite a good one, which they were always prepared to sing at any gathering. I have included it as an Appendix.

We had now to prepare for two things. We had to train for the floodbank fighting on the Senio River, an entirely new form of warfare; and we had to prepare for a very mobile, highly armoured pursuit battle with the objective of exterminating the German Armies in Italy.

This floodbank business was the nearest approach we ever met to the type of Iife that I have always visualised the last war to have been.

Ground and, to a lesser extent, weather entirely dominates the type of warfare that one is to indulge in. When I was at home on leave, I was out on a pair of skis one day near Omagh and met a party of recruits from our ITC, doing what I believe is called basic training. They were wandering about disconsolately in the snow. I pulled up on a bridge and had a talk to the Sergeant, who was in charge of them. He had no idea, of course, who I was and probably mistook me for a local farmer. I asked him how he was getting on with his chaps. He said he was not getting on well because the snow was hindering their tactical training on the ground and it was very difficult to do what they were supposed to do. He said how could one train in snow. My answer was, how could one fight in snow? He said he did not know but hoped that they would never have to. His unrealistic attitude was typical of most of us before the war. I asked him if he realised that at the moment, the majority of the British Army were fighting in snow and that therefore to train in snow in the conditions that he was faced with at the moment was probably the most realistic training that he had ever done. He obviously thought I was talking rot and how could I know anyway. Eventually, I lost my patience a little and told him quite a lot of things about training and a variety of other subjects. He probably recognised me two days later when I talked to all the NCOs at the ITC.

I rarely mention this episode because in modern war we seem to be frequently faced with all sorts of freak warfare due to some particular formation of the ground. Whoever thought in England, before the war, of practising the art of war on the tops of the highest hills, in the Lincoln Fens or in the deepest snow of winter such as this Sergeant was doing?

Yet these types of warfare were those that we met most frequently in Italy. Salisbury Plain and the “GS heather” country of the Alder Command were no use to men or beast. Who, in England, would have permitted us to carry out our training through thick vegetation, crops, pheasant coverts and so on? Yet that was the type of country that we fought through in the Liri Valley and we were about to meet again. We have always been too much in the habit of looking for “A nice bit of country for a scheme”, instead of taking any and every type of country and discovering how the devil we shall fight in it with all arms. The principles of fighting remain the same but their application to this variety of ground requires very deep knowledge of them because it must be so different.

We had advanced from the highest snow clad mountains of the Apennines, abrupt and sheer in their minor features, to a flat, fertile plain covered with vines and crops and with very limited visibility. Cutting across this every mile or two were tremendous floodbanks, anything up to 30 feet high and 10 feet wide at the top. They often went up in terraces; terraces wide enough to drive a vehicle along. None of them were exactly the same. Each one had its own character. They were all too steep to drive a tank straight up them. In places, there were cart tracks traversing the side and sometimes ramps that a tank could go up. The rivers between these banks varied too in width, depth and speed of current. They had all been spanned by high level bridges – that is, from the top of one floodbank to the other. I do not think any of them had been left intact. Initially the Army had got across them by blowing through the floodbank and using a low level bridge, the high level bridge being made later.

Any visibility that there was in this flat country was either a floodbank or some high house and neither of these enables you to get a close view over the floodbank on the other side.

There was one good thing about this part of the world. Owing to the agricultural richness, there were plenty of houses and, owing to the nature of the vegetation, it was very difficult for the Germans to see many of them. The Huns had no Air OPs like we had.

There was an absolute network of parallel roads and tracks intersecting the country. We could, therefore, get about anywhere on wheels very quickly. This was a novel experience, which had not met anywhere before. Of course, a lot of them were dirt tracks, which meant driving slowly in forward areas to avoid attracting unpleasant attention from tell tale dust.

I have always been very keen on the sayings of that unpleasant man Bismarck – “Fools buy their own experience; I prefer to profit from the experience of others.” We, therefore, took a great deal of trouble in finding out everything we could of the experiences of others before undertaking this form of warfare. It was evident that two old fashioned virtues were going to play a large play in this contact: the use of small arms of every description and digging. Not just ordinary digging, but digging tunnels, as well as precarious earthworks near the tops of floodbanks. Plenty of shooting, therefore, comprised a large part of the preparation for our next spell.

We still had the major issue to consider in training too – the Spring Offensive. A lot of tank-cum-infantry work was necessary for this, with special regard to the intimate cooperation of platoons and companies with troops of tanks. We had had a good deal of experience of this already but there was always room for improvement and it is always necessary to check over everything very carefully when tanks and infantry come together who have not previously fought before in partnership.

The 2nd Armoured Brigade was to cooperate with the 78th Division during the coming offensive. This Brigade was commanded by John Currie, who had some very interesting experiences in escaping from the Italians earlier on. His Second-in-Command was Peter Payne Gallway, whom we had known well as CO of the Derby Yeomanry in 6th Armoured Division. He was just the sort of person we were looking for, as his knowledge of mountain infantry with tanks would be a great help in the forthcoming operations. The Bays were to be our Regiment. They were commanded by Margot Asquith, who had been at Sandhurst with me, and he had an excellent team under his command. It was evident from the start that this union was going to be a success. Other Regiments were the 9th Lancers and the 10th Hussars. At a later date, we had intimate dealings with them too – they were three magnificent Regiments.

A new form of warfare materialised about this time, the use of ‘Kangaroos’. The ‘Kangaroos’ were either turretless Shermans, which carried a section or “degunned” Priests, which carried two sections. The object of these machines was to enable the infantry to keep up with the tanks and to move over shell and bullet swept ground with a fair degree of ingenuity. We had never found that there was any difficulty in infantry keeping up with tanks on their feet but the second aspect of the use of ‘Kangaroos’ was a most attractive one. Up till now, they had only been used once in battle, in a rather specialised operation where both flanks were secure and visibility was very limited. Official opinion on the correct way to handle ‘Kangaroos’ was divergent and we really had to arrive at the answer to all these things by trial and error on the ground. The difficulty was to get hold of the wretched ‘Kangaroos’ to do this and, in fact, our regiment of tanks was elusive as well. Both had other commitments. Our Armoured Exercise, therefore, formed the other part of any periods we had available for training.

The 4th Hussars had been converted into this ‘Kangaroo Army’. They had been ordered to train with about five different divisions in a very short time and, not unnaturally, about everyone they were dealing with had somewhat different ideas. I was full of admiration for the patience and efficiency with which this distinguished cavalry regiment adapted itself to its very difficult role. They were all out to try anything.

Flame throwing was becoming popular at this period too. Each battalion had four ‘Wasps’, which were carriers carrying a flame throwing apparatus. They also had four ‘Lifebouys’, which were portable Flame Throwers as was the ‘Crocodile’, which was a Churchill tank pulling an armoured container behind it. In our practice in village fighting, we found much use for these Flame Throwers. It was also an attractive thought to singe the stubborn Germans on the floodbanks with this machine. Both ‘Crocodiles’ and ‘Wasps’ emitted a frightening spurt of flame, which the Germans never really got used to. I never heard of any German being seen with flaming trousers, but I think the reason for that was probably due to discretion being the better part of valour in the presence of Flame Throwers!

Various other engines of war were making appearance too. The Assault REs produced their ‘Arks’ and Avres, with which one could pass tanks over minor obstacles with remarkable speed. Sherman bulldozers that prepared the way for this equipment were invaluable – sometimes, they could do it so well that the ‘Arks’ were unnecessary. These things put a new complexion on the use of tanks in this ditch intersected country. Flail tanks which lashed the ground in front of them and blew up any mines in the way were another invaluable piece of equipment. Platypus grousers were fitted to the tracks of tanks, which increased their cross country performance out of all recognition and also their ability to get through boggy ground, which previously had immobilised them. Hidden in the background, a jealously guarded secret from all eyes, were the swimming tanks and the ‘Fantails’, which was to carry the accompanying infantry across rivers.

As well as everything else, a somewhat different technique of river crossing was required. The normal river crossing is generally rather a ponderous affair where the boats are carried slowly and carefully on tiptoe so as to make no noise and the boats are slowly and carefully put into the water without making a splash. It seemed to me that quite a different technique would be required if we had to cross those funny rivers. Boats could be brought up without any difficulty to the back of a floodbank when this was held by our own troops but the difficulty was from then on. Any hope of surprise was quite out of the question. Our technique in training was, therefore, to get the boats as close under the floodbank as possible and probably very near to the top and then go absolutely hell for leather with the boats (or even better kapok bridge), down the other side, across the river and up the far bank in as many places as possible. The drill for this took quite a bit of learning but the chaps got quite good at it. It was yet another thing that we had to work on in this all too short and hectic period.

Our Army was really well equipped for a fast moving battle over the country in front of us.

You will see we had a lot to think about during these days. There were also a lot parties at night and, what with the parties and training, and the thought that was required to arrange both, we were all kept extremely busy.

Read ‘Senio Floodbanks’.


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