San Clemente

Main Brigade opened up again at 0900 hours on the 22nd in a house called Passatempi about a mile west of San Clemente. I visited the Skins that morning with the Brigadier of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, who was now commanding the sector. It was a fairly steep climb up to their positions on the eastern shoulder of Monte Grande, but it wasn’t too bad in many ways. It was a strong position and we had the observation but the Skins’ right flank about Sassa and Casa di Lucca was rather on forward slopes.

The enemy’s main position appeared to be on the spur running down from Cassa Muiano, through Anzellara down to the San Pietro road and on Monte Morlo and Point 362 south of the road. He had positions in front of this about Casa Tamagnin in the jumble of gullies and knife edges about Points 358 and 342 and thence along the spur through 278, Casa Sillaro and so down to the river bed linking up with Razzianeri on 11 Brigade’s front. There was, therefore, a reasonable margin of anything between 500 and 1,000 yards between the opposing Armies. The ground in front of the Skins was so steep and intricate that it was almost impossible to cover any of it with artillery fire owing to crest clearance problems. Most of the DFs had to be done by mortars. The same factors would be present in a fire plan to support any advance we might be asked to do on this front.

The London Irish came up from Castel del Rio on the 22nd. They were to take over between the Skins and the road, relieving 1st Division’s Recce Regiment. I met Bala Bredin at the Skins’ headquarters and, with David Shaw, settled one or two tricky arrangements connected with the common boundary. The London Irish were also to take over the Skins’ right hand company as I had to extend the Skins further to the left to take over the Bazzano neck from 1st Division. It was a nuisance this, as it put my right hand battalion mainly in the valley but with one company cocked up on the hill, geographically in the left hand battalion’s feature. We also had a troop of Canadian tanks in the valley, but we were never able to do much with them. There was also an anti tank layout of 17 pounders on each side of the river. When the London Irish moved up, the Faughs moved back from 36 Brigade’s sector to Castel del Rio for their turn in the rest area.

Monte Merlo gave the Bosche observation straight down our valley to San Clemente and right back to where the valley took a bend in front of Brigade Headquarters and both the road leading forward and Brigade Headquarters were in full view. This drawback was largely overcome by a permanent smoke screen, rather on the lines of the one we had had at Cassino, which were designed to screen off Monte Merlo from these attractive sights, which would no doubt interest the German. Usually, the smoke screen worked quite well, but one was apt to look out of the dining room window and see Monte Merlo looking you right in the eye. There was a tremendous rush to the telephone on these occasions to stir up the smoke boys into greater activity. Corps LAA Regiments used to supply the parties to keep the smoke brewing and they did well in overcoming the vagaries of the mountain wind. It was nasty stuff to live in, this smoke.  It used to upset people and make them sick until they got used to it. It also made you cough and splutter a lot but I don’t think it had any lasting effect.

By the aid of the smoke and the general shape of the ground, we were able to do practically all our maintenance by day. Not only that, but we could drive up to within a reasonable distance of every defended locality in our area. For the left battalion, we had a mule point about a mile north of San Clemente, which was less than 1,000 yards from Battalion Headquarters, with good standing for MT there and quite a reasonable track up the valley to it. 1,000 yards doesn’t sound much after what we’d been used to but it was a very steep 1,000 yards and, in wet weather, a very boggy one too. At its worst, it was a very stiff pull for the mules and they couldn’t always make it. However, Ronnie Denton got busy with his sappers and made a mule track, which stood up to things well. Sometimes, the smoke enabled one to drive to the right hand battalion HQ on the road at Casa Careggiana – it depended on the wind.

The troublesome part of the right hand sector was its forward post on the road at Point 156, the spur to the north of it and the valley behind it running up the Haunted House. There were scuffles round this area most nights. We used to send patrols along the road to the culvert about 400 yards in front and up on to the spur to the north. When we took over the sector, great stories were passed on to us about the boldness of the German patrols, who seemed to be making free on our front and getting all in and around the company localities. It wasn’t long before we got this situation reversed and there is no doubt we dominated No Man’s Land in front of us after a short time.

There was a good deal of harassing fire both by artillery and mortars when we first arrived. San Clemente crossroads, the ford just to the south of it and the Brigade Headquarters area came in for a certain amount of attention, but this gradually lessened as time went on. The odd thing was that the Bosche never shot at Brigade Headquarters at the times that he could see it owing to some temporary lapse of the smoke. Sasso and Lucca were the most shot at places on our front, though the right hand battalion’s positions and the farms along the road came in for some attention too, especially the battalion headquarters, who were occasionally favoured by the arrival of some enormous slug of a 210 nature. The harassing fire tended to be greater at night but as we did all our maintenance and most of our reliefs by day, we avoided a lot of this. Apart from the fact that we were a further hour’s run from our ‘B’ Echelons, administrative difficulties were infinitely fewer than they had been in the last area.

I took over command of the sector from the 2nd Brigade on completion of the London Irish relief on the night of the 22nd. On the 26th, the Faughs and the Skins changed over.

There was a certain amount of competition for the rest area at Castel del Rio so we decided to try to find one of our own as it became clear that we would always be able to have a battalion out while undertaking our present commitments. Paddy Bowen Colthurst found a very pleasant village called Castro San Martino tucked away on its own about 4 miles south west of Firenzuola and it was to this area that the Skins went on relief. It was an excellent place for the reserve battalion in every way. It was right off the beaten track, completely away from the sounds of war and, from the battalion’s point of view, there was always the hope that the river between them and the main road might become impassable and they wouldn’t be able to get out. In point of fact, this never happened. The only snag about the place was that it took a long time to get there – 4 to 5 hours would be reasonable going. Our plan was that each battalion would have about 5-6 days in San Martino.

Just about this time, another big plan was laid on. Its general theme fluctuated from an attack in aid of the Americans, still eyeing Bologna, to an attack in aid of the 8th Army, who were working up Route 9 – that long straight road that runs with hardly a turn from Rimini to Bologna. The 8th Army had begun working up this when we arrived back from Egypt; now they had captured Forli and were making plans to seize Faenza. They would have to be threatening Imola before it would make much difference to us. The Poles had done a very fine series of advances through the central Apennines between us and the 8th Army proper and had now reached Brisighella. Looking at the map, the 8th Army’s advance appeared an easy undertaking compared to the country in our neighbourhood. Apart from a few small rivers, there didn’t seem to be anything to interfere with their progress. As I write this, I am in that country that looked so attractive on the map and realise how much I underestimated the 8th Army’s difficulties. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking other people’s jobs are so much easier than your own.

Whoever we fought in aid of didn’t really alter the plan from the Divisional point of view. Our task remained the same in either case, namely, to surge forward astride the San Pietro road, 11 and 36 Brigades clearing the high ground on the right, ourselves opening the road and clearing the ground on the left with, we hoped, 1st Division conforming on our left flank towards Vedriano.

There were two main features on either side of the San Pietro road and about 4 miles ahead of us. On the right was Monte del Re and, on the left, Monte Castellazzo. Unless it was within the bounds of possibility to reach these two features in one general operation, it was quite obvious that we would be worse off than when we started.

So far, only two stages were visualised. The first phase was to capture the general line Monte Maggiore-Ortica-Point 362-Monte Merlo and, on our front, Calvana and Tamagnin. The second phase aimed at reaching Creara-Monte dei Morcati-Driezza and, on our front, the Anzellara spur up to and including Muiano. A further and rather nebulous plan on our front aimed at reaching two places – Casa La Miseria and Casa La Disperata. The more I looked at it, the more appropriate did those names appear to be. In any case, they were only half way to those main objectives, which I have mentioned. It did not seem, with the forces at our disposal, that there was the least chance of doing better than ending up in mid air somewhere where we would be completely overlooked. If the operations bogged down, we would then be very badly positioned for a long stay during the winter. The whole plan had a very unpleasant half cock atmosphere about it and I took a violent dislike to the whole thing. On our front, and looking at it from our own point of view, we should either stay put or reach those two hills, four miles on and I didn’t see how on earth this could be done, fighting with three brigades up and nothing behind us, staying put seemed the better alternative. This was not such a selfish attitude as might appear at first sight, because if we got ourselves into a jam, it wasn’t going to help anyone else, in fact it would become a liability. The only way, this plan could work was to do it when the 8th Army had turned the Vena del Grosso and were sufficiently close for their battle to have an immediate tactical effect on ours. It didn’t seem that this could happen just yet.

We went ahead with our plans, which amounted in Phase 1 to the Skins taking Nueva on the road, the Sillaro spur, Point 278 and Point 358; and the London Irish passing through them to take Il Molino Nuova, the Calvano spur and extend up to meet the Skins about Point 342. In this phase, the Faughs were to take Tamagnin and the spur between it and Point 342. In the Second Phase, the Skins were to pass through the London Irish and capture the Anzellara spur from Casa Anzarella to the road, the Faughs taking the Muiano area. I felt it was essential that not more than 48 hours should elapse between Phases 1 and 2. How we were going to get to Disperata ridge, no one quite knew. Certainly 1st Division would have to take Vodriano and Casa Vecchia at the same time or before. They didn’t quite know how they were going to find the troops to do that.

I was to get 56 Recce Regiment, less one squadron, commanded by Kendall Chavasse, to assist me during the operation. Their role would be to act as a stop gap. One squadron would take over the right hand battalion’s area up to Sasso in Phase 1, when the Skins moved forward; and the rest of them would take over the Faughs’ area on the top of the hill in Phase 2. Their mortar platoon would assist in the initial fire plan and their SP battery, which was already shooting in aid of us, would continue to do their good work on our behalf.

The Fire Plan for this project was going to be difficult owing to the crest clearance problem, which I mentioned before.The 4.2” mortars would be the most valuable weapons for the fire plan but certain difficulties had arisen over the employment of these, which I cannot go into at this moment. The next most valuable weapon would be 3” mortars and I had collected 30 of these. We hoped to use our tanks to shoot from the Sillaro as soon as we had captured it. The thing I dislike so much about fighting in this type of country is that if anybody fails to take their objective or lands up on the wrong side of a hill, either on your own front or to the flank, it’s quite possible that it will have disastrous results.

We made a large mud model of this intricate piece of country and spent a lot of time and thought in perfecting our plans. Most careful and detailed reconnaissance was carried out by each battalion and I don’t think they left an ‘I’ dotted or ‘T’ uncrossed.

Another trouble about this plan was when it was going to be put into execution. From now on, all that could get from anyone was that 48 hours notice would be given. This made the question of reliefs difficult. Should one relieve a battalion and send them back to Martino or not? It seemed as though they were almost certain to be pulled back within a day or so of getting there, but yet they might not be. COs were naturally averse to putting their chaps through the sweat of moving back there if they weren’t going to be there long enough to make it worthwhile and whenever the question of a relief came up, which it did every 5 days, this vexed question of whether the relief should be carried out or not always arose. On more than one occasion, I was urged by a CO not to do the relief as it didn’t seem as if it was going to be worthwhile. I am very glad that I stuck to the policy of always carrying out a relief when it was due as if nothing was in the offing at all. If we hadn’t done this, we would have got ourselves into an awful fix. Another nuisance, of course, was that it meant doing frequent triangular reliefs in order to put the right battalion in the right place in case of the battle being ordered.

Read ‘And with the Skins and Irish Rifles’.


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