On the morning of the 7th of March, I went and had a look round 169 Brigade’s front on the Senio, which we were to take over on the 10th. The greater part of this front was already on the floodbank and our orders were to keep it there. Our army consisted of the three battalions, the Bays, 56 Reconnaissance Regiment, ‘D’ Support Group, 254 Anti Tank Battery with, in support,17 Field Regiment and 501 Field Company, who were to be relieved by our own 214 Field Company, at that time away at a bridging camp.
There had been several changes in personnel lately. Dick Findlater had arrived from the 2 RIrF to be Second-in-Command of the Skins. Marcus Mahon was now commanding 56 Reconnaissance Regiment, Kendal Chavasse having gone off to a Staff job on promotion. Ronnie Denton had become CRE and Bill Cooper was now in command of 214 Field Company. John Barker came to Brigade Headquarters as Liaison Officer after nearly two years as Pioneer Officer with the London Irish.
The majority of the reliefs could be done in daylight, which was a great help and the administrative problem was nil compared with anything we had dealt with before.
On the evening of the 9th, COs and Company Commanders went forward to spend the night with their opposite numbers of the 169 Queen’s Brigade.
We were to have three battalions forward. On the right, 56 Reconnaissance Regiment were opposite Cotignola in considerable depth, having only two positions on the floodbank. Unfortunately, Cotignola overlooked this area and movement by day was not advisable in front of their RHQ. The Faughs were in the centre, up on the floodbank. The Skins were on the left, with all on the floodbank except their left company. On the Skins’ left was the Lwow Brigade of the 5 Kresowa Division. These were the people who had taken over from us in that vile area near Monte Cassino nearly a year before. We were very glad to see these warriors again, who had done so magnificently in the battle of Cassino. On the Skins’ immediate left were the Carpathian Lancers, who were temporarily under command of the Lwow Brigade. The Polish Corps were not occupying the floodbank and did not intend to do so and so there was no object in trying to get the Skins left up on to the floodbank as the Carpathian Lancers would not be conforming.
We carried out the relief of the three forward battalions without incident on the night of 10th/11th March.
When the Brigade took over this sector, there were only five enemy outposts on the reverse of our floodbanks. One or two tunnels had been dug through our floodbank, which enabled the Bosche to see what was going on. On his own floodbank, on the western side of the river, a lot more tunnels had been dug. These tunnels enabled the enemy to cover the river.
The river was not straight. There were several bends and twists in it, which helped both sides. It enabled us to deploy troops of field artillery in such a way that they could fire from a flank straight into the river with absolute accuracy. In some cases, it enabled the Bosche to see behind our floodbank from such observation posts as Cotignola. The enemy had built a number of rafts and footbridges across the river, which enabled him to man outposts on the reverse of our bank and made it possible for raiding parties to come across almost anywhere. These bridges were very difficult to destroy owing to the angle of fire. Any attempt by our troops to peer over our own floodbank almost always caused casualties, though at night PIATs came into their own for smashing up the bridges.
By day, sniping and a few odd stonks were the form but as soon as it got dark, a veritable furore used to start up. It sounded like a rifle meeting gone mad. Grenade duels, machine gun fire and mortar stonks were continually going on from both sides. Most of the raids on our side were swept by spandaus in the forward company areas. This racket used to go on most of the night. There was very little shelling. The real characteristic of this fighting was that the infantry were in very close contact – sometimes only about 8 to 10 yards apart – and that it was the infantryman’s war almost entirely. There was now an enemy that our soldiers could get to grips with, relying on their own skills and their own weapons entirely. There was someone that they could vent their spleen on.
Cautiously at first, but getting ever bolder, the battalions started out making life unpleasant for the Germans on their side. Patrolling, in the ordinary sense, was inappropriate. The technique was to locate and gain full details of some Bosche position and then, during the night, send a section along the floodbank to deal with it. Mines were the biggest curse and, over uncharted floodbank, it was necessary for mine prodders to lead the way.
Some fine feats were carried out in the elimination of German positions. Sergeant Doherty, with the Skins’ Battle Patrol, eliminated a Spandau position, which had been giving them some trouble on their left. After the attentions of this patrol, it never showed its leg again. There was considerable scope for ingenuity in finding new ways for eliminating the Krauts. Some horrible contrivances were put together by various experts. Sergeant Cross of the Faughs spent all day inventing novelties for the entertainment of the Germans. We certainly gave them plenty to think about. Tanks used to come up and fire point blank into any Bosche positions that could be spotted on our side. Sometimes, they clambered up the floodbank and lashed into positions on the other side as well. I do not know how they got away with all this, because the Bosche had plenty of Bazookas. However, we certainly had no tank casualties. The squadron of Bays, who were forward with us at this time, used to have some sort of diversion laid on almost every day and we kept the tanks trundling round at odd hours just to keep the enemy used to the idea.
The Skins were rather troubled at first by a gap in the floodbank through which the Bosche used to shoot and snipe. One night, therefore, they erected a system of screens, even the large cover of a carrier was used in one place. They had considered painting a picture of Hitler on this screen, but time and the necessary paint were not available. This screening was very effective and, oddly enough, the Bosche never tried to remove them. I suppose they must have thought they were some sort of trap.
Periscopes were very much to the fore and, after strafing the opposite floodbank, it was not difficult to assess the damage to the Bosche by watching the activities of their stretcher bearers through a periscope. Unfortunately, people began to get a little over bold with their success and tried looking over the bank instead of using the periscope. We lost two very good officers like this, George Murray of the Skins and Bartlett of the Faughs.
The close contact, which the forward companies had with the Germans and the endless grenade duels and raids that used to go on, made life on the floodbanks a great strain, and 48 hours was about as much as anybody could do with. 56 Reconnaissance Regiment, owing to the depth of their positions, were able to ring their own changes.
The reserve battalion, at first the London Irish, was near Brigade Headquarters. They had an emergency role of occupying Granarola, a mile in front of their billets. We were able to ring the changes so that no battalion had more than eight days in the forward area, while the Faughs had two ‘goes’ of four. Except for those on the floodbank, everyone was very comfortably established in houses.
When I arrived at our Brigade Headquarters, I noticed strong fumes of alcohol pervading the atmosphere. I thought the Queen’s Brigade must have been doing themselves pretty well but closer investigation revealed that a shell had hit a butt of wine in an outhouse on the previous night and the contents were flowing all round the place. This incident discouraged me from living in my caravan but actually I need not have worried; no more came our way while we were there.
On the 11th, I went to call on my old friend. Colonel Nowina, Commander of 6 Lwow Brigade. We greeted each other with great affection and told each other all about our battles since we last met near Monte Cassino. His English had improved out of all recognition – especially his slang. A couple of days after that, I had lunch at the Carpathian Lancers where he was also a guest. The entente cordiale with our Polish neighbours was excellent. We established direct communication with them at all levels and they gave me a most amusing person as Liaison Officer – one Count Andrew Tarnovsky. Andrew was a great character and caused us a lot of laughter at one time or another. He was a pretty hard case.
We were in the line on St Patrick’s Day so, of course, we could not do much about it. There were only two incidents that marked it. ‘Jon’ produced an excellent ‘Two Types’ cartoon in the ‘Eighth Army News’ depicting an officer wearing a caubeen and hackle cutting shamrocks out of a billiard table cloth – presumably to make “flashes” for the Irish Brigade, while the other scoundrel said ‘”Isn’t that going a bit too far, Old Man ?” It may have been, but I think the story was founded on fact!
In the evening, somehow or other, news that there might be a party at our Headquarters had leaked out to the Carpathian Lancers – possibly through the bold Count Andrew. Anyway, about midnight some of them turned up to see if anything was going on, so of course, they had to entertained. One of them brought an accordion with him so there was evidently malice aforethought in their visit.
The Faughs did the first change over with the London Irish and came into reserve. On the 18th, the London Irish started getting busy. That morning, one of the Bays’ tanks very successfully fired solid shot through the floodbank into an enemy outpost in G Company’s outpost, so successfully that six casualties were seen evacuated over the small footbridge immediately below the enemy position. As a result of this success, the London Irish laid on another party in the afternoon. At half past three, the tank fired in an attempt to mop up the outpost and blew up the foot bridge. A small artillery barrage was laid on and incredible amounts of two inch mortar smoke were fired on to the opposite floodbank to cover the operation. It was impossible, due to fixed lines of enemy fire, to eliminate the outpost but a fierce grenade duel took place and the London Irish were able to establish successfully a section post on the floodbank.
Later on that evening, John Gartside hopped over the floodbank and found that the enemy post was unoccupied. He set in the enemy trenches and was rewarded for his patience by seeing two Germans start crossing the footbridge to come into the position. He opened fire, wounding one – who unfortunately managed to escape – and taking the other prisoner. A small enemy counter attack developed about 2 o’clock the next morning and was driven off.
The Reconnaissance Regiment had a bit of a party on the 20th when some Bosche got round them and made life unpleasant. They beat them off, however, and so were none the worse off. The Reconnaissance Regiment had been anticipating trouble for several days. They had reported awful subterranean rumblings. They thought the Germans were trying to tunnel under their bank with a view to blowing it up. Stories were beginning to grow about some horrible camouflet equipment they might have and people resurrected last war stories, saps and so on. It was not for several days that these rumblings were eventually attributed to grenades, and the like, exploding in the river on the other side of the bank.
On the same day, one Colonel Tozer arrived from AFHQ, with all sorts of comical equipment. His object was to hang things over the floodbank with a view to intercepting Bosche telephone conversations. He had several interpreters, who also operated and were to expect all sorts of spicy pieces of news from these activities. However, the results were disappointing, not so much from a technical point of view as from the fact that the Germans were extremely security minded in their telephone conversations. We deduced from this, not incorrectly, that they must be playing the same sort of game on us – which turned out to be true – though the main items of interest that they probably heard were heated arguments about whether the NAAFI rations were up to standard or not. Wireless was used very little during this stage, as line communications was prolific and not very difficult to maintain. The Germans found the same. The result was that the usual fun and games over wireless intercepts was not going on and Colonel Tozer’s machinery was designed to try and fill this gap.
On the 21st, there was a great Cloth Model Exercise at Divisional Headquarters to try and formulate a common doctrine in the use of ‘Kangaroos’. Heated arguments occurred all round but, by and large, we were all, more or less, thinking on the same lines and the next thing to do was to try it out in some form of exercise. The difficulty was getting hold of the wretched ‘Kangaroos’. Their commitments in training were so extensive that we should be doing well if we could mount part of each battalion once.