The Rains Come

On the 24th, torrential rains effectively put a stop to further operations, blocking the roads and turning the battlefield into a sea of mud where it was difficult to stand, let alone fight or maintain a forward move over such country. That night, the Skins tidied up their front by occupying the eastern Casa Salara, which commanded a minor feature running down towards the Bosche road head about Piana Nuova. This place was rather a hot spot, stuck out some 600 yards in front of our main positions with the Bosche sharing the spur about 300 yards further on. This position was never actually attacked, but it was about the best ‘Aunt Sally’ the Germans had to shoot at when he felt annoyed about something we had done.

The Bosche was very lucky in having road heads leading right into his positions like this and that was the whole difference really between his set up and ours. The enemy positions were now fed by roads from the plain with ample gun positions and administrative facilities, while we were stuck out at the end of the appalling mule tracks, which were rapidly becoming impossible even to those redoubtable animals. It was about the worst maintenance problem we ever had to face and I think 36 Brigade were even worse off than we were. The only way of getting along was on the tracks on top of the knife edge ridges. For some reason, the rain didn’t drain off and those tracks became so bad that even mules used to fall down and drown in the mud. Near Gesso, several people were killed in minefields, where some slight digression was possible, but normally you had to stick to the track. I found a horse was the best way of getting about, but there were limits dictated by Bosche observation on where you could ride. There was a good deal of German harassing fire from artillery all over the front but it gradually tended to die down as our offensive attitude began to fade. Tommy Arnott used to lend me a horse when required. Major Sir Thomas Arnott, 15/19 Hussars, a native of Co Dublin, whom I had last known in about 1926, was in command of our company of mules. His muleteers were Italian, as I imagine, were his mules. It was entirely due to Tommy’s tremendous energy, cheerfulness and example that the mule men kept going under those shocking conditions. Apart from the abnormal physical strain thrown on them, they lost quite a few officers and men from shelling and mines. One of Tommy’s British officers was killed in a minefield one night returning from delivering supplies. He was trying to dispose of a wounded mule. Tommy, who was also there, plunged into the minefield to rescue his officer and was most fortunate in coming out unscathed. It was a bad loss when Tommy’s mule company left us for a well earned rest a little later. He and they were splendid.

On the afternoon of the 24th October, 36 Brigade tried to reach Camaggio and Monte Maggiore, but unfortunately, owing to rain, difficult going and German resistance, they were unable to do this. It is not surprising that the enemy should hold this area strongly, as Monte Maggiore was the last really good OP for looking at the ground we now held.

The Faughs were out reorganising during this period under very uncomfortable and inadequate conditions in the area around Apollinare. 56 Recce Regiment, less one squadron, came under command on the 25th and we were able to carry out some minor adjustments to hold the front more economically.

The next few days were spent in a really hard struggle against rain and mud, and in trying to keep men from suffering exposure. The wet was appalling. There was more hardship suffered, I think, during that work than in any other during the winter. It was so terribly difficult to get any shelter for anybody. By skilfully switching men round into what little cover he had, John Kerr succeeded in establishing a divisional low record of sickness for the Skins during this period.

With casualties and sickness, the manpower situation was becoming acute. The powers that be would not make our strength up above 30 officers and 700 other ranks. We therefore had to reorganise on a three rifle company basis. The Faughs did this by 29th October and the others followed suit soon after. It was most unsatisfactory from every point of view.

On 26th October, 36 Brigade had another attempt at Camaggio but the rain started just about the same time as they did.

It became quite evident that, until the rain stopped, further operations would have to be cancelled. Not only was it almost impossible for infantry to struggle forward through the muck, but even if they reached their objectives, the business of getting forward feed and ammunition would be more than our present mule resources could stand. The enemy, meanwhile, had been building up pretty fast on our front and it became abundantly clear than he had no intention of budging. The Americans had been unable to get much forward of Monte Grande. They had for a short time established themselves at Vodriano but were unable to remain there.

Plans were still being made to push on. We hoped, when opportunity offered, to get to Monte Maggiore, Piana Nuova, Ortica and Point 362. We still had hopes of getting out to the plain. Those hills were becoming daily more detestable.

The chief factor about the ground, in my opinion, was that the present positions of the Americans and ourselves were good defensively and that any minor advance, which failed in the object of getting out into the plain tended to place us at disadvantage. We had far better observation than the Bosche. The physical difficulty of any other further advance on this ground would have to be seen to be believed. The hills were steep and devoid of cover. The gullies were deep and rugged. The only way of getting forward was usually along some knife edge where you would be compelled to advance on nothing stronger than a section front. Such places were easily defended. The country was sparsely inhabited and little shelter against foul weather was to be had. The grain of the country was, in the main, against us and abrupt cliff like hill faces confronted us. In any normal country, the steep side of a ridge would face the plain. Not so here. A Pole said to me, “I thought such country was only on the moon!”

There was the usual steady flow of German deserters coming in but that is really no indication of the way the Hun will fight when put to it. The things these deserters say have always been a mystery to me. They are quite prepared to tell you exactly where their positions are, which fox hole their friends are occupying, how and when their food comes up to them and a variety of other useful items of information. They will even go so far as to suggest minor alterations in our harassing fire that would make it more effectively. Such information as they gave, almost invariably proved to be entirely correct.

Another thing that was so annoying about this country was that, owing to its wet and precipitous nature, we were quite unable to use tanks. Those that did get up to Gesso in support of 36 Brigade’s initial efforts were irretrievably bogged down. I should not be surprised if they are there still. As tanks were the only things in which we were superior at that juncture, this was a very serious handicap to offensive operations.

When we first arrived at San Apollinare, there was a track, which most vehicles could get along, connecting it to the main third class road that ran from Castel del Rio, through Sassaleone to San Clemente and so down the Sillaro valley to Castel del Pietro. This rather doubtful track became utterly impassable after the rain. It was essential to maintain at least a jeep head at San Apollinare. Two brigades had their headquarters there and Tac Division was there also. That track, about a mile long, finally had to have logs laid on it throughout its length, ‘corduroying’ is the right expression, I believe. The trees to provide the material for this corduroy had to be cut in the high pass on the other side of Firenzuola – anything up to 6 hours away in a lorry. Metalling for any road had to be brought some distance and the tipper was doing well if it deposited four loads during the day. It was a very slow and tedious process. Ronny Denton, temporarily elevated from his Field Company to CRE, worked out some sum by which he proved that the amount of work involved in building this road was equivalent in man hours to putting up a barbed wire fence or laying mines between there and Cairo – I don’t know how he arrived at this startling comparison but it wasn’t a bad way of bringing home the necessity for very careful consideration before ordering a project of this kind. Our so called main axis, the road between Castel del Rio and San Clemente, invariably shared by at least one other division, was also threatening to fall to bits and tremendous engineering commitments were necessary to keep this life line open.

Read ‘Patrolling and Artillery Duels’.

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