The Spaduro battles

In order to carry out our attack on the right of the road, certain pre-requisites were necessary on the left so that we might launch our attack from the area of Filette in order to come at the Gaggio from behind. 11 Brigade had started their attack on the night of the 13th against the key position of Monte Pieve. The Americans had already captured Gesso, some 500 yards to the west of Pieve and had left it to us to clean up in a northerly and north easterly direction, while they struck out to the north west. Pieve was the dominating hill on the left of the road and on its capture depended all future operations as far as the division was concerned. The Bosche were holding it with considerable determination, which was hardly to be wondered at.

On the evenings of both the 13th and 14th, 11 Brigade were unfortunately unable to evict the enemy from this strongpoint. It, therefore, became almost impossible to clear the enemy from Filette and the spur running down from it from Pieve. Without that in our hands, our operation could not begin.

The original object of the division, when it came into this sector, was firstly, to release American units for a more concentrated effort towards Bologna, which meant everyone side stepping to the left and secondly, to open the Imola road. This side stepping to the left business, if were to conform, was beginning to make the Imola road project an impossibility. Either, we could side step to the left or plunge on towards Imola, but we couldn’t do both. As the American project was the main item, the Imola road was dropped and, consequently, our attack on the right of the road was dropped also. Everyone would have to swarm round to the left.

Another contingency on our attack down the right was that the 1st British Division should conform on the right of the Guards Brigade. There seemed to be little immediate prospect of their being able to do this. They were echeloned right back behind us with some extremely difficult mountains in front of them and a heavy engineering problem to open their route.

The decision, therefore, was now made not to open the Imola road but to concentrate on helping the Americans forward as occasion arose. We couldn’t do anything about moving left handed until someone relieved us in the Capello area on the right of the road. This was put in motion next day by a visit from GOC, 6th Armoured Division and Adrian Gore, commanding the 61st (Rifle) Brigade.

On the 17th, orders were issued accordingly. The Divisional objective was now to be Monte Spaduro. Pieve would still have to be captured before this could be done. The Faughs were to move the next morning under command of 36 Brigade to the area of Apollinare and be prepared to go on towards Spaduro as soon as 36 Brigade’s attack on Pieve was successful. The Faughs were in reserve as they were the only people, who could move quickly without relief. It was administratively impossible to get either of the other battalions up there within 24 hours of the Faughs.

On the 18th, the London Irish were relieved by 10 RB and concentrated in Castel del Rio that evening. The next morning, the Skins were relieved by 2 RB.

Bobby Scott, who was commanding the Skins, had to retire to hospital at this juncture, owing to carbuncles and John Kerr stopped into the breach again as he had done last May with the 6 Skins when Bala Bredin was wounded.

The 19th was the day on which things began to happen. I closed down the Castel del Rio area and moved up to Apollinare that morning. The Faughs had come forward under command of 36 Brigade to an area between Gesso and Pieve behind 36 Brigade’s attack.

Spaduro is a large feature blocking the expected view into the plains down in the Sillaro valley towards Castel del Pietro, a town on Route 9. It is a massive dark grey feature, with few light patches of colour, built rather like a horseshoe with a great re-entrant in the centre. The re-entrant is full of dark ravines and gullies, all grey and black and forbidding. Spaduro is about 3-4,000 yards from Gesso. There were immediate features between it and our present forward positions.

Leading down from Gesso are Hills 401 and 416 and then on down a narrow ridge, steep sided and almost sheer in places until 387 is reached. At the far end of Hill 387 are ridges on either side of it running parallel to Monte Spaduro. The ridge to the west, with Hill 387 and Hill 416, forms a massive bowl dropping steeply down into the Ronchi–Sassotello valley. The approach to Hill 387, along a narrow neck, is guarded by a house called Casa di Spinello. This approach was the key to the capture of Spaduro. It proved a hard one to turn.

It was an unpleasing feature – or rather, a series of features. Cold, black and devoid of cover, they present an uninviting spectacle. Desolation was accentuated by a few ruined shell torn houses. Stony, rugged, hard going for the infantry man, except along the tracks, which became appalling bogs. At the foot of these features, the Ronchi river winds through the grey hills down to the Sillaro river.

Slowly, but surely, the Americans were pushing northwards towards the Bologna road (Route 9) and, as a climax, captured Monte Grande, the last great feature in the path of their advance. The 78th Division was to capture Monte Spaduro and advance, in conjunction with the Americans, down the road to Castel del Pietro. As far as the division was concerned, Spaduro was the last large hill mass guarding all the other minor hills that form a sort of step ladder down into the plain. The Irish Brigade was ordered to capture Spaduro as soon as 36 Brigade captured Monte Pieve. While the Irish Brigade attacked Spaduro, 36 Brigade were ordered to capture Monte Acqua Salata, another bare crag of a feature south east of Spaduro and joined up to Pieve by a narrow causeway.

Why Monte Pieve was given up by the Huns will always remain a mystery. It was by far the best OP in area which, apart from dominating the surrounding countryside, had the added advantage of looking down the valley into that hive of industry – Castel del Rio. Why he did not shell the town more is another mystery. The surrender of this magnificent OP, which looked right down the valleys east of Spaduro and on to Acqua Salata and Monte Vorro, was the key to the attack on Spaduro.

This meant that the narrow neck down the Gesso ridge leading onto Hill 416 and then onto Spaduro was now clear. It also opened the way to Acqua Salata. There was no ground between Pieve and Spaduro that did not fall into this category and it was reasonable to suppose, therefore, that the Germans’ next position would be on Spaduro, with not more than outposts on the subsidiary ridge about 1,000 yards short of it.

When 36 Brigade found that the enemy had withdrawn from Pieve before their attack was launched, speed in getting after the Bosche before he hardened in his new positions was the dominant factor. There was no time to be lost. About two o’clock in the morning, the Faughs took up positions on Hill 416, which was to be the jumping off point for their attack on Spaduro.

The Faughs were told to ferret forward towards Spaduro in the morning mist, the morning of the 19th, as it was believed to be lightly held. The reconnaissance group was on Point 416 when the mist lifted. They were electrified to see a fat Teuton performing his toilet on the top of Point 387 – about 700 yards ahead. He was blissfully unaware that interested eyes were watching him and the reconnaissance group studied the surrounding countryside with considerable care, ruling out the idea of a swan forward that day. The general feeling was that the project was only a one battalion affair but I was not quite convinced of this, so told the London Irish to move one rifle company forward and their support company to form a firm base behind the Faughs.

Later events proved this to be a wise course. At 2045 hours, the attack went in. A Company under Maurice Crehan of the Irish Fusiliers of Canada, set off into the darkness followed by B Company of Dick Jefferies. One hour later, A Company had a foothold on the 387 ridge, undetected owing to their flank approach. Opposition on the crests was quickly overcome by A Coy’s swooping fire and a number of Germans surrendered and came out of their slit trenches. Others refused to give in and were shot in their weapon pits. Nevertheless, there was a considerable amount of enemy movement all around the lower slopes on either side of the ridge. The garrison of Spinello became active about this time and started shooting up A Company from behind.

B Company had pushed through A Company as soon as the latter were on the end of Point 362 and had no trouble for about 600 yards when they came to a group of buildings full of Huns. The leading platoon became involved in a close range gun fight in which a number of Huns were killed and a few taken prisoner. The company got into difficulty further along by running into an impassable cliff; it took an hour to find a crossing and an hour to negotiate it and by this time it was 0430. They continued to push on towards Spaduro and by 0515 were on their objective, having mopped up a party of Huns around the haystack just beyond Spaduro farm.

By 0545, it was obvious that both A and B Coys were in for a pretty heavy counter attack as one MG after another began to open up from the flank and in front. The Bosche were there in strength. The two companies were attacked simultaneously at 6am but the DF brought down was of no avail. Both companies fought stubbornly and heroically against superior odds and they fought to the end until they ran out of ammunition. Some of the final scenes saw many acts of gallantry and only a handful of men returned from each company. Both hills were a scene of great carnage and many enemy dead. The gallant Maurice Crehan and a handful of men were found later on, huddled together, riddled with bullets – dead; a final testimony of their fight to the last in gallant defence. German prisoners later said that forty of our men had been taken prisoner.

It was daylight and the trouble was now to get C Company, under Tony Morris, back. It was still intact. They had been sent up to help B Company on Spaduro but had not managed to get any further than the lower slopes of 387 and were effectively held up by the tough Spinello garrison. There was no possibility of their reaching Spaduro and they were in a very poor position to support A Company. Eventually, they were got out with the help of a smoke screen at about midday and came back to Hill 416 with the Battalion HQ of the Faughs.

The Faughs consolidated their positions and watched Spaduro. They left Spaduro alone that morning, watching the German stretcher bearers evacuating the wounded from the slopes.

The London Irish were told to take Spaduro the next night but it was decided to limit objectives to the first ridge running up to Hill 387, their left objective being the house called Casa Salara on the western slopes of the ridge. If this went according to plan, then another attack could be made on the final slopes of Monte Spaduro itself. There was only one other factor influencing the London Irish attack and that was the situation on the right. The attack on Acqua Salata last night in conjunction with the Faughs’ attack failed and this had serious repercussions on the positions on 416. It was decided that Acqua Salata must be taken before any further attempt could be made to take Spaduro; the dangers of getting caught on the approaches to Spaduro, with Acqua Salata still held, were considerable and the Hun could make himself mighty unpleasant.

The Argylls attacked Acqua Salata. They found it unoccupied except for a few odd Huns whom they took prisoner. This then made it all set for the London Irish.

They set off at midnight to take Casa Salara and Point 387. Here again, that pocket of enemy at Casa Spinello was not properly cleared up and the companies detoured to the left down the side of the bowl, unable to advance along the top of the ridge. Once down in the gullies, they were unable to get on to their objectives, meeting heavy opposition from Point 387 and the ridge that ran down towards Casa Salara.

Repeated attempts to get up produced fierce enemy reaction and, as dawn broke, after six hours fighting, the companies consolidated what gains they had, and lay up in the gullies. All day long, the enemy positions were shelled and machine gunned. The Faughs got up a couple of anti tank guns on to Gesso and blasted hell out of the Spinello house. This, too, came in for its share of shelling and mortaring. Incredible amounts of ammunition was fired into the enemy in a softening up process and, at five o’clock, the London Irish went in again.

They fought stubbornly and hard, but so did the Hun. He, unfortunately, had the advantage of the height and the steep, rugged loose rocked gullies, devoid of cover, were no advantage to the attacking infantryman. The London Irish were brought back at midnight, after another six hours of fighting, to Hill 416 and took up positions with the Faughs. It was useless battering one’s head against superior numbers and in impossible country. Early next morning, the Faughs came back to re-form, leaving the London Irish up on 416.

The next two days were just one big artillery duel. The Bosche shelling and mortaring our positions around 416, 401 and Gesso. Some of its heavy stuff as well – and we softening up the Hun defenders of Spaduro with everything in creation. Casa Spinello was practically flattened and the Faughs’ anti tank guns continued to do great work firing AP into the enemy positions there.

The third and final attack on Spaduro was timed for the night of 23rd/24th October. The plan was good. The Irish Brigade was to take Spinello first, then Point 387, the Casa Salara ridge and Point 362, just north of Point 387. The Spaduro feature was to be taken by two battalions of 11 Brigade. In all, four battalions were to do the attack. At midday on the 23rd, a patrol from the London Irish went down to Casa Spinello. After crawling on their stomachs most of the way and keeping below the crest of the ridge, they succeeded in getting up to the house. Lieut Fay, leading the patrol, surprised three Huns in a slit trench, killed one, wounded one and grabbed the other and got away below the crest without being touched, even though everything in creation opened up as soon as the patrol was spotted. This patrol of Fay’s was a magnificent performance.

The Hun talked. His information was invaluable. It included the defences of Spinello and a general set up of the enemy of the 387 ridge and the information was passed to the London Irish just in time. The idea was for the London Irish to take Spinello and do a diversionary attack on 387 starting at 1630 hrs; and for the Inniskillings to attack from the left flank at 2230 up the Casa Salara ridge – on to Point 362 and then down to 387 from behind. At the same time, 11 Brigade was to attack Spaduro, itself, from the left. Everything went like clockwork.

The London Irish got Spinello and held it against three counter attacks, taking 20 prisoners, but at a price. The garrison of Spinello fought like wildcats and to quote one of the lads, who took part, “They had to be exterminated one by one”. One Hun was down in a cellar shooting up through the floorboards and, for some time, proved an elusive customer. Eventually, the onslaught died down and, by this time, the Inniskillings were wending their way down the Sassatello valley to attack from the left flank. At 2230, the leading company made straight for Casa Salara and took it without any trouble. Meanwhile, the enemy took another house on the ridge called Casone and pushed on towards Point 362. There was a short sharp scrap here and ten prisoners were taken.

Another company was then passed through, attacking down towards Point 387 and meeting heavy opposition about half way down the ridge. A platoon attack, lasting about three quarters of an hour, saw this position in our hands after some fairly heavy fighting in which a number of Huns were killed. Twelve prisoners were taken here. By this time, it was well into the morning and at 4 o’clock, the last company was passed through to take the final objective, Point 387. Two platoons attacked fiercely, overrunning the positions with great dash and taking 25 prisoners, while the feature was engaged from the other end by the London Irish.

This saw the end of the Hun defence of Spaduro for, by this time, 11 Brigade had secured all of their objectives. The features that had been so stubbornly defended by the Bosche and so gallantly fought for by each battalion in turn, were now completely in our hands. It cost the enemy a total of 81 prisoners and some 100 killed and wounded.

Read ‘The Rains come’.

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