We had been warned that afternoon that we would move to a forward concentration area in 5 Corps, now commanded by General Keightley – our old divisional commander – on 4th October. But events don’t often turn out the way they are intended. I was rung up at lunchtime next day by the GII at Division to say that our Brigade Group was required to move at 7 o’clock that night, not to 5 Corps at all, but to the 5th Army, somewhere in the centre of Italy. Somewhere in these beastly mountains again! He said he was the only person at division; everyone else was out “swanning” and couldn’t be found; and what did I think of it? I thought it was a pretty fast ball but reckoned that it could be done if it was really necessary. It started pouring with rain about this time, and it was the thought of the night drive for the whole brigade, over wet and difficult mountain roads that concerned me most. I rang up 8th Army and found out from the BGS that it was essential to leave as quickly as this, so there was nothing for it.
After giving a few quick orders for the Brigade Group to get under way, I pushed off with John O’Rourke and John McLinton on the long drove to 13 Corps. We got as far as Foligno and stayed there that night leaving again at 5 o’clock the next morning, just as the head of the brigade column was coming into the place. The brigade went on about another 10 miles and stayed at Incisa.
I got to 13 Corps at half past eleven, where the Corps Commander, General Kirkman, put me in the picture and gave me my orders. Our objective was to take over from the right of the American 88th Division in order to allow the Americans to concentrate their forces for a push on Bologna, while our division was to be directed on Imola. It was a determined effort to get out of the mountains into the plain before the winter closed down and rain made all the mountain tracks impassable. The 5th Army thought that this could be achieved with the addition of one fresh division to their forces. We were that division. I was given to understand that there was every prospect of achieving our object within a fortnight. The optimistic ‘I’ boys were still at it – the Bosche would soon pull out and all that kind of thing!
As I drove through the central mountains and over the main pass, I was filled with unbounded admiration for what the Americans had achieved in those parts. How they fought through such appalling country, prepared for all out defence, Goodness only knows! Sheer guts played a large part in it, but casualties had been correspondingly high.
General Paul Kendall was commanding the American 88th Division and I reached his headquarters that afternoon and made arrangements to take over from 351 Infantry Regiment in the area Monte Cappello to Castel del Rio, which was on the right of the Imola road as soon as possible. The American main axis through the mountains was appalling. Forward of their defensive Divisional Headquarters, I found a high viaduct had been demolished and two days heavy rains had made the diversion well nigh impassible for British transport. How unfavourably our transport compares with that of the American Army! They were getting it all right but I know perfectly well our two wheel drive vehicles would not have an earthly hope. They would inevitably stick on the track and cause an irreparable block against movement in both directions.
I stopped that night at Firenzuola, where the COs joined us during the night. Their arrival was greeted by an air raid – a poor sort of gesture, we thought, from the so called dispirited Huns. Next morning, the 4th, I went off with COs to the Headquarters of the 351 Infantry Regiment in Castel del Rio. The London Irish were to take over Monte Cappello and the Skins between the London Irish Rifles and the Imola Road in the Carsoggio Area.
I met Andrew Scott, commanding 1st Guards Brigade here. His troops were on Battaglia, a most unpleasant mountain on the far side of Cappello from us. He was completely cut off from 1st Division, to whom he owed some passing allegiance and said he would come under my command if I liked. I told him I thought it was quite immaterial whether I came under his command or he came under mine. Anyway, without bothering to define the situation any more accurately, we got out mutual arrangements pretty well under control and worked in great harmony from then onwards. We got considerable amusement out of various incidents that occurred, one way or another. He said his mules had “had it” and the guardsmen not much better, from the long hard climb up to his mountain.
I spent most of the next few days with General Kendall. He and his staff did everything to help. They gave us their six wheeled lorries to get our stuff across the diversion; cleared people out of houses for us – not that there was much scope in this matter; and looked after us extremely well.
At a conference that day, I expressed the opinion that until a bridge had been put across the viaduct, or some very lengthy work had been undertaken on the diversion it would be quite impossible to operate 78th Division offensively towards Imola. Construction of a bridge was then put under way. I believe it proved to be the highest Bailey bridge in existence.
On the evening of the 4th, our Brigade Group started concentrating in the area between Firenzuola and Scarporia. It was a most terribly difficult business to get any transport off that road through the mountains. Any flat places that did exist were apt to be bogs and it was still raining. By 6 o’clock on the 5th, the Brigade Group was complete – when I say complete, I mean it was stationery somewhere along the 20 to 30 miles of mountain road and I knew not where that somewhere was.
By the evening of the 5th, the Skins and the London Irish were on their way to take over their positions in the mountains that night and the Faughs had been ordered to take over the mountain on the left of the road the following night. Brigade Headquarters was at Valsalva to start with. We moved to a house half a mile south of Castel del Rio a couple of days later.
The administrative problems were already appalling. A day’s rations had been dumped into the river bank at Firenzuola, the only bit of hard standing that anyone could find. That night the river rose, and that was that. Mules had to be found from somewhere to get food and ammunition up to the London Irish. The snag about taking over from the Americans was that their ammunition wasn’t any use to us; one couldn’t take over what they were prepared to leave. There didn’t seem the least likelihood of ‘B’ Echelons being nearer to Firenzuola, a good two to three hours drive back along a shocking mountain road absolutely congested with the traffic of anything from two to three divisions. The sooner we got out of this muddle and into the plain the better for all concerned.
We had OPs from which we could see the plain 10 miles away. It was like looking at the Promised Land. A land full of houses and roads. We were in a precipitous country noticeably lacking in accommodation. The sight provided a great incentive.
Monte Cappello had been captured after a very stiff fight by the Americans and they were a bit apprehensive that we were holding it too lightly. Until we got some idea what the Germans’ intention were, I had one or two companies of Skins up there as well. However, it soon became apparent that the Germans weren’t interested in Monte Cappello but in Battaglia, about 3,000 yards to the east. The Guards were occupying this mountain and having a great deal of trouble up there too, both from raids, up to a company in strength and from shelling and mortaring.
On our front, there was little or no German artillery nearer than the Rio di Gaggio and its tributary, the Fortinone, which made a deep gorge between us and the Guards. We had excellent observation over the Bosche, whose positions were along the Gaggio towards Monte Taverna. We had patrols in that area both by day and by night. A G Company sniper of the London Irish bagged three Germans there in one day.
Looking at the ground ahead, it became obvious at once that a horrible cliff called the Vena del Grosso was going to play a large part in any future operations. This feature stretched across our front from Monte Maure through Tossignano to Monte Ponzola, a distance of about 8 miles, with a narrow gap at Tossignano through which passed the main road from Imola. The sheer face of this cliff, for some extraordinary reason, faced us, instead of out towards the plain. The most likely way of overcoming this obstacle seemed to be to turn its western end by capturing Monte del Acqua Salata, about 4,000 miles west of Tossignano.