Brigadier Russell continues his narrative of the Irish Brigade’s journey from Algiers to Austria and this third element describes the period from September 1943, when the Brigade arrived on the Italian mainland at Taranto, until December 1943, when they advanced to the banks of the Moro river just to the south of Ortona.
“Our fighting in Sicily, which finished on 14th August, left the Brigade half way up the slopes of Mount Etna between Randazzo and Maletto. As we were several thousand feet above sea level, the nights were cool and pleasant but it was not a particularly inviting part of the world.
The outstanding characteristic of the countryside was lava dust – a fine, reddy, brown, penetrating the dust, which seemed to get everywhere, In fact, looking back on the Sicilian Campaign, my chief recollection is dust – dust everywhere. Driving, walking and living in clouds of dust surrounding by soldiers covered in dust from head to foot, with eyes blinking out of dusty faces.
Everybody, therefore, thought thoughts about the blue Mediterranean, with its pleasant sands and green trees and made plans for good spots on the coast. As there were many thousand American and British troops thinking the very same thing, and as there were few roads, mostly out of commission owing to demolitions, it was going to be quite a problem to get there.
However, by some form of knavery – which I think incurred a slight reprimand, but was well worth it – our Division shortly found itself strewn along the northern coast of Sicily, in pleasant surroundings.
The Brigade was based at Tindari, a very perfect spot and for the next five weeks, a good time was enjoyed by all….”
The Brigade was based at Tindari, a very perfect spot, and for the next five weeks, a good time was enjoyed by all.
Headquarters set up house in a hotel on the summit of Tindari Heights. It was a fine setting with a good view and quite the place one would have chosen in peacetime to spend a few weeks’ holiday….
At 0300 hours on 23rd September, we ate our last meal at the Tindari hotel and my small party set forth. Jack Hobbs, the IO, Geoffrey Parsons, Signallers and Michael Webb-Bowen, the LO.
We drove slowly in the dark along the winding northern coast road and with the dawn broke through the last mountain pass to see Messina at our feet. …
The Division was to push forward along the road San Severo to Serracapriola with the whole transport of the Division stepping up behind. Commandos were to land in the vicinity of Termoli, capture the place and form a bridgehead. Another Brigade was to assist in the occupation of Termoli. A second brigade was to follow by sea to Termoli when the port was secure and explore northwards for several miles towards Petacciato and Guglionesi. This all went according to plan.
The Irish Brigade was to follow by the sea route….
It had been decided that a ten days’ pause was required to build up stores and material for a general advance; but exploration, limited to a Battalion was permissible provided we did not stick out our noses too far.
Patrolling was the order of the day – and night; and we really dominated the five miles between San Giacomo and Petacciato ridge….
The Petacciato ridge commanded the Trigno valley with the river about three miles distant.
The ridge had fairly steep wooded sides – steep enough to put the infantry off their stride at night; thence ran three miles of fairly undulating country, and finally the river, wide bedded with 20 yards of water, about 18 inches deep in the middle. Both banks had sheer sides about 50 to 80 feet high – quite obstacles – except in two places – the main road between Petacciato and San Salvo and the coast road….
The Brigade was ordered to take San Salvo by night attack on 27th/28th October.
Information about the enemy indicated that he was not holding the position in great strength but it was not very convincing information: mostly based on patrols, which in many cases failed to gain contact. The night was very dark and it might be that the enemy was “lying low and saying ’nuffin’.”…
This was part of a much more ambitious plan. The build up was now complete for a general advance and San Salvo was only the first step.
My Brigade had been pretty hard at it since 5th October – Termoli, Petacciato, the Trigno crossing, the battle of San Salvo and finally holding the Trigno bridgehead. When not fighting a definite battle, a large proportion of chaps were out every night patrolling with constant clashes with the enemy. The other two Brigades had seen little action and were well rested.
It was, therefore, decided to place the Irish Brigade in reserve for the large plan.
There was no real fighting between the Trigno and the Sangro. The Bosche was pulling out as fast as he could; our metal was too heavy and he had no prepared defences.
Besides, the 16th Panzer Division, hard hit at Termoli and overlooked ever since, had had enough. They were being taken out of the fight for a refit and were ready and willing to give their successors a chance. This was the 65th Division, dug in and waiting for us on the much talked of Winter Line…
The non stop advance of the Infantry and Armoured Brigades from the Trigno left us in possession of the town of Torino and Paglieto, on their high ridge, overlooking the valley of the Sangro…
At 0630 hrs on 29th November, the Skins and the RTR attacked the Colle from a new axis of our own – on the right. It was a hard fight. The enemy were in fortified houses, deep trenches and dug outs. The Tanks were held up for a long time by minefields….
We were relieved on the following night, 5th/6th December and made our way towards rest area, feeling that a good job had been well done.
For it had been well done. The whole Brigade had been magnificent.
I do not know of any period of more concentrated fighting – seven days and nights battling with no respite.