5th/6th October 1943
As it was Planned
a) The Division (plus some tanks less a Brigade and the Irish Brigade) was to push forward along the road San Severo to Serracapriola with the whole transport of the Division stepping up behind.
b) A Brigade was to occupy Larino and Campomarina.
c) Commandos were to land in the vicinity of Termoli, capture the place and form a bridgehead
d) Another Brigade was to assist in the occupation of Termoli,
e) Another Brigade was to follow by sea to Termoli when the port was secure and explore northwards for several miles towards Petacciato and Guglionesi.
Note: This all went according to plan.
f) The Irish Brigade was to follow a Brigade by the sea route.
g) The Division was then to be disposed in the Termoli area as under:
– A Brigade to the north, with a limited exploitation role.
– The Irish Brigade in the vicinity of Termoli and in reserve.
– A Brigade just south of Termoli and in reserve.
The general idea being a pause in the area for about 10 days while the necessary build up of stores, petrol etc was carried out As far as my Brigade was concerned, it was to be a pleasant peacetime cruise with fighting unlikely for a fortnight or so. And Termoli was known to be a nice little town.
Note: This did not go according to plan.
As it happened
A Brigade pushed along the road, making good progress. The Commandos took Termoli with great dash, liquidating the garrison which was not very strong, and finding no enemy and a pleasant town, got to know the inhabitants and began entering into the life of the place.
The Brigade landed successfully and commenced to push forward towards the north.
Thus, early on the 5th October, the troops in the Termoli sector were dispersed as under:
– Brigade: Larino, South of Campomarino, Termoli.
– Brigade: Three Battalions feeling forward towards San Giacomo and Guglionesi.
– Recce Regiment: Cavorting down the main road in the vicinity of Petacciato.
– Commandos: Still getting to know the inhabitants of Termoli.
– The Irish Brigade: Embarked and leaving Barletta on our peace time cruiser.
It was a fair prospect. But there were clouds rolling up – in the shape of the 16th Panzer Division.
Our embarkation went smoothly, if one ignores some minor botherations. For example, no one quite knew whether we would have five, six or eight craft. My Brigade Major – very new and very keen – made our loading tables to suit all eventualities, except the one which happened. We got seven.
Again, I had permission to sail at whatever time I thought best. There were two considerations – the Navy didn’t like sailing in the dark, because of the mines and a long daylight voyage risked attack from the air.
I decided to do about half and half, not so that both dangers would have a run for their money but because we’d be rather out of range of enemy aircraft during the first part of the journey (which was to take ten hours). Until we reached Termoli, it was a pleasant uneventful trip. We passed through several Italian fishing fleets, pretty with their vivid coloured sails – bright blue, orange, plain or mixed. We did not bump into a mine or see a hostile aircraft.
I got in quite a bit of sleep in the captain’s cabin – I’m a great believer of getting all the sleep you can when you can, as one never knows.
About an hour from shore, I got a signal to attend an ‘O’ Group Conference in three hours’ time down some unknown road near Termoli.
As my craft wound its way into Termoli’s small harbour and came to rest at the quay side, I felt that some grit had got into the work of our peacetime cruise.
An urgent voice was calling for the commander of the outfit – me and a good many bangs and wallops showed that the town and harbour were being well and truly shelled.
It was very dark and difficult to get off the craft, but I got a great deal of help from the owner of the voice, who seemed anxious to hold on to me now that I’d arrived. He materialised into a Commando Officer, wishful to lead me to his chief. We started off in his jeep, through a very dark town, which would also have been very silent if a large shell hadn’t exploded in it every few minutes.
The Commando CO had established his headquarters in the basement of a large house. I will always remember this scene – a table covered with some maps, a couple of bottles of wine and a few glasses. A lamp flickered uncertainly and was backed up by a couple of candles, which used to jump and go out when a shell lit nearer than it oughter. Round the room were six or seven toughish looking chaps, all with rifles or Tommy guns or some strange weapon, all slightly under strain and the atmosphere heavy with suspense. It looked to me a proper thieves’ kitchen.
I was put in the picture, as it appeared to the Commanders that:
a) The Bosche had counter attacked strongly with tanks and infantry.
b) One Brigade had had rather a bloody nose with tanks in amongst them. They were rather disorganised and all their locations were uncertain.
c) The enemy was on the outskirts of the town. In fact, there was no reason to suppose he wasn’t actually in the town by now and all that was between him and the sea were some very depleted Commandos – the Lancashire Fusiliers and perhaps, if still in existence, some of the Recce.
d) We’d managed to get nine tanks across the Biferno, but the diversion had gone sour and no more could get over. Five of the nine had been knocked out and the Bosche had about 25 tanks in the right place and ready for the morn – should there be a morn.
This was unpleasant news for a Brigadier, now disembarking his Brigade at the rate of 300 chaps every 1½ hours in a well shelled harbour, in an unknown town, in as far as I could gather, the present FDLs and on a very dark night.
However, I felt that things were not as bad as they seemed. For one thing, the Bosche is not a great exponent of night fighting and I didn’t see him making a determined night attack on Termoli. For another, every 1½ hours would see another 300 of my chaps into the town and if the Bosche wanted street fighting, it was just our cup of tea.
So I comforted the Commandos as best I could, issued some instructions for my disembarking chaps, lowered the level in one of the wine bottles and, leaving the thieves’ kitchen, disappeared into the night with my IO – Jack Hobbs – intent on meeting my Divisional Commander at the arranged place, to me but a map of reference. The Commandos lent me a jeep.
The RV was about four miles south of the town, and it was an eerie drive.
For one thing, the situation was certainly a little obscure, but it did seem evident that the enemy was closely threatening the town. There seemed to be no reason why he should not be threatening it along the road we were driving on. This was rather borne out by bursts of German tracer, which kept passing over our heads and seemed to be fired at ranges of 400 to 800 yards.
It also required careful driving to get past a good number of burning vehicles on the road. There were, in addition, two bomb craters.
I felt somewhat lonely and neglected on the drive and, on enquiry, I found Jack Hobbs felt exactly the same.
However, all things come to an end and we met the Divisional Commander on time and got the situation and his plans for that night and the morrow.
The situation was approximately as painted by Commandos – with some considerable improvements – the chief being that we hoped to have about 80 or 90 tanks across the Biferno by early morning.
The plan was as under:
1. The Irish Brigade was to occupy the Termoli perimeter for the night.
Note: I had already issued these instructions from the thieves’ kitchen.
2. Two Battalions of Tanks were to attack the San Giacomo ridge on the left flank at 0800 hrs and occupy it by 1100 hrs.
3. The Irish Brigade, with one Squadron of Tanks, to advance from Termoli at 1100 hrs and take over San Giacomo ridge from the two Tank Battalions.
Jack Hobbs and self started back along our lonely road. The drive had the advantage of making Termoli feel like a safe haven when one got there.
We discovered later the Bosche had been twice across this road during the night, but our times were not coincidental.
In Termoli, my COs were waiting for me at the Mayor’s House, which is a safe bet in a strange town.
The disembarkation was going along, but interrupted at times, as the shelling sometimes drove the craft out to sea again; where they’d mess about a bit and then face up to it once more. But it was going along and, by midnight, we had a mixed bag ashore – Battalion Headquarters and two Companies of Faughs; three Companies of Skins and one Company of the London Irish. I gave the COs the dope, told them to each look for a viewpoint at first light and that we’d all meet at 7am to clinch the plan. In the meantime, we must not allow the Bosche to take Termoli.
About half an hour later, my Squadron Commander of Tanks turned up, excellent chap, and I gave him an RV for his 15 good Shermans. He guaranteed to be there by first light.
Things were looking up. If the Bosche attacked now, there were 800 good chaps in the town; and if he attacked by daylight, I’d got some tanks.
As there was nothing more I could do about it, I got in a couple of hours’ sleep on the Mayor’s best sofa. I felt, somehow, it would be useful.
At first light, I found a good viewpoint about a mile from the town and to the left flank. It luckily had a Platoon of MGs in the vicinity, which was comforting, as no one was very sure where everyone else, including the enemy, might be. This was great luck, but better was to follow, as Neville Grazebrook shortly turned up in the same area – viewpoint bent – and we managed to collect Beauchamp Butler.
The plan was soon made.
The Faughs plus Tanks on the right Line of advance – Station, Brick Factory and right half of San Giacomo Ridge.
The Skins on the left. Objective – left half of the ridge inclusive of San Giacomo.
The London Irish to remain holding the Termoli perimeter as a firm base: but ready to step up between the coast and the road when called.
We were also able to select forward assembly areas for the two assaulting Battalions, which they could reach by covered approaches and I established a Command Post at my nice viewpoint from which I could see everything.
The stage was more or less set by 0900 hrs and our attack was unlikely to commence before 1100 hrs.
Everything was going well and it was pleasant to get out of that well shelled town.
The Bosche was, except for heavy shelling, rather subdued. And no wonder! Since first light, he had heard the heavy rumble of tanks and at 0800hrs, about 100 of them were visible, making for his right flank. He also knew we had some on his left flank. He probably felt sorry he had come so far.
At 1000 hrs, the Divisional Commander found me at my CP and told me the tanks on the left had got into a bad spot. There was an anti tank obstacle and it might be hours before they could get round it – if they ever did. He asked me if the Irish Brigade plus our 15 tanks could capture the ridge off our own bat. It did not seem very difficult and the attack went in at 1130 hrs
The whole thing went with a swing. It was rather like a demonstration at Aldershot. The Faughs and the Tanks on the right worked in together like clockwork and made great headway, the brickworks by 1300 hrs, the right hand of the ridge by 1500 hrs.
The Skins had rather more difficult country but were in possession of San Giacomo and the left half of the ridge by 1700 hrs.
The London Irish were stepped up between the coast and the road at 1500 hrs and after some hard fighting in the cemetery area, were firmly established on the Simarca River by nightfall; and anti tank guns were thundering forward on the road. This operation – like most successful operations cost us surprisingly few chaps, though the London Irish were unlucky to lose Bill Westcott, one of their best Company Commanders, who was wounded rather badly in the cemetery area.
Neville Grazebrook also received a slight head wound. Though he was covered in blood and a fearsome sight, he assured me he would be back in no time. He was back in four days.
The enemy lost heavily – as heavily as I have seen in any action. Nine wounded Bosche officers passed through one dressing station, an unusually high proportion. In addition, he lost eight of his Mark IV Specials.
Termoli was now safe: with the Skins and Faughs on the dominating ridge three miles from the town and the London Irish on the river line between that ridge and the sea. The anti tank guns were in position and the three Battalions had the ready support of 15 good Shermans.
It was a very different picture to 24 hours earlier.
I consider this was a creditable action on the art of the Brigade
– Disembarking in a strange and heavily shelled port.
– Taking over the defence of an unknown town on a very dark night.
– Assembling and attacking a strong enemy force the next morning.
It could not have been done with green troops, but it was possible with these fine, well seasoned Battalions and such good chaps as Neville Grazebrook and Beauchamp Butler made it almost simple. I have never seen two such unruffled chaps in action. Nor do I ever hope to serve with better ones.
Paddy Proctor of the Faughs, distinguished himself greatly in this action and was awarded a well deserved MC.
Our Tank Squadron belonged to the Three Rivers Battalion of the Canadian Brigade. They were first class and went in with great dash. After the action, they and the Faughs had a mutual back slapping competition, each stating the other was the best of its kind, which was very satisfactory.
Amongst documents captured was the plan of the Bosche attack on Termoli.
The 16th Panzer Division had been ordered to retake the port at all costs – and it was a full dress and very determined affair.
I think it is just to say that the Irish Brigade arrived in the right place at the right moment, though the moment did not actually appear very right to me at the time. Twenty four hours earlier, Termoli and environs had been a real “pig’s breakfast.”
After Termoli, a good and exciting battle, the remainder of the Division had a chance to sort itself under cover of the Irish Brigade, firm on its ridge and river.
A Brigade threatened and eventually captured Guglionesi with one Battalion, two Battalions remaining in reserve, resting and reorganising.
Another brigade was all at rest in the Larino area.
The Irish Brigade remained, with three Battalions up, astride the coast road and in contact with the enemy, who had withdrawn to the Petacciato ridge.