The Battle of Petacciato

19th/20th October 1943

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. Each night saw encounters – very much in our favour – and we had the Bosche boiled in this area. Jack White of the London Irish distinguished himself during this period.

After a few days, we thought that it would be a good thing to capture the Petacciato ridge as our next obstacle was the River Trigno and we could not see what we had to do until we got this ridge. It was allowable if it could be done with one Battalion and we thought it could – easily.

After recce and planning, the London Irish carried out the attack by night on 19th/20th October. It entailed a long approach march, but things went well and a very heavy barrage with the London Irish very tight on its heels saw us in possession of the town and ridge.

It cost very few casualties and the Bosche lost much in men and material. It was a very successful little fight.

I was anxious to get the remainder of my Brigade up to the ridge as one Battalion was now cocked out five miles in front of the other two – not in any danger, but it was untidy. I was eventually allowed to step up one more Battalion – and the Faughs were moved to the ridge and Cemetery area on the left of the town.

The Skins remained, for the time being, in San Giacomo as a kind of back stop.

Quite as a sidelight on war, I mention here that traffic control and good road discipline behind an advancing army are almost as important as the actual fighting. They are, in fact, interdependent. All roads are, therefore, plastered with notices exhorting their users to do this and not to do that – for the public good. It must keep some portion of the Army’s brains nimble – concocting arresting slogans – to make the average driver remember to be a good boy.

They vary from such brilliancy as “In rains take pains” to a sterner if obscurer notice “You are in the maple country,” and after a gap of 50 yards, “Act as one.”

As another sidelight, the moment Infantry capture a place, especially high ground with a view, an extraordinary swarm of “all sorts” overrun the area; while the gun barrels are still hot. It is quite extraordinary – Gunner, Recce and Survey parties, Sapper Recce and perhaps most honest, just plain sight seers with a curiosity complex. (These frequently include a couple or three Jeeps loads of Americans, coming from, and going to, God knows where, as there are probably none within hundreds of miles).

After the capture of Petacciato, we thought we would take a hand in this roadside advertising, as we had a nice straight stretch of road and a few notices would catch the eye.

So up went notices that appear on next page at 100 yard intervals.

Pleasant clean fun – we all thought it was humorous enough – and I even discovered, after admitted difficulty, a couple of Gunners, who gave sour grins. But I’m not so certain that it didn’t do a bit of good.

Another sidelight about the time of Petacciato amused me quite a lot.

The Battle Patrol of the Faughs went out on the night of the London Irish attack to upset an MG post on the right flank, which might have been a nuisance.

The Battalion Battle Patrols are specially selected chaps and pretty tough. Some of them are also pretty tough looking.

At 0800 hrs the following morning, I witnessed a dressy party at my Command Post – including the Corps Commander, the Divisional Commander, a covey of various Brigadier, such as BRAs, CCRAs and CEs. The rather dingy little farm was bright with red.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two friends, Corporal Mc… and a Fusilier of the Faughs’ Battle Patrol, returning from their night’s dirty work. They were unshaven, muddy with blackened faces and with curious sock like things on their heads.

They were festooned with weapons slung at various angles about their persons. They looked about as villainous a pair of blackguards as any German would wish not to meet. I must say – on that pleasant Southern Italian morning – they looked particularly villainous to me, because each carried a fine white goose in his left hand and a fat turkey in his right.

There had, of course, been a good deal of ink spilt about this sort of things. This didn’t fuss me unduly as I always maintained that a goose (or a turkey) on a battlefield has to take its chance, which is poor. When the battle is over, the chances may improve.

But at the same, I had just as soon my two hearties had been somewhere else.

They both sat down to rest by a hay stack 50 yards away, wiped their sweaty faces and surveyed our couple of sections of red.

We all saw them, of course, but pretended not to.

After a suitable rest, they picked up their burdens – turkey in right, goose in left – and advanced in good order towards us. We appeared to be on their homeward route.

We couldn’t pretend not to see them any longer – as they bore down on us like a mobile farmyard – and the Corps Commander turned round to me with, “Well, Nelson, what have you got to say about this?”

There did not seem to me to be very much to say, but I had great faith in my Faughs. They had never failed me yet and were unlikely to boggie over this small matter. Besides, they had had five minutes in the haystack. So I suggested we had better hear what the two culprits thought about it.

The two culprits had by now reached us and feeling some mark of respect was due to such a galaxy, deposited their birds on the ground, gave a couple of smart salutes, picked up their birds and quite unperturbed, resumed their journey. “Whoa,” said the General, “Where did you get those birds?”

“Well it was like this, sorr,” replied Corporal Mc…, confidentially, “an ‘ould farmer over yonder was so pleased at us chasing the Germans that he made us a present of them, and if we could have carried more, we could have had them, but (warming up, and nearly spoiling a good story), we wouldn’t take them for nothing, and me and him gave him five bob for them.”

This simple tale disarmed everyone.

The General withdrew in good order, only murmuring, “You win” to me, whatever he meant by that, and our farmyard became mobile once more.

But it is high time the Brigade was crossing the River Trigno, so I will get back to my tale.


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