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 main road ran down the ridge due north from the town: jinked left at right angles for four miles along the bottom of the ridge and then jinked right at right angles straight for the river.
The bridge was a noble affair – about 500 yards long with many arches. The far bank of the river was heavily wooded on both sides of the main road to a depth of 300 yards, then an open mile, and then a gradual slope for two miles in very thick country, culminating in the town of San Salvo.
The coast road was about two miles to the east of San Salvo and the ground between here and the river was flat, marshy and intersected by at least one dyke, which was an anti tank obstacle.
The Bosche did not hold the river line either on the Trigno or the Sangro. His main defences were about three miles behind these rivers, which were only employed to delay us and were given up without a hard fight.
The hard fighting came after the river had been crossed.
It is difficult to hold a river line, which cannot be held in strength everywhere and may not be, with the exception of the water, suitable for defence.
The Bosche held strong tactical features near the river, which had to be attacked and employed the river for nuisance value only.
This nuisance value was, of course, considerable.
His plan of defence was on stereotypical lines.
a) Light forces to prevent our approach and recce of the river.
b) Light forces to prevent us getting across the river.
c) A few tanks nearby to overrun our Infantry if they got across the river without either anti tank guns or tanks. Note – every effort was made to prevent them getting over.
d) Try to prevent us assembling across the river for a full scale attack on the main position.
e) The fight for the main position.
Our answer to this layout got a little stereotyped too. That was difficult to avoid as there was usually only one possible way across these rivers and one main axis of advance; and the Bosche was sitting on it.
We generally reacted as under:
– Drove in his light forces.
– Forced a crossing, early in the night; made a bridgehead; and dug in quickly.
– Bulldozed hard all night to make temporary tracks so that tanks or anti tank guns could be across by first light.
– Enlarged the bridgehead, improved the crossings and assembled for the main fight.
– Attacked the main position.
The complete process took anything from two days to one week.
Of course, when we could, we sprang an odd surprise but, by and large, the above was the form.
The London Irish were firmly established in Petacciato by the morning of the 20th, and their patrols were hunting for the enemy that night along the river, with one satisfactory clash.
The next night, a full scale effort was made, complete with Sapper Recce, to find out something about the bridge.
After an advantageous night in which Jack White shot a Bosche Officer at a range of two feet – and they had quite a major little scrap – the patrol reported that the bridge was intact and was not prepared for demolition.
I did not believe that report for one moment. I did not consider that the Sappers had enough time to examine thoroughly a 500 yard bridge – and the night was very dark. But it had to be reported. This was done, together with my doubts. I then prepared for the worst.
All through the Sicilian campaign and the present campaign the “powers that be” have been hoping against hope to capture one bridge before the Bosche could blow it up. That hope beckoned like a bright star, or like a carrot – – no, perhaps not like a carrot.
The steady eruption of bridge after bridge failed to dim this hope.
And now, here was the Trigno bridge, one of the largest and finest and this report – I prepared for the worst.
In the meantime, I had sent a rifle company to keep the bridge under small arms fire and instructed my gunners to plaster it all day – to discourage work on it – if so be work was required. Which I doubted.
At 1400 hrs, the Divisional Commander arrived – slightly out of breath – with orders for me direct from the highest source, “To capture the bridge intact and forthwith.”
To my remark, “But the ruddy thing will go up,” my General had sufficient breath left to tell me to get on with it.
Forcing the Crossing
The plan had been made so I only had to give out the dope:
a) The London Irish to occupy a commanding ridge on the right of the bridge; and on our side of the river.
b) The Faughs to force the crossing, with three companies in the bridgehead.
c) Bulldozing parties, just in case, the anti tank guns could not motor over the bridge.
d) The Skins stepping up from San Giacomo to the Petacciato ridge.
The two attacking Battalions slipped silently forward as dusk was failing.
It was a difficult four mile approach march over heavy country – and a few MG posts, which were foolish enough to stay on our side of the river, had to be mopped up. But all went well until Tommy Wood, of the Faughs, and his stout company got a foot on the bridge and up she went like Vesuvius at the top of her form. In addition, a couple or three culverts followed suit. It was a fine demonstration of demolitions at their best; and five hundred feet of bridge now nestled in the river.
However, the Faughs finished the job and the bridgehead was made secure.
It was not a hard fight and most of the casualties were caused by S mines in the vicinity of the bridge.
The Pause in the Bridgehead
There was a six days’ pause in the bridgehead. It was not very pleasant, there was a steady drain of casualties from enemy shelling and it was difficult feeding the troops on the far side of the river.
It was also difficult to make tracks across. Work was impracticable by day and extremely hazardous at night. It was also found impossible to poke our noses outside the wooded area, as there was a perfectly flat mile of open country swept by Bosche fire. This made the bridgehead uncomfortably circumscribed.