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. Immediately behind the town was a great mass of land, so near that you could almost toss a biscuit at it and it slowly dawned on our early morning minds that here was the Italian mainland, the home of our enemies of four years’ standing – the place from which Mussolini and Signor Gayda and Ciano had been belly aching for nearly a quarter of a century – the home of the race, which we were firmly and finally going to put in their rightful place.
Messina had been knocked about quite a bit and showed signs of war.
The Straits presented a busy spectacle. Small landing craft, which could carry two or three vehicles and a couple of dozen chaps, were puffing busily backwards and forwards across the three mile strip in considerable numbers. There were also larger ships.
My party soon got on board and half an hour later we set foot in Italy.
The Straits looked very British on this fine September morning, thick with large and small craft busy in their endeavour to get at least 800 vehicles across each day. There were two large convoys to the east and west – big ships – going about their business – and no enemy.
The war did certainly appear to have advanced a stage.
There are good towns, such as Reggio, along the southern coast of Italy. Modern and well built, and although they had suffered a bit from our original bombardment, the damage was not very apparent.
Our two days’ drive from Reggio to Taranto was pleasant. It was mostly along the coast and the scenery was magnificent. The only fly in the ointment was the road, which was extremely bad in places, as bad as I had faced. This was due in most instances to Bosche demolitions and extremely rough diversions. But at times it was just due to the road itself, which in many parts had only reached the “projected” stage, and were very far from being marked off as ok on the books of the local Minister for Roads and Railways.
The railway often flanked the road and there were many signs of the severe dusting our Air Force had given the Bosche L of C. Nearly every siding and station was blocked with burnt out trucks and blown up ammunition wagons.
I have never seen such thorough destruction and such close evidence of accurate bombing and strafing. Life must have been very difficult for the German army in this area.
All day throughout the journey, we met thousands of Italian soldiers demobilising themselves and making for home. They were a sorry sight trudging along the dusty road, sweaty, footsore, weary, bedraggled and laden down with great bundles on their backs. I suppose they would lose anything they couldn’t carry.
They looked at us with apathetic eyes or eyes that didn’t bother to look at us at all. I don’t suppose they had any thought in their minds except the wish to get to some destination where someone would be glad to see them. It was a peculiar thought that anyone, anywhere would be glad to welcome the various Manuelos, Pietros and Ettores who make up these sorry bands, but doubtless most of them had some place they called “home” with a wife and many little Pietros waiting to transform a poor coot into a god like being as soon as he managed to step across the threshold. And this odd thought can be put down as either “Funny, strange” or “Funny – ha,ha” but I suppose, after all, it is just life.
The Italians are peculiar people, or rather, they are very ordinary people who have got themselves into a peculiar position.
We put in at Catrone on the first night. I had a good bed in the best hotel, which seemed to have come to a full stop – overrun by war.
The next day’s journey was long and tedious, Two forward routes merged and the traffic was head to tail for miles. One felt command of the air was a “good thing”. Eventually we stopped for a bathe and a cup of tea, a few miles outside Taranto. It was pleasant and refreshing as it included a change out of sweaty kit but it was perhaps a strange site. We made our way somewhat gingerly through an Italian coast defence area, which included mines, were benevolently watched by the Italian sentries (not yet self demolished–homes probably in the north) and drank our tea in a platoon post only lately evacuated by the Bosche.
I spent the night and a couple of succeeding nights at Corps Headquarters enjoying the nice atmosphere that the Commander always creates about himself. During these later days of September, our Divisional Commander with his scratch force of Airborne Troops, Tanks, Recce and Support Battalion pushed along the coast road. There was little real opposition, the Bosche sacrificing few tanks and SP guns in exchange for causing us to work forward in warlike formation.
The general form was for Brigades to become complete in Taranto and then move to a forward concentration area near Barletta. This was done smoothly and, by 1st October, the whole Division was in this area, the scratch force was being dissolved and plans had been made for the division to “get cracking”.
While my Brigade was assembling, I visited Taranto. A fine town and an exceptional port. It was just what was really necessary for a good invasion of Italy.
Also during these few days, I went forward several times to get the latest dope from my Divisional Commander. To do this, I had to drive through about a dozen sizeable towns – the largest Bari, a useful port – and there was no doubt whatever about the feelings of the local inhabitants. All these towns – lately infested by Bosche – were “en fete”. Every British vehicle driving through was mobbed and cheered. A red hat practically held up the traffic and left its owner smothered in flowers.
Luckily, I never wear a red hat – favouring a beret – so I escaped fairly lightly. But this beret was unable to disguise from the more astute inhabitants that here was a great Commander on his way to war and I did get several thorny roses plastered on my person. This assumption may be quite erroneous and possibly they may have been bad shots at a preceding Bren carrier, containing a Sanitary Corporal and two Company Cooks of the Faughs. One never knows.
The plans for the Division taking part in the battle were quite simple. We had Foggia, but there was a lot of bad country between there and Temoli, notably the River Fortora and a bad place north of Serracapriola. The Bosche had considerable delaying forces in these areas and a normal advance by road would be slow.
It was therefore decided that one Brigade plus the Divisional Transport would advance by road as per normal, but Commandos would swoop down by sea on Termoli, be quickly reinforced by another Brigade, followed in due course by the Irish Brigade and before the Bosche really knew where he was, we would have gained many miles.
There was not supposed to be many Bosche in Termoli.
It was good bold plan. It deserved success. It got it. How it got it will be described in the next chapter.