The Buffs at Benvignante.
The Argylls were attacking Consandolo. Their struggle had been bitter and prolonged but, by four o’clock, they reached it and cleared it, but were just too tired to exploit their success. So it had been decided that the Buffs should go through them and thrust beyond.
But, as you stand around, you don’t know this. All you are aware of is that ghastly uncertainty and the fact that you are tired of doing nothing.
But there is movement at last. Companies are filing away and soon yours is doing the same, section by section, slowly and mostly silent. It is growing dusk now. The sun has gone and the light is dying. Just enough for you to see your comrade’s face. You wonder whether you are looking as strained and tense as he.
A few miles at the most and then a halt. Great ungainly shapes dot the grey fields. Tanks. The air seems somehow lighter. Tanks are with you tonight. You will have their support. Somebody says that tanks bring down enemy fire, that the noise they create, gives your positions away but the general opinion is favourable towards them.
Another period of waiting. You stretch out beside the great shapes and smoke the last cigarette. You doze or talk in whispers. The story has been circulated that you are to pass through the Jocks and push on for as far as can go. You snatch at every whisper of a rumour as though it were Holy Writ. You drag on your cigarette and watch the moon enter the sky.
Movement. Men getting to their feet, tank crews clambering into their vehicles. At last. You adjust your equipment and try to distribute weight evenly. At last. Waiting is over and you are on the move.
The first company is away accompanied by its clattering escort. The melee sorts itself out, a delay is caused by the leading company taking the wrong road but, at last, you are really away, crossing a field and so onto a good road. The road to Consandolo, where the Argylls wait and beyond that – who knows? But at least you are moving and that is something.
You feel happier as you march. The clatter and iron clangour of the tanks is comforting to you. You talk or sing softly to yourself. There is no need for silence with those monsters bellowing all around.
Consandolo. Ruined town. Roads littered with debris. Houses shapeless hulks or untidy heaps. Shadowy figures standing with rifle or tommy gun. The glint of an eye beneath the dark shadow of a steel helmet. A whispered word.
“Are you the Buffs?”
“Yes. What’s on Jock?”
“Nothing much now. Quiet enough.”
“Think he’s pulled out?”
And that was Consandolo. The Argylls are in it after a long and sticky day’s work. And you are through it, while beyond lies anything. And the night is young.
As you march, you are watching to your left, the man in front to the right, watching for a movement or moonshine on metal, watching for a red spurt that may mean death. It is so silent. Not a sound except those of your own making.
Time passes. You trudge a few hundred yards and stop. Why you stop, you don’t know. There is just a muttered command and the long snake of burdened men halts. You have covered quite some distance now and weight is making itself felt. Bren guns are passed from shoulder to shoulder; the PIAT is an abomination. Ammunition weighs heavily but the darkness, half lit by the moon, seems to weight heaviest of all. Now you see men squatting by the roadside when the slow but steady advance is checked. Now you see them stretched on the dusty highway. Snatching each precious moment of relaxation. Only a few stand erect, braced against the burden they carry, casting shapeless inky shadows on the white road.
How quiet it is. The tanks seem to have gone ahead. You hear their metallic clatter in the distance but, apart from that, it is deadly quiet. Only the croaking of frogs from roadside ditches, the muted mutter of a word or two and the steady scuffling crunch of trudging feet.
It is a lovely night. How often have you seen a night quite so beautiful? English nights in April at their best: soft and mild as the fairest lawn, fresh and unsoiled with the clean sweet smell of hedgerow and garden, field and coppice and a hand in yours. An English lane and the dews falling soft and rare about you and footsteps at your side. The scuffling crunch of heavy boots on flinty road surface, the muttered exclamations blend into an insignificant background. Like a squirrel in its cage, your thoughts resolve – past and present, past present, cycle complete – pent up by the light starry sky overhead, that ragged black hedgerow on one side and open grey misted field on the other and the hard gritted road beneath your feet.
Instinctive change of shoulder for your weapon, a brace to your shoulders and a deeper breath of cool air. How much longer? How far? How long till the dawn? And after that…..Suddenly, the peace and quiet is evil. You feel that something is going to happen soon and suddenly and unless you are wary, you will not survive it. You strive even harder to pierce the gloom all about you and wish the moon was high again.
Another halt. The blurred figures melt into the road surface. A whisper runs down the file. A movement and it is galvanised into life. It surges and sways and blurs across the white road into the hedge and ditch. The grass is wet and the fragrance of bruised mint is heavy in the air. You are alert now. You lie flat and whisper to one another.
“They’ve bumped him. A house. Two houses. A village. The tanks are going forward. Keep your eyes open now, for Christ’s sake.” You lie in the ditch and watch the road. But what of the field behind you? That may be nursing death secretly and silently. Suddenly, with the abruptness of a heart bursting, there is a flash and a crash and an acrid stench. You shiver and cower, then brace yourself to stare again. Voices, shouting, strangely loud and highly nervous. Again, the whisper runs fleet foot from lip to lip.
“A bazooka. For God’s sake, watch out.”
Your eyes are aching and swimming with strain. Voices again. A flash and a crash that makes you wince. Another. Another. Whisper…
“Tanks. Shelling the house.”
Fascinated, you watch as round after round crash into the doomed building. A pause and then the sharp high crackle of Besa flank. Tracers curve and dance across the sky ricocheting like phosphorous hornets. A pause – and, again, the crash of cannon fire. The house is burning, madly, a gorgeous scarlet flower growing every minute. Outhouses, stacks, barns are added to the beauty of it.
Figures on the road. A huddled group and one walking behind with a pointed rifle. They tramp past and you raise yourself in the damp grass to see others approaching. What is happening forward?
The worst of war is that you never see a complete picture. Follow the road past the pool of ruddy light from the burning house, past the silent grim watchful tank, past the little group beside it, farther into the unknown and so to the leading Company. A moment of confusion and then the road was clear again but from the hedge and ditch came the short sharp rapping of Bren and the crack of rifles. Confusion in the air. Figures that flitted from bush to bush. German voices and white rags fluttering, then onwards again. The village Benvignante. The first faint light of dawn and the smoke of burning houses heavy and pungent. Men blinking into each other’s faces, standing in little knots at doorways, resting equipment, others stretched behind Brens at vantage points. A checking and counter checking and a feeling of success. The longest night march of the campaign is at its end and the infantry had outstripped the armour and were through the gap at last. The enemy were making helter skelter for the Po crossings and final Victory was brought a step closer. But success is a bauble so easily broken…
Passing through the main cluster of buildings, which comprise Benvignante, a Company has pressed forward to secure a screen about it, to consolidate and make assurance doubly sure that the enemy had actually left.
Isolated patches of resistance crackle like twigs beneath their feet. A mortar team is captured without much trouble and the feeling of success and confidence mounts higher. The fascination of the hunt grips everybody. Fatigue is forgotten.
A cluster of houses is the next objective. The dawn is clear and grey now with the tang of burning heavy in it.
The first house yields only signs of occupation and hurried flight. The second snaps back with a fusillade of shots from Spandau and Schmeisser. But it is only a gesture. Soon that too is disgorging solemn prisoners ad presently an OP is established on it. It seems all over now. Success is complete and whole, like a coveted trophy in the hands.
And then, as the daylight strengthens and the morning mists are shot with the rising sun, comes change and the bitter taste of frustration.
The ugly ominous shapes of enemy SP guns break cover. The sentry can hardly trust his eyes. His shout brings confusion but it is almost drowned as, with a belch of flame and smoke, the leading SP speaks. Enemy infantry dash from yet another house and run to where another dimly seen monster lurks. Again, the crash and scream of a shell. A tank, which had escorted the infantry during their long march recoils and shudders and all about it hangs a pall of heavy greasy smoke and the cries of voices. Again and again. Men are demoralised.
Orders are being shouted. Reliability springs from all ranks at this crisis as they react according to the stuff of which they are made. A Sergeant seizes a PIAT and, standing boldly, fires it at an SP gun in a magnificent gesture that does much to restore courage and morale. The OP is hit and wreathed in dust and smoke. The noise of firing gun and screaming shell is deafening at such point blank range but, somehow, the men are reformed and fall back to the first house. The SP’s creep menacingly forward. It is deadly fascinating to see them, to see them creep and shudder as they give tongue, to feel the hot breath of the blast as the muzzle points straight for you, it seems; to see the flying debris at the impact and to know that death is with you, touching your elbow.
But they have steadied. A few have lost their nerve and retreated but the rest hold, while the air is crackling with calls for assistance. And the enemy guns do not press home but content themselves with flogging the houses, flinging shells down the road and across the roads into Benvignante…..
Where you are at action stations. In upper rooms. Bren guns posted with supplies of magazines and loaders. You fire until your barrel is smoking hot and pray that there will be none of the stoppages the text books speak of. It fires when, by rights, it should be seized up. It fires, and fires again, and the spent cartridges fly about your ringing ears.
A house with a red roof set at an oblique angle from you has strange occupants. You knock a hole through your wall so as to cover it and wait. Someone with glasses stands alert. He sees a Hun poke a Spandau cautiously round the corner. It crackles electrically down the length of the street. Your comrade says “Now!” And you fire a burst. With a crash and a scream, a shell scores a direct hit upon a house sheltering a platoon just across the road to you. Through the dust and smoke, figures dash across the swept highway into fresh shelter. Still you fire your gun. Another magazine and another. Shells are landing all about, rear, front, flanks but, somehow, your house is not touched. It quivers and shakes and every moment you expect to see the wall leap at you, but it stands. There are keen eyed spotters after the enemy guns. The radio crackles directions. Another shell very close, there is a shout that somebody is hit. A name you know is spoken, but you don’t leave your position. Instead, you concentrate a bit harder and hug the Bren, as though it were your one hope of salvation, the spent cartridge cases flying like thrashed corn, the loaders scrabbling and rattling on the floor, filling magazines. Another long burst at the house, where the Spandau plays hide and seek. Did you get him? Nobody is sure. Your gun barrel radiates in hot quivering waves of air. Your thoughts fly up the road and you wonder what is happening there
There, they are tensely waiting for the infantry to follow up behind the prowling SP guns but, although there are spasmodic attempts, bursts of firing diligently answered, a large scale attack is not launched. In the debris, somebody is groaning…but they can do nothing.
The minutes creep by. Every man’s whole faculties are concentrated in ears and eyes. They are calmer, watchful and silent. Each man has his thoughts but, outwardly, they are composed.
The minutes tick on. Now, there is a rustle of whisper, the usual flurry of rumour passed from mouth to mouth. What is happening? Is this the real thing or just a delaying movement? Where are our tanks, our artillery? Is another Company coming up to reinforce us? The whole affair has not lasted an hour but it seems an age since the SP first stirred and spoke from concealment.
Another shell. Dropping short? Another. What is this?
They are our shells, pounding houses to rubble, ploughing fields and sowing death in the fertile soil. Tight lipped, they crouch and watch. A burst of flame like an orange blossoming flower as one of the half hidden SP guns heaves up and cracks open like a nut beneath a hammer. The barrage beats its patch onwards like a giant beater after a game. The bright sunlight is eclipsed and, through the drifting clouds, they catch glimpses of burning houses and erupting fields.
A sergeant behind them as they watch and figures are creeping stealthily through. The artillery stops and they press forward, past the blazing SP gun, past the crumpled tank, past the houses recently quitted…
In Benvignante, where the shelling had almost ceased, a patrol is going out to the house at which you have been firing. You watch them slip across the highway, vanish into the fields and trees. Out of sight for a few moments, then briefly seen as, one by one, they dart across open ground to the rear of the house. You wait…..A stretcher party moves along the road, flag fluttering.
The patrol reappears and, eventually, rejoins the main party.
Report…. Nothing there. Plenty of signs but nobody there now. You know that they are probing again forward and you wait expectantly but nothing happens and, gradually, you allow yourself to think that the counter attack has been beaten off.
You relax and light a cigarette.
The stretcher party returning reports that all seem well now. You have held your gains of that previous night. Those precious eight miles are still intact.
And you are tired. Conscious of being hungry but curiously elated later, you stand at the door and watch the pursuit sweep on.
In a matter of hours, what was the very tip of the advance becomes the rear. A continuous stream of armour crashes by, lorried infantry, Buffaloes, bridge, building stores. You look at your comrades and laugh and say, “We’re Base Wallahs, now!”
But for all things, a price has to be paid. It was paid this time as always. Men you knew are no more, men who set out on that night march marched into a deeper night with the dawn.
Honour their memory as the pursuit rolls onwards; honour their memory a little later as the curtain goes down on the Italian Campaign; as the tracers fly skywards; as the mortar flares drift in pools of blooding light, startling the night; as the Verey flares, green and red, pale the stars; and that complete Victory, which grinned at you, like a death’s head on Monte Grande, becomes reality at last.