Irish Brigade

The story of the 38th (Irish) Brigade in the Second World War

Percy Hamilton – Assault on San Salvo

At the start of November 1943, Lieutenant Percy Hamilton took part with ‘C’ Company of 6 Innisks in a 78 Division wide assault on the town of San Salvo, which had been the scene of a bloody set back for both the Faughs and the London Irish at the end of October.


“After patrols had been carried out and conferences called and we had been taken up to a hill overlooking the river from where we could see very little anyway, the way was set for another push forward.

This was a very big show and we were to have tank support and nearly all the artillery in Italy too. The latter was lined up behind the high ground south of the river. There was to be a ‘Chinese’attack on the left of the main attack. This was to be carried out by Bofors and Urlicane firing tracer horizontally.

‘A’ Coy on the left and ‘C’ on the right were to take Hill 40 and then ‘B’ and ‘D’ would come through and go on to San Salvo. It would be about a mile from the river to Hill 40 and another two miles to the town. The Buffs were on the right of ‘C’ Coy.

We started after dark and went up the road again towards the blown bridge. When we were near the place where we were to leave the road, he started to shell. The shells landed near us and we nipped down to the left into a deep ravine. Luckily, the same thought came to everybody so the company stayed together and there was no casualties. As we had moved left, we were all nearer to the crossing place and again waded over and moved across the road to a position almost in front of where we had spent the week in the line. Here, we had to wait for a couple of hours.

We had been given a rum ration of two pint bottles per platoon. My lads had decided to have theirs on the start line and not before leaving the rest area. It was impossible to share it out in mugs so i gave each fellow, who wanted, a swig out of the bottle. At the time, I didn’t know that McKenna would have drunk the lot if he got the chance and he had a good deal more than his share, in spite of which he was still with us at the finish of the day.

When the barrage opened, there was a flicker of flame across the whole skyline behind us. The tracer firing on the left was so bright as to make it dangerous. There was a strip of open ground beyond the wood and we crossed this in open formation with Suffolk’s platoon on the right and mine on the left. Gratton Halpin, commanding the company, stopped us every twenty yards or so and checked up on the direction and that we were keeping in line. He made such a noise, or so we thought at the time, and we were afraid we would be heard. After a few hundred yards, we came to a ditch running across our line of advance. It was while crossing this ditch on our left that A Coy lost Hobo Crocker and Basil Hewitt was killed just after. We had to wait in the ditch for a bit as he started to mortar us.

After the ditch, there were vines. The line of the vines was not either across or parallel to our line of advance and we had to keep ducking under them. Luckily, they were not booby trapped. We knew that we must be getting near the objective, but there was nothing to be seen in the beginning of the dawn that was becoming evident. Jack and I scouted in front a short distance, while the company lay flat, but we could not find any cover. We had a hurried conference with Grattan Halpin, who came forward with us and a few men, and we found ourselves looking out of the edge of the vines at a sort of hump. It was Hill 40.

All this time that Jack and I had been rooting round, there had been a steady fire of small arms from the Jerry. He had not hit any of us and I don’t suppose that the shots were as close as they sounded, but it wasn’t comfortable. Now it seemed to us that the fire must be coming from the hill in front of us, but we were not able to spot any enemy positions. Grattan said to me, ‘take a section and try to get a bit to the right and see if you can do anything from there.’ I took Cpl Lyons and McKenna and a couple of others and moved back a bit and to the right coming to the edge of the vines further to the right. There was nothing more to be seen, and it was getting quite bright. I don’t know why we were not seen, as we had no cover except the leaves. We were lying there and Lyons and I were wondering what to do next when we heard a rumbling behind us and slightly to our right. It was our tanks coming up. We decided that the best thing to do was to keep still and not be mistaken for Germans by the tank chaps.

Just as the tanks passed us, there was a shout from the left and we saw ‘C’ Coy charging from the vines. We got up and joined them and, in a moment, were running towards the hill, about 150 yards ahead, in a disorderly mob shouting, “Come on the Skins” and reached the objective to find more of ‘A’ Coy there and the tanks and David Schayek and some of his chaps. David was wounded and put up a fine show, but nobody quite knew how he got there. There was very little mopping up to do on the hill.

There was time to have a look at the Jerry positions, while we were reorganising. He was well dug in and there were openings about a foot square for his machine guns facing the way we had come. These were camouflaged and we were not surprised that we had not been able to see him. There was a dug out on the top of the hill and as there was no response to shouts to come out, one of the tanks ran over it – it did not collapse so we took a look inside, but there was no one inside and only the usual litter of kit.

Next thing we saw, was a Jerry making off to the left. There was a broad covered valley about a mile to the nearest trees and he was nearly at them. We shouted to him, but as he took no notice, someone turned a bren gun on him. Then we saw a white flag waving out of a slit trench also to the left. I went to investigate along with a couple of lads. We approached the trench carefully as we thought how easy it would be for the gent inside to pot one of us as we looked over. There was a Jerry, wounded in the leg and the throat, so we hooked him out and took him back with us to where some of his pals were around a tree on the top of Hill 40.

Then the CO arrived and said it was time to get a move on. So we followed on after ‘B’ and ‘D’ Coys, who had passed through.

The country was now more like the Irish type, with hedges and fields intersected with tracks. The tanks had gone on ahead and we had an easy morning following along. There was one scare – they told us that there was a nest of enemy on the right that was potting at them. I had to take a section to investigate, but there was nothing there.

Of course, we were not moving along all this time. There was plenty of hold ups and the “fog of war” was as thick as usual. It was not until midday or a little after that that the town of San Salvo came into view. It perched on top of a hill, across fairly open country. About this time, the CO came along and told Grattan that we were to move up to the town supported by tanks.

There was some wooded country to the right of the town and more open country beneath it. Grattan said we would go straight towards the objective. The tank fellows wanted to go more to the right so he said we would go our own way.

The company now assumed its normal formation, that is single file. Not a very tactical formation but really the only one for roving about. There was a track leading from where we were, straight to the town, so we set off up on this. We were about half a mile from the town when Grattan stopped us and said he was going to see Bill Bayley, who was supposed to be on our left. The whole company sat down in the ditches along the road to wait.

Looking towards the town, we could see a sort of path crossing the one we were on. There was a German tank on the track and Jack and I were looking at it and wondering if it had been hit when it started to move. Then another Jerry tank joined it and the two moved away. We were very glad, because we realised that if they had seen us, a couple of bursts of a machine gun down the road would have finished the company.

After the tanks cleared out, and Grattan had not returned, Cpl Ben Lyons and I went for a ramble towards the right of the town, and actually reached the outskirts. There was nobody to be seen, either British or Jerry. We passed another German tank on the way. Its tracks were damaged, and there was petrol all over the place.

When we got back to the company, there was still no sign of Grattan Halpin, Suffolk was all for pushing on, but said that if the Coy commander arrived back and found the Coy gone, he would create a stink. Anyway, just at that moment, Bill Bayley arrived with his company after him.  He told me that Grattan had been wounded and that I was go with ‘C’ Coy into the town, and as quickly as possible, because they had had a message from ‘D’ Coy that they (‘D’ Coy) had been in the town for the past hour and were expecting a counterattack. I suggested that as ‘B’ Coy was already on the move that Bill should lead the way, but he was having none of it. I took the company straight up the road as we now knew that there was no opposition owing to our lads being in the town.

We later learnt that when Grattan Halpin had left us, he approached ‘B’ Coy, who at that time was pinned down by fire from a German tank. Probably one of those that we saw. Grattan did not know this and although they shouted to him to get down, he did not hear them and was shot at and very badly wounded. ‘B’ Coy stretcher bearers brought him in.

When we got to the town, we were met by guides from ‘D’ Coy and brought to the end of the town, where they were expecting the counter attack. We passed through the square and through an arch to a street running straight out into the country for about a mile, and then disappeared over the brow of a hill.

Tom Fearn was now commanding ‘D’ Coy and I got him to give me what details he knew, which didn’t amount to much. He was not taking the counter attack story seriously, and when I first saw, he was riding up and down the street on a Jerry motor bike and sidecar. It was said that he had shot the owner, but there was no bodies lying about.

I got the lads into the houses near the end of the street, and covering as many windows facing the open as possible. ‘D’ Coy took themselves off and i started to check up on Coy HQ. There was myself, CSM Ford (wounded), two wireless operators, one of them a lad called Foley who had been in my own platoon before joining the signals and a fellow called Taffy Bowden, who attached himself to Ford as a sort of batman. The others arrived at varying intervals.

We took up a position in the arch of a very big house. Then proceeded to have a meal. It was now about five or six in the evening and I don’t think any of us had eaten since the night before, except for odd grapes and apples we picked up on the way. We had bully beef and someone had onions. The house had a courtyard in the front and lots of big rooms. I had to go round it when looking for positions and thought it would make a great billet for the Coy when the situation permitted. Later, I realised that we would only get put out of it so we chose a smaller house when the time came.

Then it occurred to me that I ought to report the coy in. So I went off to look for the CO. I walked down the street towards the square and met him coming up. By this time, I had met an Italian, who had given me a huge piece of bread – it was at least a foot long. I could not eat it at the time so I stuck it into the strap of my equipment. The CO looked slightly pained, but then I don’t think that he ever really understood me. Anyway, I told him I was overawed at the prospect of commanding the coy and would he do something about it.  He said he would, but that I would have to carry on for the present, which suited me all right. He didn’t like my dispositions and drew the lads back from the edge of the town, about a hundred yards down the street. We established Coy HQ in a nice little house.

Soon after, I had to go down to Bttn HQ for something else and I was just going to walk out into the street when there was a clatter of machine gun fire outside the door. The Jerry had got a tank onto the hump in the road and fired down the street. I went to Bttn HQ by a back street.

I went down to see how Grattan was, but the Doc wouldn’t let me anywhere near him.

The Doc was Ken Brown. Afterwards, they told how when he was moving up to San Salvo with the RAP, he met several fellows going the other way in a great hurry. He asked them where they were going and they told him that Jerry was counter attacking and that everyone was evacuating. Ken said, “No, everyone is not leaving. I’m going up there and you’re coming with me.” And he turned them round and marched them in front of himself.

Just after dark, Stan Pollard, the anti tank gun platoon commander was sent up to take over the company. There was nothing he could do in the dark so we let the positions stay as they were for the present.

There was a counter attack that night, but not on our side. We stood to, of course, but we could do nothing but watch the tracer flying about. It was going in every direction.”



 

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