At the start of October 1943, Lieutenant Percy Hamilton sailed with the rest of the Irish Brigade to Termoli with the expectation of a number of weeks of relatively quiet consolidation, but the brigade was met there by strong German counter attacks led by the 16th Panzer Division. After some well carried out counter measures, the Irish Brigade with strong Canadian armoured support, was able to protect the bridgehead successfully. A further reorganisation of 6 Innisks’ fusilier battalions meant that Lieutenant Hamilton transferred from ‘D’ to ‘C’ Company, who were then commanded by Major Grattan Halpin.
“We marched down to the docks at Barletta. It was nice and sunny and everyone seemed in good form. I had to wait on one side for a bit with my platoon as we were going on an LCI with the RIrF and the only other Skins on this ship would be our Coy HQ. We had a pleasant day’s sailing and although it was very hot, we enjoyed it. We didn’t know where we were going but one never worried very much. We were looking forward to the week’s rest we were to have, before we went into action.
After dark, we saw several fires burning on the land but didn’t take much notice. We had the Faughs HQ on board and we heard that we were going to land first. We sailed slowly into a tiny harbour and nosed up to the quay. There didn’t seem to be anybody about but the Faughs got off and disappeared into the town and we got off and collected ourselves at the head of the quay. Next thing, there was a hell of a bang just over the end of the pier. Somebody was shelling it. Desmond McCaldin (OC ‘D’ Coy) went off to find out what was happening and we directed the next couple of LCIs in as there was nobody else. Meanwhile the odd shell kept falling, dropping just a little bit away in the sea. It can’t have been very pleasant for the other LCIs cruising about waiting to come in. These two also contained Faughs who disappeared into the town. While we were still wondering what was going on, a Commando Officer turned up and told us the situation: 36 Brigade and ‘S’ Coy of the Skins, who had come up by road in the carriers had been holding a line north of the town and Jerry had counterattacked, so that at the moment, things were pretty sticky. We spent the next half hour expecting to see a German head poking over the wall. We knew we were all right from the shelling as there was a high cliff and we were at the bottom of it.
Eventually the rest of the Skins got in and the CO went off to get orders. It was not long before we were on the move through the town; there was not a soul to be seen and there was not a light or sign of civilian habitation. It was the most deserted place I had ever seen. The moon was shining and gave a weird effect. We stopped at the far end of the town; it was not a very big place. I had to look over a house with a view to getting my platoon into a defensive position. I had no torch and didn’t like the job as there might have been the odd Jerry there. I did the best I could with the help of my Platoon Sergeant and a few matches and even that was chancy as we couldn’t show a light outside. Having finished my recce of that house, I was preparing to move the men in, when the CO told me to occupy a very big block of flats the other side of the railway. He said to break open any door we wanted. I divided up the building between the sections and told the section commanders to get cracking. There was a most frightful noise for a few minutes as each flat was locked and the doors had Yale type locks. The rifle butts soon fixed them. It was a job then to find anybody as the sections were spread over four floors and goodness knows how many flats. It was still dark, so I spent the rest of the night going around falling over beds etc while trying to keep in touch. When the dawn came, there was some machine gun fire not far away but we couldn’t tell what was happening. The transport arrived with breakfast and the cooks got to work behind the building. There was also some mail that had come up and Desmond and I were just opening ours when Jerry decided to dive bomb us. He dropped two near the building, but did no damage.
The Bttn got orders to advance and called an ‘O’ Group. We found that we were advancing as a Brigade to a ridge we could see in the distance, with the Faughs on the right heading for the chimney of a brickworks we could see and were to have tanks with them and we were to keep on their left. ‘D’ was the third company up, so were to just follow on. We wound after the leading companies and stopped on a hill, and we had almost a bird’s eye view of the battle between the Faughs and their tanks and a few Jerry tanks. Then we got onto a flat piece of country ourselves and soon realised that Jerry must have something on our left. The leading companies got pinned down and Desmond went forward to see what was happening and was very nearly hit; the chap, who was lying beside him, between him and a third fellow, was hit by an explosive shell of some kind.
After things quietened down a bit, we went on and came to a rise overlooking a valley. There was a farm house down at the bottom of it and I had to take my platoon to search it. I left a section at the top to cover us and did a battle drill movement round the side. There was nothing there. After I rejoined the company, we were told to make for the next village, which we could see on the skyline. I got cut off by a platoon crossing in front of me and reached the village before the rest of the company. The inhabitants were all in the streets and we had a job to get through them, Finally, I got the chaps in threes and we marched slap through the middle of them. By this time, it was dark so we dug temporary positions for the night.
Next day, it rained and as Jerry was far enough away not to bother us much except for a few shells, and we got into a school house and the men all got dry clothes from a pile of stuff that was lying around. They looked like a fancy dress fancy. The local school mistress came and bellyached like hell but didn’t get any change from us.
In the afternoon, I was posted to ‘C’ Coy. That didn’t suit my notions at all, as I liked being with Desmond and the others in ‘D’ Coy. I asked him to get me back to his company, and he had quite a row with the CO, but didn’t get any change of mind. I went to ‘C’ Coy, whose Company Commander was Captain Grattan Halpin.
‘C’ Coy was at the other end of the villages on a ridge, and which faced the Jerry. They were about five miles away on another ridge called Petacciato, and there was a plain in between with a few small hills and a river running through. Company HQ was in a shed with a straw roof and we used to gather there for meals; there were a few chickens about but they didn’t last very long. I first met Jack Suffolk there: he had just come from the LIR, where he had been a sergeant. He was commanding 7 Platoon, and I got 8, with 9 commanded by Sergeant Tanner. Sergeant Dackcombe was my platoon sergeant. I had a slit trench to sleep in, not for protection, but to keep the wind off. It is much warmer that way, and with some straw in the bottom, it was really quite warm.
I was detailed to do a patrol by day on a ridge about half way into no man’s land. I took Corporal Lyons and a fusilier and two chaps with a wireless. We went along the back of the first ridge and then climbed it to get a look round. There were some civilians living in a house on the back slope and we searched their house. They gave us some eggs and we got them to fry them for us as we had had very little breakfast. The signallers were trying to get through on the set to report but they could not hear very well and after we went another mile, the thing conked out altogether.
I left the signallers at a farmhouse, where they could watch us from, while Lyons and I went on towards the river and went along the river bed through a sort of thicket till we came opposite the place we were to investigate. We climbed a bit of a hill on the other side of the river and had a good look round but there was no sign of enemy activity, so after a short time we returned to the farm where we had left the others and had some more eggs and some bread. The place was thick with flies and I swatted some of them with a knife. This seemed to amuse the locals a lot; they never took any notice of any flies. After that, we returned to our own lines keeping down low in the folds of the hills.
After a few days, we had to relieve a company of the RIrF in a position only about a mile away on our right. The platoon commanders went along to do a recce. I met the commander of the platoon that I was to relieve, and then we went forward to see the forward section and while we were there the Jerries started shelling. We got into a slit trench and waited till he got quiet and then returned. That night, the company moved up and took over. We got the sections along and there wasn’t enough for them all so we put some of the fellows in some slit trenches slightly further back. Platoon HQ was in the middle of a ploughed field and there were no slits dug. It began to rain, but although there were a couple of trees there, they gave no shelter, and we got the canvas part of a binding machine and Dackcombe and I got under it. After getting a few minutes sleep, I found that my body had dammed a trickle of water coming down a depression and there was quite a pool on one side. We tried to dig but the ground was so sticky, and it was impossible in the dark.
The platoon held a position with the forward sections along the crest of a hill and the reserve section and Platoon HQ were on the reverse slope. In that way, we estimated that in case of attack the front positions could stop them coming up the slope and the others would be there in case they got too far. There was a platoon on the left on the other side of a gully and we had a fixed line from a Bren down the gully at night as well as having it filled up with wire. We thought of putting booby traps too, but decided they would be more danger to us than to Jerry. Our right flank was covered by machine gun fire and there was a section of machine gunners a hundred yards in front of my forward section. It was never quite clear how they were expected to survive an attack, but we used to send a section to help them at night. We also used to send an NCO and a couple of men out at dawn to have a look at the covered ground in front of our positions in case of any patrols lying up there.
There was a Jerry Mark IV tank not very far in front of my positions. As there were no Jerries for about four miles, we went down the hill to have a look at it. It was nose down in a ditch at the bottom of a slope. The only external damage was on one plate about a foot square off the turret and there was some damage inside on the instrument panel, evidently done by the driver before he escaped. I never quite cleared up the fate of that tank to my own satisfaction. There were a couple of queer things I noticed. There were two Jerries dead in the turret. They were both minus their boots. That was probably owing to the attention of the Italians, but one of them was holding a book open in his hands as if he had been reading it when the tank was hit. Therefore, I could not decide whether the tank had been hit in battle or had been caught napping, hit, and tried to escape when it became ditched. Both Jerries were missing their heads: one from the neck up and the other just the upper half. The inside of the turret looked as if it had been spattered with bully beef. I said I would go down and help the padre to bury them and took a piece of signal cable with me to hoist them out. I had been into the tank before to see if there was anything worth having, but the Italians had been there first and there was nothing. I found a comb, which I needed at the time and it struck me that it would not be any use to the other chaps now as neither of them had a head! The padre said they were too far gone to hoist with the cable as they would probably break in half, so we left them until the next day. They were pretty smelly already as they had been there for nearly a week.
It came my turn to do a patrol. Jerry was still about four miles away on the Petacciato Ridge. I was to take the platoon out to near the ridge and try and find out what was on the other side. The company had been taken over by Major Gibbon of the Argylls and he gave me my orders. I was to go out at 1700hrs with a L/Cpl of the Intelligence Section and study the route from a hill about a quarter way out. The Platoon Sergeant was to bring the platoon to a farm that we could see, so as to meet me at dusk.
I went out as planned and when I had done the recce, I told the NCO he could go and I waited near the farm for the rest of the platoon. An hour after dusk, I decided they must have got lost and thinking they would probably go on without me, I made my way towards the Jerry lines, expecting to hear or see some of them, but I did not. I passed a farm and a dog set up such a barking that all ‘No Man’s Land’ must have heard it; I swore destruction and worse on dogs in general. I got as near to Jerry as I could by myself and lay up for a bit, not knowing quite what to do, but having decided that I could really do nothing, I made my way back carefully. I got in just after the platoon, and reported what had happened. According to Dackcombe, he took them up to the appointed position and hid in some hay, but as it was a bright moonlit night, it was impossible to get near to the ridge much less find out what was on the other side. In the light of future developments, I often wonder what really happened that night. Some day, I shall find out.
Two important things I did learn that night: first that when there is any light at all, field glasses are invaluable at night, and second, never, never go anywhere by yourself forward of Bttn HQ.
Being in the same position for a week, which was unusual, we got relatively comfortable. I dug an extension to my slit trench, really in the shape of a T and got a door from a wrecked house to make a roof. Then as the lamp, made out of a cigarette tin with petrol in it that smoked, I got a pipe off a wrecked truck and made a chimney. Dackcombe and I used to retire inside and hang a blanket to keep the light in at night. Only one could sleep in the covered part, but we still had the binder canvas to cover the outside part. Major Gibbon was so quick in getting round at ‘stand to’ that I used to get the lads up a quarter of an hour early in order to have them awake when he came. He caught me in bed twice. He also had a load of text book ideas about slit trenches and didn’t approve of the spoil being used as a parapet. We also had to flatten the humps round our slits. One day, he had a brilliant idea that he would test a certain shape of slit for the PIAT. He called for a platoon to volunteer to dig this, but, of course, no one did. My platoon got the job on the grounds that the soil was softer where we were. The NCO who got the job was testing the result, when the PIAT went off and only the fact that the bomb was not primed prevented the Company HQ from being considerably shaken, as it hit a tree not far from where a company conference was in progress.
A strange Major came round one day and said he wanted to see my latrines. This was not an unusual request and I thought he was probably from a hygiene section. I don’t think he had any cap badge. I had two latrines: one was behind a hedge, the other was in front of one, but this was not important as there was no women about. I found out later that the Major was our new 2.i.c. Major Bryar.
This was also a good area for getting extras in the way of chickens etc. The long distance between us and Jerry meant plenty of farms where the inhabitants stayed indoors at night. The lads used to come in from patrol with all sorts of booty. We even had a platoon oven made.
The mobile bath unit moved up to Termoli and we made use of it. Even the OC of the company came with us and mucked in. It was a great thing not to have to bath in a bucket.
The LIR attacked and captured the Petacciato Ridge and we got orders to move up. As we pulled out in the trucks which took us the five odd miles, I was annoyed to see a couple of Italians pulling up the roof of the dug out that had been my home for a week. They weren’t losing any time.
When we reached our lying up area, we were just under the muzzles of the 25 pounders. It is not a pleasant spot when they poop off, the crack gets on your nerves, and makes you jumpy. We were told to dig in and as no one coordinated the plan, we finished with everyone shooting everyone else, or would have, if Jerry had appeared. Anyway, by dawn the place seemed quiet so we all stopped digging. In the afternoon, we moved slightly further forward, and dug in again.
In the night, there was a noise and everybody seemed to be firing. As we didn’t know what was on, we stayed in our slits as the safest place. In the morning, we discovered that one of the MMG posts had been “put in the bag” but all had escaped except one fellow, who was taken away with only his socks on his feet. The moral of that is: don’t take you boots off in a forward post.
On the higher level, a penny dropped in the machine, and they realised that the pistol is out of date as a weapon of war. Up to now, platoon commanders were expected to go in with only a pistol, but of course, they all carried a rifle or even a Jerry automatic. Here, however, we were issued with Tommy Guns. Heavy to carry but necessary for the leading man in a platoon, as the platoon commander is, in spite of teaching about having always a section in front of him.
Major Gibbon departed, he was genuinely sorry to go as he had become attached to the company even after a short time, and Gratton Halpin took over again.
As the line had moved forward to the River Trigno, we moved on again. We were not told where we were going and the Company Commanders went off and I was left to bring the company along a track, but given no indication of how far or how long we were to march. We started in the early afternoon with all the usual paraphernalia of PIATs etc and marched for a couple of hours. We had a couple of halts but could not delay too much as there were other companies on the move too. At about five in the evening, we came up to Captain Halpin, who was waiting for us. He told us we were going into the next town, a place called Montenero, which was clear of enemy as someone else had been through it, but there was no hurry so we had half an hour’s rest. It had been a hot afternoon and we were all very tired.
The town was on the top of a hill and we wound along a sort of embankment leading to it. It was dusk when we arrived and there was considerable confusion about billeting. My platoon was lodged in a school for an hour or so while I was searching round the houses in the area allotted for a good house. I had a corporal with me; I think it was Lyons, and we burgled two houses by climbing up on to the balconies and crossing from one to the other. We got the platoon in to these two and found enough olive oil for a few lights – olive oil gives a clear light without smoke from an open flame. In the morning, we had to man certain emergency positions, after which we moved to a better house just down the street.
This was the best platoon billet I ever had. It was a two storey house with four rooms on each floor. I had a room for myself and the sergeant and a smaller one for daytime. There was a young fellow in the house – we let the owners have one room downstairs and a barn, but they got a bit crowded when the rest of the relations arrived from the dugout they had been living in – and he could talk French so we used to have long conversations. He told me quite a lot about conditions etc. I asked him why he had a Fascist calendar on the wall and he tore it down with an expression of disgust. He bellyached about the family not having enough, so I told him they should have stayed in their dugouts a bit longer, but we gave them another room.
Most of us needed a haircut, so as I had occasion to visit a barber shop and the owner was not there so I pinched his tools. I thought there would be someone in the platoon who could use them. Nobody could, so I went back to the shop and the barber had returned so we brought him to the billet and gave him back his tools and made him cut our hair.
A boy of about sixteen came in to me one day and said he wanted to come along with us as my servant. He did not want any pay, only his food and some clothes. I told him it was inclined to be noisy where we went and with things going off etc, he would not like it. He still wanted to come and I was sorry I was not able to bring him as he would have been very handy.
We stayed there nearly a week.
Again moving forward, this time to a laying up area just behind the Trigno. We had about five miles to march, but it was at night so it was cool. By dawn, we were dug in as they were shelling the area spasmodically. A few fellows were able to get into a house, but it was on the skyline and they could not leave it in daylight. Most of us expected to see the house get hit, but they didn’t drop anything near it. The RAP was in the next house, but it was hidden from view.
An advance party was called for as we were to take over the small bridgehead, which the LIR were holding over the river. Sergeant Dackcombe went to represent my platoon.
We could not cross the river, where the road led to, firstly because there was no bridge there now, and furthermore Jerry kept stonking the area heavily so it was impossible to use the ford, except for single persons to cross. Therefore, we were to cross the river three hundred yards upstream and meet our guides there. ‘C’ Coy was to hold the part of the bridgehead on the right of the road, which cut it in half. That meant crossing the road as it was on the other side, and in this way we crossed the river.”