Excerpt taken from “Front of the Line”
“Beyond our knowledge of events, the last battle had narrowed down to a place called the Argenta Gap and our previous skirmishing seemed insignificant when we found ourselves up in line with the Northants waiting to attack across a huge anti tank ditch, while the Northants did things in real style in Argenta with fighter bomber support as well as flamethrower tanks. We attacked all day with two companies and our faithful friends of the 17th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. As B Company was in reserve, I saw nothing of this last breaking of the last line after having crawled so slowly up the Italian peninsula.
I sat in a ditch with the platoon and waited, waited until the anti tank ditch had been taken and B Company was ordered to attack in the dark up to yet another canal bank ahead of us. But if the last line was broken on GHQ’s map, it was not broken on B Company’s front as we advanced on both side of the road under fire. We got to our first bound on a burning farm after losing some casualties by shellfire and dazed Germans crawled out of an outbuilding. While we roped them in, the left hand Bren gunner shouted out to me from the hayricks and I found him with his gun pointing down the entrance to a dugout shaft. We were all carrying grenades and one was in my hand, but some Power stopped me from rolling it down those stairs and fourteen Germans, hands held high, trooped out into captivity and life. Sergeant Hall was busy while I was rooting around the ricks and the front of the next farm exploded as his PIAT bomb hit it at a range of ten yards, wiping out a German machine gun crew. Once again, the pure oblivion of the assault took command, an oblivion that generates an ignorance of risk, an oblivion that holds cowardice and courage on a knife edge; the orgasm of war.
Before we reached the canal, a great flash and roar hurled the leading section flat and I thought that someone had trodden on a mine. Next day, I called the roll as we hung on in the farm, which we would not quit for all the gold of Peru, even though it burned steadily around our ears. I could account for everyone save one and in spite of every check, his fate remained a mystery. It stayed so until the Rifles crashed through ahead of us in their Kangaroos and we were ordered to march on again to follow up. As we left our smouldering wreck, Sergeant Hall called out: “What’s that up on the roof?” and hanging over the eaves, we saw a pair of legs. Our mystery was solved. That crash as we reached the canal had been a bazooka hitting our missing man square on the belt buckle and blowing half of him on to the road; the other half was never found.
All day, we marched on to catch up with the Rifles, who rode to war in armoured taxis. They rode so swiftly that dismounting on a captured enemy gun battery, they were able to wind the telephone and have a chat with a bewildered German officer at the other end. And it was while on this march up to the Santerno for the night attack that, pulling out of the column to count heads, the feeling came to me that came to all at some time during those dusty, muddy, snowy roads and tracks. Standing aside for a few moments before being rebuked by Jack for not being at the head of the platoon, a great wave of love for those bowed, laden, dusty, slouching figures swept over me. There they were, even the one you knew would run away at the first opportunity. They couldn’t drive a truck, they couldn’t see their war from a tank periscope or a workshop window, their education wouldn’t help them into a job at Base: they sought safety. Got help them, but they were here at war’s extremity where only God could stand; the crest of foam on the breaking wave. Such a thin crest for such a giant wave. But if the assault was the orgasm of war, the tired, joking, grumbling file of the rifle company was the love that endured for ever for it was sired by death and fear and common laughter. They asked for so little.
Santerno was easy. Two companies were in by night and then B and D by day to open out but not before a 105 blew Jack Phelan and me across a farmyard. Jack with a splinter under his eye and myself with a small one across the throat. It was all folding up now, but wisely this knowledge was not allowed to come down to our level. With such knowledge, who could be blamed for simply sitting down and refusing to move? But even so, the prayer rising day and night was “Please God, not now. Not just at the end – Please God.” I was among that chorus that rolled around the Gate of Heaven and more so when the Skins took a village by night and Norman Plymen, sent up to replace Jack as company commander, told me we were to attack next morning up to the River Po. With Norman, I went to get a look at the way ahead from the bell tower, but rising out of the ladder way at the top, I heard the bell ring beside me. It was not Norman playing about with the rope but a clear bullet splash on the bell that sent us both down to view the ground from a lower and safer level.
The tanks allotted to us for the attack had a better knowledge than us so, after a show of track-rattling and turret swivelling, they stayed behind in the orchards, while we set off across the cornfields. They stayed there all day and may be there now for all I know. German tanks had also stayed but for different motives. When on the first bound, we took a farm, we also took four prisoners. Roughly searching them in the kitchen, I pulled out a packet of German oak leaf cigarettes from a corporal’s pocket. With a sneering ‘shit’, I flung the packet into a rain puddle and looked at his eyes as he watched his only smoke on the way to the cage ground into pulp. Then with ‘smoke from the Englander’, I gave him a tin of fifty Players: Vae Victis.
Corporal Nansen called me on the right and, joining him by the Bren gun, I saw a German tank over the canal bridge, his gun in line with our farm. With another confident prediction from myself, ‘It’s alright, it’s knocked out’, and another shrewd remark from Nansen, ‘I’ve heard that before’, I took four of the platoon over the bridge to claim our trophy. Not until I saw grey figures leaping into the turret did I believe it but, when he opened up with his machine gun, it became all too clear. The only thing that saved us was that we were so close that he could not depress his gun enough to kill us. That, plus the depth of the ditch, enabled us to crawl back to the bridge. The Germans put the bridge out of bounds by blowing the coping stones out with an HE shell, so it was into the canal and swim for all save one, who had never learnt that skill.
Pursued along the far bank by the machine gun and covered with duck weed, we retreated to Norman and Company HQ. While I watched for a rope, the quicker-witted Fusilier Salmon had handed our non swimmer across with linked machine gun belts. He was rightly decorated for this and for reviving him, who came across via the canal bottom.
Next morning, we crossed and took the now burning tank and farm and while we searched the hayricks and buildings and Norman and I stood by the back door, I saw Death’s fist crash down for the last time. The farm owner, hidden in some dugout, came out with gesticulations and applause to greet his liberators. As he babbled his joyous thanks, a single rifle bullet hit him full in the chest and he went to his account on his own doorstep.
From the kalefields ahead, like a jack-in-the-box shot a German. Running towards us, he waved one of those pamphlets, which guaranteed a prisoner long life and happiness by courtesy of the Allies. Passing Siever, he was greeted with: ‘What are you selling mate – the Mirror or the Mail?’
Then there was a last patrol into the kale, a few shorts, which hit the trees beside us and, next morning, John Beamish, coloured cap on his blond thatch, led C Company into Ruina on the Po banks. No shot fell when we looked at the roaring brown flood down the bank; no shot when the six pounders were wheeled up to snatch a church steeple opposite; no shot when, after a lunch of cognac. I fell asleep on my blanket wall in B Company HQ.
I awoke when the door crashed open and I saw the CSM festooned with rifles. He flung them in a corner with the remark; ‘It’s all over. Get their rifles off them or they’ll kill themselves’. I rose and poured two mugs of cognac. We shook hands and drank them down. He went out to disarm the company and I sat down alone at the table. From outside, the noises had started; noises that were to crescendo into a Donnybrook of twenty miles of the Po, flickering under Very lights and mortar flares.
I finished the cognac and went out to join them, to ring the bell of the church and to ride a horse into Battalion HQ to try to let it sink in and understand that tomorrow held no barrage, no start time, no Spandaus, no death.”