CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan recalls the entry of 2 LIR into Termoli by sea while under fire on the night of 5/6 October 1943 and the perilous crossings over the Trigno River with his supply mule trains over the Trigno River. At the end of October 1943, the battalion’s Second in Command, Major Arthur (Kevin) O’Connor is killed by enemy shell fire during the battle of San Salvo.
“We were evidently no longer at war with Italy. No longer enemies, nor Allies apparently but co-belligerents. Soon we would be off once more, this time to the mainland of Italy. More ‘soft underbelly?’ We sang: ‘When this bloody war is over, just how happy we would be. . . . .’ But when? The war seemed to stretch ahead for ever.
Although the initial crossing of the Strait of Messina was on 3 September, we were not to cross to Italy until 20 days later. We sailed through the Strait of Messina and up to the vast Gulf of Taranto. It was a smooth crossing but getting into the harbour at Taranto seemed to take ages. I was struck by the great numbers of large jellyfish which floated lazily in the sea. We disembarked and were taken to bivouac areas where we waited for about five days. We entrained for the small port of Barletta where we were allowed to enter the town and introduced to vermouth at ridiculously low prices. This was remedied, I understand, the very next day. So far it had been soft. This was amended that same night.
The transport had already been left at Taranto to make its own way to our destination by road when it had been cleared of Germans. We embarked into landing craft in battle order and were carried around the Cape formed by Mount Gargano to Termoli. Here, we were dumped on an inhospitable quay with 205mm shells exploding around us. The reception was so warm, the navy did not bother to unload a medical unit complete with stretchers. They just backed out and left. We ran quickly up the cobbled streets carrying everything. The platoons were hurriedly deployed and we dashed into a large hotel building which was occupied by the remains of a commando troop that had taken the port a few hours before.
Our trucks had caught us up. My staff joined me and were delighted with the luxurious accommodation we had in Termoli. As soon as I was given the location of the farm where the company was, I made my way in a TCV with a hot meal inside six gallon containers. I could not go across country but followed the roundabout route by road. On the way, I was shelled and shot at. At the farm, I started to feed the men when we became the target of shellfire from some heavy guns. In a lull, I packed my stuff to return to my cooks and storeman. The return journey was even more fraught and I dashed into the hotel out of harm’s way. I was greeted with: ‘What was it like?’ I replied with a vivid description in violent army language. A gentle voice from the back of the room said chidingly: ‘Rosie.’ It was Father Hayes, our padre. I had served Mass for him on many occasions. I stammered an apology and he never mentioned my verbosity ever.
It was still considered to be too dangerous to set up the cooks in the farm so I took prepared food and ammunition the next day. The company were not really interested in the meal and soon I discovered why. The farm had a large flock of turkeys, allegedly 96, as well as an array of other poultry and a few pigs. When E Company left, the only moving creatures were the farmer and his wife who had just returned. The excuse was: ‘Il Tedeschi portari tutto.’ (‘The Germans have taken everything‘). I took a killed and dressed turkey back for Jimmy Sadler. Roast pork appeared on our menu for several days. This was looting, but it would not compare with that perpetrated by those following close behind the front line who never heard a shot fired in anger. I later saw beautiful furniture cut up to make a trailer in which was loaded magnificent silver servers and cutlery from the hotel we were in.
In my journeys between Termoli and the farm where the company was, I saw many burnt and knocked out German tanks with the gruesome sight of their crews who had been roasted in their vehicles. During the fighting to the north of Termoli, a troop of tanks approached and an officer leant out and shouted: ‘Any targets, Buddy?’ They were from the Canadian Three Rivers Regiment. E Company commander John Lofting was very grateful for their assistance in shelling suspect buildings.”
The next target was the village of Petacciato which was sited on high ground on the north side of the River Sinacra and with a fine view over the Adriatic to the east. The attack went in following an artillery barrage just after 1am on the morning of 19 October. The town was taken with no casualties.
“I followed closely behind. Human excrement littered the street. The commanding officer called the mayor and ordered him to clear it up. It was obvious that the town had received some bombardment and the people were afraid to leave their houses. Not being able to clear their ‘gabinetti’, they just threw the contents out of the door.
At that time, the Trigno was only about 20 or 30 yards wide and generally less than a foot deep. Its mighty bridge, which catered for a raging torrent, was about 600 yards long but about 50 yards was blown in the middle. E Company was sent to relieve the Faughs at the bridgehead. I followed with a string of about a dozen mules and crossed the Trigno by a ford.
The silence was eerie and the darkness complete. At my destination, I entered a dug-out where a Faughs’ officer handed over and explained the position. I was horrified when the outgoing officer lit up a cigarette. The flashing of his cigarette lighter must have been seen for miles. I still do not know whether it was relief or bravado. I sent my mules back to base as soon as we had unloaded them and remained to receive Lofting’s instructions.
The muleteers were immaculately accoutred Sikhs. Their mules had been spotless when they had been loaded with supplies for E Company earlier that day under the supervision of a Subadar Major with a great sweeping moustache and a beautiful beard. All wore the Pagre ritual turban. None had steel helmets. On the way back from the company’s lines that night, they stopped in the middle of the Trigno and washed their mules. They were immediately heavily shelled and some were killed. Was it the officer’s cigarette lighter or the noise they made washing the mules that brought down the fire? I waited until it was quiet and walked alone a couple of miles back to the mule point in pitch blackness. I crossed the Trigno ford in which there were now bodies.
E Company was to be the sole occupier of the bridgehead until the next phase of operations which were to extend and widen the bridgehead. I was pleased to hear that the Subadar Major had issued orders that mules were not to be cleaned until they had arrived back at their stables. Every night, I crossed the Trigno with my mules and was extremely nervous in the middle. It was so exposed and there was nowhere to dive. The engineers working to repair the bridge throughout the night were often shelled and many were killed. The smell of rotting flesh pervaded the Trigno and I felt I was walking on bones. But were they those of a man or a mule?
On the night before the attack on San Salvo, the nightly quartermaster column of jeeps was lined up behind Major O’Connor in his vehicle on the south side of the Trigno. Rodney Cockburn, company commander, came up to me in the second jeep and said: ‘Major O’Connor is ill. You’d better lead off.’ I led as directed but was stopped by a roar from O’Connor, who lambasted me for taking over. Of course, had O’Connor really been ill, Rodney should have taken charge.
We drove up to the bridge approach and were stopped. O’Connor alighted, approached me and told me to remain until he returned. Eventually, we negotiated the ford and on the other side were guides from each London Irish company. I was given a Tommy gun and ordered to accompany O’Connor and his batman as bodyguard to BHQ in the bridgehead where I was told to join my company. I’ll never know why I, a colour sergeant, was chosen as O’Connor’s personal guard. Perhaps he trusted me more than the others. But that was the last time I saw him. The next morning, we heard that he was returning to the battalion mule point and stopped off to chat with Geoffrey Phillips at the cookhouse dugout of G Company. A rogue shell burst among them. O’Connor was killed and Ted Simmonds, my old cook, and Phillips were badly wounded.
O’Connor was a true gentleman who would probably have become commanding officer. I could not, however, work out how he ticked. We had fallen out several times over John Lofting’s commandeering of mules. I was upset that he had misunderstood my decision to lead our convoy the night he died. He was unaware that I was only obeying Rodney’s order.”