CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan describes the month of January 1944 spent in the mountains near to Montenero, where they experienced some absolutely atrocious weather. In the middle of the month, E Company’s positions on slopes of Il Calvario was raided by a German ski party with a number of men being killed and many others taken prisoner.
“I was not sorry when I trudged back daily to the billet allocated to the company in Montenero. The London Irish had brought 500 men into the town and posted more than 300 in the hills. This meant much of the local population had been displaced. The story was repeated across Italy. A populous and overcrowded state had two vast armies that took over nearly all the limited accommodation and were at the same time destroying most of the country’s facilities.
Snow descended in blizzard strength. Conditions in the line were appalling. Winter clothing was distributed on an equal basis that did not reflect needs. Even those in billets were given a share. E Company, freezing on a mountain, received its strict ration: one jerkin between six men; one duffel coat between eight; one string vest between two; one pair of boucheron boots for 10 men and white smocks for about half. In the town, there were officers, sergeants and cooks wearing jerkins or duffel coats and sometimes both. I believe the same distribution prevailed even in distant rear areas. The men in the mountains got rest on a strict rotational rest of about three days in the town. During one of E Company’s rests, we acquired a whole sheep. It was roasted in roughly hewn joints over the open fire in the billet and washed down with hot rum toddy. I remember Eddie Mayo sitting on his blankets and gnawing at a leg of lamb with blood running down his chest.
Conditions for the company were bad, but mine were often worse. At least once a day, I would go with mules to the forward platoons with extra clothing and other comforts. At first, I would go with just the mules and drivers. But one supply party was taken prisoner by a German patrol and it became customary to take an escort of about four men. The commanding officer and adjutant inspected the forward companies on skis. Sergeant Brown, the cook sergeant at headquarters, found that an enormous store of flour was piling up because the companies had no way of using it. He took over the local bakery and cooked bread, savouries and fruit pies. These were taken up into the mountains and distributed among the men. They were a great success.
After another night of blizzards, E Company was stood down as full daylight illuminated the snowy wilderness. Many men had removed both boots and socks and were rubbing life back into their frozen feet. Unseen German mountain troops wearing white smocks swooped over the peaks on skis. They herded most of 9 Platoon and 7 Platoon, which was commanded by Nick Mosley, into a group.
Eddie Mayo, 8 Platoon sergeant, had seen what had happened. He and Charlie Neat, a bren gunner, shouted a warning to the prisoners and attacked the ski troops with rapid fire, and some of the captured men were rescued, including Mosley. We learned afterwards that some of those captured had to walk barefoot across the mountains to their prison cage. Word of the attack reached Montenero.
I was told E Company had been attacked and had suffered heavy casualties. They were cut off by deep snow and I had to rescue them. I was given an escort, a string of mules and about a dozen Italians armed with picks and shovels. We took the usual path up the mountain but soon found it blocked by heavy snowdrifts. I dug down. At one point I was unable to feel the bedrock and, holding my spade above my head, could not reach the top of the drift. At last, we arrived at the company position. They were packed up and ready to leave.
The casualties were light. There were some wounded to be evacuated and about a dozen Germans had been taken prisoner. Snow was heaped over the dead, most of them enemy. We trudged back to Montenero.
The battalion abandoned Montenero without reluctance. The Germans sent us on our way with a heavy bombardment. With my jeep driver, I was the last man of my company in the town. I took shelter from the shellfire and went to see what damage had been done. The jeep was intact but the rubber tyres we had attached to the German field cooker that had been captured on the Winter Line were in ribbons and the cooker pierced with shrapnel. My driver said it would be impossible to tow. We abandoned the contraption. It would take months to live down the loss and I missed the old cooker.
The Poles, who were to take over our positions in the mountains, immediately abandoned any idea of a garrisoned stronghold while the weather remained Arctic. They maintained properly equipped ski patrols in the hills while their troops were static in a mobile yet comfortable role as the Germans had been throughout the winter so far.”