The Dangerous and Dusty Road to Rome

At about 0600 hrs, the Battalion left the concentration area beyond the river Rapido and marched a short distance to the start line for an attack which was part of an overall 8th Army operation to break out of the Liri Valley and head for Rome as fast as possible. C and D Coys were to lead the Bn. Attack. Our Coy. took up a position on the start line (a sunken road) and “zero” hour  0700 hrs was loudly announced by the commencement of 200 guns (25 pounders) firing a creeping barrage of 32 minutes duration in 3 phases.

The first phase was for 8 minutes into an area of 200 yards deep and by 800 yards wide and also the signal for us to start our advance. As the barrage crept forward we were to keep within 50 yards of the exploding shells, this was to prevent any of the enemy who may have survived the barrage having time to shoot at us with small arms.

As we got to our feet to start advancing, a shell exploded just in front of my Platoon, wounding three Fusiliers – not a good start!  In support of our Coy. were a troop (4) Sherman tanks who, apart from their engine noise, were firing their 75 mm cannons and their M.G.s adding to the cacophony of noise. The heavy artillery 5.5” and 7.2” were also firing from positions a couple of miles behind us at targets miles in front, these guns were controlled by spotter aircraft. Overhead squadrons of fighter bombers were flying around in a “cab ranch” system waiting for ground control to direct them to bomb, rocket or machine gun any suitable target. The noise of all this fire power was literally doubled when you took into account the echo effect of being in a valley.

As we advanced we discovered very quickly at least one of our supporting 25 pounder guns was firing short (barrel wear) and I had to open up a gap of about 100 yards between my Platoon and the one on our right to compensate and prevent possible casualties. Badly worn gun barrels cause the velocity to fall which in turn leads to shells falling short.

During the second phase (similar to the first) amongst some dead enemy we found a senior German officer who appeared to have had his wounds dressed and we assumed left to be taken prisoner, either he did not want to become a prisoner or couldn’t stand the noise of our barrage, had shot himself – the pistol was by his hand and we could see the wound in his head.

The third phase of our attack was on the actual objective which was subjected to 16 minutes of the barrage where the Germans had their defensive positions. I remember as we approached the objective, seeing a young (17-18) blond German soldier lying on the open ground, he was alive and appeared to have been quite badly wounded probably on the day before, because his wounds had been dressed and was left to be picked up by his own comrades later. He had been lying there through the 16 minutes of an intense barrage. As we approached he called out – “Comrade, Comrade Vasser, vasser”. I told the chaps who were with me not to give him any water until our stretcher bearers, who were nearby saw him. I had noticed that he appeared to be badly injured around his stomach regions. After I moved on, one of the Fusiliers couldn’t stand his plea for water and gave him a drink – he died almost immediately. His internal injuries were beyond repair.

We took a number of prisoners who appeared only too pleased to be finished with the war, consolidated our newly won position, dug in and spent the night there. The following morning we were on the move again – objective Rome.

The advance to Rome was now in full swing, tanks and infantry moving rapidly up Route 6, the main highway from the south to Rome. Whilst the Germans were using delaying tactics to slow our advance down i.e. By small groups with M.G.s, mortars and mines at vital places. The Italian capital fell to the American led 5th Army on 4th June 1944 with units of the British 8th Army a few hours behind. Rome fell two days before the Normandy landings on 6th June.

At this point in the war, our Division – the 78th – had been in almost continuous action since November 1942 (1 Year 8 months).

The 38th Irish Brigade bivouacked in open country for a few days about 10 miles north east of Rome so that those who wanted to could have a look at the Eternal City. All R.C.s were encouraged to pay a visit to St. Peters where they could expect a blessing by The Pope and have a look around the Vatican.

All other denominations were allowed to visit St. Peters the day after for sight seeing. I remember being in The Cistine Chapel and our Swiss guide pointing to the fireplace from where the White smoke is emitted as a signal to the world that a new Pope has been elected. All very interesting to an Ulster Protestant. “Holy smoke!!”

The story goes that a Fusilier (or perhaps a Rifleman), who was an Ulster Protestant and Orangeman, joined the group of R.C.s for the audience and blessing by The Pope. This soldier said that he had worn an orange sash under his uniform and claimed that he now owned the only orange sash to have been blessed by a Pope.