Gustav Line – 15 May 1944

Major John Horsfall, 2 LIR

The situation at first light on Monday 15 May was still a tense one and, at our end of this vast battle, the enemy seemed for a while to be well on the way to winning it. However, one factor stood out amidst the chaos – that beyond doubt, the Irish Brigade was now over the water and so were the 16th/5th Lancers. Other factors in the Cassino sector were secondary to this one, and as we were leading 78 Division at this time, the point of decision, the fate of the battle here could well be determined by our conduct.

Elsewhere, the Polish attack on Monte Cassino had failed with heavy loss, and that evil pinnacle still frowned down upon us, though now from a different direction. Our guns were still managing to keep it partly under smoke, but total denial of observation over the valley was impossible. The beastly Mont was now looking straight up our tail – standing up like a Highland crag with the local mist swirling round it.

But whatever the enemy might see from their mountain tops, at the deck level in the valley we, like Cardigan at Balaclava, could see virtually nothing. Reliance on air photos had its shortcomings, and with their deceptive tendency to indicate all ground as flat, it is hardly surprising that the landscape was quite different to what we had deduced from them. There was no substitute for map reading. The countryside was quite closed in, with forward visibility usually only a few hundred yards at best, and often nothing at all owing to the trees. The terrain, in fact, was a vast arboretum, solid with fruit trees and other shrubs set in a maze of small hillocks and dips with boggy bottoms to them. The cover in this respect was quite good, but in fact it was ideal defensive country for the enemy – though the drifting smoke and the mist patches soon made aimed fire impossible to both sides.

Another tributary of the Rapido, the Piopetto, unfortunately had not been identified as a major obstacle. This stream ran in diagonally across our front from the west, and joined the main river way over on our right. The importance of it was not appreciated until the 16th/5th tanks got bogged in it, and further bridging operations became necessary just at the wrong moment.

Several indifferent roads traversed across the valley, and one of them ran along it parallel to Highway Six and massifs, which flanked it. This was the direction in which our attack was pointed – straight through towards Aquino airfield, until the moment came to strike sideways and sever the enemy life line to Cassino. Roads, junctions, cross tracks and anything in the nature of a defile were one and all heavily mined by our thorough opponents, either with anti-mines or AP canisters strung together – or both. The enemy had also saturated the draws and valley bottoms with these infernal devices, and anywhere else that their nearby posts could not see to shoot in to.

In planning the Inniskilling attack, Bala had rejected a night assault owing to the likelihood of slaughtering the luckless survivors of the 4th Division, who were scattered about in his path, but the principal factor was that of the Piopetto, which looked like denying him his support weapons as well as the tanks until our sappers could bridge it. However, he had found an OP with some forward vision over the little river, and gave out his orders in the last light with a view to a dawn attack the next morning.

Having accepted this as the best that could be done, Pat then found himself peremptorily ordered to launch the attack immediately, and so the Inniskillings were committed to battle at midnight regardless of the problems just mentioned.

(NA 14880)  Under escort men of the 6 Bn. Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers a batch of about 40 German prisoners captured on the left of Cassino.

To begin with, Bala was separated from his tanks by that wretched stream, but as he had been ordered to carry his objective – the Cassino to Pignatoro road, which crossed the front a half mile on – by daybreak, the devoted man set off with the Skins unaided.

The moon rose at 0130 hours and the Inniskillings were in motion by 0300. By this time, the enemy artillery had quietened considerably and the Skins raced over the first features before the garrison knew what was happening. Before first light, however, they ran in to solid opposition with heavy machine gun fire coming in to them from all directions.

At dawn, they found themselves in standing corn, covered by a thick blanket of fog, with German tanks, equally blind, milling about all round them. Bala ordered a halt at that stage until he could get his own tanks up and his squadron commander joined him on foot while the divisional sappers were hastily bridging the Piopetto. By 0800hrs, they had miraculously done this, and the 16th/5th at last got their tanks up through the murk – led on in one instance by Bala’s batman, Fusilier Mitchell. They then joined up with the forward companies and went surging ahead, cutting down all opposition in their path for a while.

The enemy resistance naturally intensified as the morning progressed and, by midday, the Skins could do no more.  As the attack ended, every German gun in the vicinity opened up on them, the intensity of the reaction showing immediately that the 27th Foot had touched the heart of the matter, as they had often done before. Their situation was critical. Half of their 16th/5th tanks had been destroyed, they were stuck in a minefield ringed by anti-tank guns, and had lost upwards of seventy of their men, mainly from their two forward companies. But there were enemy dead everywhere, and they had captured a number of guns and sixty prisoners. They had also taken their objectives.

The Inniskilling attack, at this stage, was a deep finger thrust and was, therefore, in dire peril until it could be deepened and broadened further. In the meantime, the enemy, from front and both flanks, concentrated their harassing fire upon it, recognising the threat and knowing the thrust was mortal unless they could stop it. According to German accounts, their 10th Army HQ now threw the whole of its reserves into the battle, and the 90th Panzergrenadier Division was sent in to back stop their sagging line in front of us.

It was now our turn.

After getting the rest of our vehicles over the river, I went up to our support company and remained with our mortars and the anti-tank guns, who were closed up and parked a short distance from Brigade HQ – and here we stayed as the minutes ticked by, waiting. In the meantime, the enemy defensive shelling coming down on our front reached an intensity exceeded by nothing in my previous experience and I knew that our companies were having a very rough time. They were due to go in to the attack with the Lancashire Fusiliers of 11 Brigade coming up beside us later that night to widen and extend the breach. This was the second phase of the programme and, unless swiftly carried through, the Inniskillings had little chance of holding, or even surviving.

Unfortunately, as the crisis approached, the enemy shot all too true and, while we were waiting there, they brought all to cessation on the start line in those last tense minutes.

Ion Goff was down, mortally wounded, and a few minutes later the CO of the 16th/5th, Colonel John Loveday, followed him. By the time I reached the Tac HQ shortly afterwards, the battalion had already suffered heavy casualties in the fire storm, including Geoffrey Phillips, Ken Lovatt the signals officer and most of the signallers, who were with him.

Jerry Cole, of course, sent me a message immediately and I went back with his orderly – with a brief prayer for Divine protection which was certainly now to be needed. I stuck my head in to Brigade HQ on the way and the only response was a cheerful wave and a grin from Jimmy, who knew that explanations were pointless and was appalled by nothing anyway. He said to hold everything and call up Pat as soon as things were in hand again.

Passing the RAP, I looked in on the carnage momentarily, and here found poor Geoffrey Phillips, Geoffrey whispered a brief account of what had happened and, on my part, I also breathed a few words to our good doctor. Rhys (Lieutenant Gwilym Evans MC RAMC) and his assistants needed their reserve powers just then, with the place crammed with shattered riflemen and more were still coming in. He was shipping some of the desperate cases out on our carriers – strapped across the tops of the machines on their stretchers. The RAP, itself, was operating in the base of a once substantial building, now wrecked like all the others. Fortunately, it was virtually hidden from the front, owing to the banks and folds around it.

Reaching the Tac HQ on the ridge in front of me, thank God I found Bala and Paul Lunn Rockliffe, our battery commander, there to greet me. Bala had already been in touch with the brigadier. They were waiting for me with Jerry and, true to form, Bala was filling the momentary vacuum, knowing his presence was needed.

His arrival was not accidental. Fully aware of his own straits with the Skins, he had sensed trouble behind as well as all around him, and he knew he must personally brief Ion Goff. Bala had crawled most of the way back down a providential ditch – with machine gun bullets whipping across the top of it for most of the way. ‘Otherwise, it would have been like deer stalking,’ he commented. Finally he reached the Rifles’ Tac HQ. The scene had changed since I left it. Their O Group, what remained of it, were scattered in the nearby ditches and the ground was littered with their signallers and others. Every set was smashed save Paul’s and he, of course, was carried on normally with his guns. Otherwise, matters were at a dead stop. I got through to brigade on the gunner rear link, and Rollo (Lieut-Col RS Baker DSO, CO 17 Field Regiment RA) answered.

Bala then gave me his picture of the Skins’ situation, what he knew about the enemy around us – which was a great deal – and what he thought was now required of us. In consequence, I was fully informed by the time Pat arrived with his instructions and I undertook to lay on the assault at 730pm. Our orders were to strike parallel to the Inniskillings’ attack, diverging slightly from it and thrusting nearly a mile beyond them.

Pat was as lucid and helpful as usual in spite of the incessant screams of shells ripping over our heads in both directions. He knew that both his forward battalions were in trouble but he in no way pressed me beyond pointing out our exposed position and the danger of delay. This, of course, I realised – that the enemy had to be hit again while reeling, otherwise it was only a matter of hours before his counter thrust slammed in to us. Pat, I think, was more concerned to know how the Rifles were reacting to their troubles – and put bluntly, whether they could rise above them – and fight back. Well, that was my job to deal with – and mine alone. Neither of us need have worried.

The immediate problem was that of reconnaissance, and it had to be skimped owing to the lack of time remaining. More important was the need to establish personal contact with every sub unit of the battalion in their posts. Had it been the Faughs, one could have taken things for granted but, at that stage, I simply did not know how the Rifles were coping or even if they could cope at all in view of what had happened. These were simply my thoughts, whether justified or not, and mutual reassurance was therefore essential. Troubles like this on the start line had been known to end in rout – and no regiment in the land was immune to it.

The enemy shelling was very heavy and they were plastering our company positions one after the other with mortars as well – but there were times in life when one is conscious of immunity. Our riflemen had, at least, dug themselves in effectively.

After my brief reconnaissance, Jerry called the O Group in – in ones and twos at a time. Fortunately, they all reached the Tac HQ safely, crawling up the ditches like Bala had done, and their instructions were quite brief though mostly given individually. Paul, however, remained throughout. There was little problem in dealing with the essentials. The objective given to us by Pat was a defended hamlet, Sinagoga, on the Colle Monache ridge, the centre point of a string of fortifications. These lay about a mile ahead of us though invisible from our positions – and how we achieved their capture was our affair, as our dear brigadier never failed to point out.

I assigned stolid old Desmond Wood, with H Company, to the centre line, Mervyn and E on the left, and Peter Grannell with G on his other side – with Colin Gibbs clearing up behind us with F Company. Peter had succeeded Geoffrey – in no way abashed by the responsibility now thrust upon us. With us, and strung out in a comforting line behind my HQ, were the dozen tanks of A Squadron of 16th/5th and beside me, I had their commander Angus Dubs who, like Peter, and myself for that matter, had suddenly found himself in the saddle – standing in for the fallen. Between us, we figured that the best way of handling the problem was to send our riflemen in behind the barrage with the tanks motoring behind them waiting for the opposition to disclose itself. After that, the lancers could be relied upon to do all that was necessary.

I was not so worried about getting into the place as I was about holding it when we got there. In consequence, the latter part of my orders was devoted to the tasks of our battalion mortar platoon, the machine guns and our 6 pounder anti-tank guns. We also seemed to have half the Kensingtons in tow, with Harvey Shillidy (Captain HS Shillidy, Princess Louise’s Kensington Regiment) and a mixture of 4.2” mortars and Vickers. Colin Gunner was lurking about somewhere with the latter and, as I soon found out, was liable to turn up in the most unexpected places, usually those which other people preferred to avoid.

Paul Lunn Rockliffe, now beside me, was our battery commander of the 17th Field Regiment. This artillery regiment was permanently assigned to the Irish Brigade and regarded itself as a part of it. Each of its three batteries normally operated with the same battalion and so Paul had an unusual view of his duties with the Irish Rifles. At the end of our orders, he insisted on coming around all the rifle companies with me and never was that companionship more welcome.

Thereafter, Paul was my right arm and this relationship existed similarly in the other two regiments with Paul’s brother battery commanders.

With our immediate task, Paul had to ensure the satisfactory coordination of the fire plan and, moreover, control it as the operation unfolded. He had to stay at my side and call his guns, and all others available, onto whatever targets we found necessary to flatten in the course of the battle. For this purpose, we had the marvellous device of gridded air photos, with indexed and numbered targets already registered. From the artillery point of view, one could fight the battle straight off the air photos.

At 630pm, Jimmy came on the air, asked to hold everything, and said Pat wanted to consult. Jerry promptly radioed suspension to all concerned and when I arrived at Brigade HQ shortly afterwards, I was both surprised and pleased to find the divisional commander there. The general gave me the warmest greeting with a number of nice remarks. Then he and Pat said that our attack was to be deferred until first light. General Keightley mentioned that this was no fault of the Irish Brigade and, although the need was great to act now, there was a greater need to get the Lancashire Fusiliers up beside us and broaden the front of assault. This could not be done in the time available before nightfall.

We then went into details of the fire plan.

I knew John Mackenzie (Lieut-Col JA Mackenzie DSO MC) the CO of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers – we were in adjoining studies at Sandhurst together. I knew, too, that there would be no trouble in that quarter, whatever the outcome of tomorrow might be.

Paul assigned me a tank, ‘You’ve got to get used to the idea.’ He said. ‘You can’t command this kind of outfit without one’ – and certainly, as an armoured mobile command post, a Sherman with its radio equipment was without equal. One could talk to the companies, the squadron and the guns, and not least the brigade commander, virtually simultaneously.  They could also talk to you. And all concerned heard everything – including the enemy. Besides, that smooth 75mm gun, and the besa beside it were comforting in their own right.

Sergeant Edgell of the 16th/5th reported to me with his chariot at nightfall.

From darkness onwards, enemy defensive fire began to wane and became spasmodic.

Desmond and Colin Gibbs came in to ask some questions during the late evening and, at one stage. Corporal Telfer appeared, fussing anxiously about feeding us. What he was doing in the front line I cannot think, but I am afraid on this occasion, we were hardly responsive. Rum was adequate for all our requirements just then and I think my companions, Paul and Jerry Cole, found it a satisfactory diet too, as we discussed what had to be done when the sun rose.

Preliminary action, at least, was not required. Fortunately, our forward companies were already in position, dug in on the start line, and all they had to do was to get up from their posts when the time came and go forward behind the barrage.

Sometime after midnight, we lay up in the command post, formerly the embedded position of a German anti-tank gun and slept for an hour or in spite of the racket going on around us. Strangely enough, I recall the slight sounds and chats from our signallers beside me rather than the pandemonium going on outside the dugout. Zero hour was finally fixed for 0900 to allow time for the Lancashire Fusiliers to prepare their part in the operation. They had only come in to the sector at nightfall and had seen nothing of the ground so far. They, also, had to reconnoitre and plan.