Lieutenant Colonel John Horsfall had taken over command of 2 London Irish Rifles (2 LIR) during May 1944 and continued in that role as the Irish Brigade advanced north of Rome.
In this excerpt of his memoir, ‘Fling Your Banner to the Wind’, Lieut Colonel Horsfall describes the events of 20th and 21st June 1944 when 2 LIR attacked the Sanfatucchio feature just to the west of Lake Trasimene.
“We had said goodbye to the 3rd Hussars when moving on from Morrano and, on the 20th, the 11th Armoured Regiment re-appeared in their place. Their CO, Bob Purvis, arrived in the morning in advance of his regiment and Pat Scott took us with him to Panicale for a close up of 11 Brigade’s problem.
The whole battalion had had a full night’s rest, after a banquet the previous evening compounded of every variety of local produce added to our local rations. There was also an elegant wine list composed of our recent captures – which included liqueurs for which the Germans seemed to have a passion, especially kummel.
I did not get up until 830am and the brigadier tactfully came in an hour later.
We spent most of the day studying the task confronting us. I must say that I did not like that flat strath in front of Sanfatucchio and, still less, the little town itself, which was spitting fire in all directions, presumably at the Lancashire Fusiliers and the Northants, who had come up beside them. Brigadier Arbuthnott now had all three of his battalion in the line and John Mackenzie’s fusiliers were hard up to their adversaries at the edge of the village, with little to protect them and a fortified enemy in front of them.
The Germans, as we found out later, had two infantry regiments and several other supporting units holding the sector. They were simply backed by artillery and heavy anti tank guns but no armour was, as yet, apparent other than SPs used individually. The two regiments were the 754 and 755 – both good ones, though only numbering five battalions between them.
The key parts of the position were Sanfatucchio itself and the fortified village of Pucciarelli, a further mile to the north west, with Pescia behind it, both of which gave depth to the zone of defence. There was also a mass of hamlets and scattered farm groups, every one of which could be assumed to be interlocked with each other in the defence system.
To the west, towards Vaiano, the terrain was a jumble of broken ridges and hillocks and wooded, heavily in places.
The conversation with my brigadier that afternoon did less than justice to our circumstances, though both of us were reluctant to accept the real reasons for sudden and unexpected repulse. The forward brigades themselves were unwilling to accept them either and I think, to start with, they did not understand their troubles. If I did not say it, I certainly felt it – that this lash back by the enemy was reaction to impetuosity and at least a tinge of carelessness. Certainly our people were not concentrated in that initial thrust at Vaiano and one could never take liberties of that kind safely.
Neither of us at that moment credited the setback to the foresight and grim determination of our adversaries – but with our experience, we ought to have known that something like this would happen sooner or later.
Pat had already said that the Rifles would spearhead the Irish Brigade’s attack the following morning and he put Douglas McIndoe’s squadron of the CAR under my command for the purpose. The heart and substance of what he said was, ‘You capture Sanfatucchio and I will push the others on through you as soon as have opened their door for us’ – but Pat’s orders on these occasions began by explaining the brigade task and discussing the problems involved in it before he ever committed us.
I commented that I saw this as encounter battle, that John Mackenzie’s misfortune was only a check, and, if we broke through the brittle crust in front of him, we might get on quite a long way, that at all costs we should keep the impetus going and the time to unleash the other two was when we, the Rifles, had been finally and physically stopped by the enemy.
We discussed the issue at some length – whether or not to see limits to the attack. Both of us knew that had no limitations been set in the Gustav, we might have gone a lot further and speeded up the entire operation. Also we knew the necessity to keep up momentum once the attack had gone in, knowing too that the worst that could happen was to finish up stuck in the middle of the enemy defence system. One had to burst right through in one movement – if possible.
Pat finally agreed and ascribed no final fixed objective, only providing that we carried Sanfatucchio first. Later that night, subsiding for a couple of hours onto Kesselring’s camp bed, I assumed we would have covered at least ten miles before the next time I did so. But as I now know, when Pat himself went to bed, he had already provided for the other eventuality.
Our brigadier, like Nelson Russell his predecessor, had second sight. ‘Don’t you underrate them,’ he said, ‘this is something different and I scent trouble.’
Douglas and his B Squadron officers joined us at 6pm and we discussed our tactics with the company commanders and Paul in the magnificent viewpoint of Panicale. Later, we all dined together.
Pat spent the rest of the evening with his assistants, ranging his guns on to Sanfatucchio, the cemetery behind it and several other surrounding features that looked to be dangerous. There could be no barrages or initial concentrations to assist us this time. The Lancashire Fusiliers were inextricably mixed with the enemy and we were not prepared to fire on our friends – unlike our opponents, who frequently did on theirs when inconvenienced.
We stirred ourselves early on Wednesday 21 June and, at 0215, the battalion was moving forward in troop carriers to the forward concentration areas at Macchie. This was as far as we could go in safety and we debussed about a mile short of the town. Macchie lay on Highway 71, which ran north from Rome and continued on through the German positions along the west side of Trasimeno.
While our riflemen were breakfasting at Macchie, I went on to the Chiusi brickworks in the darkness and there met Douglas. John Mackenzie (Lancashire Fusiliers) was there too and he gave me all the information that he possessed and later he sat in with me for his own orders.
The Chiusi brickworks were not an imposing place but, at least, it provided fairly solid masonry in front of us and some kind of covered approach from the rear. It lay in the centre of the low ground, scarcely a mile in front of the, as yet undamaged, silhouette of our objective. Prominent against the start studded sky was the stark outline of Sanfatucchio church and, in the long daylight hours to come, we would live with this monument towering over the smoke swirling round it.
Between ourselves and the town ran the main line railway – a convenient start line for both sides.
The company commanders and those of our support units joined us while the battalion was still having breakfast. At the same time, Pat brought Brigade HQ up to Panicale and the Skins came in behind us at Macchie as soon as we quit the place. No one could say that the Irish Brigade was not concentrated whatever might now befall. Finally, our brigadier himself joined me at the brickworks and the first I knew of his presence was his rugged hand on my shoulder while I was talking to our people.
The setting of this operation was typical for Italian battles. All possible lines of advance were looked down upon by the enemy, who had a view of the landscape like that of a billiard table from above. However, we decided to put down some smoke and swing round the town through the folds to the west where they seemed to be reasonable prospects for getting the tanks up – unseen if we were clever enough. Once round the back of the place, we should then attack from the north – from the rear, if we could get there.
The initial attack would go in with E and F Companies and the whole dozen tanks of B Squadron. Ronnie Boyd with E was assigned Sanfatucchio. There was a detached group of buildings at its north west corner, which I thought might fall easily to a combined attack. Once that had happened, I did not think the garrison would fight for long when fired in to us from behind – especially by tanks.
F Company’s objective was the higher ground immediately behind the town and so Colin Gibbs’ attack would be diverging slightly from the main assault.
This plan to outflank Sanfatucchio had the advantage of keeping well clear of the handful of fusiliers in front of it. These men were still holding the interest of much of the opposition and could be relied on to continue doing so.
The only components of our assault actually coming in from the front were Teddy Cullen’s Vickers teams of the Kensingtons and Fitz’s anti tank guns. One could get away with a great deal, once the fog of battle descended and Fitz undertook to close on the town with his guns, manhandling them forward when he could no longer tow them. With their low profile and ability to pierce buildings, those guns might well decide the matter once the garrison wavered. They were also given the task of keeping Pucciarelli, and other outworks on that flank, suppressed in the first phase of the action.
Zero hour was at 0730 am. Briefed at Macchie, the companies had come straight on and continued in to the battle, pausing only during the moments necessary for a few last minute instructions.
17th Field Regiment put down smoke on Sanfatucchio at the outset. I hoped this would cover the approach part of the operation but, as it thinned, Paul had a troop standing by with the delicate task of single gun shooting. This was the only safe way of dealing with opposition close in on our people.
The German defensive fire came down as soon as the forward movement started. Heavily shelled from the outset, both the companies and the CAR ran into a storm of machine gun fire from all directions as soon as they crossed the railway. Fortunately, our tanks, which had started after our riflemen, were still well behind them and they drew most of it. Paul Lunn Rockliffe (17 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery) thickened up the smoke on the town while this phase lasted and, every minute or two, the plop of his smoke shells bursting came back to us, followed by the thin streaks of the falling canisters. For a time, the little town seemed on fire with dense rolling smoke pouring from it in the slight breeze. Aimed small arms fire was impossible while this continued, but the bell tower stood up like a sentinel above the murk – and the German gunners could see from that, whatever else we might do. In the meantime, Paul and I, with the reserve companies, remained at our brickworks – waiting.
About an hour later, we could see that some of Douglas’s tanks had worked up on to the ridge and Ronnie reported in at the same time. He said that matters were going to plan, or he hoped they were, but the enemy were possessed and fighting like maniacs. The roar of musketry and MG fire spread rapidly across the front in long spasms, which were soon continuous and the air became solid with the whine of bullets. After a while, we noticed too the heavy metallic thud of AP shot – 88s presumably. On the top of the ridge, we could see nothing as the dust clouds thickened – only the flash and spume of the shell explosions and black streaks of oil smoke spiralling upwards above the holocaust beneath.
At 0930, Douglas reported himself in position and said that he and E Company were now assaulting the place. He spoke laconically and indicated nothing as to how he had fared. Nor did I then ask him. At 1030, E Company, supported at point blank range by one or two tanks, blasted their way into the first building block. The jagers in this key position fought to the end and they brought down a good many of Ronnie’s men before E Company finally carried the place. The majority of the enemy died under the fire of the tanks and of the few prisoners taken hardly one was un-wounded.
Douglas had already lost several tanks to 88s and other heavy weapons, which covered the town from the rear. Unfortunately, by this time, 17th Field had run out of smoke ammunition and there was little we could then do to blank off the menace. Nor could we do much to help Colin’s men, who were fighting their way through the corn at the back of the town with the enemy all round them.
At this stage, Paul and I motored forward in the command tank, with Tac HQ following, by the same route that Douglas had used. A quarter of an hour later, we reached the top of the ridge and could then study the matter more closely. I called the other two companies up a short distance behind us at the same time.
As we nosed our way up a cart track on to the feature, I noticed Rhys our doctor and one or two of his minions bouncing over the ground behind me in one of the carriers – and going flat out too. I waved to him as we skewed our tank round towards the buildings, and as I did so, a heavy shell burst on or under his machine, lifting it bodily in to a nearby hedge where it ground its tortured way in to silence. I had liked our doctor – and I was staggered to see him get out of the wreck and wave back. Then, several more shells burst against the building beside us and I knew that someone was engaging over open sights. We moved on hastily.
Douglas them reported that he was getting his remaining tanks into the town and Ronnie Boyd, with E Company, gradually worked their way down the main street, diving from one house to the next as soon as the nearest tank had put a shell through it. In spite of this, the enemy continued fighting and the screech of their schmeissers was incessant. Grenades were also flying about in both directions, but I don’t think anyone bolted. I suppose, at that stage, they had nowhere to bolt to, as the garrison was now surrounded.
Fitz and his gunners had done well. At zero hour, they had driven their 6 pounders forward up the main road to Pucciarelli and unlimbered a quarter a mile under intermittent machine gun fire. They then went into action over open sights and Pucciarelli played no part in the first phase of the battle in consequence. However, before we had finished, Fitz’s AP shot was also whanging into Sanfatucchio from the south, while our own men were breaking in from the north and I then had to direct his attentions elsewhere.
At 1pm, resistance in Sanfatucchio collapsed quite suddenly. The relief was indescribable and, seeing our gasping soldiers, one sensed it immediately. Both the assaulting companies were very near the limit and both had suffered severely. Sprawled riflemen and their German opponents lay scattered down the main street and the town was full of badly injured and dead soldiers of both sides. But haggard and dust covered though they were, our riflemen could still give a thumbs up as soon as they saw us. They had a good many prisoners and others still coming in, climbing out of the rubble and tossing their rifles into the street as they did so. Among them was the German BC – Paul’s opposite number.
I told both companies to sit tight and organise the defence of the town as best they could. By 130pm, our Vickers guns were in action from the upper floors of some of the building and, at the same time, Ken Daly drove in with the mortars. Shortly afterwards, four of his weapons were lined up on the pave-covered square in Sanfatucchio’s centre and ranging it on the cemetery and other nearby tactical features just beyond it.
I then called up H Company to move through and attack the cemetery and crossroads, which lay on the next rise about a half mile north of the town and G to come in and clean up behind them. The whole area round the town was still crawling with German machine gunners.
While H was moving up, Paul was engaged in putting down concentrations on our next objective. He began with the twenty four guns of his own regiment and then, as zero approached, he turned the whole of the divisional artillery on to it for a few minutes.
Desmond Woods took H in at 230pm and, as they closed up on the cemetery, 17th Field lifted sights and put down a fire curtain on to the ridge and crossroads beyond them.
The remains of one of the tank troops went forward with our riflemen and, after an hour’s confused fighting, some of H broke in to the cemetery. But there was serious trouble at the church, where a resolute zug commander held on to the end under the solid protection of the masonry.
Here, Desmond was brought down by a stick grenade and his sergeant major, Long, was hit similarly moments later. John Hunter then continued the attack under a shower of hand grenades from invisible opponents, who had crawled up all round them in the corn. A few minutes later, John was also hit and Bill Craig came up and took over the remains of the company.
Eventually, the church was pulverised by our tanks at point blank range and resistance ceased when none of the enemy remained on their feet inside it. By that time, at 4pm, only a solitary Sherman was left to us there; the others had gone up in smoke from concealed 88s, whose gun crews had stuck it out under our barrage. Positioned in depth, there was little they could not cover.
With the church in our hands, Desmond’s survivors had a ready made fortress. The cemetery was no longer tenable by the enemy without it and, as soon as H was in to it, they had the perimeter wall for protection also.
At this stage, the enemy put in a massive counter attack. They were thick on the ground – in weapons pits in the corn all round the place – and they raced in within minutes of our entry. As they did this, they soon found themselves under a rain of 3” HE as our mortars engaged them and the waving corn round the cemetery was soon shredded and flattened it. Our mortars provided a quicker antidote than our guns did when the enemy were close in and Ken put down a fine accurate shoot amongst them. But it did not stop them – in spite of a hundred or more bombs pitching among them in the course of a few minutes.
In the final stages of the counter attack, H Company found themselves sharing the wall with their opponents and, as the jagers had ample supplies of grenades while our men had none of them, temporarily the enemy had an advantage. They heaved over a further shower of stick grenades together, fortunately throwing them thirty or so feet beyond the wall instead of rolling them over the edge on to our men crouching beneath it. In consequence, they hit nothing.
But as the explosions died away, their feldwebel peered over the top to see the results – presumably before heading the assault. Unhappily, he did this at the same time as Desmond’s surviving subaltern did likewise and Lieutenant Webb-Bowen put him down with a pistol shot at a range of less than foot.
This small incident, like others similar with a leader gone, ended the matter. The jagers behind the wall promptly surrendered – as usual, tossing their rifles over first as evidence of trust.
Those further out bolted back and several of them went down under our mortar concentrations as they ran for it.
For a short period, there was lull in Sanfatucchio as the fighting ended, but I knew it was no more than a breathing space. Once the oberst opposite learned for certain what had happened – that his men had hauled down their flag – all hell would descend on us. But for the time being, he could not be sure of anything and he could hardly see very much through the smoke and the dust that engulfed us.
The scenes in the town were unforgettable and the cessation of shelling accentuated other noises – the panting of injured men, the crack of rifle bullets on masonry and dislodged bricks falling in to the street with glass showering down, splintering and tinkling. Small noises mostly and some of them ludicrous. Everywhere there was dust, where plaster and brickwork had pulverised under the tanks and those deadly 75s.
Overtopping the lot was the bell tower, with a jagged chunk out of its side and its top missing. Later, we would find the enemy OP team up there, trapped and dead. It had been too good a landmark for the tanks to resist it.
The stretcher bearers of both sides were still busy and Rhys was attending to some of his charges on the pavement. Others of our casualties, sedated in the RAP just beside him, would soon be on their way to safety – carrier borne for the most part. A few yards across the street from them, our mortars were in action.
Along the main street and round the square, several dozen prisoners were taking their ease – relieved and perhaps surprised still to be alive. They looked good chaps, sitting on the pave and reclining against the buildings. Many of them were smoking but water, just then, was temporarily at a premium – and that they needed badly. A couple of E’s riflemen were keeping an eye on them – if chatting to their charges and handing round water bottles could be said to be doing so.
Paul and I talked briefly to the German artillery hauptmann – a very polite and pleasant young man, who spoke English fluently. We would have been glad to have had him on our side. I would see him again later and, in the meantime, Frankie could entertain him.
There was another officer there, who was quite a different character – a Bavarian leutnant. He was dull looking thug and he had the effrontery to tell us that he thought they would still win the war. I don’t think he was typical.
When H Company went in at 230pm, I left Paul temporarily to establish his OPs and organise a defensive fire plan round the town as well as support the assault on the cemetery at the same time.
I then remounted my tank and drove slowly forward behind H Company, who was spread out across the cornfields on either side of the track. Clearing the end of the little town and creeping along the edge of the road, we were soon out of our self made fog, and the superb panorama of the lakeside before us. The crops were well up. Mostly, this was waving corn already ripening – and hiding everything beneath it. But the nearby farm buildings, still untouched by us, looked sinister. The lull continued for a few more moments as the enemy waited and wondered. Then H showed its hand as their attack went in.
Two hours later as the cemetery conflict drew to its bloody close, I left G Company behind at the town’s exits and called F and E Companies to come up with all speed.
I asked Colin, with F Company, to push on and seize the crossroads beyond the cemetery and Ronnie, with the reserve troop of tanks to back him, to come up on his right with E and get onto the Pucciarelli ridge, if he could. It was essential, just then, to widen our front somehow.
When talking to Paul moments later about fire support, Douglas chipped in over the air and said regretfully that he was short of people, but he was coming up himself. ‘Careful,’ he said before he cut off, ‘My boys have had trouble up there.’
At that stage of the battle, our radio chat what was inhibited and there was little to lose by it when speed was the essence of all things. At Trasimene, at least, there were no complaints afterwards by the Corps HQ monitoring professors. They were splendidly informed, minute by minute. So were the Germans.
Colin Gibbs’ riflemen of F Company surged on past H Company, while 17th Field smothered the landscape a few hundred yards in front of them. The first obstacle in their path was a pleasant country house hard by the road, but they were over its hedges and in to the casa in no time – with its handful of occupants still lying up. Pushing through to the far side of the garden, the tale was a different one. Here, F Company was met immediately by the howl of the spandaus at point blank range, with the usual splintering of glass, descending slates and the screams of ricochets. Sparks went showering over my tank.
George Dunseath died just then, charging ahead with the handful left of his platoon – in splendid impetuous valour.
Colin’s signaller said there was no trouble, but I could see that for myself as I motored up behind the house to join them. I did not see Colin, but Bill Gentle called up from a ditch by the roadside, saying that the corn in front was thick with the enemy and, in fact, small arms fire was coming in to the paddock from all sides. Beyond the garden was a fifty yard stretch of plough with corn again on the far side of it. That gap, and the enemy’s use of it, was the principal cause of the trouble.
Several of our tanks were just in front on the other side of the road. Then giving a second look, I noticed they were motionless and silent. I also noticed the smell of fuel oil – and the smoke. All three were wrecks. Calling up Douglas, he commented, ‘Sorry, I guess we’ve lost them,’ and a little later, I noticed a solitary machine coming up behind to join us – Douglas, himself, of course. A few minutes later, another of his flock appeared, answering his summons for help.
I called up Paul to get every gun he could lay his hands on to engage progressively all the buildings in sight within half a mile and any battery within range that still had smoke shells to fire them in to the area.
We then inched up towards the wrecks and set to work with the 75. A few hundred yards up the road was a large farm stead and assisted by the WT operator. I began with a dozen shells through that one. Douglas had already opened on it, but we soon noticed the black smoke and flashes of artillery fire all round it. Then the scene faded out under the colossal explosions of 5.5s – Paul had borrowed some mediums.
We then traversed right – along the Pucciarelli ridge and the rolling slopes descending to the lakeside, where there were several other building clusters near enough to be dangerous. But Paul was soon busy on these too and, in a short while, the silver of Lake Trasimene was blotted out in smoke and flame and dust.
Feeling very much safer, we then lowered sights across F Company and, at maximum depression, fired long bursts from the besa into the standing crops besides us. Douglas joined in, the shooting orange stars of the tracer scything and criss crossing into the corn a few yards from the tanks. The effect of these splendid weapons was immediate and startling.
Several German gruppes were dug in at the cornfield’s edge and until that moment, they were quite invisible. But the instant the firing stopped, the corn became alive with them and they shot out of their weapon pits like bolting rabbits. A number came running up to the tanks, throwing their rifles down as they did so, but most of them subsided on to the plough in the open until Colin’s men called across to them. I also waved in the nearest ones and a number of them took shelter in the lee of my tank – as their friends were still firing away like mad from further up the road.
We backed the tanks up to the casa behind us, the Germans following like lambs and there F’s pickets relieved one of them. Then Colin came up and we chatted for a few moments. A few minutes later, Bill Gentle’s riflemen were racing through the corn ahead.
With that incident over, Colin took his men forward another quarter of a mile unscathed, found himself at the crossroads and rushed the next lot of the buildings, part of which were on fire. Close by, lay an upturned 88 with several of its gun crew dead beside it. F Company had now carried their second objective and something more. But they were now dangerously isolated and I could not do much to help them.
Colin did not usually bother about tactical extremities, but he said then that he did not think he could go on further without assistance, that he had lost most of his men and was being fired into from all sides. Then E Company was on the air after protracted silence. Preoccupied with F Company, I had temporarily forgotten them. Like Colin, Ronnie had got on to the ridge and both had reached their objectives. But the enemy were still there too, by no means overcome and were around them in a semi circle. The sharp reports of their rifle shots echoed back to us over the ridges.
Douglas drew up beside me, a broad smile on his grimy face. We exchanged compliments as he jumped up and sat on the turret top. He then told me the tale, ‘I’m sorry, colonel – I think you and I need help.’ He went on, ’I’ve five tanks left and one of them is this one. And our boys with Ronnie have run out of shells.’
We had hardly finished speaking before realising the storm of artillery fire coming down on the forward companies. Ronnie called up and said the ridge was being counter attacked. So the Germans had that planned out too. Paul put down his DFs round both companies immediately, but the visibility was bad in the smoke from the German concentrations and we could not see the effects of his guns. Then our mortars joined in. Not long afterwards, Ronnie called up again, saying they were still there – and so were their adversaries. Colin, I knew, was all right. No power on earth would ever shift him against his will.
E Company had already cleared several houses on the ridge when the German counter attack closed on them and they had to shoot it out where they were. They never had the chance to organise anything and, later on as the dusk came down, they found themselves thoroughly mixed up with the enemy. Numbers of the jagers began to creep back in the half light and Ronnie soon found them in outbuildings and steadings adjoining his own posts. In one case, they got into the same steading and it was all too easy with the covered approaches of the orchards. Both sides began working through with grenades – but, for both now, fatigue was blunting their efforts and, after a while, the action became fiful.
Douglas’s surviving tanks were then by the cemetery. He put down splendid supporting fire round Ronnie’s men with his besa, but he could not engage the buildings owing to the melee going on around them. But his tracer was ripping through the corn on either side – liquid orange fire lighting up the dusk and streaking into the sky in all directions as it impacted.
Both sides having run out of grenades, Ronnie and his adversaries ended by sharing the place and, after all, what can you do in buildings when total darkness sets in and neither side knows where its men are. There were instances of our riflemen greeting the other side inadvertently – and the reverse. One such incident involved E’s signallers, who were on the air at the time and found themselves addressed politely in German. Conversation ran on these lines:
‘Hullo Item Oboe Fox, Sunray to set – over’, and ‘Ist zu, Fritz, wer ist der stinkin gefreiter gefahten?’ – or so I wrote at the time.
As the battle rages round E and F Companies, I knew we had failed. We had broken in but not through and the enemy had given in nowhere. Three of our rifle companies had suffered heavily and we had lost most of the tanks. I knew now, and Douglas knew too, that we no longer had the means to continue the attack – not without massive help elsewhere. I also knew that we could hardly hold what we had captured without it.
I called up my brigadier. ‘I’m sorry, Pat,’ I said, ‘I’m stuck. Can we discuss?’ Pat said, ‘I know, don’t worry. I am coming up.’
Brigade Tac HQ knew the situation very well. In the whole battle, I had only called up once or twice personally and this mainly for Rollo’s benefit with the artillery programme. But John O’Rourke or the brigadier, himself, was listening in to most of our radio traffic and knew the tactical position perfectly. Unfortunately, he could only guess at the damage suffered as we kept off that subject over the air.
Pat had set the Inniskillings in motion with a warning order at midday and John Kerr had already given his orders by the time we had carried Sanfatucchio. He awaited only the timing and the Skins’ task was to drive in beside us and capture Pucciarelli. The fact that such orders were given showed that Pat already knew what the outcome of our own attack would be. Had the enemy given way, the Skins would have been thrown in through us regardless – to accelerate the rout.
John Kerr (CO, 6 Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers) called me up shortly before his own zero, while we were still attacking the crossroads. I gave him our tactical picture but, at the last minute, the Skins’ attack was postponed. We were using the whole of the artillery for our own final lunge and continued doing so for a further hour while breaking up the counter attacks.
The Skins’ attack began at 5pm and they went in, in their usual fashion, with A Squadron of the CAR supporting. Three hours later, they had broken in to Pucciarelli village, but again the Germans held on grimly. As the dusk descended, both sides were in residence and, in consequence, vicious street fighting continued for most of the night.
John Kerr followed in to the village long before any semblance of order had been reached and, a few minutes later, he had the unusual experience of his headphones parting as a resolute jager let rip at him with a schmeisser.
On our right, with the shimmering lake beyond, the Skins’ battle became progressively noisier, but we ourselves were conscious of relief. From then on, our eastern flank was safer, although considerable numbers of the garrison were still in action between us.
Sometime after 6pm, I left Douglas and his remaining tanks in what was now the centre of our area near the cemetery and motored back to meet Pat at my HQ in Sanfatucchio. The enemy were busy shelling the town with their mediums and our mortars in the square were firing like mad. Several of the mortar numbers were clad only in shorts having stripped off their sweat sodden shirts as they slung the bombs up to each other. The base plates had driven deep through the top strata of the street under the impact of firing and only about a foot of their snouts was still visible above the pave. They had hardly stopped firing since going into action and had shot off, by nightfall, the incredible total of over two thousand rounds of HE.
Shortly after my arrival, Ivan drove in with trailers and other vehicles.
Pat arrived a few minutes later, got out of his tank and joined me in Tac HQ in the basement of a partly collapsed house. As he came in, a 5.9 pitched alongside, destroying my jeep and gravely wounding his driver.
He began by saying that the Lancashire Fusiliers had signalled in a message of praise for the way our riflemen had gone in that morning. He also said there could be no higher tribute, coming as it did from a battalion in another brigade. Pat went on to the effect that this was not defeat. As he saw it, the break in to these strongly held positions would ensure their total overthrow as soon as a full scale divisional attack was mounted. In the meantime, the role of the Skins and ourselves was temporarily defensive – to hold what we had captured and clean up the enemy in close reach of us. That done, he would put the Faughs through us and continue the attack northwards.
Thus he took the responsibility from me and assumed all to himself.
Frankie poked his head through into our blow hole. He said he was sending the prisoners back and would I like a word with the hauptmann first. The German came in and he made several pleasant remarks about our soldiers. I replied in kind and also thanked him for the medical help his people had given. The hauptmann also remarked wryly on his experience of seeing the battle from the other side and certainly he must have found it fascinating sitting in with my IO, who was manning the radio. Frankie Lyness’s company was never dull anyway. Finally, I said goodbye to him. Then he clicked his heels, saluted and walked off with Frankie – leaving me wondering what this war was about. One doesn’t forget such people.
As is often the case at nightfall, exhaustion creeps up on the combatants. This happened at Trasimene on 21 June and, as the light faded, the battle became spasmodic. On our part, we maintained harassing fire with our mortars beyond the cross roads and Colin sent a fighting patrol forward from F Company. There was only one clash after dark on that part of the front. Around midnight, a German patrol got in among F Company’s posts and, after the usual eruption of parachute flares and grenade explosions, the enemy departed without damage for once on either side.
I had sent Fitz with some of his guns up to Desmond Woods near the cemetery at dusk and he managed to install a pair of them in the San Felice dining room. This substantial building was either an estate house or the local vicarage and it butted on to the cemetery with orchards all round it. Fitz sent other weapons up to Colin at the crossroads and kept the other pair at Sanfatucchio – thus giving depth to the position.
Also as the dusk deepened, Ivan Yates (Motor Transport Officer) arrived with a jeep convoy, the colour sergeants and shell ammunition for the tanks. They had hot dinners for the entire battalion. I indicated the positions of the companies. ‘Right,’ said Ivan, ’That’s easy – roads all the way.’ So he took the lot up to the crossroads and dropped off his charges, first at Colin’s HQ and then at the cemetery. Then ignoring all secondary considerations, he went flat out down the Pucciarelli ridge with Ronnie’s requirements – regardless of the battle raging round him. Theirs is not to reason why – but I don’t think anyone was reasoning just then – and no one ever asked why to Ivan.
A little later, Corporal Telfer appeared out of the shadows. ‘Dinner is served, sir,’ he announced with gravity. A damask tablecloth lay draped over upturned wine casks – and set with silver, albeit Kesselring’s, it glinted in the darkness. Douglas and his subaltern, Bob Sheriff, joined us – and Paul. And from Tac HQ, there were Frankie and Jerry Cole. Ivan stayed with us for a space. I don’t think Douglas had any other officers left.
There had been a price on 21 June. Six of our officers and over seventy of our NCOs and riflemen. Nine of the tanks were lost and half of their crews with them. And the enemy defence had prevailed. The three forward companies were each scarcely stronger than a platoon and our adversaries could walk over us if they chose to. But the Germans were in no better state. They had held their positions but at a terrible cost. Our pioneers counted sixty of their dead – half of them in the town itself – and we had sent back over that number of prisoners.
There was something left in our minds too – about that pretty village. Emotive and deep, whatever it was, would remain. Always.”