Trocchio – 14 May 1944

Major John Horsfall, 2 LIR

We went to bed at 0010 hours and were up again at 0200 hours on that Sunday morning of 14 May.

The CO and the recce group left at 0315 hours and I brought the battalion up to 0430 to its concentration area behind Monte Trocchio. Trocchio was a small ugly feature in comparison with its neighbour but it was very useful just now beside the river – the one and only bastion and rampart possessed by the attackers.

The Royal Air Force had a command post up there, with fighter bombers permanently on call by whoever needed their services. And their presence was evident enough as, time after time, whole squadrons screamed down on to invisible targets ahead and sheets of flame went skywards as they did so.

In the ordinary way, we were rarely conscious of our aircraft and we took their activities for granted. I never thought that air attack on the forward positions of either side achieved very much and I very much doubt if our pilots did so now, but the morale effect was splendid and they added to the general din, concluding by racing back a few hundred feet over our heads to collect more of their horrific missiles.

Our airmen had been occupied for months in attacking the German approach routes and, once the battle started, their principal task was the prevention of all forward movement by the enemy in, or onto, the battle zone, at least in daylight. A few days later, we would see for ourselves the devastating effect of their practices.

Here at Trocchio, utter chaos reigned. As it provided the last cover from view before reaching the Rapido, somewhat naturally, it was heavily congested with assorted troops, tanks and vehicles all heading for the crossing points. Forward movement, by then, had slowed to a crawl as the enemy artillery observers had naturally concentrated on the bridges and had already hit a number of them.

But the German gunners had plenty to spare for Trocchio. It was a cheerless stunted spot and the hillside looked as though a hurricane had struck it. Seared and torn under the shelling, one would remember the destruction – and the satanic hiss of the splinters as they ripped through the olive trees every few seconds. For several hours that afternoon, Monte Trocchio was a screaming madhouse with this and own guns, in serried ranks behind it, replying in kind.

Conversation for a while was hardly possible.

The troops lay up where they could in this inferno and, eventually, the CO joined us again. Here, I sat with the Brigade O Group, while Pat brought us up to date. Ion then went on again over the nearest Rapido bridge with his recce group and I took the battalion on after him.

Down near the Rapido, the fog of war was literally complete as the whole area was thick with smoke and I doubt that we would have found the bridge at all without the morass of tank tracks, debris and, I am afraid, quite a number of our dead to mark the route to it. I also wondered how on earth we were going to link up with my CO in this opaque murk around us. Fortunately, the canisters were blowing straight down the river and, after a while, we emerged from the smoke screen in to the olive trees and folds of the western bank. Here, there was reasonable cover and, apart from the shelling, life suddenly became more spacious and hopeful. The Skins were up there ahead of us somewhere.

We were over the river by 4pm with the troops and with the bridgehead scarcely a quarter mile deep, bullets were whipping in to the ground all over the place as the forward posts of the enemy shot it out with their opponents of the 4th Division. Our riflemen required no further encouragement to dig in and, fortunately, they found this easy as they tore in to the soft loam of the glen bottom with their entrenching tools.

The rest of that evening, from about 7pm onwards, I was occupied with Ivan Yates in getting our mortars, ammunition and anti-tank guns over the river – thirty vehicles and half a dozen 6 pounders towed by jeeps. Eventually, the bridge subsided in to the river while we were doing this, which was hardly surprising after the 16th/5th had travelled that way with forty or more tanks. Thereafter, everything had to be manhandled and this was necessary, too, beyond the river as the tracks had vanished into mire. Finally, we reached the battalion again, more or less complete, just as it was getting dark. Ion produced some rum and then took me on with him to Brigade HQ for briefing for tomorrow.

Our brigadier was residing happily in a comfortable cellar which had been vacated by the late tenants a few hours previously. Before his arrival, it had been occupied by the local Hun commander. Pat handed me over one rather battered looking member of the opposition that he has found somewhere and, after a few minutes chat, I walked back with Ion to his own HQ, which was in another German dugout in a nearby bank.

I stayed with Ion for an hour or so talking about the battalion and everything under the sun, in addition to the task ahead of us. There seemed rather a lot at stake just then. At the end, Ion made several pleasant remarks apropos of nothing and, finally, he said, ‘John, you old devil, it is high time we went.’ So I said goodnight to my CO and wished him luck – certainly the strangest goodnight ever with that infernal racket going on from one end of the valley to the other. As I left, there were flickering lights, flashes and streams of tracer as far as the eye could see and noise like nothing on earth.

Going back with my rather dizzy prisoner, I handed him my rum flask, which the wretch promptly emptied. I must say he certainly appeared greatly improved afterwards and became quite talkative. I drove back in my jeep with him and, according to my recollection, handed him over to Ivan when I reached B Echelon. I cannot remember what happened to him after that, though Ivan was apt to take any intelligent looking prisoner on to the strength when it suited him – and did so, if they were MT fitters, as a matter of course.

The next task was getting B Echelon, that is the battalion’s heavy vehicles, forward and supplies up for tomorrow’s requirements. This was achieved without difficulty, as the Germans, by then, were no longer interested in the eastern bank of the Rapido. By early morning, our machines were all tucked safely away in the trees by the river bank.

In the meantime, Bala Bredin was just about to unleash his Inniskillings in the first phase of the Irish Brigade’s assault. The main defensive zone of the Gustav Line lay there thick and in depth slap across our front with so far only its forward posts wrenched out of the system.

The Inniskillings, the 27th Foot, being the senior Irish regiment, led the ball in most operations as of right. Prince Charles Edward may have lost Culloden through disregard of such protocol, but Pat never made such errors with the Irish Brigade. In consequence, the Skins were exceptionally experienced in coping with the shambles commonly found at the start of most of our battles.

The 14th of May 1944 in the Gustav Line was no exception.

Bala mentioned that he had taken the Skins over the water without undue trouble and had linked up with their tanks just as we had done. But they were only a few hundred yards from the river – and the locality was still in hot dispute with the opposition. Bala met the bridgehead commander on the river bank and naturally enquired where his forward posts might be. The gallant brigadier, the commander of the remains of the 10th Brigade, evidently remarked that he would be interested to know that himself and, waving a hand airily in the direction of the firing said, ‘ Your guess is as good as mine, old boy.’