The Skins at San Salvo

Battle of San Salvo, 3rd November 1943.

(NA 8585) Copyright: © IWM.

At 0001hrs on 3rd November, the Bttn was roused and hot tea served at Massa Fanale (648797), where we had spent two day resting and preparing for battle.

6 Innisks had been placed under command 36 Brigade, whose objectives were San Salvo – “Buff Ridge” 6083 and the high ground to Colle Vecchio 5987. 6 Innisks were given the objective of taking pt 40 6282 by first light and then, with B Squadron 46 RTR in support, capturing and holding the town of St Salvo. The battle patrol platoon was sent forward at dusk to secure the start line, and cover a party of REs , who were to sweep it for mines.

At 0115hrs, the Bttn moved off by march route to the concentration area Bosco di Motice in this order: C,B, Bttn HQ, D, B, 20 mules were loaded with signal stores, tools, mortars and MGs and were moved under the command of Lieut Wilton at the rear of Bttn HQ. Coy guides met their coys at the east side of the river Trigno, and led them across to the area in the Bosco di Motice. The move was made without enemy interference, and by 0245hrs, the Bttn was assembled in the wood and resting and resting before moving off to the start line. The CO and coy guides made a reccce of their exits from the wood, and it was decided to move forward from the wood to the start line at 0400hrs, moving on a magnet bearing of 306 degrees.

At 0400hrs, the Bttn moved off to the start line, a ditch running north – south from 631877 to bridge 631813. C Coy on the right, A Coy on the left followed by B and Coys respectively. Bttn moved between C and B Coys on the right. Lieut Wilton, with the mules, remained on the forward edge of the wood, and they were unfortunately caught there by shell fire. 8 mules were either wounded or killed here and were unable to come up.  Fusilier Cooper of the Pioneer platoon, who was a muleteer, was killed here – the only casualty among the muleteers though they were subsequently shelled on two occasions.

The forward coys, crossed the start line at zero 0430hrs, with heavy artillery concentrations coming down on enemy positions. Four Field Regiments, three Medium Regiments and one SP Regiment were supporting the attack. The support group for the division was creating a diversion on our left, by firing every type of weapon they had – they used tracers and the Bosche used tracers and as they put up hundreds of lights, the general effect was like a gigantic firework display, but we were not being fired upon.

The gap in the enemy’s defences, which Colonel Grazebrook had discovered from air photographs, while acting as Brigadier 38 (Irish) Infantry Brigade, was a gap and was not covered fixed lines and the Bttn pushed on.

Despite two days of sunshine, the going was heavy and progress was therefore slow.

Major GL Crocker MC, in command of A Coy, was unhappily killed by a mine about two yards from the start line. His loss was great, but Lieut Hewitt MC, who had had a section of his platoon becoming casualties from the same mine, took over the coy and led them forward.

Bttn moved forward past, and it was decided to call a halt under cover for fear of overtaking the forward coys. Lieut Schayek of B Coy was first to reach the objective, and stormed it with his platoon. He, himself, going forward with a tommy gun and taking a machine gun post single handed, he was wounded in doing so, but to his glee, extracted his pound of flesh by killing both Germans holding the post. As his platoon swarmed over the objective, C, B and two platoons of A Coy followed in quickly. The tanks arrived after ten minutes, later followed by Bttn HQ and D Coy, who had been held up and then found themselves on the wrong side of a minefield. By this time, it was light and small groups of Bosche were seen making their way south of San Salvo.

The CO decided to push on immediately and at 0715hrs, the advance to San Salvo began – B Coy on the right, D Coy on the left. As soon as they broke cover in the valley below the town, they were fired on by tanks and pinned to the ground. Captain Duddington was wounded in the thigh and D Coy was taken over by Lieut Fearn. He, with one platoon and two sections, managed to work his way round to the right and found a covered approach up to the town – by 0930hrs, he was in the town. The Germans were completed surprised and made a quick getaway. In the meantime, it was not known what was holding up the remainder of D Coy and B Coy, so A Coy was sent forward to support them into the town and then passed through. As they broke cover, Lieut B Hewitt MC and his runner were killed by MG fire, leaving A without an officer. CSM Stevenson took over the coy, rallied it and moved forward as soon as the fire from the enemy tanks allowed.

B Squadron 46 RTR sent forward tow troops of their tanks to support the attack but suffered heavy casualties and had to withdraw to hull down positions.

No progress was made for about an hour and a half, so C Coy was sent round to the right of B Coy with a troop of tanks in support.

Captain Halpin, OC Coy, was seriously wounded trying to contact B Coy and our officer situation was now becoming serious – there were no officers in A Coy, two in B, two with C and one with D.

C Coy, under Lieut Hamilton, did not know that their commander had been wounded, and were awaiting his return. Captain Duddington moved over to A Coy and, though wounded, gave them assistance in getting the coy forward. Two patrols were sent out to watch the tanks and report on their movements. At about 1130hrs, four tanks were seen moving northwards along the road on the ridge in front of St Salvo and two were knocked out by the troops in support of C Coy without loss to themselves.

This eased the situation forward considerably, and A Coy advanced to the track junction at 609823 – they could advance no further without leaving the dead ground and coming under fire from the remaining tanks above them.

At this, the CO returned from reporting to the Brigadier. D Coy reported a counter attack forming up west of San Salvo and gave the order for the whole Bttn to advance on the town, C Coy were the first to enter followed by B Coy and Bttn HQ by 1330hrs. San Salvo was in our hands and by 1400, the town was well defended and the Buffs had been contacted on our right. At 1430hrs, A Coy moved up into the town and at 1515hrs, the remainder of D Coy arrived.

Ammunition was restricted – D Coy, who had entered the town earlier on, had run out of ammunition breaking a counter attack of infantry supported by one tank.

Up to 24 tanks had been reported to be north west of the town as the Bttn was brought into a close defence of the centre of the town.

At about 1600hrs, the noise of the battle could be heard on our right, from either tanks or SP guns exploded in the rooftops of the houses, and it was evident that a counter attack was taking place.

From an OP, it was discovered that from 12 to 20 enemy Mark 4 Specials were making a thrust towards St Salvo station. The 5th Buffs on Buff Ridge were in immediate danger of being overrun and had to withdraw. Many, including their HQ, withdrew into St Salvo and strengthened up our defences for the night.

During the withdrawal from Buff Ridge, the 46 RTR came forward to meet the enemy thrust, a furious battle of tanks and guns was fought and at least 7 enemy tanks appeared to be knocked out, and at dusk the enemy withdrew, leaving the Skins in undisputed possession of St Salvo.

The counter attack, however, in no way disarranged our MO, Captain RGK Brown, nor our anti tank officer Captain WS Pollard, for at approximately 1730hrs, the RAP marched into the town and with them stragglers from the advance on St Salvo. They had been shelled in the assembly area and on pt 40, and had had a very uncomfortable trip. Parties, which had  been sent back earlier to collect wounded, soon began to appear  and the MO was soon busy again.  Many wounded had already been succoured on the battlefield. Among those who were brought in was Captain Halpin – he was seriously wounded but we were all very glad to see him back.  Captain WS Pollard, with the supporting weapons, quickly followed the RAP. He had found diversions round two craters in the road outside the town and brought up 4 A/Tk, 4 MGs and 4 Mortars – they were quickly put into position to hold any further counter attacks on the part of the enemy.

Reorganisation took place during which certain officers of S Coy went to rifle coys.

DF tasks had been arranged with Major Gouldsworth RA (George of the 17 field) to cover the north west and southern approaches to the town, and by the time darkness fell, we felt confident that we could hold the town against any counterattack the enemy was capable of mounting.

At 1930hrs, we settled down to our first meal of the day, though we had nibbled at biscuits throughout the day. Apart from the artillery, fire on both sides all was quiet up until about 2300hrs when the 6th RWK appeared en mass in the main street of the town. They had passed through Buff Ridge towards their start line for their attack on pt 155 (5985) and had encountered enemy tanks and lorried infantry debussing.