Sunday, 17 November 2019

The Anzio Bridgehead (Jan to Jun 1944)

The Battle of Anzio started with an amphibious attack (Operation Shingle) on 22 Jan 1944. A lack of aggressive spirit on the part of the attacking force and a highly energised reaction from the German commander, Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, meant that despite initial Allied success the bridgehead was penned in by eight German divisions within a matter of days. Winston Churchill famously remarked that I had hoped to that we were hurling a wildcat onto the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale. The American commander, Major General John P Lucas, was relieved of his command  a few weeks later having, in the meantime, overseen the successful rebuttal of a major counter attack by the German 14th Army.

The Town Beach at Anzio

The initial assault on Anzio town was spearheaded by the U.S. Rangers and the U.S. 504th & 509th infantry battalions. The photo above shows the town beach as it is now. The harbour is just beyond the promontory. In contemporary photographs one can see the massive tank landing ships discharging vehicles onto the beach and helpfully there is a superb model of one of these craft in the Anzio Landings Museum. The U.S. 3rd Division landed to the east of nearby Nettuno, which like Anzio, was captured on the first day. The British 1st Division and 3rd Brigade along with a Canadian regiment landed to the north of Anzio and were equally successful as far as the initial disembarkation was concerned.

Tank Landing Ship (LST) - Model

On this road-trip our battlefield walking group was concerned with the 56th (London) Division who reached the Anzio Bridgehead on 18 February 1944, disembarking in the main harbour. They'd set out from Bagnoli, Naples three days earlier. Our visit to this busy commercial harbour was an interesting one - including a rather bizarre barter transaction where the purchase of five pairs of socks gave us a prime parking spot next to the fish market!

Bagnoli Harbour, Naples
On our way up to Anzio (by road) we sought out some of the areas where the 56th Division fought before they were pulled back to Pozzuoli near Naples to prepare for the Anzio 'show'. During the autumn and winter of 1943/44 the 56th Division fought its way through Maddaloni, Caserta and Capua before crossing the River Volturno. 

The last major action that the 56th Division were involved with during this stage of the campaign was the opposed crossing of the River Garigliano at the extreme western end of the German Gustav Line. 

Crossing the River Garigliano
 In walking the river bank we concentrated on the actions of the 56th Division's 167th Brigade which was made up of the 8th & 9th Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers and the 7th Ox & Bucks Light Infantry. Surveying the northern river bank we could clearly see the high ground held by the German defenders.

Site of Military Medal Action
The 9th royal Fusiliers crossed the river near a demolished railway bridge and after orientating ourselves were able to find the old bridge stanchions. On the far side of the river at Maiano Di Spora one of our party, Jim Baldwin, was able to stand on the spot where his father, an artilleryman, had won a Military Medal for his bravery whilst maintaining communications from a forward O.P. with the 65th Field Regiment who were shelling targets south of Castelforte. Unsurprisingly this was one of the highlights of our roadtrip.

Upon reaching Anzio we sought out a site that had been featured in the always excellent After the Battle magazine. This was the last pillbox of the Anzio-Nettuno seafront defences which was converted into an artwork by the sculptor Amerigo Tot in April 1976. The ATB team caught a team of construction workers beginning to make the modifications and the ATB cover photo is reproduced below along with two of our party in a much later shot. The 'artwork' is now in a very sorry state.

Anzio - Then & Now 1944 & 2019

The flyover at Campo Di Carne is a major feature of the battlefield and the fighting in this area was intense during the German counter attack 16-20 February, 1944 and afterwards as the Allied troops sought to take the town of Aprilia (known to the troops on the ground as 'The Factory').

The Flyover - Feb 1944
 The striking aerial shot on the right was taken shortly after the attack had been held and a smashed tank can be seen just to the right of the Via Anziate which runs underneath the bridge. Nowadays the area is heavily industrialised and there is a busy railway station nearby.
The Flyover - May 2019

As we were investigating the environs we came across a road sign pointing the way to The British 'Waters Memorial'. Intrigued we set off to find it - with some difficulty it must be said. I'm glad we took the trouble because, being a fan of Pink Floyd, I was astonished to find that one of the groups' founders, Roger Waters, had taken the trouble to locate where his father was killed in action on 18 February, 1944 and had erected a poignant little memorial and a really useful information board.

2nd Lt Eric Waters & Family
2nd Lieutenant Eric Fletcher Waters served with 8th Battalion (City of London) Fusiliers. He and his wife Mary had two sons the youngest of which was Roger. Roger's father was killed when he was just five months old and Pink Floyd's album The Final Cut (which I'm listening to on Spotify as I write this) was dedicated to him.

Memorial to Lt Eric Fletcher Waters - Aprilia, Italy

The 56th Division was withdrawn from the Anzio Bridgehead and returned to Egypt on 28 March 1944 where they were refitted - returning to Italy in July 1944 in time to offer a royal salute to King George VI at a victory parade on the 30th of that month.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

The Salerno Landings (September 1943)

Earlier this year a group of us retraced the steps of the British 56th Division from the amphibious assault at Salerno (9 September 1943) to their Victory Parade in Tivoli on 30 July 1944. My Great Uncle, Jimmy Neal, served with the Queen's Royal Regiment and I shared the guiding with a friend whose father had also fought with the 56th (London) Div albeit in the 65th Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. In this blog entry which covers the Salerno leg of our roadtrip I have drawn most of the content from Jimmy's unpublished autobiography and I'm hoping that readers will not take offence at his criticism of the American sailors who provided the transport at the start of the campaign! Here's Jimmy's description of his arrival at Salerno.

"Our assault craft had an American crew. We should have touched down on the beach, but there was a certain amount of hostile fire and the Yanks had no intention of staying a minute longer than was necessary. We were dropped well short of the beach, the sea coming up to our armpits, and I well remember that loud, mournful American cry: "Let's get the hell out of here!"."

'Roger Green' Beach - Salerno 

McCreery's X Corps which included the British 46th and 56th Divisions came ashore on 'Roger Amber' and 'Roger Green' beaches immediately south of the mouth of the River Tusciano. The initial objective was Battipaglia with its network of railway and road junctions plus Montecorvino airfield. Nowadays the beaches are privately run resort areas and the ground to the rear of them is cross-crossed with access roads.

"By the time our second wave landed, the forward troops had swept on towards their next objectives and we lay low all day in a tobacco plantation just above the landing beaches. As we enjoyed the heat of the sun on that gloriously hot day, I remember thinking that this was nothing like the invasion picture I had imagined. But perhaps my thoughts were a little premature."

"We had been well supplied with haversack rations and we just waited while further men and equipment were landed and the bridgehead was built up. That night and early morning we heard the unmistakable sounds of battle a few miles inland and, later, we were to be knocked sideways by the news that our forward units had been savagely mauled by the Germans, mostly by a Panzer Division which had mounted a massive counter-attack and withdrawn before our armour and the heavy anti-tank artillery had arrived."

German MG 42 - Baronissi Museum
The German counter attack on 12-14 September consisted of six motorised divisions with 16th Panzer on point. As Jimmy infers in his account, the German attack very nearly succeeded in splitting the bridgehead into two and the allied commander, General Mark Clark, came very close to ordering a withdrawal. Clearly, following the Italian surrender, there was an ill-judged view that the Germans would withdraw to the north. Salerno showed that the slog up the 'leg' of Italy would be hotly contested - as indeed it was. After the German attack had been rebutted Jimmy volunteered for a burial party.

"Volunteers were called for to go forward, bury the dead and retrieve as much equipment as possible. I was inquisitive enough to join this group and we embarked on what turned out to be a singularly unpleasant task. There were a lot of bodies strewn about the battlefield - some English, some German - and we were continually recognising comrades of yesterday whom we would see no more, some lying in grotesque postures, their bodies distorted by shellfire."

Salerno War Cemetery - Captain Robin Fevez

"In a ditch, half covered by water, was all that remained of Captain Robin Fevez, who had been in command of 'D' Company, and not far away in another ditch - this was well drained agricultural land  - lay, facedown, what seemed to be the remains of Vic Anglish, the Provost Sergeant. Was my imagination playing tricks, or did I hear a moaning sound? I stopped, retraced my steps, and listened again. Yes, it wasn't imagination; I did hear something. As I drew nearer to the seemingly lifeless body, I was quite sure. Vic Anglish was definitely alive - but only just. We got him out of the ditch and stretcher bearers took him to the beach. I was later to hear that he survived, was repatriated and medically discharged from the army."

"Sgt Anglish was one of the lucky ones. All day long we were finding less fortunate comrades and burying their remains in shallow graves. The proper job would be done later by the War Department."

Salerno Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery

"We moved forward and dug in on the airfield, about two miles inland. Others occupied the tobacco factory which had been one of the earlier objectives."

Clark's U.S. component consisting of Dawley's VI Corps which included the 36th and 45th divisions came ashore south of the mouth of the River Sele with orders to take the coastal towns of Agripoli, Altavilla and Castel St Lorenzo. During the German counter attack, elements of the 16th Panzer division had driven hard into the American forces in the Sele river valley a little further upstream.
The Tabbacchificio Fiocche, Salerno

As has previously been mentioned, this was a tobacco growing area and the tobacco factory in the British sector was matched by an even bigger facility in the area occupied by U.S. Forces. We were surprised to find the major part of the Fiocche tobacco factory still standing. The tobacco industry is long gone but two sides of the six storey structure at Fiocche are still there - derelict, overgrown and marked by the impact of artillery fire. The central yard originally used to dry tobacco crops would have been a perfect hard-standing for heavy military vehicles.

The close-quarter fight for the tobacco factory on the 11 September saw the facility change hands several times as GI's from the U.S. 1/157th Regiment battled with men of the 79th Panzer Grenadier Regiment (16th Panzer Division).

A few miles to the south within the U.S. 36th Division's area of operations, the three stunning 600-450 BC Greek temples at Paestrum hosted a number of allied Red Cross medical facilities. Both sides respected the integrity of this world class historical sight and the temples remained undamaged throughout the battle - as can be seen in my 'then and now' photographs.

The Basilica at Paestum - September 1943

The Basilica at Paestum - May 2019
Following the route that the 56th Division took after the bridgehead had been consolidated we passed though the hilltop town of Baronissi. This is where the 65th Regiment of the Royal Artillery arrived on the 1st October 1943. Their role was to provide covering artillery fire for the Allied advance to the west.

At the top of the village there is a striking view of the surrounding countryside and it is immediately evident why the town was selected as an appropriate fire base.

The advance north had one redeeming factor though - that is the reception that the Italian population gave to the Allied troops. My Great Uncle Jimmy wrote:

"Everywhere we were well received by the Italians. The Germans, apparently, had treated them deplorably and we witnessed the results of many atrocities. I remember seeing an entire family of Italian peasants who had been shot dead and left lying on the approach to their farm. Warm welcomes awaited us everywhere amid cries of "Liberatori". We had chickens, eggs and vino thrust upon us and the girls wanted to kiss us at the very least."

Our little group headed next to Naples - a story which I will cover in a future blog. We would not be indulging in the pleasures Great Uncle Jimmy spoke about in his memoir - namely 'luscious senorignas and whores'!

For the Cassino leg of this roadtrip click here.