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 In this blog entry which covers the Salerno leg of our roadtrip I have drawn most of the content from Jimmy's unpublished autobiography and I'm hoping that readers will not take offence at his criticism of the American sailors who provided the transport at the start of the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had been savagely mauled by the Germans, mostly by a Panzer Division which had mounted a massive counter-attack and withdrawn before our armour and the heavy anti-tank artillery had arrived."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.
For the Anzio leg click here.