Appendix "A"

ByLtCot H.S,Thuillier, RS.O., HA (Ret'd).
Reprinted from "The Gunner" Magazine, July 1979, with the kind permission of the Editor.

No less an authority than MrAverell Harriman, President's Roosevelt's Envoy
Extraordinary has stated that the Allies were seriously handicapped throughout the war by shortages of shipping. This resulted from the strategic error of over-emphasis on air power, particularly the bomber offensive, the decisive results of which proved to be illusory. After the surrender of the Afrika Korps in North Africa in May 1943 the question of the next strategic move arose. The US planners wanted to land on Sardinia, preliminary to an attack on central or even northern Italy, thereby forcing the Germans to withdraw from Sicily and southern Italy to meet the threat. This, however, could not be done due to shipping shortages and the absence of long-range fighter aircraft, which the Japanese had since 1937.

A peninsula such as Italy is easy to defend particularly if the attackers are short of shipping to turn the flanks. However, due to the strategic error of placing air power ahead of maritime power, the Allies had no alternative but to land in Sicily and then southern Italy, which failed to prevent German divisions moving to stop the Russians. I was transferred to the Italian front for posting to a field artillery regiment. I arrived in the area north of Naples in early 1944, being attached to several regiments including one at Anzio.

The advance of the 8th Army from southern Italy had halted facing the strong position based on the Monastery ridge at Cassino. General Alexander's plan to resume the advance included a seaborne landing at Anzio some 50 miles up the west coast, only 30 miles from Rome. The Anzio attack was to be towards the rear of the Cassino line with a view to forcing General Kesselring to weaken the Cassino garrison. The inexperienced American General Mark dark failed to take advantage of the successful landing at Anzio while General Alexander failed to order him to attack at once southwards- Meanwhile the able General Kesselring ordered three German divisions in the Po valley to march (they had no motor transport) to Anzio. This took three weeks while General dark dallied. Their attacks on arrival sealed off the Anzio beach-head.

I was posted in April 1944 to command 66 (Lowland) Medium Regiment RA in action at Cervaro the last village before Cassino. Their 16 long-range 4.5 inch guns were the only guns in 13 Corps with a range of 20,000 yards, the other medium regiments having the shorter range 5.5 in. They had been in action continuously since landing in Sicily eight months before and were to remain in action for a further ten months before relief.

General Alexander's next plan was to bomb the Cassino position from the air, after which the New Zealand and Indian divisions would attack the Monastery ridge. I watched the air bombardment which lasted barely an hour. Cassino town was held by the elite 1 Parachute Division who halted the attackers after several days of bitter fighting.

It was now well into April and something had to be done to break the deadlock. At last the correct solution was decided upon. Some 1500 guns of all calibres were assembled. At 11.00 p.m on 11 May the bombardment began, continuing day and night for seven days and nights, during which the fafantry Divisions, including the Polish Division, attacked. The Germans had gone. ffte advance could now be resumed. However, there was still stiff fighting ahead.

On assuming command in April, I had datum points fixed in target areas to enable all
guns to be calibrated at all charges with observation from Monte Trocchio. This proved invaluable during the seven-day bombardment when fire was called for close to our forward troops, once by special request actually between our tanks and infantry to repel an infiltrating counter-attack. The method was used throughout the subsequent advance, enabling the guns to be continuously calibrated.

For the advance, the Regiment was placed under command of General Keightley's 78
(Battleaxe) Infantry Division leading the advance. We passed through Cassino, advancing up Highway 6, the direct route to Rome. General dark's Corps, after breakout from the Anzio beach-head, was ordered to advance north east to cut off some of the Germans retreating from Cassino. This he failed to do, entering Rome unopposed instead.

After rear-guard actions along Highway 6, the German divisions withdrew north of
Rome, which had been declared an open city, not to be involved in the fighting. On 8 June the Regiment moved through Rome, continuing to support the advance of 78 Division up the valley of the River Tiber. Despite the surrender of the Italian forces, it was obvious that the Germans would fight stubborn rear-guard actions all up the Italian peninsula, particularly in view of our inability to use landing craft to turn the flanks. General Alexander's forces were constantly reduced to divert them to the landings in southern France in August, too late to help the June Normandy landings.

With our range of 20,000 yards, we were the only guns that could reach the 7in.German guns with a range of 30,000 yards. In order to make up the difference, I pushed our guns into the front line. On one occasion, we were so far forward that we were shelled briefly by the South African Division in mistake for German guns..

Throughout the advance, the Regimental Survey Section did sterling work, constantly
fixing bearing pickets and datum points as the advance continued, working in co-operation with the 13 Corps Survey Regiment. During the advance to Florence, we occupied some hundred positions, firing an average 50 rpg per day, mostly air observed and predicted harassing fire. On another occasion approaching Florence, the infantry complained that we were in front of their front line, to which I replied "Move your front line forward". The Germans were in full retreat.

Next day, when about to occupy a position, our recce parties were shelled. Fortunately, I overheard Major Thomson reporting this, so was able to halt the guns diverting them to a better covered position. From the crest in front of the guns, we could see the German infantry quite close. I ordered Bren guns to be posted; meanwhile, we hastened their departure with salvos.

As we approached Florence, the German resistance began to stiffen along the Apennine Hills to the north. We occupied positions to the south of the River Arno overlooking Florence. It was here that we were visited by the Prime Minister, Mr.Winston Churchill, who was accompanied by Field Marshals Alan Brooke and Alexander. On arrival at my observation post, our Brigadier Holbrook told Churchill that we had 100 guns ready to fire. He then took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, lit a large cigar and said 'Now this is just like sending a rude postcard and being there when it arrives. Fire!'

At the end of August, the Regiment crossed the River Arno over the one remaining
bridge, the Ponte Vecchio. We were now under command of 6 Army Group RA in support of 1 Division. 78 Division having been withdrawn to refit. During the advance, to ease the strain of continuous action, regimental leave parties enabled each man to get a week's rest every six weeks.

In mid-September, Captain Offer distinguished himself whilst FOO with a Gurkha
company observing fire from a high point, whilst under heavy attack, onto important roads in the Po valley. He was awarded the Military Cross. Major Inglis and Captain Turrell had been awarded the MC previously.

The Regiment moved on to positions near Castel del Rio and Fontanelice as winter closed down with heavy snowfalls. Our guns had to be winched onto positions with the aid of bulldozers, while the front lines could only be reached by supplies carried on mules. The Regiment had now been in action day and night for eighteen months since landing in Sicily, much longer than any other 13 Corps combatant unit. Orders were received to cease fire on 8th November, returning by road to Rome for rest and refit.

We were billeted in the Sports Stadium area southwest of Rome, built by Mussolini
before the war. Evening leave passes were granted with lorry transportation. All ranks
'played the game', giving no trouble to civil authorities.

On 10 January 1945 orders were received to return to the front. The Regiment returned to the same position near Castel del Rio in bitter cold weather. Early in April, the Regiment moved forward into 'Western Valley', forming a group with 75 Heavy Regiment and 51 HAA Regiment and with 655 Air OP Squadron under command. Harassing fire was directed at Highway 9, leading to Bologna.

Towards the end of April the Regiment crossed the River Po under command of 6
Armoured Division, firing its last rounds of the war on the road to Trieste.
Later on, driving through the Brenner Pass, I witnessed the surrender of the Germans at Klagenfurt in Austria, having been present at the surrender of the Africa Korps at Tunis in May 1943 and the Turks at Mosul in October 1918.


Copyright © 2003, Chris Dunham . All Rights Reserved