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
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
(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
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,
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
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
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
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
We were billeted in the Sports Stadium area southwest of Rome, built
before the war. Evening leave passes were granted with lorry transportation.
'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
Armoured Division, firing its last rounds of the war on the road to
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.