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CHAPTER 10 – SALERNO, ANZIO AND MOUNTAIN FIGHTING

After the fall of Sicily and the deposition of Mussolini the Italian government surrendered. The next step in the Allied campaign was the invasion of the Italian mainland with a two-pronged attack. On 3rd September 1943 the 8th Army crossed the Straits of Messina and captured Reggio against light opposition. The other prong of the attack was an amphibious landing at Salerno up Italy’s Mediterranean coast just south of Naples.

On 9th September a joint Anglo-American force landed at Salerno in an attempt to catch the German forces (which had disarmed and replaced the Italians) in a pincer movement. Three Pioneer companies, Nos. 79, 140 and 188, operating with Beach Groups, landed with the first wave under intense fire. Landing at 3 a.m. 79 Company’s No. 3 Section suffered such heavy casualties that it became inoperative but its No.4 section captured an enemy pillbox.

‘Exposed to the full intensity of rifle, machine-gun and tank fire and to ceaseless artillery fire from the mountains which rose sharply from the narrow coastal strip they off-loaded landing craft as they reached the shore, laid beach tracks, portered supplies of ammunition, food and water to the infantry grimly fighting their way inland, acted as stretcher bearers, and took over part of the line in an infantry role when pressure became severe, toiling through the heat of the Italian summer and long into the night. (1)

In addition to 79, 140 and 188 companies, Nos 11, 68, 119, 151, 175, 187, 191, 242, 807, 1508 (Mauritian), 1509 (Seychelles), 1941 (Basuto) and 1991 (Swazi) companies were engaged.

The German 8th Army counter-attacked fiercely and by the 14th the Allied lines had been pushed back to within a thousand yards of the beach. ‘

George Pringle, of 175 Company described what it was like:-

‘The conditions were appalling and many soldiers were hit by the German crossfire and shelling. We were glad when our OC received a message for us to move inland. We advanced about 400 yards inland and took cover in the ditches which fortunately were not mined.’

Later his company was sent to hold the line with the infantry to repel the German counter-attack and he describes his feelings:-

‘Was our fate to be POWs or death? God how I hated war! The question we were all asking was “Where was the 8th Army? They were supposed to advance up from the South of Italy and meet up with the 5th Army in a couple of days. We did not know it would be 10 days before the two armies met up …So we had 10 days of sheer hell. How we survived I will never know, hungry, tired and dirty, but still full of Pioneer spirit as every man knew it was do or die. Every remaining reserve including wounded soldiers who could fire a rifle were thrown into the front line and by nightfall the enemy had been held. All soldiers were exhausted after 6 days of uninterrupted struggle. Casualties among most Pioneer Companies were high.’ (2)

It was not till 18th September that the British 8th Army advancing from the south relieved the beach-head.

Pioneer casualties had risen to 139 by D-plus 11

‘On the 24th Major Hossack of 79 Company recorded, “Our sixteenth day on the beaches under fire. The men have worked continuously for fifteen hours a day.’ ( 3)

The Salerno landing had been a near thing.

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One function of the Pioneer Corps was the recruitment and supervision of local civilian labour. When Salerno was captured on 10th September a Pioneer Corps team entered the town to recruit labour to operate the port. Of the normal population of 70,000 only 2,000 remained. The town was still under continuous artillery bombardment from the surrounding hills, so the Pioneer team, under the command of a Major Morton, withdrew to outside the town. They made daily sorties into Salerno to recruit men driven by hunger to do essential work under bombardment. The port was opened on the 25th. Major Rhodes-Wood’s history records that the Pioneer team of thirteen suffered five casualties. The number of Italian civilian dead and wounded is not mentioned. (4)

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I have already told of the Salerno mutiny in an earlier chapter. It is also mentioned by Richard Kisch in his The Days of the Good Soldiers.

This happened almost at the same time as preparations were being made in Cairo to launch the first "mock” Parliament……. They made it clear that the confidence they had for their own officers did not extend to others….In retrospect, there seems no reason to assume any kind of organisational link between what happened at Salerno and what developed in Cairo. But the mood, perhaps, was significant. The attitudes and reasons of those involved clearly reflected an increasingly evident independence of mind among ordinary soldiers as well as a definite deep-seated suspicion of the Authorities.(5)

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After the 5th and 8th armies had joined up at Salerno, a continuous front stretched across Italy from coast to coast with the Apennines mountain range in the middle.

One of the most dangerous jobs the Pioneers had to do now was portering. Much of the fighting was in the mountains, the Apennines, the range that stretch along most of the length of Italy. The infantry on each side would occupy positions on the peaks and high ground. The terrain was rugged, with no roads, so motorised transport could not reach the front. All ammunition and supplies were unloaded a long way back and transported on mules controlled by specially trained Pioneer companies. Often they were Indian and colonial units such as 1212 and 1214 Indian companies, Basutos of 1941 company and Mauritians of 1508 company. The mules could only go so far as the narrow, winding tracks petered out.. From then on the portering had to be done on foot by other Pioneers climbing the last few hundred feet to the infantry outposts on top of craggy cliffs. With heavy ammo boxes and other loads strapped to their backs, their rifles had to be left behind to free their hands for climbing. This was mostly done at night. Moving in daylight in full view of enemy strong points on adjacent heights was suicidal.

George Pringle of 175 Company has described what it was like

‘We moved steadily and almost breathlessly, lest we made our presence known to an enemy patrol. Each time a loose rock was dislodged and fell noisily to the valley below, we froze in our tracks as the Germans or our own forces fired an inquisitive flare into the sky illuminating the mountainside. We clung there until word was passed back that we could proceed and make our way to the RV point which our leading corporal, Arthur Sullivan, had correctly located. We handed over to the infantry the required and very welcome logistics. With no time to rest on our descent we acted as stretcher-bearers carrying down the wounded. Usually four men would handle a stretcher, but it was often only two due to the narrowness of the track, slipping and stumbling over the rocks while the wounded soldier would be moaning. On a few occasions it would be only one man in the wind and the darkness who would have to carry his burden across his shoulders because a stretcher could not be used (6)

One of these men was Private J. Tancred of 187 Company who carried a wounded officer on his shoulders in the rain for a night and a day. Sixteen hours later he stumbled into an Advanced Dressing Station, handed over the wounded officer to the medics, collapsed and died. He was forty-two years old. He received no decoration but after the war one of the Pioneer Companies was named after him as No.18 (Tancred) Company. The Commander of 187 Company received the following message from the Divisional Commander:-

‘I take this opportunity of thanking the officers, N.C.O.s and men of your company for the splendid work by them during the battle of Monte Camino. Your company carried our wounded over the steep hillsides under shell and mortar-fire for several days without resting. Their bravery and bearing under fire brought relief and succour to many of our wounded. Please convey to all ranks the thanks and good wishes of 56 (London) Division.’ (7)

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In January 1944 Pioneers were again involved in an amphibious operation. This was at Anzio, a small port just south of Rome. Prior to this a diversionary attack was launched by X Corps across the Garigliano River. 807 and the much used 175 Company were involved. 807 provided smoke cover. 175 Company had to work silently and at night, due to the close proximity of the enemy, to construct jeep tracks up to the river bank, bring bridging equipment into position, prepare ramps for pontoon bridges and probe the approaches for mines. The river crossing was successful and Minturno was captured after bitter fighting.
.The landings at Anzio started on 22nd January 1944. Unlike at Salerno they met little initial opposition. Soon 11, 188, 242 and 1991 (Swazi) companies were at work on the beach-head.

‘After the first few days of comparative quiet the Anzio beach-head was constantly subjected to aerial bombing and artillery fire and the Pioneers had to dig foxholes for themselves in which they were to shelter for the next four months.’ (8)

On 7th February 11 Company suffered twelve killed and twenty-nine wounded in one dive-bombing attack.

A German counter-attack in mid-February drove a deep wedge into the allied positions. At one point the allied line was forced back to the beaches. It was not till May 1944 that the Allied forces were able to break out of the bridge-head.

Major Rhodes-Wood’s History records that 108 Pioneer group (which included the above mentioned companies) was awarded the Fifth U.S. Army Plaque for “exceptionally meritorious performance of duty.”

The History mentions the contribution of the colonial companies but, unfortunately, in a rather patronising way:-

‘The beaches, where the Pioneers were working day and night, were by far the most dangerous parts of Anzio and conspicuous here were the Swazis of 1991 Company their cheerful, light hearted ways making them extremely popular. At work they were second to none and as steady under fire as their white comrades.’

(9)

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Meanwhile the Pioneers were involved in the bitter fighting in the mountains in front of Monte Cassino. The History records:
Once again 187 Company was in the thick of things and again it is profitable to turn to an independent source, the Divisional Observer Officer, for the picture of its activities. “During the (February) operations,” he reported, “Lieutenant E.R.Selwyn and the sections under his command were under constant shell and mortar fire; they had to carry the wounded and supplies along a track which was wet, rock encumbered and in places two feet deep in mud. On two nights in succession the company stretcher-bearers carried 283 and 181 casualties respectively from the heights beyond the Garigliano to the River Road.

The spirit of this company is exemplified in the following accounts of individual exploits. Sergeant Lloyd was in charge of a bearer party. His corporal was killed and three men wounded, upon which the sergeant himself carried the wounded men they had been about to take down the mountain, coming under heavy shell fire but managing to reach the Advanced Dressing Station. He then gathered the remainder of his men together to bring in more wounded. The previous night Sergeant Lloyd had been blown out of his bivouac.

“Sergeant Scholes and his section were on stretcher-bearing for twenty-one days without a break. Corporal Gillam carried wounded on his back for twenty-four hours without stopping. Sergeant Cartwright was with his O.C., Major Vivian, when ten of their men were wounded upon which the sergeant portered all the supplies himself to the battalion. He was wounded late in the action.

“Sergeant Whitworth was in charge of an ammunition party which had to take heavy mortar bombs up a very steep and muddy hill, a three-hour climb. As they climbed it was pouring with rain and they were under constant shell fire. The sergeant and Major Vivian, who accompanied the detachment, were both slightly wounded but continued till all the ammunition was delivered. In order to get back to base they had to swim a river.

“These isolated incidents are the high-lights of the Company’s work. They take no account of the daily grind, of long marches, of lack of rest, of constant exposure to fire, and above all of men past their youth who keep on going to serve the fighting men in whose sector they work.”

So much for the Divisional Observer’s report. Major Vivian’s own War Diary for the month of February is more terse. Summarizing the work of his company on the 29th he wrote, “We have been on stretcher-bearing for four weeks now. As there was no road the wounded had to be carried a distance of approximately six miles, often involving a carry of sixteen to eighteen hours. The nature of the ground and frequent enemy shellfire combine to make the task a difficult one. During this period I suffered a number of casualties in the company.’ (10)

 

In February 1944, 39 Group joined 19 group on the Cassino front. In March, 46 group was transferred from the Adriatic coast to Cassino. There were a number of Indian, Mauritian, Basuto and Bechuana Pioneer units in the battle for the Cassino Monastery. They were the Mauritian companies 2032, 2034, 2035 and 2036. There was 1205 (Indian) Company whose members received four decorations for bravery in the space of two weeks. There were also 1941, 1943 and 1944 (Basuto) companies. These soldiers were fighting to defend a “democracy” they did not enjoy in their homelands.

You would look in vain for mention of them in most accounts of this battle. Not only were their deeds largely ignored but on one occasion when they were mentioned, they were subject to an accusation of cowardice which Major Rhodes-Wood refuted in his History.

‘In the book “Cassino” by Fred Majdalany the author makes only one reference to the Corps. To that no Pioneer can take exception for all realize fully that their contribution to any battle or campaign is a secondary one by comparison with that of the fighting men in the front line. But Mr. Majdalany’s one statement is offensive and intended to discredit the Corps and that cannot be allowed to pass unanswered. Writing of the Third Battle of Cassino he alleges that pioneers operating with the 4th Indian Division were guilty of cowardice when portering supplies to a company of the 1st/9th Gurkhas isolated on Hangman’s Hill, a charge that has caused much distress to past and present members of the Corps. All Pioneer records have been carefully scrutinized in an endeavour to ascertain the truth of the matter and in none was anything found to support the accusation. Mr. Majdalany was then challenged and asked to produce evidence on which the allegation was based. He was unable to do so.’ (11)

 

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Notes

WHRCP p.206
Royal Pioneer Corps Association Newsletter, February 2005
WHRCP p.208
Ibid p.207
Richard Kisch, The Days of the Good Soldiers,,Journeyman, 1985 pp 64-5
RPCA Newsletter, September 2004
WHRCP p.213
Ibid p.219
Ibid p.219-220
Ibid p.221-223
Ibid p. 224