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67th (East Surrey) Anti-Tank Regiment

Royal Artillery

RIGHT A-HALF, ITALY
September 1943 – May 1945

The Regiment Abroad

 

The 67th (East Surrey) Anti-Tank Regiment, R.A., embarked at Liverpool on the 24 August 1942 for service overseas.

For some members of the Regiment, the first part of the voyage was almost a homecoming for we sailed to the Clyde. Here, for two days, the embarked troops were able to see the coast only through the habitual mist which hangs over the estuary.

After an uneventful trip through U-Boat ridden seas, the S.S. Franconia put into Freetown harbour, where we were able to stroll on the open decks at night. It had become unbearable hot and so this privilege was a great relief.

The welcome which the people of South Africa gave us will live long in the memories of all those who participated in the very generous hospitality with which we were greeted at Cape Town. While we were in Cape Town, it was decided that a party should leave the ship and go to Egypt to collect Motor Transport and our guns which had been sent on from England in transport ships. We knew by this time that we were not to be thrown into the battles after El Alamein, but were to go to India for a short spell and thence to another ‘unknown’ destination. The M.T. party were very fortunate as they remained in Cape Town for nearly a week before they embarked on the Dutch liner, the ‘New Amsterdam’. They say that they were embarked with a smaller cubic space per man than would have seemed possible, even on the Franconia.

For the main body of the Regiment, Bombay provided yet another interesting scene and for those of the Regiment who travelled inland to Deolali Camp, the experience of camp life in India was an unexpected novelty. After two weeks in India, the Regiment again embarked at Bombay and steamed up the sweltering Persian Gulf to the last place that God or Man ever made – the tumble down port of Basrah on the River Euphrates. Here, on November 11th 1942, we were welcomed by a band of coloured soldiers playing ‘Home Sweet Home’ on raucous brass instruments.

Apart from the complete kit of one of the Field Regimental commanders falling into the dirty waters of the River, the dis-embarkation was quite uneventful and it was not long before we were experiencing real sand in our shoes for the first time. Shaiba Camp was all that a Transit Camp should not be and we were very glad to be shovelled aboard the train for our long trip across Iraq which led us to the oil town of Kirkuk.

By this time, the M.T. party had arrived in Egypt and were busy taking over the guns and native assembled transport for the Regiment. This party saw Cairo for the first time and some of them were lucky enough to go to Palestine for a few days, It was some weeks before they arrived at Kirkuk where we had established ourselves amidst the most uninteresting scenery imaginable – just a vast mud waste which became liquid at the first drop of rain. The M.T. party commanded by Major K.M. Moir, M.C., R.A., had travelled over hundreds of miles of desert without losing a single vehicle – no mean feat when they started out with nuts and bolts in the engine housing of many of the vehicles.

During our stay in Iraq, we trained hard on Desert Warfare and River Crossings. We led a hard life, miles away from the nearest civilisation. It was, however, just the right training for the days of battle which were to follow. One could never be sure that one’s tent would not be converted overnight into a rather muddy swimming pool. The highlight of our training in Iraq came with a demonstration called ‘Fortissimo’ which involved 169 (London) Brigade, the Divisional Field Artillery and two section of 6pdrs from our Regiment. The demonstration was held under the worst possible conditions, with pouring rain and mud, feet deep. For six days before the demonstration we toiled to get the guns and vehicles over the passes and across deep wadis running with the torrential rain. On the day of the show, in pouring rain, all the Middle East Chiefs of Staff arrived accompanied by Russian and Polish representatives. The demonstration was a huge success.

In February 1943 we were ordered to form a new Battery to replace the old 266 Battery which left us in England. One troop was taken complete from each of the other three Batteries and so 171 Battery was formed with Major A.R. Canfor, R.A. This reorganisation had hardly been completed when the Division was ordered to the Middle East. There were rumours of action in the air and so everyone was excited at the thought.

267 Battery were the first to leave Kirkuk under command 168 (London) Infantry Brigade, They went to the C.T.C. at Kabrit for training in combined operations and we did not see them again until we concentrated at Tripoli in Tripolitania. The other Batteries left Kirkuk under their respective Brigades leaving only the Divisional Battery, 171, who were delayed by heavier than usual rains washing the bridges away. So started the Divisional move which was to make history as the longest and fastest approach march ever known in the British Army. The Regiment travelled over 3,299 miles through the mud and slime of Iraq, the deserts of Trans-Jordan, through the overwhelming beauty of the Jordan Valley and the orange groves of Palestine to a harbouring area at Tahag. Here we halted for a few days to draw further stores to complete our battle scale. Continuing our long trek, we passed the places which the desert army – which we were to join – had made famous. El Alamein, Tobruk and Wadi Akarit with all the signs of great battles still present. We saw all the signs of desert battle, twisted barrels of guns pointing rakishly skyward, the shattered hulks of burnt out vehicles and tanks. Though the driving sand may hide these scars of battle, it can never hide those groups of heaped up sand where both our own and enemy dead were laid to rest – each one of them having given his life for the cause which he considered right.

Arriving at Enfidaville in Tripolitania, the Division relieved famous Brigades which were then holding the line. 201 Guards Brigade and a Brigade of the famous 4th Indian Division were among the first. G Troop of 302 Battery were the first troop of the Regiment to go into action, following a successful attack by the 7th Bn. The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. The attack took place against some small hill features known as the humps. It was here that the Regiment first made contact with Nebelwerfers, from which they received considerable attention. The total part which the Division played in the final days of the North African Campaign are best known to the world as an important holding role while the main army swung over to assist the 1st Army in the final over-throw of the Afrika Korps. In all the diversionary attacks which took place, the Regiment supported the Infantry to the full and thus gained vital battle experience.

The battle finished and the salvaging of equipment complete, the Regiment withdrew to a Divisional concentration area in Tripoli where 267 Battery were waiting for us. 168 Brigade had been placed under command 50th (Northumbrian) Division for the invasion of Sicily.

Here, at Tripoli, amid driving sand and in sweltering heat, the Regiment underwent another period of intensive training. This training was to some extent lightened by the daily swimming parade in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. During the period, we received our full complement of 17 pdr guns and there was more furious training with these and with the overhauling of transport. A very successful practice camp was held at Garian despite the heat which put people out like flies. While in Tripoli, the honour of lining the route for His Majesty King George VI fell to the Regiment and on other occasions, General B. Montgomery inspected the Regiment in true ‘Monty’ style – he refused any part of the demonstration which was laid on for him.

At the end of our stay in Mussolini’s much vaunted African capital, we were ordered to train for an amphibious operation against the mainland of Italy. For this operation, 171 Battery was placed under command of 201 Guards Brigade who had joined the Division.

On September 9th 1943, the Regiment landed in the early hours of the morning on the beach at Salerno in Italy. Here, in the grim struggle for domination of the bridgehead, the Regiment gained its first successes against the enemy in action. Both 268 and 302 Batteries claimed kills against tanks. It would take too long, in this short history, to recount individual deeds of valour but it should be recorded that during the battle for the Salerno bridgehead, the Regiment gained its first awards for gallantry. The Military Cross was awarded to Major R.E.H. Hadingham and to Lieutenant (Major) P.L. Russell. Sergeant H.J. Edwards was also awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The Germans were soundly trounced in the bridgehead and sought to break off the battle to a line north of Naples. At this time, the Divisional Battery, 267, was detached to support the Americans in their drive to Pompeii and Naples. On the line of the River Volturno, which the enemy attempted to hold, our Infantry met very strong opposition and so failed to establish a bridgehead but the enemy was forced to pull back by the threats to his flanks when the Americans on our right and the 7th British Armoured Division crossed the river in strength. Our guns crossed the Volturno by the American Bridge and then fanned out behind the Infantry of the Division who were following the retreating enemy into the hill features before Teano. On one hill called Tranzi, men of 302 Battery fought with the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry for some days – as infantry. In these hills and those past the Teano line, there was little need for anti-tank guns and so the men of the Regiment were called upon to carry out many tasks in no way connected with gunnery. One troop of 267 Battery which did deploy at Teano had a very sticky time and for his share in the party, Lance Bombardier J. Johnson was awarded the Military Medal.

On both Camino battles, the men and a large proportion of the Officers were engaged on carrying loads for the Infantry. During these two battles for the massive hill feature, with its many adjoining ridges, many deeds of valour were performed which will never come to light. The ‘porters’ carrying loads of rations, water, wireless sets or batteries, struggled up the mountain paths and then continued to the summit on hands and knees. On return journeys, the wounded were carried down the hillside on stretchers – a task which took as many as eight men to a single stretcher. As the battle advanced, still in the hills, mules were the only feasible method of transport and when the 201 Guards Brigade finally took the feature of Aqua Pendola the porters had to carry loads as far as thirty miles. It was a great tribute to the work of the Regiment when, after the battle, the Infantry and Gunner O.Ps said that they were never short of anything they needed.

After being thrown off the hills, the German forces dug in on the far bank of the River Garigliano. The river was in full winter flood and thus impossible for an assault crossing. The Division was withdrawn for a rest and so were lucky enough to be out of the line and in comfortable billets for Christmas.

In the early spring of 1944 we assaulted the River Garigliano. 201 Guards Brigade had left the Division and 168 (London) Infantry Brigade had been back with the Division for some weeks. 171, 268 and 302 Batteries ferried their guns across the river in support of the attacking Infantry and 267 Battery was in reserve with 168 Brigade. During this river battle, the Regiment again distinguished itself, not only by 302 Battery claiming another tank but by the ability to sit and take it under the most trying conditions. Major R.E.H. Hadingham, M.C., in an exploit with the Infantry, received a bar to his Military Cross. Bombardier T. Trimmer of 268 Battery was awarded the Military Medal and B.S.M. Stanton and Sergeant A. McArthur received the award of Mention in Despatches. The success of the battle was marred by rather high casualties and many old friends were lost.

After twenty days of severe and hard battle the Division was withdrawn, taken to Naples and embarked in L.S.T.s bound for the Anzio bridgehead. Again, the regiment went in support and 302 Battery were the first to arrive. The Luftwaffe provided the welcome and unfortunately, 302 Battery sustained casualties both in men and material. The Battery deployed on the now famous lateral road in support of 167 (London) Infantry Brigade. The next Batteries to arrive were 267 and 268, deploying in support of 168 and 169 Brigades respectively. 171 Battery when they reached the bridgehead were deployed in a Divisional role. For over three weeks, the Division held out and beat off continual counter attacks which were launched with all the might the Germans could muster. Considering the fact that no part of the bridgehead was safe from enemy shellfire, the Regiment had very few casualties. During the Anzio period, both the Commanding Officer and the second in command were taken sick and so the task of handing over to the 5th British Division and the subsequent reorganisation fell on the shoulders of Major R.E.H. Hadingham, M.C.

As soon as the Batteries had been bathed and fitted out with new clothes at Nocera, they started to take over the equipment which the 5th Division had left behind. This task completed, we marched to the South of Italy and staged in a P.O.W. camp at Altamura while handing in the equipment at Bari. At Taranto we embarked for the Middle East.

We disembarked at Port Said after a very pleasant voyage during which we were glad to see our old original, the S.S. Franconia in the convoy and still going strong. We moved from Port Said to Quassasin – a huge and dismal standing camp with the minimum of comforts. Here we drew some transport and sent advance parties off to our new camp in Palestine. These advance parties rapidly became rear parties as the Division was called on to move to Cairo and Alexandria. There was some fear of civil disturbance and some forces were required to keep order. The main body of the Regiment went to Egypt’s hottest camp at Mena while 267 Battery was luckier and went on to Sidi Bish just outside Alexandria where the Greek Brigade had revolted. Our time in the Middle East was spent alternately training and holiday making in the city of Cairo. Parties from each Battery went down to Tel Aviv in Palestine to practice river crossings on the River Auja. Not long after we had reconcentrated at Cairo and taken over brand new equipment, we found ourselves handing over again to the 5th Division which had just arrived from Italy.

Another embarkation completed at Port Said, we sailed back to Taranto and so found ourselves in Italy for the second time but with a new commanding officer – Lieut Colonel A.G. Munn and new second in command Major W.H. Ross-Lowe. Our first journey by Italian railway was not as bad as we had anticipated – it was only three days before we were in a concentration area at Tivoli a few miles south of Rome. Here we took over the guns and equipment of the 78th British Infantry Division and enjoyed at the same time trips to Rome and the novelty of the sulphur spring baths at Tivoli. After a month, we moved up to Assisi to train and await the battle for the Gothic Line.

Moving from Assisi under the greatest secrecy we crossed to the Adriatic Coast and became part of the biggest concentration of forces that Italy had ever seen, at Tolentino. From here the Division deployed and the Regiment supported it during all the grim and bitter fighting on the Croce, Gemmano, Monte Gridolfo and Coriano ridge features. They crossed the River Marrechio and with the Infantry advanced beyond Santarcangelo to Savignano on the Rubicon.

During these battles, the commanding officer was taken away from us to command a Field Regiment and a few days later Lieut Colonel Shrimpton arrived to take command. To most of the Regiment, Colonel Shrimpton was well known as he had previously been second in command of one of the Divisional Field Regiments. The extremely bitter but successful battle of the Gothic Line had taken a heavy toll of the Division and so we withdrew to Macerata to refit and reorganise.

There ensued at Macerata a very pleasant period of relaxation and delightful scenery. We all had very comfortable billets and everyone hoped that we should be able to spend another Christmas out of the line. It was not to be so.

We moved up again and relieved the 46th British Division on the line of the River Montone and from there advanced with a very stiff fight almost to the line of the River Senio. By this time we had two Divisional Batteries as 168 Brigade had unfortunately been disbanded. On the line of the River Senio, the whole Regiment was deployed and we had under command a S.P. Battery of the 93rd (Argyll and Sutherland) Anti-Tank Regiment who had previously supported us on the Santarcangelo line. We dug defensive positions and settled down to hold through the worst of the Italian winter.

During our last weeks on the Senio Line, we welcomed to the Regiment a new Battery – 315 (S.P.) Battery of 105 Anti-Tank Regiment R.A. The old 171 Battery became 268 Battery and the original 268 Battery was unfortunately disbanded, the men being posted to the other Batteries to make up the strengths of the Troops which had received 17 pdr Self Propelled equipments.

The Regiment withdrew to Cervia to complete the reorganisation and to train with the new guns. Here, in this peaceful Adriatic coastal town, the main sorting out of the personnel was completed and we were all able to have a much needed change although there was little rest.

The scent of battle was again in the air when 267 Battery under command of 169 (London) Infantry Brigade were ordered away to Lake Trasimene near Perugia, on the west side of Italy. Here, the Battery trained with 2 pdr Littlejohn equipments and ‘Fantail’ landing craft. ‘Fantail’ was the code name for the craft better known as Buffaloes in the Far East.

As we moved up the Adriatic coast to take over a section of the line, we were told that the higher command’s intention was to destroy the Germans in Italy before they could withdraw to their much vaunted River Po line. The Regiment, with the Brigade Groups, concentrated just a few miles north of Ravenna with the formidable barriers of the River Reno and Lake Comacchio ahead.

Once the battle started on the line of the Reno, events moved with almost unbelievable speed. Our guns fired in support of the Commando attack on the Garibaldi Spit east of Lake Comacchio, and then moved up in support of 167 Brigade’s crossing of the River Reno. At this stage, the guns and vehicles had to move through most difficult country to reach the Infantry, who had advanced over the flooded areas aided by amphibious vehicles. There was little time to stop and think as the battle raced on, every man was on the top of his form and whatever the difficulties, everyone was determined to press on to deal the final blows against the German.

Both 267 and 315 Batteries claimed ‘kills’ on enemy tanks during the first few days of the battle and when the final count was made, it was discovered that K Troop of 315 Battery had knocked out three Mark IVs, all in the same area.

As the battle moved forward, more and more prisoners started to stream in and more and more equipment was found abandoned intact, a sure sign that the enemy was in a state of disorder. On the line of the River Po, we came upon a scene of utter confusion. As far as the eye could see along the banks, there were clustered lines of vehicles, or guns which had been caught trying to get to the river ferries. The roads leading to the river were cluttered with every type of equipment and vehicle while in the fields lining the river, hundreds of horses were roaming loose. Some were saddled, some completely harnessed, while the others had no sign of even a halter – all had been abandoned by the retreating and routed ‘master’ race.

The crossing of the River Po was to have been made in the early plans, by 169 Brigade but when the 24 Guards and and 167 Brigade found no opposition they established a small bridgehead to allow 169 to pass through. It was nearly three days before we could get our heavy equipment across the wide river, but meanwhile 169 (Queens) brigade with 267 Battery in support were surging forward on the road to Venice. They did not go on completely unopposed and men of 267 Battery had several sharp fights with the enemy in which they acquitted themselves very well.

Throughout all the stages of this final ‘Battle of Italy’ the guns of the Regiment have been to the fore. When the Infantry called for support, despite all the difficulties encountered, the guns were there to fulfil their obligations to the Infantry.

In the many months that have passed while the Regiment has been in action, there is one detachment which has seen no limelight. They have received no glory but they have been there, carrying on with the same boring routine day in and day out. Without the ‘Q’ side, the battle would be impossible and so it is well to record here the thanks of the Regiment to Captain (QM) W.J. Pike and his staff. They have had a difficult task but have never been found wanting – the number of times the Regiment has handed over its equipment are almost countless – Captain Pike just describes them as continuous.

On all sides and in all departments, in the battles that have passed, the Regiment has done its job and above all fulfilled its duty to the Infantry of the Division.

This souvenir number of ‘RIGHT A HALF’ is Printed and Published by the 67th (East Surrey) Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery. Compiled and written by Lieutenant R.G. Stewart, R.A.