The Long Road to Tavoleto by Jim Morgan
THE LONG ROAD TO TAVOLETO
Almost two years had elapsed between the completion of my training as a wireless operator with the Royal Corps of Signals in October 1942 and the time and place which is to be the subject of this personal story. Two years of almost continuous travel over thousands of miles on land and sea. The voyage aboard the great liner Queen Mary had taken me from the Clyde a few days before Christmas to disembark in Egypt in Mid-January 1943. A 1,000-mile journey in a motor convoy took me through the Western Sahara Desert to join the renowned 4th Indian Infantry Division just in time for my 20th Birthday. After another 1,000-mile journey with the division I saw my first actions at Mareth, Enfidaville and Medjez El Bab where I was to witness the incredible but rewarding spectacle of the surrender of all of the Axis forces in North Africa. The next three months saw our return journey through the desert in the heat of the summer to arrive back where we had started in Egypt. After a brief respite we travelled through Jordan and Palestine to Syria. Our short stay in Baalbek probably had more to do with local unrest than the war but it was pleasant enough. It was October 1943 before we returned to Alexandria from which port we boarded the S.S. Ormonde which took us on a voyage through the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean to land in Taranto, Southern Italy some eight days later.
The invasion of Italy had already taken place in June of that year with the successful landings in Sicily. The campaign had now moved on to the mainland where progress was already beginning to prove difficult. The mountainous terrain of Italy was always going to favour the defender as we were to learn to our cost later. The icy wind blowing through hilltop town of Potenza where I spent my second Christmas away from home, could not have contrasted more sharply with the heat of the desert less than six months previously. The Division’s first action in Italy was on the Adriatic (eastern) coast front. However, in late January we crossed the Apennines to assist the struggling American 5th Army at Cassino. Up to this point I had served as part of Divisional H.Q. Signals but the morning after our arrival in the shattered town of Cervaro in early February 1944 three of us, among the youngest and newest recruits to the unit were instructed to board a waiting 30 cwt. truck which was to be driven by Sargent A.A. Davies to an unspecified destination.
It was this inexplicable selection which was to change my personal experience of the Italian campaign for the next eight months. After a journey of no more than half an hour we arrived at the village of San Michele There we took over a house which faced directly across the desolate half flooded valley to the town of Cassino with its backdrop of the hill and its dominant Monastery. We were warned by the weary Americans from whom we were to take over not under any circumstances to venture outside during daylight as our every move would be observed from the Monastery. The weather was appalling with intermittent snow and hail storms. It was bitterly cold, but at least we had a roof over our heads. Here we set up a small Signals Centre complete with a simple telephone switchboard from which cables ran back to Div. H.Q. and forward to the three Brigades which make up our Division. The cables which lay on the ground were to be constantly broken by shellfire Their maintenance was the duty he Indian Line Party who shared the house an unenviable task carried out in all weathers, day and night. Because of the terrain, the atmospheric conditions and the propensity for interception the use of wireless was deemed to be inadvisable if not impossible. Normally Divisional Signals of which we were a part would have been divided into sections serving Rear Division H.Q., and Main Division H.Q. with smaller sections at the three Brigades and Artillery Field Regiments. The purpose of our newly formed five-man detachment was to shorten the lines of communication by setting up an interim Signals Station. Our official title was Tac. Div. H.Q. (Code Name Wadi), The story of our eight week stay at Cassino where we witnessed with unashamed joy the destruction of the Monastery by bombing on 15th February, would make an interesting story in itself but it is not the subject of this narrative. Around midnight on the 25th February (my 21st Birthday) Tac Division received some unwelcome attention by the German artillery from the direction of the Monastery.
A small number of shells exploded directly outside the cellar in which we slept, when sleep was possible. This was a very noisy situation at any time. One of the Indian line party in the adjacent cellar was wounded and evacuated to the nearest Field Medical Station. It could have been much more serious but in any event it was deemed necessary for us to leave the house and we moved a few days later to a farmhouse in the valley even closer to the hill and again in full view of the German on the hill. The Division’s involvement in the two unsuccessful assaults with the New Zealanders on the hill and Monastery- in February and March during which it sustained heavy casualties resulted in its withdrawal. We moved once again over to the static Adriatic Sector. There the infantry became involved mainly in patrol activity while we awaited the final breach of the Gustav Line at Cassino. This did not occur until Mid-May.
After the fall of Rome, the front moved forward on both sides of the mountains but only at the pace that the retreating Germans allowed. The 4th Indian Division’s allotted sector was now along the eastern edge of the Apennines. The enemy used every village and vantage point to slow down the Allied advance and so continued the Allie’s laborious progress throughout the heat of the summer of 1944 We took only one welcome break on the shores of Lake Trasimeno when we, the members of Tac Div. re-joined our colleagues at Main Div. But we had become strangers and if the truth were told we were glad to resume our previous if somewhat more stressful role. It seemed that from here on Tac. Division’s instructions were to follow the front as close as was deemed to be reasonably safe. This meant that we moved almost daily, sometimes no more than a mile or so. No sooner had we dug in, usually late in the evening than we were on the move again the following morning We followed roads and tracks along which the Germans themselves had only just recently travelled. They knew exactly the bends or stretches which would make the easiest targets for their artillery. I lost count of the number of these that had already been designated as “The Mad Mile.” The poor roads dictated that we always drove slowly and with trepidation but because we were usually a lone vehicle we were less vulnerable than in convoy.
Owing to our constant movement the use of telephone had become impractical and Tac, Division now consisted of a specially adapted 5 cwt truck fitted with a canvas canopy. Inside was a shelf for wireless set and a seat for the one duty operator. Shifts of two hours on and four off were agreed mutually between the four of us with the excellent Sargent Davies as final arbiter. It was September when we reached the next major barrier designed by the enemy to finally halt the Allied advance before it spilled out onto the Lombardy plains and thence into Austria. The Gothic line was a well prepared defence in depth once again incorporating every feature that the terrain could offer. There was neither one main route through it nor one particular pivotal point such as there had been at Monte Cassino, but just a succession of strongholds to be overcome by direct assault. Among these I can well recall memorable names like Gemmasno, Croce, Monte Columbo and those without names in the open countryside which followed Assisi and Urbino. Unfortunately, I could not now put these in any chronological order. And so it was that we come to the crux of my story. One morning in early September we moved into a farmyard on top of a small hill where there was a great deal of activity as vehicle drivers from various units jostled to find what they considered to be the best sites. Our wireless truck was drawn up alongside an open fronted building in which we stowed our gear. Sargent Jack Marriott from Rotherham had now taken over from Sargent Davies. On another hilltop probably less than a mile away we could see a village from which a plume of black smoke was rising and from which the now familiar sound of bursts of machine gun fire and the whine and explosions of mortar shells were clearly audible.
That village was Tavoleto. Ernie (Tony) Holland who was a newcomer as a replacement to Tac. Div. took first shift at the set and with the headphones clamped to his ears was trying with difficulty to detect his vital signal through the haze of atmospheric interference. From the outset I had a very uneasy feeling about the farmyard and in accordance with what was almost an unwritten rule among signals, as I was not required for any other duties I decided to get away from it. Instinct told me that lower ground would be the safer option and so I set forth on my own. Soon after leaving the farmyard I found myself descending a fairly steep grassy slope and as I did so I was aware that a short distance to my right a group of Indian Muleteers were coaxing their charges down the same gradient. I was about half way down When without warning there was a massive explosion not far ahead of me at the foot of the bank. I felt the blast but after a moment’s pause realised that I was unhurt. No more than 20 yards from me a cloud of red smoke was gradually drifting away from the spot where the shell had exploded. The Indians were now struggling to control their frightened beats. For amoment I considered returning to the farmyard but having set out I decided to continue on my way. As I followed the line of a hedge on my right I never gave a thought to the fact that I was walking in the direction of Tavoleto or as to how far I intended to go. Ridiculously the hedge somehow made me feel safer. I had gone probably no more than 150 yards when I heard the roar of a number of shells passing overhead.
They exploded somewhere behind me and I know immediately that they had landed on the farmyard. It took me a little while to decide that I ought to return to see if I was needed. I was never cast in the heroic mold but eventually I decided to do so. A few minutes later when I arrived at the farmyard I found things to be in a general state of alarm but not panic. A farm wagon loaded with straw or some such combustible material was well alight on the far side from our truck and a group of gunners were desperately unloading a trailer which we understood to be loaded with ammunition. Tony Holland who had still been concentrating on his absorbing duty had apparently been quite oblivious to the situation until he had sensed that something was amiss when he saw fragments of the canvas canopy floating about inside the canopy. He had tried hurriedly to leave but had overlooked the fact that he was tethered to the set by his headphones which had brought his exodus to a sudden halt. This comical situation was to provide mush amusement later when the story was told and re-told back at Main H.Q. Tony was a rather studious looking with an eccentric turn of mind. Later we found a shell fragment embedded in a wooden board above the set. This must have missed his head by inches. It was duly encircled with a pencil and inscribed with an appropriate caption which confirmed Tony’s ownership. While outside the half biscuit tin which was our all-purpose wash bowl had also been pierced by another shell splinter and rendered useless. This was regarded by all as something of a serious war crime typical of the Boche. It was this sort of humor in adversity which helped us to overcome the tension of the moment. Whether it was expedient for me to have taken a stroll so closeto the front seems in retrospect to be questionable but my original misgivings about the farmyard had been proved justified. These recollections of Tavoleto has remained with me clearly to this day but I owe it to E.D. (Birdeie) Smith for jogging my memory more than 70 years later his little book titled “Even the Brave Falter” he devotes a whole paragraph to his own experience of the village which is far more important than mine. Briefly he tells how as a young Lieutenant in charge of a company of some 90 Gurkhas of the 4th Indian Division he was given the task of taking the village from the Germans on the night of 3rd Sept. 1944. From the outset he and his Gurkha officers considered this night attack to be ill prepared and doomed to failure. But they carried out their orders and although he was wounded it was clearly through his leadership and the dedication of the men who followed his example that their objective was achieved. He described the action later as one of absolute chaos but it had the desired effect of forcing the Germans. to leave the village. Only 44 of his men survived ~ the remainder being either killed or wounded. We of the Tac. Division. must have entered our farmyard on the morning of 4th Sept. just in time to receive the parting shots of the resentful Germans. The following morning, we moved out and on to the next objective.
The battle for Tavoleto and the minor role played by small units like Tac. Division were typical of what had been taking place in Italy throughout 1944 but it would never have made the news at home. At the time the focus was on the Normandy landings.
The young Lt. E.D. (Birdie) Smith was later awarded the D.S.O and rose to the rank of Brigadier. In Borneo he was involved in a helicopter crash as a result of which his arm was trapped and had to be amputated. Apparently he helped the Medics in this crude operation without a murmur. I last saw him on one of our pilgrimages to Cassino. He was retrieving his luggage from an airport carousel with his one arm. Who would have dared offer to help him? Sadly, he has since died.
We in Tac. Division had previously seen a red smoke shell at San Michele on the morning of 25th February when it was followed by the night time shelling which resulted in our move. Presumably it served as some sort of marker for the German artillery.
On my walk I picked up a piece of paper from the hedgerow. It was- printed in red and black on poor quality paper and was headed in Germanic script “FRONTPOS”. It showed a silhouette of London in flames with the following script VI, V2, and V3 (?) Of course the first two were weapons which had caused huge damage to the city. The third with the question mark implied that there was worse to come. It was a piece of crude propaganda
designed to create anxiety among the troops for whom it had been deliberately left. We
know now that in fact the Germans had even more sophisticated rockets almost ready to be launched from sites already nearing completion in France. I crumpled it and threw it back into the hedge. How interesting it would have been had I kept it but at the time it was just rubbish.
In this story I have included the names of some of those with whom I served as Tac. Division at Cassino and the Gothic Line. In addition to Sergeants A.A. Davies and Jack Marriott others were signalmen Joe Yates and Jock Forbes both from Scotland and Don Parker from Northampton. Through the MCVA I made contact with Don Parker and Tony Holland in the 1980s I returned to Cassino with Don Parker on the 45th Anniversary in 1989 and visited Tony Holland at his home in Tiverton, Devon. I kept in touch with both until their deaths in the late 1990s. I have mentioned the others in case any of them might have been blessed with the long life that I have, or perhaps someone connected with them. If so I would love to hear from them. They were all lovely lads and I would like to dedicate these recollections to them. I can be contacted through the Italy Star Association web site.
Jim Morgan (aged 92) March 2015
2601189 Sgmn Morgan A.J. (1942 – 1946)