Another journey down memory lane
Graham Swain Esq (deceased)
2/7 Battalion Queens Royal Regiment ‘The Black Cats’
Former National Membership Committee Secretary of the Italy Star Association 1943-1945 following a pilgrimage to Italy in 1990
An article in the spring issue of ‘Copperplate 1990’ entitled, ‘Memory lane’, prompted me to wonder whether readers might be interested in my own visit ‘down memory lane’, in April 1990, to some of the battlefields in Italy where I had fought as a young infantryman with the 5th American, and later the British 8th Army, between September 1943 and June 1945; particularly to visit some of the Commonwealth cemeteries where many of my friends and comrades lie. The motivation for the visit lies with my membership of the Italy Star Association 1943-1945, which was formed in 1987 on the anniversary of the battle for the River Sangro in southern Italy.
Membership is open to any member of the armed services who took part in the Italian Campaign and who are holders of the Italy Star campaign medal. The aims of the Association are to:
- give a true history of the Italian Campaign;
- hold an annual reunion and parade;
- promote visits to various war cemeteries;
- keep alive that special bond of comradeship which existed during the campaign; and
- further support the descendants of fallen comrades.
In an appraisement of the terrain, Winston Churchill said, “There is always another river to cross and another mountain to negotiate”.
The particular area chosen for our pilgrimage was that named by Adolf Hitler as the Gothic Line – this being the last major line of defence in Italy before the defeat of the Germans. It was the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the war. It stretched from the Adriatic coast south of Ravenna westwards, north of Florence to the west coast, south of Spezia. Because of its strategic importance – the last obstacle before the Plains of Lombardy, Hitler decreed that it should be defended at all costs. Once breached the route was clear through to Venice and Trieste to link up with the Yugoslavs. This particular area was held by the Germans from September 1944 to April 1945 before being finally breached with terrible casualties on both sides. In my battalion, 2/7 Queen’s Royal Regiment (part of 56 London Division), we alone sustained 400 casualties in just 6 weeks up to 9th October 1944, and many more subsequently.
North of Ravenna the terrain is crossed by several rivers and canals: Lamone, Senio, Reno and others, and further north lies Lake Commachio, with the area surrounding flooded for many miles by the Germans to form obstacles to our advance.
The rivers previously mentioned had high banks and were some 30-40 feet wide. Both sides were dug in, in slit trenches, and many weeks were spent within a stone’s throw of the enemy – each side constantly shelling, mortaring, and making life thoroughly unpleasant. To cap it all, the weather was atrocious; rain, snow, bitter cold. “Sunny Italy” was a myth! The conditions were reminiscent of the trench warfare so well documented in the Great War of 1914-1918.
The final push commenced in December 1944 and it took until April 1945 to break through the Argenta Gap (near the town of that name). The attack included an amphibious landing (in which my battalion took part) in vehicles known as “Fantails” across the Lake Commachio, with the objective of cutting off the German retreat northwards. It was partly successful and casualties were heavy. (A member of the SAS was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross in this action).
As a result of there being so many casualties in this area, there are several Commonwealth cemeteries (CWGC – Commonwealth War Graves Commission), namely: Forli, Faenza (Florence), Cesena, Argenta Gap, Ravenna and Coriano Ridge. It was our intention to visit all these and, in addition, the Indian and Gurkha cemeteries, because one of the members had fought with the 4th Indian Division.
We had circulated our membership with our intentions and, as a result, had received requests from relatives to pay respects to individual comrades which we were only too pleased to promise.
Our party consisted of mixed Army, Navy, Air Force and an RN Commando, and most of us had been in Italy for the whole campaign – many were veterans of North Africa. The current Chairman, Maurice Cheadle, and co-founder of our Association, organised the whole trip, with a little help from myself; coaches, hotels, ferry, and it was no mean feat for a man in his middle 70s, to undertake this. At the end of the trip a well-deserved vote of thanks was passed to him.
On a fine sunny afternoon (Friday 30th March 1990), our coach, which we had hired from a Bournemouth firm who had experience in our type of journey, picked up members at Bournemouth, New Milton, Southampton and thence to Ramsgate. Members from other parts of the country made their own way to the ferry terminal to join the coach and at 10pm we had our complete party of 44 members. Although about half of us were already acquainted, the remainder were known in name only. Before very long, the common bond which united us made us all friends in a short time.
We boarded the Sally Line ferry, “Sally Star” en-route for Dunkirk and on disembarkation drove through the night, through Belgium, stopping for breakfast in Luxembourg. Some of the members had their first experience of continental ‘loos’, which seem to enjoy a communal atmosphere regardless of the sign on the door!
We continued on, reaching our overnight hotel near Mulhouse, where we caught up on our sleep and had an excellent dinner. We left early the following day and journeyed through Switzerland, the St Gotthard tunnel into Italy. A lunchtime break on the outskirts of Milan refreshed us for the remainder of the journey to our hotel at Cervia, a small seaside town to the south of Ravenna. We were royally welcomed by the proprietor and his family (our Chairman having stayed there previously). A thoroughly enjoyable dinner put us in good spirits, though most of us were ready for an early night.
The following morning, our Chairman briefed us with the programme of visits etc., and gave us the news that the Mayor of Cervia had invited us to a civic reception in the Town Hall the following Wednesday. It had already been arranged that we would march from the hotel to the local war memorial, where we would lay a wreath as a mark of respect to the fallen sailors of the Italian Navy, but we had not organised ourselves anything else, other than a lunch with a few members of the Italian ex-service association, Maritime D’Italia. They had other ideas, which will be described later.
After our briefing we boarded the coach for a day’s visit to the CWGC cemetery at Ravenna. To anyone who has not visited one of these cemeteries, the immediate impression is one of peace, tranquillity and the obvious care which is taken by the local employees to preserve the memory of the fallen. We spent an hour there, all of us looking for comrades we had known, and occasionally coming across names who, over the years, had escaped our memory. My wife, for whom this was a first visit, was so moved by the ages noted on the headstones (many only 19 years old – I reminded her that was exactly my age when I had been there). In all, there were 16 members of my battalion buried there.
The cemetery at Argenta Gap was our next visit. It is situated on the outskirts of the town and is surrounded by poplar trees and farm land. The sun was warm, the skylarks were singing, and it was impressive, peaceful and poignant. In this cemetery were 12 members of my battalion.
The centre-piece of all CWGC cemeteries is a large stone cross some 30 feet high with a sword set into the face and which can be seen for some distance. There are small buildings of various designs which house the records of all those buried there and it is comparatively easy to identify a particular grave once it is known that the person is buried in that particular cemetery.
The next part of our pilgrimage took us to the cemetery at Faenza (Florence) where, once again, I located another 12 members of my battalion, this time identifying one particular friend who was much older than myself – he was in his middle 30s, married with children and whom we affectionately called, ‘Pop’. All the graves brought memories but this particular one was the saddest.
The route to these particular cemeteries took us over the area mentioned earlier, where we were static in the winter of 1944, crossing and re-crossing the rivers Senio, Reno, Santerno and Lamone. We looked for signs of the slit trenches we had occupied but there were none visible. We, of course, crossed these rivers by way of modern road bridges and we all recalled the previous occasion we had done this; some via ‘Bailey Bridges’; some by assault boats; and one member said he had swum across! There were some who were a little sceptical about this tale, but we all agreed that ‘old soldiers’ are allowed a little licence to ‘swing the lamp’.
The next cemetery we visited was on the outskirts of Forli and this town had many pleasant memories for me. It was the place we returned to many times following a period in action in the front line. We generally spent a week to ten days on the riverbanks and when we were relieved by other battalions we could rest, clean ourselves in the mobile bath units and generally feel like human beings again. Entertainment, in the form of ENSA shows, was laid on and I particularly remember the Eric Winstone Band playing in the local theatre. We were billeted for these rest periods in the Adolf Hitler Barracks, but despite some searching, I was unable to locate them in the time available.
At Forli cemetery, I located the largest number of graves of members of my battalion – there were 45 in all with many well known to me. Despite this large number I was not as affected as I had been by my one friend who was buried at Forli. The strange thing was that in the heat of battle I had seen men killed individually and had done what could be done to make them respectable so the burial parties could collect them – to suddenly see 45 graves all together, even though I was aware that they were dead, really made me wonder about the futility of war.
The last visit of the day was the Cesena cemetery where 15 more ‘Queen’s men’ lay. At this particular cemetery, I had been asked to photograph the grave of a young officer from the Recce Regiment who was attached to us. His sister had written to me requesting this and I was glad to be able to do this and pass the photo on later.
Thus ended our first full day of the pilgrimage and en-route back to the hotel there was a quiet, reflective atmosphere in the coach. However, after a bath and a good dinner we were all back to our normal spirits as our fallen comrades would have wanted us to be.
The next day we visited Florence as well as the Indian cemetery. Only one member had a particular reason to pay his respects, but we all joined him and it was clear why the cemeteries have the title, ‘Commonwealth’. Many young Indians were only 17 and 18 years old when killed; there was even one 15 years old.
After an impressive drive over the mountains, we spent half a day in Florence itself, seeing the popular tourist sites including the Ponte Vecchio; Duomo Baptistery; Giottos Campinale; the Santa Marie Del Fioro cathedral; and the Pallazo Vechio. Whilst there, two of our party fell victims to two experienced teenaged bag thieves – a youth and a girl – and I was able to help in getting the matter reported to the local Carabinieri, who initially were not interested, but having told them that I was a retired British policeman, managed to get them to provide the necessary documentation for insurance purposes (which subsequently led to the repayment of all the stolen money). I was told that, “It happens many time in the day”, and, despite quite a number of officers being in the area, they rarely managed to detain anyone. On our return to Cervia over the mountains, a ‘sing-song’ took place; many members recalling, ‘O Sole Mio’, and other Italian songs with English sub-titles.
Wednesday was the day scheduled for our march to the local war memorial and the laying of a tribute. We assembled outside the hotel with medals worn proudly, to find ‘the world and his friend’ there. In addition to a large contingent of former Italian naval personnel, there were members of the Bersigleri (a famous mountain regiment) and a large number of former members of the Partisans. The Police Commissioner from Ravenna was there together with nurses from the army medical service. We were told that at the war memorial there would be a contingent from the Italian army who would act as a guard of honour and who would play the ‘Last Post’. Finally we were told that the children from the local school had been given a half day in our honour and they would join us and the procession on the way to the Town Hall. What was so pleasing for us was that the motivation for all this participation by the Italians had come from themselves, and in our honour.
We marched (the Italians shuffled!) to the war memorial where in a short ceremony, wreaths were laid, speeches made and the fallen were remembered in the traditional way. The Guard of Honour presented arms etc., in their own style – although a Coldstream Guardsman in our party did not think too much of it! However, they were there in our honour.
The only sombre note was that the whole parade was covered by heavily armed members of the anti-terrorist squad who, literally, hid behind trees for our protection. The Red Brigade is still apparently a force to be reckoned with!
After the ceremony we re-formed and marched to the Town Hall, en-route, pausing for the school children to fall in behind us. At the entrance to the Town Hall we laid a wreath to remember the numerous Partisans who had been murdered by the Germans and whose names were on a roll of honour. On entering the Town Hall, the Mayor welcomed us and speeches were made, plaques and ties exchanged and refreshments were served. It was a very pleasant gathering. All our lady members were presented with a small memento of the occasion. After dispersal we marched back to our hotel where a celebration lunch was held and our guests were members of the Italian ex-service organisations. Following the meal and the consumption of a great deal of ‘vino’, the singing started and went on until 4.30pm. Most of the Italians fancied themselves as Pavarotti and we responded with typical English ballads such as, ‘Ilkley Moor’, etc. Finally we sang the 8th Army song, ‘We are the D-Day Dodgers’, coined to the tune of ‘Lili Marlene’; this was because a prominent lady member of parliament had made an injudicious remark that the troops who had been fighting in Italy were only there dodging D-Day (referring to the landings in France), to which the 8th Army replied: ‘Which D-Day is she referring to?!!’ She had the choice: North Africa; Sicily; Salerno; or Anzio. Apparently, she had seen some fighting troops who were resting after being in the front line, who were the worse for drink. These men were veterans of North Africa and the Salerno landings.
Thursday was free for members to do as they wished – some went by train to Ravenna to visit the art galleries there – others spent the day shopping in Cervia, whilst four visited the museum at Castel del Rio in the Santerno valley.
We started off on Friday in drizzle and mist for a visit to San Marino, but on the way visited the cemetery at Coriano Ridge, which lay at the foot of the hills of that name. It was the scene of many attempts by various battalions, including the Queen’s, to capture the ridge which resulted in a dreadful loss of life. This was one of the areas of countryside which remained unaltered in my memory – the outline of the ridge was just as I remembered it, although the hillside was covered with houses built since the war. In this cemetery was a total of 1985 graves, including many Queen’s men. One feature of the headstones here was that all were discoloured with a brownish appearance – unlike the snow-white headstones elsewhere. The gardeners there said it was due to the ‘atmosphere’ but we could see no signs to indicate industrial pollution. The whole area was shrouded in mist and looked very sombre indeed.
The journey continued to San Marino, calling at a small cemetery dedicated to those brave fighting men from Nepal – the Gurkhas.
The rest of the day was spent visiting the Principality and joining in with the hordes of tourists who were there. There are magnificent views from San Marino, which is 700 metres above sea level. Of course, the duty-free facilities were an encouragement to spend our lire.
As we had by now visited all the cemeteries scheduled, the remainder of our time was spent in Cervia – the Saturday market drew the crowds, whilst some of us whiled away the time in local bars and cafés.
Sunday, 8th April, saw us bidding farewell to the staff at the hotel and we made our way back to Mulhouse, by the same route, for an overnight stop, thence on to Dunkirk to catch the ferry for Ramsgate where we parted to go our separate ways. Names and addresses were exchanged – promises to “see you next year” – and so ended a most enjoyable and memorable visit. It really was a ‘Journey Down Memory Lane’.
Following this successful trip, we arranged another visit in April 1991 – this time intending to visit Salerno, the site of the initial landings in September 1943 – to the Anzio bridgehead, south of Rome. This particular landing, in which I took part, was a fiasco from a strategic point of view. American and British troops landed against some opposition, but instead of pressing on to Rome, which subsequent events proved was possible, the American general decided to consolidate, thus allowing the Germans to bring up massive reinforcements. We were thus trapped and in danger of being pushed back into the sea. That is another story, well documented by military historians.
However, a month before we were due to leave, with all arrangements made, we were advised by the Italian Embassy that because of the Gulf War which had then started, all organised reunions were banned.