Bryan Woolnough Memoirs. Lake Comacchio, Italy – 1945

Bryan Woolnough Memoirs

Lake Comacchio, Italy – 1945

Night of Noise

Scan0002During late February and March 1945 as the Italian war was nearing its end the Commando Brigade found itself in the front line from the east coast south of the Po valley and north of Ravenna bordering the Comacchio Lake. We were holding the line with various other units as the main army, including the 78th division, withdrew to the Ravenna area to rest, reform and prepare for the final push north. Various patrols and activities were carried out by the brigade, I think mainly to let the enemy know we were still there.

One evening I was directed to go back to HQ and report to a psychological officer. Somewhat mystified I sort him out to be confronted with a record player, batteries, rolls of cable and two very large trumpet type loud speakers. My instructions were to play three 12in. vinyl records at a certain position continually until recalled. He explained that the records were of tanks going into action, a propaganda record and one of German music. He started to say which order he wanted them played in, and as they were not marked, I said he would know anyway. This was a met with a “no” he wouldn’t bother to come as he was sure I would cope. At this stage I thought this was either all going to get nasty, or he had arranged to be at a card school! Hoping it was the latter I loaded up his jeep and his driver, knowing the location, started me away.

It was a very bright moonlit night and very frosty. We drove across farmland, no lights of course, and it was like a World War One scene with bloated cattle lying with their legs in the air and a general scene of shell and mortar activity. Our venue was a small canal dividing the two sides. Nearby was a shell wrecked farmhouse and this was to be my operational post. The odd soldier was patrolling outside and after negotiating two blankets, keeping the lights out I was in the room where a sergeant and a few men were busy with the compulsory brew and fry up over a paraffin stove lit by hurricane lamps, again a World War One scene. I was greeted by the sergeant with “who the hell are you?” My explanation of my job was not received too well as it appeared that they were almost on waving terms with the opposition and they didn’t want me to stir things up.

I placed the two loud speakers, suitably apart, on the canal bank overlooking the Germans and, probably my imagination, but they looked very close indeed. Back in the farm house I duly played the records, but I’m afraid the order went to pot and I just put them on as they came to hand. I played them continually through the early hours of the morning until a field telephone call said close down and return. Typical of the army they often do not let you know what it is all about at the time, but I eventually found out the reason, I was only one of many such operators along the line doing the same and in addition any unit with vehicles had to keep driving them around, revving up and making as much noise as possible. Preparations were under way for the main attack and to this end to get across the large lake and flooded area LVT’s [landing vehicles tracked – buffaloes, weasels etc.] were to be employed. These had featured in the second front but had not been used in our theatre of war so far. So on this night of “noise” drivers were receiving instruction at the water’s edge on how to handle them.

Our brigade spearheaded the lake crossing in our area and I found myself in a Buffalo crossing a lake covered in smoke from our artillery, to break through and out of the water straight across the land to an area where we piled out. There is no doubt that they were ideal for such landings as you were protected from small arms fire and able to get in land near your objectives. My disk jockey operation reminded me of a quote, I think by Mark Twain, that “Wagner’s music is really much better than it sounds”. After listening to the repeats I had to do, I am not too sure that I agree!

Bryan Woolnough MBE, 2 Commando Brigade Signals

Operation Roast

One of the major raids carried out by the Brigade whilst holding the line was on 1 st April, 1945. The eastern side of the lake had a spit of land between lake and sea. It was estimated that 1200 German troops held this land and it was obvious it had to be cleared before the final assault across the lake for the push north took place. I was attached to 2 Commando for this assault and they were given the task of crossing the lake to hit the enemy half way up the spit of land while 9 Commando attacked from the south to push northwards up the spit.

A dyke that went across the lake had been breached to create a flooded area south of the lake. This area was a mass of glutinous mud that had to be crossed before hitting deeper water, about chest high, the other side of the dyke. The dyke was like a raised footpath across the lake and my pal and I were given the job of being paddled across the shallow water by the SBS [Special Boat Section] to position ourselves by the broken dyke. 2 Commando was to make the fast dash from the dyke to the land under the cover of a heavy artillery barrage. The trouble was nobody knew how long it would take them to complete the arduous task, manually towing their storm boats loaded with ammo and equipment to reach the dyke before the barrage could start. Our radio was there to give them the time to start their fire. There were four of us in this canoe waiting in the dark and cold, the assault planned for the early hours of the morning, but much better off than the troops struggling through the slime. The artillery contact kept asking “Any sign yet?” but all I could hear was muffled cursing somewhere from the dark. Eventually they started to arrive and when their officer in charge was ready for the final dash to land he gave me the go ahead to start the barrage.

We looked back to our lines to see the darkness erupt in a line of white flashes followed almost immediately by the thunderous noise of the explosions as the land in front of us was saturated. After a prearranged period, the barrage stopped and the troops charged inland. The brigade rushed northwards on the spit to a canal dividing the sides and were there relieved on the night of 4t April. During this action I had a sad moment when talking to an infantry signaler on my net who was just a voice over the airwaves, reported to me that his patrol was receiving fire from one of our own guns as they were advancing behind a creeping barrage. Here troops moved forward as the barrage kept lifting. It was not uncommon for such to happen. I reported back to the gunnery officer who said there was no way they could stop the barrage but if the operator said when a shell landed near he would try to identify the gun. I think we all knew this was hopeless but gave it a try. I relayed the landings and over the radio I could hear them exploding in their vicinity. It wasn’t long before his set went quiet and I lost contact to find later a shell had landed right next to the patrol and he was one of those killed. Not in my time but nowadays they refer to it as “friendly fire” but in any book I cannot think of anything more wrongly named.

Bryan Woolnough MBE, 2 Commando Brigade Signals