Monte Camino, The First Battle. By Lt. Charles Michael Wheatly
Lt. Charles Michael Wheatley
Platoon Commander No: 2 Company Grenadier Guards
Born 1924 and the son of Brig. Gen. LL Wheatley CMG DSO
Monte Camino -The First Battle
November 5th 1943 – An account of the Battle written Eighteen Months after the event.
At 10.00 hrs on the 5th of November 1943 the Battalion advance party formed up outside Battalion H.Q. in readiness to move to Chestnut Hill. By lunch time we were nearing our objective and were met by some of Brigade Staff also the advance parties of the other Battalions.
After eating our haversack rations we drove up to Chestnut Hill – a truly magnificent sight with its golden leaves reddened by the late afternoon sun. We turned off the road, up a stony track wide enough for a 15cwt and stopped outside a hut – the site for Battalion H.Q. It was on either side of this track that the Brigade was to be concentrated. We set about deciding on our Company areas, marking them out with white tape, ready for the Battalion were not expected till late. We went off to contact some machine gunners who had been sitting on Chestnut Hill watching Camino for the past few days. They told us little and gave a false impression of the simplicity of our task.
At last the Battalion arrived, it was bitterly cold and we prepared for the night with a greatcoat as a blanket and a very prickly mattress of chestnut cones – obviously we were going to have an extraordinary restful night! Breakfast as usual was inadequate and washing operations equally cold. The first few hours after breakfast were spent watching Brigade, Divisional and Corps Commanders spying out the land. They spent a lot of time doing this which is always a bad sign and on this occasion it was no exception. Commanding Officers ‘O’ group took place half way through morning, about 200 yards along the track, all Officers attended this. Platoon Commanders were as usual, in excellent heart and being frightfully funny, but beneath their bluff they knew a blood bath was imminent, there is no better judge – it must be intuition.
Company Commanders spent half an hour giving orders and another quarter studying the mountain.
Nos: 2 and 3 Companies R.V. Dip and continue up abreast
No: 2 Company objective peak on the right (Point 819)
No: 3 Company wooded patch on left (Grenadier Wood)
No: 4 Company at top of Mule Track and ‘Bare Arse’ (Point 727)
No: 1 Company in reserve.
The Coldstream’s were too clear Calabritto and the foothills before our attack. There was also talk of our battle patrol having a look up the Mule Track but I don’t believe it came to anything. (A patrol from the 168th Brigade’s leading Battalion 1st London Irish reported that the Mule Track leading up a corrie (defile or mountain recess) was blocked, this was indeed false but the Grenadiers had no time to check it and decided on the difficult route up, ‘Bare Arse’) Thus the orders were given, adequate and efficient, a well laid on Battalion attack, the Brigade intention seemed satisfactory but where was the rest of our Division? What would happen when we would take our objectives? What was all this talk about the Americans securing the Monte la Difensa ridge on our right by evening? Have the Americans ever worked successfully on a time schedule?
The orders were duly passed on to Platoons and the rest of the day was spent in preparation for battle. David Fyfe-Jamieson, Scots Guards came to see me after lunch and he assured me in no uncertain manner that we had ‘had it’!
Grenades were cleaned and checked – likewise Bren guns and Tommy guns, ammunition was issued, haversack rations were drawn, 48 hour rations dished out. Free chocolate and cigarettes distributed, jerseys and other oddments were wrapped up in gas capes, more studying of the Company objectives ensued. Tiffin, the imaginary issue of inedible item, passed as usual unnoticed, and the time had come to seriously think of dressing for battle. The last letters were hurriedly finished off, the brew swallowed and the companies moved off down the forward slope of Chestnut Hill to a pre-defined spot where they were to await the word to move on. A hot meal was brought up by the Pay Sergeant’s just before nightfall, for many this would be the last meal of their lives, for the rest of us, our last meal for 5 days.
Before continuing it should be pointed out that Colonel Bill Kingsmill had been driven over a cliff in his jeep during the day; and although not badly hurt he was not allowed to Command the Battalion for this operation and the Command passed to Hugh Cholmely. As darkness set in we watched the ‘stonking’ of the foothills and plain for the Coldstream’s. Camino itself was also ‘stonked’. It was fascinating to watch the rings of fire on the mountainside, we heard the Coldstream’s attacking, there was a great deal of firing and the dull thud of mines going off. They must have had a hard time getting their objectives – it was a bastard mine field to get through. Nos: 2 and 3 companies were on the road waiting to go forward, word went around that the Coldstream’s had been unsuccessful and that we should be unable to attack that night – we waited a long time, then Hugh Cholmely appeared on the scene and lead the Companies down to the plain. He had the whole Battalion in single file up to the foot-hills of Camino, we met several Coldstream’s on the way and drew various conclusions from the fact that a certain word kept reoccurring in their conversations. Nos: 2 and 3 companies lead on up the dip – the battle was on!
Battle order were given plus 48 hour rations, carrying great coats, pouches bulging with ammunition and carrying a vast quota of 2” mortar ammunition.
Nos: 2 and 3 Companies left their great coats at the dip. It looked all very fine from Chestnut Hill, though it must have been soon after the dip that No: 3 Company parted with No: 2 Company. Lt Brian Henshaw led his Platoon up on the left of No: 2 Company and they continued their journey abreast. About 20.30 hrs we reached the foot of Camino and we didn’t reach the top of Bare Arse until 05.30 hrs, roughly a nine-and-a-half-hour climb. Bare Arse was as bare as any desert, no shrub nor vegetation, bare hard rock with crevices large enough to get your foot down, all set off at a considerable slope to the West. The climb would have been hard enough by day but on a pitch black night it was damn near impossible.
As dawn appeared over the dip the head of No: 3 Company was nearing the top of Bare Arse the remainder straggled out for about 750 yards. Nos: 2 and 3 Companies converged on to the top of Bare Arse where we met Ben Hervey Bathurst who was conducting a grouse drive as a result of finding a couple of Germans in a sanger. As No: 3 Company came up to the top of Bare Arse they were fired on by three Germans just over the rise, several people fired back but they made a swift getaway. There was a shout for stretcher bearers on our left and we learnt to our dismay that Brian Henshaw had been badly wounded by a rifle shot to the chest, he was carried down the mountain but to everyone’s deep regret he died of his wounds at the bottom. It was a disaster that the first casualty on Camino should be him.
It was fairly light and I needn’t reiterate the Commanders orders. Half the Company was up whilst the other half were still spread out down Bare Arse. At this crucial moment a number of Spandau’s opened up from our right and pinned the rear section of No: 3 Company to the ground. No: 2 Company was up at the forward part of No: 3 Company and therefore sheltered from the fire. This party continued the advance together. I formed up, in single file what there was of No: 3 Company and led similarly as if for a grouse drive through the wood. No: 2 Company went through the rear part of our wood and continued up the hill (Point 819). Everything went well until they came over the summit when everything in hell opened up! It was a wonderful example of ‘wait till you see the whites of their eyes’ and also Wellington’s tactics’ of hiding behind the reverse slope. The gun fire was decreasing when suddenly Grenville Cholmondely was hit by a burst of Spandau in the chest, he fell back into the arms of his Platoon Sgt and died a few minutes later. He died as bravely as he had led his Platoon into battle, what a very sad day for his friends and huge loss for the Regiment. In the meantime, No: 3 Company had cleared the wood with no opposition and since I was the only Officer present I sited the two Platoon positions. Every one dug in as hard as they could, we could hear the continuance of battle on No: 2 Company hill but little did we guess what was to follow.
Ralph Howard came over to our hill and said the battle was going badly, hand to hand fighting was taking place, and he didn’t think that more than a Platoon’s worth of men were in one piece. I sent Sgt Young’s Platoon to help No: 2 Company and that was the last any one saw of the men in that Platoon, they were all either killed or taken prisoner but they put up a damn good fight right to the end. Rodney Wace came across to us having lost a couple of fingers and stopped something in the chest – like wise did a few more wounded come back. Major Tommy Cook had, by now arrived with us, having left Jimmy Whatman at Company H.Q. in the rear part of the wood. He went across to see Ralph Howard who was on our side of No: 2 Company hill and it was there that the second disaster occurred. A Spandau firing up between the two hills mortally wounded Tommy in the back and Ralph in the leg, Ralph got back to us alright but Tommy Cook could not be moved without a stretcher, although Ralph had left him on a stretcher!
The whole of Company H.Q were casualties, 2 killed and 2 badly wounded, all by the same Spandau. Just at this crucial moment we saw Germans appearing over the top of No: 2 Company hill and the blitz on No: 3 Company was on, so it was that Tommy Cook was left mortally wounded on No: 2 Company hill, at best the Germans would take him prisoner otherwise, as did happen, he died of his wounds, a terrible death for such a grand person. Darkness came and it was again possible to move more freely about the Platoon positions, although the position was still as tense as ever with the Germans only a few hundred yards away. Jimmy Whatman suddenly appeared from Company H.Q. where he had been left while Tommy Cook had come up to see us. Apparently a German patrol had taken the whole of Company H.Q prisoner and Jimmy had been caught with his trousers down, in more senses than one, it was this fact that had saved his bacon!
Soon afterwards we were informed that the Scots Guards were coming up to us with every intention of recapturing No: 2 Company hill and bringing with them rations, ammunition and a badly needed stretcher party. Spirits rose at the thought of so many good things at once. Regrettably the order was cancelled as it was thought that the position of No: 2 and No: 3 Companies were too far gone and not worth the risk! However as in such cases the order never reached F Company Scots Guards and they started their hazardous climb to assist 2 Company.
A return to strengthen of No: 2 Company were received at this moment and was as follows;
Officers –Three killed and two badly wounded, three other officers were present and correct.
Other Ranks – Four whole Platoons killed or missing
In other words, 1/3rd of the two Companies were present and correct (at best 32 and 40 men)
It was quite obvious what would happen when darkness fell and we didn’t have to wait long! Patrols came at us from all directions, Spandaus, Grenades and Very pistols were all let loose. When the patrols withdrew there was some fairly withering fire from No: 2 Company Hill which was heartening to know. The enemy had not taken the whole of No: 2 Company positions. This was the situation when F Company Scots Guards arrived plus the carrying party, not exactly an appetizer for an attack and ‘Bones’ Rathbone, their Company Commander, who had just arrived from England after commanding a squadron of tanks in the G.A.D (Guards Armoured Division) was ill at ease. We amalgamated our two Platoons and due to the fact that they would be attacking in the near future they didn’t dig in. The stretcher party picked up the wounded, dumped the Compo boxes and water cans and departed but Ralph Howard refused to go down with it and Rodney Wace, who was missing two fingers and had a collapsed lung went with them and our walking wounded joined the party.
While the stretcher party had been with us there was little firing and it wasn’t till about half an hour after they had gone that the assault started again. The Scots Guards suffered badly, they had no cover and were not dug in, a hideous fact that re-occurred throughout the next few days. There was a great deal of discussion as to when they should attack No: 2 Company Hill and eventually the decision was taken that just before Dawn would be advantageous. This decision was taken mainly to the expected full moon and this would ostensibly illuminate the few hundred yards of no-man’s land as if it were daylight. The Grenadiers’ readily mucked in with the Scots Guards and shared their slit trenches. David Fyfe-Jamieson spent the night in mine and was his usual amusing self in spite of the prevailing conditions. The night continued with spasmodic firing and 50% of the Company remained ‘standing to’. The remainder of the Company went to the bottom of their slit trench but I don’t think anyone closed their eyes.
Shortly before dawn the Scots Guards began their preparations for their attack. Orders were given and one Platoon had got as far as a forming up position, when something happened that altered the whole course of the battle. A German counter attack came in. The first wave came in between No: 2 and No: 3 Company hills and as it was getting light we could see them coming up the hill. They overran the right hand section of the Company which was just over the crest, previously the Section Commander had been killed and the remainder of the section were either all killed or taken prisoner. A spirited battle ensued, with the Grenadiers cheering the Scots Guards and vice a versa. The Germans never got further up than the right hand sections of the hill. When the counter attack died down ‘Bones’ Rathbone decided to change his Platoon positions and was just going down in front of my Platoon when another counter attack came in only, this time from the opposite direction! ‘Bones’ was the first casualty he was caught in the chest by a burst of Spandau fire and died within a few minutes. The Germans came up to where Sgt Young’s Platoon had been, apparently they thought this a suitable place from which to bang off at us, how right they were, they could see the whole Company dispositions and they manoeuvred Spandau’s into position and enjoyed themselves enormously. This clever piece of work cost us a lot of casualties, two stretcher bearers were killed whilst they tended the wounded, it was suicide to move about and the Scots Guards must have suffered 50 casualties mainly because they were dug in. It was at this moment of the battle that John Brocklebank was killed, he was sitting up in a very shallow slit trench facing towards Sgt Young’s old positions’ and was shot through the head by a rifle shot, he never felt a thing and indeed we did not know he was dead until two hours later, Words cannot describe how we felt, seeing him sitting there as if he were alive with his Tommy gun at the ready! What a tragedy? He never lived to be awarded his M.C.
Several times the Germans tried to edge forward but we kept them off and these looked like being their permanent positions for the night. My servant Guardsman Rolls scored a direct hit with his rifle which pleased him enormously and made the heart beat a little faster. David Fyfe-Jamieson got a bullet through the thigh, a clean flesh wound and he took it as you would expect him to, a few muttered curses but otherwise not a word. We bound him up with a Field Dressing and continued, David became the third man in my trench. The Germans had bought up a small mortar in Sgt Young’s positions’ with which they banged away at us!
The next incident of note was when the men’s tin mugs’ etc. lying on my parapet were removed by a burst of Spandau fire, rather a nasty shock and worse still was when we realised that the firing came from No: 2 Company hill. It was now early afternoon, the firing increased, their mortar was particularly busy. We were all standing by my slit trench when a grenade landed on the right side of the trench, blinding my servant in both eyes. David was blinded in one and I was caught in the hand but not seriously. A concerted effort was now put in, Mill’s bombs were thrown, machine guns’ fired all preceded by 2” mortars the badly wounded who lay on the terrace behind me were helpless whilst being mortared and shot at it was heart breaking to hear their cries and not being able to assist them. I shall never forget the Guardsman who received a grenade in his trench, he was unscathed apart from the fact that his right leg was smashed but remained joined to him by a piece of trouser and bone. It lay beside him on the parapet of his slit trench and when he saw it he went off his head and died some thirty minutes later.
My slit trench served as Platoon H.Q. and seemed to be the gathering place for all the wounded who could reach my trench. I had used all my mortars and water. A Scots Guard Sgt who had been very badly wounded in the left leg and arm died propped up against my sanger, I hadn’t realised he was dead until I tapped him on the shoulder to ask him how he was Ralph Howard was again wounded.
Darkness came and we collected the wounded, the section positions were manned by dead, having been propped up in their slit trenches with steel helmets and weapons. There were about 20 of No: 2 and No: 3 Companies still able to fight, half of these were wounded but able to carry on. It was decided to send down the walking wounded in an attempt to save their lives, the worse cases, who were able to walk went, Ralph Howard still refused to go, my servant who had got back the sight in one eye went down with David Fyfe – Jamieson, talk about the blind leading the blind but they apparently had a very good party on the way down, sharing a bottle of rum! The ability to put up such a grand performance and having set such a magnificent example and having reached the bottom of the Mountain it was shattering to hear that David had died of wounds. He was a personality and a character that this country could ill afford to lose, a brave soldier and a grand sportsman, he is buried alongside some of his comrades in Minturno war cemetery.
The night continued much as it had begun and now, a new and upsetting noise shattered the hours of night, Spandau fire in our rear, in other words, the enemy were now between us and No: 4 Company at the top of Bare Arse Ridge. This contradicted the situation somewhat as it meant that our line of communication was cut and, should we ever need it, our lines of supply. Our worries were immediately with the walking wounded, would they get back alright? Our thoughts were brought back to the present by an amount of firing from No: 2 Company hill, were they counter attacking? And the dreaded question which haunted our minds for the next 24 hours, were we strong enough to hold them off?
Officers – Six killed and one wounded and had gone back down the mountain.
One Officer present but badly wounded – Three Officers were present and correct and remained on site.
Other ranks – Killed – missing in action or badly wounded – Seven whole platoons, plus 26 Guardsman from No: 2 Company
Two Platoons were Present and correct and remained on site.
The day following the departure of the walking wounded was marked by a howling gale together with sleet and rain, few had great coats and a gas cape had to suffice in keeping out the icy blasts. The walking wounded must have told a sad tale as they gave their detailed account to the Regimental Intelligence Officer in this case, Lt. Inchbald, of what had taken place, how many were dead and how many were wounded or missing. Very soon shells started to land on our Company positions, they seemed to be coming from our own guns and were either falling short or perhaps they considered there to be not enough of us left to worry about? The firing was sporadic, a dozen or so rounds in a short space of time and then no more for perhaps an hour.
We gained wireless communication late in the day and learnt that a patrol would come up to us during the night. There was talk of us being relieved, but by this time we were almost past caring and there was the question of whether the relieving troops could get through? Desmond Adair with a small patrol plus four stretcher bearers’ arrived halfway through the night after we had had a small skirmish and were able to put Ralph Howard on a stretcher. He did not return the same way but went down the Corrie just below my platoon positions via Bare Arse Ridge to Miele, then there was an explosion and several bursts of fire and Ralph Howard shouted to me that the party had been attacked and asked for more stretcher bearers. A stretcher bearer went out and found two other stretcher bearers’ dead, one wounded and no sign of Desmond Adair. Ralph Howard was eventually evacuated to safety.
We received no news about Desmond Adair for a long time and it was some eighteen months later that his body was discovered and positively identified. He now rests with his comrades in Cassino War Cemetery.
On 11th November several Companies of relieving troops (The Ox and Bucks Regt) arrived at our positions. We handed over what little ammo we had left, showed them our positions and about an hour before dawn broke we started our journey down. There was no opposition and everything was so peaceful, but the journey was a dream, not one of us ever expected to come down the mountain alive.
A tot of rum for some but for others all they wanted to do was sleep, some slept in the caves at Miele or in the large war damaged house, those that had taken their boots off could not get them back on again, their feet were swollen to twice the size with trench foot. To end I would say that it was the endurance, courage and discipline of those three Companies that made it a memorable battle, they endured incessant fighting, vile weather and shortage of rations for longer, I should imagine, than any other three Companies in the whole Italian campaign, and if more troops had been available those lost lives and the deeds and endurance would have won a battle instead of being thrown away for no avail.
Lt. Wheatley – 2nd Draft dated 22 June 2015