The Forgotten Army, Italy 1943-1945



 

 

I have used the above heading as something that was used to describe the fighting that was going on in Italy during WW2; after the launch of the D-Day Landing on the Normandy Coast in 1944. There were two armies fighting in Italy at that time, predominantly the United States (US) 5th and the British 8th. The only reporting has been about the US 5th Army on the Mediterranean side of Italy by the Snow family on BBC television. There seems to have been no mention of the fighting on at the Adriatic side. I am going to try to correct that situation by covering the landing into Taranto on the toe of Italy, through to Trieste at the northern end of the Adriatic coast.

 

The invasion of mainland Italy started with the British 8th Army landing at Taranto on 3rd September 1943 and an operation named “Baytown”. As a matter of interest, the US 5th Army landed on the 9th September 1943 against heavy German resistance at Salerno in operation “Avalanche”. The 8th Army were able to make relatively easy progress for a while up the eastern coast, capturing the Port of Brindisi, Bari, as well as airfields around Foggia, which provided a base from which US bombers were able to exploit the opportunity to bomb oil fields in Romania and various places in northern Germany. There was an interesting episode by the American Air Force who rescued 500 POW’s after landing in Yugoslavia with the assistance of the Italian Partisans.

 

What has never been reported is the raid by German bombers on the port of Bari on the evening of 2nd December 1943. A small number of planes succeeded in destroying 17 Allied merchant ships and killing well over 1000 military personnel, merchant seamen and many local civilians. The Commonwealth Cemetery in Bari contains 2128 graves. It is reported that every available docking space was occupied, with ships anchored out beyond the jetties jutting out into the Adriatic. The dockyards had become such a beehive of activity that unloading was carried out during the night under the glare of lights. The German bombers had a perfect target – it was described as a “cake walk”. The ships already in the harbour contained a great store of ammunition, along with trucks, bales of clothing and hundreds of canvas mail bags for the troops. Alongside them was a US Navy tanker with half million gallons of high-octane gasoline on board. One ship, “John Harvey”, carried as part of its cargo, 100 tons of mustard gas bombs. It was thought that Germany were going to use mustard gas in attacks during the campaigns in Italy, they did not!

 

With successful Allied landings completed at Taranto units established themselves in various camps and carried out training in preparation for the fighting that lay ahead. As the Allies advanced northwards encountering increasingly difficult terrain, characterised by a succession of fast flowing rivers and intervening ridges running at right angles to the line of advance, this prevented fast movement and provided ideal defences for the Germans.

On 11th November 1943, Pte Duncan of the Parachute Regiment was awarded the George Cross posthumously for bravery. On 12th November 1943, Major W Hargreaves of the Parachute Regiment was awarded the Military Cross. The 2nd Parachute Brigade, together with other Commonwealth regiments made their way up the coast to the Sangro River, through icy winds and torrential rain, living in improvised shelters, and eating cold rations. During December 1943 the troops managed to establish a bridge across the Sangro River which had widened considerably due to heavy rains. The 2nd Paras moved inland up the Sangro Valley to establish Battalion HQ in a school in Casoli from where they patrolled the local area including the villages of Fara, Lama and Torricella.

One of these patrols met with German soldiers at the Melone crossroads, an intense firefight ensued resulting in the death of Sergeant Alf Goldman and wounding Lt Stewart, who died at a later date. My cousin Trevor Warden, was shot in his back and was rescued by New Zealand medics and eventually to a UK hospital. During brigade stay in Casoli two English Ladies came into the HQ together with several POWs who had escaped from the prison camps. They were able to offer valuable information about the German positions.

 

The next obstacle was the German Gustav Line where a battle ensued to secure Ortona. Blizzards, drifting snow and zero visibility at the end of December 1943 caused the advance to grind to a halt. By the middle of December 1943, Canadian troops at the front of the 8th Army had reached Ortona, a coastal city occupied by German troops. The armies clashed for nine days outside that city, with many casualties on both sides. Canadian troops finally won the terrain, but the Germans still held the city. The Canadians and German soldiers then battled within Ortona in fierce door-to-door fighting. After a week, the Germans retreated. These battles damaged or destroyed most of Ortona’s buildings and ravaged surrounding countryside. Ortona was secured on 28th December 1943. River Moro War Cemetery is where 1615 service personnel are buried; mostly Canadian, but it also contains other Allied service personnel as well. Sangro River War cemetery has 2617 burials, with a memorial commemorating more than 500 Indian service members who died fighting in the sector. In addition, the cemetery contains the graves of a number of escaped prisoners-of-war who died whilst trying to reach the Allied lines. Sangro cemetery is the second largest cemetery in Italy after Cassino. There are 2117 different regiments buried there, 279 from the Royal Artillery, 352 from New Zealand, 837 from the Combined Indian Regiments and 62 from the Parachute Regiment.

General Montgomery (Monty) halted the 8th Army in order to conserve resources for the spring campaign. Monty then handed over command of the 8th Army to General Oliver Leese in Vasto and flew to England to prepare for the invasion of France, scheduled for mid-1944.

In the meantime, the Canadians, New Zealand and Polish troops moved north along the coast towards Pescara. After reaching Pescara, the Indian, Canadian and Polish Regiments were moved across Italy to support the American 5th Army who were in deep trouble attempting to take the Benedictine monastery on Mount Cassino. Eventually the Polish regiment took Mount Cassino, which to the Polish fighters was satisfying, in return for Germans invading Poland in 1938. Most of the Polish fighters came from units that had found themselves in the UK after escaping from Poland at the beginning of the war.

Editors note: Information received from Michal Smal and confirmed by Roy Quinten.   “The Polish 2nd Corps (2 Korpus Poliski) 1943-1947 was a major unit o the Polish Armed Forces in the West, commanded by General Wladyslaw Anders. The training site for the 2nd Corps in the Middle East was Khanaqin-Quizil Ribar in Iraq (1943-1944) and was composed of the soldiers who had been released from exile in the USSR, the Carpathian Rifle Brigade, the 12th Podolski Lancers and 15th Poznan Lancers. Re-organised, the Polish 2nnd Corps comprised two infantry divisions each of which had 2 brigades and 2 light artillery regiments. General Anders also formed the Polish women’s Auxiliary Corps (Pomocznicznz Wojskowo Sluzba Kobiet) and they largely trained as heavy vehicle drivers. Approximately 80% of the Polish 2nd Corps came from Poland’s pre-war Kressy or Eastern Borderlands. In 1944 the Polish 2nd Corps were transferred to Italy where they were an independent unit of the British Eighth Army under General Oliver Leese. The Polish 2nd Corps took part in major Italian Campaigns- the Battle of Monte Cassino, the Battle of Ancona and the Battle of Bologna. Three previous Allied assaults on Monte Cassino had failed and Monte Cassino was a major victory fro the 2nd Polish Corps. With it, the road to Rome was at last open.”

 

The 8th Army continued fighting along the Adriatic coast; sadly this created the need for cemeteries at Ancona 1029 burials, Castiglione South African, 502 burials; Montecchio 582 burials; Gradara 1191 burials; Coriano Ridge 939 burials; Rimini Gurkha 618 burials; Cesena 775 burials; Medola 145 burials; Forli 1234 burials plus a cremation memorial for nearly 800 Indian servicemen; Ravenna 955 burials; Villanova 955 burials; Villanova Canadian cemetery 212 burials; Faenza 1152 burials; Santerno Valley 287 burials; Bologna 184 burials; Argente Gap 625 burials; Padua 513 burials.

Fighting along the Adriatic section of Italy was quite intensive and continuous from Bari in the south to Milan in the north. The CWGC estimate that the Commonwealth lost nearly 50,000 dead in Italy during World War II most of whom lie buried in 37 war cemeteries, and over 4000 soldiers whose graves are not known but remembered by name on the Cassino memorials. Almost 1500 Indian servicemen, whose remains were cremated, are remembered on three memorials in various cemeteries. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that the 8th Army had a difficult time fighting the Germans over very difficult terrain along the Eastern Adriatic coast of Italy. It seems only the Mediterranean side of Italy that is reported on, maybe it is because the American 5th Army proved to be more attractive to the TV producers or they had better PR service personnel?! In addition, they had wanted to be “first” into Rome! It is interesting to note that in the film “Anzio” showed two American soldiers entering Rome to find no Germans there. Having reported back to the American generals they decided not to follow-up on the information fearing it was a trap by the Germans. In fact the truth is that it was two British soldiers that were first to drive into Rome, not the Americans. I wonder if the two British soldiers are still alive and remember the occasion.

 

An interesting situation developed when a New Zealander, Lt. Titchener, with a patrol of eight men set out for Casoli. “Before they set out an Italian who spoke English informed them that the Germans had vacated, or were vacating, Casoli and he offered to take them there by a back road. His offer was accepted. There were no Germans in the first village, Altino, so they moved into Casoli. The Italian led the way, with Lt Titchener armed with a tommy gun immediately behind him, waiting to deal with him if the whole thing was a trap.

The patrol descended a steep hill, which they had to do in stages marvelling all the while at the untiring pace of the Italian guide, a short stumpy man. At last, on reaching the top of the hill they were greeted by a farmer and his family, offered chairs and given a glass of wine each, we moved on again however, and refusing repeated offers of wine and food, we came to the main street. It was a big town of 9,000 inhabitants and at first, the people did not seem to realise who we were. Then it suddenly struck them, they rushed out, shook our hands and as we neared the centre of the town started clapping, cheering and many of the women wept, Lt Titchener said he felt very embarrassed.”

 

Should any member of the Italy Star Association like to have a photograph of a relative buried in Italy, they can get in touch with the program director of the War Graves Photographic Project, Steve Rogers (www.twqpp.org) requesting a copy of a photo. There will be a small charge to cover postage and packaging. Please state the name of the service person, together with service number, and name which cemetery the person is buried at.

 

As it is, just over 70 years since 1942 and a considerable number of service personnel who died in Italy were no more than 20/21 years old. Many of them are about 90 years old now. Does anyone remember any of the occasions I have mentioned?

 

We are aware of the D-Day remembrance programmes that were promoted but sadly, nothing was highlighted about the fighting in Italy, even though the fighting stopped in Italy at the same time as fighting on D Day 1945. This is why I headed this article “The Forgotten Army “, remembering the 50,000 Commonwealth personnel that died in Italy! It is very interesting to note that The Far Eastern Association asked the same question! They also seem to have been forgotten!!

 

Any British Ex-Pat living in Italy reading this article, who would be interested in adopting a Cemetery in Italy near where they live, and be prepared to lay a wreath at a cemetery in November each year to remember those who are buried there and not forgotten, please do contact me. I would love to hear from them.

Thank you,

Bernard Warden

Email: bernard_warden@outlook.com

 

Bibliography:

Some of the following books may be of interest to readers.

“The Forgotten 500” The story of how the Americans rescued the 500 POW’s in Yugoslavia.

“Ortona” The Canadian efforts to capture Ortona.

“The Allied Forces in Italy 1943 – 1945” – Guido Rosignoli

“Italy’s Sorrow”. Fighting in Italy – James Holland.

“Travel Guide to WW2 sites in Italy” Including cemeteries – Ann Saunders.

“Rome remembers her Liberators” Story of Anzio and the role Italian Partisans played during WW2. – H Shindler

“4th Battalion Parachute Regiment – War Diaries, November 1943 – December 1943”.

185 Comments

  1. Gillian Parker

    I am trying to get my fathers war record but having applied 8 months ago, due to Covid, I have not received a reply.. I know very little about his time in Italy, he had the Italian Star along with the Africa star as I know he was also in the African campaign, he was a corporal attached to Head Quarters HQ lfg cmt, enlisted 20.6.40 and discharged jan 1946… my father died when I was twelve and I regret nothing being able to ask the many questions I now have.. how did he get to Italy from Africa etc?

    Reply
  2. Frank de Planta

    Gillian.

    Unfortunately, only his Service Record will give you everything that you need. I know that APC Glasgow is still providing Service Records so do hang on in there.

    I will happily help you to decipher it.

    Regards

    Frank

    Reply
  3. TERRY WAIT

    I have written an account of my late fathers service during WW2 as a sapper with 13 Mechanical Engineering Platoon Royal Engineers as a Bulldozer driver as a part of the 1st Army in West North Africa and then in the 8th Army in Sicily and Italy.
    Most of information was gathered from war diaries at Kew.
    What I cannot find out is what Battalion and Division his platoon was attached to.
    Any help would be greatly appreciated

    Reply
  4. Frank de Planta

    Terry.

    What War Diaries are you reading from?

    Was your information taken from the 13 Mech Engr Pl RE’s own WDs?

    I ask because I think that the Pl was an Eighth Army asset and so was sent wherever it was required. It would constantly have switched Corps and Division and sent to specific sites for specific tasks.

    Regards

    Frank

    Reply
    1. TERRY WAIT

      Thanks Frank that make sense

      What does PI and WDs mean

      Thanks
      Terry

      Reply
  5. Frank de Planta

    Terry.

    Pl is Army short for Platoon. WDs are War Diaries.

    Three or four Platoons normally make up a Royal Engineer Field Company. Do you know which Field Company he was in?

    Regards

    Frank

    Reply
    1. TERRY WAIT

      Frank – thank you, your knowledge is really helping me.

      So, in this example a Company is equivalent to a Battalion ?

      His records show he was in 863 Mechanical Equipment Company.

      Thanks Again
      Terry

      Reply
  6. Frank de Planta

    Terry.

    No, a Company is smaller than a Battalion. From the bottom, it goes Section, Platoon/Troop, Company/Squadron, Battalion/Regiment, Brigade, Division, Corps, Army, Army Group.

    These days, a number of Field Squadrons form an Engineer Regiment. In the war, Field Companies RE supported Infantry Divisions and Field Squadrons RE supported Armoured Divisions. These days, all Engineer sub-units are called Field Squadrons. Companies was dropped.

    Battalion is an infantry term. Five Companies make up an Infantry Battalion.

    During the war, Royal Engineers operated an independent Companies and it was only after the war that the Army decided to group them into Engineer Regiments.

    You have not answered my original questions.

    Regards

    Frank

    Reply
    1. TERRY WAIT

      Thank you for clarification Frank
      Sorry so many questions to ask I forgot to answer. so

      Yes the WD are those for 13 ME platoon which I went through at Kew cross referencing with his service records.

      The platoon belonged to 863 ME company (records do not state Field company only 863 ME company)

      The journey started with a photo I have of 13 ME platoon RE, hand dated
      Italy 1944.

      Thanks Terry

      Reply
  7. Frank de Planta

    Terry.

    Did the War Diaries give locations and dates of where the Platoon was operating?

    If they did then it is possible to cross match that detail with the activities and locations of the Infantry and Armoured Divisions.

    Regards

    Frank

    Reply
    1. TERRY WAIT

      Thanks again Frank, yes they did.

      How do i go about this?

      I’ve wrote a comprehensive account of the platoons movements from Africa, Sicily, Taranto and up the Adriatic coast. Within this I have included maps etc which I drew up myself from WD information.
      Cannot thank you enough for guidance
      Terry

      Reply
  8. Frank de Planta

    Terry.

    Get hold of me through my website – http://www.Cassinobattlefields.co.uk and I will see if I can match the Platoon’s movement to Division’s moving up the Adriatic coast.

    Regards

    Frank

    Reply
  9. Peter Murton

    My father-in-law was 33 mech equipment in Italy in 43 but I’m struggling to find stuff about him

    Reply
  10. Anthony Warden

    I read this with interest after someone on Twitter claimed the British had minimal activity in Europe prior to DDay. My eldest brother James Richard Warden fought in Africa and Italy and was then sent to Palestine so didn’t return home until 1947, a year after I was born.
    Regards Tony

    Reply

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