A couple of weeks ago I was helping 12 Mechanized Brigade with their battlefield study in Italy. Battlefield Studies are taken seriously in the armed forces and are considered important exercises. They’re being largely axed as part of the stringent defence cuts taking place at the moment – after all, they’re an easy and obvious cut to make if you’re a mandarin looking at areas to shave off expenses. However, to do so seems to me extremely short-sighted. In this instance, it was the chance for the new Brigadier to spend some time with his component unit commanding officers and senior majors, for everyone to get to know one another, bond and importantly, share ideas. These are intangible gains, but important ones nonetheless – 12 Brigade is almost as large as a division and at the moments, its units are spread around the country. Gelling in this way is essential and the cost insignificant when compared to the truly gargantuan costs of other areas of the military.
Anyway, that is by the by. We were there to study the war north of Rome, from the Trasimeno Line battles up through Tuscany, Florence and into the Apennines and the Gothic Line, loosely following the Guards Brigade, part of the 6th South African Armoured Division, and in turn part of US Fifth Army – in other words, a fine example of coalition warfare. We were also going to spend some time looking at the Partisan war and in particular the activities of the Stella Rossa and the subsequent massacre at Monte Sole by the Germans. Yesterday’s partisan is today’s counter-insurgent etc.
The British Army now has a lot of very impressive and highly experienced soldiers and 12th Brigade was no exception. It was fascinating for me standing on a hill looking over a shallow valley at a village beyond and have the new CO of the Welsh Guards describe to me how an infantry battalion would assault it – and to know that he was speaking from some experience.
The first thing that struck me was that for all the vast mechanical weight and manpower behind the Allied Armies in Italy, the spearhead so often boiled down to just a handful of men probing forward. The stretch of the German Albert Line we were looking at was perhaps eight miles wide, between Lake Trasimeno and the smaller Lake Chiusi. British XIII was attacking with two divisions leading and one more – 12th Brigade as it happened – in reserve. But in the attacking divisions it was one brigade each that was leading the assault and within those brigades only a couple of battalions pressing forward. And from those battalions, attacks were being put in at company and even platoon strength. The entire attack on one part of the line had paired down to platoons of 30 plus men.
One of the major criticisms of the Allies in Italy was the slowness of their advance. Our group of Helmand veterans, however, believed that the mile-a-day advance achieved during the ten-day Trasimeno Line battle in late June 1944 was pretty impressive, however. It has to be remembered that the Allies were hugely mechanized and moving any kind of vehicles along narrow, almost entirely unmetalled roads was very difficult. Secondly, our armies were mostly civilian conscripted or volunteer forces from democratic states. The Germans were masters of the delayed retreat, blowing bridges and roads, laying mines and booby traps – or IEDs as they are now called. No general could send his forces charging through these kind of hazards. Any forward passage had to be carefully cleared, just as it is today with our professional soldiers.
I have always resisted the general-bashing that has gone on in recent years when looking at British and American commanders, and when I was writing about the Italian campaign, I concluded that the Allied Armies in Italy had done just about as good a job as had been possible at the time and in the circumstances. After my week with 12th Brigade, my estimation of those commanders of 1944-45 has risen even higher.