TED WYKE-SMITH FROM 48.25 TO END
Interviewed in Devon 3 October 2006
.that’s the great story. You know how an assault bridge is built? An assault bridge is great team workthe infantry have got to carry their folding boats, get down the river, paddle themselves across the river; they’ve got to assault and attack and clear the far bank; until the far bank is clear the sappers can’t build; they can’t build under fire and so you have to get across, capture the far bank and drive them far enough away so that the sappers can build. Then the sappers come down; build their bridge across and so forth because the people that were there they could only last 24 hours because they need ammunition; they need food; they need supplies and until the bridges are built, they are helpless at the other side. On that first night, fog descended. In any case, you can imagine in the dark, having to take the folding boats down there – the river’s running at 6 knots – a terrific speed. To cross a river at 6 knots, 6 – 8 men in a folding boat with all their equipment and ammunition and radios and mortars – all in the boat. 45 degrees against (?) the current and you hope to arrive at that point. But on this night – we’d all been pulled out back to a place near Capua. There was a big bridging camp over there with a river similar and we trained and rehearsed by day, by night
And you all knew this offensive was coming?
Oh yes, that was what we were building up for. Training so that every man could find any part in the dark. This was my job – taking up bridging equipment and dumping it in the right places, in impossible country, in the dark and laying out all the gear for them so that as the builders were working, they could reach up for any part by sheer mechanical instinct.
Then there was a barrage wasn’t there?
Yes, and the build up to this – one day we were all called up to the company office and then we had to go to HQ for a briefing and the colonel briefed us. They were going to draft in 6 divisions – they were gong to come in over night. So as from tonight, after 6pm or 8pm, whatever, no movement on any roads whatever. Nobody’s allowed near the roads to allow for the influx of incoming traffic and this stuff poured in the whole night. 16,000 men and 6,500 vehicles.
It must have given you confidence to hear this amazing build up?
Oh yes, we knew this wasfurther more, we had 1,000 guns behind us. It was going to dwarf Alamein. These guns coming in and losing themselves wherever they could disperse themselves, and hide. There were camouflaged guns around you all the time, waiting for the great occasion. Then on the night, at 11pm on the stroke of Big Ben, this whole lot went off together.
Can you remember that happening?
Oh yes! And of course everything was just like daylight.
Were you right up at the front at that point?
We were on a hillside above the valley. We thought we were going to have to build a bridge the first night but then we were told 78 was going to be held back – exploitation division. The division had a big reputation
I think it was the 8th Indian that went across the first night.
There were all these troops lined up and then the night came and off they went, carrying their assault boats and that sort of thing. Got to the river and fog descended and that fog was river mist which was unexpected because the weather conditions were such.the whole idea was that the moment of crossing was the moment of moon rise, but there was no moon; all this fog. Nobody calculated that 1,000 guns – the fumes of 1,000 shells landing every minute, or more than every minute, the fumes combining with this – you couldn’t see a thing. These boats were going across the river – no idea which way they were going; ending up all over the place. So you can imagine the chaos on the other side. A formation all split up into boatloads of 6, trying to get your men together and moving up with all the other outfits and being shot at and all this din, and if you shouted.. it was a howlingthey were an hour behind schedule and all the get up and go was gone. All the drive and excitement..now it was absolute misery; casualties all over the place. The chaos of that far bank, which I didn’t witness myself, but it must have been appalling. Eventually they pulled themselves together enough to be able to drive forward a bit, but all the go had gone from them, and their morale had dropped, and they could only get a toe hold. We weren’t building abridge that night – coming down to breakfast in the mess tentHow’s it gone? No bridges. What? No bridges. What do you mean? What happened? Don’t know – no bridges; they haven’t got across. Oh good God. What are we going to do now? Then at about 11am, we heard they’d got a bridge over at 9 o’clock and that was our friend Byers. He got his bridge over. I knew the site well and there was a big kink here and he was lucky in that he was building here and the German artillery ?… that’s the only explanation of how they got away with it and all the other bridges were shot to pieces. More than one bridge they got half way across and it then collapsed – mortar fire or something. You could see them the next morning, wrecked in the water. That was a ghastly disaster.
But you can remember the barrage opening up can you?
Oh yes indeed.
Could you see the sky being lit up?
Oh you could see trees and things all leapt out – like photo flash. You could see the whole scene just for a moment under a thousand flashes. It was highly spectacular and then gradually it spaced out. At first it was 1,000 guns – bang! All together and then they were firing in their own time, so it was just a continuous thing, but it was quite impressive. I remember there was a nightingale singing in the tree just above my tent. The other subalterns came along and said â€˜Wyke, it’s quarter to; we’ve brought a bottle,’ and we sat there on the grass listening to this nightingale singing away and then when the barrage came up it stopped, but about 5 minutes after it started, the nightingales began to sing again against the din. You could hear them quite distinctly, 2 or 3 of them singing away against all this incredible cacophony. Extraordinary. I was cleaning my teeth outside my tent and this little dog came up and sat at my legs and he didn’t like it one bit and scuttled off.
When did you get involved?
Not until 2 days later when we got across.well, the next night of course was the great night of Amazon Bridge and the Shiny Seven (?) 7th Field Company forward division and I forget which number brigade it was, had been absolutely shattered; stuck the other side; no supplies and that sort of thing and half of them were coming back across the river and it was all rather dreadful and scandalous and so forth; absolute disaster for them and the Colonel’s CRE said â€˜Well, brigade tells us that only one thing can rescue the situation now; that is a bridge to light. It’s going to be hard work so all I want is volunteers.’ And the whole company stepped forward and they got down to it and built Amazon Bridge. Only last week I was invited to attend their reunion dinner; I couldn’t go this year; it’s too far, but I know all these people and remember them on the ground as well. It was the most astonishing story. I’ve got the great picture . You’ve seen the great picture?
Then the next day, the next place was Rio Giopetta (?) and we put this one in the next night. A little tiddler over a very, very deep gulley which was a complete tank obstacle. Only a small bridge – 40 feet.
And you did that one?
We did that one, during the night and that was quite a rough one. In the morning you got a smoke screen down. Someone came and put in this Passarelle which they put drain pipes down at the bottom for the water to go through and then bulldozed earth over the top and then they put a road surface on and that took the tanks.
Was this originally a photograph?
Yes and that’s my jeep.
You were called up 2 days later? They’d made the crossing of the Rapido.
As soon as they made the crossing, we expected to go over straight away but it was still 24 hours delay before we could get over because the congestion on bridges was appalling and the first priorities were to get ammunition and stuff over to the beleaguered infantry on the far bank. So then we still had to wait a day and then at last we were able to go over and in the end the bridges were so congested that.we were about here somewhere and we were to go over Amazon but in the end we went over Oxford Bridge; our friend’s bridge. All the way down here because of the congestion on the various bridges.
All this was because no-one had thought about the prospect of fog, and the smoke?
I suppose so; I don’t know. This is what caused the hold up. This fog and the fumes from the shelling – the build up was terrific and you were completely blind. This had never really been experienced before because there had never been a barrage on this scale before and in this particular valley.
I think it was 1,060 8th army guns and 600 5th army guns – 1,660 in all. These are your sketches too?
Yes; this fellow he was the chief clerk or something to the House of Commons; organised all the committee. He was a field engineer; Colonel’s eyes and ears, going up and down the road all the time so I used to meet up with him every day and his driver would go into my cookhouse and have a cup of coffee and would tell him where they’d gone that day and this is a skit showing his description of where they’d gone that day. I sketched that sitting in my hole because I thought those trees were so fascinating.
You had to do this under continuous fire did you?
Well not under continuous.you were working away and suddenly – wheeew! Mortar fire.
You were aware that the enemy were not very far away?
Not far away, hence the smokescreen. They were very, very near. In fact when daylight came up, there was machine gunning because they were sniping and you had to be jolly careful how you moved about because of these snipers bullets. When you get a machine gunned stream of bullets that hit a tree over your head, the force of it. Each bullet is a little explosion in itself. It was quite alarming but the chaps had to steadily plod on – if they’re holding up a Bailey bridge they can’t drop it. So it was quite a drama in itself.
What is the process of building a Bailey bridge?
The first thing is you’ve got to get the infantry over and clear the way for the sappers to get building. They had previously reconnoitred the site and laid out a centre line on the near bank.
And they would be infantry from a battalion..
Whoever we were supporting. Each field company was normally in support of a particular brigade.
What was the number of your field company?
I was with 281 Field Part Company. I had the sole task of seeing to the supply of bridging which meant bringing it to site in the dark; no tracks and that sort of thing and the drivers acquired these extraordinary skills..10 minutes before moving off, sit in your truck and you get used to the darkness; your eyes expand and that sort of thing and it’s extraordinary how much you can see with practice and confidence. How they drove these trucks with 3 tonnes of bridging equipment in these terrible conditions.and of course vehicles would get stuck and we had to get them out. We got very expert at unbogging trucks. No and again, we’d lose a truck before we even got there. You’d pass an infantry truck going the other way and say â€˜You’re requisitioned!’ Then you’d have to load everything onto that truck and always the drivers would say â€˜No-one’s driving this truck except me!’ So that was my sole task in the end – getting the stuff to the site and very exciting and interesting it was too. Having laid out all the stores exactly along the centre line – probably couldn’t get to the far bank yet – construction of a Bailey bridge is a panel. This is built up of 2 bits of 4 inch channel iron here and here and this is all 4 inch channel iron as well. The panel has a male lug at that end and a female lug at that end, so you bring up the lower panel; fit it in; put in a pin and there you are; you’ve got 2 braced together. So you build up – you’ve already got rollers here; it’s on rollers and a rocking roller here. Then you bring up another one behind and pin them together and then bring up the transom. The panel is a 6 man load and they carry it one man each side with a bar between them. A transom goes through here and that’s an 8 man load and that’s put through and fits into lugs here and then you put another one here at the other end and you’ve got one bay. Push her forward; put on 2 more at the back here; 2 more transoms and push her forward and this is the element (?) of the thing. So far, no nuts; no bolts; fitted together and pinned through. When you’ve got 3 or 4 bays built, you’ve got to bring it to a point of balance, so hands on; everyone gathers round; you lift the bridge up; you ease her forward to the point of balance and it begins to tip. Then you put on 2 more at the back and more transoms through then everyone hands on again – left the bridge – take her forward – check. So you gradually built it up always to the point of balance until it’s got to the other side. The first 3, 4 or 5 bays, depending on the calculation, are put on with a pin in here with a link so that the first few bays are cocked up in the air. When this is a 100 foot long, that is just over the roller here, so you lower her down onto the roller and push her across. Then when she’s in place.there’s a rocking roller here which has 3 rollers on it and a building roller back here, and you build on here and as it gets longer here, then you lift it – that can tip. But when you’ve got the bridge all in place, then you’ve got to jack her up – had huge jacks – and then put the final bank seats into position. You’ve probably got 30 or 40 tonnes of bridge now which you had to man. The banks are very soft so you’ve got to put railway sleepers and God knows what to build up under the 4 feet to carry the weight because when you’ve got a 40 tonne tank as well, there’s going to be some pressure on the bank and if the bank collapses..this is a great problem as well. You’ve got to decide in the night what seating you’re going to put under the bridge; where you’re going to site it; what’s the soil like – all this has to be decided on site and that depends largely on the experience of the officers.
You say your role was to bring up equipment, but you also constructed the bridge as well?
Oh yes; it was very exciting frankly. It became routine but in the advance from Cassino through to Lake Trasimeno, just past Rome. Took us 28 days and we built 26 bridges; all by night.
There’s a complaint that the 8th army were slow; not getting on with it; stuck in the Liri Valley, but presumably it was the congestion and getting over these rivers?
Absolutely; say you’ve got to get over a river that 200 feet across, you need pontoons. Then you bring up pontoons which are built up in 2 sections and fit together. You put your bank seats on the pontoon and push that out a bit and you’ve got to have cables fore and aft. Then you put on more sections; bring up another pontoon and steadily you work across. The bridge is dipping and bending and so you’ve got to have anchors each side and anchor men keeping watch all the time, making sure they’re kept taut.
You get a call saying you’ve got to build a bridge at X spot, you’ve got to get to get to that point where you’re at the front of the queue.
Well, there’s not a lot moving at night and the police would clear the road for us. You had to come up in the dark and there were no roads a lot of the time. You didn’t want to build a bridge in the most obvious place; you wanted to keep Jerry guessing where you’re bridging. You can’t bridge at the main roadway so you’ve got to anticipate being able to build a roadway down to your bridge and up the other side. Sometimes in a ravine, they’d be held up for a day or 2 because there was a lot of work to do. You had to bulldoze a track out of the hillside, to get to the bridge and then down the other side. That could take 2 or 3 days. By and large, all we were doing in the dash up to Lake Trasimeno was a bridge a night more or less.
You must have been shattered!
Yes and of course my particular problem was that once a bridge was over, I’d send my trucks off and they’d have to find their own way back to the depot..while we were equipped to build bridges – I’d have perhaps 100 vehicles attached to me from the RASC bringing up bridging equipment and we’d have to set up a dump and when we’d gone on so many miles, we’d have to pick up that dump and move it forward. This was the organisation. This was up to us ourselves. The traffic problem was quite a great one.
Which was the most difficult bridge?
It was a great bridge across a canyon at a great height.
This was before Trasimene? Before the big offensive in May?
Yes; this was south of Rome. The obvious site was where the old bridge had been but the banks had been blown away considerable and the span now instead of being 120 feet was about 200 feet. One of our fuel companies found a track down the cliff and down to the bottom – we got to the bottom and a bridge across and a track up the other side. The problem was that down at the bottom, the canyon was so narrow that there was no run back from the bridge, so it had to be built with counter weights which meant bringing extra equipment up – all these extra panels and loading up the back of the bridge to keep it balanced. Then the problem was that we couldn’t turn the bridging lorries out; we could get them down but we couldn’t turn them round so they had to go out backwards and on the narrow ledge of a road, you didn’t want a truck going off the edge. It was about 1,800 feet down. The NCO said â€˜No problem Sir; cigarettes.’ You light cigarettes, set the driver off backwards down the road in the dark …this way right hand down a bit; this way left hand down a bit; straight on; stop, stop stop! Were the signals with the cigarettes. If the driver put a wheel over, he’d be gone. We’d get the truck down to the bottom then we’d have to off load it and bring it up again before you could get the next truck down. It was all part of the challenge.
For me, this is absolutely fascinating and really explains a lot about the 8th army â€œslowness.
You could see how the whole Italian campaign depended on the engineers and bridges because Italy has a massive backbone of mountains and there’s a narrow coastal strip on either side. They abandoned that side which is why the Cassino side had to be done; there was really no choice. Through all these mountains, streams come down, trying to make their way to the sea and every few miles there’s another river and in 28 days, 26 bridges. I don’t know what the mileage is for that – 120?
You kept a diary?
Oh yes. The company commander of the bridging company attached to a particular brigade was an important man at conferences. â€˜Come on Sapper, how are we going to do this bit? We’ve got our plan worked out but can we do this? Can we do that? Where can you bridge?’ People had to go out during the day and find suitable sites. Once when a bridge was finished, I was sitting in my jeep with some bully beef, biscuits and a swig of whiskey, watching the dawn come up, and down stream I heard whoomph, whoomph – 2 swans came flying up – wonderful. As soon as we could get across, I’d have to go over the other side with the infantry – â€˜Where are we going to bridge tonight? Which way are we going? Let’s have a look at the map.’ As soon as one’s finished, you were on to the next. The pressure was to keep going the whole time. The Americans saying that the British wouldn’t push on.of course they went at it bull at a gate and look what happened to the 36th Fixers (?) division. They didn’t think; they didn’t plan because they hadn’t the experience but they had the biggest guns; they always had to show off; they’d got to show the British and always there was this rivalry.
You felt that very keenly at the time?
You feel it quite keenly, yes, and this was Mark Clark.
You think it came from the top?
I think it’s American mentality; the get ahead culture; get ahead of the other guy and this is the driving force.
Did you ever see Oliver Leese or Mark Clark?
What was the general view on Leese as the army commander?
He was so remote, I don’t know. We all had a great belief in Alexander; great character and our own commander.can’t remember his name. Anyway, come the dawn, it was where are we going to bridge tonight? Have we got any tracks? Have we got any roads. You go along with the Field Company. They’ve probably got troops out busy lifting mines because it was new country and you’ve got mines all over the place. That was another reason they couldn’t move without the Sappers.
But mine clearing was nothing to do with you?
Oh they were not my concern, although, in the middle of it all, I was sent off to Cappua, where the SME, School of Military Engineering at Chatham had set up and I had a 2 week course in mine warfare, or was it 2 or 3 days, I can’t remember, but an intensive course in mine warfare; latest mines; laying of mines; taking up a minefield; all that sort of thing. That was before the big battle began; about May I think. We had to be brought up to date all the time and every day you had routine orders and you had RE information sheets come round – somebody had discovered a new type of mine or device and you had to be able to cope with it.
So a sheet would come round with a write up on it?
Yes; you had to keep yourself up to date with the latest things because whether you were concerned with mines or not, everybody was liable to meet mines.
And also the Germans were terrific at booby trapping weren’t they?
All that sort of thing, yes. You went into a house; went into the loo and when you pulled the plug, you’d blow the place up – all these tricks they were up to.
When you weren’t on the go, were you in tents?
Once we were in the forward area, there was no question of any sheltered accommodation at all; you lived in holes in the ground. Occasionally, if you get out to rest, you might find a place with houses. Of course, the Germans lived in houses and before they moved on, they’d burn them down, so rarely did we find any accommodation of that sort, so we lived in the ground.
Once you got to Trasimene, were you pulled out of the line for a bit?
It was at Trasimene that they pulled 78th division out and said we were to go back to Egypt for rest, re-fit and new equipment and so we pulled out into the area around Rome and for a week or 10 days, we billeted in various gorgeous villas all around Rome, you’d jump in your jeep and go into Rome for the day. That was wonderful and we met one or two Italian families. The house we were put into, I forget the name, all sorts of ruins and that sort of thing. The owner was the chief of the Rome water board; an important man with this splendid house; 6 horses – â€˜help yourselves to my horses gentlemen! Go for a ride!’ So we’d go for a ride in the morning and then into Rome in the afternoon and wherever you went in Rome, people would clap. Fantastic! You went into a shop to buy perfume or something and they’d slip in a packet of cigarettes or something else. Quite wonderful. One thing I’ve never seen mentioned anywhere – after Mark Clark had dashed to Rome, we’d just been pulled into rest at a Monastery. We were supposed to have 2 or 3 days rest and suddenly it was â€˜We’re going on Wyke.’ â€˜But we’re supposed to be resting.’ â€˜No, onwards!’ We had to go along and there was the arch. We were coming into Rome! And we went past the Coliseum and right into the heart of Rome and everyone went mad! Everyone was on the streets. The whole population was on the streets. It was a lovely day and there were women in their summer frocks and there was hysteria and delight and to experience this – the women were jumping onto the jeeps and giving enormous kisses and leaving a bottle of wine or a bunch of grapes. My jeep was full of bottles of wine and fruit. All these mad Romans all loved us; the delirium and joy; fantastic! I could see the truck ahead of me. They kept pulling girls up into back of the truck! It was absolutely wonderful and this went on all day. We were only doing about 5 miles an hour, slowly through and then that evening in the dusk, back into it. This extraordinary flash of light of this triumph through Rome – it’s never been mentioned because apparently Alexander was so mad at his plans being dashed that he said â€˜Right, put a division through Rome straight away,’ because Rome was out of bounds. It was already agreed – the Germans had declared it ? they had abandoned the town, so the need to go in and capture Rome was absurd, because it was already surrendered. Apparently Alexander hauled Mark Clark back at once and put our division straight through.
When was that?
I’ll get my diary. I’ve never seen this mentioned before this fantastic triumph through Rome; absolutely joyous. It’s all been hushed up. America is busy taking over everything. My parents were much mixed up in international diplomatique, because my mother was brought up by the American Vice Consul in Mexico, because her parents both died in mysterious circumstances in Mexico; some business deal; I don’t know. In about 1913, my father was at some great reception in London and Woodrow Wyatt had persuaded some Americans to come over for this great occasion, and my father overheard one American saying to another, â€˜This is the great British Empire. We’ll break this up. It’s got to go!’ And it hadn’t. That’s another story, but I can see the pattern of it going right through, how the Americans gradually broke down the British Empire. At the end of the war â€˜Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job,’ but we had to pay the bill at the end. The British Empire had to be surrendered to pay the bill and ever since then, America’s been chipping away and chipping away.
I think it was last year, or maybe early this year, that we finally paid our last instalment on the Lend Lease debt. But this triumphal procession of yours, that was just after the fall of Rome was it?
Oh yes, about 2 days later. As soon as Alexander heard about this, he was enraged.
My personal theory about Clark is that in many respects he was perfectly competent. He was a fabulous organiser; he was an incredibly good planner; his military acumen was not bad but I think like a lot of American generals, he had very little battlefield command experience and everyone talks about Clark’s Anglophobia; I don’t think it was Anglophobia because he got on perfectly well with lots of generals of all different nationalities and he made himself thoroughly unpopular with a lot them, including Americans, so I don’t think you can see it in nationalistic terms. I think he had the most colossal chip on his shoulder about not being as experienced as some of his subordinate commanders.
And that Britain had centuries of experience of warfare and the Americans hadn’t the slightest inkling of what they were in for. No general or commander had any experience of battle and they had to insult us at every possible turn.
Which was a defence mechanism. With Clark, I think his principle reason for going to Rome, and he would have got Rome anyway eventually, I think he was being overly cautious because I think what he was worried about was the thought of the German 14th army in the Alban Hills attacking his flanks as he made this move across. There’s a straight line that runs from Anzio through Valettri, up to Val Dacori, up to Val Montoni. The valley is only 5 or 6 miles wide, similar to the Liri valley. He was supposed to come from Anzio to Val Montoni. He was worried about the guns in the high positions here. The Germans had proved repeatedly that they were incredibly good defensively and good at occupying the high ground. What he’s worried about is if he puts all his forces here, he’s going to be attacked here and his army is going to be destroyed. What he cannot countenance is a defeat in any shape or form so instead, he goes like that. If the German 14th had attacked in strength down here and he’d had a defeat, 8th army would have goneand that’s what he was worried about. That’s my theory. Our split was 5th army this side and 8th army this side at Highway 6. The German division was split so you had 14th this side and 10th this side. The German 10th army is escaping this way and the 14th, half of them are here and half of them are north of Rome, because they were convinced that we were going to attack Civa da Vecchia; that we were going to come round like this, so they had lots of troops up here, including the Hermann Goering division and various others, so there were a lot of German troops in this area here, north of Rome. They were coming down from the north of Rome when they realised there wasn’t going to be an allied landing here and they were coming down to reinforce this position here and that’s why he was worried. The Germans had proved time and time again that they didn’t need a lot of troops; didn’t need a lot of fire power to make the allies stop in their tracks. I think it was his basic insecurity more than I want to be the new Caesar. No-one was disputing the fact that he was going to take Rome; that was the 5th army boundary. Alexander repeatedly said to him, any time he had any quibble about it, Alex said â€˜Don’t worry; Rome is yours; it’s going to be 5th army’s, you have my word,’ and Clark got on very well with Alexander and respected him enormously and I think it was the fear of being attacked on his flanks and actually suffering a defeat or being seriously bogged down, and 8th army having to come to their rescue.
We were all livid – if you want to go and have your photo shoot in Rome, go and have it, but why take your 5 divisions away from their task.
This is why I think the theory that he just wanted to get to Rome the quickest, doesn’t really fit because he was going to get it anyway. Clark goes on and on and on both in his diaries and in post war interviews about the reason being that he has this worry about his flanks.
Well, we were absolutely livid. You can imagine the rage and despondency, the very next day, the Italian campaign is wiped off the front page; a little column on the back page.
The other problem was that the political decisions that were taken months before, the Americans absolutely wouldn’t budge on the invasion of Southern France which was a complete waste of time. Had 15th army group maintained the divisions that were lost to the South of France, I’ve absolutely no doubt that you would have got to the Po Valley before..all the forward momentum was there with the allied armies in Italy, so to suddenly have to stop; take a lot of troops out
What were the Americans planning on doing?
The big was they felt that they were continually being outmanoeuvred by the British at Casa Blanca and various other places, so they made this point that they were not going to be budged on this one. Roosevelt was very much in awe of Stalin and Stalin was very much against the Ljubljana Gap proposal and the Americans were very suspicious about it as well, about British motives, wanting to have a foothold in the Mediterranean and the whole old fashioned imperial outlook, and so they mistrusted British motives and sided with the Russians and it was an absolute disaster.
Then we had to drive the Russians out of Vienna because we arrived in Austria, straight from the Po Valley, and there were the Russians pouring across Austria. We sat face to face for several weeks and then they withdrew. They took every bit of engineering; anything of a mechanical nature from everywhere, they took. Then we had to tidy up Austria with 10’s of thousands of German prisoners sitting in the valley without food. As engineers, it was our job to organise the building of camps and so forth, to get these people under cover before the winter came, in prefabricated houses. The Yugoslavs coming over the frontier, they wanted a piece of Austria and we had to have troops up there keeping them out. 78th division and 8th armoured had the task of clearing up Austria.
Were you withdrawn to Egypt after Trasimene?
and we had to have troops up there keeping them out. 78th division and 8th armoured had the task of clearing up Austria.
Were you withdrawn to Egypt after Trasimene?
Yes we did; we had the best part of 2 weeks in Rome and then suddenly we were sent down to the station and put into cattle trucks and went back through Cassino. The signs of the battle had gone in that short space of time. It was spring of course. Then in Tarranto we got onto ships for Egypt. We spent 2 or 3 weeks in the desert at Okasasin and new equipment and trucks. We were going to have to build a bridge over the Suez Canal. I was sent down to Suez to see about equipment and stuff and just as we’d got it all teed up, we were back on ships; landed at Tarranto; 2 days straight up the coast and w went into the line at Vasto, at night, but by morning, the entire division went from Vasto up to the central mountains for the assault on the Gothic Line. It was the weather that beat us in the end of course. We arrived at a place called Castel del Rio and almost at once we were bogged down by the weather. We never made any headway there at all. We put in several bridges in these canyons and I was woken up several times by â€˜Sir, Sir! The river’s in spate!’ You could hear it roaring and there was our bridge all washed away. What had been a trickle in the valley was now 40 feet deep. You could tell it was 40 feet deep because our crane had its jib sticking up out of the water like this. It was a raging chocolate brown torrent sweeping everything before it. That was it then; you had to wait for the spring. But by this time, they decided to post me to another company and I missed out on the Po Valley. We were at Forli Faienza (?) with army troops.
So you must have been there by about November ’44?
About that time. We were behind the line; we were army troops. You could hear it all going on up the road. I found when I went out in the truck I got quite jumpy, whereas before you were so used to it, you never noticed. Once you were out of touch with it, you got more apprehensive.
Why did you miss the Po Valley campaign?
Because I was sent to this Army Troops Company.
What does that mean?
They do the heavy stuff behind and we were now involved in building very high, long term bridges which would take 2 or 3 months and on big tasks like this. I was not involved in operations any more; I was stuck in an office doing admin; charging off to Rom to try to get new jaws for the stone crusher and things of this sort.
Did you notice any change in Rome? They were so short of food; there were the bread riots in the winter of ’44.
I never saw any of that. I was never there long enough to see that anything was wrong.
What rank were you at that stage?
Still only a captain. After all those years in the army – I was wounded in North Africa at a critical time. When I cam out all the promotions had gone; all the prizes had been handed out and I missed out on it all. I went in then as a subaltern and then there was this long slog up through Africa and I was thoroughly enjoying being the bridging officer; wonderful job; I loved it. It was totally engaging and I never wanted anything else and when I found out that I was being hauled out – â€˜You’ll get a captaincy old boy!’ â€˜Bugger the captaincy; I want to be with my lads.’ I enjoyed being with soldiers.
You were disappointed to move?
I was very disappointed to leave the company. You know all the lads and they know you and there’s this astonishing relationship; never a touch of familiarity, yet a great sense of a bond between you; absolutely wonderful. Years later, a lot of my old truck drivers, phoned and said â€˜Coming up to Scotland with the wife. Can we call in and see you?’ So they’d stay; maybe 2 or 3 nights and the bond was still there and it was a great joy to see them. There are still some who write to me.
At the end of the war, you were behind the front lines?
Yes, having to open up the roads and that sort of thing. We had to put up these enormous, high level bridges. That became our task and I was out of touch with the final run in which was a pity I think because it was getting very exciting and very enjoyable – in a strange kind of way. The conditions were dreadful but it was a fantastic
Did you have any other close calls? You weren’t wounded again were you?
No; I myself led a charmed sort of life. I remember one night in a place called Sasaleoni, the whole town was on fire; bombed flat; roof blown off the building we were in and me and George were untouched, and none of my troops were hurt either.
George was a friend and colleague?
Yes, he was in the mechanical equipment company. He used bring up bulldozers and that sort of thing. We found a house which still had a roof on and had shutters in the front and we bedded down there for the night and then the Jerry’s started up with their 25 pounders and the whole town was going up. Never lost a truck either. Radiators punctured and small things which meant they were off the road for 2 or 3 days, but they were ok and the men just as cheerful as ever. In a wrecked room in a wrecked house playing Brag quietly in a corner; writing letters home; that sort of thing and 40 or 50 men and the feeling of complete contentment. Lots going on outside but being completely relaxed; quite extraordinary.
What were your impressions of the Italians? Did you have anything to do with civilians as you were passing through?
No, we never saw any Italians. There were no civilians around. All the men were taken to Germany for factory service. Then the women were shipped back. You rarely saw anyone. There was one time when we were in convoy and went through this little town in the late afternoon and this elderly priest came running out. He rattled off swift Italian and I got the gist – something to do with his housekeeper and her 2 little girls lying low in the crypt beneath the church and there had been 2 German snipers up in the bell tower 2 days before and when they saw us coming they fled and as they were fleeing out of church, these 2 little girls came out and they were killed and he took us to the steps of the church and there were these 2 little girls with blood dripping and their little white socks. He wanted us to take them to the graveyard. I couldn’t cope with it. But we had a compressor truck and I said â€˜Corporal, bring the compressor truck up here; lower the tail board and move the tools and put the bodies there,’ and go with the priest and do what needs doing and then come back.’ I didn’t think about it, then suddenly you remember and I couldn’t believe it.
Can you remember where this was?
This was south of Rome.
The massacres that went on..
In Sassaleone which is right up in the mountains before the Po Valley, there was one place – we arrived just at dusk with a whole column of bridging boys behind me and we were coming up to help the Americans because they hadn’t go any bridging equipment forward and I was taking up bridging equipment for them. It was built on the hillside and the town square was full of American vehicles and I had to park our trucks. You couldn’t go out beyond there because you’d be under observation. An American major came up and said â€˜Hey soldier, get these Goddamed trucks out of here.’ I said â€˜I am trying,’ and he said â€˜Get the hell out of here,’ and then pulled his pistol out and pushed it in my face and said â€˜I give the orders round here.’ I thought for Christ sake, we’re not playing cowboys and Indians. I told my blokes to get the bulldozer and level some partially demolished buildings and make a parking space. An old priest ran out in the pouring rain and he was describing to me how the Germans, in reparation for the killing of a German officer by the Partigiani, rounded up all the women and children; put them in the church, locked it up and set fire to it. My bulldozer operator was working and he called me over â€˜Sir, come and have a look at this!’ And he was digging up bodies. My immediate thought was they are unidentifiable and they’re all going to be buried in a communal grave – push them over the cliff, but instead we moved to another site. Caroline and I went back to this place and there’s a lovely little church with a dedication. I realised that these bodies were most probably Jerry’s who’d been bombed in their billet. Caroline and I were feted with a fiesta in the street. A little old lady next to me, she was the sole survivor. She had hidden in her cellar and they hadn’t found her and she was the one survivor. I still drop her a line at Christmas time. But I can’t think those bodies we found were the civilians because they were in the wrong place.
Looking at photos.