Sept. 9-16, 1943: Doc Alexander’s detailed account of the Italian Campaign

It is now Sept. 9/43 that we learn of the Armistice – the roads are crowned with Italian soldiers and civilians, all cheering and waving to us. At one village we came into a square containing hundreds and hundreds of Italian soldiers – they stop our car, shake hands – “bravo” us almost to death and actually force us to drink Cognac with them – the war is over for them, but not for us.

When I return to Monasterace every one is standing to, waiting to attack. We pass up the coast road about 8 miles between St. Catherine Ionia and Marina di Badolato. We encounter enemy pill boxes and once more the tanks go into action, and infantry patrol are sent into the hills approaching Radiolata. We are expecting action at anytime and are all prepared. I have sent my D.R. Back to move up to the Relay Post and to inform the section at Locri to hand over to the first Medical Unit encountered, and move forward to a point which I would designate later.

While sitting in line on the road, a submarine suddenly came to the surface a few hundred yards off shore – we prepared to engage it and a were just on the verge of firing when word was flashed that it was American. Probably a close shave for both of us. As we came forward to a bend in the road, the tank immediately in front of us opened fire, but we could not see what he was engaging, so we stopped and lying in the road ahead of us was a very pretty little red tin can.

I got out to take a look at it and a Recce officer saw it too. So we both looked at it and decided it must be an Italian grenade and we had better leave it alone. An Officer Recce came up and took a shovel to throw it off the road and it exploded, wounding him in about fifty places, but none very serious We looked after him and returned him to a Cantoneiri at Radiolata, where we had planted a flag for the others to come by. By now Bert, Jim and Ralph were here to look after any casualties. We all spent the night here and in the morning at 6 a.m. We all spent the night here and in the morning at 6 a.m. we advanced again.

Bert, Ralph and Jim are to follow in 1 hours time, and not to set up a permanent post unless they found my flag. In other words, as we expected a very long advance, my relay post would also move up behind the column – and in the

Stretcher bearers carry a wounded soldier to an advanced dressing station in Salerno, Italy, September 1943. © IWM (NA 7079)

Stretcher bearers carry a wounded soldier to an advanced dressing station in Salerno, Italy, September 1943.
© IWM (NA 7079)

rear a few miles the Section would be coming up, prepared at any time to open up another emergency hospital if necessary. Just as we started, a D.R. arrived telling me the Section that were on the road, had handed over 40 casualties to a 1st Div Field Amb., and would be catching up to us some time that day.

Sept. 10/43 – Another flying column is organized to proceed to and occupy Catanzaro, the Capital of the most southern province in Italy – and the military H.Q. of that district. The Column is to consist of Stoney with three tanks, a Co, of Recce and my jeep, but this changed shortly afterwards. It is soon discovered that the beautiful coast road on which we are travelling to Marina Catanzaro, from which a good highway runs to Catanzaro, has been so badly blown, that it is impossible to travel over it, so a detour must be recce  through the mountains. The only road possible is a narrow, windy, hair pin road, climbing straight up the high peaks of the Appennine Mts. to a little town of Maccutano (sp?), very, very old, with tiny crooked, narrow streets, and old stone houses jutting over the road.
We climb the mountain to the entrance of the Town and find a terrible turn, by which the tanks have great difficulty in passing. At last we reach the tiny village square and find that the only road out is too narrow for tanks, but we must go on, so slowly but surely the lead tank hammers its way in to the side of these houses, and gradually gets through. The houses have been actually gouged out to make the road wide enough for the Army to advance. This might be termed burrowing your way through Italy.

We are given a wonderful welcome in this Town, the people are out by the hundreds, English and American flags are flying. One cute girl is holding a large banner in which is printed “Welcome to the English. Welcome to the Americans.” We are being mistaken for Americans, so I take the banner, scratch out Americans and add Canadians. I feel much better after this. At 5 p.m. we enter Catanzaro, the largest city we have yet seen in Italy. Everything is in good condition – a few but not many signs of war. One struck me as outstanding – a street car sitting with the tracks in front, and behind, blown sky high. The City was crowded with soldiers and high-ranking officers; everybody curious, but neither hostile or enthusiastic.

I proceeded at once to the big Military Hospital where the staff were drawn up. I went to the Col. in charge and by means of an interpreter requested the right to search the hospital and records for either English or American prisoners of war. Found hat he had had several, but they had been removed by the Germans a few days before. I then asked for medical supplies and a car. He took me to the Camp Commandant and I got a sedan – returned to the Hospital and loaded it up with a wonderful stock of supplies and started on after the Column. I had only gone about a mile when I had a flat tire, no spare, and while trying to fix it, another tire went, so I picked up my supplies, threw them on one of our trucks which was passing and went on without the car. Got a good horse laugh over that too. We set up a small A.D.S. (Advanced Dressing Station) in a lodge at the gate of a ground where we have gone to harbour. Catanzaro is our objective and it is taken in the record time of one hundred and fifty miles advance by Armour in four days. That night we find two kegs of Cognac and give the Column a well earned rum issue – then turn in for the night.

Sept. 11/43 – My Recce Sgt. friend comes over in a stolen car and we proceed back as far as Locri to check all our posts, just to be sure that nothing has been overlooked. We had a grand trip down, but the entire 1st Div. had by now moved from the West coast, through the mountain road to Locri, and were advancing towards Catanzaro. On our returned we found “A” Squadron in harbour at Monasterace so had lunch at the R.A.P. (Regimental Aid Post) and returned to Catanzaro. Orders were out for a move in the morning to Catanzaro Marina for reorganization, so we decided to evacuate our patients from our little ADS back to “A” Squadron Ambulance at Monasterace, and have them evacuate further down the line to Locri. The road was so terrible for night driving, and in teh day would be so crowded with traffic, I decided to send the Ambulance at dawn.

Sept. 12/43 – After evacuation of our casualties, we moved the 30cwt, the 15cwt, the jeep, and motor cycle down to Cantanzaro Marina, and established both an RAP and ADS. That afternoon we were visited by Gen. Simmons, G.O.C. – 1st Div., who gave us a talk, and told us it was not impossible that the war in Europe might be over by the first of the year. We are camped in a beautiful grove, on the shores of the Mediterranean. The swimming is lovely and we are all enjoying a good rest.  The Army Post Office arrived today and we all sent cables home. We have rearranged our medical supplies – have given a complete set to the 14th (Calgary Regiment) and have built up such a wonderful reserve in our section, that our worries in that respect for awhile are over.

Sept. 14/43 – The line across the instep of Italy has now been established, the 8th and the 5th Armies have made contact from coast to coast, and now are going to make a further move of one hundred and fifty miles – purely a regimental move and from there, further action will be expected. The 5th Corps have already Taranto and soon the heel will be in our possession. The next move will no doubt be to straighten out the line in preparation for the attack on Naples and Foggia. We are still bathing daily in the Gulf of Squillace – and what beautiful bathing it is.

Sept. 15/43 – Regiment moved off at 7 a.m. – “F” Group, the Tanks in the lead, with Capt. Hunter, carrier and one ambulance. “A” Echelon one hour later, with Bert and Jim in a 15cwt and “A2” Echelon one behind that with Ralph, Slim , and I with the jeep, Art with the motor cycle, our 30cwt and section, and the other ambulance. We pass north east along the coast through Passo di Trocellio, then inland through Cutro, north east again to Crotone, north to Strongoli, and still north along the coast road to Cariati, on the shore of the Gulf of Taranto. There were several demolitions along the road, making many detours necessary. The country during the first part of our journey is very barren and mountainous with huge herds of gray oxen.

On the last twenty miles of the journey we passed through the most beautiful olive groves I have ever seen, and at night we came to harbour in one of them.
This morning we took the lead in “A2” Echelon and carried Sgt. Major Kerkam as a passenger. On our first halt we planted our Italian staff and flag, and unfortunately we drove and forgot it – one mighty good souvenir lost. Where we are harboured we are infested with dirty, ragged civilians, searching our garbage for food, begging, stealing and in general making a terrible nuisance of themselves. One boy woke up just in time to see a woman running off with his boots. There are thousands and thousands of Italian soldiers around wandering in every direction like lost Souls. I suppose they are wondering what next. So are we. We covered 92 miles today.

Sept. 16/43 at 1900 hr. We moved off north in the same order as yesterday and passed through Corigliano, a very filthy little Town, then followed straight north to the Cross Roads leading to Castrovillari, where we harboured in a pine grove on the shores of the Gulf of Taranto. A short trip today of only 45 miles. The swimming is glorious. Tonight 3 L.C.T.s (Landing Craft Tank) loaded with 2nd Brig. Infantry pull into our beach, but cannot get close enough to shore to unload, so pull out again and proceed down the coast for a few miles to the next little town. The campaign in Italy has now been on for two weeks, we have advanced over two hundred and seventy two miles, the first big phase is over. “B” Squadron have had their show, “C” Squadron is still in Sicily, “B” Echelon is still in Sicily and we do not know where the Bde (Brigade) or 2nd Field Amb is. “B” Squadron under Stoney have put up a wonderful show. I know that “A” will too – and when it comes to “C” Squadron under Bob Donaly, I hope I am able to take part also. “B” Section of the 2nd Field Amb have certainly done a grand job and the next shows, I have every confidence they will show up equally as well.

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About Rob Alexander

I am a writer, photographer and historian and the author of The History of Canmore, published by Summerthought Publishing of Banff, AB.

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