Sept. 19-30, 1943: Doc Alexander’s detailed account of the attack on Potenza
Sept. 19/43 At dawn this morning we once more advance in our usual order, pass over the detour at the canyon, and slowly pick our way through the mutilated Town of Corleto and hit the open road beyond. Recce report another blown bridge ahead so the tank column is halted and Bruce, Slim, Ralph and I go forward to investigate.
We find a bridge completely ruined, and a dry rough river bed beneath. This is swept for mines and a road is made for the tanks.
The infantry and recce are now ahead of us and we decide to go forward, so cross the detour in our jeep and reach the road on the other side and find a terrific crater, which must be filled before we can proceed.
Bruce and I walk forward to the Infantry H.Q. and talk with the C.O. There is a valley right in front of us, and a very heavily wooded hill on the other side, about 1500 yards away. There is a small bridge at the edge of the wood and recce have spotted German sappers at work attempting to blow it.
The West Nova Scotias set up a mortar, the F.O. is in position, ready to go, when German covering fire opens up; they have spotted us.
There is a hail of machine gun bullets – and only two are wounded, the F.O. in the head, and an Infantry chap in the hand. One mortar goes off, and the first shot blows up a German truck and kills at least one Jerry.
Our jeep, in the meantime, has come up, we attend casualties, evacuate the hand case back to the bridge, where he will be picked up by the 9th Field Amb. – return the head case to duty, as it is a trivial wound and prepare to follow up the Jerries. The tanks are having a lot of difficulty getting through the detour, so there is a slight delay and we hear the sickening thuds ahead telling us of more successful demolitions by Jerry and more difficulties for us to encounter.
Finally we move forward again towards Laurenzana, and passing the woody hill, have to crowd past the blazing Jerry car, which the mortar has set ablaze. We continue to advance and very nearly capture a demolition party – the bridge goes up right in front of us, right in the Town of Anzia. The tanks go into action and clear the Jerries from the next stretch of road where they are seen to be laying mines. What casualties were sustained we do not know, but they certainly scattered in a hurry.
A detour of this bridge was impossible – it was about 30 feet to river bed and the bridge was only about thirty feet wide. It was completely blown and, so the Engineers set dynamite and blew in the sides and gangs of Italians and soldiers shovelled in dirt until it looked as if a tank could smash the sides in enough to make crossing possible.
The first tank over almost stood on its hind legs, but levelled with both edges down a lot. The second tank flattened it out still more, than an Engineer Bren Gun Carrier made the pass, and the fourth vehicle was our Jeep.
There were frequent skirmishes with Jerry all along the road: the road and ditches were plastered with mines and progress was very slow. The Engineers go ahead unscrewing the tops from the wooden box mines, and everyone was very careful.
We passed two German graves, which look as if they had just been dug, so we imagine at least we killed two of them.
At least we can see Potenza, perched on a hill across the valley from us, the road is very winding, and civilian reports indicate that there are several Germans in the City. It is nearly dark, so we harbour, intending to attack tomorrow.
The Infantry will fan out and enter the Town from the two sides, while we will attack, probably at dawn.
I believe that there will be a bombardment before we attempt to enter. Italian towns with their narrow twisting streets are certainly not good places for tanks to enter. They can be trapped so easily.
At 11 p.m., we get a call to go forward as the Infantry have sustained some casualties. Slim and I go in the Jeep, it is very dark and there is a light drizzle of rain.
We proceed down the road into the valley, and find that the West Nova Scotias have eleven casualties scattered around, all caused by German mine explosions.
The road is subjected to periodical bursts of machine gun fire – but no mortar or Artillery fire disturbs us.
It is very difficult attending to the wounded in the darkness, but we finally get four cared for-load two stretcher cases and two sitting cases onto the jeep and Slim starts back with them to the Car Post. I remain behind and continue working on the others. Finally the regimental medical car arrives and evacuates the last three – one of whom has a fractured Tibia and Fibula. Have just completed the last case when Slim returns again and we load the three cases on and evacuate them to the Car Post, which I find, is nine miles behind us. They had not moved forward as arranged, thus making our work very difficult.
Sept. 20/43 – We just return from the Car Post when the tanks move forward, so Slim, Ralph, Art and I fall in behind and once more move into the valley. When we arrive at the spot where the Infantry had been wounded, we find that the column is held up. The bridge on the main road has been blow up and the Engineers are busy sweeping a path across the river bed, over which we can pass to reach the Town.
The Artillery moves into position where they can shell the Town we climb the bank and study the Town through field glasses.
We pick out several very suspicious spots and range the ranks on them – then the F.O. contacts his artillery and the general bombardment begins.
We get word of the parts of the Town in which our own Infantry are advancing and these parts are carefully avoided.
We are now sitting in the valley facing the Town. The bombardment is progressing – seven “A” Squadron Tanks are lined up under the command of Bruce Trotter. Ralph, Slim, Art and I are with our Jeep and motorcycle, prepared to move off in a moment behind the Tanks. No one else is visible – what are we going to meet as we enter the Town? We don’t know.
10 a.m. – the forward tank moves off and cautiously crossed the river bed, the next tank in line covering it from about 60 yards distance.
We see the first four tanks reach the road and hugging closely the bank of the road, begin to pass towards the forward houses. The tank ahead of us moves off and we fall in line about fifty yards in the rear. There is fairly heavy mortar and machine gun fire coming from the Town – the forward tank opens on suspicious looking houses – each tank in turn takes up the shooting and the whole column presses steadily forwards.
We pass the Infantry in the ditches, they tell us the tanks have silenced the machine gun nests and on we go to the foot of the hill.
We see the tanks creeping slowly up the twisting road, each tank in turn covering the one in front – the front tank blasting every turnings before twisting around into plain view of what every maybe lying wait for it.
The civilians are no where to be seen, but on the final big bend before entering the first City square – hundreds of them appear, leaning over a huge balcony or stone wall. This is at the entrance to a huge air raid shelter.
They cheer us, wave flags, should, laugh and cry. They probably have been up in this place for twenty four hours.
We reach the first square – the tanks have taken up positions commanding the different streets. An Italian doctor recognizes the red cross on my jeep and comes over and shakes hands. He talks French, so we make ourselves understood. He takes me to a huge air raid shelter and I enter with him – it is terrible – men, women and children, terrified, weeping, cheering as we enter and pass back, for several hundred yards under ground. The sanitation is appalling and whether enemies or not, my heart aches for these people, and I cannot help now but think that their joy on our apperence is genuine. I clawed my way back to the open air and climb a very high set of stairs to the main City Square, where to my relief, I see Bruce Trotter sitting covering all the entrances and old “Alberta” looks very war like in the surrounding – in front of the Governor’s Palace. We grin and wave at each other and go about our jobs. I am the only soldier on foot in the crowd, but am as safe as a baby in arms with those 70mm and Brownings covering me.
When I return to the jeep, there is a message from the Infantry that they have several casualties down the side street who need attention, so we go down in the jeep and first boy we pick up has a broken back. We bring him back and place him beneath some shady trees off the square and establish a collecting post.Art Coyle goes back to notify the ambulances in the rear where the casualties will be nested, Ralph stays and cares for the wounded at our post, and Slim and I go on with our work of collecting them.
We evacuate all the wounded to this spot, and I go with the stretcher bearer of the West Nova Scotias, remove the identification discs and personal belongings from the dead – hand them in to their own M.O. when I meet him. We have just finished collecting and attending to the wounded when the ambulance arrives to start evacuation. Ralph has done a wonderful job at this post, and I am very proud of the grand work all my boys did and the risks they took without question.
A call comes in that our forward tank has been blown up, somewhere forward in the Town, so we go at top speed past the coumln and as we reach the City Square on the very outskirts of the Town we see several wounded. We attend them and rush them back to our post and return to the Square where we run a regular sick parade fixing all sorts of things on tankers and Infantry alike. The spirit between the two Regiments is grand – the friendship developed is very strong. After lunch we pick up a few souvenirs and rummage around before setting off.
Our forward tank opens fire on a retreating German car and gets a little too close to the side of the road and hits a mine which blows its track off and wounds a number of Infantry whom we have just evacuated.
We have finished our lunch, and are now pulling forward to the hills to take up a hulled down position. It seems to strange to pass a road sign directing us to Naples. We now are sitting in hulled down position north of Potenza. The City looks very beautiful behind us, the tiny farms and winding roads in front look lovely.
Tpr. Baker comes up on a motorcycle with word that theis a wounded American airman down the road; Slim and I get in the jeep and Baker guides us to him. He is young haggard looking chap, so happy to see us that he can scarcely contain himself. He was shot down on Aug. 28 while attacking Foggia – sustained a broken leg and was taken prisoners by the Italians and placed him in hospital. He says the Italians were good to him and removed him to a cave and hid him when Italy signed the Armistice. His pals were carried back as prisoners with the Germans. WE carried him down to our first post in the Town, but as we entered the square we came into terrific machine gun fire coming from the high houses over this first air raid shelter that I had been trying to get in. The Infantry and Provost have gone to ground trying to engage the snipers, we are in the center of the square and must get out quickly. We back up and hug the opposite side of the street and go back into the Town. They did not hit us, but certainly came on all sides of us I believe the face that we were so close below them, we were moving and they were shooting down, made them miss us. The red cross certainly carried no weight with them.
We take the airman back and leave him at the R.A.P. of the West Nova Scotias and then rejoin the tanks in the hills. The Infantry surround the house and mop up the Germans who had hid while we passed through the Town and then came to life again.
After supper all the tanks move into laager. We establish in a big hollow right beside a filthy little Italian house.
There are no trees, shade, or attraction of any kind here, but we have gained our objective. Potenza is in our hands and the road across Italy from Salerno to Bari is opened up.
Our medical supplies are running low, so I must go on the scrounge. Slim, Sgm Reid and I sally forth and go to a big hospital in the center of the Town. One big wing apparently was Military but has been deserted. The other wing across the road is still used for Civilians. I receive a tiny donation from the Civilian wing and then enter the Military. There is a huge unexploded bomb lying in the doorway, parts of the building have been knocked to pieces, but most is in good repair. we leave with the jeep loaded with grand medical supplies and in the afternoon Bruce Trotter and I have return to depart with another full load.
On the way into Town we stop at the tank which was blown yesterday, and old Pop La Forge presents me with my “Puma” which proudly rides on the front of the car.
We are still sitting on the hill – rumours that we return to England on the 15th of Nov. fly thick and fast – rumours of another advance are also prevalent, but the fact is, until we get enough petrol in from Taranto or Bari, we will sit here.
The sky tonight becomes filled with thousands of flashes, we all believe that a terrible bombardment is in progress, but cannot figure it out, as the front apparently seems to be all around us. Gradually it dawns on us that it is a thunder storm – the most peculiar one I have every seen. The sky for hours has been one blaze of flashing light, heavy, heavy black clouds are hanging low – we decide the wind will blow the storm over, so we go to ed in our little pup tent beside out ambulance which has just arrived from the section. The rains comes down in torrents and we are driven from our tents, drenched, and find refuge in the ambulance. In the morning the sky is bright – but oh the mud. We begin to realize that it will not be long before this kind of weather will be the rule.
During the week we have had rare scrounging parties – Jimmy Hales, Curly Lynch and I were extremely good at it – we brought back wine of ancient vintage from secret wine cellars, a crucifix and sacks of potatoes. The Town was put out of bounds, so these parties had to close.
Bruce Trotter, Don Taylor and I visited the Chief Magistrate one evening and had a grand time. Bruce and I used to go up on the hill for a walk every night and sit and talk until after dark.
Sept. 29/43 – At 2 p.m. we move off and rejoin the Regiment in Minvervino, a few miles south of Foggia, which had been captured a few days before. This is a glorious trip – no traffic, no apparent hurry, a beautiful paved highway, a real scenic highway through the loveliest country we had yet encountered. We travel to Graceiona and then to a hill top from which we can see, perched high in a hill on the other side of the valley, the little Town of Tolve. To get from the top of this hill we spiral down about twelve hairpin bends, one above the other. The tanks go straight across, and we in the jeep twist round and round these bends until we are dizzy.
After reaching the floor of the valley, we immediately begin to climb the hill into the Town, going round and round again from bottom to top.
The Town itself is very quaint, narrow streets, cold uninviting stone houses, and as we reach the outskirts on the other side discover row on row of caves, one above the other all the way down the hill. They are all inhabited.
To come out of the Town we once more must descend by a series of very sharp hairpin bends. This is the most peculiar place I have ever seen.
About ten miles farther on, we pass through Irsina a good deal like Tolve, only no so many bends. A few miles beyond this Town we harbour for the night. I have seen mosquitoes as bad as in this harbour. we are all relieved when morning comes.
Sept. 30/43 – Move off shortly after dawn, and proceed to Gravina where we wait until the rest of the Regiment join us from the south. We then fall in the rear and pass through Minervino, six miles north to the main Foggia line, where we go into harbour.
A great part of the 1st Canadian Division is here and rumours are thick about a big advance starting tomorrow.
I will get my orders this afternoon at a big order group I have been warned to attend, and perhaps tomorrow will start on another expedition.
At the orders group over which Col Neroutsos presided it was learned that a new advance will be by the Canadians along the road leading north west from Foggia into the mountains.
Stiff resistance is expected but the Canadian objective is Campobasso, a mountain Town in the very center of Italy about sixty miles north of Naples. The road from Foggia to Campobasso is very steep and winding. The country is true mountain country, with very high hills and deep valleys. There are several towns which must be passed within a few miles of the road, and several towns are high summits through which the road passes.
It is most difficult country for an offensive and a very easy country to defend. It simply abounds in natural defences.
The first part of the road will be easy, it is over the famous Foggia Plains, which are as level as our prairies, and appear to cover a great deal of territory. This is in all the largest airport in the world, and the airport from which so much misery was dealt our troops in the desert and in Sicily.
The Plains of Foggia have already been in our possession for 2-3 weeks and large crews are busy putting the runways in order again, but already parts of it are occupied by hundreds of our planes.
Beyond the Plains, the country rises very abruptly and immediately the Appenine Mountains are encountered.
This is the forward enemy line which we must attack, and gradually push back to Campobasso.
The expedition is very carefully arranged, and will consist of three parts:
1. A Vanguard under the command of Lt.Col. Fred Adams – 1 recce. and will consist of 1 Co. P.D.L.G., 1 Btty Anti tank, 1 Btty Field Artillery, 1 Btty A.A., 1 Co. of R.C.R. and “C” Squadron 14th Army Tank Reg
2. Advance Guard – the remainder of the 1st Brigade
3. Main Body – the remainder of the 1st Can Div.
The whole Advance Guard is under the command of Lt. Col. Neroutsos, and they will act in the following manner. The Van Guard will advance, with the Recce ahead and the tanks in second place. I will go as S.M.O. (Senior Medical Officer) of the Van Guard and will travel by jeep, with Slim and Ralph and have Art Coyle on motorcycle as D.R. (despatch rider). One ambulance will bring up the rear of the Van Guard column.
The leading vehicle of the Advance Guard will be six miles behind the rear vehicle in the Van Guard, and the leading vehicle of the Main Body will be six miles behind the rear vehicle of the Advance Guard, thus each portion of the column will be separated from each other by six miles. “A” and “B” Squadron – 14th Reg Tanks will be in Advance Guard and will have Capt. Hunter, Bert and Jim in 15cwt and one ambulance. His carrier, 30cwt truck and our section truck will remain behind in “B” Echelon to come up later.