Oct. 1, 1943: The Advance to Campbosso, Doc Alexander’s detailed journal of the Italian Campaign.
The Advance to Campobasso
At 3:45 Oct 1/43 – Slim, Ralph, Art Coyle and I start out from our harbour a few miles north Minervino with our jeep ambulance and motorcycle,followed by one ambulance with Scotty and Buck Rogers. We are going to join the tanks of “C” Squadron in the Van Guard Columns about twenty miles up the road. There is no traffic on the road ,which is a beautiful paved straight highway, crossing the Plains of Foggia and we make exceptionally good time.
About two miles before we reach the cross roads where we join the tanks, we come down to a Cantoneira (sp) and stop and cook our breakfast, then proceed at dawn and find that the tanks have left harbour by a cross country route leading toward Foggia.
We proceed staright on to Foggia, a large City, terribly knocked about – hardly a building that has not been subjected to shell or bomb, but we do not have time to stop, but continue staright through, and pass the reserve troops of tanks in the outskirts of the City and join the rear of the recce company. We very shortly come to a blown bridge, and make a very wide detour, before again joining the main road, right behind the main tank forward troop. In this position we travel through Lucera, a lovely little town not touched by bomb or shell.
The civilians are all at work when we pass through here. we can see in the distance the row of hills which surround the Plain. Everything is very quiet and peaceful. We approach another very badly blown bridge, and make about a two mile detour in order to cross the stream. As we approach the main road again, we pass the largest flock of turkeys I have ever seen. Hundreds and hundreds of them being driven along by boys, just as one drives sheep. Our mouths water but it is not possible for us to stop and get any. About midway near Lucera and the first hills, the column stops – the forward recce have contacted enemy in the hills, but the exact number or location is not known. We travel slowly forward with the 2/c of the recce, getting constant messages from the front and following the progress of the forward scouts.
We finally arrive at a farm yard, which is the first piece of elevated ground before the mountains and from here we can study the ground ahead. It is about 10 a.m. and we see that we are going to be here for some time, so we start, or at least Ralph and Slim start to prepare a meal. A few eggs are obtained from the farmer and a meal is on. in the meantime I go forward with the Major of the R.C.R. (Royal Canadian Regiment) to see what is happening. The tanks have deployed and are in the hull down position bombarding the Town of Motto.
The country in front of us is very rugged. Two Towns are in front, one to the right, Motta, and the other of the left, Volturara. The road to Volturara branches off the main road to the left, about one mile and a half in front of where our observation post is. There is a big valley between us, and the hill leading to Motta, and the road leads straight down in the valley in front of the Town, before turning and twisting up the hill, by many very sharp hairpin bends.
The Tanks are gradually working onto position on the side hill, but they are encountering fairly heavy fire from concealed guns, which they cannot reach, in the Town. A few gun positions have been definitely spotted and some damaged has been done to them, our situation is very difficult.
I find a farm house on the edge of the valley with several sheds, enclosed in a high stone wall. When and if an attack occurs, I will set up a clearing post here to which I can evacuate any casualties which may occur at the front.
The Col. of the Recce , the Col. of the Tanks, the Col. of the R.C.R. and the Artillery Col. all come forward and study the situation and a General Orders meeting is called. Meanwhile the F.O. has taken up position in a hay stack at our observation post and has brought his battery into action – at present we are sitting ona another hay stack watching the result of the bombardment of Motta. The shells are bursting in the Town and are no doubt causing considerable damage. The Tanks are surrounding two sides of the Town, and are in a hulled down position.
At the Order Group, Col. Neroutsos appreciation is that it is a Squadron show but decides to attack. The attack will be covered if possible by the combined fire of 1 Field Reg., “C” Squadron will hold their hull down position and “A&B” will go through them and attack, seize and hold the Town of Motta until the Infantry can arrive. The R.C.R. will furnish the Infantry. The attack will start at 4 p.m. These orders do not meet with general approval. The Infantry ask what will happen if the Artilery cannot get up, and the answer is that the attack will go on anyway. Each arm of the service gathers by itself to make its own individual plans. The rest of the R.C.R. is brought up from the Advance Guard in Corrios and the two squadrons of Tanks – “A & B” are called forward.
Bob Purves is put in command of the 14 Tank Reg. to lead them into action and he calls his order – Bob Donaby “C”, Stoney Richardson “B” and Bruce Trotter “A”. Bob is awfully nervous and his orders do not seem very definite. My orders are to stay back at H.Q. which of course I have no intention of obeying. I send a D.R. back to the Advance Guard for Bruce Hunter, Jim and Bert in their 15cwt and the other ambulance and immediately take my total establishment forward to the farm house which I had discovered in the morning. There, a reception station is set up, with two ambulances ready to evacuate cases to the Car Post which is between the Advance Guard and the Main Body. From there they will be carried to the M.D.S. in Foggia. I leave Ralph to help at the Reception Station and prepare to go forward in the jeep with Slim, taking Art on the motorcycle as a D.R.
Talking to Bruce Trotter after the meeting, he asked me what I was going to do, as he had heard my orders. I told him I would be right behind him where he went. His reply was “Thank God for that, this is bloody suicide.”
In the opinion of the Tankers and Infantry alike, the plan was not well laid. It would be dark within two hours of the start of the attack, the tanks were to enter Town, which at any time is terribly risky and bad tactics if if can possible be avoided, but to be in a Town in a tank in darkness is rank suicide.
Secondly, they felt that too hasty arrangements had been made and that the situation had not been carefully studied. Thirdly it was found that it was impossible to the get the Regiment of Artillery up to cover the attack – they considered that the attack should be made at dawn the following morning, because with Artillery support Jerry would employ his old trick of separating the Infantry from the Tanks. However, the order is given by Col. Neroutsos that the attack begins at 4 p.m. – so it must go forward. We sit in our jeep at the roadside as the tanks rumble past at 4 p.m. – waving and shouting back and forth to each tank commander – who is riding head out of the the turret until he reaches action stations. The Infantry go by in their Lorries, and we fall in with them, and proceed to the rear of the Tanks.
We pass the road running to Volturara and the Infantry stop and debus. We proceed to the head of their column and have just come to a stop when a D.R. dashes up and informs me that two tanks are knocked out of action and there are both dead and wounded. We immediately fall in with him and drive as fast as our Jeep will go, down into the valley, and along the road facing the Town – the Infantry have gone to ground – there is heavy German machine gun and mortar fire, but we are a small target, it is getting a little dusk and we are travelling very fast, so do not fun foul of any of his fire. We ascend the hill by the sharp hairpin bends and approach the front of the Town. When a little over half way up the hill we see the tanks, and see a number of men lying alongside.
Three are badly wounded, we attend to them, load them on the Jeep ambulance and Slim and Art start back to the Reception Station with them. I remain on the hillside and go on with the work of looking after the injured. There are two minor wounds which I attend and then go to examine the dead. The first one I approached was Bruce Trotter – dead, as I am certain he expected to be when last he spoke to me. The next I approached was his Sgt., Curly Lynch. Both were very ver close friends of mine and I will confess it was a terrible shock to find them there. I removed their personal belongings, packed them carefully, and determined that if it was humanly possible I would bring their bodies out, and personally attend to their burial. The last and only thing I could for them.
Charboneau was in the leading tank (note: this tank is known as the Miracle Tank – more on this soon), and was allowed to pass the corner, but reported gun fire from his left. Curly was the second tank, and as he turned the corner was met by a direct hit from an 88mm, concealed beside the Town. Bruce was in the third tank and was not far from Curly – for some reason, and stories differ, but he had his head out of the turret when a mortar hit the top of the tank. His crew did not know he was hit as he slumped to the floor. All the members of Curly’s tank were badly wounded, as well as his own D.R. but we got them attended to and removed down the line in record time, so all should recover.
Charboneau in the meantime got into Town – destroyed two guns, several Germans, but his own tank got knocked out and set on fire. At times in the darkness German soldiers on top of the tank trying to get in but they knocked them off by revolving the turret. Eventually he got himself and his men out of the tank and back to safety – deserving a decoration, but I am sure he will not get one, as he is not a favorite of the Col. After sending the bodies of Bruce and Curly back to the Reception Station – we took shelter from the rain in a snowshed at a a Contoneiri that happened to be on the spot. Here I established an R.A.P. and as the order for the retreat came, checked each tank, stopping it by flashing a light on it as it returned. The wounded we removed, treated and evacuated. The dead, we left to be carried to harbour.
The Infantry had not been able to advance, we had captured the Town, but had been forced to leave it due to darkness and the fact that the Infantry were pinned down so long. Jerry had succeeded in separating our Infantry and our tanks, due to the lack of Artillery. “A” Squadron had entered and gone through the Town. Bob Purves had been stunned at the very beginning of the battle and had not taken command. Don Taylor had assumed command of “A” and carried on when Bruce was killed. Fred Ritchies had been in command of “B” which went to the right of the Town. When the last tank returned past our station and been checked, we fell in the rear of the tank column and return to our Reception Station, bearing five more wounded with us. we have lost three tanks, three are dead and nine are wounded, all in “A” Squadron.