STORYLINE - 5: SALERNO SALLY GRAZING ON THE GUSTAV LINE - Memories of a Man in a Red Coat
Going in - Combined Services 'Commandos' lead the way
There I was on the Kings Road, sashaying along, truckin' my stuff across Sloane Square.
You wouldn't believe the human zoo down there, what with Punks, guys with Mohicans, Hippies and Dippies and all sorts! All of them hogging the seats to boot!
Me, I modelled myself on Mick and Keith. I even carried an electric guitar in a case, but I wasn't going to play the thing, was I? Well I couldn't. It was just a gimmick, y'know, to pull the birds, that's all. Anyway I'm cruising through the zoo, eyeing the talent in their short shorts and fishnet tights, then suddenly I spot this long, bright red tunic in amongst the crowd. It's heading across the top end of the square to the right. I thought to myself I'd look the spanker in one of them! After all, if you want to stand out in the crowd what better than bright red? I'd heard of thin red lines an' all that, y'know, 'Zulu' and such with Stanley Baker and Michael Caine
I followed the 'coat' and when there was a gap in the crowd saw it was attached to a white-haired head on which was perched a black tricorn hat with a sort of ribbon. Of all the headgear to wear! Man, what a suit! I thought back to when I saw the Redcoats in the 'Tom Jones' film with Albert Finney and Suzannah York. Think of it, here was Tom Jones himself, in person, straight out of the film - No, not the singer, dozy muff! I had to catch up with the old geezer, get his drift and see in a shop window what I'd look like with one of these tricorn hats on before I zipped down to Carnaby Street for one... If they still had one. Trouble with following trendsetters was the clothes tended to fly off the rails down the West End!
'Hey mate, hold on a tick!' I called out through the hubbub. He couldn't have heard and kept ploughing on through the bodies that were standing and sitting around him, as if he was drivin' a tank. I tried again, 'Hey mate - what's the rush? I bet you've got a real great party lined up!'
This time he heard me, by which time I was right up next to him, almost nose-to-nose. He looked at me through thick lenses and started to answer, but right then some twerp on roller skates breezed between us and nearly knocked the old boy flying. I caught the geezer before he went, top over toe. He swore at the fast disappearing cruiser,
'Dozy flaming muffin-roaster! I hope you go flying cartwheels!' Swore like a trooper, didn't he! Well, he was a trouper. The old man looked back at me and pointed an accusing finger at me, 'Your fault, nipper! If you hadn't stopped me I'd have spotted the maniac! Anyway, what was it you said - something about parties?'
'Right on, man!' I thought I'd dazzle him with my repartee but he fixed me with a steely eye.
'Grow up, nipper!' He cut me right down to size with those three words. Of all things, 'Nipper' - I was no snotty-nosed kid!
'Listen here', I told him, 'I was only trying to be friendly. Where're you going, spivved up like that, anyway? Must be some rave!'
'Don't know much, do you?' the old boy snapped my head off. 'When I was your age I'd been promoted twice in one day! We had German bullets whizzing an' whining around our heads like steel gnats. First the sarge cops his, then the corp. Me, I'm the lance corp, aren't I, as was! Thrust up the chain of command like a flag on parade day, wasn't I?!'
'I've got the time to listen if you've got the time to tell', I told him and motioned towards the only unoccupied bench in that corner of the square.
'He looked sharpish at me again, then decided I wasn't taking the wee-wee and followed my finger,
'My Grandad died years ago. He was in the military, been at Dunkirk in '40 but never left Aldershot all the rest of the war', I told him. 'In charge of training rookies, wasn't he. My name's George, what's yours?'.
The old boy sat down slowly and I sat a bit closer, but not so as not to crowd him. But he crooked a finger so I had to move back up.
'I'm not talking over this traffic and what-not', he told me. 'I'm Percy, after the poet, my Mum told me. Y'know, Percy Shelley'.
'You were saying about being promoted twice in one day', I said. 'What was that all about?'
'Listen and learn', the old boy hushed me up and started off again,
'We'd been slogging up the west side of the Boot of Italy since landing on the south side of Sicily in July '43. The Yanks got it easy, but we'd been slammed by everything Jerry could muster on his way back through Messina and then the mainland. We'd chased after Jerry but he blew up the bridges and roads around the north side of Etna. The Yanks chased them off the island but we could've cornered them between us and shipped them back to Egypt if Patton had been less of a marionette. The prison camps would've been stuffed full of Jerries and Eyties. Anyway the Italians had had enough by then; carpeted Benito and threw in their lot with the Allies, didn't they! Well, who could blame them? Getting blasted by us as well as by the sand in Libya, and bein' looked down on by Jerry, that turned them off empire building for the duration, didn't it? Adolf had to do without his prancing mate Musso for a while, since his hero was banged up somewhere in Italy after their king Victor Emmanuel read him the riot act!
'Where was I? Oh, right. Old General Alexander was proper miffed with Jerry dumpin' mortars on us from the Gustav Line.
'Anyway Monty was safe and sound, back in Blighty by then.. He used to talk a load of guff, but meant well. Gave a lot of speeches to the lads, like before El Alamein before we went in and did the boss's bidding, right? Winston put a lot of faith in Harold Alexander. We were told we were goin' to take Naples. See Naples and die, eh?' He must have seen the blank look I gave him, as he added, 'That's a joke! We got nowhere near Naples, did we?'
'We landed early in September, us Brits to the north - 46th and 56th Infantry Divisions they called us, the footsloggers. The Commandos came in with us. Down south along the beach were the Yanks' 36th. Their Rangers and Paratroopers landed in and around downtown Salerno. They came under heavy fire, just as much as us. But we pushed Jerry back away from the beach, didn't we? Gawd, I'll never forget the screaming, like stuck pigs, the ones that had been caught in the shellfire - ours as much as Jerry's! 'Operation Avalanche' the brass called it. More like 'Operation Lead', I'd say, flyin' lead!.
'The first day, they said, was 'not critical', whatever that meant. Jerry had a welcome committee for us and threw the biggest fireworks party i'd ever seen, better than Bonfire Night down the Mile End Road! Winston made this speech about the Italians jacking it in an' coming in with us, did'n't he. I've never felt so bloody welcome in my life! The Italians came out into the streets, hugged us, kissed us, threw flowers at us and showered us with vino - some good stuff, that was. Quality, although I'm not the best judge of that. More a mild ale man myself. Nevertheless Jerry came back at us, though. We lost our officers, the major, captain and three junior officers. We had a Yorkshire regiment, the Green Howards, on one side of us as we went in. Their Corporal Higginbotham went next, and then Sergeant Hollister. That left me, did'n't it! Lance Corporal, stroke Corporal Percy. Then it was Sarge - all in one day! Gawd, Vesuvius eruptin' was nothin' on that show! Next thing we lost touch with the rest of the Battalion. Gone too far inland, hadn't we! Sappers were with us, a Bren gunner - young fellow, from up north somewhere, I forget - and we'd been looking up at the fireworks while the rest went the other way! Next thing I know I hear Jerry voices all around! Jeezus, you could've knocked me down with a feather! The Bren gunner seemed more in charge than I was, and made signals with 'is 'ands, tellin' us to fall back, keep low an' move - 'bloody fast, like' was what he'd said. Well I had to laugh. The sappers with their mine detectors scuttled along like crabs with long legs on their backs. One of them tripped, sprawled flat on his face. He was lifted up bodily by this young 'un... Bob I remember now. That was his name - Bob. They'd landed with the Commandos - he had a Combined Ops badge on his sleeve, came in with them, so he had. Jerry wasn't very happy with Commandos, they said. It was well known Adolf had them all shot, that sh** up he was about them! We got back to our lines safe enough, next mornin'. This Bob was the only one could remember the pass word, 'Daisy-May' it sounded like. I wouldn't swear to that, either. The Colonel gave me my stripes the following morning. Said I should've got a medal for it, but I told him this Bob should have it, not me. I hadn't a clue were we were! Didn't see him again, though - Bob, that is. Must've been shifted up into the mountains to build bridges Jerry'd blasted away. The Indian Division an' Anzacs were makin' better progress than us.
'The only female we saw all the time was a donkey someone left be'ind when the locals fled the inferno. We called her Salerno Sally. She was a bleeding survivor she was, grazin' and paying no mind to the bedlam that was goin' on around her! Not one shell came anywhere near her, y'know? We kept company with her and would've adopted her, lucky things she was, but the Colonel she'd she'd probably finish up in the pot with our company cooks! She did disappear about the time we moved on north. I don't know what donkey meat tastes like, but I think she'd 'ave been a bit tough!, judging by what she ate.
'The RAF came over the following day and blasted Jerry back to Naples, and the Yanks were reinforced! Their General Mark Clark got kicked upstairs for his bit, and they got to go into Naples to boot! They got in there on October 1st, my Mum's fiftieth birthday. That was 1943 for you! Hot as hell, even if it was raining all the time! We saw Jerry's 88's, anti-tank guns to you, splayed out in bits by what passed for the roadside. We went in through the town past grinning Yanks. We'd bust through Jerry's Bernhardt Line, but he fell back again, just out of reach - as ever. Mind, once we'd got past Florence they gave up fighting back and disappeared up through the Alps. We followed on, but most bridges had been blown. Still, the Alpine roads weren't as muddy as the Appenine ones we'd practically snorkelled through!
'We spent the time until Demob in southern Austria, bored out of our skulls! Some of our lads had been taken away from Italy along with Monty for the 'other show' as the officers put it. The Russkies went over their occupation zone line and had to be pushed back. That was a bit spicy! Thought we'd have another war on our hands there, but it all fizzled out and they were good as gold after that! Not a twitter from them after that. Jerry had had this cockeyed notion that us and the Yanks would go against the Russkies and Adolf would be sitting pretty in Berlin. I reckon Patton would've been all for it! The Yanks let the Reds stay where they'd got to when they overstepped the mark further north. Didn't have the stomach for it, did they! Well, that was our war. We had to ship some of the Russkies back that'd joined Jerry's army. Uncle Joe threatened Winston with keeping all the freed Allied prisoners, sending them to Siberia to work their ticket bsck home. The Allies were all up in arms, weren't they, told Churchill to surrender the Russkies toot-sweet! Brigadier Young had them locked into trains to go east and you should've heard the screaming! There was women and kids as well, y'see, the whole shooting match. Broke the train windows and gashed their hands on the glass, but couldn't get out. Siberia next stop! Put that in your pipe an' smoke it, eh?'
'Jeez, what a story!' I just gawped. Couldn't say any more. Here's me, I thought, bored skinless like a sausage in the fridge. What would the recruiting sergeant say to me when I rolled up at his office?
'Right, chummy - George, isn'. it? - I don't know about you but I've got my tea waiting for me. Special today, see? West Ham's on the box, playin' Wolves an' all. That's why I've got this hot little number, the tricorn hat. Somethin' about the founder, one of these kings back in Stuart times I think. Keep your pecker up, don't do anything I wouldn't do - and never try to be a bloody hero!'
'I was thinkin' about joining the army', I offered.
'Forget it, Georgie boy! They'll only send you to Ulster. You don't know who your enemy is there, nor see him neither, before he scratches your number onto his next bullet'.
With that Percy got up, with a bit of help from yours truly. Before he left the square he turned back, winked and said,
'Do yourself a favour, sonny - join the Navy. See the world and collect a bug or two!'
Then he was gone, like the good fairy after doing a pumpkin job on a horse-drawn carriage.
[The above dialogue was originally written in colloquial English to convey an atmosphere, of an old man reliving his experiences in WWII to a young Londoner in the 1970'. I've tidied it up at bit to make it easier for the majority of readers to read, but kept the essence of the way working class people talk in this part of the world. If you had any difficulty reading the earlier version, perhaps this one will help. Thanks]
* The US 36th Infantry division of Lt. General Mark W Clarks 5th Army landed on the southernmost beaches at Salerno, just south of the Bernhardt Line. The British 46th and 56th Infantry Divisions landed further north together with the Commandos. This began 'Operation Avalanche'. The first day of operations was considered 'not critical', although the Germans had been ready after Winston Churchill's speech telling about the Italians signing an armistice. The US troops fought hard to repulse a counter-attack, with thoughts of pulling out. General Mark Clark even joined his troops to direct their artillery fire.
Reserves from US 45th Infantry Division reinforced Mark Clark's men on the ground, Air Marshall Tedder's RAF air raids on the Germans broke resistance and the Americans pushed on towards Naples to the north. They arrived in Naples on October 1st, 1943.
From the time of the Allied Invasion of Sicily and through to the southern mainland regions British forces bore the brunt of German resistance but steadily pushed them northward, to the Gustav Line, Bernhardt Line and so on, snapping at the Germans' heels. Monte Cassino was a stumbling block. With the thousands of Allied troops at hand - Zouaves of the French Colonial forces, Foreign Legionnaires, Free French, Free Poles, Free Czechs, Australians, New Zealanders, Gurkhas, the Indian Division and British troops - you'd think it might have been easy.
Anzio landings were planned. When the Allies learnt Churchill had a hand in the planning they almost put the skids on it, citing 'Gallipoli' for their reservations. Churchill had said something about landing a roaring tiger on the beaches of Anzio and the force resembling a stranded whale. Anzio did not go well, so Salerno was put on the drawing board.
Chief of staff in Italy over 15th Army Group was General Sir Harold Alexander, with Bernard Montgomery under him in charge of the 8th Army before 'Monty' was transferred back to England prior to D-Day. With that grouping was Lt. General Mark W Clark's US 5th Army.
**The Royal Hospital, Chelsea was founded by Charles II, opened December 22nd, 1681 for retired soldiers without families to take care of them.
***My own father, Robert (Bob/Rob) Stanley Lancaster took part in the Salerno landings. He carried a Bren Gun, there to look after the men clearing mines and who had landed with the Commandos (this is a bit of a guess. However he did have a Combined Services badge that he showed me once, and combined ops was part of the Commando organisation set-up by Prince Philip's uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten in the first half of WWII). I remember him saying something one Christmas at our family 'do' about being with his mine-sweeping comrades at Salerno, finding themselves by accident at one stage behind German lines. The story provided much mirth amongst the grown-ups, and knowing odd bits about WWII history it tickled me as well. He was wounded in one arm by a sniper bullet, I know either he or somebody else in the family said, and I saw a picture taken of him in Rome with a bandage on his arm. I can't remember which one it was.
*** Robert Stanley Lancaster, elder son of Alfred Stanley Lancaster and May Audrey Lancaster
Early in January, 2014 Robert Lancaster died after short illness aged 91.
Hitting the Axis in the 'soft underbelly' of Europe wasn't quite the garden party the desert-hardened 8th Army and US forces imagined it would be. The Appenines made it hard work, the winter rains driving down through the river valleys in torrents - and the mud! The Germans were set on making every mile a pain for the Allies, but at least the Italians were out of it by the time the toe of the 'boot' was achieved. Anzio turned out to be a slogging campaign after the commander decided to hold tight. The 'stranded whale' as Churchill put it, allowed the Germans to concentrate their firepower and bring up their giant rail-mounted gun nicknamed 'Anzio Annie' by the allies. Salerno would hopefully bring the results hoped, to bypass the Gustav Line established by Kesselring. It's nightmarish in places.
The Italian Campaign, WWII
Monte Cassino - another harsh lesson
Monte Cassino proved a sticking point for the Allies, a fortified line established by Kesslring near the west coast of Italy to hold back the Allies. The Germans made us bleed for every mile taken, and attempts were made to cut through the Gustav Line. Finally RAF and USAAF bombers hit the 1,000 year old monastery, assuming the Germans occupied it. The Germans maintained it was not so, but their paratroopers were moved in to occupy the ruins and hold back the Allied tide. Waves of troops were sent in by the New Zealanders to no avail. Finally the Free Poles dislodged the Master Race. Imagine their chagrin at being ousted by the Slavs they thought inferior!
Cassino 1944, Breaking the Gustav Line
Royal Hospital, Chelsea (nearest Underground station: Sloane Square on the District Line after Victoria travelling outward from Central London).
(44) 0207 881 5200
Visits and tours by groups of ten or less are welcome, (44) 0207 881 5298.
*For Museum and Souvenir Shop visit the web-site or phone above. Products from the Souvenir Shop can be bought online when the Museum is closed
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