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The Attack on Monte Camino 1943 (80th Anniversary)

The Attack on Monte Camino 1943 (80th Anniversary)

Of course 11 November 2013 marks 105 years since the signing of the Armistice in 1918, but it also marks 80 years since 7th Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were engaged in the Attack on Monte Camino during the often-overlooked Italian Campaign of the Second World War. The following entries from the Regimental War Chronicle record the events leading up to and after this attack.

Map of Monte Camino, 1943

1943 – 7th Bn Oxf & Bucks LI – ITALY – the Attack on Monte Camino.

On the 10th November C Company was due to relieve A Company, forward in the village of Corigliano. This, however, was cancelled and at 0830 hrs. the Regiment was placed at four hours’ notice to move. Rations for twenty-four hours and wool­len underclothing were issued to each man, and O group was ordered forward to the headquarters of the 201st Guards Brigade. There it met the brigadier of that brigade and the divisional commander. It was informed that the two battalions of Guards on Monte Camino were in a serious position and the Regiment had been placed under command of the brigade to carry out an attack on Point 819 that night.

Monte Camino was some 2,000 yards from the viewpoint and, although little detail of the upper slopes could be seen, it certainly appeared a formid­able obstacle. It was difficult, viewing the mountain from this angle, to appreciate the perspective correctly and a great deal of reliance had to be placed upon the descriptions given by the intelligence officer of the 201st Guards Brigade. Arrangements had been made to convey the Regiment from the harbour area by troop-carrying lorries round the Ponte route (9596) to San Clemente (9604), and from there the Regiment was to climb the mule track through Mieli (9505) to the start line. Owing to the weakness of the rifle companies the commanding officer decided to strengthen A Company with the carrier platoon in a dis­mounted role, and the anti-tank platoon and all men from H.Q. Company who could be spared were formed into a fourth rifle company.

R and O groups returned to the Regiment at San Domenico (9698) at about 1540 hrs., when final orders were given for the move and attack. There was very little time for the men of H.Q. Company to reorganize on a rifle-company basis. Three 3-inch mortars were taken, one detachment being placed under the command each of A and B Companies. The remainder of the platoon was used as carriers. Detachment commanders and orderlies were to go forward with these companies, leaving the mortars on the start line to be brought up at first light.

The Regiment left San Domenico at 1730 hrs. in motor transport and debussed just short of the road junction at San Clemente. The Guards, who organized this move, took a little too much risk in the use of transport, for the Germans on the hills above must have realized that something was afoot when they heard the revving of the troop-carrying lorries’ engines as they turned round.

As a result the whole valley was treated to a heavy artillery stonk whilst the Regiment was waiting at the foot of the hill. Fortunately, there were fairly deep ditches on either side of the road and very few casualties were suffered. A hot drink was issued and at 2330 hrs. the Regiment left for the hill climb.

The commanding officer of the Scots Guards met the commanding officer at the head of the pass and took him up to the start line, which ran at right angles across the top of the mule track and between the two spurs on which the Scots Guards and the Coldstreamers were lying. There the objectives and the main features of the mountains were pointed out. The Regiment took about three hours to make the climb and owing to the steepness of the track and the heavy pack carried by each man, frequent halts had to be made in order to maintain the continu­ity of the column. Fortunately there was little interference from enemy artillery or mortars, which must have had great difficulty hi ranging their fire on the steep reverse slopes of Camino.

Briefly the plan was as follows: right, B Company, objective the rock pimple at 953076; centre, A Company, mil 819 at 951074; left, C Company, wood 950072. The composite company was to form a firm base astride the start line between the two Guards battalions. Regimental headquarters were to remain just below the start line. The artillery plan comprised a barrage to cover the attack, timings being based on 100 yards in six minutes, and also concentrations to be brought down on features on the flanks. The Scots and Coldstream Guards on the right and left respectively were to assist in neutralizing any opposition from the flanks. The Scots Guards especially were to work forward and endeavour to knock out enemy Spandau posts on the ridge leading up to Monastery Hill. The companies were in position in the start line by 0300 hrs.

1943 – 7th Bn Oxf & Bucks LI – ITALY – the Attack on Monte Camino.

At 0300 hrs. 11th November the companies crossed the start line as ordered. After about 200 yards B Company on the right encountered heavy machine-gun fire from its right flank. This fire came from a number of machine guns sited on the monastery feature. Owing to crest-clearing difficulties it was impossible to bring artillery fire down on these positions and it could only be hoped that the Scots Guards would work forward to this ridge and contain the posts whilst the attack went through. When it became apparent that the Guards had not succeeded in doing this, a detachment from B Company had to be made in order to go and deal with them. This was done and some of the nearer posts were cleared, a number of the enemy being killed and twenty-one prisoners being taken. This action, however, delayed the advance and broke up the cohesion of the attack and it was difficult to regain control of the company hi the dark. As soon as the advance was continued, heavy opposition was met from an enemy locality on the pimple slightly short of and to the right of Hill 819. This locality was eventually captured, but a counter-attack by the enemy regained it before reorganization. Owing to the losses sustained and the obvious strength of the position, B Company decided to work round to the left and join up with A Company, which had gained its objective on the left side of Hill 819. This company had met little opposition until within a few yards of the top of Hill 819 and this it had succeeded in overcoming, but found it impossible to get Bren guns into position on the forward slope. Consolidation was therefore effected on the reverse slopes, with B Company protecting the right flank. The left company, C Company, reached the woods with slight opposition and dug in. There the remnants of the Coldstreamers company which had been isolated for two days were found. These, having no know­ledge of the attack, were surprised at this noisy and somewhat unorthodox take-over. There was a gap of from 200 to 300 yards between C and A Companies, but contact was maintained by patrols. The position therefore at first light was as follows: right company had failed to secure its objective but had closed in on centre company (A); A Company gained its objective but had been forced to consolidate on the reverse slopes only; left company (C) had secured its objective, but there was a gap between it and A Company.

Soon after first light on the 11th November it became appar­ent that the position of the two forward companies on the right was unenviable in the extreme. They were overlooked on three sides—from Hill 819 to the front, the pimple to the right and Monastery Hill behind them—on all of which the enemy had a number of concealed machine guns well dug in. Movement in any form was impossible and the enemy, being on higher ground, was able to shoot down into the sangars which in this very diffi­cult country were the only kind of protection our troops had been able to put up. The advantage in range of the Spandau over the Bren gun also had decisive influence in the battle.

The situa­tion was made more difficult still by the stretch of ground between the composite company and the forward companies being covered by fire from the high ground on the right. The enemy on this occasion showed little respect for the Red Cross and efforts to get messages, stretcher-bearers or ammunition forward proved impossible and had to be abandoned.

At about midday the enemy succeeded in infiltrating a number of machine guns into the gap between C and A Companies and also between B Company and the composite company, with the result that the two forward companies on the right were in danger of being cut off. Orders were therefore issued for these two companies to concentrate on the left company, as this position was less ex­posed. The difficulty of carrying out this readjustment was con­siderable owing to the impossibility of movement, loss of leaders and the fact that crest clearance made artillery support ineffec­tive. The anti-tank platoon worked forward on the right and engaged the enemy with all weapons, whilst Major J. P. R. Montgomery succeeded in co-ordinating the movement of the two companies with Captain J. R. B. Wright. Unfortunately just after the final plan for readjustment had been made Captain Wright was hit by an enemy sniper and severely wounded. Almost at the same time Serjeant Allen, M.M., who had been with Captain Wright throughout A Company’s battles, was killed. After some delay a smoke screen was put down and with the exception of a few men who were cut off the two right com­panies concentrated on C Company.

This move was not followed up directly by the enemy, who, instead, continued to infiltrate between the forward companies and the remainder of the Regi­ment forming the firm base. The situation became serious and all men of Regimental headquarters, signallers, pioneers and anti-tank platoon, were formed up and launched in a counter­attack on the enemy who had interposed themselves between their position and the forward companies. This counter-attack was successful and the enemy withdrew. The forward companies were by this time so seriously depleted that it was decided to withdraw them. About thirty of them under the command of Serjeant Cowie were formed into a platoon locality on the left of the anti-tank platoon and the remainder were formed into one rifle company under Major Keith. These were stationed behind Regimental headquarters hi a counter-attack role.

By last light, therefore, on the 11th November the position was practically identical with that which had existed before the attack took place. On the right the Scots Guards maintained their position on the spur below Monastery Hill and thence, holding a line roughly along the original start line of the Regiment, were the anti-tank platoon, Serjeant Cowies’ composite platoon and finally the Coldstream Guards on Coldstream Ridge. Efforts to bring back Captain J. R. B. Wright, who had been lying in the open since being wounded, had so far failed, but Major Mont­gomery succeeded in rescuing him after dark. He was brought back by stretcher-bearers and died later in a C.C.S.*(*Casualty clearing station.) He was an officer of very great gallantry and one to whom all ranks were devoted’.

1943 – 7th Bn Oxf & Bucks LI – ITALY – the Attack on Monte Camino.

On the afternoon of the 12th November a patrol of the anti-tank platoon went out to Hill 819 and discovered it unoccupied. They went right over the feature without finding the enemy. On receiving this report every available man was sent to occupy this feature. The leading platoon, which had been standing by at immediate readi­ness, was dispatched quickly to seize the feature, but found it strongly held again. Some casualties were suffered from stick grenades and orders were therefore issued for this force to return.

1943 – 7th Bn Oxf & Bucks LI – ITALY – the Attack on Monte Camino.

On the afternoon of the 13th November, brigade issued a warning order for the position to be abandoned.

1943 – 7th Bn Oxf & Bucks LI – ITALY – the Attack on Monte Camino.

Final orders were received the following morning for the evacuation to take place during the night of the 14th/15th November

The 14th was a day of rain and low clouds over the position and visibility was cut down to about twenty yards. In the afternoon the enemy attempted to occupy a pimple approximately seventy yards in front of our forward defended localities.

If allowed to remain there our withdrawal would quickly have been detected and seriously prejudiced. Two platoons were therefore sent to drive the enemy from this posi­tion. This they succeeded in doing, killing one Boche, wounding another and probably injuring several more as they withdrew. Men from the anti-tank platoon moved forward in the mist and liberally sowed booby-traps around the area. The withdrawal began as soon as it was dark—the Regiment, in the centre, moving out first, covered by the companies of Guards on either flank. Weather conditions were appalling and the night was exceedingly dark.

As the long column of men groped its way down the mountainside many fell, but fortunately there were no serious injuries. As a result of the bad weather the enemy failed to detect our withdrawal and there was little interference. The Regiment had a long and gruelling march across country on reaching the foot of the mountain along a jeep track con­structed from Vallecardi (9803) to Conca (9903) by the divisional reconnaissance regiment. Thence it was moved in transport to the village of Orchi, about five miles south-east of Camino. Here B Echelon had prepared for the return: hot rum, blankets, bivouacs, caves and houses all helped to make the men as comfortable as possible and forget their ordeal of the past five days.

1943 – 7th Bn Oxf & Bucks LI – ITALY – the Attack on Monte Camino.

The 15th November  was spent in finding better accommodation, drying clothes and cleaning equipment.

1943 – 7th Bn Oxf & Bucks LI – ITALY – the Attack on Monte Camino.

On the 16th November the divisional commander visited the Regiment to speak to all officers and N.C.Os. He said that when the attacks on Camino were first made by the 201st Guards Brigade it was not realized that this feature formed one of the main defensive positions in the German winter line. The committing of the Regiment to the battle almost resulted in the turning of the scales in our favour, but the German reaction and determination to hold the hill had been so strong that it would have required at least another brigade to ensure success. The maintenance of this brigade on the hill would have been impossible with the prevailing make­shift supply arrangement. Moreover, the break in the weather was going to make the maintenance of troops already fighting on the feature extremely difficult. In view of these facts he had decided to withdraw completely.

In casualties in this operation the Regiment lost:

Killed.—Two officers, Captain M. H. Lofts and Lieutenant R. B. Bailey, both of whom had been with the Regiment for only about a fortnight, and twenty-one soldiers.

Wounded.—Four officers, Captains J. R. B. Wright, D.S.O. (subsequently died of wounds), and R. J. Vincent and Lieutenants H. B. Currigan and G. J. Mayhew, and sixty-five soldiers.

Missing.—One officer, Lieutenant P. J. Dudman (since reported killed in action) and twenty-six soldiers.

As a result of these casualties the Regiment was re-formed into two companies—

B Company, commanded by Major J. R. P. Montgomery, M.C., and

D Company, commanded by Major D. A. Philips.

Three South African officers, Lieutenants Green, Godbolt and Loubser, arrived as reinforcements. These were the forerunners of many others of their country who joined the Regiment later. A brigade patrol company was also formed, to which Lieutenant W. H. Girling and eighteen N.C.Os. and men of the Regiment were contributed. It was still necessary for the Regiment to be prepared to play an operational role if the enemy followed up his success in repulsing the attack on Camino. O group reconnoitred stop-line positions in the area of Vezzarola (9802).

In addition, the platoons of H.Q. Company were reorganized, since it was realized that during the coming winter and fighting in mountainous country men with bayonets would be needed more than the specialist platoons.

No. 3 Platoon was reduced to three detachments because it would never be possible to carry sufficient ammunition to keep more than three mortars in action.

No. 4 Platoon was reduced to one section and No. 5 Platoon to one troop.

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