In which Roy rejoins the 8th Army, heads for Rome and sets up wireless communications for the Canadians
The first couple of months of 1945 were taken up with training, maintenance work and preparation for an advance when conditions were favourable. At this time we were supporting the Free Polish Division, a pretty slap-happy bunch of warriors who caused some comment because they employed female drivers for their transport - unusual in those days and in that situation! Unhappily they were to receive massive casualties at the hands of the US Air Corps who, no doubt mistakenly, dropped several tons of bombs on them instead of the enemy.
The long-awaited Spring Offensive began in early April 1945, which entailed much hard work for the sappers who had the unenviable task of bridging the many rivers and marshes encountered in this area, to say nothing of clearing the many minefields around the German defensive positions. Happily the ‘Goodies’ soon overwhelmed the ‘Baddies’ and our little band of ‘Merry Men’ up-anchored and followed the triumphant 56th Division, with 221 Company to Venice and beyond. In fact we came to rest at a small town, Portoguaro, on the road to Trieste, which we shared with a battalion of Gurkhas. In the course of this advance we had to cross the river Po on a pontoon bridge some 400 feet long, a queer sensation behind the wheel of a top-heavy Bedford Wireless truck! The Italian campaign came to an end on May 2nd; I was sitting in the back of the Colonel’s Jeep, manning his radio, listening to the announcement by Winston Churchill in Parliament, when I heard the confirmation of the end of the war in Europe on 8th May. At the time we were perched on a sand bank in the middle of a river, in order to get a clear signal, and quite by chance picked up the BBC! That night we celebrated with a drink or two in the company of a couple of tipsy ‘Johnny Gurkhas’.
The voyage over to Italy, in a worn-out passenger/cargo vessel, was made reasonably comfortable because I volunteered for duty in the galley checking the issuing of meals. This entitled me to my own very small cabin, tucked away in the bowels of the ship, but relatively peaceful. On arrival at the Transit Camp I was assigned to the HQ Company of 1210 GHQ Troops RE, a new formation attached to 5 Corps. The first few weeks were spent in muddy locations overlooking the Sangro river waiting for the Canadians to push the Germans off the opposite bank, which, in due course, they did and the northward advance began. We duly arrived in a small remote hill-side village, Torino di Sangro, I think it was called. We were holed up here for several weeks and I was given the job of organising a W/T Operator’s course and setting up a wireless network with the three Field Companies attached (107, 754 and 562 Companies). I was also allotted a Norton in order to visit the various sites, which made life more amenable. One day was brightened up by the arrival of Geoff Cornford, who, since I had left 221 Company had got himself a Commission. He paid one or two subsequent visits and on one occasion gave me a lift in his 15cwt truck to Rome for a short leave. This was rather a hectic scramble over the snow-covered Apennines! On 5th June we celebrated the liberation of Rome, unfortunately this event was overshadowed the following day by the Invasion of Normandy! So, the ‘D Day Dodgers’, as the Eighth Army were called by some, lost out in the Glory Stakes!
We were soon on the move, travelling up the Adriatic coast in short stages and enjoying some excellent bathing on the way. A short break in the Bay of Naples was much appreciated; visits to Pompeii and a drive along the fantastic cliff road to Sorrento and Amalfi are well remembered highlights. In the late summer I had a seven day leave in Rome and on this occasion I spent most of the time with Eric (Punch) Simmons who was a warrant officer stationed in a Royal Engineer’s stores depot in the city. I also managed to find 221 Coy who were resting up in nearby Tivoli. Spent a few happy hours with some of the old gang - Dennis Sutton, Alick Stovell and Basil Clarkson, among others. They had had a pretty rough time and I realised how lucky I had been contracting sciatica!
Switching back to the Adriatic, after our rest period around Naples, we continued to make slow progress up the coast via Ancona, Pesaro and Rimini where we turned inland on the road to Bologna. We came to rest for a couple of weeks at a beautiful hill-top house surrounded by lawns and gardens complete with peacocks. This was the residence of the brother-in-law of Gracie Fields (the entertainer and singer). The place had recently been used by the Germans as an officer’s mess and the owner and his family were living in the cellars and seemed overjoyed to see us - bringing out the vermouth bottles to prove it! By now I had been provided with a Bedford 3 ton truck on which had been built a caravan body fitted out as a Wireless Control Office. This was a very pleasant home-from-home as I could keep all my kit in the cab and sleep in the office surrounded by my wireless sets. It was also more comfortable and warmer than the Norton as the winter months approached. With the onset of Winter both sides settled down to await a Spring Offensive and we settled in to a large town-house, with internal courtyard, adjacent to the main square in Forli. This was reasonably warm and comfortable but also within reach of enemy gunfire and they managed to disturb our sleep most nights with the odd shell. The last Christmas of the war was celebrated here and quite a good feast was provided including turkey, pork and yorkshire pudding etc. plus an excellent pantomime in the local theatre, taken over by ENSA (the Forces Entertainment Organisation) for the purpose.
Winston Churchill announces the German Surrender