9th Battalion the Royal Fusiliers - Report on Operation Konker
The Monte Camino massif, formed by a series of peaks and boulder strewn ridges and situated on the south side of the River Garigliano, formed a strong bastion in the German Winter Line. As long as the enemy held it the approaches to Rome was effectively blocked.
Shortly before this operation an attempt had been made by small American and British forces to get a footing on Defensa and the slopes below the Monastery, but owing to the smallness of the forces employed, it had proved unsuccessful. The troops were withdrawn and the enemy moved forward and occupied strong positions on the lower slopes laid mines and generally dominated all the approaches.
The Eighth Army started its offensive about 27th of November and as soon as its weight began to be felt by the enemy it became imperative to capture the Monte Camino massif in order to break the Winter Line, open the road to Rome, and prevent the enemy from reinforcing his divisions opposite the Eighth Army.
2. The General Plan.
On the night D - 1 /D-Day 46 Division on the left was to clear the approaches to Barearse Ridge by capturing Calabritto, and the woods to the north of it – and subsequently to exploit northwest on the night D/D.1 day.
36 U.S. Division on the right was to capture Defensa, the high ground dominating route 6 and finally Monte Maggiore which directly overlooked the plain to the north.
56 Division was to capture Razorback Ridge – Point 819 and the Monastery as soon as this was completed – and subsequently Point 683 and Aquapendola.
3. 167 Brigade Plan. Tasks.
7 Ox and Bucks. To clear the length of the escarpment of Barearse Ridge, and finally to capture and form a firm base on the Point 727 at the top of the ridge.
9 Royal Fusiliers. To move up on the left of 7 Ox and Bucks and on the capture of Point 727 to move on and form up on the start line ready for the assault on the left half of the 819 feature.
8 Royal Fusiliers. To follow up behind 9 Royal Fusiliers form up on their right on the start line, and assault Point 819 itself.
Brigade Patrol Company. To proceed by the advance of 7 Ox and Bucks and 9 Royal Fusiliers – clearing away minor opposition, and finally to occupy the woods below Point 819 and cover the start line.
4. Support for the Attack.
The whole corps artillery with a proportion of 36 U.S. Division artillery was available for the support of the attack. Starting at last light on D-Day a series of heavy concentrations were to be fired in turn on objectives and known enemy strong points. In effect 3 rounds per gun would be fired by 400 guns in 5 minutes on each target – or 6000 rounds would land in 5 minutes on an area approximately 500 yards x 500 yards. This programme of terror stonks was to be repeated three times on each target.
4.2 inch mortars were also allotted targets for heavy concentrations.
12 Bofors light AA guns were to fire 60 rounds per gun at stated times on known enemy posts at the head of the mule track and on the Barearse escarpment.
5. The Approach.
The Battalion concentrated on D -1/D night (30 November/1 December) in the village of Cici about 1½ miles from the foot of the mountain. The attack of 46 Division went in on that night and by the afternoon of 1st of December Calabritto had been captured after fierce fighting and against considerable opposition which included minefields.
At 1715hrs on 1 December the Battalion moved off in single file, going by the outskirts of San Clemente-Canelle and the sunken road to the bottom of Barearse.
It was a clear star lit night, and with the young moon that went down at 2200hrs. Barearse Ridge, and the Monastery peak stood out darkly forbidding against the sky, and looking twice their normal size.
The artillery programme started and the bursting of the terror stonks on the various targets, and the stream of red tracer shells from the Bofors guns was a tremendous and heartening spectacle.
The climb started. The order of march was: -
D Company and guide party.
Battalion Tac HQ and taping party.
Signallers and porters.
Mortars and porters.
The Brigade Patrol Company worked in front clearing minor opposition. It met several Spandau posts at the beginning of the climb which will quickly smothered, the crews being effectively dealt with – a few however were taken prisoner and sent back.
As the steeper part was met at the going became appalling. The rocks and boulders became larger – feet became wedged between rocks and progress was necessarily very slow. The men were heavily loaded with either a large packs or rucksacks, weapons, ammunition and tools and rests became more frequent.
It was impossible to work forward in anything like the tactical formation and the battalion marched slowly along in single file. This made the battalion column very long, but at this stage to halt and deployed even into two columns would have wasted a great deal of time, and would have been difficult to do in the dark without some confusion. It also would have complicated to the guiding as there was only one tape being laid and the advance was a very zig-zag affair dictated by going between boulders and rocks.
Direction was kept by a guide party consisting of Captain Brooks and four men from the Intelligence Section with the leading company, and a taping party under Lieutenant Gordon, the Intelligence Officer, carrying between them 2000 yards of tape which was unrolled as the advance proceeded.
During this period there was very little interference from the enemy. An odd Spandau fired from the left as we advanced, but the bullets passed away overhead. One shell caused five casualties in B Company including CSM and three stretcher bearers. The method of our approach appeared to have taken the enemy by surprise.
Time went on. The artillery stonks grew in intensity and our way was lit periodically by the red tracer of the Bofors shells as they passed with seemingly incredible slowness over our heads. We were well up Barearse now sweating profusely, and a bit weary.
In the front Captain Brooks with the guide party and the leading troops of D Company came across a sangar with a Spandau poking out of it. It was approached cautiously and three German soldiers were found asleep in the bottom with their boots off. They were somewhat rudely awakened and were started off on their painfully bootless way down the boulder strewn hillside.
At 0100hrs we saw quite distinctively the directional shots from the Bofors burst over 819. This was a great help and gave us the sure line on which to proceed. In any night attack a stream of Bofors shells directed on certain points is of the greatest assistance in keeping direction and should always be used where possible.
At last Point 727 was reached and here we parted company with 7 Ox and Bucks and bore off to the left, towards the wood at the bottom of 819 which was to be a start line. The Brigade Patrol Company entered the wood ahead of us and winkled a couple of Spandaus, and remained to cover us in.
The wood was reached and companies formed up B on right, D on left with A Company behind. The time was 0400hrs. It had taken eight hours of laborious toiling to get there and considering the loads that the men were carrying they stood up to it remarkably well. The battalion climbing as it was in single file took some time to arrive and form up.
8 Royal Fusiliers who were also coming up in single file, were some way behind us, and it soon became obvious that they would not arrive in time to form up on our right and for the attack to go in before daylight.
At 0500hrs a message came from Brigade to the effect that should 8 Royal Fusiliers not arrive in time 9 Royal Fusiliers was to do the attack on their own.
6. The Assault.
Zero hour was fixed for 0600hrs and arrangements made through Captain Starge the Battery Commander for the Monastery and Point 683 ridge, which was still in enemy hands, to be smoked for four hours, so preventing observation and interference with the reorganisation on the objective.
Unfortunately, when the time came the atmospheric conditions were such that the smoke was ineffective.
At 0600hrs the companies advanced - Y Company 8 Royal Fusiliers round the right of the board and the remainder around the left. There was insufficient room owing to the slope of the hill for both companies to advance deployed. B Company advanced in front with D Company echeloned behind, and almost at once bumped the enemy, who was disposed in a series of Spandau posts amongst the rocks.
These were dealt with, with the greatest vigour, determination and bad language and soon succumbed to fire and movement. The following is an extract of Major Warner’s (OC B Company) account of this stage and speaks for itself.
“I gave my orders out and then went forward with the leading platoon round the left-hand corner of the wood. We advanced with one platoon up owing to the difficult nature of the ground. After about sixty yards loud German voices were heard to our front and two Spandau posts opened up at the leading platoon which carried straight on. I went back to the second platoon, and ordered them to work round the left rear of the enemy posts. On returning to the leading platoon I found they had shot two Germans and captured four more. This platoon then gave covering fire for the second platoon who were working round to the left, and who shortly afterwards put in an assault, which was checked a bit by another Spandau that opened up from another direction and also by snipers. However, after a most determined display of vigour and guts these three Spandaus were overrun, and shortly afterwards a fourth which had opened fire from their rear. Three Germans were shot and 14 captured.
The reserve platoon now came through and attempted to get up on the left shoulder of South Knob but were prevented by a Spandau firing from the top and another firing from the Monastery area. Covering fire of Brens and 2-inch mortar HE was then given by the two remaining platoons. This was effective and the assault platoon, arriving at the top of the shoulder found the enemy running back. They were engaged and four shot, the remainder unluckily got away. The company then reorganised on the objective.”
The left forward company (D Company Major Skillern) advanced towards the left spur which was its objective and were met by fire from a Spandau and snipers. One platoon assaulted covered by fire from the two remaining platoons. This was effective – the Spandau was quickly smothered. Three Germans being shot. The company suffered three wounded one being the CSM.
A Company in the rear took up positions facing the left flank to prevent enemy counterattack or infiltration from that side and engaged with a LMG a Spandau firing from the lower slope of Point 683 on the left and silenced it.
Later, at dusk an enemy patrol which appeared to be working round left in the valley was shot up and disappeared.
The spirit of the troops during the sharp action was beyond praise. The determination to fight and kill shown after an eight hour climb over difficult going, carrying heavy loads was quite remarkable.
The tale of the next four days was one of endurance and physical discomfort. Up to the taking on the objective casualties had been remarkably few. Subsequently the Battalion area was subjected to constant shelling and mortaring and until the Monastery was captured, to Spandau fire as well. The few snipers became active in front and as the whole position was bare and exposed and under enemy observation from two sides casualties started to increase. Lashing rain and bitterly cold nights, did not make life any more comfortable.
On the night 2/3 December Coldstream Guards went through us and occupied Point 683 and the reach on the left flank and deprived the enemy of some of his close observation.
On the afternoon of 3 December, a patrol was sent out by D Company in an attempt to winkle a Spandau post that was troubling the Coldstreams from our front. The patrol under Lieutenant Bannerman (D Company) was caught in crossfire from two Spandaus and was forced to withdraw, suffering two casualties.
On evening of the same day, Company sent a strong fighting patrol into Formelli to clear it and if possible, occupy it until relieved by a company of LIR at dawn on the next day.
The patrol reached in the village but was caught by Spandau from four sides and forced to withdraw.
During the whole of this period a confused battle was taking place for the Monastery which appeared to be held by a couple of Spandau posts. It was not until the afternoon of 6 December that it was definitely captured by 2/5 Queens.
On night of 6/7 December we were relieved by LIR and the Battalion in great heart after a trying five days returned to its old billet at Terra Corpo.
The casualties sustained were:-
Officers 4 killed.
Other Ranks 10 killed, 48 wounded, 5 missing.
Which considering the intensity of the enemy shelling over the period was light.
The administration for this operation was a major problem, as all requirements for the troops had had to be carried by porter.
The following points may be of interest.
The number of porters required to accompany the Battalion on its climb was 110. The is carried 2 inch mortar bombs for companies, signal stores, 3 inch mortars and ammunition, stretchers.
The soldier carried on him everything that he would require for 24 hours. This included weapons, ammunition, either pick shovel or entrenching tool and a large pack or haversack containing:-
1 pair of socks.
24 hourrs ration.
This meant that if opposition had been met on Barearse owing to the steepness of the climb and his heavy load, the soldier would not have really been in a fit state to fight. The heavy load was quite essential and luckily little opposition was met. In this form of operation when, of necessity, the man has to climb steep places heavily loaded, he must, as was done in this case by the Brigade Patrol Company, be preceded by a lightly equipped force who are ready to fight at a moment’s notice, clearing the way he opposition in front.
Each evening a carrying party of about 40 taken from B echelon brought up rations, water and ammunition for next 24 hours from the Brigade dump. This included a 28 Compo boxes and water at the rate of ¼ gallon per man.
One further blanket per man and greatcoats were brought up on the first night by mule.
Evacuation of wounded.
This was the most difficult problem. The carry involved together wounded man to ADS at the bottom of the hill took at first anything up to seven hours. A carry of this nature over the most difficult ground considerably lessened the chances of a man’s survival if seriously wounded.
During the first day on the hill the RMO Captain Munn and then shortly afterwards his relief were killed and a number of the stretcher bearers wounded.
It was impossible to pull, at this stage, fighting men out of the line to carry wounded back behind our RAP. Bearer parties were urgently asked for but were not forthcoming until the next day.
In consequence on the night 2/3 December wounded were lying out on stretchers in the area, and being visited periodically by the MO and did not start their journey down the hill until next day. Surely it is most important that reserve bearer parties from Field Ambulance should be well up and readily available for such an emergency.
After the initial stage bearer staging posts were established at several places down the mule track and the evacuation worked increasingly smoothly.
This throughout the operational was most difficult.
There was no communication on the rear link 18 set on the way up – as a set developed some technical fault that could not be remedied.
The 22 set was carried by men of the signal platoon, the batteries and the aerial for the set carried by porters, who dumped their loads before reaching the top without permission. The 22 set was in operation shortly after dawn by dint of borrowing batteries and an aerial from the Royal Artillery signal section with us.
Line was laid to companies as soon as possible owing to the heavy shelling no line lasted long enough and although they were frequently repaired telephone communication was very spasmodic. The signallers had an arduous time, handicapped as they were by casualties.
Communication by wireless was also unsatisfactory due to the weather. Groundsheets were used as far as possible to provide some cover for the sets, but this was unsatisfactory and they soon became full of water. B Company‘s 18 set was wrecked by shell splinter.
9. Miscellaneous Points.
The wearing of any sort of steel helmet other than the normal one should be discouraged. One of my officers, Lieutenant Sadler, from Recce Regiment, was wearing the steel helmet peculiar to that corps and which much resembles the German one from a distance.
This officer was killed during the assault and it is now thought most probable that he was shot by mistake by his own side. He was crawling up a rock-face in the half light and he may easily have been mistaken for a German.
An advance by night especially one of several legs, that relies on the compass bearings over boulder strewn hillsides is not likely to be a success.
It is quite impossible to proceed in a straight line for more than about three paces at a time. The calculation of distances by paces becomes hopeless, and it is a fact that the higher up a mountain one climbs the more compass variation alters.
On a night of the operation, the sky was clear and star lit, with, for a short time, a moon. Direction was maintained by landmarks that had been carefully learned from air photographs. If the night had been pitch black, direction keeping would have been difficult indeed.
The portering in some cases was not what it should have been.
The batteries and the aerial for the 22 set were dumped somewhere by the porters on the way up and never found.
The Mortar Platoon arrived at the position with their 3 inch mortar and no mortar bombs. 150 3 inch mortar bombs were left somewhere on the way and not found again.
The closest supervision of the porters is not possible in the dark, nor, considering they were British soldiers, should it be necessary.
It is considered that an unnecessary time was spent by Royal Engineers in making the bottom bit of the mule track “Jeepable”. If they had rather worked to improve the “porterable” part of the mule track, by removing some of the worst boulders and improving the track, it would have quickened of the evacuation of casualties and prevented several cases of wounded being cast off their stretchers.
Commanding 9th Battalion The Royal Fusiliers.