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1st Battalion Irish Guards – The Battle of Carroceto Factory

The Battle of Carroceto Factory

On the morning of the 25th January, 24th Guards Brigade advanced with the rail and road crossing at Campoleone as its objective. The order of march was a forward body of Sherman tanks, SP guns, and two companies of Grenadiers, the remainder of the 5th Battalion Grenadiers, Irish Guards, Scots Guards. The Grenadiers soon met opposition from the factory area, which made it necessary for a battalion attack to be launched. This was done at 2.15 pm, after a heavy bombardment by mediums and 25-pounders, and was successful. It was a hard fight and though the Grenadiers had heavy casualties, they captured around 160 prisoners and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy.

The Irish Guards followed up and occupied positions around the Carroceto railway station. In the mopping up, the Irish Guards rounded up around another twenty prisoners. Spasmodic machine gun fire still continued from some quarters and the Commanding Officer and Second-in-Command were pinned behind the bank at the level crossing for about a quarter of an hour before a patrol mopped up the enemy post - two Germans aged fifteen and sixteen were found behind the gun. During the night Major Sir Ian Stewart-Richardson, whilst going round his company, stopped into a ditch and trod on a German hiding there.

The battalion took up positions, No. 1 Company around the crossroads 500 yards north of the railway bridge, No. 3. Company a thousand yards out to the northwest, No. 2 Company around and left of the railway bridge and No. 4. Company right of the road and around the railway embankment. Advanced Battalion HQ sat up under the bridge, rear Battalion HQ with some of the transport, in some houses about 200 yards left and south of the railway embankment. Most of the transport harboured in lee of the embankment. Support Company was apportioned out to companies. The battalion was also supported by a troop of 17-pounders.

The Grenadiers consolidated in the Factory area, the Scots Guards further back down the road and in rear of the Irish Guards. A captured operation order showed that the factory had been held by No. 11 Company of the II Battalion 29th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 3rd Panzergrenadiers. The same order showed that the axis of the road was held by the II Battalion with III Battalion on its left and I Battalion in reserve. Various Battle Groups were on their right and it seemed that elements of 90th Panzergrenadiers and 29 Panzergrenadiers were in the area and on the left of the railway line. The general picture at this time was rather similar to that of the Bou battle in Tunisia. The American 3rd Division were echeloned back and making slow progress to Cisterna, the 2nd Brigade were on the left holding the line of the Moletta river about 4000 yds in rear, and the 24th Guards Brigade had pushed a finger up the road and seized a nodal point in the enemy outpost line with the enemy MLR about 4000 yards ahead of them. The position of the battalion and the only road to it were in full observation to enemy OPs on the Colli. It seemed that the Grenadier factory battle had eliminated 11 Company of the enemy's II Battalion, but it was obvious that enemy positions in front were heavily held.

Orders wore given on the night of January 25th for the Irish Guards to make a "reconnaissance in force" up the road towards the Campoleone crossroads, known as Gold Flake. They were not to get engaged in a major battle. The advance was to have the support of 19th Field Regiment, 24 SP Regiment, and a Medium Regiment of the Scottish Horse. Two troops of Shermans from the 46 Tanks were allotted. All these representatives were to meet the Commanding Officer at the Brigade at 0745 hrs. Rather than do the obvious and advance up the main road, it was decided to send a weak force up the main road and send the bulk of the battalion up the parallel road to the right.

To recce this road Sergeant Bennett and two members Intelligence Section were sent out at 2030 hrs to report on the state of the road and see how far they could get before encountering enemy. This was a ticklish job especially as the night was pitch black and it was then pouring with rain. The patrol returned after having had trouble in the confusion getting through our own Brigade's outposts. They got as far as the crossroads 2000 yards north east of the factory where they heard enemy patrols. Owing to fear of counterattack and on account of the great deal of work to be done by company commanders, the Commanding Officer arranged for the time of start to be put at 0830 hrs January 26th. At 0600 hrs the weather further deteriorated and a violent thunderstorm broke out. All was quiet at stand to. At 0800 hrs Captain Kennedy reported to the Second-in-Command that six enemy tanks had been sighted near his position. The map reference was quickly sent to Brigade and from then on the Commanding Officer took over control from Advanced Battalion HQ at the railway bridge. It was a great piece of fortune that by that time, two troops of Shermans were rolling up the road and the representative of the tank squadron, and FOO for 19th Field, 24th SP and the Medium Regiment were all already with the Commanding Officer.

Events then happened at such a pace that it was difficult to keep pace of them in chronological order. The battle was on in No. 3. Company area and reports of tanks soon mounted up to twenty-five in number. The two Sherman troops immediately went into action, some moving up under the railway bridge and forward, others cropping up hull down behind the railway embankment. Heavy fighting could also be heard on the Grenadier front around the factory. It was soon obvious that this was the well expected German counterattack with infantry and tanks with the object of knocking the Guards Brigade out of this very vital position.

The first physical effect of the attack in Battalion HQ area was felt when an AP shell took the top corner off the roof of the house in which they word in. Most of the signallers, pioneers, orderly room staff and several officers were in or around the area of the house. What had actually happened was that a Sherman had placed itself in front of and in a line with a German tank and the house - the misses were hitting the house. The first shell was quickly succeeded by another, this time into the bottom of the house. The house was quickly evacuated and just in time as the third shot entered the room where the signallers had been and wounded Guardsman Higginson who was still there.

Also in the area of this house was some of the battalion's transport including two ammunition 15-cwts, one 17-pounder still hooked on to its lorry and one 17-pounder in position. Frantic efforts were made to get the mobile 17-pounder in position and Lieutenant Burton, Lance Sergeant Milner, Guardsman Gibson and Guardsman Hitchen from No. 2. Company ran to assist them. A direct hit from an 88mm HE killed three of the gun crew, wounded Lieutenant Burton, Lance Sergeant Milner and the two Guardsmen, both of whom died of wounds. The other 17-pounder fired one round and then the gun jammed. These incidents were spotted by the German OPs and 105mm heavy shells started to pound the area of the house. Battalion HQ personnel were well dug in, but an unlucky shell killed Guardsman Ayres, the RSM's batman, and Guardsman Milnne, the Medical Officer's servant, and wounded Sergeant Mitchell of the MT and Guardsman Farrell, the Medical Officer's driver. All these casualties were first evacuated to in rear of another house just in rear of the Battalion HQ house and near the 17-pounder still in action. In spite of the shelling Father Brookes and Sergeant Thorogood dealt with all the wounded (the Medical Officer was with the main RAP near the bridge).

Stretchers were soon forthcoming and all casualties were got back to the main RAP and there was no shortage of men to carry them. The problem of evacuating Lieutenant Burton 's 17-stone over the rough ground was solved by eight men and a door. Meanwhile the brunt of the battle was being borne by Captain Kennedy's No. 3. Company. Unfortunately an enemy tank overran Lieutenant Preston's platoon which the 17-pounders wore unable to engage. Two sections were cut off and lost but Lieutenant Preston with his platoon headquarters and one section lay low and got away with it. This tank lay up against the wall of the house where this platoon was and was very troublesome and difficult to get at until it was seen off by the medium guns. There were four of our 6-pounders with No 3. Company and in the ensuing action two crews were knocked out and many killed including Lance Sergeant Wyles and Lance Corporal Hennessey and a third gun was damaged. Of those people several including Lance Sergeant Tobin and Lance Sergeant Peoples of No. 3. Company and Lance Sergeant Bowers were reported on the German wireless as prisoners. At the same time as this was going on enemy infantry were advancing up the valley between No. 3 and No. 1. Company astride the railway. These were taken on by the mortars and the Gunners, checked and broken and forced to withdraw suffering heavy casualties.

All this time the remainder of the enemy tanks were working round the left flank (one was revealed within 1000 yards of Brigade HQ three miles in rear, together with odd parties of infantry and snipers). Occasional sniping shots and bursts of MG fire arrived in No. 2 and Battalion H.Q. These tanks were heavily engaged by the medium guns who fired a thousand rounds in a space of three hours. To counter this threat the remainder of the squadron of Sherman tanks moved up, some going up to support the Grenadiers and. the remainder fanning out to protect the left flank.

On the Grenadier front, where there was also a company of Scots Guards, the attack had been equally violent. A Scots Guards anti-tank gun knocked out a Mark VI and Mark IV at about 500 yards range before being knocked out itself. The Grenadiers themselves tackled the tanks effectively and dealt heavy blows to the enemy infantry helped by the timely arrival of two Sherman tanks. Several SP guns also accompanied these infantry and many were knocked out by our gunners supporting the In all, on their front the Grenadiers and Scots Guards knocked out five tanks, many SP guns and took eighty prisoners twenty of whom were wounded.

By about 1030 am the attack itself appeared to be checked and held though there were undoubtedly many enemy infantry and tanks over to the left of our positions; however those could make no progress against the shelling from our guns.

All these events necessitated a certain amount of HQ reorganisation. A platoon of No. 4 Company, under Sergeant Guilfoyle was sent to reinforce No. 3. Company and took up positions slightly in rear of Lieutenant Preston's old platoon position. Rear Battalion HQ was moved by Lieutenant Bland from the house area across the road and under the embankment on the right of the railway bridge. A welcome tunnel under the embankment which had been used by the Germans was found and here Support Company HQ, the RAP and portions of Battalion HQ established itself. By this time the weather had cleared and the sun was shining brightly giving perfect observation to the enemy OPs in the Colli Laziali area.

Then the shelling began with 105mm on the houses in the 17-pounder area and from that moment it continued with unabated fury. It was further augmented by the appearance of an armoured train which seemed to carry 17cm guns. Most people were quick to realise that the lee of the railway embankment was as safe as anywhere, but although no shells had actually landed there, there was no man who did not believe that one might at any moment. Picks and shovels rose and fell with a will the scene was rather akin to a Bank Holiday crowd lining the stands for Surrey v Middlesex at the Oval.

All this time the Commanding Officer's car was under the railway bridge with the 22 set just off the road under the embankment with the operators Lance Corporal Barrow and Lance Corporal Hayman MM and Lance Corporal Hislop, Royal Corps of Signals, in slit trenches alongside it. No. 2 Company, however, who were nearest to the railway had to stick to their positions. Their casualties were not heavy which proved the value of the slit trench. Most of the Mortar Platoon and some of the MG Platoon were in this area, though the MG section here eventually went to join the section with No. 3. Company which had helped them to repel the infantry counterattack earlier in the morning.

People who looked at their watches at about 1100 hrs, got a shock to find it still so early, as these three hours had seemed an eternity. The rest of the day was spent in sticking it out under this very heavy shell fire. Sherman tanks were still in our area although they had had nine of their sixteen knocked out, six of which were recoverable. Unfortunately these tanks, as always, drew a lot of fire and from one of the se salvoes the tank Squadron Leader, standing next to the Adjutant, was hit. A stretcher was quickly available, and two Sherman tanks were invited to move away about 300 yards off.

In the Battalion HQ area the vehicles had suffered heavily. One jeep burnt out, two damaged but recovered, the signal and RAP trucks blown up, one reserve small arms ammunition truck damaged and the other hit. This now caught fire and started to blaze furiously which caused several people to make a dart for the house and save their kit before it was too late. This ammunition truck eventually went off with a terrific and deafening explosion.

On the other side of the road a Grenadier ammunition three-tonner had arrived in the midst of our transport. This too was hit, and from that moment those in slit trenches alongside it and some not more than ten yards from it had the worst hour of their lives. Mortar bombs started to go off and continued to do so for the next hour and all feared that they might go off in one big bang but, by the mercy of God, unlike the other truck, they did not. Drill Sergeant Armstrong of the Grenadiers was wounded by this, but his wounds were instantly dressed by Lance Corporal Cross of the Orderly Room Staff. To make matters worse the wooden hut where Support Company Officer's kit and the old RAP had been, also caught fire and burnt furiously. All this fire of course drew more shells from the enemy guns. These guns were at that time out of range of our mediums and the armoured train was very difficult to spot. It was reported that the armoured train was dealt with shortly afterwards by bombing the track either side of it and then shelling it. At about 1630 hrs No. 3 Company heard movement over the crest from them and called for mortar fire. The first round got a direct hit on something and yet another violent fire started. So the battlefield was studded with fire from burning tanks, burning houses and burning vehicles. All hoped that darkness would bring a stop to the shelling, which it did owing to the fear of the enemy that we should spot their flashes.

So ended the day of January 26th. Casualties had been coming in all the time including Major I.H. Powell-Edwards of No. 4. Company. Night time brought reorganisation, DF tasks allotted, fresh anti-tank guns brought into position, vehicles recovered and searches for the missing.

So ended what Father Brookes described as the worst day he had ever spent in this war or the last. The casualty count appeared to be 89 - exclusive of casualties amongst the anti-tank gunners and Lieutenant Preston's platoon, the position of which was still obscure. Of those eighty nine casualties, an undetermined number up to twenty had been killed.