Italy & the end of the war

From North Africa, the Allies first took Sicily before invading Italy at the beginning of September 1943.

Dad’s regiment had moved from Bone in Algeria to Bizerta in Tunisia on the 12th September 1943.

According to H.R.Glover;

With the ending of hostilities in North Africa, the 59th Regiment made the long haul to Tunisia, seeing for the first time the terrible territory over which the Allied Armies had fought.

Coming down one particularly steep mountain road with a sheer drop on one side, we were suddenly overtaken by the guns towed by (I believe) 167 Battery. They passed us at speed, and we thought “That’s the way to go”.

Later, when we came across the crashed vehicles and injured men, we heard how the air brakes had failed, and it was only the nerve and skill of the drivers which had prevented an even greater tragedy occurring.

On the 23rd October, the 59th sent a reconnaissance party to Naples.

The regiment boarded a ship to Bagnoli (near Naples) on the 14th November arriving 2 days later.

According to dad;

164 (dad’s Battery) took A.A. defence of the boat. This gave us certain facilities on board and kept us active. {i.e. they didn’t have to queue like the others for food, toilets & so on}

H.R.Glover continues;

We eventually arrived at Ferryville near the port of Bizerta a week or so later, embarking on LCTs {tank landing craft} for Naples where we arrived two days later in fading light, to spend a freezing cold night in our lorries on the dockside. Quite a shock after the heat of Africa.

Battery 265 “E” & “F” troops spent the next night in our two man “Bivis”, and in the morning were delighted to be handed little cups of hot, sweet coffee by the women in the nearby farm. It was nice to know that the natives were friendly.

We soon established our gun site on a flat open area not far from Capadichino Airfield. “E” & “F” troops together on one site for the first time.

We sent out “scrounge” parties every day to collect or filch whatever materials we could to improve our living conditions. Also, a good bartering system was established with some nearby American troops, who are “dry” in the line, swapping our Sergeant’s ration of spirits for all kinds of goods, including tins of jam, egg and ham, and canned fruit juice.

Soon we were one of the best equipped sites; every shack or tent had electric lights, the sergeants all had water-proof torches, and the cooks were able to produce meals which were far and above the normal issue. The “Q” bloke {Quartermaster Sergeant} tried his best to catch the suppliers, but never did.

By Christmas we even had our own small farm, with geese and turkeys on the establishment being fattened up for the Xmas celebrations.

In contrast to our well fed troops, the local population were near starvation. The retreating Germans had taken or destroyed everything, so for some weeks after we arrived, large numbers of men, women and children would gather round the perimeter wire at meal times, waiting in the bitter cold for any left-overs, and even fighting among themselves over scraps. It was a pitiful sight.

Very little action was seen at first, but the weather was terrible; cold wind and rain most of the time, and mud.

For troops facing the Germans on opposite banks of the Volturno river, life must have been sheer hell. At night, safe undercover in our tents, under dripping trees, we could see the distant gun flashes and realised how lucky we were.

With the coming of spring, and the better weather, the Allies were able to advance towards Rome, unknown to them at the time that a certain Monastery {???} would hold up their advance for months.

The "monastery" mentioned by H.R.Glover was the hilltop sanctuary of Monte Cassino. The German troops were holding their positions along the Gustav Line, but by May they were overwhelmed by Allied Troops and forced to retreat.

Italians greet Allied Troops in Naples - 1943
Italians rush into the street in Naples to greet the Allied Troops (Oct 1943)

By the 17th the three gun Batteries (164, 167 & 265) were in position and operational. The diary continues;

26th November 1943 Naples raided, all troops into action, no casualties.

The 59th appeared to stay in Naples for most of 1944, initially they came under frequent attack from enemy aircraft.

The Basuto

The Regiments numbers were boosted by 238 African O.R.s (the Basutos) posted to the 59th from 120 H.A.A. Regiment Cyprus.

From Lieutenant T. W. Miller-Jones;

I must pay tribute to the Basuto {a Bantu ethnic group from South Africa}, it must have been most difficult for them to fit in. It was not long before they wanted to wear the Essex Cap Badge, thus showing they felt part of the Regiment, and their loyalty to the Crown was outstanding, they were fighting for their King.

The way the Basuto fitted in to the Regiment pays a tribute to the British members who made them so welcome.

African Basuto troops in Italy 1943
Basuto soldiers, some of Africa’s finest fighting men, arrive in southern Italy (Nov 1943)

Some notes by G.W.Johnson;

I return to our sojourn in Naples.
You will remember that the 164 Battery had to quit its 8-gun site because of the lava flow from the eruption of Vesuvius in March 1944. The Battery was moved to an idyllic spot on the outer reaches of the Bay of Naples, to a village named Bacoli, and Battery HQ was in a requisitioned villa in that village; the guns of one troop being nearly on the shore and the other troop in the hills behind the village. I think that the authorities must have forgotten about us. There was no enemy action and so little to do. I seem to remember that our time was taken up by a diversion called “Running Rabbit” and an exercise whereby we fired at targets 180 degrees off course, or some nonsense like that.

The Battery HQ villa was a luxurious place which belonged to an Italian film producer, and we spent a wonderful summer there, swimming, sun bathing, sailing (we found a yacht in a cellar under the villa) and generally lounging about. Other members of the Regiment were only too keen to visit us and some spent their leave with us in preference to spending it at the Regimental rest centre at Vico Equesne. In retrospect, it does not seem right that we should have had it so easy when our lads were slogging their way up Italy, landing on the beaches on D-Day, and the buzz-bombs {V-1} were devastating London.

Two incidents at Bacoli stay in my mind. One was the visit by a US Navy Coronda flying boat which “landed” in the bay opposite the villa. We all inspected it and we entertained the Officers and crew in our time-honoured manner; we got them so “tight” that they had to delay their departure.

The other was a visit from the Special Investigation branch of the Military Police. We were informed that they had been tipped off that a boat from Sicily was going to run contraband goods and girls into Bocoli, and could they keep watch from our villa which had a good view of the harbour? This they did and some time later the boat arrived; the MPs went on board the boat, which anchored out in the channel. They arrested the crew, took the girls off the boat, and told us that the boat was crammed with black-market food, cigarettes and booze. They asked if we would put an armed guard on board for the night until they could provide their own. Sergeant Major Reg Woods was delighted to do so, especially when we found out what was on board.

Suffice to say that the guards we put on board did their duty by their pals and turned a blind eye to the enthusiastic working party which went aboard and “lifted” sufficient wine (Marsala) to give almost everyone in the Battery a bottle of it, and other delicacies which were welcome additions to the normal rations.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, the girls had been removed already.

They moved east onto Brindisi during October 1944, and then north on to Leghorn, now known as Livorno.

There were a couple of things I remember dad saying about Italy. He said they often came across bodies hung up on trees or tied to fences alongside the road. They were unable to cut these down for burial, or even approach them, as they were sometimes booby-trapped. He also hated the way some troops encouraged children to follow them around by offering chocolate. Many followed the troops north and were eventually abandoned, many miles from home. However, I suspect there was more to it than just chocolate and a free ride, that upset dad about this.

Dad was 23 by this time, and had matured into a man with a disgust for the horrors of war. Quite a change from the 17 year old boy who was only too keen to serve his country.

In April 1945 this Special Order Of The Day was issued;

Allied Forces April 1945 - Special Order Of The Day

The war in Europe ended in May 1945

Germany: The End (WW2)

Sgt. Alec Davis takes a stroll through Rome - 1945
The war is over, so dad (on the left) takes a stroll through the streets of Rome (mid-May 1945).

During the summer of 1945, various Army and Regiment formations began to be broken up, with troops either sent home or redeployed.

World War 2: Special Message from the (8th) Army Commander

Dad’s regiment stayed on in Italy at least until late October 1945. 

According to the Eagle & Gun diary;
21st October 1945 Regiment placed on Suspended Armistice.

The Yugoslav guerrillas had been disrupting the Nazis in the north-eastern region of Italy around Trieste, and by May 1945 the Yugoslav army had  moved in and taken control from the Germans.

June/July 1945: some troops (including dad) were transferred to the 78th Regiment 700th BTY RA Auxiliary Police and received Military Police training. Dad was in the Trieste and Pola regions by August 1945 as part of the Venezia Giulia Police Force.

According to Henry Moore, they often carried out street patrols and had to break up fights between Italians and Yugoslav Partisans. The Partisans had put up fierce resistance to the Axis powers of Germany and Italy, so local Italians were still seen as the enemy by them.

The area known as Julian March around Trieste and Pola (Pola is now Pula in Croatia) was disputed territory, with the British & Americans administering one half (Zone A), and the Yugoslavs the other (Zone B). 

Trieste Pola Pula WW2
Division of the Julian March between June 1945 and September 1947

Relations in this region were tense, and remained so until 1954. In 1946, two US transport planes were shot down by Yugoslav forces.

Not quite the end

Although the war was now over, it would be another 12 months before dad was released from the army, an even then he would remain a reservist, possibly for another 5 years until 1951.

Certificate of Transfer to the Army Reserve - Sgt. A.S.Davis

By the spring of 1946, dad was clearly getting restless. He must have written to somebody in government complaining about the time it was taking to be released from the army. I don't have dad's letter, but I do have the reply;

letter from C.F.Byers MP to Sergeant A.S.Davis 59th Regiment RA HAA

It sounds like others, with shorter service than dad, were being released earlier, and that by volunteering in 1938, dad was further back in the queue.

C.F.Byers (Frank Byers) was the Liberal MP for North Dorset at this time, but had also served in the Royal Artillery. I don't know whether dad wrote to him specifically, and if he did, whether Byers was his MP, as I would have thought dad was registered to vote in Essex by this time, not Dorset.

However, if dad did vote in Dorset in 1945, he must have voted Liberal because the Labour party did not field a candidate.