18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 32 — The Impassable Hills
The Impassable Hills
TheLiri valley, which for so long had dangled tantalisingly just out of reach, was a five-mile-wide flat between two lots of wild mountains. The Liri River ran along its southern side. At the foot of the northern hills Route 6 and the railway line led westwards towards Rome. Eleven miles up the valley another smaller river, the Melfa, after carving a sheer gorge in the mountains, crossed the valley to join the Liri. Seven miles farther on the Liri itself appeared from the north and took a right-angle turn. The valley ended here, and beyond it was a jumble of lower, gentler hills.
The enormous weight of the attack on 11 May carried the Eighth Army forward through Jerry's line and into the Liri valley. But it was no walk-over. For a week, while Cassino and Montecassino still held out, progress up the valley could be measured in yards, Jerry fighting back with all his might and giving nothing away cheaply. Even after being pushed out of Cassino he still clung to the northern mountains, where he could see everything that went on in the valley. The next defence line, the famous ‘Hitler Switch’ line across the valley some seven miles beyond Cassino, was not broken till 24 May; then the Canadians surged forward up the south side of the valley to the Melfa River, while British and Indian divisions of 13 Corps, on the north side, were held up by stout-hearted little rearguards on the heights above them and in the thick trees and high crops that lined Route 6.
The attack had hardly opened before plans were afoot to bring the New Zealand armour into action. The first optimistic idea, that 4 Brigade would charge forward in a body and romp through towards Rome, had to be very smartly forgotten. Nineteenth Regiment crossed the Rapido River, had some hard fighting, and its tanks were the first into Cassino after Jerry left. For several days after that nobody seemed able to make up page 461 his mind how or where to use the armour. Then it was 18 Regiment's turn.
On 21 May the regiment, under orders to cross the Rapido and join the Canadians in their assault on the Hitler Switch line, had already begun to collect up its scattered squadrons. Colonel Robinson went up to the Canadians to arrange all the details. But by 22 May, when the regiment assembled at San Vittore, these orders had been cancelled, and its future now lay on 13 Corps' right flank, where 8 Indian Division, moving as a sort of flank guard along the narrow strip of land between Route 6 and the northern mountains, was digging Jerry out of the lower hill slopes and watching for any counter-attacks from above. A tricky job, for the hillsides were rocky and rugged and the lower slopes heavily cultivated, with lots of trees, dozens of farms and an occasional village, just the place for rearguards to lurk and make nuisances of themselves.
By nightfall on 23 May the 18th was all ready to move forward, and then for thirty-six hours it sat and waited, everyone like a cat on hot bricks, asking everyone else, ‘What the hell is the hold-up?’ The official explanation was: ‘The Battle of the Hitler Switch is progressing very well—so well in fact that we are afraid that we may not be required.’ But the delay was quite useful, for it gave squadron and troop commanders time (which they rarely had) to ‘tie up’ details with the Indian brigades and battalions. The regiment was all set to go. A stretch of ground west of the Rapido had been reserved for A Echelon; a platoon of ASC lorries was attached to help with supply, which would become quite a problem if movement became as fast as was expected; a party of engineers had arrived with mine-clearing gear, and so had a bridge-laying tank on a transporter. The 18th now had its own Grant recovery tank, specially equipped to haul tanks out of the mud or to right capsized ones.
At breakfast time on 25 May the word suddenly came: one squadron to go up to 8 Indian Division at once, the rest later in the day. The Indians were to attack Castrocielo and Roccasecca, twin towns nestling under the northern hills, and were expecting trouble. The tanks would move into the fray on the infantry's heels to clean up any pockets of Germans that might prove deaf to reason.page 462
At 8 a.m. Major Deans's C Squadron was ordered to pack up and move at once. Some of the boys were still asleep in their bivvies and so missed their breakfast, for all hands had to jump to it. The ‘drill’ for getting on the move was pretty good by now. By 8.30 C Squadron was on its way, a self-contained little fighting force, with half of the regiment's Honey ‘recce’ tanks, its own fitters, a wireless car, an RAP carrier—all that might be needed for the kind of short sharp action expected among the Liri valley trees. Through the fantastic wreckage of Cassino by the newly bulldozed Route 6; then round the corner of the hills and out at last into the valley.
The first port of call in the Liri valley was little more than a mile past Cassino. Here C Squadron stopped for a couple of hours, just long enough to get straightened out after its hurried move. Then before midday it was off again to meet its Indian infantry for the attack on Castrocielo, two Honey tanks leading, then the Shermans, some moving up Route 6, others over rough ground under the hills to the right. Second-Lieutenant Bill Morgan1 recalls: ‘Jerry had chopped branches from an avenue of trees … and placed them across the highway no doubt to create the impression that mines were laid, the honey tanks didn't hesitate, they pushed on and there were no mines.’
The scenes up Route 6 came as something of a shock. There had obviously been some heavy fighting here. For miles the ground was all torn up by shells. The Hitler Switch line, what could be seen of it, looked really wicked—belts of barbed wire and mines, concrete and steel pillboxes dug deep into the ground with only their camouflaged tops sticking up, guns poking out through the foliage at ground level. The boys had never seen anything quite like it, except photos of the Maginot Line away back in the very early days of the war. Even now that those large, cunningly hidden anti-tank guns were tame, the thought of advancing into their muzzles made you feel sick inside.
18 Regt In The Liri Valley, 25–31 May 1944
The hills west of Castrocielo were covered with a nest of villages all concentrated in a small area, dominated by Roccasecca, which sprawled over several hundred yards of hillside and overlooked the place where the Melfa River wandered out of its gorge on to the plain. Just after lunch on 25 May, about three hours behind C Squadron, Major Playle's A Squadron went forward along Route 6 past the Castrocielo turnoff, and a little farther ahead found the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders already on the move north-east from Route 6 towards this group of towns. This left no time for ‘netting in’ wireless sets, which had to be done later as op- page 465 portunity offered; but the tanks successfully linked up with the infantry, one troop with each company, Squadron Headquarters with Battalion Headquarters. Just as C Squadron had done, the tanks trundled along behind their companies, some going across country, others along hedge-lined country lanes. Here, too, Jerry did not seem prepared to put up a fight, and the afternoon's advance would have been flat and uninteresting but for two highly unusual incidents.
The first of these, the celebrated episode of the ‘well-diver’, became known far beyond 18 Regiment. Captain Bruce Oliphant, commander of the troop concerned, describes it:
The incident occurred immediately after we crossed the start line…. There was a stone house which the Hun had partly demolished to cause an obstruction in the road. Instead of crossing the partly demolished house … I decided to go through some high hedges at the back of the house and get into the open country beyond. After going through the hedge my tank passed very close to a normal enough looking well and my Sergeant's tank, which was following … suddenly reared up and slipped backwards into a cavity beside the well… where … a large hole approximately 20 feet deep had been roofed over and then covered with earth…. Fortunately there was very little water in the well, as when the tank came to rest it was completely below ground level with the exception of about a foot of the end of the gun barrel. The tank was neatly wedged with the top of the turret resting on one side and the tracks in contact with the other.
Oliphant goes on to describe how the crew, badly shaken, crawled out of the tank, the men in the turret having wormed their way through a small hole into the driver's compartment, which was the only way out. He then adds:
One of the crew … was a little fatter than the others and for some time was unable to get through…. While he was still endeavouring to get out of the turret the petrol engine attached to the battery charging equipment started to burn, and although there was a hand extinguisher in the turret he did not know how to work it. However, he learned remarkably quickly as … he was standing on top of a heap of ammunition above a thin grill mesh with the fire starting underneath…. He got through the hole somehow very rapidly afterwards.
The regiment's new recovery vehicle was quite inadequate to deal with this its first patient, which had to be hauled out by 4 page 466 Brigade's Heavy Recovery Section after the side of the well had been bulldozed out.
The other incident occurred not far below Roccasecca as it was getting dark, when a lone A Squadron Sherman, coming round the corner of a narrow lane, suddenly came face to face with an unfamiliar tank. The commander, going forward to find out who this was, met his opposite number doing the same thing, and peering at him in the gloom realised with a shock that he was a German. The astonishment was evidently mutual, for the tank commander continues the story:
He kindly put up his hands in surrender as did one other man who got out of the other tank. My catch was armed with a Luger which was fairly smartly removed. Meanwhile two other bodies got out of the tank and ran to bush, a few revolver shots failed to flush them. We then marched our two captives up the road and turned our tank round as quickly as possible and soon met up with our own infantry.
The prize turned out to be a recovery or maintenance tank without a turret; it was later tipped over the bank, as no use could be made of it. But it was the regiment's first blood in the Liri valley, and, while there was very little loot in it, it was a promising beginning.
By nightfall infantry and A Squadron tanks were at the foot of the hills, just below a scruffy little huddle of houses named Caprile. The Highlanders, who had had practically no fighting all afternoon, took up position for the night, and the tanks laagered among the trees with the infantry companies, ready to move again at short notice. Major Playle remembers that the infantry ‘seemed to have trouble with their communications, so the tanks took over everything by wireless’.
That night a handful of persistent German planes prowled up and down the valley, dropping parachute flares and bombs, provoking a fireworks display from the ‘ack-ack’ guns, and robbing everyone of hard-earned sleep. The disturbance spread down to the valley mouth, where most of the regiment had now moved and was installed beside Route 6. ‘Most of us,’ says Major Dickinson, ‘were bedded down beside the tanks, but lost no time getting underneath them.’ Others forsook their blankets for the hard comfort of the turrets. A convoy of page 467 18 Regiment supply lorries, caught in the open on Route 6, had a nerve-racking trip with bombs falling close. It was the noisiest night for some time. If the enemy was trying to slow down the advance he did not really succeed, for 6 Armoured Division of 13 Corps crossed the Melfa during the night, meeting no Germans near the river, and next morning everyone prepared to push on westwards.
But next morning there were still a few Germans holding out in the hillside caves east of the Melfa. The Frontier Force men, making their cautious way up and along the bare slopes, struck a determined group with mortars and Spandaus, whose determination melted suddenly in face of a lively little bombardment from C Squadron. The Highlanders on the left entered Caprile and Castello and Roccasecca with no fighting, but met a little opposition in a valley behind, and a troop of A Squadron went up through Caprile and spent some time banging away at spots pointed out by the infantry—though the tankies could see nothing there, and Jerry lay very low. Late that afternoon two troops were called up to help sweep the last Germans from this valley. They had a perfect view of the Highlanders, all strung out in line ‘like a collection of beaters on a grouse shooting expedition’ (as one man put it), sweeping downhill from the opposite crest; but the few Germans still present escaped into the hills, and the tankies, watching them go, had to hold their fire for fear of hitting their own infantry. It was very vexing.
That day B Squadron came into the picture too. Soon after dawn Second-Lieutenant Fowler's troop linked up with a squadron of 6 Lancers' armoured cars carrying a few infantrymen, and set out past Roccasecca to penetrate the narrow Melfa gorge and, if possible, cut off any Germans still east of the river. The one road ran along the river's edge or on cliff faces above it, crossing mountain streams by stone bridges, with one big bridge over the Melfa itself two miles up the gorge. Most unpromising country for an armoured thrust. But the day was full of excitement. Fowler relates:
Three Jerrys were seen approaching a small bridge ahead & were killed by crew of Staghound. A little further on considerable enemy movement was seen in the scrub by the river…. The page 468 Indian Inf. smartly got to work winkling them out … and soon quietened all opposition.
While this was going on, a loud explosion and a mushroom of smoke ahead marked the end of the Melfa bridge. The column arrived to find a smoking gap, a 40-foot drop to the river, and no other way across; also the tail end of the Germans vanishing farther up the gorge, and hundreds of Italian refugees venturing down from the hills towards their homes in and round Roccasecca. There was nothing useful the tanks and Staghounds could do now, except go back to Roccasecca, taking fifteen prisoners with them.
Jerry had put up next to no fight in the gorge. A more determined effort to spoil the show had been made by one of our own planes, which after strafing the length of the column twice had come back again and bombed some of the Indian infantry patrols, the pilot happily ignoring the recognition signals and the invective hurled up at him from below.
That evening all the squadrons of 18 Regiment came together in the trees below Caprile, ready to cross the Melfa. The plan was for the 18th to advance along Route 6 behind the British infantry of 78 Division, to cross the Liri at the head of the valley, then on over the rolling hills to Rome. This prospect was in high favour with everyone.
However, it appeared that Jerry had not retreated far, but was still prepared to stay and fight for a while. Two miles west of the Melfa Route 6 moved in to the very foot of a steep height called Monte Orio; here Jerry, roosting up in a strong rearguard position above the road, halted the advance dead and forced 13 Corps to size up the situation and think up a new way of dealing with it. Now, to help 6 Armoured Division press its attack along Route 6, 8 Indian Division was to detour through the mountains, capture Orio and outflank Jerry, coming in behind him about two miles farther west, where the town of Arce, straddling the road, commanded the approach to the Liri River crossing. Then, as 18 Regiment reported to 4 Brigade, ‘when arce falls move … on to rome.’
Details of this mountaineering trip took so long to arrange that the orders did not penetrate down to the regiment till the page 469 afternoon of 27 May, not long before it was due to move. Two infantry battalions, 1 Frontier Force Regiment and 1 Royal Fusiliers, with B and A Squadrons following behind, were to set the ball rolling by taking Orio and the hill north-east of it, then C Squadron with ⅕ Gurkha Rifles was to move through and capture the tiny mountain village of Frajoli, chief centre of Jerry's resistance on Orio. Then a three-hour pause to allow the 25-pounders to move up in support, then a push by infantry and tanks to the hilltops overlooking Arce. Everything sounded like plain sailing, until a glance at the map jolted you back on your heels, for the hills were tumbled and steep, cut in all directions by clefts and watercourses, and marked in large capital letters ‘Impassable to Tracked Vehicles’. The tankies' pleasurable anticipation was quite ruined.
But there was no time to sit and brood over it, for it was time to go. The squadrons forded the Melfa, marvelling how such an insignificant little creek, almost dried up by the summer heat, could cause so much trouble. At the river the tanks came face to face with another stream of refugees moving east, going back with their few poor belongings to the homes from which they had been driven months before. These unfortunates always moved all good Kiwis to mingled exasperation and pity. Here at the Melfa you saw the tankies, with rough words on their lips (‘Come on, Pop, you silly old bastard, you're wasting my time’), helping the old and the very young across the stream with surprising patience, then sending them on their way with a parting growl (‘Go on now, get out of my bloody way’) accompanied by a genial pat on the back.
But the tanks could not dally by the Melfa, for the infantry was already on the way forward towards the hills. So on they went, up the slopes, leaving Route 6 behind them, and the long road over the mountain tops had begun.
The lower slopes were not easy, but far from impassable. They were terraced and cultivated, with crops and vines everywhere. But from there the direct way to the objectives rose up in two steep parallel ridges separated by a shallow valley; the infantry pushed on uphill, while the tanks, having nothing of the mountain goat about them, were forced to keep lower down in the valley, moving in single file along rocky farm tracks, past page 470 scattered stone cottages and through small straggly woods. The Frontiersmen on the right gained the peak of Monte San Nicola with never a sign of Jerry. On the left he was still holding the crest of Orio, but this rearguard, steadfast enough at long range, did not wait to face an assault. By 4 p.m., barely half an hour after A Squadron had crossed the river, the Royal Fusiliers were on the hilltop, looking down on Frajoli, with the tanks coming round the right-hand shoulder of the mountain. Here the valley ended abruptly in cliffs and steep hillsides, with Frajoli perched up to the left, accessible only by steep rough tracks. It seemed now as if the tanks, whether they liked it or not, would have to become mountain goats.
Now the Gurkhas began to come through, closely followed by Lieutenant Harold Barber's2 troop of C Squadron, with the rest of the squadron coming up behind. And forward of Frajoli trouble began to brew up. Jerry, confidently entrenched in the houses and on the slopes in front, opened up with Spandaus and mortars; Barber's tanks came into action with 75-millimetre and Brownings which took the edge off Jerry's enthusiasm, but he was still going to be hard to dislodge.
About 6 p.m., with dusk not far away, B Squadron took a hand in the game. Just below the Frontiersmen's objective, where B Squadron's track split into two, the leading tanks met some Indians and heard of the trouble at Frajoli. The squadron divided, two troops heading west for Frajoli, the rest pushing on northwards to keep up with the Frontiersmen.
The troops going to Frajoli struck really tough country, down a ravine and steeply up again, along a track hardly worthy of the name. Not only that, but they were out on their own with no infantry in reach; even C Squadron was not to be seen, as the two tracks approached Frajoli from different directions. So it came as quite a shock when, some distance short of the village, they ran full tilt into a little force of German infantry.
Jerry was startled, too, by these fresh enemies coming at him from the flank. A few shots were fired at the B Squadron tanks, but he quickly threw in his hand. By nightfall Gurkhas and page 471 tanks were in the village, with a haul of over forty prisoners, several German dead, and all their weapons and ammunition. On our side, Second-Lieutenant John Gray was wounded and his tank damaged, and that was all. The tanks handed over their prisoners to the infantry, and then, having seen the Gurkhas firmly installed, they pulled back, Barber's troop rejoining C Squadron in the valley below Orio, the two B Squadron troops heading on up the mountain in the direction their squadron had taken.
In the meantime the rest of B Squadron had been climbing higher and higher. The track, according to Major Brown, ‘petered out into a field and from then on it was hard going over rough steep country. One or two tank tracks were thrown … but were quickly mended’. The tank commanders had to go ahead on foot to find passable places. After dark it was impossible to carry on, and the tanks laagered for the night. The infantry had not been seen for some time, but was eventually located not far away.
So far the mountains, though difficult, could hardly be called impassable. But for the next three days the tankies were to find out just what that meant. They were days of continual struggle, not so much against Jerry as against steep banks and stone terraces, crops and scrub, big rocks alternating with soft soil. The terraces were the worst. The only way to deal with them was to break them down with hand and shovel and pile earth and stones up into ramps, a maddeningly slow business. The whole place was a tankies' nightmare. Everywhere you had to explore on foot before taking the tanks forward. Often you were travelling blind, just blundering on in what you thought was the right direction, with no infantry or anyone else in sight. Occasionally there would be a lane to follow for a while, but it always either ended at an isolated farm or curved the wrong way, and then you had to take to the hills again. There were a couple of bulldozers somewhere, but they were too busy making supply tracks farther down the hills to be any help to the forward squadrons.
The supply set-up in these hills was interesting. For the first time since the Sangro it was organised as in the book of rules, B2 Echelon—B1 Echelon—squadrons, the trucks moving from their own echelon to the next one forward. But when it came page 472 to taking supplies up the hills to the squadrons, it was not as easy as that. Captain Pyatt tells of his trips up to A Squadron:
I used to leave about 5 p.m. with three-tonners (3, 4 or 5), & go up Route Six & then as far as possible inland. We'd then off load into Jeeps & follow the tank tracks up the hills—& then supply tanks as we found them. Map refs weren't an awful lot of good there—& there were no tracks except what the tanks made.
The tanks demanded vast quantities of fuel in such rough going; but fortunately little ammunition was used. It was always the heaviest and most unpopular load to bring forward. The ammunition was taken up by carriers or by the Reconnaissance Troop's turretless Honey tanks, which turned out to be the only vehicles that could haul supplies up the worst of the hills. Never had their crews worked so hard: back from a trip up forward, snatch a bite to eat, then off again with another load. Sleep was something that they just did not get.
To pack a load we used to spread a tarpaulin on the deck, load up with ammo & fuel & then fold up the sides & tie them at the top. This method was perfectly satisfactory on level going, but on this job we seemed to be standing on end most of the time…. I can remember coming across one luckless crew who had just jettisoned their entire load which landed with the tied ends underneath. The language as they tried to get at the ropes was terrific.
And the signals officer, Lieutenant Greenfield, has his memories of the problem of keeping in touch with the forward tanks by jeep:
I received a call from the squadron … to say that one of their tank wireless sets was not operating so I set off in the early hours of the morning to take up a spare set…. I had a map reference but after leaving the roads I just followed the tank tracks for there was nothing else to follow. Certainly no other vehicles had ever gone that way…. I had picked up the padre … who wanted to get to the squadron, and it was a hair-raising ride for him. The highlight … was a steep bank…. It was more like a cliff than a slope, and I carefully engaged low gear and tried to drive up it, but without success. About this time the padre decided he would rather walk the rest. I backed off and took a run at the bank … page 473 with the longest possible run, the engine revving madly, the wheels spinning and the jeep bucking wildly. We made it but it was a crazy drive.
Apropos of the 18th's chronic shortage of signal gear, Greenfield adds that from about this time, thanks to 8 Indian Division's generosity and to the belated realisation that armour could not live by wireless alone, the position was vastly improved.
To return now to the forward squadrons. Up on the hilltops British and Indian infantry battalions succeeded one another so frequently that you could not keep tabs on them at all. One brigade seemed to leapfrog through another at least once a day; sometimes a squadron would set off in support of one unit, and find later that somewhere along the way it had mysteriously changed to another. It was most confusing, and at the end of the three days, thinking back, most men could remember only a blurred succession of hills and terraces, and Indians, large and small. Points that stuck in the memory were the polite smiling Gurkhas, as polished up and clean as if they had been a hundred miles behind the line; the British officers, cool and precise, who ruled their Indian troops with a sternness quite foreign to the democratic Kiwis; the strong, sickly-sweet, half-cold tea brewed by the Indians, which, according to one man, you ate rather than drank. And then the sturdy independent peasants who stuck to their poor homes even while the advance rolled over them; the loud lamentation of the women over one of their men killed by a stray bullet; the tasty ham and blood sausage provided by ‘Poppa’ in some lonely hovel when the rations had not arrived and you were hungry. And the sullen little groups of German prisoners, many of them not much more than children.
Only once during those three days did any of the squadrons get mixed up in a real fight. This was B Squadron the morning after the Frajoli episode.
At daybreak that morning the squadron was off again, struggling upwards, with occasional glimpses of the infantry forging ahead. In front towered Monte Favone, the highest peak of the whole region, its bald knob dominating everything. Just over the other side of it, so said the map, was Santo Padre, the only town of any size in this mass of hills, an obvious headquarters for a rearguard.page 474
Second-Lieutenant Fowler's troop, which was in the lead, skirted the south side of Favone and circled round to the west till it pulled up short at the top of a steep impassable bank, looking across a ravine at Santo Padre. The town was swarming with Germans, evidently hurrying to evacuate the place, for trucks and cars were pulling out as fast as they could along a road that wound away to the north. Our infantry was nowhere in sight, but down from Favone towards Santo Padre streamed figures in khaki, unrecognisable at that distance. The tanks left them alone and concentrated on the German transport as it came into view at a road bend a mile away. The shooting was good. Several vehicles were knocked out, and the rest seemed to be doing their best to break all records as they vanished down that twisting road.
Second-Lieutenant Bill Reynolds's troop, which had now come up, turned away westwards to keep an eye on the left flank, while Fowler took his tanks back to the southern slope of Favone to look for the infantry. At an isolated house near the crest he met the foremost company commander, who pointed out his own men fifty yards up the slope, and just above them, in a belt of scattered trees, the Germans. Every now and then a German head would pop up and then disappear again.
This was quite a jolt to the tankies, who had been strolling round in the open just before this as they discussed the situation. Why the Germans had not fired at them nobody knew— probably the ugly snouts of the 75-millimetre guns on the Shermans had made them hold their hands.
Now a quick plan was made on the spot to deal with this stalemate. Second-Lieutenant Harry Hodge's troop, which had now arrived, went round to the left of Favone to deal with Jerry as he withdrew. The Indians carefully pulled back from their suicide position under Jerry's nose. And Fowler's tanks opened up with everything they had, firing 75-millimetre shells to burst in the trees above the Germans.
This treatment was most effective, and the surviving Germans fled over the top of Favone. But it was now too late in the day for the Indians to follow up, so the tanks could do nothing more.
While this was going on, Hodge's tanks had shot up a hillside cave that seemed to contain Germans, and had also had a crack at some more vehicles on the road out of Santo Padre. They page 475 were fooled, just as Fowler had been earlier, by khaki-clad figures running down the hill, but by the time Hodge learned that they were certainly Germans it was too late to do anything about them.
So the day closed quietly, with tanks and infantry together below the crest of Favone. Hodge says:
We placed our six tanks in position and placed the Brownings … with an arc of fire which gave absolute coverage of all our front. We arranged with the infantry that should they hear anything that night to let us know and we would open fire. They promised to do so but we had an undisturbed night. However we found that the Huns had come back at night to collect their guns and wounded, the Indians had heard them but said nothing, and so another opportunity for more damage was lost.
Next morning the only evidence of the fight was a little scattered gear, a few dead Germans, two light ‘ack-ack’ guns on top of Favone, and cases of mines and anti-tank grenades not even opened, which made the tankies draw long breaths as they thought what Jerry could have done with them. But it was all poor consolation for the loss of all the prisoners they felt they should have had.
The same night as Jerry abandoned Santo Padre the opposition down on Route 6 melted away, and 13 Corps was able to move on again. There now seemed no point in swinging 8 Indian Division down off the hills at Arce, so it was ordered to carry on farther through the hills and down to the Liri River where it flowed south before coming out into the open valley. This meant a longer struggle over this horrible country for the 18th, or rather for A and C Squadrons, for B Squadron was ordered back from Favone to Orio to link up with fresh Indian units and advance along Route 6 to the Liri.
It seemed that the worst of the struggle might be over for the regiment now, for it had reached the highest peaks between the Melfa and the Liri, and from there forward the heights dropped away. But the ‘impassable’ hills still had more jokes to play. On 28 May, while B Squadron was chasing Jerry off Favone, A Squadron had been inching its way forward over incredible country farther west, occupying the almost vertical rampart of Monte Nero which looked down on the hills above Arce, and page 476 pushing on westwards to the next peaks beyond. Now, on the morning of the 29th, it could see civilisation straight down below, a town, thickly clustered farms, and a road winding down towards the Liri. But the way down, less than a mile in a straight line, took twenty-four hours, innumerable ‘recces’ on foot over the hillsides, hill-hopping trips by a little Auster artillery observation plane, and finally help from a bulldozer, which came up from behind early on the morning of 30 May and gouged out a track downhill for the tanks. After all those preliminaries, the actual bulldozing took less than a quarter of an hour.
So the tanks were idle on the 29th, but nobody minded a bit. The sun was hot, the countryside looked and smelled beautiful, the fruit was beginning to ripen on the trees, Jerry was nowhere within reach. ‘It's a good war just now,’ wrote one man to his family on that day.
But when the bulldozer had finished it was time to be up and moving again. In turn C Squadron, Regimental Headquarters (which had spent the last few days gently moving along a mile or two behind the squadrons, with Colonel Robinson tearing round from squadron to squadron in a jeep) and A Squadron plunged down the mountainside, clanked down the winding road, out of the hills at last, and down to the river.
This was the end of the regiment's spectacular three-day performance, in which the tanks had appeared unexpectedly in places where tanks had no right to go, had put panic into Jerry's rearguards, and had helped the infantry to push ahead faster and with fewer casualties than it could have done otherwise. There had been moments when the tankies had impartially cursed the hills and the terraces, the infantry and their own commanders; but now that it was over they could look back on the feat with pride.
Not that they had any time just then to sit down and pat themselves on the back, for 13 Corps was pouring across the Liri hard on Jerry's heels, and 18 Regiment, still with its friends the Indians, was to join the chase as soon as it could get across the river.