Authors: John Harris
Reis sighed, aware that he was not without guilt himself for what had happened to his country. He too had once cheered, in the days when he’d believed National Socialism could overcome the evils wished on his country after the last war. Even in 1940 and 1941 – when foreign capitals fell to the Wehrmacht like skittles in a skittle alley – he had still been able to think that despite the disturbing things he kept hearing, perhaps the Nazi leaders were right. It had long since changed for him, of course, as it had for the rest of Germany; but the change had come far too late, and the wild talk he sometimes heard of a plot to remove the regime remained merely wild talk because no one dared move with the Nazi grip on the country’s throat.
He was just wondering how it would all end, and if he would be alive to see it end, when his attention was caught by movement on the road that ran from below him, straight as an arrow into the hills where the roofs of San Bartolomeo were just visible. Directly beneath him, he could see the bridge that brought the road to his own side of the river, with its centre span neatly removed by German engineers as they had retreated.
Bending low, jamming his eyes into the rubber cups on the glasses and concentrating fiercely, he thought he could see tanks outside San Bartolomeo. The haze that hung over the valley after all the weeks of rain was confusing, however, and after a second or two the vision faded and he began to wonder if he were imagining things. But it seemed safe to assume that things
moving across there, if only because patrol activity had increased in the last few days and observation posts had reported that the British were lifting the minefields on their own side of the river as fast as they could. If they intended staying where they were until the end of the winter, they wouldn’t have bothered.
He reached for a message pad and began to jot down what he had seen in the last twenty-four hours. There had been guns, a column of vehicles moving in and out of the hills, what looked like a dump growing among the trees just out of artillery range, and now possibly tanks. It all pointed to
being in the wind. Lifting the telephone, he cranked the handle. Thiergartner’s voice answered.
‘What’s it like down there?’ Reis asked.
‘Quiet, Herr Hauptmann. As a graveyard.’
‘Nothing of moment, Herr Hauptmann. Only Pulovski kicking the stove over just as the coffee was coming to the boil. That’s the worst of our ills just now. Why? Do you see something from up there?’
‘No.’ Reis forced his voice to sound calm. ‘It’s nothing. I’m just worried a little.’
‘Aren’t we all, Herr Hauptmann?’ Thiergartner’s voice came back full of humour and slightly mocking, and for a moment Reis thought that he might well be worth talking to for his views on the political situation at home. At least he’d be amusing. He rejected the idea sadly. Once that sort of thing started, it could only lead to demoralisation. He had to believe – they all had to believe – in what they were fighting for, or there would be no point in fighting. Even Reis, who was fighting chiefly for his wife and child, realised that he could not honourably give up the struggle. The things he’d seen in Russia gave him sleepless nights at times, and Germany’s borders had to be kept inviolate.
‘Have you seen anything across the river lately?’ he asked abruptly before his feelings could burst out of him.
‘Movement, Herr Hauptmann,’ Thiergartner said. ‘Lots of movement.’
‘I thought I saw tanks just now.’
Thiergartner laughed. ‘Doubtless from the monastery, on a clear day and with a good pair of glasses, they can read the arrows on the Tommies’ maps in Caserta. It isn’t worth worrying about.’
Reis thought it was, but Thiergartner’s voice came again. ‘We all know we’re the sacrifice, Herr Hauptmann. That fact is clear. The bait, you might even say.
Morituri te salutamus.
We who are about to die salute thee. Pity there’s no one at the top
‘Shut up, Thiergartner,’ Reis snapped, realising he had allowed the younger man to go too far.
Thiergartner was quick to apologise. ‘I’m sorry, Herr Hauptmann,’ he said. ‘That slipped out before I realised. But I think I’m right, all the same. It
no use worrying. They’ll come. When they’ve made their plan, they’ll come.’
In fact, the plan had already been finalised. Colonel Yuell knew as well as anyone that the date wasn’t far enough ahead. It never was, of course, but the few days they’d been granted wouldn’t even be sufficient to bring the battalion back to its former skill and quality.
A whole new bunch of men had joined – curiously pale and innocent-looking to the old hands. They’d come up from Naples, newly out from home to make up the numbers. But they’d been in England for most of the war and didn’t know that ‘Ted’ wasn’t your girl friend’s brother but a Tedesco and a German, the same article they’d been facing across the Channel for three years without ever coming to grips. There were also a few old hands who were rejoining after being wounded, but these weren’t many and they were wary because there was nothing like a wound to make a man realise he wasn’t immortal.
Colonel Yuell was no happier than the rest of them. With Warley, he was squatting in a ruined farmhouse in the hills overlooking the river. They had driven up that morning to make sure they knew the country ahead. In front of them the land flattened out, dropping gently towards the river which meandered slowly past on its way to the sea. From where they crouched, they could see the whole width of the valley with the slow-winding steely thread of the river, the railway line to Rome, and Highway Six in the shadow of the mountains. At that moment it all seemed empty, but occasionally on their own side they saw a vehicle move, spotting it at once and realising that the moment they came into the open, they too would be spotted.
The colonel of the Sikh regiment holding the sector was with them, and he gestured towards where San Eusebio sat on its bluff above the river. ‘We put a patrol across there two nights ago,’ he said. ‘Not a man returned.’
Warley pointed. ‘Sir, how’re they going to get a holding force down there near the river? The Germans’ll see every move that’s made, and their observation posts’ll be able to shell ’em to Kingdom Come’. He studied the land below them again. ‘It’s also a hell of a long walk under fire, sir,’ he went on. ‘And if we’re going to be down at the river bank at the right time, we’re going to be starting
while it’s still daylight.’
It was something that bothered Yuell, and he determined to have it out at Brigade HQ.
It so happened that his arrival at Brigade HQ coincided with a visit from Brigadier Heathfield, and the three of them – Yuell, Heathfield and Tallemach – got down to it together.
‘I’m concerned less with the business of getting across,’
Yuell admitted, ‘than with getting into position.’
Heathfield looked up. His features were plump, pink and smooth with self-satisfaction. He had produced his plan and he could see no reason why it shouldn’t work. Dammit, Yuell thought, no wonder he wants to be a politician after the war. He looks like one. He even has a politician’s self-righteous belief in what he has created.
‘It’s a straight enough road,’ Heathfield said.
‘That’s just what bothers me,’ Yuell pointed out.
‘You’ll have it all to yourselves. The Yellowjackets go down by a different route.’
Yuell’s eyes flashed. ‘Have
marched down to the river bank from cover, sir?’ he demanded.
Heathfield paused then came back to the attack. ‘No,’ he said. ‘And I don’t suppose you have either.’
‘No,’ Yuell admitted. ‘I haven’t. And neither has anyone else. That’s the whole problem. Nobody knows how long it’s going to take. There’s only one real road down to the jumping-off spot and that’s the road from San Bartolomeo to San Eusebio. You can bet the Germans have it pin-pointed down the whole length. It’s so straight they’ve only got to have a battery opposite the end and drop a few shells on it for markers, and they can cover the whole length of it simply by raising or lowering their sights.’
Heathfield seemed unable to see the difficulties. ‘I think you’re making rather a lot of it,’ he said. ‘And we’re making great efforts to clear the minefields on our side.’
‘Are we clearing them quicker than the Germans are slipping back to re-lay them?’ Yuell asked.
Heathfield ignored the question because he wasn’t sure of the answer, and went on, sweeping the map with his hand, always pleasant and smooth, never angry. ‘We shall try to put a holding force by the river to deter them.’
Yuell didn’t ask who they were, merely where they were to be positioned.
Heathfield’s finger jabbed at the map. ‘There.’ His hand moved. ‘And along this ground here.’
‘That bank slopes
the Germans,’ Yuell pointed out. ‘Not away. There’s nowhere there they can dig in with safety. They’ll be under observation the whole time.’
‘I think we can leave that to the holding force,’ Heathfield said confidently. ‘We expect to use the Baluchis, then they’ll be in a good position to join you across the bridge as soon as the Engineers have repaired it. Don’t worry about this side. Worry about the other side. Because only when the ground there’s in our hands will the bridgehead stand any chance of success.’
The new conference at Divisional HQ didn’t go quite as easily. General Tonge had left it to Brigadier Heathfield because he was due to confer with the army commander. He’d already come to the conclusion that perhaps Heath-field had been a little too precipitate and that it would be a good idea to call the whole thing off before they became too involved to do so. In the meantime, since he had this feeling nothing might come of it and since it was Heathfield’s plan and Heathfield had made all the arrangements, he had considered Heathfield quite capable of handling the details.
Perhaps because Tonge wasn’t there, everybody was more pernickety, and it was Colonel Baron of the Yellowjackets who first voiced his doubts. ‘What’s the river like there, sir?’ he asked. ‘We ought to know.’
Heathfield was blandly reassuring. ‘No high banks,’ he said. ‘Not like further along. It’s low and there are beaches of mud with patches of shingle. It should be easy to launch the boats.’
Baron still wasn’t satisfied.
‘What are the grounds, sir,’ he asked, for imagining that German morale’s sagging? I’ve seen no sign of it.’
Heathfield lifted a bunch of papers. ‘We’ve been picking up letters from German bodies,’ he said. ‘I have five here, all taken from the same man – one unposted from the dead man himself, quite obviously hating being here in Italy; one from his father in Russia to him, saying they’re enduring hell; one from a cousin on the Adriatic front; one from a brother in France; one from his mother in Germany. They all follow the same theme – how much they’re suffering from allied attacks and from the bombing.’
‘With respect,’ Baron persisted, ‘only one of them refers to this sector – the one that wasn’t posted. Aren’t we reading too much into them?’
Heathfield paused, aware that the divisional Intelligence officer’s enthusiasm – and his own too, for that matter – had failed to take this point into account. ‘There are plenty of others,’ he said.
As Baron sat down, the colonel of the 717th Field Company, Royal Engineers, raised his objections. ‘That bridge at the end of the San Bartolomeo road,’ he pointed out. ‘It’s no good for tanks.’
‘I know that,’ Heathfield said. ‘We all know it. There’s a span down. It’ll be your job to repair it.’
‘I didn’t mean that. I mean it’s not strong enough. I put in a report myself.’
Heathfield frowned. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I’ve had a look at it, sir. It was dark and they were shooting at us, so it was a bit perfunctory, but I’d stake my career on it. If you want to get tanks across, you’re going to have to push up a Class 40 Bailey bridge.’
Heathfield frowned because the Engineer’s report seemed to have gone astray somewhere, then he nodded. ‘You’d better attend to it,’ he said.
It was the bridge that brought Colonel Vivian, the officer in command of the armour, into the picture. Vivian had fought all the way along the north coast of Africa and through Sicily before arriving in front of Cassino. He was a tall man with a limp yellow moustache, but he wore the ribbon of the DSO on his breast. He was said to be enormously wealthy and to have given a tremendous amount of time and money to keeping his Yeomanry up to scratch before the war, and he clearly had no intention of being pushed into something that might destroy it unnecessarily.
‘If we’re to get across the bridge,’ he said, ‘we’ll need to be grouped well forward so we can get across it at first light the minute it’s finished and before it’s knocked out.’
‘You go as soon as a good bridgehead’s been established,’ Heathfield agreed. ‘Until then, your tanks will remain concealed.’
‘What about the approach?’
‘What about it?’
‘How do we get into position?’
‘Why can’t you be in position already?’
‘Because in front of San Eusebio, where we’ll be, there’s only one surfaced road down to the jumping-off spot, and that’s going to be jammed with infantry, artillery and lorries carrying assault boats. To say nothing of the Engineers with all their bridging equipment who’ll have to be ready to start throwing the bridge across the minute the infantry reach the other side.’