Authors: John Harris
Thiergartner had sounded distinctly shaky, and that quiet humour that had always seemed to support him appeared to have vanished. If there were the slightest hesitation in what he did, the British would be quick to take advantage of it because they were now as experienced in attack as the Germans were in defence and had developed a great gift for spotting the weakest points.
The Engineers were already pushing their Class 40 bridge out from the bank, floating out their pontoons, attaching the bows to the hawser they’d strung across and hauled taut with tackle, and throwing out anchors to hold the sterns in place. As they worked, more men hurried the Bailey panels forward and were bolting them together like a child’s construction kit.
As the returning boats grounded on the mud, Warley blew his whistle and the men around him rose up from among the knolls and hillocks of earth, daubed with dirt, wet-through and half-frozen from the rain.
Among them he saw the medical officer and Father O’Mara.
‘Not yet,’ he shouted above the din. ‘You come over with Tony Jago!’
The doctor smiled and shook his head, and O’Mara gave one of his expansive Irish gestures, waving cheerfully with his walking stick. He carried no weapons but he was loaded down like the commonest soldier with rations, medical supplies and even ammunition.
‘Me eyes may be on the next world, my son,’ he said, ‘but I’m aware that it’s the work of a man of God in this one to smite the ungodly.’
‘But not to get yourself killed, Padre.’
O’Mara smiled. ‘You miss the point of me belief, my son. That comes from not listening to the sermon in church.’
Though the German barrage had slackened a little, it was still churning up the mud on the river bank, and, going from boat to boat, upright in spite of the flailing fire, Warley made the men fall in properly on either side, knee-deep in the swirling water; then, while the boats were held securely in place, he made them climb in carefully, and had the last man push off. This time there were no sinkings through haste or lack of knowledge. After having survived one crossing, the men in charge had grown more careful.
The undergrowth and brambles along the bank were catching fire in places from the shelling, but the darkness and the rain made it impossible to see more than a few paces in front. As Warley moved across a stretch of shingle with Henry White, a shell exploded on the very spot where he’d been sheltering. Bowled over by the blast he saw White disappear in the other direction. As he scrambled up, he saw him on his feet but bent double, muttering curses, one hand to his mouth, the other with the fingertips pawing the ground.
‘You all right, Henry?’ he asked.
‘No, sir,’ White mumbled. ‘I’m not. I’ve lost me fuckin’ false teeth.’
Every bit of artillery on the German side was ranging in now, and Warley saw another boat capsize. Wounded men clung to the wreckage or tried to swim back to the near bank. With Warley in charge, however, there was no panic. One man, sole survivor from a sunken boat in the first wave, staggered ashore wearing nothing but a shirt and underwear. Somehow, he’d managed to divest himself of clothes and equipment, though he still clutched his rifle and wore his steel helmet.
‘I got across, sir,’ he grinned.
‘Don’t talk so bloody daft, man,’ Warley said. ‘You’re still on the same side.’
There were a few men still crouching among the bushes and undergrowth. Jago moved among them, kicking them to life. ‘Get going, you bastards,’ he was yelling. ‘You’re needed! Get cracking!’
As he turned towards his boat, Warley fell over a group of bodies. What had happened to them and why they all came to be dead together he couldn’t imagine. Then he saw men taking advantage of the darkness and confusion to dump the canvas identification panels they’d been given for the air force strike and he made them pick them up again, feeling that sometime, somewhere – even if it were only in the event that they had to retreat – they might be glad of them.
His own boat was the last to push off, and he huddled in the bow along with his signaller and the company runner. The river was jet black but it was caught here and there by sparkles of light. Overhead, tracer bullets flashed in streams. On his right, Warley could see the loom of the bridge with its empty span stark against the flames, Engineer officers standing, indifferent to the firing, on the edge of the newly-broken stonework.
Then a spatter of bullets stirred the water alongside them and the signaller’s eyes dilated.
‘Can’t say I like this, sir,’ he said.
‘I’m not enjoying it much myself,’ Warley admitted.
In midstream, the German fire seemed to lose them and they were able to make the last twenty yards to the other side without too much trouble. The boat grounded on the mud, and he was slapping at the shoulders of his men and following them as they bounded ashore, splashing and slithering their way up the bank to the footpath. They had drifted twenty or thirty yards further downstream from where Deacon had landed and one of the men, wandering off course a little, found himself in a minefield. There was a crash and a scream, then nothing.
‘Keep going,’ Warley yelled. ‘Keep going! And bear left for Mr Deacon’s group!’
Mortar bombs were coming down on them now, exploding by the water’s edge, throwing up great gouts of mud from the shallows. But they were across. How many, Warley had no idea. But they were across.
They were across.
On the track from Capodozzi, Colonel Yuell stood in the drizzling rain staring towards the mountains beyond the river, identifiable only by the twinkling of lights that betrayed the positions of German guns on their slopes. What was happening to his men he had no idea because they’d hardly had time yet to get across and establish themselves.
Then Major Peddy called to him and, entering his command post, he saw that the second-in-command’s face was grim.
‘The Yellowjackets are in trouble,’ Peddy said at once. ‘They seem to have had a chaotic march down to the river. They had a lot of stragglers who took advantage of the smoke, and the guides lost their way and wandered into the minefields. Some of their rubber boats were holed by shell-fire and they thought the Engineers were bringing up replacements and waited. They also got into a sunken road near the crossing site, and that delayed them too.’
‘Are they across?’
‘Just. The Teds brought nebelwerfers down on them but they got one company across just after 2000 hours. They got up the banks but they came under accurate small arms fire from concealed posts, so close the artillery couldn’t give ’em support. They’re digging foxholes and they report hearing tank engines.’
Yuell glanced over his shoulder into the darkness, suspecting that the report might well fit his own men’s crossing before the night was over. ‘Go on,’ he said.
‘Heavy casualties. Mortars pinned them to the edge of the river. Some of the company officers killed or wounded were men who’d been given special jobs to do. They’re yelling for help and want us to push on quickly to relieve them a little.’
‘I wish to God we could,’ Yuell said. ‘Why the devil haven’t we heard from Warley? Have you kept trying?’
‘Yes, sir, I have.’
‘Shells must have severed the telephone wires.’ Yuell slapped at his leg with his walking stick and made up his mind.
‘Get my jeep up,’ he said. ‘I’m going down to the river.’
‘You’ll probably have to walk,’ Peddy pointed out. ‘I gather the San Bartolomeo road’s jammed with vehicles and the track from Capodozzi’s under heavy fire now.’
‘Very well,’ Yuell said. ‘I can always do that.’ He frowned. ‘I wonder why we haven’t heard from them?’
The reason was simple. There wasn’t a single working link. All the ‘Eighteens’ had been lost or damaged in the disasters of the crossing, and the field telephone line, unreeled as they’d advanced, seemed to have been cut by shellfire somewhere near the river. The regimental signallers, ordinary soldiers who got no extra pay and only crossed flags on their sleeves, had set off in pairs, with their knives and insulating tape, to find the break. Until it could be repaired they were out of touch. There wasn’t even contact with other companies.
Deacon had showed remarkable initiative and had continued to push inland, leaving guides behind to direct the second wave. He’d reached the uneven ground beyond the road and the railway line and had found a larger hollow surrounded by rocks, which he was busy fortifying when Warley joined him, pushing men out to right and left to dig slit trenches. On the German side of the dip, sheltered by the slope, there was a small stone building probably once used as a cow byre to which they were carrying the wounded.
‘We’ve got to get in contact with the colonel,’ Warley said. ‘Let’s try a pigeon.’
But, in the din and confusion of mortar fire, the bird merely circled slowly above them and they saw it come to rest on a broken wall just ahead of them out of reach, shaking its head and fluffing out its wet feathers.
‘The bastard’s allergic to the dark,’ Farnsworth snarled.
‘It’ll probably go at daylight, sir,’ Corporal Carter said helpfully.
‘Let’s hope so,’ Warley growled. ‘Got any more?’
‘Better wait a bit then. It’ll soon be daylight. We’ll try again then.’ As Warley turned, he saw his signaller sitting against a rock with blood on his face and a dazed look in his eyes.
‘What happened?’ he asked.
‘Bits of stone, chiefly, sir, I think. It’s made me go deaf. I can hardly hear a bloody thing.’
‘Think you can help the doctor and the padre set up an aid post, and get the wounded to it?’
‘I reckon so, sir. You’d better use another signaller in my place.’
‘Right. See what you can do to help. We seem to be a bit short of men.’
As the signaller crawled away, Warley stared round him. Deacon had surprised him with his ability. Up to that point, he had thought of him merely as a dubious disciplinarian who sought to conceal an inner lack of self-confidence by his constant harrying of the wretched Syzling. But he had clearly got an eye for country, and the dip he’d chosen couldn’t have been bettered by a man with fifty years’ experience of fighting. It gave them more shelter than they could have expected and had even provided somewhere for the doctor’s dressing station. Nevertheless, they were struggling against an overwhelming barrage from the hills. The German gunners weren’t entirely sure where they were yet, but it was quite clear that until the artillery damped down their fire A Company were going to be unable to move forward. The British shells exploding just in front didn’t seem to be dropping in the right spots, yet they were unable to redirect them without radios.
‘Have we heard from the Yellowjackets?’ Warley demanded. ‘They ought to be moving down here to help us.’
‘No, sir.’ Deacon answered. ‘There’s been nothing. Nor from B or C Companies.’ He turned back, ‘Syzling, for the love of God, keep your stupid head down! It might not worry you if you get a bullet between the eyes, because I don’t suppose there’s much behind them, but it’ll worry me. I need you.’
Warley began to move round the dip, checking his men. In the stone byre, the medical orderlies, the doctor and O’Mara were crouched over the wounded. Only one of them had been hit by enemy fire since they’d reached the dip. All the rest had been brought down in the rush from the river and been dragged along by their friends.
As Warley checked, a whole new group fell into the hollow, their weapons and equipment clattering. Jago was among them.
‘Christ!’ His voice was thin and edgy. ‘Is this all we’ve got? Where’s B and C?’
‘They haven’t arrived yet,’ Warley said. ‘And we’ve had no word from the Yellowjackets. We’d better get D across. How many did you bring?’
‘I set off with about forty men but I seem to have lost a few en route. I heard firing further downstream, so some of them probably drifted down there. I expect we’ll pick them up as we move on.’
‘If we move on,’ Warley said grimly. ‘There’s firing on our left, so I suspect B and C have got lost over there somewhere. We’ll know as soon as it’s daylight.’
When Yuell reached the river bank, he discovered that three of his companies had managed to establish themselves across the river, even if only in small groups; but opposite the point where Warley had crossed, only one of the three footways the Engineers had managed to put up on kapok bales near the stone bridge was still standing. The German fire was extraordinarily heavy and extraordinarily accurate, and his signals officer had been badly wounded.
He called Peddy to him. ‘Sit on the rear link radio in case we re-establish contact with Warley,’ he said. ‘I’m going across with D.’
Another flurry of German shells landed along the river bank, sending slashes of mud sweeping across the scrubby undergrowth. As Yuell plunged on to the swaying footbridge with D Company, yet another salvo landed just behind them. The last man heading across the bridge cried out and fell into the water, and one of the Engineers waded out and dragged him ashore. Looking back, Yuell saw stretcher bearers were also busy round the hollow where he’d left Peddy and Mr Zeal. And even as he flung himself down with D Company, a shell severed the thin thread of steel and wood so that, like the rest of the battalion, D Company was now also effectively marooned without the support of tanks.