Authors: John Harris
Tonge was a small man, round-faced and ruddy, with a clipped military moustache and a heavy limp, a relic of North Africa. Known to his troops as the Limping Limpet, he was a friendly man and, like most British divisional commanders in 1944, highly experienced. His faults were human rather than professional in that he was kind-hearted and too much inclined to let his subordinates have their heads. And, unfortunately, his 19th Indian Division was no longer as good as it had been.
The tendency since the desert to imagine that all future battles would be tank versus tank had been completely destroyed in Italy. Infantrymen were more important than ever and, with the rifle and the hand grenade once more the final arbiters of the battlefield, what was needed now was not vehicles, artillery or aircraft but men. A fresh brigade to throw in after a week’s fighting would have made a great deal of difference; but Tonge’s division had become depleted and weary, and the few replacements who had arrived had brought with them the established habits and practices of the army in England.
Italy was different. It was different from the desert and very different from England. They even had a different name for the Germans – not Jerries but Teds, from Tedeschi, the Italian word for them.
General Tonge was very much aware of his problems. He was a capable man, but suspected that since being wounded in Libya he had slowed down. And when he’d returned to duty it was to find himself saddled with a staff of whom he knew little and who, in many cases, were new to their jobs. Because he wasn’t there to hang on to them, the experienced men he’d directed before his wound had all been whipped away to England to handle the problems of the Second Front, and he felt the new lot weren’t as good and were never likely to be. This troubled him because when soldiers felt the staff were capable of making sure that everything worked, morale was high. Unhappily, General Tonge no longer felt he could guarantee this.
Despite his doubts, his headquarters reflected an atmosphere of brisk efficiency, rather like an important office in the City of London full of young executives keen on their jobs and well on top of it. It was situated off the main road in a villa set in its own grounds and marked with the tall dark flames of cypresses. Near the gateposts, military policemen stood on guard, and over the house the yellow divisional banner with its black dragon fluttered limply in the thin breeze. The house belonged to a wealthy Roman who was now on the other side of the front line, and that part of the building occupied by Tonge’s headquarters looked a little like an English country club, with
The Tatler, The Field
prominently displayed among the out-of-date copies of
The Daily Telegraph.
Most of what had been done to make it comfortable was the work of Brigadier Wallace Heathfield. Heathfield was a thruster by nature, looked like a thruster and believed in being a thruster. He was a tall man inclined to plumpness, and his round face and smooth blond hair were instantly belied by his brisk manner. He had the energy of two men and, because he liked his comfort, enjoyed keeping an eye on the mess in addition to his own jobs as commander of the divisional artillery and the divisional commander’s confidant and virtual deputy. A compulsive interferer, he felt he had found his niche on Tonge’s staff, and his swift, ingratiating manner, heartily disliked by the men he dealt with, had seen him rapidly promoted. Heathfield got things done, whether it was the acquisition of clothing, ammunition or vehicles; the improvement of medical facilities; or merely the sorting out of the quarrels between the cook and the mess sergeant. He was also well-known in the army as a bridge player, though Tonge had noticed that he liked to win and that if he didn’t he was inclined to sulk.
His handsome face puckered with concentration, he bent over the map spread across the general’s desk, his plump white hands moving swiftly across its surface.
‘I thought a straightforward head-on attack across the river by Brigadier Tallemach, sir,’ he was saying, ‘with Brigadier Rankin to leap-frog through him.’
Tonge rubbed his knee. Part of it was missing and when the weather was indifferent, as it was now, it ached.
‘Not sure Tallemach’s the man for the job,’ he said slowly. ‘He’s not young any more.’
‘He’s only forty-five, sir.’
‘With colonels of twenty-seven, it’s still not young.’
‘He has a good record, sir. And he uses his head. Rankin’s noted for his doggedness. He’d be just the man to burst out of the bridgehead.’
Tonge glanced at his brigadier. Sometimes, he thought, Heathfield was inclined to let his enthusiasm run away with him. On the other hand, he appeared to be clever and he had ideas.
‘Are you sure all your details are right, Wallace? This bit about German morale, for instance?’
Heathfield spoke stiffly. ‘That’s what Intelligence says, sir,’ he said. ‘It seems to be borne out by the facts.’
Tonge wasn’t so sure. Heathfield was newly promoted and fresh out from England and Tonge wasn’t confident he was yet properly attuned to Italy.
‘Well,’ he agreed. ‘I have to admit 9th Indian Brigade’s a bit rigid but, given a plan, Rankin’s got the courage to pursue it to the limit. He’s like a bulldog when he gets his teeth into something.’ He nodded. ‘Very well. Go ahead. Let me see what you propose. But if things don’t look auspicious, we have to be prepared to call it off and try something else. And we might have to, because some of our armour’s been taken away.’
‘We’ve been given the South Notts Yeomanry, sir; Churchill tanks. We’ve also got 19th Div. artillery in addition to our own.’
‘It should be enough.’ Tonge looked at Heathfield. ‘I have to see the army commander and then go down to Caserta to Army Group. It looks like being your baby for a day or two. Think you can manage?’
Heathfield smiled. He had no doubts whatsoever. ‘I’m sure I can, sir.’
‘Right. Remember 11th Indian’s not ours and we can’t call on them for the time being.’
‘I have it, sir.’
Heathfield tapped his notepad, and Tonge nodded. ‘How long were you intending for the planning?’
‘A fortnight, sir.’
Tonge grunted. ‘You’ve got four days,’ he said.
And that was how it happened.
Lieutenant-Colonel Yuell’s men awoke in empty houses, schools and war-battered villas, in tents and stables and barns, anywhere they could be packed in.
Known to the rest of the army as ‘Dean’s Dandies’, because, in the days when a regiment was virtually the private property of its colonel, a certain Colonel Joshua Dean had lavished on their uniforms enough of his personal fortune to give them fashion parity with the cavalry, the North Yorkshires consisted of 22 officers and 642 other ranks. Or to be more exact, at that moment, 21 officers because Second-Lieutenant Marsden had overturned a jeep outside Caserta and been carted off to hospital with a broken leg; and 622 men because one man had died after an operation following a burst appendix in Naples, two men had fallen drunk out of the back of a lorry, and seventeen more had gone down with a recurrence of malaria contracted in Sicily and a variety of other illnesses. There were four rifle companies, the HQ company, and battalion headquarters, all ruled over by the awesome figure of the regimental sergeant-major who was appropriately named Mr Zeal.
‘When James VI of Scotland became James I of England,’ Company Sergeant-Major Farnsworth of A Company liked to tell his men, ‘he and his court wore out their brogues on the journey south, so they sent a message back to Edinburgh asking for a thousand more. But by the time the message reached Scotland the word, “brogues”, had become “rogues”. And’ – at this point CSM Farnsworth’s voice always rose ‘–their descendants all seem to be in this bloody battalion.’
They were sharp, suspicious and individual as Highlanders, which indeed many of them were because they came from the high country of the moors. Edward Yuell himself – a small, nervy, wiry man with jet-black hair and grey flinty eyes – came from a family which farmed two thousand acres of harsh Yorkshire Pennine land west of Ripon. The climate seemed to have bitten into his character so that he reacted to every crisis in the same way that his family had always reacted to crises of weather and livestock on their bleak uplands – in a Yorkshire way, quickly but with remarkably little fuss.
His men resembled him. Their speech was slow and strong and contained strange words nobody else understood. It was blunt and forthright, flat-vowelled but full of their own brand of humour.
They came from the hills, the dales and the riversides, and from the streets of ugly wool and steel cities. And although they had no real ill-feeling for the men of Lancashire, in one respect the Wars of the Roses were still being waged. The biannual counties cricket matches, which had always been played by the dictum of ‘If you can’t win, at least don’t bloody well lose’, had produced more boredom for the rest of the country than any other sporting spectacle. To the North Yorkshires, ‘Ilkla Moor’ was more of a national anthem than ‘God Save The King’.
Because they were a regular battalion, many of them were in it for the sole reason that their fathers, or even their grandfathers, had been in it. Yuell’s great-grandfather had been at Lucknow and the men of his family had served the regiment for over a hundred years. The father of Second-Lieutenant Taylor, who was newly arrived and as wet as a wet day, had been killed with the regiment on the Somme. Mr Zeal, CSM Farnsworth and Corporal Wymark had all had fathers who had been NCOs in the regiment. At least
two privates had actually been born into it, seeing life for the first time in the married quarters of the regimental depot at Ripon. Yuell’s second-in-command, Major Peddy, round-faced, spectacled and looking like a schoolmaster, had not thought it possible, living in Harrogate, to join any other regiment. Mark Warley of A Company, though he had no regimental ancestry whatsoever, was as Yorkshire as Wensleydale.
Like all battalions, it included the good, the bad and the indifferent, individuals despite their uniformity of dress and equipment. In Major Warley’s company alone they were as varied as circus performers.
First of all among them was Private White. White was an old soldier. After his first term of service in the 1914–18 war something had happened that they often debated but never established, and it had caused him to join up again for the rest of his life. He had a string of good conduct stripes halfway up his arm, three ribbons, two from the last war and one for the North-West Frontier, and he had resisted every attempt to promote him. Though they tormented him unmercifully, his comrades also regarded him with a certain amount of awe which showed in the fact that he was probably the only White in the British army who was not nicknamed Chalky’. Private White had been in so long he seemed to deserve more respect than that and he was always known – even to the officers – by his Christian name, Henry.
His tattooed sinewy body was still that of an athlete but he had the haggard face and sunken cheeks of an old man, and a set of wobbling false teeth which looked, according to Private Parkin, as if they’d been rifled off a corpse. He was sober, hard-working, frowned on bad language, tended to keep himself to himself, smoking and staring into space because he didn’t read, and never received letters and never wrote any. Nobody knew where he came from because he never mentioned his home or his childhood, but he had an old soldier’s knack for making himself comfortable and for finding women – what he called his ‘parties’ – like himself usually past their youth and usually with families, as if he gained something from being with them that he’d missed in his lifetime in uniform. In England they’d come across him occasionally sitting in a pub with one of them, both staring silently into space as if they’d been married for thirty years. Private Parkin liked to suggest that Henry had worn a red coat and carried a musket at Waterloo.
Mind you, Private Parkin – known like all Parkins as ‘Pedlar’ – himself was no slouch when it came to being odd. He had once done a season as a busker in Bradford, and knew every song that had ever been sung on the music halls and quite a few that hadn’t. He had a mop of greasy black hair that hung permanently over his eyes, a mouth like a post-office slit and, like Henry White, a set of false teeth – ‘’Ad ’em all out when I was sixteen! Saved all that brushin’.’
Another butt for Parkin’s humour was Dickie Duff, all five foot three of him, with tiny fists and tiny boots like the Gurkhas. In the desert Duff had seemed to be all shorts, but he was good-humoured enough not to mind the chaffing he suffered and, because he was always willing to do what the big men did, never considered himself small. Inevitably he was known as ‘Lofty’. Matching him in equanimity, but for a very different reason, was Lance-Corporal Fletcher-Smith. Built like a small ox, Fletcher-Smith had once aspired to swim the Channel, and, considering himself a cut above the rest, liked to prove it with his knowledge of books. Known as ‘Brains Trust’ to the rest of the Company, he was a serious young man regarded with a measure of wonder by his less educated comrades, yet possessed of a curious naivety that made ridicule difficult and sometimes caused him to be a hell of a bind.
His complete opposite was Private Martindale – once a ploughman – who cared about nothing so much as his pipe. He smoked it awake and asleep, standing up and lying down. The front of his battledress was so scarred by the showers of sparks his pipe shed, it looked as if it had suffered from some sort of fiery scarlet fever. On one memorable occasion he had even appeared, all unaware, on parade with the pipe sticking from his face like the muzzle of a gun. The more ribald of his friends claimed he even smoked it when he went to bed with his wife.