A unique account of the Italian Campaign—never before in print
This book tells the personal story of one young man’s experience of the Second World War from the perspective of a private soldier in a tank regiment. When Sam Knowles was conscripted into the British Army at the age of 18, the war had begun and his home city had suffered the ravages of the ‘Manchester Blitz’. Despite his preferences for a less combative army career, Sam found himself channelled into the Royal Armoured Corps as a tank crewman. Despatched to North Africa, he was posted as a replacement to the 16th/5th Lancers which had come through a hard fought desert campaign. The invasion of the Italian mainland had taken place and the regiment was transported to join the battles that were being fought at the stronghold of Monte Cassino. Sam recounts his experiences on campaign and on the battlefield in rare detail as the 16th/5th Lancers fought their way northwards against tenacious enemy opposition. There are few published works by British tank crewmen from the Second World War and this personal account of the 16th/5th Lancers is unique among them. We share the author’s journey from schoolboy to experienced soldier in the post war period, and as he tells his story he describes the reality of army life for the ‘other ranks’, sparing little of the pathos and tragedy of war. However, Sam entertainingly and liberally relieves his narrative with humorous anecdotes concerning himself and his comrades under often difficult and dangerous circumstances, which reveal the good nature and fine character of British soldiers in wartime, as well as the esprit de corps of this renowned cavalry regiment. Contains many photographs and maps.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket; our hardbacks are cloth bound and feature gold foil lettering on their spines and fabric head and tail bands.
Our future home was a cave in the hillside where, in the last stages of exhaustion, we gloomily surveyed the interior. Some attempt had been made by previous residents to provide seating for its occupants by cutting into the rock walls, but that was all the comfort on offer so it was apparent that any sleeping we might attempt would have to be done upright in a sitting position.
First aid supplies were contained in metal boxes stacked against the rear of the cave and the whole unsavoury mess of this place was presided over by a weary Royal Army Medical Corps sergeant. Fortunately, in view of our temporarily depleted physical conditions, our first night as troglodytes was uneventful.
The military theory behind this system of aid posts was that since the positions were inaccessible by jeep, any casualties had to be manhandled down the mountain via a series of stretcher stations, each group of bearers handing over their burden to the next group and then making their way back to their base. In the dark and under enemy fire it was a most unpleasant experience and the unfortunate casualty was lucky if he reached the Casualty Clearing station in the village within three or four hours and without being tipped off the stretcher several times en route. Not surprisingly, the more seriously wounded men did not survive such a journey.
The Germans treated us with typical Teutonic bureaucracy. We had a Red Cross flag and when we went out bearing it aloft they would not fire on us. But step out just a few feet without it and you would get a salvo all to yourself, something I discovered early on the second morning when I made the mistake of going out some distance from the cave to relieve myself without a flag to announce my harmless intentions. The madness of it all was apparent when you consider that we were under constant observation from the enemy who were close enough to recognise us through their binoculars as individuals. They knew what we were doing there and common sense should have dictated that they withhold fire whether we had the Red Cross flag or not. But there it was, and the transgression of this German precise code of requirements on the subject was to have tragic consequences on the third day we were there.
About mid-morning we were visited by a young infantryman from the battalion in front of us. He had come up from base and was accoutred with small pack, rifle and entrenching tool. In common with all our visitors he had great difficulty in speaking at first, the climb having driven the last vestige of air from his lungs. We gave him a cup of tea and he told us that he had been sent to dig a slit trench for his commanding officer. The Royal Army Medical Corps sergeant was uneasy about the fact that he had entered our cave bearing arms since the Germans being particularly strict about this contravention of the principles of Red Cross facilities.
Sure enough, within a few minutes there was a great whoosh as a salvo of shells straddled our cave. We crouched along the walls to obtain what little cover was available, but one shell fell right in the entrance. I felt a blast, a twitch of my beret and a blow on my arm. I looked up to see half a loaf, covered in blood, lying in front of me. There was a strange gurgling, bubbling sound filling the air. I looked around to discover what was causing it. The RAMC sergeant had already moved to the back of the cave. Our visitor was lying half propped up against the wall with blood pumping from his throat. He had been hit by a piece of shrapnel and the bubbling noises were his attempts to breathe. To my untrained eye he looked as though he was ‘a goner’, but the RAMC sergeant took a field dressing and with reassuring words began bandaging him. It seemed a hopeless task, however, because soon the poor lad’s body, his uniform and all of us were soaked in his blood.
“Let’s get him back,” said the sergeant.
I laid my greatcoat over him; a futile gesture, but I felt better for having done something, and off we went through the mud.
As we approached the halfway mark between our post and the next, I went on ahead to warn the next station so that they could meet us and take over with a minimum of delay. It was my first visit to this post and I was not familiar with the approved route, so after about five minutes I found myself approaching the house (their accommodation was superior to ours) across a field dotted with corpses of cattle, horses, and mules and littered with abandoned military equipment. My unease was not diminished by the sight of an enemy notice lying in a shell hole alarmingly declaring, “Achtung! Minen!”. I had wandered into a minefield and I was so far into it at this point that it would be just as dangerous to retrace my steps as to press on.
The rest of my journey took about three more minutes, as well as I can recall, but it was without doubt, the longest three minutes of my life. With every step I took I expected to hear the ping of a land mine detonator but I dared not stop to examine the ground before I trod upon it because the stretcher-bearers carrying our casualty were already within a few hundred yards of where the next team would need to take over from them. So I pressed on, hoping for the best, and coming through the danger at last alerted the post of the urgency of what was coming their way as instructed.