TURNSTILE to HISTORY
War in Italy is a war of bridges —and this is the story of a bridge which became the nerve centre of the 8th Army
Toronto Globe and Mail War Correspondent
SOMEWHERE in Italy (By Cable)—If this war in Italy had a symbol like the last war in France, which was symbolized by the trench, the symbol would be a bridge. In the endless rocky furrows of the Apennines and the river-creased coastal corridors to the east and west, bridges are both the sinews and the day to day impulse on which armies move. Whether he thinks about it or not no soldier in Italy, be he German or Yank, conscript or Gurkha from Nepal, marches a step, tires a bullet or carries out a planned military act of any kind that is not governed in some way by his own command’s conviction that such and such a bridge must be either destroyed and blocked or repaired and crossed.
Tliis is the story of one bridge—not of the bridge itself but of some of the things one itinerant camp follower heard and saw within its noisy orbit in a half dozen days of last November. When we first came there was no bridge at all—only the crumbling stumps of the pylons pointing mockingly at the mountains that rose sheer above the river bed. Half-ton blocks of stone lay in the shallow rushing water below a small concrete tlam.
Thid narrow gorge had become, for the time being, the nerve centre of the Eighth Army front above Campobasso. The Biferno River had been crossed farther up and lower down. Our troops were now feeling their way up a secondary road from Oratino. A mile away, as the crow flies, Castropignano gleamed with a deceptive white cleanliness in the cold autumn sun. Farther on, the frowning curve of the sky line rose to Torella and Molise. With the capture of these three nondescript villages the Biferno bridgehead would be sealed from Bojano to the Adriatic.
The engineers prodded down the drooping horseshoe of the road while the first infantry patrols fanned out to their flanks on the wooded slopes. It was slow hazardous work, for the German sappers had started mixing things up again by felling trees across their mine fields and attaching booby traps to them. And every now and then the German mortars, hidden somewhere over the next crest, barked in a symphonic interlude—ca-rur-nip! Depending upon what the
middle note told their expert ears about the range and direction of that particular shell, the soldiers either went on working and walking or flattened out against the shoulders of the road and the folds of the ground until the sound had died away.
By nightfall the infantry was able to send a reconnaissance unit across the gorge. Hub-deep in mud just off the roadsides, the artillery tractors had somehow dragged a couple of regiments of 25-pounders into range, and as a cloudy night plunged the stream into blackness our guns hammered angrily at the unseen foe. But guns alone can’t take foot soldiers across a
river. Black, shuffling shadows, spread far apart, filed down the last 100 yards to the river. At the edge a boot nudged a pebble top and the faint chink was followed by a fainter break in the rhythm of the water as it ran across the rocks. That was the first man’s step into the river. Now the infantry was oi its own.
It was not an easy journey. Wet to the knees, but intact, the patrol completed fording the river without incident and began the long circuitous climb up the rolling bank beyond. The heavy stillness was broken by a sharp, half metallic hiss and then a second later the crack of a shrapnel mine. One man lay dead, another wounded. By dawn the patrol had reached its objective. It had not had to fire a shot but its casualties had grown to six.
Artillery’s Mighty Chorus
AGAIN night came and this time a whole L. battalion threaded through the river bed, scaled the far abutment and pushed into Castropignano itself. The artillery gathered in a mighty chorus behind the advancing companies, slashing the starless sky with livid streaks of flame and splashing orange shellbursts against the distant silhouette of the town. The Germans moved out fast. We occupied the town without infantry contact. There was no organized defense. Even Jerry’s ubiquitous mortars and his famous 88-millimetre field guns were in retreat.
But not his l*ig guns. They were already far back in the hills out of range of the stuff the Canadians had been able to bring up over the sodden roads within reach of the river bed.
Halfway through the gorge one of our companies caught the full impact of these German 150-millimetre guns. The German gunners had to time their salvos by instinct but this time their instinct was good and, of course, they had taped the range and bearing exactly, at least a week before. Every shell was aimed at the part of the river the Germans knew we’d have to use to get across, and every shell was on the target area. Miraculously there wasn’t a casualty. The officer who commanded the company that was going over when the. barrage reached its height used that wordmiraculous.
“We spread out and prayed,” he said. “There wasn’t much else to do. The stuff was ahead and behind, to the left and to the right and in the middle. There were 138 pounds in every shell. You can guess the arc of the burst for yourself. And not a soldier was hit. No man can explain how things can happen that way. Only God can explain and in all humility I believe that God marched across the Biferno with my company.”
The spearhead stopped in Castropignano for two days. A workable ford for men and mules was no longer enough. If the moving column was to keep up its momentum and be supplied with sufficient food and ammunition to carry on to Torella and Molise, a half dozen miles away, it would have to have a bridge capable of supporting guns and lorries built across the river.
First the engineers threw together what they call a Dutch bridge—a foundation of loose stones six inches under water. Jeeps and tracked vehicles could get across on this below the dam. Above the dam sappers blasted a clearing through the trees, bulldozed a rough diversion through the mud and laid the framework for a steel and wooden span which was to carry most of the traffic.
They were often under shellfire but the sappers, as they always do, worked swiftly and with a sort of reckless wariness. While we were waiting to get our jeep across their Dutch bridge, they hooked six German Teller mines together under a 14-inch spruce and pulled the chain. The tree went straight up like a fungo hit by a baseball player, cleared a line of other trees and dropped on the other side without scraping a branch. At its maximum height the tree must have been more than 100 feet clear of the ground.
“That,” said the sergeant in charge of the sappers, “will give you a rough idea why we don’t encourage people to run over Tellers.”
The traffic over the Dutch bridge was mostly priority stuff. There was no battle in progress ahead but mines and medium artillery don’t rest between battles. There were casualties coming back from up front. The stretcher-bearers had worked out an efficient relay system with one ambulance jeep on the far side of the river and another on the near side and two parties of bearers to transfer the patients from one to the other. They brought one man across, shapeless under a blanket. The soldiers picked their way carefully among the immersed rocks, laid their burden gently on the rack above the second jeep and paused to get their breath.
As the vehicles crept away the patient’s head stirred. One of the stretcher-bearers stood with his back to the river and watched the jeep out of sight. His expression was devoid of emotion but full of concentration as though he were looking at something that would be important for him to remember later.
“Friend of his,” one of the other stretcher-bearerá whispered. “Both arms, both legs.”
Open New Attack
THE battalion that had occupied Castropignano rested there and another battalion passed through. The 25-pounders strained forward through the mud. A climb through the dirty shell-torn streets to the far edge of the town led to the best of many observation posts, from which our gunnery officers had already begun to redirect fire on the enemy’s new positions in Torella.
From a window I looked across a broad valley to where Torella sat on the horizon. A soldier on duty on the top floor warned, “Don’t show yourself. He’s got observation posts, too.”
And sure enough he had. In a top window in the biggest building in the town across the valley my binoculars clearly picked out the white speck of a human face. It stayed there for perhaps 20 minutes while our guns and theirs traded random bursts back and forth. Then, as neatly and as deliberately as a trick-shot artist showing off in a shooting gallery, our guns ran a geometric string of three black puffs under the window from which the face had gleamed. The rounds left three grey gouges in the side of the building. The face was gone.
Back down on the river the prelude to.another battle was mounting. A squadron of Sherman tanks ground through the river bed and nuzzled, one by one, up a 2,000-foot rise and then deployed and concealed themselves in a V-shaped grove of trees on the southern tip of a long ridge that started above Castropignano and ended at Torella. The.Colonel gave us tea while we watched the tanks complete the laborious ascent.
“Come back tomorrow,” he suggested.
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Our press headquarters was a few miles down the line and we sat for three hours above the river crossing, waiting for the traffic to stop coming up so we could start back. A light drizzle began to fall at dusk. In an hour it thickened and began to slosh down the wet diversion to where artillery tractors were winching 25-pounders through the sticky holding clay.
There were no lights along the river bed but you could follow the progress of each gun with vour ears and picture exactly what was happening to it from the sounds that came up the hill on the sodden, cold night air. If the gun stuck, muffled curses and the desperate clash of gears and the stricken whine of a field artillery tractor whose wheels refused to grip could be heard. If the gun was making it, there was a murmur of encouraging shouts from the gunners straining at its wheels and then, as it gathered speed for the plunge over the crest and back to the level of the main road, you’d hear a united cry of savage pleading and triumph: “Give her
(something that can’t be mentioned)— !”
The line of vehicles on our side lengthened. You couldn’t see its length but you could sense it from the impatient footsteps that scrunched up from the rear of the column and the low voices, nervous with the urgency of a hundred missions.
“I’ve got to get my water truck back and up again before morning. They won’t let me run it up in daylight.”
“Do you think I could squeeze by on a bike, corporal? Message for the Brigadier.”
‘I’ve got to guide a mule train to the ^^8ty Pete’s.” (The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment was already eight miles away, marching overland into position for the attack on Molise.)
“Guns coming through.”
The M.P. on duty kept explaining, “It shouldn’t be long now.”
A match flared and drew a dozen angry shouts.
In the truck behind, someone told a joke. In the jeep ahead two officers were talking about duck shooting in western Canada.
“It wouldn’t do any good, anyway,” one of them said. “You can’t buy shells because the Army’s taken over all the factories.”
“Well, shells or no shells,” the other said stubbornly, “I still wish I was back home shooting ducks.”
At last the last gun made it and the downward backlog of traffic funnelled through the black, wet chasm. As our jeep hit the other side the first big shell Jerry had dumped in in six hours hit where the old bridge had been. Through its searing, star-long flash, chunks of wet earth spattered the raised top of the jeep and three jumpy war correspondents and one conducting officer yelled four separate sets of instructions to an equally jumpy driver. The driver wisely decided that what the situation called for wasn’t advice but more gas.
Tanks Under Fire
The battle for Torella was fought during the next morning and early afternoon on the ridge where our tanks had grouped for the take-off. The mopping up extended into the night but the decisive phase unfolded in a dip in the ground across which the assaulting infantry had to pass on its way from one high point to another.
When we returned to our observation post in Castropignano, the tanks had moved forward a mile and turned in file to crawl along the bare ridge just below its exposed crest. To their left and just behind them at the apex of a shallow valley was a stone farmhouse. To the right and three quarters of a mile ahead was another farmhouse. The first farmhouse marked the extreme of the northern boundary of that portion of Italy which belonged to the Eighth Army. The other marked the central tip of the receding German line.
Our artillery was beating up the area around the town but at first we saw no infantry. Then a dozen men crept into view around the corner of the house on the left. There was a puff of white smoke at a distance that seemed only 15 feet away and the soldiers scattered, loping down into the shallow valley. But the mortars followed them like pelting snowballs.
Then the tanks took over. A large part of battle tactics is only bullying, on a scientific plane. If a mortar starts bullying your rifle the smart thing to do is to look around for a bigger bully and enlist him on your side. Like accusing fingers the stubby guns of the Shermans circled and pointed over the hollow. Then, one by one, they erupted, paused, then erupted again.
As though drawn by magnetism the mortar bursts crept back up from the valley and splashed in among the tanks. One tank, more exposed than the rest, backed up a few yards and tucked its hull behind a little ripple in the earth. The rest stayed where they were and kept firing. One was lost in the sudden black curtain of a direct hit but when the smoke drifted away it was still spitting red, apparently undamaged. Up to then we had been wondering uneasily if the Germans might not have an even bigger bully of their own hiding back in the hills—a heavy antitank gun or perhaps an 88 supplied with armor-piercing shot. They hadn’t.
For nearly two hours the tanks sat under a thickening hail of mortar fire while the infantry regrouped and pushed across the dip in the shelter of their answering salvos. The tanks hammered at the house that had given harbor to the enemy’s forward infantry. Occasionally the rattle of an unseen machine gun broke the deep, monotonous drumming from the Shermans and the piercing crack of the mortar shells exploding.
The machine guns petered out as the German foot soldiers fell back and then the mortars packed up, too. Now, in the late afternoon, only the steady crash of Canadian 25-pounders and an occasional shot from the German big guns far away echoed above the receding arena. At night our troops went into Torella. They found it unoccupied.
We rode back to our billet again over the bridge that in these few days had stood between the paths of two armies like a turnstile to history, yielding passage to events and extracting from each event a certain cost. Ahead the tired Army has already begun to stir again, groping toward the next battle and the next bridge.
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