46th and 50th Royal Tanks and 111 Field Regiment RA now came under our command from 23rd Armoured Brigade and we came into Army reserve.
On September 16th, orders were received for the brigade, less 111 Field Regiment RA, to move to Taranto: the Brigade Commander went in advance to report to 5 Corps to get the form. All tanks and tracked vehicles were to move by sea and the wheels by ferry from Messina, thence by road to Taranto. Brigade HQ arrived at Taranto on 23rd September and received orders to move to Bari area and come under command 78 Division, being prepared next day to take command of forward reconnaissance elements of the division.
Our force consisted of A Squadron The Royals, on squadron of the Sharpshooters, one squadron 56 Recce Regiment, recce squadron of 1Air Landing Brigade, one company of 1 Kensingtons, 17 Field Regiment RA less one battery, SAS squadron and a similar body known as "Popski's Private Army". 626 Field Squadron RE joined the Force by bits and pieces and subsequently became part of the brigade.
This force had just captured Canosa and was meeting opposition across the River Ofanto, over which the bridge was blown: on the coast the town of Barletta was not yet occupied. Very little progress was made this day, but Barletta was finally entered and passed: 4th Armoured Brigade now became the spearhead of the Eighth Army in its advance up the east coast of Italy.
Once again our main opposition was enemy rearguards and demolitions. Enemy antitank guns were well placed and cleverly concealed. When a crossing over the River Ofanto had been found, the brigade moved very fast, until held up by defended demolitions on the line of the railway and the river south of Manfredonia. The Sharpshooters, who were working up the inland road, passed through Cerignola meeting no enemy until held up six miles south of Foggia. The fight went on until dark, when the enemy blew the bridges and withdrew. The advance was resumed at first light on the 27th: after struggling with demolitions, we entered Foggia, still burning from the Royal Air Force's attack the night before, to find much abandoned equipment. Meanwhile the Royals had found Manfredonia clear. San Severo was clear and 56 Recce Regiment entered Lucera, releasing many British and South African prisoners, survivors of Tobruk. Patrol bases were now established at San Severo, Lucera, Troia Satriano and San Paulo: for administrative reasons no major move forward could be undertaken before October 1st.
On this day the brigade was ordered to take the high ground on either side of Serracapriola and clear the way for 11 Infantry Brigade to advance to Termoli. For this operation 5th Northamptons came under our command. All bridges south of Serracapriola had been destroyed and there appeared to be only two possible crossings: one near the sea at Ripalto, the other about two miles upstream from the main road bridge. The Sharpshooters less a squadron were to cross by the latter and take the ridge south of the town: this done, 5th Northamptons were to cross nearer the main road. and attack Serracapriola through the thick olive groves round the town: meanwhile the Royals with one squadron of Sharpshooters and part of 56 Recce Regiment were to cross to Ripalto and take Chienti, the whole operation being supported by 17 Field Regiment RA. All went well and 5th Northamptons took over the defence of the town. During the night a heavy rainstorm broke, turning the country into a sea of mud and making movement off roads impossible. The country beyond Serracapriola appeared to be fairly good going for tanks and the brigade was ordered to continue the pursuit and seize the high ground overlooking the River Biferno. No opposition was met but progress was made very difficult by extensive demolitions and mines. By last light on the 2nd we had reached the line Portocanrione - San Martino, which was taken over by 11 Brigade.
During this time the rest of the brigade was concentrating south of Foggia. 2nd Bn KRRC and 14 Light Field Ambulance came from Tripoli and we were joined by 98th Field Regiment RA, equipped with self-propelled 105 mm guns, who came from Fifth Army on the west coast. Leaving the Sharpshooters in reserve, Brigade HQ returned to the rest of the brigade. By October 5th the whole brigade, less the Sharpshooters and A Squadron of the Royals was complete near Lucera.
On the night Of 4/5th, 11 and 36 Brigades of 78 Division had been counter-attacked on the far side of the Biferno. The Sharpshooters were ordered to support them. For two days a fierce battle was fought in which at one time the enemy got to within 400 yards of Termoli harbour, their objective. The Sharpshooters undoubtedly saved the situation. They lost 8 tanks and knocked out 6 before being relieved by 12th Canadian Tank Regiment.
On October 9th, 46th Royal Tanks were sent up to join 78 Division on the coast road: on the 22nd 50th Royal Tanks joined 8th Indian Division on the inland route through Larino. The remainder of the brigade joined the Sharpshooters south of Serracapriola on the 24th. On the 27th 98 Field Regiment joined 78 Division. 2nd Bn KRRC moved to Termoli to guard the FMC. On November 2nd Brigade HQ moved to five miles north of Termoli.
46th Royal Tanks had been supporting 78 Division who were facing the River Trigno, and 50th Royal Tanks had one squadron forward with 11 Indian Infantry Brigade, where they had done magnificent work, getting their tanks to places where it was hard to believe that a tank could possibly go. They were firmly positioned on a hill overlooking the River Trigno opposite Celenza, where they could only be supplied by mule.
On 3 November the battle of the River Trigno began. In a hard morning's fighting 46th Royal Tanks lost 7 tanks, accounting for 6 enemy tanks and 2 SP guns. Meanwhile from the ridge south of the Trigno, at least 20 enemy tanks and SP guns had been seen coming down the road from Vasto to San Salvo. They were accurately engaged. In the afternoon the Brigade Commander was sent for by the Army Commander and ordered to bring 44th Royal Tanks from Serracapriola and take charge of the armoured battle.
Plans were being made for an attempt to take the San Salvo ridge, when reports came in that the enemy had withdrawn, and 50th Royal Tanks were ordered on to the ridge. 44th Royal Tanks had moved up and were sent over the river, 46th Royal Tanks being left to reorganise and come into reserve. 5 Northamptons of 11 Brigade, supported by 50th Royal Tanks, with great determination over difficult country and in face of considerable opposition captured the high ridge south of Vaso. 2 KRRC were brought forward from Termoli.
The advance continued along the San Salvo - Vasto road, 44th Royal Tanks following 50th Royal Tanks to the west of the axis, covering the left flank. The intention of the brigade was that 50th Royal Tanks would support 3 6 Infantry Brigade on the coast road, while 44th Royal Tanks and 98 Field Regiment RA would support 11 Infantry Brigade on the axis Cupello - Scerni. On 5 November Vasto was entered by 46th Royal Tanks, who had taken over from 50th Royal Tanks: on the Cupello - Scerni axis 676 Field Squadron RE were to prepare a crossing over the River Sinello. The Sappers were unable to do this, but 44th Royal Tanks managed to get all their tanks over and advanced on to the high ground on the far side the next day and established a bridgehead.
On 7th November 11 Brigade moved on to capture Paglietta and Mt Calvo, the high ridge dominating the River Sangro. The next period was spent by 4th Armoured Brigade in collecting tanks and making plans for the assault on the River Sangro. On 16 November 46th Royal Tanks, much to the regret of the Brigade, received orders to rejoin 23rd Armoured Brigade, leaving their tanks behind. This just enabled the other three regiments to be made up to strength.
Extensive reconnaissance of the River Sangro and the ground immediately beyond it were made, but the weather was against us from the start: every time the ground showed signs of drying, down came the rain again, upsetting all precious plans. Meanwhile both divisions had been pushing elements across the River and the brigade was ordered to infiltrate tanks across. 2 KRRC, now under command of 8 Indian Division, had been ordered to occupy Mt Calvo on 15 November: After six very uncomfortable days there, they were ordered to attack and capture the "Castle" feature on the left of the escarpment held by 8 Indian Division. This was a strong and difficult position, well defended with dug-in positions: though they failed in the first attempt, they made no mistake the second time.
The rain kept falling and the river rose at times to such heights and the current to such a strength that it was quite unfordable: as a result supply of those troops across the river became most difficult. Bridges were built under most difficult conditions. The first tanks across were of 50th Royal Tanks on 21 November, followed by 9 tanks of Sharpshooters on 22 November. Later a better crossing further up the river was found, but it was not until 28 November that we had a total of 124 tanks across.
The final Corps plan was for 8 Indian Division to attack up the Mozzagrogna road and for 78 Division, led as before by 4th Armoured Brigade, to pass through and mop up from Santa Maria to the sea. The attack was partially successful, 21 Brigade capturing Mozzagrogna; but every kind of evil device - mines, booby traps and demolitions - prevented 50th Royal Tanks from getting to them: counter-attacked by tanks and flame-throwers, they were forced to withdraw. Sharpshooters and 6 Inniskillings were to capture R. Li Colle feature as far left as Santa Maria and 44th Royal Tanks and 2LIR were to pass through and mop up Fossacessia to the sea.
An extremely bad anti-tank ditch was encountered, but with great determination Sharpshooters kept trying, until eventually a way through was found: great credit is due to the Sharpshooters and 6 Inniskillings for their determination not to be beaten that day. 626 Field Squadron performed a heroic task in sweeping and marking lanes under most unpleasant conditions.
44th Royal Tanks eventually got through, going round by road through Mozzagrogna. On 30th November an extremely heavy barrage was opened on enemy defences in front of 44th Royal Tanks: as it lifted from block to block, a squadron of tanks and a company of infantry overran the area regardless of mines or ground, followed by another squadron and company on to the next block. The plan was entirely successful and the enemy was shattered and completely overrun. Fossacessia was entered and the area from there to the sea mopped up. BY 30th November the entire Sangro position was in our hands, many Germans killed, some 300 prisoners and much arms, equipment and stores being captured.
The next objective was the big feature overlooking the River Moro. On 4 December 38 Bde took over the front, supported by 44th Royal Tanks. 44th Royal Tanks had some difficulty in crossing the river and it took all day to subdue the enemy on the feature. Sharpshooters made strenuous attempts to cross, but after 8 tanks had been bogged, further attempt was abandoned, Sharpshooters remaining in fire positions on the east of the river.
From now until the end of the month the Brigade remained in reserve under command 5 Corps, less 50th Royal Tanks under command 8th Indian Division and 44th Royal Tanks and 98 Field Regiment under 1st Canadian Tank Brigade and 1st Canadian Division respectively. Sharpshooters and 626 Field Squadron RE withdrew to the Treglio area for rest and repair while Brigade HQ moved to the old HQ of 65 German Division in Treglio.
At the end of December Brigadier Currie left the brigade to go home and take over the job of BRAC to First Canadian Army. He was succeeded by Brigadier H J B Cracroft, who had been commanding 12th Royal Tanks in North Africa. We were now told the great news that at last the brigade was to go to England for the first time in its history. 50th Royal Tanks left us to rejoin 23rd Armoured Brigade near Naples and the brigade moved to Lucera, where we handed in our vehicles and equipment and entrained for Taranto. Several days were spent in Taranto until we entrained again for Naples. Here we took command again, after a long absence, of the Royal Scots Greys. On January 27th 1944 we embarked on MV Tegelberg and HMT Almanzora and set sail for home.
On February 7th our convoy arrived at the "Tail o' the Bank" after an uneventful voyage. We steamed up the Clyde to the King George V Dock at Glasgow, where the Black Rats first set foot on the soil of the homeland. We went straight by train to Worthing, where we came under 1st Corps, settled into billets and went off on leave.
On March 16th Brigadier Currie returned to command us, Brigadier Cracroft transferring to 8th Armoured Brigade. We were re-equipped with Shermans, unfortunately not diesel, and got our first 17 pounder tanks. Discussions and training exercises were carried out mostly with 51st Highland Division, whom we expected to support when the great day came. June 1944 found us, as June 1943 had done, all teed up to set sail for an invasion.