Blood & Bandages – extract

‘By 25th February, the 167th Infantry Brigade was operating at 35 per cent of its normal capacity, 168th Brigade at 50 per cent and the 169th at 45 per cent, except 2/7th Queen’s, which was down to 15 per cent of its normal strength following the disastrous Battle of Carrocetello.  Templer recorded that the ‘actual numerical strengths had fallen well below the danger limit…there could be no avoiding the fact that the bleak prospect before us included a very real possibility of a German breakthrough and a last desperate ‘back-to-the-sea’ stand on our part; and plans to cope with this were now made. … the Divisional order that all lines and localities would be defended to the last man and the last round was taken quite literally by all ranks. The spirit in the beachhead at this time was a grim and defiant one.’

At one point, I could look over my shoulder and see the sea. We thought we were facing another Dunkirk. We’d lost about half our men by this time and there were occasions when I had to collect one of them either dead, dying or very seriously injured. The few of us that were uninjured were working almost non-stop, day and night, and there was nowhere to rest because there were no safe areas. Burying the dead became a luxury.

The Germans attempted to breakthrough at the end of February 1944. They were beaten off and made their last important counter-attack on March 2nd. German gains were quickly retaken but Templer commented that, ‘contact with the enemy was still close and keen and the position remained distinctly critical and unpleasant.’

The pressure on the Black Cats was finally lifted a week later when command of their section of the line passed to the British 5th Division and they left Anzio for Naples.  In an unprecedented move, the 214th left its vehicles and equipment at the beachhead for its successor, the 141st Field Ambulance.

During their 18 days on the bridgehead the 214th had suffered appalling losses.

We lost half our men at Anzio and when we finally got on board our troopship, we just held onto the rails and said, ‘C’mon get us out of here. Please, please, start the engines and get us away from this hell hole.’ There was a great shout of relief when we drew away from the shore. I don’t know how, but somehow we had managed to survive.

Staff Sergeant Ross Carter Duffiel of the American 504th Parachute Regiment, a veteran of the bridgehead, wrote later that any man that fought at Anzio had it ‘seared into his brain like a burn with a blowtorch.’

He was right. Anzio was possibly the most terrifying and dangerous battle that we were ever involved in and the memory of surviving second by second was impossible to forget.

After a short return journey across the Tyrrhenian Sea, the traumatised men disembarked at Pozzuoli. They moved rapidly onto a staging camp near Naples, before reaching their final destination at Sarno where baths were organised and filthy uniforms were exchanged for new. The next day, all but essential ranks, were given a day off duty.

We realised how lucky we had been to survive and how grateful we should be that we were still alive.

The 214th collected the 141st Field Ambulance’s vehicles and equipment before commencing its journey through Potenza’s snow-covered mountains to Gravina.

Despite their traumatised and depleted state, the 214th was still operational so on 20th March it opened an MDS to treat minor sicknesses. It remained open for four days before the Division was taken out of the line for a  ‘period of rest, reinforcement and training.’

While the German stranglehold dragged on, the 214th embarked on MS Batory bound for British occupied Egypt.

The accommodation was very good and within a day of their departure, the officers were treated to a cinema show while the other ranks watched a concert.  However, it was just window dressing.

Call it exhaustion, stress, trauma or whatever you like we were never quite the same after Anzio. For 18 days we had lived with the constant fear of being killed or captured and it showed on our faces. I found myself getting more annoyed with people than I used to and I desperately missed Frank’s calming influence to bring me back to an even keel.

Not surprisingly, William retreated into his own world and focused on Mary’s 23rd birthday.

31st March 1944

My Own Dearest Beloved Mary,

…Now darling as the end of your birthday is drawing near I feel I must write a few lines to you … only on 2 of your birthdays were we together, your 19th and 21st. The latter one is well remembered darling as we were together at Ipswich enjoying that wonderful life of happiness that was ours … last year darling I was many miles away from you and this year finds me in exactly the same position… My dearest… How I have longed today to see your dear face again, to kiss your tender lips and hold you tight in my arms; yet it seems I must wait and wait each day being harder to live without you.

O darling, I am getting so tired of it all yet I do carry on somehow knowing that the day will come when I shall return home to you. I pray darling that it will very shortly come, it is all I am living for … At the moment we are enjoying a nice journey on the sea… It has, thank goodness, been nice and quiet and the weather is warm and fairly calm… we are also quite comfortable having a good bed to sleep upon and the food is also quite good… Since we got settled in, all we have been doing is resting, reading, talking and doing a little washing. … I often spend hours just looking at the waves and thinking of you darling and how I long to be with you…

All the boys are well, but wish like me we were on our way home…I still miss Frank a lot but I expect I shall get used to it in time… I do hope you are keeping fit and well and also dear David…May God bless and keep you safe always. All my love and all I possess, yours alone, always and forever love and kisses to dear David. Your own ever-loving Husband Will.

His letter crossed with Mary’s, which was written on the back of a sheet of photo proofs. Just as William hid the horrors of Anzio, Mary hid the vulnerable position in which she found herself on the Peabody Estate.’