This is part three of my Dad’s story. He never spoke about any of this, so if he hadn’t have written it down we may never have known…
Twice Lost, a personal memoir by Harry Milner Howard
Chapter 3 – Salerno
At the end of my writing about the war I feel that I should write about one scenario and what it was really like and how soldiers really were. In most of my writing the real war has been glossed over. It could have been one of many events but I have chosen to write about the landing at Salerno.
I will begin when we were just out of Salerno harbour at about 0100hrs. It was dark. We already knew that the Italians had capitulated and we were expecting a fairly easy landing. The Navy were pounding the land with heavy shells, a fearful barrage and you would not have thought that anyone could live under it. Normal civilised people would have felt sorry for anybody at the end of such a terrible shelling, but soldiers are not normal civilised people. They are part scared, part wild animal, so all around as the shells landed you heard “Kill the fucking bastards”. You didn’t care who or how they were killed or maimed as long as there would be no-one left to kill you. Some were sitting quietly writing what might be their last letters home. An officer came and spoke to us and said that the Navy were going to obliterate the place. We knew that ‘H’ hour was 0300 hrs. The American Rangers had gone in earlier to check the landing area and depth of the water and we were to be the first Infantry on the beach. It was known as ‘suckers first’. At 0200 hrs we were told to get our kit on and get ready. This was a quiet time, everyone thinking their own thoughts about what was happening at home, what was I doing here, would this be my last few hours on earth, and if I was going to be hit please God let me not be terribly maimed. There were no atheists going into battle. Then the order came to assemble on deck in full kit. This broke the silence as some weren’t quite ready, “What’s all the fucking rush, we’ll bleeding well get killed soon enough”. Then the Platoon Sergeant yelled “Come on you lazy fucking bastards get your fingers out of your arses and get up on deck”. With my wireless on my back I was carrying about 80 lbs and I knew I had to go over the side, climb down the cargo ropes and into the assault boats. My one thought was that I had done it in training but this was very different. As we got on deck we got a drop of Navy rum, and then the order came “Over you bloody well go”. At the bottom of the ropes you had to time your jump into the boat so that it had bobbed up towards you and there was lots of swearing and cursing as people timed it wrong and banged themselves on the boat. It was rather daunting when we saw the medical orderlies coming down with their stretchers – a reminder that bad things could happen. We all got in the boat and set off for a rendezvous in the bay, and then headed towards the beach. We knew that there was a three foot sea wall about forty yards up the beach, and were told to remember this in case we needed it for shelter. As we were getting nearer the beach they started throwing everything at us. Somebody shouted, “What the bloody hell is happening, I thought those fucking big guns had cleared everything, what a load of bullshit” and somebody said “You’re fucking well dreaming if you think we’re going to walk in, get ready for everything”. Some else shouted “I thought they softened the bastards up”. All you could think of was what would happen when the ramp went down. Shells were sending up spouts of water and tracer bullets were flying everywhere. Tracers always seemed to go in slow motion, and it seemed as if you could just reach out and catch them. As we got near the beach the platoon sergeant stood on the ramp and shouted “Come on you bastards, kill as many fucking Germans as you can, when the ramp goes down follow me”. As he said that he was caught by raking machine gun fire and fell back into the boat, dead. All we could do was carry him to the back of the boat as we were hitting shallow water. Then we stopped and the ramp went down. We went into the water which was shallow at first and then I saw the troops in front of me suddenly go chest deep, so I struggled to get my wireless off my back and held it above my head until we got to the beach. As we waded forward the lad next to me was shouting and swearing “I feel like shitting myself, who are these people that make war, the fucking arseholes, the fucking shitheads, it ain’t right” and on he went. As we hit the beach the man in front of me was hit in the face and went down, and the man next to him was hit. All I could think was “keep going, remember the wall”. Bullets were whipping past from every direction, shells were blasting the sand all over the place, and shrapnel was flying all around. An officer coming up behind us was screaming “Keep going” because by this time a lot of us were flat on our stomachs trying to get away from it all. I just thought about getting to the wall so I could get the wireless working and find out what the fuck was happening. I got about ten yards up the beach, another twenty to go. I looked round and saw someone hit by a shell that blew his leg off. He just lay there and bled to death. There was dead and wounded bodies all around me. The medics were doing their best to help but were getting hit themselves. As I looked back bodies were rolling in the surf. I thought that it was impossible for us to make it. Too much was happening and things were too desperate to be scared. I couldn’t see any Germans and wanted to kill the bastards but there weren’t any in sight despite them knocking hell out of us. The shore line was taking on a pinky shade, somebody lay down beside me. It was an officer and he said “Let’s go and get that wireless somewhere we can get it working”. The next moment his knee was shot away. I pulled his field dressing from his pocket and wrapped his wound until a medic took over. I thought “I’d better move or I’ll be here for ever”. It was daylight now and we’d been here for hours. It was a shambles, nobody knew what to do, we couldn’t get off the beach but finally got to the sea wall. We were just stuck there, hundreds of us, and many dead civilians who’d been killed by the bombardment from our warships. I tried not to listen as the wounded men moaned and groaned. Other than put a dressing on we could not do anything. Then a sergeant appeared from the other side of the wall. God knows where he came from and how he got there, no steel helmet and he was actually smoking a cigarette. He just stood there and said “Get over that wall you shithouses, we can’t stop here forever, get going or I’ll kick you in the balls” and he turned round and off he went. He got about ten yards and was shot down dead. At long last a few armoured cars and tanks came off the boats. As the sun came up and we were getting hot and sticky we got organised and about two hundred off us went over the wall. We were met by a hail of machine gun fire and mortars but gained a few more yards. This was when I got a wound in my hand. After ten days we secured the beach, and at last we knew that we weren’t going to be pushed back into the sea.
Now the war had finished and we were moving to Austria. Peace at last. Maybe now we could learn to be decent Human Beings again.