16 February 2013

A War in Italy

From the papers of the late Peter Colville Gibbs

My first uniform - 1943

Having started my undergraduate studies at Hertford College, Oxford, at the age of 19, in September 1942, I was mobilised as 130083 Pilot Officer Technical Signals Radar (RAdio Direction and Ranging) in the Royal Air Force. I was commissioned because I was academically in the top 5% achievers at High School Certificate, and as a scientist I was in demand.  I was interviewed by C P Snow and taken on to do technically demanding tasks.  I could not become a pilot because of my eyesight, and I would have joined the Navy, after my grandfather, Lieutenant James Richard Gibbs RN, but I was picked to enter the RAF.

Initial training took place at RAF Cosford, near Wolverhampton, and I then moved to RAF Cranwell, in Lincolnshire.  Then, as Radar Technical Officer in the 304th Mobile Signals Servicing Unit, I was posted to an Intermediate Ground Control Intercept Station (a development of the Chain Home radar installations linked to Bentley Priory) on Foulness Island in Essex, from March to May 1943, where I instructed, among others, a young WAAF named Anna Stella McMullin.  In addition I was introduced to Range and Direction Finding, which even now still intrigues me.  Foulness, which was the first land encountered by the Luftwaffe on bombing raids to London, was decommissioned as surplus to requirements in May 1943 (though later it became important as part of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment).

It has been surmised that without an effective Radar system the Battle of Britain might not have been won, and Foulness was one of the stations from which Ground Controllers sent height and position information of hostile aircraft to Bentley Priory which relayed it to British Fighters in the air, enabling them to intercept enemies with surprise and economy, both by day and night.  Given the accuracy of this information, pilots could then lock on to targets with their own in-board AI radars when in range.

Such was the importance of this tactical system that our strategic planners had the foresight to envisage at a very early stage the desirability of mobile systems to support our land and sea forces when they returned to the offensive.  So it was that I was sent to RAF Renscombe Down, also known as RAF Worth Matravers, another now-defunct training camp (the camp sign is now on the wall of the Square and Compass pub which itself is otherwise still much as it was in 1943).  Here there was a training establishment equipped with a variety of radars on wheels, which were subsequently deployed in support of most of the major operations in the Mediterranean.

When my training was complete, I was sent to Algiers, by sea, on the 17th June 1943 (please see http://www.richardpgibbs.org/2015/04/1943-road-to-algiers.html for the full story of this journey - Ed.)  The journey involved a fair amount of inebriate camaraderie on board a heaving troopship through the Atlantic.  The combination of trepidation and excitement, combined with the throbbing enclosure of a small ship, made my first excursion from home a memorable blur!

Dalla Rupe Tarpea, Via Veneto 13, Roma, February 1945.  Peter Gibbs top left

Attached to HQ of the Northwest African Coastal Air Force (NACAF), I moved along the fringe of the continent to a Mobile Signals Servicing Unit (MSSU) camp in a cork forest outside Philippeville (now Skikda).  I had been posted, “pending disposal” and apparently a certain Squadron Leader thought that filling the position of Radar Officer with, “an absolute greenhorn,” would bring the name of the Unit into “disrepute” but the Wing Commander disagreed.  Along the coast were a chain of radars which had been put in place from Algiers to Tunis following the successful landings earlier in the year.  These were a mix of Air Ministry Experimental Stations (A.M.E.S.) types 500 and 300, Chain Home Low and Chain Home respectively.  The CH were long range fixed aerial arrays suspended between tall wooden towers, while the CHL variant had rotating antenna which provided a searchlight beam of radio waves that an airplane, even at relatively low altitude, would reflect back towards the source.  They worked rather like searchlights, and, although the technology was primitive, I still find it fascinating.

The MSSU’s job was to service these stations by providing spares – for example replacing ruptured transmitter valve filaments - and dismantling and repairing electric generator sets (each station had two diesel and one smaller petrol driven machines) to ensure a round the clock supply of power.   Since I cannot recount any precise examples of their usefulness in the air war in that theatre it can only be speculation that their very presence may have deterred the enemy from making bombing sorties to make life in the nearby war territories at least uncomfortable.

As the war in the Mediterranean went forward we were moved to Bizerte (recaptured by American troops from the Germans on May 7th 1943).  This was a major assembly point for the next stab at the soft underbelly of the Axis powers, primarily the invasion of Sicily.  But then I was sent to follow the British 1st and American 5th Armies to Salerno (scene of intense fighting to secure the beachhead between September 9th – an armistice with Italy had been signed on the 8th - and 16th) at the end of September 1943.  I spent two or three nights there, struggling with Long Wave sets on the beach with the discomfort of working under heavy artillery bombardment. Although we were not aware at the time, the whole operation had come close to disaster.  As I later read in Norman Lewis’s “Naples ‘44” “Official history will in due time set to work to dress up this part of the action at Salerno with what dignity it can.  What we saw was ineptitude and cowardice spreading down from the command, and this resulted in chaos.  What I shall never understand is what stopped the Germans from finishing us off.”

However, the bridgehead having been secured, we moved up to Frattamaggiore, a village on the north-east side of Naples not far from Caserta (about the time the Allies reached the Volturno on October 6th) to spend the winter in a disused flax barn as part of a stores unit with technical personnel.  After a quiescent turn of the year when our duties lay chiefly in maintaining close liaison with the mobile radar installations in the Bay of Naples, on Ischia and at Sorrento, and inland, providing cover in particular for 324 Wing of the RAF which was established at Capodichino airfield (now Naples International Airport).  The radars were no doubt situated with tactical care, but it so happened that one, a Type 15, was very attractively located on the island of Ischia, and another on an even more delightful site on a promontory which was part of the garden of a villa in Sorrento with a splendid view of Vesuvius and the whole expanse of the bay of Naples. Vesuvius decided to entertain us (in March) with a spectacular eruption from which the lava destroyed villages on the slopes à la Pompeii.  As Spike Milligan recorded (in "Where Have All the Bullets Gone" March 10th 1944): "Yes, Vesuvius had started to belch smoke at an alarming rate, and at night tipples of lava were spilling over the cone. Earth tremors were felt; there was no more inadequate place for a thousand bomb-happy loonies.....  Due to the smoke, it was dark before sunset.  A strange unearthly light settled on the land....."

The military events of the new year involved us intimately, the first being the less than totally successful landings at Anzio at the southern end of the Pontine Marshes.  Together with a Flight Sergeant, a Corporal and a Technician, I was sent to service a CHL radar fixed in the bows of a Landing Ship, Tank (fondly dubbed Large Slow – or Stationary – Targets) that had been sent to join the assault fleet in Pozzuoli harbour.  To ensure its optimum serviceability a small team was despatched with the brief of testing the equipment, nothing more.  The LST 305 was moored out in the harbour and so in desperation (there being no ferries available) we thumbed a lift in an American craft almost full to the gunwales with heavily armed infantry, then boarded the LST via the access ladder.  I was greeted by a 1st Lieutenant who said, “Ah ha, you’re the new Technical Officer are you?”  To which I replied, “Oh, no I’m not.  We’re here to do tests and then we’re off back to base.”  To which the Lieutenant snapped, “Oh no you’re not!  This is a sealed ship!  You’re here for the duration!” It subsequently transpired that the Captain had opened his sealed orders prematurely and so no one could leave the ship because of a possible breach of security.  And so, in innocence and ignorance of their destination, without a toothbrush between us, we set off for the Anzio landings, suffering both privation and some ostracism during the voyage, until we were landed (with some relief!) with the DUKWs, Absent Without Leave, and fearful of the wrath of my martinet CO.  Fortunately we managed to get a lift back to Naples on another LST, and returned to the relative comfort of our Flax Barn.

In February, with the advance contained by German artillery, I returned to the Anzio beachhead as part of a Special Unit attached to One British Ground Control Radar, as the Germans were dropping aluminium foil, confusing the British radar.  The attempt to differentiate between aircraft echoes and ‘window’ (now called ‘chaff’) echoes failed, though the Americans were working on SCR 584 lock-control system, adapted for Ground Control and Interruption purposes, so after a short stay I returned to Naples again.

On February 13th I was detailed to set up a radio link on Monte Trocchio, a few miles from Monte Cassino, to assist with the assault and bombardment of the monastery.  The weather was not good, and the rivers were flooded and the roads extremely muddy.  It was hoped that the bombing would move the Germans back from the Gustav line, but this was not achieved until mid March.

Back in Frattamaggiore we developed enduring memories of the friendliness of Italians.  Ninetta Piccione and her daughter Anna lived in the caretaker’s flat in the Flax Barn next to the Officers’ Mess.  There was a big archway at the entrance through which vehicles could pass, and then a set of rooms around the courtyard.  About fifty servicemen in all, including half a dozen officers (Squadron Leader, Flight Lieutenant (signals) Equipment Officer, Admin Officer, Radio Officer and a couple of Warrant Officers), were stationed there; we had a handful of three ton trucks and 15 cwt vehicles as well as two small cars and some motor-bikes.  Ninetta and her daughter used to give us food tidbits from time to time, including fresh chicken from their small holding.

One particular treat at the time was seeing my first “Grand” opera at the San Carlo Opera House in Naples.  It was a performance of Aida, and I was initially surprised that after the Salerno landings and the confusion of war the opera was functioning at all, though later learned that it had been requisitioned by the British Military Command in October 1943, with the first performance being given on December 26th.  In 1944 there were 434 performances and there were 1672 seats!  However I was most surprised to find that in the box I walked into within the Opera House were two Royal Company of Signals Officers, both of whom were old Berkhamstedians; a certain Bleasdale and, extraordinarily, Peter Handley, my friend and contemporary who later married my sister, Celia.

At about the same time a certain Gunner Milligan was in a Rehabilitation Camp at Afragola, a mere mile or two down the road from us, though it was only years later that I discovered this.  As he recorded in "Where have all the bullets gone?" "What is an Afragola?  An Afragola is a small grotty suburb of Bella Napoli.....  It was a spot I wouldn't give to a leopard.  A field adjacent to this 'spot' is now a transit camp for 'bomb-happy' soldiers and I was now 'bomb-happy', having been dumped here, along with some untreated sewage, following treatment at No. 2 General Hospital, Caserta.....  It's a bleak misty day with new added drizzle  for extra torment.  Mud!  How did it climb up your body , over your hat, and back down into your boots?"

With the fall of Rome, on June 4th, things moved very quickly.  I passed through Rome, and celebrated my 21st birthday (on July 7th 1944) in a three ton truck in the countryside not far from Porto Santo Stefano, on the Tuscan coast.

Later I flew back down to HQ in Caserta, and then joined an assault convoy via Ajaccio in Corsica to the South of France, landing at St Tropez, in September.  With my knowledge of Radar I was constantly chasing the invasion, keeping up behind the front line, detailed to provide the technical back-up necessary for this relatively new kind of warfare.

I moved about considerably in the latter part of the year (1944); firstly being posted to the Gargano peninsula, but then my unit was disbanded.  Following this I was detailed to the Rear HQ of Desert Air force, at Fano, near Ancona on the Adriatic coast, from where I moved up to Riccione in the province of Rimini.  Here I worked with the overall control unit of RAF services (no longer supporting the 8th Army in the Desert).  I supervised all RAF back-up of the Army as it progressed north.  They were Radar and Signals specialists at the HQ to deal with locations and supply of fighter aircraft and early warning radars.  As has been commented, the features of the Italian Campaign were a, “slow, painful advance through difficult terrain against a determined and resourceful enemy, skilled in the exploitation of natural obstacles by mines and demolitions.”  (Report by the Supreme Allied Commander, Mediterranean, to the combined Chiefs of Staff.)

I was in Forli (not far from Ravenna, but only about fifteen miles from the Winter Line) for Christmas, though back in Rome on leave in February 1945, where I stayed in the Imperial Hotel on the Via Veneto and saw “Carmen” at the Terme di Caracalla, as well as something at the Rome Opera House.  I visited Castel Gandolfo, and wandered the streets of Rome, wining and dining with fellows relieved that for us at least the worst seemed to be over.  It was a novelty to be able to enter shops, and I was enchanted by the “Open City” which had miraculously escaped the ravages of war.  A group of us had a fine evening in a Roman Trattoria called “Dall Rupe Tarpea alle Grotte di Enotria.”  At least I think we had a fine time!

Udine was entered by troops of the 6th Armoured Division on May 1st 1945, the day before the Germans surrendered in Italy.  Shortly afterwards I was sent there and was billeted in a German cavalry barracks.  There was little to do, except to keep HQ morale up, which included being in charge of boxing!  I had a wonderful time for a couple of months, fraternising with local people, spending time on officers’ leave at a hotel in Tarcento, and studying Italian with a very sweet local girl, thumbing through the leaves of “Il Decamerone.”  I also enjoyed seeing “Turandot” performed by the La Scala touring company in a rural site somewhere between Udine and Trieste.

My grand-daughters Hannah and Sarah with Amanda outside "my" Hotel

This brief idyll was not to last, however, and I was redeployed, spending a miserable journey south via a transit camp in Naples pending posting, worrying that Anna McMullin back in England (who had been posted to Beachy Head after Foulness and then sent to Gloucester before eventually being demobbed in November 1945) might go off with someone else.  In due course I was posted to the Headquarters of the Mediterranean and Middle East in Cairo, and so travelled by train and truck down to 54 Personnel Transit Centre, Taranto, to pick up a boat for Alexandria and I was in Cairo at the beginning of October 1945. 

Early in 1946 I took leave for a trip to the Holy Land and to Petra, but in July 1946, via a Personnel Transit Camp, I returned to England, firstly to Bentley Priory at Stanmore, home of the Headquarters of Fighter Command, then to Langtoft Radar Station near Market Deeping in Lincolnshire, then Rudloe Manor near Corsham (which covered a vast underground system of tunnels) and finally RAF Uxbridge, 100 Personnel Dispersal Centre, from where I was demobbed on August 28th 1946.

I went home to my parents in Northchurch and contacted Anna, who was working at Harrods and living with her Aunt Dorothy.  I returned to Oxford to complete my degree, and on December 30th, 1946, Anna Stella McMullin and I were married at Sedlescombe Parish Church in East Sussex.

There had been so much suffering in Italy during the year and a half of war on its soil.  The Allies’ final victory was an astonishing achievement, and for bringing such a disparate and exhausted force together and giving it belief to win the day Alexander and Clark, especially, deserve enormous credit.  So too do their air forces, which in their initial blitz gave the men on the ground such a colossal advantage.  And, of course, so too do the men on the ground, who had slogged it out for so long, yet somehow found the energy and drive to go the final yard.” 

James Holland:  “Italy’s Sorrow.”

For the story of my father's journey to, and initial adventures in, North Africa, please see:



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