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To War With The Bays: 64 - Skirmishes On The Senio

...We lay in the ditch for a long time. It was dark, and very quiet - until we moved, and then the bullets whistled through the air again. It seemed the gunner would never relax....

Jack Merewood and his colleagues are often too close for comfort as they carry the battle against the Germans in Italy.

To read earlier chapters of Jack's wartime experiences please click on To War With The Bays in the menu on this page.

Some of us had made friends with families in different houses, and sometimes in the evening we'd walk over the bridge together before going our separate ways.

One night, Dave, Paddy and I had all been visiting and we met to walk back to the farm. We were walking along a track by the side of the canal, and were talking, when suddenly a Spandau machine-gun opened fire. We heard the bullets whistling around us and whining away in the darkness as they hit trees, and we instinctively dived into a ditch at the other side of the track. We were all unhurt, but as soon as we started to move the gunner opened fire again.

We lay in the ditch for a long time. It was dark, and very quiet - until we moved, and then the bullets whistled through the air again. It seemed the gunner would never relax. We lay there another hour or so, hardly daring to breathe, but eventually we had to chance it. We edged our way slowly along the ditch towards the bridge. All was quiet. Then we signalled to each other to make a break for it. I've never run so fast in my life. We flew over that bridge and back to the comparative safety of our house, and fortunately for us no bullets followed.

Much of the time was uneventful - 'It snowed heavily and some of us, including Mr Lyle, did some snow shovelling around the building.' - but we were here basically to harass the Germans as much as possible.

Our troop, with its three tanks, was on its own on the farm, and we now started to take it in turn to go up to our side of the river to wreak as much damage as we could to the German dugouts on the other side.

21 January: ' ... cooked breakfast spam and tomatoes. Went out for wood. At twelve o'clock it was our tank's turn to go up to the river. We fired at some Jerry dugouts about 300 yards away, and blew them up too.'

We were making regular trips to different places along the river, sometimes during the day, sometimes at night. Lieutenant Lyle and his tank once stayed all night. I was in Dave's tank, and one day we were given orders to attack a particular point where there were a number of Spandau guns dug in. Spandaus were very heavy powerful machine-guns with a range of several hundred yards and these had to be removed before any attempt could be made to cross the river.

We moved into position at dusk, but we could clearly see our objective. I opened fire and blew up a number of the Spandaus; then we quickly returned to the farm. Some time later, when our infantry took this point, we learned that that night we had wiped out six of the German positions.

However, we weren't going to get away with our river-bank trips much longer without trouble. We expected some retaliation, and sure enough the enemy eventually located our farm. We had just started the engines on two of the tanks one night (ours was one of them), when the Germans began to shell us and really let us have it. None of the tanks was hit, but the house was damaged. One shell hit the chimney and blew part of the roof off. When the barrage ended, we went up to the river, fired across and did some damage. They returned the fire but we came back unscathed.

Once the enemy had pinpointed our building they gave us a lot of trouble. The house was being hit regularly, and one of the bedrooms was uninhabitable, with snow coming through the damaged roof. When the owners eventually returned they would find a ruined home. Dave and Lieutenant Lyle went out and found another empty house a few hundred yards away, undamaged, so we moved there.

Besides our squadron, other tank units in the area were engaged in similar tactics, and also some infantry regiments, but we were making no progress. There wasn't a great deal of activity from the Germans either. They were sitting there, holding their line, firing shells haphazardly in our general direction, and occasionally sending over a few of their deadly rockets.

Our new location was still close to our Italian friends. I played with Diana and her three cousins of about the same age who lived nearby and turned up whenever I appeared. We played in the snow, and made a slide on the frozen canal - but... 25 January: ' ... Had a fine time with the children, snowballing and sliding till Jerry sent over a shell, then we abandoned the games.'

27 January: 'Moving tomorrow, No. 4 Troop taking over from us. Our Italian friend came over and we showed him round one of the tanks - very interested in the engine ... Played cards. In evening Sid and I went over to house. Had a nice time drinking hot vino and sugar, as usual. Very little shelling all week except one evening when Jerry gave us a hammering.'

On the 28th we only went about five miles, so in the evening Dave, Paddy and I hitched a lift back to Granarolo to see our friends. Next day we did a few more miles east, ending near Ravenna but still south of the River Senio.

'Through Ravenna, then whole squadron parked for the night at the side of a big house. Moved into billets. Paddy and I got a donkey to carry our kit. Echelon joined us here. People rather annoyed at having to move around but soon "came round". Told that tomorrow moving as reserve infantry, except No. 3 Troop, they're taking their tanks. Had no breakfast because on the way here cookhouse got lost! In afternoon Paddy and I went into Ravenna. Big place but we couldn't find much of interest so after an hour came back.'

Next day: 'After breakfast went down to the tanks and took off four Brownings per troop and tommy-guns. Loaded them on to lorry. Very cold. After about an hour's run arrived here Villa Nova in Bagnocavalli, a small town thick with mud, miserably wet, muddy and dirty. Frozen. Billeted in a house an ancient one. Of course we're infantry now but hope it's not for long and that we're soon back in our tanks. What mud in this place.'

The front line had extended west to this point and now, as infantry, we were here to hold the line in case there was a counter-attack. I took some of our newly formed troop on instruction on the Brownings and tommy-guns, and then we dug in and mounted the guns ready to repel the enemy if need be. The action in which we were engaged was over the River Senio. The river had yet to be crossed, but there were others, the main one being the Reno, into which some of them flowed.

The rivers and the awful weather were responsible for the stalemate in the fighting, and it was obvious that until conditions improved we could do no more than we were doing now. Other units were similarly set up, but in our area there were so
few of us that we were on guard every other night.

8 February: 'Went up the river bank 200 yards and fired our Brownings this morning. Cold frosty morning, but the sun came out later and the ground thawed, back into the inevitable mud. On guard at night. Cold, wet and misty night, then it rained heavily.' It was an extremely tiring time, not helped by the mud, and there appeared to be a considerable amount of indecision by our command as to what action to take.

After over a week in this situation there was no sign of an attack being launched against us, and we were called off as infantry and returned, guns and all, to our tanks with great relief.

Our mail was waiting back at the village. Among mine was a letter from Suzette, but the news it contained was not what I was wanting to hear at all.

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