The 1st Battalion
On 13th April 1943, the 1st Battalion Hertfordshire Regiment received the long awaited order to go overseas. They arrived at Gibraltar, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Peters MC, nine days later. The Battalion spent fifteen months on the Rock, as well as training excursions to Oran, Algeria. Their primary role was in manning defence posts, carrying out garrison duties, supplying search parties for customs authorities and assisting the Royal Engineers in digging tunnels. Rationing caused an increase in black market trade and the Battalion’s role in censoring illegal trade was vital. Sergeant Major Cyril Austin recalled:
“I remember once we were there, there was a raid by the Regimental Police. The dockers were in Casemate Square and they were throwing all sorts of things, books and things into Casemate Square, what they’d stolen off the boats. Unfortunately, a lot of the shoes were all left feet. They’d drop a crate, bust it open and take the shoes. But it was one crate they had, but it was all left-footed shoes, or right, never in pairs!”
The nature of the terrain made training on the Rock difficult, however, five mile marches up and down the rock turned out to be ideal preparation for what was to come when the Battalion sailed to Italy for active service on 29th July 1944. Arriving in Naples, they were at once marched to a camp eight miles outside the city. Here the 66th Infantry Brigade was formed of the 1st Herts, the 2nd Royal Scots, who had travelled with the Battalion from Gibraltar, and the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, who had arrived from Malta. Brigadier M. Redmayne DSO commanded the Brigade and they went on to join the 1st Armoured Division, who had returned from Tunisia.
Men were in demand, as several American divisions had left for the invasion of the south of France, which took place on 15th August. The 1st Infantry Division was shorthanded and so the 66th Brigade joined them a few miles south of Florence. The 1st Herts took over front line positions from an Indian Battalion and sent out its first fighting patrol on 24th August.
September 1st saw intense fighting and the rock climbing in Gibraltar paid off as numbers 2 and 4 Companies captured Monte Ceceri, despite heavy fire from the Germans above. That same evening, numbers 1 and 2 Companies took Fiesole, using out flanking tactics, however they incurred heavy casualties from land mines. The following day the Battalion was ordered to push on northwards towards Borgo San Lorenzo and clear the route. The Battalion took part in a spirited clash with the German 4th Parachute Division. More casualties were incurred, however, the Battalion won out and the Regimental record describes the action as “a fine tonic for the morale of the Battalion, particularly No. 3 Company who bore the brunt of the fighting.”
The 1st Battalion Field Gazette acknowledged the role the training in Gibraltar and Algeria had played in their recent success: “Every Private Soldier can now reflect that the sweat and toil and bad language expended on Wednesday afternoon trainings in our last station and on Company training in North Africa was not worthless. Many of us undoubtedly owe our lives to that sweat.”
There followed a few days reprieve for the men at billets in Florence, but they returned to the front line on 12th September. The Germans had retreated behind their main defensive line, the Gothic Line, however, the Battalion made a brilliant daylight attack on a mountain, earning personal congratulations from United States General Mark Clark for creating the first break in the Gothic Line. Further encounters with the enemy ensued and the Battalion were withdrawn to Florence on 29th September.
The Allies had incurred significant casualties in northern Italy and at this point reorganization was vital. All British units were ordered to reduce their number of rifle companies from four to three and so No. 4 Company, 1st Hertfordshire Regiment, was disbanded and its men absorbed into the remaining three.
The Battalion were back in action on 10th October in a sector north of the small town of Palazzuolo Sul Senio. Conditions were appalling, with torrential rain and mud impeding supply lines. Offensive action was ordered to clear the enemy from Monte Ceco and a position known as Banzuole Ridge, which overlooked the Battalion headquarters and the vital supply route. Banzuole Ridge was captured by No. 1 Company, aided by Hoddesdon Co-Op assistant Sergeant Alfred “Sonny” Branch, who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions that night. Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Peters MC, in recommending the award, stated: “There can be no doubt that the ultimate success of the attack was primarily due to this NCO’s inspiring leadership and complete disregard for his own personal safety.” Sadly Sergeant Branch did not live to receive his DCM, dying of wounds sustained in later action a month after Banzuole Ridge.
Monte Ceco was captured by the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, of the same Brigade, but further advances were unsuccessful. The whole Brigade lost significant numbers of men and were moved out at the end of October. November 5th saw the Battalion moved to a new sector in the hills south of Bologna. Their role was to defend Monte Cerere, the main tactical feature of the area, and defend it they did; Lt. Col. Peters MC was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his work here with the Battalion.
Keeping the supply lines open during these intense periods of fighting was imperative, and an astonishing feat in itself. Due to the mountainous terrain, much of the transportation of supplies in and removal of the dead and wounded was undertaken by mule, and the Battalion were assisted by muleteers from the Indian Regiment. The Battalion Field Gazette makes several mentions of the Mule Company’s achievements: “They have had to learn how to manage mules… and how to load them with loads that do not fall off into the valley some hundreds of feet below… The Guide party commanded by Sergeant Hart had literally no rest for the first seven days, going forward day and night either as load carriers or as mule train guides. The lot of this party was not to be envied; they travelled for miles in rain and mist over difficult country completely unguarded and for over twelve hours at a stretch. On many occasions they had to find their way sometimes rather “By Guess and By God” on un-recced country, hoping that the track they were on was the right one.”
The Battalion remained near Monte Cecere, maintaining the defensive position, until they were finally relieved on 8th January 1945. Their war was almost over. On 31st January the 66th Infantry Brigade disembarked at Haifa in Palestine and moved south to the Brigade area at Pardes Hanna for much needed rest. Training in Syria took place that April and on VE Day, as the world celebrated, the 1st Battalion were at camp just south of Beirut.