We left off in the second week of September 1943 with Batswana HAA gunners amongst the British X Corps artillery that was valiantly holding off the German 10th Army’s armoured assault of the allied 5th Army’s landing at Salerno, Italy.
With their barrels depressed for field firing, the Batswana were completely vulnerable to aerial strafing. Fortunately, additional light anti-aircraft batteries were rushed into their sector to provide much needed support. On the morning of September 13, it appeared that the gun line would be overrun, but by the evening of the 14th the Germans were finally forced to pull back.
On September 18, the 5th Army was able to link up with the 8th Army, which by then included some 3,000 additional Batswana combatants brought over from North Africa. The immediate prospect of defeat had been averted but the battle was not over.
In the days that followed the Batswana HAA batteries helped provide artillery cover for the 5th Army’s advance on the major Italian port city of Naples. As part of the frontline they were thus engaged in the final, fierce stages of the heavy fighting at Chiunzi Pass, otherwise known as “88 Junction” for the number of troops cut down by the notorious German .88 flak guns.
In the shadow of the famous Mount Vesuvius volcano, the pass had been taken by US Special Forces of the 3rd and 4th Ranger Battalions at the beginning of the Salerno campaign. But in the context of the near disaster at the beach head, they had subsequently found themselves cut off behind enemy lines for eighteen days.
As part of the relief column, the Batswana gunners were amongst those who took causalities in the face of a constant barrage from German mortars, flak guns and armour.
For its part the Germans 10th Army continued to put up a stout resistance, taking advantage of the mountainous terrain to once more initially stall the advance of their opponents.
The tide of the battle began to shift on September 27, 1943 when the people of Naples rose up in a popular uprising that over the next four days largely liberated their city from the German occupiers; an important milestone in the emergence of the Italian Anti-Fascist Resistance as a significant force in the unfolding struggle.
Finding their position now untenable the Germans concentrated on destroying the harbour’s infrastructure before finally evacuating the city on October 1.
The 10th Army was, however, able to quickly redeploy; forming what became known as the defensive “Volturno Line” that by then ran across Italy from Castle Volturno on the west coast to the Adriatic port of Bari on the east coast. The
After securing Naples, the 5th Army advanced to the Volturno River where it challenged the Germans for control of the strategic bridges at Capua, Grazzianise and Cancello. In this battle the “Becs” of the 87th artillery helped secure the skies with their mobile 3.7 guns, while other Batswana amongst the “Desert Rats” of the 7th armoured division carried out field firing for the advancing infantry.
On October 19, 1943 the Volturno Line was broken, but the Germans continued to inflict heavy casualties on the various allied forces now arrayed against them, while falling back to their more heavily fortified “Gustav Line”. In this further advance the Batswana gunners were once more ordered to revert to field firing on German panzer (tank) units in the hills around the Gulf of Gaeta.
Thereafter, a Luftwaffe attack on Batswana gunners resulted in the downing of six German planes around the small coastal town of Mondragone. Former APC Pioneer Corp Major R.A.R. Bent later wrote:
“The fine work of the regiment from Salerno to the Garigliano approaches had earned its Colonel the D.S.O. [Distinguished Service Order], and the honour of one was the honour of all.
The spirit of the Bangwato gunners during these months of battle is hard to describe; it was sufficient to say that they were on top of the world, serving and firing great guns which were of no mean account in forcing the enemy from one position to another. No effort was too much for them, nor could anything terrify them: the African gunners’ dream of firing in the field had been fulfilled.”
Meanwhile, at Bari, the Batswana of 1979 APC Smoke Company also distinguished itself during a massive evening Luftwaffe raid. The enemy had hit an ammunition ship close to a 24-man Batswana platoon, which began to burn out of control.
Aware of the danger the Batswana held their ground. When the explosion occurred five were killed and another seven critically wounded. One of the wounded was miraculously rescued floating unconscious out to sea with a head wound. He had been given up for dead when he returned to his unit fourteen days later.
During the raid the dozen survivors struggled to maintain the screen surrounded by fire and death. For personal heroism in rallying his men following the explosion Corporal Chitu Bakombi was awarded the British Empire Medal.