5th Battalion Sherwood Foresters at Salerno
Within the historiography of the Avalanche landings much more attention is normally given to the operations in the south on the Sele plain. This is partly down to the political significance of the American contribution – the first time their troops had fought on mainland Europe for twenty-five years, and the whole operation was under the overall command of American General Mark Clark. But Clark himself later wrote that the main German strength at the time of his controversial order to make plans for evacuation of the beachhead were on his left, in the north inland from Salerno. There were hugely important objectives and operations on the northern flank. Seaborne invasions need a port, and the main strategic objective of Avalanche was the capture of Naples. In the interim, Salerno itself offered a much smaller alternative. Breaking out onto the Campanian plain around Naples meant crossing the ‘Salerno Corridor’, a formidable area of mountainous terrain dissected by short, narrow gorge-like valleys which would need to be captured before any advance on the city could be made. These valleys were also the routes by which the Germans would reinforce their forces from the north. The formation given responsibility for seizing them was the British 46th Division, which included in its order of battle the 5th Battalion Sherwood Foresters, as part of 139th Brigade.
Like most of the other units in the initial landing formations, the 5th Foresters were relatively inexperienced. Formed in March 1939 as a second-line Territorial Army unit they had fought briefly in France in 1940 and been evacuated from Dunkirk. Like much of the British Army they had spent the next two years training in the UK before being sent to North Africa in the second phase of the advance into Tunisia. Here they had suffered a disastrous setback when they had been caught by the German counter-offensive in March 1943, with the loss of nearly half the battalion. Reinforced back up to strength and under a new Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Hefford, they had spent most of the next six months training for mountain warfare, with a clear expectation that they would end up fighting in Italy. At best maybe half the officers and men had seen combat.
Facing them were some of the best German formations in Italy. In the immediate area of the Gulf of Salerno was XVI Panzer division, at near full strength, with 15,000 men, 163 tanks and assault guns, and 292 other armoured vehicles. Small infantry detachments manned the strongpoints and other defensive positions on the beaches, while the mobile troops in the division were organised into four Battle Groups stationed between three and six miles inland to counterattack any landings. In addition the XV Panzer Grenadier Division was stationed in the Gulf of Gaeta, and around Naples itself was the Hermann Goering Panzer Grenadier Division. By 8 September all these formations were on high alert as the Allied invasion fleet had been seen north of Sicily.
That night the message came through to the invasion transports that Italy had formally surrendered. This apparent good news spread rapidly amongst the Foresters, there was much speculation as to what this would mean for the resistance they would meet the next day. ‘We all felt that it would be a doddle’ recalled one veteran. But the Germans had contingency plans prepared in the event of an Italian surrender, and the previous evening they had disarmed all the local Italian troops. Well before the first troops began to go ashore, all the beach defences were manned not by compliant Italians but by determined German panzer troops. It soon became clear that the landing would be no ‘doddle’.
The landings themselves must be covered very briefly. 46th Division would assault on a single brigade front, led by 128th Brigade and its three battalions of the Hampshire Regiment – the only troops in the division trained in amphibious landings. Once they had secured the beaches, 138th Brigade would pass through them to deepen the bridgehead and push northwards to capture Salerno, Finally 139th Brigade, which included the 5th Foresters, would land. The plan was for them to form up in a concentration area some three miles inland overnight, then follow 138th Brigade north to further exploit the advance. There were also to be two landings by Commando and Ranger detachments east of Salerno, to seize the key route to the north through the Cava de Tirreni.
One the left (RED) beach the 1/4th Hampshires met strong resistance but were still able to take their initial objectives. On the right (GREEN) beach a rocket barrage not only failed to suppress the defences but targeted on the wrong beach, and misdirected by the barrage the 2nd Hampshires landed on the south bank of the Axa river, in 56th Division’s sector. Most of the follow up battalion, the 5th Hampshires, landed in the correct place but could make little progress against an unsuppressed German strongpoint. Both battalions took heavy losses. Although 138th Brigade began landing in the late morning, on the right the advance had barely advanced more than 600 yards from the beach. There was a hasty reorganisation, the Yorks and Lancs were ordered to push north as originally planned, supported by 1/4 Hampshires which came under command of 138th Brigade. The other two battalions were placed under 128th Brigade to ‘clear up the awkward situation on the right’. This transfer of battalions and even companies between Brigades in response to the tactical situation was to become a regular feature of the operations of 46th Division at Salerno. One of the Foresters’ companies was also placed under the command of 128th Brigade the next morning.
The original schedule had called for the Foresters to disembark on GREEN beach in the third wave at 1700. But the beach was still under heavy shellfire and closed for further landings at that time, and they remained offshore in their landing craft. It was not until 2000 that GREEN beach was declared clear. Even so, when A Company, under Captain Denys Crews, began to land it was still under direct fire from German tanks and guns, an 88mm shell striking Crews’ LCI near the bridge. Some of the American sailors, who had never been under fire, were reluctant to come in close, the battalion 2iC Major Goften-Salmond had to cajole the captain of the LST carrying the Battalion HQ to run his ship up on to the beach so that the transport could be unloaded. The captain of the LCI carrying Lieutenant Johnny Wright of B Company was less apprehensive, Wright (who could not swim) was grateful to him that he only had to wade through 18 inches of water on to the beach. The US Navy had also landed Wright in exactly the right spot. A concentration area was established about a mile inland, short of the planned location.
Despite the early setbacks and losses, on balance the first day had been successful for the 46th Division. The bridgehead was not as deep as planned, and 139th Brigade’s landing had been delayed, but by midnight the Yorks and Lancs had pushed north, securing the hills to the right of the road north. On 10 September they occupied Salerno and began to move up the Irno valley to Ponte Fratte, while the Lincolns linked up with the Commandos at Vietri. With progress seemingly good, 139th Brigade was ordered forward to take over from the 138th, the Foresters being ordered to support and then relieve the Yorks and Lancs. Leaving their concentration area at around 1700 three companies of Foresters marched up the road in single file. Meeting some of the Yorks and Lancs coming back from the front, one of the Foresters cheerfully called out “What’s it like mate”, and received the grim reply “You’ll know in a minute.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Hefford had gone forward at midday to reconnoitre the area the battalion was to take over, and had identified a feature named Taborra to the left of the road as key to the position. Two companies were ordered to make an assault that night, led by Captain Brian Sullivan, a veteran of the North Africa fighting. Sullivan made the strange mistake of lighting a cigarette, and was hit by a burst of Schmeisser fire that narrowly missed his heart. The loss of their commander demoralised the rest of the men who streamed back down the hill. Their first day of combat in the Salerno beach-head had cost the Forester two officers and 26 other ranks killed, wounded or missing.
Despite the failure to dislodge the enemy from the Taborra position, Denis Crews’ company had pushed further forward during the night to about a mile north of Ponte Fratte, with one section each side of the road, the third as a reserve, and the company HQ in the rear. There had been no prior reconnaissance, and they met stiffening resistance until it was impossible to advance further up the road itself. The Foresters tried to work around the enemy in the darkness, but the going was even harder than at Taborra. One section scrambled up a one in four gradient until they reached what they believed was a commanding position. They tried to dig in, but a combination of shale and undergrowth made this all but impossible. When the sun came up at around 0530, they found themselves facing a road block supported by a line of concrete pillboxes. While deliberating what to do they came under mortar fire from an unknown direction, and with heavy casualties and fear of being surrounded they fell back down the hill to the road.
During the first two days of operations in the bridgehead the Germans had been outnumbered and mostly confined themselves to holding actions and local counterattacks, but reinforcements had been steadily arriving from both the north and from the south, and they now began a serious counter-attack to drive the Allies back into the sea. Although the terrain in the Salerno Corridor was not particularly favourable to offensive operations, the Allied beachhead was at its shallowest in this sector, and the Salerno-Avellino road of critical importance. Not only was it one of the main routes through the mountains towards Naples, if the enemy could drive down it to the coast east of Salerno they would cut off the Commandos and 138th Brigade to the west and at the same time expose the northern flank of the landing beaches. Kampfgruppe Dornemann, based around the Reconnaissance Battalion of XVI Panzer Division, had been reinforced by Kampfgruppe Ströh of the XV Panzer Grenadier Division which had arrived from Naples. The core of this new force was a battalion of the 129 Panzer Grenadier Regiment (PGR), with elements of the 215 Panzer Battalion and Colonel Ströh’s own Nebelwerfer Regiment. While the majority of the soldiers in the ranks of both Kampfgruppe were young 17-21 year olds; they had veteran NCOs who had seen combat in Russia, North Africa, or Sicily; ideological young junior officers; and were estimated by British intelligence as being 80 per cent ‘reliable Nazis’. It was these troops, highly motivated, experienced, and well equipped with heavy and light machine guns and mortars, that were now driving back the Foresters.
The initial mortar and machine gun fire had started early in the morning, but was not accompanied by a general assault. Instead the Germans used infiltration tactics to penetrate the British positions, principally west of the road. The road itself came under increasingly heavy fire, with well placed snipers adding to the perils of mortar shells and machine gun bullets, making it extremely difficult for despatch riders to maintain communications with the forward troops (radio sets in 1943 were still cumbersome pieces of equipment, limiting their usefulness in a crisis). By midday the mortaring had become incessant and men began to surrender as their ammunition ran out and their positions were surrounded.
The attack caught the Foresters’ higher command by surprise. Hefford had called his company commanders together to discuss plans for a renewed attack on the Taborra feature the following night. The meeting was still going on at 1500 when the noise of gunfire was heard, and officers were told to get back to their companies immediately. Crews went forward on foot to the site of his former HQ, where he discovered the fate of his forward sections. He crossed the road to recover a seriously wounded soldier from a vineyard. Covered in blood, Crews remembered “a strange feeling of elation … I had done something worthwhile in that shambolic situation.” The feeling was understandable, and Crews’ action may even have saved the soldier’s life, but the fact that one of the battalion’s most senior officers was performing this act of individual assistance rather than being able to take effective control of his company is evidence of the prevailing confusion.
At 139th Brigade HQ, still well to the rear near the landing beaches on the morning of 11 September, Brigadier Robert Stott was also caught unawares by the attack. The 16th Durham Light Infantry (DLI) had already been ordered to take over from the Yorks and Lancs, who after being relieved by the Foresters had occupied the site of a tuberculosis hospital on the opposite side of the valley to Ponte Fratte. The carrier platoon of the DLI was sent forward immediately to reconnoitre, while the remainder of the battalion followed on foot. But the DLI were not established on what the British called Hospital Hill until 2000 in the evening, and it was primarily through the Foresters’ efforts that the German thrust was held. Although A Company had been overrun the battalion had formed a defensive line just south of the municipal cemetery where a tributary to the Irno formed a natural barrier. D Company was on the right, B Company the left, with C Company in reserve. An advanced Battalion HQ was set up in a slit trench within sight of the cemetery, while Hefford based himself a few yards further back in the macabre setting of a local undertaker’s shop, complete with a stock of coffins. Tank blocks were hastily constructed across the road, and two of the battalions 6-pounder anti-tank guns sited in concealed position from which they could cover about half a mile up the road. The guns were fired upon by a tank which was well hidden in a small copse down in the valley. More dangerous was the mortar fire which came down whenever any of the British moved. Above the road was an overhead wire carrying buckets to a nearby quarry, from one of which an enterprising German sniper took shots at the British below.
This line withstood further attacks at dusk and through the night. Prominent in repelling these was Lance-Corporal Cyril Adshead of the MMG platoon, whose Vickers gun was placed left of the battalion position from where it covered the Avellino road. In the morning of 12 September it became apparent that this position was badly exposed, in full view of the enemy. The inevitable heavy mortaring and shelling caused several casualties, but Adshead continued to man his gun until himself wounded. For this he was awarded the Military Medal. The Foresters had now secured their position on the road despite continued heavy bombardment, and at 1130 a strong enemy patrol was repulsed trying to infiltrate between the Foresters and the DLI down the riverbed.
The third battalion in the brigade, the 2/5th Leicesters, had taken up positions to the right rear of the Foresters and had sent two companies forward during the night to make contact. They got lost in the difficult terrain, and early in the morning a fighting patrol from the Foresters led by Captain Philip Palmer MC was sent to try and contact them. There was little intelligence as to the whereabouts of the two sides, so the patrol proceeded cautiously. Eventually the Foresters spotted some men in British uniforms who waved at them, and they went forward into the open to meet them. When they were just a few yards away the apparently friendly troops opened fire. Unable to go either forward or back, almost the whole patrol was captured, only two men escaping to tell of the incident. It has been suggested that they mistook German tropical uniforms for British ones. This would be plausible if the men involved were raw troops, but Palmer was a decorated veteran of the battalion’s actions in North Africa and must have been familiar with enemy equipment and dress. Intelligence reports issued by 139th Brigade at the time talk of enemy troops calling out in English, including cries for help, to confuse and deceive. If it was simple mistaken identity, the Germans had made the most of it to carry out a perfect ambush. It seems more likely that deception had played some part in the loss of the patrol. Either way, Palmer was among the captives and a significant loss.
The attacking enemy force on 11 September was estimated at two battalions from the 129th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, and fifteen to twenty tanks, probably mostly lighter types from Dornemann’s Reconnaissance Battalion. The terrain restricted the operation of tanks and the bulk of the German armour had been allocated to the attacks by XVI Panzer Division on the Sele plain. Well supported by artillery and mortars however, the enemy facing the Foresters had still been a potent and serious threat and the battalion had suffered significant casualties. By the end of 11 September their cumulative losses as known at the time amounted to 5 dead, 73 wounded and 46 missing – the equivalent of more than an entire rifle company.
For the next three days there was stalemate on the 139th Brigade front. Both sides made limited local offensives to try and gain possession of a particular hill, village, or other vantage point, which were invariably followed by the other side making a local counterattack to try and restore the original lines. The focus of the German attacks in the area over this period was against the DLI positions on the other side of the valley. The enemy continued their infiltration tactics, often at dusk, trying to locate gaps between British battalions. The lines were always fluid, the abundance of cover made it difficult to stop a determined patrol or sniper from getting through somewhere. During one attack on 14 September a rear echelon truck delivering a load of barbed wire to fortify the Foresters’ line was caught up in a firefight which lasted fifteen minutes before the Germans withdrew. In another the battalion water cart advanced a bit too far forward and came under German machine gun fire which punctured the jerry cans strapped to the side of the truck. The battalion resorted to sending water up to the front line by means of carrying parties rather than motor transport. On another occasion a German motorcyclist with a pillion passenger drove straight down the road unaware of the exact position of the front line and ended up surrounded and captured by the British. For their part the British tried to stay concealed during the day and rotated companies and platoons between the front line and reserve areas overnight.
Foiled in their attempt to break through to the sea east of Salerno, the Germans shifted their attacks to west of the town, where the Herman Goering Division struck south through the Molina defile towards Vietri, pushing back 138th Brigade. The situation was only stabilised by sending the Commandos back into combat. Having failed to outflank 46th Division on its left flank, the next major attack came against its right on 15 September, the Germans trying to seize the hills south-east of Salerno and deny the British use of the road from the beaches to the town. Since the port at Salerno had been largely destroyed by demolitions on the night before the invasion and was under observation and could be targeted by artillery, this road was the only source of supplies for the Division. The situation was once again restored, in part through further attacks by the Commandos. While the enemy received fresh troops from the Naples area for these attacks, the British remained dependent upon the units landed on 9-10 September, the only way that troops could be relieved was to rotate them with other equally exhausted units, and the divisional reserve often amounted to little more than a company.
It was at this time that rumours of an evacuation began to circulate due to the situation in the south. But while it may not have been evident to the men of the 5th Foresters in their slit trenches at Ponte Fratte, by 16 September, only a few days after Mark Clark had taken steps to prepare for the worse, the beachhead was in fact secure. Troops from the American 82nd Airborne Division had arrived as reinforcements; part of the British 7th Armoured Division was ashore; and heavy artillery had been landed. There were even some squadrons of aircraft operational from a new airfield built by American engineers. Perhaps most significant, not least for the troops’ morale, the first units of the Eighth Army advancing north from Calabria had met up with American patrols probing south. Many general histories give the impression that serious fighting at Salerno all but ended that day or soon after. But for the 5th Foresters and the rest of 46th Division there was still much fighting to be done. The Battalion War Diary commented that ‘rumours of enemy withdrawal, however, are not borne out by facts’, and at 1830 that evening the enemy tried once again to infiltrate down the river bed in some strength, an attempt broken up by the battalion’s 3-inch mortars. The enemy also sought to cover his withdrawal with artillery fire. One section from C Company under Lance Corporal Jack Wilson, posted to command the main road just south of the cemetery, suffered a heavy bombardment and every one of them became a casualty. Wilson, who had previously volunteered to lead many patrols, was one of three men who died of their wounds the following day, he was awarded the Military Medal for his courage and leadership.
On 17 September there were the first signs of the enemy retreating, and patrols by the 46th Recce Regiment the next day found the enemy retiring from the hills and villages to the east. But there was no withdrawal on the Foresters’ front because the German positions on the Salerno-Avellino road protected the flank of the routes along which those troops had to escape to the north. C Company had more brushes with enemy patrols around the cemetery, there were further unsuccessful enemy assaults against the DLI positions on Hospital Hill, while an attack by the 1/4th Hampshires intended as a prelude to relieving the Foresters was frustrated when a simultaneous German attack was launched on the Hampshire’s positions.
Meanwhile, the Foresters planned their own attack on the cemetery. Previous attempts had failed due to the high walls and stout double gates, this time the Pioneer Platoon would use demolition charges to break through to the enemy positions. The explosive devices were a crude affair, six anti-tank mines were fitted with instantaneous fuses and attached to a six-foot wooden board. Then a short-delay fuse was attached to the centre charge. Two of these contraptions were made, one for each of the two gates. A pair of pioneers would carry these forward and blow the charges, while the men of C Company sat in their slit trenches ready to assault. It was intended that the attack would be made before dawn on 19 September, but it was daylight before the pioneers went forward. One pair was hit by machine-gun fire, and the charges detonated prematurely, killing the two men instantly. Pioneer Eric Morral had his device blown from his hands, he survived but was flown back to a Base Hospital in Sicily, diagnosed with pneumonia caused by the effect of the blast on his lungs.
This failure was to be the last action by the Foresters in the Ponte Fratte area. At 0400 on 20 September the battalion was relieved by the 6th Coldstream Guards, thankfully without much enemy harassing fire, and an hour later the battalion had moved back by motor transport to a rest area close to the original landing beaches. Here the men were able to relax a little and perhaps even bathe in the sea, but the respite would only last a little over 24 hours. The Allies were preparing to break out of the bridgehead, and 46th Division had been assigned to capture the exits to the Molina defile north of Vietri. The British 7th Armoured Division would then pass through and break out onto the plain and capture Naples. 138th Brigade had been given the leading role, a full brigade-scale assault backed up by the whole of the divisional artillery, some American 155mm heavy guns, and naval gunfire support. 139th Brigade would assist by attacking and occupying the villages and heights to the east of the defile that would otherwise threaten their flank. At 0930 in the morning of 21 September, Hefford went forward to recce the ground over which his men were to advance, then called his company commanders together to give them instructions. That evening the battalion’s rest was cut short and they went forward once again.
The area in which the 5th Foresters were about to operate lay between the two main roads north from Salerno and consisted of a line of hills, in particular a prominent peak called Il Telegrafo, from which there were clear views down onto the main German position blocking an advance along Highway 18 at the village of Cava. A series of valleys ran westwards down from the hills to the road, presenting opportunities to outflank the enemy. Conversely, failure to eject him from the hills would leave him with observation points to bring down artillery and mortar fire upon the troops trying to force their way up the highway. Like many aspects of the Salerno fight, this was a foretaste of the tactical problems that would beset the Allies in Italy for nearly two more years. Most of the area was a trackless wilderness, worse than anything previously encountered in the battalion’s training in North Africa. The mountains were covered with a thick scrub, there were no roads and few paths, those that did exist crumbled away under the feet of the heavily laden men. Transport of any kind, even mule, was impossible, and rations, water and ammunition had to be manhandled to the fighting companies.
The Foresters were ordered to move forward on the night of 21-22 September, occupy the little village of Santa Croce, and establish a company and an artillery observer on Il Telegrafo, which was believed to have been abandoned by the enemy. In the darkness the lead company by-passed Santa Croce to the east and ended up on the lower slopes of Il Telegrafo. The intelligence was wrong, rather than being abandoned by the Germans the hill was the location of their mobile reserve in the area, mainly men from the Herman Goering Panzer Grenadiers, and the Foresters were forced off by a counterattack. The initial plan was replaced by preparations for a Brigade advance with the Foresters on the right, the Leicesters in the centre, and the Yorks and Lancs on the left, supported by artillery. With this added support, the Foresters took most of Santa Croce in a second attack on 22 September, though one strongly fortified house held out until dawn on the 23 September. Later that day, B Company were ordered to take Il Telegrafo. Since landing it had lost four officers killed or wounded, leaving only Johnny Wright, a wartime conscript who had been in the army a little over three years and commissioned less than ten months previously. Hefford managed to arrange some artillery support for the attack which went ahead at 1800 with Wright in command. Some of the 25-pounder shells fell short, hitting Wright’s HQ and causing casualties, but eventually the Foresters were established on the hill.
Their advance now continued over mountainous terrain where communications even within a company were difficult, and contact with the Battalion HQ broke down almost completely. The relentless shelling and mortaring of the previous week was thankfully a thing of the past, but there was still what the British termed ‘small party’ resistance. The German tactics were to withdraw by night and then hold their positions during the day in these small groups. On 25 September C Company occupied the village of Pregiato, which had a commanding view of Highway 18 where the main offensive had also broken through. It was even possible on 26 September for some of the battalion transport to make its way up the main road, to relieve the struggling human supply line a little. On 28 September the 7th Armoured passed through 46th Division to break out to Naples, and the Foresters’ role in the Salerno campaign came to an end.
Since landing around midnight on 9/10 September the 5th Foresters had been in some form of action or movement every single day, and suffered casualties on all but three. 7 officers and 43 other ranks can be identified as having died during the fighting, while 2 officers and 162 ORs were wounded. Philip Palmer and 41 others were taken prisoner. The total of 255 men was roughly one third of the entire official battalion establishment, and over half of the strength of the four rifle companies. Losses were particularly high amongst junior officers and NCOs. The Battalion’s casualties in September included 44 percent of its War Establishment of captains, 33 percent of its subalterns, 29 percent of its sergeants, and a staggering 53 percent of its corporals. The relationships between junior officers, NCOs, and the private soldier are critical to the efficient functioning of an infantry battalion, and while the Brigade and Division War Diaries indicate a certain level of frustration at the slowness of the Foresters’ advance, it may be more appropriate to marvel at the fact that the battalion was able to continue to function as effectively as it did.
Comparing casualties across units is both difficult and somewhat invidious, as if a ‘league table’ of dead or wounded somehow implies superior bravery or skill. Nevertheless, a crude comparison of fatalities from 10-30 September (thus excluding the heavy losses suffered by some units during the initial landings, in which the Foresters did not take part), shows that during the prolonged fighting north of Salerno the Foresters suffered more deaths than any other British infantry battalion in the beachhead other than the three Guards battalions. The bodies of one third of these were never recovered or identified, and are only commemorated on the Cassino Memorial to the missing. Such was the human cost of their largely overlooked action to defend the road into Salerno at Ponte Fratte. But their sacrifice had made a key contribution to the success of Operation Avalanche.
National Archives, London
War Diaries (WO 170)
Medal Citations (WO 373)
Nottinghamshire County Archive
Volumes of individual accounts and photographs of Sherwood Foresters’ war service
On Active Service (c.1988)
More Forester Memories (c.1994)
Mercian Regiment Archive
Imperial War Museum, London
Sound Archive Tapes
Richard Garrett, None but the Brave (Unpublished regimental history)
Ian Gooderson, a hard way to make a war (2008)
Dominick Graham and Shelford Bidwell, Tug of War (1986)
Des Hickey and Gus Smith, Operation Avalanche: The Salerno Landings (1983)
Eric Linklater, The Campaign in Italy (1951)
Hugh Pond, Salerno (1961)
Commonweath War Graves Commission records on https://www.cwgc.org
Casualty Records, WO 416, on https://www.findmypast.co.uk
 2/4 Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI), 6th Yorks and Lancs, and 6th Lincolns.
 The 2/5th Leicesters and 16th Durham Light Infantry (DLI) were the other battalions in the brigade
 Stott had seen action at Dunkirk with the 2nd Sherwood Foresters, and had commanded the 5th Battalion in North Africa before being appointed to command 139th Brigade.