Saturday, 1 May 2010

One Twelfth of a medal

Hello and welcome to my blog. Nice to see you.

It's another glorious day here on Shoreham Beach and it's been a delight to see the kite-surfers back in force. I love seeing the brightly coloured kites ducking and diving in the sky. It's like the wind's got all dressed up and gone to a party.

Talking of which, Sussex's party time kicks off today with the Brighton Festival. It bursts into life with the children's parade which heralds the start of eight weeks of county wide festivals. As the exciting Brighton Festival draws to a close, the rather high-brow Charleston Festival begins, and is overlapped by the community focused Steyning Festival. Then for 10 days you have a choice of enjoying their events or staying near the coast to enjoy the eclectic Adur Festival. The celebrations begins to wind down at the end of June with the Crawley Folk Festival.

Celebrations were the order of the day, in May 1945, when the Germans surrendered in Italy. I know because over the last few months I've been helping one of our oldest residents to write his war memoirs, "One Twelfth of a Medal."

Bill Earl will be 95 on the 12th May and served as a Nursing Orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps from 2nd July 1940 - 5th July 1946. As a Nursing Orderly 1, he was part of a team collecting the injured from the battlefield and treating them. They were unarmed and could only go out when there was a lull in the fighting or at night. If they got caught in a cross-fire or sudden attack, all they could do was dig a hole and take shelter.

Bill was part of the 214 Field Ambulance 56th London Division and saw action in North Africa and Italy. He was part of the invasion force at Salerno, briefly saw action at Monte Cassino and was almost killed at Anzio; one of the toughest, and arguably, most avoidable battles of the entire Italian campaign.

The Germans surrendered in Italy on 2nd May, and as it's the 65th anniversary tomorrow I thought I'd share an extract from Bill's memoirs.


22 January – 24 May 1945
General Alexander, (“Alexander of Tunis”), commanded the invasion force and there was little opposition when we landed. As hoped, we’d taken the Germans by surprise. He wanted to proceed straight to Rome as the roads seemed open. We were even told a jeep got to Rome and back without seeing any Germans. But General Mark Clarke and the other American generals said no, we must wait a few days to build up the forces and equipment.
I’m still furious about that decision because it cost thousands of lives. We should have gone to Rome when we could but instead we just sat there whilst the Germans built up their forces. They brought in their reserve troops and some from Monte Cassino so when we finally got the order to go forward, they were ready for us.
Anzio was terrifying. The fighting was constant. We must have been 2-3 miles inland and it was very, very bad. The Germans wanted to drive us back into the sea and we wanted to go forward. They positioned their main artillery on the Alban Hills so they could shell us from there and see everything that was happening. Our soldiers were on a Plain with the beach behind them. The only real place of shelter was the wadis and that’s where we were finally able to establish a Forward First Aid Post. The wadi must have been about 50-80 foot long and deep and was vital.
The battle was the closest we’d come to the trench warfare of the First World War. The front lines were so close we could shout to the Germans. For a few days there were no gains on either side and we couldn't get out to get the wounded. We managed to get some white cloth and drew a big red cross on it. We held it up and kept holding it up until both sides noticed and stopped shelling. When they stopped we rushed out to collect the casualties. At one point we had to walk through the German front line to get some of the injured. We were told to look straight ahead not left or right. Twice a day we went out, morning and evening. As soon as we got back to the first aid post and lowered the flag, the shelling started again. Despite the fierce shelling, the Germans never hit the First Aid Post.
During collection times we had to move the wounded we’d already treated back to the other dressing station and make room for those we were collecting from the battlefield. We had an elementary test to see if we could drive because if the driver was killed we had to take over. Ambulances couldn’t get up, so we had to adapt jeeps to carry stretchers on each side. One time we had an English officer on one side of the jeep and a German officer on the other.
Rome and the German surrender
After we’d defeated the Germans at Anzio we marched into Rome and rested. We’d lost 50% of the RAMC and needed reinforcements.
We were camped outside Rome and each day transport would take us into the city. As we disembarked young boys met us and tried to pull us off to go and visit their sisters. We were able to go sightseeing every day. I went to the Opera house to see the famous baritone, Tito Gobbi, in Tosca. But the highlight was to see the Pope in the Vatican. Every morning at 10.00am the Vatican was open to all serving personnel from every country to meet the Pope and see the Sistine Chapel and Vatican treasures. Although I’m not a Catholic, seeing the Pope was a moving experience and one I shall never forget.
Rome was liberated on June 4th. Two days later was D-Day and the Normandy Landings, so the Italian campaign became secondary. Some army divisions were withdrawn to France so no-more reinforcements, and equipment and armaments were rationed. That’s why we made slow progress up the Adriatic coast. I spoke to a gunner who told me that he only had 3 shells a day to fire. He used to fire them in the morning so he could have the rest of the day off.
We made our way up the coast via Ascola, Macerata, Rimini, and Forli. During this time there were many small skirmishes as the Germans were also withdrawing because of the second front. Although their army was depleted they were still a strong fighting force.
The Germans were finally defeated and surrendered on May 2nd 1945. Five days before war ended in Europe on 7th May. We were proud and happy to be the first of the allies on mainland Europe to accept the German surrender.
Back to the present now, I'm off to enjoy our son's 5th Birthday. Have a great Mayday and see you soon.


  1. What an interesting blog. My Dad, also Bill, landed at Salerno from North Africa, so I guess he must have been one of the back up troops. I must have been told stories as a child as I certainly remember the name of Monte Cassino. He also went to Rome where he lost a friend in a freak accident with a farm vehicle. I never got told if he went to visit any of the young boys sisters.

    IN the mid 90s I suggested we take him to the Adriatic to visit Rimini and other places but he hardly ever talked about it let alone wanted to go back. So different I think from our generation who manage to commemorate almost everything although I guess that the war in Iraq and Afghanistan will leave many who will want to forget.

    A few years back my wife and I went tp Salerno and stayed in the hills at the village or Raita. It is easy to remember how ee looked down on the Harbour and how vulnerable Bill Earl and his unit were in their location.

    Michael Colman

  2. Thanks for your comment. I'm just lucky that Bill wants to share his war memories before he dies. It's humbling and fascinating to listen to them. I'll let you know when the book's published.