Click here to return to the main site entry page
Click here to return to the previous page
The Rushden Echo and Argus, 7th August 1953, transcribed by Jim Hollis
The Glory of The Steelbacks in 450 Pages
Regiment tells war story

Between black covers mourning lost comrades, and with gold titling and crest symbolising the glory Steelbacks achieved, the Northamptonshire Regiment has issued its official history of the Second World War.

From the pen of Brigadier W. J. Jervois, M.C., on behalf of the Regimental Council, the history runs to 450 pages and is a meticulous story of one of the greatest periods in the Regiment’s long history.

In a foreword the Duchess of Gloucester, Colonel-in-Chief, says: “This volume includes the story not only of the years before the second world war, when the regiment carried out its various tasks with unobtrusive devotion to duty, but also of the critical years of that war, in which its battalions added to their fame by their conduct in many theatres of operations.

“And finally it tells of the aftermath, in which took place the re-organisation which was necessary to meet the needs of a well-balanced, modern army.

“In war, as this history tells, our 5th Battalion of the Territorial Army, showed itself in every way equal of its Regular brothers.”

Besides recording the work of the Regiment, the history devotes chapters to the general war-time background in order to set the scene. When it turns to the affairs of the Regiment, it records them in great detail.

For these two reasons it is a book which no Northamptonshire people with a pride in the achievements of the Steelbacks will wish to be without.

Indian Trouble

The story begins in pre-war days with several chapters about India, where the 48th (1st Battalion) was stationed, and handling trouble on the North West Frontier.

The 58th (2nd Battalion) was at Aldershot this time, and after the outbreak of war was sent to France. It took part in operations in Belgium, the Battle of Arras, and other engagements leading to the withdrawal to Dunkirk. The 5th Battalion, also sent to France in May, 1940, was in the stubborn fighting on the Escaut and Lys.

Remnants of the 58th reached the Mole at Dunkirk, and embarked for Dover in a destroyer, H.M.S. Malcolm. “After the fighting at St. Eloi the 58th ceased to exist as a Battalion. Many never returned, others, forced to spend the rest of the war as prisoners in German hands, did not come back until five long years had passed; but enough returned to England in June, 1940, to rebuild a new 58th with the traditions of the old one which had died at St. Eloi.”

Men of the 5th Battalion, after a long wait while the beaches were heavily shelled, were also embarked at Dunkirk.

Long-awaited contact with the enemy came again in 1942, when the 5th Battalion took part in the landings in North Africa. They reached the outskirts of Djedeida, nearest point to Tunis that rear the Red Cross flag was raised, and the stretcher was gained the final stages of the campaign.

During the offensives mounted by Rommel and Von Arnim in 1943 the Battalion was in the line for 67 days without relief.

Meanwhile, the 58th had taken part in the landings and occupation of Madagascar, and returned in 1943 by way of India, Persia, Iraq and Palestine to take part in the invasion of Sicily, in which the 5th Battalion also figured.

In the campaigns in Sicily and Italy the Steelbacks saw much action, and there were many acts of gallantry.

At Anzio

The 58th were very much in evidence at Anzio. The whole of the beachhead was within range of the German artillery, and they found the vehicles they took over had been dug in bonnet high as a precaution against shelling.

Any movement by day was hazardous, and at night the open ground was constantly harassed by artillery and machine guns. The sector offered great opportunities for rifle marksmanship, and a competition was organised between companies in which men were allowed to cut a notch on their rifle butt for an authenticated hit.

Opposite were troops of the German 4th Parachute Division, in some places only thirty to fifty yards away, who shown themselves tough but clean fighters.

Comments the writer: “One of the features of fighting in this sector was the strict observance of the Geneva convention. When there was a casualty to be taken the bearers were able to cross the open ground to the ambulance jeep without being fired on.”

The next task of the 58th was to hold “The Fortress,” regarded as the nastiest sector of the whole beachhead. It was a wadi, reached by jeep track across six hundred yards of open country.

The 58th spent eight days holding “The Fortress” against numerous German attacks before they were relieved, at a cost of 118 casualties, of whom 20 were killed.

This was some of the hardest fighting the 58th had experienced in Italy, and the Division Commander said of “The Fortress”: “It has become a name which we shall remember with admiration for those who held it.”

In Middle East

After the advance to Rome the 58th were withdrawn to the Middle East for a short time, and then, with reinforcements, returned to Europe, in the words of the C.O. “To finish the party off.” They joined the 21st Army Group under Field Marshal Montgomery.

The 5th Battalion also in Italy took part in the fighting on the Sangro in 1943. A company of the Buffs had been roughly handled crossing the river, and the Northamptonshires were ordered to attack and establish a stronger bridgehead.

This attack, made after wading the river and with artillery and air support, was successful. The men were soaked to the skin, bitterly cold, and without hot food or drink for 48 hours.

In the final stages of the fighting on the Sangro, D Company was given the task of distracting the enemy’s attention from a tank attack, and drew heavy fire on them-selves, but received the thanks of their Brigade Commander.

After fighting in other sectors, the Battalion was switched to the Cassino front. They witnessed the three-hour bombing of the famous monastery which the Germans had garrisoned, but were not called upon to take part in the attack, which had to be abandoned because of weather conditions and obstacles created by the intensive bombing.

In the attack on the Gustav Line, D Company “suffered one of those accidents which are inevitable in the confusion of battle.” They were dive-bombed by six Kittyhawks, and soon afterwards friendly artillery killed two men of Company H.Q. and destroyed the wireless.

In this fighting which broke the line the Battalion endured some of the heaviest shelling and mortar-fire they had ever experienced.

Advancing northwards from Rome, one of the platoons had the interesting task of guarding Kesselring’s former H.Q. – a labyrinth of tunnels in the mountain side with air conditioned offices, living rooms and kitchens.

Fought In Italy

After a spell in Egypt, the 5th Battalion were again in Italy in 1944 and 1945 taking part in the fighting until the destruction of all German armies south of the Po.

In the Far East the 48th was involved in a good deal of gallant fighting against the Japanese in Burma during 1943, enduring the trials of the jungle, Japanese “jitter-tac-tics” and weird weather and terrain conditions which at times prevented even wireless communications.

In one action, in recognition of the gallant fighting of one company of the Regiment, a ridge was named Hampton Ridge, since for security reasons the full title could not be used, and it continued to be known by that name.

During the advance of the 48th to Chingyaung during the Burma offensive of 1944-5 supplies were dropped by air, and one day the aircraft ignored the marked dropping-zone and instead loosed their cargoes over the camp area.

Free dropped sacks of rice and grain were really dangerous, but by hugging the trees the 48th escaped injury, though one mule was killed, signal equipment damaged and the mess hit by 80lb. sacks of rice.

Despite complaints this type of danger from the air continued, until one day a Dakota dropped sacks of rice on an airstrip where the light aircraft of a liaison officer was standing.

Effect on the subsequent accuracy of the Dakota pilots was most marked!

Mule ‘Operation’

Men of the 48th crossing the Chindwin in December, 1944, had to get mules across the 500-yard stretch of water as well as themselves.

First the mules were encouraged to swim by themselves, but they turned back. Then men swimming with them tried to lead them across, but this failed too.

Finally each mule was towed by a boat paddled by four men, while a fifth sat in the stern with the mule’s head in his lap. This worked fairly well, though at times the mule took charge and either towed the boat round and round in circles or broke loose and returned to its starting place.

Finally sappers built two rafts, “Horrible Charley” and “Stinking Harry,” in which the crossings were made.

The history contains accounts of dogged and difficult fighting which cannot be condensed – they must be read if the tasks that faced the troops are to be appreciated.

The 48th fought through Burma, and “were nearly, but not quite, in at the death.” Rangoon fell on May 2 when the 48th their task over, were being transported back to India over so much country that had been hardly won.

From this, one of the two most difficult campaigns, of the war, the 48th carried, in the words of Lt.-General D. D. Gracey, “a magnificent reputation for efficiency and courage.”

The story ends with the final phases of the war in Europe with the 48th and 4th Battalion, as men of the Regiment figured in the crossing of the Maas and the Rhine.

Click here to return to the main index of features
Click here to return to the War index
Click here to e-mail us