This year marks the 75th anniversary of some of the most important campaigns of World War Two, most notably the D-Day landings of the 6th June, 1944.
But one campaign which the Royal British Legion have been keen to remind people about is the battle to liberate Italy through 1943 and 1944. They say that, although the Italy campaign proved to be a major turning point in the Second World War, and one of the hardest fought, it has become known as the ‘Forgotten Campaign’ because of the increased attention given to the battle in Normandy both during and after the conflict.
Last Saturday they hosted an event at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, South Staffordshire, to commemorate the battle of Monte Cassino, where armed forces from Britain and the Commonwealth, as well as Poland and America, fought to break through a stubborn German defensive line to open the way towards Rome.
Soldiers fighting in Italy found that the best equipment was reserved for those fighting in Northern Europe, and the unfamiliar, difficult terrain meant the men had to quickly master new skills. Mule handling and mountain navigation became essential in order to not fall victim to the deadly environment around them that was being controlled by large numbers of experienced Axis units.
Of course, local military history will tell of the Staffordshire regiments caught up in the conflict. The North Staffordshire ‘Prince of Wales’ regiment, an experienced battalion which had already seen battle in North Africa by the time of the invasion of Italy, were at the forefront of one of the most infamous conflicts of the campaign; the Battle of Anzio.
They suffered heavy casualties while defending Buonriposo Ridge from a fierce German counter-attack and, although the attack was repelled, they were forced to withdraw.
Many other local men fought to liberate Italy too. William ‘Bill’ Perry, who came from Longton, served in the Royal Artillery in Sicily as a driver and spotter during the conflict, and received the Italy Star for his service.
His nephew, Malcolm Banks, told how Bill’s served in the British armed forces throughout World War Two, and was moved from fighting in the deserts of North Africa, to the rolling hills of Sicily. The aim was to open the Mediterranean sea lanes for Allied merchant ships, and to drive Axis air, sea, and land forces from the island.
On more than one occasion, Bill found himself scrambling to stay alive.
“I remember him telling me about one time where his section was under attack, and he ran for cover in a burrow where he could see another English soldier sheltering. When he got there, he turned round to say how lucky they were, when he realised the other man had already been shot through the head and killed.”
“A couple of times, his jeep blew up on him. After the first time, they put sandbags on the bottom to lessen the impact. The second time, the landmine still damaged the jeep and flipped it over, but Bill’s legs became trapped under the sandbags. His mates retreated, leaving him behind, but somehow he survived to fight another day.”
After the liberation of Italy, Bill Perry found himself on his way to the Pacific theatre to fight the Japanese. The dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, however, meant that he would be stationed in India for the rest of the war.
The emotion of being able to talk about Bill, surrounded by memories of a man the family clearly admired, start to become visible as the story ended.
“I feel so proud of him”, Malcolm says. “He fought for this country for many years, and served it well. I will always be proud of him.”