When Technology Fails in the Battlefield the Only Thing Left Is Luck—and Hand Grenades

My dad is 89. He's had an amazing life and he just published his memoirs. This is an excerpt taken from his experiences at Anzio in 1944, as a World War II 21-year-old soldier.

Gizmodo is featuring him not only because he's my father [Addy is one of the legendary Gizmodo editors who helped build this site from our early morning European trenches—JD] but because the story will resonate with many readers. It's the tale of how only luck, courage and your fellowmen could save you when technology fails. —Addy Dugdale.

[On January 22, 1944, the author, a Grenadier Guard, landed at Anzio, on the Italian coast. Originally L.O.B. (left out of battle) he was told to take over the Anti-Tank and Carrier Platoons after his boss and two colleagues were killed in action. For several days, the battle raged, attack following counter-attack.]

Bill takes up the story on February 7, as the Germans unleashed a major attack on the battalion.

"About 9.30pm, the firing began at our No. 4 Company, and its position was heavily smoked. The battle lasted for about an hour, or a little longer, and then went quiet. It sounded as if they had been overrun. I climbed up to the top of the gully with George Chaplin, the Intelligence Officer, and Christopher Hodson, the Pioneer Officer, and attempted to see what was happening. The battle still raged to our right, but it was ominously quiet in front, and to our left, where the North Staffs. were. The rain had ceased at about 11pm, the moon came out and the temperature dropped like a stone.

In the moonlight we could see a good deal of activity on No. 4 Company's position, but it was too far off to discover exactly what. About 150 yards to the north west of our gully the ground sloped down to a water course, along which there were bushes of various sizes which degenerated into scrub. This gave about 30 per cent ground cover up to where we were sitting. At about 11.30pm, large groups of the enemy began to make their way down the slope from No. 4 Company towards us. Almost immediately I heard Tommy gun firing and hand grenades from about 200 yards to our left. And soon C.S.M. Welton appeared to say that Bill Sidney and his soldier servant were attempting to stop the Germans crossing the water course at an animal crossing lower down.

The stream followed the gully, at a distance of about 50 yards, for about quarter of a mile, and then meandered off to the northwest. George said that we had better go to the head of the gully and see if there were any other crossings. So, leaving Christopher as the link with Bill Sidney, we walked up to the top and crouched our way back down. We had been joined by a couple of the Pioneer Platoon and my soldier servant, Guardsman Harold Slater, who were all carrying hand grenades and rifles. This went without incident until columns of steam denoted opposition. Grenades from Slater, and shots and a charge from the Pioneers settled the matter, and we got back to the crossing without difficulty. We found a goat or sheep track through the scrub leading to the watercourse. Luckily it appeared to be the only other crossing. Because of the steepness of the bank on our side of the stream, a crossing was only feasible where a track led down to the water.

There were now several hundred people milling about on the German side of the stream, with lots of shouting and Verey lights. George left me to guard the crossing and walked on down, with Christopher, to see if Bill was okay. He came back quite quickly to say that Bill's soldier servant had been killed, that Bill had been wounded, and that Welton had gone to reinforce him with more grenades. The Germans had decided that they were not going to get across at Bill's point, and were now splashing up the water course and walking up the far bank towards us. The frost and the wet meant that, wherever they went, there appeared a cloud of steam above them, which enabled us to see what was going to happen next. Eventually the steam denoted that they had found my sheep track and, after much puffing and swearing, a German emerged a few yards from me, on my side of the stream. I had my Tommy gun on single shots and, taking aim for his midriff, I pulled the trigger. I heard the bullet hit him and he dropped, and all went still.

George, meanwhile, was darting about in the scrubland. His cap comforter had come off and, with his bald head and height of six foot as he repeatedly dashed down and fired at the far bank and tossed hand grenades into the stream, the shouts disclosed he was doing damage.

This continued for some time. No further attack happened until a German officer came down and rallied his troops. He reconnoitred the stream and decided that our track was the only way. A large group then got into the stream and, I think, pitched the first man up onto the bank and he stood there steaming. I went to repeat the previous scenario, only to find my gun had jammed (it turned out to be a split bullet case). We looked at each other for what must have been a minute, and then a shot rang out and he crumpled. The Germans retaliated with a volley of stick grenades that fell all around.

I had some hand grenades in a sandbag, so I chucked two or three into the stream to more screams. Another German eventually arrived on our side. Again there was a crack and he dropped. This happened many more times until there was quite a pile of corpses. The Germans seemed to lose their enthusiasm and, again, there was silence. After an interval, they made several more attempts and, each time anyone arrived on our side, he was shot.

Our saviour turned out to be the Senior Drill Sergeant George Armstrong, who had been a member of the King's Hundred at Bisley before the war. He was coming up with the rations and ammo, and had found himself in the middle of the fight. He got up on the south side of the gully with a Lee Enfield and as, from his eyrie, he was only about a hundred yards away from the stream bank, he never missed. Suddenly the Germans could be seen withdrawing up the hill, and Armstrong got a couple more to keep them moving. I went to slither down back into the gully, but it was about a 30 foot drop and I knocked the wind out of myself, not helped when George Chaplin landed on top of me."

[The survivors then returned to the R.A.P., taking it in turns to carry Bill Sidney back. The author was now Company Commander.]

'It was now getting light and we could see a bit more. No. 4 Company position was apparently deserted, and the intervening ground was bare. But, once the dawn brightened, both sides' automatic weapons ensured that vast amounts of ammunition were expended, with no casualties, though no move could be made by either side. It was now raining again, and George Chaplin and I took it in turns to sit on the top of the gully to see if any signs of a new attack were evident.

When Technology Fails in the Battlefield the Only Thing Left Is Luck—and Hand Grenades

It continued bitterly cold through that day and, as darkness fell, the shooting stopped and it appeared that preparations were being made for another attack. At 9pm it duly came, with largish numbers of Germans involved and all brought up short by the water course. Hand grenades and volleys of rifle shots were enough to hold the crossing and we looked to be holding our own.

Colonel Charlie Huntingdon appeared as it was getting light the next morning, and climbed up onto the gully top. He decided that the Battalion had to continue to hold its present position at all costs. He ordered Christopher Hodson, seven Guardsmen and me to hold the front of Battalion Headquarters and the north west flank; and George Chaplin, the Drill Sergeant and five Guardsmen to go down and hold the area where Bill Sidney had been, before he was wounded. So began the longest, coldest and wettest day of my war.

Any movement provoked a tornado of German spandau machine gun fire. We were ordered not to expose ourselves and not so shoot, unless the Germans attempted to cross the watercourse. Guardsman Slater had an entrenching tool and we passed it, from hand-to-hand, to each dig ourselves a small hole in the sandy soil. This was just as well as at regular intervals we were shelled and mortared and it was comforting to be able to duck below the surface. As we had not had any food or drink for two days, we were glad to be able to jump about a bit after it became dark to restore our circulation. It remained bitterly cold and, as the shooting had ceased at dusk, silence fell until, at about 9pm, preparations were made for another attack. When it arrived there was noticeably fewer Germans than the night before. Armstrong was no longer in his eyrie but we all shot away and hurled hand grenades, and the attack petered out. We were left alone in the rain.

We lasted out the night. Charlie Huntingdon reappeared and told us to withdraw back to the flyover and to extract our two 150cwt trucks. They were not four-wheel drive and, after much pushing and cursing, they had to be abandoned. My grandmother, who was in Turkey, had sent me a bright blue pullover and a book called 40 Years Wandering in the Gobi Desert by two female American missionaries. I extracted both gifts and was glad to put on the pullover as I was shaking with cold and soaked through. I scrambled up the bank with the C.S.M., Guardsman Slater and Guardsman Moran, Christopher's soldier servant, and we made our way back to the flyover as a volley of smoke shells denoted the launching of another German attack on our gully behind us.

At the flyover I found myself in the middle of yet another German attack. This time they had got on top of the embankment in large numbers, coming from the east, and were shooting up all the people below. Charlie Huntington was attempting to get a General Grant tank, manned by Americans, to machine gun the embankment top, when he was shot and killed instantly. He had commanded the Battalion for 27 and a half hours. The General Grant tank now got the message and shot all the Germans on the skyline. Chucks Lyttleton [the author's closest friend from childhood] and the Carrier Platoon climbed up and swept the remaining Germans off the embankment, and then picked off those Germans who had got down on our side of the line and who were cut off between the embankment and the road to Anzio. Meanwhile the code name for every Allied gun to fire had been given, and they pulverised the Germans who were caught in the open, on their way to join the assault.

That night a battalion of the 5th Division relieved us, and we took over their position on another railway embankment, three miles to the south. The Battalion was still facing the enemy but this part of the salient was quiet. The next morning I heard that Chucks Lyttelton had been wounded and, after 'stand down' I took a jeep and went back to the Casualty Clearing Station. I asked to see him and a sister said he was not there, but waved towards a line of about 30 blankets. I walked down the line looking at the labels until I saw one that said 'Lt. J. A. Lyttelton, 5 G.G." I knew the worst - I was the only survivor of the Support Company Officers. I walked back to my jeep and got in to drive back to the Battalion, but there was a touch on my arm. It was the sister with a cup of tea. "Have this before you go," she said, and I did.

Sir William is probably the most amazing man I've ever had the honor to meet, up there with Buzz Aldrin and my own dad. Every time I was at his home in England, I listened in wonderment to his stories, marveled by his life and the way he told it. He is one of the last gentlemen, a true hero and a simply awesome human being.

Settling the Bill is a fascinating insight into what life was like growing up in a world of privilege between the two world wars, his World War II years, life as a jockey, a pilot, a public servant, and Chairman of Aston Villa, a First Division (now Premier League) soccer team.

I can't recommend it highly enough. You can buy it here. —JD