The story of John Adamson (1921-1988) continues...

It was a hot, clear day in late August 1970. Sheila Adamson was steadily working her way through a list of postcards to be sent back from San Marino, with its exotic stamps. The café table was also burdened with several coffees and at least one empty bottle of ‘7 UP’.  Jack Adamson leaned back on his chair and said something in Italian to a friendly waiter about the weather. 

The waiter nodded and spoke back. If the stranger’s language was not completely fluent then it was presentable and far better than might have been expected from a Scottish tourist. The ancient republic had some aspects of Ruritania about it. Police on duty wearing sky blue uniforms and white solar helmets. The limestone crags went ever higher in a series of small squares and winding streets. Medieval walls guarded the lower flanks. The views were tremendous, as the hills dominated the coastal plain inland from Rimini.

“Let’s leave Mum to the postcards and go and have a look at those field guns on the other side of the square,” Jack said to his son. They wandered over, keeping to the shaded side of the square. 

Jack stood musing at a row of German artillery. Large, brooding pieces of machinery with their barrels pointed nearly vertically. “I wonder,” he said.

“What do you wonder,” said his 13-year old son. This was unusual. Normally Jack Adamson avoided talking about the war, or at least the fighting part. His standard stories involved football matches in the Western Desert or in the mud of Italy. Games involving other RAF Wings or better still, the sworn enemy of the RAF, the British Army. Infantry regiments were humbled and artillery formations bested. On occasions, his games for the RAF in Italy were reflected on. “The only amateur in the team, you know.” In response to a direct question he would say, “Never fired a gun in anger. Would not know how to. Manned a radio set all the way from Alamein to the Alps. Fixed a few too.” 

The man and the boy looked south over a stone wall. Below them and receding into the distance were a series of ridges and narrow valleys.  This was the country across which the Gothic Line had been constructed in 1944 by the German army.

Twenty-six years before, things had been quite different. The Germans had just moved into San Marino. The Republic provided wonderful vantage points for the battle yet to come. Artillery had been quietly brought up. The Germans wouldn’t be quitting Italy without a fight.

September 1944. In the country to the south of San Marino. 

Three RAF vehicles arrived at a crossroads in the shallow valley. Already elements of the 4th Indian Division had crested the ridge on the northern side, beyond the fast flowing, and improbably blue, mountain river. The Sikhs were pushing forward for another attack. A jeep, an RAF armoured car and a radio lorry had arrived down a series of hairpins from the heights to the south. Beyond this high ground, they had come from an entire artillery park of 25 pounder field guns, and the headquarters unit of AGRA (Army Group Royal Artillery) 1, which was supporting this huge attack on the German fortified positions of the Gothic Line. 

Flight Lieutenant ‘Dicer’ Hart was sitting in the passenger seat of the jeep. His men from the signals section of 285 (Reconnaissance) Wing HQ gathered round.  “Yup. I have got us on the road map. Just there”, he said, squinting at a rectangle of paper. “OK, Chaps. Let’s get the Ops maps laid out properly. Be sure of our orientation and establish contact with the AGRA boys. We can use that schoolhouse over there if it’s not booby trapped. Flight Sergeant Dawkins take two men and check it please. CAREFULLY. Adamson and Musgrove—start unloading the radio sets.” The schoolhouse was a modest affair. One room, with heavy clay tiles. A couple of shuttered windows faced the road. No other house was in sight. 

Within the hour, the room had become an operational base. Tables supported large scale maps with a simple grid superimposed. This was to ease the reporting back to AGRA and the gun-line. A radio set was already in contact with the army whilst a second  set on the other side of the room had been in touch with the first reconnaissance Spitfire of the day, flying from an airstrip at Piagiolino, on the Adriatic coast, to the south of Rimini. Messages about German formations had been passed back to the artillery and an initial ‘stonk’ had just been carried out. The Teds would be feeling some pain.  

‘Dicer’ Hart said “Right, chaps, take a 10-minute smoking break outside. The next ‘plane will be over position at half past. Let’s be ready for it.”

With that, the men adjourned outside. Most of them began an impromptu game of football at the crossroads. It was a lovely day. Some men smoked next to the river and watched the cold-water splash over smooth boulders.

WOOSH. CRASH.

A sledgehammer hit the school roof. It disappeared in a pall of smoke.

However, there was no explosion. No blinding flash. The walls of the building still stood. The roof was wrecked, but the structure still existed. 

Gingerly, and with some trepidation, they edged towards the door, which swung in a gentle breeze. Coughing slightly as the dust began to settle, they got to the entrance and peered in. Looking upwards, there was a great void in the roof. The desk with the maps had gone, but strangely both radio sets appeared unharmed. Nobody had been in the building; nobody at all. Looking downwards, there was a hole in the floor. 

“What the f…,” said Phil Musgrove from Tow Law. 

“I’d get back from the door, Geordie Boy, if I were you,” said Jack Adamson. “I think we’ve just been very lucky indeed. That’s a dud shell down there, but let’s not take chances.” 

“I’m guessing that they had this building ‘registered’. What do you think?”

“I think ‘Dicer’ is a f…ing Jonah. That’s what I think.”

With that thought of encouragement, Phil and Jack retreated back to their officer. 


Notes

  1. The Gothic Line was a major German defensive line, which had been pre-prepared. It stretched across Italy from the west coast near Pisa, through the Apennines overlooking Florence and thence to the Adriatic coast a few miles north of Ancona at Pesaro. 
  2. Bitter fighting in late August and early September 1944 eventually took the British 8th Army, through the Gothic line on the Adriatic coast. The 14,000 casualties, however, meant that the breakout across the River Po would have to wait for Spring 1945. 
  3. San Marino was neutral but was occupied by the Germans in early September in order to take advantage of the heights on which the city-state stood. It fell to the Allies on 19 September 1944.
  4. Army Group Royal Artillery (AGRA) were corps level artillery formations which could concentrate heavy shelling on German formations. The eyes of the Royal Artillery in Italy were the Spitfire reconnaissance squadrons of 285 Wing. They flew behind enemy lines and radioed back to their signallers on the ground. These then passed the co-ordinates back to the AGRA HQ, who ensured that the allies artillery advantage was brought to bear. By this time, the allied air forces had air superiority over Italy. 
  5. Leading Aircraftman John Adamson was twenty-two years old. He had been in the signal section of 285 Wing since before El Alamein in October 1942. He was an experienced wireless operator and engineer. His pal, Phil, did come from Tow Law. He wasn’t called Musgrove, however. The signals officer really was nicknamed ‘Dicer’ Hart. The Commanding Officer of 285 Wing, G Millington, later wrote a book about the Wing in Italy called ‘The Unseen Eye’. He revealed that Hart’s nickname came from his many close shaves when he ‘diced’ with death. This was one of them. 
  6. ‘Registering’ onto a target is to pre-plan an artillery strike on a particular location by previous firing, so that one could be reasonably confident that one’s shells would be accurate when required. In effect, it seems likely that the Germans expected the British to occupy the schoolhouse at some point. 
  7. The 8th Army called the Germans ‘Teds’, being short for the Italian for Germans, ‘Tedeschi’

 My Dad, John Adamson, and his pal Phil, near the 285 Wing airstrip next to the Adriatic Sea 1944 -- from family collection.