When an attack on a German-held hill in Italy ran into trouble seventy years ago this month, Company Sergeant Major Peter “Misty” Wright lost his temper and altered the course of the entire battle. Steve Snelling chronicles the remarkable story of the Coldstream Guards hero who became a Victoria Cross recipient by Royal command.
Beneath a sweltering September sun, the thin line of troops straggled down the steep slopes to be swallowed by the thick scrub carpeting the small valley north of Salerno.
Two companies, roughly 200 men, sweated as they stumbled through the tangle of bushes and trees which they hoped would mask their progress from prying eyes. It was uncomfortably hot and incongruously quiet.
Bringing up the rear with a reserve platoon, Captain Christopher Bulteel thought «nothing could have been more lovely and peaceful». «Sometimes in the distance a gun banged,» he wrote, «but it was in another world. Birds sang lazily, and we could hear faintly the singing of the little brook in the bottom valley.» As they pushed on, he thought he could even hear the distant sound of a church bell softly chiming the hours.
It was around midday on 25 September 1943, and Nos. 1 and 3 Companies of the 3rd Battalion, the Coldstream Guards, represented the vanguard of the British advance north from the hard-won Allied beachhead on the rugged shores of the Gulf of Salerno in southern Italy.
Operation Avalanche, the first great battle to liberate the continent of Europe, was seventeen days old and way behind schedule.
The more optimistic among the planners had talked of seizing Naples by the evening of the third day, but, more than two weeks on, the port remained in German hands and fighting in the maze of hills a few miles inland continued as fierce as ever.
Not until the beachhead was finally secure were British and American troops able to begin the break-out battle. The plan was for the British 46th (North Midland) Division to carry out the main thrust towards the Nocera defile which led through the mountains into the Naples plain. As part of the scheme, the 56th (London) Division, with the 201st Guards Brigade leading, was to feint north through the hilly Avellino valley.
Here, the country was close and terraced and progress was painfully slow. By the afternoon of 24 September, the Guards Brigade had advanced just two miles to capture the 600ft high Capella Ridge. Beyond it, about half a mile across a small valley, lay another steep, thickly wooded spur marked on the map as Point 270.
This was the hill, which was sometimes known as the Pagliarolli feature, that the two companies of Coldstream guardsmen had been assigned to capture. It had briefly been occupied the previous day by two companies of 6th Grenadier Guards, before being abandoned as untenable. Brigadier Julian Gascoigne, however, thought differently. He ordered the 3rd Coldstreams to re-occupy the hill the following morning.
There was no equivocation. The instructions handed down, via Major David Forbes, to the commander of No.1 Company, Captain Dick Ker, his platoon commanders and Company Sergeant Major, Peter «Misty» Wright, left them in no doubt about what was expected of them.
Wright, a 27-year-old farmer’s son from Suffolk with seven years’ experience of soldiering in war and peace already behind him, recalled: «We were to attack and capture the hill. There was no ‘could be’ about it. We were told that we would capture it.»
Quite what opposition they would face was not clear. According to Bulteel, the Grenadiers returning from the hill had «glibly» estimated there might be three German machine-gun posts. From Capella Ridge, however, it had been impossible to discern anything beyond the layout of the valley and the «vast semi-circle of steep mountains bare and bright in the morning sun».
In fact, even as the Coldstreams were moving out to recapture the position, the Germans were re-occupying the rocky crest in greater strength. Ground that had previously been held by two companies was now taken over by a well-armed and well-led battalion of the 29th Panzer Grenadier Regiment which quickly set about converting Point 270 into an impregnable fortress studded with machine-gun posts and slit trenches.
While they dug themselves in, the Coldstreams plodded on, completely ignorant of the trouble that lay ahead. The plan was to use the cover of the dense vegetation to infiltrate as far as the foot of the hill. Once in position, having traversed a wide semi-circle across the enemy front, they were to make a right-angled turn designed to bring both companies in line — No.1 on the right and No.3 on the left -to scale their objective.
At first all went well. With No.1 Company leading, the guardsmen traced a snaking line along a sunken path before curving beneath the hills to the right. There remained about the valley a «deep peace», but the further they went the more nervous Bulteel became. «It was too good to last,» wrote the 3 Company subaltern.
He was right to be suspicious. Just as he approached a farmhouse at the base of Point 270, the unmistakable rip of Spandau fire suddenly broke the stillness to remove any last lingering doubts.
«As No.1 Company broke cover, and emerged into the more open ground around the farm, the Germans opened up with every weapon they had,» wrote Bulteel. Plainly, there were far more than three machine-gun posts opposing them. Scrambling for cover, Bulteel did his own rapid calculation. He thought there must be at least «a dozen Spandaus» firing at once.
Without waiting to form up, No.3 Company began scrambling up the slope. One platoon took what seemed a suicidal route up a series of recently harvested terraces devoid of cover, while Bulteel led his men into the «relative safety» of a curtain of trees.
The wood was thick and no one else was visible, but the firing increased into «a continuous torrent of cracks and shrieks and roars». The noise seemed «unbearable» as streams of bullets mingled with the crump of mortars and blasts of grenades rolled down the steep slope from above. «This was no German ‘outpost’. The High Command had got it wrong again,» noted Bulteel.
At that moment, it seemed to him that they were all «doomed», that there was no way through the lethal storm, and that «the only sensible course of action was to turn our backs to this torrent of fire and run, like rabbits, down the steep slope and into cover».
A few did fall back, but incredibly the majority pushed on, hauling themselves up the slopes by the roots and branches of the tinder dry broom and juniper bushes that covered the hill and many of which were now burning fiercely. By then, some of the German machine-gun posts were firing at point-blank range and, in the words of the Regimental history, «only blind courage forced the guardsmen up through the burning scrub to silence the Germans with bayonet and tommy-gun».
On the right, No.1 Company took a fearful battering. Within the space of a few chaotic minutes, all the company officers were knocked out. Captain David Ker, the bespectacled company commander who Bulteel had seen «stumping by under a large steel helmet», went down with severe wounds to both legs.
Lieutenant Lionel Buxton took charge and led on until he was wounded, leaving two recently arrived officers to press on through a blizzard of bullets.
Nineteen-year-old Lieutenant John Jory was last seen alive attacking a machine-gun nest and it was left to the company’s newest officer to lead up the last few yards of the hill. By some miracle, Lieutenant Rogn Gunn, who had only joined up with the company the night before the assault and was barely known to anyone in the battalion, broke through the first line of defences only to succumb to a sniper’s bullet as he made the mistake of pursuing some fleeing Germans down the farther slope.
Barely fifteen minutes had passed since the initial burst of fire and, though he didn’t immediately realise it, CSM «Misty» Wright had become the senior ranking man in No.1 Company. Or what was left of it.
Following up behind with the company stretcher bearers, he was appalled by the carnage wrought among the men he had trained and lived with. The burning hill was strewn with dead and wounded. One of the first casualties he came across was Captain Ker. He was covered in blood from «head to toe», yet despite the severity of his injuries he managed to pass on orders to Wright.
«He said, ‘carry on, get up front and see what is happening … and do what you can’,» recalled Wright.
Quickly moving forward, he picked his way through the smouldering undergrowth. On his way up, he found the body of Lieutenant Jory, «dead where he had dropped». The further Wright went the more wounded he found. He recalled: «I told the stretcher bearers to get them out, because the undergrowth was alight.»
Among the seriously wounded men he came across was Lieutenant Buxton, who later succumbed to his injuries. Not far away he found the body of 21-year-old Lieutenant Gunn and the sight of him lying dead was enough to turn his anger into a blind fury. «I was in a bit of a state,» he later said. «My wife says I must have been mad and it’s probably true. I was mad, mad at seeing all those men, some of them only youngsters, killed and wounded. I was flying about all over the place and, to be honest, I couldn’t care what happened to me.»
Dashing off in search of the remnants of Gunn’s platoon, he turned a corner on the right flank and stopped dead in his tracks. Below him, dug in on terraced steps cut into the side of the hill were three machine-gun posts, one on each level. «It was a hell of a shock,» he later said. «They were no more than thirty yards away. I just saw the steel helmets and dropped flat.»
By luck rather than design, he had stumbled across the enemy positions that had decimated his company and were still delaying the Coldstreams’ advance. Collecting grenades from the dead dotting the slope, he scrambled away in search of more guardsmen before putting his bold plan into action. From one party sheltering just below the crest of the hill, he took three more grenades, a rifle and bayonet and called for volunteers to accompany him.
Guardsman H. Buckley recalled hearing him shout: «Come on with me. The Jerries are all frightened and running away.»
Of course, this was a bare-faced lie, but it was sufficient to induce half a dozen men — Lance Corporal Aylott, Guardsmen Abraham, Buckley, Gifford, Kelly and Mills — to follow him as he dashed back up the slope, machine-gun fire spitting at his heels.
According to Guardsman R. Gifford, Wright led them to a vantage point above the first machine-gun nest with the others in clear view further down the hill. «He told us to give him covering fire while he went forward,» wrote Gifford. «He himself went on alone until he was twenty yards from the nearest post.»
It was time for Wright to direct his rage onto the unwitting enemy machine-gunners beneath him. «From where I was lying, I was able to lob grenades into the post,» he said matter-of-factly. At the sound of the first blasts, he leapt up and followed on, down the hill and into the post, arriving in time to despatch one and possibly two of the survivors as they bolted.
Further up the hill, his covering party watched the explosions and his lone charge before chasing after him. «By the time we had reached him, he had killed one of the enemy and the others had fled,» noted Gifford. «As soon as we had joined him, he rushed on by himself to the other two positions in turn, throwing his grenades and firing his rifle from the hip.»
Any vestige of surprise had been well and truly lost by Wright’s initial onslaught and as he raced down the slopes the ground was being raked by machine-gun and mortar fire. Somehow, perhaps out of fear or panic, most of the shooting was wild and inaccurate. «I was very lucky,» he later admitted. «Bullets were zooming past me. One struck me on the back but it wasn’t anything much.»
To Guardsman Gifford, it seemed as though he was entirely oblivious to the fire being directed at him. As he later remarked, «He took no notice of it at all.» By Wright’s own estimation, he had «lost control» of his senses. Fortunately, the sight of him tearing down the hill with rifle and bayonet thrust in front of him was sufficient to cow most of the machine-gunners manning the posts below him.
Having already witnessed the fate of their comrades, several took to their heels. From the first post, Gifford saw a number of Germans in the second pit quit their gun and run in an attempt to escape Wright’s wrath. Much the same process was then repeated at the last post with similar results as Wright followed in through the smoke with rifle and bayonet «just to make sure».
Incredibly, one man, with the stouthearted support of six others, had routed three well-sited machine-gun posts that had threatened to defeat a battalion attack. Officially, those who witnessed his action that afternoon credited him with single-handedly transforming the course of the fighting on Point 270. Unofficially, they reckoned «Misty» had gone «quietly, bloody mad».
His part in the battle, however, was not over yet. Having paid such a heavy price to gain a slender hold on the hill he was not about to give it up without a struggle. As the senior man in his company still standing, he knew it was his job to rally the survivors and hang on as best they could till reinforcements arrived.
Years later, Wright’s memory of the precise order of events which followed his capture of the machine-gun posts was a bit fuzzy. «It was all a bit confused,» he said. «We were fired on for a while and then it calmed down a bit. Later in the evening, they put in a counter-attack with infantry but it was very weak. It was as if they were testing us.»
The fighting on the left flank where No.3 Company had been attacking was no less severe. Losses had been heavy. One platoon had almost been wiped out and another cut to ribbons before the survivors succeeded in clawing their way onto the bare crest. Once established, Captain Bulteel ordered his men to dig in while he went in search of No.1 Company. On his way, he came across Lieutenant Lionel Buxton, «lying desperately wounded, hardly conscious», and then the bodies of Lieutenant Jory and Lieutenant Gunn. Alarming thoughts of a massacre loomed, before, to his «enormous relief», he found Wright.
With water and ammunition in short supply, the Coldstreams, including the remains of Nos. 1 and 3 Companies and reinforcements from No.2 Company, faced an anxious few hours on the hill. Mortars and artillery fire continued to pound the surrounding hills and enemy snipers hidden among vineyards and olive trees on a nearby col remained a menace.
It was only after nightfall, according to Wright, that they were able to safely evacuate their many wounded. As for the dead, they had to be left till the morning, by which time the snipers had been driven away and supplies could at last be brought up.
Wright, who had impressed everyone by his «cheerful efficiency» during a tense night, felt anything but cheery as he took charge of the burial party in his sector. «It was horrible work, very disheartening,» he recalled years later. «Most of them I knew because we’d trained together since Tripoli, but some had only joined us a few days before.»
Much of 26 September was spent collecting personal belongings and identity discs before burying the dead where they had fallen on the scorched slopes of Point 270.
It was not long before the hero of Point 270 found himself on the casualty list. Barely two days after leaving the hill in the midst of a torrential rainstorm, «Misty» Wright contracted malaria and, much to his chagrin, was promptly shipped off to hospital in Algiers.
Having recovered, he spent time in camps in North Africa where he tried in vain to join drafts of reinforcements being sent back to Italy. His desperate pleas to be allowed to rejoin the 3rd Battalion fell on deaf ears. «Those of us who had been out in the Middle East since 1937 were told we had to be sent home,» he recalled.
Boarding a troop ship on Christmas night 1943, he eventually reported to Regimental headquarters at Pirbright to discover that he was to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his «magnificent leadership» and «outstanding heroism» which was adjudged to have been instrumental in the successful capture of Point 270.
His initial reaction was one of surprise and pride tinged with disappointment that ne had been too ill to write an account of the action giving credit to the men who had supported him. «To be honest, I didn’t think I’d done anything special,» he said. «I had done what I was trained to do. If you are a senior member of a company you take charge … When one goes down, the next one takes over.
If I hadn’t done what I did, I would have probably got a general court martial rather than a DCM.»
So far as Wright was concerned, there was nothing more to it. On 6 June 1944, while Allied forces were battling ashore on the beaches of Normandy, he travelled to Buckingham Palace to receive the medal he had earned during the Salerno breakout fighting nine months earlier. That, he thought, was the end of the matter.
However, an epic story of gallantry above and beyond the call of duty was to have one final and unparalleled twist.
A few weeks later, while Wright busied himself with his new role as training instructor, King George VI journeyed to the Italian battlefields. There, he held an open-air investiture during which he honoured senior officers and presented VC ribbons to soldiers who had earned the nation’s highest honour during the fighting around Monte Cassino.
The King, however, had another Victoria Cross recommendation on his mind. It had been vexing him ever since June, as he made plain to General Harold Alexander, the Commander-in-Chief in Italy, when they met. Dispensing with the usual protocol, the King «expressed his opinion» that CSM Wright’s actions had been worthy of the VC for which he had been recommended by his commanding officer with a citation that had been endorsed by his Brigade, Divisional and Corps commanders before being downgraded to an «immediate DCM» by Alexander himself.
In effect, he was telling the former Irish guardsman, himself no stranger to deeds of great heroism, that he had made a mistake and, not content with that, he urged that the matter be given further consideration.
Such a Royal intervention was unprecedented and sparked a flurry of exchanges between Advanced Allied HQ and the War Office. Staff officers in Italy were in a quandary as to what to do, as a confidential telegram sent by secret cypher on 25 July 1944, makes clear.
«Presumably if his Majesty wishes he can cancel Gen Alexander’s award and (? Grant) a VC,» it commented uncertainly before concluding: «Grateful for confirmation within three days.»
The answer came back in the affirmative and on 5 September Advanced Allied HQ in Italy wired the War Office again with a suggested press release setting out the unique circumstances behind the cancellation of the Distinguished Conduct Medal and its substitution by the award of a Victoria Cross to be gazetted two days later.
The proposed announcement stated: «The award of this particular VC nearly a year after the action is an illustration of the very personal interest which His Majesty takes in awards for gallantry.»
True though that undoubtedly was, it took a while to convince «Misty» Wright that the journalist who arrived at Pirbright to break the news to him had not made a terrible mistake. Years later, veteran Daily Mirror reporter Noel Whitcomb remembered Wright’s «absolute astonishment». «He kept on saying, ‘I’ve already got the DCM for that. It must be someone else.»
Only when official confirmation came through from Regimental headquarters did an «enormous» celebration begin. What «Misty» fondly remembered as a «big piss-up» and Whitcomb described as «a huge surge of pride» was reflected in the actions of a single sergeant who sidled up to the bar of the sergeants’ mess and promptly ordered twenty-five pints with which to toast the Coldstreams’ first Victoria Cross of the war.
Later that year, the Royal Command hero returned to Buckingham Palace to receive the Victoria Cross from the sovereign whose insistence had ensured justice was done. The King appeared shy and nervous, but as he pinned the VC on Wright’s uniform he quietly said: «I am very pleased that you have got it.»
With that, CSM Wright turned about and marched out, a VC on his chest and a DCM in his pocket, all for the same action. «I’d taken the medal with me to hand back,» he later explained, «but no one asked for it so I kept it. Later on, I gave it to the Regiment for its museum because it didn’t belong to me anymore.»