One morning in
September 1944, a letter bearing the stamp of an Army Post office arrived
at a farmhouse near Wenhaston in Suffolk. It was from a Coldstream Guardsman,
a company sergeant-major, to his mother, and it was not long.
have not got much to write about, but here’s hoping this finds
you all O.K. Best of luck and love to all, Peter.”
wrote Company-Sergeant-Major Peter Wright – affectionately known
as “Old Misty” – who a few days
before putting pen to paper had heard that he had been awarded the Victoria
Cross for magnificent leadership and outstanding heroism in the fierce
fighting which followed the first major Allied landings in Europe since
Hitler forced the B.E.F. into the channel in 1940.
Our re-entry into
Europe was via Italy, and the going had been tough, particularly tough
for Peter Wright. For what he did on 25th September 1943, on a hill
near Salerno, he had already been awarded the Distinguished Conduct
Medal, and this was presented to him by King George VI on another vital
D-Day –6th June 1944.
Peter Wright was
born at Mettingham, on the Suffolk side of the Waveney valley, and he
lived at Wenhaston until he joined the army in 1936. He served in India,
Egypt and North Africa, and was wounded in Tunisia. Until he returned
home to receive his D.C.M. in June 1944, he had not seen his family
for six years.
Like a fellow Guardsman
and a brother V.C. Harry Nicholls, Peter Wright was one of a large family.
Harry Nicholls was one of a family of thirteen; Peter Wright had thirteen
brothers and sisters – eight brothers and five sisters.
He grew to a height
of six feet one, and from an early age was noted for talking little
about himself. When he heard that he had won the V.C. he said: “V.C.?
Can’t be me-some other Sergeant-Major Wright maybe,”
and when told the reason he still insisted: “There’s
some mistake. I got the D.C.M. for that.”
But there was no
mistake, and no one who was with him in September, 1943, on Point 270,
near Salerno in Italy, when all the officers in his company in the 3rd
Battalion Coldstream Guards were killed and he assumed command, thought
there was any mistake. The most unusual decision to go back on the original
award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal and instead give Peter Wright
the Victoria Cross, underlined what he had done and the value of his
The story of his
V.C. really begins on 3rd September 1943, four years to the day after
our declaration of war on Germany, when the Eighth Army, already victorious
over Rommel in the African desert, crossed the straits of Messina and
gained a foothold in Europe. Our principal assault on Italy came a few
days later, and it fell elsewhere, higher up the Italian coastline,
yet still within effective fighter cover from the bases recently captured
in Sicily, on the tempting beaches of Salerno Bay.
The assault force
here was the Allied Fifth Army, under the command of General Mark Clark,
and under his command was the 210st Guards Brigade, which included the
3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards.
The Fifth Army was composed of the American VI Corps, which landed on
the right, and the British X Corps, which landed on the left. With the
rest of his battalion, C.S.M. Wright received his battle orders shortly
before sailing in convoy from Tripoli at dawn on the morning of 5th
The vessels from
Tripoli were not the main convoy, but they joined up with it off Sicily,
and the whole invasion force reached Salerno Bay on the 8th –
just as news was received of the capitulation of Italy.
Those who had hoped for a quiet landing were soon disillusioned. The
war might for the time being be going against the Germans, but there
was a lot of life still left in them. As daylight faded, the Luftwaffe
swept in to attack the invasion fleet, and not far from them the Coldstream
watched a landing craft go up in flames. The German air blitz continued
for two and a half hours.
When the Guardsmen
landed at eight o’clock next morning it was not encouraging to
note that our artillery was still in vigorous action only a very short
distance from them as they set foot ashore. There was ample evidence
that the battle was not going well. Our advance units had not reached
the assembly areas, which they had been told at sea, would be theirs.
The Germans were fighting back hard, realizing that once we gained a
firm foothold in Italy it might not be long before we were on the way
to Berlin. Against the Guards, Hitler was matching veteran fighters
from the Russian front at Stalingrad.
For the next few
days there was desperate fighting. The 201st Guards Brigade –Grenadiers,
Scots and Coldstream battalions – fought its way inland through
tobacco fields. The Germans counter attacked with all they had. Both
sides were like wild animals trying to gather sufficient strength to
destroy the other. On the 12th September, Hitler sent a personal message
urging on the Reichswehr, and the Germans launched a ferocious attack
on the Americans, who fought back hard, but at one point were pressed
to within half a mile of the sea.
Next day the full
fury of the enemy was turned on the Guards Brigade. The Coldstreams
were now on Fosso canal, where they were holding a front of some 400yds,
with No.1 Company on the right guarding a canal bridge, No.3 Company
on the left and the remaining companies in reserve.
Across the Fosso
the Coldstream could see open fields, but 300 yards beyond there stretched
woods through which passed the railway line to Salerno. From these woods
the Germans launched a vicious attack on that night, preceded by heavy
mortaring of No.1 Company. As the German infantry surged forward, the
55th Field Regiment put down a devastating barrage right on them, Coldstream
mortars poured down everything they had and the enemy attack was broken.
German Commander in Italy, knew now that his only hope was to smash
General Mark Clark before General Alexander could reinforce him and
stabilize his bridgehead with the Eighth Army.
was under no illusions as to the stakes at issue. There must be no doubt
of our victory. He threw in the full force of the Strategic Air Force,
and when, on the 16th September, the Eight Army succeeded in linking
up with the Americans, it was clear to Kesselring that he was faced
with the uncomfortable task of informing his Fuehrer that, personal
message or not, his army was in retreat.
With the Germans falling back, Naples became our objective. This was
no easy task. To capture Naples meant attacking through either, or both,
of the two mountain passes which lay to the north of Salerno. One route
reached Naples through Nocera; the other, on the right, led through
The British X Corps
was commanded by Lieutenant-General McCreery, who decided to mislead
the Germans into believing that he was striking at Naples right-handed
through Avellino while, in reality, his principal effort would be spent
on a determined left hook through the pass to Nocera.
The part to be played
by the Guards was in assisting in deceiving the enemy towards Avellino.
On the 19th September, the Grenadiers, Scots and Coldstream Guards were
covering the Avellino Road. The Coldstream Guards were on the hills
above Salerno, the Grenadiers in the low ground in the centre and the
Scots Guards on the right of the Grenadiers.
Some fighting took
place on 22nd September, and next day the Grenadiers tried to advance
up the road to Avellino. They were completely halted by demolitions
which the Germans skilfully exploited by mortar-fire from the hills
on either side of the road. It was obvious that this dangerous high
ground being used by the enemy must be cleared before any real progress
could be made. On the 24th September, therefore, the Grenadiers started
on the west of the valley and, after a two-mile advance, succeeded in
capturing Capella ridge. It was a key position beyond which stood a
very steep hill, densely covered with trees. This was point 270, and
both sides knew that whoever held it held trumps.
By the end of that
day, 24th September, a company of Grenadiers had set foot on Point 270,
but it was impossible to secure any artillery support, and they were
reluctantly obliged to relinquish it before darkness came. Priority
No.1 for the Coldstream was now to establish themselves on it as soon
as possible the next day.
Two things happened
that night. Major Forbes, temporarily commanding the Coldstream, moved
his battalion to a position just behind the Grenadiers. The Germans
reoccupied Point 270 with a battalion of Panzer Grenadiers where previously
they had only two companies. The Panzer grenadiers quickly and thoroughly
dug themselves in.
The attacking force
of Coldstream had a formidable task. There was no alternative to a direct
frontal assault. Rocks rose sheer to the mountaintops on the right;
on the left there was a sharp drop to the road. The attack would have
to be made up 500 feet of steadily rising ground from the valley below,
with only sparse, depressing cover from low bushes and insignificantly
It was a prospect
to chill the stoutest heart.
If Point 270 were
to be stormed, it would have to be paid for dearly.
It seemed suicide to try and attack in daylight. Yet the order was clear.
The 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards would reoccupy Point 270 on the
morning of 25th September. At noon the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards
To reach Point 270
the Guardsman advanced down a sunken track, which winds down the forward
slope of Capella Ridge and meanders through the woods to a point very
close to the foot of Point 270. They advanced cautiously, in single
file, with Nos. 1 and 3 Companies leading.
All went well until
they reached a stretch of open ground, which separated them from the
base of Point 270. There were only some 200 yards to go and, before
leaving the protection of the woods, the Coldstream halted. It was very
quiet and, looking up, Company-Sergeant-Major Wright found it hard to
believe that the high Point was bristling with expectant Germans.
This was it. The
moment the Guards entered the open ground the waiting German Spandaus
opened up. It was a deadly moment as the Coldstream rushed the 200 yards
to the foot of Point 270. As they began to climb, the enemy mortars
started to range, but for the moment their fire was not very effective.
The German machine-gunners were devastating. They were blazing away
at point-blank range at the Guardsmen as they toiled up the arduous
slopes while the Panzer Grenadiers lobbed grenades down on them.
Watching the figures
struggling through the burning scrub was Company –Sergeant-Major
Peter Wright, who noted the toll the German machine-gunners were taking
of the Coldstream officers of the two attacking companies.
The attack had almost
come to a standstill when he realized that something must be wrong.
He decided to go forward and investigate for himself. What he found
His Company Commander, Captain Kerr, had been critically wounded in
both legs. Lieutenant Jory and his runner had died together, charging
a machine-gun post. Lieutenant Gunn had been shot dead by a German sniper
after he had succeeded in breaking through the enemy defence line, and
Lieutenant Buxton was lying mortally wounded
Misty” realized that the moment, which every senior non-commissioned
officer knows may come, had come for him. There were no officers left.
All were dead, dying or totally incapacitated. Company Sergeant-Major
Peter Wright there-upon assumed command of No. 1 Company, and decided
to review the battle position for himself before deciding on the best
action. He crawled forward to investigate.
There were, he quickly
spotted, three Spandau posts, which were holding up his forward sections.
Peter Wright did not hesitate. He crawled back, collected a section
and told them the position. Placing them so that they could give him
covering fire, with ruthless impetus he charged the first German machine-gun
post single-handed, and destroyed it with grenades and his bayonet.
He then proceeded
to destroy the second post in the same way. It was incredible that he
was not killed when he turned on the third Spandau position, but miraculously
he survived, and a third section of German machine-gunners died in their
The Acting Company
Commander had now disposed of all the enemy positions on his sections
of the summit Point 270. His company now followed him to the top. He
then decided that the German fire which was directed on to the victorious
attackers would soon make his men some way back down the slope and then
brought them back on to their objective.
From now on the
Germans concentrated all the mortar fire which they could bring to bear
upon Peter Wright and his Guardsman on Point 270.
according to the official history of the Coldstream Guards, “though
wounded in both arms, disposed of several Germans with the butt of his
empty revolver”. The Germans stood their ground to the
last, and died in their trenches.
It was not long
before the enemy put in their counter-attack, but this was not carried
out with much conviction, and it was repulsed without great difficulty.
But the position on Point 270 was by no means secure. Snipers, hidden
among the olive trees to the west, made life uncomfortable, and Guardsman
were forced to crawl to and from the Point.
German shells rained
on the crest. A first-aid post was established at the bottom of Point
270, but it was not until the afternoon of the next day that all the
stretcher cases were got down while the battalion Medical Officer was
kept busy all through the night with blood transfusions and amputations.
The Guardsman on
Point 270 had no water, and stocks of ammunition were running dangerously
low. Mindful of his responsibility as Acting Company Commander, Peter
Wright decided that it was time for action and, as usual, that meant
Heavy enemy shellfire
was falling on his Company Headquarters, and shells were dropping on
the rear slope of Point 270 along which stretched the Coldstream supply
lines for food, water and ammunition. Without regard for this, Peter
Wright brought up extra ammunition and distributed it among his company.
During this time he was under heavy machine-gunfire from the left of
may have been tense among his men were steadied by the quiet confidence
with which the Company Sergeant-Major organized the consolidation of
point 270. Sergeant Barlow, who had been one of the first to arrive
on the summit, succeeded in reaching a position a long way down the
forward slope, from which he could fire with his Bren on any potentially
hostile German movements.
All through that
night the Guards held their positions on the crest. Through the darkness
of the warm autumn night, eyes and ears strained for the slightest hint
of another German counter-attack. It seemed too much to hope that none
would be launched, but in fact none was. At last daylight came and after
the menace of the enemy snipers had been removed from the vineyards
and olive trees to the west, welcome supplies were brought up to the
During the day the
Coldstream buried the dead, who lay where they had fallen in the furious
fighting of the previous day, and when night fell the Scots Guards arrived
to relieve them.
Then, with the rest of the battalion, Peter Wright marched back all
that remained of his company to the comparative peace of Capella Ridge,
where they slept among the olive trees while torrential rain poured
down on them during the night.
Next day the battalion
heard that it was to receive a short rest, and the Guards returned to
Salerno. The Coldstream had suffered heavily in playing their part in
consolidating our first foothold in Europe. Point 270 had cost 120 casualties,
and since it landed the battalion had had eight officers and 60 men
killed, and 10 officers and 163 men wounded.
Misty” had won a Victoria Cross – although he did
not know it as he marched his company back down the dusty road to Salerno
as the morning sun glistened on the olive trees and the vineyards.
He may have been thinking of the rolling farmlands of Suffolk, for that
is where he returned after the war. India, Egypt, Africa, Italy, Point
270 … “Old Misty” settled own
again on the land from whence he came.