KNOWLAND, George Arthur, Lieut, VC. A testament by Jack Cox.
A Letter to Harry Winch, No. 1 Commando, No. 2 Troop; from Jack Cox, 12 & 3 concerning Lt. Knowland in the Battle for Termoli.
Source: This letter was given to John Mewett by Harry Winch No 1 Commando (2 Troop) for general dissemination in tribute of Lt George Knowland VC who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his action on Hill 170 Kangaw Burma January 31st 1945. Transcribed from original by Elaine Southworth-Davies
Date of letter 21 October 2005
Thank you for the package re Nobby Knowland. To express my appreciation for the trouble you have gone to - words fail me. “Absolutely brilliant” springs to mind, but seems inadequate for what I feel deep down.The following will perhaps tell you why I hold this man’s memory in such high esteem, and why I value your package greatly.Nobby I only ever knew as a battlefield commando comrade. He was my first commando N.C.O. leader in battle when it was at its most desperate and ferocious. This was Termoli in Italy, October 1943 which turned out to be the most horrendous of my own war.
With Lieutenant George Knowland of No. 1 Commando in mind, on receipt of your excellent package, I thought it would be appropriate to tell you a little about the battle for Termoli, where his leadership made such an impression on me.
I was then 18 years of age – having joined up at 16 years, lying about my age, and ever since the Termoli battle, I’ve felt indebted to Nobby and his superb commando leadership at a time when at Termoli, it did seem that we of 3 Commando were about to be wiped out completely. But more about that later.
After the disbandment of No. 12 Commando, 26 of us from our Troop were sent out to Sicily in the summer of 1943 to join No. 3 Commando.
We arrived soon after they had been in action at “Agnone” in Sicily, where they captured a bridge behind enemy lines and held it against far superior German forces. Montgomery, being chuffed at this, ordered the title “3 Commando Bridge” to be engraved in the stone-work of the structure. (Still there in 1948, doubtless no longer).
In their Sicily campaign No. 3 achieved great things, but at dreadful cost in terms of casualties; when we arrived as a contingent from No. 12, 3 Commando were well down in numbers to below half their original strength of 450 men.
Accordingly, 3 Commando, to maintain operational viability, re-organised so that we had just three fighting Troops, as opposed to the usual commando six fighting Troops.
Invasion of Italy was next task ahead. For this 3 Commando were “brigaded” with the 1st. SAS (re-named as S.R.S. – Special Raiding Squadron, their founder, David Stirling having been captured by the Germans), and No. 40 Royal Marine Commando, the newly formed commando brigade to be commanded by Colonel Durford-Slater, the Commanding Officer at that time of No. 3 Commando. Our second l/c Major Bungy Young took over command of No. 3.
The first action was a landing on the “toe” of Italy from the Mediterranean coast against Italian Troops. This was a doddle, for once they put up a showy fire fight with their fast firing Braeder machine-guns, and we returned the fire with interest, they caved in rather easily.Termoli came next from the Adriatic coast. By then we of 3 Commando numbered less than 160 men and for that operation was commanded by our Adjutant, Captain Komrower, Bungy, our acting C.O. being hospital with malaria and yellow jaundice.The landing took place during the night at 1 a.m. 3 Commando were first to land followed by the SAS and the Marine Commandos. We literally caught a Garrison of the elite German ‘Herman Goering Paratroopers’ napping, but once they were aware we were on their doorstep, they put up fierce resistance.By midday, however, Jerry had had it - our brigade capturing the town, the deep water port there, also about 70 German paratroopers as prisoners, who were taken on board one of the craft that conveyed us for the landing.
Of the several “mini-actions” our sub-section took part in that day, one in particular gives an insight into Nobby Knowland’s leadership in battle.
Our sub-section was sent to the outskirts of the town adjacent to the open country-side to deal with a pocket of German resistance. The terrain only allowed us a frontal attack, with the enemy putting up a hail of rifle fire in our direction.
Nobby quickly assessed the situation, sent our Bren-gunner out to the flank where he spotted a good firing point, telling him to “keep the bastards heads down.” Once the Bren opened up, we advanced with our frontal attack, firing as we went, and not losing a man, to come across about a dozen dead German paratroopers, with three still alive whom we took prisoner.At first it looked a dodgy task, the terrain not favourable to a covered approach - in the event it turned out to be a successful “fire and movement” effort, which seemed all over in no time at all.
Nobby knew instinctively the best way to tackle that situation, achieving success with very few words and no fuss - commando leadership at its best.
If my description of that incident makes it all sound easy, it was far from that, but the reason we achieved maximum efficiency in that frontal attack, was down to Nobby’s unhesitating command of the circumstances facing us.
The overall strategy of the Termoli operation was for the 8th. Army to get through to us on land, to re-inforce our capture of this important deep water port. Trouble was, heavy rains caused the Biferno River, between us and the 8th. Army, to flood sweeping away pontoon bridges; when the rain stopped, Luftwaffe planes appeared in the skies to bomb the fresh pontoons put across the river.
Some of the 8th. Army in the form of an infantry unit, a few anti-tank guns, also a few Sherman tanks (I saw three) managed to get across the river before pontoons were either swept away or bombed to join us at Termoli.
We were told that a Panzer Division had been spotted advancing in our direction and to prepare for a counter-attack.
3 Commando were sent about 1 ½ miles outside the town to take up defensive positions on a wooded ridge of low growing Olive trees, which had a commanding view to our front. Wooded areas of course are good protection against tanks, whose crews are always fearful that a stout branch fallen to the ground would get into their tracks and remove the track from the bogey wheels, so making them immobile and sitting ducks for enemy guns.
Our three Troops of 3 Commando lined that ridge, with a Troop of SAS on our right flank and some 8th. Army infantry off to our left.
The first night on the ridge was extremely cold when it rained. We had a bit of shelling, but not much, and the night passed without much incident.
Come the dawn and the welcome hot sun, we were straffed by low flying Luftwaffe planes, with a furrow of machine gun fire too close for comfort to my slit-trench. The aircraft then swooped off to bomb Termoli town.
Immediately after that, we had a clear view of the advancing Panzer Division, from the height of our ridge, with tanks and infantry in abundance. A dawn attack was imminent
We were then attacked non-stop for the rest of that day, which only eased as darkness fell. For what has to be a brief account of that lengthy battle, suffice to mention a few of the following instances.
German artillery - extremely accurate, so they knew where we were, stonked our positions for the whole of that day with unremitting shell fire, trees were being blown in the air, the cry of “stretcher-bearers” could be heard indicating someone had caught it, the whole ridge stunk of cordite - it could be fairly described as a hell on earth.
There were three separate German infantry attacks up the slopes towards our ridge, with much blowing of German whistles, I recall, causing us to be busy with rifles and Bren. All three attacks were successfully repulsed.
Our Bren-gunner, Jack Leach, was firing at enemy tanks with some effect, as in some instances, the tanks stopped as the result. In one particular occasion I witnessed, I saw the tank actually back-off which amazed me at the time.
Difficulty was, Jack was fast running out of ammunition, and started ‘cadging’ our spare ammo in the form of 50 rounds bandaliers we all carried with us on operations - later found many of us short of ammunition.
During that day, two anti-tank crews set up their guns near to our slit-trench positions. I could see them plainly from my slit-trench.
When the battle had reached one of its many heights, I happen to see some activity by the gun crews, thinking they were about to take on enemy tanks.
To my surprise, they were in fact removing the firing pieces from their guns, and did not so much as retreat, as I witnessed, they actually “fled!” to the rear, departing our ridge in great haste.
I shouted to Nobby, above all the noise, that the anti-tank crews had cleared off and I still remember his response to this day - “I had noticed, I think we’ll go forward about 20 yards near the edge of this wood, these shells will then fall behind us.”
I’ve reflected often since that incident, that it could well have been Nobby’s instinctive way of showing his contempt for the anti-tank crew’s actions, symbolised by our 20 yard or so, very “mini-advance”. I’m sure in my own mind that was the case. Nobby was nobody’s fool, and his actions always spoke louder than words.It was another example of Nobby being the sub-section Sergeant and commando leader, to be with when the going got tough. The type of man one never ever forgets.
By this time the infantry on our left had been forced back towards Termoli town, also the SAS Troop on our right had been forced back by an infantry attack - from our slit-trenches our sub-section were close enough to give the SAS some covering fire as they fell back, but could do nothing else in the circumstances.
A look at an excerpt from Colonel Durnford-Slater’s post-war book “Commando,” tells us the state of play about then:-
“THE FIGHTING RAGED. No. 3 COMMANDO STILL OUT IN
FRONT WERE GIVING, DURING THE GERMAN COUNTER-ATTACK,
WHAT WAS PROBABLY THEIR FINEST PERFORMANCE OF THE WAR.
HAMMERED BY TANKS, POUNDED BY GUNS, ATTACKED BY
INFANTRY AND LEFT EXPOSED AND BLEEDING ON THEIR FLANKS,
BY THE RETREAT OF ANOTHER UNIT, THEY DID NOT BUDGE
FROM THEIR POSITIONS ……………………..”
When darkness fell, the shelling stopped, presumably because the German infantry were now close to our positions. They seemed to be puffing their cigarettes in the dark to cause a red glow in the darkness - at least it gave us an idea as to where their positions were.
Then German machine-gun fire came at our positions immediately to our rear - it convinced me at the time that we were no doubt surrounded by the enemy and isolated from the main body of our troops.
Nobby’s calm rather low key voice then ordered to we of his sub-section, “Watch for enemy at the rear, shoot enemy on sight.” We found ourselves returning the enemy fire at the German gun flashes showing well in the darkness.
The order was then passed round to cease-fire and to conserve what ammunition we had left. Several haystacks were on fire over to the left of the ridge in a farmyard, illuminating the scene in that area.Two enemy tanks were stationary there, with their 88 millimetre guns pointing ominously and directly along our ridge. In our sight we saw German tank crews with mess tins having food. It reminded me at the time we had not eaten for the 36 hours we had been manning that ridge.
We were left with our thoughts as we stayed in our slit-trenches, still watching our front. I was sure in my own mind that come the dawn the Germans would just see to the task of wiping out No. 3 Commando - with our ammunition being so low, we would not be able to fight back for very long.
I was personally convinced that I was staring my own death in the face. At that stage of the war I was a “follower” of our commando NCOs and Officer commando leaders (myself not yet an NCO whose role was to lead) and whatever my commando leader did, I would do also.
I knew Nobby Knowland sufficiently by then to know he would never surrender. His leadership in battle had created in me a great loyalty to him, and I realised that as long as he continued the fight to the enemy, I would want to be with him. I only hoped I would be up to it if and when the time came.
My emotional thoughts then on that ridge, at that time, was for my family and the effect it would have on them to be told I had been killed in action. I said my prayers for them in that respect.
But as it turned out - we were not to be killed off. Captain Dobson of 3 Commando discovered that we were only surrounded on three sides, he and his batman left the ridge on the side the Germans were absent and reported back to Termoli. Bungy Young’s book “Storm From the Sea” describes what went on:-
“DURING THE NIGHT DONALD HOPSON AND HIS BATMAN,
SUCCEEDED IN MAKING HIS WAY BACK TO TERMOLI.
HE EXPLAINED THAT 3 COMMANDO WAS SURROUNDED ON
THREE SIDES BY THE ENEMY AT FIFTY AND A HUNDRED
YARDS. IT WAS EVIDENT THAT UNLESS THEY WERE
WITHDRAWN BEFORE DAWN THEY WOULD INEVITABLY BE
ANNIHILATED. JOHN DURNFORD-SLATER SENT HIM
BACK WITH ORDERS FOR THE COMMANDO TO WITHDRAW
INTO RESERVE AT TERMOLI. HE REACHED THEM AT
ONE O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING. THREE-QUARTERS
OF AN HOUR LATER THE COMMANDO FILTERED BACK TO
THE REAR OF THE RIDGE POSITION AND FORMED UP IN
FILE. DONALD HOPSON LED THEM BACK CROSS-COUNTRY
………….. THE COMMANDO HAD NO AMMUNITION FOR THE
MORTARS AND VERY LITTLE FOR THE BREN. AT 3.30
TIRED BUT IN GOOD SPIRITS, THEY REACHED THE TOWN….”
To complete the story of Termoli - 3 Commando’s stubborn resistance on that ridge played an important part in delaying the Panzer Division’s intent of re-capturing Termoli town and the deep water port - allowing Royal Engineers time at the Biferno Rover to finally secure a pontoon bridge across, enabling the main bulk of the 8th. Army to surmount that River obstacle.
It further allowed the time for an extra British infantry Brigade to land at night from the sea at Termoli.
With these re-inforcements, together with R.A.F. planes appearing in the skies to fire rockets at the enemy tanks, the German Panzer Division was forced into full retreat. The battle for Termoli was then won, and an important advance by the British Army achieved including the gain of a deep water port.
3 Commando’s casualties from their 36 hour defence of that ridge were surprisingly light. Two were killed, six missing (almost certainly blown to bits by the shelling) and twenty-eight wounded. An indication of how 3 Commando knew how to properly dig-in.
Nobby’s leadership of our sub-section throughout that battle cannot be described in one sentence. He did have this aura of great strength, mentally and physically. He showed in combat that he could “think on his feet” with few words and plenty of action - indicated previously, for example, by our ‘frontal attack’ and the ‘mini-advance on the ridge when Anti-tank crews cleared off.
He was most certainly focussed at all times with purpose on the main objectives in war - to defeat the enemy come what may. He always seemed to know what to do, despite shot and shell at its most furious.
Nobby Knowland as I knew him then was a man blessed with a large slice of natural humility - also did seem to have a touch of the invincibility about him.
As an 18 year old at that time, I admired him greatly. With him as my sub-section Sergeant - despite the horrendous nature of that battle, he made me feel secure.
He put, for me, into true perspective war at the sharp end, which greatly assisted me in the future battles I faced from the Normandy D-Day landings, when I was a newly promoted NCO, and subsequently through our European campaign.
By then of course, Nobby had been commissioned as Lieutenant George Knowland and sent out to Burma to join No. 1 Commando in their fight against the Japanese. It was some seven months later that he was to be killed in action and to be awarded the ‘Victoria Cross’.
I’ve since acknowledged the privilege it was to have served under the direct leadership of a man such as he, to whom I’ve always felt indebted for the example he gave as a commando leader at Termoli.
In post-war years, whenever I have stayed at the Union Jack Club I’ve made a point of unfailingly looking up Nobby’s name on the wall listing all the winners of the ‘Victoria Cross’ and with my memories of him at Termoli, just to say a silent, “Thanks Nobby”.Thank you Harry once again for the superb package you sent me which I value immensely. It has prompted me to write this “epistle length” letter in return. I won’t apologise for that, for I’ve just written as I felt, with some emotion I suppose, especially at this poignant time of the Commando Association’s ‘Stand-down’. I do hope that you find it of interest.
My best regards to your good lady Pam, look after yourselves - there aren’t many of us left
Jack Cox - 12 & 3 Commandos.
As indicated in the above, Bungy Young our then acting C.O. was in hospital at the time of Termoli, but clearly in touch with what was going on, because he left his hospital bed and travelled somehow to Termoli in a Jeep, where the acting Brigade Commander Durnford-Slater made him ‘Brigade Major’ at Termoli - the reason Bungy was not with us on the ridge it being considered he was still not fully recovered from his illness
You and I have only met in very recent times and despite the occasional bollocking you have given me, I’ve always enjoyed your company - if we had lived nearer to each other, I would have made a point of seeing more of both you and Pam. I always know a good man when I meet one. I’m sorry I cannot make the visit to Nobby’s Croydon School, but as I explained, certain domestic obligations have prevented it.
All the best Harry, might see you sometime.
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