Peter Wright VC


Old Misty

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.

"I 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."

Thus, modestly, 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 achievement.

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 September.

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.

Field-Marshall Kesselring, 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.

General Eisenhower 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 Avellino.

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 trees.

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 attacked.

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 was disastrous.
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

"Old 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 trenches.

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.

Lieutenant Nares, 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 by himself.

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 Point 270.

Whatever nerves 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 weary Guardsmen.

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.

"Old 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.