Sgt John C Henderson’s account of the 15/9/43 16 DLI action on Hospital Hill, Salerno, is extracted from a letter written to his wife dated 31/12/43. Special thanks to Steve Henderson for sharing this extraordinary document.

4464771 Sergt J C Henderson
DLI
A Coy, No 3 Btn, No 1 IRTD,
BNAF

'I will take you back to the Hospital ship St Julien. On the 16th September you would have found me in the officers' ward, lying on a stretcher between two officers' beds. The other ranks wards were already overcrowded, that explains my presence among such "exalted" company. Any shock I had sustained at the moment of being hit had disappeared and I was able to lie back and collect my thoughts. The first thing I realised was that however much I regretted having to leave the "boys" it just couldn't be helped and the main thing to do was to concentrate on getting well again.

‘The Medical Officer came along to look at my wound and, when the bandages were taken off, I was able to see for the first time what had actually happened. Up until then I thought I had been shot on the inside rear of thigh as it was there that I felt the pain. This puzzled me because I was walking towards the fire when it happened and was only a matter of 20 yards from him when the shot rang out. It spun me round and I fell on my back. Very gingerly I moved my leg, found that I could do so and knew there were no fractures. Actually the bullet had entered my thigh dead central about seven inches above the knee, tore its way though at an angle for about six inches and left quite a big hole in the left rear of the thigh. My left thigh must have been well forward, otherwise the bullet would have embedded itself in the left thigh. The entrance would was only small, about the size of the end of an ordinary pencil. I decided I had been very lucky and didn't expect it would be very long before I would recover.

'At this stage I think I shall digress a little and tell you how I was wounded. It was at the time when the Salerno Bridgehead was not yet secure, we were in danger of being pushed back into the sea from which we had landed five days previously. The Battalion was holding the left flank and were positioned on the southern side of what we called "Hospital Hill". We had withstood terrific mortar and artillery fire and numerous counterattacks had been repulsed with losses on both sides. Apart from these strong counterattacks, we had to contend with strong Jerry patrols which tried and sometimes succeeded in infiltrating into our positions from all sides and at all times during the day and night.

‘At about 3 pm on the 15th the enemy started a determined counterattack which, by darkness, enabled him to dislodge some of our men from the top of the hill. Two 3 inch mortars which I had in position to meet such a situation opened up and fired 150 bombs in ten minutes, thereby demoralizing the Germans who were "easy meat" for the boys who went into them with the bayonet.

'To consolidate the position further ammunition had to be got up to the mortars and I immediately organized carrying parties. During this operation, I found myself preparing a load with a Lance Corporal as sentry, it was dark, about 9 pm. Suddenly he calls me and says there are four men going up alongside the wall to our left. I chew him up for not halting them and, drawing my revolver, go to investigate. It is only some boys from another company. Following the same route I had taken I return to the ammunition, but when I get to within 20 yards, Bang!

'Looking back on this I cannot help but laugh. Actually what had happened was that the the Lance Corporal had got the jitters; he was unnerved by the patrols that had been coming in; being left entirely on his own, his nerve had gone and, when he saw me coming back, he let go without asking any questions. When he knew what he had done he went into hysterics. Shouting, "I've shot the best friend I ever had!" and crying and sobbing. Major Worrall, who helped put the field dressing on me, called out: "Take that man away for God's sake!" However, I asked him to allow me to talk to him. When he came I told him to shut up and listen to what I had to say. "You have done some good work for me these last few days. I couldn't have done without you. Now I am going out for a while, you will be needed more than ever, so snap out of it and go help them up the hill." He quietened down, we shook hands and away he went up the hill. I understand he was taken prisoner five days later.

‘So you see, contrary to what you may have been thinking, I haven't been contaminated by a German bullet or shrapnel, it was only a good old British .303 fired by a good lad with the best of intentions but, unfortunately, a little unbalanced by the trying circumstances. I hope it hasn't bothered him too much since. '

Aboard the hospital ship Sgt Henderson has this poignant memory of one of his fellow wounded soldiers:

‘Young McQueen, whose right leg had been amputated below the knee was the most cheerful of the lot. Perhaps that's because he was due to be put on a hospital ship for evacuation back to the UK the next day. He was only about 22 and had been on one of the landing craft awaiting its turn to go in when a shell had blown his right foot off; only a youngster but very brave.’

In the same letter, Sgt Henderson remembers meeting another 16 DLI wounded soldier while at the 100th General Hospital after his evacuation via the hospital ship to Algeria:

Sgt John C Henderson’s Eyewitness Account of the Hospital Hill, Salerno action of 15/9/43

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