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by Warrant Officer Class 2 (Company Sergeant Major) Kirtland Gill
Coldstream Guards

In 1943, near the Port of Salerno, thousands of Allied soldiers waged a fierce campaign against German forces. One of the bloodiest encounters was on the now infamous Hill 270. The Grenadier Guards had already been engaged in a ferocious battle with the German Panzer-Grenadiers, but had been rebuffed. On 25th September 1943, 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards were sent forward with the intention of launching an attack at midday. It was hoped that this would be an audacious assault, using a line of trees near the base of the hill as cover, followed by a two-company assault onto the hilltop position.

From left to right. Gdsm Blackburn, Branford, J Bazeley, Dmr Pitman, WO1 (RSM) Pickersgill, Reverend Jacob Caldwell, Alma Williams,
Lt Col Thurstan, WO2 (CSM) Gill, Gdsm M Bazeley, Leese and Louw
The coffins of Lance Corporal Blackham and the two unknown Coldstreamers. The Cross of Remembrance
in the background

As the attack went in, German forces offered strong resistance. The Coldstreamers suffered heavy casualties as they came under a barrage of German small arms fire and mortar shells. Nevertheless, the position was captured.  It was during this encounter that Lance Corporal Ronald Blackham was to make the ultimate sacrifice for his country, aged only 21. His body was to be lost for decades, until it was rediscovered by a team of Italian historians, using metal detectors. They also discovered the bodies of two other Coldstream Guardsmen. Lance Corporal Blackham’s regiment was identified by the buttons and cap badge that once adorned his uniform. 

On 16th March 2017, over 70 years after the battle for Hill 270, a small group of Coldstream Guardsmen formed the bearer party for the three deceased soldiers. I had the privilege of being one of the team of representatives from the Coldstream Guards, asked to lay Lance Corporal Blackham, and the two unknown Guardsmen, in their final resting place.

The ceremony was conducted by the Battalion Chaplain, The Reverend Jacob Caldwell. During the service, he reflected on the sacrifice these men had made, as they fought for the ‘purposes of peace’ in Europe.  They were given a full military burial in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in Salerno.

The Reverend Jacob Caldwell conducting the ceremony

Around 20 members of Lance Corporal Blackham’s family were also in attendance, including his sister Alma Williams. It was particularly moving to see how much the formal burial meant to them. It is not hard to imagine the feeling of relief that his sister must have had upon seeing her brother buried, over 70 years after losing him. She spoke of the closure she received, and it was a source of comfort to her as he was identified using the DNA of her living brother, Douglas Blackham. She described her brother and his sense of humour, recalling how he liked football and snooker.  She also spoke of the impact the loss of her brother made on her family in 1943; her mother suffered a stroke on hearing the news. 

Having Lance Corporal Blackham’s family present helped to reinforce the importance of the occasion.  We were reminded that this young man was an individual with hopes, aspirations, family and friends.  Yet, all of this was sacrificed for a greater cause. His family’s presence also reminded us that conflict has many casualties, not least those who are left behind when the ferocity of war has abated.

It was a true privilege to be involved in the occasion. As the coffins were lowered in to the ground there was a palpable sense of connection with our regimental forebears.  The brave sacrifice of those who came before us lives on today in our regimental ethos, as we try to emulate the selfless example they have set and continue to strive to be truly ‘Second to None’.

The head stones for Lance Corporal Blackham and the
two unknown Coldstreamers

Reverend Jacob Caldwell leads the Bearer Party carrying Lance Corporal Blackham’s coffin

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