18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 29 — Winter and Spring
Winter and Spring
Christmas at the battlefront is regarded much the same as Christmas anywhere. Even there the sternness of war is relaxed and everyone, as far as possible, keeps holiday. If you could see over the other side of the hill into the enemy's lines you would no doubt find the same there.
So it was with 18 Regiment at Castelfrentano. Its festivities had been well organised. The YMCA canteen was decorated with whatever could be scrounged. The official Christmas rations were supplemented by local pigs and poultry—A Squadron had found a nice yearling calf that it would have been a shame to let go—there were parcels from home, there was no lack of red ‘plonk’ and a double issue of beer. The party went with a bang. There was a record attendance at Padre Gourdie's services, the boys singing the well-known Christmas hymns at the pitch of their lungs and rushing off back to their billets to moisten their throats again. It was a miserable, damp, raw day, but nobody cared.
Only C Squadron could not celebrate with the rest. At dusk on 23 December, after three days of lovely idleness at Castelfrentano, it had been reluctantly dragged from its billets at short notice and sent off to the Guardiagrele road to support the British paratroops who now held the line there. Remembering the plastering B Squadron had had at Salarola, C Squadron was a bit unhappy about going there; but its new homes turned out to be well behind the front line, in a series of farmhouses badly knocked about and not at all weatherproof, but still stout and shell-resistant. It was pretty quiet here, only the odd shell falling, no shooting to be done, and C Squadron's Christmas celebration suffered very little. Every house except those occupied by the tankies was full of paratroops with their red berets, and they were good drinking companions and interesting people, a cut above the average Tommy and very conscious of it, rather disgruntled at being page 418 used in such a quiet, static part of the front, which they considered a waste of their trained talent.
Winter was gripping the country tighter and tighter as the days went on. Earlier in December there had been odd sunny days when the oak trees on the hills had shone with red and copper tints never seen in New Zealand. Now that had all vanished and given place to a drab, sulky landscape and heavy grey skies. The mud was mixed with half-frozen slush. The civilians shook their heads and prophesied snow any day. It was biting cold, and even with fires going on the open hearths in every farm kitchen, you could not keep your feet warm.
Fuel was a major problem, and supplies were not easy to keep up. You were lucky if you could find a little pile of railway sleepers or telegraph poles-most of them had been found by someone else long ago. The boys had none of the civilians' scruples against cutting down olive trees, but they did not burn well. Foraging parties went out to collect timber from shell-shattered houses, which led to arguments with the owners, and also with the provosts if they happened to be around. But nobody minded the arguments as long as the wood ended up in the right hands. The Italian idea of a fire, a couple of twigs and a few wisps of straw, did not appeal to the Kiwis.
For a lazy week after Christmas the unit stayed where it was, letting the effects of its revelry wear off slowly, the tank crews spending a very short time each day greasing the guns and freshening up the tanks generally. Then, to the accompaniment of scattered gunfire from the front and parties all up and down the Sangro hills, the year died a noisy death.
No new year could have had a more dramatic entry than 1944. On 31 December the Division went to bed in a grey, rainy world. On 1 January it opened bleary eyes to a world of dazzling white. Snow, snow more than a foot deep even in the sheltered spots, three or four feet against houses and walls on the weather side. Snow loading down telephone wires till they touched the ground, snow burying bivvies, occupants and all, hiding the tanks from view more effectively than any camouflage, blocking the roads so that the whole war was at a standstill. For most of the regiment this was something quite new. Its hardier members shook off the effects of their New Year excesses by getting outside and indulging in snow fights. Teams page 419 were pressed into service to shovel paths and roads clear, at first unwillingly, but quite gladly when they found that vigorous movement kept them reasonably warm. Everywhere you could hear the scrape of shovels and see black figures toiling against the white background. The whole Division buzzed with an activity previously unknown to it on a New Year's Day.
Next day (a magnificent day, cloudless and very clear with the sun sparkling on the snow), Divisional Headquarters, now apparently convinced that attacks were ‘out’ till the winter let up, issued new orders for the holding of the line. These were not well received in the regiment, for it was to leave its good quarters at Castelfrentano and follow C Squadron over to its old stamping ground near San Eusanio to bolster up the western part of the sector. This news, circulating round the regiment after lunch, caused something of a stir. ‘Bloody Army,’ was the comment, ‘can't leave us alone for a minute.’ Having got this off its chest, the regiment turned to and made leisurely preparations to move.
Arranging new accommodation took two whole days. San Eusanio and the country round it were full of troops, and every unit seemed to be on the hunt for billets, the snow having put an effective end to bivvy life for a while. The ‘recce’ party had not only to find vacant casas, but also to instal temporary garrisons there to repel claim-jumpers. Before dawn on 4 January the tanks moved in, squadron by squadron, Regimental Headquarters into San Eusanio itself, A Squadron a mile farther along the Bianco track, B Squadron to scattered houses just ahead of C Squadron on the Salarola road. All along Route 84 the tanks travelled through lines of men, both Kiwis and civilians, even at that early hour, shovelling away to keep the road as clear as possible of slush and water. Luckily there had been no more snow, and the roads, though slippery, were navigable. The LAD also managed to scrape up enough shelter for itself in San Eusanio, and shifted house the same day; it was glad to do so, for its old home on Route 84 had recently become too much of a target for Jerry's artillery, since some British medium guns had moved in next door.
Here 18 Regiment sat for a cold week, officially holding the fort against counter-attacks from the west, actually doing very page 420 little but forage for fuel, make fires and sit in front of them. Jerry tried no counter-attacks, and he landed very few shells round the regiment, but our guns were everywhere, some of them so close that when they fired the nearest houses shook as in an earthquake. Apart from a blizzard on 6 January there was no more snow, but a succession of sunny days began to thaw the big fall, making the ground wetter than ever. The snow was apt to develop a hard crust on top, hiding wet slush into which you sank above your boot-tops. In front of every fire hung a permanent line of steaming socks.
The Kiwis' stay in the Sangro valley was drawing near its end now. The six weeks of action had been very exhausting, and the Division was due for a spell. For some time the usual crop of rumours had been floating in the air—there were murmurs from the wishful thinkers about going to England to train for the Second Front, but the current ‘dinkum oil’ did not go this far, stating that the Division would dig in for a month and then pull out to re-equip. This last yarn turned out to be unduly pessimistic. When the relief began it came suddenly, much sooner than anyone really expected. On 10 January the official news circulated that the Division was going back to San Severo to train. The regiment would be the first of the armour to move, going back the next day beyond the Sangro River, and heading south again in a few days' time. This was very good news indeed. A ‘recce’ party went off to secure accommodation south of the river, and the tankies set to work to tidy up and pack ready for the road. The soft-skinned vehicles were to travel back in convoy, the tanks by train from Vasto, on the coast a few miles south of the Sangro.
B and C Squadrons left the Salarola road after dark on 11 January as 19 Regiment tanks drove in to replace them, and later the same night A Squadron and Regimental Headquarters pulled out from the San Eusanio road and followed down Route 84. It was a typical Sangro move, greasy roads, all lights strictly prohibited, tanks crawling along in the blackness. By dawn they were all safely back over the Sangro, scattered and camouflaged in the thickly cultivated riverbed, just south of the Bailey bridge and not far from its approach road, down which a constant stream of New Zealand traffic was moving south. This was the first time since 30 November that the tanks page 421 had been back behind our own artillery, and though they were not yet out of range of Jerry's biggest guns—he was known to drop the occasional heavy shell near the bridge—the front-line tension had suddenly eased and there was quite a spirit of holiday among the squadrons.
The next time tank squadrons and B Echelon met was on the other side of Italy.
The secrecy of this move, the last-minute disclosure that 2 NZ Division was leaving the Eighth Army to join the American Fifth Army beyond the Apennines, all this is notable in the Division's history. There certainly seemed to be more fuss than usual over a move back from the line—wireless silence, all New Zealand badges and shoulder titles taken off, fern leaves on tanks and trucks painted out, seven days' supplies carried on the tanks—but when the boys left the Sangro they had no idea where they were really going.
At 3 a.m. on 16 January, in high spirits that not even the bitter early morning cold could curb, the tank crews said goodbye to the Sangro for the last time and headed over the twisting Adriatic roads towards Vasto. Here they found that less than half the tanks could be railed away that day, which damped things down slightly for those who had to wait, and gave rise to a lot of remarks about Typical Army Muck-ups, for Vasto was a deadly place, a real behind-the-lines town, too full of administrative troops and provosts to have anything left to offer. Only three trains a day were available, each one holding about ten tanks, and they had to be shared by 18 and 20 Regiments and a lot of odds and ends from Divisional Headquarters and 4 Brigade Headquarters. Loading up was quite a spectacle, the tanks crawling up a ramp at one end of the train and driving right along the flat-topped trucks with very little width to spare. One tank slipped off the side of a truck and knocked off the next one too, both with full crews aboard, but luckily the injuries were limited to bruises and scratches.
The last of the tanks got away on 18 January. Once on the move everyone enjoyed the trip, a long run down the coast, then inland past San Severo and Foggia. There were vans on the trains in which the men lived, cooked and slept, except for a few who lived in tents on the trucks and stood picket in case any unfriendly planes came round or any civilians tried to get aboard.page 422
By the time San Severo was reached everyone knew where they were really going, so there was no surprise when they left Foggia behind and headed west, grinding their way up and over the Apennines and down to the plains beyond. Off the trains at Caserta, then away north again in little groups of five tanks, a 30-mile run which ended in flat fields outside the small town of Piedimonte d'Alife, nestling up against the foot of a steep mountain wall.
Conditions here were about as different from the Sangro as they could be. In one stroke the Kiwis moved from winter to spring. To everyone's delight the ground was almost free from mud, the roads firm and not gouged with ruts and watercourses, the snow confined to the mountain tops where it should be. Steep hills, ravines and winding lanes had given place to plains and good straight roads. The land was more fertile, the peasants better off; Caserta was a big prosperous-looking town with fine buildings, very different from the modest stone villages of the Sangro. Piedimonte d'Alife, pretty well untouched by the war, had an air of well-being about it. Through the town flowed a sparkling clear stream, in vast contrast to the muddy yellow Adriatic creeks. Behind the town you could stroll up a mountain cleft with vertical rock walls to where this stream made a sudden appearance from under a cliff. It was all very picturesque. There were even lemon trees growing up against the sunny sides of the houses.
There had to be some drawback, of course, and here it was prices. The ruling rates for such things as fruit, eggs and washing everyone considered outrageously high, and everyone blamed the Americans.
This was American territory, and for the first time the regiment was face to face with the almost legendary ‘Yanks’. From Caserta the tanks had driven past American headquarters, American camps, American check posts. The roads were crowded with American vehicles and suicidal Negro drivers. Piedimonte d'Alife was full of Americans. They were certainly easy to get on with, well supplied with this world's goods and very willing to share them. Not far from the regiment was an American shower where you could wallow in unaccustomed luxury, with towel and soap ‘on the house’, and clean underclothes when you came out. After a session there page 423 you could forgive the Yanks for making you pay 20 lire for an egg. Later, when supplies of clothes ran short, the Kiwis were barred from this shower, but they did well while it lasted.
The American tinned meat, ‘Spam’, also went over well with the Kiwis, who found it a tasty change from the eternal M & V, bully beef and ‘soya links’. The Americans themselves, probably tired of Spam on their daily menu, were always willing to swap it for bully, which, strangely, they seemed to like.
The last of the tanks reached Piedimonte on 20 January, and the same morning the B Echelon convoy arrived, to be greeted by a sharp earthquake which made them wonder for a while just what sort of place they had come to. The convoy's three-day trip had taken it through the mountains by river gorges and passes very imposing to look at, but a great strain on the drivers. Luckily there had been little military traffic on the way, but plenty of peasants' carts, and swarms of yelling children running out under the truck wheels at every village. The steep Apennine roads had wrecked three trucks, and there could well have been more. However, here they were, and here was the whole regiment, nicely established, its squadrons fairly close together, most of the men living in bivvies among the vines, which on this drier ground was no hardship.
The current rumour was that the regiment was going into action again almost at once to reinforce the Americans, whose offensive towards Rome had bogged down. For the first time the name of Cassino was heard round the camp. Here, so the story ran, Jerry was holding on like grim death; but once past this obstacle the broad Liri valley would be open for our armour to burst through to Rome. This was a good yarn, and 18 Regiment was quite ready to believe it, for it seemed likely to provide the tanks with the opportunities they had not had at the Sangro. So the first chore was to bring all the tanks up to fighting pitch in a hurry. The regiment was on short notice to move, and there was no time to lose.
Three days of hard work saw this job as nearly finished as it could be. Spare parts for the Shermans had suddenly become short—this was the first of many shortages that were to dog the Italian campaign for a year—but on the whole the tanks were in fair shape. They were stocked up with battle supplies. You could not hear the guns back here at Piedimonte, but judging page 424 by the swarms of big bombers that passed overhead daily, there seemed to be plenty of work up at the front, and it stood to reason that the Kiwis would be in the middle of it before long. This theory was confirmed by the news of the Anzio landing on 22 January. Everything, according to the radio news and the rumours, was due to break loose on the Fifth Army's front any time. And yet the days passed and no summons came, and everyone began to feel a bit flat and restless, despite the good time they were having at Piedimonte.
It was very pleasant there, fine mild days after frosty nights, plenty of leisure to kick footballs about and sample the local brews, fraternise with the Yanks or go hitch-hiking along the Volturno valley to visit cobbers in other units. The voice of the ‘ringie’ began to be heard round the camp. Some of the men went out on the hills above Piedimonte and shot grouse. There were films in the opera house at Piedimonte, a real opera house in the traditional style with red plush seats and gilt ceiling. Daily leave trucks were organised to Pompeii.
For most of the boys this was a real highlight. It was their first official leave in Italy, except for one or two who had been lucky enough to score a week in Bari. Everyone had heard of Pompeii at school, but few had ever expected to see it. Now they went there in truckloads, fought off hungry mobs of beggars at the entrance, wandered round the ruins, inspected the indelicate murals (rather disappointing despite the guides' rapturous build-up), watched Vesuvius putting up plumes of smoke. All you saw of Naples in passing was the ruined railway yards, but some people got into the city and did not think much of it—filthy alleys off the main street, hungry people, buildings bombed by the Air Forces and blown up by Jerry.
Life at Piedimonte was not all play, of course, but the work was no great burden. The tanks had an occasional shoot at a home-made range against the hills, mainly to ‘T & A’ their guns, which had not been done since before the Sangro battle. General Freyberg inspected a ceremonial parade of 4 Armoured Brigade, then addressed officers and senior NCOs, speaking with confidence of the breakthrough to Rome that was going to take place. Early in February the tank squadrons had a night out on manoeuvres by the Volturno River, after which Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants said that, though it was page 425 a simple affair, it proved that everyone in the regiment knew his job and could carry it out.
The Colonel had come back from hospital a week earlier, and Lieutenant-Colonel Ferguson had gone to take over 20 Regiment. The news that both of them had been awarded the DSO for the Sangro and Orsogna fighting, bringing the 18th's grand total to three, was very well received all through the unit. The boys were as a rule apt to snort a little at decorations, but two DSOs were something special.
Then, with February just getting into its stride, the news from the front became disappointing and contradictory; the weather turned sour, with rain and sleet and hail, and the snow well down on the hills; and in the middle of this came the long-expected call to the front.
News of the move arrived on 4 February, and next day an advance party left to lay out the regiment's new home and sweep it for mines. The place they were going to had been well fought over, and there were liable to be mines planted almost anywhere, horrible little wooden box mines that would blow your foot off, or deadly S-mines that would jump in the air, explode about head height, and almost certainly kill you. Roads and lanes were apt to have these horrors hidden under the surface, gaps in hedges would be sown with them, vines would conceal trip-wires hitched to mines a few feet away. Up to now the Kiwis had not struck this kind of warfare on such a scale—mines in the desert had been laid in a straightforward sort of way, and at the Sangro they had been sparingly used. So the stories of widespread mining that filtered down from the Cassino front were very badly received. A dirty, sneaking kind of war, said everyone, not the sort of thing we're used to.
On the evening of 6 February, a clear moonlight night, the squadrons, A and B1 Echelons packed up and all headed west, in groups of twenty-five vehicles, leaving twenty minutes apart. After the low-gear night moves at the Sangro this was an easy one, a two-and-a-half-hour run across the Volturno and up Route 6, that famous highway that was to become all too familiar to the Division over the next two months. But not even in the snow had they struck anything quite so cold. The drivers closed down their hatches, something very unusual, and the tank commanders, with their heads poked out of the page 426 turrets, were the only ones to face the freezing air—and then only because they had to. Though the feeble moonlight did not show up many details it was light enough to see that Route 6 was densely populated all the way, camps, dumps, hospitals one after the other with hardly a gap between. Then off the highway by a lane to the left, and into the new area, two miles from Route 6, in gently undulating fields nicely covered with trees. After the ride everyone was chilled to the bone. A hot cup of tea helped matters a little, but damp blankets on the frosty ground soon undid most of the good again.
18 Armd Regt, March-May1944
The first thing that struck you about this place was the cold. It was as if the calendar had swung back again from spring to winter. The steep bulk of Monte Camino, the Americans' ‘Million Dollar Hill’, which sheltered 18 Regiment from the battlefront, robbed it at the same time of most of the sun's warmth. The morning frost often took half the day to disappear, and then left the ground wet and sloppy. Rain showers caused ponds all over the place. There were one or two houses round the area, but almost everyone was in bivvies or tents, and the nights were bitter.
In the first few days the regiment was saved from freezing by a truckload of charcoal brought in from somewhere. A new form of heater, the jam-tin brazier, with a wire handle and with holes punched in sides and bottom, suddenly appeared in large numbers, and at dusk any day you could see fiery catherine wheels all round the camp as these braziers were swung in circles to set them glowing. They warmed up a bivvy or the back of a truck very well, but you had to watch your ventilation, for carbon monoxide poisoning was a real danger with them. Then someone conceived a diesel drip burner made from a 75-millimetre shell case, easier to deal with than the brazier, and very effective provided you did not mind the fumes and the grey dust that went with it.
At first nobody bothered to make long-term plans for passing the time. There was little to be done on the tanks. To keep the boys warm and out of mischief there were impromptu route marches, most of them ending up at the local showers. These were another improvisation—showers connected to the radiators of the water trucks, through which the water circulated to warm up. Not very good for the truck engines, perhaps, but a great boon for everybody.
In spare hours footballs were booted about rather aimlessly, or the boys could wander down the road to the village of Mignano two miles away and inspect its ruins, for it had been smashed almost out of existence during the fighting round there. They could not go farther afield, for the unit was on short notice to move forward. It was quite pleasant to wander up the nearby hills, provided you kept off the little hill just behind the page 428 camp, which was heavily sown with S-mines and was out of bounds. A party of engineers, attached to the regiment waiting for the great advance to begin, was in great demand now to lecture the squadrons and give demonstrations on mines and booby traps.
This valley was a noisy place. Most of the American artillery was miles ahead, but its firing reverberated round the hills and seemed at times to shake the countryside. Down on the railway line by Mignano were some heavy guns which went off at long intervals with terrifying thumps. Sometimes Jerry's return fire could be heard falling a long way ahead, with an occasional big shell down by the main road near Mignano. British and American fighters were snarling overhead continually, and often there was the heavier, slower roar of big bombers sailing past. There was nothing quiet or dull or peaceful about this place.
On 10 February nearly all of B2 Echelon came up and parked a few miles behind the regiment. It had at first joined the B2 Echelons of 19 and 20 Regiments at Raviscanina, on an uninviting mountainside overlooking the Volturno River, but this was too far back for convenience, particularly if the Division was heading for Rome soon. So from 10 February the whole regiment, except for a very few trucks, was close together again waiting for the advance.
The great day, so the story ran, was to be 19 February. The Maori Battalion was to make a bridgehead over the Rapido on the 18th, and everyone was confident that the advance would be on. The regiment was all set, tanks and scout cars checked over and fully stocked up, the supply organisation all in gear, the sapper party ready with its mine equipment, a bridging tank on loan from 4 Brigade Headquarters to deal with small demolitions. It had its own mobile artillery, a battery of British self-propelled guns with the improbable name of ‘Priests’, whose senior officers lived at Regimental Headquarters with a direct wireless link to their guns. Up the road, also ready to push forward, was a host of American tanks, scattered and hidden away under the trees; official parties from 18 Regiment had been up to settle details of the exploitation with them. The general feeling was: ‘Once we get going, nothing can stop us’—until the evening of 19 February, page 429 when word flashed round that the Maoris had been knocked back and that the party was off for just now. It would be on again as soon as possible, but it would be at least five days more before the regiment moved. Five days! It was a mercy that nobody could see into the future.
Now began the most disheartening time 2 NZ Division was ever to spend. The new plans were all laid—Cassino to be flattened by bombers, the infantry to go in straight afterwards, the New Zealand and American tanks to follow through, up the Liri valley towards Anzio and Rome. All that was needed was the right spell of weather, airfields dry enough for heavy bombers, the promise of a few fine days to get well under way. The whole Division stood ready and waiting, and the right day did not come for three weeks. The story of that cruel run of luck, of the bombing on 15 March and its unhappy sequel, all the world knows.
Of all the Kiwis 18 Regiment was among the least affected, for it was well back out of sight of Cassino, neither shooting nor being shot at. Of course the universal fret at the delay reached back to it, and as day followed day, damp and dismal, with never a sight of the sun, with the camp getting muddier instead of drier, it had its own remarks to make about a country that could turn on this sort of thing after the crisp frosty spring of late January. But at the same time the regiment was well aware of its good luck compared with the units parked up on the Cassino plain under the shadow of Jerry's guns.
There was still very little to do, and nobody even suggested organised training. The RSM held a succession of short courses for junior NCOs. Parties went out with picks and shovels repairing roads. The boys ‘T & A'd’ their tank guns over and over again, they furbished up the tanks till they shone, and still they had lots of spare time. The tanks could not be taken all round the country for driving practice, for they were supposed to be camouflaged away from prying aerial eyes. Signal procedure could not be rehearsed, for there was a strict ban on wireless. Lieutenant Greenfield and his boys went out into the highways and byways and salvaged miles of abandoned telephone wire, British and American.
Such things as early rising were quite unknown—it was common for one member of a tank crew to appear at the page 430 cookhouse at breakfast time with five sets of dixies to collect the meal for his whole team, while the rest still slumbered. The main business seemed to be football, which became more organised and official, with inter-squadron and inter-unit matches, or rather mud scrambles. A few individualists grew very keen on baseball, and the Regimental Headquarters team had the temerity to challenge a team of Yanks, with the result that might have been expected.
There were a few notable incidents, but not many. One day a B Squadron ammunition truck caught fire and blew up just outside the area, spraying the place with little bits of metal. Trooper Jack Kent1 was killed when a tank out on a test run slipped off the road and capsized. Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants, to everyone's sorrow, left the unit to become second-in-command of 4 Brigade, and Lieutenant-Colonel Robinson2 from Divisional Cavalry took over. Major Playle (‘Uncle Joe’ to the old hands) arrived back from furlough in New Zealand and became second-in-command.
It seemed during those few weeks that the war was never going to get anywhere. The great spectacle of 15 March, when our air armada passed overhead on the way to Cassino, roused a spurt of enthusiasm, and for a week afterwards the regiment waited ready to move, at first eagerly, then with flagging confidence, then with bitter disillusioned jokes about ‘our highly bloody mobile division’. Very little news from the front filtered back, but it seemed that things were not going as they should, and that the armoured sweep up the Liri valley might be an optimistic flight of fancy. ‘It was not easy,’ says Padre Gourdie, ‘sitting back near Mignano while the rest of the Div was doing battle, and many of us felt very much like bludgers. We were on 2 days' notice, on one day's notice, 12 hours', 4 hours', 2 hours' and I believe on half an hour's notice at one stage, but there we stopped.’ On 22 March the regiment was released from its short notice with orders to stay at Mignano indefinitely and do as much training as it could.page 431
Six weeks of almost complete idleness had ruined the unit's appetite for work, so this idea did not go down well. At first there was some effort to knuckle down—the NCOs' courses carried on for another week or two, C Squadron sallied out and did a small manoeuvre along with a company of 22 Battalion and its anti-tank guns. But before long the training seemed to slide gently into the background, and the camp at Mignano was largely given over again to football, vino and lethargy.