18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 38 — Mud Scramble in the Romagna
Mud Scramble in the Romagna
On the evening of 20 September, when 5 Brigade moved up handy for its advance through the Canadians, it was pouring. Traffic jammed the lanes, drivers long unaccustomed to mud put their vehicles into the roadside ditches. There was a hold-up while a jeep convoy carrying Canadian dead came down from the line. Everyone was drenched and out of sorts. Nobody even laughed at the sight of the 18 Regiment tanks moving up in solemn procession with big umbrellas (souvenirs of Riccione) over the turrets and drivers' hatches.
That was a night that nobody wanted to repeat. The tankies camped in open fields in front of the artillery. Everyone slept, or tried to, in the tanks; water dripped into the turrets, mud off your boots got all over everything, and if you did drift off into a fitful doze the guns just behind would shake you awake again. Everyone audibly hated the rain and the Army. It was inky black, too, and the cold beams of searchlights did not relieve the darkness much.
These searchlights were a rather weird idea. They shone from a few miles behind our lines, their beams angling across the sky to reflect off the clouds over Jerry's head. They did not make anyone any happier. They were an unknown quantity, and the conservative Kiwis were always suspicious of anything new.
This misfortune mixed the whole show up in double-quick time. The Maori infantry jumped off A Squadron's tanks and took to the gullies leading down towards the Marecchia River, and that was the last seen of them that day. After half an hour's delay A Squadron's two leading troops went on alone to the river; the rest of A Squadron and all of B waited till dusk before crossing the crest of the ridge.
This San Fortunato ridge was a scene of total destruction— every building shattered, every tree stripped bare, dead Germans and Canadians lying thick on the roadsides, dead cattle in the fields, dead tanks and trucks everywhere. Nobody wanted to linger in such a ghastly place. Up in the front line it might be more dangerous, but it could not be more depressing.
The Marecchia crossing was easy, for Jerry, amazingly, had left a heavy timber bridge intact. Before dark the first half of A Squadron, Second-Lieutenant Russell Bright's1 2 Troop and Second-Lieutenant Dick Kerr's2 4 Troop, with Captain Passmore in command, were over the river and parked by a brickworks on the north bank. Ahead of them a main road cut across the front, with a steep railway embankment just beyond. But where was all the infantry? The Canadians were supposed to have a flourishing bridgehead north of the river; the Maoris had last been seen heading in this general direction; but now the tanks seemed to be on their own. There was dead silence ahead. You could not even raise anyone on the wireless for long enough to learn anything. It was a disturbing position.
Finally searchers located a few Canadians, whose story was even more unsettling—there seemed to be barely a company of infantry across the river, and Jerry was just a little way ahead. Passmore's tanks, it seemed, were the first vehicles to have crossed.
While these few poor scraps of information were being gleaned, the Maoris' forward companies had reached the brickworks, having had a lot of trouble finding their way. Later in the evening the rest of A Squadron (which had spent some page 553 time hunting in the dark for the right road) arrived too, and the position was now easier, though nobody knew who, if anyone, was on the flanks.
The B Squadron tanks, following A Squadron across the river, swung right on reaching the far bank, and moved a few hundred yards downstream, hoping to meet the forward companies of 21 Battalion, who had decided about the same time as the Maoris that tanks were not healthy for infantry to ride on. But here, too, there was not a soul about, though there were battle noises a little way off to the right. In the end B Squadron camped on the riverbank and sent out patrols to scout round and look for this elusive 21 Battalion. Daylight had broken before tanks and infantry linked up again.
During the night the rain eased off, but not the shells. Jerry continued to land them in ones and twos all round the Marecchia crossing; our own 25-pounders were shelling the railway embankment, far too close for comfort, but with wireless communication almost nil nobody could do much about it. It was a jittery, unhappy night.
But actually it was not as bad as it seemed. A few hundred yards to the right the Canadians and 22 Battalion had cleared the Celle junction, where the two main highways of the Romagna diverged, Route 16 going on up the coast, Route 9 turning off to the left on its long journey to Bologna. The companies of 21 Battalion were across the river and not far away, though they knew no more than the tankies of what was going on. By daybreak four ‘tank-busters’, some anti-tank guns and Vickers were up with A Squadron at the brickworks. (Later it was found that the approaches to the wooden bridge were mined, but luck was with the Kiwis that night.) C Squadron had also crossed the San Fortunato ridge in the friendly dark, and was hidden among the trees just short of the river, handy in case of need. And Brigadier Burrows of 5 Brigade was in a position to say to 21 and 28 Battalions: ‘Push on as soon as possible after daylight.’
But this was more complicated than it sounded.
18 Armd Regt, 21-23 Sept. 1944
For a while the only active tanks were two Honeys from the Reconnaissance Troop attached to the infantry; they had a very busy morning, dashing round on all sorts of errands, and at times getting caught up in skirmishes, as they carried the company commanders backwards and forwards between their platoons.
By midday the right-hand company was not far from its objective, the Molini Canal, which cut right across the front between solid earth banks, with several hundred yards of huge, dingy factory buildings sprawling beside it. The Shermans had come up by this time, and were in close attendance as the infantry went from house to house, collecting little groups of prisoners, most of them Turkomen, short, grubby, unshaven and Oriental. Nobody had ever seen soldiers quite like them. The sniping from the houses had slackened off now, but there was still plenty of mortar fire coming from in front.
The situation on the left of Route 16 had now eased a little, but progress was still only a crawl. Jerry fought for every house here, little groups lay low while the attackers passed and then bobbed up and fired at the rear platoons. But a 75-millimetre round or two into the houses usually persuaded any occupants that resistance was suicide. Lieutenant Greenfield's tank flushed over twenty prisoners from troublesome dugouts a little way off Route 16. Another Sherman distinguished itself by knocking the top off a tower which housed a German observation post.
Shortly before midday the two companies had drawn level again as they approached the Molini Canal. One tank on the left of Route 16 was knocked out by an anti-tank shell from a row of houses beyond the canal, but the 21 Battalion mortars got smartly on to the target, after which the infantry had little page 556 trouble in establishing itself along the canal there, with the Shermans just behind. A little Italian anti-tank gun with a short barrel also tackled some of the B Squadron tanks after 21 Battalion had bypassed it, but it was not made to deal with Shermans, for its armour-piercing shot just bounced off.
East of Route 16 the factory on the Molini bank slowed the battle for a while. It looked the kind of place where Jerry might well be hiding, and the infantry moved in very cautiously after the Shermans had ‘done it over’. During the afternoon the infantry crossed the canal from the factory, followed by a troop of Shermans, who helped to keep Jerry meek while the company consolidated its position. Major Hawkesby,3 the company commander, was injured when a Sherman on which he was riding was hit by a mortar, but the tank was hardly damaged.
By evening Jerry was cleared out from the canal bank. It had been a trying day, and 21 Battalion had lost a lot of men, though the tanks had come off lightly. But there was a very satisfactory bag of prisoners and German gear, and the cooperation between tanks and infantry, after a shaky start, had been good.
While all this was going on, 28 Battalion and A Squadron had been getting into serious trouble on 5 Brigade's left.
Before it was properly light the Maoris moved off, crossed the railway embankment at a tiny village called San Martino, and set out northwards, with the tanks following. Everything had been done with a rush and a scramble—the tankies, troop commanders and all, had been dragged out of bed at a moment's notice, and had to shake the sleep out of their eyes as they went along. At first the Shermans met heavy fire whenever they poked their noses over the embankment, and their chances did not look so good, as the San Martino crossing was blocked by demolitions. A Honey tank of the Recce Troop, exploring to the west, found a crossing several hundred yards away, and about 8 a.m. 4 and 2 Troops crossed in single file, turned east again, and set off to find their infantry, who had now crossed the Molini Canal (a much shorter page 557 advance here than with 21 Battalion) and were moving on and driving Jerry back. Lieutenant Wright's troop went away out along Route 9 to guard the left flank, which was very open and empty and a potential danger.
In front of A Squadron Jerry withdrew quite readily, as there were not many houses to fight for, but he gave the Maoris a warm time all the way. By 11 a.m. the battle had moved on some three-quarters of a mile from the railway to a little hamlet called Orsoleto. The tanks systematically shot up all the houses as they went, with very little result except a stray prisoner or two. Sergeant McCowatt's4 tank, out on its own on the left of 4 Troop, stumbled into a nest of bazookas just short of Orsoleto, and had a close-range running fight which ended in the Germans departing in a hurry.
Orsoleto was no prominent landmark, only a cluster of eight or ten houses on both sides of a narrow road, but it was a good place to pause for a breather. The Maoris (D and A Companies) took up residence in two houses at the eastern end of the village. No. 4 Troop was right up with D Company, 2 Troop not far behind A Company, all the tanks hidden behind houses or haystacks.
Then the German artillery, which had not so far been really troublesome, got the range, and shells and mortars began to rain down, and the Maoris began to have casualties. Back at the brickworks and the Marecchia crossing it was worse than farther forward—as bad as any shelling that anyone could ever remember. A Squadron could not retaliate because Jerry was so hard to locate. The Honey tanks made a foray to a house behind Orsoleto and cleaned out a pocket of Germans who were annoying the Maoris from the rear; Sergeant Alex Holgerson's5 Honey ran the gauntlet of the shellfire three times to take back wounded and bring up ammunition; but there was no way of improving matters in the meantime.
Then, early in the afternoon, really bad trouble arrived. Two huge Tiger tanks came into Orsoleto from the west. One sat fair and square in the middle of the village street, within page 558 100 yards of the Maoris' houses, and began to shoot them up.
The Shermans were in a nasty spot here. One shell from a Tiger could make dead meat of a Sherman, while the 75-millimetre guns were little better than peashooters against a Tiger's hide. The nearest tanks wisely drew back a little way. The Tigers were having it all on their own, firing armour-piercing shells at everything they could see, knocking lumps off the houses behind which the A Squadron tanks were sheltering. Captain Passmore called urgently over the wireless for dive-bombers or medium guns to tackle these pirates; but the rain had kept the Air Force on the ground that day, and the ‘Long Toms’ could not be safely used so close to our own men. Passmore himself went as far forward as he dared—Second-Lieutenant Bright comments, ‘He was determined to capture Tigers on foot I think‘—and directed the 25-pounders on to the nearest Tiger, but to no avail. His own tank had a crack at it, scoring direct hits which seemed to make no impression. A ‘tank-buster’ came up from the rear, but could not get into position without offering itself as a sitting shot for that deadly ‘eighty-eight’.
Then the day drew to a close, and Passmore recalls:
Towards dusk the Tigers fired Machine gun tracer & fired the haystacks. I then informed the Maori Coy Commanders that as my tanks were illuminated by the flame I would ask them to withdraw. They agreed to this so I asked the Arty for smoke cover…. The Infantry withdrew under cover of smoke & tanks firing. After infantry had taken up new positions the tanks pulled back also.
To everyone's mighty relief, the Tigers withdrew out of Orsoleto when the smoke came down. Evidently their crews were only human.
So ended a gruelling day for 2 and 4 Troops. They were now in the shelter of houses some 300 yards short of Orsoleto, and the crews managed to snatch a little sleep during the evening; but before midnight, again at little more than a moment's notice, they were up and about, ready to follow the Maoris as they pushed farther on behind a massive barrage.
Evidently Jerry was not to be allowed to settle into a defensive line—though he was fighting back so strongly among the farms and vines that this hardly seemed likely to worry page 559 him. This midnight attack was to be a short jump of a mile to the Scolo Brancona, another of those wretched ditches that cut across the map in straggly blue lines. There seemed to be so many of these. Already the high hopes of a dashing advance across the plains had faded.
This was the first attack 18 Regiment had done under the searchlights, and it was an impressive sight, the continuous yellow flicker of the guns stabbing across the cold silver beams of the ‘artificial moonlight’. The tankies were still a bit shy of this new idea. It certainly helped you to see where you were going, and took away some of the strain of night driving, but at the same time it made you feel rather naked and visible. And added to all this illumination, the fitful light of haystacks set ablaze by the barrage produced the most eerie effect.
But the mighty barrage seemed to have cowed Jerry. On the right, 21 Battalion struck next to no opposition, and was on the Scolo Brancona by 3 a.m. The B Squadron tanks, which had driven casually up Route 16 behind the infantry, joined the foremost companies just short of the ditch, and their night's work was over.
A Squadron's advance with the Maoris was a different story. It was, Captain Pyatt writes, ‘practically unique in that we actually advanced with the Inf in night attack, a tank up with each fwd platoon’. Right at the outset Second-Lieutenant Bright's tank broke down and Second-Lieutenant Kerr's collected one of our own 25-pounder shells which smashed up its radiator. Twice Kerr's troop ran into the barrage, for no detailed instructions had been available, and the Maoris had temporarily disappeared.
Jerry offered no opposition for the first half of the advance, but then, while moving in towards a farmhouse on 2 Troop's front, Majors Mitchell6 and Te Punga,7 the Maori company commanders, were killed by a Spandau burst, and for a few minutes the show lost its momentum, nobody quite knowing what was going to happen next. Then Sergeant Bernie Roberts8 reports:page 560
There came the question of how to get the Germans out. My tank was brought forward & Russell Bright was going to put some H.E. into the house but then it was decided to machine-gun instead. Finally just as we were about to open up the Maoris decided to do the job & after some grenade throwing & some yelling five or six jerries were captured.
The driving force behind this was Captain Passmore, who, appearing on the scene while things were disorganised, took charge of the nearest Maoris and sent them in to clean up the house.
The future of the attack was still a little shaky. Nobody seemed sure whether they had reached the objective or not, but finally, just as it began to get light, Lieutenant-Colonel Young9 of 28 Battalion came up and moved his companies farther on. No. 2 Troop, plus one of 4 Troop's tanks, went forward too, taking occasional shots at snipers and Spandau posts which were now popping up on the left flank. Then, when the Maoris stopped and dug in, the tanks pulled back to the farmhouse and camouflaged themselves away beside outhouses, haystacks and cypress trees, ready to join in the fight again if need be.
This was as far as the regiment went. During the morning 6 Brigade's infantry came through, with tanks of 20 Regiment, all confident that their next stop would be Venice, for the air reconnaissance reports, said they, indicated that Jerry had gone. The boys of 18 Regiment, both A and B Squadrons, pointed out that they had just been under pretty heavy mortar fire from the north, but all they could say seemed to have no effect until the 20 Regiment tanks ran into extremely hostile anti-tank guns just ahead. Eighteenth Regiment and 5 Brigade had their troubles too, for Jerry's defensive fire thickened up dangerously, and there was little let-up all day from mortar and Nebelwerfer ‘stonks’.
In the meantime there had been a lot of early morning coming and going in C Squadron. At 3.30 a.m. two troops, under Captain Brosnan, moved up with 23 Battalion to Viserba, just behind the Molini Canal, as a ‘back-stop’ for the right flank, but nothing happened, and the tankies just had to page 561 sit there, play cards and try not to feel bored. A little later, at the usual short notice, Major Allen took the rest of C Squadron up to Route 9 west of Celle, in case the two prowling Tigers came in from the left again. Here, too, though there was quite a lot of Nebelwerfer and mortar fire, there was no sign of Jerry in the flesh, only hundreds of Canadians moving up.
The regiment now spent three days of peace back on Route 9 near Celle, while 6 Brigade carried on the fight. After bringing their steeds up to action standard once more, the tankies did very little. There were unofficial sightseeing trips to Rimini and the Republic of San Marino, which for some weeks had been visible, its incredible mountain topped with three towers dominating the western skyline. Nearer home there were some Panther tank turrets to be inspected, one of them blown to bits, another intact. Some of C Squadron took a special trip back to the Rimini airfield to gloat over the turrets there.
More important than any of these short excursions, the first men to go on a week's leave to Florence had departed on 20 September and missed the last few days' fun. It was the first time that a big leave party had ever gone away while the 18th was in action, and perhaps this was a sign of better times coming. The promise was that everyone would now be able to have a week's leave before many months were past. For men who had been rather starved for leave since coming to Italy, this was very good news.
Here by Celle the regiment was pretty well organised for comfort. Nearly everyone had houses to live in. Plenty of local wine had been ‘borrowed’ in the course of the battle, and this was put to good use, for sixty-one of the unit's oldest inhabitants, all that was left of the 4th Reinforcements, were sent off on the first stage of their long trip home. For their sakes everyone was happy to see them go, but saying goodbye is never a happy business, and a lot of sorrows had to be drowned.
The Kiwis' first action on the Romagna plain had not been very encouraging; the next was even less so. By 26 September 6 Brigade had pushed on a mere three or four miles, had crossed some more muddy ditches and the larger but equally page 562 muddy Uso River, and was heading for the Fiumicino, or Rubicon, beyond. The advances were measured in terms of single watercourses, not a bit like the promised Po Valley gallop. Most of the boys had heard of the Rubicon as the scene of one of Julius Caesar's exploits long ago, but they were not very impressed. What they wanted was the chance for some twentieth-century Kiwi exploits.
Prospects for this did not look too bright. By the afternoon of 27 September, when 5 Brigade prepared to take over the running again, 6 Brigade had made only another mile in twenty-four hours, against heavy opposition, and it looked like rain. Nobody was very optimistic about the immediate future.
That evening 21 and 23 Battalions relieved 6 Brigade, and 18 Regiment went too, B Squadron with 21 Battalion on the right, C with 23 Battalion on the left, each squadron with two troops forward and some British self-propelled guns attached. And as they moved forward, down came the rain.
It was only light rain, but it was ominous. The tanks had to cross the Uso by a rickety bridge reached by a home-made track over the fields, already greasy and treacherous in the dark. Just over the Uso they floundered through soft demolitions in the road. The country beyond the river, as far as they could see by the artificial moonlight, was horribly open, with only a few scattered houses, and a lot of ploughed ground cut in all directions by the inevitable drainage ditches. The first sight of it by daylight confirmed the night-time impression that this was a dismal hole indeed.
There was little time to take stock, for by 9 a.m. the leading tanks were off again on the infantry's heels, advancing towards the Fiumicino. It was bad going for the infantry across the soft plough and through wet vines. At the ditches the tanks were held up while the crews piled out and shovelled like mad; sometimes the drivers had to reverse the tanks through bad spots. On every lane, too, there were demolitions. But on top of all this they had Jerry to contend with. He was perched up in the top stories of the houses just short of the Fiumicino, and his Spandaus and mortars were pasting the whole area. His bazooka merchants lurked in vines and haystacks. The Shermans and self-propelled guns hammered the houses, but page 563 it did not help much. The Air Force could not help because the weather was too thick.
Then, early in the afternoon, a gale blew up from the sea, and the rain began to come down in torrents.
This was one of the most dreadful afternoons and nights that the Kiwis ever had to spend. The infantry struggled ahead through pouring rain and rapidly deepening mud. The tanks did their best to keep up; communications broke down almost completely, tanks and infantry lost each other, and at one stage the tanks were out in front quite unprotected. Tracks slithered on the sodden ground or clogged up with mud. Tanks bogged down and the others had to haul them out. One B Squadron tank had its radiators holed with mortar shrapnel.
Under such miserable conditions it was quite a feat for infantry and tanks to reach the Fiumicino late in the afternoon. But their hold on the riverbank, once gained, was very thin. There were still Germans on our side of the river, and it was impossible to cover a continuous front. Most of the tanks were a little way back from the high floodbanks of the river, but a few of both B and C Squadrons were right up against the banks, in a pretty poor position (their crews thought), without much view of the battlefield, and vulnerable to any raiding party that might nip over the river.
There was to have been a ‘set-piece’ attack across the Fiumicino that night, but it would not have been humanly possible to mount it. In the evening the gale screamed even higher and the rain increased to solid sheets. It was an appalling night. There was almost no cover, for most of the houses had been shot to pieces by the tanks. Wounded infantrymen died of exposure, an almost unknown thing in 2 NZ Division.
In the afternoon and evening infantry patrols with tank officers braved the storm to inspect the riverbank. There were numbers of Germans visible on the far side, and some worthwhile targets were passed back along the chain of men and then by wireless to the nearest tanks. But the reports on future prospects were gloomy. In a few hours the little Fiumicino, usually not much more than a creek, had become deep and turbulent and wide. The banks were mined and festooned with barbed wire. However, that would not be an immediate worry, page 564 for the tanks would never be able to move in the morning.
This was all too true. Day broke on a scene of waterlogged desolation. Tanks and even jeeps were stuck fast. Supplies for the tanks had not come forward, for the track to the Uso bridge was so bad that traffic slowed to a crawl and jammed up on both sides of it. The few tanks still free did their best to pull the others out so that they could move closer to the Fiumicino, for the orders now were to consolidate the near bank before crossing; but these orders were quite impossible to carry out. The rain had stopped, but it made little difference. Between the Uso and the Fiumicino you could not navigate even the roads.
Surprisingly, 30 September was fine, but the damage was done. Experts who inspected the riverbank on the night of 29 September thought the tanks would not be able to cross for three or four days. The farmyards and fields were morasses. Only the Honey tanks were still more or less mobile, and they were kept running to and fro on all sorts of jobs.
Inevitably, these days developed into artillery and mortar slogging matches, each side trying to knock down the other's front-line houses and put his guns out of the fight. The B and C Squadron tanks in the line took their fair share in the ‘house-hunting’ duels that went on across the Fiumicino, knocking the top stories off some houses just over the river, and doubtless annoying Jerry, who replied with an almost continuous shower of mortar bombs round the tanks. By 30 September the Fiumicino farms were already beginning to look like a Flanders scene from 1917.
On the night of 30 September there was a general changeover, 28 and 22 Battalions taking over from 21 and 23. A Squadron came up with 28 Battalion, and B Squadron gladly retired. The last three days, for all their rain and unpleasantness, had been desperately busy ones for B Squadron, which had shot away as much ammunition as in any three days in Italy. The war diary comments: ‘An absence of houses in the battle area has resulted in a lot of them [B Sqn] getting very wet.’ This was a common complaint round the Rubicon about this time.
The B Squadron tanks went back only a mile or two to Bellaria, another of the seaside towns which almost overlapped page 565 along this stretch of coast. Regimental Headquarters and all the tanks not in the line had gone there on 29 September. It was a nice town with plenty of good houses to live in, but much too near the front for a rest area, the boys said. Jerry paid it too much attention; it was as dangerous as the firing line. Within three days 18 Regiment had four men wounded there. In particular there was a big fast gun called the ‘Adriatic Express’, whose shells came roaring down Route 16, shaking the houses as they passed and bursting with a terrible concussion. There would not be much left of a house if one of those things collected it, thought the boys nervously.
And so it went on for three more dreary days. A Squadron's stay up beyond the Uso was very short, for on the evening of 1 October a Greek battalion, complete with tanks of 20 Regiment, came up and took over from the Maoris, and A Squadron happily pulled back to Bellaria. C Squadron, whose two troops were the only 18 Regiment representatives in the line now, was kept on the go; Captain Laurie, who had just taken over the squadron, had his tanks shooting at Jerry's houses by day, and at night there were patrols from both sides wandering round the front. One night a small but cheeky German attack on 22 Battalion's left spilled over on to C Squadron's left-hand troop, which, says the war diary, ‘shot every weapon they had and the spot was a hot one for some time’.
The other squadrons had more to do than just sit round. The unit's recovery tank was busier than it had ever been, pulling tanks out of the Rubicon mud. Parties went up, by Honey tank, scout car, or sometimes on foot, to recover gear from tanks that could not be hauled out. Sometimes they ran into trouble on their own account. A typical adventure is told by Captain Don Thomson of B Squadron:
Left Bellaria in a Honey … and proceeded towards the tanks, but when some 1000 yards away, the road was blocked by a knocked out 20th tank and in endeavouring to pass it, the Honey slipped into the mud and there it stayed. That track had become a hot spot … and we were very pleased when the Arty O.P. quickly put down a smoke screen to allow us to get back….
That night I took a patrol of half-a-dozen across country to recover the equipment…. It was very dark and we were moving across open farm lands when … we were mortared very heavily page 566 and so accurately that we were all well plastered with mud. It was quite obvious that the Germans … had listening posts and patrols out and had our patrol so well taped that it was wiser to retire.
The ground, which on 1 October seemed to be drying out slightly, got as bad as ever when it rained again on the 2nd. It looked as if the big advance was ‘off’ indefinitely. C Squadron's forward crews were wet and cold and miserable, and picketing the tanks at night was a vile job. Everyone had discarded summer clothes and was back in battle dress by now, and the real winter gear, leather jerkins and scarves and balaclavas, was reappearing after six months.
But even the worst job comes to an end eventually; on 4 October C Squadron was relieved, and the whole regiment went back six miles to Viserba, behind the Molini Canal, near where B Squadron had opened the ball on 22 September. One tank bogged down near the Uso bridge and had to be dragged out next morning after its crew had spent a cold, dinnerless night. Captain Brosnan of C Squadron surprised everyone by bringing back a tank that had had its radiators perforated by shrapnel the day before. The war diary says: ‘He filled the holes up with mud, put on a good mud pack over the radiator and had four men with four gallon water cans working on the back the whole time.’
The 18th had a whole block of houses in Viserba, but had to evict a number of assorted squatters before it could take possession. It had never had better billets anywhere. Viserba had been a holiday resort like Riccione, ‘only,’ remarked one man, ‘not so flash’. The civilians, such of them as still remained there, were very friendly. Regimental Headquarters had an unusual billet in a nunnery, and the nuns, one man wrote appreciatively, were ‘kindness itself’. B Echelon arrived up the first afternoon, and the whole unit was together again for a while, with the luxury of cookhouses and the YMCA canteen. The tanks had to be parked in a paddock half a mile outside the town, with one troop from each squadron living with them and picketing them, but this was a minor inconvenience.
Sheltered by the good waterproof houses of Viserba, which had not suffered too badly in the fighting, the boys could thumb their noses at the rain, which began again on 6 October page 567 and kept on solidly for two days. They were well supplied with life's comforts—the tanks had come out of action loaded up with such things as bedsteads and pigs and poultry. There were hot showers not far away. The mobile cinema turned on a show nearly every night. There was football, there were vino parties. Some of the boys got hold of a German Mark IV tank that had been captured near the Molini Canal, and drove it up and down the beach, which was right next door to the billets.
But despite this comfortable existence, there was a dark mood among the Kiwis, who had gone into battle by Rimini with their tails well up. The irresistible charge across the plains had turned out a real ‘fizzer’. Instead, they were floundering in the water only a few miles from where they had started. There were a few sarcastic remarks about old Julius Caesar and his feat at the Rubicon; the opinion was heard round the camp that he could not have had Shermans with him.
And what was to happen next? Surely not another whole winter like the last! It was hard to accept such an idea, but it was beginning to look inevitable.