19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 16 — Egypt to Italy
All is now downhill—Italy lies before you!
Even though their hearts may have been light, the troops’ backs when leaving Egypt for Italy were burdened almost to the point of breaking under the proverbial last straw. In fact, if it had not been for mutual support and much good-hearted pushing and shoving, many would have collapsed beneath their burdens while embarking in the lighters which took them to the waiting transports and when negotiating the steep, swaying gangways leading up the ships’ sides. The load carried by each man was of impressive proportions. It included a bedroll of four blankets, a kitbag with a full issue of both winter and summer clothing, a haversack with personal gear for toilet and messing and miscellaneous articles, weapon and ammunition, full webb gear and respirator, anti-malaria outfit, emergency ration, field dressing, a two-gallon water can, and one bivouac tent between each two men. Additional items for regimental and squadron orderly rooms, unit records of one sort or another, medical supplies and a prudent proportion of tools —all had to be manhandled.
Once aboard—the regiment was split up among three ships, Regimental Headquarters and B Squadron on the Nieuw Holland, A Squadron on the Llangibby Castle, and C Squadron on the Letitia, with part of Headquarters Squadron on each—the problem was to fit men and gear into the limited space, for all ships were crowded. When this was accomplished, however, the sea trip became a very pleasant break. The weather was ideal and the convoy, at one time comprising more than fifty vessels, made an impressive sight as it steamed across the calm Mediterranean.
On the first day out the destination—Italy—was disclosed in the GOC’s special order of the day, which was read to all troops:page 320
TO ALL RANKS 2 NZ DIV.
During the final training at BURG EL ARAB I told you we were going overseas. Now that we have left NORTH AFRICA, I can tell you we are on the way to Italy. This may not be a surprise to you; neither is it our first venture across the Mediterranean. In 1941, many of you went to the help of Greece and took part in that short and ill-fated campaign. All those early campaigns in the Middle East were difficult ones. We were usually outnumbered and short of the essential equipment. Although in Greece and Crete we suffered a heavy reverse we never lost our steadiness or doubted our ability to overcome the Germans when equipment did arrive.
Two and a half years have passed and times have changed. The victories in North Africa are behind us. We go back now across the Mediterranean as a veteran Division. Further, for the first time our own Armoured Brigade is with us and we will take the field as the most powerfully equipped Division in the world. I cannot say what our role will be, but it is certain to be a mobile one in which we may operate as an independent force as we have done many times before. Battle conditions in Europe will be very different from those in the Western Desert; much of the country is mountainous and wooded, while the valleys and plains will be cultivated. Speaking generally, the country will favour defence and infantry will play a bigger part. The conditions under which we will be fighting call for the highest degree of physical fitness.
As you can see from the map of Europe, the tide has turned strongly in favour of the Allies. This has been a brutal war especially on the Continent. The Germans realise what defeat will mean and what is coming to them. They can be depended upon therefore to fight hard up to the moment when the crack comes. After four years of war, we know our German and we know quite well we can beat him. Lastly I need not add that I am confident the Division, trained and equipped as it is, will maintain its reputation in the difficult times that lie before us.
The announcement that Italy was to be the new theatre surprised very few, for all had followed the fortunes of Fifth and Eighth Armies, whose invasion of the Italian mainland took place while preparations for the Division’s move from Egypt were in full swing. There were some who had hoped for a return to Greece and for an opportunity to reverse the page 321 parts played there four years previously. Mr Churchill’s references to the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe, and the inclusion of an armoured brigade with the Division seemed, in the opinion of some of the old hands, to favour a return to the Balkans, especially as recent news from Italy had been so good. Mussolini had resigned; Naples had fallen; the situation seemed to be well in hand there. Perhaps now a new thrust would be made elsewhere?
The news, however, was generally well received, for there were few who were not moved by the prospect of seeing something of a country which history, art and literature had provided with so rich a background. The dead domains and the long-buried culture of the ancient Pharoahs could not compete in interest with the birthplace of boyhood heroes. Italian opera, too, even in far-away New Zealand, had many followers. This, the land of the Cæsars, of Michaelangelo, of Rossini, of Leonardo da Vinci, was approached with keen expectation by the troops now headed towards its shores.
At dawn on 21 October Sicily came into view, and the following morning the convoy neared the Italian mainland. By noon the ships were entering the inner harbour of Taranto, the great naval base of the Italian Fleet. A cruiser and a couple of destroyers were the only survivors there of the warships which Mussolini only two years before had boasted were the masters of the Mediterranean.
The backdrop of buildings flanking the harbour looked impressive, but as the disembarking troops clambered from ship to lighter, and then from lighter to quayside, the city of Taranto began to lose its enchantment. A few shoddy-looking, all too familiar green uniforms represented the troops of our former enemy. The wearers lounged apathetically and looked with bored detachment at the stream of khaki spilling over the quayside into their country. The none too polite sallies from soldiers with a smattering of Italian picked up from prisoners of war during desert days failed to straighten their backs or raise their choler. Despised but apparently unmoved, here in their natural setting they looked no better than they had done in North Africa. They had no heart for the war. A week earlier Italy page 322 had been granted the courtesy title ‘co-belligerent’. Now, after their disastrous defeats on land and sea by the Allies, the Italians were feeling the severity of the Axis claw.
Whatever the reaction of the disembarking troops, however, —and reactions vary with the individual—the Taranto disembarkation was one of varying degrees of disappointment. This insanitary-looking port in over-populated southern Italy did not conform at all to the popular conception of the country which had been approached with such keen anticipation. But the seven and a half mile march to a camp set among olive groves at Tedesco revived the natural ebullience of the troops. En route, despite the burden of full packs, 19 Regiment sang lustily. The clear air of the countryside was fresh and exhilarating. On the panorama of green fields and trees, glimpses of distant spires and whitewashed stone buildings combined in compositions vastly more satisfying than the drab, unending desert horizons of yesterday.
That evening, after a meal and the erection of bivouac tents in the rock-strewn olive grove, the men of the squadrons gathered round camp fires to spend their first night in Italy. A wine factory, which earlier reconnaissance had discovered adjacent to the regimental area, provided the means for a successful house-warming party. The smell of wood smoke and earth and the lurid, unsteady illumination of the fires flickering among the olive trees created a picnic atmosphere. So violent was the contrast to the conditions in Egypt that many felt they might have been back in New Zealand. All revelled in their new surroundings.
Even the prosaic unit war diary struck a lyrical note, referring at length to ‘lavender horizons, amethyst sunrises, evening skies of carmine, blood red and gold’, and much more in similar vein. One entry describing the countryside posed the rhetorical question, ‘Can anything be more starkly naked than a bare fig tree?’ This did not escape the cold official eye, for pencilled against the margin is a laconic ‘Yes’.
During the stay at Tedesco the unit exploited to the full all the fascinating possibilities of the countryside. Though page 323 lack of transport rendered the 19th immobile, this did not deter its members from following wide and varied trails of exploration. Route marches were officially a popular method of passing the time. The scene did not soon lose its charm, nor did the novelty of living and working close to civilians quickly wear off. The troops fraternised with the local peasantry and, despite language difficulties, soon struck up friendships. Italian families who could count a Kiwi soldier among their callers were fortunate, for gifts of bully beef and other rations not highly esteemed by the soldier were most welcome to the civilians of this war-ravaged country.
Fortunate, too, was the Kiwi who, when the weather broke on 28 October, could find shelter under an Italian roof. The deluge lasted for two days and turned the sylvan scene into a miserable morass. Now the troops got a glimpse of the conditions that would so often beset them during the first five months of the campaign in Italy. The foul, clinging mud would prove an uncompromising foe to both man and vehicle; a foe which would restrict the role of the regiment and at times completely immobilise many of its tanks.
On 28 October Major Wooller arrived from Bari with his small party and a selection of unit transport comprising jeeps, scout cars, 15-cwt trucks and a water cart. These were fully employed immediately and the regimental commissariat was quick to seize the chance of supplementing hard rations by foraging for supplies of fresh food and drink. Eggs and vegetables, and wine of various colours and intriguing titles but of a fairly uniform potency were readily obtainable in exchange for bully beef and biscuits.
Training, designed to harden the troops for the physical rigours of forthcoming actions, was the daily routine at Tedesco. After the 28th, however, rain interfered with the programme but provided the opening for a suitable substitute for the set-piece physical jerks, cross-country runs and marches. Pick-and-shovel parties replaced physical training, and much time was spent improving the muddy tracks and making roads. Local flooding soon drove some men from the localities they had chosen on arrival, and many bivvy tents were shifted from the spots where the mud was page 324 deepest to places where it was only a little less boggy. Drying clothing and gear was a problem, and a fresh hazard in the area were the clothes-lines strung between the olives and the vine pergolas. During the day these wires were festooned with damp clothing, but at night, bare and invisible, they became traps for the unwary.
On 1 November summer clothing was withdrawn and battle dress became the official attire. News of the impending move nearer the front line was well received, but as the regiment was still without its tanks, preparatory tactical training took the form of a TEWT (tactical exercise without troops).
On the 2nd the CO and Adjutant left to reconnoitre the new area, thirty RMT trucks reported in, and camp was struck during the evening. The unit moved out at eight o’clock the following morning. Extraordinary precautions had been taken to prevent the presence of the New Zealand Division in Italy becoming known, and strict wireless silence was enforced on all moves. Titles, badges, and the New Zealand insignia were removed from the vehicles before they started on the northward trek.
The ride up through southern Italy from Tedesco to the Monachella area took two days. The route led through Martina Franca to Alberobella, where the countryside, dotted with the curiously shaped ‘trulli’ houses, was full of interest. The farmers in the regiment, in particular, found much to talk about during the trip. By noon on the first day a halt was made at a staging camp in the vicinity of Altamura, and the journey was not resumed until 8 a.m. on the 4th. Travelling via Corato, Andria, Canosa, Foggia, Lucera —on account of road demolition—and San Severo, the convoy crossed the plains of Puglia and reached its destination at 4.30 p.m.
Before the main body of the troops arrived, Regimental Headquarters had been set up in a farmhouse at Pazienza, and Captain Reid with the jeep and scout-car drivers had marked out the unit area at Monachella, south-west of San page 325 Severo. The place was picturesque and pretty, with hills and forest separating the numerous villages. The autumn weather was cool, and squadrons spent the time sorting out and preparing their areas to accommodate the tanks, which were expected from Bari at any time.
There were few signs of war in this part of the country; even on the road up from Taranto the only visible evidence had been blown bridges, an occasional road demolition, and a little bomb damage to some of the buildings on the main road. The population, however, was obviously in straitened circumstances and was eager to exchange items of local manufacture for food, cigarettes, and cast-off clothing.
Unofficial expeditions to the many nearby villages were made by men anxious to send home some souvenir of Italy before all stocks were snapped up. Lace and hats were the main items available for purchase or barter, and those with wives or sweethearts soon had parcels ready for despatch. Others without such attachments found that the local vino merchants offered at seven lire a litre wares much more to their taste. There were evidently some connoisseurs in the unit, for on one occasion the Padre had good reason to suspect that the sacramental wine had been secretly replaced by a less palatable local vintage.
Some men managed to visit Foggia and returned with accounts of the havoc done there during the hotly contested battles for the airfield by which the city was almost surrounded. Bomb damage had been particularly severe in the crowded residential outskirts, and the failure of electricity, water and sewerage had left the large population in a sorry state.
Fourth Armoured Brigade’s assembly area was some 30 miles behind the front line, where Eighth Army, after a successful and speedy advance, was held up in the Sangro valley, which formed the eastern flank of a German defence line designed to hold the Allied armies during the winter months. Officers of 19 Regiment took the opportunity to go up to the forward areas and acquaint themselves with the problems of armoured movement across country and along the many intersecting minor routes. The clogging mud page 326 so much in evidence at Tedesco was even worse in areas where there was movement of heavy traffic. Bomb damage, demolitions, and solid wear and tear of roads and tracks had already made the movement of tanks hazardous. Winter had only just begun; the full three months of bad weather to follow would make much of the battle area impassable.
On 6 November the regiment’s main flight vehicles, which had left Tewfik on 21 October and arrived at Bari on 3 November, began to arrive. The tank crews were wet through and had had a trying trip up. Squadrons immediately went to work ‘fining up’ their tanks for winter, and one of the first jobs tackled was a tough one—the removal of ‘mud guards’. These had been useful to keep down dust in the desert, but in boggy ground they simply clogged up with mud. The weather was bleak and temperatures raw, but general conditions at Monachella were still good, and in the period of calm while the Division was assembling, the troops made the most of their opportunity to enjoy themselves. The waves of British and American bombers which passed over the lines daily were heartening, as was the assurance from men who had been forward that our air superiority was so marked that few enemy planes ever ventured into the battle area.
Relations with the Italian peasants were agreeable, and as an unusual diversion a soccer team from 19 Regiment was matched against a team from the hilltop village of Torre Maggiore. The game, which was won by the unit, was watched by approximately 1000 enthusiastic spectators. Several impromptu Rugby tussles also took place, but these were between teams from within the regiment; the natives did not understand the game, though they derived much amusement from watching our men play and appeared to think that Rugby was some form of organised mayhem.
Social calls, too, were exchanged with the local inhabitants, who were hospitable and most anxious to show friendship to our men. The CO and Adjutant accepted the invitation of the Padrone and were entertained at the Castello. The meal was novel but palatable, the dessert being a confection which looked like chocolate—it was, in page 327 fact, dried pig’s blood sweetened and served with cream. Fortunately the ingredients were not revealed until after the dish had been eaten, but for the rest of the evening the guests of honour were seen to swallow hard and frequently.
On 11 November the forward move began and the CO left on a reconnaissance to Palmoli (south of Furci), where 8 Indian Division was in action, and at 7.30 a.m. on the 14th the regiment was on its way to Furci where Divisional Tactical Headquarters was set up. The route up for most of the troops was along the main roads through San Severo, San Paolo, Termoli, San Salvo, Abate (near Vasto) and Cupello, but the tanks covered a lot of the distance across country and staged for the night at Termoli. For them the latter stages of the journey were most difficult. Demolished bridges, traffic jams, and bad weather all contrived to delay their progress along the tracks and secondary roads chosen as the most suitable route. It was 16 November before all squadrons were back with the regiment, and even then five vehicles had been left by the roadside. Otherwise the trip was uneventful. Now the unit was far enough forward to hear the shellfire. Grimly reminding them of the vulnerability of even the heaviest armour, the tank crews on their way up had seen burnt-out Shermans and German Mark IVs lying derelict on each side of the road in the San Salvo area.
At Furci the tanks had an anxious few minutes when a carrier from 22 (Motor) Battalion caught fire and illuminated the whole of the refuelling point. The burning carrier also set fire to a haystack, and it was some time before the blaze was subdued. In the desert a beacon like this would have invited disaster, but here the excitement was purely local. No aircraft appeared.
At 7 a.m. on the 17th the regiment moved still further forward. Regimental Headquarters’ tanks, followed by Headquarters Reconnaissance, C Squadron and A Squadron, passed through Gissi and Castelanguido, north-west of Furci. At 11.15 a.m. they halted on a hillside above a demolished bridge over the Osento River, just below the town of Atessa, which was at that time being shelled by the enemy. The page 328 engineers were working on a river crossing, but it was not ready for traffic before nightfall, so at 5.45 p.m. a descent was made into the riverbed, where RHQ and the two squadrons harboured for the night. B Squadron joined them later. A and C Squadrons each lost a tank over banks during the day.
This move to Atessa was taken on orders which placed the regiment under the command of 19 Indian Infantry Brigade. During the previous night the CO had gone forward to meet the Brigadier commanding that formation. At first light on the 18th the advance was resumed, and the tanks and A Echelon vehicles crossed the Osento River without incident, though the bad weather and difficult detours to bypass demolitions made progress slow and taxed the skill of the drivers. All tanks reached the destination safely, and on arrival at Atessa the regiment received orders for an immediate attack on Perano, between Atessa and the Sangro River.
The 19th, now committed operationally for the first time since Ruweisat Ridge, made preparations to go into action. To the regiment went the honour of being the first New Zealand unit to engage the enemy and take an objective in the Italian campaign.