20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 20 — The Last Lap
The Last Lap
Life in the rest area at Forli followed the pattern that we have seen before, but there were some departures from the usual that seem worth recording. To start with, A Squadron had not yet had its Christmas dinner, and on 12 February it had a sit-down dinner in the YMCA. ‘Much conviviality in all squadron areas,’ records a unit diarist; ‘The boys are sure having one large party now,’ adds another. But there were one or two more serious things on hand. In Forli the regiment was not really far enough away from the line to regard the war with that air of detachment that usually settles over a rest area. C Squadron, for instance, had a job to do should the enemy launch a sudden attack and drive the New Zealanders back across the Lamone. In that event—an unlikely possibility but one for which preparations had to be made for all that—the squadron was to post a troop of tanks at each of five bridges over the river and defend them against saboteurs or enemy forces until the order to demolish them was given. The order further carried the ‘death or glory’ instruction that should the demolitions fail the squadron would be responsible for blocking or damaging the bridges with its tanks. Fortunately, the enemy had more pressing things to occupy him.
A further departure from the usual was that the regiment was broken up by detachments. From 21 February B Squadron (much envied) was away at Fabriano, attached to 9 Infantry Brigade, which had recently been formed from 22 Battalion, the Divisional Cavalry Battalion, and 27 Battalion to give the Division a third infantry brigade. Since November, in addition to the Armoured Brigade, the Division had had two infantry brigades of four battalions each, but the reorganisation now gave it three infantry brigades of three battalions.
The last major change was internal. Long-service officers due for relief were whisked away to Advanced Base as others came to replace them. There were great changes in the regiment. Its second-in-command, Major Barton, left on 11 February in the page 550 Tongariro draft; B Squadron's commander, Major Clapham, followed him on the 19th; Major Bay left Headquarters Squadron early in March to take up an appointment with DAAG 2 NZEF; Captain Jim Moodie, one of the ‘thirty-niners’, rejoined the regiment after furlough and on 21 March was given command of C Squadron; Major Eastgate left C Squadron on that date to command Headquarters Squadron. And last, Colonel Purcell relinquished command of the regiment on 17 March, made a round of farewells, and left on the 20th for Advanced Base and return to New Zealand.
The new commander was Lieutenant-Colonel Robinson,1 also a ‘thirty-niner’ from the Divisional Cavalry and soon to be known by most of the regiment as ‘Big Robbie’—he is 6 ft 3 ins in height and built in proportion. As a lieutenant he had won the MC in Greece, and in the last couple of years had been second-in-command of the Divisional Cavalry, second-in-command and for a period temporarily CO of 18 Regiment, and a squadron commander and second-in-command of 19 Regiment. From 18 Regiment came Major Pyatt2 to become the regiment's new second-in-command.
As for junior officers, NCOs and men, many of the old hands had gone too, most of them with replacement drafts. Others had come back to the regiment from other jobs—Lieutenant Heptinstall was one—and a few were commissioned or marched out to OCTU. The NCOs who were left shared the doubtful joys of drill and duties courses and ceremonial guards.
Near Ravenna on 2 March one of C Squadron's troops took part in an Eighth Army demonstration of the effectiveness of ‘grousers’, steel extensions fitted to the tanks' tracks to make them wider and prevent them sinking so far into the mud. Each tank—there were ten in all, the last a German Panther— was equipped with a different type, and naturally Headquarters Squadron operated a totalisator on the result.
The demonstration was divided into five parts: the ‘mud page 551 patch’—an area approximately 100 yards square into which water had been pumped for the last three days—a race over a course of about a mile, and three canal crossings. The mud patch, now very soggy indeed, quickly eliminated the tanks without grousers; the Panther, once a hot favourite, did well but managed to lock itself in reverse gear and had to be towed out by a tractor. Four of the six participants left stuck hard and fast in the next canal and it was decided to call it ‘no race’. The tote was kept busy refunding the investments.
On 6 March the Division handed over the Senio front to the Poles and—except for 4 Armoured Brigade—went back to the Fabriano area. The armour went to Cesenatico, not such a long journey for tanks, those from the regiment making the move from Forli on 4 and 5 March. Cesenatico was a battered seaside resort on the coast below Cervia, and the regiment's new billets —dirty, doorless and windowless—needed a lot of hard work to make them comfortable. A cold wind straight off the Adriatic smothered everything in sand.
To entertain those who were left behind, Padre Gunn formed an enthusiastic committee which arranged dances, card evenings, discussions and quiz sessions, and he was possibly the busiest man in the regiment. At Forli B and C Squadrons held successful ‘race meetings’, it being recorded of the former that ‘a bar was operated selling three types of local anaesthetic’, and of the latter that the ‘tote and vino bar did excellent business for sqn funds’. Another race meeting, this one with live horses, as the regiment's war diary is careful to point out, was held at Cesena under Eighth Army auspices on 10 March, parties from the regiment going there by truck. From Cesenatico Padre Gunn organised a series of trips to Ravenna and San Marino. ‘Picture trucks’ also took parties to the RAF cinema at Cervia and the YMCA cinema screened its films in a courtyard behind RHQ, one of its programmes being preceded by a recital by 4 Armoured Brigade's band. A big Australian ‘two-up’ school also had its patrons.
Two Headquarters Squadron NCOs, Sergeant-Major Arthur page 552 Brown3 and Sergeant Morrie Heath,4 had a lucky escape on 24 March when a Thunderbolt carrying two 1000-pound bombs hit the tower of the Brigade Workshops building at Cesenatico while taking off from the airfield. The Sergeant-Major had just backed his truck into the workshops to pick up some tank batteries when one of the bombs came through the roof of the building, hit the cab roof, bounced on the floor just in front of the truck, rolled a few yards ahead and failed to explode. Both men had just alighted from their truck when the bomb landed between them. The plane itself careered on for another 150 yards before it hit the ground behind a line of Ordnance Field Park trucks, two of which it carried into the canal with it. The pilot, a storeman sitting in one of the trucks writing a letter, and an Italian fishing from a boat in the canal were killed. ‘Workshops had moved from that building within about half an hour,’ says one eye-witness.
In the last week of March the conferences began again, and anyone with an ear to the ground or eyes to see knew at once that his rest had come to an end. On the 23rd, the harbinger of many a battle, came a brigade parade—all webbing scrubbed —and on the last day of the month another at which General Freyberg presented awards won by the tank men and took the salute at the march past. Major Moodie was presented with the MC which he had won over two and a half years before as an infantry lieutenant at Minqar Qaim; Major Colmore-Williams's MC was won in his battle with a Tiger tank at Sant' Andrea on the way to Florence; while Sergeant-Major Lilley had earned his MM for his courage and technical skill in repairing damaged tanks under fire during the fighting at Orsogna and in Cassino.
In keeping with the increased tempo of the regiment's preparations for battle, A Squadron had a false alarm on the evening of 28 March when reports that enemy E-boats were suspected to be travelling south down the coast brought orders to stand-to. The tanks took up positions on the barbed-wire-entangled beach for a few hours, but were stood down at 10.30 p.m. when a report was received that our air force had located the enemy ships and dispersed them.page 553
The order to move came on 30 March. It was kept a secret, but the preparations for an attack are hard to conceal. One of the clues was the arrival of six new Chrysler-engined, petrol-driven Shermans with 105-millimetre guns, and of two 17- pounder radial-engine Shermans. The technical staff hardly had time to tune-up the new tanks or their crews to admire them before they were away. At 8 p.m. on the 31st the tanks roared away from Cesenatico on their new chevron rubber tracks. The ‘wheels’ gave them an hour and a half's start before they in their turn headed towards the battle.
Meanwhile, at Fabriano B Squadron had had a busy month with 9 Brigade, which was doing some concentrated training with the tanks for the next battle. The manoeuvre being practised was the advance with armoured support. In turn, two troops from the squadron would support the attacking infantry, sometimes from 22 Battalion, sometimes machine-gunners, sometimes from the Divisional Cavalry. The battles were fought over a huge valley floor, surrounded on either side by high hills and ending in a steep mountainside—an ideal battle range. From vantage points in the hills the controllers, in touch by wireless with the units spread out below them, could watch every move; loudspeakers set up on the right flank on ‘Grandstand Hill’ relayed all the wireless messages to the spectators, who could follow the whole of the battle from the first orders to open fire to the capture of the last objective.
First the mortars would lay a screen of smoke on the first objective; then the infantry—how tiny and toy-like they looked —would suddenly appear from a sunken creek-bed and advance up the valley, firing tommy guns or throwing smoke grenades as they closed on their objectives. Then the tanks would be called up to consolidate or to shoot up targets given them by the infantry platoons; objective ‘Orange’ would be firmly secured and the attack would move on to ‘Peach’ or ‘Lemon’. The squadron's two 17-pounders had no ammunition to spare and fired token shots only, but the shooting of the other tanks was very accurate and little time elapsed from when the infantry first indicated a target until it was brought under fire. Each battle generally lasted about three and a half hours.
C Squadron's training with 5 and 6 Brigade battalions at page 554 Camerino and San Severino followed much the same lines. The tanks did exercises in co-operation with infantry from the various battalions and the infantry in their turn visited the squadron and got to know the tanks and their crews. Spring rains spoiled some of the exercises, but by now the ground was hard enough for tanks to move across country. The troops who a few weeks earlier had come back out of the line grey and weary and covered with mud were now fit and keen. Spring was the time for big offensives, and no one in the Division doubted that that time had now come.
The regiment's night move from Cesenatico had been secret, with signs blacked out and badges and titles hidden away, and at Villafranca, its new area some five miles north of Forli, its vehicles were ‘frozen’ and camouflaged and no one was allowed to leave the area. The sun was hot and the roads dusty; convoys streamed past all day on their way to the front; and just before midnight on 1 April A Squadron sent two troops forward to relieve troops of 4 Hussars with 24 and 25 Battalions, one tank from No. 1 Troop later going up to the stopbank at the request of the infantry. This tank moved up on to the bank near San Severo before dawn on the 3rd and opened fire on enemy sniper posts and dugouts, this sortie once again giving A Squadron the honour of being first into action. Wooden supports and sandbags scattered around after the shooting confirmed the accuracy of this crew's gunnery.
B Squadron's transport arrived at Villafranca from Fabriano in the early morning of 2 April and its tanks early on the 4th. C Squadron rejoined the regiment on the 3rd after an uneventful move from San Severino, the tank crews waking from an uneasy sleep on the floors of their goods vans and ‘flatties’ to a lovely spring morning—‘even the Forli railway siding … looked cheerful’. For the first time that year the crews bivvied in the open. ‘Villafranca,’ says one man, ‘was a typical collection of Italian farmhouses, each with an odorous manure heap in close proximity to the kitchen.’
The first job was to fit the B and C Squadron tanks with chevron rubber tracks in place of the steel ones ‘to facilitate the pursuit of the beaten foe’. The quotation is from a C Squadron correspondent, who adds the cynical comment that the page 555 tank crews had heard ‘that particular line of bull before’. More 17-pounders and 105-millimetre Shermans arrived for these two squadrons.
Meanwhile, No. 1 Troop of A Squadron was engaged on the evening of the 3rd in supporting an attack on the Senio's eastern stopbank by two companies of 24 Battalion. After a bitter battle in which the opposing troops showered each other with hand grenades at a range of only a few yards, the tanks took a hand by firing delayed-action shells into the enemy's positions, literally blasting the enemy from them. The enemy replied with harassing fire from the opposite stopbank through a ‘blow’ in the eastern bank, and although canvas screens were strung across the gap to block his vision the annoyance did not cease until one of A Squadron's tanks was called forward to retaliate. The tank came up during the night and at first light ‘went to town’ on machine-gun pits and OPs on the opposite bank, firing about sixty rounds before the bank collapsed.
While crews and fitters sweated and swore as they changed over their tracks, the regiment's officers were busy with reconnaissances and conferences. By the 5th all preparations were completed, and next morning Tactical Headquarters and A Echelon moved up close to Granarolo while the rest of the tanks moved to their assembly areas. The squadrons' dispositions for the coming attack were that A was to support 24 Battalion, B the 25th, and C the 26th. The regiment was under 6 Brigade's command on the left of the Division's 4500-yard front. Fifth Brigade was to the right and 9 Brigade behind in reserve. Sixteen hundred and forty aircraft, 800 tanks, and some 350 guns on the Division's sector alone made a heavy bludgeon in Eighth Army's hands. ‘Ted is sure going to get some hurry up,’ noted one diarist.
The regiment's dispositions on 7 April, so that the stage may be set for the attack, were that A Squadron was nearest the river with 24 Battalion in the area of San Severo, from which it sent one tank forward each night to support the infantry on the eastern stopbank. B Squadron was at Granarolo with 25 Battalion, about 1500 yards from the nearest bend in the river, and C Squadron was about a mile farther back, taking up positions and getting its ammunition ready to take part in the D-day barrage. Over the front our fighter-bombers were busy harassing the enemy, while on our side of the river the guns crowded forward, including those of a self-propelled battery of Royal Devonshire Ycomanry which was attached to the regiment. Noting that they were now surrounded by artillery, and with memories of the last enemy outburst still fresh in their minds, the men of A Echelon dug themselves in or made up shakedowns in the basements of their casas.
The main appointments in the regiment before the attack began were as follows:
|CO||Lt-Col H. A. Robinson|
|Second-in-Command||Maj W. A. Pyatt|
|Adjutant||Capt J. L. Hazlett|
|HQ Squadron||Maj R. B. F. Eastgate|
|A Squadron||Maj C. F. S. Caldwell|
|B Squadron||Maj S. J. Wright7|
|C Squadron||Maj J. F. Moodie|
A C Squadron correspondent sets the scene:
0100 hrs on Sunday 8th April found the crews in the mood of men woken from a well earned rest, some ‘bitchy’ and others aggressively cheerful. No lights were allowed, so while some struggled to boil up on the floor of the turret their mates endeavoured to jam the last of their blankets into 4.5 boxes and at last the cold approach march began in pitch dark and amidst clouds of dust.page 558
‘D’ Day, Monday 9th April, dawned clear and warm and found the troop in the middle of an open paddock 4000 yds south of the Senio, putting the finishing touches to their camouflage nets. In front of them, hidden by trees and a sugar beet factory somewhat battered but still standing, was the Senio, to their left and in their rear were Arty batteries also hidden by trees that had been almost chopped through ready to be knocked over at zero hour, to their right were a troop of tanks of another Sqn, also camouflaged.
Nothing served to distinguish the morning from any other morning of the past four months, an occasional burst of Spandau, an occasional stonk by mortars or ‘Moaning Minnie’ with an odd Spitfire on patrol. In the middle of the morning a convoy of ammo trucks arrived bringing with them 400 rounds for each tank….
Colonel Robinson began D-day with a flight over the Senio area in an Air OP plane about 10 a.m. The forward tanks had been withdrawn behind Granarolo to clear the field for the bombers, and just before two o'clock the first waves of Fortresses and Liberators arrived, their wings flashing in the sunlight. Hundreds of small fragmentation bombs rained down on the enemy's side of the river, the rumble of the explosions (‘like an underground train passing through a tunnel’) and the drone of hundreds of aircraft engines drowning the front with sound. Wave followed wave for over an hour; then at twenty minutes past three the guns took over the bombardment for about half an hour, their shells sketching the line of the river in a ragged scarf of yellow smoke. Then suddenly the sky became black with fighter-bombers and the air screamed as they darted and dived into the pall of smoke and dust. Then back came the guns again, then more fighters, and at twenty minutes past seven the smoke line of the river leapt into flame as the flame-throwers arched their slim jets across to the enemy positions on the far bank. The flames died as suddenly as they had sprung to life and a thick pall of black smoke rose over the river. It was now twenty-two minutes past seven—the last hour of daylight. The guns opened their barrage, the infantry launched their kapok bridges, and we were across the Senio.
Except for C Squadron, which for the last three hours from 4 p.m. had been sweating over its guns in the first phases of the barrage, the regiment took no part in this turmoil. It could do nothing until the sappers got a Bailey bridge over the river. All the men were impressed, perhaps awed would be a better page 559 word, with the opening of the offensive. One C Squadron man describes it:
At 1.50 the first of the Forts appeared flying in from the SE along a radio beam with the ground troops burning yellow markers and the heavy AA firing warning bursts ahead to mark the position of the fwd troops. In they came flying in formations of three groups of nine and the roar of the 25-pdr fragmentation bombs echoed like thunder over the plain…. Later, with the last of their bombs unloaded and with the enemy positions hidden by clouds of brown dust rising high in the air, the last of the bombers turned for home. Down came the masking trees and the arty began their 140,000 round 4-hour preliminary softening-up barrage. The tank crews climbed into their turrets and began their task of pounding a hundred-yard length of stopbank with 400 shells per tank. Soon, in spite of having the motors running, the inside of the turret became almost unbearable with burnt powder fumes. 10 secs between shots isn't very long when a fresh supply of shells has to be kept up and the empty cases slung overboard. Soon the guns began to slam back and fwd as the oil in their recoil systems heated and the crew were glad of ¼ hr spells every hour while the fighter-bombers bombed and straffed suspected enemy strongpoints along the stopbank.
By dark the tanks' task was finished and they moved, their guns still hot enough to fry eggs on, to a Sqn concentration area where the crews, somewhat tired, refueled and re-ammoed. Sleep was impossible, the crescendo of the guns seemed to grow louder and the air to vibrate so that the men felt crushed and tired. Still the guns roared and the night was as bright as day with the glare of the flamethrowers ‘doing over’ the stopbank as a final preliminary to the infantry putting in the bridgehead. The tank crews crouched over primuses cooking up their M & V stew and shouting remarks to each other above the roar of the guns. About midnight the barrage died down and reports began to come back telling how the infantry were well across against practically no resistance, which was hardly surprising after the fury of the preliminary.
As the men dossed down for the night the guns were still firing—in front, behind, all around them. B Squadron began to cross the river shortly after 3 a.m. on 10 April and by half past five had joined up with 25 Battalion. A Squadron followed and was well clear of the river by six o'clock, when C Squadron in its turn went across. The tanks jolted over the hastily constructed Bailey bridges, their crews eager to get a close view of the enemy stopbank. Far higher than that on the Faenza side of the river and honeycombed with deep dugouts, tunnels, and machine-gun posts, the stopbank had taken a terrific pounding. page 560 ‘Not a square yard had escaped the pounding of the bombing and shelling and everything burnable had been charred by the flame throwers …,’ writes one man. ‘A few prisoners, pale, dirty, unshaven and dazed, were being escorted to the rear by a nonchalant Kiwi infantryman.’
The squadrons moved steadily forward with their battalions at walking pace, 24 Battalion on the left, 25 Battalion on the right. The tanks were in touch with the infantry over their 38 sets, but canals and demolitions kept down the speed of the advance. A Squadron had one tank damaged on a mine fairly early, but it was not a complete loss and its crew had no casualties. Our bombers were over again in strength in the morning to pound the enemy, and when one stick of bombs fell short B Squadron had one man killed (Trooper Doug Pringle8) and Lance-Sergeant Letts9 and Trooper Phil Smith10 wounded.
The bombing also caught 2 Troop's commander, Captain Bill Foley,11 while he was returning from a reconnaissance of the Lugo Canal. He had gone forward in his tank to the point where the Lugo joins the Scolo Tratturo and had been heavily engaged by spandaus and mortars. When he returned to his tank he found that an enemy gunner was firing bursts across the top of the turret so that he could not get back into it. He came back on foot, screened by the tank, and had just climbed back into the turret when he heard Major Caldwell's voice over the radio: ‘Come out! Come out! For Christ's sake look up!’
As the bombs began to fall Foley realised that the canal was the aircraft's bomb line. Fortunately the tank was then on the edge of the area, although a number of bombs fell close by.
The bombing lasted about an hour, and then the fighter-bombers and artillery again pounded the enemy before the advance was resumed early in the afternoon. A and B Squadrons struck opposition at the Scolo Tratturo, roughly three miles west of the Senio, where the enemy had built a strong covering page 561 position; but with help from the engineers' assault squadron they managed to cross and by dusk had reached a line about 1000 yards from the next river, the Santerno. East of the river the enemy had cut off the vines at ground level, leaving a clear belt about 300 yards wide as a field of fire for his positions on the stopbank.
On the left with 26 Battalion, C Squadron's crews had a flank-protection role. After crossing the Senio the tanks had moved forward through a minefield for about a mile before they joined the infantry, one tank going to each platoon. At that time there was a gap of half a mile or more between the Division and the Poles on its left, and the battalion's job was to sew up the flank (‘hemstitch’ it) and make it secure. The tanks moved forward leisurely, meeting no opposition except occasional mortar fire, while the crews followed the battle from the reports of the forward troops received over the regimental net.
After halting for a time the troops moved up the road to continue their ‘hemstitching’. They came to a house, ‘not so badly damaged as the last,’ writes C Squadron's correspondent, ‘—at least the ground floor was habitable…. Behind the house were Ted mortar pits with the aiming sticks still in place and the names of the targets scribbled in German on them. One of the men had a Ted army boot at the pump and was busy washing the mangled remains of a foot out of it. “Buona scarpa,” he said as he stood in a puddle of water stained with blood. “Bloody Dago,” said one of the boys, but he was interrupted by the trooper on wireless watch. The fwd troops reported running into heavy opposition so the boys piled into their tanks and, accompanied by a 17-pdr, they left the infantry they were with and set off up the road. They went through what had once been a village, passed two abandoned field guns whose horses had been killed by RAF straffing, over canal bridges still intact until they saw one of our tanks firing 75 [millimetre] shells into a house. It was really all over before they got there, the “heavy opposition” proved to be nothing more than a platoon of demoralized Teds, lost and bewildered, only too glad to chuck it in after a token resistance.’12
During the night tanks and infantry pushed on towards the Santerno, burning houses and protesting Italians leaving no page 562 doubt that the enemy had left. The bustled enemy had had no time to get his breath on the Santerno and man its stopbanks, and 24 and 25 Battalions were across the river at dawn. C Squadron struck trouble during the morning (11 April) when an 88-millimetre ‘stonk’ landed right by the house where one of its troops had pulled up, three men in Lieutenant Denham's crew being killed and one wounded. Those killed were Troopers F. E. Pringle13 and ‘Snow’ Stevens,14 both of whom had tried to find shelter under their tank, and Lance-Corporal Bill Wilhelm,15 who was caught in the open. Three men from another crew who had taken shelter under their tank were covered with dirt from another shell but escaped injury.
From the amount of mortar ammunition left lying about and the stores in some of the houses, it was obvious that the enemy had plenty, and C Squadron had to call on help from the Air OP during the day to quieten some of the mortar posts across the Santerno. A Squadron tanks moved up to the stopbank and gave their support to the infantry bridgehead across the river, one tank being mounted on a ramp to give it a better field of fire. The ramp was made from rolls of wire, and from its position on top of it the tank ‘bounced’ delayed-action shells off the far stopbank. They exploded as airbursts a hundred yards or so ahead, scattering fragments over a wide area. This tank also directed an attack by RAF Spitfires against two enemy OPs, one of them in the church tower at Mordano.
After dark some B Squadron tanks were able to get across the river by an Ark bridge, over which the rest of the squadron and A Squadron followed before dawn on the 12th. During the night the engineers bridged the river.
C Squadron crossed by this bridge just after daylight and relieved B Squadron. A quick attack in the afternoon by 24 and 26 Battalions to capture Massa Lombarda and push beyond it towards the next river, the Sillaro, met more determined opposition, against which C Squadron, 9 Troop in particular, distinguished itself.page 563
‘Dad’ Armstrong16 was 9 Troop's sergeant and his crew were Lance-Corporal Hodson,17 the gunner, ‘Bogie’ James,18 the driver, Rex Pepperell,19 wireless operator, and Lindsay McCully,20 spare driver. Armstrong began the attack by pinning down a spandau post with his Brownings and taking some prisoners, an encounter which Hodson has graphically recorded:21
Started spraying area in front with co-ax. Couldn't use 75 because twigs and branches would set off M48 shell close to tank. Inf. still yelling ‘Spandau’ through 38, asked them somewhat peevishly if they knew where it was—‘No’, so continued firing till Dad yelled ‘Stop firing’ and I saw our Inf. Our Browning fire had shut spandau up, i.e., pinned them down.
I saw Inf firing from hip with their Brens and one Hun with hand up and blood pouring out shoulder blade—was absolutely grey, pants falling off. Other Teds standing fast with hands up not attempting to bolt. The bag was 18.
Armstrong's tank then crashed its way through some trees between the old course of the Santerno—the Santerno Morto —and the lateral road south-east of Massa Lombarda which had been given the code-name Greyhound. The driver accelerated to cross this open road, two heavy bumps jarring the crew as the tank crossed the ditches on either side. It then crashed through a hedge, with the infantry close behind, and made for a cart track leading to a two-storied house.
‘While I was shooting the house up,’ says Hodson, ‘Dad yelled “God Almighty! Traverse right, there's a Tiger!” I didn't see it. But Bogie said he fired a shot and moved off. He was nearly 100 yds away. Bogie saw flash. The thud of 88 AP landing shook the ground. Morale bloody low. Pulled behind house to recover from fright.’
The infantry then joined Armstrong's tank, then suddenly they shouted a warning as another Tiger was seen coming down the road. ‘Owing to trees couldn't see him until about 75 yds away,’ Hodson continues. ‘Wopped her onto power traverse page 564 …. engine running. Bogie put her into gear and speeded her up. Things got a bit confused. My chief thought was to knock his gun or blind the gunner. Knew bloody well our gun wouldn't penetrate. Pep's periscope smashed by Spandau bullet and no time to replace it. He was blind.’
Although it was now late afternoon, the light was still good. The enemy tank was completely shut down. The Sherman's first shot of ‘Yank smoke’ burst on the front of the Tiger in an intense white ball; the second, armour-piercing high explosive, aimed at the driver's hatch, struck his periscope, ricocheted and exploded inside the tank, wounding the driver and smashing up the transmission. The Tiger, which had been going ‘flat out’—about 17 miles an hour—then stopped. It was about fifty yards away.
Hodson had emptied his ammunition rack ring—it held 15 rounds, six of them American smoke shells, two AP, and seven APHE—before the first of the German crew, the driver, baled out. The rest of its crew—there were nine men in the Tiger: its normal crew of five and four spandau gunners—then baled out through the back hatch or jumped out through the cupola hatch and took shelter in a nearby ditch. Sergeant Armstrong has recorded his ‘happy relief’ at the sight.
After a few more rounds from the Sherman's gun there was no sign of movement and the infantry rushed up to the enemy tank. Three men lying in the ditch, two of them panzer grenadiers, then ‘chucked it in’ and came towards Armstrong's tank with their hands up. The enemy tank was then looted by the infantry, much to the chagrin of the Sherman crew.22
Of the Tiger's crew and passengers the wounded driver, who had taken shelter under the tank and was again hit, died of his wounds, three were wounded by shell splinters—one of these men later dying—one ran off up the road and got clean away in spite of an infantry Tommy-gunner's attempts to bring him down, and the rest were made prisoner. The tank commander, a young panzer grenadier lieutenant, was a truculent prisoner: he emptied the magazine of his Luger at the platoon's sergeant page 565 while the latter's tommy gun was not loaded and later attacked him with his fists when it was and was shot.
It was then decided to consolidate on the Greyhound objective, the road which Armstrong and his infantry platoon had just crossed, as it was thought that the other Tiger would come back ‘to look for his cobber’. To meet this contingency, ‘Bull’ Dowrick23 and his 17-pounder Sherman were called up. ‘We moved up and there she was sitting in the middle of a crossroads,’ says Dowrick. ‘Sergeant Cranston24 led us forward on foot. We had plenty of cover and got into a position where, fortunately for us, she was facing the right way, with her rear to us.’ From a range of just over 400 yards, one round of ‘Sabot’ was sufficient. Dowrick added another for good measure, and ‘that was all that was required’. One of the Tiger's crew was killed and the rest baled out and were taken prisoner. Denham's troop was then called back to conform with 9 Troop on Greyhound.
The attack had obviously run into a strong enemy pocket, now weakened by the loss of two Tiger tanks and a 75-millimetre anti-tank gun which Denham's tank had ‘shooed off’ before it was ready to fire—‘the Jerries were so pressed they had not had time to take the brown paper off’. The infantry, fearing a counter-attack in this thick orchard country, dug in along the road under heavy mortar fire. Massa Lombarda was less than half a mile away, and it was thought that the enemy was using a church tower in the town as an OP. Armstrong put five shells on delayed fuse into the tower. ‘She came down with a crash and hell of a clatter with bells ringing. Mortaring stopped,’ records our observer without wasting a word. Then a spandau opened up and was in its turn silenced by an artillery ‘stonk’.
It was now dark, very quiet and cold. The wounded from the Tiger's crew were given morphia, another platoon of infantry went through to the next objective, and Armstrong and his crew returned to Squadron Headquarters for fuel and ammunition. Armstrong's crew's score for the day, as recorded by Corporal Milner, was ‘One Tiger plus one platoon enemy infantry, 18 Huns; one church tower—for no wickets.’page 566
The other squadrons' parts in the day's advances have not been recorded so graphically but their tanks were far from idle. Shortly after 9 a.m. B Squadron reported three enemy tanks about 200 yards ahead of its positions in the old watercourse— no doubt those engaged later by C Squadron with such success —but it had not managed to dislodge them before it handed over to C Squadron. A Squadron had its tanks across the river and up with their infantry shortly after 6 a.m. and gave the platoons covering fire against spandau posts as they pressed forward through the vines. Then the squadron ran into one of the enemy tanks later in the morning and asked for smoke while it tried to dislodge it. During the afternoon the squadron engaged enemy troops seen to be withdrawing. Second-Lieutenant ‘Lofty’ Newman had a knee badly injured when it was struck by the recoil of his gun and he was replaced in command of 3 Troop by Second-Lieutenant Wally Sisam.25 When the advance was resumed after dark the squadron moved forward with its ‘little friends’ against light opposition and by 8.20 p.m. was firmly on its objective.
Partisans welcomed the tanks into Massa Lombarda at dawn on the 13th, and at 6.30 a.m. the advance was continued, at first against lightly held positions and then later against tanks. C Squadron with 26 Battalion, at first on the right flank of 6 Brigade and later on its left after a double shuffle to allow 9 Brigade to relieve 5 Brigade, once more had the hardest day. During the morning the squadron had had no real contact with the enemy and it was decided to speed up the advance by loading the infantry—one section to a tank—on the back of the tanks. ‘We were bowling up the road at about 15 mph,’ writes C Squadron's on-the-spot reporter. ‘First thing we saw Hun, white flag in one hand and surrender safe conduct leaflet in the other. Maj Moodie interrogated him and revealed Huns going to stand 3 kms up.’ This position was along the Scolo Correcchio, a canal which ran in a straight line across the front, roughly parallel with the Sillaro River.
The squadron pressed on. Spandaus and mortars began to find the range and the infantry opened out into battle formation and carried on on foot across the open paddocks. The tanks opened fire on two barns which, being stacked with mortar page 567 ammunition, blew up. At noon the squadron laagered behind some trees. A report from Air OP stated that ten enemy tanks were moving in the area ahead. Several of them had taken up positions inside houses after battering an entry through a wall; others were elaborately camouflaged under bundles of hay, and one had a tree tied on top of it. Their tactics were to fire a few shots and then withdraw, at speed, down the road to the Correcchio.
Early in the afternoon 9 Troop's commander, Second-Lieutenant Noel Jenkins, was fatally wounded by mortar fire just as he left Squadron Headquarters' casa after a conference. Sergeant Armstrong then took command of the troop.
Fighter-bomber attacks were directed against the enemy tanks and the squadron tried once again to press forward. The approach was by a single road which ran through flat, green fields in which were a few isolated houses; a few hundred yards ahead of the start line, a culvert bridging a small stream had been partly blown, but the bridge over the next canal, half-way to the objective, was still intact as enemy tanks had just been seen withdrawing across it.
It was decided that the tanks should advance up the road in column at high speed, cross the bridge over the canal, and then fan out into line abreast to attack the final objective. The infantry, A Company of 26 Battalion, were to catch up as quickly as possible. No. 10 Troop was given the lead, each tank ‘flat out’ one behind the other, billowing long clouds of dust behind them. On the Correcchio stopbank clouds of dust from the muzzle blast of the guns of Panther tanks and anti-tank weapons marked the positions held by the enemy's rearguard along a wide front. Anything that looked like a target was engaged by the Shermans' guns.
Through a misunderstanding the first tank in the line turned left off the road after crossing the first culvert instead of continuing on to the bridge. The others followed and the troop formed up into line abreast. No. 12 Troop and Sergeant ‘Bull’ Dowrick's 17-pounder joined Denham's troop and the tanks moved up across a paddock of lucerne towards the objective. A double ditch full of mud brought them to a halt. There was a hot exchange of fire and Dowrick's tank was hit, the second shot killing the driver, ‘Chum’ Taylor,26 and wounding the page 568 wireless operator, Ray Davis,27 in the head. The shell skidded up under the gun mantlet, making the gun useless. The rest of the crew managed to bale out before the tank was hit twice more.
No. 12 Troop's commander, Second-Lieutenant Bill Guest,28 indicated a Panther by a direct hit with a round of smoke and all guns concentrated on it and quickly silenced it. As it was now obviously suicidal to try to push on in daylight, the tanks withdrew under a smoke screen to the shelter of the nearest houses and consolidated their positions with the infantry. The three survivors of Dowrick's tank managed to crawl back part of the way along a ditch and were later brought in ‘in fine style’ by the RAP Bren carrier, Mick Morrison29 driving and ‘old Charlie Kirk30 standing in front waving the Red Cross flag’.
A Squadron with 24 Battalion, although not so closely engaged on the brigade's right flank, found demolitions and ditches to make its progress difficult. Like 26 Battalion, some of 24 Battalion's companies were carried forward part of the way on tanks. ‘We careered happily down the road past the flabbergasted 26th to be halted suddenly by enemy tank fire,’ says one of the company commanders. ‘AP shells soon caused a quick dismount and hasty scatter for cover.’ The infantry came back on foot and, after a short rest near Massa Lombarda, moved forward on foot again in the afternoon.
During the night the enemy withdrew across the Sillaro but left a strong rearguard along the Correcchio. At 2.30 a.m. on 14 April the barrage on the river line began. C Squadron's correspondent describes it succinctly as ‘Barrage a beaut…. 100 rds for every Hun on ground.’ The enemy rearguard was quickly overrun and by dawn our infantry were across the Sillaro and digging in. The tanks of A and C Squadrons—B was still in reserve—waited for dawn before moving up to the river, and both squadrons were on their objectives shortly after 7 a.m. page 569 Second-Lieutenant Crawford31 made a reconnaissance on foot and found a ford, but failed ‘miserably’ in attempts to get his tank up the steep bank on the far side. The tank spent some time in the middle of the river under desultory fire until another could come down the bank to tow it out backwards. The experience earned for Crawford's crew the nickname ‘the fishermen’.
Throughout the day the enemy shelled and mortared the bridgehead, and in C Squadron Troopers Percy Chatterton32 and ‘Snow’ Longman33 were wounded by a shell which burst just outside the doorway of the house in which they were sheltering. B Squadron's commander, Major Wright, whose colourful but unprintable nickname was a friendly tribute to his energy and enthusiasm, was wounded by an airburst while out on a reconnaissance and his second-in-command, Captain Heptinstall, took over after the squadron came up that night to relieve A Squadron, which went back into reserve near Massa Lombarda.
Many of the tank crews had had only one night's sleep since the start of the attack, and on 15 April showers were set up at Massa Lombarda and ‘opportunity was taken by all tps to have a wash and brush up.’ The partisans in the town were still busy paying off old Fascist scores. Massa Lombarda had been knocked about by our bombers and the district's horses and cattle had suffered heavy casualties from strafing fighters on the roads.
Another ‘beaut’ barrage on the night of 15–16 April extended the bridgehead over the Sillaro, 25 and 26 Battalions from 6 Brigade taking the right and 22 and 27 Battalions from 9 Brigade the left of the front. By now it was evident that the enemy had had more than enough of barrages and big attacks over the last week. ‘The prisoners coming in all have our safe conduct pass on their person. Many of them very young and all are dog tired,’ records Sergeant Lloyd. The attack began at 9 p.m., the infantry reached their objectives—a good mile beyond the river—by midnight, the engineers had a bridge page 570 across by 1.30 a.m., and by 7 a.m., in thick fog, B and C Squadrons were up with their battalions and pressing slowly but steadily on.
When the fog lifted, C Squadron on the right flank ran into enemy tanks and bazooka teams, while B Squadron lost a tank just before midday when an AP shot set it alight but caused its crew no injury. During the afternoon Trooper Jock Pearce,34 a driver in 9 Troop, was wounded in the head by a sniper.page 571
Across the Sillaro the country was flat, with patches of cover for rearguards and snipers and far too many ditches and canals to suit the tanks. The open ground was far too exposed for an infantry advance without gun support, and the tanks usually softened up likely danger spots before making a dash forward to the next lot of cover. Among the hedges and vines troops often lost visual contact with each other and with the infantry, but the radio link with the infantry and with the spotter aircraft overhead more than made up for this loss of sight. However, crews sometimes had some anxious moments as their Shermans poked their noses through a hedge on to a road, especially when the spotting plane had reported enemy tanks or anti-tank guns in their neighbourhood. Several enemy AFVs were seen but none stayed to contest the way.
At midnight on 16 April 21 Battalion and an 18 Regiment squadron passed through the regiment's positions on the canal east of Ganzanigo (‘Never heard them. Too bloody tired,’ records one diarist). Sixth Brigade was then withdrawn for a short rest (‘Just about time too,’ says another) and the regiment moved back to Castellino on the morning of the 17th. During the move back Trooper Rex Rogers,35 who was riding on the back of his tank, was wounded in an arm when the tank ran over a grenade.
At Castellino the regiment's official programme was to reorganise and rest for a couple of days. Reinforcements arrived— one officer and twenty-four other ranks—and tanks, guns, and vehicles were given a quick overhaul. ‘Had first decent clean up and B Ech food since the 10th—a week,’ says Lance-Corporal Hodson. Next day Sergeant Armstrong's crew went back to Massa Lombarda to look at its Tiger and have their photos taken: ‘Felt like big game hunters with foot on trophy.’ The YMCA came up with its canteen and cinema and provided supper. The break behind the line gave the crews the opportunity to see how much equipment the enemy had lost and, after rest and good food, spirits were high.
On the afternoon of the 19th, refreshed, the regiment moved up to near Medicina, about ten miles west of Massa Lombarda. page 572 The squadrons were still with the same battalions: A and C forward with 24 and 26 Battalions respectively and B in reserve with 25 Battalion. B Squadron was now under Major ‘Squib’ Donnelly's command, with Captain Heptinstall as its second-in-command. With the regiment in support was a battery of 1 Royal Horse Artillery, which had relieved the Royal Devonshire Yeomanry.
Medicina had been captured after a hard fight on 17 April by 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade, which the night before had come under the Division's command. The Gurkhas and 9 Brigade had then met stronger opposition from paratroops on the Gaiana River, but artillery and flame-throwers—the mixture as before—had once again proved successful on the night of 18–19 April and the enemy had been forced back across the Quaderna Canal. Fifth and 6th Brigades then took over.
C Squadron joined 26 Battalion on the afternoon of the 19th about two miles north of Medicina. There were still enemy rearguards around and the infantry were dug in. ‘Got out of tank to get brew going,’ records C Squadron's diarist. ‘Sniper had a go. Heard crack overhead. Spasmodic mortars. Soon as dark up road.’ And that is exactly what happened. The infantry moved up the road in column with the tanks towards Budrio and took over from the Gurkhas some time after midnight. An Indian heavy mortar battery ridding itself of its surplus ammunition before it pulled out in the morning caused 26 Battalion and the tanks some discomfort, until a forceful complaint from C Squadron's battle captain (Bill de Lautour) made the position clear to the battery commander. About a quarter to one the squadron opened fire on hearing the noise of enemy tanks on the move, but the advance was not opposed. On the left in a flank-protection role were B Squadron and 25 Battalion.
The advance continued steadily all that night and the following day. There was some opposition, but not much and mostly from mortars or snipers, and about midday C Squadron and 26 Battalion, encroaching on Polish territory on the brigade's left flank, reached the Idice. Twelfth Lancers in Staghound armoured cars (‘Very huntin', fishin', shootin' types’) dashed about up and down side roads looking for the enemy, their appearances being welcomed by the New Zealanders with cries of ‘Tally-ho the fox!’ A Squadron and 24 Battalion also reached the river early in the afternoon.page 573
Twenty-sixth Battalion's left forward company had reached a long railway cutting that ran parallel with the river, at this point about 200 yards away. A solitary two-storied house about 100 yards ahead was expertly flushed by a couple of infantrymen and produced an elderly Italian couple. ‘Papa, a fine old gentleman, told us the Tedesci were across the river and took us to an upstairs window where he pointed out exactly and carefully some forward posts on the opposite bank,’ says Major Moodie. ‘Bill Guest and his troop (No. 12) then proceeded to deal with these, using HE at point-blank range. On the right 2/Lieut Rex Burland36 with No. 11 Troop was at the river. Rex had already found a crossing so we walked down to the water's edge—a small shallow river with a shingle bottom, good gentle approaches on both sides, and no sign of mines.’
By mid-afternoon the first tank was across. It had no sooner climbed the far bank than a handful of Germans jumped up out of their positions and, waving white flags, endeavoured to surrender. They could not catch up with the briskly moving Sherman and were left behind in the exhaust fumes. These enemy troops had been content to watch peacefully while the squadron commander and Burland stood at the water's edge marking the position of the ford on their maps. Nos. 11 and 12 Troops were first over, but enemy mortar and small-arms fire delayed the infantry crossing. The squadron formed a bridgehead about 600 yards deep, but it was dark before the infantry companies had joined the tanks and consolidated.37
In the darkness there was some confusion and the platoon assigned to 9 Troop stopped after crossing the river and left the tanks forward on their own. The troop had an unenviable wait in the dark. Tracer bullets were whipping about the area and every house for miles around seemed to be burning. Silhouetted against the flames, enemy troops running about were fired on by the tanks' Brownings and seventy-fives, one gunner sighting his gun by opening the breech and looking page 574 through the barrel until he could pick up a target. An artillery ‘stonk’ was brought down and the missing platoon located and guided forward to the tanks.
The ford used by the tanks was in Polish territory, outside 6 Brigade's left-hand boundary. At 4 a.m. on the 21st the Poles used this same crossing and moved through the bridgehead on their way to Bologna, ‘adding to the confusion somewhat during the evening.’
On the right of the brigade front 24 Battalion suffered casualties from enemy strongpoints before it had a firm hold on the far bank of the Idice. One of these strongpoints was a sanatorium which the tanks' gunners cleared systematically from top to bottom, one floor at a time, with delayed-action shells. In this sector A Squadron had its tanks across the river shortly after 8 p.m., and by midnight the bridgehead was firmly established.
On the right flank B Squadron had seen little incident during the day's advance and by night was concentrated south of the Idice in the outskirts of Budrio. The rear echelons also moved forward during the day over roads choked with traffic.
Rumours on the morning of the 21st that Bologna had fallen were later confirmed by the BBC, while across the Idice the infantry and tanks sorted themselves out and began to move forward about 8 a.m. Nothing much happened during the morning on the regiment's front, C Squadron describing the opposition as ‘very light’ and A Squadron as ‘moderate’. Eighteenth Regiment on the right, however, lost six tanks during the morning, mostly to fire from the enemy's self-propelled guns, and the news kept the regiment's crews on their toes. A halt was taken about midday to allow the 18th to catch up, and no sooner had the advance resumed than one of the reconnaissance troop's Honeys went up on a mine, fortunately without casualty to its crew.
About three o'clock A Squadron caught up with the enemy on the right flank and for a time things were ‘a little sticky’, with armour-piercing shells whizzing around but causing no hurt. The suspected enemy position in some houses near San Brigida was shot up by one of the 17-pounder Shermans and the area became more peaceful; a Mark IV tank, brewed up and with its crew dead, was later found in one of these houses. page 575 During the day one A Squadron tank floundered into a bomb crater and had to be pulled out and its engine and gearbox drained of mud.
Route 64 was crossed late on the evening of the 21st and the advance then swung north towards the Reno. A general move forward began again at midnight and went smoothly in spite of the crowded roads until 6 a.m., when A Squadron struck a canal whose banks had been mined. A bulldozer from the engineer assault squadron made a crossing and the canal was bridged; and as it was obvious that the enemy was pulling back, the advance was speeded up, the infantry being carried on the tanks. Road blocks at San Giorgio di Piano, which was reached about noon, held things up for a while. Excited Italians reported that the enemy had left ‘flat out’ thirty minutes before.
San Giorgio, which was about ten miles north of Bologna on a good bitumen road, had evidently been an enemy headquarters of some importance. Many of the buildings carried swastikas. Apparently the enemy had told the townspeople that the New Zealanders were starving, and amid scenes of terrific enthusiasm wine and bread (the former reported good, the latter stale) were heaped on the tank crews. According to C Squadron's diarist the people ‘kept asking us, “Aren't you afraid of the Tigers?”…. We being liars said we were not. Other Ites would come rapping on the side of the tank. Ted had told them our tanks were made of cardboard or three-ply. All much impressed by rubber tracks.’
The partisans were busy and there were sounds of rifle fire coming from the north of the town when the tanks moved north about two hours later. Two miles out of San Giorgio there was another delay and quite a lot of mortaring and small-arms fire from pockets of paratroops on C Squadron's open left flank. Some 9 Brigade infantry were sent out to deal with them. Artillery help was called on to silence these outposts and a few prisoners were taken. During the afternoon Sergeant Neil Wright38 was killed and Trooper Tom Quickenden,39 both from A Squadron, wounded when a mortar bomb landed near their tank.page 576
As the position on the flank was still somewhat obscure, the tanks and infantry stayed put for the night. C Squadron with 26 Battalion was on the left of the road running roughly north from San Giorgio, with A Squadron and 24 Battalion to the right. B Squadron and 25 Battalion were posted to guard the left flank. Corporal Barriball40 of Headquarters Squadron had a foot blown off when his Honey tank ran on to a mine while he was delivering petrol to C Squadron's forward troops. About midnight a lone plane circling the area caused little concern—it was thought to be one of ours—until it began to drop butterfly bombs and fire its machine guns. A light under a truck canopy in the Supply Company point at Bagnarola drew most of the bombs, eleven men—one of whom died—being wounded. The regiment had no casualties.
The enemy withdrew during the night, and in the morning the tanks loaded the infantry aboard and headed north-east through San Pietro towards the next river, the Reno, about six miles away. ‘Put 'em in the long cogs and roar down bitumen road at 30 mph’—Lance-Corporal Hodson pictures the move. ‘Roar through two villages without even stopping. Pass two burnt-out Tigers, well camouflaged. Didn't know they were there till right on top of them. By 9 a.m. Sqn HQ yelling on radio for our position. Couldn't say as long ago we had run off maps and out of maps…. Halt for breakfast. Two miles south of Reno River which branches out into many tributaries. After mung [mungaree] advance more cautiously. Infs extend and wade river while we ford.’
After long advances on foot with little sleep, the infantry liked the roar and pace and exhilaration of these tank rides over open country but were always quick to get closer to the ground when mortars or spandaus opened fire. On this day no opposition was met, but half a mile north of the river a string of obviously British trucks ‘right across our front’ brought anticlimax. They were from 6 British Armoured Division, the formation on the New Zealanders' right, which had swung left on crossing the Reno while the New Zealanders had edged to the right. By 10 a.m.—it was 23 April, although by now most had lost track of the date in the bustle of the last few days—the page 577 troops north of the Reno had formed a bridgehead. C Squadron had two troops over the river and A Squadron one when orders were received that no more tanks were to cross until the river had been bridged.
The tank crews spent a quiet afternoon. The enemy had gone back to the Po, about 12 miles to the north. So much had been heard of this river in the last few months that, like the capture of Rome, it had become one of the great milestones of the war in Italy. On tarpaulin-covered transporters in the convoys heading north were amphibious tanks whose job was to cross the 300-yard stretch of water; a special unit had been training for some months to make the crossing. ‘The Po is waiting for you,’ the attractive pastoral cover of a German propaganda leaflet announced, its inside sketch portraying with a wealth of gruesome detail a welter of destruction as assault boats disintegrated under the fire of German guns.
The tank crews and the infantry discussed the Po as the engineers bridged the Reno. How wide was it? How deep? How high were its stopbanks? The Germans' leaflets obligingly supplied the answers: ‘At its shallowest part (between Adda and Mincio) it is 7 ft. deep. At the deepest part (near Pavia) it is 20 ft. deep. The width varies from 208 to 1040 yds. The banks are mostly sheer and between 18 and 30 ft. high. The speed of the Po exceeds 20 m.p.h.’41
Across the Reno the tanks and the two 26 Battalion companies which had waded over during the morning of the 23rd waited for the bridges to reach them. Fifth Brigade's bridge was finished by mid-afternoon and 6 Brigade's a few hours later. At eight o'clock that night the rest of 6 Brigade and its tanks began to cross, B Squadron and 25 Battalion now first in order and followed by the rest of C and A Squadrons. They moved ahead next morning (24 April) with the infantry on the tanks until a demolished bridge over the Panaro, a tributary of the Po, held them up. The whole of the Eighth Army seemed to be on the move for the river, and as they all converged on the Po the hold-ups became worse and worse. Burned vehicles on the page 578 sides of the road and abandoned weapons and equipment showed how badly the enemy's retreat had been harried by our fighter-bombers in this open, dead-flat countryside. Dozens of slit trenches lined the sides of the road, a bundle of straw tied to a stick marking their positions so that they could readily be seen by harassed enemy drivers.
At the Panaro the regiment was diverted from the 6 Brigade axis to 5 Brigade's. The latter brigade had reached the Po by midday, and early in the afternoon B Squadron went forward to within about half a mile of the river while A and C Squadrons and their battalions concentrated in the area between Bondeno and the Po. The enemy had threatened to cover the Po with ‘a blanket of death’, but he had taken a pounding in the last two weeks and was sorely pressed on all sides. All was quiet on the far bank and there were rumours that ‘Ted’ had gone back still farther to the Adige.
On the south bank of the river the tanks sat unconcernedly waiting for a ferry to be established, while their crews explored the abandoned enemy dumps or made a few lire on the side by selling captured enemy horses to Italian farmers. Trooper Les McCarthy42 of B Squadron was killed and Corporal Jack Higgs43 and three others wounded late in the afternoon when a mortar bomb landed on the roof of the barn which they had made their quarters for the night. The mortaring stopped when Captain de Lautour's 105-millimetre Sherman pumped twenty shells into a tower at Ficarola which seemed a likely OP, and just after midnight 5 Brigade infantry quietly crossed the river in their assault boats and the Po was ours.
On the south bank there was a carnival air. ‘That night we had a horse gymkhana,’ C Squadron's faithful diarist records. ‘Horses well looked after, first-class order. If you couldn't ride a horse or drive a cart you could get a Ted truck and drive around in that. Bare-back gallops with half draughts wearing blinkers. Never out of a canter before in their spring-cart lives. But Kiwis belted hell out of them. Plenty of grass so when fed up just let the horses go. Must have been 50 in one paddock. Chaps driving all round countryside in carts and buggies.’page 579
B1 and B2 Echelons celebrated the day by capturing some prisoners, six in all, in a village between the Reno and the Po. The rear echelons had followed closely on the heels of the squadrons over the last few days, often occupying an area within twelve hours of the Germans leaving it. ‘It often happened that when we had orders to move from A to B we would be met at B by a Don R with a note from Major Pyatt saying “Come straight on to C” (or even D),’ says Major Eastgate, Headquarters Squadron's commander. ‘It was a recurring surprise after a long move to find Captain Phil Crespin with his large and unwieldy group only a mile or two behind us.’
Padre Gunn remembered that the 25th was Anzac Day and held a short service, but A and B Squadrons were itching to join their infantry now on the far side of the river. During the morning B Squadron found two damaged German rafts and, urged on by Colonel Robinson's vigorous presence, used these to ferry some of its tanks over; but it was a slow and cumbersome crossing, one tank only at a time. Five tanks and a bulldozer managed to cross by this waterlogged ferry before it sank in shallow water. A and C Squadrons moved hopefully towards the river but were out of luck, although two A Squadron tanks managed to get passage over. Later in the afternoon B Squadron got some more tanks across by raft at 5 Brigade's crossing place and raced ahead to rejoin 25 Battalion at Trecenta, where they at once set to and cleaned out several spandau posts that were troubling the infantry.
Feeling cheated, the tank crews south of the Po watched their infantry cross in their assault boats while they waited their turn at the ferry or filled in time while the engineers built a pontoon bridge. A Squadron got two troops across on the morning of the 26th and C Squadron and Tactical Headquarters moved up in the queue closer to the river; but it was midday on 27 April before Tactical Headquarters crossed and 30 April before C Squadron eventually got over. The bridge was controlled by an English brigadier who, ‘in spite of personal interviews and coaxings three times daily,’ according to Major Moodie, would not hear of a tank using it in case it was damaged.
The engineers, of course, had their difficulties. On the 27th a mine floating downstream with the current damaged one of page 580 the pontoons. ‘Went off with a hell of a thud,’ describes C Squadron's eye-witness, ‘frightening seven bells out of the driver of a 15 cwt on the pontoon when hit. Number of high ranking Pongo officers do scone, shouting at everybody to get off bridge which [had been] hit amidships.’ To protect the bridge against further hazard, Bofors and searchlights were set up on the south bank and ‘banged away at anything that came floating down stream…. Chief targets tree trunks and dead Huns.’ Meanwhile, tanks and transport piled up at the river and the roads were jammed for miles, while corps staff officers sorted out priorities and decided who should go over first. A 1000-foot Bailey bridge is alleged to have gone astray in transit from Cesenatico and, needless to say, there was quite a ‘flap’ on.
Far ahead of this peaceful scene, B Squadron's tanks and 25 Battalion had reached the next river, the Adige, fast-flowing and wide. They had been joined on the 26th by some A Squadron tanks and had pushed ahead in heavy rain through Pissatola to Badia. By now the forward troops were so far ahead of RHQ's tanks that they were out of wireless range. They were the only armour with the Division north of the Po.
The forward battalions of 5 and 6 Brigades took their assault boats across the Adige on the night of 26–27 April, formed a bridgehead, and handed over to 9 Brigade later in the day, B Squadron tanks supporting the crossing—but not being required to fire their guns—from positions on the stopbank at Badia. Here the forward troops—half of A Squadron and half of B—were joined on the afternoon of the 27th by Tactical Headquarters' tanks and came under 9 Brigade's command, A with 27 Battalion and B with the Divisional Cavalry Battalion. The rest of the regiment passed to 4 Brigade's command. Tactical Headquarters, consisting of four scout cars and two jeeps, then took the lead and was first over the Adige. It crossed about 4 p.m. and was followed later during the night by the two half-squadrons.
The next day's advances were to take the regiment's forward troops from Masi, on the Adige, to Padua, another milestone in the long journey up the Italian peninsula. At first there was some light opposition, and at Ospedaletto an enemy rearguard disputed the road (Route 10) until driven from their houses. Then straight ahead up the road at 24 miles an hour, through Este and Monselice and up Route 16 to Battaglia, where the page 581 leading B Squadron tank ran into a road block and was hit by a bazooka—not badly enough to do any real damage—and one of its crew was shot through the legs when he got out to see what had happened. It was 7 p.m. before a path was cleared and the column able to move on its way again, at first very slowly. Then a B Squadron troop replaced 12 Lancers in the lead and the advance speeded up. By 10.30 p.m. the tanks had reached Padua, which the partisans had liberated for themselves at some cost, and were then fuelled and made ready to move on to Venice, but the move was cancelled.
Near Battaglia just at dusk B Squadron had overtaken an enemy column of horse-drawn transport, estimated at 300 strong, which, wisely enough, made no attempt to interfere with the tanks' passage north. ‘We did not shoot and neither did they and we drove past them as they plodded along,’ says one troop commander. ‘I will always remember a very excited infantryman who was riding on the back of my tank, hammering me on the back and pointing at the waggons moving along beside us and shouting, “Those are Jerries!”’ The tanks pushed on past the Germans and at Padua were guided by partisans into a large square, where they took up positions covering the autostrada.
The tanks' motors stopped and the square was deserted and still. Then from behind one of the high, shuttered windows an Italian voice called: ‘Inglesi?’ ‘Tedesci?’ ‘New Zealanders,’ came the reply, and the whole square sprang to life. Windows were thrown open noisily in every direction, ‘women were running around in their nighties’, partisans fired their weapons, and shouts of greeting and cheers came from all sides. ‘Some kind person even handed around bottles of beer.’
During the night the tanks were joined by Tactical Headquarters and A Echelon. B Echelon, which had been on the road all night since 5 p.m. the evening before, reached Padua at 11 a.m. on the 29th.
The B echelons had crossed the Po on the afternoon of the 27th and the 28th, ahead of most of the tanks, as B Echelon men were later frequently to remind the crews. They had reached Masi and had begun to settle in when orders came to push on. The convoy got away from Masi just after dark, lost its way, ended up among South Africans, and arrived at San page 582 Margherita just after midnight, having taken three and a half hours to cover 23 miles. Here the men ‘brewed up’ and, told not to go to bed, waited around until 1.45 a.m., when the convoy set off once again for a destination whispered to be Venice.
Sergeant Lloyd has left for the unit records a full account of the night's journey:
The journey was long and tiring, interspersed with bursts of speed when on the main highway…. Some of the halts were exceptionally long. While on one of these, many of the drivers fell asleep and had to be awakened in no light manner. While waiting thus, sporadic bursts of machine gun fire, Tommy gun fire, could be heard far to the rear of the convoy. A bitterly cold wind sprang up but made hardly an impression on those who were so tired. After an hour and a half's halt the convoy once more moved on for a further few miles where once again it halted until dawn….
After breakfast all transport refuelled and away we set again. We had gone but three miles up the road when the convoy was halted, while the Indian Div and some Artillery were rushed past us, the reason being that two German PG regiments were travelling on the road parallel to us, and were slightly ahead of us. Reports were then heard that the Germans had shelled very heavily the town of Padova. This was later confirmed. After waiting for a while the convoy took a round about route and at 1100 hrs we entered Padova. Here we received a great welcome. All the city was out to welcome us and everywhere were Partisans, mounted on horseback, driving German carts, all of them with the red, white and green colours up. German prisoners were everywhere, while in the city itself Partisans were rounding up the Fascists that had unwarily remained behind. One or two members of the Regt even witnessed the shooting of a few of these Fascists. The whole town was wildly excited.
With B Echelon's arrival late in the morning of 29 April, we have got some of the regiment to Padua (or Padova if you prefer it), leaving C Squadron, half A Squadron, half B Squadron, and RHQ, less its Tactical Headquarters, still fretting on the south bank of the Po. Corps had ordered them to stay there and nothing could be done about it; or almost nothing. Captain Foley bluffed his way across about 8 p.m. on the 29th by sending his gunner over with a fake message from the CO ordering him to get his tanks over ‘at all costs’. Trooper Theyers,44 Foley's gunner, ‘hitched’ a ride over and then reported to the provost page 583 at the far end of the bridge with his message. The provost reported the message to the post at the southern end and, on Foley's representations as to its urgency, agreed to hold traffic for five minutes while A Squadron's two troops ‘piled over’. Foley then wirelessed back to C Squadron's commander that his ruse had been successful.
C Squadron, RHQ's four 17-pounders, and the rest of B Squadron followed across just after midnight on 29–30 April. Major Moodie's methods were less subtle but equally as effective as Foley's. ‘By the 29th,’ he says, ‘even sanitary vehicles were streaming over. This was too much. At midnight C Squadron lined up nose to tail and, with headlights full on, we kept rolling. Various figures danced around as we approached the bridge but we just kept moving and never looked back.’ The squadron caught up with Foley's group at the Adige and at breakfast time the tanks were queueing up at the ferry waiting their turn to cross.
The 29th was another big day for the troops from A and B Squadrons and their 27 Battalion and Divisional Cavalry infantry. The A half-squadron began it at 4 a.m., after only about two hours' sleep, with orders to seize two bridges over the Brenta River, roughly three miles north-east of Padua. The bridge on the autostrada—Second-Lieutenant Frank Brice's45 objective—was blown up before 4 Troop could reach it, but that on Route 11 to the north was held by armoured cars, with two 105-millimetre guns sited on the north bank and a screen of machine-gunners and riflemen on the south bank.46 A German battalion had just reached the bridge on the last stage of its night's march to the rear when out of the darkness roared Second-Lieutenant Sisam's troop carrying a platoon of 27 Battalion. The tanks dashed past horse-drawn transport and its escort and debussed their infantry right in the middle of the surprised Germans. The platoon quickly rounded up many of the enemy before they had recovered from their surprise, and a few raps on the outside of one of the armoured cars ‘brought forth its crew with hands held high’; but, regardless of the page 584 safety of their comrades, the enemy troops holding the bridge opened fire.
As part of Thodey force, Sisam's troop then pushed ahead along the autostrada to Mestre with orders to take Venice, the Hotel Danieli in particular—General Freyberg had stayed there before the war and wanted to reserve it for a New Zealand club. The tanks fired a few shots at pockets of Germans on the way up and at one point ‘saw the Jerry travelling flat out under one of the overbridges while NZ Div poured across above him. … We then went flat out for Venice, and as we went down the Littorio I was racing neck and neck with the commander of an artillery unit (this was Lt-Col Sawyers48 I think) in his comd vehicle, trying to head him off and be the first there. He was lucky I didn't shove him off the road.’
Venice was in partisan hands and there was a lot of stray shooting as the fascisti paid for their sins. The Danieli was annexed and the troop, desperately tired, ‘didn't much care for twenty-four hours’ while it caught up on some of the sleep it had lost since the start of the battle. On Route 11 Brice's troop and Squadron Headquarters took almost 200 prisoners from enemy pockets at Mira and Oriago and then pushed on through cheering crowds almost to San Dona di Piave, where the crews billeted in some barns for the night.
B Squadron's role once the bridge over the Brenta had been seized was to push through to Mestre, north of the Venice causeway, and up Route 14 to the Piave. The two troops left Padua at 7 a.m. and gave their infantry passengers a 45-mile ride ‘at full tank speed’ through Mestre and Trepalade and over the River Sile, where barges carrying enemy troops were sighted moving along a canal. At first sight the cabins were thought to be the turrets of German tanks moving hull-down behind a stopbank, and the Shermans at once opened fire. Captain Heptinstall's gunner scored a direct hit on one of these ‘turrets’, and the Germans ‘promptly put up white flags’ and were collected by the infantry. There were approximately two page 586 hundred of them. Another three hundred were collected by one troop and a company of infantry at the Capo d'Argine on a tip from Italian civilians that enemy troops there were willing to surrender. The rest of the column continued on to San Dona di Piave, where it halted for the night.
The tank crews were too early on the road to get the full welcome from the people of Padua, but the rear echelons, following along the road to Venice in the late afternoon, drove for nearly three miles through streets packed tightly on both sides with wildly cheering Italians. The windows of the buildings along the route were crowded with people waving, throwing flowers and kisses; the people in the streets exchanged hand-slaps—the convoy was going too fast to allow time for handshakes—with the men on the trucks. Every village on the way echoed this greeting.
A demolished bridge over the Piave held up the advance and most of the tank crews had a good night's sleep while the engineers built a pontoon bridge. Here the flat countryside is scored with canals which drain the low-lying fields into rivers or coastal lagoons. South-east of San Dona the mouth of the Piave has been diverted from its old entrance flanking the Venetian lagoon and given a new one into the Adriatic. The old Piave (the Piave Vecchia) and the new have been joined by the Canale Cavetta, the rivers and canals making an island roughly seven miles long by three wide at the north-eastern end of the lagoon. Enemy troops driven back from the south had collected in this pocket and, supported by coast-defence and flak batteries, seemed determined to stay.49
B Squadron's two troops were sent off on the morning of the 30th to mop up the enemy pocket and, in the words of the regiment's diary, ‘had a very sticky time’. On the tanks' approach the coastal guns opened fire and both troops and the 27 Battalion companies they supported were heavily shelled. page 587 Second-Lieutenant McLay's troop ran into a battery of 88- millimetre guns, but by skilful manoeuvring managed to knock out two of them and take prisoner the crews of the other two.50 Second-Lieutenant Turner's51 troop found targets ‘too good to be true’ when it encountered a large convoy of horse-drawn vehicles on the stopbank near the mouth of the river, and eager gunners spent their shells lavishly. During the day the tanks had to repel several counter-attacks and drive off aggressive bazooka parties, and at length in the late afternoon were forced to withdraw to San Dona di Piave when they had used up their ammunition. In addition to the battery of ‘eighty-eights’, the tanks knocked out one self-propelled gun and inflicted severe casualties on barge-loads of enemy crossing the river and on others trying to escape down river by launch.
By contrast with B Squadron's strenuous day, A Squadron headquarters and Brice's troop saw no fighting when they crossed the river early in the afternoon by a ford at Ponte di Piave, about eight miles north-west of San Dona on the same river, and joined up with the Divisional Cavalry Battalion. Although neither New Zealanders nor Germans were aware of it, the German command in Italy had signed terms of surrender at noon that day. Hostilities were to end officially at noon on 2 May.
Leaving, with some relief, the aggressive enemy pocket at the mouth of the Piave, B Squadron's two troops crossed the river by the ford at Ponte di Piave about 4 a.m. on 1 May. They then rejoined Route 14, picked up 22 Battalion at Portogruaro, and roared ahead at speeds up to 30 miles an hour through Fossalta, Palazzolo, Cervignano, and across the Isonzo to Monfalcone. The route lay through many small villages and towns, where the church bells were rung and the people lined the streets. Partisan flags were everywhere; but across the Isonzo, where contact was made with Yugoslav troops, a red star on the flag proclaimed allegiance to Marshal Tito. Near Monfalcone, which the tanks reached about four o'clock, their crews having carefully removed all flags, partisan scarves, and page 588 other emblems collected on the route up so as not to give offence, contact was made with Tito's Yugoslav forces. After a short exchange 22 Battalion and some of the tanks took the surrender of 150 prisoners from coastal and ack-ack batteries in the naval shipyards area; and near Duino, on the coast a few miles past Monfalcone, troops from the two half-squadrons joined forces to round up another fifty who had offered brief resistance. A lone German cyclist pedalling along a road on the bank of a canal elected to dive ‘bike and all’, still pedalling, into the canal when one of the tanks fired a warning burst from its machine gun.
By the evening of 1 May, in heavy rain, the rear echelons had also reached Monfalcone. C Squadron and the rearward halves of A and B Squadrons, across the Po at last, were doing their best to catch up. Tactical Headquarters found itself accommodation in the Albergo Roma, the B echelons took the railway station, while the forward troops laagered for the night a few miles past Monfalcone on the coast road to Trieste.
At half past eight on the morning of 2 May, B Squadron's two troops headed south-east from Monfalcone with 22 Battalion, A Squadron's No. 4 Troop and the Divisional Cavalry being close behind them. At Sistiana, five miles along the road to Trieste, there was token opposition and some shooting, the 105-millimetre tanks engaging three enemy boats about five miles off shore—one was set on fire, one was abandoned, the third got away. The opposition on shore was soon cleared and the force split up, B Squadron and its 22 Battalion infantry taking the right-hand fork at Sistiana and gaining the better road along the coast, and A Squadron and the Divisional Cavalry taking the longer, more winding inland route. At Miramare, another six miles along the coast road, several hundred more enemy were waiting to surrender after a brisk lunch-hour bombing raid; and there 12 Lancers and the tanks got orders to push on to Trieste ‘with all speed and a show of force’.
With only a few miles to go to reach Trieste, A Squadron's No. 2 Troop caught up with the leaders on the coast road. Foley's five tanks—four Shermans and one 17-pounder—had made good time after crossing the Adige on the morning of 30 April. To avoid the crowded divisional axis north-east from page 589 Padua, the troop had made a detour to the north-west which took it across the Brenta River and through Treviso to San Dona di Piave. Americans had generously provided the fuel for this triumphal progress through towns and cities liberated only a few hours before by the partisans; and the ‘liberated’ in their turn had supplied eggs and wine. A similar detour on the Piave when the ford at Ponte di Piave was missed on a wet, pitch-black night took the troop through San Vito, where thirty or more Germans from a corps headquarters and its marked maps were captured about midnight on 1–2 May. Next day contact was made by radio with Squadron Headquarters at Sistiana and the troop pushed ahead through 22 Battalion on the coast road until it caught up with Colonel Robinson, in a scout car armed only with a Bren gun, just past the Miramare tunnel.
The Colonel warned the tanks that there were road blocks just ahead. The first of these was defended by two pillboxes, with an old cart and a tangle of barbed wire blocking the road. The tanks sprayed the pillboxes with their Brownings and then charged straight through. At the second block a gap was found in the concertina wire. A party of Germans waving surrender leaflets came out of a house and gave themselves up to Lieutenant Turner's troop, but the tanks were ordered to push on and leave their prisoners to be collected later. The drivers then accelerated, the last few miles were covered at a grand pace, and at three o'clock on that sunny and momentous afternoon the regiment's first tanks, the spearhead of the Division, entered Trieste.
A Squadron's headquarters and Brice's troop found some enemy to deal with on the inland route at Prosecco and some barge targets well out to sea. Squadron Headquarters tried out its 105-millimetre guns on some enemy-held houses, cleared away a road block, and pushed on to Trieste. The cliff road leading down from the hills behind the city was mined ready for blowing, but with help from a local partisan the fuses were found and the road made safe. The squadron was still in plenty of time to be welcomed with flowers and to take some surrenders. The latter was not always as easy as it sounds, one of B Squadron's troops having spent some time trying to effect the surrender of the German garrison of the castle in the centre of Trieste, whose commander had declared himself willing to page 590 surrender to the Allies but not to the Yugoslavs. The Yugoslavs, for their part, would not accept that condition and for some time continued to fire on any enemy movement. The tanks and a 22 Battalion company entered the castle and took the surrender of 12 officers and 170 men, but because of the Yugoslavs' hostile attitude and indiscriminate shooting the garrison could not be evacuated until next morning. Some of the New Zealand troops were the garrison's guests at a late supper, New Zealander and German lining up in the same mess queue.
In Trieste there were still some enemy with less discretion who refused to surrender either to New Zealanders or to Yugoslavs. A party of these diehards, about 300 strong, held on in the Tribunale (the Law Courts) near the San Marco shipyard and refused to give themselves up: their commander was reported to be drunk and to be ‘humbugging undecidedly’. At dusk, the enemy's time limit having expired, all the available tanks from the regiment, including some from 19 Armoured Regiment and 7 Hussars—18 tanks in all—surrounded the building and gave it a 15-minute pounding with guns and Brownings at a range of about 30 yards. The enemy was well entrenched in the cellars and suffered few casualties, but was driven out when the Yugoslavs poured in petrol and set it on fire. Yugoslav troops and partisans spent the night clearing out the enemy and by morning had collected some 200 prisoners; others were rounded up from their hiding places in the city over the next few days.
The B Echelon convoy joined the tanks in Trieste at dusk on 2 May, and at 9 a.m. on the 3rd C Squadron and the rear troops of A and B Squadrons also caught up with the regiment's spearhead.52 Just before they arrived Captain Foley's troop went off with a 22 Battalion company to negotiate the surrender of a German force, 1200 strong, at Villa Opicina, a few miles to the north-east above Trieste. One tank was ditched on the way up and the infantry three-tonners could not pass a demolition on the hill north of Trieste. A platoon was mounted on the two remaining tanks and carried up the road until they came abreast of a small house amongst the trees from which a large page 591 party of Germans waved a greeting. This cheerful welcome surprised the troop commander, but he was even more surprised to see how many guns the Germans had, ‘almost enough to blast us out of Trieste’.
The Germans were willing to surrender to the New Zealanders but not to the Yugoslavs; once again the Yugoslavs objected, claiming that the surrender should be made to them. ‘Little did we realise that our “half-hour job” was to turn into an all-day affair,’ says Foley. When Yugoslav fire fell amongst them, it was soon brought home to the party that the war was still on in earnest. A 22 Battalion NCO was killed and another man wounded.
‘Eventually I decided to go and stop the war myself,’ says Foley. ‘Little did I realise what I was letting myself in for.’ With a German colonel and a captain on board, ‘both very scared’, he took his tank down the road to the German lines, where he found bitter fighting raging and was again amazed at the strength of the enemy's positions. His proposal that he was going over to the partisans' lines to speak to them was considered ‘verr dangerous’ by the colonel, but after some parleying in no-man's-land with ‘some Tito men’, carried out in Italian with his gunner's assistance, ‘we got them to understand that if they stopped firing the war would be over.’
Foley then adopted the role of referee, dashing between the two parties, who had again resumed the fight, ‘and by much frantic waving, with my heart in my mouth, got them to stop. … Then proceeded further along the line and the same performance went on. Villa Opicina was taking an awful pasting so decided to go and stop that too.’ Negotiations with first a lieutenant, then a major, a brigadier (‘a real pirate’), and, last of all, a general only confirmed that the Yugoslavs were determined not to let the Germans—and all their equipment—be surrendered to the New Zealanders. General Freyberg, contacted by radio, directed that no New Zealand lives were to be lost and ordered the party to return to their units. By this time another troop under Captain Heptinstall had come up to find out what was causing the delay and the Germans were lined up ready to leave for Trieste. The tank crews and their infantry returned to Trieste about 7 p.m. after a very difficult day; and, as Foley reports with some bitterness, ‘Tito just walked in and page 592 took over.’ Two Austrian soldiers on a motor-cycle followed the tanks back to Trieste and were the party's only prisoners. Foley claims for his crews the experience of being the last of the Division to be under fire in Europe.
Back in Trieste the regiment's tanks and transport were parked about the streets near the centre of the city, while most of the men were billeted in a five-storied block of flats that had formerly been the headquarters of the SS troops in Italy. The last of the enemy was rounded up, but truculent Yugoslav troops poured into the city, plastered the walls with their slogans, foraged for fascists and loot, organised processions, counter-processions, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. The regiment's tanks were replenished and rearmed and troops were on call to meet any emergency; but although for some time the situation was tense and the troops of both sides carried all their arms, a precarious peace was kept. The people of Trieste, the Italians especially, had good reason to be grateful for the New Zealand occupation.
On 4 May squadrons reverted to the regiment's command and 19 Regiment relieved them of their duties with 9 Brigade. The regiment then came under 6 Brigade's command and moved back that day and the next to Monfalcone, 17 miles away, for a rest. Before they left on the morning of the 5th the tanks paraded through the main streets of Trieste in a final show of strength. By this time the Navy had arrived off Trieste and Americans and British troops had joined the occupation force.
From the point of view of the tank crews at least, the attack from the Senio onwards was the most successful of the regiment's battles. The enemy had been well and truly beaten south of the Po; and although some of the tanks had some sharp skirmishes north of that river in the last days of April, the days of the big battles and ‘set-piece’ attacks were over. The experience gained in the earlier battles in Italy and the training with the infantry before the final offensive had given the tank crews and their infantry platoons the close personal contact essential to smooth co-operation on the battlefield. They worked together splendidly and morale was high. Each platoon had a tank attached to it; each tank's gunner was linked direct with the platoon wireless set and the infantry got the tank fire when and page 593 where they wanted it.53 Each troop worked as a team and every man in a crew felt that he was on top of his job.
Throughout the long advance ammunition and fuel never failed to come up from the rear echelons, and the amount used by the tanks was tremendous. Their Browning machine guns shot away 117,000 rounds—one gunner claims to have fired 10,000 rounds alone on the day his troop crossed the Santerno —and the ‘seventy-fives’ fired 8123 rounds of high-explosive, 103 of smoke, and 42 of armour-piercing shells. In addition, the 17-pounder and the 105-millimetre Shermans added their quotas to this total. No fewer than 27,310 gallons of petrol and 12,820 gallons of diesel fuel were used by the regiment during the battle. Besides meeting these demands, the regiment's supply system had to stand the test of speedy moves from place to place. Headquarters Squadron, for instance, stopped for the night at twenty different places in twenty-three days, ‘including the night when we didn't stop at all.’
The regiment's casualties in the final offensive were surprisingly few, especially if they are considered in relation to the casualties inflicted on the enemy. One officer (Second-Lieutenant Jenkins) died of wounds and seven men were killed, three officers and seventeen men wounded. Its losses in tanks were also light: two Shermans were knocked out and three damaged, one Stuart tank was knocked out and another damaged. In return, four enemy tanks were knocked out—two Tigers, a Panther, and a Mark IV—and another Tiger brewed up by its crew south of Massa Lombarda was also claimed by the regiment. The two armoured cars taken at the Brenta bridge north-east of Padua completed the regiment's bag of AFVs for the campaign.
Two of the enemy tanks were knocked out by the regiment's 17-pounders, which proved effective in their specialist role of anti-tank weapon. The 105-millimetre Sherman was not as successful, it lack of power traverse making it unsuitable for forward troops and limiting its use to squadron headquarters. C Squadron used one of its two 105-millimetre guns with good effect against a church tower at Ficarola, but the greater ‘drift’ of its hollow-charge, high-explosive anti-tank shell in flight made it less accurate than the 17-pounder.page 594
In the matter of awards, the regiment's part in the last battle was recognised by the award of a DSO to Colonel Robinson and of MCs to three junior officers, Second-Lieutenants McLay, Sisam, and Crawford. The only other award to which the regiment can make a claim was the MM won by Corporal ‘Bull’ Anderton, a Sherman-dozer operator who had been posted to 28 Assault Squadron from the regiment. Corporal Anderton distinguished himself by carrying on calmly under fire his job of helping to make crossings for the tanks. At the Senio during the first night of the attack, he was blown up by a tier of mines; although suffering from blast and shock, he carried on his work throughout the next day and night on another ‘dozer’. At the Gaiana and Quaderna crossings he again worked for long hours under fire without rest or sleep. This award acknowledged the help given to the tanks by the assault squadron, whose troops followed the advance close behind the infantry and were ready at hand to bridge any obstacle or bulldoze a path for the armour.
The tanks had also been given invaluable help from the Air OP in locating enemy tanks and self-propelled guns, reconnoitring crossings, reporting enemy movements, and observing the tanks' shooting against targets they couldn't see themselves.54 But without fitters and mechanics to keep the tanks' tracks in order and their engines running sweetly, the swift advances of the last few weeks would not have been possible. While the regiment was under 6 Brigade's command from the Senio to the Adige, 85 miles were covered and eight rivers crossed without the loss of a single tank through mechanical defect. Fitters and mechanics win few laurels in regimental histories, but the high standard of maintenance in the regiment needs no better tribute. In fact, when the regiment reached Trieste it still had with it a few of the tanks with which it had been issued at Maadi over two years before.55
1 Lt-Col H. A. Robinson, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Waipukurau; born New Plymouth, 29 Sep 1912; farmhand; troop leader, later 2 i/c, Div Cav 1939–44; CO 18 Armd Regt Mar-Jul 1944; 20 Armd Regt 17 Mar-16 Oct 1945; twice wounded.
7 When Major Wright was wounded on 14 April his second-in-command, Captain Heptinstall, commanded the squadron for a few days before handing over on 19 April to Major M. P. Donnelly, formerly second-in-command of A Squadron, star batsman of the regiment's cricket team and a New Zealand representative cricketer.
11 Maj W. C. T. Foley; Wellington; born Stratford, 7 Jul 1916; Regular soldier; 26 Bn, 1940-41; Sqn Comd 2 Tank Bn (in NZ) 1942–43; LO, Special Tank Sqn, 2 NZEF (IP) 1943; 20 Armd Regt, 1945; 2 NZEF (Japan) 1945–46.
22 Back at Massa Lombarda a few days later, the 26 Battalion platoon presented Sergeant Armstrong with a Luger taken from one of the Tiger's crew, a gesture much appreciated. It is also of interest that the C Squadron-26 Battalion ‘team’ had as senior officers four 20 Battalion ‘originals’—Lt-Col M. C. Fairbrother, Majors G. A. Murray and B. Boyd, and the squadron commander, Major Moodie.
28 2 Lt J. L. Guest; Balclutha; born Balclutha, 6 Dec 1915; retailer; wounded 26 Jun 1942.
31 2 Lt J. G. Crawford, MC; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 25 Mar 1918; buyer's assistant.
36 2 Lt R. B. Burland; Waikari, North Canterbury; born Kaikoura, 23 Apr 1922; telegraphist.
37 A suggestion made at the divisional conference that the troops across the river should be withdrawn and the enemy ‘smashed’ with another set-piece attack was opposed by Brigadier Parkinson, 6 Brigade's commander, who is reported to have said: ‘The Hindenburg Line was broken because one man hopped over the barbed wire; the Idice has been crossed by a troop of tanks and we had better carry on.’
41 Except for the speed of the current, which was greatly exaggerated, the New Zealanders found these figures to be roughly correct. The first New Zealand patrol across the river at noon on 24 April estimated the current at 3 to 4 knots.
45 2 Lt F. Brice; Culverden; born NZ 19 Apr 1912; tractor driver.
46 Italian partisans had earlier tried to hold the bridge against the retreating enemy but had been driven off.
47 The capture of this bridge opened the road north for the rest of the Division and won for Lieutenant Sisam an immediate MC. The bridge was later declared unsafe for tanks.
49 Another large enemy party—one report says there were 500 of them—raided 5 Field Park Company and other engineer units during the night, setting fire to several trucks and causing a number of casualties before making off in stolen transport. A truckload of them (35 according to one count) was taken prisoner next morning by the regiment's signals officer, Second-Lieutenant Ted Tressider, and his driver. Tressider came across the party a few miles north-west of San Dona di Piave. Their truck had run off the road into a ditch and they were trying to lift it back, but unfortunately for them had left their weapons—rifles, machine-guns, and an anti-tank gun—in the back. Tressider and his driver, armed with a pistol and a tommy gun, took the party prisoner and drove them back to B Echelon.
50 McLay won the immediate MC for his action against this strongpoint and for other successful engagements that day.
52 C Squadron had spent the night of 1 May in a ‘stinking’ Italian farmhouse near Venice. Late next afternoon ‘the Ites told us “Guerra finito” but we were too tired to do much by way of celebration and pushed on to reach Monfalcone at 2 a.m.’ Here some crews blithely arranged with the partisans to guard their tanks.
53 Each tank also had a telephone outside it at its rear so that the infantry could speak to the crew to indicate targets, etc.
55 One of these, Lieutenant Denham's, with the serial number 5–2–6, was known as ‘Time gentlemen, please!’