CHAPTER 14 — ‘Hell of a Crack’
‘Hell of a Crack’
Without question the battalion agreed that No. 6, owned by Charlie Merrylees's1 syndicate, was the greatest horse since Phar Lap. No. 6 had just won four out of six races at Forli, and £206 3s. 7d. was on the way to the battalion funds in New Zealand, bringing the total from race meetings to £405 10s. 3d. Tommies (‘well down the drain but, game enough to chase their losses, landed the mustard in the last race’), Kiwis, 5 Brigade Band, a sprinkling of Italians, and a cluster of bookies rolled up to enjoy the Forli Turf Club's Winter Meeting. The battalion had left the line on 27 December to rest in Forli. One man struck exactly the right note by arriving in a classical Derby hat. Running the meeting was a hard-working team of sportsmen headed by ‘Kai’ Thomson, not a whit disturbed by a broken collar-bone, Jack Sullivan, Mick Tatham,2 ‘Snow’ Absolom, George Sainsbury and Arthur Aldridge.
The horses stood six inches high and, complete with jockeys, were fixed on stands. The ground was marked out with white tape in draughtboard fashion, and the six horses lined up at the starting post, on the fringe of the course, facing the first row of squares. ‘They're off!’ And away they went, square by square in turn, as the dice were thrown. In a hurdle race chocks of wood lay here and there along the course. No horse could jump until his number was thrown twice on the one roll of the dice.
The routine orders opening the new year3 were unremarkable. Warning was given that a heavy blue X surrounded by a thick blue circle was about to appear on many rather interesting shops, bars, buildings, clubs, restaurants and other places; page 414 this new sign, soon so familiar to the battalion, would mean OUT OF BOUNDS. One hundred and four thousand Christmas parcels, posted late in New Zealand, would not arrive for another month. The House of Representatives, Wellington, sent hopes for a speedy victory in 1945 ‘and their determination to support you to the very end—Schramm.’ As for jerkins, leather: ‘The practice of using leather jerkins to provide sleeves and collars and other additions to other jerkins will cease forthwith.’
The battalion's fifth birthday arrived. About twenty ‘originals’ went off to a get-together in C Company's casa. The battalion's health was just being proposed, and the speaker with emotion was picturing the great day when, at a similar reunion in New Zealand, 22 Battalion veterans would hear again the voice of Colonel Andrew—when the door burst open, an Italian crone appeared beneath a burden of washing, and in a high state of excitement completely dominated both speaker and reunion for several bewildering moments. The ancient washerwoman, it seemed, had blundered into the wrong house. some explaining, persuasion, and soothing had to be done before she departed.
The battalion went back to the line just in time to hear the celebrated ‘Ghost Train’. The war had frozen all along the Senio River. A heavy fall of snow covered the plains and made patrolling difficult by hiding most traces of enemy minefields. Later the freezing of the snow made silent movement almost impossible. Patrols breaking through the frozen crust on the snow could be heard 700 yards away. The weird glow of artificial moonlight hung over a dead landscape. There were multi-coloured flares, trip flares and parachute flares, or just great empty silences. And tracks of men, tracks of dogs, leading to and from wrecked houses and into dark clumps of saplings. A day could pass with the temperature below zero, and mines (including glass mines) were frozen solid into the ground. Sometimes the sound of voices drifted across the river: echoes of a party, deep-throated snatches of ‘Lili Marlene’, or squeals from a porker on the way to the cook's pot, or sounds of hammering, sawing and digging from working parties. Over the frozen landscape moved white-hooded figures—patrols in snow capes.
On Monday, 15 January, a curtain of fog hung low over the front, blinding the Air Force and hiding the soldiers. Then, page 415 twice before midnight, 22 Battalion heard and reported the sounds of puffing, the click of wheels passing over rails, the sound of a slow-moving train travelling just across the river in enemy territory. Men heard definite sounds of wheels going over jointed tracks.
There was just one thing wrong. The men knew this only too well when they made their reports. The railway line, the bridges, the stations for miles around were smashed and quite useless.
The night before, at tea-time, 21 Battalion first heard the Ghost Train, doubted the sounds, but heard them again more distinctly just before 9 p.m. Twenty-sixth Battalion also picked up the strange noises. Reports went in to 5 Brigade Headquarters, and the Divisional Artillery shelled the ruined railway line across the river during the night.
Out of the fog on 16 January, 22 Battalion reported the train four times: 9.33 a.m., 9.40 a.m., 2.24 p.m. and 7.20 p.m., and again just after midnight. The Maoris, taking over from 21 Battalion, were the fourth battalion to hear the train. Then gunners, Indians, and a British heavy anti-aircraft unit heard it too. So it went on, to the end of January. Sounds suggested that the train usually ran from ruined Castel Bolognese to Solarolo, about 5000 yards.
Radar, which was now in use for pin-pointing mortars, vainly attempted to track down a ghost. Special aircraft, once the fog lifted, cruised hour after hour, searching, hunting, photographing. Photo-reconnaissance men studied minutely old and new aerial photographs reaching miles back into enemy territory. The New Zealand Division's intelligence summaries speculated day after day and drew no conclusion.
The puzzle, still unsolved, could be reduced to three questions. Did—or could—a train actually run somewhere near the enemy front line? ‘No,’ said air observation. Was it an accoustics trick? Did sounds carry so distinctly from ten miles away that veterans on patrol were deceived into thinking the noise began just a few hundred yards ahead? This seems unlikely. A German trick perhaps: broadcasting records of a train moving? This seems rather pointless, especially as General Polack, who commanded 29 Panzer Grenadier Division on the Senio from mid-December to 22 January 1945, later told an Allied interrogator page 416 that no train ran near Castel Bolognese. No German heard such sounds.
Patrolling, mine-sowing, and booby-trapping filled in 22 Battalion's fortnight on the snowbound Senio. It was a quiet period, for Eighth Army was critically short of ammunition. Casualties were rare. In snow suits on patrol, Second-Lieutenant Scott4 (commanding 12 Platoon) and Sergeant ‘Bunny’ Benson5 passed through an orchard and were worming their way forward on their stomachs in very poor visibility. ‘Scottie’ wiped a drip from the end of his nose, and brrrrrrrt—a spandau opened fire from 25 yards away. Off they went, back to the orchard. Sergeant Ian Ford opened fire with a Bren from the platoon casa to cover them. Both got back, Benson safely, but Scott with bullets through both feet. The machine-gunners supported a brief platoon attack by the Gurkhas. An odd diversion began when a bored Bren-gunner started the fashion of tat-tatting and beating out the first few bars of a popular song. Indians on the battalion's flank frowned upon this flippancy, but Jerry gave it a go, unfortunately with little success. His main machine gun, the spandau, with its high rate of fire was inclined to purr rather than beat.
One man has good reason to remember this locality. While digging a tunnel system underneath the platoon casa, he swung his pick and out fell a bottle holding one hundred 1000-lire notes. ‘Andy’ went on Rome leave almost immediately.
The mortar men were in fine fettle at this time, using the 2-inch mortar as a long-range mortar. Ken MacKenzie began a poem which opened:
I think that I shall never see
A buona Mortar such as thee,
With hungry mouth to sky outstretched,
Steel pressed to earth's sweet flowing breast.
Oh! gaping maw you cry to me
For white hot steel, for mungaree.
The battalion went out to Faenza, to billets in the main square, and then on 2 February into a new New Zealand brigade, 9 Infantry Brigade, together with the Divisional page 417 Cavalry and 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, converted to infantry. This new infantry brigade, commanded by Brigadier Gentry, was to meet the need for more infantry in an over-mechanised division. It had to settle down, reorganise, and train as a brigade with very little time to spare before joining the Division. Concentrated and special training began back at Fabriano, where most members of the battalion returned to a warm welcome from the same families they had been billeted with on other visits. The red diamond shoulder patches of 9 Brigade arrived, but the 22nd still kept the red flash under the fernleaf cap badge, part of the dress during its 4 Brigade days.
Before work started in earnest, Major Bob Wood and Captain ‘Scotch’ Paterson arranged a boisterous farewell for men homeward bound in the Tongariro leave draft. Colonel O'Reilly, Major Sainsbury, Don Agnew and ‘Kai’ Thomson spoke of old days, old places, old faces. A happy evening ended with the toast ‘Absent Friends’, musical items, and a couple of fights. A battalion parade farewelled the ‘Tongariroites’ on 7 February. They numbered 113 altogether, and included men who had returned from New Zealand furlough and 4th and 5th Reinforcements. In a little group apart paraded the old originals, ‘who had borne the heat and burden of the days over the long years.’ These veterans had been hitting it along for a few days (some literally, as black eyes showed, and one was in trouble for flattening a military policeman in the mud), but they all mustered for the parade. They marched past steadily, taking with them the last shadow of the old days—except for Colonel Donald and Major Armstrong, both still with the battalion. The battalion presented arms. Led by George Sainsbury, away went the draft next day, to a rousing send-off from the pipe band—and many yellow smoke grenades. Later the disabled General Kippenberger was similarly honoured (without smoke grenades). The battalion had served under his command in the desert.6page 418
March brought brigade manoeuvres, the first a demonstration attack by infantry supported with tanks. A and C Companies attacked, with B and D in close support. They covered over a mile, the tanks firing impressively. Later, instead of tanks, machine guns mounted on carriers gave support. This was preparing the troops for fighting in settlements. Then they moved below Fabriano, to near Matelica village. More manoeuvres improved tactical and administration details. Remaining well out of the picture, to his profound relief, was Private Murray Doyle.7 When a fieldcraft exercise ended, Murray had just one smoke-bomb left. When nobody was looking, he hurled the thing into a patch of scrub and started an enormous fire, which in turn started widespread inquiries … but Doyle was never found out.
After this the Divisional Cavalry Battalion attacked silently through 22 Battalion, and the 22nd carried out a night relief of 27 Battalion. Difficulties, exasperations, and problems were ironed out, but everyone capitulated before a violent thunderstorm one afternoon which turned the place into a quagmire. The last exercises included an anti-tank shoot and an artillery demonstration of a ‘murder’ and a ‘stonk’. Captain Spicer had his much coveted, snow-white duffle coat ruined in full sight of B Company's headquarters when a civilian emptied a pot from a top window. At night each battalion in turn made a 500-yard advance under an artillery barrage. The safety distance was 200 yards. This exercise went off well: 9 Brigade was almost ready for action.
And so in April, in springtime, the New Zealand Division went into its last and most spectacular attack and advance of the war. In a week the Division advanced 20 miles against bitter opposition from some of the élite of the German Army, to capture half of Eighth Army's grand total of prisoners. Infantry, determined it seemed to avenge the frustrations and humiliations in the niggling advances hard-won through the mud on the wintry Adriatic coast, fought their way through and mastered the best the Wehrmacht could throw against them. A fresh division lay broken and smashed within thirty-six hours’ fighting. Then, in an advance scarcely pausing, the Division page 419 led the Eighth Army north, from the plains past the Senio to the Alps. Messages came from equally valorous units: Fifth Army, and the seasoned, hard-hitting Americans in the hills to the left by Bologna; Eighth Army, including the indomitable Poles and Gurkhas, on the Adriatic plains. Such messages mentioned ‘a magnificent achievement’. The homeless army of exiles, 2 Polish Corps, wrote ‘of your incomparable fighting qualities.’
And in the hurricane of fire over the Gaiana Canal, 22 Battalion—together with two staunch defenders during the old days in Crete, 27 Battalion and Divisional Cavalry Battalion —avenged the bitter day when it was driven from Maleme airfield. Again meeting paratroops (in the role of infantry, never again airborne), 22 Battalion paid back the old score after three years and eleven months.8
The attack opened after weeks of intense planning and preparation. Across the Senio River the country stretched ahead dead flat, rather like a great orchard, a green haze of vines on wires, mulberry trees, willows, poplars, and here and there a touch of fruit blossom. A strange new zoology of vehicles had gathered: Kangaroos (Sherman tanks stripped down to carry infantry), Crocodiles (tanks towing oil-filled trailers and hurling flames 100 yards or more), Wasps (flame-throwing Bren carriers with a much shorter range), amphibious DUKWS (called Ducks) for troop-carrying, Weasels (an amphibious type of Bren carrier), and Fantails (amphibious tanks). Bridges waited, ready to go up, some with names chosen after New Zealand towns: Raglan, Woodville.
The 9th April was a beautiful day. The morning passed in peace. One o'clock. Almost two o'clock. The hard, metallic drone from a swarm of Liberators and Fortresses, wave following wave, high in the sky, all making for the Senio River from airfields as far away as Foggia and Sardinia. From their bomb bays fell over 200,000 bombs—not the crater-digging bombs of Cassino, but small bombs to blast men and vehicles and cut communications. With a growing roar the countryside erupted page 420 into swirling dust clouds. Then came fighter-bombers and rocket-firing Thunderbolts, seeking and searing all signs of movement. Now the artillery, stronger in guns than at Alamein, swung into action, raking the stricken countryside for four hours with a quarter of a million shells. Then, in the red sunset, the flame-throwers, the Wasps and Crocodiles, went forward, their terrible jets of flame billowing out to 100 yards to sear the stopbanks.
‘We are going to hit him a hell of a crack,’ General Freyberg had said. They did.
Fifth and 6th Brigades went forward, and behind them the tanks. Within three days they had won over four miles of ground and were beyond the next river, the Santerno, even more strongly fortified than the Senio but not strongly manned. The furious assault had not given the Germans time to fall back to the Santerno's defences. The new 9 Brigade originally was to win and hold this breach over the Santerno, but this had been done by 6 Brigade. Now came 9 Brigade's turn in the big attack. Geoffrey Cox,9 watching men from this brigade move forward, wrote10:
They marched along the roadside, ten to fifteen yards apart, moving swiftly. Each man carried his pack, with the white enamel mug tied under the strap and a shovel on top. The gear caught your eye more than the man himself. Some carried, some wore their steel helmets. Their rifles or Tommy-guns were slung over their shoulders. Their black boots were grey with dust below the anklets which bound in their battledress trousers, yet they left only rarely a footprint in the soft dust which was constantly powdered and coated anew by the passing lorries and jeeps. Here a man carried a stretcher; there the red cross of a first-aid haversack showed up against the khaki; yet another man held the barrel of a heavy machine-gun over his shoulder like a log. Behind him strode a corporal with mortar ammunition, carrying the holder with its three containers in his hand like a suitcase, grotesquely, for all the world as if he were a week-ender hurrying to the train on Saturday afternoon.
Their faces had the set, silent, apart, almost hypnotised appearance of men about to go into battle. Already these men moved in another world, in the world of absorption in the fight and in personal survival which started just over the river, ahead there in the mist page 421 where the flat, crunching bursts of incoming mortar shells sounded clearly. It was a world from which we in the jeeps and the passing trucks were separated by no great distance on the ground, but by an immensity in life. Across this distance they regarded us without rancour, without bitterness, without even interest. One man called some remark to a friend striding ahead of him, who answered with hardly a turn of his head. For the most part they marched silently, quietly, fatalistically, steadily, accepting but not pretending to like this lot which events had thrust upon them. Above all one felt their individual loneliness, their almost terrible apartness. They were not individuals in the ordinary civilian sense, but soldiers caught up in a something as wide and unchecked as an ocean wave. Yet amidst this each remained, at this moment, alone in himself. No one else now could carry the burden of responsibility which rested on his shoulders like these weapons, this impedimenta, the dual responsibility for doing his task and if possible preserving his own life.
Twenty-second Battalion, 554 strong, had crossed the Santerno River before daylight on Friday, 13 April, and was ready to go into action just beyond the smoking ruins of Massa Lombarda, which had been occupied by 21 Battalion at midnight. On the way up, through the wreckage and carnage where the New Zealand assault over the Senio had swept, Shanks11 ‘came across an Italian woman sitting on the sunny side of a house near a river and nursing a baby. She told me the baby was three months old, yet that day was the first time it had seen daylight. It had been born in a hole in the ground, and had never been above ground until that day for fear of bombs and shells.’ Another small group looked silently ‘at a dead German gently cooking as his phosphorous grenades burned about him. A tunic button burst off as we watched. Then bullets flicked past us. We started back, then realised we were under fire from a dead man's bullets exploding (from the heat of the grenades) in his bandolier.’
The day was an uproar of aircraft and artillery fire. Progress was good, with the tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment pushing out in front. Pockets of strong resistance soon turned up, and the infantry left their Kangaroos to mop up. C Company soon met stiff opposition, but the house finally fell, yielding prisoners. A Company, mastering spandau fire from houses, ran into a lively engagement at a house further on and took seven prisoners. A platoon featuring in this attack made its first bound to a lateral ditch some 50 yards ahead and halfway to the house. The ground was fairly open. Weaving and doubling in extended line, the platoon reached the ditch and dived in thankfully—all except Private George Hardy12 who, in full view of the enemy, calmly walked over a very narrow plank. ‘For—'s sake get down!’ yelled Sergeant Forsyth.13 Back came the reply (‘as if from an armchair’) ‘No—Herman will ever make me wet MY feet!’14
A troublesome anti-tank gun by a canal was sent packing by concentrated artillery fire, and fighter-bombers took good care of Tiger tanks lurking near the battalion area. Fighter-bombers are thought to have knocked out five Tiger tanks here: ‘The Air Force did a great job right through.’ Our tanks had a difficult time crossing canals, and after dark, under a regimental barrage, the two companies finished their drive with a short advance to Squazzaloco Canal (known as ‘Bitch’ on the brigade maps), which gave a firm base for the attack coming up on the Sillaro River after midnight. This day A and C Companies had won 1000 yards: the way to the Sillaro River was page 424 open, but now the riverbank was lined by fresh troops of 278 Division.
Before the night attack started, A Company, pushing on from the canal to the river and digging more and more rapidly and with increasing alarm, reported that our own shells were falling in the company area. ‘You are quite OK where you are,’ came back over the radio, ‘it's only “Ted's” stuff coming in.’ ‘Then, Sir,’ tersely answered 2 Platoon's commander, ‘we're … well surrounded.’ The shelling thickened, and when the ‘stonk’ began, most of the company took to a casa ‘and personally from that moment my sympathy has gone out to any man of any nation who has had the misfortune to be under a 25-pounder stonk.’
The house received a direct hit. Lieutenant Keith Cave jumped to the hole and stood with his back to it, as if protecting his own men, and a second shell, landing in the same place, killed him. Another death occurred here, and about ten men were wounded. ‘Our radio at this stage was talking merrily under a heap of bricks, and we were momentarily in a state of disorder.’ When the ‘stonk’ lifted B Company (in reserve) pushed through.
At 2.30 a.m. on 14 April another assault, which aimed to reach and to cross the Sillaro River, began behind a heavy barrage. Now came the turn of B and D Companies, which had been in reserve. They swung into the attack in the night and met little ground opposition but a great deal of shelling and mortaring. By 3 a.m. they were pushing on to the stopbanks of the river.
The other two companies (A Company grouping together again) followed up. A platoon from D Company, led by Lieutenant Doug Hayter15 (with perhaps a few other men), succeeded in crossing the river, but not for long. A man in this party, Jim Herbert,16 writes: ‘I was wounded by machinegun fire at 10 to 5 on the morning of 14 Apl. on the south stopbank of the Sillaro River during the advance which began at the Senio River. At the time I was wounded we had crossed the Sillaro River but found the north bank too hot to hold, so page 425 were retiring to the south bank. I stopped the shot while crossing barbed wire entanglements. Another lad wounded at the same time I knew as “Bung” Young;17 he died in hospital about three days later.’
On either side of 22 Battalion, however, men from Divisional Cavalry Battalion and two battalions of 6 Brigade held the far bank. The river defied the 22nd all next morning. Heavy shelling and mortaring covered its area, which was also raked with spandau fire. Tanks over the river joined in this hot reception, most of which was directed with painful accuracy from the little village of Sesto Imolese. But men kept busy on reconnaissance in preparation for the crossing that night.
After sunset (still 14 April) in a silent attack, 22 Battalion crossed the supposedly knee-deep Sillaro River to take the opposite bank and to plug the gap between Divisional Cavalry and 26 Battalions. Men of B (right) and D (left) Companies, which made the assault, were told that the enemy still held the far bank, or at least kept standing patrols there during darkness. ‘Soon as you climb the near bank (12 to 20 feet high),’ they were told, ‘everyone must dash across the flat top (about 10 feet wide) and the shelf below (about 18 feet wide), drop down into the river, and cross as fast as you can.’
A B Company private describes the crossing: ‘A few minutes before 8 p.m. we filed silently down towards the riverbank, inwardly wondering what sort of a reception we would receive on the other side. It was a quiet spring evening and as the entire company spread out in an orderly fashion by platoons in an extended line, I had the fleeting thought that it was “just another exercise” when Lt. Phil Powell who had been standing halfway up on the 20ft. stopbank waved his arm, and we were off!
‘As we climbed the bank and ran across the top down on to the sandy shelf below it was impossible not to feel like “sitting ducks,” but the familiar tracer hadn't opened up on the far bank and we dropped into the river. Some waded across and some had to swim. I was carrying a Bren above my head and found it quite an effort in heavy battledress to move forward through the ankle-deep mud underfoot while the water swirled page 426 around the top of my Bren pouches. When within reach of the far bank I pushed the Bren up on the ledge, and on the second attempt managed to scramble up after it. I moved forward far enough up the sloping bank to see a house over to the right from which a steady stream of tracer was pouring. I propped up the Bren and had pumped off a magazine in that direction when Phil Powell came along and told us to pair off and dig in.’
With only two casualties in the actual crossing, the two companies held their own in the night against mortars and nebelwerfers, each company driving back a raiding party before dawn. One occupant of a slit trench would stand guard while his friend snatched two hours' sleep. McArtney,18 who was sitting on the floor of the trench while his companion took over, writes: ‘all of a sudden the whole slitty collapsed upon us.’ Garwood19 and another man dug McArtney out; his collar-bone was broken and his arm broken in two places.
On 15 April B Company found and cleared a gap of a few hundred yards between its position and 26 Battalion, and collected altogether fifteen prisoners. This action began when Private Charlwood20 and Lance-Corporal Sinclair21 discovered that this part of the riverbank was held by a German standing patrol. Charlwood crept over the top of the bank and fired through the opening of an underground trench, killing one German. The others, surrendering, were shepherded out and lined up for searching. They drew several interested spectators. Exactly at that moment the battalion 3-inch mortars opened up, the first bombs falling perilously short. Men still in their slit trenches watched and grinned at others being beaten to their trenches by some of the half-dozen prisoners. Soon after this a party carrying rations made its way along the river shelf and was about to wade into the river. A nearby spandau snugly set in a bend in the river opened up, and Spooner,22 page 427 helping ‘to take the good old stew across the river to 12 Platoon’, was struck by two bullets. It was his twenty-second birthday. Enfilading fire now swept down the river. Towards noon a Wasp flame-thrower burned out this troublesome spandau post. Aided by prompt ‘stonks’ on mortars and bazookas, the two companies held their now firmly established positions across the river. A party returning with prisoners was struck by a mortar bomb, which wounded Lieutenant Rogers,23 and Lance-Sergeant Mick Glen24 took over 11 Platoon.
Orders for the evening attack were issued in mid-afternoon. Twenty-seventh Battalion was to pass through Divisional Cavalry on the left and, together with 22 Battalion, attack and continue the advance over the Sillaro River, each battalion on an 800- yard front. On the right 6 Brigade would attack with the same programme.
At 9 p.m. (still the same day, 15 April) the artillery barrage opened on the very second, and the whole of the New Zealand line went forward. In the 22nd's area above Sesto Imolese A and C Companies were in front, with B and D in support. Dawn found them three kilometres beyond the river after much resistance from small arms and snipers. Two lieutenants had been killed: Bedingfield25 and McCorkindale.26 Private Sherman27 had been wounded by splinters in face and forehead when a bullet hit the inside of his Kangaroo. In this attack C Company had pushed on in the dark until it was held up by Germans firmly dug in along a roadway. One hundred yards from here 13 and 15 Platoons occupied a house and kept up a steady fire until dawn. On the way Private Murray Doyle, winded by a piece of spent shrapnel, had lost his rifle and was given a German rifle and ammunition, but could not work the mechanism. During a brief lull the occupants of the house leapt in page 428 alarm at a loud explosion in their midst. Murray called reassuringly: ‘It's all right—I found how it worked.’ At dawn, ‘for some reason I have never been able to understand,’ Corporal ‘Mick’ Anderson, armed with a tommy gun, left the house, walked straight to the Germans in their slit trenches, and demanded their surrender. Sergeant Jack Sicely (who had taken over 15 Platoon when Bedingfield was killed) and others moved up to support the corporal. As Anderson grabbed at an enemy rifle about thirty Germans rose, dropped their weapons, moved forward, and were collected. Then Anderson fell, his left arm (later amputated) severely shattered by a concealed tommy-gunner.
It so happened during this night attack that one platoon had taken a prisoner. A man, fierce in outward appearance at least, was left alone in a house to guard this prisoner. Four Germans, intending to surrender, approached. The guard promptly surrendered to them, despite their protests. To settle this awkward situation everyone piled all weapons in the centre of the room and agreed to surrender to the next party to turn up— which happened to be New Zealanders.
As the attackers moved on after dawn, prisoners were sent back in batches; it was impossible to keep count of them at this stage. Fog made visibility poor, and the tanks were slow. Once the Kangaroos had arrived (the Sillaro had been bridged about 1 a.m.), however, the advance speeded up with B and A now the forward companies pushing into a reeling enemy. By midnight they had advanced another good distance, four kilometres this time. The infantry exploited in their Kangaroos in close co-operation with the tanks. In the last ten hours 22 Battalion had taken 116 prisoners and had lost two officers killed and sixteen other ranks wounded in twenty-four hours. Most of the delays were caused by enemy strongpoints and through Kangaroos finding it difficult to cross canals.
At 6 a.m. on 17 April B and D Companies advanced at top speed, limited only by the pace of the tanks and Kangaroos, and halted once while fighter-bombers attacked Villa Fontana on the battalion's left front. By noon the forward platoons, covering six kilometres, were approaching the line of the Gaiana Canal, strongly held by paratroopers of 4 Parachute Division. Bridges were blown here. By 4 p.m. B Company was on the near stopbank of the Gaiana.page 429
The plan for the attack which gained the stopbank was for the battalion's mortars to lay a smoke screen across the immediate front ‘which,’ Ian Ferguson notes ruefully, ‘was a flat treeless plain without even a decent sized tussock for cover.’ Eleven and 12 Platoons were to advance right up to the forward stopbank in their Kangaroos, get out and dig in. Ten Platoon was to clear and occupy a couple of houses about 80 yards short of the stopbank and give covering fire to the forward platoons busy with pick and shovel.
‘The smokescreen was duly laid,’ Ferguson continues, ‘and the Kangaroos clanked under way under intense mortar and small-arms fire from the paratroops. The smokescreen disappeared in a few minutes and we bumped and jolted along with funereal speed until our Tommy driver ran us into a large ditch. The Kangaroo pitched nose downwards and became immovable. Everyone scrambled out and started to run forward in the open field to the nearest house about 120 yards away. The whole section made it without mishap.’ Racing into a room upstairs with his Bren, Ferguson soon felt ‘a jarring sensation in my right shoulder and a momentary burning at the side of my neck, and knew I had collected a burst of spandau from the stopbank which knocked me over. The first bullet had hit a nerve, and I felt as if I was having all my teeth drilled together.’ Phil Powell cut away his battledress jacket and applied field dressings.
Describing the scene on the stopbank, a 12 Platoon man writes: ‘The Kangaroos stopped about 30 or 40 yards from the stopbank. The first thing we saw as we jumped out of the Kangaroos was a line of paratroopers’ heads and shoulders above the bank, firing at us. Not one man in the platoon was hit in the charge to the stopbank, thanks to the covering fire, small arms, etc., from the Kangaroos and other sources. A hand-grenade battle then followed. Never have I seen anyone dig so fast and furiously in all my life. The ground was like concrete. We cussed another crowd who had borrowed our sharp shovels earlier, and never returned them. The paratroopers seemed to have an endless supply of grenades which they rolled over the bank. So to fool and annoy them (and also to save our own supply of grenades) we would occasionally throw over empty bully beef tins or sods of dirt…. [Privates Goodwin28 page 430 and Colin Ferguson29 were] wounded with grenade splinters. We were lucky. The Teds fired two bazookas into a Kangaroo on our left flank which burst into flames, causing the ammunition on board to explode. The noise and heat was terrific.’
The firmly-held Gaiana line was stormed next night (18 April) in the last all-out New Zealand assault of the war. In 9 Brigade's sector 22 Battalion took over from 27 Battalion on the left (next to the Gurkhas), with Divisional Cavalry on the right. A tremendous barrage broke at 9.30 p.m. and then the flame-throwers went forward to hose and lick the opposite bank with deadly effect. After this the infantry went forward, C Company on the right, A on the left, D mopping up, and B on one hour's notice (and soon sending 12 Platoon to protect the bridge-building engineers from an enemy thrust on the right flank).
‘I saw this attack go in,’ writes Major Spicer, ‘the arty was terrific, then the flame-throwers advanced to the bank in extended line, a Crocodile then a Wasp, at approximately 100 yards apart for the Crocodiles with the Wasps in between, which gave a vehicle every 50 yards. The centre tank started first, then the bank was just one sheet of flame, a sight never to be forgotten.’
At 6 a.m. on 19 April they were three kilometres beyond the Gaiana and midway between Villa Fontana and Budrio. Just before dawn, as Headquarters Company began assembling on the outskirts of Villa Fontana, a shell landed in the square where Private Collins and an anti-tank officer were pulling up. Collins, diving for cover, was wounded in the foot almost at the threshold of the RAP.
Ballantyne,30 using a Bren now that his No. 38 set was out of action, was covering ‘Buff’ North and his Piat mortar. A file of paratroops had been driven off, but a last straggler, using a Luger, shot Ballantyne through the thumb and chest. After lying wounded and alone on the stopbank for about six hours a tommy-gunner, Phelps,31 was picked up by efficient stretcher- page 431 bearers. ‘What a job they must have had considering the smoke and fog that was hanging around.’ A small German patrol was driven back by a grenade, which drew ‘molti schmieser fire’, and Phelps, who had been dropped, ‘though I couldn't walk before darn soon caught the stretcher-bearers up, and the only regret was leaving my little bag of loot, and catching them up with a perfectly useless Thompson sub-machine gun clasped firmly in my hand.’ While waiting in a little brick shed for an ambulance, the wounded Phelps watched and drew comfort from ‘a very corpulent Major flat out digging a slit trench and doing a great sweat. The air was blue when he was sent forward without enjoying his hard-earned labour.’
Casualties had been fairly light; there had been some confused skirmishes with much small-arms fire throughout the advance. The toll of enemy dead was greater than any seen so far by the battalion. A provisional count was made of the dead; the figures are not remembered, ‘but it was terrific.’ The artillery barrage had accounted for many; others lay by smashed vehicles and carts where the Air Force had caught them. Every house and canal held its sprawling dead, and here alone the infantry had succeeded: evidence was abundant. The paratroops were taking terrible punishment as the campaign drew to its close. Many prisoners were taken. A Company collected forty in one batch.
In the night C Company headquarters, caught in a heavy ‘stonk’, made a death-or-glory tommy-gun charge over 200 yards to take cover inside a house, only ‘to find themselves in the open air again—with shells still falling—the “house” was merely a shell—a front wall with nothing else,’ writes Bryan Edinger. ‘The boys involved claim that the anticlimax was such that in spite of the position, they all roared with laughter.’
At 9 a.m. B and D Companies passed through the leading companies, in Kangaroos, and continued to advance until brought to a halt while Divisional Cavalry cleaned up on the right. Early in the afternoon the battalion moved on again, and although hampered by gun and tank fire and tank obstacles, kept on to establish a line one kilometre short of Budrio, where it was ordered to halt and 9 Brigade was relieved by the 5th. In the past six days the battalion had advanced 15 miles and had taken over 300 prisoners of war, including 100 page 432 paratroopers. The battalion's first big battle had been against paratroops at Maleme. Its last battle ended with the paratroops routed and broken everywhere.
This last attack in which the battalion had taken part broke the back of the German resistance. ‘Ted's had it,’32 everyone was saying. The Poles soon afterwards took Bologna, and Allied troops were breaking through in all directions. In force, Eighth Army rushed towards the great Po River. Fifth and 6th Brigades soon crossed the next important river, the Idice, cutting through a reeling, dazed, punch-drunk Wehrmacht. On 22 April the battalion, now in reserve, was on the move again, crossing the Idice and then, in the afternoon, every company mounted in Kangaroos, pressing forward mile after mile in billowing dust clouds.
That night, with all four company cookhouses set up in different rooms in the same building, the battalion gathered for mess. A solitary plane droned overhead, and then suddenly there was the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun and tracer came streaming down: ‘Well! Talk about a stampede, as four or five hundred men tried simultaneously to dive under trucks or into shelter of any kind. A Wild West cattle stampede was nothing to it, and whole containers of food were upset amid shouts of “Put out those lights! You fools!” It was all over within a minute, and a badly shaken battalion queued up again for what was left of the food.’
They approached the Po next day (Colonel Donald soon well away in front of his battalion), and passed by masses of wrecked and burned vehicles recalling the debris strewing the advance west after Alamein. Here one man saw ‘the most awful sight of the war…. —a long team of Jerry horses that had been probably pulling a heavy gun. The arty or Air Force had evidently scored a direct hit, and they had been blown to bits and rolled down a bank by the road, all tangled in their chains and harness. A truly horrible sight that made me feel if we must be so barbarous as to go to war, it is certainly wrong to drag poor dumb animals into it.’page 433
Crossing the undefended Po on 26 April the battalion, advancing at top speed, within almost two days was into the large road-junction town of Padua, where A Company, penetrating a troublesome area, rounded up thirty prisoners. The New Zealand Division, leading the advance of Eighth Army, and chosen for this role because of its great mobility, was by-passing many strong enemy formations and groups, some of which surrendered quietly while others fought back briefly. The partisans, taking over great mobs of prisoners and liberating towns and roadways ahead of the New Zealanders, aided our advance a great deal—they liberated Mestre, for example, on 28 April at the cost of 110 men.
Headed by 12 Lancers' armoured cars, 9 Brigade continued its advance, soon met the autostrada and moved swiftly towards Mestre, an industrial suburb on the mainland opposite Venice. Tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment and the Lancers kept their guns busy, and B Company, leading the battalion, deployed briefly to gather forty prisoners. How to get rid of the prisoners and continue the advance was a problem: transport was out of the question, for B Company itself was squashed into four three-tonners. Two civilians, given German automatic page 434 weapons, agreed to escort the captives back but couldn't work the automatics. A German stepped obligingly from the ranks with a polite ‘Scusate’ (excuse me), and explained in his best Italian how to handle the weapon. He then passed the automatic back to the civilian, who said ‘Grazie’. Everyone smiled, and away they went.
Clearly the enemy had now disintegrated—at Mestre, like some scene from a Charlie Chaplin film, a German force passed under the autostrada just as the brigade group swept over the intersection on the upper road.
Twenty-second Battalion (except for B Company) now led the brigade in the race for the Piave River, and reached Musile on its banks at 8 p.m. (29 April) in an attempt to seize any bridges still standing. All bridges had gone, however, but a ferry was working. C Company was ferried across and moved into San Dona di Piave, while the other companies deployed for the night in Musile. Meanwhile, an enemy force was reported nearby and C Company sent out a platoon to collect it. Sixty captives were handed over to partisans, who had looked after the innumerable prisoners taken early in the day. If no partisans were handy, prisoners had just been left on the roadside, to be gathered up by somebody else. And so, established on the Piave, 22 Battalion awaited further word for the brigade's next forward move in the race towards Trieste.
B Company, about to win one of the New Zealand Division's most highly prized possessions, featured in a proud achievement while the rest of the Division and the battalion raced on towards Trieste. The company had become the nucleus of Thodey Force, under Colonel Thodey,33 9 Brigade's second-in-command. At Mestre Thodey Force, which included armour, detached itself from 9 Brigade and headed for Venice, which was thought to have been cleared by partisans. One of the jobs General Freyberg had given the force was to occupy and hold at all costs the world-famous Albergo Danieli for a New Zealand Forces Club. The General, who had stayed at this hotel before the war, loved Venice. At the back of his mind, as the New Zealanders drove on past the Senio River, was the deter- page 435 mination that his men would see Venice, as he had done, from the very best hotel.
Venice gave Thodey Force a tumultuous welcome. The Piazza D'Arrive (where roads end and canals take over) was black with civilians who swarmed excitedly over the travel-stained New Zealand vehicles. Major Spicer, commanding B Company, was kissed, garlanded, patted on the back, embraced and treated like a conquering hero, and took ten minutes to cover 100 yards. Apart from the embraces and kisses, the rest of the force was almost overwhelmed with lavish gifts of wines, liqueurs and spirits (including Hennessey's Three Star Brandy). Venice (from the military viewpoint anyhow) was practically under control. An English officer, dropped in advance by parachute, had helped to organise Venice's most competent partisans.
Ten and 12 Platoons bedded down at the Albergo Santa Chiara, with A Echelon in a nearby garage—a garage de luxe, a three-storied building with a ramp to take vehicles to the two top floors for parking, and downstairs offices resembling an hotel. Meanwhile Company Headquarters and 11 Platoon left the wharf at the Piazza Roma at 5.15 p.m. (29 April) and went by motor launch through the canals, heading for the Albergo Danieli on the Grand Canal. Colonel Thodey had gone on ahead. Chugging along the waterways, the soldiers had gifts showered upon them, while crowds thronged and cheered from balconies where the winged lion of Venice and the Italian tricolour hung. In the background occasional bursts of firing showed that the partisans were still rounding up and eliminating fascists. Lance-Corporal Sinclair, falling overboard just before the party reached its destination, reached the landing place an easy first. Still more welcomes and demonstrations awaited the party on the wharf in front of the Danieli, and the hotel itself was ‘full of gorgeous blondes and brunettes, all freely demonstrating their keen pleasure at the arrival of British troops in the most affectionate manner!’34 Immediately Major Spicer clapped a guard on the main entrance and claimed the Danieli for a New Zealand Forces Club. Soon page 436 members of B Company were busy explaining to all-comers that this was New Zealand territory. One particularly senior officer, checked and astounded, exclaimed: ‘Privates staying at the Danieli! Why, I spent my honeymoon heah!’ About eight o'clock this night Major Spicer, on his way back to the Piazza Roma to arrange rations and administrative details, saw the first arrivals of 56 London Division. Next day the newcomers formed up and marched impressively to San Marco Square. Several Thodey Force men, on the sideline, ironically hailed the ‘liberators’.
For the next few days B Company stood firm in the ‘Battle for the Danieli’.
At 8 a.m. on 30 April Major Spicer was visited in his bedroom by a staff officer of 56 Division, escorted watchfully by the B Company picket and very red in the face. He had come to claim the hotel in the name of his division. Major Spicer's good-natured laugh at this news did not improve matters. The visitor explained that the New Zealanders had no right in Venice: it was out of their area; they were trespassers, and he would be glad if they would make arrangements to move at once. The Major firmly declined. Such interruptions were frequent. Once Spicer was asked: ‘Was there a hotel the Kiwis did not have in Venice?’ Colonel Thodey had stressed that New Zealand Divisional Headquarters would be most displeased if any individual claiming the Danieli ever got past Major Spicer. Having first to deal with the picket and then with Lieutenant Leatham,35 no one ever did. Another early difficulty at the hotel was the custom of officers, mainly from the Eighth Army, arriving and demanding food. Eighth Army had ordered that no civilian food would be eaten by servicemen. So a picket was placed on the restaurant, with strict orders to prevent soldiers from eating there. This resulted in a brigadier, a full colonel, and two majors of the British Army being shooed away by a private from B Company. The enraged brigadier, appealing to Major Spicer, was quoted the Eighth Army regulations. The well-meaning offer of ‘a little bread and butter’ routed the brigadier. In the final check-up, just before the hotel was officially taken over as the Kiwi Club, someone discovered that many Kiwis had managed not only to dine and wine well, but page 437 had said: ‘Charge it up to the New Zealand Forces Club.’ The average meal cost 700 lire and the wines averaged around 250 lire a bottle. A fair debt had grown. The manager, told that the soldiers had acted without authority, debited the amount to the ‘liberation of Venice’.
The reason why the Danieli was selected by the New Zealanders goes back to Rome. General Freyberg was always anxious to have good leave centres for his men, maintaining, ‘You can't treat a man like a butler and expect him to fight like a gladiator.’ Denying the story that he spent his honeymoon at the Danieli in Venice, but saying that he had visited the hotel in the late 'twenties and 'thirties, the General writes (2 July 1955): ‘We were allotted the Excelsior Hotel, as a Club [in Rome] and when we arrived there we found Americans with a mounted Guard, who told us to buzz off, and they occupied the hotel themselves for a Club. When we were going up on the way to Trieste, we heard that the Americans were coming up the road, and on their lorries had placards with Danieli Hotel. We were not going to have a repetition of what had happened in Rome, and I sent a Company of the 22 Battalion to occupy the Danieli Hotel, and made Colonel Thodey personally responsible to me that he kept the Americans out.’
The most prominent citizens of Venice, including Italian admirals and generals, generously entertained the New Zealanders at their new club. Soldiers quizzically heard how Venetians always had been patriotic to Italy, not mere supporters of Mussolini. Some maintained they had suffered much; others obviously were war profiteers. (Indeed, it was curious that throughout the length and breadth of Italy, not once did the battalion meet a fervent supporter of Mussolini.)36
Meanwhile Thodey Force helped to restore order. Arrangements were made for Venetian partisans to deliver Germans in lots of 120 to the huge garage in the Piazza Roma, where page 438 B Company's other platoons guarded them. Prisoners numbering 2730 were handled like this. The morale of these prisoners was high, but they were pleased that the war had ended with them in British hands. On Monday, 30 April, news reached Major Spicer that several islands in the Venetian Lagoon, including the celebrated island of Lido, still held enemy garrisons. The garrison on the Lido pleasure resort, a long narrow island guarding the entrance to the harbour, refused to yield to Italian partisans. Learning that the German headquarters was in the Albergo Warner on the island, Spicer called the hotel on the phone and located the English-speaking German commander. A conversation, remarkable for its extreme politeness, ended in an invitation to take over the island. The Major, with a party including Sergeant-Major Mick Bougen, visited the island, received an overwhelming welcome, and left with six officers and 350 German other ranks. Two nearby islands, Murano and Burano, were also visited. The enemy had gone, but again handsome receptions awaited these first Allied soldiers.
On the night before the company left Venice to rejoin the battalion a grand ball—a combined farewell and peace celebration—took place in the Danieli's superb ballroom. As gaiety reached a climax Lieutenant Leatham, astounded, saw a party of six German officers and NCOs march through the door. Rushing forward, Leatham learned that this party, with twenty-eight more in a boat outside, had arrived from an island 48 miles away. Without news or instructions for several days, they had come to Venice to find out for themselves and walked straight into the hotel. How they passed the sentry was a mystery. The military police took over these gate-crashers, the ball continued with extra zest, and the club added one large diesel scow to its fleet of two pleasure launches.
Apparently the huge garage and car store in the Piazza Roma also had held a German officers' canteen. Great quantities of rare and select wines were found. B Company, when leaving for Trieste, was faced with an awkward choice: to load cognac or ammunition? The soldiers soon made up their minds, and Venice and all her old glories faded away behind the tailboards of the New Zealand trucks, to the comforting chink of bottles galore on board. This, indeed, was how a war should end.page 439
With the war on its deathbed, the Division pressed north and east, along its last road, Route 14, skirting the head of the Adriatic Sea and leading to the port of Trieste. The last advance, 76 miles, was one long triumphal procession—flowers, kisses, wine, crowds half-mad with joy and affection. Ninth Brigade led the New Zealanders on this drizzling damp day of 1 May, with a squadron of 12 Lancers scouting ahead. Then in turn came two troops of B Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment, A Company, D Company, and Battalion Headquarters, Brigade Headquarters, General Freyberg, C and Headquarters Companies, and then Divisional Cavalry Battalion.
Yugoslav troops first appeared at 3.30 p.m. by the bridge over the Isonzo River, where General Freyberg, Brigadier Gentry and Colonel Donald met Marshal Tito's representatives. They conferred for about twenty-five minutes. Then the Lancers and the armour pushed on, with 22 Battalion close behind, to a tremendous welcome in the large Italian ship-building town of Monfalcone, where partisans and Yugoslavs were holding processions in the main streets. The Italian flag was now giving way to the tricolour and the red star of Tito's Yugoslavia. The first fighting this day broke out near San Giovanni, just beyond Monfalcone. By the crossroads the enemy held strong coastal and anti-aircraft emplacements, while a number of machine-gun posts covered road-blocks. A Company, with tanks, attacked here while the carriers moved towards the garrison on the coastal gun-sites. By 5 p.m. all firing had ended and some 150 prisoners had been taken. The battalion and its supporting arms had no casualties. Heavy rain set in. The battalion remained in tactical positions, and patrols probing forward found groups of enemy here and there, but by dawn they had gone. D Company captured a motor torpedo-boat.
On 2 May, when the broken armies of the Third Reich in Italy surrendered unconditionally, the last short advance began at 8.30 a.m. with Divisional Cavalry Battalion, due to come in on the 22nd's left flank later, following the battalion. The enemy held out in Sistiana, but a small force of one infantry platoon, carriers, and a troop of tanks pushed ahead, opened fire, inflicted casualties and took eight prisoners. Despite warnings a British naval captain and an American naval officer in a jeep drove up past the stationary column into heavy machine- page 440 gun fire and were wounded, together with two members of A Company, George Findlay37 and Ray Gurney. Air reports indicated that fighting was going on in the southern part of the city of Trieste, now only 12 miles away. The plane, which had met flak, noticed two small fires burning. The tanks opened up on three enemy ships, and set one on fire and sank it. Moving on again, the force halted briefly while the Air Force heavily bombed positions in Miramare seaside resort. Divisional Cavalry now had branched off to the left at Sistiana, and following a parallel top road, joined the advance alongside 22 Battalion.
A few of the Lancers and Colonel Donald next pushed forward into the city of Trieste, but Battalion Headquarters and advanced men in D Company met machine-gun fire at a road block on the Trieste side of Miramare. The tanks smashed this, and by 4 p.m., after a wireless message from the Colonel, the battalion and supporting forces were making a triumphal entry into the city, some of them with extra transport, including a form of German jeep with the engine at the rear, and several dun-coloured trucks whose ultimate disposal shall not be disclosed.
The Division's long trek had ended. Twenty-three days after the crushing barrage on the Senio, the Division had smashed three German divisions to advance 225 miles.
A tumultuous reception met 22 Battalion, mixed with odd bursts of rifle and machine-gun fire which failed to disperse the excited crowds. Snipers were active in many of the enemy-held buildings in the city. Yugoslav troops and an armoured column of old Honey tanks paraded the streets. Amid further cheering from the citizens, Brigadier Gentry, closely followed by General Freyberg, now entered the city. At 4.30 p.m. the battalion, with D Company leading, and the remaining tanks entered the square by the large Tribunale building. A Company for the moment remained at Miramare.
Colonel Donald continued (without much satisfaction) to negotiate the surrender of two garrisons, one in the Tribunale, the other in a 700-year-old fortress called the Castello (or Castle) San Giusto, on a hill in the centre of the city. With armoured cars, Donald led C Company up the steep and winding road to the Castello, handed over the business of surrender page 441 to Major Cross, and returned to the Tribunale. C Company reached the castle, passed through the gates under a massive stone archway, and entered a central courtyard where the enemy garrison waited. A good deal of indiscriminate shooting was going on, and a bazooka had been fired at one of the tanks, but had missed. The Yugoslavs, threatening to shoot down anyone attempting to enter the castle, left C Company alone. An officer, with mixed feelings, watched this milling, encircling, and threatening of different nationalities ‘and political odds and sods of at least 5 to 6 distinct flavours. I felt disheartened. I felt the war would never end.’
First the garrison piled weapons and equipment in one large heap, while Sergeant-Major Mangos38 paraded C Company and handed it over to Major Cross. The company, responding to the dramatic atmosphere, drilled and moved superbly. Opposite C Company the enemy garrison paraded, headed by their commander, a naval officer who had served for four years with U-boats in the First World War and for three and a half years in the second. His parade came smartly to attention, and as the commander saluted in the usual fashion, all his officers gave the Nazi salute. C Company in turn snapped to attention, and Major Cross saluted.
An English-speaking German regimental sergeant-major next escorted Mangos on a tour of the castle, pointing out guard positions and revealing formidable dumps of ammunition—the garrison was well prepared for siege. A good deal of time passed before all surrender formalities and arrangements ended. The New Zealanders grew more and more hungry. Major Cross gladly agreed to the commander's suggestion that the company share a meal with the garrison. Around 11.30 p.m. in the old castle New Zealanders and Germans, bitter enemies but a few hours ago, lined up in the same mess queue for the old familiar hot stew.
From time to time members of Tito's partisans had called at the castle gate to demand entrance, but in vain. From houses on higher ground partisan snipers had been shooting at movement within the walls. The captured force now suggested with page 442 some enthusiasm uniting with the New Zealanders and fighting side by side if the situation grew worse. Major Cross, suddenly immersed in the intricacies and duplicities of peace, replied non-committally. Next morning the garrison, under escort, marched down the road to the waiting three-tonners. Howls of protest and anger rose from the demonstrating partisans and civilians, who demanded the prisoners. The New Zealanders saw the Germans off safely.
At the Tribunale building the CO couldn't persuade the enemy commander to surrender. By arrangement with the Yugoslav commander, it was agreed that eighteen tanks from 19 and 20 Armoured Regiments would ring the building and blast it from ranges of 20 to 50 yards. At 7 p.m. the tanks opened up, blowing gaping holes in the walls and firing shells through the windows. They kept up the bombardment for nearly twenty minutes before Yugoslav troops and partisans entered the building and rounded up the garrison.
Next night an Austrian civilian brought a message from the lieutenant-general commanding the Trieste and north-west coastal area, who wished to surrender his forces to the British. The battalion Intelligence Officer, Second-Lieutenant Clem Currie,39 Sergeant Morrie Klein40 and the Austrian (to act as interpreter) set off on foot, carrying a flag of truce made out of a tablecloth. High up the hillside overlooking Trieste city and harbour they climbed towards the General's well-guarded villa. The rain fell steadily as the three men tramped over the wet cobblestones. It was necessary to light up the flag in the gloom. The electric torch, playing up, flickered infuriatingly. The Germans were well dug in: the approach to the headquarters was covered by underground shelters and an elaborate system of trenches. As the three moved forward in the darkness they could see the faces of German soldiers standing by, peering at them curiously. They hoped the Germans were sober.
Unhappily, the Austrian was somewhat deaf. He couldn't hear replies to his frequent announcements of the party's mission. Fortunately Sergeant Klein's German got by. At the villa the General eventually agreed to come down under escort and page 443 discuss terms of surrender with Colonel Donald. With two of his staff officers, he set off to the battalion's tactical headquarters in the Albergo Regina.
Near the foot of the hill a jeep waited, with the Intelligence Sergeant, Charlie Simpson,41 alongside the driver. The Germans got into the jeep. The others walked ahead. The only light was the dull glow of the torch, which was still spotlighting the white flag. Soon a Tito patrol challenged the party. Fast thinking and double talk by Currie satisfied the partisans, who did not trouble to investigate the passengers.
The surrender discussions took a long time. Two interpreters were necessary, a German-Italian interpreter and an Italian-English interpreter. The German commander wanted to make certain his men fell into British, not Yugoslav, hands. It was decided to take him out to Miramare, General Freyberg's headquarters. Freyberg conferred with Donald, did not see the Germans, and arranged for the commander, his staff, and his men of that particular garrison to be taken to a British prisoner-of-war cage as soon as possible.
The party returned to the garrison and speedy evacuation plans began. D Company arrived as escort and disarmed the enemy. As dawn came into the sky Second-Lieutenant Currie led a long column down the hill. Behind the Intelligence Officer came the German general and his staff in eight cars, a German truck and a motor-cycle, followed by eight of D Company's trucks, and finally about 300 Germans on foot. Currie watched anxiously in case the partisans intervened, but the garrison, conducted by Jim Sherratt and his platoon, safely reached the cages of Monfalcone.
During the first visit to the villa and while awaiting the result of the negotiations, Sergeant Klein remained alone in a room, with the Germans conferring next door. Although he could not detect what was actually being said, he is convinced that everyone joined in taking some form of solemn oath. The commander would say a few words. Everyone repeated his words. Again and again the commander would say something, and each time came the mumbled reply. This ceremony went on for a fairly long time.page 444
One sane note at Trieste was the faithful YMCA service from Roy Salmon,42 who in the year he had been with the battalion had driven exactly 10,000 miles. Roy and his assistant (Wally Church,43 formerly of D Company), distributing thankfully received hot tea and buns during the last of the firing in Trieste, were probably the last YMCA unit serving refreshments in the front line when the war ended in the Italian theatre.
On the morning of 3 May, after receiving a message from the commander of yet another German garrison at Villa Opicina (a large village in the hills north of the city), A Company and tanks of A Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment moved out to the area, only to find that the garrison was under siege by the Yugoslav forces, who were firing when A Company arrived. Captain Jock Wells, A Company's commander, went forward with a German officer who had come out to arrange the surrender. The partisans opened up with small arms and mortars. A Company came under fire, and to the sorrow and anger of the battalion, one very fine soldier, Lance-Corporal Russell, was mortally wounded and Corporal Ahern44 was wounded.
Orders were given to advance to a large house just ahead. Taking the two wounded, A Company joined the main force of German soldiers. ‘And so began the strangest day of the whole Italian Campaign,’ writes Lloyd Grieve. ‘Casualties had been, and continued to be, inflicted on the Germans by Tito's troops. It was said that their Medical Officers were working flat out. Here we were, among armed Germans who greatly outnumbered us, and subject to the same dangers in a private war which was being prosecuted after the official cessation of hostilities. Midday came and the Tedeschi lined up for a helping of potato soup. When they had filed past I borrowed some mess gear and tried the soup too. Small groups formed round English-speaking German officers who conversed brightly on the course and ultimate end of the war. Most were of the opinion that Germany and England should have allied themselves to fight against Russia—and that that day might even page 445 come to pass. [Bob Ferris chatted with a German who exported tools to Bob's hometown, Blenheim.] The ORs were mainly middle-aged and war weary troops (some Austrian), too downcast to make conversation per medium of Italian.
‘It was not until well on in the afternoon that one of our tanks, bearing a white flag, contacted the Yugoslavs and brought their assault to an end.’
This distressing situation ended after visits by Wells to the Yugoslav headquarters, when a Yugoslav officer and a British liaison officer from these headquarters called at 9 Brigade Headquarters. More parley ended with A Company and the tanks pulling out, while the Germans were advised to surrender to the Yugoslavs.
A Company and the tanks returned to Trieste. Twenty-second Battalion had fired its last shot in the Second World War, and had suffered its last casualty.
‘Next day a small party of us set off to bury our dead comrade,’ adds Grieve. ‘The spot was outside the wall of a newly set-up C.C.S…. a shallow grave was in readiness—shallow because the body would later be removed to a war cemetery. The circumstances of our comrade's death affected us profoundly. Mere words do not describe the memory of a good companion, young and adventurous, reliable in action, cheerful and unselfish as he lived amongst us. None of us said these things; we all knew that these were our thoughts. Our sorrow conveyed itself to a group of Italian peasants who, bareheaded, quietly joined our service. Roman Catholic and Protestant, countryman and foreigner stood humbly together in the presence and the mystery of death. He died when the war was over, but he died in battle.’
The tension, apparent in Trieste from the moment the New Zealanders appeared, swiftly increased, a tension which seemed on the verge of erupting into a shooting war at any time. Tank faced tank; Yugoslav and British sentries, remote and frigid, guarded bridges, the harbour, and intersections; armed squads marched through apprehensive streets plastered with photographs, posters and slogans: ‘Zivio Tito’, ‘Zivio Stalin’ (and here and there, scrawled in competition, an occasional New Zealand slogan: ‘Zivio Gentry’, ‘Zivio Kiwi’). The Yugoslavs, overrun, humiliated and garrisoned by vindictive German and page 446 Italian troops since early 1941, had risen in one of the most remarkable and one of the most savage guerrilla campaigns in modern history, at one time tying down more German troops in their wasted countryside than the Allies were in Italy. For centuries Trieste had been a disputed city, with a history even more tangled than a battalion history. But to the New Zealanders, phlegmatic Yugoslavs (or ‘Jugs’), speaking an incomprehensible language, were pushing around Italians (‘and even Ites were humans’) in a city predominantly Italian. It was humiliating for an infantryman driving in a truck to be suddenly fired on, and sometimes, enraged, he fired back. This ‘peace’, with no relaxation, called for extra duties and tasks, and men who were ordered to carry weapons with them even on leave could not enjoy an evening's relaxation. Bored with the whole business of slogans and parrot cries, one 22 Battalion man had seized paste-pot and brush and slammed a poster on to the chest of a Yugoslav—a significant act. For the New Zealand soldier, homesick and sick to death of a diseased and decaying Europe, had suffered and endured enough. This was one hell of a way to end a war.
Yet the tangle of Trieste can be over-dramatised from the soldier's viewpoint, as the following incident (from a soldier suddenly turned diplomat) shows. D Company occupied the Hotel Continentale, near the centre of the city, and had fenced off each end of the block with rolls of concertina barbed wire, leaving at each end a narrow entrance to allow trucks in and out. One day lunch was interrupted by the noise of nearby spandaus and schmeissers. ‘Suddenly,’ writes a D Company officer, ‘our street was jammed full of screaming civilians, as [if] a huge river had suddenly been diverted into a little hollow. One Italian male with tears streaming down his face grabbed me by the lapels of my battledress and shouted in broken English: “Save us, save us, Capitano, or we are all murdered!”’ Grasping his only weapon, a bright yellow, nobbly walking-stick, the officer thrust his way through the crowd and peered round the corner. ‘Spread across the street, coming down at a jogtrot, were about fifteen of Tito's boys and girls—they looked about 16 or 17 years old—dressed in untidy battle-dresses of a lighter hue than ours, caps with red stars, and the girls with their hair hanging down almost to their shoulders.page 447
‘As they trotted along, as happy as children at a Sunday-school picnic, they let off bursts from their schmeissers in a general direction of the crowds of fleeing Italians. As I poked my head round they were starting a left wheel into our street. Waving my stick in the air I shouted: “Aspete! Una momento!” They understood about as much Italian as I did, but it was the only language we had in common. They stopped and clustered round. “Che fate qui?” I asked. “Shooting Fascists,” they said. “Dove Fascisti?” “There!” they said, and, when asked how could they tell which were Fascists in such a big crowd, replied: “Tutti Italiani Fascists!” Privately I quite agreed, but stalling for time to think I said wisely: “Forse” (which I think means “possibly”).
‘I then explained slowly and firmly that questra strada was nostra strada Zelandese—that no-one: nienti altri soldati, niente civili: was permitted on our piece of street. Now they had just filled our piece of street up with civili, which I didn't like any more than they did, and furthermore if they shot any in our street they would make a mess which we would have to clean up. Nienti bono. I said I didn't mind what they did in their streets, but it was not allowed in our street. Therefore would they please, per favore, go a little way back up the street and refrain from shooting until I had emptied all the civili out of our street? They laughingly agreed to do so and retired round the corner, parting on the best of terms.
‘I then hopped up onto a truck and pointing vigorously at our street shouted: “A casa, tutti, multo presto! Niente periculoso— a casa andate via!” With a great surge, the crowd moved out of the street, and about one-third of the solid mass of humanity were out when the little bastards started shooting again—I suppose the target was irresistible. I ran again to the end of the street and shook my fist at them. They waved in friendly fashion back. Then again I mounted the truck and bellowed: “Andate a casa—multo presto !” This time they let the crowd go, and within seconds the streets were empty. The manager of the hotel, an unpleasant type, told me that evening that some 18 or more bodies were picked up round in the next block that day. I could not vouch for the accuracy of his figures. The whole incredible business was all over in probably less than 5 minutes. I could not say just how many would be in that crowd, page 448 but if you jammed Queen Street full from Wellesley Street to Victoria Street you would find about an equal number.’
During the month of tension in Trieste perhaps just one drunken New Zealander could have started a first-class war with the Yugoslavs. For most of that month only a small proportion of men from each company were allowed out of the buildings they occupied. Recreation was difficult, although on a sort of roster system swimming parties, visits to a gymnasium, and so on were arranged. The cooks worked superbly to keep the standard of food higher than troops had ever known before in Italy. Despite this (in one typical company) 135 men, cooped in a second-rate hotel built for eighty-five guests, found the forced inactivity plus the chance of a shooting war starting at any time most irksome and wearying on the nerves. And yet, although the wineshops were open within a quarter of a mile of the place and loot money was abundant, not one incident occurred to the discredit of any man in the company—not one case of drunkenness, not one fight—which speaks volumes for the morale and the self discipline of the men of the battalion.
They left Trieste at the end of June, after camping in the neighbourhood among hills and pines. (‘When do we go home?’) For the last time the battalion moved along that beautiful coast road past Miramare, up the hill and along the cliff-side through the tunnels. Men, turning for a last look out across the calm of the green Adriatic, thought of a similar, but colder, harbour city far to the south: Wellington, where the battalion had sailed away to war. (‘When do we go home?’)
When the New Zealanders left Trieste, one city newspaper wrote: ‘How could we but love these boys who overthrew the last Nazi and Fascist resistance in our fair city, and who were our guests from May, their youthful pranks with our children, their loyalty, and their democratic army. Goodbye, New Zealand brothers. We are happy that you are returning to your country before you become corrupted like ourselves by this sick place called Europe, where, if you stay, she would, with her evil, gnaw into you all, as she has eaten into us. So, New Zealand friends, goodbye, and please understand us.’
Southwards they travelled, with their memories and their dust clouds, to the Tiber. They camped near the wrinkled old city of Perugia, where they heard the news that Japan, twice page 449 atom-bombed, had capitulated.45 How quickly the last five years, with all their hopes and agonies, seemed to shrink into an old-fashioned war. Again they moved, to above Senigallia, to a rest camp on the Adriatic, in August. Further drafts left for home. ‘Then they lined the road and gave us a final sendoff. Felt quite “full”—there are a lot of friends left there—real friendships formed under fire—friendships that are not like any other. They are a great crowd, and I was very sorry to leave them.’46
As autumn approached, they returned to Perugia, then to a winter camp near Florence, where some men left on official leave to England. On 8 October Major Spicer paraded his battalion. He explained that certain single men of 9 Brigade would be going to Japan as part of ‘Jayforce’, New Zealand's troops of occupation. The new force was organised quickly. Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Sandy’ Thomas, the noted commander of 23 Battalion, took over a reorganised 22 Battalion. They sailed from Naples in the Strathmore on 21 February 1946 for Kure, Japan.
One officer, who had been severely wounded and mutilated for life, writes in November 1953: ‘I don't think it was in vain for it has been much the same down the ages. The British have fought for their freedom and liberty in various wars and generations—and retained it. Or are we heading for the final great onslaught before the true One World? Can we mix people of different races and creeds? Perhaps it's the return of the Golden Horde. One wonders and waits and I look at my three sons.’
3 While returning late from a social visit to the Divisional Workshops on New Year's Eve, Graham Hesp and A. C. McArtney struck tommy-gun fire near the Naafi theatre and ‘learned that the Gurkhas were having a bit of fun, hunted them up, told them we had been their targets, and chummed up well. It shows how friendships can be made.’
6 Two bands, the battalion's pipe band and 2 Ammunition Company's brass band, played during a battalion parade for General Freyberg, who presented medals to members of the Freyberg Cup team. He paid a tribute to the fighting efficiency and record of the battalion and spoke highly of the leadership and soldierly qualities of Colonel O'Reilly, who next day was leaving for New Zealand on furlough.
11 Shanks, who was soon wounded in the shoulder, was evacuated in a Bren carrier. He slid out of the carrier when it stood on its tail to climb out of a ditch, but jumped up and, towing his stretcher behind him, caught up again. Twenty-four hours later he had had an operation and was far away in hospital at Bari.
14 On another occasion a comrade recalls that Hardy was ‘shouting corrections to fire orders to a German machine-gunner who was obviously trying to hit him. The method: “Down 50 you Herman—”, or “Slightly right, you Herman—!” It must have been Hardy's lucky war for no one appeared to get him in their sights and he finally made the grade.’
32 ‘After all the slogging through mud it was a wonderful experience to get Jerry really on the run,’ writes J. S. Watt, now a learner-cook in the company cook-house. ‘It was a hectic rush trying to keep the meals up and no sooner would we start to cook a meal somewhere than the call would come “Pack up and on again.”’
34 These exotics included the wife or mistress of many a fascist, for the wealthy of northern Italy had avoided the Allied bombing by sheltering in Venice. ‘It was a sight both brilliant and revolting,’ wrote a New Zealand Intelligence officer, ‘… I was glad enough to get away.’
36 Nevertheless a corporal writes: ‘In Italy, a dead Mussolini seemed to be a more popular figure than a live Churchill, which was a disturbing thought. The Italian peasant, shopkeeper, professional man or student would admit that Mussolini “a prima”—before his thoughts and energies turned to conquest—did a lot for the people. Already they were persuading themselves that the good he had done would live after him while the bad had died there with him on the service station in Milano…. Although the whole land lay blasted by war, looted and disrupted, there was a feeling of confidence in the future. Each day provided a sufficiency of pasta and vino; each day there were willing hands to plant and cultivate, to replace and reconstruct the ruins.’
45 The total killed in the Second World War (according to Life's Picture History of World War Two): British Commonwealth, 452,570; USA, 295,904; USSR, 7,500,000; France, 200,000; China (since 1937), 2,200,000. Allied total, 10,648,474. Germany, 2,850,000; Italy, 300,000; Japan, 1,506,000. Axis total, 4,656,000.
The war cost New Zealand about £800,000 a day. An American statistician, Colonel W. P. Campbell, has calculated the cost of killing a German soldier in the Second World War at £12,500, which equals the cost of killing 66,000 soldiers in Caesar's time. The cost for one man over the years: in Caesar's time, 3s. 6d.; Napoleonic Wars, £750; American Civil War, £1250; First World War, £5250.