CHAPTER 14 — Terelle, Atina, Rome
After its withdrawal from Cassino, the 23rd went back to the Mignano rest area and, on 7 April, another 30 miles back to Isernia to rest and recuperate. It was spring time: the green leaves had returned to the trees, the blossom was coming out and the view from the bivouac area was over a peaceful and attractive valley, full of fields of various colours and welcoming farmhouses. The memory of Cassino, with its ghastly ruins, its stark tree-stumps, its mud and pall of smoke, served to highlight the beauty of the surrounding countryside.
Almost immediately, leave parties were despatched to Naples, to Pompeii, and to other points of interest. Many men went to visit friends in 2 NZ General Hospital at Caserta. A few stayed at the Eighth Army rest camp at Campobasso. A few officers left on furlough, for which they were very much overdue, but no general extension of the scheme came at this time. A unit history cannot do justice to the complicated problem of maintaining a furlough scheme according to a timetable acceptable alike to those responsible for preserving the Division at a high standard of experience and to those who felt they had done more than their share of fighting. That ‘Ruapehu’ chickens were coming home to roost may be deduced from entries made in private diaries. Thus, a senior sergeant of the 23rd, a man with a grand record of service, could write: ‘I'm afraid our chances of getting home on furlough are definitely “out the monk”. This is causing a lot of dissatisfaction among the old hands and also the fact that we haven't had a real spell since crossing the Sangro and it doesn't look as though we are going to get one either’.
This April saw more changes in officer appointments than was usual for a static period out of the line. Major Alex Robins, Captains Fred Irving and Fred Marett left on furlough but others returned from New Zealand. Major Alan McPhail took over as second-in-command from Major Orbell, who left on a tour of duty at Bari. Major Bill Hoseit took command of D Company, Captain Bernie Jones of B and Captain Frank Coe of C Company, while Second-Lieutenant Rex Musgrave became page 344 Adjutant. Padre John Holland, who had been a tower of strength in many ways, was replaced by the Rev. J. G. B. Talbot.1 Any number of tributes to Holland could be quoted from contemporary diaries, but one—from a Presbyterian to an Anglican padre—must suffice: ‘Went up to church for the last service of Major Padre Holland. He is the best minister I have ever had the honour of knowing’. Father Henley, who had looked after the spiritual needs of the Roman Catholics with marked devotion, also left 5 Brigade at this time. He was succeeded by Father Callaghan.2
As the period out of the line was expected to be short, Brigadier Stewart issued instructions for training on 10 April. The troops were to be kept fit with plenty of route-marching and hill climbing. Specialist training was to be revised. The rifle companies trained hard in tactical movements in the surrounding hills during the day but most evenings were given to convivial gatherings. For the majority, the old spirit of the 23rd was reasserting itself. Some men, determined to be back for ‘the next show’, returned direct from the Convalescent Camp without passing through the slow official channels and Advanced Base. Lance-Corporal Jack Rothera, for example, hitch-hiked back with the new padre. For such men, it took more than a Cassino to produce a permanent lowering of morale.
The outstanding social event of this period out of the line was the race meeting run by the 23 Battalion Jockey Club on 18 April, the 23rd's ‘Spring Meeting’. With assistance from Brigadier Stewart, Colonel Connolly borrowed twenty mules from the 618 Mule Pack Company for ‘training purposes’. Captain Dick Harvey3 and an efficient staff prepared a taped track and the ‘I’ section organised a totalisator and tickets. Fifth Brigade Band supplied music and suitable refreshments were provided free. The five races provided plenty of thrills: several amateur jockeys fell from their steeds just when they appeared to have a race won; Major Frank Jarrett,4 well known as a Canterbury Jockey Club official, was the announcer and course commentator; about £250 was ‘invested’ on each race and the spectators enjoyed the holiday spirit. ‘Had the fun of page 345 our lives at the mule race meeting,’ wrote W. D. Dawson in his diary. ‘It was a real success, all the battalion in its most hilarious mood’. A winning punter could write: ‘… ended up with 200 lira to the good. One of the best days I've had in Italy.’ Even a loser could say: ‘Really a good day's change today, so can't regret losses to any extent’. The rules were relaxed for the last race, which was confined to officer riders. Terry Hanrahan rode the D Company mule to victory. But he must tell his own story: ‘It was a hard fought race right from the drop of the hat. I was on a gelding, who had a shine on a little mare and would not pass her. The climax came when entering the straight for the last time, and every jockey was working overtime on his moke, with D Coy lying third. Half of 18 Pl rushed out on the track, throwing coats and gas capes over the heads of the leaders, and stoning and flailing my mule over the finishing line where I did a perfect three point landing, and the tote paid out four to one!’
Two days later, the battalion moved back into the line, this time into a sector in the lower Apennines about four miles north of Cassino. The men moved by a route which ran through Venafro, San Pietro, Cervaro, Portella and the notorious ‘Inferno Track’ to a debussing point, where guides from 2 Somerset Light Infantry met them and led them on foot to a ‘lying-up area’ where they waited till after dark on 21 April. Then, they took over their new positions, which involved climbing 2200 feet up to the ‘Jeep-head’ (the area where jeeps from the administrative part of HQ Company, temporarily called ‘B 1 Ech Group’, unloaded stores), and then another 500 or more feet to platoon positions. Private diary entries show how tough was that climb:
‘Had a most gruelling clamber up rocky faces along a track meant only for mountain goats.’5 ‘It took us 2 hours to climb last 500 feet. Terrible country! B Coy positions right on peak among boulders. Jack Leonard's6 section only 50 yds off Jerry. Means having nearly every one standing-to all night. Jerry threw a lot of hand grenades at us but no damage’.7 ‘… climbing up a steep slope, grade about 1 in 3, to height of over 2,000 feet. It was a terrible struggle with packs and gear as well as climbing on toes most of time and often sliding down again. I have never made a worse journey.’8page 346
By 4middot;35 a.m. on 22 April, the relief was complete and the 23rd companies settled down for their ten days in these hill positions. C Company was on the right, A in the centre and B on the left, with D in reserve near Battalion Headquarters, not far from the jeep-head. The view to the left front took in Monte Cairo and, farther on, Montecassino, with the remains of the monastery showing clearly when neither fog nor smoke intervened. Unfortunately, the Germans occupied higher ground and daylight movement was virtually impossible.
The daily routine in this sector was very much the same for all the forward companies—a minimum of movement during the day and, after dark, the collecting of rations, water and supplies, as well as the posting of pickets or patrols to prevent enemy infiltration. Enemy snipers were troublesome and Colonel Connolly and his IO, Lieutenant E. Taylor, normally visited the companies before first light or after dark since daylight visits would have brought down too much fire. The general directive for this period in the line demanded that casualties should be kept to a minimum and that the maximum number of enemy troops should be kept occupied in that sector. This directive was followed, with the result that the 23rd had only six men wounded while the fire from forward posts kept the enemy on the alert. No major attacks were launched, but private diaries reveal that occasionally shots were fired with effect. For example: ‘Three Huns got a hurry-up from B Coy as they came towards us. Yesterday we shot one when he had his pants down. Nasty trick!’
The ‘Q’ staff, responsible for bringing up the rations in the jeep train along the much-shelled Inferno track, had a more dangerous time than usual. Quite frequently their jeeps had narrow escapes from bursting shells. Among those who were evacuated sick about this time were Padre Talbot, Major Bill Hoseit and Captain Ken Clark.
On the night of 1–2 May, 24 Battalion relieved the 23rd in this mountainous and rocky sector. To prevent noise from betraying the relief to the enemy, most men wore either rubber-soled patrol boots or canvas shoes. ‘First steps down to Bn were in an uncanny silence, as not even a flare disturbed the mountains in their sleep’. After a successful relief, the men spent the day of 2 May in the lying-up area and about 10middot;30 p.m. began their march down to the embussing point. They were shelled on the way and, just before they reached the transport, a shell hit an ammunition dump and the resulting blaze and page 347 explosions delayed the move by nearly two hours. ‘What a sight! One huge orange glare with occasional blinding flashes of illuminated smoke which billowed into the clear sky’.
The 23rd spent the next fortnight out of the line in much the same way as before entering the Terelle sector—day leave to Naples, visits to Caserta, and longer leave to Campobasso and, for a few, to Bari. Hot showers, issues of chocolates and cigarettes from the YMCA, and other extras helped to make men feel that life was good. Small quantities of beer and larger supplies of local wine were available. Noisy singsongs and hearty parties were the order of the night. A visit from the Kiwi Concert Party and a concert organised out of the unit's own resources helped to vary the entertainment.
On 5 May, when he was returning from a visit to sick and wounded in 2 General Hospital in his staff car, driven by his regular driver, Colonel Connolly was involved in an accident in which he had both legs broken and sustained other injuries. This accident ended his long and meritorious service with the 23rd. His departure was regretted by all ranks. A real man's man, a strong and natural leader, who would never have had any difficulty in leading men irrespective of the rank he held, Connolly had proved himself at all levels between platoon and battalion commander. For many, he typified or embodied in himself the spirit of the 23rd—a grand fighting spirit, an amazing pride in unit, and a somewhat happy-go-lucky independence of outlook, which, in Connolly's case, no doubt stemmed from his Irish forebears. He was succeeded as CO by Lieutenant-Colonel Blundell,9 Brigade Major of 5 Brigade for the past year.
During this interval out of the line General Freyberg took the opportunity to inspect 5 Brigade and present decorations awarded in the earlier Italian campaigns. Although they usually groaned and moaned about the ‘spit and polish’ and rehearsals needed for these special parades, the men responded well to the demands made on them and usually got immense pleasure out of feeling themselves part of a unit which was demonstrating its quality by its marching and its drill. The brigade parade on 8 May was no exception. ‘Two or three of the boys who watched it from the hill said we did it all pretty well,’ wrote one B Company private later. A general page 348 knows his own business best, but that soldiers expect to be addressed by the inspecting officer may be gathered from their private diaries. Thus, the B Company private just quoted wrote: ‘Tiny gave the awards—plenty of M.Ms. He left us without saying a word’. An A Company man went further: ‘Spent all morning on a bde parade…. Everyone was annoyed because Tiny told us nothing.’ Two days later Brigadier Stewart sent a message to the unit which conveyed General Freyberg's congratulations on ‘excellent ceremonial parade on 8 May; we were all greatly impressed by standard of arms drill and marching and general bearing of everyone on parade’.
Training resumed, with hill climbing and shooting occupying a prominent place in the syllabus. At this time, Support Company ceased to function as a separate company and rejoined HQ Company as Support Group. This group was smaller than the company had been: the carrier platoon was now reduced to two sections only, each of three carriers, and the anti-tank platoon, which had seen little action for some months past, had its guns reduced to four six-pounders. A reshuffle of men between HQ Company and the rifle companies also took place. Those riflemen who, on account of health or age, were due either for an easier time or furlough, transferred to HQ Company and their places were taken by younger, fitter men. Reinforcements also arrived at this time. On 7 May 2 officers and 28 other ranks returned to the unit and, on 13 May, 62 members of the 11th Reinforcements arrived. ‘Lot of new reinforcements banged in and do they look young? Shame to send them in!’ wrote one grim old dig.
On 11 May a new offensive opened, and on 16 May the 23rd moved forward to take another turn in the line near Terelle. A quite unexpected change in command took place that day: the CO's jeep went over a bank and Colonel Blundell broke his wrist. Major Alan McPhail therefore came forward to take command of the 23rd. Other commands at the company level had also changed: Captain Don Grant took over D Company from Lieutenant Dick Duncan; Captain Arthur Parker took command of A Company from Captain ‘Peter’ Edgar and Major Ian Wilson, who had in turn relinquished command to go back to New Zealand on furlough.
On the night of 17–18 May, after a day of torrential rains while it waited in the lying-up area, the battalion relieved the 26th in a sector somewhat to the east of the one it had held on the last occasion it was in the line. The hill road to Terelle page 349 ran through the left-hand company area while the company on the right held Colle Abate, the highest feature in New Zealand hands. A Company took over this right-hand area, D went into the centre and B took the left forward sector, while C remained in reserve. While B Company was moving into position around 1 a.m., a German patrol appeared. The Germans hurled grenades at the men of No. 12 Platoon and the 26th men, still in position, opened fire with Bren, tommy gun and rifle, killing three Germans, including the patrol's officer, wounding two others and taking one prisoner. The relief was completed by 4 a.m.
Later that day, 18 May, the 23rd received the welcome news that the Poles had occupied Cassino and had raised their flag on the remains of the monastery. British troops, supported by 19 NZ Armoured Regiment, had taken advantage of the drier conditions and had crossed the Rapido in strength south of the town. They had then cut Route 6 and forced the Germans to give up their hold on Cassino. The Gustav Line was broken but the Germans' next line, the Adolf Hitler Line, also hinged on the Monte Cairo region, remained, and the enemy continued to hold out in the sector opposite 5 Brigade for another week. Indeed, so far as the 23rd was concerned, the enemy was more aggressive than he had been for a long time. Of course, he was deliberately firing away ammunition which he could not carry when he did withdraw, but the knowledge that this was so was small consolation for the infantry who had to suffer under the heavy shelling and mortaring.
The best picture of the week leading up to the move forward on 25 May is given in private diaries kept by men in the forward company areas. Thus, Private J. Blakie of B Company wrote: ‘20 May. Stand-to last night. Very cold. No sleep at all at nights. Went for rations and drew water for Coy. Noisy job, bad track, slippery for gym shoes. 21 May. Jerry mortaring every day, shrapnel and rock flying everywhere. 22 May. All day picquet in O Pip from 0400 hrs to 2100 hrs tonight. 23 May. Mortars and Spandaus crackle every night, Shrap flies everywhere. 24 May…. Jerry patrol tried to bazooka house. Shelled and mortared very heavily today’.
Under the conditions described by Blakie, the signallers had a weary and dangerous time repairing broken lines, the maintenance of which was necessary for bringing artillery fire to bear on enemy movements, seen or heard. The battalion had 3 killed and 25 wounded from the heavy enemy fire of this week.page 350
On 23 May the battalion was ordered to take Points 708 and 875 and the high ground east of Point 730, while the 21st took Terelle, when the enemy withdrew. Preliminary reconnaissance on the night of 23 and 24 May showed the enemy still in occupation of his forward positions and still shooting hard at the New Zealand positions. But, on the evening of 25 May, a B Company patrol moved forward to Points 708 and 875 and found the enemy had gone. Colonel McPhail at once gave the order for the advance to begin. At 8.30 p.m., therefore, the three forward companies began to move forward. Before 10 p.m., C and D Companies reported their occupation of the knolls across the first gully. By 11.30 p.m. B Company had reached its objective. Soon after this, some of D Company ran into an unmarked minefield. The bright flash with which one large mine exploded brought enemy shellfire down on the area. Had it not been for the fact that many shells were duds, casualties would have been heavy. As it was, Second-Lieutenant Bradley,10 who had been commissioned in the field a month before, was killed and nine men were wounded. When Private Bathgate11 was wounded and unable to get himself back to the RAP, Private ‘Snow’ Wilks lifted him across his shoulder and carried him back nearly 300 yards to Company Headquarters, where a stretcher was procured. Before dawn, the three forward companies had consolidated on their objectives after some tough climbing over the rocky slopes—‘a whale of a climb in places’, according to Private Blakie. During the mortaring and shelling which continued for some hours, Sergeant Mitchell,12 the efficient technical sergeant of the signals platoon, was killed.
On 26 May Colonel McPhail ordered the advance to continue by the ‘Blue route’ through Belmonte. With the sappers clearing many mines, B and C Companies moved forward at dusk to the first objective, then D moved up on them, allowing B to continue the advance. At 6 a.m. on 27 May, B Company entered Belmonte without opposition, the enemy having withdrawn about two hours earlier. A Company, now under Lieutenant J. R. Harrison, took the lead and, continuing down the Belmonte-Atina road, entered the village of La Vaccareccia about 2.30 p.m. and Atina at 4 p.m. A Company page 351 took eleven prisoners during the advance, Harrison himself taking four at the point of his revolver. Atina was built on the junction of roads from Cassino and San Biagio and its capture was considered of some importance in guaranteeing that no German relief force would come in from the Adriatic coast. The main thrust line for the advance was now directed on Sora and up the upper Liri valley from Sora to Balsorano.
On 28 May, therefore, the 23rd pushed on towards Sora. Mines and demolitions held up the transport: the infantry marched and were supplied by the mule pack train under Lieutenant Bernie Cox, now quite an expert in handling mules and muleteers. Good progress was made with the companies taking turns in the lead. In the afternoon, B Company ran into an enemy rearguard: No. 10 Platoon under Second-Lieu- page 352 tenant Waetford13 captured an enemy-occupied house and took eight prisoners at a cost of three wounded. Other enemy positions, including some perfect dugouts, were found unoccupied. Some miles farther on explosions were heard, indicating that the Germans were blowing the road. D Company found one bridge prepared for demolition but with the charges not fired. The sappers, who were working overtime to open up the road for transport, speedily removed the charges, and the 23rd moved on into a lovely valley, in which green poplars edged cultivated fields and red poppies provided an attractive patch of colour against the background of snowy mountains. Cherries were ripening and were gathered and eaten by the thirsty infantry.
On the morning of 29 May, B Company occupied the village of Gallinaro which the enemy had evacuated during the night. The thrill of liberating such a place was not lessened by the ease with which the task was accomplished, as private diary entries show. ‘The people were mad with joy, kissed our hands, shook them, gave us roses and greeted us all the way. Church bells ringing all over the valley. They told us we have liberated them from the Germans, can't do enough for us,’ wrote Jim Blakie. ‘The effect on the emotions of the villagers had to be seen to be believed. The women wept, were barefooted as a sign of welcome, kissed our hands and boots, mind you! Showered us with rose petals and handed us armfuls of flowers. To most of us, it was the first time that we realized that some good has been brought about by the war,’ wrote Private Doug Leckie.14
In the late afternoon, Battalion Headquarters was visited by Mr Peter Fraser, Lieutenant-General Puttick and two war correspondents. As the battalion was still in an active role— indeed, A Company picked up a couple of Germans about this time—not very many of the men saw the distinguished visitors. Next morning the unit was relieved by 2788 Field Squadron, RAF Regiment, and later that day moved forward in trucks to a concentration area on the way to Sora. All the trucks moved into a wheat field, where the troops were told they were to have twelve hours' rest. The term ‘concentration area’ was fully applicable as the vehicles were literally crowded together. Suddenly, unexpected but heavy enemy shelling of the ‘rest page 353 area’ began. It was impossible to move the trucks out of the field. Drivers and infantry alike took cover under the bank of a nearby stream but not before casualties had been sustained. Major Bernie Jones, OC B Company, and Corporal McRae15 were killed; Second-Lieutenant N. Ball and two men were wounded. The shelling continued for nearly an hour and no fewer than fourteen RMT and four 23rd trucks were damaged. At midday the troops marched to another rest area, safe behind a hill, where the battalion and its transport were reorganised. Captain Alan Fletcher16 took command of B Company and Lieutenant H. Dalton, just returned from furlough, became second-in-command of A Company.
Fifth Brigade resumed its advance that night. In the 23rd, A and C Companies went by truck to relieve the Maoris in the village of Brocco and on the hill Monacesco. On 31 May the Maoris were directed on Sora while, in keeping with the brigade plan to advance on a broader front, the 23rd had the task of mopping up the villages and high ground to the north-east of Sora. In the afternoon, therefore, the 23rd advanced with A Company on the left, D in the centre and C on the right, with as its objective the general line of the Sora-Campoli road. The enemy shelling was wild and inaccurate. Demolitions held up the supporting tanks and the infantry waited from 3 till 6 p.m. to allow the tanks to catch up by a route cleared by the sappers. In the afternoon A Company captured six Germans who were basking in the sun, unaware that the New Zealanders were so close, and at 8 p.m. was the first company on its objective. Farther along the ridge, D Company got into position an hour later after taking ten prisoners from 134 Regiment 44 Division. Farther out still, C Company found its objective held in strength by the enemy. Attempts were made to get B Company up to reinforce C and to get artillery and tank fire to shoot the infantry on to their objective, but these attempts were not very successful and C Company was pulled back to await 20 Regiment's tanks. On the morning of 1 June the tanks advanced on Campoli. They were followed by the 23rd carriers and D Company, which moved to occupy the village of Pescosolido in the afternoon while A came up and occupied Forcella. The civilians in this area added presents of wine and cherries to their vociferous welcome of their liberators.page 354
Next day Colonel McPhail announced that, as the battalion had made so many forced marches by both day and night and the men were in need of sleep, Brigadier Stewart had said the 23rd would be given forty-eight hours in which to rest. Cook and store trucks were brought up to the company areas; battle dress was replaced by drill; and losses in equipment were made good. A special ‘mountain’ platoon of volunteers under Lieutenant Karsten17 set out on 3 June for Monte Cornacchia to clear out German OPs on the heights. Second-Lieutenant K. Burtt also took a fighting patrol to mop up an enemy pocket reported to be holding out in the hills. These patrols possibly hurried the enemy on his way as they invariably found the positions recently vacated. On 4 June the battalion was under orders to attack Balsorano when word was received that Rome had fallen to the Allies at eight o'clock that morning. The night attack was cancelled and instead, as one diary put it, ‘the boys got plonked up’.
The next few days were spent in reorganising and in discussions and demonstrations on tank-infantry co-operation in the Posta-Fibreno area near Sora. The news that Rome had fallen was eclipsed two days later by the word that the Second Front had opened and that operations in Normandy were proceeding favourably. Hope of an early ending to the war was revived, especially when in the next few days came reports of big Russian advances. In Italy the news continued to be good: advances were being made north of Rome on a two-army front; the Eighth Army had taken 3500 and the Fifth Army nearly 13,000 prisoners.
On 8 June Brigadier Stewart addressed a battalion parade on the war situation in Italy and also emphasised the good work done by the 23rd in the last few weeks. On the same day, Major Sandy Thomas returned from furlough and assumed command of the battalion. Major McPhail resumed the office of second-in-command, while other appointments made or confirmed were those of Lieutenant J. R. Harrison as OC HQ Company, Lieutenant W. B. Cox as OC Support Group, Major W. Hoseit as OC A Company, Captain A. L. Fletcher as OC B Company, Captain K. Clark as OC C Company, and Captain D. Grant as OC D Company.
On 13 June the brigade moved to the divisional concentration and training area near Arce. Leave, by the day, to Rome was page 355 soon instituted. Two privates, Doug Leckie and Doug Coster,18 had hitch-hiked into Rome on Sunday 11 June and ‘claimed to be the first Kiwis in Rome’, apart from the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser, Brigadier Inglis and one or two senior officers. A training syllabus was put into operation which worked the men hard in the mornings and left the afternoons free for swimming at the Fontana Liri pool or for other sports. For this advance in the upper Liri valley, the 23rd had lost 7 killed and 53 wounded. Small reinforcements—up to twenty-five at a time—arrived at different times and made good the losses in numbers. Memories of the Cassino fighting were revived by the visits paid to the remains of the town by burial parties at the end of June. But, for the most part, the battalion now settled to a pleasant routine of training, rest and recreation.
5 W. D. Dawson.
7 R. Stone.
8 G. Blampied.