CHAPTER 14 — Mountain Warfare—The Pursuit
Mountain Warfare—The Pursuit
A donkey Derby held near Brigade Headquarters was the salient event of the ten days spent in the Presenzano area; but the afternoon was wet, and as an entertainment the affair was scarcely to be compared with the race meeting organised by Captain Borrie at Sidi Bou Ali.
On 11 April the battalion moved via Venafro and Filignano to take over from 6 Polish Brigade a quiet mountain sector near Cardito, ten miles north-east of Cassino. Reaching the staging area near Filignano at 11.30 a.m., the companies spent a busy afternoon packing their gear ready for loading on to mules at the debussing point east of Cerre Grosso. They arrived there shortly before midnight, and by 3 a.m. the relief was complete. Details of the operation are to be found in B Company's war diary:
The journey per RMT terminated at the mule point. Although stores had previously been tied in mule loads, quite an exciting period was experienced during loading. The main difficulty lay in distinguishing mules from men, there being practically no difference in loads. There was much milling around and gnashing of teeth, mules included. The Indian master muleteers aided the boys greatly by looking on, but for all this we were soon on our way…. Sometimes the mud was up to our ankles. The nocturnal trippings of the mules had churned our narrow path into a heavy mire, and, because the enemy minefields were undefined, we followed our tracks religiously.
Taking over from the Poles was by no means a simple process. The diary goes on to describe it. ‘Versatile as the Kiwi has become in the use of languages not his own, or a smattering thereof plus the sign language of gesticulation, waving and weaving, staring and glaring, never has he been so taxed as during this change over in darkness on a mountain side with an ally whose chief strength appeared to lie in his patience, and the fact that he was prepared to spend all night under page 253 enemy shell fire rather than relinquish the position with one bullet or grenade pin less than his establishment of weapons and ammo. However, the thing was done.’1
Sixth Brigade now lay astride the Cardito-San Biagio road, defending the eastern end of San Croce Ridge, with 11 Canadian Brigade on its right and an Italian formation on its left. Its three battalions were all forward, with the 24th holding a central position opposite the height of San Croce. From left to right, B, D, and C Companies held a front line that was manned by night and partially evacuated during the daytime, only a few troops being left behind as observers while the remainder sheltered on the reverse slopes. A was the reserve company. ‘Mule country and mortar country’ was the description applied to this mountainous region by an officer of the battalion. The enemy lines were some 400 yards distant, and there was little activity except on those occasions when the supporting mortar batteries were called upon to harass German working parties. Enemy shelling was never intense; dugouts were reasonably comfortable, and life was pleasant in comparison to what it had been in Cassino.
This was the last occasion on which Colonel Conolly commanded 24 Battalion under fire. After being relieved by a unit of 2 Independent Parachute Brigade, the 24th went back to the vicinity of Colle Volturno, where a few days later the Colonel said goodbye to the men he had commanded for so long and with such outstanding success. The influence of his character, so firmly impressed on the minds of his subordinates, was not likely to disappear at the instant of his departure. An organiser of the first rank, sternly intolerant of inefficiency, he had earned his men's regard by sparing no pains in seeing to their welfare; he had won their respect by his conduct in time of crisis, for troops in the field, however well trained and disciplined, are still ordinary human beings, more readily influenced by example than by any amount of instruction.
Summer clothing was issued at the same time that Major Pike took over command, and all the tiresome precautions against malaria were resumed. Day leave was granted to Naples, Pompeii, Sorrento, and Caserta; then, after ten days' page 254 spell, the battalion moved westward via Acquafondata to a debussing point south-east of Sant' Elia, from where the men marched to a lying-up area five miles further on and bedded down for the night. The object in view was to relieve 5 Brigade, which held a mountain sector facing Terelle, about five miles north of Cassino, sandwiched in between 11 Canadian Brigade and 5 Polish Division. After resting under cover during daylight on 1 May, the companies climbed to their position after dark and relieved 5 Brigade's right battalion, the 23rd. Along the crest of a high ridge facing north-west, B, A and C Companies were now aligned from left to right, with D Company in reserve. The whole position was overlooked from Monte Cairo, and no movement was possible during the day, but German sangars were only fifty yards away and in consequence neither side dared shell the other's front line. According to B Company's war diary, ‘the days seemed to pass with monotonous regularity, with picket and water carrying parties at night, and nothing to do in the day’.
There was an exception to this monotony when the bombardment of Cassino began late on 11 May, and the battalion enjoyed a grandstand view of more than a thousand guns in action by night. Small diversionary attacks were undertaken to test the enemy defences, and on the night of 13 May a fighting patrol from B Company moved out to seize Point 856, an enemy post 150 yards in front of the battalion lines. No. 10 Platoon, which formed the patrol, was made up to strength for the occasion by the addition of a few extra men. Supported by the fire of two-inch mortars, the platoon advanced on its objective; but the position was found to be strongly held, and after losing six men wounded the patrol was ordered to return.
The comparatively easy time enjoyed by front-line troops was not shared by the battalion's transport drivers, who spent most of the daytime packing rations and ammunition into mule loads, and most of the night taking them up in jeeps to a mule point. Beyond the village of Acquafondata it was dangerous for motor transport to travel by daylight along the main road leading to Sant' Elia, but another less exposed road had been constructed over the mountains farther south. Known as the ‘Inferno Track’, it led to a forward supply point, hidden in page 255 a cliff-walled gully at the edge of Cassino plain and christened Hove Dump. It was from Hove Dump that the jeep drivers of B Echelon made their nightly journey up the Terelle zigzag, every corner of which was covered by enemy machine guns. ‘A trip over and back was pretty nerve-shaking’, writes Major Aked, who was then second-in-command and in charge of B Echelon. ‘My most vivid recollection of these trips, and I had to make a few, is of hanging on for dear life and dodging what appeared to be streaks of light—no, not tracer, but fire- flies. It seems silly but one ducked, and ducked fast—habit perhaps.
‘From the mule point, mule parties loaded and then went forward to Battalion Headquarters—thence out to companies and returned. These parties also did great work and were under mortar fire all and every night.’2
During the first few days of 24 Battalion's spell in the line arrangements worked fairly well. The forward supply point remained undiscovered and unmolested by the enemy, but on the afternoon of 7 May an unfortunate mischance led to its disclosure, with consequences that Major Aked relates from his own painful experience.
This [Hove Dump] was all right until the Poles also moved B Echelon in, but slightly further down. They tore up and down Inferno Track all day and drew the enemy's attention. We knew we would get a packet sooner or later, and asked permission to shift but this was not granted. Finally one day the Hun commenced —just a couple of ranging shells up the slopes, and then one landed alongside 24 Bn water truck. It holed the petrol tins which immediately poured petrol everywhere and it ran under my 15-cwt. As luck would have it the next landed on the nose of my bus and she immediately brewed up. I was under the tail but didn't stay. All hands dived for cover. Immediately the smoke thickened, the fire spread to the water truck, thus increasing the volume of smoke, and Jerry went to town. Every damn gun, 88s, 75s, and 11 os started pouring in shells. In no time the Div reserves were all burning, petrol, ammo etc., and what with Jerry shells landing and exploding cases at a time Hove Dump was just Hell let loose.
All 24, 25 and 26 Bns' jeeps were loaded ready to carry out our normal night's work of carrying rations and ammo forward… page 256 It soon became obvious that unless they were taken out of it we would lose them all, and all our rations. The drivers were yelled at to get moving and get their vehicles out of it. They jumped to it, dived out of cover into their jeeps and away. They had to pass within yards of the ammo etc., and more than one vehicle was burning as it was driven away.
I cannot speak highly enough of the work of these men and their complete disregard of danger—also of WO 2 Jim Reid3 who assisted and directed in every way possible. No man of our unit shirked, and it was damn dangerous. We were extremely fortunate and only superficial wounds were received. This was to my mind a miracle. It was the hottest spot (in more ways than one) that I was in during the war….
When the shelling finally stopped and the fire burned out, Hove Dump was just a mass of burned out tins and vehicles. The few dead were all Poles, killed while looting. All our drivers had kept together and RV'd near Acquafondata, a village near the head of Inferno Track. I joined them with the remainder of B Echelon personnel, who had remained in the dump, about midnight. Reid had replaced what stores had been lost; and then the drivers went forward on their usual run.
The 28th Battalion came up and relieved the 24th on the night of 16 May. By dawn the companies were back at the foot of the Terelle zigzag, where they lay up till dusk and then marched to an embussing point. Next day they were once more in the Volturno valley, but only to remain there 24 hours before taking over a sector east of the Belmonte-Cassino road from 12 South African Motor Brigade. There they spent a few uneventful days until relieved by 5 Battalion Essex Regiment, after which the 24th returned once again to the vicinity of Colle Volturno.
On 28 May the Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser, arrived. Having addressed the assembled troops, he then visited each company, prepared to answer any question that might be asked, after which he was entertained in the officers' mess.
Meanwhile the enemy was beginning to retreat. Route 6 had been cut, and British and Canadian forces pressed forward up the Liri valley, while evacuated Cassino was occupied and page 257 Polish troops entered the monastery. In the mountains to the north, explosions behind the enemy lines warned 5 Brigade that demolitions were in process and that a retreat was imminent. When patrols on 25 May found the enemy gone, a pursuit through the mountain front began. Terelle, Belmonte, and then Atina fell. Beyond Atina the hills opened out into a wide flat valley.
Major Aked took over command of the battalion from Colonel Pike (left out of battle) on 31 May, the day on which it moved forward to Atina in the wake of 5 Brigade. Before dawn it advanced again along the upper Liri valley and arrived late in the afternoon within three miles of Sora, then being occupied by 28 Battalion.
Next morning, after some delay, 24 Battalion advanced through Sora itself, occupying the western half of the town, through the centre of which flowed the Liri River. D Company (Major Macdonald) passed on to the north-east and sent a patrol forward to Colle Sant' Angelo. A Company (Captain Hepburn)4 took up a position astride the road running parallel with the river, while C (Captain McGruther)5 occupied a castle dominating Sora and lying immediately to the north of it. B Company, still under Major Turnbull, remained in the south-west corner of the town for the time being. At 2.30 p.m. D Company reported having seen a body of the enemy about 200 strong some two miles north of its own position, moving towards the summit of Faggio Rotondo. When fired upon by our guns, this party at once retreated out of sight. Later in the afternoon B Company advanced towards Colle Sant' Angelo and occupied ground on D Company's left flank. A patrol from A Company went out after dark and reached Le Compre, two miles north of Colle Sant' Angelo. No enemy was seen, though local inhabitants alleged that he had spent the previous night there.
When I came back from dinner Bob Thompson said that an Iti who had been to America said he could arrange a small dance. I suggested that we use the RAP and ask as many as we could. Well, about 8 p.m. they started rolling up, and the pianist arrived with his guitar, and later other pianists came, a violinist, a ukelele, and a drummer who clacked three spoons—a very clever and effective instrument. The entire population seemed to turn out, and the dance went with a bang. There was no wine in the town—it was all in the country—and it just showed that we could have great fun without alcohol. Iti lads also came and danced with the girls. It was the first dance they had had for four years. There were so many girls that we rang up the Sigs. and asked Jack Woodhouse6 and some signallers to come up….
We turned on a supper of ‘K’ rations which we had picked up at Cassino, and gave them the biscuits, loaf sugar, etc. Unfortunately they were all terribly hungry and rushed Robbie when he came out with the boxfull. Robbie ended up in the middle of the floor separated from the box, with one scrum of Itis on top of him, and one on top of the box…. Later in the evening I got a few of the Italians to dance a Tarantella, which was loudly applauded, and later we got in the centre and sang ‘We are the boys from way down under’, which also went down well. We stopped at 11 p.m., of course when it was really going at full swing, but that is the best time to stop when everyone is happy. The boys were all very thrilled, and I bet it is a bit of a rarity, a dance in the front line.
Next day (2 June) patrols failed to get in touch with the enemy, who appeared to have the intention of making a stand at Balsorano, a small town six miles further up the Liri valley. The 24th Battalion at once began to advance up the left bank of the Liri, with A Company leading, followed by C and D, while B Company moved forward along the high ground on the left. At the same time 28 (Maori) Battalion of 5 Brigade advanced in conformity with the Aucklanders along the river's right bank. Tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment operated on the easier ground near the railway which ran along the valley floor.page 260
Throughout the day A Company moved forward steadily without opposition, but towards evening it was fired upon when within about three miles of Balsorano, and several men were hit, including the company commander, Captain Hepburn. At this time Major Aked, accompanied by his Intelligence Officer and a signaller, was only a few hundred yards behind the forward troops. Having reported back to Brigade, he was told to fight the engagement with fire not with movement. To increase his fire power he at once ordered D Company to come up on A Company's right, and sent back for the Carrier Platoon to move up in support of the tanks. B Company was withdrawn from the high country on the left flank and brought up in rear of the other companies.
While Aked was giving the necessary directions over a No. 38 radio-telephone set, a German officer cut in on his conversation.
‘I had not finished speaking’, writes Aked, ‘when Jerry cut in. I'll try and give you an idea of the conversation as it went.
‘“Hello Sunray (code-name for unit comdrs). Jerry here. I have a message for you. Over.”
‘“Hello Jerry. Sunray here. Over.”
‘“Sunray we have shot a number of your forward elements including your company commander who is now a prisoner. If you will let us know where to bring him to we will arrange to carry him there. Over.”
‘“Hello Jerry. I will call you later giving a map reference and pick officer mentioned up. Over.”
‘“Hello Sunray. Off.”’
Aked continues: ‘The German spoke excellent English but the trap didn't work. I am certain he thought I would immediately give Bn HQ map reference, and then we would have copped a packet.’
That night A Company, now under Captain Marshall- Inman,7 withdrew slightly and dug in with D on its right flank. C was a short distance to the rear, but one of its platoons, No. 14, under Second-Lieutenant Perry,8 had been sent off in the afternoon to occupy a high hill on the left flank. After a page 261 hard climb the platoon arrived there at dawn and remained acting as a screen for artillery observers until the morning of 4 June. The 21st Battalion passed through the 28th on the night of 2-3 June, but failing to make further headway it consolidated on a line east of the Liri, opposite the position held by Aked's men.
An attack along the Liri's west bank, to be carried out by 24 and 26 Battalions, was ordered for 4 June. A few reinforcements came up in the afternoon, but perceiving that serious trouble was in store for him the enemy retreated, after first using up his supply of shells on our positions. The following night 24 Battalion, having lost two men killed and four wounded in the preceding engagement, went back to rest behind Sora, while the 26th led 6 Brigade into Balsorano after the Divisional Cavalry had found it evacuated. On 6 June (it was D Day in Normandy and Rome had fallen two days before) 24 Battalion returned through its old battle positions to Colle Piano, and thence through Balsorano to a point seven miles north-west of the town. Here Lieutenant-Colonel Hutchens9 took over command from Major Aked, and here the battalion remained until 15 June, when it moved to a rest area near Arce, half-way between Cassino and Frosinone.
Casualties in the battalion for the period April to June were as follows:
|Died of wounds||–||3|
1 War diary, B Coy 24 Bn.
2 Letter, 7 Oct 1948.