CHAPTER 12 — San Pietro – Terelle
San Pietro – Terelle
On Easter Saturday, 8 April, the battalion received a warning order to relieve a Polish unit in the San Pietro sector, 11 miles north-east of Cassino, and early the following day Colonel MacDuff and party left to reconnoitre the position, the company commanders and runners following in the afternoon. On Easter Monday the battalion moved off in transport, via Venafro, to a staging area at Filignano, the journey of about 20 miles occupying three and a half hours. Only a short halt was made and at 9 p.m. the convoy went forward a further seven miles to a debussing point near Cerre Grosso. There the equipment and stores were loaded on to mules, an operation not without incidents both exasperating and amusing, but completed with the assistance of Indian muleteers. Led by Polish guides and followed by their laden mules (which gave a good deal of trouble on the way), the companies set off in the dark on a march of about two and a half miles along a track beside a tributary of the Volturno; the easy track along the river was soon succeeded by very steep and narrow mountain tracks to positions 1300 feet above the road. This was the first mountain position the battalion had held, and heavily laden as the men were, they found the climb most exhausting. ‘What a climb,’ wrote Corporal Wakeling, ‘and our shells whistling overhead as we crawled into a blanket. Great chaps these Poles and always smiling.’
Sixth Brigade was relieving 6 Polish Brigade and, until 15 April when 2 NZ Division assumed command, was under command of 5 Kresowa (Polish) Division; all three battalions were forward on a front of about 9000 yards facing north-west, 25 Battalion on the right, 24 Battalion in the centre, and 26 Battalion on the left. The road from Cardito to San Biagio (4000 yards west of the forward localities) ran between 25 and 24 Battalions and the upper waters of the Rapido close to its source crossed the road a mile to the front.
In reserve A Company (Major Sanders) was about 1500 yards back, with Battalion Headquarters nearby. The mortar platoon, page 424 with five 3-inch and two 4.2-inch mortars, was just behind 12 Platoon and had its OP in the vicinity. The anti-tank and carrier platoons were given an infantry role and to give depth to the position were allotted to B and D Companies. In the battalion sector were twelve medium machine guns; two, with a field of fire across the front of B and C Companies, were in the forward localities of D Company, and two more were 1200 yards back covering the lines of approach down the Rio Chiaro and Vle Verrecchia streams. On C Company's ridge there were four machine guns in pairs, 350 yards below 10 Platoon, one pair with an arc across the two streams behind the platoon and across the left flank of D Company, and the other pair with a field of fire along the lines of the contours in the gap between C Company and 11 Platoon; this area was also covered by four machine guns placed 2500 yards back on the lower slopes of a high hill behind the centre of the battalion sector. This detailed description of the machine-gun defence shows how these weapons were sited to make best use of their long range and great fire power, using for the greater part enfilade fire in front of the infantry posts from positions protected by the infantry dispositions and by the lie of the ground.
The fronts and flanks of the various defended localities were guarded by mines and wire entanglements, and booby traps had been placed in the wire in front of D Company. It was an interesting and sound plan of defence and was almost the same as that taken over from the Poles.
Except for a few shells near the battalion RAP, which was in a building on the banks of the Volturno 1300 yards south of Battalion Headquarters, the sector proved to be fairly quiet during the eight days the battalion was to hold it. A novelty for most of the men, cuckoos were very numerous, so much so that it was rumoured that a man of 17 Platoon ‘couldn't understand why they should have so many cuckoo clocks away out in the wilds.’ Limited leave was continued, parties proceeding to the base at Bari and to Campobasso, a town of 30,000 people situated in the Apennines 50 miles east of the battalion and about the same distance from Naples.
As the enemy was on higher ground with excellent observation from vantage points nearby, the men were instructed not to move about during daylight. On several occasions at night enemy patrols and working parties were heard and were harassed by artillery fire. On the third day in the position, 13 April, in the early morning enemy movement on the main ridge north page 425 of D Company caused the companies to stand-to in case of attack, but there was no further sign of the enemy. On the afternoon of the same day an enemy patrol about 450 yards away was seen on the ridge north of 13 Platoon of the left company and dispersed when shelled. On that afternoon the battalion mortars had registered, and these various activities apparently roused the enemy as about dusk there was widespread enemy artillery and mortar fire.
Some rain fell on the 12th and 13th, making the mountain tracks very slippery and difficult for the mules and muleteers and darkness made matters worse. The rain had also brought trouble to D Company's cooks. Both C and D Companies had moved their cookhouses up the hill to their company positions and had cut recesses five feet square in the side of the hill to shelter the burners, the stores being piled outside. In the morning, after the heavy rain, D Company's cooks found that a slip had buried much of their equipment, resulting in much digging and cleaning, some picturesque language, and a 9.30 a.m. breakfast. Conditions were also difficult for the normal contact patrols and for the battalion snipers, who had been given the task of laying anti-personnel mines across a track which ran beside the Rio Chiaro stream on the left of D Company; mines were also laid in the gap between D Company and the Italians.
From information obtained from a prisoner of war captured on the 15th by 24 Battalion, it seemed that the enemy intended to attack that battalion's position. Throughout the night a state of readiness was maintained by all battalions but there was no sign of the enemy, though at 9 p.m. a false alarm came from the Italians and shortly before midnight a mine exploded on D Company's right flank, resulting in the artillery being requested to shell the locality. (The discovery of a dead rabbit a couple of days later revealed the cause of the explosion.) The following night an enemy patrol of four or five men approaching C Company's minefield on the other flank was engaged with grenades and small-arms fire; artillery fire was brought down beyond the patrol in the hope of trapping it as it withdrew, but there was no apparent result. The next night, shortly after midnight, B Company in the centre saw movement on its right front where an enemy flare was fired, but nothing further happened.
On 17 April Brigadier Parkinson and officers from 2 Parachute Brigade and 4 Parachute Battalion arrived at Battalion page 426 Headquarters to see the sector and arrange for a changeover. On that night, as an enemy patrol had interfered with the mines laid the previous night by the AA Platoon in front of C Company, an officer and three other ranks lay in wait out in front, ready to deal with any further visitors but none appeared. After a general clean-up of the position on the 18th the battalion on relief moved back during the night to a rest area on the Volturno near Montaquila, about ten miles to the south-east.
The battalion found itself in very pleasant surroundings on the riverside and appropriately in real summer weather, which made the issue of shirts and shorts doubly welcome. Limited leave to Pompeii, Campobasso, Santa Maria, and Naples was granted while those entitled to furlough in New Zealand were being assembled for the Wakatipu draft, the officers concerned being Major Hoy, Captains Berry, Webb,1 and Whitlock,2 who left the battalion on 20 April, and Captain Mahar, who had gone three days previously. Each morning was devoted to training and the afternoons to sport, which included baseball, cricket, cross-country runs, and tabloid athletics; special attention was paid to the handling and loading of mules and to mining. During this period the battalion was in reserve and was required to be ready to move on a counter-attack role at eight hours' notice, under command of 2 (Independent) Parachute Brigade, the duty ceasing after 26 April.
On the 27th in wet and cold weather the battalion was inspected by General Freyberg, who addressed the troops. Another move was pending, leave was cancelled, and the area cleaned. Twenty-six reinforcements arrived and were posted to the companies, and on the 29th the battalion left to relieve the Maori Battalion of 5 Brigade in the Belvedere sector near Terelle, four miles north of Cassino. Major Norman was in command, Lieutenant-Colonel MacDuff on the 22nd having gone to Cairo for a few days' leave. The move to the new sector was a difficult one. The mountainous nature of the country and the narrow and steep roads necessitated very strict traffic control and restriction to the absolute minimum of all transport vehicles in the forward area. In the afternoon the battalion moved nine miles west to the staging area at Acquafondata, beyond which no movement in daylight was permitted page 427 except for certain privileged vehicles, such as flagged jeeps carrying senior commanders and staff officers, jeeps with a special pass, signal maintenance trucks, ambulances, and motor-cycles; all windscreens of these vehicles had to be covered to avoid sun-flash. Other vehicles were marshalled at dusk near Acquafondata in proper order for despatch; no lights, with the exception of axle lights on vehicles moving east to west (i.e., towards the enemy) were allowed; from dusk to midnight traffic moved only from east to west and none was despatched after 10.30 p.m. since it would be unable to reach its destination before midnight, when traffic in the reverse direction would have commenced; nine traffic-control posts, some with telephones, were established along the routes.
Whilst awaiting its turn to move the battalion had a hot meal and at 8.30 p.m.followed the Inferno track to Hove Dump, four miles to the west, descending over 2000 feet in the hour-and-a-half journey. There the troops debussed and, with guides from the Maoris, marched along Tui route to a lying-up area on the western side of the Rapido valley, four miles farther on and with the high country just ahead. The administrative and 15-cwt vehicles of A, C, and Support Companies were unloaded there while B and D Companies, leaving the remainder of the battalion, moved on to relieve two companies of the Maori Battalion. The A Echelon vehicles as a separate convoy had moved up the road into the defensive position to two unloading points, Lower Jeep Head and Upper Jeep Head, and were to assist the Maori Battalion companies back to the lying-up area. Corporal Wakeling of B Company describes the move:
‘Apr 29. Off at 2 p.m.—climbed for 2 hrs up mountain roads and stopped at 4.30 p.m. for hot meal. Moved forward at 8.30 p.m. down a great gorge and started walking forward at 10 p.m. A long walk and watched our shells landing around Cassino and up near the Monastery. Stopped for the night at 12.30 a.m.
‘Apr 30. Off for our positions at 8.30 p.m. What a climb! nearly two hours straight up a hill. Fairly quiet night.’
The main road forward—from Cairo to Terelle—on which the two jeepheads were situated, rose 1800 feet from the village of Cairo in the Rapido valley to an altitude of 2300 feet at the defensive position, a mere mile and a half away, though the distance by the well-graded one in eighteen road, with its numerous lengthy and very pronounced hairpin bends, was six miles. A secondary road, much more direct, ran roughly parallel page 428 to the general line of the main road 250 yards away and 200 feet below it, with a small stream—a tributary of the Rapido— running alongside, a few yards below.
The whole brigade sector was dominated by Monte Cairo, over 3000 feet above and a little more than two and a half miles to the west, and to a lesser extent but at much closer range by Monte Abate and high ground near Terelle to the north and north-west. The view to the south included Montecassino, four miles distant and 600 feet lower, and the ruins of Cassino at its foot. Four thousand yards due south were the reserve positions occupied by companies of the battalion during the first occupation of the northern outskirts of Cassino.
After spending the daylight hours in the lying-up position, the Battalion Headquarters group and A Company, after an exhausting climb, moved into the position, A Company (Major Sanders) on the right with D Company (Major Hewitt) on its left. B Company (Captain Finlay) was in reserve a thousand yards back where Battalion Headquarters, the RAP, and D Company headquarters also were situated. The forward platoon of A Company was unable to take up its position until the moon set. The relief was complete by 4 a.m., when 25 Battalion assumed command of the sector, C Company (Major Handyside) remaining meanwhile in reserve in the lying-up position.
The position held by 25 Battalion faced south-west on a frontage of 800 yards and lay between 21 Battalion on the right and 33 Anti-Tank Battery (employed as infantry) on the left. Its principal feature was Point 719, the peak of a ridge jutting out to the south, about fifty feet higher than the rest of the battalion's position and enclosed on three sides by a stretch of the tortuous main road which marked approximately the line of the forward defended localities.
Both the forward companies had posts a little below the main road. No. 7 Platoon was close to the secondary road with a section beyond the stream where the road crossed it; 9 Platoon had a position sixty yards west of the main road, where it was about 250 yards to the north of 7 Platoon, but occupied it only at night, withdrawing to the reverse slope of Point 719 by daylight. No. 8 Platoon on the right of the company, where it was in touch with 21 Battalion, had a night position about 200 yards above the main road.
On the left of A Company, D Company had 17 Platoon below the main road 200 yards to the east of 7 Platoon; 16 Platoon occupied night posts only on the forward slopes of page 429 Point 719, 250 yards behind 17 Platoon; 18 Platoon had night posts on either flank of Point 719, both 16 and 18 Platoons being behind the reverse slope by day.
Though detailed as brigade reserve for the first two days, B Company remained in position behind Point 719 and had two night posts 400 yards apart on one of the transverse reaches of a hairpin bend of the main road on the left flank of the battalion. On a bend of the road above, the anti-tank platoon maintained a permanent post. There was the usual artillery, machine-gun, and mortar support, the 4.2-inch mortars being under brigade command and, because of ammunition shortage, being limited except in an emergency to six rounds per mortar daily.
The first day in the new sector was quiet until the afternoon, when a heavy gun from the south-west shelled the area between A and D Companies; the Intelligence Officer (Lieutenant Beattie) had seen wood fires burning there and suggested that these had drawn the enemy fire. The night was not devoid of incident. Enemy positions had been observed on a spur 600 yards south-west of 7 Platoon and on the slopes to the west of 9 Platoon, and after the carrying parties to the forward platoons had withdrawn, these positions were engaged by the 3-inch mortars. A little later, shortly after midnight, the line to 7 Platoon was cut and an enemy patrol attacked a house occupied by the forward section (Corporal Gibbs3) of 7 Platoon across the stream. The enemy surrounded the house and used a demolition charge and a flame-thrower but, assisted by the supporting fire of the other two sections of the platoon and of 9 Platoon, the section beat off the attack with grenades; the battalion mortars also joined in by firing concentrations of defensive fire in the locality. The section had three men wounded. Commenting on 7 Platoon's position and A Company's sector, a member of the battalion wrote:
‘A Company held a very prominent position just across the valley from the Germans and was so close in fact that it was necessary to wrap sacking around one's Hob Nail boots when moving out to Listening positions at night, for the mountain was very rocky and the least noise of footsteps brought mortar and machine-gun fire. 7 Platoon in this area had one section forward across the gully via a winding path under command page 430 of Corporal T. Gibbs with B. Souter4 and D. Williams,5 and was attacked by a German patrol who on two or three occasions endeavoured to take prisoners. In this instance D. Williams was wounded and had to be evacuated and the whole section withdrew after the enemy patrol had been driven off by the other two sections of 7 Platoon. After this incident we did not re-occupy this forward position.’
Very early in the morning of 2 May firing broke out in 21 Battalion's sector on the right of 25 Battalion, causing a warning to be sent to B Company, the brigade reserve, to be ready to intervene. A few minutes afterwards it was reported that an enemy patrol of thirty to forty men was moving from right to left across 25 Battalion's front. At this stage B Company was placed under command of 21 Battalion and moved up to that battalion's position, D Company extending to take over the defences vacated by B Company. Colonel MacDuff then asked 6 Brigade to send C Company up from the lying-up position, and it arrived and took its place near Battalion Headquarters a couple of hours after midnight on 2 – 3 May. Twenty-fifth Battalion had lost six men wounded.
With the release of B Company from its role as brigade reserve and the arrival of C Company, Colonel MacDuff discussed with his company commanders his plans for meeting various situations; B and C Companies were to remain in battalion reserve and were to be prepared to occupy a flanking position on the right rear of the battalion, a refused flank in fact, if the battalions on that flank were forced back. Light rain which fell after dark on the 3rd was not heavy enough to hinder the carrying and mule parties. During the night 26 Battalion carried out a quiet relief of 21 Battalion on the right. The next morning there was some harassing fire by enemy artillery from the south-west and in the evening spasmodic mortar fire from the direction of Terelle.
The New Zealand tanks were well forward, two troops of B Squadron 19 Regiment being situated in a bend of the road east of Point 719 near the area which contained 25 Battalion headquarters, B, C, and D Companies, and the RAP, a somewhat populous locality which during the afternoon was shelled a little. At dusk one of the tanks moved forward along the page 431 road to a position south of Point 719 and fired thirty shells at a tunnel entrance just across the Rapido stream 500 yards away and 100 yards south of 7 Platoon; no enemy movement was seen but the mouth of the tunnel was severely damaged. Curiously enough, the enemy engaged the tank with mortar fire only. After dark there was spasmodic shell and mortar fire against the battalion's positions. Shortly after midnight a heavy gun from the south-west again shelled the area and throughout the morning the shelling and mortaring continued, the battalion's mortars as opportunity offered engaging targets on the ridges to the west.
On Saturday, 6 May, the enemy began to shell Hove Dump, four and a half miles to the south-east of the battalion, where the B Echelon vehicles and dumps of ammunition and stores, including those of 25 Battalion under Captain J. G. Pitcairn, were situated. Fires were started in petrol and ammunition, causing the enemy artillery to concentrate heavily on the area. In very dangerous conditions all ranks at the Dump worked strenuously to get the vehicles clear and to a large extent succeeded, though several casualties were caused as well as considerable losses and damage. The B Echelons were moved back to Acquafondata. Fortunately the jeeps, which were an almost indispensable link in the supply chain to the forward units in such mountainous country, were saved and that night the drivers reaching the battalion brought many graphic and lurid tales of their experiences. One man was killed that day.
The maintenance of the battalion was carried out almost entirely by jeeps and mules. Each night about nine o'clock jeep trains left Acquafondata and two hours later arrived at Lower Jeep Head. At that point a twenty-four hours' reserve of rations, water, and mule fodder was maintained, roped-up ready to go forward on mules after dark. A mule pack-transport company from the Mule Park near 25 Battalion's headquarters then moved down to Lower Jeep Head to load rations and water. The battalion had its own ammunition reserve in addition to its share of the brigade reserve, its dump at Upper Jeep Head near Battalion Headquarters being replenished after dark by mules.
The ensuing days followed the same familiar pattern, with enemy shell and mortar fire of varying intensity and the battalion mortars and light machine guns taking their full share in harassing the enemy. Apparently the Germans were still using the tunnel and there was some speculation as to the use page 432 that was being made of several dogs seen in that vicinity. There had been no reports that they were used on patrol, but they may have warned the Germans of patrols approaching their posts or might have been message dogs; perhaps they were merely pets. It was in this area that most of the New Zealanders saw their first fireflies; some even thought they might be the glow of cigarettes smoked by the enemy and it was stated that a man actually stalked one, convinced it was a German smoking some distance away.
C and D Companies again had their cookhouses forward and both had some trouble from shell splinters and rolling boulders; trouble of another kind was also experienced through mules killed in the vicinity being somewhat inadequately buried by the Indian muleteers. The battalion had one man wounded on the 8th and on the following day two were killed, one by a direct hit on his sangar by a heavy shell of 210-millimetre (about 8-inch) calibre.
On 11 May the battalion was told that at 11 p.m. that night a large-scale attack by Eighth and Fifth Armies was being launched on a front from Cassino westwards to the sea, with the object of forcing a junction with the Allied forces in the Anzio beach-head and of cutting the enemy communications with Cassino. The role of the New Zealand Division was to hold its ground, be ready to protect the right flank of the Polish forces attacking Cassino, and make feints and demonstrations on its front.
Twenty-fifth Battalion was to be prepared to counter-attack the enemy if he attacked the Polish right flank and, in conjunction with 26 Battalion, was to fire on known enemy positions and be ready to fire mortar concentrations on ground over which the enemy was likely to advance.
During the morning there was some light shelling of the battalion's position but otherwise the day was very quiet and the men were able to enjoy the beautiful weather. At 11 p.m., however, the quietness was shattered and the darkness illuminated by a thousand guns firing a terrific barrage, the opening of the great offensive. The bombardment continued all night and from the battalion's elevated position the spectacle was an amazing one. ‘All L let loose at 11 p.m.,’ wrote Wakeling, ‘when all our artillery opened up … firing on the whole front right out to the coast. We had a grandstand view as we are forward of our guns at Cassino. Heavy shelling up to the time we turned in—2 a.m. At daylight Monastery was obscured by smoke. Our page 433 arty active all day. Saw our Kittyhawks bombing beyond Cassino. Ominous silence at dusk but only a few odd shells in our area during the night.’
About eight that morning (12 May) an enemy aircraft dropped a bomb near one of the hairpin bends of the road about 400 yards south of the battalion but no damage occurred. The enemy opposite remained very quiet and there was little shelling. In case the Germans had withdrawn and to test the strength opposite the brigade, a fighting patrol from each of the three battalions was to probe the front. On the night of the 13th a patrol of platoon strength from C Company, under Lieutenant Milne, was to reconnoitre Point 708, which was 600 yards south-west of 7 Platoon's forward posts, and if possible occupy it; supporting fire from A and D Companies and the mortar platoon was available if required. However, at dusk Germans were seen near Point 708 and were engaged by mortars; three hours later enemy machine-gun fire from houses farther north and also to the south-west was replied to by mortar fire. Shortly afterwards the mortars were again in action when lights were seen in one of the houses. Twenty-fourth Battalion's patrol had met strong opposition, and as it was obvious that the enemy on the front was still in some strength, the patrols by 25 and 26 Battalions were cancelled.
The artillery was still bombarding the Monastery and the men watching from the battalion's position could see ‘pin-points of light dancing all over the valley below’. Skyline movement or perhaps an incautious cigarette brought a few bursts of Spandau fire overhead and a greater interest by the watchers in their immediate neighbourhood. Sunday, 14 May, brought good news of the progress of the offensive, though the Monastery had not then fallen. There were also orders for the relief of the battalion and consequently, in keeping with the mantle of wild flowers which covered the countryside, an atmosphere of happy anticipation and good fellowship prevailed.
The battalion was not to escape from the sector without further casualties, however, as two men were wounded that day, and at two o'clock the following morning a few shells fell in the position, wounding another two men, one of whom subsequently died. On the 16th heavy rain fell and the thunderstorm which accompanied it completely overshadowed the bombardment of the Monastery which was still proceeding. That day one man was killed and another wounded.page 434
Although some doubt arose as to whether the brigade relief would take place, it commenced that night starting with 24 Battalion. At seven the next morning the Polish troops advanced against the Cassino positions, and with bitter memories of its six-weeks' arduous operations in the town, 25 Battalion—the first New Zealand unit to enter Cassino—with mixed feelings looked down from its high position on the final act of the great drama of Cassino, for that night the Polish and British flags flew from the stricken Monastery.
In the evening 23 Battalion passed through the battalion on its way to relieve 26 Battalion. On the following morning, 18 May, which was dull, it was possible for 21 Battalion to relieve 25 Battalion in daylight, both units thus avoiding difficult night movement over the slippery tracks and roads, though these had been much improved by the engineers. Reaching the lying-up position in the afternoon, 25 Battalion remained there until after dark the next day, when it marched to an embussing point south of St. Elia, three miles away; at midnight the vehicles took the men to the previous rest area at Montaquila, a journey of a little under six hours. The battalion's losses in the San Pietro and Terelle positions had reached a total of four killed, one died of wounds, and twenty-three wounded.
The usual rest-area routine followed, with entertainments by the Kiwi Concert Party and the cinema, and leave as before. There was some excitement one evening after a well-attended cinema show, when enemy bombing put an end to tea-making and caused trucks and troops to make a hasty dispersal, fortunately without casualties.
During the rest period the vehicles received some special attention; all were painted dark green and camouflaged; the water cans in the fixture at the rear of the jeeps and the front and rear fenders were painted white to facilitate night-driving. As an answer to the rather nasty German trick of stretching piano wire across roads and tracks at a height calculated to catch the unprotected drivers of low vehicles, vertical iron standards were fitted on the front of the jeeps, while motor-cyclists adopted a marked racing attitude to reduce their height.
Owing to the somewhat fluid situation on the front there was some delay in deciding upon the next operation for the New Zealanders. Two proposals for occupying sectors—one north of St. Elia and the other at Monte Croce which had been held by the brigade early in April—were cancelled after 25 Battalion had made the usual reconnaissances and pre- page 435 liminary arrangements. Finally, on 26 May the decision was made that 2 NZ Division would advance on Atina, five miles north of Terelle, and on Sora, a further 12 miles to the north-west on Route 82, to protect the right flank of Eighth Army as it advanced. The role of 6 Brigade was to exert pressure on the enemy, follow up and dispose of rearguards, and protect the engineers in their tasks of mine removal and repair of bridges and roads.