CHAPTER 18 — The Senio to Trieste
The Senio to Trieste
Casualties in the new sector commenced almost at once, a sergeant and two privates being wounded on 1 April in the fighting which took place to secure full control of the near stopbank. An early incident was the approach at 5 a.m. on the 2nd of seven unsuspecting Germans to one of the posts on the stopbank that had been captured the previous night by the British troops, who had persuaded its occupants to surrender. On 25 Battalion taking over, a tunnel was dug through the bank by four men of A Company, who occupied the deserted enemy post at the end of the tunnel. The approaching Germans were attacked with grenades and small-arms fire, losing three wounded and one prisoner. Later, under a Red Cross flag, four enemy stretcher-bearers crossed the river to remove a German lying out of sight of the post; they were met by some of the A Company men from the post (still wearing 78 Division flashes) who talked with them in Italian and in English. The Germans shared some German cigarettes while bandaging their badly wounded man and were almost persuaded to desert. However, they quarrelled among themselves and departed, taking the wounded man with them. While all this was going on the enterprising section commander inspected the river, his report leading to an immediate visit by the IO (Second-Lieutenant Mitchell) who was able to go through the tunnel and view the opposite stopbank; he found the river to be about fifteen feet wide, the actual riverbank six to ten feet above the water level, and the stopbanks steep but climbable.
On being questioned at Brigade Headquarters the prisoner captured earlier said he was one of a party of seven sent to relieve the post and did not know their men had deserted; the party had had three men wounded who escaped with the rest; he came from 5 Company, which was dug-in in four bunkers in the opposite bank and was only twenty-five strong; morale was low. The prisoner had been with the company for only seven days. He did not know of any mines on the bank as the men moved round quite freely. Barbed wire had arrived at his company the previous night but he did not think there was any on the river side of the eastern stopbank. He gave the page 587 meaning of enemy signal flares: Three red—enemy attacking, take post; one green—no contact with enemy, all quiet; white flares—for illumination only.
During the afternoon B Company (Major Davis1) on the left of the sector had one man killed by a sniper; two men were wounded and, despite the usual harassing tactics of the enemy artillery, mortars, Spandaus, and small arms, these were the only casualties in the brigade that day. On the second day in the position another prisoner was secured, a deserter who swam the river and surrendered to 10 Platoon. He was a Pole, a naturalised German, who said another Pole had come with him but was drowned crossing the river below the weir near the boundary between A and B Companies. Possibly these deserters were influenced by propaganda records played the previous night by 24 Battalion, which was holding the sector on the left. At first light on the 4th a similar broadcast was made in 25 Battalion's area.
As ‘tit for tat’, presumably, and with some ingenuity but vast misjudgment, the following day the Germans made their contribution to the entertainment of the troops by firing shells containing propaganda pamphlets; one of these was entitled ‘Onward Christain Soldiers. Selected, Illustrated, and Printed by “Comrades of the Other Side”’, which somewhat cleverly appealed to all the emotions. Other pamphlets contained illustrations showing the chivalry and kindness of the Germans in their treatment of Allied prisoners in hospital and elsewhere.
Casualties continued at a low rate, one man being wounded on the 3rd, two on the 4th, one on the 5th, one killed on the 6th and two wounded on the 7th, a total since occupying the sector seven days before of two killed and eleven wounded.
On the 7th, shortly after Colonel Norman had left for a conference at Divisional Headquarters, an Allied fighter-bomber accidentally dropped a bomb near Battalion Headquarters; fortunately it failed to explode and the unwelcome visitor was removed by a bomb-disposal squad. On the CO's return he gave instructions for the attack across the Senio. He explained that Eighth Army was attacking on a front of over 20 miles from Lake Comacchio near the Adriatic coast (where the operation had already commenced) to the south of Route 9. With 78 British Division on its right and Polish troops on the left, the page 588 New Zealand Division was to attack on a two-brigade front of 4500 yards with 5 Brigade on the right and 6 Brigade on the left. The operation was to be divided into four phases, commencing with an assault on the Senio line and terminating in an assault-crossing of the Santerno River, four miles to the north-west.
An alternating gun attack, air bombing, and enfilade harassing fire would follow for the ensuing four hours, four ten-minute gaps being left between the gun attacks and the enfilade fire to allow the close-support fighter-bombers to attack the enemy positions on the Senio, against which the enfilade fire would also be directed in its turn. The enemy would thus become accustomed to this rhythm and so be susceptible to surprise infantry attack.
At 7.20 p.m., at the conclusion of the artillery and air operations, a proportion of smoke being fired during the last three minutes, the far bank of the Senio was to be subjected for two minutes to an intense flaming attack by Wasp and Crocodile flame-throwers. The artillery would then reopen on a line west of the river and in conformity with the irregular shape of the river line, and the infantry assault would commence. Lifting at the rate of 100 yards in five minutes, the artillery fire would continue to conform to the shape of the river line until at 8.5 p.m. it reached the barrage opening line, a straight line 600 yards from the river, measured from its intersection with the inter-brigade boundary.
Dwelling five minutes on the opening line, the barrage would continue its advance at its initial rate. As the infantry would be using the very irregular river line as its first start line, the artillery by conforming to the shape of it when it opened fire would ensure that the fire would not precede the infantry by more than 400 yards; the pause on the straight opening line would enable the whole of the forward infantry to form up parallel to that line.
Artificial moonlight was to be provided by searchlights to light up the battlefield and more especially the river crossings, where the troops would be using assault boats and kapok assault bridges. For the first phase 6 Brigade intended to attack with 25 Battalion on the right, 24 on the left, and 26 in reserve. Under command of 25 Battalion would be B Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment, half a 17-pounder troop of 33 Anti-Tank Battery, four Wasps of 38 Irish Infantry Brigade, two Wasps page 590 of 26 Battalion, and two Crocodiles of 51 Royal Tanks. Twenty-fourth Battalion was to be similarly strengthened, while 26 Battalion in reserve would have C Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment. The Divisional Reserve was the newly formed 9 NZ Infantry Brigade consisting of Divisional Cavalry Battalion, 22 Battalion and 27 Battalion.
Subject to the weather being suitable for the air attack, Monday, 9 April, had been selected as D-day, and as the day dawned the cloudless sky made it certain there would be no repetition of the Cassino delays. Right on time at 1.50 p.m. the first wave of heavy bombers passed overhead in the bright sunshine and, guided by a bomb-line of smoke shells placed in the sky by the 3.7-inch AA guns, opened the air attack with their fragmentation bombs. To the waiting troops who, wherever possible, had secured vantage points from which to view the spectacle, the sight and sound were most impressive, and as larger formations took part ‘the sound of the bombing became a distant roar, starting faintly, rising to a crescendo, and gradually dying away’.
By 3 p.m. the forward troops had withdrawn to a safety line 600 yards from the river, and twenty minutes later the first gun attack started, followed in turn by the attack of the close-support bombers and the enfilade artillery fire against the river positions. This sequence continued for the following four hours. It was a striking demonstration of superb planning and performance and of the development of immense offensive power.
At 7 p.m. the Crocodiles, Wasps, and the leading infantry with its boats and kapok bridges were formed up within 200 yards of the river ready for the assault. Just as the last rounds of the guns burst on the enemy forward positions and the flame-throwers and infantry advanced, fighter-bombers appeared and in the strange silence following the hours of bombardment made a dummy attack at low level, designed to keep the enemy's heads down till the attack crossed the river. A few moments later the first flame-throwers sent out a spurt of flame and then the whole front seemed to burst into lanes of fire.
Conforming to the general plan, 25 Battalion had sent a platoon from each of C and D Companies with the Wasps and Crocodiles to cover the crossing of the attacking companies. By 7.22 p.m. these were in position on the stopbank and a minute or so later the leading companies, A on the right and B on the left, passed through and crossed the river. These companies were to take up a position forming a bridgehead on a frontage page 591 of 900 yards across a bend of the Senio. There was practically no opposition and within a few minutes the companies secured the objective. Thirty-nine prisoners sent back reached Battalion Headquarters within twenty minutes of the opening of the attack, and within the hour B Company reported that it had another twenty.
In the meantime C and D Companies had moved forward, D on the right and C on the left, and by 7.45 p.m. were in position behind A and B Companies ready to move through them; from a start line 300 yards beyond the leading companies, D and C Companies were to secure the second objective 2400 yards to the north-west. At five minutes past eight the barrage opened, and following it closely against negligible opposition the two companies by midnight had secured the objective and prepared it for all-round defence. A and B Companies followed up and occupied a position on the line of a road about 700 yards behind the objective of the leading companies; Battalion Headquarters also moved forward, crossing the river during the morning of the 10th and occupying a house 300 yards behind B Company, with the RAP 250 yards farther back, both on the San Severo-Barbiano road.
During the advance the companies had encountered intermittent shelling, and a little before midnight A Company (Major Sheild), when nearing its supporting position, was having some trouble with Spandau fire. Enemy tanks seemed to be roaming about, apparently aimlessly, B Company (Major Davis) being held up by one shortly after 10 p.m. and by two more half an hour later; at that hour six Tiger tanks had also been reported by the Poles to be at Casa Testi, a mile to the south-west of the battalion's left boundary. Despite the artificial moonlight the visibility at times because of smoke and dust was extremely bad, B Company twice commenting on it, once as nil and two minutes later as two yards! At that time, shortly after 10 p.m., one of the company's sections engaged an enemy tank with a Piat and disabled it; a second tank was by-passed. C Company (Major Milne) also heard tanks moving near it and about 11 p.m., on asking whether the supporting tanks were across the river, was told that they were not. Soon afterwards a tank heard ahead of the company seemed to be moving away.
The line of advance crossed roads, ditches, and hedges at an angle, generally of about 45 degrees, and as always in such circumstances maintenance of direction was difficult. As a result A Company on reaching its objective was too far to the right page 592 and Major Sheild ‘side-slipped’ it to the correct position. The situation on the flanks was satisfactory; on the right 28 Battalion was almost level with D Company (Major Cameron) though it was encountering opposition, and on the left 24 Battalion had secured its objectives.
About 3 a.m. 24 Battalion reported that enemy tanks in Barbiano, 400 yards west of 25 Battalion, had moved off in the direction of Lugo, a course which crossed 25 Battalion's sector. However, they caused no trouble, though about an hour later C Company heard them moving across its front. All these reports of tanks gave rise to several inquiries by the companies regarding the progress of the supporting tanks and anti-tank weapons; the bridging of the Senio was not easy and was being pressed on with all despatch by the engineers, the first tanks crossing shortly after 3 a.m. and reaching the companies about daylight. The bridging operations had been hampered by the numerous mines in the vicinity, one of which disabled a bulldozer and so rendered a scissors bridge unusable. The approaches had required a good deal of work, including the repair of a culvert, and enemy artillery and mortars were ranging on the area. Similar difficulties were being experienced with a bridge on 24 Battalion's front, and it was arranged that the supporting arms of that battalion should use 25 Battalion's bridge.
Although enemy resistance had been slight, the night provided some exciting and doubtful situations; a member of 14 Platoon describes the experiences of his platoon:
‘About 500 yards from the objective the platoon ran across a group of houses and after clearing the group the sections headed for the crossroads, the order being 4, 5, and 6 sections. Cpl Galvin and Pte McAvoy were walking ahead of the sections armed with Tommy guns, when out of the misty darkness came the sound of men moving down the road towards us. We stopped and a voice barked out the single word “Deutche” and instantly Stonk [L-Cpl Parker] replied “Ja Ja”. These prisoners were handed back to 5 Sec and 6 Sec took the lead from 4 and arrived at the crossroads without any more trouble. No sooner had we arrived … than we were horrified to hear the sound of a tank (or tanks as it later turned out to be) milling around up the road to the left. The Platoon immediately took cover in the drain along the road but were commanded to withdraw by Capt Leuchars.2 We fell back 100 page 593 yards down the road and the majority of the platoon commenced to dig in in an adjacent paddock, with the exception of Cpl (Slim) Galvin, L/Cpl (Stonk) Parker, Ptes McAvoy and Fred Wills.3 Fred was the Piat mortar man and proposed to set up his mortar on the road to take a crack at the tank as it went past at a distance of 50 to 75 yards. Capt Leuchars was approached by the two corporals and while Cpl Galvin was asking permission, L/Cpl Parker picked up the Piat from the road and with Mac and Fred took up a position on the corners of the crossroads, Mac being on the left-hand side of the road with a Tommy and Stonk and Fred on the right-hand side with the Piat and a Tommy. After a wait of a couple of minutes the first two 88 SP guns came out of the mist nose to tail followed by a Tiger tank. For a few tense moments we thought they were going to spin round the corner but to our relief they passed straight by within 3 feet of us. When the Tiger had passed us about two yards L/Cpl Parker squeezed the trigger of the Piat but to our amazement nothing happened. He squeezed again and still nothing happened. He suddenly realized the safety catch was still applied but Pte Wills reached over and released it. By that time the tanks had disappeared in the mist so L/Cpl Parker picked up the Piat and went charging down the road after them. As soon as he caught sight of the rear of the end tank he got down and let a shot go, which hit the Tiger and put it out of action. Pte McAvoy in the meantime decided to find out what was going on and ran down the road in time to see a shower of sparks as the Piat bomb hit the tank. Neither waited to fire another shot “just to make sure” but picked up the Piat and retreated as fast as their legs would carry them to the corner, where they picked up Pte Wills and returned to the platoon where everyone was wondering what was going on. L/Cpl Parker, incidentally, still says he didn't feel the weight of the Piat on their 150 yard sprint back to the platoon.’
Lance-Sergeant Begley4 who was with the left forward platoon of his company had a very similar experience. After the company had consolidated his platoon was ordered to exploit to the left; it encountered a Panther tank which rushed and overran the platoon. With his Piat gunner Sergeant Begley chased the tank up a road and at a range of eight yards secured three page 594 direct hits, forcing it into the ditch; the Germans were taken prisoner by a neighbouring unit. Begley's prompt action no doubt saved the platoon from many casualties. He was awarded the Military Medal.
On the lighter side of the war was a report before midnight 9–10 April from the stretcher-bearers that they had found an enemy company headquarters with candles still burning, ‘much loot, many blankets, but alas no transport for same’; the timing of another message, one from Brigade Headquarters (when the companies were halfway to the second objective) caused some amusement; it read: ‘Div Sign NZ Titles Badges will be brought into use … 78 British Inf Div patches will be removed’, the degree of priority being given as ‘Important’. It is only fair to add, however, that the message also included an order to cease the use of a certain code-word on messages, which probably was important.
Signal communication throughout the operation was good, except for the failure after the first hour of D Company's 48 set, and even in that case C Company maintained some contact with that company through 38 sets. An hour before midnight 24 Battalion on the left lost touch with its forward companies and asked if 25 Battalion companies could get in touch with them, which they were unable to do; apparently it was only a temporary interruption. Until daylight, when a new set arrived, D Company continued to maintain communication through C Company. For 9 April the casualties reported in 25 Battalion were one killed and Lieutenant Cushing5 and three men wounded.
Shortly before 1 a.m. on the 10th an interesting signal came from Brigade HQ:
‘PW reports casualties heavy, lot of tanks and SP guns in area. Intention of enemy was to counter-attack with these on to river. Intends to hold canal [Canale di Lugo] before falling back on to next river. BM observes that enemy may not be able to stage effective c/attack owing to hy losses of personnel.’
Very unfortunately, on the resumption of the artillery and air attack that morning against the Santerno positions, fragmentation bombs from the aircraft caused severe casualties in C and D Companies, reported as seventeen in each company. The target for the bombers was the mile-wide strip beyond the Santerno, two and a half miles north-west of the companies on the Lugo Canal which had been selected as the bomb-line. Apart from some mechanical fault in the bomb-dropping apparatus or accidental operation of it, the most likely explanation of this tragedy seems to be that the bomb-line was mistaken for the target by some aircraft.
About noon Battalion Headquarters had again moved forward and orders were then issued for the next advance. Both 5 and 6 Brigades were to move up to the Santerno, 25 and 24 Battalions continuing to lead 6 Brigade. Colonel Norman instructed C and D Companies to advance with their armour to the Scolo Tratturo, 900 yards away, and hold that position; the tanks would then cross and, followed by A and B Companies, advance towards the river; C and D Companies would be the battalion reserve.
Despite the shock of the accidental bombing C and D Companies moved off at 1 p.m., the appointed time, proceeding by bounds of about 400 yards. Each with its own troop of armour, the two companies were on the Tratturo by 3.30 p.m. On the way C Company reported two abandoned field guns ahead, only to find when reaching them that they were wooden dummies, sometimes an effective ruse, especially if used with flash apparatus and in conjunction with guns in the locality. The opposition was slight, and a little after 5 p.m. A and B Companies passed through and continued the advance. About 8 p.m. a thousand yards from the Santerno the leading companies halted and consolidated their positions, with the supporting arms in position and L/T communication established throughout the battalion. On the right troops of 5 Brigade were almost level and 24 Battalion was in line on the left. During the night it was learnt from intercepts that the enemy was manning the far bank of the river, against which the mortars then carried out harassing fire; apparently this provoked the enemy, whose page 597 artillery just before daybreak showed increased activity. This fire wounded Major Sheild and Captain Galloway6 took over command of A Company.
Looking for a crossing, patrols from A and B Companies reached the Santerno during the early hours of the 11th, the two reserve companies following at dawn; by 7 a.m. the battalion was in position at the river, D Company from reserve moving up behind A Company to guard the right flank. Tanks and anti-tank guns were in position. On the left 24 Battalion had the forward platoons of its two leading companies across the river. Shortly after reaching its objective B Company (Major Davis) came under heavy mortar fire and on request was supported by the medium machine guns. It was not long before the mortar fire spread to A Company, but both companies crossed the river and occupied positions on the left bank.
On the battalion's front the river had been straightened to eliminate a large loop about 900 yards to the north-west and a smaller loop immediately north-east of it. This latter was to be the battalion's next objective, and preparatory to an advance later in the day Colonel Norman brought field and medium artillery into action against this former riverbed. ‘Stonks’ by the field artillery were also directed on the enemy mortar positions, some of the shells falling a little too close to B Company; there was little room to spare between the target and the company so the 3-inch mortars took over the task from the guns.
By mid-morning enemy artillery from the north-west was briskly shelling the battalion and was engaged by the medium counter-battery artillery; an enemy OP, reported by B Company to be in a church 2000 yards to the north, and a gun to the north-west (probably an SP gun seen a little earlier by the company), provided additional targets. The company commanders were told that all the artillery was engaged on counter-battery tasks and that they must report the type of any enemy gun in action and its approximate position. It had also been arranged that Massa Lombarda, a small town 3000 yards to the north-west, should be attacked by rocket-firing Typhoons.
At 1 p.m. Brigadier Parkinson instructed Colonel Norman to secure the smaller loop of the old riverbed; 24 Battalion was to take the larger one. Bridges were being built over the Santerno, one on the battalion's front, and the anti-tank guns and page 598 the armour were to cross as soon as possible. At 2 p.m. 5 Brigade on the right was firing a barrage in support of a local attack and A Company was to take advantage of it, if possible, and occupy the small loop. Suspected tanks about 700 yards beyond the loop were to be bombed from the air.
A Company had no difficulty in securing its objective and at 4 p.m. was in touch with troops of 5 Brigade, which about 500 yards downstream had a Bailey bridge nearing completion. Late in the afternoon B Company moved up on the left of A Company and D Company had two platoons across the river to protect the engineers building the battalion's bridge. On his return from a brigade conference Colonel Norman told the company commanders that 17 Indian Brigade had crossed the Santerno on the right and that the enemy was disorganised; 28 Battalion had taken many prisoners and the artillery had knocked out two tanks; another Bailey bridge was being erected during the night on the right of the battalion and an Ark bridge was also being provided; the Poles on the left of 6 Brigade were attacking that night and United States forces farther left the following day, 12 April.
The CO also gave details of a further advance to be made by the battalion but enemy counter-attacks that evening caused a change of plan. At 9.20 p.m. 5 Brigade on the right was counter-attacked and ten minutes later 24 Battalion on the left was also attacked, losing some of its forward positions. The companies of 25 Battalion were ordered to stand firm on the river and heavy defensive fire and ‘stonks’ by the supporting medium and field artillery and mortars were brought down along the front. On the left B Company suffered some casualties when Spandaus opened fire from a gully on its left, and C Company in reserve was ordered to stand-to, ready to go to the scene; medium machine guns gave immediate assistance by firing on the Spandaus in the gully and the tanks from the near bank also opened fire. After an hour the situation eased and C Company stood down.
In these active periods the maintenance of signal communications is highly important in order to direct fire as the changing situations require, and the company signallers have an onerous and dangerous task repairing lines and working their wireless sets under fire in exposed situations. One of these signallers, Corporal McManaway of A Company, had shown great zeal in repairing lines during the occupation of the stopbank, and later, during the enemy counter-attack, although much exposed and page 599 using a high and conspicuous aerial, he maintained touch with Battalion Headquarters and called down counter-battery fire to subdue the enemy fire. He was awarded a well-deserved Military Medal.
The battalion's casualties thus far were 5 other ranks killed, 1 officer (Captain Leuchars) and 19 other ranks wounded, and 1 missing, on the 10th; and 5 other ranks killed, 2 died of wounds, and 1 officer (Major Sheild) and 18 other ranks wounded on 11 April. (The missing man later made contact with Allied forces.)
During the night tanks were heard moving about and there was a little mortar and machine-gun fire. In the early hours an enemy SP gun was rather troublesome, B Company at one time receiving a shell every two minutes, and the artillery was asked to deal with it. Before daylight anti-tank guns were in position across the river, but the tanks had difficulties with the bridges and tracks and joined the companies later in the morning. About 8 a.m. 24 Battalion recovered its positions, assisted for half an hour by supporting fire from A Company.
At 10 a.m. (12 April) Colonel Norman said there would be no move for some time, and at a conference which included all supporting arms the situation was described. The Maoris on the right had fought their way forward and, a thousand yards to the right of 25 Battalion, were about a mile beyond the river. Twenty-sixth Battalion with a squadron of armour would pass through the rear of 28 (Maori) Battalion and, proceeding in front of 25 Battalion, effect a junction with 24 Battalion. Both 26 and 24 Battalions, together with 28 Battalion on the right, would then advance, leaving 25 Battalion as brigade reserve. The Poles were to move closer to the brigade's left boundary; some of their troops had crossed the Santerno in an attack the previous evening. As brigade reserve 25 Battalion had the task of securing the left flank during the advance which, it was expected, would outstrip the Poles; during the afternoon C and D Companies occupied the large loop which had been held by 24 and 26 Battalions.
At 3 p.m. the barrage opened and later in the day it was learnt that the attack had been successful. While it was in progress the enemy artillery, apparently searching for gun positions, heavily shelled 25 Battalion headquarters; a truck of 20 Armoured Regiment nearby and a cookhouse were set on fire, all telephone lines were cut, and there were several slight page 600 casualties, the total losses that day being Lieutenant Pyne7 and four other ranks wounded. Air reports at 5 p.m. stated that the roads were full of retreating enemy guns and horse-drawn vehicles. At 2 a.m. the following day, again behind a barrage, the advance was resumed; 25 Battalion followed on, concentrating during the morning in a position of readiness in the artillery area just to the east of Massa Lombarda.
By first light that morning the leading troops of the brigade had reached the Canale dei Molini, 5000 yards beyond the Santerno and within the same distance of the main objective, the Sillaro River. At 7 a.m. the advance was continued and during the morning, in order to relieve 5 Brigade, the 6 Brigade front was side-stepped to the right; to achieve this 24 Battalion moved over behind and went up on the right of 26 Battalion while 9 Brigade came up on the left. Some opposition was encountered from Tiger tanks and SP guns, which were countered by artillery concentrations, but by nightfall the advanced troops were about 2000 yards from the Sillaro.
That evening (13 April) Brigadier Parkinson explained that during the afternoon a determined enemy was holding a bridgehead west of the Sillaro, his anti-tank guns and tanks holding off the attacking armour and infantry during daylight. At two in the morning of the 14th the enemy forward positions would be bombarded for half an hour and 24 and 26 Battalions would then attack under a barrage, on a front of 800 yards, to secure the far bank of the Sillaro. Twenty-fifth Battalion was given the task of protecting the right flank of the brigade and at first light would move into position there.
The attack was successful against slight opposition, though the enemy was in some strength along a lateral road about 800 yards west of the river. Moving off at 6 a.m., 25 Battalion took up its positions along the Massa Lombarda-Sillaro road, facing north-east; C Company was on the left about 1200 yards from the river and D, A, and B Companies extended the front to the south-east for about 3000 yards to within 2500 yards of Massa Lombarda. Throughout the morning all forward positions on the Sillaro were under heavy mortar and shell fire and were harassed by small-arms fire from enemy positions on the stopbank beyond the right flank; AP and HE shells8 fired into the stopbank had a quietening effect on the enemy posts there.page 601
The next attack was planned to take place that night at 9 p.m. under a barrage, on a two-brigade front, 6 Brigade on the right and 9 Brigade on the left. On 6 Brigade's front 25 Battalion was to be on the right and 26 Battalion on the left, the objective being a road 2000 yards north-west of the Sillaro. At 5 p.m., however, the attack was cancelled and 25 Battalion by midnight relieved 24 Battalion, which left one company guarding a ford on the right flank and took over 25 Battalion's duties on that flank.
Twenty-fifth Battalion had two companies on the stopbank, C on the right and D on the left, with A Company close up in rear and B Company in reserve farther back, about 1000 yards from the river. After reaching its new position B Company had the misfortune to lose its commander, Major Davis, who was wounded; Lieutenant Bruce Andrews, commanding 10 Platoon, took command of the company until the arrival of Captain A. Norton-Taylor from the Support Company. About midnight a detachment with scout cars from the 12th Lancers, who were approaching the Sillaro on the right of the battalion, made contact with 12 Platoon, thus removing any anxiety regarding that flank.
At first light the movement of vehicles, thought to be SP guns, was heard by the two forward companies. Spandaus were numerous and active but observation was hampered by fog, though C Company caught sight of a tank which moved off when engaged by a Piat. During the morning enemy activity was considerable and artillery fire was frequently called for by C and D Companies, and also by D Company 24 Battalion at the ford, the artillery and aircraft engaging enemy tanks and SP guns with marked effect. On several occasions tanks were heard a few hundred yards away in front of C Company, and at 11 a.m. the Air LO reported three about 500 yards north-west of the company and moving away to the north-west; just before noon a regimental ‘stonk’ by twenty-four guns was fired against the tanks and an hour and a half later four Mustangs attacked the same locality. Despite these activities Germans sun-bathing on the river bank 1200 yards to the north were seen by the FOO at C Company and a few rounds from the artillery soon removed them. That morning the signallers were kept busy maintaining communications, the lines to A, C, and D Companies and also to D Company 24 Battalion being cut from time to time by the enemy fire.page 602
Returning from a brigade conference at 2.45 p.m. (15 April) Colonel Norman briefed his orders group:
‘Attack tonight—we will have 104 more guns in support tonight than we would have had, had we attacked last night. Opposing en. formations I/992, II/993, of 278 Div. Barrage opens at 2100 hrs. Tps are to be dug in before first light owing to open nature of country. Barrage will be fired by seven field regts. Sappers at moment on river trying to put in two assault crossings—if successful tanks will be able to travel with infantry almost to objective. Three Bailey bridges to go in on Bde front. Three M los will move with tanks. 24 Bn will pass through bridgehead and watch right flank. Bde will attack with 26 left 25 right. Bearing of advance 296½ M.’
To create the impression that the attack was on a broader front, Bofors were to fire well to the right and left of the front of attack; to the right of 25 Battalion 12 Lancers and an armoured regiment under command of 5 Brigade were to fire a deceptive programme; on the left the Poles were asked to spread the effect of the barrage. According to information obtained by 6 Brigade Headquarters, the enemy was said to be hungry, having had very little food for two days, a rather cheerful item for the attackers—other, perhaps, than any Maoris amongst them.9
In the evening Battalion Headquarters moved up to A Company's headquarters where it would be better able to control the attack. At 9 p.m. the barrage opened, and thirty-five minutes later D Company on the left reached the first bound about 700 yards from the river, C Company (with a little farther to go) arriving a few minutes later. Soon afterwards enemy infantry in strongpoints and trenches, and supported by tanks, was encountered. While the two leading companies were dealing with the infantry to their front, enemy tanks came in behind them from the left. They were at first mistaken for the supporting tanks, causing A Company to send a misleading message to Battalion Headquarters. On being engaged with Piats the enemy tanks moved off, circling round to the left and ultimately opposing the attack on the final objective. There they caused some casualties, including almost the whole of C Company headquarters. Major Milne, the company commander, was wounded. During this engagement D Company claimed two tanks, A Company one, and C Company ‘probably two which had not moved off after being engaged with Piats.’page 603
With a wrist wound, Major Milne remained with the company until relieved by Captain R. W. Berry six hours later. Re-forming meanwhile under Lieutenant Rankin10 (15 Platoon), C Company had 15 Platoon on the objective about midnight but had lost contact with the other two platoons, which however arrived about an hour later. D Company (Major Cameron) was also on the objective and had sent patrols forward about 400 yards to the next bound, where a little later C Company also had some detachments. A Company had closely followed the two leading companies and occupied a position about 300 yards behind them; B Company also had moved and an hour before midnight was in position 1000 yards beyond the Sillaro. Prisoners were coming through in some numbers, nine (including a sergeant-major who could speak English) arriving at Battalion Headquarters in the very early hours of the 16th. Shortly after that, two C Company men on their way back to arrange for stretcher-bearers and stretchers to be sent up reported that they had encountered a disabled enemy scout car armed with machine guns; the crew refused to surrender and were firing red tracer into the air. A and B Companies were instructed to wipe out the scout car.
At about 1.30 a.m., D Company 24 Battalion, guarding the right flank, had called for artillery defensive fire and also for ‘stonks’ from 25 Battalion's mortars and reported that the enemy was in strength on that flank; B Company, in reserve, was instructed to watch the situation. There was a distinct possibility of the enemy cutting in behind the companies and attacking Battalion Headquarters and everyone there had orders to be armed. Later evidence showed the danger to have been very real as a counter-attack had been broken up by the heavy defensive fire called for. The counter-attack had in fact pushed D Company 24 Battalion off the stopbank, and the Ark bridge which was being put in position there was stolen by the enemy, it being last seen heading north with the tail and arms dragging on the ground. About the same hour a further incident was the capture outside 25 Battalion Command Post of two Germans by the Intelligence Officer, Second-Lieutenant Mitchell.
C Company, which had overrun the two enemy dummy guns six days ago, reported the capture of a howitzer, a real one this time, which was partly blocking the road between 13 and 15 Platoons, and asked that the tanks be informed. Before 3 a.m. the tanks were moving forward, and after various delays page 604 the two troops for the forward companies were close behind them an hour and a half later; by 5 a.m. A Company had its tanks and, except for two tanks for B Company which were held up at the bridge, all tanks were with their companies by first light.
For outstanding work in this night operation three NCOs were awarded the Military Medal. Corporal Curry's11 section was pinned down by heavy fire and he showed great gallantry in dashing forward and attacking two SP guns moving across the front carrying men on top. Though wounded, he captured a German but was subsequently captured while escorting prisoners to the rear to get his wound dressed. He escaped at Rasa and rejoined the battalion. On the Sillaro stopbank Sergeant A. A. F. Smith went to the assistance of a neighbouring platoon sergeant who was wounded while carrying ammunition forward to his platoon. Smith crossed the river and climbed the stopbank to reach him, dressed his wounds, and after assisting him to safety returned and carried the ammunition forward to the platoon. The third NCO, Sergeant Mitchinson,12 who was with the leading platoon of his company, also encountered SP guns; these were behind some houses, and Mitchinson under small-arms fire dashed forward with the Piat and, at very short range, scored three direct hits on an SP gun which burst into flames. Its crew then fired on him but he killed three of them with his tommy gun. This action cleared the way for the platoon and greatly helped the company to the objective.
The evacuation of the casualties (by 6 a.m. seventeen had been reported) gave some difficulty and throughout the early hours the parties of stretcher-bearers provided by B Company did excellent work. Shortly after 6 a.m. Brigadier Parkinson at 25 Battalion Tactical Headquarters congratulated Colonel Norman on the successful operation. He said that the battalion would probably push on again in an exploitation role at 7 a.m., and shortly after that hour the advance was continued. C and D Companies were still in the lead, with the other two companies following up from time to time, moving from bound to bound as before, under orders from Battalion Headquar- page 605 ters; at times the companies were delayed on the bounds in order to conform with the movements of troops on the flanks; the mortars were similarly and admirably controlled.
The immediate objective was the Scolo Sillaro, a small canal or ditch nearly three miles north-west of the Sillaro River; shortly after midday both forward companies reported they had reached it, only to discover soon afterwards that they were on a somewhat similar ditch about 500 yards short of the objective. Some opposition from Spandaus had been encountered and a nebelwerfer and a tank had fired on C Company, but enemy movement, including horses and carts, indicated that the enemy had resumed his withdrawal. About noon C Company had one of its tanks disabled; about the same time an enemy tank moving across the front was a popular target, B Squadron engaging it and reporting, ‘Smoke used by enemy, everyone is having a go at enemy tank’. The air OP was asked to spot and engage enemy tanks and within seven minutes this had been done; an enemy tank was also engaged by the bombers.
By 12.30 p.m. both C and D Companies were on the Scolo Sillaro, D Company having been delayed by three enemy tanks which had retired when smoke was used. Shortly afterwards 26 Battalion came up on the left of D Company. As all bridges over the Scolo had been destroyed, tanks were unable to cross and Colonel Norman told Major Cameron (D Company) ‘to establish a bridgehead and then have lunch’! Twenty-sixth Battalion also was unable to cross, but in under an hour D Company had occupied its bridgehead to cover the construction of a fascine crossing (and in between times had lunch) and by 4 p.m. the tanks were able to use it.
A fourth military medal was won in the daylight operation. As D Company advanced over the very flat open country, Corporal Cook's13 platoon came under heavy Spandau and rifle-grenade fire from enemy who were dug in round a house about 100 yards away. With the rest of the platoon giving covering fire, Cook led his section to the attack; four men were wounded but Cook pressed home the attack, the section killing four and capturing ten Germans, together with the grenade cup-dischargers and three Spandaus.
In the meantime A and B Companies had also advanced and were directed to take up positions to guard the right flank, both being in position by mid-afternoon. Brigadier Parkinson page 606 then told Colonel Norman that 5 Brigade would pass through that night, and that until then 6 Brigade would press on. Shortly after 4 p.m. C and D Companies followed the tanks towards the next bound, about 800 yards ahead, and after securing it moved on again to the next objective, a ditch 700 yards farther on, where they were established by dusk. On the left 26 Battalion was up in line but on the other flank the leading troops were some 1400 yards back. A patrol from C Company, which had made a reconnaissance beyond the next bound, reported that a ditch there about twelve feet wide and nine feet deep could be crossed at a selected point if a bulldozer and fascines were used.
About 9.30 p.m. (16 April) the relieving troops of 23 Battalion passed through and 25 Battalion, remaining where it was for the night, became brigade reserve. Next morning the companies were withdrawn about two miles to the vicinity of Battalion Headquarters near B Company, which remained in its positions.
Thus had come to an end the last attack in which the battalion was to be engaged. Since the attack began on 9 April at the Senio River 25 Battalion had advanced 14 miles, inflicted many casualties and captured (as reported) 68 prisoners at a cost of 14 killed, 3 died of wounds, and 6 officers and 69 other ranks wounded; one man was missing.
The days 17–18 April were spent in resting and reorganising and Colonel Norman took advantage of the lull to issue a new list of appointments, made necessary by casualties to officers:
Lt-Col E. K. Norman, DSO, MC, Commanding Officer
Lt B. A. Andrews, Adjutant
2 Lt D. R. S. Mitchell, Intelligence Officer
Capt P. D. Nathan, NZMC, Medical Officer
Rev. R. R. Clark, Chaplain
Lt (T/Capt) D. J. Pocknall, Officer Commanding
2 Lt J. L. Thomson, Signals Officer (1 Pl)
2 Lt (T/Lt) E. R. C. Jackson, Quartermaster
2 Lt D. H. G. Hawkins, Transport Officer
Lt (T/Capt) A. Norton-Taylor, Officer Commanding
2 Lt G. W. Stephenson, Machine-gun Officer (2 Pl)
Lt R. B. Simpson, Mortar Officer (3 Pl)
2 Lt L. Hampton, MM, Anti-Tank Officer (5 Pl)
Capt I. T. Galloway, Officer Commanding
Lt T. C. Hynes, Second-in-Command
Lt W. M. King, 7 Platoon
Lt R. J. Evans, 8 Platoon
Lt D. Halley, 9 Platoon
2 Lt D. W. Harrison, 12 Platoon
Lt (T/Capt) R. W. Berry, Officer Commanding
Lt (T/Capt) A. G. Henricksen, Second-in-Command
Lt J. Murphy, 10 Platoon
Lt A. G. Massey, 11 Platoon
Maj J. W. T. Collins, Officer Commanding
Lt E. F. T. Beer, Second-in-Command
Lt E. J. Smith, 13 Platoon
Lt K. D. Rankin, 15 Platoon
2 Lt P. G. Fulton, 14 Platoon
Capt (T/Maj) H. R. Cameron, Officer Commanding
Lt N. K. Chapman, MM, Second-in-Command
Lt W. F. Saunders, 16 Platoon
Lt A. J. Ryan, 17 Platoon
2 Lt G. L. Joyce, 18 Platoon
On the night of 19–20 April an attack similar to that delivered at the Senio was launched against the Gaiana Canal by 9 Brigade, 43 Gurkha Brigade (under 2 NZ Division) and 12 Lancers (also under the Division), the flame-throwers of 25 Battalion participating. Against stiffening opposition (which included 4 Parachute Division) the attack was successful in establishing a bridgehead, the flame-throwers being particularly effective. Prisoners were captured from five companies of parachutists, who fought well and had stronger artillery and mortar support than their predecessors. Two bridges across the Gaiana had been captured intact.
During the night 5 and 6 Brigades were to take over the front, 6 Brigade with 24 Battalion on the right, 26 on the left, and 25 Battalion in reserve guarding the left flank as the advance proceeded, or ‘Hemstitching the flank’ as 26 Battalion rather aptly described it. In the afternoon 25 Battalion moved up to the Gaiana and before midnight, following 26 Battalion when it advanced, took up its position near the left flank. page 608 Conforming to the advance of the Division, 25 Battalion followed up throughout the night and by 2 p.m. on the 20th the leading units were on the Idice River, ten miles beyond the Sillaro. The battalion had one casualty reported that day, Lance-Corporal Boyens14 being wounded.
Next morning 25 Battalion crossed the Idice, continuing its following-up role. Another casualty was reported, WO II S. R. Cook dying of wounds. The following day the battalion spent much of its time in the vehicles as the advance rolled on in pursuit of the enemy, with whom touch had been lost until in the evening he was again encountered at the village of San Giorgio, ten miles beyond the Idice. In its position on the left flank of the Division 25 Battalion had a quiet night.
In the morning the battalion had the great misfortune to lose its Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Norman, who at an early hour was wounded while on a tour of the companies when his jeep ran over a mine; the driver was also wounded and a signaller suffered from blast and shock. Colonel Norman had taken over command, temporarily, at Castelfrentano on 23 December 1943, and with the exception of eighteen days in the following February (when Colonel Morten reassumed command) and about three and a half months between March and June 1944 (when Colonel MacDuff was appointed), had commanded the battalion thereafter. His term was exceeded, and that slightly, only by the original commander, Lieutenant- Colonel A. S. Wilder. Colonel Norman's very fine service in command in many difficult operations and over such a lengthy period had been recognised by the award of his two decorations, the DSO and MC.
Major Barnett, MC,15 second-in-command of 26 Battalion, took over command and a quarter of an hour after his arrival 25 Battalion (again in its vehicles) at 8.45 a.m. continued the pursuit. Along the route, and especially at the village of S. Pietro in Casale, the people gave the troops a most enthusiastic welcome with ‘much viva-ing and flower throwing’. After a run of eight miles the battalion halted for ten hours at the Reno River, where demolitions had caused delay. The River page 609 Po was only ten miles away, and as the area between the rivers was thought likely to contain pro-Fascists, special care of weapons was taken and officers carried their pistols.
After dark the battalion began to cross a Bailey bridge which had been erected over the Reno, and at the head of 6 Brigade moved to a position in the vicinity of S. Agostino, a mile north of the river. Casualties for the day were Colonel Norman wounded, one died of wounds, and two wounded. Starting next morning (24 April) with 25 Battalion still leading, the column reached the village of Bondeno, three miles from the Po; near the village a damaged enemy tank blocked the road for a time and there were many signs of a demoralised enemy retreat. Enemy equipment of all kinds was strewn along the roads and many prisoners passed back along the column.
There had been much enemy propaganda and rumours were rife that the formidable water barrier of the Po would be very strongly defended, and that it could be crossed only at the expense of severe casualties. That remained to be seen but, from the quantity of abandoned equipment, it was obvious that the river had proved a very awkward obstacle for the retreating Germans. Harassed as they were by vastly superior air forces and facing the converging attacks of the Eighth and Fifth Armies, as well as a good deal of hostility from partisans in their rear, the Germans were in grave peril and did well to avoid complete disaster.
After a halt of several hours at Bondeno while a bridge was being completed, the battalion moved into positions on the south bank of the Po, where it was on the left of 23 Battalion. On a front of about a mile the companies were disposed at a sharp elbow a mile and a half south of Ficarolo, where a north-south reach of the river turned to the east; A Company was on the right, then C, B, and D Companies. Soon after its arrival the battalion came under light artillery fire and one of B Company's tanks received a direct hit, the company suffering several casualties. A church tower on the other side of the river at Ficarolo, a suspected OP, was bombarded by the tanks without causing any noticeable damage, ‘though no doubt discouraging the OP’, as the diarist put it.
Colonel Barnett had told the company commanders that possibly 25 Battalion would be required to make a crossing of the river and reconnaissance parties for that operation had preceded the unit. However, about 5 p.m. a report from 5 Brigade stated that 21 Battalion patrols in assault boats had page 610 crossed without opposition. Several plans for crossing the Po had been discussed, including a divisional attack under a barrage, but in view of the latest developments the policy for the night was reconnaissance and peaceful penetration if possible. The equipment available for the crossing included Fantails, Stormboats, DUKWs, and one Class 40 raft to take tanks and support weapons into the bridgehead.
Before nightfall a small patrol of B Company had crossed the river and by midnight (24 – 25 April) 7 Platoon of A Company and part of B Company had occupied a small island opposite the front, negotiating a fairly strong current and meeting no opposition; a member of 7 Platoon describes an incident during the operation:
‘Lieut King16 cdg 7 Pl was in one rubber boat, Sergeant Wootton was in another, and Cpl Caldwell caused amusement, although not at the time, by falling out of his rubber boat about twenty yards from the shore. A return trip was made back across the Po by Sgt Wootton and Cpl Caldwell to enable a fresh set of clothes to be obtained from Headquarters.’
During the early morning of Anzac Day 25 Battalion established a bridgehead across the river; there was no sign of the enemy. The supporting arms were ferried across and the advance was resumed. On the right 5 Brigade had been equally successful. By 9.30 a.m. A and B Companies were in position at Ficarolo and C and D Companies were still crossing the river. Within half an hour anti-tank guns were with the forward companies and shortly afterwards the whole battalion was safely across the river. Both on a one-company front, 25 Battalion with 24 Battalion on its right then advanced about three miles to the village of Salara, C Company leading, followed by D, B, and A Companies. Two prisoners were captured and two bridges near the village were secured intact. The next move came immediately, 25 Battalion being directed through Sariano to Trecenta, three miles to the north-west, the objective being two bridges over the canalised Tartaro and Maestra rivers. Snipers in the village offered some resistance, but with the assistance of the 12th Lancers (which was providing a screen ahead of the infantry) were soon cleared out.
By about 10 p.m. the Tartaro bridge was secured against some resistance which resulted in Lieutenant King being killed; a member of the platoon describes the operation:page 611
‘A Company arrived at the stopbank of the river on the northern side of the town late in the afternoon and immediately occupied a house on the stopbank. A bridge in the immediate foreground was still intact but it was thought to be mined. After much discussion regarding the best way to cross it was left to 7 Platoon of A Company and at about 9 or 10 in the evening this Platoon endeavoured, under the leadership of Lieut King, to cross in single file. Just as Lieut King reached the other end he was shot by a German infantryman and had to be dragged back immediately by members who were following right behind him. It was from this incident that he later died and the Platoon was taken over by Sergeant Wootton for approximately a week until Lieut T. Clark17 was posted to same.’
A Company occupied positions on the stopbank and the other companies were close up around a large building which had been an enemy depot. The Maestra was still held by the enemy, and with the sanction of Brigade Headquarters Colonel Barnett halted for the night. The casualties in the last two days were one killed and two wounded on the 24th and Lieutenant King killed on the 25th.
About midnight the medium artillery and 4.2-inch mortars harassed the banks of the Maestra and at 4 a.m. a patrol from D Company found that the enemy had gone. During the advance in the morning craters and obstacles constructed of felled trees at various places caused some delay and the enemy was next encountered five miles farther on near Badia Polesine, a town on the Adige, the next considerable river. Artillery was brought into action and the town occupied without casualties, the companies taking up positions along the south or right bank of the river, which was wide and deep with a fast current. Many prisoners were taken from a great variety of units, ‘a very mixed bag’. Writing of this area a member of the battalion said: ‘It was around the town of Badia that the Bn discovered large quantities of sugar and it was not uncommon to see bags tied to tanks, trucks, and any other type of vehicle, and the ingenuity certainly proved worth-while as the black market value of sugar was £1 for a pound.’
At 9 p.m. that day (26 April) 25 Battalion crossed the Adige in assault boats, the only opposition being machine-gun and light-mortar fire from the left bank after the leading troops page 612 had crossed. By midnight a bridgehead about 3000 yards deep had been established, with C Company on the right and D on the left. B Company (which lost one man as a prisoner of war after crossing the river) was to be ready to exploit success and A Company was in reserve. Twenty-fourth Battalion was on the right and 5 Brigade farther to the right. The crossing of the Adige has been described by a man in D Company:
‘While we were pulling straw from a haystack to make our beds, Jeff Joyce,18 our platoon commander, came back from a conference with Major Cameron, the Coy Commander, with the news that we were to cross the river in assault boats at 8.30 p.m. We lined up on the bank with tanks in support. At a given time two sections from each platoon rushed the boats into the river in the manner we had been taught at San Severino. We reached the far side without trouble. We were proceeding up the bank as previously arranged when a Spandau opened from a bank above our heads. Grenades were thrown and the Tommy gunners opened up. The Spandau crew made a run for it. We reached our objective, a house by a road 500 yards ahead, without any more trouble. As things were very quiet we took the chance to get some rest, placing a guard at each end of the house.
‘Just before the first guard was due to be relieved, Wally Page,19 one of the sentries, challenged three persons who were advancing towards him; they turned out to be Jerries who opened fire on him. He returned the fire with his Tommy-gun. On hearing the shots the remainder of the platoon awoke and rushed to the stand-to positions. Jeff Joyce, who had fallen in the river on the way across, and dressed only in his underpants, quickly organized a patrol of four men to see if they could contact the escaping Jerries…. We questioned the Italians but could find no trace of them…. Later on in the day Jeff Joyce, Tiger Atkin,20 Ray Upson,21 and myself went out on a recce patrol and spotted a church tower … and decided to investigate as we thought there was sure to be a village in the vicinity…. We noticed there were no civilians about, which was very unusual. On reaching the square we saw the civilians assembled and evidently awaiting the arrival of their liberators. When they caught sight of us they started page 613 cheering and throwing flowers at us. A few shots were fired into the air by Partisans. After we had been kissed by whiskered old gents and young girls, we were pushed to the town hall where they turned on Vermouth and Cognac, toasting everyone from King George to Peter Fraser.
‘Later we were taken to the chief Partisan's house for a meal….I might add that we returned to that same village the next day and the same people charged us 650 lire for one litre of Vermouth.’
At 6.30 in the morning of the 27th Brigadier Parkinson came to Battalion Headquarters and complimented the battalion ‘on a fine show’. He said 9 Brigade and the Gurkhas would pass through during the day and that 25 Battalion would follow 9 Brigade later. There was news that the partisans had risen and that the large cities of Milan, Genoa, and most of Turin were in their hands; they were also active nearer at hand and everywhere were awaiting the opportunity to harass the Germans. Already on the New Zealand line of advance they had prevented the destruction of several bridges.
The steep stopbanks of the Adige made it difficult to get the supporting arms across, and the steady rain which commenced at 3 a.m. made matters worse. The engineers had been working almost to exhaustion point in bridging the rivers and dealing with numerous demolitions and other obstacles and were badly in need of assistance. A Company was detailed for the purpose. By 10 a.m., when he was satisfied that the enemy had gone and that a sufficient proportion of supporting weapons had crossed the river, Brigadier Parkinson gave instructions that the comfort of the troops, in the form chiefly of blankets and rations, was to take precedence and the battalion settled down to enjoy prepared meals and such rest as time permitted.
Armed civilians were appearing in the area occupied by the battalion, many without papers, and B Company asked for instructions regarding them. Captain Berry was told to disarm all those who did not possess satisfactory identity papers. Shortly after midday, under orders from Brigade, the battalion organised a ‘flying column’, consisting of two jeeps with nine infantrymen, the FOO (Captain Smythe22) and his jeep, the anti-tank officer (Lieutenant L. Hampton) and gun crew with a six-pounder gun towed by a jeep, and two tanks, Lieutenant Hampton being in command. This detachment was to reconnoitre page 614 bridges on the Val Nuova and Scolo (about 4000 yards to the north-west), report on the state of the roads, and if the bridges were intact to see how far it could go. It was to move by bounds, reporting at each bound in the usual way.
Leaving at 2.35 p.m. and moving along the roads, Hampton's detachment half an hour later reached the bridge over the Scolo; though the bridge was intact it had been prepared for demolition, so the detonators were removed from the charges and the detachment moved on. In another half-hour a house 3000 yards north of the bridge was found to be occupied by the enemy; the place was captured and thirteen prisoners taken at a cost of one man killed. At a road junction a few hundred yards farther on another five prisoners were captured. The force came under scattered small-arms fire and occupied a position on the road to the west of the house. About 6 p.m. four armoured cars of the 12th Lancers arrived.
The detachment then split into two groups, one under Captain Smythe of one tank, two armoured cars, and three jeeps, and the other under Lieutenant Hampton of one tank, two armoured cars, and one jeep. After Smythe's party had moved forward a few hundred yards a tank was bogged and had to be pulled out while an armoured car from a flank gave covering fire against enemy infantry. At that stage Battalion Headquarters ordered the column to withdraw.
‘The jeep was about fifty yards ahead of the tank when enemy opened up. The members of the jeep baled out and some were hit. Lieut Hampton was hit … and died … next morning. Cpl Hawker24 died in the ditch about one hour after being hit. Pte Hewson was hit in the wrist and was bandaged by the Italians. Lieut Hampton had been carried in and bandaged by the enemy. (Pte Hewson does not know what happened to the others.) The Germans wore blue uniforms. Their officer gave Pte Hewson a cigarette and tried to question him in Italian but he did not answer. There seemed to be about 150 of them and all but 10 left the vicinity at dusk, taking the jeep. The others left on horseback and bicycles later. The Italians were very good to him and tried to contact some page 615 of our troops but could not. He walked out in the morning and met 12 Lancers a mile and a half from the battalion's position.’
Corporal Rentoul25 also succeeded in getting back to the battalion. When he saw that the position was hopeless he decided to make the attempt, and with great difficulty and coolness and by crawling along drains and concealing himself in a culvert for some hours, he eluded the enemy and brought valuable information back to the unit. Earlier in the month on the night before the attack across the Senio he laid and fired two Bangalore torpedoes to cut wire and blow mines on the bank of the river, and also blew gaps in the bank to give Wasps and Crocodiles a field of fire. For these services he was awarded the Military Medal.
When Colonel Barnett heard of the first encounter with the enemy he instructed the column to stay where it was as a detachment of the 12th Lancers was being sent up and 9 Brigade would shortly pass through. Two hours elapsed with no sign of either, and Hampton then reported that the column could advance to the next bound without assistance. He was told to advance with care and watch for 27 Battalion following up. At 6.40 p.m. when the column again advanced and was stopped almost immediately by enemy fire, Colonel Barnett ordered the withdrawal, but Hampton's patrol could not be found and the enemy was seen around the house he had gone to investigate. It was then a little after 7 p.m. and a tank and a company of 27 Battalion had reached the scene. When two hours later Hampton and his patrol were still missing, Colonel Barnett instructed Smythe to take command and return. Smythe handed twenty prisoners to B Company and about 9.30 p.m. reported to Battalion Headquarters. Next morning the 12th Lancers had one man of the patrol at the RAP and a little later at the scene of the encounter found a survivor and three dead. The casualties were Lieutenant Hampton, Lance-Corporal Hawker, and Privates Betty26 and Brown27 killed, Privates McGillivray28 and Hewson wounded.page 616
Contact with the enemy had been lost, and on the evening of the 28th 25 Battalion left for the brigade concentration area at Masi, moving on throughout the night via Este on Route 10 and Monselice on Route 16 to Mezzavia, where the column halted for four hours. Lunch was taken on the southern outskirts of Padua and the battalion then passed through the city to the accompaniment of a heavy thunderstorm and much ‘viva-ing’; the route then took a more easterly direction on the way to Mestre, 20 miles farther on, passing the south-easterly turn-off to Venice, five miles distant, just before entering Mestre. A triumphal passage through the town followed, and after another nine miles the battalion halted for the night at Altino, a village near the northern end of the Laguna Veneta, eight miles north-east of Venice though double that distance by road.
A bridge over the Piave River on the battalion's route, ten miles ahead, was being repaired and there was to be no move for at least thirty-six hours. The delay was welcome for several reasons but chiefly because it gave some of the men an opportunity to visit Venice, though the city had been cleared of the enemy only on the previous night. The men were required to be back by 6.30 p.m.
With the end of the war in Italy virtually in sight there was naturally much conjecture regarding the future movements of page 617 the Division. Rumours were rife, amongst them one that it would be employed as a labour corps restoring harbour installations in Trieste to enable an army directed on Austria to pass through that port, and that the Division would form part of that army.
Although 9 Brigade was still in the lead and 6 Brigade was in Divisional Reserve, the disturbed conditions required precautions to be taken, and before resuming the journey on 1 May the battalion was warned to have flank guards at all times as during the night 5 Field Park Company had been attacked. That day the battalion spent several hours at the Piave before crossing in heavy rain at 6 p.m., bound for a brigade concentration area at Monfalcone, east of the Isonzo River. Due to the slippery and cratered roads there were many delays as well as conjestion at the numerous bridges. The large Tagliamento River 25 miles beyond the Piave was crossed without difficulty, but at the next river, the Stella four miles away, the battalion was forced upstream for five miles in order to cross. With heavy rain falling the night was spent at Arlis on the opposite bank. At dawn as the march was resumed there was mist but no rain. While 24 Battalion was sent to the island of Grado to collect prisoners, 26 Battalion was directed to Gorizia, where 25 Battalion with half a squadron of 18 Armoured Regiment was to join it in a show of strength through the town. Timing its march to suit the programme, 25 Battalion following Route 55 reached Gorizia at 5 p.m. During the march through the streets the people gave the troops a most enthusiastic welcome, but the political situation there was very confused and in the meantime there was to be no fraternising.
As a brief summary of the situation it may be said that Marshal Tito with Yugoslav and Italian partisans had entered Gorizia, causing the Chetniks (Yugoslav Royalist partisans who had been driven out of Yugoslavia by Communist forces under Tito) to withdraw to the hills west of the town. Some fighting had occurred and it seemed likely to break out afresh at any moment. Noisy bands of demonstrators had paraded the streets singing, shouting slogans, and waving flags and banners. Yugoslav Communist bands carrying red, blue, and white flags with the red star prominent in the centre were shouting ‘Death to the Fascists. Death to the Italians. Long live Tito. Viva Stalin. Viva the Allies’. Parties of Italians answered them with ‘Gorizia page 618 for the Italians. Viva America. Viva England’ and carried the red, white, and green flag of Italy. Both factions carried the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes.
It was a tense and dangerous situation, one for solution on the highest political level. Early on the 3rd it was arranged that in the meantime, with the exception of the immediate vicinity of Trieste, all territory east of the Isonzo River (which passed along the western edge of Gorizia) was to be controlled by Tito.
The German armies in Italy had surrendered on 2 May. It was an occasion on which, in normal circumstances, enthusiasm would have mounted to great heights, but the dangerous and disappointing local situation acted as a pall to depress everyone's spirits. Plans were prepared to meet any situation which might arise and a firm stand was to be taken, but cordial relations were to be cultivated by games, such as soccer and rugby, race meetings, a friendly demeanour, and particularly by avoiding any untoward incidents.
During the afternoon of 3 May troops of 56 Division relieved both New Zealand battalions in Gorizia and 25 Battalion retraced its steps to the vicinity of Monfalcone near Route 14. There it remained next day with plans uncertain. That evening, on returning from a conference at Brigade Headquarters, Colonel Barnett gave a survey of the situation in which he said that the continuation of the war for 2 NZ Division was highly improbable and that it was for the New Zealand and British Governments to arrange for the next move of the Division. Meanwhile the Division would see that the line of communications remained open; it would be completely neutral but alert and ready to move at any time; good relations were to be fostered with Tito's forces; Tito's women were to be out of bounds to all troops; there was to be no leave in the meantime; a transit camp was to be started near Venice and possibly a club there.
Later in the evening the company commanders were told that the battalion was on three hours' notice to occupy a defensive position at Sgonico, 14 miles to the south-east, where it would be four miles north of Trieste with 24 and 26 Battalions a further one to three miles to the north. A warning was given that the telephone was ‘insecure’ and had probably been tapped. Men were to carry ammunition and arms and always be in pairs; the line of communication would be patrolled by Honeys and Wasps.page 619
Next morning A Company provided an officer and twenty other ranks for twenty-four hours' guard duty on the divisional prisoner-of-war cage, and in the afternoon the battalion moved over to the rear of its Sgonico position, where in the village of S. Pelagio it settled in to a billeting area. The new area was a good one, about 700 feet above sea level and two miles from the coast, with a splendid panoramic view over the Adriatic. On the other hand there was no electric light in the village and the rather luke-warm attitude of the inhabitants was a little discouraging.
On 7 May the announcement of the end of hostilities in Europe was celebrated by the battalion ‘with the assistance of a beer issue and flare pistols’. The ‘fly in the ointment’, however, apart from the depressing local atmosphere, was the prospect of continuing the war against Japan. Meanwhile the usual round continued. Seventy-six reinforcements brought new faces into the unit and reasonably recent news from home. Thanksgiving services were held and the companies in turn visited the beach for a day. Rest camps, recreations, and entertainments were soon organised; soccer football occupied a more prominent position than usual as it was played, and played very well indeed, by the Yugoslavs, whose teams turned out much better dressed than the New Zealand teams and were more skilful.
Throughout, the battalion remained fully operational as the situation was still unstable and a good deal of gossip was reaching the men regarding clashes with the Yugoslavs. Naturally much interest was taken in the BBC broadcasts of the situation in Trieste.
On the morning of the 22nd Colonel Barnett issued orders that the battalion by last light was to occupy the Sgonico position. Moving by a separate route, tanks would get out to as many of the companies as the steep ground would permit and normal artillery support would be available, liaison officers being provided by 6 Field Regiment and a medium regiment. A high degree of alertness was to be maintained throughout the battalion, though the men were to be made as comfortable as possible. Before 8 p.m. the companies were in position. The area consisted of very stony hills covered with small scrub, and C Company in particular had a long, hard climb up a very bad track; tanks could not join it till noon the following day but were able to reach the other companies before midnight.page 620
That vigilance was still necessary was emphasised on the 24th by information from Brigade that a local Yugoslav commander had requested United States troops at Tarnova, 16 miles to the north, to withdraw. The battalion was instructed that any such request was to be politely refused and that its positions were to be maintained by any action necessary if force was used against it; the Fourth Yugoslav Army had been informed of that instruction. There had been Yugoslav interference with Allied movements and various measures were adopted to meet any eventuality.
At 9.40 p.m. that evening a display of fireworks over Trieste aroused considerable interest and speculation. It was explained, however, that the display was in celebration of Tito's birthday. The following morning while making a reconnaissance Colonel Barnett was arrested by Yugoslav troops and taken towards their headquarters. However, the escort was bluffed and left on the side of the road while their captive returned to the security of his battalion headquarters. On the 29th precautions were relaxed a little and it was intended to withdraw two companies from the hills, but this was cancelled by a decision that 6 Brigade was to relieve 9 Brigade in Trieste. Early in the afternoon of 1 June 25 Battalion relieved 22 Battalion in the north-western quarter of the city. Trieste was hilly and bore some resemblance to Wellington, the battalion being on the lower western slopes with the main docks 700 yards to the west and large railway yards between. The battalion diary describes the situation:
‘New quarters were excellent, A, D, and Supt Coys living in hotels, the men sleeping in beds; bathrooms, etc., and meals cooked and served by hotel staffs. C and B Coys were in blocks of flats—living comfortably and well looked after by the civilians. Bn HQ was installed in a series of villas in a select suburb overlooking the city.
‘All tps carried arms at all times when outside billets during the first part of the month and guards and piquets kept the men fairly busy for the most part. Though at many times outbreaks of violence were expected, there was little real trouble and tps got on extremely well with all shades of the local population. Dances were held frequently in all coy areas, cinemas gave nightly screenings, operas were put on twice weekly, and concerts both popular and symphonic were put on regularly.page 621
‘As much sport as possible was played, there being coy and pl games of cricket whenever grounds were available, and basketball was played daily. Swimming, water polo, athletics, and rowing were also popular.’
In fact, a soldier's paradise. The diary continues:
‘All tps assisted in reporting on the movements and locations of JUG tps and, later in the month, of the Guardia di Popoli [the local Home Guard]. The JUGS evacuated the city, except for a token force under comd 13 Corps, on 11–12 June, this token force being finally ordered to a concentration area outside the city on 19 June. Few incidents occurred and there was no serious trouble. After the evacuation our tps occ and guarded certain Vital Points in the Bn area. On 24 June the Guardia di Popoli were paraded and disbanded by 55 Area Comd. Though it had been thought there would be more than reluctance on their part, the Guardia di Popoli paraded fairly willingly. There were no incidents and the Bn collected much amn and many arms which were taken to a central dump. Own tps occupied many places vacated and guarded them until searched by CMP and FSS.
‘Leave throughout June was good—to Venice Club, Lido Rest Camp, Alpine Leave Centre, and, towards the end of June, four-day “Swanning” Tours to Northern Italy, each trip going by two 3-tonners, 2 offrs and 30 men, most tours going to Milan, Lakes Como and Garda, and Swiss Border. The 7th Rfts left the unit while in Trieste, en route for Bari and eventually New Zealand. Many gaps were noticeable in the unit and new appointments followed.’
As usual there had been a good many changes in the officers and their appointments since the last list was issued (in April).
Lt-Col A. W. Barnett, MC, Commanding Officer
Maj J. W. T. Collins, Second-in-Command
Lt R. J. Evans, acting Adjutant
Capt P. D. Nathan, RMO
Rev. H. E. Rowe, Chaplain
Capt D. J. Pocknall, Officer Commanding
Lt J. L. Thomson, Signals Officer (1 Pl)
Lt D. Halley, Quartermaster
2 Lt D. W. Harrison, Transport Officer
Capt A. G. Henricksen, Officer Commanding
Lt R. B. Simpson, Mortar Officer (3 Pl)
2 Lt D. R. S. Mitchell, Anti-Tank Officer (5 Pl)
Maj I. T. Galloway, Officer Commanding
Capt T. C. Hynes, Second-in-Command
2 Lt A. G. Clark, 7 Platoon
Lt A. F. Pyne, 9 Platoon
Maj D. F. Muir, Officer Commanding
Capt W. D. Leuchars, Second-in-Command
Lt J. Murphy, 10 Platoon
Lt A. G. Massey, 11 Platoon
Lt K. D. Rankin, 12 Platoon
Maj R. V. Milne, Officer Commanding
Capt R. Easthope, Second-in-Command
Lt E. J. Smith, 13 Platoon
2 Lt K. T. Brislane, 14 Platoon
Maj H. R. Cameron, Officer Commanding
Capt N. K. Chapman, MM, Second-in-Command
Lt W. F. Saunders, 16 Platoon
Lt A. J. Ryan, 17 Platoon
2 Lt J. W. Coppell, 18 Platoon
Attached 6 Infantry Brigade Headquarters:
Lt G. W. Stephenson, Intelligence Officer
Lt R. D. O'Neill, Liaison Officer
Lt E. C. Hansen, Defence Platoon
Until 7 July the battalion remained in Trieste; it was then relieved by 21 Battalion and the following day occupied a bivouac area in the vicinity of Padriciano, three miles east of the city. It was one of the best areas the battalion had occupied in Italy, being heavily wooded with numerous clearings for the tents and bivouacs. Parades and company training occupied the mornings and sports and athletics the afternoons. On the whole, leave was generous, and as so many of the friends made in Trieste invaded the area, it was decided to make Sundays visiting days from 1 p.m. to 8.30 p.m.page 623
On 26 July the battalion departed for Lake Trasimene, which it had skirted on 27 August last on its way to the Adriatic coast; the 300-mile journey was done in four stages, overnight stops being made at Mestre, Bologna, and Fabriano (preceded by a midday halt at Fano for lunch and most enjoyable swimming), and finally in the vicinity of Panicarola on the south-west shore of the lake. Though there were plenty of trees to provide shade the area was extremely dry and water was scarce, the nearest water-point being 16 miles away. Routine proceeded as before, with the usual recreations, and after the first ten days a very enjoyable rest camp was opened at the Mondolfo airfield at Senigallia on the Adriatic coast; B and C Companies and a proportion of HQ Company proceeded there on the 12th for a period of eight days, after which the remainder of the battalion had its turn.
The great event of the month, of course, and indeed in some respects of the whole war for New Zealanders, was the surrender of Japan, the dramatic news of which reached the battalion on 14 August. It came as a complete surprise and caused great excitement and satisfaction, removing the former unpleasant prospect of further participation in war in another theatre, and on this great occasion there were no local complications as in the Trieste area to mar the splendid news. It was celebrated in a thanksgiving service for the whole of 6 Brigade on 19 August when Brigadier I. L. Bonifant, who had succeeded Brigadier Parkinson on 26 June, read the lesson.
The disintegration of 25 Battalion had commenced on 5 August when men from the 8th Reinforcements departed for Bari and New Zealand, those absent on leave following four days later. Demobilisation was to be carried out by reinforcements, those with the longest service being repatriated first, but the acute shortage of shipping, which was world-wide, was to cause a good deal of delay and some disappointment and irritation amongst the troops. The next draft, from the 9th Reinforcements, did not leave till 26 September. Meanwhile there was much to interest everyone. Sports of all kinds took a major place in the life of the unit; on various levels, from companies to division, there were cricket matches, sports meetings and trials, and a 6 Brigade novelty meeting; a divisional rugby team to tour England was selected, 25 Battalion's representatives in it being Major Finlay, Lieutenant Rankin, and Second-Lieutenant Kjestrup,29 who left the unit on 7 Septem- page 624 ber. Lieutenant Murphy,30 Sergeant Stevens,31 and Private P. Archer qualified to attend the Army rifle meeting at Udine on 16 September and Sergeant Gribben32 also attended.
The weather on the whole was good. Towards the end of August heavy rain fell for a few hours, much to the benefit of the parched countryside which had had none for several months. The next break in the weather was not so welcome, a severe thunderstorm on 6 September producing hail as large as pigeon eggs which stripped the trees of their leaves, carpeting the whole area with a green mantle; four days later a further fall of rain was experienced and, with the arrival of autumn, the nights were chilly.
An interesting development in October was the United Kingdom leave scheme; on the 2nd A Company left for Bordighera on the Riviera, about 15 miles east of Nice, to prepare a transit camp from which the leave drafts would proceed overland through France. On the 15th the first party of 2 officers and 35 other ranks left the battalion, and thereafter drafts proceeded at weekly intervals, though a storm in the Channel delayed the third draft for four days. On the departure of A Company the remainder of the battalion was reorganised into HQ and Nos. 1 and 2 Companies; further attrition was soon to follow. On the 15th 100 men who were to join J Force for the occupation of Japan went across to 22 and 27 Battalions, where similar detachments were being concentrated; 25 Battalion then again reorganised into HQ and No. 2 Company, but toward the end of the month these two were amalgamated.
On 7 October the remnants of the battalion had moved to Florence, where it was accommodated in barracks previously occupied by 54 Rest Centre and known later as the Arno Camp. Parties continued to visit various places of interest, one under Captain Chapman travelling to the Sangro, 200 miles ‘as the crow flies’; another attended a memorial service at Cassino; others again went to Rome.
Colonel Barnett, the last of the ten commanding officers of the battalion, terminated his service with 25 Battalion on 19 October when he was posted to Brigade Headquarters as temporary commander, an appointment he filled till 1 December. page 625 Major Muir was appointed to command what was left of the unit, and towards the end of October there was a further shrinkage when the transport and ‘Q’ services of battalions were brigaded. With regular drafts on leave to the United Kingdom and guard duties at Foligno and at the Fiat works in Florence, the battalion in camp was a mere skeleton and its end was near. Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, was observed throughout the camp by two minutes' silence at 11 a.m. and voluntary church services were held. The last formal parade was on 16 November when a brigade parade was inspected by General Freyberg, who thanked the troops for their services and said farewell.
On 27 November the married men of the 10th Reinforcements left for Bari, and on 2 December 1945, 25 Battalion was disbanded.
8 Armour-piercing and high explosive.
9 Maori warriors in tribal wars preferred their enemies to be fighting fit.
29 2 Lt C. C. Kjestrup; Awakino; born NZ 23 Nov 1921; farmhand.
30 Lt. J. Murphy; Fairlie; born Pleasant Point, 23 Nov 1917; school teacher.