27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 25 — The End of the War
The End of the War
‘On the Giana,’ wrote Cox, ‘we were able to bring down such a blow on the best German infantry on the Italian front that from then on, with steadily increasing speed, the way to the Po and the Alps opened up.’1
Refreshed after two days in which they had been left largely to their own devices—washing their clothes, writing letters and relaxing—and two nights of uninterrupted sleep, the men of 27 Battalion set out from the bivouac area near Medicina on 22 April in RMT lorries which crawled, nose-to-tail, through Villa Fontana and over the Gaiana again, along the Budrio road and a few miles beyond the Idice River, where a brief halt was made before they resumed their leisurely journey among swirling clouds of powdery dust. After eleven hours' travelling they stopped near the little village of Argelato, scarcely 20 miles in a straight line from Medicina.
Ninth Brigade was in reserve while 5 and 6 Brigades led the pursuit of the swiftly retreating German. After a short move late on the 23rd the battalion, which had nothing to do except move from one bivouac area to the next, settled down just south of a bend in the Reno River. ‘The country round here is extremely prosperous looking and really beautiful,’ Moss faithfully recorded. ‘There are many trees…. The grapevines are all breaking into leaf and healthy looking wheat and lucerne is a foot deep everywhere…. another good night's sleep in what is really just a picnic tour for the battalion at present.’
It was nearly midday on the 24th when the battalion pulled out in the wake of Brigade Headquarters to cross the Reno, which 5 Brigade had crossed the previous day. ‘The move was maddeningly slow…. More and more Jerry stuff is beginning to litter the roads…. In an endeavour to make better time we left the official up route and did some cross country work over tracks and through back yards of casas…. Jerry had beaten it too fast to blow all the bridges over the canals so there wasn't much risk of being held up that way…. We arrived at the new location south of Bondeno on the Canale page 493 Napoleonico…. The latest news was that one of our battalions had had a patrol over the Po.’ Before daybreak on the 25th (Anzac Day) troops from 5 and 6 Brigades had crossed the river in assault boats and had taken possession of the far bank without casualties.
The battalion waited until about midday on the 26th for a break in the traffic on the one bridge over the Po. The RMT platoon had left on an urgent ammunition-carrying task, so the rifle companies would have to march. Battalion Headquarters, Support Group and the A Echelon vehicles went on ahead. The pontoon bridge, over 200 yards long, ‘undulated like a sea serpent as we rolled over but was perfectly stable…. Across the river we followed the left bank upstream past Ficarolo which has a leaning tower tilted as much as the famous one in Pisa…. We have Bn HQ situated in an extremely pleasant spot this time.’ The first of the marchers arrived two or three hours later after a trek of about 13 miles.
Next day, when the RMT lorries had returned, the battalion drove to the Adige River, beyond which the Gurkhas and 9 Brigade were to take over from 5 and 6 Brigades. The battalion crossed the pontoon bridge over the Adige early in the afternoon, and from a debussing point a short distance from the river 2 and 4 Companies advanced on foot without opposition. They pushed on into the night, which was dark and stormy, until halted by a canal about 30 feet wide and very deep. An assault bridge was thrown across, and a patrol, investigating along the road towards the small village of San Vitale, returned before daybreak without having seen or heard the enemy. Soon both companies were across the canal.
To avoid several hours' delay while erecting a Bailey bridge, the rest of the battalion was diverted by a westward roundabout route to San Vitale, which 2 Company had occupied. ‘Rain poured down again while we were there, but all the civilians were out in the streets rejoicing and the band was playing some Italian marches. It was a treat to watch our chaps’ faces as they drove into the village on tanks and RMT … to find a band out to welcome them.’
The battalion was ordered onward again. ‘The whole show had moved well up towards Este against no opposition and Cav were some miles up ahead…. It had been the “I” appreciation that Jerry would stand on the Venetian Line and as 1 Para was the Div in best condition we expected it to be opposite us. It seemed strange therefore to drive into Este under page 494 the eyes of the hills beyond and just be greeted with silence. The hills were certainly admirably suited for defence and the approaches to them were covered with anti tank ditches and weapon pits. Even after driving a couple of miles through the fringe of the Venetian Line one couldn't help casting an eye to the hills as if expecting to see gun flashes or hear spandaus rattle. We pushed on, being halted just before dark by coming up behind 22 [Battalion]. Div Cav was just ahead, having caught up with a horsedrawn Jerry convoy. A little later a big bunch of PW came back and further on we passed another hundred or so huns sitting on a bank. Their wagons had been knocked flying by the tanks and a shambles of supplies and equipment lay about. The chase was now on….’
The whole brigade raced, sometimes at thirty miles an hour, towards Padua. ‘When we reached the city Cav had gone through to the northern outskirts and stopped. To say the populace was delirious with joy is making a very mild statement … the people went mad with enthusiasm. The entire population seemed to have lined the main streets and we drove through an avenue of wildly waving arms and flags. If a vehicle slowed down it was overwhelmed by surging humanity. We were kissed and hugged and buried with flowers and almost had our hands shaken off….
‘The situation through the other side was pretty obscure and the best informed people seemed to be the “partigiani” [partisans]. After haranguing a few of these, we took a few aboard our jeeps as guides and went on. The bridge over the river which skirts the town was intact so we crossed and formed a perimeter on the other side. We had just got over when a loud siren began to blow from a building nearby, and small arms began popping everywhere, though mostly behind us, and a lot of flares went up also. For a few minutes we thought it may have been a pre-arranged ambush, but apparently it was just the “partigiani” relieving their feelings by discharging weapons into the air.’
The approaches to 3 Company's bridge were a shambles. ‘A German column had obviously been heavily attacked from the air shortly before we arrived,’ says Colonel Sanders. ‘Dead and badly mutilated men and horses everywhere.’ Before entering the village the infantry left their trucks to ride on the tanks of a troop of 20 Armoured Regiment, which dashed straight to the bridge and cut off the retreat of two companies of Germans and three armoured cars. ‘We actually jumped into a whole bunch of them as we leapt off the tanks,’ says Keith. ‘I don't know who was surprised more.’ A fourth armoured car was knocked out by a tank in the middle of the bridge, where it caught fire; it was still burning there when the troops crossed the bridge, and had to be cleared later by a Sherman-dozer.
While the tanks lined the riverbank and engaged some machine guns and two German tanks, which withdrew, 14 Platoon seized and held the bridge. Lieutenant Sneddon was wounded by a sniper, but continued to direct the platoon until ordered out. By dawn 3 Company had taken 230 prisoners and had captured intact two 105-millimetre field howitzers as well as the armoured cars.page 496
After driving up to within a few hundred yards of the other bridge 1 Company advanced on foot with tanks in support. The Germans, although in superior numbers, showed little inclination to fight and surrendered after brief exchanges of small-arms fire. The company secured the bridge, which had been damaged sufficiently to prevent its use by vehicles, collected about 200 prisoners, and consolidated on the far bank—it also captured a German field cash office which yielded something like £1000.
When Battalion Headquarters was about to leave for the river, two German officers (who had surrendered to Captain Keith while he was still busy securing his bridge) were brought in under a white flag; they wanted to go back and persuade their men to give themselves up. Major Titchener took a platoon to investigate and arranged the surrender of about 200 Germans, who were handed over to the partisans.
The battalion, preceded by 12 Lancers' patrols, now led 9 Brigade's column towards Mestre, the gateway to Venice. Battalion Headquarters, Support Group and 2 and 4 Companies crossed the Brenta by the bridge 3 Company had captured, and had some difficulty in getting onto the autostrada, which ran above the surrounding country on a high embankment; eventually a place was found where the transport could climb onto it. Each company had its headquarters and leading platoon riding on a troop of tanks and the remainder of its men following in three-tonners.
‘The disorganised enemy seen on either flank was only of passing interest to the column as we moved up the Autostrada as swiftly as the tanks would permit to Mestre,’ says Major Bullen. ‘At Mestre the usual greeting accorded “Liberatores” of either side was offered by the “Ites” in the shape of cheering crowds, showers of flowers and volleys fired into the air by the Partisans with very little regard of safety precautions, as laid down in the manual. From Mestre the causeway to Venice could be seen and also the spires of Venice in the distance. Here and there the Hun was letting off air bursts in a last hate, but as it didn't come near the column it was not of great interest.’ The battalion reluctantly turned away from the road to Venice and headed towards San Dona di Piave, on the Piave River.
Thodey Force, consisting of a company of 22 Battalion with a few tanks and armoured cars, was despatched to Venice (where they secured one of the best hotels, the Danieli, for use as a New Zealand Club). The 27th sped on. ‘We were about four miles short of the Piave river which was laid down as the day's final page 497 objective,’ wrote Moss, ‘when some Ites rushed out of a casa and reckoned that there were molti tedeschi about four hundred yards out to a flank. They pointed out an object moving parallel with us about half a mile away which we thought they meant was a tank…. The next moment there was a crash like a 170 landing and dust and rubbish showered all over the jeep. We bailed out wondering how the hell we had got away with it, and found that a Sherman had fired its 105 with the gun almost over the jeep. The blast tore the canopy, it was so close. The Sherman was firing at the so-called “tank”, which binoculars showed to be a motor launch moving up a canal. The third shell landed on the deck creating horrible havoc among the Teds aboard. Immediately a white flag was raised and shortly afterwards more appeared all along the stopbank of the canal. Other tanks along our column were firing now, and before they could be stopped they dropped a few shells among the surrendering Jerries…. 1 coy was sent off to round up the prisoners and again they walked into a lucrative job. The Jerries were Kriegsmarinen of a coast watching unit and were wonderfully equipped. We got three launches out of that little scrap, a couple of hundred more PW's….’
The road forked a mile or two from the river; the main highway led to the small village of Musile di Piave and the other route to Fossalta di Piave, another small village farther upstream. Partisans informed 2 Company, which was in the lead, that there were Germans in Fossalta who might surrender. Eventually a formal surrender was arranged and some 400 prisoners were marched back under escort.
The bridge over the deep and wide Piave, between Musile and San Dona, had been destroyed by the RAF some months earlier. The battalion spent the night in Musile, which 4 Company found deserted. ‘From the moment we set up headquarters,’ Moss wrote, ‘partisans kept coming in with reports of at least 2000 jerries about five kilos away towards the coast. Later reports had them advancing towards [Musile] as the partisans fell back. The boys were pretty tired from having been on the go since crossing the Adige so the Col was reluctant to stand the Bn to, possibly for no reason. He did however send 3 Coy down to a canal on the east side to watch in the direction of the threat.’
Next day (30 April) the battalion fought a sharp action, the last on a battalion scale by the Division in Italy, against a large page 498 pocket of Germans who had been halted by the Piave in their northbound retreat along the coast. ‘The partisans in this area were fairly well organised and controlled, and were our only source of information. From them we learned that a marine coast watching unit was between us and the sea, and it was being reinforced by stragglers retreating up the coastal strip from Venice.’ Reports indicated that these troops were ready to give themselves up.
At 7.30 a.m. 1 and 4 Companies were despatched to clear the area bounded by the Piave on the north and the Piave Vecchia (the old course of the river) on the south as far as a canal near the coast. While 1 Company took a course parallel with the river, 4 Company went along a road following the canalised Piave Vecchia.
They had not been gone long when the partisans reported that an enemy force was advancing up the road from the south towards Musile. This force, about 100 strong, surrendered after a brief fight with 2 Company and several tanks which knocked out a 40-millimetre Breda gun and set fire to two or three enemy-held houses. The booty included several heavy vehicles loaded with ammunition and rations, a few converted Fiat cars, the instruments of an orchestra, a radio transmitter and other signal equipment.
Protected on the left flank by three tanks, 1 Company debussed about a mile from where the enemy was suspected to be. When the leading platoons approached two large farmhouses, a troop of guns, apparently directed by a German on the roof of one of the houses, began firing from a range of little more than 200 yards. The tanks opened up, and a section of 9 Platoon charged the house, which was so strongly defended—‘the Germans fought like tigers'—that the section was forced to take shelter in a drain about 30 yards from it. The other section of 9 Platoon occupied the second house without opposition and from it began to harass the crews firing four 88-millimetre ack-ack guns less than 1000 yards away. Fortunately these guns had been unable to depress their line of sight far enough to engage the tanks.
The first section of 9 Platoon was joined by 8 Platoon, and together they were about to close in on the enemy-held house when an explosion completely blew off one end of it. This sent them back to their ditch. Next time they tried to rush the building they came under all types of fire, which compelled page 499 them to take cover once more. They crossed into another ditch, where they were again pinned down and had to spend some time in the water which partly filled it.
A forward observation officer succeeded in directing the fire of his 25-pounders onto some 88-millimetre guns farther back which were causing most of the trouble at this stage. When this began to tell, 8 and 9 Platoons closed in on the foremost group, whose crews had begun to thin out, and wiped out all the able- bodied men who remained (except two who claimed they were non-combatant Poles). Private Mitchell3 was killed in this encounter and seven men wounded; about sixty Germans were killed or wounded.
The two platoons pressed on towards the rest of the battery, which showed little fight and abandoned its guns when engaged by the tanks. The battery command post was overrun and the commander was among those captured. These prisoners and the others taken that day were handed over to the partisans.
Along the Piave Vecchia canal 4 Company had ‘a nasty little action—unexpectedly so. We had anticipated a job of rounding up—not a full scale action,’ says the CO. The company's advance was hindered by enemy-occupied houses on both sides of the canal. The accompanying tanks expended much ammunition on these targets and sank several motor launches in the canal itself. The Germans, says Major Bullen, ‘were Ack-Ack units, mostly from the S.S. and [had] very definite ideas that the war wasn't over. 4 Coy. who were inadvertently astride the main escape route for this Regt. ran slap into a barrage of fire from Anti-aircraft guns. A stalemate battle ensued for the rest of the day, as this hail of A.A. fire was like a curtain of air bursts, and attempts to get through it were not successful.
‘Towards dusk, following heavy mortaring by Panzer-Fausts [rocket projectiles], and sustained Ack-Ack fire, the enemy put in an attack on 4 Coy, which dispossessed the Coy by sheer weight of numbers. The Coy withdrew and reorganised under cover of an arty concentration which had been brought down in emergency conditions. The guns, which had been on the move, had dropped their trails on the road, and as the target had been read off on 250,000 map, the accuracy of the shooting was amazing.’ Bullen, who had been reconnoitring when the enemy counter-attacked, was wounded and had to extricate himself ‘by some very personal close-quarter stuff’.page 500
Orders had come from Brigade Headquarters for the battalion to withdraw to Musile and to be ready to resume the advance next morning. The 25-pounders had been on their way back to the village when called upon to assist 4 Company. About 300 Germans, some of whom were armed with panzerfausts and bazookas, were working their way around 4 Company's left flank. The tanks, which had run short of ammunition, were compelled to withdraw out of bazooka range, but the artillery stonk, which came from an unexpected direction (the forward observation officer did not realise at first that the shells were from his own guns), protected the exposed flank.
Both 1 Company, which had lost contact with the enemy, and 3 Company, which had been sent to fill the gap between 1 and 4 (but could not get across to help the latter), had been recalled to Musile. After 4 Company had disengaged and withdrawn to where the RMT trucks waited to take it back to Musile, the Germans reoccupied a small village alongside the Piave Vecchia and demolished several partisan houses in reprisal.
The clearing of the coastal strip south of the Piave was to become 5 Brigade's responsibility: 21 Battalion was to reoccupy at dawn on 1 May the ground from which the 27th had been ordered to withdraw. ‘Prior to the arrival of 21 Battalion,’ says Titchener, ‘2 Company maintained a position astride the road. We were informed by Partisans that the Germans were in some strength and were advancing towards us.’ He made a request for ‘a Troop of tanks and a Company to take over from me so that I could move forward and deal with the situation. This was refused.’
A German force of over 1500 men crossed the Taglio del Sile canal, which skirts the lagoon west of the Piave Vecchia, raided an unprotected group of New Zealand Engineers in the darkness, killed or wounded about thirty of them, set fire to several of their vehicles, seized half a dozen others, and made off with about forty captive engineers towards the Piave River.
Captain Wilson, OC Headquarters Company, was warned by the partisans of the German column's approach. ‘I advised Bde. H.Q.,’ he says, ‘and we took up defensive positions awaiting their arrival. An Officer from Bde. H.Q. [Captain Stewart4] arrived and as the partisans advised that the Germans had halted, I went forward with him and some of my men.’ Stewart and two others were in a jeep, Wilson and a few 27 Battalion men in a 15-cwt truck.page 501
‘On arriving near the enemy,’ writes Stewart, ‘we left the jeep and our arms and walking toward the enemy we were immediately surrounded. A GERMAN Cpl who could speak a little English said we were POW but I told him I had come to speak with his CO and that I wanted his surrender. Approx ten minutes elapsed until the GERMAN CO arrived in one of the 5 Fd Park Dingoes with all his officers and driven by a KIWI…. I told him that he was surrounded and could not get away so I had come for his surrender. He then said that if I would give him safe passage over the river he would return all the POW and vehs which he had taken the previous night. I told him that I would not consider this offer and that he either surrendered to me or we fought it out. He then took his officers aside and held a short conference. He then came back, saluted, and said he would accept honourable surrender to me….’
Wilson adds that the Germans ‘were not prepared to give up their arms until we had sufficient men to protect them from the partisans. We had marshalled them into some sort of order and were preparing to move them into a nearby field when a Coy of 21 Bn, some tanks and Col. McPhail arrived and took over from us.’
This exploit was probably the most remarkable in B Echelon's experience. Major Bell, the battalion's second-in-command, praises the B Echelon men whose less spectacular but nevertheless exacting performance in the collection and distribution of rations and petrol enabled the advance to proceed. ‘Imagine the battalion off to a flying start, not knowing how far the advance for the day would be, nor how long the stop would be. The company supply trucks following as best they could after an almost “endless” stream of A [Echelon] vehicles, many with some sort of priority. Yet at each stop our company B ech would be there with meals and with petrol of which unbelievable quantities were being used…. Throughout the entire advance [they] worked like niggers keeping up with the coys to the last ditch—indeed a magnificent effort under great difficulties.’
‘Doc’ Flaherty and three other stretcher-bearers were captured during 4 Company's withdrawal in the afternoon of the 30th, but were prisoners of war for less than twenty-four hours.
They were carrying a wounded man when one of them was himself wounded in the arm, and while the other three were page 502 attending to him, the enemy arrived. The patient on the stretcher, who had been placed in the safety of a ditch, managed to slip away. The four stretcher-bearers were led to a house, where they assisted in the bandaging of some German wounded, and were then sent to the rear. They had not gone far when they were caught in the 25-pounder concentration which was brought down to assist 4 Company, and as they hurried to the shelter of a canal they noticed panic among the Germans in the vicinity. The shelling caused some casualties and damaged trucks and horse-drawn vehicles.
The stretcher-bearers were taken to a German hospital, where they were very well treated. Convinced that there was no chance of getting back to Germany, the doctor in charge arranged for the surrender of the hospital. Flaherty and his fellows were invited to a stable where ‘with numerous other Gerries from various units they partook of plenty of good Italian Creme de Menthe’; by the time their rescuers arrived they were ‘too contented and merry to feel glad or otherwise….’
Colonel Sanders, who wanted to press on across the Piave River, deputed Padre Sands5 to go to the hospital with a German doctor who had arrived at Battalion Headquarters. ‘There was a staff of 6 doctors and nine female nurses, and a number of male orderlies,’ says the Padre. ‘The Colonel in charge asked me to evacuate them and to accept the surrender of a small hospital ship at the mouth of the Piave River.
‘While I was inspecting this vessel … the Partisans moved in on the hospital. By the time I arrived back the Partisans had taken watches and jewellery from the nurses and carried off all the instruments from the theatre. I was so mad that I said a few hard things to the partisan leader who ordered his men to return the stolen articles to the nurses. The local Italian doctor returned the instruments about 15 minutes later.
‘Using German transport and assisted by the partisans I began to evacuate the patients. First of all the seriously wounded, then our own men who were prisoners…. It took about three trips to get everyone away. I took them back to Mestre where they were interned. Here I also arranged for the navy to pick up the hospital ship from the Piave River.
‘After this my driver and I went for our life to catch up with the battalion.’page 503
The battalion, now in brigade reserve, crossed the pontoon bridge over the Piave River early on 1 May. ‘Once over the river we began careering up the road again in the old style,’ wrote Moss. ‘The only delays were caused by detours where bridges on the main strada had been blown. We eased gently over a damaged one spanning the Tagliamento and then did a detour of several miles through a chain of small villages. All along the route again, in groups, out in the country and crowds in the towns, the civilians were out to welcome us. We met the same cheering, the same throwing of flowers and the same attempts by everyone to touch us as we went past….
‘The next large river was the Isonzo, and immediately on crossing the large concrete bridge we ran into Tito's Yugoslav partisans. They were a motley looking lot, dressed in Tedeschi. English and Itie clothing, and armed with a mixture of Jerry equipment and our own. Over this river there was no mistaking the fact that Tito's crowd was there. Almost every civilian was sporting a red star of some kind and it seemed to be the local emblem. Red stars were painted on buildings, sewn onto flags and cut out of every conceivable material to be worn as badges. We pulled into Monfalcone where some sort of patriotic demonstration was taking place. In the big procession which was marching through the town were several platoons of partisan girls. They were wearing FS caps with the red star in front, white blouses with long red ties and blue skirts. They were a very attractive looking lot on the whole. We passed through the town onto the far outskirts where Bde had allotted us an area. Div Cav & 22 were taking up positions astride the road leading to Trieste but we had no job….
‘Beautifully fine this morning [2 May], and as usual we set off about eight but didn't really get into our stride until midday. 22 were advancing along the coastal road to Trieste and Cav along a parallel one a little further inland. They [22 Battalion] struck a little trouble at Miramare…. After a small engagement the Jerries tossed it in and formally surrendered…. That coastal drive round the head of the Adriatic is very beautiful. You follow a broad macadam road round a steep bushy hillside about three hundred feet up from the sea … we rounded a bluff and there lay Trieste about five miles away. The orange and white mass of buildings seemed to rise straight out of the blue water, and the whole stood out sharply against sombre rocky hills in the background. News was through that 22 had entered the city….’page 504
West of the Isonzo River the war in Italy was over: the campaign formally concluded at noon on 2 May when representatives of General von Vietinghoff, Commander-in-Chief of the German South-Western Army Group, signed an unconditional surrender. This happy event coincided with another, the radio announcement that Hitler was dead.
In Trieste, however, the troops still stood to their arms. The Yugoslav Fourth Army, after defeating the German forces in Istria, east of the city, had entered its outskirts on the night of 29–30 April, but had not gained complete control of it when 9 Brigade arrived on 2 May. Seizing the chance of falling into British instead of Yugoslav hands, the German garrison in the Castello San Giusto, the mediával fort on a hill in the centre of the city, surrendered to the New Zealanders, which annoyed the Yugoslavs, who considered the prisoners were rightly theirs.
Brigadier Gentry allotted sectors in the city to his three battalions, whose men were warned to avoid friction with the ‘Jugs’. The Allied interest in Trieste, they were told, was to secure it as a supply port for the Allied forces which were to occupy Austria.
‘We arrived at the outskirts shortly before dusk—had about half an hour to tie up with our tanks and no time for recce or planning,’ says Colonel Sanders. In many streets they were greeted by cheering crowds; other streets, where the Partisans still skirmished with the Germans, were deserted. ‘We were moving towards Piazza Garibaldi with Battalion Headquarters leading when there was some sporadic firing,’ says Titchener. ‘… I was told to deal with the situation. We were being shot at from both sides and a party of Yugoslavs with an Artillery piece came on the scene and directed where the Germans were. They indicated to me where their own troops were and it was on this position that I instructed the tanks to fire as it was from this quarter that we were receiving most of the fire.’ A shell from a tank's 75-millimetre gun clipped an overhead wire and exploded. The splinters wounded Lance-Corporal Hutchison, who was probably the battalion's last casualty in the war.6
From the Piazza Garibaldi the CO directed 1 Company to the docks in the vicinity of the Savoia Baths, situated on a promontory, 2 Company to an area east of the Piazza Garibaldi, page 505 3 Company to one east of the Castello, and 4 Company to one overlooking the waterfront south of the Castello. On the way 3 Company had a few shots fired at it and had to debus and proceed cautiously on foot in single file.
‘It was darkness by this time and I established a Headquarters in a building close to Piazza Garibaldi and sent the Platoons [of 2 Company] on patrol,’ says Titchener. ‘A little later a party of German officers arrived in vehicles offering to surrender themselves. There was quite a number and no arrangements had been made to deal with this eventuality. A Partisan officer appeared on the scene and demanded that the Germans be handed over to the Partisans. The position was getting a little difficult and I instructed the CSM [Cole 7 to load them into trucks and drive around the city for about two hours until I could find a place to quarter them. In the meantime, I located an Alpha Romeo garage where they were put under guard on their return. Incidentally this convoy lost its way touring around Trieste and was guided back to our Headquarters by the German Officers. At a later stage I received a request from them as to whether they would be permitted to telephone their girl friends in Trieste and advise them that they were quite safe! To my disgrace I refused!’ Eventually the Germans were smuggled out to Divisional Headquarters.
Next day, when 9 Brigade regrouped, the battalion drew back towards the docks. Battalion Headquarters and 2 Company took over the Savoia Excelsior Palazzo, the city's principal hotel, right on the waterfront. Half the building had been gutted by fire, the result of a German naval vessel firing one or two broadsides into it while leaving the harbour, but the undamaged part was large enough to accommodate Battalion Headquarters and 2 Company. The CO had an Austrian arch- duke's private suite. ‘When the water started running again in the bathrooms, the electricity came on again and the beds and mattresses were sorted out we made ourselves pretty comfortable let me tell you,’ wrote Sergeant Sherrard.
The other companies enjoyed similar comforts in their billets; they had little to do apart from patrolling their sectors and guarding the dock installations. The civilians were very friendly. ‘There are some really lovely women in Trieste…. They are very surprised to find we can speak and understand Italian…’ The companies succeeded in procuring large quantities of the pleasant, almost non-intoxicating beer from the Dreher brewery.page 506
But the men could not abandon themselves altogether to a life of luxury and pleasure. ‘The political situation today is tenser than ever,’ Moss reported on 5 May, ‘… everyone is watching everyone else, finger on trigger…. During the day we have been unobtrusively noting the Partisan dispositions and headquarters. The biggest concentration is round the Piazza dell Unita…. There are 16 LMGs there and another seven in the Teatro Guiseppe Verdi. We have most of them taped now and if the balloon goes up most of the known positions will find separate parties organised for them. The unkempt Partisan army continues to patrol the streets in groups of about a dozen, every man carrying an automatic. They slouch past our chaps, who lounge round unarmed and outwardly disinterested, without a sign of recognition….
‘Another thing which is liable to worsen the relations between ourselves and the P's is the attitude of the civilians to the latter. With the exception of a small minority, they are quite openly in favour of a total British occupation of Trieste and don't trouble to disguise their dislike of our rivals…. While I was down at Bde today a large parade of civilians came marching along the waterfront carrying a New Zealand flag, an American flag and numbers of Italian flags. As they marched they chanted over and over “Italia” “Italia” and finally halted in front of Bde HQ where they began singing a patriotic song…. Partisans appeared everywhere and began firing automatics from the hip over the heads of the crowd. No one was hurt in the immediate vicinity…. The crowd panicked and a large proportion fled for the Albergo Citta overwhelming our two sentries on the door.’
This was one of the many demonstrations and processions. Those in favour of Marshal Tito were looked upon tolerantly by the Yugoslavs, but those in favour of the Allies were dispersed with rifle butts and bursts of automatic fire in the air. The Yugoslavs appeared to be ready to go into action: they moved their Stuart tanks into positions covering the buildings occupied by the New Zealanders, who responded by bringing up Shermans. Some days later the Yugoslavs created a mild sensation by producing 20-odd Russian T34 tanks.
The higher command decided that an international representation in Trieste would be preferable to a solely New Zealand one. On 6 May, therefore, an American battalion relieved Divisional Cavalry and 1 Battalion Scots Guards took over 27 Battalion's sector.page 507
The next fortnight was the most pleasant of the battalion's stay in this part of Italy. After handing over its sector to the Scots Guards, whose frequent saluting and dazzling white belts and gaiters were bound to impress the Italians and perhaps the Yugoslavs too, the battalion went to the outskirts of Barcola, a fashionable suburb on the coast north of the city, where 1, 3 and 4 Companies were billeted in private houses, and Battalion Headquarters, Support Group and 2 Company pitched their tents in the grounds of houses on the waterfront. In brilliantly fine weather the men relaxed and spent much of the time swimming and sunbathing.
VE Day (8 May) passed without scenes of wild rejoicing: the victory announcement came as no surprise. ‘There was a rattle of small arms fire all round the bay from Barcola to Trieste. For a short while we thought the Partisans had clashed with our chaps but soon it was obvious that everything was being fired in the air. Streams of red and white tracer lanced the sky from all angles and every type of Jerry flare I have seen, seemed to be up in the air at once…. It was pretty while it lasted but died out in an hour or so.’
Although hostilities had ceased officially, Tito, who wished to incorporate Trieste and the surrounding country of Venezia Giulia in Yugoslavia, continued to move troops westward towards Gorizia and Monfalcone with the object of establishing a frontier along the Isonzo River. On VE Day a convoy of some 3000 horse-drawn and many marching troops passed the battalion.
A joint British and American note was delivered to Belgrade demanding the evacuation of the Yugoslav troops behind a line east of Trieste (the ‘Morgan line’), and the Allies redeployed in case it should be necessary to enforce the withdrawal. The American and Scots Guards battalions were replaced in the city by Divisional Cavalry and 27 Battalion on 20 May. That day General Freyberg said in a cable to the Prime Minister, Mr Fraser (who was in San Francisco): ‘… I want the New Zealand Government to know the fact that we are sitting at the point of greatest tension and that fighting may break out. If it does we must expect a number of casualties….’ Three days later, however, he was able to advise the Government that ‘the situation has eased considerably…. I believe that the matter will be solved amicably and it will then be possible for the New Zealand Division to be released from its operational role….’page 508
When 6 Brigade relieved the 9th in Trieste at the beginning of June, the battalion went out to camp in the rocky, wooded hills near Sales, to the north, and a fortnight later it moved with 9 Brigade to the vicinity of Basovizza, a pleasant locality a few miles east of the city.
Meanwhile the British, United States and Russian Governments exchanged views on the Yugoslav problem and negotiations slowly proceeded towards a settlement. The bulk of Tito's forces were withdrawn behind the Morgan line, and the few who stayed came under the command of Field-Marshal Alexander. After nearly six weeks of rule by the Yugoslavs, who had systematically looted the city, Trieste came under the control of the Allied Military Government.
In less than five months since its conversion to infantry the battalion had absorbed a large number of fresh reinforcements, trained in infantry weapons and tactics, fought in the battle which had destroyed the German armies in Italy, and participated in the difficult and aggravating occupation of Trieste, where (the GOC reported) ‘the conduct of the New Zealand troops was at all times exemplary.’
‘The Battalion,’ Brigadier Gentry wrote for the foreword of Victory Souvenir, ‘had its full share of fighting during this period, and I am glad to be able to write that it fought with great courage and determination, distinguishing itself particularly in the attack across the Sillaro River and in the bitter daylight struggle for possession of the dominating stopbank of the Gaiana River.’
Lieutenant-Colonel Sanders, CO throughout this period, and Major Bell, who commanded 3 Company at the Sillaro and later became the battalion's second-in-command, were both awarded the DSO; Major Titchener's bold leadership of 2 Company earned a bar to the MC he had won in Tunisia. Lieutenant Sneddon, who commanded 14 Platoon at the Sillaro, where it accounted for four German tanks, and also in the successful action at Ponte di Brenta, received the MC. The MM went to McIntyre, Hutchison and Morris.
Now that the war in Europe was over, the question arose of the future employment of the Division: its participation in the war in the Pacific was under consideration by the Government. page 509 The men with long service overseas could expect to go home; those with short service overseas (and some officers with longer experience) faced the possibility of being retained for the war against Japan.
‘There are all sorts of wild rumours going the rounds at present following [the Government's] statement that the 8th, 9th & 10th Reinfs are going home as soon as shipping is available,’ wrote an 8th Reinforcement officer. ‘The ex-3 Div personnel wonder how they stand as some of them have been overseas as long as the Eighths…. No one knows the real story but it provides an interesting subject for discussion….’
Leave was granted on a more generous scale; parties were sent regularly to the New Zealand Club in Venice, and others toured northern Italy. Some men went to Klagenfurt in Austria. ‘Getting the hay dry enough to store must be one of the local farmers' big worries up here,’ wrote one of these tourists. ‘A common method is to erect poles six or seven feet high … and on these the hay is draped, pointing downwards like thatch to shed the water…. we were fortunate in seeing some of the villagers out in the national costume. They must have extremely good dyes as the colours are wonderfully vivid…. A lot of the men wear little leather shorts … and the Tyrolean hat…. We saw some incredible blondes with hair fairer than wheat straw…. There were plenty of Jerries about still in uniform, some with weapons and some without. They just seemed to be ignored.’
At least one party entered Germany. ‘After a look round Berchtesgaden, which charmed us with its clean cobbled streets and quaint houses and shops, we set off to have a look at Hitler's former residence. Before climbing the hill we looked up and saw a lone building breaking the skyline of a steep spur, thousands of feet up in the air. It was the “Eyrie” or “Eagle's Nest” to which Adolf used to retire when he wished to contemplate. It was a steep enough climb…. The RAF's attack on the place had certainly battered it about and every building, including those of the SS and Gestapo guards had been damaged. The room which contained the huge window was the one part of the building by which Hitler's home could be recognized. The remainder was just debris….’
Swimming was about the most popular activity, but other sports and entertainment helped to pass the time. A barbecue, organised by Padre Falloon8 and his committee and attended page 510 by 500, including civilian friends and visitors from other units, was a huge success. A Maori concert party performed; the Maoris also roasted a heifer. Couples danced by the light of four large bonfires. Wine, ice-cream, tea and cakes were served to the guests, who included the Brigadier.
After nearly three months' sojourn at Trieste the battalion departed on 22 July for a locality (reached three days later) on the eastern bank of the Tiber River and about five miles below Perugia. During an overnight halt on the way some men visited Pioraco and Esanatoglia, where they ‘received a marvellous welcome from the people, who had been so good to us…. they were full of enquiries as to what had happened to us all during the last show.’
Prospective NCOs began a fortnight's course at a school run by Captain Pleasants, who had returned from furlough; the rest of the battalion was kept fit by early morning route marches and sport. Following the departure in August of the 8th Reinforcements—some of whom claimed to have seen more days in action than most other New Zealanders—the battalion was reorganised: 4 Company was absorbed in the other three rifle companies.
The announcement on 15 August that Japan had accepted the Allied demand for unconditional surrender was ‘quietly celebrated’, and a day or two later the whole battalion was given a week's holiday at a rest camp near Senigallia, on the Adriatic coast. The men returned ‘refreshed, contented and quite prepared to continue guarding the Tiber for the Italians until such time as the Government deigns to arrange our transport back to N.Z….’ About a fortnight later, however, they had another week's holiday on the coast.
The departure of the 9th Reinforcements in September so reduced the strength of the battalion that Support Group was absorbed into the three rifle companies. Next month the battalion went into winter quarters at Florence. About this time the first of several leave drafts for the United Kingdom departed by an overland route. Also, among the twenty-nine players selected for the 2 NZEF Rugby team to tour the British Isles were three from the battalion: Allen, Boggs9 and Young.10 The 27th Battalion now entered upon a fresh phase in its history: in October it became part of J Force, which was to page 511 participate, under the command of Brigadier Stewart (who succeeded Brigadier Gentry in November), in the Allied occupation in Japan. Those men who were eligible for return to New Zealand were withdrawn and the battalion was brought up to strength again (with Battalion Headquarters, Headquart- ters Company, Support Company, and four rifle companies) with men of the 13th, 14th and 15th Reinforcements (most of whom had reached Italy after hostilities ended), as well as volunteers from earlier reinforcements. J Force paraded for General Freyberg, who inspected the troops, presented decorations and delivered a farewell message.
During the next few weeks the mornings were devoted to training and the afternoons to sport; a welfare committee organised dances, concerts and other entertainments. On Christmas Day, 1945, the battalion's third Christmas in Italy and sixth overseas, ‘Clueless’, ‘Corporal Simpkins’ and ‘The Two Types’, personifying the characters in the service newspapers, and Father Christmas himself visited the YMCA, and after each had spoken, cigarettes and rum were distributed.
The carriers, guns, transport and stores were despatched to Bari in mid-January to be loaded in the ships that were to take them to Japan, and a month later the troops left by train for Naples, where they spent a few days in a transit camp on the hills overlooking the city. While they were there the final Rugby match in Italy of the Freyberg Cup series, between Divisional Cavalry (the winners) and 25 Battery, was played ‘on a very dirty field of chocolate coloured volcanic ash … against a background of the barren slopes of gently smoking Vesuvius.’
The battalion, together with other J Force units, embarked on the Strathmore, which sailed on 21 February. Lieutenant- Colonel Sanders was appointed OC New Zealand Troops, and Major Newland acting CO. No shore leave was granted at Colombo, Singapore and Hong Kong because of an epidemic of measles on the ship; 135 patients (sixteen of them from 27 Battalion) were taken to hospital at Singapore.
The Strathmore steamed through the Inland Sea of Japan, whose waters were confined by a host of small, partly wooded, hilly islands of all sizes, and at the end of an 8900-mile voyage which had taken a month, was secured to mooring buoys in Kure harbour. The troops disembarked on 21 March, were taken ashore by LST, and marched to the railway station. Their train, after following the coast for a while, passed through the outskirts of Hiroshima, ‘so we were able to see at first hand, page 512 the devastation wrought by the atomic bomb,’ wrote Captain Moss (now OC Support Company). ‘The area was just beginning to recover. Trees were budding again and grass and vegetables seemed to be growing normally…. a lot of improvised dwellings, constructed out of wood and sheets of iron, were springing up…. We passed through numerous villages and small towns on the way…. The houses are almost universally made of wood with a roof of glazed tiles. Very few were painted. … As in Italy, all flat land was cultivated down to the last square yard…. We arrived at Yamaguchi station with an hour of daylight still in hand and were met by … the entire local bus fleet to ferry us to camp….
‘[The camp] is an old Jap military barracks and was taken over by us from the Americans. There are seven main barrack buildings grouped round a large rectangular parade ground. … Beyond the barrack buildings are smaller buildings for various purposes, including a chapel and a club room for the men…. Japs are going to do all the menial work and slushy jobs…. it will be quite some time before we get accustomed to the appearance of these people….
‘We all enjoyed getting out of camp [for the first route march]…. The quaint little houses with their up-curving corners look as though they were once straight but had since been exposed to some great heat which made the edges curl up. … Each residence stands in its own little section of ground which is usually enclosed by an ornamental hedge…. Rice is the universal crop and only a very small percentage of the arable area round here is occupied by anything else. There are usually a few small plots of vegetables…. The famous cherry trees are just beginning to flower, and the clouds of pink blossom are conspicuous at present as the only colour in a rather drab winter landscape.’
J Force occupied the prefecture of Yamaguchi, an area of 2000 square miles at the southern tip of Honshu, the largest island of Japan. In the central part of the prefecture 27 Battalion's area extended from coast to coast and contained the university town of Yamaguchi. A company was despatched from Yamaguchi Camp to Hagi, on the northern coast, and another to Tokuyama, on the southern coast.
The accommodation was inferior: the buildings were mostly two-storied, flimsy, inadequately heated, wooden structures with a thin plaster shell; several caught fire, and at least one was page 513 burned to the ground. The reconditioning of old barracks and the building of new ones took many months because materials and labour were provided from Japanese sources, paid for by the Japanese Government and obtained under procurement. Lieutenant-Colonel Gillespie11 says this system ‘led to irritating delay, since all projects had first to be forwarded to BCOF Headquarters for consolidation. They were then passed on to American Eighth Army Headquarters for processing, as all service units in Japan, American and British, had embarked on similar programmes. This called for immense quantities of materials of all kinds, from timber to household furnishings.’12
‘The question of procurement was a very sore point,’ adds Lieutenant-Colonel Titchener (who succeeded Lieutenant- Colonel Sanders as CO on 16 May 194613). ‘The whole thing was so slow that pre-emption and not procurement became the order of the day…. In order to keep the troops happy and in a reasonable state of comfort some direct action was necessary. The Rest Camp at Golden Bay was a first class instance of pre-emption.’ This camp, on the north coast, offered excellent swimming and was a great asset to the battalion.
Patrols systematically searched the battalion's sector for military installations and equipment or anything of a suspicious nature; the little that they found almost invariably had been destroyed by the Americans. They also investigated villages, schools and industrial plants. The Japanese appeared to be respectful and co-operative, and in the more isolated districts, in some of which they were seeing Europeans for the first time, they were timid. The company at Hagi patrolled along the coast in transport and on foot and in the coastal waters in a diesel launch, and rounded up and despatched to a Japanese repatriation centre many groups of Koreans who were being landed from small ships under cover of darkness. Most of the patrolling from Tokuyama was in heavily wooded country.
With the return of two drafts of men to New Zealand and the arrival of two replacement drafts, the composition of the battalion changed almost completely. This was accompanied by page 514 an improvement in morale. Titchener observed that ‘war weary soldiers are not likely to make good occupational troops.’ Gillespie decided that they ‘were not vastly interested in demonstrating to a conquered people the democratic way of life…. Circumstances helped to provoke this attitude…. the drab and dreary barracks and camp areas…. Supplies were short. … Troops could not enter public restaurants or hotels as they had done so freely in Italy to add change to a monotonous army diet, and for their own protection they were forbidden to buy Japanese foods, of which the Japanese themselves were acutely short. Apart from that the Japanese method of using human excreta as fertiliser for all growing crops made the purchase of fresh vegetables most undesirable…. There were no leave centres ready [except of course the battalion's own rest camp at Golden Bay]….’14 The later arrivals enjoyed much better amenities and were able to go regularly to holiday resorts. Their deportment was good.
The New Zealand part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force remained almost two and a half years in Japan. during which time there were further replacements of troops and changes of command: Lieutenant-Colonel Titchener was succeeded by Lieutenant-Colonel Hollis,15 and the latter by Lieutenant-Colonel Dawson,16 under whose command on 7 August 1947, 27 Battalion, having shared the record with Divisional Cavalry of serving overseas longer than any other unit of 2 NZEF, changed its name to 3 Battalion New Zealand Regiment.
6 One man had been killed and 15 wounded (including two officers) since the battalion resumed the advance from near Medicina on 22 April, which brought the battalion's total casualties since its conversion to infantry to 35 killed and 128 wounded.
11 Lt-Col O. A. Gillespie, MBE, MM, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Cust, 7 Apr 1895; script writer and historian; NZ Rifle Bde 1914–19 (wounded 1917); IO 8 Inf Bde Gp (Fiji) 1940; GSO 3 (Int) 3 NZ Div 1941–42; Cipher Officer 3 NZ Div 1942–44; ADPR BCOF, Japan, 1946–48; Director Public Relations BCOF 1948–50.
15 Lt-Col R. C. Hollis, MC; Lower Hutt; born Great Yarmouth, England, 25 Dec 1892; reader; First World War 1914–18 (16 Lancers); twice wounded; president Provost Courts 2 NZEF, Japan, 1947–48; CO 27 Bn 31 Mar–2 Jun 1947.