Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
II: The Division at Arce
II: The Division at Arce
While the Allied armies were continuing their advance north of Rome, the New Zealand Division rested and trained alongside the Liri River near the village of Arce. The men settled in tents under trees, in the vineyards or on gentle slopes near the river, in a peaceful countryside well suited to the open-air life. The fine weather, however, was interspersed with occasional showers and sudden thunderstorms, the worst of which drove the men hurriedly and frantically to dig drains around their bivouac tents.
The Eighth Army commander (General Leese) advised General Freyberg on 16 June that he did not see any role for the New Zealand Division in the immediate future. After discussions with Generals Alexander and Leese the GOC passed on the information to the Division on the 20th that it would not be needed for operations for 30 days.
The New Zealanders and Canadians were left out of the advance north of Rome because Fifth and Eighth Armies were both limited to those forces which could be supplied along the available roads. It was hoped that the two armies, so constituted, would be able to push the Germans back to the Pisa-Rimini or Gothic Line, while the forces left in reserve rested and reorganised in preparation for the breakthrough into the northern plains of Italy. This plan, however, had to be modified because of the demands for troops to take part in the landings in southern France, and also because of the unexpectedly determined German resistance south of the Arno River. Consequently the New Zealand Division's promised 30-day stay around Arce was cut short.
General Freyberg had taken steps immediately after the fall of Rome to secure a suitable building there to serve as a New Zealand forces club, and also had made a personal approach to General Alexander for permission to send men on daily conducted tours of the city. The Division took over one of Rome's best hotels, the page 93 Quirinale, in the Via Nazionale. Leave was not generous and the decision that other ranks were not allowed to stay overnight (only a limited number of officers, nurses and VADs could do so) was not at all popular. Every man was keen to get to Rome, and more succeeded in getting there than were supposed to do so under the scheme of daily leave apportioning.
An officer describing his first visit to the city says that ‘the Catholics all made a beeline for St. Peters where the Pope was giving mass to 4000 members of the Allied forces, and Mac and I started off on a sight seeing tour…. We walked up the via Nazionale, looking into shops and watching the passers-by. The people of Rome are a different stamp from the Neapolitans and many of the women are really lovely. They are very happy to have their city liberated from the Tedeschi and posters and banners across the streets welcome the Allied soldier. Like all Italians though, they are not above making money out of the troops, and prices of everything are high. Half the trouble as usual is caused by the Yanks with their wads of lucre and their willingness to pay any price for an article they want. They shove the prices up wherever they go…. We dropped into a bar which must have been a first class place in peace time, with mirrors all over the walls, fine glassware and elegant furnishings. We sampled some of the famous Sarti cognac, a thimbleful costing L25. It was rare stuff, almost like whisky.’
The Quirinale had not yet been opened as a New Zealand club. ‘We were thinking of going to the NAAFI for a cup of tea and a sandwich when we were accosted by an old man who asked us in broken English if we wanted lunch. We were surprised because there are no “ristorantes” open in Rome, Jerry having taken most of the foodstuffs, but we decided to see what he had up his sleeve. He led us for a couple of blocks [adding several Americans and Englishmen to the party on the way] and then turned suddenly into an inconspicuous doorway in the Street of the Twentieth of September…. We went up six storeys and were then ushered into the dining room of a well-to-do private home. While the lady of the house set the table we looked around the carpeted and well furnished room. An expensive radio stood in a corner and through the doors of glass fronted cabinets we could see shelves of crystal & glassware, some of it inlaid with gold. As the Yank major said— this guy musta been a Fascist to have kept all this from the Tedeschi. The meal consisted of macaroni and vegetable soup with a roll of white bread, beefsteak and beans, and cherries for dessert, so it was obviously a black market feed. The price was 150 lire but page 94 any civilian who can turn on a meal with bread and meat can name his own price….’1
Excursions were made to the Cassino battlefield. The ruins of the town had changed little in two months, except that ‘the rims of the craters on the outskirts are overgrown with weeds, and poppies and daisies are flowering about the place….The air is still heavy with a fetid stench from decomposing bodies and the sour taint of the phosphorus shells…. most of the town is just a flattened chaos of stone rubble, shattered beams and severed girders, all jutting at grotesque angles and torn and twisted by high explosive. We entered the town from Caruso Rd and the first grisly exhibit was a partially intact building, heaped inside to a depth of eight feet with unidentifiable portions of human bodies…. All over the town bodies lay where they had been struck down…. Numbers of New Zealanders were working among the ruins, recovering mates whose uniforms alone kept them in one piece….
‘We left the town and went hand over hand up a rope trailing down the precipitous mine-free track up Castle Hill. Outside the castle wall, rusting weapons and shrap-riddled equipment mark the scene of many a savage counter attack made by Jerry from Pt 165 in attempts to retake the Castle…. From the Castle we gingerly picked our way to the zig-zag road which was formerly a walled and bitumen surfaced track. Now the wall is breached every few feet and not a square yard of surface is clear of boulders and loose rocks which have been dislodged from further up the hillside. From foot to summit, Montecassino hill is strewn with the casings of the countless 25 pr. smoke shells which blinded the Abbey for two months…. Because of the mine and booby trap danger we walked carefully the whole way up, stepping cautiously over a few dead Jerries….
1 Diary, B. C. H. Moss.
The Division organised leave and trips to places other than Rome. Through the courtesy of the Royal Navy, parties were able to spend three days on the Isle of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples. Parties also went to Sorrento, Salerno and Amalfi, and elsewhere on the coast. Units held organised picnics at the lovely Lake Albano, in the Alban Hills, and along the banks of the fast-flowing Liri River. Concerts were given by the immensely popular Kiwi Concert Party and a British ENSA2 party; films were shown by the YMCA mobile cinema, and programmes given by the brigade bands. Units staged race meetings and organised games of cricket, baseball, basketball, athletics, swimming, and aquatic carnivals on the Liri.
The weather was so hot that exertion made men sweat. The atmosphere was still oppressive at 7.30 p.m., when anti-malarial precautions, which included the covering of bare limbs, had to be taken. The flies were also very annoying, ‘not only being persistent like the desert variety, but biting hard as well.’3
Only part of the time was taken up with leave, sport and entertainment. The usual routine was training in the mornings and exercises on many afternoons. ‘This “rest” business you hear about is really only a lot of hard work for us, training, etc. They never leave you alone for long.’4 Units were on route marches, sometimes up steep, zigzag roads to hilltop villages; they held NCOs' and snipers' courses and lectures, were instructed in minelifting, attended demonstrations by other arms, and carried out shoots with their own.
In a series of exercises in co-operation between armour and infantry, various combinations from regiments and battalions reached a sound basis of understanding. In one such exercise the companies of 26 Battalion advanced with tanks accompanying each platoon. ‘Guided to their targets by the infantry, the tanks did a lot of shooting which added to the reality of the scene. Radio communication between tanks and infantry was still not very successful, but when the radio failed use was made of the telephone fitted to the rear of each tank.’5
1 Diary, B. C. H. Moss.
2 Entertainments National Services Association.
3 Diary, B. C. H. Moss.
4 Quoted by Jim Henderson in 22 Battalion, p. 303.
5 26 Battalion, p. 407.
Because the anti-tank gunners had been employed as infantrymen in the recent operations and were likely to be so again, 7 Anti-Tank Regiment trained in infantry tactics and in the use of infantry weapons. The regiment received an issue of nine M10s, the new self-propelled anti-tank guns,1 which were allotted to 31 Battery. There was little time for instruction with these weapons before the Division left Arce, but as many men as possible were sent to 4 Armoured Brigade for short courses in driving, wireless operating, gunnery and maintenance. The M10 was much more vulnerable than the Sherman tank, and its crew therefore needed no less skill than was demanded of the tank crew. The conversion of 4 Brigade from an infantry to an armoured brigade had taken a year, but the men of 31 Battery were in action with their M10s three weeks after they first set eyes on these ‘tank destroyers’.
For about three weeks in June and a week in July the New Zealand Army Service Corps, assisted by men and vehicles from the artillery and the armoured brigade, was very busy carrying ammunition, petrol and supplies for Eighth Army from depots in or near the Volturno valley to dumps at Alatri, Valmontone, near Rome, and Narni (43 miles north of the city), and from Anzio to Narni. ‘Moving ammunition and supplies with a rush involved platoons [of the transport] in heavy work over long hours, and although drivers stood up well to the strain of long hours and the choked and often dusty roads, an avoidable annoyance was poor administration at some dumps, together with some double-talk of orders and counter-orders which led to a certain amount of confusion, waste of time, and ripe cursing.’2
The GOC immediately called the GSO I (Colonel Thornton1) the AA & QMG (Colonel Barrington2) and the Commander NZASC (Brigadier Crump3) to confer with him on arrangements for the move. It was decided that the NZASC should start next day by sending vehicles to Civita Castellana, a town on Route 3 north of Rome, where the Division was to stage en route to Lake Trasimene, and that the first brigade—6 Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Burrows4) was selected—should move from the Arce rest area on the night of 9–10 July. Formations were warned of the move by telephone.
The move was to be secret: all fernleaf signs and unit signs were to be obliterated from vehicles, and hat badges and shoulder titles removed. But these security measures did not deceive the Italians, who identified the ‘neo-zelandesi’ as they travelled northward.
The sudden call to the Division imposed much organising and travelling on the NZASC, many of whose vehicles were still carrying ammunition and supplies for Eighth Army. All load-carriers were ordered to return immediately to Arce, and company headquarters and workshops were to go to Civita Castellana. On the 8th the troop-carrying vehicles of the two RMT companies joined the battalions of 5 and 6 Infantry Brigades; other transport picked up ammunition, petrol and rations and went to Civita Castellana. Next day the NZASC convoys completed the second stage of the move.
1 Lt-Gen Sir Leonard Thornton, KCB, CBE, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Christchurch, 15 Oct 1916; Regular soldier; BM 6 Bde Feb–Sep 1942; GSO II 2 NZ Div Oct 1942–Jun 1943; CO 5 Fd Regt Jun–Dec 1943, Apr–Jun 1944; GSO I 2 NZ Div 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div 1945; DCGS Apr 1948–Jan 1949; QMG 1955–56; Adjutant-General 1956–58; Chief of SEATO Military Planning Office, 1958–60; Chief of General Staff, 1960–65; Chief of Defence Staff, Jul 1965–.
3 Brig S. H. Crump, CBE, DSO, m.i.d.; Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born Wellington, 25 Jan 1889; Regular soldier; NZASC 1915–19; Commander NZASC, 2 NZ Div, 1940–45; comd 2 NZEF, Japan, Jun–Sep 1947; on staff HQ BCOF and NZ representative on Disposals Board in Japan, 1948–49.
4 Brig J. T. Burrows, CBE, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Gk); Christchurch; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; schoolmaster; CO 20 Bn May 1941, Dec 1941– Jul 1942; 20 Bn and Armd Regt Aug 1942–Jun 1943; comd 4 Bde 27–29 Jun 1942, 5 Jul–15 Aug 1942; 5 Bde Mar 1944, Aug–Nov 1944; 6 Bde Jul–Aug 1944; Commander Southern Military District, 1951–53; Commander K Force, 1953–54; Commander, SMD, 1955–60.
At Narni, a town in a gorge, ‘yawning gaps had been torn in three huge arched bridges by the Jerry engineers but most of the road damage had been caused by our own bombing. At least once in every mile or so the road and railway had been straddled by sticks of bombs which had breached the highway and cratered the surrounding area…. every few hundred yards lay the burnt-out rusting skeletons of Jerry transport…. the total of wrecks must have run into four figures. Quite a number of tanks and S.P. guns were among the victims, and every now and then small groups of railway rolling stock sat drunkenly athwart the rails, with peppered sides and blackened ribs…. In one place a whole double column of Jerry transport had been caught hiding in a tree-lined side road and every vehicle shattered. The Hun has been using a considerable amount of civilian transport, particularly buses and Fiat cars, to try and make up his losses….’2
With the arrival of 4 Armoured Brigade's convey on the 14th, the whole of the wheeled portion of the Division was assembled by Lake Trasimene. The heavy tracked vehicles travelled on tank transporters, which completed the journey three days later. Camp sites were established under oaks and pines in a pleasant rural locality, which was found to be appreciably cooler than the Liri valley. Much of the lake was surrounded by mud and reeds, but where it was accessible for swimming the water was pleasantly warm. Some units, however, were able to make only the briefest acquaintance with Lake Trasimene at this time, for 6 Infantry Brigade was committed for operations on the Arezzo front on 12 July, the day after its arrival. The Division was placed under the command of 13 Corps (Lieutenant-General Kirkman) at midday on the 11th.
1 Diary, B.C.H. Moss.