Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
IV: The Division in Reserve
IV: The Division in Reserve
The BBC broadcast on 22 October that the ‘New Zealanders on the coastal sector made rapid advances over the salt pans and flooded country, using all kinds of transport; the commander of one detachment even urging his men on from a punt.’1 Shortly after hearing this astonishing announcement Divisional Headquarters asked 4 Brigade for a report ‘on the quantity of salt to be obtained from the pans we had been in and also a return of all punts, pumps and waterwings held on WE [war establishment].’2
1 War diary, HQ 4 Armd Bde.
The Division's withdrawal into Eighth Army reserve was completed on 26 October with the arrival of the three field regiments, which fired a programme in support of an attack by 4 British Division before they came out of action.
General Freyberg had advised the Prime Minister in June 1944 that if necessary the Division ‘could carry on and add fresh honours to its record…. [but] the inevitable effect of fierce fighting over a long period, on even the best troops in the world, is becoming apparent. There is no doubt in my mind that the high-water mark of our battle-worthiness was reached at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed in November 1941. In that campaign, and in the other costly Western Desert battles which followed, many of our best men became casualties, and gradually the keen fighting edge of the Force was blunted. For a period the gradual reduction in offensive spirit was offset by the increased efficiency of the divisional machine and the ever-increasing battle experience of our commanders. Time has gone on. Another long campaign in Italy has followed. I know the great stress of battle which large numbers of men have been through, and we cannot disregard its effects, especially on battle-weary leaders. Signs are not lacking now that many of the old hands require a prolonged rest. I feel, therefore, that if there is to be heavy fighting throughout 1945 a replacement scheme would be required for all long-service personnel. Such a change-over would not be easy, but I feel it would be essential in the interests of the efficiency of the Force. That being so, and taking into consideration your manpower difficulties and probable future commitments in the war against Japan, I have come to the conclusion that the time may well be opportune for the complete withdrawal of the 2nd NZEF.’1
1 Documents, Vol. II, pp. 348–9.
2 Ibid., p. 361. Mr Fraser announced this decision in Parliament on 21 September. He had received from Mr Churchill a summary of the decisions made a few days earlier by the British Prime Minister and the President of the United States at the Quebec Conference; one decision was to continue the offensive in Italy and to withdraw no major units from that country until the outcome was known.
The Division's immediate task upon arrival in the rest area in October was reorganisation to reduce some of its defensive equipment and administrative units, and at the same time to increase its infantry strength. The changes proposed would enable the long-service men to be replaced earlier than would have been possible otherwise, and would result in fewer reinforcements being required from New Zealand. In a cablegram to the Minister of Defence (Mr F. Jones) on the 22nd the GOC said ‘our organisation was designed for desert conditions, for which it was ideally suited. It was hoped that the Division would be used in a mobile role in Italy, but as you know this has never been possible. Instead we have been used as an infantry division, and as such all the fighting has been done by two instead of three infantry brigades. At present there is a shortage of infantry … while at the same time there seems to be more armour than can be employed…’1
A short-term policy of reorganisation was adopted in anticipation of operations with Eighth Army in the winter: this included increasing the strength of the two infantry brigades from three to four battalions each by adding Divisional Cavalry (converted to infantry) to 6 Brigade and 22 (Motor) Battalion (reverting to a normal infantry battalion) to 5 Brigade, the disbandment of 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment and a few Army Service Corps units, and changes in the composition of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 36 Survey Battery and several other units. If the war were to continue into 1945, further reorganisation was to be considered.
To mark the close of the anti-aircraft regiment's career a passing-out ceremony was held on 26 October for the GOC, who noted in his diary that he had never seen a finer parade. The unit's war diary ended with the claim that in the two and a half years since its formation the regiment had destroyed 671/2 enemy aircraft, one tank, one naval craft, and an unknown number of vehicles. Now that the Allies had full protection from the air, the Division no longer needed its own anti-aircraft guns. More than 150 bombardiers and gunners from the regiment were selected by ballot to join the new Divisional Cavalry Battalion.
1 Doctuments, Vol. II, pp. 372–3
The new battalion retained the old cavalry regimental designations (such as squadron instead of company) and the men their title of ‘trooper’ and their distinguishing head-dress and shoulder flash. They and the former anti-aircraft gunners trained under the supervision of instructors from 6 Brigade— ‘dour old warriors’—in the usual infantry drill, route marches and patrolling, in the use of the No. 38 wireless set, 2-inch and 3-inch mortars, Bren, Piat and tommy guns; they held exercises in the forming of a bridgehead, in attacking houses and in other manoeuvres.
The decision to reorganise 22 (Motor) Battalion as a normal infantry unit was received ‘with great regret, but there was no alternative.’2 The difficult terrain of Italy had hampered the use of the motorised battalion in its proper role of working with the armour, and only one real breakthrough—beyond the Pisciatello River—had been achieved in this role. The 22nd had left New Zealand with the Second Echelon in May 1940 as a battalion of 5 Infantry Brigade; it had joined 4 Armoured Brigade in November 1942 and had been redesignated 22 (Motor) Battalion; after reverting to a normal infantry battalion it returned from 4 Brigade to the 5th in November 1944.
1 Divisional Cavalry, pp. 381–2.
2 War diary, 22 Bn.
Drastic changes were made in the NZASC organisation: 6 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company, 18 Tank Transporter Company and 1 Water Issue Section were disbanded; 1 Petrol Company and 1 Ammunition Company were both reduced from four to three platoons. In the medical corps the second company was eliminated from each of the three field ambulance units; an enlarged headquarters was to be available as a main dressing station when required, and one company was to be attached permanently to a brigade as an advanced dressing station. In addition the Divisional Protective Troop was disbanded.
The news that the furlough scheme was to give way to the replacement scheme was very well received, as might be expected. Among those who were to be replaced were other ranks of the first three echelons who had rejoined 2 NZEF after furlough in New Zealand, other ranks of the 5th Reinforcements, other ranks who had come to the Middle East after service in Fiji, and a proportion of the officers and NCOs of these categories who could be spared. As further replacements arrived from New Zealand, the scheme was to be continued in stages which would include men who had joined 2 NZEF after the 5th Reinforcements. Selected officers and NCOs were to retain the ranks they had held in 3 NZ Division, but this was not to prejudice the rights of officers and NCOs of 2 NZ Division or promotion from the ranks.
The intention was to relieve 600 officers and 9300 other ranks in three drafts. General Freyberg was perplexed about the number and class of officers to be replaced: the entire top and middle strata of officers of 2 NZEF were within the categories entitled to go. His definition of the principle governing the changeover of officers was that ‘at all times we must have serving with fighting units and sub-units, i.e., battalions, regiments, companies, batteries, & c., commanders and seconds-in-command capable of laying on any class of battle, and no officers will go until their reliefs are considered fully competent to take over.’1
1 Documents, Vol. II, p. 375.
The three battalions of 6 Brigade were allotted quarters in large unfinished barracks erected by the Italians about a mile from Castelraimondo to house Allied prisoners of war, and which at first made a most unfavourable impression, but the men quickly set to work to make the hutments weatherproof and habitable and in about a week ‘wrought great changes in the appearance of the camp.’3
The New Zealanders spent about a month in the Apennines. The usual daily routine was training in the morning (except on Sundays) and organised sport in the afternoon. The training, sensibly based on the possibility of holding a long front in winter, included exercises at night, route marches—according to one infantry company, ‘a pleasure amidst the picturesque countryside’4—precision drill, lectures, instruction in the use of flame-throwing equipment, the lifting and laying of mines and booby traps, and practice in house and village fighting.
Fourth Brigade received instruction from members of the Royal Armoured Corps on some recently acquired Sherman tanks equipped with 17-pounder guns, and did shoots with this weapon as well as with the normal 75-millimetre gun; its programme also included courses in wireless, driving and maintenance, route marches and lectures. The engineers did much road maintenance work, demonstrated and trained with Bailey bridging, and instructed the infantry in the building of strongpoints.
2 War diary, 23 Bn.
3 War diary, 24 Bn.
4 War diary, 23 Bn.
Leave parties went to Rome, but other ranks still were not permitted to stay overnight—they could visit the city by day from the Eighth Army rest camp seven miles distant and from the Division's own rest camp at Civita Castellana, which accommodated 400 men. Both officers and other ranks were able to spend six days in Florence, where they stayed at the New Zealand Forces Club in one of the hotels. The New Zealand YMCA operated a leave centre at Riccione, on the Adriatic coast, and 6 Brigade had its own rest camp in a disused wing of the university at Perugia.
The return to the line came all too soon; it was with real regret that the New Zealanders left the towns and villages where they had been billeted, and the Italians were sorry to see them go. Women and children were weeping when the truckloads of men departed.
1 NZEF Times, 27 November 1944.