2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
THE idyll of Venafro was beautiful but short. Spring was at hand, the grass was green and soft, peach trees were in delicate blossom, lizards sunned themselves on the rocks, frogs croaked near the river, and the song of the birds was not interrupted by the thunder of the guns. The evenings passed pleasantly under the trees, talking or singing round kegs of ‘plonk’, cleaning the Cassino mud from personal gear, or writing letters home. Venafro itself was out of bounds, but there were villages higher in the hills. South Africans camped nearby provided stern opposition on the Rugby field.
Brigadier Weir had not handed over command on the Cassino front to the CRA of 6 Armoured Division until 8 April. On the 10th he dined at Montaquila, some miles higher up the Volturno valley, with the GOC and GSO I of 5 Kresowa Division of the Polish Corps. Next day, with Lieutenant-Colonels Stewart, Lambourn and Sprosen, and a few others, he drove over a road that climbed ever more steeply into the mountains north of Cassino.
The party drove through Pozzilli, Casale and Acquafondata and then over the Inferno Track, an unforgettable route. It was carved into solid rock of a dazzling whiteness and had grades in places of one in four. Traffic was strictly controlled and special passes were needed. Only jeeps and pick-ups could drive westwards and only four-wheel-drive vehicles eastwards. It was one of several routes which had been constructed or improved to allow a mechanised army to move into the lofty and contorted land which rose northwards towards the Abruzzo national park, a scenic wonderland, and north-westwards on to one of the main ridges of the Apennines, the backbone of Italy. From Acquafondata, a picturesque village with a clear stream running through it, three such routes led generally westwards. The northernmost, the Ancina Track, was fit only for jeeps. The North Road, the middle route, was also under observation and by day only special jeeps, ambulances and signal trucks were allowed on it. From dusk until midnight only westbound page 582 page 583 traffic was allowed and from midnight onwards only eastbound traffic. In many parts the mountainside dropped away precipitously for 1000 feet or more and there were more than 40 hairpin bends, at some of which lorries had to back once or twice before they could get round. Perhaps the greatest danger, however, was that the North Road and Inferno Track were much used by Polish and Indian drivers who seemed to be in bitter competition for the title of World's Worst Driver.
The 5th Field1 had already reconnoitred forward on the 9th and next day 28 and 47 Batteries and Tac RHQ drove as far as they could by day and then deployed by night in the mountains north-east of Acquafondata. The night drive was difficult and at times hair-raising; but at the end of it the gunners put their guns into positions already dug by the Poles and took over the existing DF tasks and other records. The CPO with whom 47 Battery had to deal spoke good English and was most helpful. Captains Haslett and Morpeth established C and F OPs about 2500 feet up in mountains which looked down on Acquafondata. Pack mules had to be used to reach them. Ammunition was restricted: 30 r.p.g. for registration of zones and then 15 r.p.g. per day. Very little counter-battery work was to be done. The policy, according to the 47 Battery diary, was ‘retribution only’. It was a popular policy among gunners who felt that their respite in the Venafro area had been rudely interrupted; and they were further mollified to learn that day leave to Naples was to continue, longer leave to Bari also, and that the periodic four-day rest at the wagon lines, instituted towards the end of the period on the Cassino front, was to remain in force.
In the night 11–12 April 27 and 43 Batteries moved forward, the 25-pounders and H Troop of the Bofors north of Mennella and a few miles east of the rest of the 5th Field, and G Troop Bofors to the existing gun areas near Cerre Grosso. J Troop of 33 Battery drove past the 5th Field positions on the 12th and established its 6-pounders covering the road to Cardito, and 60 members of the battery formed an infantillery company which was posted in the same area. The ground in front of them sheltered the source of the River Rapido.
These positions, in support of 6 Brigade, covered the road from Cardito to Atina, high in the mountains to the west. Another route led down from Atina to S. Elia, west of Acqua- page 584 fondata, and the 4th Field (less 46 Battery) drove over the Inferno Track or North Road in the nights 13–14 and 14–15 April to take over positions from a British regiment guarding this route. As the columns reached Acquafondata they became parts of an ever-lengthening queue of vehicles waiting for nightfall, when they could begin the drive—‘crawl’ might be a better term, for it was seldom in any other gear than bottom. Below them in the great valley which opened out past Cassino, the gunners could see gun flashes and tracers and white flares dropped by aircraft. It was a spectacle doubly impressive for the memories it evoked; but the drivers could not enjoy it, for they could never for one moment allow their attention to stray from the narrow road with its endless contortions.
All routes forward, either to 6 Brigade or to the 4th Field area, were narrow and difficult and there was almost no ground off the roads on which B Echelons could be established. The main B Echelon areas were therefore 30 miles back in the Isernia area—the farthest back they had ever been from the gun positions. A Echelons—smaller groups of more essential services—were therefore set up at various points between Isernia and the front. This greatly affected the cooking arrangements, the equipment on issue being insufficient to cope with such a wide dispersion of units.
The front remained quiet and what little firing there was was usually against mortars. Polish artillery began moving into the 4th Field area after a few days. On 20 April, to make room, 26 Battery manhandled its guns up a 45-degree slope to a little cup on the crest of a hill planted with olive trees—a position comparable only with that which D Troop of the 5th Field had first taken up in the Olympus Pass in Greece.2 Somehow D and F Troops wedged their guns into the tiny and dusty cup, after cutting down dozens of olive trees, and when some of the D Troop guns fired the rounds seemed to pass just over the heads of F Troop gunners in front. Far below a narrow valley used as a supply centre and known as the Hove Dump was filling up rapidly with supplies and ammunition. On the 23rd 25 Battery moved to a position just off the Inferno Track, a beautiful spot among pine trees, made all the more attractive by the page 585 arrival of a Canadian bulldozer to help dig the gun pits. Lieutenant Moffat3 in a rear OP above Portella was incensed at the sight of a German flag flying defiantly from the crest of Monte Cairo and he did his best to shoot it down; but the guns could not quite reach it.
The days were sunny and hot, but the nights were cold. Then rain came on the 26th and at the end of the month snow fell lightly in the area. The 6th Field briefly took up positions east of those of the 5th Field and 29 Battery stayed under the command of the 5th Field. From the B Echelon area the other two batteries and RHQ of the 6th Field then moved along the North Road to positions in the Cerreto area not far north of the 4th Field.4 The 32nd Battery had meanwhile gone forward with 5 Brigade and 34 Battery with their old friends of the Orsogna front, 2 Independent Parachute Brigade. The latter took over from 6 Brigade and 32 Battery drove past the Hove Dump, through the village of Cairo, where the smell of the dead from earlier fighting still hung nauseatingly in the air, and then along the road leading north-west to Terelle. BHQ halted three miles from Terelle and three infantillery posts were set up at the foot of a series of long zig-zags leading steeply upwards to the town. The 32nd infantillery began patrolling at once and suffered two casualties from mortar fire.
A great offensive was brewing in the Aurunci Mountains, the Liri Valley (but not the muddy Liri Valley the New Zealanders had known), and the mountains above Cassino. The Poles operated in the mountain sector, and building up supplies for them left little room on the roads and tracks for New Zealand supplies. All movement had to be planned and controlled, not only because of the heavy demands on the roads and tracks, but because of the tightness of the situation throughout the area and the proximity of the enemy. In daylight from Monte Cairo Germans had a grandstand view of the whole area and many points and stretches of road or track became notorious —like the Mad Mile near Castelfrentano—for the attention the enemy paid them.
One place that was thought safe was the Hove Dump, because of the steep face of the valley on the enemy's side. But on 7 May, after a night of shelling by heavy guns throughout the S. Elia area, a shell fell into the dump late in the morning and started page 586 a fire. Other shells followed, and when the fire grew the enemy added to it with more shells. The blaze got quite out of hand as the afternoon wore on and exploding shells sprayed the areas of 46 Battery and the 4th Field RHQ. The battery cookhouse was destroyed. WO II Quigan,5 the BSM, risked his life to get transport away from the flames and to move supplies that were threatened. For this and for later work beyond Sora Quigan was awarded an MM. Several other men of 46 Battery including Gunners Halke6 and Davis,7 also rescued vehicles from the vicinity of the fire while the enemy was still shelling the valley. The fire blazed all through the night and the Hove Dump was completely burnt out. It was replaced by another dump which began to grow near Acquafondata.
Zero hour for a great offensive by Fifth and Eighth Armies was 11 p.m. on 11 May. The New Zealand gunners had only a small part in it, though it kept the 4th and 6th Field busy. From the New Zealand sector the guns of 2 AGRA also supported the Poles and, since they included the medium guns which had sufficient range to reach any part of the Montecassino spur with ease, their fire must have been more effective. The programme included a ‘Chinese attack’ northwards from the extreme right of the Divisional area by 2 Parachute Brigade with the 5th Field, a battery of the 1st/6th South African Field, and a troop of the 16th/67th South African Medium all firing tasks for about two and a half hours—almost all of them ‘murders’: area concentrations in that close and broken country would have little effect. This was a simulated attack to draw enemy reserves, if possible, away from the main battle area; but it failed to provoke much response.
The 5th Field guns were too far away to help the Poles, who were attacking across the Montecassino spur above the ruined abbey. The 4th Field and a battery of the 6th Field fired a three-hour programme of tasks, all but three of which were ‘murders’. A third of the rounds were airburst—fuse 222. The pinpoint targets were in an arc from west of Monte Castellone through Villa S. Lucia and S. Angelo hill to Albaneta Farm and the hillside just south of it. A long string of ‘murders’ was aimed at the Farm itself in final preparation for the Polish assault on that vital link in the German defences. Then, in the page 587 hope that the attack would succeed and to help the consolidation, there followed a dozen stonks8 just west of it and a final one to the south-east, to discourage a counter-attack from the Montecassino area. Another battery of the 6th Field fired a smaller programme of timed concentrations on the Farm and the hill just north of it, S. Angelo, followed by harassing fire on suspected OPs on Monte Cifalco, a 3150-foot feature northeast of Terelle, and on other points south-east of Terelle and west of the serpentine road guarded by the New Zealand infantillery. The 6th Field received long lists of targets and tasks in Polish with English translations of some of the main items, and in them one word stands out boldly to the New Zealand eye: stonk. It did service in both languages. The programme for both the 4th and 6th Field called for about 400 r.p.g.
All went according to plan until 5 a.m. on the 12th, when the 4th Field was asked to repeat for a whole hour the ‘murder’ on a point north-west of Albaneta Farm. Fire was also directed at every active mortar position that might fire on the Poles. Much other defensive fire fell on the Poles and the two New Zealand regiments answered many calls to neutralise guns, mortars and machine-gun posts. Nearly all the firing was at very long range, on supercharge. In 46 Battery, for example, B2, B4, E1, E2 and E3 were the only guns to engage; but E3 did by far the most firing—over 800 rounds. The 4th Field fired a total of 10,414 rounds and the 6th Field 6250, 30 Battery firing 530 r.p.g.
The opening of the programme in the great valley to the south—for those who were able to see it—was a thrilling spectacle from the high ground the New Zealand gunners occupied. Some 2000 guns opened fire from the Gulf of Gaeta page 588 through the Aurunci Mountains, on the front looking across the River Gari and up the Liri Valley, on the Cassino front, and in the mountains above it. Gun flashes lit up the sky brilliantly and at times the ground to the south, towards the entrance to the Liri Valley, seemed to be ablaze with twinkling and flashing lights.
Next day it was followed up by further heavy gun fire to the south and by ceaseless air activity. For the FOOs, however, the view was less satisfactory. Montecassino and Monte Cairo were ‘completely enveloped in smoke’, according to the 6th Field diary. Ammunition parties toiled up steep hillsides to replenish the 4th and 6th Field stocks. In the evening of the 12th a solitary shell was fired towards 46 Battery and it landed in the gun pit of B2, seriously wounding a gunner.
Though the offensive went well at other points, the Poles continued for the next week to meet strong opposition on the Montecassino spur. The Germans and their ancient enemies fought bitterly and at times ferociously for key points on this vital feature, and there were many calls for supporting fire from the New Zealand guns. Only the 4th and 6th Field could answer these calls—and not all of their guns could reach far enough, even with supercharge. In the night 16–17 May the 4th Field and 30 Battery of the 6th Field fired a series of ‘murders’ to help the Poles gain Phantom Ridge, near the abbey. C2 of the 4th Field had to drop out of this programme because of a broken sight bracket. Then fog came down and visibility became very poor. The Poles struck much trouble and the main part of the programme was delayed for several hours. At 5.25 a.m. on the 17th it began again in full force. F4 of the 4th Field went out of action with a blown packing after an hour and a half. Then, in mid-morning, the guns carried out a series of crushing bombardments on mortar positions which were causing trouble to the Poles. A battalion of German infantry in the open on the slopes of Monte Cairo attracted a heavy stonk. Then the guns repeated the fire programme, 30 Battery contributing only one troop to it. At the end of it the 4th Field gunners were weary indeed. Their ammunition expenditure for 24 hours had grown to the impressive total of 11,883 rounds of HE.
The morning of the 17th was marred by a premature in A1 of 25 Battery. A cartridge exploded before the breech closed. Though bad enough, this was not normally such a nasty kind of premature as when the shell detonated. But in this case it wounded three gunners, one critically, and caused the loss of page 589 the piece. The shell stuck two-thirds of the way up the bore, and in the end the Ordnance officer decided that the only way to deal with this was to remove the piece—very gently—and bury it.
FOOs complained throughout this period that they could see little or nothing from their OPs. This was frustrating, because the Poles were known to be having a hard time and it was seldom possible to bring down observed fire to help them. It did, however, please the drivers, because the Inferno Track was so shrouded by mists and the smoke of battle that they could often drive along it in daylight unobserved.
On the 18th the Poles gained what was left of the abbey and the end was in sight.
Much of the firing at this stage was smoke, to blind enemy observers on Monte Cifalco in particular, and in the morning of the 20th 26 Battery did this at the request of the Poles until all smoke shells were fired. Some heavy counter-mortar concentrations were also called for.
The last fire in support of the Polish corps was on the 21st. Two days later Major D. J. Robertson of the 4th Field, who had been liaison officer with 5 Kresowa Division throughout, returned. The division was advised, according to the 4th Field diary, ‘that a total of 28,621 HE and 2020 smk had been fired in their support’ since the offensive began on 11 May. From this time onwards nearly all tasks fired were in support of 5 Brigade facing Terelle. The Poles were too far away, though on the 25th the 4th Field fired on mortars thought to be harassing them.
Cassino fell not to direct assault, but to the blocking of Route 6 in the Liri Valley and the Polish conquest of most of the Montecassino spur above the town. The choking process in the Liri Valley was possible because the ground there had dried out and a mechanised army could operate in it. The utter futility of the earlier efforts when the valley was a sea of mud was now painfully clear to all concerned. Even now, on firm going, the operations were far from easy.
Enemy guns and mortars in the mountains above the New Zealand sector became extremely active, probably to use up ammunition at hand and cover a withdrawal. The New Zealand FOOs were much impressed by the use the enemy made of mortars, and it was evident that their own methods of countering this fire were far from satisfactory. On the 25th, therefore, Captain Vivian of the 4th Field marched out to Artillery page 590 Headquarters to become the first Counter Mortar Officer and to establish an organisation and train a staff. Early in June he was joined by Lieutenant Harvey9 of the 6th Field and Second-Lieutenants Maxwell10 (5th Field) and Naylor11 (from Advanced Base), who were to become brigade counter-mortar officers.
Infantry of 5 Brigade entered Terelle in the early hours of 26 May and later in the day infantillery of 32 Battery (who had taken over from 33 Battery) occupied the little town while the infantry moved on. When Belmonte fell next day the infantillery were recommissioned as anti-tankers and told to await the arrival of their guns and then follow the infantry towards Atina.
4 At the end of the month Lieutenant-Colonel Gilbert went on furlough and Lieutenant-Colonel Kensington of the 5th Field replaced him.
8 In an instruction of 16 April, Artillery Headquarters advised the three New Zealand field regiments, the 22nd Field, RA, and the 17th Canadian Field that the New Zealand standard concentrations would be altered to conform with those of other formations. The Murder was unchanged so far as the New Zealand units were concerned, all troop guns concentrating their fire as before; but it acknowledged that the RA and Canadian troops would fire, as before, with troop guns parallel. The Regimental Method ‘B’ was, as before, a method of bringing down fire on a target 200 yards square. The Stonk was now similar to what the New Zealand gunners had formerly called the Divisional Artillery Method ‘B’, a linear target 600 yards long. A new name was the Rumpus, which applied only to the New Zealand regiments; but it was an old method, the former Stonk—a target 1200 yards long and 300 wide.
There would not be much call for the Rumpus method in the tangled mountain country; but in flat terrain it could be expected to regain the popularity it had when it was called a Stonk. In the event it not only regained its popularity: it regained its proper name, Stonk.