2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
CHAPTER 21 — Winter in the Romagna
Winter in the Romagna
AS a rest area, apart from the weather, the Apennines south of Fabriano approached perfection. Gunners who had lived for a year or more in Italy in the midst of battle or in its wake had become accustomed to the entrails of towns rather than their living hearts. Here they found towns and villages miraculously untouched by high-explosive violence and uncorrupted by waves of soldiers and the jetsam they leave behind. After an hour or two of cautious appraisal from both sides the gunners and their hosts and hostesses began to turn their compulsory acquaintance into many a voluntary friendship. With the little children it was, as always, a case of love at first sight. Except for the most persistent tipplers, the raw wine was put aside in favour of more mellow vintages.
Even in the rain the countryside looked lovely. ‘The valley in which the regiment is situated is surrounded by high bush clad hills’, the 5th Field diarist noted. ‘The leaves are now in their autumn tints and give a colourful atmosphere to the area.’ A mountain of war diaries yields few such remarks as these. ‘BHQ held dance in Padrone's house in evening’, the 42 Battery diary says of 23 October. It was one of many dances, all of them richly enjoyable.
There was much to celebrate and there were also some sad farewells. Gunners had been wondering for some time when the next stage of the furlough scheme would begin. They learned that it was now a replacement scheme and that the 5th Reinforcements and those who had returned from furlough were next on the list—to the bitter disappointment of the ‘Coconut Bombers’ who had served in Fiji. They were also told that the Division would now reorganise.
Some Units are Disbanded
Lieutenant-Colonel Sprosen visited each of his troops on the 24th to tell them that the 14th Light Ack-Ack was now to be disbanded. Each troop held a party that evening; but for the ‘old hands’ memories were apt to flick shadows across the gaiety. Next day batteries and then the regiment as a whole practised for a farewell parade. A generous disbursement of regimental page 665 funds for entertainment enlivened battery parties and dances held on the 25th. Then came an inspection and march-past led by the 5 Brigade band on the 26th near Collamato. General Freyberg took the salute1 and then called the gunners round him and spoke impromptu, recalling incidents of the desert days and the early fighting in Italy and praising the record of the regiment. It was a moving occasion. Then, after the parade was dismissed, Freyberg personally met every officer, warrant officer and sergeant. The original members had been mainly 5th Reinforcements and so a great many had taken part in the first as well as the last parade of the regiment and their stern appearance on this occasion disguised a welter of feeling. In his diary Freyberg noted that he had never seen a finer parade.
There was much to do. Guns, transport and equipment had to be inspected and disposed of. Free beer and free canteen goods to the value of 3s. 6d. per man on the 27th further reduced regimental funds. Padre West2 conducted his final church services for the batteries on Sunday the 29th. Major Duignan3 joined RHQ to act as second-in-command for a day or two and then to command what was left after the regiment formally dissolved on the 31st. Sprosen and his adjutant, Captain Beresford,4 both left on the 28th to take over as commanding officer and adjutant respectively of the 7th Anti-Tank.5 For a day or two Sprosen was in the novel position of commanding two regiments at once—his final routine orders to the 14th Light Ack-Ack were dated 1 November.6 The regimental orchestra under the baton of Gunner Brown7 was much in demand for the parties and dances that followed. When officers page 666 of the regiment were entertained to a buffet dinner at RHQ on the 30th the Marsala flowed freely and, in the words of the sober war diary, ‘joy was unconfined’. Brigadier Queree spoke briefly and appropriately.
For ack-ack gunners and those of 34 Anti-Tank and 36 Survey Batteries, also due to be disbanded, the first question was what was to happen to them. The few who had returned from furlough and those of the 5th Reinforcements, due to leave in the replacement scheme, were to go to Advanced Base. Of the remaining ack-ack men, 157 bombardiers and gunners picked by ballot went to serve as infantry in the newly formed Divisional Cavalry Battalion—and the gunners liked this no more than the troopers did.8 It was in fact an even harder wrench for the ack-ack men; for they not only had to lose their identity as gunners and members of a regiment in which they felt at home: they had to take over the black berets and nomenclature of the cavalry— squadrons, troops and so on. The troopers retained at least these morsels of their individuality and corporate existence. The same also applied to men of N Troop and a few of O Troop of 34 Anti-Tank Battery, who joined the cavalry battalion when their battery disbanded. It made them sick at heart.
The rest of O Troop reinforced Q Troop of 34 Battery and this 17-pounder troop became B Troop of 31 Battery. The 7th Anti-Tank ended up with the following components:
|31 Battery||A Troop||M1os|
|32 Battery||C Troop||M1os|
|33 Battery||E Troop||M1os|
|39 Battery, redesignated 34 Battery||G, H, J and K Troops||4.2-inch mortars 5 Survey Troop|
The 6-pounder troops were dropped from the establishment and each battery had one M10 troop and one 17-pounder troop.9 The survey troop—two officers10 and 23 others—was all that survived of 36 Survey Battery, 115 members of which went to page 667 Advanced Base and the other 67 to artillery units as reinforcements. The inspecting and transferring of vehicles and equipment, the drawing or handing in of other equipment, the re-locating and billeting of gunners affected by the various changes, and the start of extensive retraining programmes filled the last days of October and the early ones of November. On the 31st the ack-ack contingent for the Divisional Cavalry Battalion paraded in the piazza at Collamato and then was driven to the San Severino area to join the battalion. For most of the men it was a miserable journey.
However hard these changes were on gunners who had served well and deserved well of the Division, it had been plain for many months that the enemy in Italy had so few aircraft at his disposal that the ack-ack regiment had become an expensive luxury. Its record of at least 67 ½ aircraft shot down had not been added to since the Cassino days and its only notable subsequent success had been the K-Boot sunk off Rimini. Similarly, the anti-tank regiment had fired only twice at tanks throughout the Italian campaign and the only tanks it was now likely to meet were too heavily armoured for 6-pounders even with sabot ammunition. The 17-pounders (which were now also going to get sabot ammunition) could be used for many other tasks on the battlefield and the M10 crews, by developing their ability to bring down indirect fire, were making themselves more and more useful. The heavy mortars were invaluable. More could be said for retaining the flash-spotting and sound-ranging troops of the Survey Battery, which had done valuable work in Italy and could continue to do so. But there were several survey regiments on the Adriatic front and many other means, also, of locating hostile batteries. The New Zealand gunners much preferred to work with their own surveyors and would continue to do so for ordinary surveying—fixing bearing pickets and suchlike. But they would have to do without their own flash-spotters and sound-rangers. Besides these changes, the remaining regiments replaced all their 8-cwt pick-ups with 15-cwt trucks and made many other changes in their establishment of vehicles.
The 7th Anti-Tank were also sorry to lose Jack Mitchell, who was going to become the second-in-command at Maadi Base Camp with the rank of colonel. He had commanded the regiment, except when on furlough, since December 1941 and had endeared himself to everyone by his bravery, selflessness and fairmindedness. Nothing that was likely to help his men was ever too much trouble for him to undertake and the general page 668 page 669 opinion among the gunners was that he was ‘one of Nature's gentlemen’.
Mitchell turned up at the break-up party of 34 Battery in the municipal theatre at Esanatoglia on the 31st, to which all former members of the battery were also invited. It was wellorganised, with great piles of sandwiches, scones and sausage rolls, free wine and cigarettes, and an Italian orchestra. A handful of ‘old originals’ who had joined up in England in 1939 were present, including at least one who was in the battery to the end.11 Jack Mitchell addressed them warmly and modestly, saying that all he knew about anti-tank gunnery was what Jimmy Hall-Kenney of the 34th had taught him. Like the farewell parties of the ack-ack regiment, it was a bitter-sweet occasion. The old hands let their memories run riot and some of the new ones cast their thoughts forward unhappily to their forthcoming conversion to infantry.
Leave from the rest area to Rome, Florence and other places was generous and for those who stayed behind there were many organised entertainments—the Kiwi Concert Party (still with three 34 Battery ‘originals’), a Canadian concert party, an ENSA show, mobile cinemas, and even orchestral concerts. In a series of rugby matches to decide which artillery team should contest the Freyberg Cup, the 5th Field won. Training for most troops took place in the morning only; but for those who had to learn new roles and become used to new weapons—the new M10 crews in particular—a solid programme of training was essential. The weather remained unsettled and on 10 November the countryside was white with snow. When the time came to leave, towards the end of November, there were many tearful farewells.
Return to the Front
The CRA and a small party moved on the 16th, to take over from the artillery of 56 Infantry Division of 5 Corps in the Forli area. Another major river line had been crossed while the Division was resting; but there were many more to come. The next were the Montone and then the Lamone River with terraced stopbanks of soft earth. Beyond them was Faenza, and beyond that the Senio River. And winter was fast approaching. As a 4th Field man noted, ‘conversation was not exactly sparkling’ as the field regiments drove forward on the 17th.
Artillery Headquarters opened in Forli itself and the 5th, 6th and 4th Field were respectively north, north-west and west page 670 of the city, the 4th practically in the suburbs. Good casas were plentiful, no OPs were called for at first, and for three days there was little to do. Early on 21 November the 4th and 6th Field and the 77th Field fired a 200 r.p.g. barrage, and the 5th Field fired concentrations to help 4 Division across the River Cosina and the 5th Field followed up with HF tasks. The attack failed and was repeated with variations the next night. This time the 4th Field followed with counter-mortar tasks and the 6th Field with HF, and in the morning they fired smoke briefly to screen the crossing of the river by tanks. This crossing succeeded and the enemy began to fall back to the line of the Lamone.
The New Zealand Division was needed for the next stage and came forward from the rest area. The field guns crossed the Cosina–Montone canal and got into cramped positions mainly north of the straight Route 9, entering into strong competition with other units for the few suitable casas in the area. Heavy rain in the afternoon emphasised the importance of shelter. The approach roads to the gun areas were narrow and had deep ditches on both sides and the fields were seas of mud. When lorries broke up the roads and in places filled the ditches, the water banked up and made the gun areas so soft that even hens bogged down in the ooze.
Here the guns remained for three wet weeks, with the gunners constantly battling against mud and the signallers having endless trouble keeping communications open. There was, however, one consolation: across Route 9, no more than a mile from the 4th Field, there was what soon became widely known as the vermouth factory. The quality of the vermouth was very good and the quantity, until the MPs mounted a guard over it, was virtually unlimited. It had to be rationed at the gun positions; but large stocks accumulated in the B Echelons. Members of gun crews were frequently sent back for spells and they found the B Echelons highly convivial.
The proximity of the gun areas to Route 9 occasioned many misgivings on the part of those who could foresee trouble from enemy artillery harassing the road. The 5th Field suffered late on the 27th and WO II Hobbs12 and a gunner were seriously wounded. On the 29th the 6th Field RHQ and battery areas received some 170-millimetre shells, more 150s, and many 88s; but they did little more than splash the mud around. There page 671 was considerable fire in support of 10 Indian Division at the end of the month and some very effective observed shooting by the 5th Field, as well as DFs by the 4th Field, in support of 5 Brigade thrusts. Meanwhile several B Echelons had to be moved because they were outside the divisional zone and it was far from easy at that late stage to find casas or, in fact, any shelter at all.
Discrepancies had been discovered between map references of targets and their corrected co-ordinates deduced from observed shooting. On 2 December, therefore, Air OPs shot all the NZA regiments on certain targets to try to overcome this problem. The 4th and 6th Field fired a ‘Chinese barrage’ in the evening of the 3rd to distract attention from an attack by 46 Division, and next morning continued the deception with smoke screens at the approaches to Faenza. The enemy was taken in and reacted violently. Meanwhile the 5th Field directly supported the attack to the extent of 2800 rounds. A further smoke screen in the late afternoon drew further heavy DF from the enemy which fell mainly on empty ground. The M10s of C Troop, 32 Battery, also fired in this deception plan. At the end of it all 46 Division had its bridgehead south-west of Faenza. When the enemy counter-attacked it on the 8th and 9th the NZA regiments fired DF tasks.
One 6th Field OP was a mile and a half east of Faenza and 200 yards from the southern bank of a loop in the Lamone River. Lance-Sergeant Ralston13 reached there with a signals maintenance party in the afternoon of the 7th to relieve the existing party. A heavy mortar bombardment coincided with his arrival and the driver of his jeep was wounded. He left the safety of the OP building and helped the man to cover. Then he saw that urgent medical attention was needed and at once drove the man back along the road to an RAP, regardless of the heavy fire that was still falling. Then he returned and repaired a damaged line under fire and quickly re-established communications to the guns. For this he earned an immediate MM. Back at the guns Sergeant Melville14 of B Troop set a good example of steadfastness under fire when the gun position was shelled heavily on the 9th and again on the 11th, in the neighbourhood of the hamlet of Corleto, and his inspiring influence spread far beyond the members of his own gun team.page 672 page 673
The next step was to relieve 46 Division in its cramped bridgehead. Accordingly 5 Brigade, by means of tracks as muddy as any of those in use on the Cassino front the previous winter, moved into the bridgehead on 10 December with A Sub-battery of heavy mortars and aided by four half-tracked M14s from the 7th Anti-Tank which towed the infantry 6-pounders into position. The 6th Field next day occupied gun positions perilously close to Faenza—so close that night firing was forbidden until the big attack to capture the city. The M10s of C Troop, 32 Battery, came forward with the supporting armour; but the 17-pounder troop, which was extremely hard to move even with M14 half-tracks, was held in reserve.
Surprise Attack West of Faenza
For the attack on the night 14–15 December, which was directed on the key village of Celle west of Faenza, 5 Brigade and associated armour had the support of 256 guns, including a heavy battery, a heavy ack-ack battery and three medium regiments. In addition four medium regiments and three 155-millimetre batteries fired CB tasks on the New Zealand and 10 Indian Division fronts.
The essence of the plan was to give the enemy no reason to suppose that anything special was afoot until the guns crashed into action at 11 p.m. on the 14th and the tanks and infantry surged forward. The three NZA field regiments and a field regiment of 46 Division fired a 400 r.p.g. barrage lasting three and a half hours and RA Bofors marked the boundaries. All other field guns and the mediums and heavies fired concentrations, and many DF tasks were prepared in the certain knowledge that the enemy would fight back vigorously. Both heavy mortar sub-batteries fired concentrations and, in so doing, B Sub-battery, which was in 6 Brigade area, attracted return fire which killed three men and wounded a fourth.15
The surprise that was sought was fully achieved and, under the hammer blows of the artillery, the enemy soon yielded ground to the infantry, advancing under artificial moonlight M10s of C Troop harassed the bridge on Route 9 over the Senio across which the enemy would have to pass any reinforcements he cared to commit. By the evening of the 16th, however, page 674 the M10s had reached Casale and were close enough to the bridge to deny the enemy the use of it. By that time there was serious talk of effecting an immediate crossing of the Senio as well.
After firing in support of the initial attack, A Sub-battery of heavy mortars pushed forward behind the infantry and responded quickly and effectively to every call for fire. Lieutenant McCliskie,16 the GPO, reconnoitred difficult terrain twice under enemy observation and selected gun positions well forward. To occupy them without suffering heavy casualties seemed impossible. He nevertheless managed to deploy the two troops and they fired heavily from both positions without suffering casualties or damage to their equipment. McCliskie thereby demonstrated that he had a good eye for ground—an invaluable attribute in such circumstances. But he also demonstrated, in this action and later, driving energy and powers of leadership and in due course he was awarded an MC.
Laying lines from OPs to gun positions under such circumstances is one of the most demanding tasks of all. Lance-Sergeant Pulford17 of B Troop of the 6th Field and his men laid a line in the wake of this attack through an area not fully cleared of enemy. It passed over the only bridge completed, which was under severe shell and mortar fire. For their own safety he ordered his men back to the battery and for several hours stayed forward to maintain the line himself regardless of the heavy fire. Another B Troop man who showed unusual courage in this attack was Gunner McCardle,18 a jeep driver of the OP party. He delivered equipment to the OP under heavy shell and small-arms fire and seemed heedless of his own safety.
In the 5th Field Captain Horrocks,19 of A Troop, appointed as representative at the headquarters of 22 Battalion, volunteered instead for the more hazardous task of FOO. The advance was over two miles of open country on foot, carrying a heavy No. 22 wireless set. The battalion met strong resistance and took seven hours to capture its objective. Just past the start line Horrocks saw some wounded infantry on a minefield and, regardless of the danger, rendered assistance to them, saving the life of at least one of them. With Horrocks were Bombardier page 675 Liggins20 and Gunner Nicol,21 and between them they carried heavy batteries and sections of the wireless set over muddy hill-country in the dark in very bad weather. They came under fire; but pushed on regardless of it and had the OP working and communications established within a quarter of an hour of the capture of the objective. The infantry advanced again, towards the Senio, on the 16th, and this OP party kept up with them. Horrocks set up his OP in a church tower among the foremost infantry in the Casale area. The tower was heavily shelled, but the OP remained there until the church was almost completely destroyed. Then Horrocks carried on from a nearby house until relieved on 18 December. In a letter of 4 January 1945 to Huck Sawyers, the battalion commander ended up thus:
‘At all times, Capt Horrocks was cheerful and unflurried. He made a very great impression on my men and under conditions which were often most difficult, he proved to be reliable, conscientious and co-operative. I am grateful to you for the services of so excellent an officer.’
Horrocks won an immediate MC.
The 4th Field had reconnoitred positions south-west of Faenza before the attack and occupied them on the 16th, with RHQ to the west in what appeared to be the house of the Count of Faenza. It was a good area, with sandy ground for the gun pits and plenty of good casas at hand.
The M10s of E Troop were called forward on the 17th to support a thrust across the river by Route 9 and they destroyed a sandbagged house which an enemy rearguard was holding. Before noon the Lamone was bridged. Artillery Headquarters had meanwhile sent a reconnaissance party into Faenza as early as the 16th; but the town was not cleared. Early on the 17th the reconnaissance continued and a location near the railway station was chosen for Artillery Headquarters, which drove into the town in the afternoon. It proved a more exciting move than expected. Snipers were still abroad, especially after dark, the new area was mortared at intervals throughout the night, and a machine gun firing along the street past the entrance to Headquarters caused visitors to step very lively indeed on occasions. Headquarters staff were astonished when Gurkhas, on a house-to-house search of the neighbourhood, routed out a number of page 676 page 677 Germans from buildings close at hand. In the afternoon of the 18th a heavy concentration of 105-millimetre fire scored a direct hit on the clerks' truck, set a scout car of the Indian division on fire, wounded Gunner Peddie22 and killed Signalman Scott23 of the attached Signals section.
The 5th Field had meanwhile moved to positions in the western outskirts of Faenza on the 17th. A heavy mist hampered the survey, however. The enemy was some distance away to the west; but to the north he was close at hand—900 yards from 27 Battery—and the nearest DFs were at a range of 1200 yards. The CRA therefore laid it down that the regiment would not answer calls except in an emergency. A Gurkha-manned Vickers gun was no more than 10 yards from D Troop.
The policy of silence, however, did not last long. Another impressive fire plan was drawn up to support a 6 Brigade and Gurkha attack northwards in the night 19-20 December. It included a huge creeping barrage on a very wide front fired by the 4th and 6th Field, the 1st RHA, the 23rd Army Field, and two regiments each from the 10 Indian Division and the 56 London Division. In addition the 5th Field and four medium regiments and a battery fired concentrations and the third field regiment of 56 Division fired a counter-mortar programme. The heavy-mortar battery also had a role and the C Troop M10s carried out HF tasks. Again RA Bofors marked the boundaries, as well as indicating the times the barrage lifted or paused. To cover the final objective 21 stonks were drawn up.
The opening of this huge fire plan, with well over 300 field and medium guns firing, was impressive indeed and the infantry followed close behind the barrage. The enemy reacted quickly and strongly with shell and mortar fire and nebelwerfers were active. The Gurkhas on the right were ahead of 6 Brigade and the barrage on their part of the front started on the pause line. They therefore had to be silent spectators for the first 16 lifts until it came time for them to join in the advance and the barrage extended to cover their front.
The main objectives were taken; but there was no sign of an enemy collapse and no possibility of forcing the Senio line. The strength of this line became plain when 26 Battalion put in a small thrust at 6.45 a.m. on Christmas Eve with the 4th page 678 and 6th Field and the heavy mortars in support. The infantry gained the stopbank but soon found their situation hazardous and were recalled.
A White Christmas on the Senio
The weather was now bitterly cold, snow was lying thinly on the ground, and an attack by flanking formations on the left had to be postponed. There was little likelihood of a major move until early January and the gunners settled down as well as they could to enjoy the festive season.
The 5th Field had already arranged to have batteries successively ‘off duty’ for 24 hours, and 27 Battery therefore had a Christmas celebration on Christmas Eve, 28 Battery had one on Christmas Day, and 47 Battery on Boxing Day. Christmas dinner, however, was served on the proper day. The 27th Battery, for example, was allowed from 1 p.m. to 2.30 p.m. for what the diary describes as ‘a first-class Xmas dinner of chicken, potatoes, peas, cabbage and carrots followed by plum pudding, oranges and nuts’. The 4th Field also spread the hours for dinner so that two batteries were always on call for emergencies. In the afternoon they fired two regimental tasks. The 6th Field expected to move forward on Christmas Day and therefore had Christmas dinner the day before. It was a wasted precaution: the move kept getting postponed and a month later the guns were still in the same position.
The 7th Anti-Tank gathered as many of its members as it could into the various B Echelons in Faenza or Forli for Christmas Day and they celebrated royally. The M10 crews of A Troop were with the 5th Field just west of the town and they, too, dined and wined appropriately, though with rather more reserve. The 17-pounder crews of F Troop (which missed its Christmas dinner) and the four 4.2 mortar troops of 34 Battery were deployed well forward north-west of the town. They sent all who could be spared, particularly those most in need of a rest, to Faenza. Those who had to stay on duty also celebrated, but much less noisily, though the G Troop casa attracted enemy attention somehow or other, for it sustained a direct hit and several near misses during dinner, much to the disgust of the mortar crews.24 None of them, however, was hurt.page 679
Artillery Headquarters, after the early upsets, was most comfortably ensconced in Faenza and the officers' mess was luxurious. The CRA held a small reception on Christmas Eve attended by General Freyberg and representatives of the various regiments in the area. In the morning of Christmas Day he visited the 4th Field, the 1st RHA and the 4th Medium. Except for the shelling of G Troop of the mortar battery and a few bombs dropped in the night on Faenza, the enemy did not interfere with the festivities and the gunners enjoyed what was for many of them their first white Christmas.
The policy was still to force the Senio line; but it was unsound and unrealistic. Artillery ammunition was in almost desperately short supply all along the front. This was reason enough for a change of policy. The infantry were too few and too tired. The weather was already severe in the mountain sectors. For one reason or another more and more thought was given to the establishment of a winter line. Brigadier Queree engaged in earnest debate on this subject between Christmas and the New Year, emphasising the ammunition requirements for any major move and the restrictions imposed by the mud on the handling of guns. General Freyberg thought the enemy would shell Faenza with heavy guns and withdrew his headquarters some miles back towards Forli. Artillery Headquarters conformed, to the disgust of the B Echelon of 46 Battery, which had to move out of its spacious quarters in the Villa Archi, three miles back along Route 9, when the CRA's staff returned there on the 29th.
The past fortnight had brought its expected crop of complaints about guns firing short. One way of checking this, when the weather permitted, was by means of shoots conducted by Air OPs. One such shoot on the 27th by all the 4th Field batteries ‘to see how the guns were shooting’ (as the regimental diary puts it) gave ‘very satisfactory’ results. The 5th and 6th Field guns were checked in the same way. ‘AOP co-operation watching the fall of shot has not found any gun guilty’, the 6th Field diary states, ‘and as yet no offender has been tracked down in this area. The continual checking of work between Bty and Tp CPs obviated any error in mathematical gunnery and the daily checking of sights and the frequent measuring of bores have kept the guns as accurate as is humanly possible’.
The enemy still held the high stopbanks of the Senio and had not yet been pushed back to the near bank in the north and north-west of Faenza. He therefore held ground on which he could easily assemble for a counter-attack on the bridgehead page 680 over the Lamone. To guard against this the Division prepared to retreat behind the Lamone if this became necessary and also, on the other hand, staged a thrust to reach the stopbank on the 6 Brigade front and thereby minimise the danger of a surprise attack. Both caused the gunners work—the first in returning ammunition from gun positions to B Echelons, preparing alternative positions, and reconnoitring withdrawal routes; the second in firing a supporting programme with guns and heavy mortars. The thrust to the stopbank failed; but by degrees Canadians and 56 Division edged forward to a more secure line.
The New Year came in quietly on the Faenza side of the river; but on the other side there was much evidence of high spirits and gaiety. This time the New Zealand gunners were the spoilsports, checking the noise of celebration with a few well-directed rounds. On 1 January 1945 a sniping 17-pounder of D Troop, carefully emplaced well forward by the little village of Casale, fired seven APC25 rounds into a culvert 1800 yards to the north-east, just across the river. Infantry had reported two tanks sheltering there and an early-morning reconnaissance confirmed that they had not moved. Five rounds were seen to go under the culvert.
C Troop of 214 Battery of the 57th Heavy Ack-Ack came under the command of the 5th Field and went into position in front of the 25-pounders for ‘ground shooting’. The 3.75, properly handled, could engage mortars, nebelwerfers and the new German rocket guns rapidly and effectively with airbursts and there were more than enough guns in an ack-ack role to deal with the very few hit-and-run raiders which the Luftwaffe sent over.
The counter-mortar organisation was by this time highly efficient and worked closely with the infantry to locate targets and with the 3.7s to destroy them. Captain Vivian had an assistant CMO with him at Artillery Headquarters and an ACMO with each of the three New Zealand brigades. The infantry were delighted with the prompt and effective fire Vivian's organisation and the heavy ack-ack gunners produced against mortar and nebelwerfer locations and they co-operated eagerly.
Manning a Winter Line
For all but the OP parties, the heavy mortar crews, and a few of the 17-pounder and 25-pounder crews—those who were page 681 page 682 well forward on the Senio front, within reach of hostile machine guns and mortars—the days passed quietly and the men did all they could to make themselves comfortable on what had evidently become the winter line of Eighth Army. Ammunition restrictions were severe and gunners were allowed frequent spells, battery by battery or troop by troop. Several cinemas were running in Forli, many other organised entertainments were provided there, and even in Faenza (which did not get heavily shelled as Freyberg expected) a good deal of amusement could be had. Leave for Florence, Rome and other centres had been available by roster throughout the fighting and it still continued. The Divisional Artillery had acquired a pipe band, first seen in the forward area when members of it piped in the New Year at various points. What attracted most attention, however, was the recurrent problem of keeping out the winter cold and many ingenious solutions of this were worked out. The drip-feed oil heater was perhaps the most efficient; but it was too noisy for casas close to the enemy. Coal, coke and charcoal could be found in Faenza, but there was keen competition for them.
The 4th Field moved to positions 1000-2000 yards south of Faenza and on 28 January the 6th Field made their long-delayed move—to positions north-east of the town vacated by the 113th Field. The 5th Field remained well forward west of the town. All regiments, however, maintained a ‘duty battery’ which occupied an alternative position for a week at a time, and as a rule only this battery fired. There was therefore little or no firing from the main battle positions and no encouragement, accordingly, for the enemy to trouble them. The 6th Field positions seemed good, but a gradual thaw towards the end of the month (after several fairly heavy falls of snow) made them very muddy and access routes to some troops became quite impassable. The 7th Anti-Tank deployed an M10 troop in an indirect-fire role with the 5th Field, another in anti-tank reserve with 5 Brigade and the third in a similar role with 6 Brigade. One 17-pounder troop deployed with each of the two infantry brigades and the third troop was part of the local anti-tank defence of Faenza. The mortar battery remained as an entity under the CRA's control, its tasks tied in with those of the field artillery.
These bald details explain in general terms what the gunners were doing in the winter line. A change of focus is needed to view the strange, intense little world of those who were at the page 683 tip of the ‘sharp end’, observing the enemy on the Senio and directing the fire of the guns and mortars. Casas there were in short supply, most of them were in poor shape, and they kept getting hit by shells or mortar bombs'. ‘Spandau Pete’ delighted in machine-gunning their windows and environs at odd hours. The unnerving shriek of rocket missiles was liable at any moment to destroy the peace of mind of their occupants—and all these casas were overcrowded. By night white-coated patrols might raid them, squirting them with tommy-gun fire and tossing in grenades. By day the frozen landscape with its farmyard foreground, the dim outlines of the stopbank, the black trees and scattered casas, and in the background the buildings of Castel Bolognese, Felisio or some other village across the river, could claim a quiet beauty—though observers seldom had an eye for this. But no night was truly peaceful. Voices carried clearly in the still, cold air and the sounds of working parties commanded attention. Even by day the calm might be broken by the sudden emergence of an SP gun from some hiding place to make a quick bombardment and then disappear. When the days were clear and sunny the shimmering snow played tricks on the eyes. When mist or fog came down as they often did, all kinds of sounds could be heard and observers would strive to attain an acute state of sensitivity trying to resolve their nature and to peer through the gloom.
The OP party of G Troop, 34 Battery, had typical experiences. In the night of 28 December it was sharing a casa with a 5th Field party in support of the Maoris when a 105-millimetre shell came through the roof and finished up on the floor between Lieutenant McSkimming and a 5th Field officer. It failed to explode. When the other officer carried it into the next room, where some gunners were talking to two Maoris, and began scraping it to ascertain the data, the Maoris made off rapidly. Then, on 9 January, another shell blew in more of the roof, bringing beams and rubble down on the occupants—they were then supporting the newly-arrived 21 Battalion. A 5th Field signaller, Gunner Miles,26 of C Troop, was smothered and page 684 suffocated by the powdery debris. A mortar gunner sustained a glancing blow from a falling beam and two other men escaped with scratches.
The previous night Lance-Bombardier McGowan27 of 34 Battery was out repairing a telephone line broken by an enemy concentration. He was not one of the lucky ones who had been issued with white duffel coats and his battledress showed dark against the snow. While searching for the break he was suddenly fired on by an enemy patrol and dived for cover in a ditch full of water topped with ice. He was pinned there for a short time and then he continued to trace the line through the snow and ice until he found a break and repaired it. He then went back and reported to his officer, who told him to wait until the patrol was driven off. But McGowan knew the mortars could not fire until the line was mended and so he crawled back along it, still under fire from the enemy, until he repaired two more breaks and re-established communications. For this he earned an MM.
Lieutenant-Colonel Nicholson had taken over command of the 7th Anti-Tank on 13 December28 (when Sprosen went on leave) and, having served as a battery commander under Jack Mitchell, he was imbued like his former CO with a burning desire to visit all his gun crews as often as he could—daily if possible. But the mortar troops were sited well forward northwest of Faenza, near the 31 Battery 17-pounders, and the route—a jeep track through Celle—was absolutely restricted by day and by night was limited to vehicles carrying essential supplies. So his visits to these guns and mortars were far less frequent than he would have liked.
In mid-January an M10c arrived in 32 Battery—an M10 with a 17-pounder gun, far more powerful than the 3-inch of the normal M10. It was taken out on the 18th for a practice shoot with HE ammunition. The gun behaved very well, but the bursts were hard to observe in the snow. The same trouble occurred at the end of the month when an Air OP tried to direct the fire of a 4.2 mortar. Early in February the 17-pounders page 685 of B, D and F Troops began to take over a new range of duties. A purely anti-tank role in the Senio line was almost no role at all. But HE ammunition with reduced charges and the addition to the gun carriages of graduating arcs and vernier scales allowed the 17-pounders to undertake indirect fire tasks, which added greatly to the usefulness of the guns and the morale of their crews. At Esanatoglia defects in the 4.2 mortar baseplates had been remedied by strengthening them at the LAD. New skirtings arrived from the United Kingdom in February; but even these did not work well until modified according to suggestions made by the EME, Lieutenant Pounsett.29 The higher echelons of the RA and REME evinced enormous interest in these simple but effective New Zealand adaptations.
January ended in a flurry of activity when a platoon of 25 Battalion, as part of a series of small actions to test the enemy's Senio defences, gained a stretch of the stopbank only to be heavily counter-attacked and cut off. The guns fired about 1000 rounds in the night, which, as the diary of Artillery Headquarters remarked, ‘is exceptional under present conditions’; but to no avail. The platoon was lost. A platoon from 26 Battalion also reached the stopbank but withdrew safely.
Departures and Replacements
February 1945 was the quietest month the artillery spent in action throughout the war, and for some of the gunners it scarcely seemed like war at all. The chief event was the departure for home of the ‘Tongariro’ men in the replacement scheme—all drafts up to the 5th Reinforcements, plus the ‘Coconut Bombers’. A camera calibration of one field gun per troop (in conjunction with No. 2 Calibration Troop, RA) was followed by a calibration of all 25-pounders at Bellaria—absolute for one gun per troop and comparative for the rest. For the three men per gun who were allowed to go this was an agreeable change for about a week and for those who stayed behind it was at least a rest. Several ‘Chinese attacks’ were mounted, the main one in support of 23 Battalion, to simulate serious attacks and provoke the enemy into wasteful response. The law of diminishing returns decreed that the enemy would tend to take them less seriously as time went by and he might in the end fail to respond when it was the ‘real thing’. Towards the end of the month artillery officers who had served with 3 New Zealand Division in the Pacific arrived as reinforcements— page 686 including the first senior officers to do so for a long time. They included Major McKinnon,30 who went to the 4th Field, and the Rev. W. Harford,31 who replaced the Rev. W. J. Thompson,32 padre of the 7th Anti-Tank since January 1943.
Many other replacements had meanwhile arrived for the Tongariro men and there were new faces everywhere. For the newcomers there was much to learn. Men who had served under very different circumstances in the Solomon Islands had to change many of their ideas and get used to new ways. The regiments conducted various informal courses of instruction. Huck Sawyers, for example, and his staff devised an exercise which a 27 Battery diary describes as follows:
‘Our spell as duty Bty ended and as things were pretty quiet the powers that be concocted a full-scale exercise, mainly to give as realistic training as possible to recently acquired sigs and to generally check up on Regimental, Battery and Troop routine. Nearly all R/T sets were on the air on Regt or Bty frequency. O.P.s passed down fire-orders and sitreps and Acks and G.P.O.s plotted and relayed the tasks to the guns—the gunners doing everything but send the rounds away. Exercise “BALONEY” was quite successful and many useful lessons were learned. Baloney messages, Baloney leave, Baloney fire-orders and Baloney advances on a lavish scale were reported. It is intended to repeat the experiment in the near future—a gunner's suggestion is to start the day off with a Baloney reveille. One Tommy officer at least is firmly convinced of the incurable insanity of all Kiwis. He happened to be passing when the Tannoys33 blared the orders for “Five rounds gun fire. Stand by. Fire.” He took up a crouching attitude, hands over ears, prepared for the worst, only to be greeted by a profound silence. Last seen he was hurrying away, muttering to himself, making for the nearest bottle of whisky.’
In the first week of March the artillery of 5 Kresowa Division took over the positions in front of Faenza and the New Zealand regiments came out of the line. The 6th Field did not get away unscathed. The enemy on the front became very lively after dark on 5 March and nebelwerfers harassed the area on an unusual scale. One rocket hit a casa occupied by a 6th Field OP and wounded two gunners; one of them, Gunner Masters,34 died soon afterwards.
The route was the familiar one through Forli and Cesena to Rimini and then along the coast and inland to the same region of hills in which the Division rested after the Gothic Line battle in October. The 5th Field went to the same place as before, Cerreto d'Esi. The 6th Field went to where the 4th Field had been before—Piane, Colferraio and Rastia. The 4th Field went to Castel Raimondo. The 7th Anti-Tank, like the 4th Field, was billeted in a village, Pioraco, which had been favourably impressed by other New Zealanders before and welcomed the gunners with open arms. There one of the first tasks was to see that F Troop received its long-delayed Christmas dinner. To the 5th Field it was a kind of homecoming. Artillery Headquarters, however, was in unfamiliar ground at Gagliole. It was rather small and the villagers needed some persuasion to find enough room; but they soon mellowed.
This time no artillery units or sub-units were to have the heartbreak of disbanding while the war continued; but there was to be less rest and more training. The object was to absorb the reinforcements fully and to polish up or recover the old skills in mobile warfare in the hope that the next offensive would lead to a breakthrough and a war of movement. This time, at long last and after much more hard fighting, the hope was to be fulfilled.
1 Freyberg had returned to the Division on 14 October and officially resumed command on the 17th. Steve Weir did not return to the Artillery, however; on 4 November he was appointed to command the British 46th Infantry Division, which wondered for a while what had struck it. Once it became known that, like Carlisle's heroes, Weir was in deadly earnest, however, and that his orders were not to be argued about but to be obeyed, the dust settled and all was well.
5 Jack Mitchell of the 7th Anti-Tank was leaving on promotion and the adjutant, Captain R. M. Smith, had gone to hospital.
6 ‘As C.O. I wish to express my appreciation of the loyal co-operation of all ranks at all times’, Roy Sprosen wrote in his last routine order. ‘Wherever you go I wish you God speed.’
9 The strength of the reorganised 7th Anti-Tank was 589 men and the total number of vehicles 255.
10 Lieutenants B. L. Officer and N. S. Sutherland. The officer commanding 36 Survey Battery when it was disbanded was Captain B. H. Brown.
11 Gunner W. B. Thompson, regimental number 617.
15 Lance-Bombardier A. E. Fitzgerald and Gunner J. A. Christison were killed, Bombardier B. Dean died of wounds, and Gunner A. G. Doughty was wounded.
24 Turkey could be bought in limited quantities through the NAAFI; but G Troop had no knowledge of this and took steps to ensure that there would be no shortage of poultry for Christmas dinner. A raid on trees and bushes in the grounds of a farmhouse near the Senio, interrupted for some time by machine-gun fire, yielded in the end 17 fowls. Pork also appeared on several battery menus, some of it paid for.
25 APC = armour piercing, cap—the cap being of specially hardened steel.
The name Miles cropped up a good deal at the 5th Field RHQ for a day or two. A South African general hospital reported on the 7th that Bombardier F. Miles of 28 Battery had died of injuries received in a motor accident. Then, on the 10th, Captain C. M. Ward of 27 Battery cited Gunner S. E. Miles, a driver of a B Troop maintenance jeep, for a mention in despatches because of devotion to duty over a long period of difficult and dangerous work.
28 Nicholson had commanded the 5th Field from 11 October, when Sawyers went to hospital, until 1 December, when he returned. On 6 February the 6th Field held a farewell dinner for Bill Philp, who was returning to New Zealand. Lieutenant-Colonel Cade, who had served under Philp at Maleme in Crete, took over from him. Several times in this period Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart took over as acting CRA in the absence of Brigadier Queree and Major Harding temporarily commanded the 4th Field.
30 Maj-Gen W. S. McKinnon, CB, CBE, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Invercargill, 8 Jul 1910; Regular soldier; CO 29 Lt AA Regt, 3 NZ Div; 2 i/c 6 and 4 Fd Regts, Italy, 1945; CAO J Force, 1945-46; Chief of the General Staff, 1 Apr 1965–
The other majors from 3 Division were R. K. G. Macindoe and G. W. Waddell (4th Field), D. O. Watson and R. G. Bannister (5th Field), W. A. Bryden and E. H. Carew (6th Field) and E. I. Henton (7th Anti-Tank).
33 The Tannoy loudspeaker system at gun positions.