FIRST impressions of Italy were disappointing, for the troops had hoped to leave behind the squalor and corruption of the Middle East, and they expected to find the normal comforts and orderliness of western civilisation when they stepped on to the continent of Europe. But the ancient cities of Bari, Taranto, and Naples were dirty, overcrowded, and war-weary, while the poverty and shortage of food led to much pilfering by civilians. The habits of many of the Italians drew caustic comment from the troops and unfavourable comparisons were made with the humble citizens of Cairo. ‘If this is a Christian country,’ said some, ‘then give me Egypt.’
However, the New Zealanders discovered in time that the south of Italy had seen many invasions and that the resulting polyglot population was not typical of the whole nation. In the country north of Rome there was a far higher standard of culture, and many acts of kindly hospitality softened these early and unfavourable impressions. Many escaped prisoners of war bore testimony to the warm courage of Italian women who risked their lives in feeding and hiding our men, and the troops often noted with pleasure the care with which the local people looked after the graves of Allied soldiers.
The presence of Italian civilians created special problems. Good wine was plentiful, but it proved too strong for those accustomed only to beer, and this led on occasions to acts of violence by soldiers, while the shortage of food and commodities tempted others to steal and sell Army property.
The chaplains sailed to Italy with their units and later ships brought their trucks, each one loaded with a generous issue from the YMCA of 100 pounds of sugar, 48 tins of milk, and 24 pounds of tea, for welfare purposes. The three weeks spent by the Division in a bivouac area near Taranto was a time of activity for the chaplains as they visited in their units, polished up their Italian, and tried to see something of the surrounding country. Much amusement was caused when the chaplains challenged the 5th page 101 Brigade to a football match, which they won after a hard game punctuated by hilarious barracking. Two chaplains were seconded to the YMCA to serve with the Prisoner of War Sub-Commission, an organisation set up to assist escaped Allied prisoners. Unfortunately, fewer prisoners escaped than was expected and after two months these chaplains returned to the Division.
A number of Roman Catholic chaplains had studied in Rome and they spoke Italian fluently. They shared their knowledge with great generosity, helping individuals in their shopping and in their contacts with civilians, while their familiarity with local conditions was invaluable in gaining many extra comforts and privileges for the men. Their help was specially appreciated in Rome, and it was largely through their influence that so many New Zealanders were able to make a thorough examination of the lovely and ancient buildings of that city. In addition, arrangements were made for a number of New Zealanders to have the privilege of an audience with His Holiness the Pope. Roman Catholic soldiers were made welcome in the civilian churches, which were often lent for special soldiers' masses.
There were many opportunities to meet other distinguished Church leaders besides the Church of England bishops mentioned previously. The Very Rev. J. Hutchinson Cockburn, former Moderator of the Church of Scotland, was present at a Church of Scotland chaplains' conference at Ancona, and Archbishop Griffin, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England, paid a visit to the troops and preached at a great service in the Cathedral at Siena. In January 1945 Bishop Gerard, while serving on the hospital ship Maunganui, spent a few days amongst the New Zealand troops stationed near the port of Bari.
As the Italian campaign developed, the 2nd NZEF became widely scattered. Church services were held out of doors when the weather permitted, but at other times they consisted of small groups congregated in houses or other buildings, often right in the front line. In the large towns the British usually commandeered a building to act as a garrison church, and at Senigallia the New Zealand chaplains played a big part in converting a cinema for this purpose.
Chaplains' conferences were held regularly in the Bari area and within the Division, and on several occasions the GOC was present. page 102 The great Christian festivals were observed as well as the conditions allowed. In addition to the normal Easter services in 1945, a Methodist rally was held on Good Friday, an inter-denominational rally on the next afternoon, and a Presbyterian conference on Easter Monday.
In fine weather, Italy with its green hills and valleys, its plenteous supply of vegetables and fresh fruit, its ancient cities and venerable buildings, provided a refreshing change from North Africa, but with all these advantages there were many problems and hardships to be faced. The presence of venereal disease was an ever-present danger to troops on leave, while the joint use by soldiers and civilians of houses in the battle area brought many temptations. The weather in the winter months was extremely bad and in the hilly country, which permitted close contact with the enemy, the Division experienced long days and nights under continuous shellfire and suffered many casualties.