CHAPTER 13 — ITALY
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.
Battles in Italy
At Cassino the Department suffered its first and only fatal casualty. Padre A. C. K. Harper,1 who had served continuously with the 4th Field Regiment since December 1941, was severely wounded by a shell-burst, dying shortly afterwards. His record was excellent and he was well known and respected, not only in his own unit but in all the Field Regiments. There were other casualties, too. Padre D. E. Duncan2 was badly wounded while serving with the 21st Battalion and was invalided back to New Zealand. Padre H. G. Norris3 was wounded while helping to put out a dangerous fire in a dump of mortar shells close to a Regimental Aid Post. Fortunately he recovered in hospital and saw further service. Padre H. S. Scott4 was also in hospital for some time after having been wounded while with the 26th Battalion.page 103
Five further awards for gallantry were won by infantry unit chaplains in Italy. The work of Padre Huata in the Maori Battalion— for which he was awarded the Military Cross—has already been mentioned. Padre Judson,5 24th Battalion, and the son of a winner of the Victoria Cross in the 1914–18 War, also won the Military Cross. An ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church, he had gone overseas as a private in a Field Ambulance and had risen to the rank of sergeant-major before being commissoned as a chaplain. During an attack on Orsogna early in December 1943, Padre Judson organised a forward Regimental Aid Post under heavy fire, he himself dressing wounds and on occasions acting as a stretcher-bearer. His citation for this award also mentions a similar exploit in Tunisia when he went forward behind the attacking troops to collect the wounded and evacuate them by jeep.
Padre A. K. Warren6 won the Military Cross for outstanding courage and leadership in organising the evacuation of wounded at the Gaiana River. It was not until 1944 that his Church authorities would release him from his position as Dean of Christchurch, and when he arrived in the Middle East he was above the normal age for service in the field. However, he was very fit and was given the difficult task of following that most popular chaplain, Padre Taylor, in the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, which had just become an infantry unit. At Padua he was extensively wounded by shrapnel, but as so often happens with tall men—he stood 6 feet 5 inches— his most serious wound was in a foot.
An outstanding example of courage while with the infantry was the work of Padre Harding in the 23rd Battalion. This unit had a succession of most daring commanders who inspired it with a devotion to duty and a disregard of danger that was seldom excelled. Amongst such warriors Padre Harding served with distinction. He page 104 was a man who put his religious duties first on all occasions and allowed nothing to interfere with them. In action he spent his whole time with the most advanced sections and was constant in his visiting. He was the third New Zealand chaplain to receive the DSO, which is significant when it is realised that in the whole Royal Army Chaplains' Department, which at its peak numbered over three thousand chaplains, only four such awards were gained. As a comparison it is interesting to note that in the Canadian Chaplains' Service there was one VC and one DSO, while no DSOs were awarded in the Australian Chaplains' Department. Padre Harding's citation makes particular reference to an occasion when a number of men were wounded and buried by a direct hit on a house in the front line. As the rescuers advanced they came under heavy shellfire, and the successful completion of this task was largely due to his help and influence.
But it was not only the infantry chaplains who earned distinction in Italy. Here two other units, the Armoured Brigade and the Engineers, had chaplains with them for the first time as they went into action.
The Armoured Brigade
There were five excellent chaplains with the 4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade; its first commander, Brigadier L. M. Inglis, once said in private conversation that he always made the Senior Chaplain give him his best men. Certainly they were fine chaplains, but perhaps the Senior Chaplain may have had his own story to tell. He might have suggested that such a wicked brigade needed good chaplains!
The three chaplains with the armoured regiments had to work out a special technique for action and they had little precedent to guide them. An armoured regiment has many specialists who in action are scattered in great depth. Up forward were the advanced troops, each consisting of three tanks, with squadron headquarters a little in rear. Regimental headquarters was still farther back, and in close proximity came the Regimental Aid Post and A Echelon, consisting of fitters' trucks and signals personnel. More rearward still would come B 1 Echelon, with the light aid detachment close by, and there was also a B 2 Echelon yet farther in the rear. The page 105 chaplain visited all these sections but spent most of his time near the forward tanks.
A tank in action filled many rôles. Sometimes it was an armoured machine-gun post supporting the infantry, sometimes it had a mobile artillery rôle, but probably its most important function was to deal with enemy tanks. This meant that the tanks had to lie right up in the front line, protecting the infantry from tank attacks or edging forward in search of a target. The armour-piercing shells from enemy tanks and anti-tank guns were deadly. When a shell penetrated a tank turret it often continued its flight inside, ricochetting round and round, wounding the occupants and exploding the racks of shells. Few civilians would expect a tank to catch fire, but with its cargo of petrol and shells, a direct hit would cause a raging inferno which, with periodic explosions, would burn for hours in a pall of black smoke.
As the chaplain worked his way forward he would talk to each tank crew. Sometimes they would be seated at the back of the tank making a brew of tea, or they might be sheltering in a nearby house as they waited for instructions. Lying up in the forward positions there was comparative safety inside the tank or immediately behind it, but walking about was dangerous. In Army phraseology all unarmoured vehicles were referred to as ‘thin-skinned’, and as they did their forward visiting, crawling and sheltering from occasional shell-bursts, the chaplains must often have applied that term to themselves. It was not safe, or wise, to approach the most advanced tanks, though their progress could be watched, and when one received a direct hit the chaplain would dash forward with the other rescuers. When a tank caught fire it was know as a ‘brew-up’, and the watchers would have a long moment of suspense until all the crew were seen to jump clear and run the gauntlet to safety. When there was no movement it meant that the whole crew was either dead or wounded.
The confined nature of a tank made rescue difficult, and if it was to be achieved the men had to work quickly because of the flames. It was necessary to climb on top and open the turret, and it was even more difficult to remove the man from the driver's seat. To lean down and pull a wounded man from a tank was a long and painful job in the most ideal conditions; they were seldom, if ever, page 106 ideal and speed was of paramount importance. With the tank on fire, its petrol and ammunition likely to explode, the rescuers had also to face machine-gun bullets and mortar shells.
The three regimental chaplains received three different awards for gallantry though all were earned in the same kind of work. Citations for decorations are usually brief and written in cold, military language, dull reading when several are taken together, but the reader must try to imagine the circumstances, remembering that there were never sufficient awards to cover every act of daring, and that only the most outstanding examples could receive official reward.
Padre L. F. F. Gunn8 was awarded the MBE. His citation refers to his zeal in performing all his duties with the 20th Armoured Regiment whether in periods of training or in action, where he was noted for his courage in rescuing the wounded and conducting burials in exposed areas.
Another Presbyterian, Padre J. S. Somerville,9 had served with the 19th Armoured Regiment from its training days in Maadi and the men had come to see the strong and courageous character which lay behind his friendly and humble manner. His calm demeanour never left him, and in the citation for his Military Cross special mention is made of his influence under trying circumstances. At the Gaiana River the forward tanks met heavy and unexpected opposition. Padre Somerville was in the thick of things and at once organised the evacuation of the wounded. His coolness and cheerfulness played an important part in getting them to safety, but his bearing did more than that, for at a most critical moment it put fresh spirit into all the troops fighting in the vicinity.
The third chaplain in this team was Padre R. McL. Gourdie,10 of the 18th Armoured Regiment, who was awarded the DSO. Padre Gourdie was a man of great physical stamina with an impressive record of success on the athletic track, and at all times he performed his duty with industry, courage, and enthusiasm. He page 107 haunted the front line, covering great distances on foot, and on one occasion at least carried the evening rations to a tank which was considered to be in an unapproachable position. His citation mentions a special day when one of his squadrons had forced a long, narrow salient in the enemy line near Strada village. When the foremost tank was hit, Padre Gourdie, who was travelling in the RAP carrier, went forward on foot, and with the assistance of the spare driver, who was not hit, managed to evacuate all the rest of the wounded crew. Later in the day he repeated this performance and dragged three men out of a blazing tank. In the meantime the infantry were receiving heavy casualties, and Padre Gourdie repeatedly went forward, loaded the wounded on his carrier, and then ran the gauntlet through terrific fire down 600 yards of open road.
In the 4th Armoured Brigade a movement was instituted which, had it appeared earlier in the war, would have made a very valuable contribution to the work of the Chaplains' Department. As it was, the chaplains during a course held in Rome gave it considerable attention and made plans for extending the system throughout the Division. Padre M. G. Sullivan,11 of the 22nd Battalion, was largely responsible for the idea, and his enthusiasm and ability set it going. Each unit chaplain in the brigade collected in a group his regular communicants, regardless of denomination, and set out to hold a series of discussions on the religious problems confronting the Church in the Army and in civilian life. The regimental groups discussed the same subjects and a combined brigade conference was planned, but unfortunately it did not take place as a long term of action prevented further meetings. Had this system been started earlier it might have unified the boundless goodwill and loyal faith of hundreds of men and chaplains throughout the 2nd NZEF, and from it might have arisen a strong and determined body of men which could have been invaluable in the ecumenical work of the Church.
The New Zealand Engineers for the most part did not take kindly to military life with its intricate organisation based on tradition, regulation, and restriction. Given their own type of work they were happy, and if initiative, courage, and speed were needed, so much the better. They were individualists, a little army within an army. They submitted but did not take kindly to uniform, rifle drill, and parades, and treated this side of their life as one of the annoying restrictions which war introduced between a man and his work.
The Engineers had no chaplain of their own until 1943. In Base camps they had attended Church parades and individuals had sought the ministrations of chaplains of their own denomination, while in the field they welcomed occasional services from one or two chaplains, such as Padre Taylor, of whom they approved. They were split into many sections inside and outside the Division, and in the early days it had not been possible to post a chaplain to them, nor is it quite certain whether one would have been welcome.
By the end of the Tunisian campaign conditions had changed and the Senior Chaplain was able to find a chaplain for them. In Africa they had suffered many casualties as they laid or picked up minefields. Indeed the many little crosses beside the main road to Tunis recalled the text: ‘They shall prepare thy way before thee’
In Italy their most dangerous duty was the construction of bridges in the battle area, for while the infantry could usually find their own way across rivers, the engineers had to get the armour and transport over. Night after night they followed the rifle companies and, often in the most appalling weather and under severe enemy fire, struggled to make a bridge so that the tanks and supporting arms could cross before daylight.
Their chaplain was Padre J. K. Watson12 who had served in the ranks during the early years of the war. He was an ordained minister of the Methodist Church and was commissioned as a chaplain in 1943. As the engineers were not accustomed to having a chaplain on their strength he had many difficulties, but his commanding officers were helpful and hard work combined with courage bore its inevitable reward. He commanded respect and attention by page 109 consistently working with the most forward troops, and was awarded the Military Cross for splendid work done in the Cassino area.
Bridges were needed in the most hotly contested parts of the battlefield, and the engineers had to work amid shellfire and machine-gun bullets on ground thickly strewn with mines, often subject to attacks by enemy infantry. The long hours of a night would slowly pass with their regular number of casualties, alarms, and setbacks. A sapper might have been excused if he had hoped that his company would not be called upon to go forward more than once or twice in a week, but Padre Watson went forward with every company and never once stayed in B Echelon when the engineers were working in the front line.
In reality the Engineers were like any other group of New Zealanders, having a limited knowledge of organised religion, but at the same time they had a great respect for real character and practical common sense, and it was fortunate that their first chaplain should have been a man of Padre Watson's calibre. His courage, combined with a transparent sincerity and friendliness, made a great impression, and the standard he set for his successors as chaplain to the New Zealand Engineers was very high.
Soon after victory in Europe a Leadership School organised by the Chaplains' Department came into existence. The idea was copied from the courses run by the Royal Air Force in Rome, one of which Padre E. O. Sheild13 attended as an observer. His report was considered by the chaplains, and when a plan had been made for similar courses in the 2nd NZEF the proposal was submitted to the GOC. Official approval was given and, through the courtesy of the National Patriotic Fund Board, the Divisional YMCA hostel at Riccione was made available and every help given by the YMCA secretary, Allister Gill.14
Padre Sheild was appointed principal of the school and three other chaplains were released for this work. Together they prepared a syllabus and solved all the administrative and other problems. It page 110 was decided that each course should last for ten days, including two Sundays, and provision was made for a maximum of sixty students at a time. Courses were run on a denominational basis in that there were three divisions: Church of England, Presbyterian, and Other Denominations. The syllabus remained the same with the exception of certain periods on Church history and Christian doctrine which varied with each course. Plans by Father Spring for a series of courses for Roman Catholics did not eventuate.
An effort was made to select students from men who had already shown some capability for leadership; accordingly, commanding officers were asked to pick the candidates from their units and it was suggested to them that they should consult their chaplains when making the selection.
The school was open to all ranks, and many officers attended. Its object was to ‘train leaders by showing that the Christian way of life gave the only outlook which provided coherence and meaning to all experience, and provided power by which fine words and ideals could be translated into action.’ The daily syllabus contained Church services, discussions, and three lectures under the general headings:
The foundations and fundamentals of leadership;
The dynamic at work in history;
The application of leadership.
Two lectures were held each morning and the third in the afternoon. After lunch the afternoons were free until four o'clock and most of the men took advantage of the magnificent facilities for sea-bathing on the beach at Riccione. In the evenings there was a kind of ‘brains trust’ in which written questions that had been submitted to the staff were answered and freely discussed.
At the conclusion of each course the students were invited to give their opinions on the school, and of the 450 who attended all expressed their approval of it. Information about each man attending the school was sent to his Church in New Zealand. The school was a notable venture by the Department and credit is due to the many authorities concerned for the speedy efficiency with which the organisation was planned and put into practice, though much of the success was owed to the enthusiasm and talents of Padre Sheild.
Courses for Chaplains
The chaplains themselves had several opportunities for attending refresher courses in Italy. Twenty-six went to a New Zealand course held in Rome in July 1944. Comfortable accommodation was provided in a hostel and the lectures and discussions took place in the New Zealand Club. While the course was being held the chaplains made wide use of the services of Father J. W. Rodgers15 who was doing very valuable work in showing New Zealanders round the wonderful buildings of Rome. During the course a number of useful discussions took place, and methods were considered for deepening the spiritual life of men in the 2nd NZEF and preparing them for civilian life after the war. An excellent pamphlet on ‘Spiritual Rehabilitation’, prepared by Padre Holland, was approved, and further encouragement given to the formation of communicant groups within the brigades. New Zealand chaplains also attended refresher courses run by the Royal Army Chaplains' Department at Bari and Assisi, and three were present at the International School of Religion organised by the South Africans at Lake Como.
Prisoners of War
Before the end of the war in Europe a picked group of officers and men was sent from the 2nd NZEF in Italy and from New Zealand to form a Repatriation Unit in the United Kingdom for released prisoners of war. Six chaplains were on this establishment. At first there was some delay in the arrival of the prisoners and the chaplains went in search of New Zealanders serving with the British forces. One concentrated on men serving with the Royal Air Force and another went to the Royal Navy. In addition to these six chaplains there was a seventh New Zealand chaplain serving in England at this time. He was Padre S. C. Read,16 who after long service with the Division had been posted to the New Zealand Forces Club in London to look after the affairs of the National Patriotic Fund Board, where he did excellent work.
When the prisoners began to arrive they received extra rations in very comfortable surroundings. Some had to enter hospital page 112 because of privations suffered in prison camps and on the forced marches of the last few months of their imprisonment in Germany. The chaplains found work with released prisoners of war unlike anything else they had attempted. Long years behind barbed wire had left their marks on the minds of the men and sympathetic treatment and understanding were needed. They responded magnificently to good food, freedom, and friendliness, and this led one chaplain to assert that men just released from captivity were in better mental and physical health than those who had served for a similar period with the Division in action. The chaplain who said this was an experienced man, but perhaps appearances were deceptive for many former prisoners suffered a severe relapse in health and morale on their return to New Zealand. There was no doubt that imprisonment in enemy hands placed a great strain on body and soul.
All the New Zealand chaplains who had been captured returned safely. Bishop Gerard had been repatriated some two years earlier but the other nine passed through the Repatriation Unit in England. Their experiences had varied. At some times and in some places they had received many opportunities for continuing their spiritual work, being allowed to move freely in nearby prison camps, but on other occasions they were strictly confined in their own prison for officers. Where possible the chaplains conducted regular services in prison camps, and they spent much of their time giving religious instruction and in helping to organise activities which would combat the deadly monotony of prison life.
In his award of the CBE special mention is made of the part played by Bishop Gerard while he was a prisoner of war, and he himself bore testimony to the work of the other chaplains. In one prison the Bishop found a number of Church of England confirmation candidates who had been prepared by a Presbyterian chaplain, Padre Mitchell. This chaplain had an excellent record and was awarded the United States Bronze Star. Another prisoner of war chaplain, Padre Hiddlestone, received the MBE, and Padre Hurst was mentioned in despatches for good work while a prisoner.
The intimacy of life in prison, the perpetual shortage of food, and the other hardships provided many temptations for a slackening in morale, petty selfishness, and despondency. The captured page 113 chaplain had both to conquer these problems in his own life and to help others.
Information on chaplaincy work in prison camps has had to be gleaned from former prisoners of war and the chaplains themselves. These men form a small, exclusive band in the brotherhood of returned men. Their common experience of acute mental suffering and frustration has welded them together and they refer to each other as ‘Kriegies’. Captured chaplains themselves, looking back on their Army life, believe that the most fruitful period of their ministry was the time they spent in enemy hands.
Thanksgiving Celebrations for Victory
The GOC was present at the first chaplains' conference after the end of the war in Europe. At this conference he thanked the chaplains for their work throughout the war and enlisted their aid in meeting certain immediate problems. He asked that 13 May should be observed as ‘Thanksgiving Day’ and directed that all available personnel should attend the special Church services. An order of service was drawn up for the 2nd NZEF and a special one arranged for the Roman Catholics.
The latter celebrated the Solemn High Mass of Thanksgiving in the Basilica of St. Anthony in Trieste. The Mass was sung by Father Fletcher17 and the sermon preached by Father Walsh.18 Some weeks later this great church was again filled by New Zealanders, including General Freyberg, when a Solemn Requiem for the Fallen was celebrated.
Later in the year, on 19 August, special Thanksgiving services were held throughout the Division to commemorate victory against Japan. Four memorial and dedication services were also attended by General Freyberg and a special contingent of troops and chaplains. The first of these was held at Suda Bay in Crete, where it was estimated that some ten thousand Cretans took part, the second at the British military cemetery near the Sangro, the third at Cassino, and the fourth at Alamein.page 114
But the story of the Chaplains' Department does not end with the announcement of victory, for there were several other groups of chaplains who played an important part in the spiritual life of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
1 Rev. A. C. K. Harper (C of E); born England, 15 Sep 1904; killed in action 22 Feb 1944.