Journey Towards Christmas
Chapter 20 — Through The Vineyards
Through The Vineyards
THEY were small and you knew they were not good to eat. They were dusted with silver like mistletoe and they hung in tight bunches above every ditch, tendrils half hiding them. They were delicate things to have come from such a scrawny parent (trunk twisted and branches crooked like elbows: a doppelgänger black and mummified) but as yet they were hard and sour—too sour to interest your wise Umbrian fox. We tried them, knowing it was a mistake, and they made our mouths dry.
Before reaching this last vineyard we had been on the move for a week, stopping a day here and a day there but making more than enough northing in the intervals to discount any benefit to our estates from the hot sunshine. Now we were eighty-six miles northwest by north of Rome and three or four miles south of Cortona. Near us was a corner of Lake Trasimene. We had been told that we should not be moving for a few days—we could rest and perhaps the grapes would ripen. This pleased us enormously, for what was the use of being in Italy in July if you were never in one place long enough to enjoy the wines of the country, make the acquaintance of your Italian neighbours, and get your washing done?
During the past week we had been able to do none of these things. First there was the journey from Arce to a staging area on the Rome-Narni road, to which Company headquarters and Workshops moved independently from Rome. Travelling north the next day (‘Neo Zealandese,’ the Italians murmured, brushing aside our clumsy attempts at deception), we passed through Terni, Spoleto, Foligno, and Perugia, and halted at last in an area near Lake Trasimene. After spending a day here we moved closer to the lake (to the relief of No. 1 Platoon's drivers between whom and a local landowner lay a little matter of some piglets), and two days later we went to the Cortona area, where No. 4 Platoon had established an ammunition point.
And here we were among the green and silver grapes. It was 13 July, and some ten miles to the north the 6th Brigade was fight- page 360 ing in the mountains above Arezzo. The Division, which was now under the command of 13th Corps, was to capture these so that a British armoured division and the Brigade of Guards could advance through the town and reach the River Arno north of it. The ultimate prize, of course, was Florence.
But Florence seemed likely to cost us dear, for time was what Marshal Kesselring wanted. All along the front the Germans were resisting stubbornly, while behind them, from Massa on the Gulf of Genoa to Pesaro on the Adriatic, workers from a dozen nations laboured with or without enthusiasm on the defences of the Gothic Line.
The severity of the fighting (partly because we had carried out a 300 round-per-gun dumping programme for the 5th and 6th Field Regiments) was not reflected in the demand for ammunition, which was slight during the three days that preceded the occupation of Arezzo by British armour. This happened on the 16th, and on the same day, while the 13th Corps pressed forward, the Division went into reserve.
Our sales shrank almost to vanishing point, but for four or five days we were fully employed in disposing of salvage, completing our second-line holding from a field maintenance centre twenty miles away, and bringing forward ammunition from there to another centre near Arezzo. Even so we had time to take proper notice of a very significant announcement: married men of the 4th Reinforcements were returning to New Zealand under the Taupo scheme. The news caused heart-burning and disappointment among our single Fourths and among some of our Fifths, but for many others, right down to drivers who came overseas with the 7th Reinforcements, it opened a door on hope. We gave the lucky ones (Captain Todd and seven other ranks) a rousing send-off, pledging them suitably.
After they had gone there was a feeling of flatness in the area, so No. 1 Platoon, partly to dispel this flatness and partly because ‘Poodle’ and ‘Snow’ had just returned from New Zealand furlough and it was ‘Neil Mac's’ birthday, gave a party. It began at sunset and went roaring on through the night, huge and formless. Captain A. E. Thodey1 (who had taken over the platoon from Captain page 361 Sloan2 less than twenty-four hours before, the latter having been posted to the 1st Supply Company) expressed mild astonishment the next morning, but little harm had been done. The haystack round which the party had pivoted had been eviscerated and for a day gloom and despondency accompanied the platoon on its journeys and stalked unchallenged among the grape vines. By the following morning, though, cheerfulness was restored, and that was a good thing, for it looked as though the Division would be moving soon. During the day—the 20th—ten vehicles from No. 2 Platoon left to establish an ammunition point eight miles north of Siena, Siena being thirty-four miles west of Cortona, and that night the 5th Brigade began to fight its way towards Florence, which had been declared an open city. The Division had relieved French Moroccan troops near San Donato, seventeen miles north of Siena.
For two days we were employed in dumping our second-line holding in an area next to the ammunition point, but all our own concerns were overshadowed by the news from Germany. A bomb had been set to kill Hitler and something very like revolution had been attempted. For a happy moment we looked out across the heaving waters and saw a flutter of white wings and a flash of green.
The dove vanished, and on 23 July, very early in the morning while all the grapes dripped dew, we left for the ammunition point, squeezed through Siena—lovely and incomparable Siena, red rose of Tuscany, flushed with a thousand sunsets and autumn fires—and pushed on through a fog of dust. It settled on our arms and faces like warm flour and lay on the white roads in drifts six inches deep. There were no vines in the new area (which made a pleasant change); instead there were oak trees and green hillsides and the lovely litter of a forest: dead branches like antlers, great, prostrate trunks grey and lichened over, last year's acorns.
As soon as we arrived work started in earnest. The demand for ammunition mounted steadily and we were handicapped by lack of transport. On the evening of the 24th No. 1 Platoon passed to the command of the 6th Brigade, and on that and the following day Nos. 2 and 3 Platoons carted petrol for the Eighth Army.page 362
On the evening of the 26th—it was a terrific day with the demand for 25-pounder ammunition mounting and mounting and no chance for more than a few of us to see His Majesty drive through the Divisional area—a lorry arrived at Workshops looking as though it had been picked off a bonfire. Within a few minutes word was all round the unit that No. 1 Platoon was in trouble. The drivers, however, were reassuring. The platoon had debussed the 26th Battalion near San Pancrazio, eight miles north-west by north of San Donato, and had come under shellfire while digging in on a hillside. One lorry had been set on fire and a shell had passed through the canopy of another without exploding. The rest of the damage was a punctured radiator, and now the platoon was standing by to drive the 26th Battalion to Florence.
First, though, there were obstacles to be overcome. Between the New Zealanders and Florence lay the Paula Line, based on a semi-circle of hills, and as day followed day there was no slackening in the demand for ammunition.
On the 27th we moved in independent groups to an area near San Donato. It was on high ground and from here we could see shells landing—our own and the enemy's. The next day a section from the Ammunition Platoon opened a forward point near Strada, a few miles north-west of San Donato, and soon all first-line transport was being diverted to this, for there was not a round left in the unit area. Later in the day the rest of us moved to Strada and for a short period artillery lorries stood empty in our lines. As fast as we could rush the ammunition forward from the field maintenance centres it was tail-loaded on to them. Major Gibson sent an SOS to the Brigadier and before long we were being helped by transport from the 2nd Ammunition Company, the 14th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, and the 7th Anti-Tank Regiment. By now we had a dumping programme of 400 rounds a gun to deal with. We worked all through the night and all through the next day, the Artillery grabbing our loads as they arrived. Between dawn and dusk we handled 34,000 rounds of 25-pounder. By the evening of the 30th—we issued 47,000 rounds of 25-pounder that day—we had enough of everything at the ammunition point to meet any predictable demands, but there was no question of easing up. The guns kept firing: 27,500 rounds, 45,000, 28,000….page 363
No. 1 Platoon called him Paul. A member of the 4th Reinforcements, he had joined us first in the Isernia area, and from the moment of his arrival he had gone quietly about his business. More often than not his business had taken him to Campobasso or Naples and sometimes it had entailed his being away from us for four or five days at a time. He was a powerfully built man with a heavy, purposeful face and a slow tread. Now, wearing little except a grey top hat of a kind common enough at Ascot and a dirty khaki shirt that failed to conceal his magnificent chest and splendid abdomen, he stood at the gate of his castle to receive guests—‘Goldie’, Des, and ‘Brinny’, who, halted by provosts because the road ahead was under fire, had remembered that Paul was living close by in the battalion's B Echelon area, his lorry being loaded with signallers' gear. He was said to be doing himself rather well.
He was. He showed his guests over the castle and took them to his bedroom. He drew their attention to his four-poster, falling heavily on the rich covers to demonstrate the resilience of the mattress. He threw open his wardrobe and pressed ‘Goldie’ to choose one of his twenty new suits.
His guests would take something, he suggested, leading them out to the lawn. He excused himself for a moment and came back with a small table, napery, crystal, and a Borgini chianti of a good year. He said he was quite satisfied with his cellar except that the former owner of the estate—a count or something—had quarters there. Ah well, the old fellow was no longer young and he had no wish to be unduly hard on him!
Presently his guests rose, mentioning that the quartermaster at battalion headquarters was probably waiting for his blankets. Paul went with them to the gate. They were to look in, he said, any time they were passing. There was always a glass of wine, a meal, a bed. When last they saw him he was moving purposefully towards the decanter, the grey topper well back on his fine but balding forehead, the dirty shirt flaring out behind with true aristocratic negligence.page 364
The rest of the platoon was living more modestly but everyone was enjoying himself. The food was good—there was an abundance of potatoes, tomatoes, and fruit—and the job was interesting. Not that many adventures had befallen the platoon so far. After dropping the 26th Battalion near San Pancrazio it had stayed where it was until the end of the month, idle except on the 29th when it took the Maori Battalion into the line. On the 31st it moved a few miles to the 26th Battalion's B Echelon area, spending two days there. The drivers to whom new Dodges had been issued worked hard to turn them into homes, slinging bunks, fitting reading lamps, and building racks for 4.5 boxes. During the past week or so we had been issued with twenty-one Dodges to replace the worst of our Chevrolets, and a dozen of these had gone to No. 1 Platoon. They had glass cabs and were fast and smart, but they lacked four-wheel drive and were known to be hard on tires. In the event they proved far less serviceable than the ugly old Chevrolets.
The platoon's next move was made after lunch on 3 August. It went to the village of Cerbaia, where the 6th Brigade, supported by the 19th Armoured Regiment, had established a bridgehead across the Pesa River a day or two earlier. This was only seven or eight miles south-west of Florence, and from the surrounding hills our drivers could see those twinkling lights about which so much was being written at that time. The infantry was billeted in Cerbaia and the transport dispersed in the village square and along the streets leading into it.
‘It was a warm, lazy afternoon,’ said Corporal ‘Sandy’ McKay,3 ‘and the little village was curled up at the bottom of the hill asleep. There were not many civilians about, most of them having left when the fighting started, but there were plenty of soldiers—cooks sweating over burners on the pavements and Kiwis strolling in and out of shops and houses to see if the Germans had left anything behind. Most of them looked like coolies, for apart from shorts they were wearing little except wide-brimmed straw hats they had found in a neighbouring factory.
‘Round about half past four, in the middle of all this peace, we heard a series of faint woomps. They were followed by low whines that rapidly became shriller and ended right among us in page 365 ear-splitting crumps. The shells came over in threes, sixes, sevens, and elevens. There was one batch of seventeen, four of which were duds. Between each batch there was a pause of from ten to twenty minutes. During the first couple of pauses the boys dashed out to disperse their lorries more widely and find safe places for them. One of the boys shifted his lorry from the square to a snug possie by the church and for his trouble got three punctures and a holed radiator and petrol tank. Someone else got a holed sump and Henry Blomfield's lorry was smacked as he was moving it from the main street. He was slightly wounded in the back but was able to carry on after he had been fixed up at the RAP. He was far more worried about a broken window in his new Dodge.
‘After we had done what we could we all stayed under cover, crouching against walls and keeping well away from windows and doors. The shelling went on for two hours, filling the streets with choking dust. An anti-tank portáe was hit and its ammunition exploded with the hell of a roar.
‘As soon as it was safe to go out we found that about half our lorries had been holed by shrapnel, though none was a write-off. By a lucky chance all the new Dodges except Henry's were almost untouched. The infantry had lost two 15-cwt. bugs and sustained three casualties—very light, they told us, considering the stuff that had come over.
‘Our damage was chiefly to radiators—five of these were US4—and tires. We had thirteen punctures all told and there were things like severed brake rods and leaking petrol tanks. This gave Jack McDonald a chance to show what a smashing LAD corporal he was. He made a trip to Workshops to get a load of spares, and then, helped by “Snow” Logan,5 his off-sider, he worked flat out all through the night. By breakfast-time every lorry was mobile except “Bub's”.
‘We loaded the infantry's gear aboard and stood by to move off at nine that morning. The story was that the battalion was to act as the vanguard of a 6th Brigade advance on Florence and everything looked pretty business-like. We had been told to roll back our canopies so that the boys could hop off quickly if we ran into any trouble. As you can imagine, we were all pretty keyed up, page 366 and then, at about a quarter past nine, they told us the move was off.
‘We were still on a moment's notice but we hung around Cerbaia until the evening of the 6th and then embussed the battalion and took it six or seven miles in a north-westerly direction to relieve an Indian outfit. They sent us back to the village to spend the night and the next day we were told we shouldn't be needed any more.’
Wearing a slightly swashbuckling air induced by their straw hats, their coloured scarves, and their adventure in Cerbaia, No. 1 Platoon's drivers joined us in an area near San Casciano (eight or nine miles south of Florence) to which we had moved piecemeal on the 3rd and 4th. During the final phase of the battle for the Paula Line, which had been broken on 3 August, we had built up a stock of 25-pounder ammunition greatly in excess of our normal establishment, and this accounted for our inability to move in one clean shift.
Our new area—but why describe it? The sun-soaked grass, the big and the little hills burdened with vines and villages—they were still with us. As for the rest: either one remembers or one doesn't. Not that there was much to remember: only the ripe fruit, golden apples of the Hesperides and pears shaped like pears and not like old tennis balls or little money-bags; only long golden days with the bees buzzing their hearts out; only short impatient nights, winecoloured; only Italy leaping into sunlight each morning like a dolphin, leaping into the sunlight like a free spirit who could stay up all night if she wanted to, laughing defiance at that grim wheel other countries are bound on—all bound and rivetted and with no choice but to move soberly under the sun or the grey sky and be dipped back into the darkness every night. Only that and the vines and the common cabbage-whites and the common brimstones moving in the same cloud with the kind of butterflies you see in specimen cases.
For a few days we had time for these things, our sales having declined sharply after the collapse of the Paula Line. The New Zealanders engaged in mopping-up operations—No. 3 Platoon supplied them from a mine-strewn area near Cerbaia, and one of its lorries was badly damaged—were reasonable in their demands.page 367
The official communique announcing that Florence was firmly in our hands was not issued until 22 August (the enemy's idea of an open city being rather different from ours), but the collapse of the Paula Line had decided the city's fate, and in mid-August the Division started to assemble in a rest area near Castellina, ten miles north by west of Siena. We moved back on the 14th, occupying a sheltered, dust-free area by a small stream that was very pleasant to lie in during hot afternoons. From the 17th onwards there was generous day-leave to Siena, but not for the drivers of the load-carriers. Almost at once they began carting surplus ammunition from the old area to a 13th Corps dump a dozen miles west of San Casciano, and next we were told to provide 114 lorries to help the Eighth Army move ammunition from an advanced ammunition depot at Monte San Savino, twenty miles east of Siena, to another near Iesi. Iesi was a name new to us. We drove through Perugia and Foligno, crossed the Apennines, turned north, and ended up five or six miles from the Adriatic coast. After Foligno it was new country all the way, but we saw most of it through a mist of sweat drops and white dust.
Hard on the heels of this job came a general move to the Adriatic sector, and by the end of the month the unit was complete near Iesi and all our ammunition had been brought forward. The 220-mile journey, however, proved too much for some of the lorries and Workshops' casualty ward was full again.
We had time for a quick bathe at Ancona, the famous port near Iesi, and then those insatiable 25-pounders went into action against the Gothic Line in support of the 1st Canadian Corps. The plan was for the Eighth Army to attack in the Adriatic sector, while the Fifth Army was to advance over the Apennines to Bologna. The Canadians' role was to smash the defences in a narrow corridor—part of the Gothic Line—that ran between the mountains and the sea. One end of the corridor was guarded by Pesaro, thirty-five to forty miles up the coast from Ancona, and the other, twenty miles farther on, by Rimini.
On the night of 30-31 August the load-carriers set out for the B Echelon area of the three field regiments with 107 loads of 25-pounder ammunition. The drivers travelled along the coast road for twenty-two miles, turning left just as they were beginning to wonder if the intention was to lead them slap into the battle for page 368 Pesaro, which was flashing and banging in front of them. The convoy went eight or nine miles inland before halting and then some of the lorries were guided forward to the guns. By this time most of the enemy had withdrawn out of range.
On 2 September Pesaro was taken by Polish troops and the field regiments came out of the line. The next day, a Sunday, was a day of prayer and a special service was held for NZASC units. Five years earlier, on another Sunday, Great Britain had declared war on Germany.
Heavy thunder clouds were massing and the air was thick and clammy, and gusts of warm wind tugged at the padre's surplice, drawing attention to his khaki stockings and brown desert boots. We stood close-packed on three sides of a square, our officers out in front. On them—on the senior officers anyway—devolved the responsibility of keeping the hymns going and growling the responses, the rest of us, who could sing so lustily round a wine barrel, being given to silence or sheepish mumblings on these occasions.
The truth of the matter was that many of us had the feeling that we were there under a compulsion as much disciplinary as spiritual, and it weighed as heavily (more heavily perhaps) on those who would have attended the service in any case as on those who regarded it as a parade. And one felt, too, that the padres themselves were not always happy about the situation—that they also were circumscribed by events. Most of their sermons were little masterpieces of tact in which the Prince of Peace, the Light of the World, the Despised and Rejected of men, became an awfully decent Padre—brainy, of course, but with no side at all. It was as though, just before the service, someone (the shade of a Chaplain-General, perhaps) had tapped them on the shoulder, remarking briskly: ‘Remember now! Nothing controversial—no dogma. Just general terms—simple, manly stuff. Remind the men of their homes, that always gets them.’ At all events there was little or no great preaching, no scourgings from the pulpit, no cleansings of the temple, no wrestlings at Peniel.
It is only fair to say that the vast majority of us would have resented it if there had been, and one should add also that most NZASC church parades were voluntary, though it was not particularly easy to get out of them. They were conducted with no page 369 more formality than decorum required, and the Brigadier, who liked to see his units all together on a Sunday when this was possible, had a pleasantly direct manner that went down well with the rank and file. In short, the anti-clericalism in our unit (and there was not a great deal of it) was caused solely by church parades. Few could criticise the way in which the padres performed their secular duties—visiting the sick, organising libraries and recreation centres, listening with patience and sympathy to personal problems. Men like Padre Holland were an asset to any unit.
On the occasion in point—our day of prayer—the NZASC Band was in attendance, so the singing was a little lustier than usual—but as always there was something missing, though three or four hundred were gathered together. Not everyone was sorry when the fat thunder drops started to fall, and the bandsmen, grabbing their instruments, made a dash for shelter.
Later in the day the skies cleared and we beat the 1st Petrol Company 5-nil in the first of a series of NZASC Rugby games.
Turkey through with the Axis, the Red Army on the Prussian border, an Allied landing between Nice and Marseilles, the German Seventh Army surrounded and smashed near Falaise, Florence liberated, Paris liberated, Roumania on the side of the angels—these were our August victories and they were notable ones. But to each and all of them the enemy made reply, as Clemenceau did in the Great War when Petain spoke of defeat: ‘Je fais la guerre!’
On the Italian front the answer was the same. Although the Canadians' first assault had taken them ten miles into the Gothic Line the enemy was fighting back stubbornly, knowing that winter was at his shoulder.
In the second week of September the Division came under the command of 1st Canadian Corps, the artillery going into action almost at once. Rimini was the next major objective, and this could be seen from the ammunition point established by No. 4 Platoon on the 11th. It was near Cattolica, a small town on the coast eleven miles below Rimini. Daily our drivers watched engagements between cruisers of the Royal Navy and the coast defences.page 370
The rest of the unit had left Iesi on the 4th and was now in an area near Mondolfo, nineteen miles down the coast from Pesaro and a few miles inland. It was a pleasant spot, and the officers and drivers of Headquarters were able to put away their tents and take possession of a comfortable villa. The platoons bivouacked on the estate.
We were in this area for well over a week and although we were kept fairly busy we managed both to watch and to play a great deal of football. For a short time a dozen or more of our best players were released from their ordinary duties and allowed to give all their time to training and getting fit, a Divisional Rugby team being in prospect. Our next favourite pastime was bathing from the white beaches of the Adriatic.
Always the sea! If you were composing a piece of music to fit our story you would have to include, as well as the purr of primuses and the fluttering beat of choked engines on cold mornings, the soft thunder of collapsing waves, the long rasp of shingle.
On the 13th of the month the Division moved to a concentration area six or seven miles beyond Pesaro, and on that day New Zealand armour and the 22nd Motorised Battalion went into action on the coast in support of the 3rd Greek Mountain Brigade, the rest of the Division being held in reserve. Our unit moved on the 14th.
We drove along the coast road, stopping and starting with a long line of lorries, jeeps, and ambulances. At almost every turn-off Italian refugees, sitting in carts loaded with furniture and bedding, waited patiently for an opportunity to use the road. They looked as though they had been waiting for hours, lost and forlorn. Many of the carts were drawn by oxen or by horrible gaunt horses, awful spectres of reproach, and many were pushed by hand. In some cases oxen and horses, in defiance of the biblical injunction, had been yoked together, sharp horn neighbour to dribbling eye, fetlock to cleft hoof, ghastly jutting bone to shrunk crupper. In one cart a calm-faced woman was mending a torn sheet with an old sewing machine, putting saints and heroes to shame.
Pesaro, at the end of an avenue of tall trees, had been badly knocked about and the people looked at us with dull eyes. Already, though, children were at play and women were at their immemorial tasks: fetching water from wells, spreading pulped tomatoes on page 371 boards in the sun, threshing grain on the pavement outside the cottage.
Our new area was three miles inland from Pesaro and here we camped among vines, moving again on the 17th.
The coast road took us past the old castle of Gradara (which had seen the tragedy of Paolo and Francesca and looked as though it had been designed by Walt Disney for Giant Despair), past the ammunition point at Cattolica, and over the River Conca. Half a mile farther on we turned into the hills, dispersing as best we could in that part of our area not occupied by a battery of 155-millimetre guns. They fired intermittently through the night, making us nervous, but there was no counter-shelling. Not until they moved forward on the 19th were we able to spread out a little.
Our new area covered two or more hillsides, open except for some patches of bamboo, and took in a strip of flat near a by-road. On this there was a vineyard and an ugly square villa in a walled garden. The guns sounded very close and our aircraft could be heard bombing and strafing the German lines.
After dark the sky over the front was lit by sixteen searchlights, which stared all night long at nothing. The long unwavering beams bent over the countryside like lean ghosts, their heads misty blue among the clouds, their stems blue-white and astonishing as though shot from sepulchres. Some of us tried to argue that they marked the boundaries of the little neutral republic of San Marino, which we knew was quite close, but actually they were to light the battlefield for night attacks. Later we heard the term ‘artificial moonlight’.
Greek and New Zealand troops entered Rimini on the morning of the 21st and the battle moved on across the Marecchia River. Our Division was now in the thick of the fighting, and the artillery, which had reverted to its normal command, was far enough forward to need a new point. No. 3 Platoon, with detachments from No. 4 and the Ammunition Platoon, opened one a mile or two south of Rimini, a dangerous district because of mines and shells.
Time and time again we were called upon to act as first-line transport and deliver our ammunition to the firing line, and often our drivers had narrow escapes. One night a shell burrowed into the road and exploded beneath a lorry, lifting it off the ground but doing little damage.page 372
Life at Cattolica, though, consisted of more than work and occasional frights. There was leave to Rome and—after the 15th—to Florence. For the members of the 4th Reinforcements there was something better. Major Gibson and twenty-three other ranks left us to return to New Zealand on the day Rimini was entered. It was trying to rain as they drove off but they seemed not to mind. Only Paul—the Count—was reluctant to go. He had found at the last moment that he loved us, as a token of which he left most of his gear behind. He set out for New Zealand clad lightly in a pair of old shorts and nothing else, which was a pity, for the weather had broken.
Our new commanding officer was Major R. P. Latimer,6 who had joined the unit on 5 June as a captain. Each of our majors, like the fairy god-mothers in the story, had come to us with gifts—Justice, Efficiency, Good Nature, Navigational Ability. Major Latimer brought a New Broom. There were to be changes around the place—a sergeants' mess, a newspaper, a programme of entertainment. All these ideas were excellent, but alas!—ours was a venerable institution and like most institutions of that kind rabidly conservative. For the same reason that a few old gentlemen in England, survivors of an almost extinct species, continue to call a taxi a taximeter-cab and Pall Mall ‘Pell Mell’, some of us still spoke of No. 1 Platoon as A Section and the unit as the Divisional Ammunition Company.
The idea of a sergeants' mess was found to be impracticable (not that anyone except the sergeants objected to it very much) but the paper was proceeded with (‘Paper? Paper? There was no damned nonsense about papers when Percy was boss.’), and in due course the Amcoy Weekly Times made its appearance. It was neither better nor worse than other unit newspapers and it deserved a warmer reception than it got. It appeared twice and was heard of no more.
There was one innovation, however, that did survive, and this was a recreation centre organised by Padre D. V. de Candole,7 who had been attached to us since mid-August. At first a tent was used page 373 for premises, but when the wet weather came the largest reception room in the ugly villa was requisitioned. Here you could write letters or read, and in the evenings, with the tea-urn bubbling in the corner, there were card parties, lectures, quiz sessions, sing-songs, and an occasional concert by the NZASC Swing Band. Only our ‘Pell Mells’ remembered those desert days when the voice of Vera Lynn or of Ann Shelton had issued from the bowels of the cooks' lorry and had been thought enough.
Inside the recreation room—the Albergo we called it—all was warmth and light and Scotch songs by Dave Falconer; outside, the bedraggled grape vines dripped miserably and lorries sank axledeep in mud. The summer was over now and the grapes had been gathered in. If you wanted fresh fruit you ate persimmons: there was nothing else. When darkness came it was time to pull down the cover at the back of the lorry and begin searching for the primus pricker. Only our Romeos continued to go out at night, but it was no weather for love. At breakfast nowadays they seldom irritated us by looking smug and self-satisfied—like pleased cats.
Farther up the coast the infantry shivered in their weapon-pits, cursing the black mud and the grey rain. The turning of the Gothic Line had not been followed by its collapse, for the Germans were still in possession of the mountains on our left flank and from these they could dominate the battlefield. None the less the infantry pushed on doggedly, facing Panther turrets, self-propelled guns, mortars, and spandaus. The enemy fought back with skill and courage and there was truth in the subsequent verdict of a British infantryman: ‘It weren't rain or bloody mountains held up advance. It were bloody Jerry sitting down behind spandau going blurp-blurp.’
By 27 September our forward troops were only 1000 yards from the Fiumicino River and the old ammunition point was too far from the front. Accordingly No. 3 Platoon returned to the unit area, and No. 4 Platoon and a section from the Ammunition Platoon opened a new point near Viserba, eight miles below the Fiumicino. Here the transport was dispersed in and around the buildings of a large linen factory with guns in action on three sides of it, the congestion being such that the ammunition had to be kept on wheels. An artillery duel took place during the night and enemy shells landed close, spattering the buildings with shrapnel. A few page 374 evenings later a plane flew over very low and dropped a stick of armour-piercing bombs 200 yards from the factory.
In spite of these drawbacks it is doubtful if the drivers at the ammunition point envied us the safety of the unit area. They were snug and dry in their large sheds whereas we were floundering in a morass with day and night made hideous by the screaming of bogged lorries. At the end of the month Headquarters forsook its sodden tents and moved into the villa, No. 1 Platoon taking over the vineyard, which, though extremely muddy, was at least accessible from the road.
Daily our transport went backwards and forwards between the unit area and a field maintenance centre near Pesaro, and between the ammunition point and the unit area, using Route 16 (misnamed the Sun Track). This was covered by a film of grease, and at times we might have been driving dodgems at a fun fair for all the control we had over our lorries. Traffic choked the road and passing vehicles flung gobbets of filth at one another. On one side of you were the foothills of the Apennines, pale and rain-swept; on the other was the Adriatic, glimpsed sometimes as a grey bosom heaving under wet silk and sometimes as a flurry of white spume. The drive through Rimini was hardly calculated to remove gloomy impressions. Much of the town had been crushed and ground into the mud and the rest seemed to have been altered by bombs primarily with a view to giving people pneumonia. Through the gaping doors and windows of once busy factories and once fashionable hotels our lorries threw sludge. Civilians, when they saw us coming, pressed tight against walls to avoid a drenching. On the coast road, just beyond the town, there were concrete gun emplacements camouflaged to look like shops or villas. One of these, with sham windows and a wicked dark slit for a huge gun, had the word Gelata painted above the door. Gelata indeed! There was no ice-cream in Rimini. None for the barefoot children with pinched faces.
Perhaps, with all this rain and all this ruin, there was an excuse for depression. The heroic failure at Arnhem—we had built on Arnhem—was only a few days old, and things on our front were going, if not badly, slowly. No, certainly not badly—not badly anywhere. It was just that everything that was happening now—the advance in Germany, the bombing of German cities into dust— page 375 seemed, after the dramatic victories of early autumn, tame. Then we had been so certain that the Christmas towards which we were journeying and for which we had waited so long would be next Christmas. Now we were not sure.
Not that we were miserable. The word is too strong for our feeling that it was time something else happened—not victories merely but something really good, something heart-warming and exciting. German lorry-drivers had that feeling in 1940.
On 3 October something good happened for over a hundred of us. In our copies of the NZEF Times was a statement by Mr. Fraser. Men who had been overseas three years or more, including men of the First, Second, or Third Echelons who had returned to the Division after furlough, would be replaced progressively by men who had not yet had an opportunity to serve overseas and by those who had been overseas only a short time.
Our Fifths and our ‘Coconut Bombers’ (our Pacific Islanders) went around singing.
Meanwhile the infantry had reached the River Fiumicino, which in fine weather you could wade across in gumboots. Now it was capable of drowning a tall man. Here the advance was halted and the guns on both sides began a slogging match. The Germans, who seemed to have more guns than ever, were using everything from 75 to 210-millimetres, and again shells screamed over the ammunition point or burst near it. Our drivers stayed in their linen factory and in the evening watched cinema shows in a big upstairs room.
On 11 October the rain stopped and in bright sunshine New Zealand infantry crossed the Fiumicino.
The Division had moved from the waterlogged coast sector and its new line of advance ran parallel to Route 9, the Great Emilian Way, which led straight to Bologna.
After the rain, the dust. Our drivers worked in a foul yellow fog but once off the road their wheels had only to break the surface to find mud. In the unit area we moved on piecrust.
A new ammunition point was needed, so No. 2 Platoon handed page 376 over the old one to No. 3 Platoon, crossed the Rubicon (the river Uso, below the Fiumicino, is identified with the Rubicon of history), turned on to Route 9, and halted near Gambettola, twelve miles west-north-west of Rimini. The large town of Cesena, still in enemy hands, was only four or five miles away, and again our ammunition point was surrounded by guns. The next day, the 20th, the guns moved forward.
The rest of us were still at Cattolica, sunk deep in routine. It was dull, dusty, and appropriate to the yellowing year—and it was rather pleasant.
The guns moved forward, and the Brigadier called a conference of company commanders. The NZASC was to be reorganised drastically. The 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Company, 18th Tank Transporter Company, and 1st Water Supply Section were not needed any longer and would be disbanded. The 1st Petrol Company and 1st Ammunition Company would each lose a section—their commanding officers were to decide which one.
The next day, while the skies clouded and the wind sang in the vines, we rearranged our loads to meet the new establishment, returning surplus ammunition to Pesaro. No. 2 Platoon, which was to be issued with four-tonners for carrying 25-pounder ammunition, was recalled from Gambettola, and No. 1 Platoon, which was to be left as it was (our senior platoon smiled rather smugly) took its place. At Viserba Captain Delley broke the bad news to No. 4 Platoon. It was not wanted any more. Some drivers would be used to reinforce other platoons, but the rest, irrespective of how long they had been with the unit, would go to Base.
This was an appalling prospect—Siberia and the salt mines—but there was nothing to be said or done. Theirs was the junior platoon, and the drivers, though very bitter, could not complain of injustice. They stood around and dug their toecaps into the mud; they gathered in angry groups and muttered vague threats, but there was nothing to be said or done.
During the day two New Zealand battalions advanced to the line of the River Savio above Cesena and that was as far as they went. A few hours later the Division started to move back to a rest area, leaving its sector to the Canadians.
Early on the 22nd, with needles of rain pricking through the beams of our headlamps and dawn a layer of cold fat resting on page 377 the Adriatic, Company headquarters and Nos. 2 and 3 Platoons pulled out from Cattolica. No. 4 Platoon left independently from Viserba and No. 1 Platoon stayed at Gambettola to serve the Artillery, which was to be in the line for another day or two.
We travelled down the coast road as far as the Iesi turn-off and then followed Route 76, making good time. Midday found us halted near the bottom of a deep gorge, and we got out our ‘Benghazis’. We were in the Fabriano Gorge but the country was all strange to us. Our destination, they were saying, was quite close. We wondered what it would be like and were not hopeful. Rest areas were all the same—the lorries would be drawn up in lines and we should be put in tents. Certainly there would be parades and inspections, unless the Brigadier found a job for us.
The sun shone weakly, and the mountains were green at the foot and greyish yellow halfway up and purple at the top—parrot colours only more subdued, except at the bottom of the gorge where there was a wedge of sunlight, a meadow like green fire, and a flashing stream.
It was chilly and it was going to rain and we felt homeless. That was how we usually felt after leaving an area in which we had been settled comfortably for weeks; and to halt us just short of our new home (on top of an early breakfast and no wash and a long run) was the surest way of aggravating this feeling. Nor were tempers improved by the certainty of another delay while they made up their minds where they wanted the lorries parked. This was the danger period, this last mile. This was when old friends quarrelled.
‘Take her easy, eh?’
‘Who's driving this bloody truck?’
‘Well, if you feel that way, boy….’