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Journey Towards Christmas

Chapter 22 — White Christmas

page 387

Chapter 22
White Christmas

V2 WEAPONS—stratosphere rockets—were falling on England. ‘What,’ the journalists were asking, ‘has happened to Hitler?’ The reunion in the Munich Bierkeller had been postponed: therefore he must be ill, mad, dead, or on his way to Japan in a giant submarine. In the east six Allied armies were attacking on a front stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Through successive issues of the Eighth Army News the immortal but still maiden Jane, wearing brassieres and pantomime tights, fled from the odious Baloney.

On the Adriatic front the situation had changed only a little since our departure.

From Cesena Route 9 runs west-north-west in a straight line to Bologna, passing through Forli, eleven miles beyond Cesena, and then through Faenza, a further nine miles up the road. Forli had fallen on 9 November and the Eighth Army was now firmly on the line of the Lamone River just in front of Faenza, the capture of which was the New Zealanders' next task. As early as the 17th our field regiments had passed to the command of the Canadians and started to relieve British artillery near Forli, No. 2 Platoon and a section from the Ammunition Platoon opening a point for them the next day at Forlimpopoli, six or seven miles beyond Cesena on Route 9. By the 23rd the rest of us had joined them in this area.

It was bleak and windswept and consisted in the main of large, sodden fields separated from one another by narrow lanes. Beside these ran deep ditches, beyond which, further protected against trespassers by barricades of wet manure, lurked farms and cottages. Farmyards provided the only firm standing in the neighbourhood and into these we managed to cram the greater part of our transport. About 80 per cent of the drivers without vehicles found billets of a kind in lofts and storerooms, sharing them with farm implements and humid odours. The rest lived flinchingly under canvas. The skies wept, the mud slopped into our boots, and it was encouraging to learn that we should be moving to Forli as soon as that overcrowded town could accommodate us.

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After delays and disappointments—No. 2 Platoon was dispossessed of a large factory on the northern outskirts of the town by the 2nd Ammunition Company, and 5th Corps denied us the Adolf Hitler barracks on the southern outskirts—we moved to Forli on 1 December.

The billeting officers of 5th Corps must have had a fellow feeling for the old woman who lived in a shoe, for the town was stuffed to bursting point at this time. The streets were crammed with transport and every building with a roof and four walls, or three walls and a bit, sheltered troops—Tommies, Canadians, Indians, New Zealanders, and even Italians. Our own area was pitted with bomb craters and heaped with rubble, but after the engineers had done a few hours' work with a bulldozer we found ourselves quite well off for room. By making use of side-streets we were able to map out a convenient circuit for the ammunition point, and we solved our parking problem by putting No. 2 Platoon in a nearby railway station and lining up the three-tonners beside the pavements like taxis in a cab-rank. Company headquarters and the officers took over a block of undamaged flats (formerly the abode of professors and other gentlemen of consequence) and Workshops moved into a school yard just across the way. By evening our domestic arrangements were complete and we were settled for the winter with a degree of comfort and even elegance that compared more than favourably with the damp and dismal sloppiness of Forlimpopoli.

Although the town made a wonderful target, the best the Germans could do was shell it at night and send over a few fighter-bombers at dusk. They would dash into the ack-ack barrage, bombing and machine-gunning, and slip away at rooftop level. Once an English sergeants' mess was hit by a bomb, but more often than not it was the civilians who suffered in health and property. On one tragic occasion a bomb landed on a crowded church, causing great loss of life.

Route 9, which we used when replenishing the ammunition point from Gambettola, was strafed fairly often, but we were lucky. On 2 December three aircraft attacked Lance-Corporal Bill Ingham's1 page 389 section (No. 2 Platoon) and bullets danced all along the road, but only one vehicle was damaged.

The shelling was hardly more effective than the air raids and if it worried us for a night or two it was because the situation was strange. Lying in bed on a first or second floor, you felt that Forli was spread out like a race card with yourself and the hottest favourite equally a target for the impartial pin. Sometimes shells landed close enough for us to hear the tinkle of broken glass, and once all our water-cart drivers were roused in the small hours and ordered to rush their vehicles to the centre of the town where a large three-storied building had been set on fire by shrapnel.

With the capture of Faenza the shelling stopped, and that brings us to No. 2 Platoon's small but vital part in this exploit and to the first mention of No. 8 Army Jeep Platoon.

By 8 December the 46th British Division was over the Lamone and had established itself firmly on the far side. The New Zealanders were on the right and their task was to cross the river and relieve the British in their newly-won positions as a preliminary to moving against Faenza. This meant two jobs for the engineers: building a Bailey bridge in the British area and making a mile-long stretch of road to close a gap in the prospective supply route.

In the small hours of the 8th No. 2 Platoon, which had been standing by with its transport stripped of canopies and canopy rails, loaded rubble from ruined buildings in Forli, and by 7 a.m. the last lorry was at the Adolf Hitler barracks, where 210 vehicles were being marshalled. The platoon moved off an hour later. The road under construction (the Lamone road) started rather more than a mile from the southern outskirts of Faenza and ended about the same distance from the new Bailey bridge (Hunter's Bridge).

The area in which the engineers were working was under direct enemy observation and the transport would not have been able to enter it except for a smoke-screen laid by mobile generators. The unloading was done by Basutos, the platoon having its narrowest escape when a Spitfire, harassed by German ack-ack fire, jettisoned its bombs. By four in the afternoon all the vehicles were back in Forli, where they reloaded.

On the 9th the platoon was held up for three hours on Route 9 page 390 by shelling, and the next day, while New Zealanders crossed the river to relieve the 46th Division, shells landed near the new road, three vehicles from a British armoured brigade being hit.

The rubble convoys were shelled and mortared again on the 11th but No. 2 Platoon's luck held. That day Canadian troops crossed the Lamone between Faenza and the coast, and our engineers, working behind a thick curtain of smoke, finished Hunter's Bridge, opening the way for the first jeep train to take supplies to the 5th Brigade in its forward positions.

The train was provided by No. 8 Army Jeep Platoon whose story opened in Company headquarters' backyard at two that afternoon under a dull sky.2 There were five sections in the new platoon, each of which was manned by a party from an NZASC unit. We contributed the platoon commander (Second-Lieutenant R. J. Hudson-Airth3), the senior non-commissioned officer (Sergeant ‘Sandy’ Sanders4), and a corporal and seven drivers (No. 5 Section). The men stood about in groups, strange to one another in most cases but drawn together by a common desire for information. Little was known except that the platoon was not part of the Division though it would be attached to our Workshops for maintenance and to the 5th Brigade for operations.

They waited in the yard for three-quarters of an hour (fidgetting partly through cold and partly through excitement) and then went to a nearby Royal Army Service Corps company and took delivery of twenty jeeps with trailers and two amphibious jeeps. These were driven to an area in Forli occupied by Headquarters 5th Brigade, close to which the platoon was given billets and parking space.

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No. 8 Army Jeep Platoon—the first platoon of its kind to be manned solely by NZASC drivers—started work at seven that evening when No. 2 Section under Second-Lieutenant Hudson-Airth set out to deliver supplies to the Maori Battalion and the 23rd Battalion. The drivers returned home at breakfast-time the next morning with nothing to report except that driving conditions were bad and that they had been frozen nearly to death, once while waiting for the down-route to open and again while waiting for shelling to stop.

During the day No. 2 Platoon made its fourth trip with rubble to the Lamone road—there were no excitements—and at five in the afternoon the second jeep train moved off. Ten more jeeps with trailers had been drawn that morning and there were twenty-two vehicles in the train. It carried stores and petrol for units of the 5th Brigade, and with it went the six jeeps of No. 5 Section.

A mile and a quarter below Faenza the train turned left off Route 9 and travelled by narrow, muddy tracks to Brickworks Bridge. This spanned a tributary of the Lamone and was a mile and a quarter east of Hunter's Bridge. No traffic had crossed it yet and the approaches were so steep and slippery that three jeeps developed clutch trouble. While this was being attended to the rest of the train was halted on the far side of the bridge by heavy mortar fire. An enemy patrol was reported to be near and when the jeeps moved on every driver had his weapon handy.

Soon the Lamone road was reached. It had been built partly across open country, partly over a minor road, and partly through houses, and though it was marked by white tapes and an occasional lantern our drivers were grateful for the artificial moonlight as they crawled over its half-finished surface. Conditions worsened when the train turned on to a narrow road leading north past the 24th Battalion's forward positions, and presently a jeep slid into the ditch, blocking the rest of the train with its trailer.

‘Now Jerry began mortaring the area,’ said Percy Tristram.5 ‘George, Merv, “Buster”, and I were together, and Jim and Murray were held up lower down the line by a second jeep that had gone over the bank. For a start we sheltered in ditches and behind our vehicles, but Jerry had the road taped and things became so page 392 hot that we nipped over to a house occupied by some of the 24th Battalion. Here we crouched against a wall with stuff splintering all around us. It was half an hour before Jerry eased up enough to let us pull out the stuck jeep and push on. By now our boys had laid down a smoke-screen and this was a great help.

‘Soon we ran into more trouble. Jim and Murray, who had caught up with us, swung out rather wide on a blocked corner and put their jeep into a ditch. Murray jumped out just as she started to go over but Jim hung on to the wheel and went all the way with the jeep. Neither of the boys was hurt and they joined each other on the road and guided the rest of the convoy past the danger spot.

‘On reaching the turn-off to Hunter's Bridge Second-Lieutenant Hudson-Airth was told by our provosts that the bridge could not be used as its approaches were unsafe. The convoy was halted and a check taken, and this showed that six jeeps with trailers were missing. After that Second-Lieutenant Miles,6 who was with us on the trip, went back with a provost corporal to help salvage the missing transport and bring out any drivers who were in trouble.

‘It was now about twenty minutes since Jim and Murray had gone over the bank, and in the meantime a provost had come along and told them that Jerry's forward troops were only 250 yards away. They hadn't known this and they lost no time in doing what the provost suggested—getting the hell out of it back to the house in the 24th's lines. It was about 100 yards down the road, and here they were checked in by the picket and given a cup of tea beside a roaring fire. After they had been there five minutes a patrol came in and said it had been a nightmare getting past the corner by the ditched jeep. Jerry was right on to it with spandaus and mortars. Out in the road later the boys met Second-Lieutenant Miles who told them it was too dangerous to try to do anything about the stuck jeep and suggested they hop a ride back to Forli. Altogether six trailers and two jeeps had to be abandoned, but we got four of the trailers back some days later and one of the jeeps—less front wheels, headlamps, and so on. The rest were destroyed by the enemy.

‘By this time it had been decided that what was left of the convoy should try to go forward by an old 46th Division route. page 393 There was an hour's wait while a bulldozer did what it could to fix the track, and it was eleven before we got to Headquarters 5th Brigade. From here the jeeps were guided to their unloading points and later the convoy reassembled. As the down-route was not due to open for another sixteen hours or so the infantry provided us with accommodation and we were able to get some sleep. We set out for home at two in the afternoon of the 13th, reaching Forli, after a long hold-up near the Lamone road, at half past five in the evening. What a trip! It had taken us a day and a night to do a job we could have done in a couple of hours under normal conditions.’

It had been a bad trip, and others of the same sort were in prospect. Against the jeep drivers were mud, cold, darkness, the nearness of the enemy, and the bad state of their transport (the previous owners had neglected it shamefully). For them were the skill of the Divisional provosts and the heroism of the engineers. On this subject our No. 2 Platoon drivers could speak with authority.

For five days now they had watched the building of the Lamone road under fire and inevitably they compared their own task, which consisted of slipping in one by one and unloading, with that of the engineers. The contrast was especially marked on the morning of the 13th when Shermans of the 4th Armoured Brigade started to move up to the Lamone under cover of a smoke-screen. While shells, mortars, and rockets from nebelwerfers came through and over the smoke-screen, the tanks squeaked and rattled along the new road, crushing beneath their great tracks pieces of marble mantlepiece, ornamental tiles, bits of hand-basin—things people had built and bought and lived with. Some mortar bombs landed close but none of the drivers was hurt.

By noon eighty Shermans had entered the 5th Brigade area for the attack on Faenza, and it was this move that delayed the jeep train.

The next day—the 14th—was the last one on which the rubble convoys were needed. There was heavy shellfire while some of our lorries were unloading, and two Basutos and one engineer were wounded.

At eleven that night 427 guns opened fire on the Eighth Army front and the attack started. The plan was for the 56th Division, page 394 now in the New Zealanders' old area, to simulate a crossing of the Lamone while the real attack was launched west of it by the New Zealand Division (right), the 10th Indian Division (centre), and the Polish Corps (left). Our troops were to outflank Faenza and capture Celle, a little village a mile and a quarter west of the northern outskirts of the town.

All went well, and by breakfast-time the next morning, when the down-route opened to allow the jeep train to pass through with wounded, Celle was in our hands. There was bitter fighting on the 15th, but the next day saw the Germans withdrawing from Faenza and by the morning of the 17th it was clear.

The jeep train could travel in daylight now and use Route 9 as far as the town. On the afternoon of the 18th nine jeeps under Lieutenant G. H. Littlejohn7—Second-Lieutenant Hudson-Airth could not be expected to command every convoy himself so our subalterns took it in turn to relieve him—travelled from Forli to Headquarters 5th Brigade in an hour and a half, which seemed quite wonderful. On the way home a shell landed beside Lieutenant Littlejohn's jeep and peppered him with shrapnel in the left side, making him the unit's first battle casualty in Italy.

By now New Zealand infantry had reached the Senio River a few miles above Faenza, and on the afternoon of the 19th six jeeps, each carrying a gun crew, helped to take a company of the 27th Machine Gun Battalion into the line between Celle and the river. That night the machine-gunners fired in support of a 6th Brigade attack, the object of which was to widen the Senio line by clearing enemy pockets from the east bank. The attack succeeded and only one strongpoint managed to hold out.

Main headquarters 5th Brigade moved to Faenza on the 20th, and on the 21st No. 8 Army Jeep Platoon was told that it was not wanted any longer as the brigade could now be supplied in the ordinary way. Second-Lieutenant Hudson-Airth called his drivers together and thanked them for what they had done; they said it had been a pleasure to work under him. The rest of the day was spent in cleaning and checking the transport before handing it back to the RASC. Some drivers were glad but most were sorry—jeeps page 395 are pleasant things to handle and the platoon had begun to develop character.

But it was too early—and the drivers should have known this—to start grieving or rejoicing. The next morning Second-Lieutenant Hudson-Airth was warned that his platoon would probably be attached to the 4th Armoured Brigade, and on the 23rd, after half the drivers in each section had been replaced by others from the same units, Nos. 3, 4, and 5 Sections were posted respectively to the 20th, 19th, and 18th Armoured Regiments, which were then in Faenza, and Nos. 1 and 2 Sections and the administrative staff joined us in Forli.

The next day was Christmas Eve.

It was the best Christmas we ever had in the Army. After breakfast—the cooks had been engaged half the night with more important matters and it was a sketchy meal—we paraded outside the officers' mess, with all the bells in Forli ringing their heads off, and marched through the snow to the Esperia Theatre. Here an NZASC carol service was conducted by Padre Holland. The NZASC Band was on the stage and for once in our lives we made no bones about joining in the singing. Before dismissing us the Brigadier congratulated all units on a year's good work and told us to relax and enjoy ourselves.

It was excellent advice and we took it. Each platoon had made arrangements for a sit-down dinner, and when everything was ready and the great hour arrived how gay and Christmas-like the rooms looked, their walls bright with flags and coloured streamers, their tables with oranges and silver paper and handsome chestnut and amber beer bottles!

The dinner, too, was perfect. There was roast turkey and roast chicken with stuffing, roast pork with apple sauce, mashed and roast potatoes, and cauliflower, cabbage, and green peas. Afterwards there was plum pudding with hard sauce, fruit, nuts, and chocolates. To drink there was beer, vermouth, and vino bianco.

Meal times were staggered to allow the Major, who had worked as hard as anyone to give us a good Christmas, to visit each mess and make the looked-for reference to the decorations, the cooking, and the year's work. No one was forgotten. Our drivers from the page 396 Jeep Platoon, bringing a present of wine with them, had dinner with us, and those who had not been able to stay over Christmas Eve were invited to stay the night.

When no one could eat another scrap and all the toasts had been drunk there was community singing, and this was followed later by solos. Presently No. 3 Platoon opened its bar to allcomers. Wise men took a turn in the astringent air or sneaked away to lie down for an hour while the afternoon, wobbling a little, slipped into evening. Evening stayed long enough to have just three vermouths and it was night.

By now Forli was making a considerable noise—indeed, it might have been heard in Faenza if Faenza had been making less noise on her own account. Everyone was talking at the top of his voice, and talking, for the most part, confidentially—for any number of rosy partitions were dividing even the most crowded streets and rooms into little private worlds. But speech is inadequate to express deep feeling—song's the thing. Fortunately everyone was in perfect voice, and that being so everyone who could secure an audience—one was enough, fifty was perfect—burst out singing: not bawling, of course, but just letting it come, sort of smooth and easy. A great evening! One or two of the boys seemed to be getting a bit on the way and that was funny, for the stuff was quite extraordinarily easy to take—not a headache in a hogshead, not a fight or a word out of place. Definitely a good brew! It made you feel you loved everyone and it freed you from a sort of what-ye-may-call-it, so that you were able to tell your friends how you felt about them and say what you really thought about the platoon—the ol' platoon. ‘Strornly easy to take….

Eleven and ten got a bit joggled up and it was midnight. Bell notes boomed and tinkled in the frosty dark, and the tall tower in St Andrew's Square, the tallest tower in Forli, which had seen so many Christmasses come and go, brooded above everything—the trampled snow in the streets, the drifts piled high at the intersections, and the smooth expanses on the rooftops speckled all over with black smuts from furiously-puffing drip-burners; the Dorchester Club in the Aeronautical College and the huge, winged statue outside it (which someone, doubtless in the name of decency, had splashed with paint), and Signor Becchi's stove factory where the showers were; the Metro Theatre and the hundreds of little homes page 397 of the patient and unconsulted; the rows of lorries and tanktransporters, and the stacks of ammunition in the side-streets, and the turkey bones and parsons' noses and paper streamers; and the empty beer bottles and half-empty glasses of vermouth, and the unwashed dixies, and the noise of people singing and being sick, and all the other manifestations of a joyous and remembering spirit paying homage to the World's Birthday. Buon Natale!

It is impossible to say what made this particular Natale so very buono. Perhaps it was the snow. The quantities of food, of warmth, of wine, of everything. Or perhaps we felt in our hearts that this was the last milestone of its kind in our long journey.

But did we feel that? The news was anything but satisfactory. It told of delay and loss, and even more disturbing than its content were the doubts it gave rise to, the possibilities it opened up. Field-Marshal von Rundstedt's drive in the Ardennes was now over a week old, but before it started nothing had been written in the papers or said over the air to suggest that he was capable of launching an offensive on this scale. All the talk had been of collapse and crumbling morale and a quick end. Small wonder if we were puzzled and disconcerted.

Not that we imagined they had deliberately misled us—and by They we meant the Heads, the Experts, the Very Important Persons who were for ever stepping in and out of Lockheed Lodestars with brief-cases—but we were beginning to believe, rightly or wrongly, that They ‘just said things’.

Only our own front was making no demands on the public attention. The armies had settled down on either bank of the Senio, and the New Zealand battalions, with Forli and Faenza as winter bases, began working on a system that enabled each of them to spend regular periods in reserve.

The old year drew quietly to a close.

On New Year's Eve, anticipating a seasonal demand for flares, fireworks, and machine-gun ammunition, the Major posted a strong picket in the unit area, and the Jeep Platoon drivers, anticipating a demand for jeeps, took precautions also. Already they had lost one trailer and it was nothing to wake up in the morning to find a battery ground flat.

page 398

During the fighting for Faenza, and afterwards while the front was settling down, we had been fairly busy—before Christmas we had increased our surplus holding of 25-pounder ammunition from 14,000 to 18,000 rounds besides carrying out some heavy dumping programmes—but we had little to do in the first week of January and later we had even less. This was because a rationing system had been introduced, ammunition ear-marked for the Italian theatre having been diverted to Greece. Supplies of 3-inch gun, tank, mortar, and small-arms ammunition were affected and the allowance of 25-pounder ammunition per gun per day was fixed first at six and a half rounds and then at five rounds. As a result we were idle most of the time, and the day came when No. 2 Platoon's vehicles had to be sent for a short run to keep them in trim.

Only the jeep drivers were working at all regularly and their task, after 30 December, had been simplified by the withdrawal to Forli of the 18th Armoured Regiment. This enabled the five sections to take it in turn to supply the two regiments remaining in the line. Even so the drivers earned every penny they got.8

During late December and throughout January the 19th and 20th Armoured Regiments were employed in giving close support to the 5th and 6th Brigades and some of their Shermans were stationed in the forward defended localities. The jeep drivers had to supply these with ammunition and anything else that was needed—petrol, food, charcoal, rubble, cigarettes, beer. Also they did odd jobs—running messages, evacuating wounded, delivering mail, taking shower parties to Forli. Much of this work was done within range of enemy machine guns and some of it under direct observation. Jeeps of No. 3 Section, while serving the 20th Armoured Regiment between 23 and 30 December, came under shell, mortar, or spandau fire (and sometimes all three at once) on five trips out of six.

Nor when the day's work was done could they count on a sound sleep. Faenza was shelled nearly every night and sometimes it was bombed. There were no casualties, though, and the damage to the transport was slight.

On 30 December the jeep drivers who had been living with us page 399 in Forli moved to billets in the 2nd Ammunition Company's area in another part of the town where there was more room, and the next day Second-Lieutenant Hudson-Airth handed over his command to Captain A. B. Cottrell (2nd Ammunition Company).9

By now jeep driving was an occupation almost as rigorous as exploring the South Pole. The weather was so cold that every bomb crater was covered with two or three inches of ice, and clothes put out to dry became as stiff as buckram in a quarter of an hour and long icicles formed on them. The taps of the water carts froze solid, and as soon as you thawed them out with hot water they froze again. On 20 January 40 degrees of frost were recorded in Faenza and 36 degrees in Forli.

Other jeep drivers—Don Rs for instance—were able to improvise cabs or all-weather equipment for their protection, but the Jeep Platoon had to keep its transport cleared for action and any excresences that interfered with vision or with carrying capacity were frowned on. The drivers muffled themselves up like Eskimos but it was impossible to keep warm while driving—hands became numb after a few minutes and wherever there was an inch of bare flesh the frost bit and stung like iodine.

Driving was not only unpleasant—it was difficult and dangerous. The main roads were kept fairly clear of snow but side roads and rubble tracks were often in a terrible state. When the hard frosts came, sludge froze in solid lumps and ruts became knife-edged, cutting and tearing tires. Sometimes a slight thaw was followed by a day's drizzle, and then ice turned to mud, enabling jeep tires to pick up nails and pieces of shrapnel with the infallibility of magnets. No thaw lasted long, however, and again the jeeps would be jumping and bucketing among the ruts.

But our drivers did their job and they did it well. While the platoon was serving the 4th Armoured Brigade—in January alone 10,311 miles were covered—there was only one road accident, a minor collision in which no one was hurt.

At the end of the month Captain Cottrell relinquished his command to Second-Lieutenant G. R. Colston (2nd Ammunition Company),10 and on the same day No. 8 Army Jeep Platoon ceased to page 400 exist and the 8th New Zealand Jeep Platoon was formed as a component of the NZASC and placed on our war establishment. In effect it was one of our platoons.

The rest of us had spent January very pleasantly. There was little or no work, but who wanted work when the streets were full of snow and the temperature below freezing point? Several times a week we had lunch or dinner at the NAAFI's Dorchester Club—a lengthy business this because we used to eat two meals so that we could drink two glasses of beer—and in the afternoons and evenings we joined the long queue in front of the Metro Cinema. We swept snow from our ammunition and we went for walks. We constructed drip-burners of a new and more lethal pattern and in the evenings sat round them or round Signor Becchi's stoves, taking, it may be, a glass of something—a little sweet albano or some vermouth and vino bianco mixed. And as we sipped we talked reverently of the progress of the Russians. By the end of January they were only ninety miles from Berlin.

Meanwhile, less dazzlingly but quite as bravely, American and British forces had bitten into the Ardennes salient, cut it in half, struck at its base, and finally driven von Rundstedt's panzers back into the Reich under a battering from the air that eclipsed even the massacre in the Falaise Gap.

And the Americans had landed on Luzon.

No wonder we were able to say goodbye to our members of the Tongariro draft (there were 112 of them and we started saying goodbye at the beginning of February) in the quiet confidence that we should all meet in New Zealand before next Christmas.11

On 2 February Major Latimer handed over his command to an officer who was known, if not through personal contact then through story and legend, to everyone in the unit—Major Coutts. Those who had served under him before were quick to notice that he page break page break page 401 had lost none of his old thoroughness. One of his first acts was to subject the transport to a frosty scrutiny. He could find little fault with it.

black and white photograph of soldiers and smoke

Burnt-out ammunition dump, Vairano

black and white photograph of muddy tyre

Sangro mud was now our element’ —page 323

black and white photograph of army football team

Unbeaten that season—Ammunition Company football team

black and white photograph of army trucks at water tank

Water point at Hove Dump

Saying goodbye to the Tongariro draft occupied the greater part of our nights and days for a week. The train was signalled but it didn't come, and the fact that the refreshment room was open all the time was perhaps a mixed blessing. No. 3 Platoon steadied itself long enough to hand in its Dodges and take delivery of thirty-three, six-wheel, 6-ton Macks, and our ‘Tongariros’ long enough to parade for the Brigadier. (‘You're hanging together well, soldier,’ he remarked mildly to a suffering member of No. 1 Platoon.) Three days later 105 reinforcements, mostly old members of the unit who had left in November, joined us from Base, and the next morning we cleared our throats for the last time, said ‘Well …’ for the last time, and grinned and waved with a rather overdone heartiness as the 1st Supply Company's lorries whisked our ‘Tongariros’ from sight. Sad though it was to lose them we gave a sigh almost of relief. Tottering on the brink of the platform and dashing in and out of the refreshment room had unnerved everyone.

A good grievance came opportunely to restore our morale—nineteen members of the disbanded Tank Transporter Company joined us to take charge of the new Macks. As few of us would admit that we were incapable of driving and maintaining, or of learning to drive and maintain, anything on wheels, their intrusion was resented bitterly, though the wisdom of employing drivers who were already experienced in the handling of heavy vehicles was not questioned. Only when we learned that no one who had a claim to stay with the unit would be sent away to make room for the newcomers were our feelings mollified.

When these excitements and distractions were over we settled down to enjoy a succession of sunny, frosty days. Business was not as slack as it had been but it was by no means brisk.

There were a few long trips during February. Early in the month Nos. 1 and 2 Platoons moved the Divisional Cavalry to an area near Fabriano, where the newly-formed 9th Brigade, of which it was to be an infantry unit, was assembling for training. The night, of course, was spent at Albacina, the villagers holding a dance. From then on the new brigade needed training ammunition from page 402 time to time and it was a pleasure to supply it. Towards the end of the month our Engineers, with the help of No. 4 Platoon transport, built several bridges across the Lamone for practice. Some of the drivers were not strange to this work, sixteen lorries from the platoon having stood by in Faenza between 19 and 21 December with bridging material for the 7th Field Company. The Jeep Platoon, meanwhile, was still serving the 4th Armoured Brigade, but the work was easier now that winter was nearly over.

The war, too, was nearing its end. Budapest had fallen after a long, bloody battle and the Allies were ashore at Iwo Jima. Turkey was in the war on our side and so was Egypt, Breslau was going to pieces brick by brick, the Russians were only an hour's drive from Berlin, troops of the American First and Ninth Armies were across the Roer, Field-Marshal Montgomery was driving towards the Rhine with more than 1500 tanks, and Germany was dying in terrible, convulsive pain. It was like cancer of the stomach on a planetary scale.

February had ended already and on 3 March we set out for Albacina, leaving detachments from No. 3 Platoon and the Ammunition Platoon to serve the Artillery until its relief was completed, No. 2 Platoon to return our 25-pounder ammunition to Ravenna and help the Engineers with bridging demonstrations, and a section of the Jeep Platoon to serve the 18th Armoured Regiment, which was to stay in the field for another ten days under the command of the Poles. The relief was being carried out by the 5th Kresowa Division.

It was still dark when we turned into Route 9 and the people of Forli were just beginning to stir.

By two in the afternoon we had reached our village.

Our village hadn't changed and the people were still fond of us. A sort of frilliness had begun to cover hedges and fruit trees and the mountain was looking fine. The Maiale had survived Christmas and was still in her casa, and while we were moving into the villa the Marchese turned up in his baby Fiat to fuss about the electriclight bill and the plumbing. One of the toilets had been blocked during our last visit.

We were at Albacina for three and a half weeks and it was a page 403 happy time. The load-carriers did a few jobs and Workshops laboured to bring the Jeep Platoon's transport up to the mark before the next move. Attached drivers were returned to their parent units, and by the end of the month, forty-six reinforcements having joined us on the 27th, the platoon was manned entirely by our own officers and men—Captain Boyce, Second-Lieutenant Colston, and sixty-two other ranks. Also it had been reorganised on a basis of three sections of ten jeeps and given its own administrative vehicles.

We played football, beating the 1st Petrol Company 12-nil, drawing with the 25th Battalion 9-all, and losing to the 2nd Ammunition Company 15-3. We played hockey as well, beating 1st Petrol Company 5-3, 4th Reserve Mechanical Transport Company 5-nil, and 2nd Ammunition Company 4-1, which made us winners of the NZASC competition. We brushed up our drill and as a result did not disgrace ourselves at an NZASC ceremonial parade for the GOC and Major-General H. K. Kippenberger. For the rest we did picket duties, practised marksmanship on an improvised range in the hills behind the Marchese's villa, amused ourselves, kept out of trouble.

While we were doing these things the Allies crossed the Siegfried Line, raced for the Rhine bridges, captured Cologne, crossed the Rhine at Remagen between Bonn and Coblenz, swept the Germans from the Saar, crossed the Rhine in three more places and drove into the Ruhr. Meanwhile Danzig had fallen and the Russians had entered Austria. For the wretched Germans it was an agony unparalleled in history. ‘What will you have? quoth God; pay for it and take it.’

Some of the days were hot but the nights were still cold, and the drivers on picket duty were grateful when the old lady who worked in the garden came down in the evening to light a fire at the gate of the Marchese's villa. In the evenings the trees and brushy hedges were alive with birds and full of trapped sunlight, and the air was moist with coming or past showers, and there was apt to be a rainbow, often a double one, balancing between two mountains.

The wineshops opened while it was still light, and after tea people would go into them in groups, shaking off children at the door, and order a small jug of vermouth, which was very expensive, and a large one of white wine, which was not cheap, and mix them page 404 together. Then it was pleasant, with the children calling in the street and the cool evening coming in through the window and the air not yet thick with voices and foul smoke, to take a glass. Then it was pleasant to have your say. ‘They won't fix those bloody jeeps—no show in the world!’ ‘The old Jerry, he hangs on, eh?’ ‘Jane's gone off a lot lately.’

Daily there was more heat in the sun, and the tide of spring broke over the country like green surf, with a flying of green foam and a bursting of white spray and a scudding of amber mist. The birds ran shrieking through the hedges and it was Passion Week, the time of the world's ransom and of spring offensives.

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colour map of Trieste area

Route of 2nd New Zealand Division: Pesaro to Trieste

1 Cpl W. O. Ingham; MM, m.i.d.; bus driver; Auckland; born Albany, Auckland, 10 Mar 1917.

2 The chief appointments on 2 December were: Company HQ, Maj R. P. Latimer, 2 Lt M. L. O'Sullivan (posted 29 May 44), Lt L. A. Cropp (posted 28 Aug 44), WO II A. L. Salmond (posted 2 Sep 43); No. 1 Platoon, Capt A. R. Delley, 2 Lt A. K. Catran (posted 1 Oct 44); No. 2 Platoon, Capt B. J. Williams (posted 23 Aug 44), 2 Lt C. B. P. Hendrey (posted 20 Jun 44); No. 3 Platoon, Capt G. Dykes, Lt H. G. Littlejohn (posted 28 Aug 44); Workshops, Capt A. G. Morris; Ammunition Platoon, Lt H. W. Boyce, 2 Lt K. G. Miles (posted 18 Jul 44), 2 Lt R. J. Hudson-Airth (posted 20 Sep 44).

The following had left us: Capt K. E. May (posted to Advanced Base, 18 Apr 44), Capt C. H. Haig (posted to Base Training Depot, 7 Aug 44), Lt R. K. Davis (posted to 1 NZ Petrol Company, 26 Jan 44), Lt K. L. Richards (posted to 1 NZ Petrol Company, 17 Apr 44).

3 2 Lt R. J. Hudson-Airth; electrical salesman; Wellington; born Wellington, 13 Feb 1911.

4 Sgt T. R. D. Sanders; farmer; Rissington, Hawke's Bay; born Darlington, England, 24 Mar 1915.

5 Dvr P. A. Tristram; wire worker; Wellington; born Hamilton, 2 Feb 1923.

6 Maj K. G. Miles; clerk; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 10 Jan 1921; Regular soldier.

7 Maj G. H. Littlejohn; student; born NZ, 24 Dec 1922; wounded 18 Dec 1944.

8 No. 5 Section spent a week with the 18th Armoured Regiment in December and after that it took turn and turn about with No. 4 Section in serving the 19th Armoured Regiment. This was under the command of the 5th Brigade, with one squadron on a gunline, one giving close support to forward infantry, and one in reserve at Faenza.

9 Capt A. B. Cottrell, MC; carrier; Rotorua; born Rotorua, 25 Mar 1915.

10 Lt G. R. Colston; clerk; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 5 Jul 1916. He was posted to 1 Ammunition Company on 19 February.

11 Among them were Maj Latimer, Lt Catran, and 2 Lt Hudson-Airth. Sgt Denny Wells was commissioned in the field on 13 February, his request to remain with No. 2 Platoon being granted, and on the 23rd we were joined by 2 Lts W. A. Brown, R. W. W. Green, and F. M. Hill. Capt Morris, who had left us on 14 December, was replaced by 2 Lt E. G. Legge (posted 14 Nov 44), and while he was away ill Workshops was commanded first by our old friend 2 Lt Noel Campbell (detached from 1 Petrol Company) and later by another Petrol Company officer, 2 Lt K. R. Drummond.