Journey Towards Christmas
(2) Drive to a Cricket Match
(2) Drive to a Cricket Match
No. 3 Platoon's great six-tonners brushed past the bruised hedges, lolloped over potholes, loomed one after another through the dust, long, blunt, grey bonnet following dwarfed tray. The heavy tires crushed everything—spandau boxes, castaway Mausers, German overcoats, German respirators.
Our second-line holding had been doubled for the advance, and though we were helped by two Royal Army Service Corps platoons every load-carrier had to make two trips when the unit or the ammunition point moved forward.
On 18 April we left the Massa Lombarda area for one a mile and a half beyond the Sillaro.
We go forward (wrote Ted Paul), again travelling along dusty, rough roads through a badly battered piece of country. There are some great sights—houses razed, tanks shot up, masses of bomb craters. There are other sights as well and we bury three of them on arriving in the new area, which is next to a forward ammunition point established yesterday by No. 1 Platoon. There are many bodies lying in fields and under hedges near here. All have been robbed of boots and outer clothing. Many are just boys.
Later in the morning Nos. 1 and 2 Platoons and the RASC platoons brought forward ammunition from the old point, and in the afternoon a convoy of ninety-eight vehicles went to Santarcangelo, below Cesena on Route 9, to fetch 25-pounder ammunition. The roads were jammed with traffic, and by the time the lorries began to arrive back, after covering 140 miles, 45,000 rounds of 25-pounder had been sold from the ammunition point and a queue of twenty-eight artillery vehicles was waiting to be served. On the 19th, 39,000 rounds were issued, and on the 20th (while Hitler celebrated his 56th birthday and the Division crashed through the Genghiz Khan Line) 16,000 rounds. The 21st was another busy day. For the load-carriers there was the long, dusty drive to Santarcangelo, for eighteen of the jeeps the job of bringing forward small-arms ammunition from Cesena, for the Axis the loss of Bologna, and for Captain Delley and Second-Lieutenant Miles the distinction of leading the advance for a few minutes. They set out in search of a suitable area for the ammunition point, found themselves forward of the infantry, withdrew….page 429
On the 22nd the ammunition point moved to an area some two miles north-west of Budrio and the drivers of the load-carriers were again very busy. Company headquarters, Workshops, and the Jeep Platoon had a quiet day.
Clear with a cold, blustering wind (wrote Ted Paul). Two or three lots of bombers come over but on the whole there is not much doing. Late this afternoon we see two German planes and the ack-ack opens up only to close down after a few shots. It is reported that the planes carried white flags and landed on the Forli aerodrome. From all accounts many German flyers have been deserting like this during the last few days.
That night, while Nos. 1 and 3 Platoons felt their way along traffic-crowded roads to bring ammunition to the new point, tracers lit up the sky over Bologna. It was the night of the Luftwaffe's surprise appearance.
The unit moved again on the 24th.
Up soon after 5 a.m. (wrote Ted Paul), and away before six, We pass through Medicina and later through the outskirts of Bologna but we don't see much of it. The railway station and some of the suburbs are in a terrible mess. When we pull up in our new area near San Giorgio we have travelled thirty-four miles. The locals present us with eggs and vino and refuse payment. They take a tremendous interest in us and express surprise at our appearance, the Germans, who left here three nights ago per bullock-drawn motor trucks, having told them that the Kiwi soldier is a black man who hacks civilians about with a knife which he carries in his mouth.
Our new area—a big yard with four two-storied brick houses—is near the ammunition point, which also moved up today. We are surrounded by tall poplars, fruit trees, grape vines, and green, green pastures. It really is a beautiful district. Today's big rumour, supposed to have come from a German officer taken prisoner, is that the German armies in Italy will capitulate tomorrow.
Early the next morning, while the shadows from the poplars shortened inch by inch and the engineers worked beside the Po and the war went on unchecked, No. 1 Platoon, No. 3 Platoon, and the Ammunition Platoon went to an area near Bondeno and opened a new ammunition point. The rest of the unit followed later in the day.
We drive through beautiful country and have plenty of time in which to admire it. There is a tremendous stream of traffic on page 430 the roads—lorries travelling nose-to-tail—and we take just two and three-quarter hours to cover the first eight miles. We travel twenty-one miles and get to our new area at half past three. The people here are not over-friendly but they are interested in us. The advance is going so fast that it is impossible to pick up all the waifs and strays—especially as many houses are sheltering German soldiers dressed as civilians. Two Kiwis killed by snipers today.
We are just three miles short of the Po. The old truck is parked alongside a hayloft and the level countryside stretches away into a dusty haze.
The field was in full cry. The scent was fresh every morning and the spoor plain. When darkness closed in the quarry could be seen disappearing among dust and shadows. Thy chase had a beast in view.
On 26 April the Division advanced from the Po bridgehead to the Adige River, eleven miles away, and No. 2 Platoon drove over the Po and went five miles north, halting near the village of Trecenta. That night the brigades crossed the 150-yard stretch of the Adige and with them went amphibious tanks and Fantails. Two Jeep Platoon drivers, their vehicles loaded with ammunition for B Company of the 23rd Battalion, were taken over in assault boats.
Later, a bridging train of six vehicles from No. 2 Platoon moved with the 5th Field Park Company to a staging area near the river and stood by until daylight in heavy rain. Then the lorries were called forward to the stopbank and the engineers started to build a 40-foot raft at a point five and a half miles north-north-east of Trecenta. Elsewhere a pontoon bridge was going across.
At midday the rest of the platoon moved to Crocetta, a village three miles north-north-east of Trecenta, and halted in the main street. Here the Germans had left two field guns from which they had not had time to remove even the grease and brown paper protecting the breech-blocks. Nearby, anything but brand-new, squatted between thirty and forty prisoners. Our drivers, questioning them in Italian, learned that they had given their officers the slip and hidden themselves in a house with the intention of surrendering. They were Austrian mechanics—in fact fellow tradesmen—practically workmates. Photographs of girl friends and chubby babies page 431 began to circulate and cigarettes were exchanged. Soon victors and vanquished were showing the bewildered villagers how little five years and eight months of bitter warfare weigh in the balance against a shared trade, an impulse of curiosity, and the common man's feeling that after a fight it is proper to shake hands. It was as well that no wine was available. A few litres of ‘Purple Death’ and they would have been hanging round each other's necks and harmonising.
That night (27-28 April) the 9th Brigade relieved the 6th Brigade and the Gurkhas relieved the 5th. The jeep drivers who had been with the infantry returned to their platoon, but not for a rest. Late that evening nine drivers and six jeeps were sent to each of the 5th and 6th Brigades, and eleven drivers and eight jeeps to the 9th. The next morning the 12th Lancers, followed by the Divisional Cavalry Battalion, the 27th Battalion, Headquarters 9th Brigade, and the 22nd Battalion, started for Venice.
No. 2 Platoon moved at 10 a.m., crossing the Adige and travelling by traffic-choked roads, muddy and slippery after the rain, to an area near Piacenza, six miles north-east of Crocetta, where it laagered beside a canal in a green meadow gay with daffodils. This the lorries at once turned into a morass.
After lunch eleven vehicles left to bridge a canal at a point three miles north-east of the area. A tank was at the bridge site and Gurkha infantry were in covering positions beside the road. By five in the afternoon the job was finished and the lorries, splashing through a heavy downpour, set out for Castel Guglielmo, six miles below the pontoon bridge, to reload.
While the rest of the platoon was eating its tea and shivering in the watery sunshine, an Italian civilian arrived in a great state of fuss to point a shaking finger at a large white building about a mile away and report that more than sixty Germans were in possession of it. Captain Williams, with an abundance of volunteers to choose from—no one was prepared to miss such an excellent opportunity of firing a shot in anger and collecting perhaps a German watch—organised three fighting patrols, and these set out somewhat incautiously across the sopping paddocks. A small armoured car, a Dingo borrowed from a neighbouring unit, went with them, and Captain Williams, revolver in hand, led the way. The plan, apparently, was to carry the building by assault. Talking heatedly page 432 about the importance of not bunching, our drivers advanced in tight little knots under an increasing barrage of Italian assurance that there was not a German within miles. They occupied the building without opposition and found it empty, the infantry having mopped up the district earlier in the afternoon. A little dashed they returned to listen to the news.
The news was quite exceptionally worth listening to. Himmler had offered unconditional surrender to Britain and America. Brescia and Bergamo, great cities at the foot of the Alps, were in our hands. Four-fifths of Berlin had fallen to Marshals Zhukov and Koniev. Graziani had been caught by partisans—so, according to reports, had Mussolini.
Darkness came down like a wet dishcloth and there was nothing to hear except drumming rain—no guns, no mortars, no sounds of war. During the day New Zealand motorised infantry had driven north-east, splitting the German defence, breaking the Venetian line, and for the first time finding that soft underbelly to which Mr. Churchill had referred hopefully long ago. By 1 a.m. on 29 April they had reached Padua, an important road centre thirty miles north-east of the Adige bridges and twenty-three miles from Venice.
At 9 a.m. on the 29th, No. 2 Platoon, following the 5th Field Park Company, plunged into the stream of traffic flowing towards Padua. The stream flowed smoothly as far as Este, where the main Padua road was reached, but at this point it started to clog, and soon everything on the road—lorries, guns, ambulances—was welded together in a solid line, down which each check was transmitted jarringly. At Monselice there was a long halt in the shadow of green hills, and from then on, while bursts of sunshine alternated with bursts of rain, the convoy crept and crawled, halting every few minutes. None the less Padua was reached before dusk.
The vehicles were parked in a side-street and the drivers told to settle down for the night. The atmosphere, though, was unsettling. In Padua, where St. Anthony worked and preached in the thirteenth century, partisans were busily proving that new machine guns sweep clean. Shots rang out and hand grenades exploded, and doubtless our drivers would have stayed quietly in their side-street had no one told them that there was a German supply dump only 400 yards away. Partisan guards, some of them very drunk, were page 433 turning away civilians but allowing New Zealanders to help themselves.
The inside of the building was a dipsomaniac's dream—an Aladdin's Cave of alcoholic delights. It was piled high with cases of three-star cognac, kummel, cherry brandy, acquavitae, and eggnog. There were some disadvantages. A hunt for Fascists was in progress close by and every so often the building would be shaken by an explosion. It was not easy to see for smoke and the air was pungent with the fumes of cordite, but this was no concern of our drivers. Their business was with the free liquor. They carried it away on bicycles and in hand-carts lease-loaned by the Italians, and by nightfall a huge number of cases had been liberated as well as a large quantity of sugar. There were no interruptions, the guards being interested only in preventing civilians from taking anything. The caretaker had been liquidated earlier in the afternoon, an incautious protest having shown him for what he was—a black-hearted, collaborating Fascist.
At eight that evening the 9th Brigade reached the Piave River at a point eighteen miles north-east of Venice, the 22nd Battalion entering San Dona on the far bank. Blown bridges made a pause necessary, and all night long tanks, guns, and lorries drove through dust and darkness to catch up with the head of the Division. Ammunition and other supplies were far in the rear but they were coming up fast. Our own unit was at Trecenta, just north of the Po, with Nos. 1 and 3 Platoons working like tigers.
Under clouded skies No. 2 Platoon left Padua the next morning and passed within six miles of Venice, which had been liberated the day before. It drove on at a fair pace through country criss-crossed with canals, their bridges unblown thanks to partisans and to the speed of the advance. Lighters and tugboats lay deserted at their moorings with ack-ack guns pointing idly at a sky no longer menacing. The platoon halted next door to the 5th Field Park Company in an area off the main Venice-Trieste road. The Piave was about five miles away.
Towards evening the skies started to drip. A chill breeze sprang up and the section corporals went round with an issue of summer clothing. Three lorries were sent to the Piave, where the 6th Field Company was building a 300-foot pontoon bridge, and a little of the liberated cognac was taken as a precaution against chills. A page 434 picket was posted and told to be particularly alert as a large force of Germans cut off by the advance was known to be in the neighbourhood.
The picket stalked glumly beneath the dripping fruit trees and the platoon slept. Tomorrow would be the first day of May.
There was a sound of revelry by night.
Down the breeze came shouts, bursts of laughter, singing. ‘Partisans,’ said the picket, and as it was two in the morning they went to wake the relief.
The first shots were fired while the relief were pulling on their boots. Probably partisans they told each other, but as the shots sounded quite close they decided to wake the officers. Captain Williams got out of his car and listened. ‘Sounds like Ities celebrating,’ he said. Away on the right where Headquarters 5th Field Park Company was laagered something was burning fiercely. When another fire started, Captain Williams sent Lieutenant Rowe to find out what was going on.
The disturbance was centred round a farmyard and a long L-shaped building occupied by Headquarters 5th Field Park Company. The yard was next to the main road and through it passed a track leading to No. 2 Platoon's area, between which and the road were the closely-parked vehicles of a British FBE1 unit. A Polish transport unit, carrying bridging for the 5th Field Park Company, was laagered nearby.
Hughie Harrison,2 meanwhile, was making a private reconnaissance. He went through the area of the FBE unit and found some Tommies in full battle order lining a ditch. They had no idea what was going on so Hughie continued towards the Field Park Company's headquarters. On the way he was joined by a Tommy and a Pole. They reached the first vehicle in the farmyard—a YMCA van—and crept round the corner of a building. While they were doing this a man in a long greatcoat stepped from the shadows and said ‘Kamerad!’ ‘Tedeschi!’ yelled the Pole, and at the same instant the German bent over his Schmeizer. The page 435 Tommy, though, was too quick for him. He fired and the German dropped. Machine guns opened up at once and Hughie and the other two slipped away into the shadows.
He raced back to Captain Williams, and while he was telling his story there was an explosion and another fire broke out in the farmyard. Lieutenant Rowe's report also showed that the situation was serious. He had made contact with a sergeant of the 5th Field Park Company and had learnt from him that a strong German force had taken the headquarters by surprise, capturing some men and killing and wounding others. What was going on now he didn't know.
Lieutenant Rowe left to get more information and our drivers were ordered to stand-to. While they were being roused—the racket was terrific now but they were tired and the events of the past fortnight had conditioned them to night noises—bursts of tracer passed chest high between the lorries. Amazed and frightened, they prepared to defend themselves.
In the farmyard a quarter of a mile away transport and haystacks were on fire and there was a lot of noise and shouting. Tracers and explosive bullets from bredas, spandaus, and submachine guns whistled overhead, and beside these the enemy was using mortars, panzerfaust, and 20-millimetre guns. A continual confused shouting in German, Italian, and English made a worry of sound, like a dog-fight, but the drivers could catch a word here and there: ‘Avanti!’ ‘Raus!’ ‘Hey, Bill!’ ‘Raus!’
Rain fell steadily all the time, slanting in steely rods between the fruit trees and glistening against a fiery background. Flame-lit eameos, glimpsed momentarily, appeared and vanished: a figure stooping to pour petrol on and around the YMCA van; two bewildered Germans and a blue flash from a tommy gun; a group of soldiers who seemed to be wrestling among the flames.
The whistling and shouting did not stop and it was hard to tell friend from foe. In the case of the Polish drivers it was almost impossible.
Lieutenant Rowe came back with the news that the farmyard was now a scene of indescribable confusion. It and the long building were under heavy fire, the Germans having taken up positions on the floodbank of a canal on the far side of the main road. He had gone forward to the first burning haystack and had found page 436 two dead sappers beside it. A Pole had been shot in the arm while trying to sneak round the haystack. Germans were in a building on the right flank about 400 yards away and fighting was going on over a wide area.
Captain Williams decided that it was time No. 2 Platoon took part in the battle. He called his drivers together and divided them into two groups, one to defend the transport and one to go forward to the farmyard. The latter was divided into two patrols of sixteen men armed with Bren guns, tommy guns, and rifles, and these set out in open order, one advancing straight ahead under Second-Lieutenant Wells, the other swinging left under Captain Williams.
The firing and shouting had died down considerably by now but with the end of the war in sight no one was taking chances. (Our drivers, by the way, were behaving far more sensibly and professionally than they had done two days earlier in the Piacenza area.) The farmyard was reached without trouble and Captain Williams led his patrol to the back of the long L-shaped building. It seemed to be empty but when he called out ‘Kiwi here!’—taking it that ‘Kiwi’ was a word unfamiliar to the enemy—a window opened on the top floor. He shouted ‘Kiwi’ twice and then fired his revolver, one driver joining in with a tommy gun and another with a Bren. An excited New Zealand voice called out: ‘It's all right. You can come in. No Teds round here.’
While the building was being searched—two Germans were found but they gave no trouble—Captain Williams went into the farmyard, which was dancing and leaping in the light from five burning vehicles. Beside one of them he saw the charred body of a New Zealander. A sapper was lying badly wounded near another and he dragged him to safety. Then he shifted a jeep that was in danger of catching alight, fired at someone who failed to answer when challenged, and removed a blazing jerrican from the tailboard of a lorry loaded with petrol. It sounds simple enough, but these acts were done in the full glare of the flames when for all he knew to the contrary the neighbourhood was alive with Germans.
By now, from asking questions and listening to excited talk, our drivers were beginning to understand what had happened. A strong mixed force (in one report 500 was the number mentioned) had come shouting and singing down the main road to open fire on Headquarters 5th Field Park Company from positions behind the page 437 canal stopbank. The engineers managed to form some sort of a holding line in front of the bridging lorries—ours, their own, the Poles', and the FBE unit's—but, being hopelessly outnumbered, were unable to take offensive action. Soon the attackers swarmed into the yard and the paddocks adjoining it, setting on fire loaded vehicles with petrol, panzerfaust, and grenades, and starting empty ones and driving them off. (The Germans were desperately in need of transport.) Next they rushed the farm buildings and took prisoners, first killing two New Zealanders who came out of a door with their hands raised. In this action five men were killed, six wounded, and twenty-eight captured. Several vehicles were damaged, seven had been driven away, and six were on fire.
The enemy's next move was to withdraw from the farmyard to the canal stopbank and pour fire at anything and everything. Burning vehicles and haystacks made a flame-lit no-man's-land that was impassable.
After the action had lasted about an hour and a half—roughly, that is, at half past three—the whole force made off up a narrow road on the north side of the canal, taking with it its dead and wounded, its prisoners, and seventeen vehicles, ten of which belonged to a platoon of the 7th Field Company that had been ambushed and captured nearby with the loss of three men killed and fourteen wounded. Nothing was left behind except a few weapons and an ox-cart mounted with a 20-millimetre gun. The patrols from No. 2 Platoon arrived about fifteen to twenty minutes after the enemy had withdrawn.
While our drivers were helping the wounded and searching the building for stragglers, two companies of the 21st Battalion supported by tanks halted outside the farmyard. They had been sent to the rescue, but on finding all quiet they pushed on to relieve machine-gunners at the Piave bridge—the task intended for them originally. They left a Bren carrier to carry wounded.
Stray shots were still going off—those irritating and unnecessary shots that are always heard after the dust has settled and the danger is over—but the situation was completely in hand now and soon it would be light. Armed parties under Lieutenant Rowe and Second-Lieutenant Wells were posted on the canal stopbank and an enemy breda was put in working order.
In the farmhouse kitchen fourteen desperately tired German page 438 prisoners—eight had been taken in the first building down the road—were standing in two groups, one comparatively bright and chatty, one hangdog. The latter was guarded by a party of engineers who seemed to be remembering the charred corpses and the two men who had been shot in cold blood.
A partisan arrived with a report that between a thousand and two thousand Germans were halted four kilometres down the road. Friends of his had them under observation and he wanted our drivers to borrow a few tanks and round them up. More partisans arrived and after holding a council of war the whole party went off on reconnaissance, the cock of their Sten guns and the jaunty swing of their plus fours expressing most plainly their low opinion of our platoon.
After such a night a bright sunny morning would have been appreciated but the skies were sullen. The fruit trees shivered in a cold wind and the sodden battlefield, breathing puffs and streamers of black smoke, was sordid beyond belief. Poking among a trail of broken and charred rubbish a member of the FBE unit was searching for a tin mug. He had lost everything he possessed, and he had lost his best friend as well.
It was 1 May and a wet, dull morning. Below the Alps the partisans were liberating city after famous city; on the main coast road the Division was rolling towards Trieste; in San Dona, just over the Piave, a bridging train was serving the 8th Field Company, which was improvising a 250-foot floating bridge, and the rest of No. 2 Platoon was trying vainly to keep warm and dry. In the village of Monastier, five miles north-west of the area in which the engineers had been overrun, Second-Lieutenant Colston (attached to the 9th Brigade) was witnessing the surrender of more than a thousand Germans, the force that had caused all the trouble a few hours earlier. Near the fire-station at Mestre, five miles from Venice, Corporal Ted Paul (Workshops) was bringing his diary up to date:
Yesterday—the last day of April—was one of our best days so far. We were up early and away from Trecenta by five. We took an hour to cover the first seven miles and then we crossed the Adige. Danny missed the pontoon bridge and I very nearly page 439 found out the depth of the water. As it was our front wheel went over the side and by the time we had been towed to safety the convoy was miles ahead.
We travelled forty-three miles before halting for breakfast in a little village called Mandriola, three miles below Padua. We had our meal in the lovely park of a stately old house in which Victor Emmanuel III signed the 1918 armistice. After breakfast we drove on through Padua and here it seemed as though the entire populace had turned out to welcome us. Men, women, and children—at one point they were at least ten deep—lined the streets to give us a wonderful reception, cheer us, wave flags, and whenever the convoy halted bestow the odd kiss. All along the road we got a grand hearing. It is a great sensation to be the centre of an admiring crowd of highly-delighted people even if one has done little to deserve their admiration. We were hailed as triumphant heroes yesterday. Later we passed hundreds of German prisoners, some walking, some riding in carts, all practically unescorted. They were a poor, dejected-looking lot.
We reached our destination—Mestre—at about one o'clock. We could see Venice in the distance as we turned into our area and naturally all feet were itching to pound the streets of that famous city. Even the drivers of the load-carriers, though bleary-eyed with weariness, were keen. Since the start of the campaign they have been grappling with a volume of work that can seldom have been surpassed in the history of our unit. No. 1 Platoon is already heading back south to pick up ammunition left at Ficarolo, where the Div crossed the Po.
We are a source of amazement to the people round here. They have been led to believe that the New Zealand soldier is a terrible nigger and that we have no motors, no benzine, no tires, few clothes, and little food. At tea-time last night we had an amazed audience while we ate roast beef, potatoes, green peas, pears, and custard. All the things they were told have been proved false and poor old Tedesco is now ‘molto cattivo, molto brutale, molto basso’.
All day we saw partisans and they were doing their job like delighted school children. There were a good few parading up and down the streets of Mestre last night and they were armed with the wildest and weirdest collection of weapons imaginable. I doubt if some of them ever handled a rifle before as they loose off a shot on the least pretext. Ask a partisan how his rifle works and he immediately points it at something and pulls the trigger. There were bangs going on all over the place all the time and there was no feeling of security.
The news, though, was terrific—only one square mile of Berlin left to the Germans, a Russian spearhead believed to have page 440 reached Unter Den Linden, Mark Clark saying that the German armies in Italy have been virtually eliminated as a military force. Well, it was a wonderful day and I enjoyed every inch of our 70-mile journey.
May 1. We are still at Mestre and still looking towards Venice, itching to get into it. No. 3 Platoon set off for Ficarolo this morning to pick up No. 2 Platoon's holding. Most of the ammunition we brought forward during the early stages of the advance is still at Bondeno and Ficarolo and it has been decided that from now on the Company will carry only its own second-line holding of small-arms ammunition and twice its establishment of 25-pounder. The rest of the ammunition in rear dumps will be handed over to Corps.
The Jeep Platoon moved to Mestre with us and it is very pleased with itself. At present six jeeps are with the 5th Brigade, six with the 6th Brigade, two with the 9th Brigade, and three with the 6th Field Company. Four more jeeps have just set off to join the 9th Brigade.
Our jeep drivers have been sharing the experiences of the infantry to the full—mortaring, shelling, ambushes, alarms, reconnaissance, loot. They have been carting everything from Majors to margarine.
Well, it's getting on for lunch-time. Already one or two of the boys have ‘snuk’ away to Venice. Things are drawing to a close….
Things were drawing to a close. That evening General Freyberg shook hands with the Chief of Staff of a Yugoslav Corps that had come over the mountains from the east, and at noon the next day the war in Italy ended. Under the instrument of surrender, signed on 29 April, all land, sea, and air forces commanded by Colonel-General Heinrich von Vietinghoff, German Commander-in-Chief in the South-West and Commander-in-Chief of Army Group C, had capitulated unconditionally to Field-Marshal Alexander.
The rain had ended as well and it was a sunny day. No. 2 Platoon, travelling in convoy behind the 5th Field Park Company, was enjoying itself thoroughly. Under a blue and white sky, over roads strewn with green branches and bunches of wild flowers, beneath triumphal arches whose great letters said VIVA LA PACE E LIBERAZIONE while groups of children and young girls stood at every cottage door and farm gate chorusing ‘Ciao! Ciao! Ciao!’, the convoy sped north-east, our drivers sitting up behind their page 441 steering-wheels like performing sea lions, their faces as pop-eyed with anticipation as though they were expecting juicy girls to come through the air like flying-fish.
Through Ceggia they went, through Portogruaro, Fossalta, and San Michele, over the Tagliamento, then through Latisana, Palazzolo, San Giorgio, and Cervignano. Beyond the broad Isonzo there was a change in the political sympathies of the liberated. The crown of Savoy gave place to the red star. TITO! TITO! TITO! screamed a hundred posters. The triumphal arches said VIVA IL COMITATO ESECUTIVO and VIVA LA FRATELLANZA ITALOSLOVENA and VIVA IL MARESCIALLO TITO. The girls of Tito's army wore red stars in their forage caps and most of the men wore red neckerchiefs. Our drivers were inclined to bristle—not because they were opposed to Russia but because Tito seemed to be snapping up all the fish.
The convoy entered the town of Ronchi, drove through a sea of smiling faces, a forest of waving arms, a constellation of red stars, and down an avenue of chestnut trees, halting in a green meadow by the Ronchi railway station, eighteen miles north-west of Trieste. Everyone felt he had come to journey's end and there was also the feeling of arriving for the first cricket match of the season. Indeed, it was inescapable.
The close-cropped turf was slightly damp and the smell of mown grass, sweet and musty, was everywhere. White candles were on the chestnut trees, and the girls of Ronchi, wearing their summer frocks, stood giggling on the boundary line. High up on the right, in pearly masses rimmed and shone through by sunlight, in clumps of impenetrable blackness, thunderclouds floated. Delicate shafts of rain, as always at early cricket matches, pricked downwards and vanished, the sun triumphing. You expected to see, walking sedately across the moist turf, two umpires, white-coated, skyward-glancing, carrying stumps….
History was erupting all over Europe—it was like a day out of the Apocalypse. Hitler was reported to have committed suicide— page 442 Goebbels, too. Berlin and Hamburg, first and second cities of the Reich, were in Allied hands and Prague had been declared an open city by the new German Fuehrer, Grand-Admiral Doenitz.
At last this tremendous day ended. The shadows flowed down the hills and it was evening. At Mestre No. 1 Platoon's drivers, back from Ficarolo with ammunition, boiled water for a wash and a shave. No ammunition had been issued during the day and they could hope for a good rest. In Venice it was curfew time, and all the silver and gold and diamonds had vanished from the water and the bridges and palaces were gazing at their reflections in mirrors of ruffled jade—crinkled hoops for the reflection of bridges, trembling castles of dark green for the palaces. Drivers from the company, their faces sticky from the salt air, their eyes aching from the dazzling whiteness of the buildings, glided down the Grand Canal in a gondola, wondering if they had missed the last leave-lorry. They had visited a beer garden, the Basilica of San Marco, the Bridge of Sighs, Ponte di Rialto, the House of Desdemona, and a second beer garden. It had been a tiring afternoon.
Along a fine, broad road overlooking the sea two of our jeeps rushed towards Trieste through the pine-scented darkness with petrol for Headquarters 22nd Battalion at the Hotel Regina. Most of the jeep drivers with the 9th Brigade had been in at the death, and one of them, serving the 27th Battalion, had captured six prisoners earlier in the day. In Monfalcone, the next town beyond Ronchi, it was a night of carnival. In front of the largest hotel blazed a huge red star, and the main street was lined with laughing girls as with borders of bright flowers. A travelling fair was in town and as the chipped plaster horses, the blue swans, the scarlet gondolas, stirred smoothly by golden convoluted rods, swam round in circles, a steam organ played ‘The Beer Barrel Polka’ and swings tipped against the sky and the crowd danced in the side-streets. Not far away some No. 2 Platoon drivers had pacified the old people with sips of Padua kummel and were now flirting with their daughters, but not shamelessly. ‘Watch yourself,’ Captain Williams had said. ‘This part of the world hasn't always belonged to Italy and Tito may have ideas about it. They take their politics seriously in Yugoslavia.’ Tonight, though, except for some of Tito's motor-cyclists who were riding around as grimly as though page 443 the war had just started, no one was taking anything seriously. Noisy happiness was the keynote.
The darkness deepened. By the Ronchi railway station the chestnut trees were spreading their sweet English fragrance and their candles were like ghosts in the darkness; the cricket match would have been over these two hours. Now, perhaps, the groundsman's old horse, hooves muffled in great shoes, would be dragging the heavy stone roller over tomorrow's wicket. There was quiet in the area at last and the lorries stood in pools of shadow and silence. The ladies of Ronchi, on the discovery that a paybook was missing, had been banished in disgrace, but they were still chattering in the railway yard, their faces pale ovals in the darkness and the plainest of them borrowing beauty from the event and from the hour.
From the south-east came a long column of prisoners. They sang no songs—neither the ‘Horst Wessel’ nor ‘Stille Nacht’—and they gave no greetings and received none. There were thousands of them and the rhythm of their feet was like surf.
Yugoslavs were firing flares and in places the sky was crimson above Monfalcone. Away in the hills, with a sound strong and lonely—wing-tips lashing Lake Ellesmere as the swans rush into the sky—heavy machine guns were in action. But the war in Italy was over. The chase had ended and the beast was in chains.
1 Folding Boat Equipment.