New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
There was doubtless no thought of poetic justice in the mind of Authority when it decided on the port of arrival; it was, however, from Taranto that the Italian invasion fleet had sailed for the conquest, via Albania, of Greece. The discomfiture of the Italians in this enterprise was perhaps the chief factor in Germany's declaring war on Greece, a consequence of which was the rapid removal of the New Zealand Division from that country to Crete. Now the New Zealand Division was about to land at Taranto and help chase the Germans out of Italy, but, unlike ‘the ranks of Tuscany’, the populace had no difficulty in withholding its cheers.
The transports stayed in the outer harbour and the sappers strapped their multitudinous belongings around their persons before struggling down the ships' sides into landing barges. Near the wharf in the inner harbour they saw their first Italian castle, one that had been there in some form or another for about three thousand years. Taranto is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe.
Those sappers who were new to war also had their first glimpse of what bombing can do to a waterfront; but there was little time ‘to stand and stare’, for after stacking their heavy gear they were led through the narrow streets of the dock area into the open country of stone houses, red-tiled roofs, terraced vineyards and stone fences enclosing tiny paddocks.
Four miles inland and something over an hour later, the column halted on a hillside strewn with olive trees and overlooking the harbour. There were rows of Italian submarines and destroyers peacefully moored and protected by barrage balloons along the waterfront. The advance party that had arrived some time earlier to lay out a camp for the Division was told that it could help itself to as much of Italy as it liked—so long as it did not ask for stores, labour or equipment. There was, in consequence, virtually no camp, but there were compen- page 484 sations in the form of vendors of sweet grapes at threepence per pound and sour wine at less than threepence per pint. Waves of minstrelsy rose and fell before the sappers settled down under the olive trees for their first night in Italy.
Light showers in the morning were suffered with indulgent fortitude by men who had last seen rain clouds in Tunisia. A two hours' route march was followed by a talk on anti-malaria precautions. Leave to Taranto followed for those free from camp duties, but apart from distant views of the castle and close views of Italian soldiery carrying arms but peaceably disposed, there was little to appeal. The streets were narrow, for the most part dirty, very smelly and faintly reminiscent of Cairo. Italian medieval history has no place in sapper military education, so there were few who knew that Taranto's streets had, with deliberate intent, been built narrow; it is easier to drop stones or pour boiling water on enemies confined in narrow places.
The Germans had not left much behind them in the way of supplies. Sergeant Begbie1 noted in his diary after a day's sight-seeing:
‘We were having our bully beef and biscuits on a park seat overlooking the harbour when a well dressed middle aged lady came along and just stared at us. We gave her most of the bully, a bit of bread, some margerine and biscuits. The tears almost came into her eyes. It's the kids that are suffering most.’
Fifth Field Park Company was given the job of improving the Divisional camp site, which involved the building of rough shelters for cookhouses and latrines.
Eighth Field Company supplied carpenters and such extra labour as was required; the rest of the company formed roads and, to quote the diary again, ‘carried the metal in buckets, sacks, and any old thing that would hold it. Bob Semple would have had a fit.’2
When the other two sapper companies arrived on 22 October they found a reasonably equipped bivouac camp awaiting them. Fifth Field Park Company received an addition to its strength of 27 sappers late of 21 Mechanical Equipment Company. There had been second thoughts about the use that might be found for bulldozers and other heavy plant in a mountainous country. Chrystal's Rift, Sedada and Beni Ulid, to name but a few page 485 instances, had proved the worth of such machines. Colonel Hanson, in planning and reorganising for the new theatre well before departing from Egypt, had proposed the attachment to 5 Field Park Company of a Mechanical Equipment Platoon with an establishment of 4 officers and 100 other ranks, and the twenty-seven sappers were the nucleus of the new sub-unit. Captain Armstrong,3 late Adjutant of the Railway Construction and Maintenance Group, with Lieutenant Gowan as his second-in-command, was the original commander.
‘Jerry Gowan and I were the joint founders. We were both from 8 Fd Coy and thanks to the cooperation of Don March-banks, our OC, we took with us our drivers, the Company transport sergeant, Bert Church, and one or two others. We had no fixed establishment to begin with and of course no G.1098. Jerry was a great scrounger and we soon got a bit of gear together. We picked up our first plant at Bari, 2 D8 dozers, a D4, a power grader, two RB excavators (dismounted) and a number of dumpers, 12 I think. About twenty blokes under Sergt Young4 ex 21 Mech Equip Coy had crossed from Egypt with this plant and it was mounted where necessary on six tank transporters from an NZASC unit and we set out to join the Div waiting on the Sangro. It was a nightmare trip on the steep, narrow and winding roads but we got there and were soon organised after a fashion. We took over 3 D6 dozers which had been with the Div in Africa and which had been working forward under the direct control of Major Russ Currie. We were short of men at that time but we had a good team with many versatile types who could drive a dumper or operate a dozer or shovel as required. The show gradually built up and got organised as the war went on.’
Little training was possible until equipment arrived and so there was much route-marching. Usually the sappers followed a narrow stone-walled highway out and returned across country, which was easier walking, for, after centuries of use by donkey carts, the roads had three deep ruts worn into the underlying rock—one in the centre made by the donkey and one on each side by the wheels.
It was now late autumn and football fields became a first priority. Working parties removed many boulders from the selected area and play commenced forthwith. It was pretty page 486 rugged rugby, even slightly gladiatorial, for the first four games produced one broken finger and four broken legs.
As soon as the first vehicle flight was unloaded the CRE borrowed a vehicle and a driver and went forward to make a reconnaissance of the rivers, bridges and roads over which the Division was likely to pass. It was an interesting trip and included being shot at and missed by a Canadian tank, the commander of which at first flatly refused to believe that the New Zealanders were in Italy. And if they were New Zealanders, how was it that they were driving along a road that Jerry had just vacated? A detailed explanation, plus an identification card, secured their freedom. After sheltering in a culvert from a mountain storm and upsetting the domestic arrangements of a large snake in whose company they had unknowingly passed the night, they met 78 Division on the Trigno River. ‘The CRE 78 Div. asked me to go down and have a look at his improvised bridge across the river …,’ said Colonel Hanson. ‘The enemy mortar crews and machine gunners showed considerable ill feeling towards us and we could not get within several hundred yards of the bridge. I felt that I had already nosed into enough which was not my business and my driver and I were quite happy to turn about and make back towards Taranto’.
The broad outline of the war in Italy at the end of October was that, on the west coast, the Anglo-American Fifth Army had made good its landing at Salerno, captured the essential port of Naples and, with its sights fixed on the glittering political prize of Rome, had crossed the Volturno River. Eighth Army, on the eastern side of the mountain backbone, had secured the ports of Taranto, Brindisi and Bari, had captured and put into use the airfields at Foggia and was meeting increased resistance as it neared the chosen enemy defence line. A glance at the map will confirm that the Italian waist is narrowest from the mouth of the Garigliano River on the west to the mouth of the Sangro River on the east—less than ninety miles in a direct line—and that both rivers are by way of being moats along the bottoms of ridges which, so to speak, are like ribs extending from the central spine. This was the southern edge of the Winterstellung, the Germans' Winter Line on which the invaders were to be held, at least over the winter months. In this design the German generals could count on the wet months as an ally as helpful as a rainy day to a nearly defeated test cricket team.page 487
Fifth Field Park Company was the first sapper unit to leave Taranto. The day the second flight arrived it left for the Joia del Colla area, halfway to Bari some 60 miles to the north, to build roads and set up a camp for 2 NZ Division Advanced Base; there was also work in Bari, where a building had been commandeered for the use of New Zealand troops on leave and in which many alterations were necessary. Bari is a modern city, the second in southern Italy and the largest on the east coast south of Venice. There is a fine harbour and, like Taranto, a venerable castle, with a tradition far removed from the bitterness of warring nations. The basilica of San Nicola has, for over nine hundred years, housed the remains of a saint whose name has been anglicised into Santa Claus.
Earthmoving equipment at Joia was of the same primitive design as that at Taranto. There were picks and shovels and nothing else; indents for wheelbarrows drew the information that there were none in Italy, but timber was available at the RE dump in Taranto for building wooden boxes with long carrying handles. The sappers consoled themselves by remarking that if Japan happened to win the war they would be set for jobs as rickshaw men. Lieutenant ‘Bailey George’ O'Leary,5 who commanded the bridging platoon and was so called to distinguish him from Captain George Armstrong, OC Mechanical Equipment Platoon—Kiwi sappers were not strong on military titles—wrote of his first operational job:
‘It was at this dump that Sergt Stan Kerr6 spotted one almost serviceable wheelbarrow and the remains of another—the main working part, the wheel, was still attached. He had had plenty of experience with RE dumps in Egypt and suggested the best time to collect the barrows would be at lunch time as he felt sure the sappers would be observing regular working hours.’
Accordingly a borrowed 3-ton truck arrived at the dump just before midday and events fell out as the Kiwi sergeant foretold—the gates were closed and the guardians of the dump went to lunch. A proper requisition to collect a load of short lengths of timber had been produced and Sergeant Kerr suggested that, as his men had not brought lunch with them, they would load the truck while the others had their meal. Some fast work fol- page 488 lowed and, as ‘Bailey George’ concludes, ‘Thus 5 Fld Park became the proud owners of the only two wheel barrows in occupied Italy’.
Heavy, banked-up black clouds were the forerunners of a wild night with lashing rain, lightning flashes thirty-five to the minute, and continuous peals of thunder. Twelve barrage balloons came down in flames. The rain continued all the next day, with another but lesser thunderstorm at night. Washed-out bivvies and ankle-deep mud drew comparisons with the Western Desert, which now appeared almost Elysian in retrospect.
It was, to borrow a musical phrase, the opening movement of a theme with variations—the theme was mud and the variations snow and slush. They became as much a part of a sapper's life in Italy as had the searing dust-storms of North Africa.
The engineer component of 2 NZ Division began in the middle of November to move towards the war, 200 miles away, and it was soon realised that 200 miles across the desert and 200 miles across Italy were not the same. They crossed valley after valley beyond counting, along roads built by Italian civil engineers who were skilled beyond the ordinary in herring-boning a road up a range and down the other side, thereby doubling the distance in running miles. Another novelty to the desert-dwelling Kiwi was the sight of villages and quite considerable towns perched insecurely on the sides and tops of hills. There was argument as to whether the roads went up the hills because the villages were there, or whether the villages were there because the roads went over the ranges.
There were two staging areas on the way to the north—Altamura and Lucera, one near Bari and the other beyond Foggia. It was at the latter place that shattered bridges, cratered cross-roads and blown-off hairpin bends were proof that the German sapper had not lost his cunning in demolitions.
He had evidently not expected to return to southern Italy, for there was scarcely an undamaged culvert or an undisturbed electric power pole. On important railway lines every rail was cut by explosives and miles of sleepers broken by a giant rail-mounted rooter. The German sapper is a very methodical person.
Sixth Field Company was the first to move forward (8 November) and at Serracapriola left the main coastal highway for an page 489 inland secondary road that might be the Divisional supply route. By the time they reached the mountain-peak village of Montefalcone (13th), where No. 1 Platoon was to build a deviation through its shattered streets, the sappers had become used to seeing the rest of the convoy apparently moving in opposite directions on five levels below them. The platoon took up its quarters in the Italian Mountain Police barracks, a two-storied building of forty rooms housing one dead donkey and three live policemen. The village was built on the end of a spur and the road followed the contours of the spur like a recumbent letter U, and was of course blown in the most awkward place to repair. Kiwi ingenuity, however, converted a major construction job into a trivial affair of a few hours.
It so happened that the two legs of the U were joined by a narrow, winding street of stone steps, flanked by the usual stone, multi-story buildings of the country. The grade was not steep as steps go, about one in four, and it was only a matter of blowing up a building or so to ease the corners, then using the resultant rubble to smooth out the steps and Jerry's work was quite undone.
Lieutenant Hermans, whose platoon was doing the job, wrote:
‘To maintain peaceful relations, I called upon the Burgomaster who called together the equivalent of the town board, and over a nice drop of vino I explained what was going to take place and why in my meagre Italian and best sign language…. However to make things quite clear I took the Burgomaster along to see a jack hammer busily drilling a hole in the stone wall of one of the buildings and a sapper standing by with a plug of gelignite which was obviously intended to go into the hole. It didn't take him long to see that there were going to be lots of holes and a big bang so the evacuation took place expeditiously.’
The sappers worked to a background of distant thunder which the old hands knew for what it was. They were back in the war again. The deviation was finished the next day and took just eight working hours. The platoon then packed up in readiness to rejoin the Company near Furci, where it was maintaining a crossing over the Fibrento stream and doing general road improvement.
During the rainy season in Italy the engineers had continually to impress on other units the necessity of getting water off the roads at the earliest possible moment by opening and keeping open the side drains. When drains were cleared early page 490 the roads lasted fairly well, but if clearance was delayed they broke up rapidly. Eventually, units camped along a road were made responsible for the maintenance of drains on their frontage.
‘Road maintenance’ and ‘general road improvement’ are terms that will be met frequently in the story of the Italian campaign. They are convenient words but very unrevealing. Major Duncan White lifts the curtain on maintaining the donkey-cart-wide secondary roads in south-east Italy:
‘The traffic was intense and it was difficult to keep the roads open, particularly at night, when heavy vehicle followed heavy vehicle along the same rut. As they bogged down following vehicles would attempt detours and in the morning there would be bogged down vehicles over a wide area. Winch trucks worked day and night to pull them through. We cut down many acres of trees for corduroy construction over the worst spots. Returning traffic tended to force heavy traffic off the narrow metalled portion of the road and shoulders collapsed. We investigated construction of lighter roads for return traffic and this was profitable but difficult to direct at nights…. Road making was a very difficult task during wet weather. Before the road work was well begun transport would begin to attempt its passage. Metal trucks had to compete with other traffic and turn round was slow. Heavy laden ammo and petrol trucks would follow each other in the same ruts. Armoured cars and Sherman tanks passed up to the front and then the squadrons they relieved would pass back again. The existing roads in Italy were thoroughly compacted by centuries of use but their narrow width made two way traffic difficult. Vehicles were frequently capsized or bogged on the unmetalled verges.’
Major White's mention of corduroy calls for a short explanation. It was the name given to a method of covering unmetalled lengths of road with timber, split roughly to size and so providing a platform for the passage of wheeled vehicles. His mention of tanks and the damage they caused to the roads was echoed by Major Currie:
‘The tanks were dynamite on the macadam roads. They tore them to bits, particularly the shoulders, and quickly made a two way road into a one way one. At corners they delighted in skid turning by braking harder than was necessary on one track and moving on the other. They were fair cows.’
The sapper term for a capsize was ‘to go for a Victory Roll’.page 491
To return to No. 1 Platoon, 6 Field Company. Sergeant Begbie's diary describes the route already followed by the Company:
‘Moved off at 0800 with chains on all vehicles. We didn't have any for our own Dingo (my bus). Boy what a trip. Travelled about 20 miles and we could still throw a stone at Montefalcone, the village we had just left. Cold miserable trip. Climbed thousands of feet. Pulled into an old roadhouse and brewed up…. another 15 miles in pitch darkness over a narrow mountain road (four hours) right up to our artillery. A lively duel was under way. He sent back a patrol to blow a bridge he had missed and our infantry had a clash with him.7 They drove the Jerries off. He tried to bomb it and is now shelling it. Crash Crash Crash. He is at it again. We have to cross it at 0900 and go six miles further.’
Eighth Field Company took over the area on the 16th and 6 Field, with headquarters at Casalanguida, spread along the road to Atessa and worked on several nasty road craters in addition to maintaining a very difficult deviation where the bridge over the Osento River had been blown. An unending line of supply trucks, plus the vehicles of 6 Brigade which went through on the 18th, kept the sappers and bulldozers of 5 Field Park Company, which had joined the column at Bari, working in shifts around the clock.
It was near the Osento deviation on 17 November that the engineers suffered their first casualties in Italy when Lieutenant Dahl8 (5 Field Park Company) was killed and two sappers of 8 Field Company were wounded, one fatally.
The Division had assumed responsibility for a sector occupied by 8 Indian Division, which was sidestepping to the right to thicken up the line and make room for a foundation member of Eighth Army. Nineteenth Indian Brigade, now under General Freyberg's command, remained on the left flank to mask the entry of the new gladiators, and so continued to shepherd the enemy towards the Sangro while 6 Brigade deployed for a thrust across that river.
On the 19th 7 Field Company took over road maintenance from Gissi to Atessa, 8 Field Company moved forward into the page 492 Osento River area and 6 Field Company closed up to 6 Brigade, checked road verges and filled craters. The enemy had retired beyond the Sangro River on the New Zealand axis of advance, and the intention was to follow him at the earliest possible moment. In furtherance of this intention Lieutenant Hunter,9 with a section from his platoon, went to look for a suitable crossing place for the support-arm vehicles. They followed a road along the infantry FDLs until they came to a farm access track and did a mine-sweep to the riverbank.
‘This was a slow business as we picked up an awful lot of rubbish with the detectors. I had the section partly as a covering party and we were lucky to spot a Jerry patrol before they spotted us—for a relatively large party we weren't heavily armed (only two Tommy guns) and we were spread out a bit. I felt like a hen with a flock of chickens trying to shut them all up at once and keep still. The next night I went down again with an NCO and 3 or 4 sappers. Got out on to the river bed and found a reasonably satisfactory spot for the bridge and then turned back to assess the earthworks necessary to get the bridging trucks in.’
The situation at that date was that the Eighth Army, on the east coast, had made better progress than the Fifth Army, on the west side of the Apennines which divide Italy as the Southern Alps would the South Island if they were more centrally situated.
The mainland of Italy lies north-west to south-east so that the battle line ran almost due north and south, with 78 Division on the Adriatic coast, 8 Indian Division on its left, then 1 Canadian Division to the south among the hills and, still farther south, 5 Division in touch with the right of Fifth Army. The intention was to capture Ortona on the coast and spread inland while General Freyberg sent his force straight up to Chieti, thence inland to Avezzano, which would create such a threat to Rome as might force an enemy retirement on the Fifth Army front.
We, looking back, know that it did not turn out that way, but that was the plan when 2 NZ Division began to square up to the valley of the Sangro River.
The Division was well ahead of the Canadians on its left in the foothills, and in consequence had an open left flank and a belligerent enemy occupying the Perano–Archi ridge, which was page 493 roughly parallel to the New Zealand axis of advance. It was necessary to remove the menace before the Canadians would be able to do so, and 19 Indian Brigade supported by 19 Armoured Regiment cleared the enemy off the ridge and across the Sangro.
Some description of the Sangro valley, the southern edge of the German Winter Line, may be useful at this point.
The New Zealand sector of the valley was some two miles wide, well wooded with olive and other trees and studded with farmhouses as, of course, are the hills behind and before. The Sangro, like so many New Zealand waterways, runs in a shingly bed up to a quarter of a mile in width, with the main water-course meandering about. Nearly all the flat land is on the south side of the river, which follows the grey bluffs of a rolling plateau and is subject to flash flooding after rain in the hills. A road on either side skirts the valley floor; the one on the far or enemy side leaves the main highway east of Casoli, crosses the Aventino River and Route 84, turns north, then skirts the Sangro for about two miles and finally winds its way up to Lanciano. It is generally referred to as the lateral road. The Strada Sangritana on the south side of the valley ran across the Divisional front, then climbed the Archi ridge and so moved off the New Zealand axis. A connecting road between the Strada Sangritana and Route 84 crosses both the Sangro and Aventino above their confluence.
Fifth Field Park Company moved forward in sections as its equipment was unloaded. By 17 November Bridging, Workshops and Field Stores Platoons were camped near Gissi, with two dozers working forward under the direction of Major Currie and the Mechanical Equipment Platoon still waiting for plant at Bari.
Bridging Platoon had handed in its obsolescent Small Box Girder set and Albion trucks at the RE dump at Foggia and collected thirteen trucks loaded with the new Bailey bridging components. It was really divisional first-aid equipment, because any extensive bridging operations would use more than thirteen truckloads of components. On demand, non-engineer transport would bring forward the required amount of bridging from the Corps Bridging Dump.
Three very important developments in military engineering during World War II were the exploitation of four-wheel-drive vehicles, the use of mechanical equipment, and Bailey bridging.page 494
The Bailey bridge was the most recent addition to sapper facilities, and could be assembled quickly and in various ways for differing loads: it could be used for orthodox fixed bridging, for floating bridging where anchored boats or pontoons form the piers, or for suspension bridging where a gorge is too deep to build midway supporting piers. It will be appreciated that whereas a civil bridge may take months to erect, the military page 495 counterpart, particularly in the battle areas, must be erected in a matter of hours, often at night under fire and without lights. Methods of construction must necessarily be simple and foundations elementary.
The panel is the basic member of a Bailey bridge and might be likened to a heavy steel farm gate 10 ft by 5 ft 1 in., strengthened by diagonal bracing. Panels are easily connected to form a continuous girder in multiples of ten feet. The strength of the girder may be increased by bolting together up to three connected panels side by side (known as trusses) and two panels on top of the trusses (known as storeys). The ‘truss’ and ‘storey’ is generally omitted in description, so that a ‘single single’ is the lightest combination possible and a ‘triple triple’ the heaviest. The British divisions generally built a ‘single single’ first and strengthened it later, but the New Zealand-built bridge was almost invariably made strong enough to carry a Sherman tank, for the paramount need of getting support arms, especially tanks, up to the infantry had been seared into the souls of the Kiwi sappers. The span lengths and strengths for a Class 30, or Sherman tank, bridge range from 50 feet of single-single to 200 feet of triple-triple.
The normal method of construction was to build sections on rollers on the home bank and push them forward. A light launching nose was first built and then the main bridge, for it is vital to have as much weight of bridge on the home bank as that being pushed over the river. The weight of the bridge proper thus balanced the launching nose, whose length depended on the gap to be crossed. When the span was completed the launching nose was dismantled and the bridge jacked down off the rollers to the base plates. After the ramps are positioned and the bridge decked, it is ready for traffic.
Many and varied were the uses devised for sections of Bailey bridging; lengths were laid flat across swampy areas too soft for corduroy, crib retaining walls were built with sections and demolished road elbows were countered by half-bridging, that is, erecting girders on one side and fitting the transoms into the bank on the other. But perhaps the most characteristic Kiwi improvisation was the building of strong pens in which to fatten the odd porker allegedly found wandering at large.
This is a convenient point at which to outline the system of supplying bridging in the field as practised in Italy. The Bridging Platoon of 5 Field Park Company carried sufficient components to bridge an 80 ft gap. This was a ready-to-use page 496 supply and, as soon as it was used, was replaced from the Corps bridging dump. Where the situation demanded the provision of more bridging than the platoon could carry, the CRE drew his requirements directly from the Corps dump. In such a case the components, to avoid reloading, were carried to the bridge site in NZASC vehicles under the control of 5 Field Park Company.
To return to the Sangro valley. Sixth Brigade had taken over the right half of 19 Indian Brigade's sector during the night 19 - 20 November preparatory to a dash through the knee-high river the following night to secure a bridgehead in the Winter-stellung. The Indians, by forcing the evacuation of Archi on the same day as 6 Brigade moved into position, had cleared the south bank of the Sangro as far as the Aventino River junction. The departing enemy left a trail of destruction behind him. Anybody with time on his hands to enjoy the spectacle could have watched several spans of the bridge over the Sangro erupt smoke and crumble into rubble. It is significant of the changed role of the engineers that a bulldozer driver was awarded an MM before the New Zealand infantry had fired a shot. A multiarch masonry bridge over the 100-foot-wide Piranello stream at the bottom of the Archi ridge near the Perano railway station had been demolished, and it was urgent that a crossing be put in to get suppliees forward to 19 Indian Brigade and to bring out the wounded.
Major Currie, who was acting as forward staff officer to the CRE, was told to take a bulldozer and get a track down the 12 ft high riverbanks and a road across the shingly bed. The dozer, operated by Sapper Green,10 was dozing the rubble of the masonry bridge into an Irishman's bridge when the dawn came and the enemy opened up from across the Sangro with a high-velocity 75-millimetre gun. It takes more than ordinary nerve to operate a noisy bulldozer under fire, for, like a mine detector operator, the driver cannot hear approaching shells and dive for cover. Green carried on until he was taken off the job before he was shot off, and Major Currie ‘recced’ for another crossing out of direct observation. This detour was later known as Currie's Deviation. All that day Green towed urgent traffic across the Piranello in spite of searching fire and then worked for six hours non-stop to complete the deviation.page 497
Heavy rain all through the night of the 19th turned the knee-deep stream into a waist-high torrent through which infantry could not wade, and 6 Brigade's operation was postponed. It is therefore not necessary to traverse the sapper work that would have been involved, except to note that 8 Field Company handed over the Osento deviation to 7 Field Company and was spread along the road between Atessa and the Sangro valley.
As day followed day, with the river never low enough to wade, postponement followed postponement and plan followed plan. Eventually the whole Eighth Army plan was recast, giving the New Zealand Division the mission of forcing a bridgehead on a two-brigade front and seizing the road from Castelfrentano to Guardiagrele, some two miles beyond the Sangro.
Some idea of the solid pick-and-shovel work done by the engineer units to keep the roads open for traffic may be obtained from extracts from a diary kept by Lieutenant Veart of 7 Field Company—the conditions are applicable to all sapper units:
‘20th. Raining heavily and road cut up badly. Darky Clements11 forward repairing culverts, remainder on road maintenance. Dave McCormick12 attached so sent him away to obtain timber. River banked up and looked like we'd lose road but managed to put in temporary culvert and divert water. After tea we opened up road and worked until 0300 hrs and put in large culvert.
‘21st. Roads very bad after rain. 120 tanks moved through and ripped roads to pieces…. Two [compressors] breaking up concrete from demolished arches and placing on roads. Worked for several hours after tea filling in ruts.
‘22nd. Sprs Calder13 and Redwood14 [sic] working 60 Ities on road drainage west of bridge. Ities from 6 to 60 but good workers on the roads. Solid line of traffic going through all day. Gen. Freyberg ordered a quad pushed over bank as it blocked the road. Road still bad from tank ruts.
‘24th. 28 Maori Bn worked on road all day. Solid line of transport passing through all day. No chance of working metal page 498 trucks…. Duncan15 wants three tonners of corduroy sent forward tonight plus working party to stay sine die…. 5 Trucks and 100 men from A.A. [Anti-Aircraft Regiment] arrived today under command. Men finding it tough working all day and picquet every night. Must see Provosts. Total men today on Road. 1 full Bn. 80 A.T. [Anti-Tank Regiment], 100 A.A., 200 Ities, 40 Div Cav, 60 sappers, 14 ¾ miles, 1 man 20 yds.’
The Osento ford was a worry to many others besides the sappers who had to keep it open. Mile-long traffic jams upset the timetables of the supply services, the tempers of the drivers and the plans of the commanders; 21 Battalion had to camp in the riverbed overnight while it waited its turn to cross.
Major White was instructed to replace the demolished three-span concrete bridge with a Bailey as soon as the material arrived, and truckloads of components were worried through the almost stationary line of banked-up vehicles. No. 1 Platoon (Lieutenant Concher) started on the Company's first operational Bailey, 150 ft triple-single, at 6 p.m. on the 22nd and worked through the night. It was a night full of trouble, for the sappers had to learn by trial and error; Company Headquarters turned out to help the weary men and the first vehicle passed across at three o'clock that afternoon.
It was not the end of the sappers' responsibility, however, for tanks still had to use the ford. The drivers viewed the track down into the rocky gully with distaste, and with a childlike faith in the capacity of the field engineers to work miracles, were quite ready to risk their necks driving a Class 30 load over a Class 12 bridge.
The previous day Headquarters 5 Field Park Company, Workshops and Field Stores Platoons had shifted farther along the Atessa road almost into the Sangro valley, and Mechanical Equipment had joined Bridging Platoon at Gissi. The column, led by a road grader with a top speed of 15 miles per hour, had given the sappers plenty of time to admire the scenery. By the time they reached the hilltop village of Gissi they were sick of scenery.
If, during the Italian campaigns, little mention is made of 5 Field Park Company, it is because of the changed circumstances. In general a divisional field park company is not an operational unit in the sense that field companies are. In North Africa 5 Field Park Company had three sections, one of which, bridging, was rarely used for that purpose; in Italy it had a page 499 stores platoon, a workshops platoon, a mechanical equipment platoon and a bridging platoon, all of which were in constant employment.
The Stores Platoon was the agency for the collection, holding and delivery of engineer stores, not only to the field companies but to the Division as a whole. Workshops Platoon could manufacture almost anything and also assisted the Light Aid Detachment of the attached Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. The Mechanical Equipment Platoon was the custodian and operator of the earthmoving plant. The Bridging Platoon was a holding sub-unit and delivered the goods to the field companies for building.
It should be mentioned in passing that a divisional group of Canadian engineers with their CRE16 and headquarters had been placed under command of CRE, 2 NZ Division, in order to gain some battle experience before joining their own people. They were employed on road work in the rear of the New Zealand sappers. Fresh from England, they had been trained and disciplined to such an extent that Kiwi engineer officers could not be induced to go within a mile of their camp. To be saluted by working sappers was an unnerving experience.
Brigadier Hanson is interesting in this connection:
‘The Canadians were quite punctilious about saluting and the Sappers always addressed their officers as “Sir” as compared with our sappers who called their junior officers Jack or Bill as the case might be, and the old soldier sappers often addressed me as “Boss”. The New Zealand Engineers had really become a family and I do not think any of our officers would have had it differently. As for myself, I felt it was quite an honour to be freely accepted as the boss.’
The changed situation wherein 2 New Zealand Division was to attack on double the frontage previously envisaged entailed the moving of the left flank to a point opposite the Aventino River junction where, in the triangle between that river and the Sangro, the enemy had established himself after blowing up the Archi bridge. His eviction was essential to a successful crossing and 19 Indian Brigade, still under command of the Division, was asked to arrange it.page 500
Only half the brigade was safely on the enemy side when the river flash-flooded and debris carried the ropes away so that the brigade was forced to fight with its back to the river. After dark another 5 Field Park Company party (Lieutenant Cuthbertson18) tried to get more ropes across but the water was too high. The CRE then told Captain Morgan to get a folding boat from Field Park and establish some means of crossing the river for the Indians.
‘I went to Fd Park and woke the Sgt of Bridging Pl. He gathered up a party of about 20 and we set off with the FBE. We carried the boat on our shoulders along the lateral road until we got to the rear of the demolished (Archi) bridge. We then found that a route had been established across the remnants of the bridge.’
Cuthbertson had in the meantime been joined by Lieutenant O'Leary. The pair had made a ‘recce’ of the blown bridge and found that it was possible to cross the river by scrambling over the fallen masonry, so giving the brigade a supply line again. The folding boat was hidden from view on the side of the road and its bearers returned to their bivouacs. The enemy for his part decided to withdraw from the disputed triangle. Mechanical Equipment Platoon had by this time reported in to 5 Field Park Company headquarters and as soon as it was dark (24th) the dozers, commanded by Lieutenant Gowan, filled demolitions along the Strada Sangritana. The noise seemed to upset the enemy, who repeatedly but unavailingly shelled the area as long as the work went on, which was nearly all night. The German gunners had, however, scored a minor point during the day. Field Stores area was given a thorough doing over and a direct hit on a truck loaded with explosives wrecked three more vehicles. The drivers luckily were away at lunch, but Stores Platoon decided to move back somewhat. There is no sense in getting shot up when it is avoidable.
Prior to the issue of the final operation orders for crossing the Sangro, work was done nightly on 6 Field Company's existing farm track and in forming another from the junction of the page 501 Atessa road and the Strada Sangritana to the proposed bridge site on the 5 Brigade front. This junction and the Atessa road were shelled nightly, to the annoyance of the truck drivers bringing in stores and to the personnel of CRE Tactical Headquarters situated in an old shed half a mile up the Atessa road. But for some reason the actual roadmaking towards the river was unmolested. Night after night, wet or fine, trucks brought up and dumped metal and corduroy while dozers roared and cleared and spread and generally advertised their presence to high heaven and enemy patrols. What the enemy thought about the new work he could see each morning is not on record.
There were to be two types of assault bridge—a Bailey and a folding-boat, for the upper site was not suitable for a Bailey of single-span construction nor were the sappers trained in Bailey pontoon bridging. They had had little enough practice with the new equipment; in fact, the most proficient were the cooks, batmen and office staff of Engineer Headquarters who, for practice, had put a couple of small Baileys down in daylight and in their own time.
Eighth Field Company, which was to build the Bailey, had two RE sappers attached, Lieutenant Franklin and Sergeant Falkingham, whose practical advice was of the greatest value to the comparatively inexperienced company. Aerial photos had disclosed wheel tracks across the open ground between the lateral road and the north bank of the river, and the night before the attack Lieutenant Farnell and two sappers with an escort of a pair of infantry tommy-gunners crossed over; they spent five hours reconnoitring a route from the bridge site around some stretches of floodwater towards the tracks, which suggested the best going over some two hundred yards of swampy paddock between the riverbed and the lateral road. They were very close to the latter when an enemy patrol betrayed its presence by a liking for tobacco. A cigarette was lighted in the shelter of the tree-lined road and the sappers, with the agility of seals, slid into a water hole; they were practically deep-frozen before it was safe to withdraw.
Back at the river the actual width of water to be spanned had to be determined. The current ran against the home bank, which was hard shingle between three and four feet above the water level, but on the enemy side the bed shelved gently. The actual width of water was 110 feet, determined by Farnell standing as a sighting post, plus a little elementary geometry by those on the home bank. The maximum span for a Class 9 page 502 bridge, the lightest in weight and the quickest to build, is 90 feet. The tanks were not to use this bridge but were to cross further downstream, where a shingle bank divided the water into two smaller streams, but the problem of how to bridge a 110 ft gap with a 90 ft bridge remained. The shelving bank supplied the answer; Farnell reported that the water was quite shallow on the enemy side for about thirty feet, and the end result was some modifications that would have made the bridge inventor's hair stand on end. Incidentally, Farnell's conduct on this night was the forerunner of others that earned an MC.
Two rainless days had lowered the Sangro sufficiently for the infantry to wade across and the assault was finally fixed for the night 27 - 28 November. Eighth Field Company's timetable and organisation for the building of the first New Zealand assault Bailey bridge was, briefly:
6 p.m. Captain Armstrong with two bulldozers and Lieutenant Whelan19 with two winch trucks to be in suitable spots along the access road ready to haul vehicles through known bad spots; point was given to this detail by showers earlier in the night.
7 p.m. The bridging column, twenty-two trucks, an unloading party and spare drivers (Lieutenant ‘Bailey George’ O'Leary, 5 Field Park Company) to spread along the track in pairs at 50 yards' intervals, with the head of the column and wireless truck 500 yards from the bridge site.
1 a.m. The bridging party (Lieutenants Franklin, RE, Fisher20 and 43 other ranks) to be dug in at the bridge site by 2 a.m. Lieutenants Farnell and King,21 each with 16 sappers who were to light the track to the lateral road and to sweep for mines along 5 Brigade frontage respectively, to be at bridge site at the same time.
2.45 a.m. Barrage opens.
3.15 Preparation of bridge site commences.
3.30 Infantry on first objective.
3.45 King and Farnell parties cross river. Bridging trucks move forward and unload. Captain Armstrong to get two bulldozers across as soon as possible and work on approach track to lateral road.page 503
The intention was to rest the end of the bridge proper in the shallow water and heavy planks were lashed to the bottom of the first bay to take the place of the usual footings. The bays of the launching nose were retained and decked over the remaining stretch of water to solid shingle. The result, ready for traffic at 7.30 a.m., less than four hours' work, was a rather rakish looking bridge with a decided grade.
There was no enemy interference until first light, when the area was shelled intermittently but the work went on. Why the bridge was suffered to stand unmolested is known only to the German gunners. Perhaps the peculiar angle of the structure suggested that it had in fact been demolished and that the traffic was passing through the river. And perhaps the British spotter planes and the New Zealand artillery had something to do with its continued existence.
To return to 6 Field Company and the night following Lieutenant Hunter's second ‘recce’ of the approach to the river crossing. After dark, Lieutenants Hunter, Hermans and Sergeant Begbie met a covering party from 24 Battalion and went down to the river to select the site for the bridge and make sure that vehicles would be able to get out of the riverbed on the far side.
The sappers, with an infantry runner, went upstream on their business, leaving the covering party to follow if required. A suitable site was soon located and the runner was sent back for the infantry party. Meanwhile the sappers, while sitting on the shingle, were ‘cheered no end by seeing and hearing a Jerry patrol clamping over the stones on the far side of the water course’.
Two explosions shattered the night and when the covering party arrived it was less three killed and three wounded. The engineers, who invariably walked in single file and stepped high to avoid trip-wires, had gone safely through a minefield while infantry, used to working on a wider front, had had the misfortune to trip at least two mines.
The river was too high to wade but the length of the bridge required was determined. The sappers and their depleted escort returned along the shingle riverbed to avoid the mined area, and when it was necessary to leave its protection Sergeant Begbie went ahead and prodded a path with his bayonet.page 504
Aerial photographs later cleared any doubts about the feasibility of getting trucks out of the riverbed.
The peculiar names bestowed on these two assault bridges, ‘Heartbeat’ for the Bailey and ‘Lobe’ for the folding-boat, are accounted for by the fact that the code-names for the assault over the Sangro were all of an anatomical nature. Possibly the staff officer responsible had access to the medical officers' library and drew his inspiration therefrom.
The following week, in addition to the nightly work on the access road to the river, was taken up with mine searching and timber cutting for corduroying. Mechanical Equipment Platoon was working a shingle pit about a mile from the river and had to operate a dragline in the dark and without lights. The dumper trucks when loaded were awkward to drive and more often than not slithered off the track and bogged down before reaching their destination.
The actual bridging work was the responsibility of No. 1 Platoon and the material was to be delivered by 5 Field Park under Major Askin's command. No. 2 Platoon, which had completed all the preliminary work entrusted to it—locating the route from the end of the access road to the bridge site and clearing mines from a space sufficient for the manoeuvring of trucks—was, less a mine-clearing party (Lieutenant Skipage22) for the lateral road, to remain close by the bridge site in reserve. No. 3 Platoon was to stand by in readiness to accompany another 5 Field Park truck column loaded with Bailey components across the folding-boat bridge. It was expected that the bridge that spanned the Gogna creek where it cut across the lateral road might be blown and would thus hold up, or even prevent, the tanks from getting to Route 84 and thence towards the fighting.
Sixth Field Company was dogged by misfortune almost from the start. The night was dark with rain clouds obscuring the moon and the track was slippery from earlier showers. The first bridging truck skidded off the road and had to be towed back again; then the leading dozer collided with a farm building that skirted the track. The dozer, like the other vehicles, was being driven throttled well back and in consequence the engine stalled. The sappers knew that the infantry were waiting not far away and they remembered the ear-piercing noise made by the starting motor of their bulldozers. For fear of bringing down page 505 fire on men whose task was dangerous enough as it was, the sappers tried to tow the stalled dozer into life but without success. It was decided to wait until zero hour.
The roar of the barrage, when it opened at 2.45 a.m., would have drowned the noise of every starting motor in Italy. A track was soon formed into the gravel riverbed but the bridging trucks were quickly in trouble with patches of soft going.
At that period the Divisional bulldozers had not yet been fitted with towing winches, and an attempt to haul the leading truck through the soft going ended with the tow rope breaking and the dozer going through the shingle crust and bellying down. The trucks eventually got through under their own power, but the result was that the bridge-building did not start until 6.30 a.m.
The mine-searching party left before the bridge was finished and the rest of No. 2 Platoon was sent back to its area as there appeared to be no employment likely. A message that the infantry had captured the Gogna bridge intact but would like somebody to remove explosive charges sent Lieutenant Hunter and Corporal Tyler23 across the river and up the hill through a sea of S-mines. They saw smoke shells bursting over the river before they crossed the brow of the hill, located the bridge and, after checking for booby traps, removed the detonators and tipped the explosives down the gully.
The components of the folding-boat bridge were a shore bay, one trestle bay, one half floating bay, two full floating bays on rafts and one half floating landing bay. The landing bay was being floated into place when shells burst over the river a little upstream; then four ranging smoke shells formed a square above the bridge. The sappers carried on. Some were manoeuvring the landing bay into position, some were carrying deck panels out to the far end, others the shore transoms and still others were working on the far bank.
Lieutenant Hermans, directing operations, ‘was standing at that end when there was an almighty bang behind me quickly followed by several more. I turned around to find men scattered everywhere—some on the bridge, some on the river bank, some in the river, some dead, some wounded, some not touched. The place was a shambles. I dashed back across the bridge and found that it had had a direct hit on the near shore span just as half a dozen men had been carrying the last sections over. page 506 They were all killed instantly and one or two who were carried out of the river were so badly wounded that they died within minutes.’
The wounded were attended to and those able to move were helped into whatever shelter could be found, for in addition to the shellbursts enemy planes were now spraying the area with bullets.
The Company wireless car had come down to the end of the track at daybreak and on its own initiative sent for an ambulance, so that when Hermans arrived to ask for medical aid the MO was already attending the walking cases. The ambulance orderlies, some 3 Platoon men, Lieutenant Hermans and Corporal ‘Chick’ Goodwin,24 who had already brought one man out, returned for the rest of the wounded.
The platoon commander remained at the bridge directing the stretcher bearers. It was two hours before the last of the casualties were away, and then, after a final search, Hermans found that one of the apparently dead sappers was still alive. A sapper whose name cannot be discovered had remained with Lieutenant Hermans and the pair improvised a stretcher with a couple of folding-boat oars, a length of rope and some great-coats. The bridge area was still under fire as they carried out Sapper Hume25 until a stretcher party from 3 Platoon took over. It was all in vain for Hume died before he could be attended to. Lieutenant Hermans and Corporal Goodwin were later decorated with the MC and MM respectively. With eleven killed or died of wounds and eight wounded, practically half the platoon became casualties in those few minutes.
The folding-boat bridge, under orders from Colonel Hanson, was abandoned for the time being, but No. 3 Platoon stood by and completed it after dark. The bellied bulldozer was also extricated.
The first fighting vehicles over the heartbeat bridge were the armoured cars of the Divisional Cavalry, which had the mission of protecting the right flank of the New Zealand advance.
‘They tore the unmetalled track on the far side to pieces in no time. Many of them had to be towed through with the page 507 tractors and it was not long before the whole place was a bog and we were snigging every vehicle for a few hundred yards. There were only two tractors available and it was slow work.’26
The sappers' work in bridging the Sangro might have been nullified in the bog between road and river had not the CRE been waiting at heartbeat so that he could report to General Freyberg when traffic was moving forward. Immediately below the bridge was an island of shingle that split the water into two streams, with the north branch veering towards and so shortening the distance to the lateral road. Colonel Hanson marked a new track along the shingle riverbed and diverted the trucks carrying corduroy so that within a matter of hours there was a reasonable road from the bridge to the lateral road.
Seventh Field Company took over the maintenance of the assault bridge and access roads during the morning of 28 November while 8 Field Company went back to their billets for a rest. Major Marchbanks had already been informed that his company would build a more permanent structure, a 150 ft Bailey adjacent to the assault bridge. According to the book it should have been a triple-double, but after an examination of the site and calculations concerning the actual tensile strength of the materials involved, Colonel Hanson agreed that a double-double would take a load two tons heavier than a Sherman tank, which was the heaviest vehicle in 2 NZ Division.
By working six-hour shifts the bridge was opened for traffic in thirteen hours, a total of 678 man hours. Finishing touches of white paint on the ribands, flexible duckboard nailed to the decking and several inspections by American planes with machine-gun accompaniment completed the structure, known officially as Bridge 6 and to the troops as tiki bridge.
It must be mentioned in a spirit of forgiveness that an occupational hazard to which Kiwi sappers grew accustomed was that of being shot up by American pilots. They did not seem to be strong on map-reading, and in a country of valleys and ridges identification from the air would be difficult even for experienced pilots.
Major Marchbanks, who was something of a perfectionist where bridges were concerned, was not quite satisfied, and while 7 Field Company and most of Mechanical Equipment Platoon page 508 were improving the approaches, gabions27 made with rocks wrapped in coarse wire-netting found in the Archi railway goods sheds were placed in position to protect the abutments. The bridge was finally anchored with wire ropes.
Another bridge-building project had been assigned to 8 Field Company by this time (1 December) and the unit, less No. 3 Platoon completing the gabions, moved to the Archi railway station. It will be remembered that the enemy, after being thrown out of Perano, had moved his vehicles across the Sangro and blown the bridge behind him. This structure, known as the Archi bridge, was to be rebuilt, for the road across connected with Route 84, which in turn was the main line of communication with the infantry now feeling towards the ridgetop town of Castelfrentano.
The Archi bridge over the wandering Sangro consisted of fifteen spans of brick arch with concrete backing and rubble filling supporting a macadam roadway. Eight arch spans had been completely and five partly demolished and two were intact. The job was, shortly, to bulldoze a shingle roadway in place of the destroyed arches and to make use of the partly demolished spans where the charges on the crown of the arches had failed to do the job properly.
The preliminary work of searching the area for mines and assembling material took up the 2nd, 3rd and 4th December, by which time the dozers had completed all but one span and 3 Platoon had returned after finishing the gabions at the tiki bridge.
Besides the Archi bridge there was another carrying Route 84 over the Aventino that had to be replaced before the supply route was complete. This job was given to the CRE of 5 Canadian Armoured Division, who detailed 10 Field Squadron to carry out the work. There were mines in plenty around the site and the Canadians obtained some good experience finding and lifting them, but not without paying a price in casualties.
The Canuck sappers had hard luck with the Aventino bridge. The gap was too great for a single span so a Bailey pier was built, but during the launching the end thrust partially collapsed the pier. They had a difficult job in salvaging the bridge and rebuilding the pier but successfully completed the project.page 509
No. 1 Platoon, 7 Field Company, will long remember the night of 4-5 December. They were camped on the south side of the river near tiki bridge, and Lieutenant Prosser,28 checking over his platoon before turning in, found ASC drivers standing around halted ammunition trucks. A flash flood had come down in the darkness, the water was within a foot of the decking, a 12 ft gap had been cut through the north approach and the gravel bank on which the north end of the bridge had been let down was in danger of being swept away.
‘I called Sgt Dacey29 to turn out the Platoon and called HQ on RT asking Major White to call out all Coy transport and come to No. 1 lines. (I was speaking in clear and could not give any explanation.) Major White arrived with the transport which was put to work carting river boulders to the bridge. Fortunately there were some wire groynes close by. We carried these to the northern end of the bridge, formed a chain gang with the platoon while three sappers and myself went into the river with ropes tied under our armpits and as the boulders were passed to us we placed them in the groynes to turn the water away from the seat of the bridge. About 2300 hrs we had the seat safe from the waters and it was noticeable that the worst of the flood was over and the water receding. I posted guards and turned all hands in until daybreak.
‘Sorry I cannot remember any of the blokes in particular, only as their turn came to get into the river there was never a murmur. One could only stay in for 15 to 20 minutes as the water was fresh off the snow. One incident I remember clearly concerned our popular Padre, John Watson.30 I noticed while in the water that the Padre had taken up a position in the chain gang. I could not let the boys know he was there owing to the darkness and the next thing I heard, as one of the lads passed a particularly heavy boulder to the Padre, he commented, “Cop this heavy bastard” and the Padre replied, “My word, it is heavy.”’
At daybreak the 12 ft gap was five feet deep with two feet of water running through it. The folding-boat bridge had been page 510 washed away and the other five bridges on the Eighth Army bridgehead were completely or partially destroyed. Lieutenant Prosser continues:
‘We got a bulldozer to fill this gap so that we could build our ramp again for the bridge. However, whilst this was going on … [the] CRE arrived and informed us that “Tiki” was the only bridge over the Sangro31 and the Canadian and British axis bridges were washed away. Further, our Div “Arty” were down to a few rounds per gun and we must get some Ammo’ trucks over urgently. We filled the gap, made a steep ramp and sent the trucks over to get well bogged in the new fill. However these were towed by our Dozer and we sort of got our Div moving ever so slowly. But soon there was a complete shambles. We were informed that there were trucks nose to tail for miles back as General Freyberg had given permission … for the other Divs across the river to get equipment over to repair their bridges.’
The Archi bridge and another at Currie's deviation, a 50 ft single-single, were constructed against a background of alarms and excursions. There was a large expanse of high and broken country between the New Zealand left flank and 13 Corps, operating farther inland among the mountains proper, which was something of a no-man's land on account of the steeply rising foothills which inhibited any large-scale movement. It did not inhibit large-scale rumours, built from stories of refugees coming down from mountain villages with tales of terror. Typical of the situation is the following extract from 8 Field Company's war diary:
4 Dec. Late this afternoon reports of considerable party of Germans with 5 trucks laying waste villages SW of us. Took information to CRE Hq…. More reports from civilians of party of 400 Germans laying waste villages SW and W of here…. The Italians in the village where we are living and surrounding villages are terrified and want protection but we can do nothing about it. Increased picquets and everyone ordered to be on alert.
5 Dec. We are handling a large number of refugees and escaped POWs. Residents from surrounding villages continue coming to us with reports of Germans burning and looting in surrounding villages S and W of us. This is a consequence page 511 of our being on the left flank of the 8 Army. While a party was clearing mines from a track to small quarry this morning one Sapper was killed by mine explosion. Two Italians, a man and a girl were killed and two Italians injured. At lunch time we caught two German soldiers in civilian clothes.
They were taken to Divisional Headquarters and turned out to be two German deserters.
This nuisance threat to the bridge-building sappers' peace of mind was removed when 2 Independent Parachute Brigade, placed under General Freyberg's command, was moved into the area on 5 December and commenced some active patrolling on its own account.
While 7 Field Company is repairing the flood damage, 8 Field Company working on the Archi bridge and 5 Field Park Company maintaining roads, we must again go back in time a few days to 6 Field Company.
The lobe bridge was not further molested, for the probable reason that the enemy holding the Colle Barone feature, from where they could observe the work, had not relished the sight of New Zealand infantry moving past their flank and had departed.
For the next two days the Company improved the lobe approaches and helped at heartbeat bridge. On 1 December it was ordered to cross the Sangro via heartbeat and make camp about three miles to the north between Route 84 and the adjacent railway line, about a mile below the San Eusanio turnoff, where tanks were waiting to probe through that village towards the Melone road junction en route for Guardiagrele.
Only No. 3 Platoon got through the congestion of traffic at heartbeat bridge that night and bedded down at midnight; our infantry were on the crest of the ridge and closing in on Castelfrentano, which town the enemy vacated before dawn.
The tanks referred to had been stopped by enemy fire; eight were out of action and shells were still coming in when engineer assistance was called for.page 512
‘Lt Bob Smith and I went up the road to do a recce but did not get up to the forward tanks as by this time the enemy had the range and was continually mortaring the road. All the tank crews had taken shelter in their tanks and the infantry were in culverts in the road. We did eventually get up to the first tank and the demolition was not as serious as first expected and the tanks could get across when necessary. We were very pleased to receive this information as it was a pretty hot spot and we wasted no time in getting back to our waiting vehicle. I think I just shaded Bob Smith on the run home which was the fastest 200 yds which has ever been run.’
It was at this stage that Lieutenant Gowan received much needed help by the marching-in of Lieutenants Tassell and Faram, formerly of 21 Mechanical Equipment and 19 Army Troops Companies respectively.
Sixth Brigade had veered to the right and so away from Route 84 during the approach to Castelfrentano, but when that town had been vacated so had the defences blocking Route 84, as far as the Melone village at the junction of the enemy's new defensive line Guardiagrele-Orsogna-Ortona. Preparations were on foot to capitalise on the breaching of the Winter Line by a two-pronged drive, 6 Brigade direct for Orsogna, key to the final position on the next ridge north, and 4 Armoured Brigade via the Castelfrentano-Guardiagrele road and the San Eusanio secondary road which junctioned one mile east of Melone. No. 3 Platoon sent detachments of sappers with each column of tanks, which began to advance in the early morning of the 2nd.
The position on the left of No. 3 Platoon was obscure, which is another way of saying it was not known if Jerry had departed from the immediate vicinity or not. In actual fact 22 Battalion was taking care of the Divisional flank but the sappers had not been informed. Not far enough away was a farmhouse alleged to be occupied by night as an enemy forward post, and it was decided to welcome the garrison with booby traps. Ordinary mines with pull igniters and trip-wires were included, but the piéce de résistance was a Mills grenade with the pin out dropped into a jam tin which kept the lever down. The tin was pegged to the ground and a trip-wire attached to the grenade.
On their return from the operation the sappers reported that they had reached the house before the Germans and that they had been able to do a really good job. The outcome was not known until an Indian division which relieved 2 New Zealand page 513 Division was met again in another sector and reported that a daylight inspection of the farm revealed no dead enemy, two dead pigs, one dead cow and one wounded goat.
The rest of 6 Field Company crossed the Sangro that day. No. 2 Platoon joined No. 3 on Route 84 while No. 1 rested. The two tank columns, preceded by 22 (Motor) Battalion, fought their way as far as the junction in front of Melone and dug in for the night. There was another call for sappers, for the enemy had blown the road to Melone as he retreated in front of the advancing 22 Battalion. Smith and Gowan made another ‘recce’ and then went back for plant. The tanks had got across the demolitions but the commander was worried about his supply trucks. It was dark when the party returned, but a burning haystack supplied sufficient light to mark a track around the demolition.
The actual crater was something of a problem because the road was narrow and the ridge on which it ran was steep on the enemy side and sheer on the other.
An Italian who emerged from a nearby house showed where the German sappers had planted mines to protect their work. Collecting spoil to fill the blow in the road was not considered practicable under the circumstances, for as Lieutenant Gowan later remarked, ‘the only thing we had to fill it with was the said Italian's house’.
Gowan makes light of the situation, but since 25 November he had been spelling and changing his machine operators and directing the repair of demolitions, during which period his driver had been killed and his White scout car wrecked. The final lines of his MC citation read:
‘2 Lt Gowan showed no hesitation in pushing on with the repairs and deviations until as a result of his efforts support vehicles were able to move forward.’
The demolition was later filled by Lieutenant Faram by night without enemy interference and a burnt-out tank a couple of hundred yards farther along was pushed over the side so that the road was open right to the defensive position.
No. 1 Platoon was rested until the 3rd, when it was given the task of marking a large minefield that meandered across the Divisional front. Several infantry diaries mention mined areas and booby-trapped houses during the fighting for the Castel-frentano crest. The field was completely unmarked and there was no clue as to its direction or dimension, but an Italian farmer saved a lot of searching. To an inquiry by Lieutenant page 514 Hermans, part gesticulation and part Italian, ‘He replied in quite good English with a very pronounced Yank accent. In between telling us what bastards the Tedeschi (Germans) were he told me the full story about the minefield and was able to lead me to the far end’.
Sixth Brigade exploited towards Orsogna by the shortest route overland, which included a section of an old Roman road, while the support tanks took the longer secondary road across the Corato ridge to the Lanciano-Orsogna highway until they were halted by a blown bridge over the Moro stream. No. 2 Platoon moved up on to Castelfrentano and Lieutenant Hunter made a reconnaissance of the bridge site.
Neither the infantry attempt to bustle the Germans out of Orsogna on 3 December nor the main armoured attack along the road on the left flank succeeded. It is not the province of an engineer history to hold post-mortems on lost opportunities; 6 Field Company toiled by day and by night on the unending task of keeping roads, built for leisurely donkey-cart traffic, in reasonable shape for the use of vehicles of up to twenty tons in weight.
Lieutenant Hunter had reported that a Bailey was the only answer to the Moro demolition. The Moro was only a small creek, but a small creek with deep and nearly vertical banks is a very efficient anti-tank ditch. Hunter's bridge, as the Bailey became widely known, was built by No. 2 Platoon during the night of 4 December, and the following day they were relieved of forward duty by No. 1 Platoon, who changed billets with them. The stage was now set for an infantry-armour attack on Orsogna, finally timed for the late afternoon of the 7th, the same day as the Archi bridge was opened to light traffic.
The New Zealand communications were then along the Strada Sangritana, across the Sangro by the Archi bridge on to Route 84. Six miles of comparatively safe going along Route 84 brought the supply line to the Guardiagrele junction and within easy range of the enemy guns in the Orsogna area. Route 84 turns right at the crossroads and for a mile to the Brickworks33 there was cover from view, but German artillery observers looked straight into the next mile that ended at the outskirts of Castelfrentano. There was only one speed along that mile, the ‘Mad Mile’, and that was flat out. Traffic left Route 84 at the Castel- page 515 frentano end of the Mad Mile and followed a secondary road northwards over the Corato and Taverna hills for the couple of miles to Hellfire Corner, on the Lanciano-Orsogna road. page 516 There was, as the name suggests, little delay at this crossroads. Only essential traffic took the left-hand turn, then along Shell Alley, through Spaccarelli hamlet, across Hunter's bridge over the Moro at the foot of San Felice ridge to the infantry FDLs.
‘The day prior to the attack,’ Lieutenant Fraser,34 second-in-command No. 1 Platoon wrote, ‘we were checking over equipment and found we had no wire for pulling mines straight out to save time looking for booby traps underneath; you know, tie a good length of wire to the mine, get back into a convenient hole and pull. Outside the house we lived in a veritable maze of signals wire went down the road, both the old German stuff and our own. It was suggested that someone look for a broken end, follow it up and lop off a hundred feet. In due course Cpl Goodwin came in with the wire and about ten minutes later a Signals jeep from Brigade came along looking for a broken wire. They found the break but took a mighty long time to locate the other end. There was much muttering from the Sigs boys but we never said a word. It was the line from Brigade to a Battalion or Div. Hq or somewhere.’
The infantry-armour attack was entrusted to 24 Battalion which, supported by 18 Armoured Regiment, was to advance along the Lanciano road where it followed the hog-backed Brecciarola ridge into Orsogna.
Fifth Brigade, which had no sappers under command, detailed 28 (Maori) Battalion to cut the Orsogna-Ortona road and there await the tanks coming through Orsogna to its support. The brigade's open flank was to be secured by 23 Battalion's occupying the lower part of the Sfasciata spur, which also joined the Ortona road farther to the right.
A D8 and a D6 were brought on to the San Felice ridge on the night of the 6th in readiness to assist the tanks if required, and were followed in the morning by a party sixteen strong from No. 1 Platoon, 6 Field Company, which was to work with 24 Battalion.
More particularly, the sappers were to keep in touch with the supporting arms of 24 Battalion, which was attacking with two companies up, one in support and one in reserve. The infantry were dispersed among the tall grass and olive trees on each side page 517 of the ridge, while the road on the skyline was the only possible approach route for the tanks and probably the 5 Field Park dozers. The weight of the barrage, the concentration of artillery and bombing planes are the province of an infantry history, and it is sufficient to say that misty rainclouds neutralised the advantage of air superiority. Lieutenant Hermans in command of the sappers took half his force with him and left the other half (Lieutenant Colin Fraser) in reserve at the start line.
An hour's standing barrage began to move at 2.30 p.m. and the sappers realised the difference between moving in orderly vehicle columns as in North Africa and crawling through tall grass along a bullet-spattered hillside in Italy. It was not long before the sappers lost touch with each other as well as with the supporting A Company, and eventually Lieutenant Hermans went forward with his runner to find somebody. In point of fact, the attack had gone badly and A Company had been ordered forward with B Squadron, 18 Armoured Regiment, following in support. C, the right forward company, had run into an area thickly sown with S-mines through which they could not pass, and Battalion Headquarters was calling for the sappers who should have been with A Company. The official history of 24 Battalion mentions this search: ‘Meanwhile Aked35 [OC C Company] had been receiving a somewhat puzzling wireless message from Battalion Hearquarters, repeated again and again, “Are Hermans with you?” The only Hermans he knew of were out in front and very obviously hostile. Later, when the battle was over, he learned that the officer in charge of the engineers was named Hermans.’
By this time it was dusk and the sapper officer decided that the quickest way to get forward was to use the road. It was not long before he met the tanks, who were also looking for him very anxiously indeed. There was a demolition ahead ‘and the bloody sappers were holding the bloody show up because there were mines in the demolition and the tankies didn't know how to deal with them’.
There were, in fact, two groups of three Tellers sitting pat on the road in front of the demolition, which, whether by accident or design, was close to a haystack that had been set on fire, so giving the enemy a useful aiming mark of which he availed himself freely. The Tellers were removed and a message page 518 sent back to Captain Armstrong to bring up a dozer to the demolition. Meanwhile most of the lost sappers had arrived and the cavity was searched for mines; none were found and the party carried on along the road sweeping. ‘We felt awful naked just walking up the road like that but it was the only way to check the road for mines. We eventually came upon some infantry who were making good use of the shallow ditch along the side of the road and we joined them smartly.’
A Spandau nest ahead had effectively stopped the infantry and it was no place for engineers, so they retraced their steps to the Pink House, a stone building on the outskirts of the town which was being used as a combined Regimental Aid Post and Battalion Headquarters. Later in the night Lieutenant Hermans was wounded and evacuated.
While the infantry were fighting in the streets of Orsogna, Captain Armstrong was waiting with two dozers behind the rear troop of support armour. The D6 was hit dead centre on the motor and had to be pushed out of the way. Upon the receipt of Hermans' message the D8, operated by Sapper Griffiths,36 was edged past the stationary tanks, accompanied by Captain Armstrong on foot, and began to bulldoze a track into the demolition and out the far side.
Technically the job was not a difficult one, but it required more than the average amount of nerve on the part of the operator as he was working an unprotected machine in the middle of a fierce conflict—and was perched about six feet above ground while everybody else, excluding his commander, was lying as flat as a pancake behind whatever cover could be found. Griffiths' subsequent MM was well merited, as was Captain Armstrong's MC for ‘gallantry and inspiring leadership’.
Just as the job was finished the hydraulic hoses on the gear operating the blade were cut by a shell splinter and the machine had to be reversed, with the blade dragging along the road back to the start line, where camp was made for the rest of the night.
Even after the narrow road was opened by the dozer the tanks were not able to withstand the fire of enemy tanks hidden in the town and the infantry, deprived of armoured support, had to be withdrawn.page 519
After 5 Brigade was convinced that our tanks could not get to the Maoris in time, and after enemy tanks had roamed through them in the night, they had been pulled back, so that the only gain was a footing by 23 Battalion on Sfasciata ridge. They had no support arms, but the part of the ridge remaining to the enemy was considered too soft for armour and they remained there although rather isolated.
So ended the second attempt to break the last link of the German Winter Line. But there still remained the possibility that if our tanks could be got on to Sfasciata, which was fairly flat-topped, with easy access to the Ortona road, the fortress of Orsogna might be outflanked from higher ground to the northeast.
The pre-requisite to using Sfasciata was for the engineers to get tanks on to it. A ‘recce’ by Major Currie had established that there was a reasonable cart track from Spaccarelli village to a ford over the Moro about half a mile north of Hunter's bridge. Beyond the ford the track wound up the side of Sfasciata and thence along the top and so on to the Ortona road. It was considered that two dozers working all night could make the ford and approaches possible for tanks, and Major Askin was instructed to do so forthwith and also to haul 23 Battalion's anti-tank guns up the ridge before daylight (9th).
With machine guns and artillery drowning the noise of working machines, Mechanical Equipment Platoon, now camped a mile east of Hellfire Corner, had all 23 Battalion's anti-tank guns up to the unit, plus a track for tanks ready by first light. And the next night saw 29 tanks and 16 Bren carriers safely hidden under olive trees in support of 23 Battalion.
During the lull between the end of the second attempt on Orsogna and the beginning of the third, ultimately mounted on 15 December, the most active people in the Division were the sappers: 6 Field Company maintained the supply route between the Sangro and the Moro with gangs continually at work on the track from Spaccarelli to the ford, where two dozers were employed day and night, and on the steep pinch to the crest of Sfasciata; 8 Field Company was still employed in the Sangro bed, on the Strada Sangritana and the connecting road to Route 84; all 5 Field Park's heavy equipment was in constant use by the road repairers; Workshops were busy on the FBE salvaged from the flood, the dozers damaged in action and on plant maintenance; Bridging and Stores were equally busy.page 520
On the night 13 - 14 December a party from Headquarters and Workshops assisted 6 Field Company to build a wooden Class 9 bridge over the Moro ford. This structure was then called Askin's bridge in honour of 5 Field Park Company's commander.
Seventh Field Company was given a new job, or rather the same job in a new area; it was a period of reorganisation for Eighth Army and a new division was coming into the line on the right of the New Zealanders, for what was hoped to be the break-through. A reconnaissance was made of the tracks between Castelfrentano, Lanciano, Mozzagrogna and the Sangro for a suitable supply route and the Company was given the responsibility of maintaining them until the new formation (5 Division) took over on 15 December.
The essence of Operation florence, code-word for the third attack on Orsogna, was for 5 Brigade (or rather 23 Battalion) to capture the rest of Sfasciata ridge and cut the Ortona road, so preventing rapid movement of enemy armour between Orsogna page 521 and the fighting nearer the coast. A successful operation would open the way to New Zealand tanks to get to the Orsogna–Ortona road and exploit towards Orsogna. Twenty-first Battalion was on the right of the 23rd and, farther to the right, 17 Brigade of 5 Division was to conform and cover the New Zealand flank. The object of the tank exploitation was to get on to the high country behind or north of Orsogna, block the western exit and then advance south-west to clear the Melone road fork; 4 Brigade was to stand by for an advance on Guardiagrele and 6 Brigade was to occupy Orsogna if the defence collapsed.
The engineer task, to bring tanks up to 23 Battalion's start line, then ‘recce’ for and clear a route through captured enemy ground at the top of Sfasciata ridge and so on to the Ortona road, was assigned to No. 1 Platoon, 7 Field Company (Lieutenant Prosser), which was withdrawn from 5 Division area before the rest of the Company.
There were no air photos available and the infantry commanders objected to anybody poking around the FDLs and possibly making the enemy suspicious. The success of the night's work was thus placed in the hands of an unknown tank officer supposed to know something of the ground.
Prosser was advised by the CRE to keep his engineers down to a minimum and selected a party of fifteen, which included his second-in-command, Sergeant Dacey.
The barrage opened at 1 a.m. and the infantry of 23 Battalion moved off, closely followed by the sappers leading a first troop of tanks (Captain Passmore37). By the time they passed the start line the infantry were fighting straight ahead, and the question was whether to go to the right or to the left? It was raining and a full moon was obscured by heavy cloud. The squadron leader (Major Deans38) decided to keep to the left.
‘We had to make a start and off we went but after 50' I asked the Tank RSM if the tanks could manage this ground and he assured me they could but Passmore went about 2ox [yards] and bogged. We had now run into mines also and switched the route to the left and got good going…. We got three tanks onto this track.’
The track lead towards a farmhouse that had to be attended to by the leading tank before the sappers could precede their charges on to the main road to the support of 21 Battalion.page 522
The sappers returned to find their second track blocked by an overturned tank and, as Lieutenant Prosser wrote, ‘With Passmore troop blocking one track and an overturned tank blocking another, we were in a mess.’
Another track that led towards the right flank was chosen. ‘However this direction was lousy with mines. We worked until first light and 100x away to our right was the main road but Jerry was giving this everything he had. I carried on trying to get a safe route forward but I was under observation and did not get much peace. I found a route suitable but it was mined. I asked Passmore if I cleared the mines visually would he give it a go. He agreed and with signal wire I pulled the mines away and at last we had a clear short route to the road.’
By this time a second squadron of tanks was ready to essay the climb, and with Prosser guiding from the leading tank and the guns supplying a smoke screen they made a successful ascent.
Lieutenant Prosser was awarded an MC for his work that night. The last paragraph in his descriptive letter quoted above ends: ‘One ironical thing that amused me later (but not at the time). The second squadron of tanks which we put in during daylight had aerial photos of the ground which I had been guessing at all night.’
With daylight the tanks made better time. No. 1 Platoon sappers were relieved by No. 2 on the track while the battle was still raging for possession of the newly won salient across the Ortona road. The main job then was to improve the track so that jeeps with ammunition could get forward and return with casualties. The fighting died down during the day, with the enemy still holding the town and the Division still holding its length of main road.
There was a lull for a week while plans were made for the fourth attempt to break through the Winter Line before the winter itself came to the aid of the defence.
On the Divisional front the position now was that the Askin bridge, the Moro ford and the track up to and across the Sfasciata ridge, instead of being only the supply line to 23 Battalion, was now the vital route to all the infantry and armour in the salient. The dozer at the Moro ford was the most important piece of mechanical equipment in 2 NZ Division, and enemy gunners saw to it that Hellfire Corner lived up to its name.
Major Duncan White reconnoitred a better road location than that chosen by chance in the rainy darkness. For the first page 523 thousand yards he followed the ridgetop, where the road would be partly screened by trees and partly in view of Orsogna. Camouflage netting was strung along this portion to the evident annoyance of the German gunners.
The next mile had cover from view along the safe side of the ridge where it followed a local track, then a final steep grade for 200 yards brought the new road on to the flat within 100 yards of the Ortona—Orsogna highway.
The road was soon known, and later officially noted on the maps, as Duncan's road and it joined Armstrong's road at the Moro ford.
A Class 30 Bailey was opened to traffic on 22 December alongside Askin's lighter structure and finally relieved the Mechanical Equipment Platoon of the dangerous task of hauling every vehicle too heavy for the wooden bridge through the ford. It was first called the Tikotiko bridge, a very salty Maori description of the locality, but owing to the possibility of its being confused with the tiki bridge, the name was altered to hongi.
The importance of this supply route may be gauged from the size of the working parties and the number of vehicles that reported daily. Even a troop of 5 Canadian Armoured Division engineers came to give a hand, with the result that Armstrong's road was metalled or corduroyed by the time hongi bridge was ready, and Duncan's road with eight dozers, twelve dumpers and thirty 3-ton trucks working on it was in fair shape.
Sixth Field Company was still based on Castelfrentano; 5 Field Park Company had not moved, but Mechanical Equipment Platoon had built two Air OP landing grounds, one at Taverna Nova and one south-east of Castelfrentano; 8 Field Company had moved over the Sangro and, with its headquarters at San Eusanio junction, had joined the other sapper units on road maintenance, but on the 20th had returned hastily to the Archi bridge upon reports that its stability was doubtful.
Inspection disclosed that one of the original piers that had been used to take the weight of the Bailey had crumbled. The Company worked in shifts around the clock, with 5 Field Park Company supplying light for the night shifts and the enemy gunners trying to hit the lights. The bridge was again open for traffic at 10 p.m. on the 23rd.
Yet another attempt to break the deadlock on the Winter Line and roll up the German defences was planned for the night of 24 - 25 December. The main task was entrusted to 5 Brigade, which was to capture two more ridges ahead of its page 524 present position as well as the ridge junction north of Orsogna. The latter objective was essential to the fulfilment of the plan because only by that route could armour get forward to support the mountaineering infantry. The Maori Battalion was set this task and therefore had to advance along the road that had been the axis for the tank attack a week earlier. It was expected that the enemy would not have omitted to mine the road so once again No. 1 Platoon, 7 Field Company, was involved. Lieutenant Prosser, with nine sappers operating three detectors, was to advance along the road in rear of the Maoris but in advance of the support tanks. A covering party of twenty Maoris was to supply local protection.
The barrage opened at 4 a.m., and when it lifted the sappers began sweeping the road while the covering party moved half on each side of the road in fifty-yard bounds. The night was dark and foggy and it was not easy to maintain touch with the covering party. It was breaking day, the Maoris were somewhere ahead, no mines had been found and the tanks were starting to worry about being caught on the road. Luckily the fog was still thick and visibility about 30 yards. The tanks' commander decided to push on without having the road swept and try to find the Maori Battalion before the fog lifted.
A partly demolished roadside church offered shelter for the sappers and their covering party while the tanks disappeared into the fog. Almost immediately the leading tank went up on a mine, the column halted, and Prosser with a few of his men went forward to investigate.
‘It was rather a grim show; a squadron of tanks nose to tail, 150 yards from the Jerry in daylight, luckily not very clear. We had no time to lift the mines as we were getting plenty of attention from M.Gs. I suggested we make a quick survey of the field at the right of the road. If clear of mines the tanks could cross to the railway track and take up a position there as the track was built up about four feet high and, if the Maoris were on their objective they could reach them by crossing the railway track…. I called the tanks over as the field appeared clear of mines. They crossed the field safely and took up positions along the railway track. One tank tried to pass the KO'd tank and suffered the same fate.’
The engineer party returned to 28 Battalion battle headquarters safely.
Christmas Day saw the opposing infantry consolidating a partly lost, or, according to the point of view, partly won final page 525 battle for the passage through the Winter Line. It was stalemate on the Fontegrande ridge, with the FDLs facing each other across the Arielli valley. Jittery Ridge they called it.
For the sappers, as for the troops lucky enough to be in Castelfrentano and other billets with a roof over their heads, the cold and rain were endurable and did not distract from the demolishment of a special Christmas Day menu.
Seventh Field Company, hard put to it to keep Duncan's road open with corduroy and gravel, dined under platoon arrangements. For 2 NZ Division Duncan's road was the most important stretch of highway in Italy for every jeep, truck and tank that had business on Jittery Ridge had to use it. No. 1 Platoon was welcomed back with enthusiasm on the 27th. Certainly they had been in the fighting, but it was contended that in between times they had lived softly and that some hard work would do them a power of good.
The metal from a new quarry opened on a hill across the Moro reached the top of the ridge on 28 December. Lieutenant Gowan was quarry manager, and he had a mechanical shovel and four dumpers as well as the four-wheel-drive trucks that had replaced the clumsy two-wheel-drive dumpers which were unable to handle the muddy conditions. Infantry working parties shovelled the metal out of the trucks. The first day of 1944 brought new trials to the road makers. Winter had formally arrived with a blizzard and snow a foot deep, with drifts four times that depth.
The war just stopped while shovels, dozers and graders restored the circulatory system of the Division. There followed a week's nightmare of bitter winds, snow flurries, drizzle and frosts.
Conditions were deplorable everywhere, but Duncan's road, the vital artery, was a mud bath. Batters subsided and culverts had to be enlarged; houses, in spite of blasphemous infantry who were short of shelter, were turned into road metal; truckload after truckload of corduroy was spread on the worst places.
A thaw on the night of the 7th, the same night that the last of the slush had been removed, softened the Duncan's road foundations sufficiently for eighteen tanks to ruin it utterly.
It is seldom that sappers are bereft of the power of expression but the churned-up mixture of gravel, mud and corduroy that remained after the eighteenth tank had slithered past was greeted with a silence more eloquent than the choicest vituperation.page 526
The following week was fine and sunny and Duncan's road was almost a road again when orders came to hand it over to 4 Indian Division. The Winter Line had been conceded to the enemy and Grand Strategy had decided to freeze the war on the east coast; 2 NZ Division was to pull out to rest, refit and train reinforcements … at least that was the story told to the troops.
|Killed and Died of Wounds||Wounded||Total|
|5 Field Park Company||1||2||3|
|6 Field Company||14||27||41|
|7 Field Company||5||13||18|
|8 Field Company||2||14||16|
1 2 Lt A. A. Begbie; born NZ 9 Mar 1914; PWD employee.
2 The Hon. R. Semple, when Minister of Public Works, insisted on the provision of the latest mechanical equipment on all State undertakings.
7 The charges had, of course, been drawn as soon as the bridge was in our hands. It was standard practice to search for demolition charges on every captured undemolished bridge. A squad of Divisional Cavalry was detailed to guard the area and keep intruders away.
23 Not traced.
27 The modern gabion is a rectangular box of netting made from heavy-gauge wire and filled with stones or rock. Originally a gabion was a cylinder about the size of a 40-gallon drum, woven like a willow basket and used by sappers for revetting trenches, saps and gun emplacements.
35 Lt-Col E. W. Aked, MC, m.i.d., Aristion Andrias (Gk); Tauranga; born England, 12 Feb 1911; shop assistant; CO 24 BnJun 1944; CO 210 British Liaison Unit with 3 Greek Bde in Italy and Greece, 1944-45.