Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
CHAPTER 17 — ADVANCE TO FLORENCE
ADVANCE TO FLORENCE
THE WAR in Italy had not stood still since the fall of Rome. The Germans had made a long withdrawal towards their next important barricade across the peninsula. This was known as the Gothic Line, and ran from Massa on the Gulf of Genoa, through north of Florence, to Pesaro on the Adriatic coast. It was the Allied intention to hasten the enemy's withdrawal as much as possible and to attack the Gothic Line before he had opportunity to complete its defences. But to do this a series of strongly defended intermediate positions south of Florence had to be overcome.
To assist in attaining this objective, 2 NZ Division was needed by 13 Corps, and this brought to an end the pleasant respite from active operations. Moving secretly at night, the Division travelled 250 miles northwards through the outskirts of Rome and on to an area just south of Lake Trasimene. On the night of 9-10 July the first convoys left Arce, and three nights later 6 Brigade was once more in the line, 15 miles north of the lake, ready to attack the mountain heights overlooking the approaches to Arezzo.
The Division Attacks
In daylight on 13 July 6 Brigade made the first advance against this heavily wooded arc of peaks and captured Mount Castiglion Maggio and Mount Cavadenti, and on the nights of 14-15 July and 15-16 July overcame stronger opposition to take Mount Lignano and Mount Camurcino.
For the action A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, moved up and occupied three houses on the fringe of the village of Castiglion Fiorentino as an ADS. Batteries of 25-pounders were sited immediately to the rear of the ADS buildings, which jarred and shook to persistent counter-battery fire during the afternoon and evening of the 14th. At midnight the uproar rose to a crescendo as heavy concentrations were fired in support of the infantry attacking Mount Lignano. That night brought 30 casualties to the ADS and the following day 61.page 368
With the capture of Mount Lignano and Mount Camurcino by the New Zealanders, Eighth Army troops pushed on through Arezzo to the Arno, and by the 17th practically the whole of 2 NZ Division was withdrawn from the line.
Fourth Field Ambulance, moving with 4 Brigade, had reached Civita Castellana, about 30 miles north of Rome, on 13 July. At this point orders were received for HQ and A Companies to remain in the vicinity and establish a rest camp for parties from the Division going on day leave to Rome.
For the camp an excellent site was found—an expanse of grassy parklands with magnificent oak trees for shade. A further asset was a large well from which a windmill delivered clear, icy-cold water sufficient for complete ablution arrangements, including showers which were heated at suitable periods. These facilities were greatly appreciated by the leave parties after their long, dusty ride in the back of three-ton lorries.
To accommodate 200 visitors on their way to and from Rome, seven tarpaulins were erected. Parties of 100 other ranks and four officers would arrive from the Division in the early evening and be provided with dinner and lodging for the night. Early in the morning they would depart for Rome to see the sights on organised tours and would receive their meals at the New Zealand Forces Club. They would return to the camp late at night (by which time another party would have arrived from the Division), stay the night and be given breakfast before returning to the forward area. Unit cooking arrangements were fully extended at this time, but the cooks were equal to the task.
Thrust Towards Florence
When the Division was recommitted to the line, it was to be employed with 6 South African Armoured Division in driving a narrow wedge along the general line of Route 2 through to the River Arno, south-west of Florence. The Division relieved French Moroccan troops in the San Donato area north of Siena, between the Indians and South Africans, on the night of 21-22 July, with 5 Brigade in the line, and B Company, 5 Field Ambulance, as its ADS.
The approaches to Florence from the south and south-west were through a ring of hills, with the roads and valleys dominated by page 369 high ground on either side. Stubborn resistance was offered by the enemy, who retired only under heavy pressure from one to another of a series of excellent defensive positions. His best troops, including 4 Paratroop Division and 29 Panzer Grenadier Division, faced the New Zealanders. They were all supported by artillery, mortars, and the Germans' best armour—60-ton Tiger tanks.
From the time of its entry into the line, 5 Brigade made steady progress despite counter-attacks. Support was given by 4 Armoured Brigade, with which B Company, 4 Field Ambulance, moved forward as ADS. Pushing forward ten miles across difficult country, 5 Brigade broke the Olga Line and captured San Casciano on 27 July.
Fifth ADS moved forward from Castellina on the 22nd and set up near San Donato. Some of the shells that whistled over landed uncomfortably close to the dressing station. Once the canvas was up the men lost no time in digging in. The ADS again advanced on the 24th, pushing through San Donato to a point to the north of the town, where it remained for only one day before moving on to Tavarnelle. The staff car entered the selected field without mishap, but the following vehicle, an ambulance car, ran over a Teller mine and the driver was severely wounded. The orderly, though blown clean out of the ambulance, escaped injury. Transfusion and first-aid gear were unloaded immediately, and the driver received prompt attention before being evacuated to 5 MDS. The ambulance car had been completely wrecked. The staff car was towed carefully out of the field, and the ADS convoy moved on to another field a few hundred yards down the road.
Meanwhile 5 MDS, under Lt-Col J. M. Coutts, near Castellina, carried on admitting battle casualties, with A Company open for sick, until the 25th, when the MDS switched to sick only. With roads all around the area, the dust blew in clouds through the tents, and the area soon became known as ‘the dustbowl’. A rocky slope above was the only place suitable for burying the dead, and engineers had to be called in with explosives to blast out the graves.
Great clouds of choking white dust attended all vehicle movement, while the enemy kept up a steady harassing shellfire. By its very presence a numerous civilian population, helplessly caught in the turmoil which destroyed its homes and scarred its lands, made the fighting seem more bitter.page 370
This fighting was in progress when His Majesty the King arrived in the divisional area on 26 July, in the course of his tour of Italy in which he visited troops from all parts of the British Commonwealth. A parade of 140 NZMC personnel assembled at Montecino to see the King. His Majesty stopped and spoke for a few minutes to members of the group. It was impossible for the King to see more than a small proportion of the Division.
At San Donato 6 MDS had begun admitting battle casualties on 25 July. During the morning of the 26th, shells whistled overhead to crash into San Donato, and a party of officers and men, representatives of HQ and both companies who were returning from the parade reviewed by the King, was held up outside the village. The German fire grew erratic. The shells began to fall short, and for two and a half hours in the afternoon they were landing in the MDS area. As everyone was recovering from his astonishment at the first black cloud of smoke and dust among the parked ambulance cars and trucks, another shell hit an adjacent farmhouse. By this time three men were wounded, one seriously. The next shell landed squarely in the area, luckily clear of the casualty-filled tarpaulins, wounding one of the HQ cooks.
Almost immediately another shell burst on the roadway outside. Traffic skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust that rose to the treetops, and then was away again, flat out. In the MDS area a scurrying crowd suddenly appeared. It was a rush to spread the 40-foot Red Cross sign at the forward end of the spur. Steel helmets began to appear, resurrected from long-forgotten corners in the trucks; and in all directions shovel-brandishing men were rapidly disappearing below ground.
The centres of the MDS carried on as best they could in between shells until late in the afternoon, when the shelling ceased and was not resumed. Later the MDS had a ring from our artillery, assuring the unit that that particular gun would not bother them again. But that, welcome as it was, did not put the skin back on the men who had tried to take cover by forcing themselves deep into the stack of sharp-stalked wheat stooks.
On its arrival there on 25 July, 6 ADS found the village of Tavarnelle badly smashed, as much by German demolitions designed to block the road as by shellfire. However, the inhabitants, unlike those of many other places, were busily at work page 371 cleaning up the streets. The ADS remained for two days, handling some 40 casualties, a few Italians who had trodden on mines, and a number of ailing babies brought in by anxious mothers.
Breaking the Paula Line
The Division was within ten miles of Florence and in contact with the Paula Line, which the enemy prepared to defend to the north of the Pesa River. The Paula Line was based upon the semicircle of hills surrounding Florence. In the New Zealand sector, the line of summits curved north-west from the valley of the Greve River to the Arno and lay across the path of the advance. The Division now set out to clear the enemy from the dominating summits. 6 Brigade, supported by 19 Armoured Regiment, established a bridgehead across the Pesa River at Cerbaia on 27 July. From Faltignano Ridge, La Romola Ridge, and the hilltop of San Michele the Germans made the most determined efforts to drive the New Zealanders back across the Pesa. With the support of a mass of artillery, a series of enemy counter-attacks was beaten off during the day of 28 July. Though communications were cut and the situation at times seemed precarious, 6 Brigade held on.
San Michele was a vital objective. On the night of 28-29 July, D Company, 24 Battalion, with strong support, managed to establish three strongpoints in the village despite fierce opposition. The Germans made desperate counter assaults with lorried infantry, self-propelled artillery, and Tiger tanks, but with the help of fighter-bombers of the Desert Air Force, who made over a hundred sorties, and concentrations of New Zealand artillery fire, the company held on in an epic battle. On the night of 29-30 July a crushing weight of shells compelled the enemy to withdraw.
After very heavy fighting on the following night, 22 Battalion of 4 Brigade captured La Romola and Faltignano ridges. Farther to the north, on the Pian dei Cerri and La Poggiona ridges, the summits that formed the spine of the barrier, the enemy continued to offer fierce resistance.
Sixth ADS moved up from Tavarnelle to Lucignano on 27 July, the eve of an attack by 6 Brigade on San Michele. The company occupied a building, half luxurious villa, half vintnery. Surrounded by well-planted gardens and comfortably furnished, it was a pleasant place, though the wine casks had been thoroughly drained.page 372
Apart from the fact that guns in the valley to the rear fired continuously over the building, it was quiet at the ADS; but orderlies and drivers on the ambulance cars and jeeps had more excitement than they wanted bringing casualties through the enemy mortar fire in the forward areas.
6 MDS at Tavarnelle
Instructions were received at 6 MDS on the 27th to close and move forward. There were a number of casualties in the dressing station, and half of the unit went to work treating and evacuating them, while the remainder packed up. The trucks moved out at 11.30 a.m. along dusty, narrow roads to Route 2, and turned north. The MDS was reopened for battle casualties alongside the road north of Tavarnelle at a quarter past twelve. The area, which incidentally had to be shared with a colony of large, lean black ants that swarmed everywhere, was on the shoulder of a low hill and gave ample room for all tentage.
For miles around stretched beautiful, rolling country carrying crops of maize and fruit, all ripening or fully ripe. Tanks had rolled out some of the standing crops; but, in general, little damage had been done and farmers were busy threshing beans or scutching linen flax. Nearby, a communal machine was at work threshing wheat.
(The surgical team that, since September 1942, had been a detachment of 1 General Hospital operating with the Division was formed into an official unit of 2 NZEF on 10 June 1944 and called 1 FSU, a title which was changed to 3 FSU in October 1944, by which time Maj O'Brien2 had succeeded Maj Douglas. It was always a valuable addition to the surgical strength.)page break
A class at 4 Field Hygiene Section's Malarial School, Volturno Valley
2 NZ General Hospital, Caserta
There was a lull on 1 August; but the 2nd brought 150 casualties, and the following day only a few less. All centres and two theatres were working continuously. At one stage blood supplies ran short and twelve donors were drawn from the ASC drivers. Pressure eased a little on the 3rd, with 92 admissions, after which the days' totals fell gradually to an average of 40.
As Sgt H. Brennan says:
‘The men who had been responsible for the splendid defence of San Michele passed through the MDS at Tavarnelle, including the very gallant soldier who had staggered from his stretcher in the collecting post to engage with a Piat gun the Tiger tank that had lumbered up to make the crypt of the church untenable for the defenders. When one ambulance brought in a head injury case with both feet lashed together, the ambulance orderly was almost exhausted and calling for help to retain the patient on the stretcher. An ex-All Black passed through with an abdominal wound. A British officer had been caught by a booby trap while attending to signal wires and had both hands blown off at the wrists. A young New Zealand signaller, of the last reinforcement, was brought in on a hard-driven jeep, his wound raw and undressed—he had stepped on a box mine while attending lines and one leg was hopelessly shattered. A flood of men came from an English battery—one of them had stepped on a Schu mine, and attempts at rescue had trapped, progressively, seven men altogether. From this group five feet were removed.
‘There were pitiful civilian casualties. A father brought in his five sons, all badly burnt through lighting a pile of cordite charges and then not standing far enough away. A mother brought in four children caught by a mine, one of them with both legs shattered.
‘The blackened, swollen dead recovered from under the booby-trapped buildings at San Casciano were received. The burial gang worked over them in respirators. The engineers helped to cut the graves in the hard-packed, shingly soil beside the road, breaking it up with compressor drills. In the cemetery were buried the 14 patients who died in the MDS—the burnt and wounded trooper who died in the reception tent, the Armoured captain who fought with wonderful courage to live, and the Taranaki boy who went prowling and had been shot up by a jumpy-fingered American picket.
‘There were 50 graves in the cemetery before it was closed. A volunteer party worked on it, bringing in loads of tiles. They used these to make warm red paths among the graves and to enclose the mounds of each. The curves of the rows of crosses followed faithfully the same curve taken by the road. Two large, stone flower pots of irises stood on each side of the entrance, and a great stone pot with the same flowers stood in the very centre of the cemetery page 374 at the foot of a large cross. It was an exceedingly simple but very effective arrangement. Drivers of passing trucks used to crane out of their vehicles to watch it as they passed.
‘At Castelfrentano the unit had treated a large number of wounded, but in such a malevolent, sour season, and in such grudging daylight, there seemed nothing strange or discordant in the procession of wounded and dying; it had seemed a natural reflection of the weather. But in the lovely, diamond-bright autumn displaying the charm of Italy, the heavy sustained toll of the mangled rang with the discordant note of a cracked bell.’
CCS at Siena
After staging for ten days at Panicale, near Lake Trasimene, the CCS, under Lt-Col A. G. Clark,3 moved on 23 July to Siena. Upon the arrival of the advanced section, the equipment was unloaded and the vehicles left to collect the remaining section at Panicale. Some of the departments were erected that afternoon.
Everyone was delighted with the new location, which was separated from the town by a ridge and a gully. The unit had never before set up as a tented hospital so close to a town. From the ridge Siena could be seen spread out over its hills; silhouetted against the sky was the graceful tower of its famous cathedral and the looming bulk of its many churches. The site where the CCS was set up was a very narrow one bounded on one side by a road (Eighth Army express route) and on the other by a creek at the foot of wooded hills. Originally it had been an agricultural stadium, but it was a clean area and well drained, with a good system of roads and concrete channels. Thickly foliaged trees provided plenty of welcome shelter and gave an attractive appearance to the camp.
Since space was so limited only six wards were erected, as well as pre-operative theatres, cookhouses, and other smaller departments; the QM was well established in modern office buildings facing the road. Officers' and nursing sisters' tents were in a grassy paddock to the east of the area, while the men's bivouacs, pitched necessarily close together, were in a plot at the westward end. Here, too, were camped the Italian Army personnel who, since Presenzano, had been employed in the cookhouses and mess tents.page 375
On the day after the CCS arrived at Siena, casualties were admitted from the Division, which was now in action 15 miles south of Florence. For the following three weeks, as the fighting advanced towards the city and the Arno River, admissions remained at a high level, the average number admitted daily being 110. Although these casualties came in the main from the New Zealand Division, others were received from Canadian and British units, while South Africans, Americans, and South African native troops were also handled.
The line of evacuation at this time was a particularly long one, at least for New Zealand troops. From Siena patients were sent to 4 British CCS, 15 miles south, and from there they went to 58 British General Hospital at Lake Trasimene. This was a very hot and dusty 50-mile journey and particularly tiring for seriously ill cases. From Lake Trasimene New Zealand patients went 200 miles by air to Naples, and were soon transported to 2 NZ General Hospital at Caserta. Later, air evacuation was instituted from Siena.
Decisive Battle for Florence
On the night of 1-2 August the decisive battle for Florence began, when 5 Brigade, 6 Brigade, and 4 Armoured Brigade all joined in the attack on the Pian dei Cerri and La Poggiona ridges. The opposition was tenacious. Throughout the days of 2-3 August the combined efforts eventually forced the enemy to withdraw. This ended the battle for the Paula Line and decided the fate of Florence. New Zealand troops were firmly on top of the final line of hills and on the point of breaking through down the slopes to the Arno. Up to this time the South Africans had been unable to make more than slight headway along the valley of the Greve, through which ran Route 2, the main road to Florence, but with the Paula Line pierced by 2 NZ Division, the enemy had to abandon his positions south of the Arno.
Along the greater part of the front the Germans withdrew precipitately, and South African armour began to forge swiftly ahead along the main road to the city. The South Africans entered Florence early on the morning of 4 August. While 5 Brigade pressed on down the hill slopes towards the Arno, a New Zealand column entered the south-west outskirts. Florence lies on both sides page 376 of the Arno, the greater part being on the north bank. All but one of the many bridges across the Arno had been destroyed, and this, the historic Ponte Vecchio, had been closed by great masses of rubble from buildings which had been demolished at its approaches. The enemy maintained many strongpoints on the north bank.
B Company, 5 Field Ambulance, closed down on 3 August and moved forward about four miles to set up at the roadside in the village of Massanera. The building was littered with books and school furniture, but it was soon cleared out for the ADS. Almost immediately casualties arrived, and they continued to arrive throughout the night. The ADS was busy until about half past four the following morning. B Company packed up and moved again in the afternoon of the 4th, and after travelling for about three miles the men caught their first glimpse of Florence, spread out on a plain with high hills to the rear. The company moved on in convoy with thousands of other vehicles, passing many burnt-out German tanks, some of them still burning, and made its way down into the suburbs of Florence, right under the nose of the Germans. Its destination was reached without event, save for one shell that landed about 200 yards away.
The ADS was set up in a large Fascist school building at Scandicci, about three miles south-west of the city, and battle casualties began to arrive immediately. Evacuation to 4 MDS, which was occupying a mansion on the southern slopes overlooking Florence, became so difficult that a car post had to be established and the casualties carried over the first stage of the journey by jeep. The Germans opened fire on the suburb during the night, but no shells fell near the ADS. From upstream came crashing explosions as heavy concentrations fell around a bridge across the Arno.
The difficult advance on Florence had traversed one of the most historic regions of the world in the post-Renaissance period. There was beauty in the hills covered with woods of oak and pine on the road from Chianti, and in Siena, whose brick walls glowed ‘Siena red’ in the morning sun. 5 Brigade fought in vineyards famous for some of the finest wine in the world—Chianti. Some troops had to guard masterpieces of painting which had been hidden in houses outside the city. The magnificent villas of the Florentine merchant princes had their suits of armour and their art galleries, page 377 their terraced gardens and their noble avenues of trees. Advancing units lived in one famous villa after another.
The turn came for 4 Field Ambulance to make a temporary home in one of these historic villas.
4 Field Ambulance Near Florence
To establish an MDS nearer to the forward elements of the Division than 6 MDS, which was still functioning on Route 2 near Tavarnelle, HQ and A Companies of 4 Field Ambulance on 4 August occupied at Casa Vecchia a fine, old-world mansion on the hills overlooking Florence, seven miles from the Arno. The dome of Florence cathedral could be seen, but members of the unit had to be content with that glimpse of the city until, with all other divisional units, they were given leave there some months later. The elaborate and baroque furnishings of the villa were removed upstairs, and the spacious ground-floor rooms laid out in reception, resuscitation, operating, and evacuation centres. The upper floors were placed out of bounds, and the aged padrone remained in residence. Though bemoaning his cruel fate, he proved fairly cooperative, and opportunity was taken to point out that his position, though trying, could have been much worse. Accommodation for all ranks continued to be under canvas. The unit was joined by 1 FSU, 2 FTU, and NZ Section MAC. Only a few battle casualties were admitted.
As it became apparent that the enemy intended to fight in and about Florence, arrangements were made for a regrouping. The enemy had withdrawn across the river, and a co-ordinated attack by the Fifth and Eighth Armies was planned, 13 British Corps crossing in the vicinity of Florence and 2 US Corps passing through the New Zealand positions, with the object of forcing the Germans back on the Gothic Line defences.
As usual each brigade had an ADS set up. 6 ADS was situated near Montelupo, overlooking a tangle of valleys and spurs to the river and the heights beyond. Above stood a cluster of rather dilapidated buildings, crammed with refugees from Empoli. The nearest village, a scattering of houses along the road about half a mile to the rear, was rather inappropriately named Il Paradiso.
With a small shift only required on duty to treat and evacuate the few patients admitted each day, most of the men were once page 378 again free to do more or less as they wished; and being by this time experts in the art of getting their feet under the table, they were soon distributed through the homes in the vicinity.
After tea on the first evening, two men took a guitar up to the roadway by the houses and started chanting such lively tunes as ‘South American Joe’. The company and the Empoli people converged on the spot, and before long a full-scale sing-song was in progress, the Italians, with their vast repertoire and their life-long familiarity with mass singing, easily outdoing the New Zealanders. The sound must have carried for at least half a mile, for parties of the extremely earthy-looking denizens of ‘Paradise’ came hurrying along to add their voices.
Thenceforward the gatherings were a nightly feature, usually beginning after the radio news. On arrival the company radio was set up on the bonnet of the evacuation section truck, and the refugees and inhabitants used to pack around to hear the news in Italian. One of the men invariably stood guard over the set, stoically enduring the smell of infrequently washed bodies.
The weather was for the most part fine and warm, though there was rain on the 10th and 11th, when several of the bivouacs were flooded. The days passed all too quickly. More and more United States troops were appearing in the area, and between 14 and 16 August they relieved the Division, which withdrew to Castellina, near Siena.
By the end of July as the New Zealanders battled for the last heights commanding Florence, the influx of patients at 2 General Hospital had raised the bed state to 747, and leave was temporarily cancelled. The news of steady progress on the Normandy and Russian fronts, where the battle for Warsaw had begun, led to a wave of optimism throughout the unit regarding the possible early ending of the war in the European theatre. At Caserta the weather was hot and muggy, with occasional thunder showers.
On 1 August 83 casualties arrived by air, and the following day a new high level in the occupied bed state was reached when, for a brief period during the overlap of admissions and discharges, there were 817 patients in the wards. The congestion was relieved by evacuation by ambulance train and passenger train to 3 General page 379 Hospital at Bari, 1 General Hospital, Molfetta, and 1 Convalescent Depot, San Spirito, of 50 and 130 patients on successive days, and then, after one day of no discharges, 103, 212, and 60 on successive days. On 14 August the largest evacuation ever made by the hospital took place when 214 patients were transferred to the east coast medical units. From that date evacuation facilities were satisfactory, and the bed state of the hospital remained below crisis conditions, although infective hepatitis cases began to come through in growing numbers from the Division.
Taking it all round, the difficulties of evacuation, crowded wards, heat and humidity threw a considerable strain on all hands, and made August 1944 a month to be remembered by 2 General Hospital. The staff all rose to the occasion, took their troubles with good humour, and maintained the standard of work at high level. As events were to prove, this month was the climax of their activities at Caserta.
Leave arrangements were made by the hospitals in July so that members of their staffs could go on leave to the Isle of Ischia, and the sisters and WAACs could spend two days in Rome. A chance to see Rome became the ambition of all, as the first sightseers brought back such glowing accounts of the New Zealand Forces Club, St. Peter's Cathedral, Vatican City, the Forum, Colosseum, Catacombs and the opera, among other highlights.
In August there were further staff changes in the hospitals as the 4th Reinforcements and some of the original officers and sisters left for New Zealand. Among these were both the commanding officer of 1 General Hospital, Colonel Pottinger, and the Matron, Miss M. Chisholm. They were succeeded by Col W. B. Fisher and Miss E. Worn4 respectively.
At Castellina the various units of the Division were scattered along the line of the road to Siena, many on sloping sites with a magnificent view of the surrounding country. The open MDS, the page 380 4th, stood at the head of a knoll across a gully from 6 MDS. The view took in the rolling Tuscany plain. Lines of dust along its roads rose like smoke from bushfires. The red, cream, and buff of the villages set in the thick velvet green of the trees looked like distant, garden flower pots.
The staff of the CCS learned that a complete change from camp life could be found in the nearby town of Siena. To walk up through the woods at the back of their area, across the hill, down through the valley and then up the steep, narrow streets, was just a matter of a few minutes. The people of Siena were particularly friendly—in fact, the most friendly that had been met in Italy. They seemed to like New Zealanders and were surprised to learn that they were not black natives from some cannibal isle, as they had recently been led to believe by enemy propaganda. Some members of the unit spent all their free time in the people's homes. An hour or so in someone's home, poor though it might be, was a pleasant change from the monotony of camp life.
For the Division leave to Siena was controlled, but most of the men of the field units were able to visit the town. They found it a pleasant, mellow town, walled and quiet. It had been damaged but little, and the celebrated cathedral was untouched. The South Africans made the New Zealanders welcome at their club. Most will probably remember Siena best for the excellent pipes that could be bought at the local factory and for the ceremonial pageantry of ‘II Palio’, enacted for their benefit by banner-bearers and drummers—horses were not available for the traditional race itself. The costumes were rich and fantastic in colour and design, making an impressive sight as the banner-bearers skilfully twirled the banners around them so that they floated and flowed parallel with the ground, or danced easily between the staffs and banners as they twirled them, tossing them high in the air and catching them behind their backs.
On the 24th all units were paraded along the main road to cheer at the passing of some distinguished personage whose identity was kept a secret. It was a blazing, sunny day, there was no shade, and the sides of the road were covered in dust. The troops were soon fed up with waiting, and when at last a car bearing Mr. Churchill came slowly past they were in no mood to cheer. Moreover, not expecting him, they were slightly startled. However, when he had page 381 passed some of them made up for their remissness by roundly cheering a carload of Redcaps, who did not appear to appreciate the honour overmuch.
Instructions were received to lighten loads on trucks to the greatest possible degree to achieve a high standard of mobility. Units combed through medical and personal gear for this purpose. A rather more than ordinarily serious kit inspection was held. Much surplus equipment was found; but at least as much was not found, as it was planted out among the bushes. Some voluntary contributions were made to the salvage heap, but almost as many items were filched from it during the contributing process.
2 Maj D. P. O'Brien; born NZ, 23 Jul 1906; Surgeon, Auckland; SMO Norfolk Island Oct 1942-Sep 1943; Surgeon 1 Gen Hosp Feb-Aug 1944; OC 3 FSU Aug 1944-Mar 1945; Surgeon 5 Gen Hosp Mar-Apr 1945; died (Egypt) 29 Apr 1945.
3 Lt-Col A. G. Clark, OBE, MC; born Napier, 6 Nov 1891; Surgeon, Napier; BEF 1915-18, Medical Officer RAMC, France; wounded and p.w. Apr 1918; repatriated Dec 1918; Surgeon 1 Gen Hosp Sep 1941-Dec 1943; 1 Mob CCS Dec 1943; CO 1 Mob CCS Jun 1944-Aug 1945.