Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy
CHAPTER 18 — RIMINI
THE demand for extreme mobility was not an idle one. The Adriatic sector was again to be the destination of the Division in a secret move across Italy.
Preparations for the journey were completed by 26 August. On the morning of the 27th 6 Brigade left, and at ten o'clock A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, proceeded to the main road and joined the 680 vehicles of the brigade convoy. It was Sunday morning and scorching hot, and the pealing of church bells hung in the air. Civilians gazed curiously as the troops stood around the trucks in the inches-deep dust that covered the road and whitened the hedgerows.
The head of the column was already on the way, spreading along the roads at approximately twenty vehicles to the mile. Half an hour later A Company moved off and headed southwards through Siena. By the following morning, when HQ started the journey with the 2 NZ Division Troops Group, the whole Division was strung across the width of Italy.
The convoys swung eastwards at San Quirico and followed a roundabout route towards Lake Trasimene, then wound eastwards over tortuous secondary roads to strike Route 71 at Castiglione del Lago. The lake was shimmering under the moon as the stream of vehicles travelled on through the night, around the northern shores and down Route 75 past Perugia and Assisi. Gazing up the hillsides at the walls of Assisi, many would have liked to explore the historic town; but there were no halts and, moreover, because of the need for secrecy, all towns en route were out of bounds.
Passing the town signs of appropriately named Spello, A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, came to the staging area, some two miles south of Foligno, at 7 p.m. The transport ahead was pulling into the fields. Unit cooks assembled burners, and colonies of bivouac tents were appearing among the trees as the company came to a halt and made camp. After tea the commanding officer nipped in the bud many private schemes concerning nearby Foligno by announcing that, for security reasons, all ranks were confined to the area. page 383 The convoy had covered 130 miles during the day, halting only for lunch, and the troops bedded down early. Shortly after nightfall the quietness of an empty countryside lay over the encampment.
The morning was warm and moist, with a dense mist clinging to the ground and trees. Voices floated across from the road, where the vague figures of peasants, women carrying loads on their heads and men with donkeys and carts, were walking into Foligno. An old tower, with a stunted tree clinging to its ruined battlements, stood high above a nearby grove of oaks. The mist thinned out to a mere haze over the distant hills and villages, and the troops began to stir as engines started and the roar of petrol cookers arose. The leading units moved out on the second stage of the journey. A Company pulled back onto the road at 9 a.m. and followed the convoys ahead north-westward along Route 77.
Thenceforward the going was much more difficult. The column encountered steep hills and dangerously zigzagging roads as it passed along the route through Tolentino and past Macerata, to swing northwards through a region of broken country and roads deep in dust to Iesi. A Company's drivers were fortunate in covering the whole distance in daylight, the company arriving in the 6 Brigade assembly area, about a mile and a half to the north-west of the town, in the afternoon.
Headquarters 6 Field Ambulance and other units covered the last 104 arduous miles in darkness. People were awake in the villages, thrusting their heads out of windows or standing in groups in doorways, watching the darkened trucks roaring through. Dawn found 6 Field Ambulance north of Macerata. The drivers had been on the alert all night, easing their vehicles around hairpin bends above deep valleys, and now they were faced with roads deep in dust that, whirled up by the earlier convoys, had settled thickly over a wide area on either side. In the deceptive, early-morning light, the road verges were difficult to see. To fresh men the conditions would have been extremely difficult; to tired drivers they were almost impossible. Consequently, it was not surprising that two vehicles drove off the road. The orderly-room truck came to a halt straddling the edge of a steep bank, but was towed back without much delay with the aid of a Sherman tank.
The unit passed through Iesi and followed Route 76 to the coast to join B Company, which had moved up from Civita Castellana to page 384 make preparations for a divisional rest camp near Case Bruciate, north of Ancona.
During the early days of September the Division remained near Iesi, awaiting its new role. Operating as ADS in the 6 Brigade area, A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, occupied a pleasant field, half grass-covered and half planted in well-grown tobacco, and bounded by fruit-laden grape vines. The weather was fine and extremely hot, and as the only work was the treatment of a trickle of sickness cases, parties of men were transported to the beach each day. The rest of the company sprawled in the bivvies or around the radio, scattered through the vineyards and houses, or strolled along the winding lanes and up the hill through the massive gateway of Iesi. It was an attractive town and the people were friendly enough, though some claimed that, having been liberated by the Italian Arditi, they owed the Allies nothing.
The 6 Field Ambulance rest camp was east on the coast and only a hundred yards or so from the sea. A double-line railway and the coast road, Route 16, ran between the camp and the beach. Every joint in the rails had been expertly blown apart by the Germans and the power-line pylons had been neatly toppled. The difference between the rest camp atmosphere and that of a normal MDS was most noticeable. There were no ambulance cars driving up to reception during the night, and no loaded stretchers being hoisted out by waiting stretcher-bearers. There were no soldiers wandering about with bandaged arms, faces and legs, or spotted with applications of gentian violet or brilliant green. Also, there was no smoking rubbish hole, evil-smelling with burning blood-soaked dressings and fragments of clothing. Instead there was a gathering of casual, healthy-looking men, and the neat row of 180-pound tents in which they were housed, with bivouac tents hugging the boundary hedges or backed up against trees for shade.
Many times each day flights of fighters began their sorties by roaring low over the camp and beach; and occasionally a medium bomber jettisoned a stray bomb far out to sea, the splash and smoke vanishing before the report reached the shore. In the mornings the destroyers Loyal and Urchin steamed serenely past to throw the weight of their gunnery into the battle raging around Rimini. In the evenings the men, though themselves veterans of many page 385 thousands of miles of truck travel, sat along the banks at the roadside, smoking and lazily watching the stream of traffic passing up and down, or yarning with a party of South African engineers who were repairing the railway. With the assistance of the South Africans and their bulldozer, a football ground was levelled off nearby. It was smooth enough; but the freshly disturbed earth dried out in the sun and each game was played in a miniature dust-storm.
Attack on Gothic Line
At this time the Germans were defending the Gothic Line, a formidable defensive system in considerable depth, embracing the entire breadth of the belt of interlocking ranges of the Apennines across Italy. The eastern sector ran along the Foglia River and was anchored at the Adriatic town of Pesaro. While the main mountain ranges stopped short of the coast, high foothills running almost to the sea provided excellent defence positions. Once an attacking army won past Rimini, 20 miles up the coast from Pesaro, it was thought that the Gothic Line defence system would be turned. It was expected that once the Eighth Army entered the Po Valley it would be able to exploit rapidly across the plain. Optimism at the ability to force the pace was to be sadly disappointed. Rivers and extensive canalisation north of Rimini continually hampered progress. Instead of making the expected rapid advance, Eighth Army entered upon a long and discouraging period of nearly four months' fighting, crossing numerous river obstacles in winter weather in operations that can best be described as the ‘battles of the rivers’. The operations did, however, tie down German forces that might otherwise have been used to help oppose the Allied advance in Western Europe.
Eighth Army began its attack towards the Gothic Line on the night of 25 August, and by the end of the month it was breaking into the defence system along the Foglia River. Pesaro fell to the Poles on 2 September. Canadian and British troops continued the advance on the narrow coastal strip and farther inland. On 10 September 2 NZ Division came under command of 1 Canadian Corps for an operation which it was hoped to make a mobile one of break-through and exploitation.page 386
Eighth Army pushed on until it was held up at the San Fortunato Ridge, which dominated Rimini and commanded the eastern entrance to the Po Valley. After heavy fighting, the ridge fell to the Canadian Corps on 20 September, and the next day Greek and supporting New Zealand troops entered Rimini and the Canadians crossed the Marecchia River to enter the Po Valley. At this stage 5 Brigade came up to pass through the Canadian bridgehead and continue the advance towards Ravenna, while 4 Armoured Brigade was also committed on the narrow coastal strip between Route 16 and the sea. As ADS to 5 Brigade, A Company, 5 Field Ambulance, set up in a small stable just south of Rimini on the 20th and admitted a large number of wounded on the 22nd, during which day its area was shelled and a jeep driver wounded.
On the 23rd 6 Brigade took up the attack, and A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, had reached a field just south of Rimini in the afternoon. A few shells landed among nearby olive trees at nightfall. Another screeched past into a hedge. Then one burst with a sizzle and a shattering explosion in a ploughed strip at the edge of the field, and the unpleasant humming of splinters started a rush to transfer bedrolls to the irrigation ditches. The shelling continued for about an hour, and inevitably, with the concentration of units in the vicinity, men were wounded. The ADS reception section set up and admitted and treated 25 casualties.
The night that followed was bitterly cold, and the blankets were drenched with dew when, at 5.30 a.m., one of the men went rushing along the ditches, prodding and shaking the men and imparting the dismal news that they had to be up and mounted and ready for an immediate move. Soon lethargic figures were groping around in the dim grey light of approaching dawn, packing gear and clambering on to the trucks, where they waited, with occasional descents to stamp up and down to warm their feet, until a welcome ‘Come and get it’ rang out from the cooks' truck. After breakfast there was more waiting around, the company finally moving off at midday.
Meanwhile, 6 Brigade was advancing. A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, passed through the outskirts of Rimini and set up the full ADS in the local cemetery, a mile or so north of the town. A typical Italian cemetery, it was completely walled in and crammed with graves, each bearing a porcelain photograph of the occupant. Some of the graves and the coffin receptacles that lined the walls page 387 had been blown open by direct hits, and the smell of old corpses hung in the air. However, it was sheltered and warm, and the men contentedly erected their bivouac tents among the tombstones.
Casualties were coming back from the battalions, and during the afternoon and evening of the 23rd the ADS admitted 55. Most of them were frankly startled on being hauled from an ambulance car into a moonlit cemetery.
At 7.45 p.m. on the 24th, 6 Brigade delivered a heavy attack that carried it on to the crossroads at Bordonchio, seven miles to the north. Men lined the tops of the cemetery walls to watch the guns, a long, flashing line in the darkness to the rear, as they poured out the barrage. The infantry advanced against formidable difficulties. The enemy laid down heavy shellfire along the whole front, and his troops occupied and fortified every house. Nearly 200 wounded were carried back to the ADS during the 24th and 25th.
During the 26th troops of 6 Brigade reached and crossed the Uso (Cæsar's Rubicon); the Germans had withdrawn from Bellaria, a small seaside town beyond. Part of A Company moved forward up Route 16 to establish the ADS a mile south of Bordonchio. The bleak, muddy patch of ground was by no means a pleasant change from the grassy, sheltered, albeit somewhat odorous cemetery. The only house was badly damaged and polluted by cattle, which the Germans had taken into the lower rooms and slaughtered. Later in the day the carcases were towed away by a jeep, and after being thoroughly cleaned some of the upper rooms made fairly good billets. Most of the men, however, erected bivouac tents in the open or burrowed into a couple of nearby haystacks.
The ADS was now in the vicinity of the RAPs, and casualties were frequently carried in direct from the field, without any preliminary treatment. Civilian casualties were often accompanied by tearful relatives, desperately pleading for information about their destination from busy orderlies, who had not the faintest idea what it would be.
A continuous stream of refugees passed along the road. Some were astonishingly cheerful; but the majority, naturally enough, looked wretched and hopeless. Young mothers carried babies and helped aged parents. Older mothers urged on their reluctant children. All were burdened by such belongings as they could carry. page 388 One family of albinos passed, completely fed up and squinting helplessly.
The 27th brought wind and rain, which continued throughout the following two days. The refugees, looking up uneasily as shells from the heavy and medium guns to the rear roared over into the German positions, still plodded southward through driving squalls that frequently blotted out the flat, desolate landscape.
Occasionally the road came under fire, the bursting shells sending up fountains of earth and mud, while the ground, soaked by the heavy rain, became a sea of ooze wherever transport moved off the hard road surface. Large areas were flooded completely.
During the evening and night of the 28th, a series of particularly strong gusts of wind flattened many of the bivouac tents and half-flooded the slit trenches beneath. The evacuation section struggled with the thrashing tarpaulin, and tried to anchor the ropes with slabs of masonry where the pegs persistently dragged out of the soggy ground. Fortunately, the situation was under control when a party of wounded Tommies was carried in. One, with a penetrating shrapnel wound in the head, heaved himself aimlessly about like a stranded fish until quietened by an injection of morphia.
5 MDS at Riccione
At Riccione 5 MDS took over the local municipal buildings. Cleared of debris, these buildings were very commodious, and it was possible to prepare some excellent 18- and 30-bed wards. The operating theatre was large enough to accommodate two surgical teams working at the same time, and had two adjoining rooms which were used as preparation rooms. The staff of the unit were quartered on the top floor, and the hospital kitchen and patients' dining hall were established in the basement. The holding capacity was slightly more than 150 patients, but as the unit began to receive both battle casualties and sick from the Division, this capacity was soon tested to the utmost.
From 20 to 25 September the theatre was in use continuously, 144 operations being performed. The rush of work had eased when 4 MDS took over farther forward at Viserba, two miles north of Rimini, on the 26th. Then the MDS was reorganised to hold more sick, and as the sickness rate in the Division proved to be much higher than usual, the unit was kept busy. Cases held varied from page 389 130 to 150 and large numbers, including many jaundice patients, were evacuated to 1 General Hospital, less than 40 miles away at Senigallia.
Convalescent Depot patients on the breakwater, San Spirito
A wounded Indian soldier being treated at 5 Field Ambulance MDS, south of Florence
1 General Hospital at Senigallia
At the end of August 1 General Hospital moved 310 miles up the Adriatic coast from Molfetta to Senigallia, north of Ancona. An advanced party had earlier begun the necessary reconstruction to suit the hospital's needs there. When this party arrived, the enemy was only two towns away up the coast, and towns are not far apart in Italy. The switching of the Division back to the Adriatic coast had created a need for the rapid move forward of 1 General Hospital, which had now become the advanced hospital.
The new hospital site at Senigallia was on the beach, in what had been a health resort for children and, latterly, a German military hospital. On the pale blue walls of one ward were bright paintings of Pinocchio, Donald Duck, and Mickey Mouse. They gave Fascist salutes and shouted Avare il Duce at appropriate intervals. The patients later came to like the rejuvenating atmosphere they created, even if they did not agree with the sentiments expressed. In any case, Mussolini had been well pushed off his pedestal by this time.
The central building lent itself to conversion to the needs of the administrative, laboratory, X-ray, and other departments. A walk beneath a vine-covered pergola brought one to a two-storied building used as a surgical block. It showed on all sides more window than wall. The smaller, detached buildings were to become a sisters' and nurses' mess. Tents had to provide all other accommodation. New Zealand engineers built access roads and other conveniences, while Italian labourers worked on inside alterations. Divisional medical units helped to erect tents.
Lt-Gen Freyberg, following an aeroplane accident, was admitted to the hospital on 3 September. While alterations were still being made to the surgical block, he was the first patient operated on in the new hospital.
The hospital was soon busy coping with an inrush of patients. The bed state had reached the high figure of 839 by 26 September, the total admissions for the month being 1667. Of these, 632 were evacuated to 3 General Hospital by hospital ship from Ancona and 189 by hospital train to 2 General Hospital.page 390
The main highway passed the entrance to the hospital at Senigallia, and there was a continual noise from the endless chain of transport moving up to the front line and from planes droning overhead. During the last few weeks of summer and in the early autumn, it was enjoyable for the staff living in tents by the sea, but when the rains came and the sea breezes turned to boisterous gales and the ground underfoot became waterlogged, it was another story. Every effort was made to erect huts as early as possible, and soon Nissen huts were dotted over the hospital area.
Battle casualties and infective hepatitis cases kept the unit busy in October. The average bed state was 587, but with the Division out of the line for most of November there was a consequent easing of pressure on the surgeons. Large numbers of patients continued to be evacuated to 3 General Hospital at Bari and 2 General Hospital at Caserta.
To the sisters of 1 General Hospital, who had long been in a base hospital, the task of setting up in a forward area, living under tented conditions, was new and interesting. Planning their tented homes and improvising ways and means for more convenient living had its humorous moments. One sister wanting a clothes-line found a long length of suitable wire attached to the fence, so cheerfully cut off a length sufficient for her requirements, quite unaware that telephonic communications would be abruptly interrupted.
Wet Weather Hampers Operations
In the heavy rain from 28 September onwards, the 4 MDS site in a factory at Viserba, with its hard roads and good drainage, proved very satisfactory, but the whole divisional area became bogged. Operations were held up, which meant in turn fewer casualties. During the morning of 4 October the MDS moved to a new building, formerly an Italian children's hospital and sanatorium, on the coast road at Igiea Marina, just south of Bellaria. This building consisted of three large stories with a central block of small rooms, each wing forming large dormitories very suitable for holding patients.
The general disposition of units allowed the MDS to receive patients direct from the RAPs. On 5 October the unit was joined by a surgical team from 1 Mobile CCS with equipment for a 50-bed ward, an X-ray truck, and six nursing orderlies.page 391
With the help of the engineers, windows were replaced with windolite, the water supply on the ground floor was put into working order, and a portable lighting set installed. In these comfortable surroundings a social function was held on 6 October to farewell those of the 4th Reinforcements who were leaving for Advanced Base on their return to New Zealand.
The MDS had three completely equipped operating theatres, but fortunately these arrangements proved over-adequate as there were not many casualties in the divisional sector. The total admissions for the first week at Igiea Marina were 238 sick and 84 battle casualties. The latter were mainly victims of sporadic shelling.
Persistent wet weather forced the crossing of the Fiumicino to be postponed. On 10 October it was decided to regroup the troops under Canadian Corps command. The 2 NZ Division sector was taken over by Canadian troops, and the Division moved to the adjacent western sector which had previously been held by Canadians. No great increase in distances of evacuation resulted, and the MDS remained at the same site receiving cases from 5 ADS, some three to four miles due west.
The weather began to improve on 11 October. An increase in the number of guns in the vicinity incited some retaliation by enemy artillery. During the afternoon several air bursts were observed over the building, and later accurate counter-battery fire on neighbouring gun sites caused a sudden influx of battle casualties. No MDS property was damaged.
Crossing the Rivers
The rain which made the crossing of the Fiumicino impossible had failed entirely to pin down the infantry or to silence the artillery. Night after night, over the soft sound of drizzle and the howl of the wind in the trees, the roll of gunfire echoed from the Apennines to the sea. On 11 October 5 Brigade found the Fiumicino almost undefended and moved across to take the town of Gatteo, badly battered by shelling and bombing. San Angelo, a heavily defended enemy strongpoint, caused a hold up and led to many casualties before it was cleared by Maoris on the night of 14-15 October, when searchlights were used to create ‘artificial moonlight’. This eerie light was a feature of the campaign from then on.page 392
For the attack on San Angelo A Company, 5 Field Ambulance, moved forward to set up in two farmhouses. Extra jeeps and fourwheel-drive ambulance cars were called up to ensure that there would be no delay in evacuation on the narrow, slippery roads. Then, on the 15th, the ADS crossed the Uso River to open again in another farmhouse on the down route from San Mauro, and there admitted 100 battle casualties in 30 hours before crossing the Fiumicino and setting up in an orphanage building in Gatteo. Here the company found an old manual printing press and supplies of paper and ink. Soon the men were busy in their spare time filling orders for Christmas cards from some of the neighbouring battalions.
The Pisciatello River was crossed by 6 Brigade on the night of 18-19 October. Tanks were got across the river, and this changed the aspect of the advance as the country for some thousands of yards provided better going. Discounting the risks involved because of the soft ground, it was decided to thrust with the tanks right through to the Savio, a broad river running almost north. Such a manœuvre, involving as it did a right hook of well over five miles, would cut all the coastal roads leading from Cesena to the coast up to a point well above Cervia, and in conjunction with a Canadian attack up Route 9, would almost certainly bring about the fall of Cesena itself. The manœuvre was successful.
This concluded a month of hard but unspectacular fighting by 2 NZ Division—a slogging match in the mud against an enemy who could be forced back but not overwhelmed. But the optimism of a month previously had not been fulfilled, and a break-through in the Po Valley had not been achieved.
In the afternoon of 20 October, A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, moved forward across the Pisciatello to a church between Gattolino and Osteriaccia. A building forming an annex to the church was occupied by an RAP and a platoon of infantry. Consequently, the only space available for the ADS was in the church itself. The company cleared out the pews, while the priest, a sinister-looking man, grew increasingly unhappy and restive. When the men clambered up the walls to black out some high windows, and began spreading page 393 their bedrolls and gear around the altar, he was moved to active protest; but, although all realised that it was a regrettable situation, it availed him nothing.
A large, inaccessible shell hole in the dome of the church caused some concern when the first casualties arrived at night and the lamps had to be lit. Sure enough, complaints began to pour in from nearby units. The light was visible miles inside German territory and a hail of shells was expected at any moment. Fortunately, the infantry moved out and the ADS was transferred to the annex.
The Savio River drive necessitated the opening of 6 MDS at San Mauro, as the lateral road to the coast had become very congested. On 18 October 4 MDS vacated the building at Igiea Marina in favour of 1 Mobile CCS, which held the site while the Division enjoyed an interlude at Fabriano.
Move to Fabriano
Arrangements had been completed for 2 NZ Division to be relieved by 5 Canadian Armoured Division and withdrawn to a rest area, extending over 25 miles between Fabriano and Camerino, two towns lying to the east of Macerata. During the evening of 22 October Canadians relieved 6 Brigade, which began the journey southwards. A Company, 6 Field Ambulance, left its church site at 5.15 p.m.
To the tune of a few unenthusiastic farewells from the annex windows, the trucks drove off into the fog that lay over the flat, dismal landscape. A short distance back the men looked up in pleased surprise as the convoy passed under a banner erected by the Canadians and bearing the message ‘Thanks a lot, Kiwis’. The roads were muddy, and as night fell hedgerows, trees, and vehicles were fitfully illuminated by the fog-dimmed flashes of the guns firing on either side.
The route to Fabriano was to become familiar to New Zealanders—Rimini, Pesaro, Fano, Senigallia, and then inland at Falconara, through Iesi to the mountains, where the Esino River, the road, and the railway twined through the narrow gorge between tall, bare, rock walls. The river was crossed at the Howe Bridge, usually after a good deal of delay.page 394
In the last days of autumn, the Division found itself dispersed among quite unscathed villages in the heart of the Apennines. No one had heard of Matelica, Fabriano, Castel Raimondo or San Severino. There had been no pitched battle there, for the main highways through which the fighting had flowed many months before gave them a wide berth. They were backwater sleepy hollows, unspoiled by the continued presence of sightseeing and souvenir-hunting troops. Yet these places will be remembered with undiluted affection by the men of the Division. Attachment for the quiet beauty and for the people drew many a New Zealander back on a passing visit as long as the Division was in Northern Italy.
Fabriano was in a peaceful, fertile valley. Rounded hills bounded the wide valley and then steeper crests rose to the sky. The railway station and yard were heavily cratered and torn—they had been a supply depot for the retreating Germans. The streets and squares, all paved with cobbles, were clean and well maintained. The people seemed to belong to a prosperous community, although there were many refugees from other parts of Italy among them. The town was the trading centre for a large farming district.
Fabriano did not appear to have any large or enthusiastic Fascist party, and the usually inescapable Casa del Fascismo was missing among the mass of buildings. No building was aggressively new or glaringly modern. The town contained a number of pottery factories operating hand-wheels, quite a large printing works, a foundry, flour mills, many little one-man shops of tinkers, tailors, carpenters, mechanics, all pottering away with surprising competence.
Life at Fabriano
In the Scuola Tecnica Agraria in Fabriano, 4 Field Ambulance opened an MDS for the Division's sickness cases. This was a commodious, red-brick building, overlooking the valley in which the town spread itself over mild slopes. On the other side of the valley rose a rocky ridge, soon to be covered with snow. As it was necessary to hold only up to 150 patients in this agricultural college, the school authorities were allowed to continue functioning in a wing of the building. The structure itself, so unlike most buildings in the path of the war in Italy, was virtually undamaged and was a hallmark in the unit's history as being the first it had occupied page 395 in Italy with its electric light and water services still intact. The town's electricity system had escaped major damage.
For the remainder of the month and until 27 November, the MDS looked after the sick, the more serious cases being evacuated to 1 General Hospital at Senigallia.
The widespread dispersal of the Division and the congestion of traffic on the narrow roads necessitated the opening of 6 MDS, under Lt-Col W. Hawksworth,1 in the castle on Rocca Lanciano, near Castel Raimondo, in the 6 Brigade area, ten miles to the south. Previously it had taken as long as three hours for patients to reach 4 MDS from 5 ADS, farther south at Camerino, in 5 Brigade's area. The weather at this time continued to be bad, but all units were accommodated in houses, factories, or castles and were able to keep dry.
Much of the life of Fabriano appeared to centre round the main square, the Piazza del Podesta, bounded by public buildings and containing a chain-encircled fountain in a moss-covered basin. On warmer evenings the pillared terraces of the post office, public library, and art gallery were lined with troops peacefully enjoying the spectacle of crowds of citizens taking their after-dinner stroll.
The NZ YMCA opened a cafeteria in the post office building. Because of the shortage of cups, the tea was served in adapted milk tins, wrapped around with several layers of gauze as a protection for the hands. Even so, the counter radiated darting figures as men snatched up the tins and leaped to deposit them on the nearest table or ledge before they dropped from their scorched hands.
Three cinemas were operating in the town, but all suffered the effects of a shortage of power. It was impossible to run the projectors at anything like the normal speed, and the resultant drawling speech was almost unintelligible. The most popular entertainment was presented by a party of local Italians in the town's main theatre. It is probable that many soldiers still remember the lyric soprano voice of 14-year-old Sylvana Tisi and the exuberant personality of her sister, Anna Maria. They were followed by the Kiwi Concert Party. Then came an excellent ENSA show. Unfortunately, the New Zealand allocation of admission tickets for the page 396 latter were mere typewritten slips of paper, and widespread forgery caused a crowd of genuine ticket-holders to be left outside when the doors closed. However, the problem was solved in the usual manner: the doors gave way and most gained admission.
Field Ambulances Reorganised
The long-projected reorganisation of the three field ambulances was completed in November, the aim being to scale down medical units in a general reorganisation of the Division, which included the absorption of troops from the disbanded 3 NZ Division. By the end of the month all three field ambulances were operating under a new establishment, with an enlarged Headquarters available as MDS when required and one company permanently attached to its brigade as ADS. The second company in each field ambulance (B Company) was eliminated.
On the 14th 6 Field Ambulance held it last ceremonial parade and march past in three companies, the ADMS, Colonel R. D. King, taking the salute. Colonel King commended the unit for its smartness and the general excellence of the parade; but he was unaware that watching him from where they were sprawled among the trees were men who should have been taking part in the parade.
By a coincidence the reorganisation of 6 Field Ambulance and the fourth anniversary of its arrival in the Middle East fell on the same day, and in the evening a combined anniversary and farewell dinner was held in the castle hall. For days one of the officers, with the administrator of the Rocca Lanciano estate to do the haggling, had toured the countryside buying turkeys, and the cooks equalled any of their Christmas-dinner feasts of the past.
The impressive hall and long tables lined with bottles of beer, menus, and toast lists made a sight calculated to boost any man's feelings, even if he regretted the passing of his unit's B Company (as many naturally did). In the first comparatively silent period 250 pairs of capable jaws were steadily exercised, and then the hall buzzed with genial conversation through which floated the violin notes and the rich tenor voices of the Italian entertainers. The 6 Brigade Band was expected; but unfortunately it spent most of the evening on the wrong side of a washed-out bridge and, after completing the journey on foot, arrived to find a gabble and uproar that would have discouraged even massed bands.page 397
Toasts were drunk to the King, the Medical Corps, and the unit, and then with no further reason for remaining at the tables, the crowd merged and formed into groups that shifted, dissolved, and reformed, while the hall boomed and echoed to laughter and song.
Before the return to the line, leave to Rome and Florence was allotted as liberally as possible, and 5 Field Ambulance operated a leave camp at Civita Castellana. Since the clearance of the enemy from Florence a New Zealand Forces Club had been established in a former hotel, and members of the units were soon to be heard recounting their experiences in that city and comparing it with Rome. Partly because of its mauling by the passing conflict, Florence suffered by comparison. In many of the churches priceless paintings and sculpture of the Renaissance era had been either bricked up, sandbagged, or removed, and the famous picture galleries were not open for inspection, so many of their exhibits having been deposited elsewhere for safer keeping. Nevertheless, Florence had many attractions and was notable for the number of people able to speak good English.