28 (Maori) Battalion
CHAPTER 18 — The Last Battle
The Last Battle
The dust-covered brigade column broke up into sections and by midday on 1 April 28 (Maori) Battalion had debussed about five miles north-west of Faenza in the area held by a battalion of 11 Brigade of 78 British Division. Fifth Brigade's sector was forward of Granarolo with 21 Battalion on the right, the Maori Battalion left, and 23 Battalion in reserve; 6 Brigade was on the left and 9 Brigade in divisional reserve. Fifth Corps intended to start the last offensive with two divisions up—8 Indian Division on the right and 2 NZ Division on the left. Second Polish Corps, with one division up, on the New Zealand Division's left, completed Eighth Army's deployment. The object of the Eighth and Fifth Armies was the destruction of all enemy forces south of the River Po; then, after a crossing had been forced, Eighth Army would push north-east and join up with Marshal Tito's forces near Trieste. Fifth Army, after taking Bologna, would strike north-west and west at Milan and Genoa.
The first phase was the capture of Bologna, which was to be effected by first a feint in the north at Lake Comacchio, followed by a two-corps thrust towards Bologna by Eighth Army. It was hoped that enemy reserves would be drawn towards those threats so that the American Fifth Army could strike direct at Bologna.
The main breakthrough was expected to occur in the north through the Argenta Gap and the New Zealand Division's role was to create as much havoc as possible in its immediate vicinity. The New Zealand operations were purely subsidiary to the main efforts, with no thought of a breakthrough. Foiled on the Sangro, at Cassino and at Rimini, the breakthrough came when and where it was not contemplated, for, starting with the object of drawing off enemy reserves, the New Zealand Division fought five major battles for the Senio, Santerno, Sillaro, Gaiana, and Idice rivers and smashed three German divisions, 98th, 278th, and 4th Parachute in the process. Then it broke through to Trieste—but let us start at the beginning.
All the usual precautions for a secret move had been taken to avoid advertising the return of 2 NZ Division to the line, but the policy was to be extended by trying to hide the fact page 452 that 78 British Division was handing over part of its frontage. To this end the ‘Battleaxe’ patches of that division were issued to the Kiwis in place of their own insignia; furthermore, the Maori Battalion was always to be referred to as H.75. German Intelligence usually deduced an early attack when 2 NZ Division was located in a new sector, and it was essential that the enemy should stay on the Senio where he was to be overwhelmed and not move back to the next river and thus cause much of the preparatory planning and dumping to be done over again.
The battalion area was quite flat and with all the trees and vines in leaf there was good cover for movement. Even the dust from moving vehicles was now a good thing from an infantry viewpoint because it gave the gunners on each side sufficient targets to keep them busy without bothering overmuch about about small bodies of men moving about.
Battalion Headquarters was established in a flour mill on another of the innumerable canals that help to keep this near-swamp area dry enough for cultivation. The battalion front, about 800 yards in width, was occupied by C Company, right, and D Company, left. Each had defensive posts dug well into the stopbank and could, with periscopes and peepholes, view the reverse slope of its bank and the forward slope of the enemy-held bank with reasonable safety. The Senio itself was not deep at the time—about five feet and twenty-five feet across—but the twenty-foot-high stopbanks would have to be bridged before the armour could cross. That would be the engineers' business, but at present the high banks were useful because they screened the forward platoon casas and permitted quick and safe journeys to and from the posts on the bank itself.
The first day and most of the following night were spent in reinforcing and strengthening the defences; the weapon pits on the stopbank were deepened and sandbagged while timber from ruined houses was used to revet the walls.
Brigadier Bonifant,1 now commanding 5 Brigade, laid down the pattern of work for the near future. A policy of offensive defence was to be adopted and the fullest use made of snipers. Strict wireless silence was to be observed and only very guarded speech used on the telephone—the enemy was known to have, like ourselves, a device for listening to line telephone conversations; every precaution was to be taken against the possibility of losing a prisoner to a smash-and-grab raiding party.page 453
Other arrangements were the use of bangalore torpedoes to explode mines and destroy wire entanglements between the stopbanks, the construction of ramps for the use of flame-throwing Wasps and Crocodiles, the digging in of boats and kapok bridges behind the stopbank, and the construction of positions for the forward companies to draw back to when the bombardment preceding the attack opened.
For the next few days it appeared that the enemy was deliberately refraining from firing on the Maori sector although there seemed, by the characteristic noises, to be something doing most of the time on 21 Battalion's front. The enemy held the near stopbank in part of that battalion's area and an intermittent battle appeared to be raging to force him off it, a battle that eventually ended in the Germans vacating the premises in favour of 21 Battalion. One upsetting feature of the German-21 Battalion war was the loss of three prisoners to a snap raiding party and the consequent breaking of all the security precautions. As a matter of fact nobody need have worried for the arrival of 2 NZ Division was not news to the German High Command.
The night 6–7 April showed the enemy in a new role and for some hours his gunners plastered the divisional area. Most of the fire fell on the gun lines, and apart from setting alight to haystacks and buildings did little damage to the Maori area and wounded only three men.
Divisional Headquarters was ‘scared stiff’, not at the Brock's Benefit exploding around the place but because an enemy withdrawal might be afoot. That precisely was the enemy's idea, though the withdrawal had been cancelled at the last moment and the enemy gunners solaced by being permitted to expend a few thousand shells.
The morning after the reverse ‘Chinese attack’ all officers down to company commanders attended a conference at Divisional Headquarters, where they heard a review of the situation. The enemy divisions had never been so widely spread and so heavily committed in the history of the Italian campaign; there were thought to be thirty Tigers or Panthers on the 5 Corps front, of which twenty should be available to trouble the Division. There were also about fifteen self-propelled guns. Following this review General Freyberg took over and opened by saying that now was the time for which the Division had been waiting five years. The enemy was clearly breaking up. He sketched the outline of the thunderbolt soon to fall on the page 454 enemy and said that there would be a barrage greater than at Alamein, almost total superiority in the air, a favourable ratio of ten to one in armour and six to one in guns. In manpower, however, the odds in our favour were not so great, about one and a half to one.
Brigadier Bonifant went into more detail at his unit commanders' conference later in the day. The 2nd Battalion, 289 Regiment, 98 Infantry Division was opposing 5 Brigade; the attack would be on a two-corps front; 5 Corps was to break through the Senio defences, establish a bridgehead on the Santerno River and make for the Argenta Gap. Second Polish Corps on the left would establish a bridgehead and make for Bologna.
Fifth Corps' plan was to attack with two divisions, the Indians on the right moving north-west across the front of 78 British Division, thus squeezing the latter into corps reserve.
Fifth Brigade's operation order is full of map references and code-names which for clarity have been translated into roads, towns, and canals. Briefly, 21 Battalion, right, and 28 (Maori) Battalion, left, would assault the Senio stopbanks and then form up on a parallel road about a quarter of a mile beyond the far bank. From there they would follow a barrage for a mile to another lateral road half a mile short of and to the south of Lugo, a small but important road centre and the place where 8 Indian Division would tie in with 2 NZ Division. The final phase was exploitation for another mile to the Canale di Lugo.
The only matters of interest that occurred the next day (8 April), beyond the preparations that had been going on since the brigade took over the sector, were, firstly, a slight tactical adjustment whereby 21 Battalion occupied a small piece of C Company's front and 25 Battalion vacated its right-hand platoon area to the Maoris; and, secondly, the marching in of twenty-three reinforcements. All were men with long service in action. In order to expose them to as few risks as possible, Colonel Awatere detailed them as stretcher-bearers.
The CO was awakened at ten past four the next morning, 9 April. Lieutenant R. Maika (Brigade LO) had a message for him which had to be delivered personally. It was a very short message, only four words, ‘THIS IS D DAY.’
Every officer and NCO in the battalion and units attached was assembled at Battalion Headquarters after breakfast. Nobody needed telling what it was all about; a large map hung on the page 455 wall was eloquent in its silence. The Colonel gave a short résumé of the divisional and brigade conferences, warned his listeners that this was the last round, that there was to be no looking back and that the only thought was to smash the Nazi machine. He ended:
They are a tough mob and cannot be taken too lightly. We only hope that after the arty and Air Force have finished their tasks the enemy will be so demoralised as to offer the minimum of resistance.
The battalion line of battle was A Company (Captain Harris) on the right and B Company (Major Northcroft) left, and in support C Company (Major Reedy) right and D Company (Major McRae) left. B Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment would be in support, while liaison officers from 74 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, 34 NZ Heavy Mortars and 5 NZ Field Regiment would move with Battalion Headquarters.
It was a beautifully sunny, cloudless day with a light haze shimmering over the river. There was not the slightest hint of the coming cataclysm. The forward troops had to withdraw at least 400 yards from the FDLs before midday and they moved back in small and casual groups to the sheltered trenches already prepared for them. Some sunbathed, some slept, some played cards, some took a risk and played hop-step-and-jump close to their trenches. Throughout the day the two chaplains who were with the unit, Padres Huata and Bennett,2 visited each platoon and held a short service in which they exhorted their tribesmen to be of good cheer and acquit themselves like men and gave them the blessing of the Church. Seldom has that favourite Maori hymn ‘Au e Ihu, Tirohia’ been sung so feelingly and seldom were men more spiritually ready to go into battle.
Lance-Corporal Nepia describes the four-hour bombardment:
We saw the first of the bombers, flying high in perfect formation, approach at 1340 hrs from the SW, huge Fortresses, like giant silver fish, silver in the bright afternoon sun. Then the roar of the engines, ever increasing as the planes came closer, filled the air. Then they were over and away beyond into enemy territory. Wave after wave passed till the air was filled with a constant, incessant deep roar.
Then, as the first of the waves reached the target areas, a loud hissing accompanied the falling bombs, followed im- page 456 mediately by a deep prolonged rumble, then deep-toned explosions could be heard above the roar of the planes overhead, and, in the wake of these, the reverberations as the earth shook beneath the weight of the bomb loads.
The first bombs fell at exactly 1350 hrs. Liberators came, with their tell-tale twin tail sets; medium bombers, flying lower than the heavies, swept past at a greater speed…. The second wave of bombers was met by white puffs of smoke, page 457 indicating that the 88mm AA had at last gone into action. Then black smoke belched from one of the machines, a Fortress. The others flew on. The disabled plane lost speed, then spiralled earthwards, out of control.
Meanwhile a thick pall of smoke hung over enemy territory, where fires had begun their work of destruction, while huge clouds of dust rose as each stick of bombs found their mark.
The last of the bombers had barely disappeared out of sight on the journey home when the thunderous barrage of hundreds of guns of all calibres rained shells on targets beyond and on the Senio.
…. For four hours the guns, 25 prs, 4.5s, 5.5s and 7.2s poured shell after shell over the river, while the mortars played a tattoo on the banks, setting off mines and booby traps besides reducing wire defs [defences] to a state easily negotiable by the inf…. In the dim light, rendered so by the concealment of the sun in the smoke and dust, the Maoris left their positions and section commanders led them to the start line. There were still twenty minutes to go, and by the time all the men were in line a few minutes remained.
…. At this moment the Crocodiles and Wasps roared fwd from their posns of concealment among the trees to the stopbank, mounted the ramps provided, and played long tongues of flame on B bank and beyond…. As soon as the Wasps and Crocodiles moved fwd the infantry left the start line. In a long line, and spaced at intervals of at least ten feet between men, the Maoris crossed the intervening space in a trice, through the low trees, and burst upon the bank just as the Crocodiles and Wasps had ended their phase of operations. Seconds only were required for reaching the top of the bank, and then the men were over, out of sight.
Near the stopbank the platoons changed from extended order into single file. The wire entanglements presented no difficulty—they had been chopped to fragments—and the leading sections threw their kapok bridges across the water; many did not wait their turn but plunged into the waist-high Senio.
They were met by the enemy before they had climbed the flame-blackened further bank, but not a fighting enemy—a dazed enemy with hands high in the air; after the pounding their defences had taken it was miraculous that there were any survivors at all. The Maoris pointed to the rear and the prisoners page 458 waited for no bridges. Within five minutes the leading platoons were strung out in a line across a bomb-pitted field waiting for their supports who had been covering them from the top of the stopbank; when they showed up through the murk of smoke and dust both companies went forward across the paddocks to the forming-up road. So far they had had no opposition and no casualties. There was no contact with 6 Brigade, but A Company could hear 21 Battalion moving through the trees and vines. An occasional voice would call, ‘Are you there Hori?’ and the Maoris would reply to the pakeha inquiry in terms that left no doubt whatever as to their identity.
A group of casas showed up near the road and 10 Platoon (Sergeant Mason) made a cautious approach, but a search produced only two bomb-happy Germans who were added to a small batch of about twenty picked up en route. The first three casualties occurred about this time and the prisoners were told to escort themselves back and take the wounded with them.
When the standing barrage began to roll at five past eight all four assaulting battalions were ready to follow; both flanking divisions were still fighting for their crossings but were making progress.
There was only scattered fire while the troops followed the barrage to the pause line about half-way to the final objective, but the failing light and the smoke that was being laid to hide them from possible strongposts made ordered progress very difficult. Colonel Awatere was asked to call the smoke off but the pause line was reached before the CO's message was acted upon.
The troops were to wait and the barrage was to stand for thirty-five minutes, so both companies occupied a schoolhouse near a crossroad with sections dug in around the building. Prisoners were being taken in numbers at this stage and were causing some embarrassment. They would have needed a sizeable escort which would have reduced the fighting strength of the platoons; eventually it was decided to disarm them and lock them in the school; they probably did not stay there very long.
When the barrage started to move again some civilians who had taken refuge in the open fields were mistaken for enemy and shot. Major Northcroft was wounded close to the objective road but refused evacuation and was made comfortable on a bed in a casa, from which he directed Lieutenant Hubbard (12 Platoon) about consolidating and searching the houses in the vicinity; only civilians were found in occupation, and with the page 459 arrival of the armour soon after daylight the position was considered secure. Major Northcroft then permitted the stretcher-bearers to evacuate him.
Now let us follow the fortunes of the reserve companies.
C Company, following A Company, had to put up with consistent small-arms fire from the right, where 21 Battalion had evidently missed some hardy occupants of a strongpost. Actually, its first casualty occurred on the stopbank when Lieutenant Kaa3 (13 Platoon) stepped on a mine, and by the time they were near Casa Svegli Lieutenant Park4 and some NCOs had been wounded in 15 Platoon. Corporal Pou Rakena5 found himself in command of the platoon and quickly demonstrated his fitness for the position. The Germans holding the casa were in belligerent mood but Rakena charged two spandaus and killed both crews single-handed. After a sharp fight the house was occupied but the enemy rallied and began to bazooka the platoon, whereupon Rakena went out with his Bren, found the bazooka in a drain and killed the crew. That was the end of the fight; a large dugout near the casa yielded about sixty prisoners. Rakena was awarded a DCM.
Meanwhile, D Company had an easier time. The only enemy met were those sent back by B Company, and after searching every building on its axis the platoons dug in around the school vacated by B Company. Shortly after the fight at Casa Svegli C Company joined D Company and both commanders made their headquarters in the school. That was, for the time being, as far as they were to go.
Sixth Brigade probably had the tougher fight but was up by daylight; the Poles on its left had had to fight for every yard and had not made much headway; the Indians, after a shaky start, were preparing to attack Lugo.
The second day of the attack (10 April) dawned sunny and warm and at 8 a.m. the exploitation to the Canale di Lugo began in the same formation. There was no artillery support and the troops were not to go beyond the canal but were to dig in there. The Lugo had been treated as a possible enemy defence line and the heavy bombers had wrought tremendous damage. Almost every casa had been razed to the ground. There was no opposition, only small groups of civilians looking at the ruins of their homes. Some were very outspoken, but the Italian page 460 linguists among the Maoris were equally terse and reminded them that Italy had started the war and that they had only themselves to blame for the devastation.
The Maoris halted on the canal and wondered what was coming up; they soon found out. At his O Group Colonel Awatere said that a good start had been made but he did not want the men to build up false hopes of a quick and easy victory. The enemy line on the Senio had been broken and a considerable part of 98 Division with it. Fifth Brigade was now about to force the Santerno River about two miles away—with 23 Battalion replacing 21 Battalion—and the first job was to seize the Scolo Tratturo. The dispositions would be C Company, right, and D left, with A Company (now under command of Captain Ransfield) in support of C Company and B Company in support of D Company. A Wasp and a six-pounder would be under command of each forward company and the starting time would be 2 p.m.
The men of A and B Companies, after their comparative walkover, were basking in the sun, although they kept one eye on the shadows among the tree-lined fields between them and the Scolo Tratturo.
C Company was late on the start line, but D Company, dispersed in open order among the trees, did not wait for it. The 25th Battalion could be seen also moving in open order and the supporting tanks were ready to come on when the infantry was far enough ahead. So were the 3-inch mortars and machine-gunners. There were no enemy in the immediate vicinity and for at least half a mile the troops passed unmanned strongposts and dummy field guns. The trees stopped on the edge of a wheat field and beyond the foot-high crop lay the Tratturo, skirted with clumps of olive trees. The Maoris had no sooner left the shelter of the trees than four machine guns opened fire. They should have had the range to a yard, but their fire was high and at first there were no casualties.
No. 18 Platoon (Lieutenant Potaka)6 began to lose men and went to ground in the wheat; without waiting to see if 16 Platoon (Lieutenant Preece)7 was doing likewise Private George Nia-Nia8 led his section straight at the enemy, all his men firing from the hip as they charged. These shock tactics were success- page 461 ful and, at a cost of one wounded Maori, eleven Germans were killed, five of whom fell to Nia-Nia. The post obstructing 16 Platoon thus obliterated, Preece led his men to the Tratturo and into a group of houses; the late occupants disappeared into the trees beyond the ditch. No. 17 Platoon (Lieutenant W. Duff) was brought up alongside while 18 Platoon, which had lost some men, including Lieutenant Potaka wounded, went into reserve. Nia-Nia was awarded the MM for his action.
C Company had an even more arduous day against stronger defences and a more determined enemy. Lieutenant Kaika had handed his signallers over to Sergeant Cook9 and now commanded 13 Platoon, Sergeant Ruru10 commanded 15 Platoon, and Lieutenant Hogan commanded 14 Platoon. Good progress was made until they came to a narrow road flanked by thick trees; beyond the trees was the same cornfield that D Company had crossed and when the C Company men burst through the trees the reception of the leading platoons was the same as that accorded D Company. Lieutenant Kaika was wounded and the platoon pinned to the ground. It was clearly a job for the tanks, but in plain view at Casa Capucci beyond the Scolo was a large anti-tank gun for which the tanks would be sitting shots. Word was sent back for the attached six-pounder. Lieutenant Tibble11 brought it up en portée as far as possible and then the crew hauled it along under the shelter of a banked-up road to a suitable position, where it was manhandled up the bank until the muzzle cleared the top. The first shot was sufficiently close for the enemy gunners to bolt for cover; the second was a direct hit and knocked out the anti-tank gun. Now for the tanks. The wireless sets were out of action so the company runner, Private Pita Maangi,12 was sent to bring them up. Between the tanks and the troops was an open, bullet-swept space which was the shortest distance and the most dangerous. Maangi crossed safely and later was seen walking ahead of the armour, guiding them to the waiting company. The enemy redoubled his efforts and mortar shells fell so thickly that nothing could be seen except dust and smoke.
Maangi emerged unscathed and the tanks opened fire on their targets. The Germans were hardy and stood their ground, but page 462 under the cover of the supporting armour the whole company surged forward with their bayonets at the ready. The enemy asked for no quarter and received none. Three Maoris were killed and six wounded, but there were ten nests of rifle pits filled with dead men when the company pushed on. Pita Maangi was awarded a DCM in the next list of honours and awards.
The only other opposition to D Company came from the direction of Casa Capucci where one spandau, with more bravery than discretion, opened up, but converging fire killed all four of the crew without further loss.
From Casa Capucci a Red Cross flag could be seen above a large building on the Scolo Tratturo. The place was thoroughly searched but nobody was there. The occupants had made a very hurried exit, for on the tables were steaming hot poultry, black bread and wine, which were quickly swept up by the new incumbents while they waited for C Company to come up.
After a short halt for reorganisation the battalion pushed on with only an hour of daylight in hand. Every house had a white flag waving from its roof; civilians peered through windows and to the question ‘Dove Tedeschi?’ a storm of Italian, accompanied by appropriate gestures, indicated that the Germans had bolted. The state of the enemy communications may be inferred from the incident of a German despatch rider riding into the Maori lines with a message from his headquarters to the troops supposedly on the Tratturo. C Company overran a quartermaster's store complete with quartermaster; away out in front figures were dashing for the shelter of a high bank.
This was the old stopbank of the Santerno which in that locality wound through the flat country in a series of loops. The river had been straightened and confined between floodbanks similar to those at the Senio, but the area between the old and the new beds was reported to be a tank obstacle. It was expected that the Santerno would be heavily held and its crossing an even more hazardous operation than the crossing of the Senio, but guns and aircraft had so disorganised the defence that the well-prepared trenches were unmanned. Each company put a post on the near bank while the rest of the unit was sited for defence. A hot meal cam up and by midnight the position was secure. The Maoris' casualties for the day were 5 killed and 20 wounded.
On the Maori right 23 Battalion had had a difficult time with Tigers and self-propelled guns and had eventually left them for the artillery to deal with while the troops were swung left on page 463 to the Maori axis and thence back to their own area. Further right, the Indians were not quite up; on the left 6 Brigade was still moving forward and had occupied the far bank by first light. The Poles were still well back and fighting hard for every yard.
Patrols across the Santerno disclosed no enemy handy though our forward posts were consistently but not heavily mortared throughout the night; after daylight the fire was switched to crossroads and bridge sites.
So far only 98 Division had been encountered, but Intelligence predicted that 4 Parachute Division would be thrown in to try to stop the advance. Tiger tanks and assault guns would probably hold a sagging line while the infantry withdrew behind the Sillaro River, west and north-west of Massa Lombarda. Massa Lombarda was about five miles north-west of Lugo, and the railway line connecting the two small towns was the right boundary of 28 Battalion and the left of 23 Battalion.
Colonel Awatere told his O Group at midday on 11 April that the battalion was to cross the Santerno and enlarge a small bridgehead already established by 6 Brigade. It would be a one-battalion show with a barrage opening on the stopbank and moving forward for 600 yards. Fighter-bombers would be on the lookout for tanks, mortars and guns. Engineers would whip a bridge across as soon as a suitable site had been reconnoitred and sufficient frontage secured to make it feasible. Zero hour was 2 p.m., and when the position was secured 9 Brigade would pass through and carry on the attack.
The Colonel did not put all his trust in the ability of fighter-bombers to protect his troops from marauding Tigers until bridges were up and protecting armour across. Lieutenant Tibble was told to think up a way of getting two of the battalion anti-tank guns through the river and as close to the infantry as possible.
The crossing itself was entrusted to A and B Companies; 23 Battalion would assist with fire from its front while C Company was to take particular care of the embanked railway line, the most likely place for sniper posts.
General Freyberg paid an unexpected visit to Battalion Headquarters and expressed his pleasure at the progress being made. He amused his hearers by saying that we had given the enemy his running shoes and that he was making good use of them. He was certain that the enemy had had all the fight he wanted, though there would still be a few major skirmishes before he page 464 threw in the towel. The troops were drawn back to a safe distance behind the barrage opening line, but a few minutes before the barrage started a low-flying fighter-bomber mistakenly dropped a 500-pound bomb in D Company's area. The men had hardly time to dive for cover before it exploded, causing three casualties, one fatal. Others were badly shaken by the blast but revived sufficiently to carry on with the company.
The barrage was to stand for twenty minutes on the opening line, but the forward platoons were within fifty yards of the storm of steel when the first lift came and they lined the old bank. It was very like going over the top in the trench warfare days of 1914–18; on the word of the platoon commanders the troops leaped as one man on to the top and down the far side. At the real stopbank the same procedure was adopted; the water was twelve feet wide, was muddy and looked deep; the leaders plunged in and waded forward—some had to swim, for wet or dry it was imperative to keep up with the barrage.
Private Jimmy Kira13 was first across and caught a spandau crew unawares; then he caught sight of another one and wiped that out also. By this time the rest of his section had arrived dripping and mud-covered. Again the troops lined the bank and, on the word of command, swept over the top. No. 7 Platoon (Lieutenant Rivers) found two bazooka crews and shot them in their trenches before they could do any harm. Kira was awarded an MM.
B Company was able to cross dry-shod as it found a foot-bridge intact. It was only eighteen inches wide but sufficient for the purpose, and one by one the Maoris edged across, lined up again, and once more went over the top. Olive trees and orchards in full bloom gave excellent cover to both companies, but searching fire from the railway embankment, at that point some thirty feet high, was showering the men with leaves and twigs. Captain Harris called for concentrations along the line and the answering shells came thick and fast, enabling the advance to be resumed to the area of scattered casas that was the final objective about 1500 yards west of the river.
It was now in the vicinity of three o'clock. Captain Ransfield reported the discovery of three tanks in the gap that had opened between 5 and 6 Brigades. The mediums were called on to engage the target, now recognised as Tigers, and in quick time shells were dropping dead on the area indicated. The flash of the huge shells bursting on a tank was clearly seen, then the page 465 other two were sighted making off in a swirl of dust. Fighter-bombers prowling around were smartly on their tails and they disappeared from view in a storm of exploding steel.
From then until dark two dozen Spitfires swept across the front chasing anything that took their eye. Massa Lombarda appeared to be in eruption by the amount of smoke and dust rising from it.
The reserve companies picked up about a dozen Germans who had been overlooked and then settled in behind the forward troops. The CO told all companies to pay particular attention to their defences because he expected the enemy armour to make a determined bid to break their hold on the river during the night.
On 5 Brigade front the village of Sant' Agata east of Massa Lombarda was both holding up 23 Battalion and preventing the engineers from working on a bridge in the Maori area. Under the circumstances the oncoming night was nothing to look forward to. But help, if only in a small way, was at hand.
It will be remembered that Lieutenant Tibble had been given the job of thinking up ways and means of getting at least two anti-tank guns over the river to strengthen the bridgehead during that fateful period before armoured support was available. The anti-tank platoon had estimated the width of the river and the problem of producing stringers from somewhere was solved by dragging four rafters out of a demolished house. These were loaded on to a portée and, as soon as the troops left the start line, the vehicle, dragging two guns as well, followed on their heels to the foot of the first stopbank. No. 15 Platoon, previously detailed to assist, helped to carry the stringers to the river and get them across the water. The guns were then hauled over the two banks to the water's edge and manœuvred across to the far side. The ammunition was carried across and the guns practically lifted over the far bank and into the shelter of the trees. For almost a mile the two crews hauled and pushed the weapons up to the FDLs. One gun was ready for action in each company before dusk. It was a feat that excited the admiration of the Division when it became known. For this and previous exploits Lieutenant Tibble was awarded the MC.
The Maori attack had cost thirty casualties and the same number of prisoners was taken. The 23rd Battalion put two companies over the river in the 28 Battalion area with the intention of moving across the railway towards Sant' Agata, page 466 which was preventing the further movement of 5 Brigade in that locality. Further right the Indians had two battalions across the river, and on the Division's left the Poles were fast overcoming their opposition and at one point were on the Santerno. Meanwhile the night was full of alarms and excursions, mostly on A Company's front.
Tanks were reported at various points and ‘stonks’ and ‘murders’ called for. Just to prove that these reports were no figments of imagination induced by nerves, artificial moonlight, or heaps of masonry that looked like a tank, Captain Harris, from the top window of his headquarters house, watched a Tiger nestle in alongside the wall and switch off its engine. The Maoris kept studiously out of sight; the turret top opened and one of the crew sat on the edge for a while and conversed with others in the bowels of the Tiger. Harris told one of his men to slip Hawkins grenades under the tracks as soon as the turret closed. This was done, but when shortly afterwards the unwanted visitor moved away the grenades failed to explode. Probably in the excitement of the moment they had not been primed.
B Company, apart from one tank scare that was stilled by an artillery ‘stonk’, had a quieter time. The anti-tank gun had been sited well forward and about midnight the crew heard a strange noise approaching. It sounded like a horse and cart coming down the road, which, of course, was quite absurd. The crew stood by and waited; then in the artificial moonlight the Maoris saw that it actually was a horse and cart, and sitting in the cart were three Germans singing the Italian version of ‘Lilli Marlene’. Italian linguists among the several other Maoris who had been drawn by the unusual noise asked the very shaken Germans what was the idea of driving through the Maori lines. They replied that they were taking rations to the troops on the river. The captured vehicle was driven to company headquarters and the contents of the dixies examined by the ever-hungry Maoris. They contained an extremely unpalatable soup but the black bread was given full marks.
The 23rd Battalion quietened the enemy fire from Sant' Agata and the engineers had the bridge ready by 2 a.m. The supporting tanks crossed immediately and a much-relieved Colonel Awatere called his O Group together and said, inter alia, that reports suggested that the enemy, covered by his Tigers, was regrouping behind the Sillaro River. Fifth Brigade would keep up the pressure and advance for another two miles to the Scolo Zaniolo, page 467 commencing at 6 a.m.; 3-inch mortars, Wasps, anti-tank guns, and MMGs would be in support in addition to a troop of tanks with each forward company. The order of deployment would be A Company, right, B Company, left, C and D Companies in support.
The troops were waiting for the barrage by 5.30 in the morning (12 April) and were greatly heartened by the sound of Spitfires already overhead. There was a ground fog which, however, began to clear soon after the advance began and revealed A Company crossing drains and peering into the deep dugouts that gridironed the country. They were all empty and it looked like an easy day; then without warning one shell, two shells, crashed into a C Company support tank. The tank was a total loss. Mortars and spandaus opened from the railway across the front and the company made for the shelter of buildings ahead until counter-measures could be initiated.
B Company met the same reception, and though the 18 Regiment tanks were able to subdue some of the fire the platoons were also forced into buildings for shelter.
Both support companies received a severe pounding; C Company lost a tank on the way to the start line and had to shelter in the same houses as A Company. Both companies were shelled out of their shelters and pulled back to another group, where they were still under heavy fire. Captain Harris was informed that Air OP had located the source of the shelling, four Tigers, and that the ‘heavies’ would soon be engaging them.
D Company had a tougher time than any of the others, most of the fire coming from 6 Brigade's front, and took shelter in Casa Bartolini. Major McRae was wounded and Second-Lieutenant Duff took command until the arrival of Captain J. W. Mataira.
The 23rd Battalion was also facing stiff opposition on the outskirts of Sant' Agata; on the left, 6 Brigade was moving 26 Battalion into a gap that had opened between the two brigades.
Notwithstanding the local reverse, General Freyberg, with a wider view of the position, decided on a two-brigade attack, with all stops out, to cross the line of railway running south from Massa Lombarda. It was, in fact, becoming likely that the breakthrough would not be in the north but on the New Zealand front where it had not been expected.
While high-level conferences were planning the new move, ‘stonks’ and ‘murders’ were chasing Tigers and breaking up page 468 infantry concentrations on the Maori front. Towards midday Colonel Awatere held his O Group and told it that the indications were quite plain that the enemy was pulling back towards the Sillaro, although there would probably be delaying rearguards along the canals and ditches lying across the line of advance. The enemy withdrawal, although forced on him by the thrust from the Santerno bridgeheads, appeared to be part of a general regrouping which would bring fresh troops in along the Sillaro. It was possible that the troop movements would be made under cover of darkness that night, but in the meantime the enemy would have to rely on already well-hammered forces on the line Massa Lombarda-Medicina. The stiffening of the defence was due to 26 Reconnaissance Unit fighting to plug the holes caoused by the virtual wiping out of 289 Regiment. It was this unit's tanks that had been and were still a nuisance. Prisoners taken from this force appeared to be of a better type and still confident of ultimate victory. Hitler, they said, would shortly astound the world with a new and devastating secret weapon.
The general position at that time (9 a.m., 12 April) was that 23 Battalion was being counter-attacked; further right the Indians were over the river; on the divisional left the Poles had captured Castel Bolognese; 6 Brigade was expected to conform with the Maori line; then at 3 p.m. both brigades would make a set-piece attack behind a timed barrage. The conference was still in session when A Company located a Tiger and called down a ‘stonk’. As soon as the first shells fell the Tiger made for Massa Lombarda at speed, but, greatly to the delight of A Company, a shell landed right on the target and set it on fire.
Both A and B Companies had difficulty in moving back behind the barrage line. A Company had to call for smoke and had hardly settled into houses when a tank behind the railway embankment pounded the buildings and destroyed its anti-tank gun; another ‘stonk’ was called down and the Tiger backed out and retired. B Company had to crawl along drains.
When the standing barrage began to roll the companies took different routes but had arranged to meet on the first pause line, which ran through a cemetery. A Company had the shortest distance to go and rushed the cemetery when the barrage lifted. About thirty Germans were still alive and a short sharp fight followed. They fought until they were all killed. The page 469 Germans were apparently on the point of pulling out for all their gear was neatly stacked and ready for removal.
That was the only infantry clash. The plantations now ran in the same direction as the axis of advance and the platoons filed along the cover of the trees flanking the fields to the halt line. The supporting armour lost two tanks and destroyed one Panther, and B Company's anti-tank crew got seven shots at an enemy tank that moved out of sight into the town of Massa Lombarda.
It was now nearly six o'clock. The Colonel had been informed of a brigade conference in a couple of hours' time, and the battalion was ordered to stand on the pause line until he returned. The CO took his company commanders with him to the conference, the upshot of which was the relief of the Maoris by 21 Battalion after dark that night, whereupon they withdrew to Sant' Agata, now cleared and well behind 23 Battalion's line.
It was while waiting for the return of the CO and his commanders that B Company had an anxious interlude; a hot meal due to arrive did not turn up at the expected hour. The citation for Staff-Sergeant Rangitauira's14 MM explains the situation that arose and his method of overcoming the slight difficulty in which he found himself:
S/Sgt Rangitauira went forward on evening 12 April 1945 to take food to his coy which was holding the left flank of the Battalion near Massa Lombarda. As it became darker visibility decreased whereupon he missed our FDLs and found himself on the very outskirts of the village. On making a recce he saw some eighteen armed German soldiers coming towards his jeep. Immediately he moved behind cover and when these enemy soldiers were near him he dashed up behind them, ordering them to surrender. He called and made signs as if calling up more infantry to help him. When the enemy saw this they surrendered. He immediately disarmed them and shepherded them back to his lines. By his daring and cunning this soldier contributed to the Battalion's effort to reduce enemy resistance on the front as much as possible.
The 21st Battalion entered Massa Lombarda at midnight without any trouble at all for the back of the opposition had been broken; by daylight both 21 and 23 Battalions were on page 470 the Scolo Zaniolo waiting for their breakfasts to arrive. Sixth Brigade was not far behind them. The Maoris spent a quiet day watching the brigade right flank where the Indians were still fighting doggedly forward.
The signs that the enemy was withdrawing behind the Sillaro were confirmed by the identification of a new division, the 278th, on the New Zealand front. It was digging in on the Sillaro while the battered 98th passed through. That hardly-used formation had had all the fight knocked out of it, for according to reports the survivors stumbled past their reliefs, muttering variations of the theme ‘Rette sich wer retten kann’ (‘Now it's every man for himself’).
The 28th Battalion, short by 116 casualties—most of them wounded—remained in reserve until the afternoon of the 16th, during which period the Sillaro had proved no greater obstacle than had the Santerno.
The need for more infantry to keep up the pressure was met by taking under command 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade. Everywhere the German line was cracking—far away the Russians were in Vienna and the American Fifth Army was reaching Bologna on its eastern and Genoa on its western flank.
The Division regrouped with 9 Brigade on the right, the Gurkha brigade on the left, and with 5 and 6 Brigades in support; the Gaiana, the Scolo Acquarolo, and the Quaderna were overrun and the unlucky 278 Division with them. The 28th Battalion stood at one hour's notice until the night 19-20 April, when 5 Brigade passed through 9 Brigade.
The 4th Parachute Division, whose units had given us such a rough time on Crete, was repaid with interest full and overflowing. The division was holding the Gaiana and pledged to stay the avalanche, be the cost what it may. Its men fought with the courage of despair and died where they stood as the tide rolled over them. The Air Force had also had a field day for the roads were littered with vehicles, tanks, and horse- and oxen-drawn guns.
The Maoris, still in reserve, relieved 27 Battalion between the Gaiana and the Quaderna while 5 Brigade advanced, against negligible opposition, to Budrio and finally towards the Idice. The river line was held by elements of 4 Parachute Division and I Parachute Division to whom was owing the setback at Cassino. They were blasted by planes, pounded by guns, and roasted by flame-throwers while 5 Brigade deployed, 21 Battalion on the left and 28 Battalion on the right of 23 Battalion, which page 471 was to make the initial crossing while the flanking units occupied the near bank.
The 23rd Battalion did not have much difficulty. Sixth Brigade was over an hour or so later.
The Maoris were to cross at midnight (20–21 April) with A and B Companies leading and C and D Companies to follow and widen the foothold. They were to move as soon as flame-throwers had scorched the forward face, but owing to a misinterpretation of orders the flame-throwers did not operate the barrage was some distance ahead before the Colonel ordered the crossing to be made without their aid. There was no immediate opposition, but the forward troops had a very trying time from nebelwerfers and mortars and nine men were hit before the set-piece attack commenced.
The chief obstacles to quick movement were the smoke shells mixed with the high explosive of the barrage. The smoke blotted out artificial moonlight and often the men had to hold hands to keep contact. C Company was lucky as its right flank was on the brigade boundary road but D Company had to rely on compass bearings until some identifiable casas were reached. The few enemy encountered had no fight left in them; 16 Platoon, searching a house, found nobody there, but Sergeant Carroll,15 lighting a match to take a closer look at some bullocks in the stable stalls, was started to see nine fully-armed Germans arise from the straw-covered floor and give themselves up. No. 13 Platoon also found an empty house but the investigation of suspicious sounds at the rear disclosed eight Germans busily boring into a haystack.
By daylight the battalion was settled into houses a mile and a half from the river and in country untouched by the blight of war—no defences, no wrecked buildings, no cratered roads. Civilians came forth with smiles and hospitality. That day, Saturday 21 April, was in reality the beginning of the end. Bologna had fallen and the whole German line had crumbled. All over the country the enemy was streaming along the roads in headlong flight towards the Po River defences—and the Air Force was making it extremely difficult for him to get there.
Bridges were across the Idice by nine in the morning while 23 and 28 Battalions waited for their support to show up before exploiting forward again and the planes searched for any tanks or guns still in the vicinity. The Maoris were watching a plane flying around looking for targets when it came straight at the page 472 casa housing C Company headquarters and one of the platoons. A bomb landed close to the building and, to the Maoris' horror, the plane circled around for another run in. Sheets, blankets, and anything white was waved madly from windows and rifle pits but the undeterred fighter-bomber swooped down again with his guns spraying bullets. When it was safe to lift a head the plane was gone from sight—no casualties but plenty of frights.
The 23rd Battalion got away about 9 a.m. but a hornets' nest in Cazzano delayed the Maori Battalion. A deluge of mortar shells forced the forward troops to seek shelter. Four tanks, two supporting each company, were put out of action. Colonel Awatere went forward to see what was the matter and called for the heavy mortars to retaliate; he then left for Brigade Headquarters, where he reported that the battalion could not move until the enemy was disposed of.
The Brigadier explained that 10 Indian Division was responsible for that area and was still over two miles behind the New Zealand line. The enemy still had a considerable force in and around Cazzano with mortars and probably self-propelled guns, but an air blitz would be laid on that afternoon. The 23rd Battalion and the 6 Brigade units were ordered to halt until 28 Battalion caught up with them, which would not be until after the air attack.
Fighter-bombers and artillery pounded the Cazzano area for the rest of the afternoon, but though the enemy showed little sign of weakening he could not be permitted to interrupt the timetable any longer. Division's orders were imperative that 5 Brigade must push on. Arrangements were therefore made with 23 Battalion for the Maoris to move over behind that unit until Cazzano had been bypassed and then get back on to their own front. The companies moved very quietly and unostentatiously over on to 23 Battalion's axis and at 8 p.m. continued the advance that had been interrupted in the morning. The 23rd Battalion could be seen moving ahead and the fields were alive with quietly moving men. At 10.30 the Maoris were back on their own axis on the right of 23 Battalion lining the Scolo la Zena. Further orders came through for all forward units to be ready to carry on again at 6 a.m.
The Colonel held his O Group at 5 a.m., an hour before the next leap. He reported that all along the line the enemy was in full retreat, orderly and well-planned and not yet a rout. It was expected that he would make for the Po, where elaborate page 473 defences had been noted by the air reconnaissance, but it was problematic whether, in view of the severe losses sustained since the Senio, he would be able to man the line. The Colonel added that he was definite in his own mind that the enemy had ‘had’ it and that the final objective for the day was the River Reno. A and B Companies would lead the battalion.
A Company got away to a flying start and had to be halted until the battalion was properly balanced. B Company put on a spurt and caught up, whereupon the battalion crossed field after field until it came to the Savena, a deep canalised stream across its path. The bridge was blown, and while the tanks hunted for a crossing the troops went on without them. There was no resistance and every house had a white sheet hanging from its windows. Odd parties of Germans were picked up here and there but there was no organisation behind them. Civilians offered hospitality which was regretfully declined, though many a haversack was filled with cold chicken and hard-boiled eggs.
The Canale Navile was reached at half past eight. There was no bridge in the vicinity, but there was probably one in the village of Bentivoglio close by. Awatere ordered the forward companies to move into the village, where they found the bridge totally demolished. However, a plank footbridge was quickly organised by the partisans who were now coming out into the open. Although it was important to cross the canal without delay, many of the troops managed to take a quick look into a hospital where there were some New Zealand as well as a number of enemy wounded. The magnet was the sight of German nurses tending the patients.
The battalion took position beyond the canal, scooping up an enemy RAP and directing batches of prisoners, some under escort and some under their own power, back to the rear. The RAP included a doctor who had lived in England and who spoke fluent English. He was still quite confident that even at that late hour Hitler would perform a miracle and turn the flood backwards again.
The troops waited while the engineers worked on the bridge. Rafters from demolished buildings were carried by the enthusiastic populace and by midday the armour and a number of other vehicles were across. News from the whole front indicated that the enemy was withdrawing on a scale unprecedented in the Italian campaign. Both Fifth and Eighth Armies were racing towards the last enemy bulwark, the River Po, but it was expected that rearguards which had to some extent slowed page 474 up the advance by skilful use of self-propelled guns, nebel-werfers, mortars, and cleverly sited spandaus and mines would continue to harass the forward troops.
The Orders Group, meeting at 3 p.m., was told that 23 and 28 Battalions were still to continue as the spearhead of 5 Brigade and that the intention was to get across the Reno River that night. A and B Companies would continue to lead the battalion, while C and D Companies maintained strong flank protection. Tactical Battalion Headquarters would continue to be mounted on the CO's Honey tank about half a mile in the rear. Partisans, the CO said, had reported enemy snipers in the path of the unit though none of the many trenches along the route were manned, but that was not to imply that vigilance was not necessary. There was still a large number of waterways to be crossed and the men would be wet for most of the time.
The Maoris spread across the fields and were moving by 4.30. Over to the left 23 Battalion could be seen embussing and following behind its tanks. The OP ‘Shufti’ plane swooped low and dropped a message which read, ‘Mount your trucks. There isn't a sign of an enemy for the next four miles.’ The CO was taking no chances, however, and insisted that the men continue on foot and that every building en route be searched.
A group of partisans warned them that there was a nest of enemy near Rubizzano. Corporal Nepia describes the party:
The Partisans appeared to be a motley crowd, some of whom were women. One, in particular, stood out from among the others by her bearing and her beauty. This bepistolled (she carried two, one a Beretta and the other a Luger) trousered daughter of Italy bore a bandolier, well filled with ammunition, cowboy-like, encircling her waist, with another, equally cumbersome, wound around her deep bosom, from shoulder to waist, almost completely hiding the heaving chest behind it. One of the women showed a wound, fortunately only superficial, to the SBs, who changed the filthy cloth covering it for clean bandages.
B Company was nearing Rubizzano when another partisan group appeared and pointed out a house where there were enemy in strength. Captain Ransfield deployed one platoon to watch the northern exit and waited for the tanks, which were having trouble in this particularly deeply-ditched area and were consequently some distance behind. Suddenly the back door opened and about twenty Germans ran out. Only two page 475 were brought down owing to the distance and the Maoris raced after them like dogs after a hare, but the fugitives threw away their arms and escaped.
It was an exciting afternoon. D Company complained bitterly that B Company was bypassing too many buildings and thus delaying it, and at one stage fairly accurate sniping from 23 Battalion's area was quietened by Colonel Awatere's Honey tank, whose Browning dealt effectively with the situation. Yells for more ammunition were answered by RSM McRae, who drove the ammunition truck up to the men with empty bandoliers. At Gavasetto a pitched battle was being fought between partisans and Germans and a Wasp was sent to assist with its flamethrower.
By midnight the troops had marched nine miles from their afternoon halt, were wet to the skin through wading so many canals, and because of the mud in their socks were wearing their boots slung over their shoulders. The danger of meeting any opposition now appeared remote and the men were told to climb aboard tanks, portées, and the other unit vehicles. This strange mixture of vehicles, with the tanks leading, swept down to the Reno, where the forward companies dug in on the side of the river. Colonel Awatere was anxious to throw a company over so he waded across and examined the empty trenches. Then he yelled in Maori, ‘There's no one here. Come over B Company.’
B Company came over. Shortly afterwards brigade orders arrived: 28 Battalion to stand fast until further orders. The battalion crossed in the early morning and settled in around the village of Poggio Renatico.
The Maoris were away again after an early breakfast. The 21st Battalion had passed through during the night and was making for the Po as fast as the trucks could take it, and the Maoris, now in reserve, were to follow. A three-hour drive along popular-lined, dusty roads brought them to the Bondeno area, about three miles south of the river, where 21 and 23 Battalions were impatiently waiting the word to gatecrash across and were being restrained by an equally keen but prudent GOC until darkness covered the 250 yards of water between the near and far banks.
Headquarters Company found its billets already occupied by two Germans who had remained behind when their unit retired; otherwise there was no sign of a war in its dying stages. Bivvies were pitched and in next to no time a sea of canvas filled page 476 orchards and lapped under hedges and trees. The CO brought the latest news; two American divisions were across the Po; 6 British Armoured Division and 2 NZ Division were following that night. The battalion would not be needed for at least another twenty-four hours but after last light must be ready to move within the hour. The battalion would now probably adopt a more mobile role as the enemy was disorganised and unwilling to maintain close contact. All surplus gear and all loot must be discarded for every square inch of truck space would be needed. Company commanders would make rigid inspections to ensure that no man retained enemy weapons. In giving this order the CO was also giving a creditable imitation of Pilate's gesture, for to part the Maoris from their trophies of the chase was just not possible. They would, of course, be hidden for the time being, an inspection would be made, and honour would be satisfied.
During the night the forward troops ferried themselves over the Po and went all out for the Adige River, in case opposition was being organised behind that difficult barrier.
The 28th Battalion was moved up to the villages of Paolecchio and Salvatonica and watched the engineers throwing a pontoon bridge over the river. The water was full of rafts, ‘fantails’, floating tanks, and ‘ducks’ ferrying troops, supplies and equipment, while all around them were evidences of what an unopposed air force could do to an army at a river crossing—guns, tanks, trucks, vehicles of every description were piled in heaps and dead horses, men, and oxen were mixed in the heaps.
When the bridge was finished the Maoris watched General Freyberg cross it, bend down and touch the ground, then return and drive away.
It was Anzac Day—the last one of the war and very different from the day when the Maoris were seeking a refuge in Crete. Not all the German horses had been killed on the banks of the Po, and with time on their hands the men were soon organising rodeos and races. When the battalion left the area it contained a small cavalry unit that had organised itself with the best of the enemy horses.
For the Maoris it was a time of being moved about; they crossed the Po with the brigade group that night and pitched their bivvies in more orchards while the forward units 16 miles ahead put the Adige River behind them, whereupon the Maoris proceeded to Badia-Polesine and were quartered in the centre of the town. Some of the inhabitants did not seem over-pleased page 477 to have such exuberant guests forced upon them. Fifth Brigade had now dropped into reserve together with the 6th and the Gurkhas and 9 Brigade took over the chase, for that was all it could be called now.
The battalion stayed there for another day while insurrection across north-east Italy added another foe to the bedevilled German Army. Only a pen wielded by the Prince of Darkness could do justice to a situation where, besides the Fifth and Eighth Armies moving forward like Juggernauts, two bitterly hostile forces from Yugoslavia—Communists under Tito and Monarchists under Mikhailovitch—slaughtered one another when they were not shooting Germans, and Italian partisans murdered upholders of the Mussolini regime and burned their own cities to smoke out the German garrisons. Mussolini, the author of it all, was hanging by the feet in front of a wayside petrol station like a pig waiting to be dismembered.
And 2 NZ Division at last had the pursuit role it had been denied at Orsogna and Cassino—to strike hard and fast for Trieste. The long Maori column crossed the Adige on the morning of the 29th and headed north-east for Route 10. It was Sunday morning and the Italians were strolling to church. Some waved; mostly they stood and stared. Past Piacenza, then through Ponso and on to Este, where the column stopped for an hour while somebody cleared away some enemy, or so it was rumoured. On again past crossroad villages, country mansions embedded in trees, factories, through Monselice, then a sudden halt for hours while a 20-mile-long traffic jam was untangled. It was evening when the Maoris passed through Padua. The city was burning in a dozen places, the garrison had been slaughtered by the partisans (‘cleared’ is the euphemism), who were then dragging collaborationists to the firing parties. Now it was moonlight and the column skirted the Canale Naviglio full of small barges, then passed through Mira, Oriago, Mestre, where the road turned off to Venice. Continuing north, then east, the column kept on to Noghera, where the Maoris got the fright of their lives. Enemy horsedrawn guns and a long line of infantry bore down on them and the battalion was halted. A lone Kiwi materialised from somewhere and said that the enemy were all prisoners and he was the escort—all of it. It was well after midnight when the Maoris tumbled out of the trucks on the Piave. Ninth Brigade was already on the far side of the river, and 5 Brigade would stand fast for twenty-four hours.page 478
In the morning half the battalion scoured the lower channels of the Sile for enemy pockets, but all they saw of interest were the high spires of Venice in the distance. So ended a momentous month.
A more ambitious operation was set down for the next day. Coast-defence forces were to be rounded up peacefully if possible, but if they showed fight the infantry was to stand back and leave the matter to the tanks and artillery. In the event 21 Battalion got in first and collected some batteries who had declined to have their throats cut by partisans but were prepared to surrender to their regular enemies.
In view of these developments the Maoris were to catch up with 23 Battalion at San Giorgio and then mop up as far as Palmanova, thence to Udine to meet 6 British Armoured Division which was coming by another route. There was fighting in the streets of Trieste and 9 Brigade had contacted Marshal Tito's forces at Monfalcone.
The unit was therefore concentrated again, entrucked, and after an afternoon and night of road tangles and of looking for an alternative bridge across the Tagliamento, it deployed beyond San Giorgio at 10 a.m. on 2 May.
C and D Companies set out to mop up along the road to Palmanova but could not find any enemy to mop up. The route through each village was lined with cheering crowds, but at Palmanova the streets were packed and the troops moved to the Piazza through lanes of wildly cheering people. In the town square the carriers guarded all the approaches until the rest of the unit arrived. They were only a quarter of an hour behind but their appearance was the signal for another outburst of cheering and ‘Viva Inglese!’
As soon as the armour arrived, causing a third demonstration, the column set out for Udine. If the war was not yet over, most certainly enemy were very hard to find. Sixth Armoured Division was met on the outskirts of Udine, but 28 Battalion was to go to Udine and to Udine it went to an even more tremendous welcome. Colonel Awatere led the troops in his jeep along a street strewn with flowers. Some of the drivers were bedecked with garlands of flowers while handkerchiefs, silken scarves, and other gifts were tossed to the troops. It was a fitting end to a long war.
The battalion's casualties in the last battles were 25 killed or died of wounds and 117 wounded.
1Brig I. L. Bonifant, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d.; Gisborne; born Ashburton, 3 Mar 1912; CO 25 Bn Sep 1942-Jan 1943; Div Cav Jan 1943-Apr 1944; comd 6 Bde 3–27 Mar 1944; 5 Bde Jan-May 1945; 6 Bde Jun-Oct 1945.
32 Lt H. Te K. Kaa; born NZ 2 Dec 1914; labourer; four times wounded.
5Sgt P. Rakena, DCM; Mangamuka; born NZ 6 Sep 1918; labourer.
6Lt W. Potaka; Parikino; born Turakina, 22 Aug 1916; labourer; wounded 10 Apr 1945.
8Cpl G. Nia-Nia, MM; Wairoa; born NZ 7 May 1924; labourer.
11Lt Te R. W. Tibble, MC, m.i.d.; Te Araroa; born NZ 24 Oct 1913; drover; twice wounded.
12Pte P. Maangi, DCM; Cape Runaway; born Cape Runaway, 27 Dec 1923; labourer.
13Cpl J. Kira, MM; Matauri Bay, Kaeo; born NZ 10 Mar 1920; labourer.
15L-Sgt J. Carroll; Little River; born Wairoa, 31 Jan 1923; farm labourer.