4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
CHAPTER 16 — To Italy
Italy is in NO sense to be considered as an ally; but as assistance is being given to the Allies by the bulk of the Italian people, they are rated as co-belligerents.
The political situation is a delicate one and the attitude of all ranks should be polite without friendliness.
SOME of the old desert shades had gone. They'd had it. Some trucks—mostly new Chevs and Dodges now—looked different under camouflage coats of green and brown. They had made the trip across safely enough, stored away down in creaking holds and roped here and there, marked and identified, drained of all petrol. Down there in the shadows and the dark they looked strangely passive, almost meek, as if aware of the terrible tests ahead in the cold and the mud and the wrenching, slippery heights of Italy. Maybe they also had an awareness of the passengers to be, their destiny and fate? Daylight came with a rattle of winches at Bari. Ashore—petrol—a roar—the three-tonners lived again, back on the job—business as usual. They formed up, swung away, headed inland, and behind the wheel eyes peered into a new land all the way to Altamura, where the rest of 4 and 6 RMT men, without vehicles and impatient, were waiting.
It took 48 ships to get the Division and its gear across to Italy. Two groups (or ‘flights’) took men; five took vehicles. The vehicle flights—four of nine ships and one of five ships—carried an average of 130 vehicles on each ship. Shifting men was comparatively simple: each creature was laden to the Plimsoll mark and told, ‘Get going!’ Not so the vehicles—the most difficult part of the whole business.
First, the exact length, breadth, height, and weight of every single New Zealand vehicle had to be written down—and page 282 ‘vehicle’ included everything from jeeps to bulldozers. Before measuring the height of lorries, as many canopies as possible had to be cut down until they were flush with the tops of the cabs. This made things much more compact and shipshape. But after this order a horrible (and official) idea got to work: now that canopies had been carefully pruned to the level of the cabs, ‘wherever possible cabs should be removed also’. Everyone said ‘To hell with that’, left the cabs alone, and all was well. A great deal of trouble cropped up over fixing the weight of various vehicles. In the end the weight of a Chevrolet or Ford four-by-four three-ton truck was fixed at about four and a quarter tons, and a two-by-four three-ton at about three and a half tons.
Next, every vehicle was given a serial number. The measurements, weight and serial number were put into lists and handed to the brass hats (General Headquarters, Middle East Forces) in Cairo. Any mistakes in measuring, numbering, typing, or checking could cause a lot of trouble at the quayside. While this was going on, to complicate matters further, new trucks and cars and lorries were arriving, and they kept on coming in for days after the first lot of ships had sailed.
The Cargo Planning Branch of General Headquarters fell upon these lists of vehicles and worked out how and where everything would be put. They did this by fitting scale models of vehicles into the stowage plans of the ships expected to make the trips over to Italy. From these plans the experts made lists of vehicles for each ship. When the plans arrived at Divisional Headquarters vehicles were sent off for loading—usually at very short notice. A small group of vehicles was also sent forward as padding—either to fill in any spare space which might crop up, or to replace vehicles which could not be loaded at the last minute for one reason or another.
Vehicles sent off for loading first went to a vehicle marshalling park, where petrol tanks were ‘milked’, leaving just enough to reach the quay. The code letters for the ships were painted on mudguards, and stickers showing measurements and weights were stuck on to windscreens. Drivers had to hang about in these parks for several boring days. Nobody could ever be certain how many drivers would be arriving or leaving each page 283 day, so special arrangements for rations and meals had to be worked out here, too.
From the marshalling park vehicles moved on to a regulating station, and from there went on in small groups to the quay. A priority list had been made by the Division, but the Middle East authorities did not give it much attention. This caused a great deal of inconvenience at the unloading end in Italy. Many strongly believed that if the Division had been needed quickly the result might have been disastrous.
Even with the trucks alongside ships, the trouble was not over.1 Sometimes, by a combination of swift rearrangement and common sense, more vehicles could be loaded; sometimes there just was not enough space, and vehicles were ‘shut out’. And of course these shut-out vehicles missed the next flight, which already was booked up and couldn't be altered.
Baggage and equipment was another complicated story because—oh, just because.
The Division moved back again into a grey, old, drizzling Europe. Early in October, with clerks reeling from a ‘paper war’ at last slackening up, the first flight from Alexandria to Taranto began. Up gangways, along crowded decks, down even more awkward stairs and into cramped quarters men staggered, bent and red-faced beneath blanket roll, winter and summer clothing, personal gear, weapon and ammunition, respirator, bivvy tent (shared between two), anti-malarial ointment and tablets, emergency ration, and (a nice touch this) an empty two-gallon water can. ‘They didn't think of a birdcage,’ one Kiwi noted in his diary. Once aboard, shoved into holds, sleeping on top of tables, under tables, or in hammocks, optimists peered round and found at least three things to be thankful for: perfect bread and delicious frozen butter and cheese.
The Division, split into two flights and so chopped up and scattered that should any one ship go down no complete unit would be lost, travelled in strangely named ships from far seas: the first flight on the Dunottar Castle and Reina del Pacifico; the second flight on the Llangibby Castle, Nieuw Holland, Letitia, page 284 Aronda, and Egra. A dove fluttered down among 6 RMT drivers on one ship when they had been two hours at sea. The first convoy reached Taranto on 9 October and the second arrived 13 days after. It was a strange experience slipping through the anti-submarine nets and into the port of an ex-enemy or co-belligerent. The lollypop green, white and red of Italian flags drooped from sooty masts; the dark rusty stern of a long-drowned ship broke the surface of the grey water, where thousands of jellyfish floated like pale mushrooms turned upside down. Bofors looked up from the tops of sandbagged buildings towards fat silvery balloons, tethered like pigs, and trailing wires high above ships and docks.
Altogether nearly 15,000 New Zealanders (including about 400 from each RMT company) safely made the four-day crossing, most of them stepping ashore at Taranto, in the arch of Italy's foot. (From a 6 RMT driver's diary: ‘Strode victoriously ashore. Soon stopped striding though. Nail in bloody boot.’) Six thousand men travelled with the Division's 5000-odd vehicles to Bari, just above the heel, where the big radio station had beamed so much hatred across the Mediterranean. The vehicles, in their five flights, arrived there from the end of October up to the end of November.
By the end of October both RMT companies, still without their vehicles, were grouped near the little village of Altamura on the Bari-Altamura road. Drivers, bivvying down with their packs, little tents, straw and sage bush, had been welcomed by a storm, a deluge, and a flood—just a taste of many more to come. Pedlars promptly appeared. They seemed distinctly downtrodden after the spry Arab. They sold grapes, pomegranates, boot polish, nuts, postcards, and apples (some like Jonathans). Big green grapes went for 6d a pound, or two pounds for a packet of V cigarettes, probably the best bargain yet. One serious complaint, almost a national affront, went something like this: with blasted almond and olive trees planted everywhere there isn't even enough room left for a footy ground. Such things were intolerable, and soon 4 RMT (woollen singlets) beat 6 RMT (sweaters) 6—0.
‘A flock of gaunt, grey looking ewes have just passed by my bivvy,’ wrote a North Island farmer. ‘There's an odd lamb page 285 among them which seems rather strange in view of approaching winter. But an old bell ram is always with them: one can hear the bell for miles, jangling to and fro. A big black and white collie dog trots behind them; he doesn't seem to do very much. The shepherd with an old double barrelled shotgun seems more intent on selling us nuts than in worrying about his flock—“Nuts a bono! Nuts a bono!” They [the sheep] have the odd misshapen look of Corriedales, their wool distinctly Lincoln in quality.’
Wrote an Otago farmer: ‘Here, for the first time since leaving New Zealand, I picked my teeth with cocksfoot.’
Then came the first pay parade, the captain sitting on a jerrican beneath an olive tree, beside him a heap of brand new BMA currency, every £I worth 400 lire, and saying, ‘This time we'll start off with the XYZs for a change.’
Leave parties went in borrowed trucks to Bari and to Taranto, past pretty shrines standing by the wayside, towards prettier signorinas fallen by the wayside in the cities. But mostly the RMT saw apathy, apathy everywhere, apathy and emptiness, and a hopeless envy of woollen and leather things; not much to eat, a few sweet, sickly, sticky cakes; barbers ‘who did everything except kiss you’; flower shops selling enormous chrysanthemums; ragged children; cobblestones and Cairo smells; vino galore, but never a cup of chai. Propaganda posters, with the dull or embarrassed look of political hoardings the day after an election, remained on many walls. Yet one or two posters still seemed ‘a little terrifying. One shows a huge bearded Russian leaning out of his tank as it crunches over the body of an ancient peasant, with a white cross on his breast.’ A victorious ENSA, on the other hand, unfolded posters boosting ‘Random Harvest’ (Greer Garson, Ronald Coleman), ‘Minor and Major’ (Ginger Rogers), ‘It Started with Eve’ (Deanna Durbin, Charles Laughton), which were coming shortly or now screening at ENSA's fine, free cinema in Bari. The inhabitants' apathy may have been best, after all.
In the stone walls by the soldiers' camps the snakes soon fell asleep, the mosquitoes and flies vanished, and only an occasional tough old lizard would rustle in the dying grass. At night the bivvies' lights glowed from lamps made from page 286 cigarette tins, cords, tubes of tinfoil, driblets of benzine, and bits of chewing gum. And all through the night the lonely, unheroic sound of every army since the world began: up and down, now soft now loud, the surge of sneezing, coughing, coughing, coughing.
Armistice Day. ‘Here we are at the 11th again,’ wrote Driver Trenwith. ‘I just missed “The War to end Wars” but ran slap bang into this one. Yes, sir!’ Armistice Day, and still no RMT transport. Two days later the flow began, the pool built up, the vehicles began to trickle out and away, feeling and winding their way up the Italian peninsula, bearing the men and the three kinds of food to keep it all going: food for the men, food for the motors, food for the guns. The 6th RMT, whose trucks were turning up more promptly,2 went to work with other NZASC companies which, first getting the bloodstream of supplies moving from Bari and Taranto, were now on the long run north to Larino in the mountains, a distance of some 180 miles, where the first New Zealand field maintenance centre in Italy was established.3
Then, on 21 November, about sixty lorries—half from each RMT company—picked up the Maori and 21 Battalions, and 5 Brigade was away, leaving Lucera for the mountains in the north, for the twisted country and the cold valleys where the village of Atessa looked down over five miles to the dull waters of the Sangro River. From the bivvies of Burg el Arab to the shores of a desolate riverbed—the Division was on the fringe of the Eighth Army front once again.
The cities changed to mountain villages, muddy tracks page 287 replaced the ‘wide and gorgeous stradas’, snow-splashed mountains stuck into the horizon, the olives shrank before oak and ash and sycamore, whose loose leaves flamed and fell at autumn's touch. Some leaves circled down on to graves—German graves, our graves—by the roadside, and drivers looked out and thought that these did not look so lonely or so pathetic as desert graves. The roads wound in and out and up and down, with a good many more ups than downs, it seemed, particularly inland past Vasto, where the turn in from the coast began. Here several of the wrecked stone bridges (and lovely things they had been, too) had not yet been replaced or patched up. The diversions were tricky. On top of this were dangerous and narrow corners, hairpin bends, loops, tracks where trucks had to be winched up, and treacherous surfaces sending all four mud tires broadsiding in low gear. By the time he had finished with Italy, one driver felt he could muster hill-country sheep in a car in the dead of winter with his eyes shut.
‘Convert the Rimutakas,’ wrote Pat Ward, describing the Sangro River area, ‘until every yard is ploughed, or dug, or cultivated; grub all the gorse and plant English trees; leave the roads as they were in the old days when Dad used to pound the old Model T around the tortuous corners; and build on each peak a white stone village (with the tall houses huddled back to back as though for comfort against the cold winds) and you have something of the Italian scene.
‘The traffic is colossal. Trucks slither broadside on, trucks get stuck in the ploughed up ditches, narrow one-way bridges and deviations, swollen mountain torrents. Banks give way—and there's something elephantinely ponderous in a truck turning turtle. Trucks going in both directions are jammed nose to tail for seeming miles. Yet we get through, and if an occasional truck is written off, or a schedule is a couple of days behind, well it's not our fault, we do our best. And the Italian Army, our valiant co-belligerents, aid us nobly. In hundreds, armed with pick and shovel, they patch the roads. It would have been better for them had they always stuck to such peaceful pastimes.’
During the return of the Division to the Eighth Army fold the RMT lorries seemed to be all over the place, taxi-cabs at page 288 the beck and call of events. But instead of careering over the generous space of the Desert, they now crept up and down the little wriggling lines of roads. The two companies were about to become little more than two railway wagons in a vast train supplying or shifting the army. They could be clipped on to, and just as readily clipped off, convoys large and small. They could be shunted into sidings off the road and ignominiously left there. Or, changing the thought, they were to be under the whip of intricate schedules and complicated timetables, and the reins controlling them and all their movements were the narrow roads.
While these infantry-carrying RMT trucks moved north towards the Sangro front, other RMT trucks (particularly 6 RMT ones) were away helping the other ASC companies bring up ammunition and petrol to dumps at Liscia and San Buono. Still more RMT lorries joined in the carrying up of supplies. These were 2 Platoon 6 RMT and also the remainder of 4 RMT, about sixty lorries, filled with 40,000 rations picked up from Bari stadium. From Bari to the New Zealand supply point at Gissi was 200 miles, and over a great many of these miles chains had to be used, for steady rain and swarms of vehicles ahead had mashed up the muddy deviations skirting smashed bridges. After dumping rations at Gissi on 23 November, these empty lorries began a variety of tasks while the New Zealanders jockeyed into position for the assault across the Sangro. Some lorries moved 23 Battalion4 from Gissi to an Atessa still within range of enemy guns; others joined a 58-vehicle convoy bringing POL (petrol, oil, lubricants) packs from Termoli on the coast, where the stuff was transferred page 289 from train to truck. Others picked up 25-pounder ammunition at Vasto and headed for Casalanguida, on the way passing a very fine stone bridge near Carpineto. Jerry somehow hadn't had time to blow it up. He nibbled away at it with his long-range 170s.
Distinct from these RMT trucks burdened with supplies, petrol, and ammunition were the sixty or so RMT lorries bringing the Maoris and 21 Battalion up to the front. Those carrying 21 Battalion debussed their passengers at noon on 24 November near Atessa and swung south to San Severo on the petrol run, but the remaining lorries stayed on two days longer with the Maori Battalion. Then they got going with a vengeance. In a grand swoop south, driving all through the night of 27-28 November over 87 greasy miles, these lorries arrived with the dawn at Porto Cannone, loaded bridging equipment at engineers' stores, and turned back to the north, the last lorry reaching the delivery point near Forcaiezza settlement, about three miles from the Sangro River, by 8 p.m. All this was done within twenty-one hours under the supervision of Captain Burt.
While the bridge-gathering lorries wound south in the dark and dreary night, the New Zealand riflemen were advancing in silence beneath gloomy rain clouds. They held on to ropes and waded the waist-high river; they sloshed through other streams and crossed the gravel banks; they tramped over the squelching flats of the north bank and formed up, awaiting the covering barrage. The storm of shell and tracer began. The infantry went forward.
Across the river and into the ridges, the Division took Castelfrentano and reached into Orsogna, only to be checked, held, then pushed back out of the town. Grey skies hung close over ruin and mud wallow. The rain and the slush increased, and on these muddy slopes the war bogged down for the winter. Through rain and mist, handicapping our Air Force, the sombre slopes of Orsogna looked down on exposed roads and tracks feeling their way over the river and beyond. Here RMT convoys splattered along lanes and tracks. How these tracks were kept open only the engineers knew. Drivers ran the gauntlet of the Mad Mile, a long stretch of road climb- page 290 ing steeply past broken brickworks near Castelfrentano, and looked to their luck at Hellfire Corner on the road across the Moro River. Other names sprang up: Suicide Lane, Mortar Ridge, Angel's Leap.
To the clink and click and spin of chains and the swish of creamy mud, the three-tonners helped bring up ammunition, petrol, and rations all through a half-drowned December.5 RMT convoys brought ammunition from 203 Field Maintenance Centre at Vasto, by the wintry Adriatic, to 1 NZ Ammunition Company, handy to the battle area. They carried other loads to dumps near Casoli, but on the northern side of the Sangro. Further back other RMT lorries had tucked away behind their tailboards either mules for the Sangro heights or some Canadian troops; sometimes a company of Basutoland labourers, or perhaps prisoners of war.
At times a man seemed to carry half Italy on his boots. As for his clothes, he never seemed to have time enough to scrape off one lot of mud before the next lot arrived. The cold nagged constantly. Odd bits of skin soon came off when semi-numb hands and fingers fumbled round sluggish engines. These cuts and nicks were liable to fester. Quite a few drivers went round with bandaged or taped hands. ‘Good old sunny Italy,’ they said.
In the Sangro zone a new comradeship, an odd trust, grew up between the first and second drivers. Perhaps a lot of night driving had something to do with it. Lights were left off usually over long patches of road within range of enemy guns, and lights were forbidden in certain stretches. A driver put it this way: ‘Old Sam wouldn't let me down for the world, and I wouldn't let old Sam down. You drive by instinct (it's amazing how well you can develop that instinct) but sometimes the black shadow you meet on a sticky corner is driven by a bloke whose instinct is only in the chrysalis stage, and then your heart gets stuck under your false teeth, and anything is liable to happen in a tiny moment. On the other hand there are days when the sun is shining, the roads dry miraculously, the air is clear and crisp, and driving is an adventure where we amuse ourselves by having bets as to which one of page 291 the section gets round most of the sticky corners without reversing. One of the main difficulties lies in finding parking space. The roads are too narrow, the sides too steep. There are no flat spots, and the occasional basins are bogholes that would sink a butterfly.’
Necessity made queer laagering spots. One driver remembers a mobile bakery occupying a cemetery, trucks wedged between the stones, the old ovens roaring at full blast in a sheltered corner. In another corner a child held a large cross, a priest stood with an umbrella over his head, and sopping peasants looked glumly at a black coffin and a hole in the ground.
Two reinforcements on the way to 2 Platoon 4 RMT unluckily ran into an S-mine and saw hospital before they had reached their platoon. No. 1 Platoon 4 RMT, moving to its new company area near Atessa to dodge deepening mud, had difficulty in getting out some of the trucks, and a man was accidentally crushed between two vehicles and sent to hospital. The third 4 RMT casualty of the month, Corporal ‘Darkie’ Hinds,6 received slight shrapnel wounds when caught in mortar fire near Hellfire Corner. Later, injured at football (he was an exceptionally promising player), he was taken to hospital and died from blood poisoning which may have been due to these wounds.
Incidentally, among the last two reinforcement drafts were ex-officers and ex-NCOs from New Zealand. Some of them reverted to drivers; some remained with sergeants' stripes. That the latter should hold this rank was a rather bitter point for some time. ‘They are taking jobs that we have earned and been promised over and over again’ was the view of several long-experienced men. In December the NZASC was said to be 83 sergeants over establishment—or top-heavy.
Company headquarters and the workshops sections, first set up near a sodden Cupello, had moved early in December to a new base at Atessa. This area seemed even muddier than the last, and in fact one platoon, in disgust, camped for at least one night in the bed of the Sangro itself. In this new page 292 area, while Padre Read7 held a church parade on 12 December, the Roman Catholic drivers went to mass at the Atessa cathedral—or perhaps church; it was hard to tell where a church ended and a cathedral began—gathering beneath old Biblical murals for their first official service in a church in Italy. Flanked by civilians, the soldiers heard an Italian tenor sing ‘Ave Maria’, and a New Zealand padre conducted the service. One man's impressions read: ‘There were seven altars, a shell-hole above one. If the war see-saws, visualise the priests retreating from altar to altar until there are no altars left, no church, and no village…. The women all wore a kind of veil in the shape of a hood, their complexions are lovely, their features very regular. This hood frames their faces and gives them a loveliness that was seldom conferred by the hats I remember back home…. It was a little difficult to remember that but a short time ago we were at war with these people who prayed with us.’
Other services for RMT's Roman Catholic drivers were held by Padre Spring,8 who says he has ‘a special affection’ for the RMT. Padre Spring had travelled to Egypt in the Sobieski with one or two of the original officers, and in the desert round Mersa Matruh and Smugglers' Cove he was the only Catholic chaplain with New Zealand forces for some nine months. ‘Do I know those early RMT boys? I could tell you plenty,’ said the padre, ‘but alas, the best stories are unprintable.’ Still on his rounds in Italy, Padre Spring sometimes placed his altar on the back of an RMT truck and said mass for the small contingent of Catholics. Comments one driver: ‘He was braver than they usually make them.’
Yet to some men war and religion were (or became) incompatible; they tried to bury—or perhaps to preserve—their bitterness (and anger) in little diaries, but it seemed to grow and some of it spilled into letters home.
The rain continued. Trucks not laagered on the roads began sinking into the soft mud. Bitter talk continued about ‘Sunny Italy’, and many agreed ‘You can be sure of a—-transport page 293 detail when the weather's worst’. A driver, his damp washing turning mouldy, wished he was back in Egypt again. The weather was by no means the only cause of complaint at this time, for several convoys had set out on tasks only to find the job done, or to be switched to other tasks. Then some maintained in their wrath: ‘The Army couldn't run a circus’, while others cuttingly declared it could—and did. Things improved when a radio truck and a signaller were attached permanently to each company.
When the rain stopped the frost took over. The Army insisted there was no such thing as a frostbitten vehicle. Damage by frost was ‘100 per cent preventable’, and Eighth Army, perturbed at the damage frost and neglect could do to its vehicles, declared that each month a list—a shameful list—would be published of units in which frost damage had occurred. With little anti-freeze mixture about, these precautions were to be taken: the radiator cap removed, the whole of the cooling system drained, and the engine run for one minute; fuel taps from the petrol tank were to be closed, and the engine wrapped with the bonnet cover. When vehicles were temporarily halted or standing by, engines would be covered and regularly revved up for five minutes. Precautions in starting up were listed, together with fair warning of nine common excuses no longer acceptable. Four of these excuses were:
‘I emptied my radiator. Someone else must have taken my vehicle out and failed to drain it.’
‘The drainage tap must have been blocked with sediment.’
‘The vehicle was in Workshops and I thought they would empty the radiator.’
‘I had no muff to blank off the part of the radiator which froze as I was proceeding in my vehicle from A to B on a very cold day.’
Before Christmas Day (veterans9 were putting up Africa Star ribbons as a wry sort of advanced Christmas present) page 294 two routine jobs strikingly showed how much it takes just to keep an army ticking over. First, collecting parcels sent from home to the Division took a convoy of 22 trucks. Next, picking up about one day's rations for the Division filled 55 three-ton trucks. As for the beer—52,000 bottles—that monopolised a convoy of 30 lorries.
While gathering Patriotic Fund gifts on the last stretch of their long journey from New Zealand, one 6 RMT convoy stopped for lunch at Cerignola, ‘which boasts the fifth most impressive cathedral in Italy. We ran our trucks in close formation into the big square of concrete that surrounds it. The cooks opened the usual bully tins, the one slice of bread ration, the good old biscuits, the mug of chai, margarine, and wonder of wonders, raspberry jam in limited quantities. A hundred or more kids immediately surrounded us: “Sigarette, Biscotti, Pane?” For a while we held them off until one kid ducked under somebody's elbow. In a moment the trestles were stripped bare. There is no selfconsciousness about hunger. Later some of us entered the cathedral. Then for several miles Sam was very bitter. He had given his dinner away, the scene had made him feel rather sick. Inside the cathedral was beauty, taste, and the unlimited expenditure of money: outside was wretchedness, hunger and poverty.’
A good mail at last came in for Christmas. ‘Received nine letters,’ notes one pocket diary. ‘One from Rose, blast it.’ One driver got 13 letters. One of them was from ‘The Kids’, and he wrote back: ‘I can visualise the old lady putting on her most schoolmarmy face and saying severely: “June and Dick you will sit down right away and write to your old uncle.” And the kids, being kids, would probably answer, “Must we, Marm?” I don't really blame them. I was a kid once and I had an uncle who went to a war—I suppose it was equally as important a war as this one. I cannot remember if I ever wrote to him, but I know now that I should have.’
Christmas, well welcomed in vino the night before, held its own against dismal rain and slush. General Montgomery's Christmas message included, somewhat ambiguously: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men. Surely this describes exactly what we are fighting for?’ page 295 General Freyberg wished his men good luck, Godspeed, and ‘may 1944 bring happiness to us all’. But what the cooks—the real heroes of the day—brought in was the most important of all: roast pork, roast turkey, roast and boiled potatoes, kumeras, green peas, cabbage, apple sauce, plum pudding and brandy sauce, two bottles of beer, and accumulated rum rations. Tea: fruit salad, trifle, Christmas cake, apples, oranges, nuts. Usually men drew up four trucks in a square, an extra tarpaulin above them, and below plenty of straw from handy haystacks, for ‘everywhere was mud; the kind you zink into and you can't zunk out of’. Sitting on benzine tins, drivers balanced dixies on knees and ate and drank contentedly enough. In the morning church services were held in the lines (as the padre said ‘Goodwill towards men’ the five-point-fives opened up) and at Atessa again, and the afternoon passed in ‘Maori PT’—on the backs down under the truck canopies. ‘At least,’ recorded one driver, ‘we can tie down canopies to keep out the draughts and light the primus to dispel some of the chill. Not so the infantryman.’
‘Much stress,’ said 6 RMT's war diarist, looking out on not unpleasant surroundings but most unpleasant conditions, ‘has been laid on the fact that this is the first Christmas spent in Europe, and there has been much conjecture as to it being the last Christmas of the war. With the news that our much respected Army Comdr Gen Montgomery has been appointed to GOC British Land Forces for the Invasion, all ranks await with much interest the outcomings of the forthcoming year.’
2 6 RMT recorded at least 98 lorries ashore on 15-16 Nov; 4 RMT had 99 lorries ashore by 23 Nov, and 29 still aboard ship at Bari. The balance (14) of 4 RMT's vehicles drove in on 4 Dec, completing the company and rounding off the move from Burg el Arab to Italy in exactly two months. Until these vehicles arrived, and for a short time after, 26 vehicles under 2 Lt Jackson Butler (an ex-4 RMT sergeant) were lent to 4 RMT by the Tank Transporter Coy.
3 Soon afterwards the Field Maintenance Centre moved up to near Gissi, and the issuing of supplies to units went on from there. About this a narrator writes: ‘The length of the supply line (NZASC convoys had to go as far back as Altamura and San Severo for supplies), the deplorable state of the roads, the bad weather and the fact that a considerable number of vehicles was late in arriving from Egypt, all made the process of bringing up rations, ammunition and petrol a laborious one, and meant long hours of work for the drivers. It was to their credit that the flow of these supplies to the Division continued evenly with no interruption.’
4 After moving 23 Bn these lorries (2 Pl 4 RMT) joined in the carting of bridging material up from Porto Cannone on 28 Nov, remaining loaded behind HQ 23 Bn near the Sangro River. Except for these and for 17 trucks (which crossed the Sangro on 30 Nov with more ammunition for the gunners, for in the last week in November the Division handled 795 rounds of ammunition for each 25-pounder), most RMT lorries returned to Company Headquarters, set up near Cupello. Four drivers from 6 RMT said goodbye to it all and departed, joining an Italian Mule Pack Coy to act as ‘welfare NCOs’ among the muleteers.
The mules ‘proved indispensable’ (the scale recommended was 70 to a battalion) and the Italian muleteers, some of whom were killed in the service of New Zealanders, ‘proved satisfactory’. Mules took over from jeeps, which had taken over from trucks. After dark the animals carted supplies, ammunition, and food to front-line positions. They even carried up petrol and ammunition for tanks in forward areas. The ‘ball of fire’—that magnificently organised, equipped and mechanised pursuit force of the desert—was resting now on a mule's back.
5 Rain up to five inches a month could be expected in the autumn.
9 ‘We don't notice it until we check up, and then we find with a queer feeling of dismay how few of the old originals are left, even in a young company like ours; old lamps for new—some of the old lamps were burnt out; some of the new ones don't burn very brightly.’—from a 6 RMT corporal's letter.