CHAPTER 17 — Clean-up in Italy
Clean-up in Italy
Cassino, like Alamein, carried the Allies a distinct stage nearer to final victory. Like Alamein, it led to the clearance of an entire theatre of war. Like Alamein it was followed by the long pursuit of a dour and stubborn enemy—battered, bleeding, but still full of fight.
Our Division joined the pursuit, clashing with enemy rearguards, meeting heavy harassing fire, dealing with mines and demolitions. Towards the end of May, 5 and 6 Brigades, transported by 4 and 6 RMT Companies, joined forces at Atina, where Divisional Petrol Company opened a petrol point to supply them. The Company, meantime, had moved its Headquarters to Sant' Elia, on the North Road beyond Hove Dump, where another petrol point was established. On 2 June the Atina point was shelled, causing no casualties to Petrol Company, but holding up the delivery of POL there by No. 1 Platoon. That day, Company Headquarters and Workshops moved again, to a new location across the Melfa River.
This area, in paddocks along the Atina-Sora road, was flanked by wide, deep ditches, giving little space for dispersal. Quite a mass of transport, including that of Divisional Supply Company, had concentrated there; and by midday some Jerry 88-millimetre guns got our range. The shelling was accurate and persistent; so Major Good ordered the Company to quit this area and occupy another some four or five miles farther back. In the shemozzle, a Workshops 15-cwt was peppered with shrapnel, and Drivers Pope,1 Davis2 and Sims were wounded.
Around midday on 3 June, sixty-five shells lobbed into the Atina petrol point area in the space of an hour and a half, damaging eight Petrol Company vehicles, and setting fire to one, which received a direct hit. Captain Washbourn was wounded in the leg, but after treatment at the MDS was able to resume duty; Jerry Lyon, also, was grazed by a splinter. About 500 gallons of petrol went up. Divisional Supply records the loss of a stack of spam, in the same raid, by a direct hit. ‘That’, says their official history, ‘was a most useful shell; many a stock deficiency was written off against it.’3
It is said that a soldier never sees the shell which ‘gets’ him; but several Petrol Company men have testified to seeing the one which wounded Washbourn and Lyon. They could not only hear it coming, they say, but could see it quite clearly as it waffled through the air at the extreme end of its range. Dan Munro,4 Lieutenant Perkins's5 driver, had thoughtfully laid out his officer's bedroll to air in the afternoon sun. The blankets were riddled with shrapnel. ‘Something always happens when I put your bedding out’, grumbled Dan. And he refused ever to air that bedroll again.
Both companies advanced next day to Alvito, where Petrol Company had as neighbours 22 NZ (Motor) Battalion whose task then was to protect the Divisional axis road. Soon after the Company moved in, our tanks and artillery opened up against enemy observation posts on the ridge above; but despite some retaliation, no shells landed in Petrol Company's area. The petrol points at Atina and Sant' Elia were closed and a page 318 new one opened at Alvito. By evening Company Headquarters, Workshops, and most of the operating platoons had concentrated there. Heavy rain and a terrific thunderstorm, with hail the size of pigeons' eggs, made the movement difficult, and 4 Platoon were unable to get into their area. They returned to Atina for the night. Most of Workshops settled in before the rain commenced; but some trucks, arriving late, were bogged down when trying to negotiate the entrance, and had to stay there overnight. Winches hauled them out in the morning.
On 4 June Rome fell; and, two days later, the world received electrifying news: the long-awaited ‘Second Front’ had at last been opened, with Allied landings under General Eisenhower on the coast of Northern France. Assuredly, now, we were moving towards the end; and although predictions of ‘victory by Christmas’ were still to prove illusory, morale was on the ‘up and up’ with the final goal now definitely in sight. Adding to our elation came the heady pleasures of an Italian summer, with sunshine warming the air and the spirits, and wildflowers, ripening corn, leafy vineyards, and colourful groves of cherry, olives and flowering almonds lending charm to a picturesque countryside.
But in this paradise, man still was vile—still pursuing man with fire and sword—killing, maiming, destroying—counting it a virtue to suffer and inflict suffering. One pitiful by-product was a mass of refugees—women and children, the weak, the aged, the infirm—now cluttering all the roads. The Germans were accused of turning these hapless people loose to hamper our advance; and New Zealand trucks were kept busy moving them from the roadways to camps and depots farther back. On 5 June, and again on the 7th, Petrol Company vehicles carried refugees from Sora to Venafro; others during this period carted POL from Venafro and Atina to the Alvito petrol point. Workshops had a busy time replacing motors with such spares as they had on hand, these falling short of the number required owing to the many engine ‘casualties’ sustained by the Company in its recent heavy slogging among the mountains.
On 8 June our vehicles came under command of 10 Corps for use as third-line transport, the platoons reporting to CRASC page 319 10 Corps at Venafro. Five days later Company HQ moved to an area a little beyond Arce, on Route 6. Hereabouts, in the beautiful Liri valley, the Division was now resting, all German forces having, with some persuasion, vacated the neighbourhood. New Zealand battalions, Divisional Cavalry and artillery units had pursued the Germans as far as Avezzano, occupied by troops of 6 Brigade on 9 June. Thereafter the whole Division withdrew to Arce for its first complete rest since it started fighting in Italy. Our company ran a petrol point in this area, replenishing from Cassino.
This, and a variety of general carrying assignments, kept the Company busy until 19 June, when it moved to a new location nine miles south of Rome. Ten three-tonners of 5 Platoon remained at Arce to maintain the petrol point; the rest of the company, plus two platoons of Divisional Supply Company, then worked for ten days carting ammunition from No. 3 AAD to ARH6 at Narni, under orders from Eighth Army. Thereafter, until the Company resumed its normal role on 7 July, the main task was moving ammunition from Anzio to Narni.
By now our combat troops were nearing the end of their few weeks' ‘vacation’ (which included leave for many to Rome, Naples, and the beautiful island of Ischia) and the Division was scheduled to join Eighth Army's advance to the River Arno, some 300 miles farther north. The Allies aimed at hustling the enemy and denying him time to strengthen his hold on the Gothic Line—his next great barricade, which stretched across Italy from Massa near the Gulf of Genoa to Pesaro on the Adriatic. South of Florence, a series of wooded peaks and ridges served as a screen for that sector of the Gothic Line. Our Division's task was to help clear these high-country positions so that 6 British Armoured Division and the Brigade of Guards could move forward through Arezzo to the River Arno, preparatory to an assault on the Gothic Line proper.
Petrol Company moved from its area near Rome at 1 p.m. on 8 July, staging at Civita Castellana and Perugia. The Company travelled fully loaded, opening petrol points for the Division as it passed through. This move was highly secret, page 320 with the brigades travelling by night and all identifying emblems obliterated. By 13 July the Company had made camp at Camucia, in the Cortona area, not far from Lake Trasimene. That day our Division again went into action, and 6 Brigade occupied two of the mountain positions. Others were contested for a day or two; but a set-piece attack on the Lignano feature removed all doubts, and by 16 July the enemy had pulled back and Eighth Army held Arezzo.
Meanwhile our Company stayed at Camucia, now the Division's main POL supply point. On 16 July details were announced of another furlough scheme—Taupo—for 4th Reinforcements and remaining officers of the original Echelons. The only Petrol Company officer affected was the new OC, Major Good; and Bill Washbourn, with the substantive rank of major, was appointed to command the Company. Captain G. W. Lyon, one of the Company's ‘originals’, succeeded him as Divisional Petrol Officer. The Company also lost, on 20 July, its very popular Captain Sam Burkitt, posted to HQ Command NZASC as Divisional Troops Supply Officer.
Next day Company Headquarters stood by, awaiting orders to move westward to an area near Siena. While twenty load-carriers from 5 Platoon took POL forward to a new petrol point there, twenty-five trucks of 1 Platoon, plus one from No. 4 and four from No. 5, transported troops of 24 Battalion to a position north of the city, completing the assignment by 8.30 p.m. Nos. 2 and 3 Platoons were also detached to 6 Brigade for troop-carrying, reporting to Brigade Headquarters at 5 p.m., then staging for the night after being detailed to the infantry companies. Trucks of No. 4 Platoon and the balance of No. 5 engaged on routine duties, carting POL. Workshops received ten Dodge three-tonners from New Zealand Ordnance Field Park, the first instalment of thirty replacement vehicles for the Company.
July the 22nd was a particularly busy day, with all hands working far into the night to build up stocks at the Siena petrol point. The detached platoons, after finishing their troop-carrying, also piled in, driving for long hours in oppressive heat with scant time for meals or rest, over roads six inches page 321 thick with dust. That day the New Zealand Division, which had been in reserve since 16 July, took over from a French-Moroccan division, and 5 Brigade, supported by our tanks, began a thrust north-east towards San Casciano. Slowly the enemy drew back, and New Zealanders entered the town on 27 July. That night, from their hilltop positions, they could see the lights of Florence (which had been declared an open city) only ten miles away.
Our next objective was the so-called Paula Line, based on a curving string of hills around Florence. With 8 Indian Division on their left flank and 6 South African Armoured Division on their right, the New Zealanders advanced, encountering stubborn resistance, heavy shelling, and sharp counter-attacks. Particularly fierce fighting raged around the village of San Michele, built on a hilltop, and a keypoint in the advance; but after a crushing barrage from the Divisional Artillery, our troops took the village on 30 July. Thrusts by the New Zealanders against other objectives were also successful, despite tenacious resistance; and slowly, spasmodically, the advance continued. By 3 August we had pierced the Paula Line and opened the road to Florence.
While the Division was notching these further successes, Petrol Company had been occupied with troop-carrying, carting ammunition, and the normal business of operating and replenishing the petrol point. Nearly 800,000 gallons of liquid fuels were issued by the Company in July. On 3 August Nos. 1 and 2 Platoons carried infantry of 23 and 24 Battalions forward to a position on Highway 2, about six miles south of Florence. Early next morning South African troops entered the city, followed some hours later by a New Zealand column, including four platoons of 23 Battalion—and, of course, a number of Petrol Company drivers. All received a tumultuous welcome from the wildly excited civilian population, with flowers, embraces, and other gestures of friendship the order of the day.
That morning Divisional Petrol Company moved their headquarters to an area beside the petrol point on Route 2, about one kilometre north of Bargino. Troop-carrying continued for the next few days, while our Division handed over in this sector to the Canadians, then moved farther west to relieve page 322 8 Indian Division. While the brigades ‘mopped up’ along the south bank of the Arno, Petrol Company enjoyed a comparatively restful few days in pleasant surroundings among orchards and vineyards. Then, on 14 August it was ‘up sticks’ again for a move back to Siena, where the Company opened a petrol point on the exact spot they had occupied before.
While some Petrol Company platoons were making this move, others engaged in further troop-carrying as American troops of Fifth Army took over from the New Zealand Division. By 16 August the change-over was completed and our Division withdrew to an assembly area near Castellina, some 30 miles south of Florence. They were visited there, on 24 August, by the dynamic Winston Churchill, who drove past the Company area at midday, cigar in mouth and giving his celebrated Victory sign.
Since the middle of August Petrol Company drivers had been working night and day, covering tremendous mileages in oppressive heat and dust, though often enough on good tarsealed roads and through pleasant country. The two RMT Companies worked on a similar non-stop programme, covering during August an aggregate of over a million miles. Our own Company and its affiliated units travelled half-a-million miles. Much of the work was collecting ammunition from partly-used dumps scattered over a wide area, and moving it across to Iesi, near the Adriatic. Large quantities of POL were also moved there, and to the intermediate points of Foligno and Chiaravalle, to replenish the Division on its next big move.
This was part of the Allied plan to switch Eighth Army, swiftly and secretly, right across Italy, and, using its now immense strength and striking power, to break through the Germans' Gothic Line on the Adriatic flank. Here (as elsewhere) the line was formidable, with defences to a depth of 30 miles, among low hills and a network of canals. At 11 p.m. on 25 August, Eighth Army, which now had ten divisions, 1000 guns and 1200 tanks, launched its attack. The New Zealand Division arrived a few days later, and, except for the artillery and a small composite force sent forward to help 3 Greek Mountain Brigade, went into reserve. It formed part of 1 Canadian Corps at this time. For a short while our men relaxed near the picturesque coast.page 323
By the beginning of September, Petrol Company had settled down near Chiaravalle (‘Clear Valley’) about four miles from the coast, on the road to Iesi. Life here passed pleasantly enough (except for an isolated bombing raid, which caused no damage), with the pressure of work considerably eased, and with time and facilities for recreation. Two trucks ran a shuttle service to good bathing beaches near Ancona; football matches took place between the ASC companies; the Kiwi Concert Party entertained; the NZASC Band gave concerts and led the hymns at church services, again being held by Padre Holland.
There was some fraternising with the local folk—who seemed very friendly and hospitable—until Security discovered the presence of enemy agents and all local visiting was banned. Forbidden, too, was the use of army transport for civilian purposes—an order made necessary by the fact that the movement of produce in Italy then, for other than military purposes, had virtually ceased; and fat profits could be gained (as we saw in the last chapter) by the simple process of shifting grain, wine, oil and other foodstuffs from points of supply, which were plentiful enough, to equally numerous points of demand. And the use of an army truck for an hour or two, preferably by night, brought its reward in wads of lire—or other favours.
In the way of work there was the usual business of running and replenishing petrol points—including a forward one for the artillery at Soltara—carting stores and reinforcements, and moving Greek troops now attached to our Division. Workshops had the unenviable job of patching up our run-down transport, drawing and issuing replacement vehicles (especially for 1 Platoon, now virtually immobile because of worn-out engines) and undertaking various tasks in the way of fitting and body- building. These included repairs to the GOC's map truck and the reconstruction of the Company's RAP vehicle. Technicians from No. 13 Section were detached to HQ 2 NZ Division for the fitting of engines to stationary vehicles. From New Zealand Ordnance Field Park, MT spares were uplifted and distributed to NZASC units.
On 6 September Captain M. G. Browne and Lieutenant W. E. Baldwin marched in on return from furlough in New Zealand and were posted to Nos. 2 and 1 Platoons respectively. page 324 By next day most of the Company had concentrated in a new area near Mondolfo. On the run up, some of our drivers noticed a number of one-man submarines in a small cove which had obviously been used by Jerry as a minor naval base. On 11 September a New Zealand group comprising three artillery field regiments, 2 NZ Divisional Artillery Headquarters, and one company of a Field Ambulance unit moved up north of Pesaro to take part in the battle for Rimini, and next day Petrol Company trucks began taking POL forward to Cattolica to supply them. That week the whole Company moved to an area on the coast near Cattolica, where summer kit was handed in and winter clothing issued. We were also given an extra blanket, making the issue four per man. On 20 September came the welcome news that the remainder of the 4th Reinforcements were to rendezvous at 1 NZ Supply Company next day on the first stage of their return journey home to New Zealand. Petrol Company's total comprised 6 NCOs and 15 drivers.
Meanwhile 5 and 6 Brigades had also moved forward to Cattolica, where troops were amazed to see, on the night of 17–18 September, the sky above Rimini suddenly lit up by sixteen searchlights on fixed direction. They threw over the battlefield a weird light which dazzled the enemy and revealed their positions. So successful did this practice prove that it was continued night after night, some lights focusing on low clouds, for the sake of the reflection, others on the target areas for infantry or artillery attack. Petrol Company drivers found the illumination useful when travelling in forward areas without the use of headlights.
By now Eighth Army had fought its way over the San Fortunato ridge, last barrier before Rimini and the surrounding plains with their network of canals and irrigation ditches. Fifth Brigade went in, on 22 September, for a daylight attack on tough German paratroops holding the coastal road to Ravenna. By next day the New Zealanders had driven the enemy four miles past Rimini, advancing along both sides of the highway. Sixth Brigade also came forward from Cattolica (carried, like the 5th, by our RMT vehicles) to relieve 5 Brigade and carry on the advance. For other New Zealand units a leave page 325 scheme commenced on 22 September, allowing six days at the New Zealand Forces Club in Florence, and one day each way for travelling.
Petrol Company remained throughout October with its Headquarters at Cattolica, No. 1 Petrol Issuing Section at Cerreto, and No. 2 at Viserba, three miles north of Rimini. Rain and heavy gales—a miserable foretaste of winter—bogged down the fighting forces and slowed up our advance. When the sun came out again the New Zealanders inched forward, reaching their farthest line of advance—the River Savio— towards the end of the month. Our combat troops were then withdrawn and sent back to Fabriano for a rest.
Shortly after the fall of Rimini, Petrol Company's Fred Aickin found himself in the city with a jeep, a sergeant, and a driver, seeking comforts, he says, for the officers' mess. Carpets, armchairs, crockery and other accessories were gathered up and piled into the jeep—to the deep disapproval of a Tommy provost patrol, which appeared (as they so often did) at an inconvenient moment.
Our officer was invited to go along to Provost Headquarters in their vehicle, with our jeep following. En route, the Kiwi driver lost no time in ditching the bulkier items of his load. But, by chance, the provost driver took a wrong turning, and, to regain his route, traversed the very street where the jettisoned cargo still lay! This, however, went unobserved; and our party arrived at Provost Headquarters with nothing but a gay umbrella, a little crockery and a few glasses by way of evidence. The Petrol Company trio were sent on their way, though later Fred got a ‘please explain’ from Corps Headquarters.
At Viserba, Corporal Sampson7 established his Petrol Issuing Section in the railway yards, his office being a railroad wagon. Mark Knyvett and Jerry Lyon also found themselves railway billets, in the home of the stationmaster at Rimini. Their stay was marred by the disappearance of one of the family turkeys, which the wife used to count both night and morning. And when one bird failed to answer the roll call (being, presumably, AWL) a dark cloud of suspicion settled upon our officers, who were—believe it or not—entirely innocent.page 326
Knyvett soon noticed that the daughter of the house—a handsome wench of about 18 or 19—harboured romantic notions concerning his driver. But the youth was coy, and kept his distance. And although both Mark and Jerry were discreetly encouraging, the affair failed to spark; and poor Dorselina has no doubt died of a broken heart.
The officers had as their right-hand man Sergeant Hori Perston, who, like most Maoris, wrote a beautiful hand and kept most neat and accurate records. Hori quickly mastered Italian; and this, with his jovial disposition, always favourably impressed the locals, thus smoothing the path for many transactions, official and otherwise, which soldiers in a foreign land must make with the local civilians.
On 25 October Petrol Company Headquarters moved a short distance to a more comfortable area where all ranks were billeted in casas. That day No. 2 Petrol Issuing Section left Viserba, opening for business three days later at Castel Raimondo. Earlier in the month ‘Maurie’ Browne and Second-Lieutenant Chamberlain,8 with eighty Petrol Company drivers, spent an eventful week as part of a 150-man detail, ferrying vehicles for Eighth Army ‘from Capua to Foligno and further’, as Browne's report describes it.
Even more eventful—and more entertaining—was an expedition to move a Cypriot Pack Transport Company, complete with mules, immediately afterwards. Captain Lyon writes:
|No 1 Platoon||20 × 3 ton commanded by Lt Baldwin|
|No 2 Platoon||27 × 3 ton commanded by Capt Browne|
|No 3 Platoon||29 × 3 ton commanded by Lt Templeton|
|No 4 Platoon||29 × 3 ton commanded by 2/Lt Chamberlain|
|Total 105 (5 spares)|
Transport left Unit lines at 0700 hours 15 October 1944 for the 621 Coy HQ at R639894 which is just south of Sogliano, a small, picturesque, typically Italian town perched on a hillside.page 327
Owing to the urgent nature of the detail, the route in to this hilly country had not been recced, and some difficulty was experienced in locating detours to avoid blown-out bridges, and from all accounts, some very circuitous trails were followed, but by 1400 hours all vehicles were at their destination.
Loading was commenced in so far as stores were concerned, but it was decided not to load the animals until the following morning just prior to departure. A convenient site was located and at 0600 hours on the 16th October 1944 the loading of mules and horses was commenced. The Cypriot muleteers undoubtedly show great aptitude for handling these contrary little beasts and when the organisation got into full swing it was possible to load a troop of mules (approximately 100) in ¾ of an hour.
|HQ, ‘B’ Echelon and Stores||— No 1 Platoon (no animals)|
|B Troop||— No 2 Platoon|
|C Troop||— No 4 Platoon|
|D Troop||— No 3 Platoon|
It being necessary to water the animals at the noon halt, we decided to stage at Jesi in a convenient river bed which allowed plenty of room for this operation. The route followed to Jesi was Lincoln Road to Rimini thence routes 16 and 76. After the noon halt, we proceeded to Foligno on route 16 and the convoy was complete at the Car Park Foligno (an ideal staging area) at 2300 hours, 16 October 1944. The animals were not unloaded here, but were fed, and watered from our watercarts.
An early start was made from Foligno on 17 October 1944 and we wheeled out from there at 0630 hours following Route 75 to Lake Trasimene, where on a small road skirting the North shore of the Lake, the animals were again ‘refuelled’.
We then commenced the final stage of the journey, which was on Route 75 to Arezzo and thence Route 71 to Bagno, our destination. Two hold-ups occurred to allow General Alexander to pass. He was in the familiar yellow open Humber car, and huddled up in a furlined jerkin did not appear to be enjoying the unkind page 328 attentions of the elements. We had decided to halt at Arezzo for lunch, but as the road was reasonably clear at this point (previously it had been jammed for miles by a slow-moving Polish formation) it was decided to carry on to Bagno without stopping.
Despite traffic, and a 4000 foot climb over a mountain, the convoy was complete in Bagno at 1800 hours without a single mishap over the 250 mile journey from the starting point.
Considerable difficulty was experienced in off-loading as heavy rain set in and it was impossible to get the vehicles off the road. This was overcome by parking them up a road which was being used as a Polish Ammunition Dump. The Officer in charge became rather concerned but fortunately could speak very little English, and beyond beating his chest and making little jumps up and down, could not achieve any far-reaching result.
The nearest bank suitable for off-loading was some two miles from this staging area, and there the vehicles were off-loaded, the mules showing extreme willingness to set their feet (sorry, hooves) on firm ground again. At 2130 hours all except the stores vehicles had been off-loaded and the drivers, who had ‘had’ the mules by this time, refuelled their vehicles and turned-in for some well-earned rest.
Nos 2, 3 and 4 Platoons left Bagno on the homeward trip at 0600 hours on 18 October 1944. No 1 Platoon (and 7 × 3 ton of No 3 Platoon) remained behind to off-load and follow on as soon as their loads were cleared. The climb over the mountain was very impressive at that early hour and as the vehicles wound up the zigzag road to the summit a fleecy vista of clouds far below made an inspiring sight.
The platoons reassembled at Foligno except for the above-mentioned stores vehicles, and after an excellent meal from their respective cookhouses, left Foligno in the vicinity of 1500 hours to complete the homeward trip. Most vehicles were back in Unit lines by midnight 18/19 October, and the remainder arrived at 1400 hours 19 October 1944.
It is worthy of note that the distance ‘as the crow flies’ from the starting point to the ultimate destination is approximately 15 miles, but, due to the tactical situation and other factors, it was necessary to do a 250 mile, two-day trip to effect this move—such is warfare in Italy.
In the closing days of October and the opening ones of November, NZASC underwent a drastic reorganisation. The Division, it was found, had become over-mechanised. An entire Company—6 RMT—was ‘washed up’, its more serviceable vehicles being swapped, before it disbanded, for the riff-raff and write-offs of other units. The 18th NZ Tank Transporter page 329 Company also went, as did Petrol Company's No. 1 Platoon, which ceased to operate on 30 October and was officially disbanded on 5 November.
On that day, Lieutenant W. E. Baldwin and seventy other ranks from Petrol Company marched out at 7 a.m. to New Zealand Advanced Base, Bari. With them went 334 men of the now defunct 6 RMT, 73 from 1 NZ Ammunition Company, eight from 1 NZ Supply Company and five from 2 NZ Ammunition Company. All piled into vehicles of Petrol Company's former No. 5 Platoon, which became No. 1 in the new establishment. The demise of 6 RMT Company, which had played an honourable and often hazardous part in many campaigns, carrying our combat troops into and out of battle, was a sad thing. Even more regrettable was the fate of its drivers—hard-bitten veterans who had kept their vehicles rolling through the haze, heat and sand of limitless deserts, in mountain blizzard and through seas of mud, often under enemy fire. For them anti-climax lay ahead—the tedium of guards and pickets; parades, inspections, the bull-ring—and a savourless life as ‘base wallahs’.
But others found the outlook brighter. Already the 4th Reinforcements had departed, on furlough back home, and the 5ths were being lined up for theirs. Nor did anyone doubt, at this stage, that final victory lay ‘just round the corner’. Meanwhile anti-freeze mixture came on issue again, and mud-chains were much in evidence; a demand arose for charcoal and firewood as another white winter clamped down over Italy. When the first snows fell—on the night of 9-10 November— Petrol Company was concentrated near Cerreto. With the Division still resting in the Apennines—at Camerino, Fabriano, Matelica, San Severino and Castel Raimondo—work became lighter for the Company and a small party went on leave to Florence.
Meanwhile, north of Rimini Eighth Army was still slogging away in its ‘Battle of the Rivers’. On 17 November New Zealand artillery went back into the line, and next day a composite platoon of NZASC, including six trucks from Petrol Company, moved forward for attachment to the Divisional Artillery, near Cesena. A petrol point was opened there, and on page 330 23 November Company Headquarters, Workshops, and Nos. 2 and 4 Platoons also moved to Cesena, occupying billets in nearby San Vittore. No. 3 Platoon was away on detail at Chiaravalle; No. 1 spent the night at Camerino, with 23 Battalion, whom they brought to Cesena, just south of Forli, on the following day.
By now Eighth Army had inched its way forward to the Lamone River, about nine miles north of Forli, where the Germans held out strongly along a series of terraced stopbanks. On 26 November the New Zealand Division took over from 4 British Division in contact with the enemy just north of Route 9—the highway that runs inland from Rimini to Bologna. Next day Petrol Company found itself an area right in Forli, now a ‘khaki town’ crammed with Allied troops.
Good locations were difficult to find, and apparently hard to hold; for Petrol Company's diary records, on 27 November: ‘The CSM and a small party proceeded to the new area to guard it against all comers’. Workshops, on receiving advice that there was a possibility of losing the area assigned to them, packed up and moved at 10.30 p.m., arriving just on midnight. Next evening three aircraft raided the town; but Petrol Company sat pat in possession of their area, which afforded ‘desirable city residence’ around some crossroads—though time had to be spent ridding the buildings of dirt and refuse left behind by the previous occupants. The main business, apart from issues, was a daily replenishment run to 239 Petrol Depot at Cesena.
On 3 December Harry Barnett, who had left New Zealand with Petrol Company's first echelon (and had, in the meantime, become OC of 18 Tank Transporter Company) returned as OC No. 2 Platoon and second-in-command of Petrol Company. Next day Forli saw something unusual in the way of sporting fixtures, when our lads ran a Primus Derby. Officials for this event were: Chief Judge: WO II Newland. Assistants: Sergeant Harding, Staff-Sergeant Martin. Kero Official: Driver Hartigan. Timekeeper: Driver Quigan. Totalisator Officials: Drivers Bullians and Francis.
Rules of the Course were laid down as follows:
Four mugs of water will be poured into each billy prior to commencement.page 331
Billies will be supplied by officials.
Primus will be EMPTY prior to event and straight KERO will be supplied by Kero Official.
Entrance fee will be CINQUANTA Lire.
The Derby will be run in two heats of five starters; the FIRST and SECOND in each heat will compete in the FINAL.
The stake money will be as follows: Winning Horse in FINAL, 400 Lire. Second Horse, 150 Lire.
Ten acceptances duly lined up at the barrier, their jockeys receiving cheers, jeers, or hearty abuse as punters watched their 50-lire wagers either coming good or going down the drain. Results of the first heat were Baird's RED DEVIL (by Eruption out of Volcano) ist; Francis's MUULTO STANCO (by Laborari out of Messenger) 2nd. Also ran: Bullians' SILENT WORKER (by On Leave out of Florence), Horwood's CONFIDENCE (by Falouse out of Insurance Company), and Moore's EVACUATION (by Casualty out of Flame Thrower).
Second heat placings were, 1st, Fox's TOOTS (by Oomph out of Ann Sheridan); 2nd, Hollobon's HURRY UP (by Iggiri out of Presto). Also ran: Stead's SPITFIRE (by Helter-Skelter out of Danger), Jordan's REFUGEE (by Signaller out of Pesaro), and McKenna's STANDBACK (by Dangerous out of Safety Match). Final placings were TOOTS, HURRY UP, MULTO STANCO and RED DEVIL, in that order. The programme indicated that RAP ‘wallahs’ would be in attendance, and the Fire Squad would stand by for immediate action. Neither, however, was needed.
Early in December Petrol Company took part in the sorting and shuffling, from one place to another (under the direction of AMGOT) of the mass of civilian refugees who had flocked into Forli—a heart-rending assignment. More to their liking was the detail which commenced on 7 December, when thirty drivers and their offsiders from 1 Platoon found themselves carting rubble from demolished buildings in Forli to build a roadway up to the front. Loading began after dark that night, and was completed by 10.30 p.m.
Next morning the platoon drove forward to a point a mile and a half south of Faenza, where New Zealand engineers were building the road. The town was still in German hands, page 332 so our trucks returned under an artillery smoke-screen. This detail continued until 14 December. The convoys were usually shelled or mortared, but no damage or casualties resulted. An air raid on the evening of 10 December caused a scurry in Forli, killing a number of Allied soldiers and starting several small fires. No. 1 Platoon had just returned from their road-making job and were having a meal in the open, near their cookhouse. Some made a run for it, and reached a doorway just in time for the bomb-blast to blow them inside. Others took what cover they could and watched a string of Indian trucks coming round a corner into the street. Falling masonry crushed the bonnet of the leading vehicle, while the second had its steel cab flattened by another fall. The driver rolled out into the roadway, stunned, and was picked up by our men and taken to the RAP, where he soon recovered. Farther down the road some parked tank transporters were also caught by blast, one being blown clean over a 12-foot-high fence, a second one landing upside-down on top of another. The planes strafed vehicles travelling along Route 9, south of Forli, damaging the tyres and radiators of two Petrol Company trucks and wounding Corporal Burling of 2 Platoon. He was evacuated to 1 NZ Mobile CCS.
That day, two jeeps from Petrol Company were attached to the newly-formed New Zealand Divisional Jeep Train—a composite platoon of the NZASC whose purpose was to move troops and lump supplies, by night, over crude tracks too rough for ordinary transport. Petrol Company also contributed a corporal fitter from Workshops and one operating section, comprising a corporal, a driver-mechanic and five drivers, for service with the Jeep Train—one of the toughest and riskiest assignments our men had ever taken on. Night after night, in fog, rain and bitter cold, they jerked and slithered their hazardous way forward, often under fire from artillery, small arms and mortars, and always at the risk of driving over mines or into ditches or shell-holes; for no lights, of course, were permitted.
By now the front was on the move again. On 14 December the New Zealand Division made a determined thrust, by- passing Faenza and capturing Celle, as part of a general assault page 333 by Eighth Army. Faenza also fell; and five days later a renewed attack brought Eighth Army to the River Senio. Meanwhile Petrol Company had been kept hard at it, lumping 25-pounder ammunition from Cesena, carting refugees from Forli to Meldola, uplifting petrol from Forlimpopoli, bringing reinforcements forward from Senigallia. Workshops trimmers toiled away at jeeps, closing them in for the winter. Fitters and mechanics patched up ambulances, now being mauled in increasing numbers; while carpenters commenced reconstructing a building, to be used as a messroom for Christmas.
Leaflets dropped over Forli were eagerly sought for their amusement value and for the insight they gave into the enemy's espionage system and its inaccuracies. A Petrol Company driver managed to souvenir one. It reads:Boys of the 2nd NZ Division….
We were expecting you,
Because—invariably when the going becomes tough, you are needed. For example, in 1941 you were called to Greece and Crete. Similarly in 1942 at El Alamein, Tobruk and in Al Gazala where your casualties were the highest on record.
New Zealanders to the Front! was once again the cry as you were thrown into the hell of the Sangro River when you first came to Italy in November 1943; and because of that many of your friends who arrived with you at Bari have found a last resting-place in the soil of Italy.
Lest we forget…. Have you forgotten Cassino? Do you recall that fateful Wednesday, 15th March 1944? Anything sooner than a repetition of that experience where such an alarming number of brave New Zealanders threw away their lives! It is unnecessary to remind you of each step in your wearisome journey. One has merely to mention Orsogna, Arielli, Alvieto, and Sora. And when you eventually crossed the Arno in August, how did your ranks compare with when you first arrived in Italy? After breaking through the Gothic Line, the rest in the Rimini area was all too short.
Then once again the going became rough and the cry was ‘New Zealanders to the Front!’ Now on the eighth day of battle for Faenza, after the British 56th Division failed with tragic losses, you are called to save the situation; you may reach Faenza, but every yard towards that town must be paid for with the life blood of hundreds of New Zealanders…. And so indefinitely it must go on. This cursed Italian soil must be fertilized with the precious blood of New Zealand Youth. And that youth is not inexhaustible. Your last reinforcements arrived from Egypt in the Spring of 1944. Since then you have suffered steady losses. These losses constitute the sacrifice of the future of New Zealand.
FOR NEW ZEALAND IT IS A PATHETIC CASE OF ALL GIVE AND NO TAKE!page 334
Transport details ceased on 25 December while all hands celebrated a ‘white Christmas’—the second Christmas in Italy for most men, and the last one of the war. Supply Company came good with the usual special issues, including oysters, poultry, pork, fresh vegetables and Christmas cake. Unit cooks converted the raw materials into first-class dinners, the times for which were staggered in Petrol Company to allow Major Washbourn to visit each platoon while its full complement was assembled. He wished the men good cheer, and thanked them for their co-operation during the year. Similar compliments were passed by Brigadier Crump at an NZASC Christmas carol service held during the morning at the Esperia Theatre in Forli. Conducted by Padres Holland and Burnett,9 and helped by the NZASC Band, this service was attended by about half of Petrol Company. A special Christmas number of NZEF Times had been issued free to all ranks, and was allowed free postage to New Zealand.
January and February of 1945 go on record as dull months for Petrol Company. With the battlefield under a mantle of snow, and Jerry dug in beyond the River Senio, the war in Italy moved neither far nor fast. It scarcely moved at all, in fact—though elsewhere the Allies were lashing about. Our Company stuck it out at Forli, trying to keep warm in their cheerless billets—which were, of course, far preferable to bivvies or the front-line slit trenches. A rum ration helped, and the local vino, sometimes laced with an issue of vermouth. Weird stoves appeared, fuelled with diesel and emitting vile fumes and fearsome roars. Ten feet away water and other liquids froze.
These conditions created an entirely new problem at the petrol point—how to dispose of the normal but considerable quantity of leakage. In the prevailing low temperatures there was no evaporation, so the amount of petrol ‘lying about loose’ made a dangerous fire hazard, more so when it began running into the city gutters. The situation was met when a lead from the dump area into the main sewerage system was discovered and the overflow diverted into that. What became of the petrol afterwards nobody rightly knew; and our drivers page 335 brightly conjectured that one day the city of Forli would blow up when someone, smoking a pipe or cigarette, set out to repair the sewerage.
With the Division now static, demands for POL were not exacting. A train service to Forli, opened in January, reduced the need for general road haulage. Petrol and ammunition were still our main cargoes, with some odd assignments bobbing up at times. These included the delivery of fuel to a local nunnery, and the shifting of local folk and their gear from buildings requiring evacuation, mostly near the Forli aero drome. These removals were made under the direction of AMGOT, and were sometimes resisted. Then our drivers saw exhibitions of dramatics in the true Italian operatic style, with Poppa, Mamma, Nana and all the bambini vociferously refusing to budge. At that stage, usually, the Carabinieri took over, sometimes using force to carry the day.
Weekly leave began to Rome, where the New Zealand Forces Club, established in the palatial Hotel Quirinale, now opened its bedrooms for the first time to other ranks. On 22 January one Petrol Company vehicle, carrying a leave party, slid off the icy road and capsized. Though the truck was badly damaged, the men escaped with little more than a shaking.
Big event for the Company during February was the depart ure of the ‘veterans’—mostly survivors of the 5th Reinforcements, or men with early Pacific Islands service—for home leave under the Tongariro scheme. Exactly one hundred of these marched out, after due celebration, from Petrol Company, their place being taken by men of the 14th Reinforcements, posted from Advanced Base. Among the departing went the Company's OC, Bill Washbourn. His place was taken by Harry Barnett, now promoted acting major. On the previous day Washbourn and four other Petrol Company officers had helped to celebrate another happy occasion—the wedding of Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Bill’ Bracegirdle, at Senigallia.
Early in March our Division pulled back to its former rest area in the Apennines. Here, as winter mellowed into spring, the New Zealand Division was to ‘get its breath’ and then prepare for the next big effort—a part in the final hammer-blow the Allies were planning. Already the heat was on in Germany, page 336 with Allied and Russian armies crushing in from the east and the west. It was essential to smash the German forces in Italy to prevent them from helping to build a solid bulwark of resistance in the mountains south of Germany.
Petrol Company moved, on 1 March, to Fabriano, leaving 1 Platoon and a petrol issuing detachment at Forli. Petrol points were opened at Fabriano and Castel Raimondo, with the platoons maintaining these and supplying various other transport details. No. 1 Platoon rejoined the Company on 8 March, bringing in the remaining POL stocks from Forli. Again the Company shook down quickly to a fairly settled routine, with time for the odd game of rugby, leave to Rome, range practice, and even a weapon-training syllabus. Event of the month was another NZASC ceremonial parade for the GOC on 19 March, with General Kippenberger taking the salute. At the end of the month the Division moved up again to the Senio and most of the Company went to Forli, where Workshops provided a fitting funeral, complete with wooden coffin, for their mongrel puppy ‘Prego’, accidentally killed on 31 March.
Then suddenly, like a tornado, Eighth Army struck again in a crushing, smashing drive to end German resistance in Italy. Throughout the afternoon of 9 April, hordes of aircraft, silvered by sunlight, passed overhead to shower a deadly rain on the enemy rear areas. Ahead went giant Liberators and Flying Fortresses, followed by the ‘mediums’ and the fighter-bombers. They dropped altogether nearly 2000 tons of 20- pound fragmentation missiles, small bombs meant to kill and destroy without blasting the cavernous craters which had so impeded us at Cassino. Between waves of aircraft, the artillery took over, with guns of all calibres, 25-pounders, 4.5s, 5.5s and ponderous 7.2s—more altogether than we had at Alamein— flashing and roaring in a four-hour rampage.
After that the infantry went in, with New Zealand battalions storming across the Senio at the centre of Eighth Army's drive. Our Division now had three infantry brigades and an armoured one. On its right were the Indians, on its left the Poles. In forty-eight hours the Division seared its way through six miles of strongly fortified country, hurling the Germans back across the Santerno River. By 16 April we had advanced 20 miles and page 337 crossed another river—the Sillaro—in the face of fierce opposition.
On the first day of the attack, seventy Petrol Company trucks made two lifts of ammunition from 501 AAD, Cesena, for delivery to 10 FMAS, Ravenna. Next day, 30 three-tonners of No. 4 Platoon and 12 from No. 3 stocked up with POL, ready to go forward and establish a mobile petrol point to service the advancing Division. This was opened by 7 a.m. on 11 April, with issues proceeding until 11 a.m. The vehicles then returned for replenishment of oil and diesel fuel from the Company's stocks at Forli, and of MT 80 from 17 Mobile Petrol Filling Centre. Next day Commander NZASC instructed that in future the Company would carry a new type of load—the second-line holding of flame-thrower fluid (FTF) totalling 3450 gallons of ‘heavy’ and 696 gallons of ‘light’.
As the advance swung forward, Petrol Company, happy to be on the move again, followed close on the heels of the combat troops. While some platoons operated and replenished the mobile petrol points, others loaded ammunition at Cesena and delivered it to forward dumps and batteries. By 14 April our trucks were operating north of the Senio, with a Petrol Issuing Section at Cotignola. On the 17th the Company, less 4 Platoon and the Cotignola detachment, moved to Massa Lombarda, establishing a petrol point there with stocks brought forward from Forli. Another move on the following day took Company Headquarters and Nos. 2 and 4 Platoons to Medicina, where a point was opened, while No. 1 Platoon brought up 3.7-inch HE ammunition from Cesena, and No. 3 uplifted POL from 17 MPFC.
And so the Company toiled, by day and by night, over narrow, shell-pocked roads cluttered with a nose-to-tail jam of heterogeneous military traffic—guns, jeeps, trucks, Bren carriers, ambulances, tank transporters—streaming endlessly northward. The weather was fine, the air thick with dust. All around lay the wreckage of war—ruined buildings, burnt-out tanks, charred transport, abandoned guns, the bodies of men and animals, some horribly charred by the deadly flame- throwers. Among the debris groups of civilians probed, seeking their belongings, or those of other people, regardless of the page 338 mines sown thickly everywhere. At night the noise of battle raged, beneath skies lit up with flares and gun-flashes.
By 20 April the Division had reached the line of the Idice River, where stiff resistance was expected. But there, as at the other rivers, the enemy soon cracked under the terrific punches now being delivered by Eighth Army. Nothing, it seemed, could stand up to the tremendous pounding by aircraft and artillery, followed by infantry attacks of great verve and élan. For our morale now was at its highest, and reminiscent of the post-Alamein era. Reminiscent, too, was the long stern chase which now began—up to and across the River Po, then on, ever on, to harry and hammer the fleeing enemy.
In such a programme guns become heavy feeders; so, on 19 and 20 April Petrol Company was again called upon to provide trucks to uplift 25-pounder and 7.2 howitzer ammunition from Cesena and deliver it to 1 NZ Ammunition Point. Ninety Petrol Company vehicles worked on this assignment, including thirty from No. 4 Platoon which set out at 10.30 p.m. after a long day spent uplifting POL and delivering it to the forward area. In Workshops Platoon, also, the sections worked long hours to get jobs completed quickly because of the mobile situation.
On 21 April 1 Platoon became attached to 6 Infantry Brigade for troop-carrying. Next day the platoon's trucks took the infantry into San Giorgio, where they encountered a pocket of the enemy, ten vehicles carrying men of 26 Battalion having entered the town ahead of our tanks. German planes were also active, bombing and strafing the convoys. In one hold-up during these attacks, two Petrol Company drivers evaded bullets by dodging around the sides of a casa while a low-flying plane strafed first one side and then the other. On 23 April a vehicle of Headquarters Section, No. 1 Platoon, ran over a mine in San Giorgio and was wrecked. The driver, K. E. Walls,10 went over to a nearby casa—which happened to be occupied by Germans. They promptly took him prisoner, but later he managed to rejoin the unit. Next day (24 April) Workshops salvaged his disabled vehicle while moving up to a new Company area near Mirabella.page 339
On Anzac Day our Company issued POL to the Division at San Giorgio and Mirabella, while transport from No. 1 Platoon, carrying men of 6 Brigade, crossed the River Po by pontoon bridge at sunset. Next day, in pouring rain, two No. 4 Platoon trucks delivered MT 80 to New Zealand engineers operating DUKWs (alias Ducks, or Fantails), tracked amphibian vehicles which waddled down to the river's edge loaded with stores, men and ammunition, then wallowed awkwardly across.
That day (26 April) 25 three-tonners from our Company opened a petrol point at Ficarolo, north of the river, on a site previously ‘recced’, at night, by Major Barnett. But maintaining the point proved a tough proposition, for at that stage north-bound traffic had the sole right-of-way, and nothing was allowed to travel back over the pontoon bridge. When issuing opened, stocks ‘sold out’ quickly, with many demands from British and other non-New Zealand units. These all had to be refused. Then, when petrol in hand fell to only 400 gallons, the situation looked black indeed.
Some trucks actually nosed right down to the water's edge, to test the possibility of fording the river; but this proved impracticable. Headquarters NZASC eventually got permission to send back some of our vehicles, while petrol was also brought forward in trucks carrying troops. So, by one means and another, supply was maintained, and our Division (claimed to be the only one not to run short of petrol north of the River Po) was kept mobile. So mobile, in fact, that a new difficulty soon arose—that of getting the empty jerricans back for refilling. By 1 May, however, Corps FMCs had moved north of the river, and Corps also released an extra 6000 jerricans on loan, so this and other supply difficulties were soon ironed out.
Once across the Po our Division raced forward, practically non-stop, across the Adige River, then on through Badia, Este, and Monselice to Padua, entering that city at 1 a.m. on 29 April. Like several other towns along the route, Padua had been liberated by Italian partisans and was now alive with these picturesque types, wearing red scarves and toting birettas, Sten guns, hand grenades, and other lethal weapons. There were also pockets of Germans and Fascists, who sometimes showed fight.page 340
Our entry to Padua was a triumphal one, of the kind we remembered from Tunisian days. The streets were lined with cheering, clapping civilians, who waved flags, threw flowers, proffered gifts of food and wine. But this was no time for relaxation, or for harbouring any false sense of security. Grim work still remained to be done, with treachery, perhaps, to be countered. Soldiers kept their weapons ready.
Next day New Zealand troops pushed on another 50 miles to reach the River Piave. Petrol Company's No. 1 Platoon still carried men of 6 Brigade, while 4 Platoon, also, had been detailed now for troop-carrying. Groups of our trucks, numbering from about six to ten, were attached to each infantry company, usually with a tank for protection.
Company Headquarters and 3 Platoon set up shop at Mestre, an industrial suburb on the mainland opposite Venice. It was here that Fred Aickin and his driver, Bob McGhie,11 came in for another of those off-duty adventures which form the highlights of most men's wartime experiences. Leaving their ‘bug’ with some ‘tankies’ of 4 Brigade, they crossed over to Venice, intent on spending a night at one of the city's best hotels. For this the price was 42 lire (roughly two shillings) so they quickly came to terms with the padrone.
He introduced them to a group of partisans—men and women, all armed to the teeth with grenades, knives, pistols, etc.—who were celebrating the city's liberation in a cellar under the building. Their chieftain, more than half ‘tight’, mounted a table to make a speech. In the midst of his oration (made mostly with the hands) he collapsed and fell, carrying the table with him. He insisted, nevertheless, on finishing his speech—but safely seated on a chair. In a reasonably good dinner the pièce de résistance was labelled ‘roast beef’, as a compliment to the British; but it was still, for all that, horse-flesh.
Small German forces remained to dispute our crossing of the Piave; but these were soon disposed of, some going ‘into the bag’ among the 50,000 prisoners taken by our Division during the advance. By midnight on the last day of April the New Zealanders had got across the river and were heading for their last objective—Trieste.
3 Bates, Supply Company, p. 319.
6 Ammunition Railhead