CHAPTER 14 — Hove Dump
FOR every moment of glory in a war there are a million more of tedium, fatigue and discomfort, and another million of unremitting, herculean and not particularly glorious labour against the handicaps imposed by the weather, terrain and a watchful enemy. The odd moments of glory go to those who most deserve them—the fighting troops, and in particular the infantry; the herculean labours often fall to the lot of the supply services, who, in devotion to their task, must accept them and for their reward generally take only reflected glory. The tedium and fatigue are common to all. In the month after the New Zealand Division's withdrawal from Cassino Supply Company, along with other ASC units, had its full share of labour, and if there was no glory to be gained, the work was at least amply spiced with danger.
When the New Zealand Corps' assault on Cassino failed, Allied forces in Italy were regrouped, and the Cassino sector was taken over by Eighth Army. The New Zealanders, 4 Armoured Brigade excluded, passed to the command of 10 Corps, Eighth Army, and after a brief spell at Presenzano, moved into the Apennines, where 10 Corps was taking over mountain positions from 2 Polish Corps. Its task was to protect Eighth Army's mountain flank.
Thus, in mid-April the New Zealanders fitted themselves into the sangars, cut into the steep mountain slopes, that formed a disconnected sort of line in the heights above Cassino. Behind this line roads squirmed back in fantastic shapes through the mountains to the dumps and depots from which supplies and ammunition must be brought to the troops. Along these roads was the constant movement of motor transport that goes with a modern army: troops moving in, troops moving out; supplies going forward, empty trucks returning. In the more forward area the enemy could look across to some of these roads from his page 306 mountain observation posts and shell any movement he saw, so that a great deal of transport work was necessary at night and without lights.
The most forward point to which vehicles could go in daylight in comfort was Acquafondata. Set in the basin of an old volcanic crater, Acquafondata bristled with guns and was alive with motor transport banking up for the run forward under cover of night. From here two roads led forward and down: North Road, which was the divisional axis and which most concerned Supply Company, and Inferno Track, which was the axis of advance of a neighbouring Polish formation. Of the two, North Road undoubtedly best deserved the name Inferno Track. The two roads formed a sort of squashed and mutilated O lying on its side: North Road, worming along a westerly course from Acquafondata (altitude 2700 feet) skirted to the north of a ridge, and Inferno Track to the south, the two meeting at Hove Dump (altitude 700 feet) in the dry bed of the diverted Rapido River. Both roads were shared by all formations.
New Zealand Divisional Supply Routes in the Apennines
Inferno Track was shorter and less under the enemy's eye, although dust was likely to bring down shells. But it was wide enough for only one-way traffic, and because of its towering grades—up to one in four—was open only to four-wheel-drive vehicles. A system of traffic control posts controlled movement of vehicles to a bypass area so that spasmodic squirts—they could hardly be called a flow—of traffic went back and forth day and night.
North Road, the principal route forward, was a very different proposition. Keen eyes across the valley could scan almost its entire length, and it was reputed that the German artillery was so close that the gunners could be seen cleaning their gun sights; actually, at the nearest point they were 2000 yards away, which was quite near enough. In daylight only occasional jeeps and ambulances could use the track, and even darkness was no guarantee of safety. Camouflage nets broke the silhouettes at certain points, but the canvas canopy covers of the three-tonners—still the old vehicles that had spanned half of North Africa—were bleaching white again through the newer darker coat. Supply Company trucks were picked on once and chased up the road by shells for three or four miles.
Theoretically North Road was a two-way route, but because of the danger of congestion was used as a one-way road. Its grades were easier than those on Inferno Track, but along the 13-mile length from Acquafondata to Hove Dump there were twenty-one bends that needed two swings, and in the gaping darkness on the right of the road there were drops of up to 400 feet.
Supply Company, command of which had passed to Captain Rawle, promoted to major, was camped at Monteroduni and had set up a supply point at Venafro and a page 308 subsidiary point at Hove Dump, where a section was stationed. In addition to its normal day-to-day supply duties, it was engaged in carrying forward supplies, petrol and ammunition to Hove Dump, where a snug and supposedly safe depot was being established in the deep, clay-walled gully through which the river once ran.
The first few runs to Hove Dump were made down Inferno Track and back by North Road. Lieutenant Kensington2 took the first convoy, and Lieutenant Fry the second. With windscreens wide open, the trucks snarled down the winding grades, edged along shelves of rock and groped through deep chasms. ‘Very little room to manœuvre vehicles around sharp elbow bends,’ Sergeant Butler,3 who took the third convoy down on 24 April, reported. ‘DEFINITE LOW GEAR work all through. Conditions only suitable for fully experienced drivers. Track would be unsuitable for three-ton vehicles in wet weather. General wear and tear on three-ton vehicles SEVERE.’
At Hove there was time for drivers to nap for about three hours before west-bound traffic was halted on North Road and the east-bound flow started. After the first few runs Supply Company convoys came in by North Road with this west-bound flow and returned the way they had come.
The system followed was this. Just before last light vehicles bound for points west were assembled in the Acquafondata basin. First in line were the jeeps, which had come up Inferno Track during the day, collected supplies at the supply point and were now going forward again along about twenty pitch-black, winding miles to the Terelle sector. Next would come vehicles carrying out reliefs, then trucks carrying supplies for the Hove dumping programme—this was where Supply Company fitted in—and then usually a number of Polish trucks.
A normal convoy sent forward by Supply Company consisted of nine trucks—three of supplies, three of petrol and three of ammunition, with the ammunition at the rear. Last of all came the recovery vehicle, Flannagan II. Only page 309 trucks that were in 100 per cent order were used, and if a breakdown threatened to cause a jam, the orders were to roll it over the side.
The wait until the last light went from the sky was an impatient time. The Acquafondata basin was a restless area; the 4.5S, long toms and howitzers scattered about the basin cracked and roared, and the sound reverberated around the basin and smacked back on the ears like a whip-lash. The concussion, it was reputed, blew out tent pegs. Occasionally an incoming armour-piercing shot would ricochet around the basin like a billiard ball.
As it became dark the jeeps were released, and the whole winding column ground into motion. Once on North Road there was no turning back; peering out under his open windshield, the driver searched for a glimpse of the vehicle ahead, now and then glimpsing a silhouette or catching the sound of brakes squealing. Theoretically vehicles were spaced, but inevitably there was bunching in the straining and twisting on the ‘double-lock’ corners.
The moon sometimes provided enough light for comparatively easy driving, but on dark or wet nights a white tape along the roadside and a leading jeep were the only aids. One night when troops of ‘an Allied nation’ were using the road for the first time, movement seemed unusually slow. It was found that, not fancying the hazardous drive without lights, they had placed a man out in front with a white towel around his head, and the convoy was creeping along at walking pace. It was quickly hurried along. A Supply Company convoy on another occasion had covered three-quarters of the distance on the return journey when it came up against a stationary Polish convoy. The drivers, deciding it was too dark to drive any further, were sound asleep and refused to budge until the Supply Company men brandished weapons and threatened to use them.
And so, first in one direction and then in the other, the traffic was kept moving. West-bound traffic was halted at Acquafondata at 10 p.m. and the road was expected to be clear at the Hove end by midnight to enable east-bound vehicles to get on their way and be clear of the road at Acquafondata by 4 a.m.page 310
Night after night the routine went on: assemble at Acquafondata, then away down North Road, a sharp pull to the left at the fork at the bottom and a cautious crawl through an olive grove and up a track leading among boulders; a brief spell, then back down the riverbed and up the long, tortuous road home, a good two and a quarter hours' drive, of which the first two were all climbing. There was generally a hitch somewhere. No. 2 Platoon, turning into North Road at the fork one night, came face to face with some Indian jeeps. Before it could stop, the leading jeep had sheared the petrol tanks off the first two trucks. There was nowhere to turn, and to back was out of the question; the jeeps went over the side, a 50 or 60-foot drop. On the night of 26-27 April a convoy led by Second-Lieutenant Wilson4 was delayed on the down journey by rain and a slow Polish convoy. It reached Hove too late to make the return journey in darkness, and NZ Provost Company, which controlled movement on Inferno Track, permitted the return trip by that route. The trucks, the first three-tonners to make the up trip, were sent away at five-minute intervals.
Occasionally there was shelling on North Road. The drill was to time each salvo; if the shelling was regular, the convoy would wait until the last group came down and then go.
The Germans, of course, were taking a great deal of interest in all this activity, even though most of it was concealed from their view—the traffic by darkness and the dump by the high walls of the gully. These high walls, moreover, made the dump immune to shelling—or so artillerymen assured the men of the ASC. However, early in May the enemy got a few shells into the dump. The Poles were building up a dump of pyrotechnics at the lower end, where the river bend took a turn to the south and towards the enemy in the general direction of Cassino. As their dump grew week by week it began to protrude around the corner of the bend and into the view of a German observation post.
Supply Company men were warming up with a cup of tea before setting out for home one night when there was page 311 a shout of warning, and a packet of shells crashed into the mouth of the gully. The pyrotechnic dump went up in grand style. At last, as the fire and fireworks died down, Supply Company men mounted their trucks and were away at 200-yard intervals as though riding Pegasus. Orange, who had led down in the jeep, came out last and, looking up the road, could see red tongues of flame glowing from the open exhaust pipes as the trucks stormed full pelt up the track in second gear. ‘A comet,’ says Orange, ‘has nothing on a three-tonner with straight exhaust in second gear.’ By the time he reached home everyone was in bed. The time for the trip: one hour three minutes, the fastest ever.
This was a foretaste of calamity, a calamity that artillerymen assured the ASC couldn't happen. Hove Dump was safe; it couldn't be shelled. This was stated right back at the beginning, and it was with the comfort of this assurance that a Supply Company detachment was dropped here one dark April night and settled down in the open.
Everything was still and quiet (recalls Driver McGlynn5), and no lights could be seen. Suddenly there was an almighty bang, and we almost jumped out of our skins. It was a 25-pounder right on our back door. It kept firing during the night, and I thought, ‘What a queer place to have a gun, almost on top of a supply dump.’ The fellow next to me started talking about German counter-battery and spotting gun flashes. I said something about assurances we had heard shortly before of how impossible it was for Jerry to land anything in the gully.
That was how it was: an apparently snug and safe harbour for supplies, lying directly beneath a New Zealand gunline on the heights. In the light of that first morning it looked safe enough. From the flat floor of the old riverbed, the bank rose steeply on the forward side though not too steeply for trees to grow and infantrymen to dig in their bivouacs. The other side, where the supply detachment was installed, was a clay bank, to which scrub clung, and on top was a grassy shelf with trees. The entrance at the lower end was a slit between perpendicular clay banks, and through it the men could look, if it was clear enough, right across to the Monastery and pick out details of rubble and rock.page 312
The dump was packed with men, vehicles and stores—ammunition, petrol, rations, even hay for mule feed. Opposite Supply Company's little nook not far from the entrance were men of 6 Brigade, and a few hundred yards up the gully the artillery positions. The spring sun was warming up, and there was about the place a general unpleasant smell of human excreta. Poles, camped nearby, were not very particular about their habits.
In this close atmosphere an efficient supply service got under way, and life soon settled into routine. In the morning the jeep train—jeeps and trailers—was loaded, and supply men listened to the drivers' stories of the nocturnal runs up to the jeep head, from where supplies were packed forward either by men or mules. When they were loaded up, the jeeps moved away to prepare for the night's trip. At night the supply detachment listened for the sound of the North Road convoy. Fairly punctually each night the grinding whir of engines came down through the darkness and after a period the bulky trucks lumbered into the dump. Supplies were unloaded, and the men stood around talking over a cup of tea.
To Hove men, the drivers seemed slightly tense, on one night particularly so; it may have been because there was more shelling than usual that night. A driver swung himself into his truck and exclaimed, ‘Thank Christ we're getting out of this dump. It gives me the willies.’ That may have been premonition, but more likely just nerves. There was quite a bit of talk about the safety of the dump, though some of the infantrymen across the way said they would be glad to see the ammunition out of the way. There could be no denying that, in amongst the artillery and infantry, it was well forward and in a position that could only be justified by an absolute certainty that it was safe from the enemy.
Shells could be heard going overhead, but that was all. One small group of Supply Company men were taking no chances, however, and led and directed by Driver McGrath,6 a West Coaster who knew something about mining and page 313 timbering, McGlynn and a man named Rochford7 scooped out a refuge in the bank near their bivouacs. The entrance was braced with earth-filled ammunition boxes and the roof with branches.
The 7th May was a clear day. The perpetual smoke pall over Cassino was thinner than usual, and the gunners on the heights could see away across to Monte Cairo. During the morning shells fell around the artillery positions; the German guns may have been feeling about in an area of known activity, or they may have been lobbing across shots at movement on Inferno Track or perhaps at the artillery positions. Whatever their target, the morning passed without damage, and the work went on as usual. The jeep train, preparing for the night's journey, was packed along the gully, and small shell splinters dropped down on the men loading the vehicles.
During the afternoon shells began to drop into the dump. It was impossible, but there they were. Supply Company men took cover, and while shellbursts split the air along the gully, watched and waited to see what was going to happen. What did happen, and in just what order, is hard to fix; as with all such episodes, split-second impressions become confused and blurred, and sense of time distorted. What follows is substantially the impressions of several Supply Company men and others who were there. If some detail is wrong, the general picture is right.
One of the first things that happened, two supply men agree, was that a shellburst engulfed a jeep and a huge column of black smoke—probably from a load of petrol—spiralled up into the clear sky, a fine marker for enemy gunners. There was sudden, feverish activity. Drivers jumped to their jeeps and self-starters whirred. Trucks and jeeps, some blackened by fire, streamed out of the gully to safety.
‘On the opposite side of the gully people were moving, and they were moving fast,’ writes McGlynn. ‘We could hear the click of pick axes as someone on the opposite side dug deeper into the ground.’page 314
There were men running, men making brief, futile attempts at salvage. McGlynn remembered the hole he had helped McGrath to dig, and with Drivers Nicolson8 and Rhodes he dived for its shelter. Here they crouched while Hove Dump burst asunder.
The first lot of ammunition to go up was a signal for the German gunners to give us everything they had (says McGlynn). I tried to look out of the hole several times but thought better of it when I saw whole 25-pounder shells sailing by from an exploding dump. Great explosions were echoing from the walls of the gully. The small arms ammunition was crackling and whining. And above all this noise we could hear the German shells coming in. The shells were pouring in; they reminded me of a flight of ducks in formation, one on the tail of the other. Our guns lashed back but their effort seemed feeble compared with that of the Germans. Still, it was good to hear them.
Viewed from afar by awed onlookers, Hove appeared as a deep gash in the earth from which billowed smoke and flame and with them shuddering explosions. Even stacks of super-heated bully beef were bursting like small-arms fire.
All this was happening just outside the hole in which the three men were sheltering. In a nearby ammunition stack 25-pounder shells were going off with a whoof. The stack of hay went skywards and came down like rain. Then high-velocity 75-millimetre shells burst with ear-shattering bangs, singly and in quick succession like a string of giant firecrackers, each bang followed by a piercing scream.
A small tent outside the hole caught fire, and the flames licked into the tunnel entrance and set alight to the branches bracing the roof. The men wrenched them down and threw them out.
Next to the 75-millimetre shells was a dump of signal flares and canisters, and away they went in a variety of colours like a Brock's benefit. And at last something hit the petrol near the entrance to the gully, and the fourgallon cans burst with a roar and a tower of orange flame and black smoke.
This was an anxious time for us as we were almost certain that the heavy black smoke, if not the flames, would pour in page 315 and choke us (McGlynn's account says). We talked about this and decided that if it did we would make a break for it at set intervals and try to get into a sheltered hollow behind the cookhouse tent. The petrol cans were still flying skywards and burning fiercely, but the smoke kept away from us.page break
And so the hours went by.
The force of the explosions travelled into the tunnel and hit the back wall. The heat was intense. The earth kept falling down from the roof and we ended up pretty well with our knees under our chins. We ran out of cigarettes and we wanted a smoke badly. There were some in the remains of the bivvi outside, and I crouched just inside the entrance of the tunnel ready to make a grab. I tried a few times but there wasn't much hope of putting out even a finger—there was a storm of thudding metal outside. We scratched around the earth of the floor for a few butts we threw there earlier on, but by now they were well buried. We talked on all sorts of things, all the time wondering when we would get out of the hole.
As dusk fell the glare and scintillation of pyrotechnics filled the night sky, and the shelling kept on. It was five hours before the German gunners felt their job was done. The explosions in the dump gradually diminished, and after a while the heavy explosions died away, though small-arms ammunition continued to crackle.
As the show began to give out, McGlynn looked cautiously out of the hole. The men shouted some abuse at figures they identified as Polish soldiers poking around among the ashes. They did not appear to hear, and moved on out of sight. A few minutes later two dark shapes were seen bending over the remains of the bivouac. Believing them to be further looters, the men in the hole let out a further shout of abuse. One of the figures straightened up, and a head was poked into the hole. An unmistakably New Zealand voice made an inquiry about three missing supply men.
The two men, machine-gunners, were having a look around, partly to see what had become of McGlynn, Nicolson and Rhodes, who had been given up as lost. They were also keenly interested in the chances of survival of the rum.
‘I thought it funny—and typically Kiwi,’ says McGlynn. ‘We pointed to the place where the rum had been, right next to the petrol store. “Just our luck,” they said.’page 316
The Supply Company men were given a meal and cigarettes at the machine-gunners' cookhouse. Later that night McGlynn had another look at Hove Dump.
The whole place was a smouldering, charred mess. The odd 303 bullet would whizz by and the odd tins of rations would go pop. The ground was hot to walk on. I poked around the old bivvi sites, but there was nothing I could salvage. I was lucky to find a precious souvenir, and that was hot to handle. The dump had been completely shelled and burned out.
And that, as far as Hove was concerned, was that. But though the dump was wrecked, the supply work had to go on, and jeeps that would normally have loaded there loaded that night direct from three-tonners at Acquafondata. Thereafter Acquafondata became the most forward dump.