CHAPTER 15 — Rome and Florence
AFTER Hove Dump went up in smoke there was nothing else to do but start afresh elsewhere. An ammunition dump was built up at Acquafondata, and supply points were operated at Venafro, as before, and at Acquafondata; at the latter point supplies went straight off the three-tonners to waiting jeeps and mules.
Down on the lowlands, meanwhile, preparations had been under way for yet another assault on the stubborn bastion of the Gustav Line, operation honker. An hour before midnight on 11 May the New Zealanders in the mountains saw the stabbing flashes of gunfire flicker across the plains, and the sound of battle began to roll. Apart from feint attacks, the only part played by the New Zealanders in this assault was taken by 4 Armoured Brigade and New Zealand guns. Cassino was attacked on 18 May; but the enemy had already gone. By 25 May the Gustav Line was broken, and the Allied forces swept forward towards Rome.
Fifth Brigade, which had relieved 6 Brigade in the line, began to probe forward. In this final advance on Rome the New Zealanders had only a minor role to play and their battles were mere skirmishes with an enemy intent on retreat; yet there was something sublimely satisfying in the operation. The New Zealanders had, by their earlier efforts, contributed much to the final success, and when the whole thing was done the men were able to look over not only a local victory here in Italy but also the unfolding of the Allies' vast plan to recapture Europe. Like October 1942, June 1944 marked a clearly discernible twist of the screw on Hitler's Germany.
Pushing forward through the mountains, 5 Brigade cleared Terelle, Belmonte and Atina, and the winding line of vehicles and guns growled across the Melfa River bridge and out along the dusty road threaded across a broad, mountain-enclosed plain. A German rearguard in the hilltop page 318 village of Brocco, dominating the approach to Sora, was driven out; after further fighting the Maoris, accompanied by armour, entered Sora on 31 May, and after a further action by 23 Battalion Sora and its surroundings were firmly held.
At Sora the road along which the New Zealanders had come emerges onto Route 82, which curves up the upper Liri Valley, closely following the river. Up this road the enemy was now withdrawing, and after him went the New Zealanders. Green hills crowded in on either side, and at Balsorano an escarpment offered the enemy a convenient place for another rearguard stand. For four days here attackers and defenders bickered at each other.
Supply Company, all this while, was following up at a more leisurely pace. During the first days of the advance it stayed put at Monteroduni, operating its supply points as before. It was a routine and quite colourless task that required so little effort that Supply Company men found time, while 5 Brigade was inching gingerly forward towards Sora, to go mountaineering on 27 May, hold sports next day (Company Headquarters and Workshops combined won with 18 points, No. 1 Platoon was second with 17), and entertain the Prime Minister, Rt Hon P. Fraser, at lunch on the 30th. About eighty ASC officers attended this luncheon, provided by Supply Company in the Field Bakery area.
During the afternoon Mr Fraser spoke to the men of Supply and Petrol Companies. Rather rashly he forecast the end of the war by Christmas, but in spite of this miscalculation he gave a lucid and candid account of affairs at home and abroad. With the old campaigner's skill, he anticipated his critics and in general cleared up doubts and misunderstandings. He could make no promises, but his address was informative, and though he faced a cynical audience, there were few at the end who did not applaud.
The supply point was moved forward to Sant' Elia, on North Road beyond Hove Dump, on 30 May, and on 1 June Supply Company collected up its stocks and moved down North Road for the last time. It staged at Sant' Elia, then on the 2nd moved on through Atina and across the plain, along a road congested by refugees. About 9 a.m. it page 319 pulled into paddocks flanking the Atina-Sora road where wide, deep ditches forced nose-to-tail parking. Shortly after 11 a.m. shells, unmistakably 88-millimetre, came whooshing in from, of all directions, the north-east. The target appeared to be the road junction. There was a prompt scatter and no small ‘flap’. Several Petrol Company trucks nearby went up in flames; splinters sliced through Supply Company trucks, and Captain Fenton1 was slightly wounded.
After a 40-minute dose, the gun left them alone, but at 4.30 p.m. orders were issued for all platoons except No. 4 to return independently to Sant' Elia. The gun or guns, apparently either bypassed or in a bulge in the line on a higher inland road, gave the supply point another dose next day, and No. 2 Platoon, bringing forward that day's lift, had just pulled into the area when a stack of spam, on which a few minutes previously No. 4 Platoon men had been leaning or reclining, was blown far and wide. That was a most useful shell; many a stock deficiency was written off against it.
The company moved forward on the 4th to a new area near Alvito. Its welcome was a violent thunderstorm that brought down hailstones as large as almonds, and torrential rain. The Alvito area was one of the most uncomfortable points encountered by Supply Company in Italy. Deep ditches hindered movement and dispersal, and 50 yards or so to the rear a battery of 5.5s was pumping out shells. Aerial reconnaissance could not locate the offending enemy guns of the previous days, but drivers took no chances and employed camouflage nets and all available cover to conceal their vehicles.
But whatever its operational drawbacks, the country here was picturesque—a treat for the eyes of anyone who cared to stroll up to one of the villages perched along the heights. The corn, almost ready to harvest, laid mats of varying green and gold across the fields; cherry trees, olives and vineyards splashed other shades across the scene, and through it all twisted a gleaming river.page 320
In the Liri Valley the Division continued to pester the enemy at Balsorano, and on 6 June the German force again quietly faded away. Sixth Brigade took over the advance and, delayed only by demolitions, pushed on to Avezzano, on the main Pescara-Rome road, the prize for which they had fought so bitterly in the Sangro campaign the previous year. The prize became theirs on 9 June; they had come a long way round, but in the end it was an easy victory. From the surrounding hills came hundreds of prisoners of war of all nationalities, including New Zealanders, many of whom had been at large since their escape or release from prison camps at the Italian armistice the previous September. Some brought wives and a growing family.
While the New Zealanders had been engaged in their unspectacular task of sweeping up the tail-enders of the retreating German flank, momentous events had been happening. On 4 June the Allies drove into a royal welcome through the streets of Rome. And then early on the morning of 6 June came the news for which millions throughout the world had been waiting. In flat, impersonal tone, a BBC announcer informed his listeners: ‘Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces commenced landing troops in northern France this morning.’ Just that. But it was enough.
For the New Zealanders, in the summer warmth of the green Italian countryside, it was a pleasant note on which to fall back for the first real rest of the campaign. The Division moved down the Liri Valley to Arce, where Route 6, from the south, met Route 82. The ASC area was set back some distance, near the Liri, but the replenishment area bordered the main road opposite 5 and 6 Brigades.
Here, in peaceful surroundings, the Division rested and trained. There was leave to Naples and, of particular interest, to the beautiful island of Ischia, off the Bay of Naples and north of Capri. The island holiday scheme was made possible by Lieutenant Commander McLennan, RN, who had visited New Zealand some years previously and had a special interest in New Zealanders. Four hotels were requisitioned, and for a nominal sum a brief but welcome holiday could be enjoyed on this ‘island of wines’. The scheme page 321 actually commenced as early as May, when Supply Company provided the rations and Lieutenant Grant2 and ten Supply Company other ranks were the administrative staff. In late June Ammunition Company took control.
During the Italian campaign Supply Company had a host of duties thrust upon it that seemed to wax and wane in complexity. June 1944, and especially the spell at Arce, was a definite period of waxing. In the old desert days the company had a reasonably straightforward role that involved drawing rations from a base supply depot, carrying forward and issuing. In Italy at one time or another, wood, coal, charcoal, fresh fruit, vegetables, ice, YMCA goods and hospital comforts found their way into issues, and of course there was the task of buying some of these on the local market. And not only had New Zealand troops to be fed, but in Italy's cosmopolitan battleground there was generally an array of various nationalities who required rations, usually of a different type from the normal British issue. When the New Zealanders entered Avezzano, escaped prisoners from the various Commonwealth countries and from America, Russia and India had to be fed. German prisoners required rationing, and at Arce there were carabinieri, mule pack transport companies and refugees to cater for. The New Zealand Forces Club at Rome required 900 fresh rations daily—transported there by Supply Company—and the fresh vegetable run was a 210-mile turnround to Naples. By collecting the fresh vegetables itself the company estimated that it would receive them three days earlier than if they were brought by rail; on this reckoning they would be three days fresher, but in the heat of the long drive forward, alas, they inevitably withered.
The refugees presented a problem not only of feeding but also of transport. Pushed into the path of the advancing Allies by the Germans to clutter the roads, they came back to Arce so dazed that they couldn't even move off the road for traffic. The first trucks on the vegetable run to Naples—three trucks daily—took a complete cargo of pregnant women. One who intimated that time was running short page 322 was assigned to Driver Anderson for special care. Anderson later swore that he felt every bump on the 100-mile drive, and returned looking appreciably older. In all thirty truck-loads of shabby, dispirited Italians were carted back before it was realised that they were verminous and that contamination of trucks was likely. Trucks were deloused and disinfected, and the transport service ceased.
The Allied forces were now approaching Florence. The enemy's next main defensive position was the Gothic Line, which straddled the Italian peninsula from Massa on the west to Pesaro on the east, cutting a line just north of Florence. He was shielding this line with a series of strongly held positions south of Florence. The New Zealand Division was called forward in July to assist to clear away these obstacles as quickly as possible to deny the enemy the best use of the Gothic Line.
The Division began its move forward in secrecy on 8 July. Travelling forward in stages via Civita Castellana and Perugia, Supply Company established itself on 13 July near Cortona. On the same day 6 Brigade infantry was moving into its first attack in this new phase. This again was a very limited battle for the New Zealanders. Hill positions were cleared of the enemy and the Division was placed back in reserve on 16 July. As Eighth Army's advance continued towards Florence, a general line along Highway 2 on the left flank was chosen as the best way to approach the city; the New Zealand and South African Divisions were to drive a wedge through to the River Arno south-west of Florence. When the New Zealand Division took over from the French Moroccan Infantry Division on 21–22 July it found the Germans holding good defensive country in which high, wooded hills dominated the roads. Aided by New Zealand tanks, 5 Brigade began to push north-east towards Casciano.
Supply Company moved up to an area near Siena on 23 July and began to send back convoys along the winding dusty road to 6 BSD at Arezzo. This base supply depot was a vast depot in an old Italian barracks, and to load up trucks were backed through long rows of stacked rations, an operation that took all day. The turn-round distance from supply point back to supply point was about 50 miles. page 323 Trucks were sent back to Arezzo in the evening to be ready to begin loading promptly the next morning; the following night would again be spent at Arezzo, and on the third day the convoy would wind back through the hills with the dust billowing up from the wheels and settling over everything in a thick, white blanket.
Retreating slowly, the Germans now fell back to the Paula Line, based on a semi-circle of hills around Florence. Casciano fell to the New Zealanders on 27 July, and immediately there began a building up of artillery ammunition. Every Supply Company truck that was not engaged in uplifting the day's pack was pressed into service to carry 25-pounder ammunition to 1 Ammunition Company's supply point. It was a rush job done in rush style. There was no definite check on loads; vehicles merely loaded up and carried forward. The work was completed by the end of the month.
The New Zealanders now struck directly through the hills towards Florence, and as the Germans counter-attacked in an effort to push the Division back across the Pesa, artillery capable of firing 40,000 shells a day was directed on them. The Allies moved forward slowly, spasmodically; hilltop by hilltop the Germans contested the advance, but on 3 August New Zealand infantry looked down from the last line of ridges towards the River Arno. The Paula Line was pierced, and as the enemy pulled back with alacrity, the South Africans on the New Zealanders' right were able to push forward and enter Florence on 4 August. Some New Zealanders, too, drove down to meet a wildly enthusiastic welcome.
The honeymoon was brief. The chatter of machine guns on the north bank of the Arno rudely cut into the celebrations, and it soon became evident that the enemy was defending what of Florence was now left to him—the half on the north bank of the river. Canadians now took over the New Zealand sector, and the Division was sent west along the Arno to tidy up.
Supply Company had moved forward to San Donato on 26 July and found conditions here much more to its liking. Cortona and Siena had been hot and stifling; at San Donato page 324 it could relax under the shade of oaks, filled, so the war diary recorded, ‘with birdsong at sunrise and sunset.’ But the most delightful area, it says, was near Florence where the company moved on 4 August:
Here, surrounded by plum, apple, peach and pear trees, laden with ripe and ripening fruits, a sleepy satisfaction was achieved by most folk. Gentle, cool breezes fanned the banks of meandering streams, flanked by tall poplars. Bathing in clear pools, haunted by dragonflies, and cricketing in ideal surroundings were pastimes regretfully missed when the Company returned to the hot and dusty areas near Siena.
Here on the 24th Mr Churchill visited the Division. Security precautions for his visit included the clearing of the main road, making it necessary for Supply Company vehicles, which normally went through the outskirts of Siena, to make a detour of seven or eight miles. When the Prime Minister had passed through on his way north, however, traffic was again permitted to use the main road. It is in the nature of things that a Supply Company lorry, just clearing Siena, should choose this time and place to cast a wheel and flop down squarely across the road, broadside on. About a quarter of an hour later a provost-laden jeep came down the road, with the great man in a car behind. For the great all things are possible, and on its three wheels the truck was driven off the road. Mr Churchill, puffing his customary cigar, gave the V sign as he drove by.