CHAPTER 17 — The Final Advance
The Final Advance
Time, especially for the enemy, was running out. From the east and the west Allied forces were squeezing up the last of the German forces in Germany; in Italy Eighth and Fifth Armies were preparing to deal a blow designed to smash the German forces that might retire to Hitler's vaunted last citadel in the mountains in the south of Germany. To do this Eighth Army was to hammer with all its power on the enemy's network of river lines on the plains; as the enemy forces were drained from the Apennines to meet this threat, Fifth Army would strike through and reach for Bologna. It was hoped to break the enemy forces south of the River Po.
There was no appreciable change in the line when the New Zealanders went back at the beginning of April—apart from the fact that it was warmer. The Division, a stronger division now, with three infantry brigades in addition to its armoured brigade, took up a position to the right of its former sector and began a preliminary cleaning-up process. Here it would be the centre division of a three-divisional attack.
The Division's move was again a secret one; hat badges, titles and divisional signs were removed, and the men were not told their destination until the convoys were under way. Supply Company, as usual, went forward in two parts, No. 4 Platoon operating the Fabriano point while No. 5, which went forward in moonlight on the night of 30–31 March with Headquarters, No. 2 Platoon and Workshops, opened up again at Forli, across the way from the earlier point. For several days only men on duty were permitted to leave the area. Day and night convoys of trucks and all the variety of vehicles used in modern war streamed past along the dusty road. It was clear that something big was coming up.
No two battles during the war presented Supply Company with quite the same problems; there were similarities, and page 340 of course basic principles remained constant, but every fresh turn of fortune—or misfortune—presented the company with an entirely new set of circumstances that called for a different technique. In Greece the problem was how to hold the supply organisation together in the midst of a retreat that frequently called away all or most of the company's transport for other tasks. In Crete supply work was almost incidental to the main task of fighting. In the second Libyan campaign the company was permitted to give its undivided attention to supplies, but the problem was how to keep the supplies moving through a confused battleground—and how to keep out of the enemy's hands too. Alamein was textbook work. But when the advance started the book fell far behind the needs of a division moving across half the breadth of a continent. By contrast, the Italian campaigns to this point were either static or so slow in movement that the company had never been called on to move at more than a leisurely pace; the main difficulties had been terrain and weather—mountains, mud and snow.
And now this new battle was something different again. There was a similarity to the long, swift marches across Africa, but it was no longer possible to set a course by compass and strike from A to B like a fleet abroad on an ocean. Here impatient traffic jostled along inadequate roads, and wrong turnings invited convoys to get themselves lost. Further, in the ‘left-hook’ manœuvres in Africa, the company, like the rest of the Division, had for a period been a self-contained unit; here there was a daily pack to pick up.
While at Fabriano the company had got its reserves properly balanced, and when the battle began it had three days' reserves plus the extra day's issues. Divisional units carried similar reserves and rations for consumption next day. The Division could have lived on its fat for a week, but so long as fresh supplies were constantly available it was necessary to maintain that comfortable reserve. Every time the company moved it loaded up 60,000 reserve rations, miscellaneous items for a week, and hospital comforts for a month—and the daily pack. When the company was called on to help with troop-carrying, bridging and ammunition-carrying, the remaining vehicles and men had to work so much page 341 harder, and when the supply point was moved forward two trips were necessary to lift the supply pack forward. As the pace of the advance grew, it became a case of issue today, load and cart reserves and balance of rations forward, unload in the evening, receive and unload the incoming pack in the early hours of the morning, and issue again that morning on schedule—and the 7.30 a.m. deadline was missed only once. Full fresh rations were available at all times and made up most of the issues.
This was the nature of the battle to come—the final and supreme effort. The real work began three days before the start of the attack. On 6 April all available company transport was called out for a host of duties, all in addition to the lifting of the daily pack. The priority job, and the biggest of all, was carrying forward 25-pounder ammunition from Cesena to Ravenna. Each day for three days sixty trucks were assigned to a double trip; drivers would come home late each evening, snatch a few hours' sleep and be away early next day.
Abruptly on 9 April security precautions were lifted. Hat badges, titles and divisional signs were replaced, Forli was again in bounds—and an announcement made that the ‘big push’ would start that afternoon. There was time for one last diversion before settling down to more serious work. The Leader of the Opposition, the Hon S. G. Holland, and Mr F. Doidge, MP, visited the company. Mr Holland told the men he had been asked two questions by other units: what was the future of the Division when the war ended; and what was happening about licensing laws in New Zealand. He said he did not know the answer to the first; the answer to the second was that there was a Royal Commission on licensing sitting in New Zealand.
Talk of home and of the end of the war was in keeping with the general mood of optimism, and yet it was incongruous, too. Home was getting closer, but it still lay beyond a battle—and for a soldier anything that lies beyond a battle can be counted as nothing more than a dream. For some it never materialises.
The 9th was a clear day, with the dust drifting up from the road. Early in the afternoon the drone of aircraft engines page 342 drifted down to the supply point at Forli. As it grew, formations of bombers took shape, spread across the sky and roared on towards the Senio. Wave after wave went across, and soon the heavy, sustained crump of bombing could be heard. Then fighters and fighter-bombers darted forward. And finally the guns opened their throats, and the windows of Forli rattled. Across the Senio smoke and dust and unceasing explosions blotted out the country. Hour after hour the bombardment went on, and as it became dark flame-throwers, making their debut, licked across to the enemy infantry positions with long red tongues. And then suddenly the enemy found the infantry upon them. The crossing was made and the battle was on.
Rolling back a torn and tattered defence, the Division had within forty-eight hours penetrated six miles of strongly fortified river lines and by 12 April was beyond the Santerno. Massa Lombardo was swallowed up, and on 13 April the Division faced yet another river line, the Sillaro. A bridgehead was seized, and ballooned out against fierce resistance. By the week's end the Division was 20 miles from its starting point and behind it lay twenty German tanks, many of them knocked out by infantry at close range.
Not so far back from the line, Supply Company could hear it all and see a great deal: the bombers droned high overhead, and as they passed the crunch of their bombs came back; fighters sprang aloft from nearby airfields; traffic streamed unceasingly along the roads; and back from the west came bedraggled streams of prisoners on foot. Ragged and dirty, they marched past the Forli supply point, singing despite their dishevelment—though their manner suggested that their singing was prompted not by high morale but pleasure at being out of the fight.
Two days after the start of the attack Supply Company set up a temporary supply point in a field forward of Forli. Bulk was broken at Forli each morning and No. 4 Platoon went forward and issued. On 13 April No. 4 went forward permanently to set up a point near Cotignola to supply forward units; No. 5 maintained the Forli point for rear units.page 343
The thundering guns, meanwhile, were swallowing up ammunition, and on 13 April sixty company trucks were assigned to carry artillery ammunition from 501 AAD, Cesena, to 154 Field Regiment RA, west of Massa Lombardo. The roads forward were crowded, and near the Senio shelling, bombing and the passing of many wheels had cut up the road; large holes and craters were concealed beneath heavy dust. But despite the holes and the traffic, this narrow strip was all that trucks dared to use, for close on either side lay unlifted mines.
At 2 p.m. on 16 April the company was ordered to move to Massa Lombardo; by 5 p.m., having loaded up reserves, Company Headquarters and Nos. 2 and 3 Platoons were following an advance party. The rest of the company stayed to keep the Forli and Cotignola points operating until the more forward point was opened. The convoy wound its way along Hog Track—all roads were named, as they had been at Alamein—to Villafranca, across the Montone, the Lamone and the Senio, through Cotignola, bombed and shelled to a ruin, and on towards the Santerno. Everywhere there were signs that victor and vanquished had fought bitterly and passed without pausing to tidy up: mine notices gave their stark warnings everywhere; German tanks and self-propelled guns, an assortment of wrecked and charred vehicles, and uprooted trees lay about; mortar, shell and bomb craters scarred the fields, and houses were torn open or reduced to rubble. Over everything and everyone settled a blanket of dust, and with it came the stench of burned and decaying flesh. Here and there groups of Italians picked their way among wreckage, mines and jostling traffic in search of their homes.
Divisional signs clearly marked the route, and Workshops had improvised several of their own a few hours previously to supplement these. Even so six trucks, a sergeant's ‘bug’ and the LAD truck of No. 2 Platoon went astray just three miles from their destination. They were met by the platoon despatch rider, who had come from the new area to guide them in. But after travelling for about a mile the despatch rider realised he had lost his way in the dark and dust, and the little group of vehicles groped forward in search page 344 of a recognisable landmark. Abruptly a tank loomed ahead, stationary and squatting fairly in the centre of the road; it was, moreover, a Panther. The despatch rider came back in a great state of alarm as he was sure there had been no tank there when he had come down the road to meet the convoy. But there was no sign or sound of movement, and with pistol drawn Second-Lieutenant Thomson1 had a look around and found the tank deserted. The road appeared to be cleared of mines, so the convoy brushed past the tank and went on until it came to a place where transport had previously been off the road. Here it turned and went back until it met an English officer in a Dingo, who pointed out the way. The only trouble now was that a truck, the sergeant's bug and an LAD wagon were missing. They encountered them soon afterwards; the truck had slipped into a shell hole and had to be winched out. By 10.30 p.m. the men were at the new company area, about two kilometres from Massa Lombardo, and were settling down for a night's sleep, ‘for which,’ noted Thomson, ‘we were damned glad.’
There were many that night, however, who did not sleep. All night long the clamour of battle could be heard a few miles to the west, punctuated by the roar of the closer guns. Flares glowed in the sky, and bombs whistled down.
And now the pace was well and truly on. Massa Lombardo was a pleasant little backwater with the fruit trees in bloom and the crops bowing gently with the wind, but there was barely time to glance at this, let alone reflect on it. For on 17 April the Forli and Cotignola points were closed and their reserves loaded and brought forward. Then there was the day's pack to get from Forli, and in addition thirty-two three-tonners were wanted to carry back 3.7 anti-aircraft ammunition to the ammunition point at Fantuzza. At Fantuzza three trucks went off the road and rolled on to their sides, and for two hours eleven men laboured, with the aid of the winch on the sergeant's bug, to roll them back again. ‘The job was completed with much shouting and abuse,’ says No. 2 Platoon's diary. ‘Lt Johnson produced a bottle of whisky, which was shared by everyone on the job.’page 345
This sort of thing, however, was only incidental; No. 4 Platoon at Massa Lombardo had far more to worry about. Since it had arrived that day it had been flat out stacking reserve rations, arranging the pack and generally preparing for the next day's issue. There was rumour abroad that the company might be moving, and at 5 p.m. came word that it was to be mobile in half an hour. No. 4 Platoon, however, was not disturbed. In a frenzy of haste, Headquarters, Workshops and Nos. 3 and 5 Platoons got themselves ready and moved up along the divisional axis. At the Sillaro River crossing chattering bulldozers were nosing out a track over the stopbanks. Nose-to-tail traffic crawled past and along the road beyond, a fine target for enemy planes if there had been any. Everywhere there was the same desolation that had been seen the previous day: wrecked houses, burnt-out tanks, shattered trees and dead mules. The company passed through Fantuzza and halted about 500 yards beyond. The enemy had left here only about thirty-six hours previously.
The company dispersed and maintained a strict blackout. The night sky was full of aircraft; guns close on either flank pounded away all night and drew down viciously spitting enemy planes; flares glowed across the country, and shell-bursts winked.
When daylight came, smoke hung heavily. Close at hand houses were still smouldering; what had been haystacks formed heaps of black dust. Fantuzza's walls were jagged and crumbling. In the company area were several Panther tanks that had apparently run out of fuel, and some German dead. The Germans were promptly buried, but the smell of dead stock, their bloated bodies putrefying in the sun, was beyond remedy. Battlefields are no place for the squeamish.
In spite of the constant movement, the supply organisation was still working smoothly. No. 4 Platoon issued at Massa Lombardo on that morning while No. 5 at Fantuzza prepared to open the new point next day. A convoy went back to Forli for the pack and another fifty vehicles were sent off to pick up salvage from 1 Ammunition Company's point, take it back to Cesena and return with 3.7 ack-ack ammunition.page 346
That night, the 18th, the New Zealand Division threw in another set-piece attack. The guns around Supply Company crashed into yet another barrage, and in perfect weather the next morning bombers and fighters droned forward. Fighters coming home were seen to do the victory roll; the hunting was good. Across the Gaiana River the Division pushed on. By the 20th it was up to the Idice River line, reputedly of great strength, and almost before the Germans were aware what was happening the first New Zealanders were across and a bridgehead firmly held. A counter-attack was broken, and the German forces opposite the New Zealanders fell apart. This was the beginning of the end.
But it was only the beginning. Long, gruelling miles lay ahead. The heavy guns moved on from Fantuzza area on the 20th, leaving behind them a strange quiet. The supply point continued to operate at Fantuzza while the company's trucks were scattered abroad on various tasks: the daily pack and mail, troop-carrying, ammunition and salvage cartage. The roads were bad, the traffic thick and the pace slow, and drivers had little chance of a long sleep or many hot meals.
The advance was now rolling forward to the Reno River. And it rolled on across it and up to the Po, broad and deep, and with banks rising to 30 feet. It was high time for the supply services to be moving again. On 22 April Supply Company sent back a detachment under Lieutenant Ashby2 to operate a railhead at Faenza, and simultaneously Headquarters, Workshops, No. 4 Platoon and some of the transport platoons moved forward 20 miles. The convoy crossed the Idice and threaded its way up the dusty road through now familiar scenes of ruin. Dead horses, mules and oxen littered the roadside. Ahead, tanks were rumbling along the road, and the trucks had to crawl patiently behind. Ack-ack fire was sprouting over Route 9, away to the left, but the divisional axis was clear. The new area at Bagnarola was reached at 7.45 p.m., and there was time for a quick meal before dark. Then, as red ack-ack tracer bubbled up into the sky over Route 6, the men set to work to prepare the point for the morning. Just behind the point a gunline page 347 came to life, and soon the pulsating drone of enemy planes was overhead.
In moonlight the work went on. Soon after midnight there was time for a spell during a wait for transport with further stores. Under the canopy of a truck a light glowed dimly, and in a moment down came tumbling canisters of butterfly bombs. As they burst and showered the transport lines and the lanes between the ration stacks, men went to earth. Ten men were wounded and Driver Carbis3 died on the way to the MDS. The other wounded, who were taken back to 5 Field Ambulance at Medicina, were Drivers Dickson,4 Bathurst,5 Taylor,6 Roberts,7 Chapman,8 Tripe,9 Toomer,10 Peterson,11 and Lance-Corporal Latimer.12
The work—and nearby bombing—went on. More trucks arrived at 2.15 a.m. and were away again by 3.30 a.m. on their way to the Faenza railhead for the day's pack. Blearyeyed, No. 4 Platoon began issuing at the usual time of 7.30 a.m. During the day No. 5 came forward with its reserves.
Eighth Army faced up to the Po line in strength on 24 April and began crossings in force next day. Recapturing the spirit of absolute optimism of the late African days, the Army hastened up its supply organisation, and at 5.30 a.m. on the 24th Supply Company, less No. 4 Platoon, moved on to San Giorgio, cleared of the enemy only a few hours before. For the first few miles it was the familiar scene of page 348 crater-pitted fields and dusty, lacerated roads. Then abruptly beyond Medicina it all changed to smooth fields of grass and crops, green, upright trees and an almost peaceful pastoral atmosphere. Both armies had passed this way in haste and without fighting. After the miles of wasted country behind, it was a paradoxical and yet significant gesture that Supply Company, on reaching San Giorgio, should take the trouble to hitch up a mower to a jeep and cut a field of lucerne before moving in so that it would not be ruined. There is a clear distinction even in war between wanton waste and needful waste. The task, in any case, was an enjoyable diversion. The Italian farmer hardly knew what was happening, but with a host of ex-farmers walking beside the mower and offering gratuitous advice there was no lack of expert supervision—and arguments.
No. 4 Platoon issued at Bagnarola on that day and then followed up. No. 5 issued next day (the 25th) at San Giorgio while No. 4 leapfrogged ahead with the rest of the company to San Carlo, where it opened a point on the 26th. At last the weather, beautifully fine until now, broke, and rain poured down over the ration stacks, lined across an open field. Ration trucks were soon bogged down, and had to be helped out by Workshops' recovery wagon equipped with chains.
The point operated here for three days, and for once there was a little time to spare—but not for transport drivers. Fifteen vehicles released by 5 and 6 Brigades from troop-carrying duties helped, but there was still plenty to do for every truck lifting the daily pack and carrying ammunition. The pack was lifted from Faenza for the last time on the 26th, and then 13 Corps kept field maintenance centres moving forward regularly.
Headquarters, however, was able to organise a dance each evening at San Carlo. An orchestra was hired, and the Italians, pleased to see the last of the Germans, joined in with gusto.
While the ASC danced, the advance was still sweeping forward. The New Zealanders had been the first to span the Po with a pontoon bridge, and as the bridgehead grew beyond, the main problem became how to squeeze the page 349 heavy equipment through the few available channels. On the 26th New Zealand infantry stood on the banks of the Adige; on the 27th they were across, accompanied by amphibious tanks and guns in assault boats. Everywhere along the line, now, the German defence was breaking, and by the evening of 28 April the New Zealanders in their sector were nearing Padua; swallowing up unprepared rear German units as they went, they entered Padua in the early hours of 29 April.
With the Division now across the Po a more forward supply point became vital. On 26 April No. 4 Platoon made up a pack for No. 5, and a convoy was despatched that evening. After a five-hour wait at the pontoon bridge, the convoy crossed, and the next morning a supply point was ready for business at Ficarolo. Thus, as the New Zealand Division faced up to the next major river barrier, the Adige, its supply point was already across the barrier it had just passed; to get rations, unit transport would not now have to fight its way back against the north-bound stream across the Po, and the whole ticklish business of getting supplies across the river rested with Supply Company.
Other formations were not so lucky; after issuing 12,500 rations to the Division on the morning of the 27th, No. 5 Platoon was faced with pressing requests for rations from English units whose supply organisation was still south of the Po. The situation was delicate: reserve supplies were still back with the rest of the company, and there was no guarantee when they would come up. The requests were met.
Meanwhile, the Senior Supply Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Bracegirdle, had arranged with the Deputy Director of Supply and Transport, 13 Corps, for the pack to be ferried across the Po by boat on the night of 27–28 April. Prepared to unload into boats, the convoy went to the barge landing. As they waited in their trucks for something to happen, the drivers looked upon a strange scene. At the south approach to the bobbing, buckling pontoon bridge was an endless queue of vehicles waiting to cross. DUKWs—amphibious trucks—laden with stores, were splashing into the river from the south bank, churning across the current and clambering page 350 from sight on the north bank. Barges were shuttling across, carrying supplies on the north trip and wounded and prisoners on the south. Searchlights played on the river upstream to light up any floating mines, and Bofors belched out tracer at anything seen floating downstream; and there were a few bodies among the debris.
Luckily for Supply Company, Bracegirdle was able to arrange a priority for the pack convoy, and after some delay it crossed the bridge. Thus No. 5 Platoon replenished its stocks and issued again on the 28th.
Transport platoons were still meeting heavy carrying demands. During the 26th ammunition and YMCA stores were carried forward, and late that evening fifty-five further vehicles were requested to carry ammunition to a forward point across the Po.
No. 5 Platoon moved forward again on 28 April to Trecenta and opened a point in a tobacco factory, where a paved area gave a firm base for supplies. The rest of the company left San Carlo the same morning and joined the queue to cross the Po. Company Headquarters was across first at 6 p.m., and Workshops came next at 11 p.m., but the platoons had to hang about south of the river and dribbled in between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. on the 29th. By the time the last trucks had arrived Company Headquarters had gone; word to move had come just after breakfast, and Headquarters had moved out at 9.30 a.m. to an area near Padua. No. 5 Platoon remained to make the day's issue, but it was 1 p.m. this day before the point opened; the convoy with the pack had to wait fifteen hours at the bridge and did not reach Trecenta until after midday. In spite of frequent delays at the Po, this was the only occasion during the campaign when units were delayed at the supply point.
Padua, for which the company was now bound, had been taken only that morning—1 a.m. is the official time—and throughout the morning there were skirmishes between page 351 British and partisan forces and pockets of Germans and fascists. The Division, meantime, had gone on to Mestre and thence to the Piave, 80 miles from its starting point of less than twenty-four hours before. At Mestre a column broke away to take Venice. At the Piave there was a brief check and some confused fighting, but on 1 May the Division moved on without hindrance towards Trieste.
So while the head of the Division was hastening on towards the Piave, Supply Company, scattered piecemeal along the Padua road, was hurrying along to keep pace. There was an hour's delay at the Adige, where there was a crush of traffic at the pontoon bridge, but once beyond the river Company Headquarters, Workshops and those platoons that had caught up hummed north at a brisk pace. It was a beautifully fine Sunday, and on either side the green fields and crops drowsed in the sunshine. On the roadside the people waved and cheered the passing stream of traffic; flowers and kisses were thrown and vehicles decked with greenery; Italian flags fluttered everywhere.
But the peaceful countryside and the exultant crowds were just a surface gloss, for there was still neither complete peace nor a replete welcome for the conquerors. The fighting line had passed this way only a few hours before, and partisans and Allied troops were still cleaning up odd groups of Germans and fascists. Supply Company men were warned to have their arms ready and loaded.
The Supply Company convoy reached its area a few hundred yards south of Padua at 5 p.m. Soon afterwards the pack vehicles arrived, unloaded and turned back to Trecenta to pick up the reserve pack. And at 7 p.m. No. 4 Platoon came in and set about arranging a point for the next day's issue. No. 5, which had closed the Trecenta point after issuing that day, arrived at 9.30 p.m.
It is worthy of note that in spite of the speed of the advance and the long distances covered, fresh rations, including fresh bread and fresh meat, made up the issue.
On the 30th, while the Division was disputing the Piave crossing with small German forces, Supply Company moved on to Mestre, leaving No. 4 Platoon to make the day's issue at Padua. The tumultuous receptions of the previous day page 352 were repeated as the convoy streamed through villages, but again it was not entirely friendly country. Partisans were herding along small bands of Germans, and at Mestre small-arms fire and an occasional grenade banged away throughout the day and night.
The pack for issue next day, brought up from south of the Po, did not reach Mestre until the early hours of 1 May, and it was again a night job to get the point ready for a 7.30 a.m. issue. Because there were not enough trucks to lift the reserve from Padua, No. 4 Platoon could not move on to Mestre until the morning of the 1st.
At Mestre there was a brief pause—a welcome pause. April had set a mileage record of 213,277, an average of about 1000 miles a vehicle, and most of this had gone on the speedometer since the 9th. Night and day throughout this period there had been Supply Company transport somewhere on the roads, carrying rations, ammunition or troops, and there had been times when drivers had gone without sleep for forty-eight hours or more. In spite of this—the long hours, the constant haste and the heavy traffic—the only accidents that occurred were one or two vehicles sliding over clay banks. From this severe test drivers had emerged with credit.
The trucks, too, had come through well. In spite of their idiosyncrasies and the lack of time for maintenance, they had performed well; no major work was necessary throughout the advance, and in consequence every truck was always available.
These factors—efficient driving and the high mechanical efficiency of the trucks—together with the unremitting work of supply platoons, gave the New Zealand Division a supply point close behind the fighting units while the supply units of other formations lagged; in fact, the point had sometimes been up with the guns. At Mestre, again, the New Zealand point was the only supply point so far forward, and demands for rations from various Allied units were met.
By now everyone was thoroughly tired. It is normal practice during an advance such as this to relieve the forward fighting units with fresh formations, but so long as some part of the Division is in the line the rear units must work page 353 on without pause. A day's spell at Mestre gave the men a rest and enabled Supply Company and other ASC companies to collect themselves. Some men took the chance of seeing Venice, where partisans were still rounding up German troops.
At 3 p.m. on the 2nd Supply Company, less No. 5 Platoon, fitted into the flow of north-bound traffic, its destination Torviscosa, 75 miles away, and about 30 miles west of Trieste. Traffic again choked the approaches to the pontoon bridge across the Piave, and for four hours the company waited. At 6 p.m. a ripple of news came back down the line of traffic: the Germans in Italy had surrendered. Bright news in a sombre, prosaic setting. Some men wanted to go back to Mestre and Venice to celebrate. But there was nothing to be done but sit patiently for a little longer and eventually follow the tail of the truck ahead across the swaying pontoons, and drive on up the road to Torviscosa. Headlights now blazed, and soon rain came darting down through the beams. The company reached its destination at midnight, but for once it did not unload immediately. It left that job until 6 a.m.