CHAPTER 18 — End of the War
End of the War
Looking around on the first day of peace on 3 May, Supply Company found itself installed in a vast factory that had drawn down the bombs of the RAF. It was—or had been—a fine building, surrounded by trimly laid out grounds, creeper-covered brick arches along the driveway, fountains, swimming baths, statues and tall, stately flagstaffs. Pictures found in the factory showed the official opening, with Mussolini and high-ranking fascists receiving a wild reception from the crowd. On that day fascist flags had hung from these tall poles.
With skilful precision the RAF had hollowed out the factory and left the trappings intact. In its small way the building symbolised Europe at large: a world built up with fascist and Nazi pomp now reduced to a crumbling shell. That was all there was left for the victors to conquer.
It was a world, moreover, with many problems still unsettled and many loose ends still to tidy up. The New Zealand Division's victorious advance to Trieste took it full tilt into political troubles fermented by an aggressive Yugoslavia's claims to the city. In addition there was a peace to patch up between the rival Titoists and Chetniks, and the difficulties in the midst of these troubles of arranging for the surrender of various groups of Germans. At Torviscosa partisans were busy rounding up odd Germans and fascists; a barber's chair was brought out onto the street, and women who had fraternised with the Germans had their hair shaved off.
The partisans had good cause to be bitter. On 3 May they buried six of their comrades who, while lying wounded, page 355 had had their throats cut. It was a colourful funeral, led by partisans armed with rifles, machine guns and grenades, and wearing an assortment of clothing embellished with red scarves. Behind came groups carrying banners and flowers, and then the flag-draped coffins—Italian flags—carried by well-armed bearers. The tolling of church bells overlaid the scene.
All these things—the bickering, reprisals and general tidying up—ran their course, and though the Trieste trouble remained, the Division was at last able to relax in the summer sunshine. Gathered around radios on the 8th, the New Zealanders heard Mr Churchill announce the end of the war in Europe. A special issue of Eighth Army News splashed the headline, ‘Germany Out.’ And there it was, over and done with.
Torviscosa was a pleasant place in which to settle down to a new life of peace. Modern flats connected with the factory had been vacant only since February—when the RAF prompted evacuation—and Supply Company men found them comfortable quarters. In some flats the hot water systems were still in operation and the porcelain baths intact. Workshops took possession of a modern cafeteria and part of a theatre. Leave was commenced, and sports soon flourished.
On 30 May there was a reminder of less happy days of the company's history when Sergeant Clarke, taken prisoner of war on Crete, arrived unexpectedly. With nine other prisoners, he had walked out of his Austrian prison camp a few days before the end of the war. After a 20-kilometre walk they sheltered for the night in a barn, which they found in the morning to be occupied by a German officer, a sergeant-major and a corporal. The Germans were quite friendly, and together ex-prisoners and ex-captors sat around the radio and listened to Mr Churchill's broadcast on the end of the war and, that night, the broadcast speech of King George.
For a day or so Clarke lived with the others in the officers' mess at a nearby aerodrome. Then he decided to visit a page 356 count and countess for whom he had worked in 1942. Standing on the road, he halted the first car that looked like an American type; it contained six SS troopers, who handed over without demurring. With his battered Kiwi hat set jauntily on his head, a fernleaf and the number 96—the nearest he could remember to his old unit serial number of 95—painted on the front of the car, he set off. After a 700-kilometre trip, Clarke found his count. He spent a few pleasant days here, and then moved to Italy, where he found Supply Company without difficulty.
The future of the Division was still very indefinite. Under the original replacement scheme, by which 16,000 men had already been sent home, it had been intended to send 6th Reinforcements in June and 7th Reinforcements in September, but the end of the war in Europe gave hope that these groups could be sent home ‘as soon as shipping can be provided.’ This would bring the Division to between 2000 and 4000 below strength, and the scheme to withdraw 7th Reinforcements could not be put into operation until the Division was released from its operational role.
And what of Japan? ‘It is obviously desirable that New Zealand land forces should be represented,’ a memorandum dated 18 May stated. ‘It is not possible to give any guidance in the matter as the question is still under consideration between the New Zealand and British Governments. Furthermore, it is dependent on shipping, which is limited and heavily committed for deployment against Japan. When a decision is reached it is certain that men with long service overseas will go back to New Zealand and that men with short service overseas would be used in any further operations.’
So while the future was discussed between governments, the Division stayed at Trieste. Supply Company's war diary took on a most unwarlike aspect. Typical entries are these: ‘30 × 3 ton dispatched Trieste docks to uplift supplies of amn. Normal pack duties. Sports: Water polo. 21 Sec SAEC 4 v. 1 NZ Sup Coy 3.’
‘Normal pack duties. 30 × 3 ton dispatched Trieste docks to offload from LTC. Sports: ASC swimming carnival held in baths in company area. Carnival won by Sup Coy by page 357 margin of one point from 1 Amn Coy. Water polo: 1 NZ Sup Coy 2 v. 1 NZ Amn Coy 1. 1 NZ Pet Coy 1 v. 1 NZ Sup Coy o.’
And so the time passed. There was not even a whisper yet of repatriation, but there was one farewell when Padre Holland, senior ASC chaplain, left for home. He was popular with everyone, particularly with the men of Supply Company, with whom he had spent much time.
In August Japan gave in to the newly found atomic power of the Allies. A month later there was still nothing clear on the Division's return home, but General Freyberg told the troops: ‘We intend to get all ranks home as soon as possible. There is no question of our taking part in garrison duties in Europe. The policy of return will be that those who have been away the longest from New Zealand will return the soonest. Also, in each reinforcement draft married men will have priority over single men.’
The question of finding a small force to garrison Japan, he said, was still under consideration.
‘Many of our troops will get home by Christmas, but on the other hand some of you will have to remain and will not get back until next year.’
Shipping, of course, was again the crux of the matter. As General Freyberg explained, ‘with the end of the Japanese war much of our shipping was moving in the wrong direction. Additional priorities for the allocation of passenger shipping have come into being, and the first and second of these priorities are the repatriation of Allied PW from the Far East and the move to Japan of the large Allied armies of occupation. Then comes the return home of Dominion, British and Allied troops.’
As the ships became available, schedules were issued and the flow of men back to New Zealand began. Even now, however, there were upsets and delays caused by the uncertainty of shipping schedules, and the divisional policy page 358 was to have men due to return home back at Advance Base with all documentation complete. This often meant maddening periods of waiting, but it ensured that the drafts were always on the spot to go aboard when the ships were available.
There were no regrets in these sailings; the soldier is always ready to go home. Yet there is something a little melancholy in the systematic destruction of such a finely tempered weapon as the New Zealand Division had become during six years of war. To form a division of citizen soldiers the Army lays down a framework and builds around it with the green unseasoned material that comes to it from civilian life. And since in the early days of the Second World War there was not a great deal in New Zealand with which to build even the frame, the whole development of the Division into a sturdy and seasoned formation was a vast co-operative enterprise by the professional soldiers and the willing amateurs. Since the muddling beginnings at a time and in places so far distant, the Division had come to maturity amid early disasters and emerged from the final victory a powerful and efficient force; the credit for this end result must in the main go to those who worked through the difficult and sometimes heartbreaking beginnings.
Anyone who cared in this happy moment of home-going to pause and reflect, could trace in his own particular unit a clear course of parallel development—a course that in Supply Company's case led it from haphazard days at Burnham when there were so few trucks that ASC units had to share for training and so little knowledge that instruction was given by men who kept just ahead of their pupils in the army manuals, to a fully mechanised unit that could carry through a sustained, swiftly mobile advance almost without a hitch, and shoulder odd jobs on the side as well.
Eulogies of soldiers of bygone days come so easily to the tongue and become so embellished with threadbare epithets that they sink to meaningless platitudes, and the image they portray assumes the cold immobility of stone. There follows a danger that the traditions these soldiers established will fall away into the impersonal pages of history and lose all meaning to those who follow.page 359
And traditions are important. They not only define the character of a nation, but they set standards, and for these standards to endure as the measuring stick for the future, the men who set them must be seen not as hallowed stone but as normal human beings, men who had their weaknesses, who were sometimes cowards and not always willing, and yet who in the critical test collectively set standards of which no nation could be ashamed. The standards they set, standards of heroism, loyalty, devotion or simply technical efficiency, must be studied and understood or their value is lost. Along its relatively obscure course, Supply Company set standards that demand the attention of any future supply company if it is to comprehend what is expected of it. The story of Supply Company in the Second World War shows that a great deal might be expected of such a company, sometimes quite beyond the sphere of normal duty. Who would have anticipated a fighting role as on Crete? Then there are a host of lessons on improvisation, adaptability and initiative. But the primary lessons are efficiency and devotion to duty. The first comes through continual application to a task that hasn't much glamour but which offers many compensations; the second is a constant requirement through which an Army Service Corps unit justifies itself to the fighting units. Both earn the respect of the troops to whom the service is given—and that is the highest reward attainable.
These were the achievements that were behind Supply Company men who sailed east down the Mediterranean in late 1945. Away to the south, across an oily sea, the blue silhouette of the North African coastline was a reminder of the days that will stand out most vividly in the memory of the Division. Here and there a wadi showed up as it caught the sun; a road, perhaps the Derna zigzag, traced a winding white course up an escarpment. Later, Alexandria, misty and white, showed up on the horizon. Then, on either side of the ships as they filed through the Suez Canal, sprawled the mat yellow desert and the straggling palms. Then crowded Port Tewfik and the wedge-shaped escarpment. And at last, with the past falling away astern, the ships headed out into the Red Sea and home.page 360
Behind, in Italy, the work of dispersing the Division's vast amount of equipment went on. Some was handed over to Jayforce, which had been formed as New Zealand's contribution to the occupation forces in Japan. Thus, as 1945 ran out, Supply Company dwindled away and cast off vehicles and equipment. The old identities disappeared, and with them the reminiscing of old days and memorable times. By the New Year Supply Company was barely a shadow of its old self.
1946 began like this:
January: Very quiet day with no transport details.
January: Advice received from HQ 2 NZEF that Coy would disband wef 1 Jan 46. Preparation for disposal of vehicles and equipment, closing of canteen and regimental fund.
But Supply Company still clung to life. There were odd tasks to be done, vehicles to be handed over to Jayforce, and the occasional spasm of army ‘rotation’ to contend with. The last home-going draft of three officers and 114 men was despatched on 10 January, and next day there was left at Florence a rear party consisting of Major Roberts, Captain Crawford,1 Captain Budge,2 Second-Lieutenant Thomson, and just nine other ranks. The hotels formerly occupied by the unit at Florence were handed over to the town major, the Italian civilians paid off, and on the 12th three three-tonners and one 15-cwt were handed over to Jayforce NZASC. That left Supply Company with two vehicles, which were still on their way from Bari with a parcel mail. One arrived on the 14th and after unloading was handed over to Jayforce; the other had broken down. It turned up on the 15th and was also handed over.
One last job remained, the checking and clearance of ‘warlike stores’. On 18 January the rear party men were posted to NZ Advanced Base, and the war diary that began more than six years ago signed off with the entry: ‘Unit ceases to function as a unit of 2 NZEF.’