In Peace & War: A Civilian Soldier's Story
11 — Battles and Buckingham Palace
Battles and Buckingham Palace
The Eighth Army was now turning its focus to the Adriatic Coast and in early September off we went to assemble in the Iesi area, some 15 miles from the east coast, with several pleasant beaches not too far away. I managed to get the troops over for a swim as often as possible and, remembering Les Andrew's insistence that we march to and from the beaches in North Africa with the result that we arrived back in camp in a sweaty, bitchy, dusty mess, I ensured transport was used in both directions.
About this time, an unfortunate accident befell General Freyberg when the light Auster plane, which he used to commute to 8th Army headquarters, crashed on landing and he was transferred to No 1 NZ General Hospital at Senegallia, undergoing a serious abdominal operation. With the prospect of up to two months out of action, it was necessary to appoint a new divisional commander and the general recommended Brigadier Weir. This put the cat amongst the pigeons as page 129 Brigadier Inglis was the senior man and he had once before temporarily commanded the division in the desert when the general had been wounded. While Inglis had the nickname ‘Whisky Bill’, and he certainly liked his whisky, I had never heard that his performance had suffered because of it. He was known to have been openly critical of General Freyberg after Crete which, in our eyes, appeared to be self-seeking rather than fair. On the other hand, Brigadier Weir had built up a terrific reputation amongst his peers throughout the 8th Army and beyond as a cracker Artillery commander. The general had great faith in him and so Brigadier Weir was accepted by the New Zealand Government. Brigadier Inglis was so upset he asked to be relieved of his command and soon afterwards returned to New Zealand. His place was taken by Brigadier Clive Pleasants who had commanded the 18th Armoured Regiment with distinction.
Major General Weir commanded the division for six weeks during the General's absence and was involved in the heavy fighting up the Adriatic coastline. He proved to be most competent and on the General's return was given command of the 46th (Brit) Division which he led in a most capable manner.
The Eighth Army had been making good progress, having broken through the so-called Gothic Line of minefields and heavy guns on the east coast plains. The Canadians and the Poles played prominent parts. The Greek Brigade was also part of the campaign and had specially requested they come under the wing of the New Zealand Division as they had a particular affinity with us. The coastal defence north of the Gothic Line had been well prepared against a possible seaborne attack so the going was tough and our forces had come to a halt south of Rimini, where the coastal defences of the Gothic Line ended. The Canadian Corps, of which we were part, was on the coast, 5th British Corps in the centre page 130 and the 10th British Corps was in the foothills and mountains on the left flank. Every day for a week casualties along the front had averaged 155 killed and 600 wounded and there was no sign of the enemy giving up. This was what we were heading into.
On September 13 I was delighted to see my old friend Major Colin Armstrong when he reported back to the battalion. We had been two of the original subalterns who assembled in Trentham in December 1939 when the 22nd was first formed and, until now, I had been the only original officer left. Colin had been captured at Sidi Assis in Libya in 1941. His escapes became legendary prior to a final get away in a coal boat from Europe to Sweden and thence to England. He returned to New Zealand on furlough after which he volunteered to return to his old battalion. For his many escapes, he was awarded a bar to the Military Cross which he had won in the Greek campaign. He was temporarily appointed to our Support Company and it was nice to have him back with us.
The 22nd were the first New Zealand infantry to take part in the attack on the Gothic Line on September 13. The Greek Brigade had run into difficulties in its first action, so Canadian Corps headquarters requested a Kiwi battalion to provide a task force to assist the Greeks, who were held up. With a troop of tanks under command, Major O'Reilly took No 1 Company forward and made contact with the Greeks who showed lots of spirit but not a great deal of tactical ability. Then our men located the enemy and directed tank fire at their well constructed defences, enabling the Greeks to progress. Major O'Reilly allotted a platoon to each Greek battalion and, by co-operating closely with them, managed to keep the advance moving. One of our tanks was knocked out by a Panther tank turret mounted in a concrete emplacement. Heavily armoured and equipped with machine guns and a vicious 88 millimetre anti-tank gun, they could easily knock out our page 131 Sherman tanks at long range. This obstruction was soon eliminated by our infantry who stalked the stronghold with grenades but, shortly afterwards, another Panther turret stopped the momentum of the advance. While two tanks blinded this turret with smoke, the third tank, replacing the knocked out one, manoeuvred into position and, as the smoke cleared, a few well directed shots put the turret out of action and the German crew surrendered. Further along the line there was another hold up which was soon identified and eliminated from the air by a cab rank of fighter-bombers that were available when called upon. Our artillery was used to eliminate many other strong points, well placed fortifications having been constructed all along the coast line. In this way good progress was made over a period of several days and the stage was set for the enthusiastic Greek Brigade, fighting as part of the New Zealand Division, to add lustre to their history by taking Rimini in their first major engagement. On hearing of General Freyberg's good recovery in the hospital, the Greek Brigade had sent him a goodwill message which ended with the words, “Long live our Divisional Commander”.
Under Major O'Reilly's competent direction, his troops, with skill and determination, had ably assited the Greek Brigade to take Rimini — using all available weapons, including tanks, artillery and the Air Force ‘cab rank’. In fact our No 8 Platoon under 2nd Lieutenant Avery, followed by the three tanks of Number 11 Troop of the 19th Armoured Regiment, were the first to enter the main square where the town hall stood. The Greeks had fought well while sustaining 314 casualties and it was with great jubilation that they fanned out and took over the city. They had beaten the Italians when Mussolini had invaded Greece and now they had conquered an Italian city which had been under German control. Their cup overflowed.
With Rimini taken, a hard slog to roll up the coastal page 132 defences faced the 22nd, still the only infantry battalion in the 4th Armoured Brigade. In filthy weather we faced the crossing of the Marecchia River north of Rimini. The two bridges had been blown but it was possible to wade across. No restrictions had been put on our advance so, remembering the lesson I had learned about following up quickly, I called an Orders Group which ended at 6.30 pm on September 21 and by 7.00 pm our troops were starting to cross the river in a silent attack. Our flame throwers quelled immediate opposition on the far bank and our men set off.
No 2 Company, under Major Hutcheson on the right, struck a bad crossing and got a wetting where bomb craters had deepened the water, while No 1 Company under Major O'Reilly made a detour upstream, crossed safely and kept reasonably dry The two companies, now side by side, made good progress for over a mile with little opposition, two machine gun posts being quickly subdued just over the stop bank. Most of the so-called rivers from now on were more like canals with steep sloping sides 12 to 20 feet high and the countryside was fairly open except for a number of houses, vineyards and scattered olive trees. One prisoner was taken in a wrestling match which our man won and a party of Germans moving openly along the road towards us was shot up and one prisoner taken while the rest got away in the dark. Clearly we were not expected so soon. The tanks had crossed at midnight and were now up with us in close support. Our quick follow-up had paid off.
The defences on our right flank near the sea were manned by an infantry division of Turcomen, soldiers of Russian extraction who had decided to fight with the Germans. They were strengthened by members of the 303rd German Grenadier Regiment. The defences further inland were garrisoned by the German No 1 Parachute Division. These positions were strongly fortified with several Panther tank page 133 turrets embedded in concrete, complete with 88 mm anti-tank guns and Spandau machine guns, and on the beach front we came across heavy guns camouflaged as ice cream parlours. In such circumstances the initiative of individuals, particularly platoon commanders, NCOs and often private soldiers, is of prime importance. Bullets, not ice creams, came from those parlours.
Soon after the crossing of the river a machine gun opened up at short range, killing one and wounding three of Bert O'Reilly's men. Corporal Jock Cockburn immediately shouted “Follow me!” and charged the strong point, killing two Germans and wounding another and was surprised to find he was all on his own. A Panther turret, sited to cover the Celle road junction which was heavily defended by German paratroopers, was charged by Corporal Reeve with his section giving covering fire. An exchange of hand grenades ended with the surviving Germans beating a hasty retreat with the section pressing on in hot pursuit. Lieutenant Wally Hart was killed leading a charge against a machine gun post and Lance Sergeant Joe Coppell, on his own, almost re-took the Celle junction strong point which had been re-occupied by the Germans. When Corporal Reeve and his section had to be recalled to storm the position again he and his section killed several Germans and took six prisoners. For these gallant actions, Corporal Reeve was awarded an immediate Military Medal. No 1 Company reached its objective at 1.00 am at a cost of one officer and one soldier killed and eight others wounded. They had taken 30 paratroopers prisoner, captured at least as many Spandau machine guns and had killed a great number of paratroopers.
No 2 Company on the right overcame one post after another but had the misfortune of running into a minefield where both 2nd Lieutenant Keith Cope and 2nd Lieutenant Clem Lawson were wounded in the leg, as were several of page 134 their troops. While moving the wounded into the shelter of an abandoned house, Keith Cope and Clem Lawson were the last to approach the building. They paused at the door and Keith said, “You go in first,” but Clem hesitated and said “No, after you”. Keith, who was the senior of the two, said, “It's an order” and Clem went in. Moments later there was a loud explosion outside. Keith, who must have known he was standing on a mine which would explode when pressure was released, was killed instantly — another unsung hero and typical of so many.
Rather than risk further casualties, the company commander — Keith Hutcheson — decided to consolidate in this area which, while he was short of his objective, he could cover with small arms fire.
During this time, we were particularly well served by our medical officer, Captain Cliff Baird and by Padre Sergel, both of whom did sterling work for the battalion. Both also caused me a good deal of worry, but I would not have exchanged either of them under any circumstances. Cliff Baird had lost a brother to the Germans and this made him very aggressive. Instead of siting his Regimental Aid Post behind the battalion headquarters, he would insist on being ahead and was often on the prowl himself if not occupied at the RAP. He would cruise around close behind the attacking companies in his Jeep ready to give immediate attention to our wounded men. Typically, he rounded up five Turcomen and brought them back in his Jeep as prisoners. Although he harboured a hatred of Germans, he would treat all wounded whether Germans, New Zealanders or civilians strictly according to the urgency of the patient's needs. Padre Sergel was a similar type and the two worked in well together with the padre often substituting as a stretcher bearer.
I had instilled in my men the need to remain invisible during daylight when in a static position so not to draw enemy page 135 fire. This meant little to the padre if he felt his presence could be helpful whether for counselling or administering to casualties, dead or alive. He would often be seen wandering forward in the open chased by occasional mortar bombs or long range machine gun fire. But he seemed to have a charmed life and his misdemeanours in drawing enemy fire were excused. He could never remember pass words but found a few robust New Zealand swear words would usually do the trick.
On September 23, a set piece attack was scheduled to go in at midnight under a heavy barrage with searchlights used to create artificial moonlight. I pulled out No 1 Company to go into reserve and substituted No 3 Company, who were fresh, to lead the attack with No 2 Company. There were some spirited skirmishes but the Germans seemed disorganised and, although we lost two tanks in an encounter with a Tiger tank, we reached our objective without many casualties. When we heard the Tiger tank withdrawing I asked permission to carry on in pursuit and this was granted. No 2 Company forged ahead on the coastal section but No 3 Company met with a good deal of opposition after initially making good progress. A message came through from Brigadier Burrows, commanding 5th Brigade on our left, that we were outstripping the rest of 5th Brigade too much and a limit was set to our advance. No 2 Company was well ahead on the right flank so I instructed No 3 Company to try to push forward to catch up with them. A message came back that they were held up so, as daylight was approaching, I went forward and Major Sainsbury at company headquarters pointed out the group of houses the opposition was coming from.
I left my Jeep and went forward with my wireless operator to visit the right hand forward platoon where I could get a good look at the enemy strongpoint some 200 yards away. I had a hunch that the Germans had withdrawn so I studied page 136 the position closely. A figure moved from one house to another and then appeared again. “That's an Italian,” I said, “Let's go and find out.” So with the wireless operator I advanced, taking advantage of what cover there was and, sure enough, the Germans had pulled out an hour before. The other platoon which was guarding the road, was very surprised to see two figures approaching down the road from the direction of the enemy, particularly when they turned out to be their commanding officer and his wireless operator. Breakfast had to be delayed while No 3 Company moved forward to line up with No 2 Company.
We had the misfortune during this night's encounter of losing three of our men as prisoners. One of them, Corporal Kain, reported after the war about his interrogation at the German divisional headquarters where he was determined to give only his name, rank and number in answer to questions. The German officer, who spoke English well, eventually gave up and said to Corporal Kain, “Your company commander is Major Sainsbury and your commanding officer is Lt. Colonel Donald”. He then added that the 22nd Battalion was about to join a new formation in the 9th Brigade under Brigadier Gentry. At this stage we knew nothing of this impending change, so the Germans knew more than we did, especially about arrangements made by our divisional headquarters. This confirmed my suspicion that the Germans were privy to some of our plans before they were executed.
Another misfortune during the night was the serious injury to Major Keith Hutcheson, commanding No 2 Company on the right, when his headquarters was subjected to a heavy mortar stonk. Hearing about this, Dr. Cliff Baird took his Jeep forward and collected the stricken major, tearing back under heavy shellfire to his RAP, at times protecting Keith with his own body. Keith was in a bad way and, on his way out, one of my drivers — George Barnes — who knew Keith's preferences, page 137 gave him a shot of grappa, a highly potent drink made from distilled wine. Keith swore later that this had saved his life. Grappa was banned as it was a dangerous drink and could send men who had over imbibed quite berserk. I had been on the lookout for it for some time, having had the feeling there was a supply somewhere within the battalion. George Barnes, a barman in Hastings in civilian life, was the driver of my campervan, an old, abandoned ambulance which had been renovated by the transport section as a sleeping quarters. He was an old campaigner who looked after me very well while always exhibiting an air of injured innocence. It was not until the war was over that I was told George had operated a still that was installed under the campervan — in fact, under my very nose. Perhaps he saved a life, who knows? Certainly he made a handsome profit.
With Keith Hutcheson out of action, Colin Armstrong took command of No 2 Company and was to serve with distinction first as a company commander and then as battalion second in command when the 22nd Battalion took Trieste in a final blaze of glory. Our last night attack in this coastal region started on September 24 when 6th Brigade relieved 5th Brigade on our left flank. Once again, there was no relief for the 22nd. Being the only battalion in the 4th Brigade, we had to continue on the right flank. The enemy reaction was fierce especially in our sector, where Jerry seemed to have concentrated his artillery. After we had routed the Turcomen in our first two attacks they were replaced with German paratroopers and Panzer grenadiers. We advanced painfully for about three quarters of a mile and then ran into a solid wall of fire from mobile guns, mortars, machine guns and tanks; there was also a mine field to cope with. It was near hopeless for our infantry to identify targets for our tanks to engage. I went forward to investigate, but the only solution I could put to brigade headquarters was that I should be allowed to trespass into 6th Brigade sector, where they had made good page 138 progress, and carry out a left hook instead of trying to burst headlong into this wall of fire.
General Weir, now in command of the division, suggested using the 26th Battalion, which was in reserve, to break through and Brigadier Pleasants came forward with me to have a look. By now it was almost daylight and when we heard demolitions behind the German lines, indicating a withdrawal, we pressed on, following up fast with overhead cover from our fighter bombers and we were soon up level with the 24th and 25th Battalions on our left. On the afternoon of September 25, we were relieved by the 26th Battalion and sent back to Viserba for a rest. For four days and nights, we had been constantly on the go, driving the Germans out of their heavily defended coastal positions. General Weir paid us a visit and was high with his praise of the battalion's achievements. There were many, many acts of individual heroism during these four days, most of which passed without formal recognition.
While we were enjoying five days' recuperation in Viserba, the advance bogged down, and, when we took over from 23rd Battalion at midnight on September 30, both sides were actively patrolling the front with angry exchanges of shell and mortar fire. The enemy occupied both banks of the Fiumicino River which had high stop banks. This made the gathering of information about possible crossing places difficult but, leading one night patrol, Lance-Sergeant Sid Tsukigawa crossed over the river on his own and made his way up to the top of the opposite stop bank where he lay quietly observing enemy activities. He got back safely with invaluable information. This outstanding young man from Balclutha, in the course of his cool but aggressive actions, was awarded the Military Medal and was Mentioned in Dispatches for bravery, and during these actions was wounded twice.
Just after dusk, I sent Lieutenant Frank Twigg out with his platoon to, hopefully, ambush an enemy patrol and, if page 139 possible, bring back some prisoners. Unfortunately, unknown to me, our artillery laid down a heavy stonk on the enemy front at this time and, expecting an attack, the enemy retaliated in full blast. Frank, who had been with us in Crete as a sergeant, wisely sent most of his men back but stayed with two of his men to observe. Both of his companions were killed by shell fire and Frank was badly wounded in the jaw and elsewhere. With only one good hand, he had the agonizing decision to make about which he should leave behind — his Tommy gun or the bottle of rum he had been given to reward his platoon after their patrol. He has never confessed which he left behind. Subsequently, Lieutenant Arthur Revell with Lance-Sergeant Tsukigawa and others crossed the river, killed several Germans, and returned with a prisoner from 4th Parachute Regiment.
After five days in the line, we were relieved and once again returned to Viserba for another five day break. Then, on October 16, we relieved the 21st Battalion on the right flank of the division. For the next two days and nights we were involved in constant minor attacks and counter attacks where the skills and initiative of front line troops once more came to the fore. We were successful in all our engagements, during which Lieutenant Graham Bassett was awarded a Military Cross and Sergeant George Palmer earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal.
A change in tactics, no doubt instigated by Brigadier Clive Pleasants, now took place. Since taking command of the 4th Armoured Brigade from Brigadier Inglis, he had been handing over his tanks to the infantry brigades and battalions, thereby relinquishing command of his squadrons and troops to the infantry. This had worked very well with the infantry probing forward identifying targets and then calling on the tanks for support. Particularly at night, a tank is blind and needs the eyes and mobility of the infantry to help locate enemy tanks and anti-tank guns. There was a good understanding between the troops page 140 and the tank crews, with the infantry being in charge of the battle and having the responsibility for reaching the objectives.
Clive, being originally an infantryman, had been with the Armoured Regiment since its formation and, being an able and aggressive commander, was no doubt anxious to conduct an attack with his tanks under his own rather than infantry command. So with a complete reversal of form, I found my companies were taken away from me and allotted to the various tank squadrons. I felt the tactics were wrong because of the nature of the countryside, but I had to obey orders.
With the tanks in command, the attack had to be conducted in daylight so the tank commanders could see their objectives. At 9.30 am off they went, with my men straddled all over the tanks feeling very exposed. The going across country looked reasonably good but proved otherwise. Several tanks bogged down in open country and my men were expected to protect them, leading to a number of unnecessary casualties when the tanks drew enemy fire. The tanks would shoot up a group of houses occupied by the Germans and our men in extended order would go in and finish them off. However, being completely exposed in daylight, the infantry drew withering fire from the defenders and it took great courage on their part to press on. A tribute came from Private Watt when he described the actions of platoon commanders and NCOs in such circumstances. His platoon commander, Lieutenant Jim McLean was sheltering with his men in a house in broad daylight after reaching the first objective. A deluge of fire was directed at them but when the time came to move on to the second objective, McLean said, “Well, chaps, we've got to go on,” and led the way out. When interviewed later, Private Watt said, “I don't honestly think I would have had the courage to go out that door but, if a man like that was willing to lead, we were all willing to follow. I take my hat off to men like that.”
During the day the tanks, with our 22nd men under page 141 command, won about three miles with the loss of seven tanks knocked out and twice as many bogged down. Although Calebrina, the objective for the day, was not taken, the night-time sound of demolitions indicated Jerry was pulling back to the shelter of the Savio River and at dawn on October 20 our patrols, probing ahead of the tanks, found the village deserted. The 4th Armoured Brigade then turned west towards the Savio River, made good progress with little opposition and took 20 prisoners. The infantryman's job is never finished and, apart from protecting the tanks that night, patrols had to be mounted to reconnoitre the banks of the Savio. They found the banks extremely high, the water 65 feet wide and three feet deep and estimated that a Bailey bridge 130 feet long would be required. This was very useful information for our engineers.
During this two day advance, the tank commanders had inherited our now legendary Doctor Baird and Padre Sergel who acted as a team, generally well ahead of where they were expected to be. Inspired by the leadership of the doctor, the medical staff were always there when required. Stretcher bearers seemed to be on hand to catch our wounded men as they fell! Private Hawley, in charge of an ambulance carrier, was constantly roving round no man's land looking for casualties. He picked up a wounded corporal within 50 yards of an enemy strongpoint and, for this and other gallant deeds, was awarded a Military Medal. The day had cost No 3 Company 10 casualties but the infantry had occupied three villages on their own and contributed very greatly to the success of the whole operation. This was the one and only time the tanks took command of an operation, tactics which had worked well for the Germans in the desert but were not practical in close country, where much of the ground was too soft to support them.
In Italy, generally, the protecting buildings, olive trees and vineyards gave good cover to the German tanks which, throughout the campaign, were mainly used in a defensive role. page 142 Their 88mm anti-tank guns and the presence of innumerable minefields made our more lightly armoured tanks vulnerable. Our Sherman tanks were no match for the German Tigers in armour or armament but, where the Germans had one tank, we had three and, with judicious use of smoke, we could outmanoeuvre the Tigers which generally seemed to operate singly.
In the final stages of this two day attack, the infantry led the way. Throughout the Florence and Adriatic campaigns, the 22nd had been used as attacking troops and we shouldered more than our share of the divisional burden. We worked in closely with the tank crews who valued our support as much as we valued theirs. We were never used as a motor battalion within a tank brigade, a concept which was ideal for desert conditions but hopeless in Italy. The popular misconception of the tanks dashing ahead was a romantic myth as nearly always the infantry led the way.
The Canadian Armoured Division took over from the New Zealand Division and, on the way back, we passed several heart-warming notices including one from the Canadians which read, “Cheerioh Kiwis All — nice having worked with you.”
Back in reserve, my long overdue furlough was granted and Bert O'Reilly took command of the battalion. At that time, Tom Campbell — our ex-commanding officer — took over the 4th Armoured Brigade and Bert O'Reilly organised a battalion march past as a welcome to Tom and farewell to me. Because my brother was serving in the RAF, I had elected to take my furlough in England. I also thought that, as it was now late November 1944, if I returned to New Zealand, I would never get back to the battalion for the final victory. In addition, I wanted to revisit some of those wonderful people who had treated me so warmly in England back in 1940. In the back of my mind, I also wanted to renew my friendship with Anne Chambers. The war had interrupted our relationship and we had lost page 143 touch after exchanging a few letters in 1941.
After I made my way down to Rome I was lucky enough to pick up a flight in a York from my brother's squadron and he was on the runway to meet me at RAF Lyneham, Wiltshire — west of London — when we touched down. These enormous transport planes were flying regularly between the Middle East, Italy and Lyneham so it was almost a family affair as all the crews knew Graeme as their squadron leader. He guided me straight through Customs and travelled up to London to spend three days with me. We went to see Strike It Again with Sid Fields, a great comedian who gave us a good laugh. There was accommodation at the RAF Club in Picadilly where Graeme had arranged temporary membership for me. After he left, I met up with Anne Chambers again to find she was engaged to a British officer who had been a prisoner of war in German hands for two years. We renewed our friendship in the course of which we went to see the hilariously funny Is your Honeymoon Really Necessary? starring Ralph Lynn, and to La Bohème, which was a little disappointing after seeing opera in Italy.
From London I went to stay with the Eardley-Wilmotts at Gerrards Cross 20 miles outside London, where I once again met up with their daughter, Molly Stansfeld, who had looked after me so well when I stayed at her home, Dunninald Castle in Scotland. They spoilt me thoroughly; it was grand to be in a family atmosphere and, for a time at least, the war seemed quite remote. From there, I went to the little village of Hollingbourne in Kent where we had been stationed in 1940, to stay with Mrs Vernon — ‘Aunt Bundy’ to many of us — who had an old family friend, Mrs Sanderson, living with her. Brigadier Vernon had died a year previously, her son Dick was away in France, a major with the Rifle Brigade, and her daughter Avril was also away, doing some hush-hush work in the country. These two dear friends and their housekeeper lavished attention on me as an extract from a letter to my mother shows:page 144
“I am being absolutely spoilt here, can get up when I like in the morning, go down to breakfast in my dressing gown, use any of the family clothes, books, guns, etc. I have been taken to lunch at Arlington Castle, have taken their two big Golden Retriever dogs for walks round the grounds of Leeds Castle. Yesterday I was asked to join a shoot where pheasants were driven over the shooters standing behind hedgerows and managed to bring home seven cock birds to augment the larder. On a previous shoot walking up partridges, we had not been so lucky and all I had brought home was a hare. My army rations, which were better than the civilian rations, help in the kitchen.”
Some months before, Aunt Bundy had been surprised and delighted to meet Colin Armstrong who called on her after his epic escape from Germany via Sweden. It was interesting to hear their news of him and, obviously, he and Avril had got on well together. By now, of course, Colin was back with the 22nd in Italy. Later, Avril was to marry Edwin Bramall, a future Chief of Staff in Great Britain.
I had arranged to be in London for Christmas and to meet up with Graeme but, unfortunately, he was called away to take some VIPs to India. I was ‘ordered’ to come back to the Vernon's home for New Year as Avril had managed to get leave and Aunt Bundy had saved her Christmas fare for the occasion. We had a merry time together and, even though it was mid-winter, I really enjoyed the atmosphere and indulged in many walks in the attractive wooded countryside.
Realising I needed a base, I took a flat in Sloane Square in London for the remainder of my stay. It was a service flat consisting of a bed sitter, bathroom and kitchenette with an electric stove, refrigerator, telephone and central heating. With page 145 pots and pans and an electric iron lent to me by Anne's mother, I was very happy and comfortable. It was most conveniently placed just behind Buckingham Palace and only five minutes walk from Lowndes Square, where our New Zealand Club was supervised by Lady Freyberg.
Every week I collected my rations from the local butcher — three chops and three slices of bacon — and every fortnight from the grocer two ounces of butter, four ounces of margarine, two ounces of cooking fat, two pints of milk, a cup full of sugar and four ounces of tea. Once a month I was able to buy a small pot of jam. This was more than the civilian ration but, of course, it was possible to eat out at restaurants if you could afford it. Bread, vegetables and fish were not rationed but were in very short supply.
I lived in a dream world for the rest of my stay in London exploring the city, the pubs and, of course, the night clubs. When news came through that I had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order and there was to be an investiture at Buckingham Palace late in February, I was lucky enough to be included. Each recipient was allowed two guests to accompany him. I had hoped Graeme would be able to join me, but he became involved in the Yalta Conference and was required to fly some of Churchill's group to the meeting with Stalin and Roosevelt where the leaders planned the aftermath of the war.
Anne went with me and it was fascinating to meet the Royal Family in their home environment, having time to look around and chat with them after the formal ceremony. King George VI presented me with both the DSO and the MC and was very complimentary about New Zealand's war effort. Anne and I celebrated afterwards at the Mirabelle, perhaps London's most famous wartime night club, and so ended a perfect day. The citation for my DSO was as follows:
‘On 22nd June 1944 during the advance to the Arno, Lt. Col. Donald took over, in addition to his own page 146 Battalion, a small composite column which had been advancing towards San Casciano. From this time until Poggiona was taken, Lt. Col. Donald's Battalion did the whole of the infantry work in the 4th NZ Armoured Brigade Sector, carrying out several consecutive attacks, all of which were successful. As the Brigade held a one battalion front, the units in support and under command raised his orders group for each operation to seventeen. Among the localities taken in the course of this fighting were the villages of Cigliano, Pisignano, Casa Vecchia, La Romola, Tavernacot and the Poggiona Feature in addition to intermediate features which were all strongly held. The complete success of these operations was mainly due to Lt. Col. Donald's skilful command of his own unit and of the supporting arms. His personal courage, energy and resourcefulness were all of the highest order. At every difficult time when personal reconnaissance was necessary to gain first hand information of the most forward troops, his cheerful presence was such that the momentum of a series of continuous attacks was maintained over a period of a week. His personal presence, his optimism and his leadership were an inspiration to all those under his command, contributing in a large measure to the unflagging momentum of the advance.’
The actual Order was signed by King George VI and by the Hon F Jones, Minister of Defence for New Zealand.
Shortly before I was due to return to Italy, I received a request to appear before a Defence sub-committee of MPs at Westminster. They questioned me about the make-up of the New Zealand Division which had evolved during the course of the war to become the most formidable fighting division in the Italian Campaign. I explained what a tremendous difference it had made to our morale having our own tank force, how our divisional artillery worked as a single unit which enabled concentrated fire power and how our engineers had reached such a peak of efficiency. I described how the use of artificial moonlight using our anti-aircraft searchlights had assisted the engineers with their bridge building at night and had helped the infantry to find the tracks through mine fields.
As the division now had three brigades of infantry, with the recent formation of the 9th Brigade, and our own tank brigade, we were more balanced, two brigades taking part in an attack and one in reserve. We discussed our techniques of conducting night attacks. I recommended that we should have our own formation of New Zealand fighter bombers under divisional command. Direct air communication with the forward infantry was necessary, the bombers to be there in the air above us at daylight, after a night attack, to spot and prevent enemy movement of guns, tanks and troops. This would prevent Jerry from moving back and registering his guns which would save our side a great many casualties. The meeting ended on a friendly note but whether it did any good I will never know.
My three months in England nearly up, I had half hoped I might be able to do a course before returning to the battle zone. I was enjoying myself in London and it would not be much fun being shot at in Italy. However, this was wishful thinking as word came through from the general that I was to return promptly to my unit. Obviously something was brewing after a winter pause and on March 24 1945 I was back in command of the 22nd.