18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 41 — Dark Winter
Three and a half months later 2 NZ Division, with a dull, frozen, profitless winter behind it, was still sitting behind the Senio River.
These months saw the Kiwis at a pretty low ebb—not only 18 Regiment, but all of them. As at Orsogna, so here at this wretched little Senio, real winter came down with a swoop, and everyone had to bow to it. In the cheerless farmhouses, or in their billets in Faenza or Forli, the boys spent an uninspiring Christmas and New Year, forcing their spirits up with lots of food and drink and as much gaiety as they could muster; then came the snow, and thousands of trucks and tanks and jeeps and boots churned it into slush, and the mud and the gloom deepened. It was worse than at Orsogna, for instead of the clear mountain air you had the foggy damp of the plains that got into your throat and your lungs and your very bones. Everyone had perpetual colds, and nobody had enough to do. Even up in the front line time hung heavily; back out of action it was worse. It was a long, long winter.
After ushering the infantry forward to the Senio on 16 December the regiment did not linger long in the front line, but went back to Faenza rather untidily, troop by troop or even tank by tank. The war diary on 20 December records: ‘Squadron remnants drifting into the town and “acquiring” accommodation.’ Only C Squadron stayed forward on Route 9, amusing itself from time to time by shooting at the towers in the little town of Castel Bolognese just across the Senio—‘bowling’ towers had become quite a pastime in the regiment, and a matter of rivalry between gunners. On Boxing Day B Squadron went up, hangover and all, and took over from C, which came back to Faenza for a delayed Christmas dinner and its quota of sore heads, while B Squadron finished off the unfortunate Bolognese towers.page 604
Comfortable as the Faenza billets were (and they were as good as the 18th had struck) nobody really liked the place. At the best of times it was a flat, unattractive town. Now, oppressed by the bitter dead cold, deserted by most of its citizens, it had lost what little beauty it might have had. And Jerry had a habit of tossing just one shell, or perhaps two, into its streets every now and then, and about Christmas time he took to sending lone planes over at night to drop a bomb or two among the houses, all this amounting to nothing very lethal, but enough to keep Faenza a little on edge.
So the regiment was quite glad to hand over its light front-line duties to the 19th on the morning of 30 December, collect up all its spare parts, and go back to the greater peace of Forli, the B Echelon town. A freezing trip, this, with passing skiffs of snow, presaging the main winter fall a week later.
But Forli, half ruined and bulging at the seams with a very mixed collection of soldiers, was no more attractive than Faenza. It was the same flat, ugly industrial town. Certainly there were more ways of killing time there. There were a NAAFI canteen and a picture theatre, both always overcrowded with Tommies and Kiwis. There were the unit's own YMCA and messrooms and cookhouses, for the whole regiment now had one of its rare spells together. There were New Year parties, farewell parties for the ‘old hands’ leaving for New Zealand, and parties to celebrate nothing in particular except the existence of a big wine factory up the road, full of stocks that needed drinking up before they got too old or someone else beat you to them. There were occasional dances turned on by the squadrons—for, unlike Faenza, this place was full of civilians. But all these pleasures had no sparkle. Outwardly and inwardly, this was the depth of winter indeed. Even football palled. More and more you tended to slip into a universal lassitude, and the only remedy that suggested itself was to toast your feet over a blazing earthenware stove acquired from a factory in the town, or a smoky, home-made diesel drip burner made from a 17-pounder shellcase, play cards and guzzle ‘plonk’.
As usual, the less the boys had to do, the less they wanted to do anything. Of course they automatically looked after their tanks and trucks and kept them in good trim, for this was as page 605 much a matter of course as washing and shaving; but it was not all smooth sailing just now, for spare parts for the tanks were scarcer than they had ever been, and for jeeps you just could not get any. What other training had to be done—route-marching, grenade throwing, rifle and Tommy-gun shooting on the range—was done grudgingly, and you were apt to grab the flimsiest excuse for dodging it. Discipline was well down from its usual level. Luckily, good-sized parties of men were able to get away on leave to the saner atmosphere of Rome, Florence, Riccione, Fabriano (a private arrangement, this last, and very much appreciated); even to a YMCA rest camp in Forli itself, just round the corner. This one raised a laugh when it was offered, but men went there just the same, if only for the comfort of hot baths and a night or two in real beds with sheets.
Then February came, and the regiment, listlessly and without excitement, put its gear together for another spell by the Senio. On successive nights A, C and B Squadrons went up, all the tanks on transporters which splashed their ponderous way through the soft, thawing snow. And so into position with 6 Brigade on the right of Route 9—A Squadron with 24 and 25 Battalions nearly three miles farther north than the 18th had been before, C Squadron into a gun line just off Route 9, B Squadron into reserve, A Echelon to Faenza, B Echelon still in Forli.
In the bleak white Senio fields the war had degenerated into a lifeless casa campaign dominated by the Senio stopbank which loomed through the willows just ahead. Both sides had immured themselves in heavily fortified houses or the remains of houses, and there was nothing over the river to shoot at except more houses, which you could not see, but picked out from the map. On bright days the ‘shufti’ planes would be up, and perhaps pass a target or two back to the tanks, but all too often the country was wrapped in thick wet fog.
Up with A Squadron's foremost tanks, only two or three hundred yards from the stopbank, you could not avoid the ‘Senio jitters’ at night, jumping at shadows and strange noises, always half expecting a whiteclad raiding party to come stealing over the snow; for Jerry still commanded the stopbank on our side of the river. Ghosts walked the Senio fields in that page 606 February of 1945. It was the era of the ‘ghost train’, that queer, unexplained freak of sound which brought to your ears, night after night, the unmistakable noise of a train arriving, shunting and going away again, apparently just a stone's throw across the river, though everyone knew that the only line was torn up for miles back. It was a weird, frightening place, this Senio.
There were flesh-and-blood enemies, too, which A Squadron knew better how to deal with. Occasionally a few random Spandau bursts would come round the houses from dugouts in the stopbank; every now and then some of the tanks would let fly at these dugouts in the hope of discouraging Jerry from using them, but it seemed to make no difference. There was, too, an objectionable self-propelled gun which had for some time popped up periodically on the far stopbank and shot up a house or two on our side before vanishing again. A 17-pounder Sherman set an ambush for this nasty fellow, but some watcher on the stopbank must have seen what was going on, for he never came to take what was coming to him.
C Squadron in its gun line led a busier life than A Squadron, but less disastrous on the nerves. Here, with the help of artillery surveyors and equipment borrowed from 4 Field Regiment, plus an occasional ‘shufti’ plane, the 18th's boasted accuracy in indirect fire was brought up to a remarkable pitch. Most of the effort was directed at Jerry's pestilent mortars, which abounded in this part of the world, and the results seemed first-class. They could have been better still, but ammunition, like so many other things, was in very short supply and strictly rationed, and the boys could not let themselves go and loose off quantities as in happier times. Every round had to count. Even the church tower game had to stop, but not before a 17-pounder tank from B Squadron, wearing ‘platypus grousers’, had gone up through the slush to the stopbank by A Squadron and brought down the last remaining tower in three rounds.
These platypus grousers were about the only thing that could raise much interest among the tankies about this time. The reaction to them was ‘Why the hell did nobody think of these before?’ For a long time they had had ordinary grousers, metal bars that bolted on to the tank tracks to give a better grip, but these had been no help in soft mud. Now came the page 607 platypus grousers, which were fixed on in the same way, but stuck out several inches on the outside of the tracks to give a snow-shoe effect. Their performance, as proved in demonstrations in the first half of January, was astonishing. With these things on, a Sherman or Honey could go almost anywhere, even across a swamp. How many hours of toil and sweat would they have saved us, said the boys, if we had had them at Orsogna or the Rubicon or Celle! Now the 4 Brigade workshops set to work to make them so that as many tanks as possible could have them as soon as possible. A belated gift, but very welcome even at this eleventh hour.
That it was the eleventh hour nobody doubted, even in the middle of this dismal winter. Once spring came, the river scramble would be on again, there was nothing surer. The Division was trying out all sorts of ideas to cope with the succession of rivers and ditches that followed the Senio—a ‘ditch-filling’ tank turned on a display of what it could do; the infantry practised river crossings in assault boats; the engineers blew up floodbanks with big explosive charges and vied with one another in building bridges; the Shermans drove over these bridges the moment they were ready, learning after many accidents that their platypus grousers were a very tight fit on a Bailey bridge, and that an error of only an inch or two meant a ruined bridge. In the training areas round Forli flame-throwers made their first appearance, gruesome, horrible weapons lumbering round on tank or carrier chassis. All this was doubtless leading up to a grand assault some time in the future. Meanwhile you could only hang on and pray for the winter to end.
The soulless, desultory, shell-and-mortar warfare of February and early March provided few highlights. About the nearest approach were two mock attacks (‘Chinese attacks’ the Kiwis called them), with all the trimmings, artillery, tanks, Vickers, Bofors and Bren guns all along the front, fake wireless messages, in fact everything except an infantry advance. They were good shows from a distance, the nights sparkling with tracer and lit up in great white and red patches by flares and flame-throwers, but to the boys in the tanks, who could see none of this, they were just so much good ammunition wasted. Apart from firing a few extra shells over our way, Jerry did not seem impressed.page 608
The idea behind these, in theory, was to provoke reply from Jerry and discover the pattern of his defensive fire, or to divert his attention from minor attacks on the stopbank on other parts of the front; but they were largely born of boredom, and the need to create something to do. For the cold and the monotony weighed more and more on the spirits. The C Squadron tank crews were kept more or less sane by circulating briskly between Faenza and the gun line, changing over every evening. A Squadron, after an eternal fortnight, was relieved by B, and went back to take its turn in the Faenza billets, where at any rate you could be bored in comfort, and could sit by a stove and thaw out. From 26 February there were football matches in the Faenza stadium, surely as close to the front line as football has ever been played. Jerry, thank goodness, had given up his shelling of Faenza, and the last German plane had been weeks ago.
But the worst of times comes to an end at last, and with the coming of March it seemed as if winter was on the way out. Its legacy of water and mud was still everywhere, the nights still froze, Forli and Faenza and the front were as dull as ever, but there were not many traces of snow now, and there were bright days with a little warmth creeping back into the sun. And brightness began to ooze back into the Kiwis' lives, too, for suddenly hordes of Poles began to descend on the Senio from nowhere and relieve the New Zealand infantry. The Poles, fine soldiers but dour and suspicious and unapproachable, had never been comfortable bedfellows with the light-hearted Kiwis, but here they were welcomed as angels from Heaven. Some of the boys had begun to despair of ever getting away from that hated Senio.
Now they were really going to have a rest from it, at any rate for a while. By 6 March there was no New Zealand infantry left on the front. For a few days B and C Squadrons were forward with the Polish infantry, living in battered houses built up into young fortresses, shooting up the far side of the river from time to time, doing their best to understand what the Poles were trying to say, and eating Polish meals, which were huge. On 8 March Polish tanks, heavy with camouflage, moved in and took over from B Squadron. On the 14th C Squadron thankfully handed over its gun line, and the page 609 Senio could look after itself now. The 18th, last of all the New Zealand units, was on its way back for a rest.
When C Squadron came back the rest of the unit had already left Faenza and Forli, the A and B Squadron tanks the previous night, everyone else that same morning. Late that evening the C Squadron tanks took the road, driving under their own power, the drivers very disgruntled because A and B Squadrons had pinched all the transporters there were.
The lucky ones were those who went with the soft-skinned convoy in daylight, for they had a bit of sunshine to help them on the way, and it was not unbearably cold. But the tank crews who went at night had never, they said, had such an icy ride. Some of the tanks had a little ‘anti-freeze’ aboard, some rum perhaps, or the remains of a bottle of whisky thoughtfully brought along by an officer or a sergeant. But at the end of the four-hour trip everyone was chilled through, and very ready to crawl between all the blankets that could be found, leaving the tanks to picket themselves. One or two tanks had the usual breakdowns on the way, and two of C Squadron's Shermans had a nasty collision and had to be left till the LAD came along; and the plight of the crews marooned on the roadside, with no houses to shelter in, was rather pitiable.
The regiment ended up with the rest of 4 Brigade at Cesenatico, a little way north of Rimini, not far from those horrible Romagna battlefields. As a billet for rest and training it was only fair. Everyone was in houses beside the Adriatic beach, which would have been ideal at a different time of year, but was not much advantage at present. The houses were but draughty shells of their former comfort, without furniture, without a whole pane of glass, even without doors, which had no doubt gone for firewood during the winter. The beach was ruined by barbed wire and little forts and rows of ugly concrete ‘dragons’ teeth'. There were mines everywhere, even in the water. There was a busy airfield almost next door, which seemed to spawn planes by the dozen all day and most of the night; they passed overhead just above the rooftops, and their roar shook the whole place, particularly when some American Thunderbolts came on the scene towards the end of March. One Thunderbolt crashed clean into a New Zealand unit not far from the 18th and made an awful mess. No, page 610 Cesenatico was no haven of peace, even now with the war far away. The boys, thinking back with longing to the friendly quiet of their last rest area at Fabriano, and hearing that the whole Division except 4 Brigade was back again enjoying those same mountain retreats, were sour with envy. The weekly leave trucks to and from Rome always made a point of stopping overnight at Fabriano, and it was not uncommon for men to help themselves to two or three days' unauthorised leave just to go back there and see the good friends they had made.
Keenness and morale had to be dragged up little by little out of their winter depths. The baleful Senio had cast a general listlessness over the war-tired Division, and 18 Regiment had its share of that. And the old unit spirit, so strong always in the 18th, had sagged with the gradual loss of the older inhabitants who had built it up, including many of the senior officers and NCOs, the men who set the tone for the rest to follow. There was not even any continuity of command. Lieutenant-Colonel Ferguson, who left late in February, was succeeded by Lieutenant-Colonel Elliott1 and then by Lieutenant-Colonel Parata,2 both newcomers to the unit. To name only a few others, Majors Deans, Playle, Pyatt and Stanford and Padre Gourdie were not there, and something of the traditional 18th had gone with all of them.
Yet the 18th turned the corner, and morale began to flicker again. A series of warm summery days helped enormously. The afternoons were given over to sports, the flat land round Cesenatico sprouted goalposts, football competitions were hurried along. The regiment's hockey team, quite a new institution, rocketed to fame late in March by winning a divisional competition. Truckloads of spectators went here and there to watch the matches. Other trucks took sightseers north to Ravenna and south to San Marino, both within easy reach.
Enthusiasm for work was not so marked, and grew more gradually. With indifference the tank crews took over some new Shermans, a few with big 105-millimetre guns, others with 17-pounders, among them some petrol-driven tanks, the page 611 first the regiment had owned. They were looked on with suspicion—‘not bad,’ one driver remarked, ‘but we were used to the old diesel bus’. Mechanically and without zest the boys put the tanks, new and old, through their paces, cleaned and maintained and repaired them. But by the end of March even the tanks were once more being regarded with affection. The crews had ‘T & A'd’ the guns again and again, firing from the beach at smoke bombs dropped into the sea by planes. They had peppered a derelict Tiger tank from all angles and learnt a lot about how to deal with them. The Tiger had lost much of its terror now.
But the most effective step towards restoring the old spirit was the one which, at the time, vexed the boys most. Beyond doubt formal discipline had grown pretty slack, attire round the camps had become startlingly informal, parade smartness had gone out of fashion. Now an organised effort was made to straighten up the whole of 4 Brigade. Brigade orders at Cesenatico said uncompromisingly that ‘a high standard of dress and discipline would be set and maintained’. There was, for the first time in Italy, a formal guard, rehearsed and well turned-out, on 18 Regiment's lines. There was a good deal of drill, and hours of practice for big parades for Colonel Campbell3 of 4 Brigade and General Freyberg, both late in March. The boys grumbled and muttered, of course, but even the grumbling was a healthy sign. The second parade was a marathon which lasted a good four hours and left everyone jaded; but General Freyberg was heard to murmur approval again and again, and everyone felt a little proud of himself, though nobody would have admitted it.
Then, this parade scarcely over, came momentous news. Another move, a very secret one, destination unknown, all New Zealand signs and badges out of sight, A Squadron to set out that very evening. This, everyone knew, could only be up to the front again, probably back to the Senio, and the grand assault must be imminent. Well, it had to come, and probably better now than later when the battlefield had got too hot and dusty.page 612
The A Squadron crews had to work as they had not done for months to get themselves, their gear and their steeds ready on time, but somehow they managed to get away just after dark, and in the early hours of Easter Day, 1 April, they arrived back within sound of the guns and bedded down near Forli, everyone begrimed with dust, for the mud of months had now dried to powder on Route 9.
Yes, the big day, put off perforce for three and a half months, was close now. Everyone round Forli was talking about it, there was an atmosphere of bustle and anticipation very different from the black, fed-up mood of February. The enervating ‘casa war’ was ending, too, for nearly all the way up to the front there were forests of bivvy tents, though up within reach of the Senio the infantry was still cooped up in its fortified houses.
After A Squadron went away the rest of the regiment had three full days to get ready, but a lot had to be done, everything up to battle pitch, guns ‘T & A'd’ for the umpteenth time. The biggest and nastiest job was changing all the tanks over from steel to rubber tracks, which involved nearly a whole night's work and a big crop of blistered, swollen hands. On the night of 4 April, quietly and without fuss, the regiment took the road, and by daybreak was up by Forli. thence on 6 April to 5 Brigade's reserve area some six miles north of Faenza and three miles short of the Senio. A Echelon was in Faenza, B Echelon in Forli. Still the strictest secrecy, nobody to leave the area without orders, no New Zealand signs to be shown anywhere. Most of the boys were in bivves, and not sorry, for farmhouse life was not popular in the warmer weather. The whole countryside was amazingly quiet, so quiet that few bothered to dig slitties, and those who did had to take some barracking from the rest. One troop each from B and C Squadrons went forward and took over from 2 and 4 Troops of A Squadron, which had been having a little quiet fun for the past three days.
These two troops, under Second-Lieutenants Barney Lenihan4 and Bob Booth,5 had been the first to come once more within sight of the Senio stopbank. On the afternoon of page 613 2 April they had gone up to 21 Battalion, which had an important job on hand.
All through the winter the stopbank on our side of the Senio had been common ground. It was honeycombed with holes. Both sides had dugouts in it, with tunnels and peepholes giving narrow, restricted views into opposing territory. Nobody had tried very seriously to get Jerry off this bank; now he had to come off, for we could not have him overlooking all our preliminaries for the big attack. The fire that came down on our side of the river, particularly the mortaring, was obviously directed from this near bank.
The tankies wasted no time. On 3 and 4 April they hammered the stopbanks with ‘delayed action’ high-explosive shells. These brought some interesting results; sometimes the gunners bounced them off the top of the bank to burst in mid-air, at other times they buried them in the bank, where they penetrated deep before exploding, so that the inside was fairly ripped out of the dugouts. A Squadron's brand-new 105-millimetre tank, on its first airing, proved just the thing for this sort of work. By evening Jerry had been frightened off the bank, except at one awkward place on 21 Battalion's right boundary, where a shallow ramp carrying the remains of a railway line rose to meet the stopbank at right angles. Here Jerry was firmly dug in and did not want to leave, and a surprise was planned for him next day.
The surprise was short, sharp and intense. Artillery and mortars pounded the other side of the river; fighter-bombers dropped their bombs so close that our side was showered with earth. The Shermans blasted the bank with more delayed-action shells. Twenty minutes of this, and then, right on top of the last shell, three stalwart men of 21 Battalion charged the bank to finish the job. Soon the only Germans left on that bank were dead ones. A few were captured, badly shaken up by the concussion of the 105-millimetre shells; all the rest had departed earlier. The wounded were taken away under a Red Cross flag, which was rare enough to cause comment among the Kiwis. Jerry gave back what he could while the show was on, mainly mortars and Spandau bursts, but our only casualty was Sergeant Clem Derrett's6 tank, which went up on a mine while coming away at the finish.page 614
Their job now carried out to everyone's satisfaction, 2 and 4 Troops went back when the B and C Squadron tanks arrived up, and rejoined the rest of A Squadron in its bivvy area.
That same evening, about eleven o'clock, when nearly everyone was fast asleep, occurred one of those startling events that happen when you least expect them. Since 18 Regiment came back to the Senio Jerry had hardly fired a shot except a scattered salvo or two round the front lines. Now, without any warning, he began to shell the whole New Zealand area with everything he possessed, from light mortars to great 210-millimetre earth-movers. There was a scatter as men evacuated bivvies and sought urgent shelter in houses or tanks or ditches. Those who had been cautious enough to dig slitties had the last laugh—though they did not feel like laughing for the next two hours. There was no sleep for anyone all that time, only a nightmare of noise and acrid smoke and hunks of metal flying through the vines. The damage was surprisingly small, but in Regimental Headquarters a truck and a Honey tank were badly bent, Sergeant Owen Donaldson7 was killed and four men wounded. Up by the stopbank everyone was on edge in case Jerry was crazy enough to try an attack. Next day there was unusual activity all over the place, as everyone went underground for fear the same thing would happen again.
But it did not. Evidently Jerry had no thought in his mind of attacking, for the front lapsed into its customary quiet for two more days, idle days for the tankies, but busy days of preparation for other people; huge truckloads of all kinds of ammunition going up, convoys carrying bits of Bailey bridge, the great ugly flame-throwers; jeeps and despatch riders charging round; the mounting fever in the air that always presages a big attack. This was far removed from the dull, spiritless Division of two or three months earlier.
Then it was 9 April 1945, and the big day had come. A bright, sunny, optimistic day. In the morning the fighting squadrons moved out to their battalions, Major Nelson's B Squadron to the Maoris and Major Passmore's C Squadron to 21 Battalion in the forefront of 5 Brigade, Major Ryan's page 615 A Squadron to 23 Battalion in reserve. And after lunch the watchers by the Senio saw a sight to remember all their lives.
The weight of air and artillery that hit the unfortunate Germans that afternoon had never been equalled in any show the Kiwis had seen. For two hours the air was alive with planes —you could not count them—carpeting Jerry's territory with small bombs, the bursts so continuous that they merged one into another. And fighters diving vertically with their guns rattling, making you giddy to look at them. Great fires raging across the river, the smoke growing thicker and thicker as the afternoon went on. Then the artillery, a solid wall of noise, till your ears rang and the air was white with dust; and those fighters coming back and back when the guns paused for breath; and the artillery once more. Then the whole thing over again, and yet again. Then the sun went down, and suddenly the thin evening dark was stabbed with red streaks all along the front as the flame-throwers from the top of the stopbank sent their searing jets licking over the Senio. And then, two minutes later, the infantry was off, over the stopbank, over the river, all in a minute or two; and the Division was off on the great adventure for which it had waited so long.
3 Brig T. C. Campbell, CBE, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Colombo, 20 Dec 1911; farm appraiser; CO 22 Bn Sep 1942-Apr 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Jan-Dec 1945; Commander of Army Schools, 1951-53; Commander Fiji Military Forces, 1953-56; Commander, Northern Military District, 1958-.
7 Sgt O. J. Donaldson; born NZ 21 Nov 1920; telephonist, P & T Dept; killed in action 6 Apr 1945.