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19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment

CHAPTER 18 — A New Year and a Fresh Front

page 358

A New Year and a Fresh Front

When January winds were blawin’ cauld


On1 January 1944 the dispositions of 4 Armoured Brigade were: 18 Regiment resting at Castelfrentano (except C Squadron, supporting the Salarola sub-section); 19 Regiment laagering at Sfasciata Ridge; 20 Regiment in reserve, with B Squadron at Fontegrande under the command of 6 Infantry Brigade.

The 2nd NZ Division was still facing Orsogna, and the enemy, though under constant hammering from our artillery and from the Allied Air Force, continued not only to hold out but to reply vigorously. Firmly established in his winter line, he was secure in the comfortable knowledge that his opponents, now weather-bound, could do little more than hold their exposed forward positions while waiting till better conditions made further full-scale attacks possible.

Despite the apparent stalemate, our troops did not relax their pressure, and infantry patrolling was vigorous and aggressive. Even the more or less immobilised armour was by no means idle, for a 13 Corps’ operation order dated 30 December read: ‘2 NZ Div will continue to hold its present front and by the siting of the armd and reserve brigades ensure that the key position of Castelfrentano-Brickworks-road junction 2698 [north of Colle Sambruno] is held secure in all circumstances.’

New Year’s Day was spent digging out snow-smothered tanks. Nine inches of snow had fallen and in places the drifts were as many feet deep. When the thaw began, the hard, frozen ground became a morass, and the shovel continued to be the hardest worked piece of equipment in the campaign. The mud was worse than the snow. All manœuvrability was lost; every movement was made hazardous, the tanks and trucks bogging, sliding, and slipping in the slushy going.

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It had been decided that the 19th would winter in its quarters behind Sfasciata Ridge, with one squadron relieving 20 Regiment near Pascuccio and changing over with it every eight days. Many tank crews here constructed excellent dugouts reminiscent of the First World War. At this time Regimental Headquarters was billeted comfortably in a tall house which already accommodated three generations of an Italian farming family From the smallest child to the wrinkled old grandmother, they all welcomed the troops with open-hearted hospitality. ‘Poppa’ kept an adequate cellar and was not averse to dispensing—for a consideration —bulk supplies of the wine stored in the huge barrels in the basement. This liquor traffic naturally caused some embarrassment to Regimental Headquarters, for footloose Kiwis were always hanging about the area, which was well within enemy artillery range, and prudence demanded that activity be kept to a minimum. Further, the Italians expected the 19th to champion their cause in any dispute—and there were plenty—which arose while the wine was being sold. The RSM had quite a job.

The regiment’s position, deep in the most tenacious mud, required constant work to ensure that tanks could be moved when necessary, and that the vital tracks along which daily supplies were distributed were kept open. The ubiquitous jeep became the mainstay of the transport system, and together with Bren carriers took over all supply arrangements. The routes along which they ran, however, required daily draining and patching. The cold, wet, muddy and miserable conditions on the Orsogna front were like those which 1 NZEF had experienced on the Somme in the winter of 1916.

Meanwhile, the daily exchange of shells between the town and its besiegers indicated that both sides, despite the wretchedness of the weather, were determined to keep up the pressure.

The 19th Regiment’s tanks, in a support role, did their share of the ‘long-range sniping’. The tank crews welcomed these shoots. The efficacy of the 75-millimetre gun in knocking down stone houses and the efficiency of the tank crews page 360 were testified to by our infantry, who frequently called for fire against strongpoints located in buildings on the outskirts of the town. Spared by these shoots from the unrelieved monotony of merely standing by, and with only these few opportunities to show its mettle, the armour naturally took its gunnery most seriously, and competition between squadrons was keen.

All tanks were picketed at night. It was an unpopular duty. In his dark clothing the sentry stood out against the snow, and consequently was instructed not to move about unnecessarily. The soft tank boots—so much admired before the winter weather began—were now useless and simply sopped up the moisture, so that wet feet added to the discomfort of the shivering but otherwise immobile man on duty. At first light all hands were roused to ‘stand to’, each man fully dressed, the tank driver in his seat, and the engine turning over ready to go at a moment’s notice.

A rotation system of short leave to Bari was instituted and was immediately popular. This southern Italian seafront town had little to commend it from a sightseeing or shopping point of view, but its services organisations (notably, of course, the New Zealand Club), theatres, bars and cafés provided variety and a pleasant break from the mud and the cold.

Offsetting this local leave arrangement came simultaneously the bleak announcement that there would be no further furlough for long-service troops for at least six months. The furlough scheme was now a fully accepted feature of service in 2 NZEF, and those whose service was approaching the period required to qualify for furlough kept count in days of the time remaining for the various reinforcements. With a very few exceptions the echelon men had all gone back, and the 4th Reinforcements were ready to follow as soon as the situation was suitable. The six months’ postponement was a blow to many hopes, but the war went relentlessly on.

Regular flare-ups still occurred along the Orsogna front, for the policy of vigorous patrolling kept the line seething. page 361 On 9 January C Squadron was ordered out to support 1 Paratroop Battalion on the right of the regiment’s position at Poggiofiorito. The squadron arrived at nightfall, when the evening hate was in full flush. Just before dawn on the 10th the squadron’s new position was soundly ‘stonked’, and shortly afterwards it was discovered that the place was extensively mined. With the aid of the sappers, the mines were lifted. Enemy planes now put in an appearance and scored one hit on a C Squadron tank. No doubt this armoured movement had led the enemy to believe that an offensive was brewing.

Meanwhile B Squadron, in support of the Maori Battalion, which with unremitting energy always goaded the enemy, was having a lively time. On the 10th the squadron scored sixteen direct hits on houses in Orsogna from which machine guns had been harassing our infantry. Shooting with delayed fuse effectively silenced the enemy guns, and the forward position of these tanks made their support role most useful. The infantry could rely on immediate and hard-hitting action from them. On the 12th the squadron repeated the performance, firing 100 rounds of armour-piercing high explosive and scoring many direct hits.

B Squadron enjoyed this tour of duty with 28 Battalion. Not only were the Maoris doing a grand job of patrolling, but they were making the most of the fruits of warfare by putting to good use everything they could salvage or scrounge in the area. Menus frequently featured pork or poultry, while the casas (houses) which the companies occupied yielded furniture and other comforts. The Maoris’ dress had but one overall requirement—warmth—and all sorts of civilian apparel was pressed into service to achieve this. A more ludicrous collection of characters could not be imagined. Bowlers, top hats, coloured scarves, and even items of feminine attire were worn with battle dress.

At a conference of squadron commanders on the 11th the CO indicated that word had been received of the early relief of 2 NZ Division. The same day A Squadron occupied a position on the Guardiagrele road in support of 22 (Motor) Battalion, taking over this role from B Squadron page 362 18 Regiment. Some good shooting at mountain troops on Monte Maiella was enjoyed by the extreme left-flank troop (Lieutenant Beswick1). This was made possible only by the ingenuity of the crews, who built platforms from railway sleepers on which to jack up the front of the tanks and so gain the extra elevation necessary to achieve the range.

From 12 to 19 January Regimental Headquarters was fully occupied in preparations for the move out. Squadrons maintained their support roles while Regimental Headquarters and B Echelon reconnoitred and prepared the new area. The move was still on the ‘most secret’ list, and arrangements had to be made with great caution.

While these preparations were in progress the 19th came under the command of the Canadian Division. Squadrons remained in position and still took their full share in shooting up targets. These varied from houses to ski troops and from suspected troop concentrations to a mediæval tower reported as being used as an observation post. During the regiment’s last night on the Orsogna front, one tank from B Squadron moved forward and destroyed a spandau nest which had been harassing the Gurkhas.

By the afternoon of the 19th ¼ Battalion of the Essex Regiment had taken over and at last light 19 Regiment’s tanks began to move out. By dawn on the 20th the regiment was in the vicinity of the Perano-Archi crossroads and at the scene of its first action. On the hill overlooking the laager area were two of its own tanks—burnt out and derelict—while the graves of those killed during the engagement were a few yards along the road. This halt brought back vivid memories, and it was hard to realise that only eight weeks had passed since the regiment had experienced its first chill excitement of going into battle; battle against an old enemy, but in a new role. Casualties in the campaign to date were seven killed in action, two died of wounds, and eleven wounded.

From this first laager area the regiment split up, the tanks going to Vasto to travel by rail while the wheeled convoy page 363 (approximately 200 vehicles) began the journey by road. It was only when the trek was well into its second day that the men were told their destination was Fifth Army’s front. Divisional Headquarters was already at Piedimonte d’Alife, on the other side of the Apennines. The regiment was bound for the same place. After an interesting two-day journey, the road convoy arrived on the morning of 23 January, and the tanks rumbled in from Caserta railway siding two days later. The regiment’s area, firm under foot and in pleasant surroundings, found immediate favour. A party under Second-Lieutenant Holder2 had guiding and billeting arrangements well in hand, and the 19th moved in as a unit, complete and self-contained for the first time since leaving Maadi.

Two enjoyable weeks followed. The climate was much milder than that experienced on the east coast, and there was no lack of diversion for off-duty periods. Sightseeing visits to Pompeii were arranged. A football field, hot showers, and several cinemas were among the amenities most appreciated. The men shook the mud of Orsogna from their boots, smartened up, and settled down in ideal conditions to make the most of two weeks’ respite from operational duties.

There were several internal changes at this time in regimental organisation, among the more notable being the marching out of Major Tony Everist to a tactical course in England, and the return of Major Jock Thodey, who took over A Squadron; Captain Colin Swallow,3 who had been RMO since desert days, was replaced by Captain Kennedy,4 and shortly afterwards Captain Roy5 was posted to the 19th. page 364 Captain Dennis Caughley’s promotion to second captain, A Squadron, necessitated a change in adjutants, and he handed over to Lieutenant John Wiseley. Several new second-lieutenants—ex-officers now recommissioned in the field—filled the vacant junior appointments.

Highlights of the programme at Piedimonte were a dismounted ceremonial parade and several tactical exercises. Perhaps the most valuable subject on the syllabus at this time was training in the use of smoke. Each tank crew was required to perfect a procedure by which it could provide its own cover and be able also to co-operate with its neighbours to screen vehicles in trouble or moving across hazardous going. Smoke was to prove a real life-saver to the armour, especially when, as frequently happened, members of a crew had to leave their tank. By the use of smoke in battle the regiment was shortly able to undertake tasks which otherwise would have been sheer suicide.

On the attachment of 392 Battery, Royal Artillery, to the 19th no time was lost in working out an inter-communication procedure between the tanks and the battery’s Priest 105-millimetre self-propelled guns. The regiment and the battery got along famously from the start. Always welcome visitors, the gunners shared the nightly brew of chai with the tank crews bivouacking close to their area. In the quiet evening at Piedimonte after the day’s work was done, the lee side of each black and immobile Sherman would reflect a ruddy glow from a petrol-burning Benghazi. Bursts of flame puncturing the darkness marked the lighting of pipes and cigarettes as the men relaxed. The buzz of conversation and occasional round of song often lasted late into the night, for the company was good, and the companionship growing up between all ranks in the two units was to put artillery support on an almost personal basis once the battle started.

A ‘Q’ conference at Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade studied supply and replacement problems in the light of armoured experience on Eighth Army’s front. All in all, full advantage was taken of the two weeks out of the line to bring men, equipment, and methods fully up to the mark before the next operation.

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The Division had finished its first period of action under its new organisation. The incorporation of an armoured brigade had set many problems, but after three months’ campaigning together the armoured regiments’ work, always under critical appraisal, had earned the confidence of the infantry. In the published lessons of the Sangro-Orsogna actions it was gratifying to read the comments of Divisional and 5 and 6 Brigade Headquarters: ‘Support of Inf by tanks has been intimate and successful….’ ‘Against counter attacks tanks have proved indispensable….’ ‘The use of APHE shot from tanks has proved very valuable in reducing enemy strongpoints in houses, and against enemy taking refuge in dugouts etc.’

It was significant that the subject under closest examination by all headquarters was co-operation between infantry and armour. It would not be long before both arms were put to the test once more, for General Freyberg, in an address at 4 Brigade’s ceremonial parade, promised a very active time ahead. Having already had the experience of operating over the most difficult country that tanks could be called upon to work in, the brigade had good reason to face the future with confidence.

1 Lt C. C. Beswick, MC; Oamaru; born Oamaru, 9 May 1912; insurance agent; wounded 17 Mar 1944.

2 Lt E. C. C. Holder; Hastings; born Napier, 1 Apr 1912; wool clerk.

3 Capt C. K. Swallow; Palmerston North; born Palmerston North, 3 Nov 1914; medical practitioner; 7 Fd Amb (Fiji) Oct 1940-Sep 1941; RMO 19 Bn and Armd Regt 1942–44.

4 Lt-Col D. P. Kennedy, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 19 May 1915; medical practitioner; Adjt 7 Fd Amb (Fiji) Oct 1940-May 1941; OC 4 Fd Hyg Sec Oct 1942-Aug 1943; DADMS 2 NZ Div Apr-Nov 1944; DADMS 2 NZEF Nov 1944-Feb 1945; OC 4 Fd Hyg Coy and DADH 2 NZ Div Feb-May 1945; OC 5 Fd Amb Jun-Oct 1945; Medical Officer of Health, Christchurch.

5 Maj L. J. Roy; Christchurch; born Winton, 10 Apr 1913; medical practitioner; RMO 19 Bn1944.