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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Mediterranean: Italy

The Mediterranean: Italy

NEW SHIPS AND NEW CREWS came from England and America, and, two and a half years afterwards, the New Zealand Division, with victories behind it as well as defeats, sailed for Italy. To the individual burdens it had taken to Greece were now added empty two-gallon water cans, bivouac tents (one for two men), and anti-malarial pills and ointments.

Again the Division sailed in flights, not more than one-third of any unit travelling in one ship, though by October 1943 the Mediterranean was almost safe. Only one ship was damaged: the motor vessel Lambrook. She struck a mine, but managed to limp to Brindisi, ten hours away, with back broken and plates rippling. One voyage was much like another, and this impression, written by a member of the 1st New Zealand Ammunition Company, is true of most of them:

Every morning a sea of pewter, burnished and dully shining. Sound of water slushing lazily in scuppers: murmur of stem and bow sighing patiently through the Mediterranean: patter of bow-spray falling on smooth swell.

Breakfast in the soupy atmosphere of the troop-decks: electric lights burning: smells of porridge and of sweat and sleep: the appalling clatter of crockery: shouting and jostling of mess orderlies: dixies, warm and slippery. After breakfast, no room to move on deck because everyone has been hounded from below to leave the ship clear for inspection. Impatient waiting for ‘Three Gs’ to sound. Lunch, with appetites a little keener than at breakfast, and then a long, dozy afternoon. Tea, but not enough of it, for appetites are ravenous now, and, after tea, cards and examination of the day’s rumours.

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In wartime each troopship carries three rumours—more sometimes, but never less. They seldom vary in their essentials. (1) The enemy has broadcast the ship’s name and her date of sailing. (2) An infectious disease has broken out. (3) Senior officers are awaiting court martial on serious charges.

These three, especially the last, go pleasantly with the cool of evening when khaki caterpillars circulate on all the decks, when destroyers fuss around laying smoke-screens, and barrage balloons (midget dirigibles that were silver earlier and are now dark like slugs) are hauled in. The distance between ships has lessened and smoke from a dozen stacks trails across the sea for miles. The spirit of protection and comradeship—the high, brave spirit of the convoys—is all about you. Silence then, and a light blinking quick and secret, and the drawing in, from all the corners of the sea, of the soft darkness.

One by one these transports—Dunottar Castle, Reina del Pacifico, Llangibby Castle, Nieuw Holland, Letitia, Aronda, and Egra are names New Zealanders will remember—came safely* to port, those with troops to Taranto after about five days, those with transport to Bari after as much as a fortnight. The troops staggered down the gangways under their terrific loads and marched away into the new country, praying with all their hearts that the next voyage would be the long one home.

* Astonishingly few New Zealand lives were lost in the Mediterranean, but the tragedy of the 8000-ton merchantman Chakdina should be remembered. While evacuating some 380 wounded from Tobruk to Alexandria on the night of 5–6 December 1941, she was sunk in less than four minutes by a torpedo-carrying aircraft. The loss of life was appalling. Of the 97 New Zealand wounded aboard, most of whom were stretcher-cases, eighteen were rescued by the corvette Farndale.