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Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino

III: Back in Europe

III: Back in Europe


The main body of troops made the voyage to Taranto in two flights. Each assembled at Ikingi Maryut, near Alexandria, for drafting into ‘ship camps’, between which units were split up so that the loss of a transport should not entail the complete loss of a unit. The first flight of 5827 all ranks (if the records are as reliable as they are precise) sailed on 6 October in the Dunottar Castle and the Reina del Pacifico, reaching Taranto on the 9th; the second, of 8707, on the 18th in five vessels, the Llangibby Castle, Nieuw Holland, Letitia, Aronda and Egra, arriving on the 22nd.

For the soldiers it was a strenuous and uncomfortable mode of travel. As they struggled up the gangways, they were freighted with a blanket roll, winter and summer clothing and personal gear, anti-malaria ointment and tablets, emergency ration, weapon and ammunition, respirator and empty two-gallon water-can, and (between every two men) a bivouac tent. Deposited in the none-too-spacious sleeping quarters, all this impedimenta increased crowding and made men grateful for the fresh air of the open decks and the shortness of the voyage.

Experience in the Dunottar Castle suggests that much of the discomfort and the inconvenience that ensued on arrival could have been avoided had Movement Control applied its rules more flexibly. In the empty holds there was room for vehicles, and these could have been unloaded in the ten or twelve hours of daylight available after arrival at Taranto, which ships aimed to clear before the attacks of night bombers began. As it was, between 14,000 and 15,000 travelled in these seven ships with no more equipment than they could carry on their persons, together with a few cooking utensils, tents, picks and shovels and carpenter's tools. All the rest of the Division's mountain of equipment followed at an appreciable interval in its vehicles or as general cargo.

The journey was not only smooth and calm, it was also secure. Over seas still blue in the autumn sun, seas which they had helped to make safe, the men of the Division were escorted in accordance with the promise of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief of Allied Naval Forces in the theatre, that ‘every care will be taken of our old friends the New Zealand troops on their passage through the Mediterranean’. The first flight had an escort page 38 of six destroyers around them and air cover above, and similar protection was given the second.

As the troops of the first flight disembarked on the morning of 9 October, most of them were making their first acquaintance with Europe. The order was to pile heavy gear on the wharves, and then a march of several miles, accompanied by guides lent by 8 Indian Division, to the bivouac area on relatively high ground north of Taranto. Since its arrival ten days before, the divisional advance party, with small means but much help from the Indian division, had worked wonders and no essential arrangements for the reception of the first-flight men had been left unmade. But old soldiers know, and young soldiers soon learn, that the Army rarely excels in welcoming drafts of troops arriving by sea, and that those who step off troopships in far lands often find that the excitement of new scenes is tempered by a deflated sense that something is amiss in the hospitality of the military authorities. The truth is that inconvenience is inseparable from the movement of men en masse. This fact was borne in upon the many New Zealanders who had to spend their first night in Italy sleeping in the open without blankets because there were too few trucks at Taranto to move their gear from the docks to the staging area. By the next night, however, all the bivouac tents had been erected among the olive groves and stone-walled fields—only just in time, for on the 11th the Division experienced its first rainfall since leaving Tunisia nearly five months earlier.


The more bracing climate, the stimulus of fresh country and the feeling that the end of the war against Germany was in sight lent zest and exhilaration to these early days in Italy. Leave was taken in Taranto; footballs appeared; and the troops were brought to a pitch of physical fitness by route marches and organised sports. Within the limits set by lack of equipment, training could now be more realistic. It was possible to practise tactics appropriate to close country, movement by night through wooded areas, the employment of snipers, the art of camouflage (no longer against the dun of the desert but against the greens and greys of the Apulian countryside), and the operation of the new portable wireless sets over ground screened by vegetation. The drill of patrolling in this close country and of street and village fighting had also to be mastered. With such ends in view, the infantry carried out section, platoon, company and battalion exercises in the vicinity of the divisional area.

The weather gave fair notice of its inclemency. Frequent showers encouraged units to spend time in constructing tracks and drains
The Italian front on 14 November 1943, showing General Alexander's plan for breaking the Winter Line

The Italian front on 14 November 1943, showing General Alexander's plan for breaking the Winter Line

page 39 around their camps and the engineers were engaged for some days in roadmaking. The need for drainage was pressed home on the night of 28–29 October, when a heavy thunderstorm in the evening caused widespread local flooding. The drying out or exchanging of soaked blankets and other personal kit occupied much of the next two days. More heavy rain between 5 and 8 November helped to dispel any lingering illusions about the Italian climate. The New Zealanders, indeed, now found themselves ‘with only an exiguous part of the summer left’ but without Caesar's solace of a retreat to winter quarters.

Meanwhile the Division's vehicles were following on in the charge of about six thousand men. Camouflaged with disruptive painting and specially prepared for loading, they were divided as equally as possible into four flights in a strict order of priority regulated by the sequence of needs in Italy. They were marshalled in parks at Amiriya for shipment from Alexandria and at Suez, and flights left Suez on 16 and 31 October and Alexandria on 29 October and 3 November. Since at least the first flight of vehicles would be required to move the Division from Taranto, their progress controlled the Division's immediate future.

It had been expected that the Division would remain at Taranto until at least mid-November for the arrival of all its vehicles, but in mid-October Eighth Army ordered a move forward to a concentration area at Altamura, about 30 miles inland from the port of Bari, for further training in Army reserve. Before the first vehicle convoy reached port to enable the Division to carry out this order, it was superseded by one of 27 October, which directed the Division to the vicinity of Lucera to take up a role in Army reserve protecting the Foggia airfields from the west and guarding against infiltration by the enemy between 5 and 13 Corps.

With the arrival of the first vehicles at Bari on 29 October, it was possible for the leading unit on 1 November to begin the move from Taranto to Lucera along a route marked by the Divisional Provost Company with the familiar diamond signs. For three weeks units steadily moved up to the assembly area among farmlands west of Lucera, most of them breaking the 160-mile journey by staging overnight about 13 miles north-west of Altamura. All this time vehicles were continuing to arrive at Bari in flights, some of which had been split up and delayed en route. The last of them did not arrive until 20 November, one stray transport only appeared on the 28th, and it was the end of the month before the last vehicle was unloaded. By now units were scattered far and wide and drivers in the later transports, setting out from Bari with imperfect instructions, often straggled back to their units in small groups.

page 40

The arrival in Italy, therefore, was not a sharp event but a piecemeal process. Nor was deployment much more clearly defined; for as the Division slowly drew up its tail to Lucera, it was ordered to extend its head. On 11 November, before half its fighting strength had reached the concentration area, the Division was ordered up to a concentration area between Furci and Gissi. Eighth Army had changed its plan.

To most New Zealand troops Lucera was thus no more than a stage on the road to the front. The old town stands on the edge of the Tavogliere della Puglia, the Apulian tableland, and it portends the hills; but it derives its chief interest from the past. Here, seven hundred years before, the Emperor Frederick II settled a colony of Saracens to rid his Sicilian kingdom of turbulent subjects and to harry the Pope. Hence Charles of Anjou set out in 1268 on the journey that led to the death of his enemy Conradin, the young grandson of Frederick and the last survivor of the German house of Hohenstaufen.

On 11 November the first elements of the Division, passing through Lucera, turned north towards the German lines.