20 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 16 — To Avezzano
Back in the Volturno valley the regiment hid its tanks in a sunken road between Riardo and Pietramelara, relaxed, washed the smoke and grime of Cassino from body and throat, talked the battle out of troubled minds in endless discussion and argument, went on leave. So well were the tanks hidden in this pleasant countryside that a German intelligence summary is reported to have deduced that the New Zealand Division had been withdrawn to a rest area and had lost all its tanks.
New Zealanders are durable troops: a few days' leave, a few pounds in the paybook, good food, a football match or two, not too much parading and red tape, quite a lot of beer, and most men are ready to back themselves against panzer grenadiers, paratroops, provosts—anything. For the 20th at Pietramelara the YMCA provided a recreation tent, the mobile cinema and ENSA gave shows on the grassy stretch in Headquarters' area, and C Squadron established a large canteen and equipped it with piano, bar, and footrail. In B Squadron some of the men had saved up their beer issue for the five weeks they were in action, pooled it when they came out, augmented it by ‘flogging’ a battledress to the Naafi sergeant, and had what one of them describes as ‘a good do’ when they got back to Pietramelara. Concerts were given in the canteen by unit and co-opted talent. Dave Maharey's1 parody ‘When they send the last Yank home’, a bawdy commentary on the role of United States forces in New Zealand, most of whom had already fulfilled the wish of the song by May 1944, was as popular as ever. There was also football (rugby and soccer: the regiment won most of its games in the former code, its most notable victory being against a team of South African engineers, but had little success at soccer), an athletic meeting, and hockey. Away from the unit there was leave to the island of Ischia in the big, blue sweeping Bay of Naples, where parties of fifty spent three days at a time in a unit rest camp. Squadrons also made trips to page 419 the beach at Mondragone, to Caserta, to the Volturno for a swim, although uncleared mines in the riverbed in one stretch prevented bathing; and in addition there was daily leave to Naples, where New Zealanders whose only previous ventures in song had been inspired by incautious familiarity with Italian wines or in beer sessions at the Naafi were enthralled by grand opera and returned to the San Carlo opera house for more. Later, when some of the other attractions of Naples had begun to prove too popular, leave to visit the city was given less freely and was later cancelled. One squadron lost all its leave for a few days and manned extra guards after a disciplinary brush with the CO, and promptly christened the camp ‘Stalag 52’. Fifty-two was the regiment's serial number.
Before the regiment left Cassino the first of the Ruapehu furlough men, who had been away for almost a year, rejoined the unit. Their return had allowed others whose leave was long overdue to go, among them men who had been the core of the unit since September 1939; to some extent they were the unit and it was hard to imagine the 20th without them. Among those who left in mid-April were the RSM, WO I ‘Uke’ Wilson, and RQMS George Weenink of the first advance party, WO II Cyril Kennard, Lieutenant J. T. K. Bradley,2 and Second-Lieutenant P. A. McConchie, DCM. Second-Lieutenant ‘Lu’ Hazlett,3 who for the attack on Cassino had been detached as liaison officer with the American Task Force B, and Sergeant Scott4 who had filled a similar appointment with 4 Indian Division, had also rejoined the regiment at Cassino.
The weeks passed, and then someone mentioned that dreaded word ‘training’. During May there were two changes in the unit. On the 28th Lieutenant-Colonel Purcell, who had temporarily commanded the regiment at Orsogna, arrived from Egypt to replace Lieutenant-Colonel Ferguson, who left next day to take command of the New Zealand Armoured Corps training depot for six weeks before returning to his old unit, 18 Armoured Regiment, as commanding officer. A few weeks before Colonel Ferguson had been presented by General Freyberg page 420 with the DSO he had won at Orsogna in 18 Armoured Regiment, and at the same parade Trooper L. P. Gallagher had received the MM he had won at Albaneta House. The second change was the replacement of Padre Dawson by Padre Gunn,5 who naturally enough was promptly nicknamed ‘Spandau’. Padre Dawson succeeded Padre ‘Gad’ Spence, an old 20th favourite, as Senior Chaplain at Divisional Headquarters, Padre Spence becoming Senior Chaplain 2 NZEF. The regiment was fortunate in its padres, both for their work in battle and out of the line. Padre Gunn soon won the men's esteem.
Most prominence in the regiment's training at Pietramelara was given to shooting practice with the tanks' 75-millimetre gun and Browning machine gun and to exercises in co-operation with infantry. One of these shoots was followed by a protest that shells had cleared the hills at the back of the range and landed among American troops. The regiment expressed its surprise and apologies and agreed to fire at lower targets. Squadrons in turn went to a training area at Piedimonte d'Alife to carry out field exercises with 22 (Motor) Battalion, some of which were watched by General Freyberg and Brigadier Inglis. Directed from an infantry OP with the tanks, the squadrons' guns fired shoots in co-operation with 22 Battalion's mortars. Most of the men had been through all this before and knew that action was not far off.
Well, the month's rest was up and the regiment was refreshed, reinforced, and ready. Nineteenth Regiment was already in action across the Gari River and on 18 May the Germans withdrew from Cassino and the monastery, pressed closely by the Poles. C Squadron got a new commander, Captain Jordan,6 to replace Major Barton, away sick. Then the moves forward began.
On the 26th A Squadron moved up to Filignano to support 6 Brigade and B Squadron joined 5 Brigade near Sant' Elia, in the Rapido valley, about four miles north-north-east of Cassino. Both squadrons left on transporters and moved by night, each with two open-topped Honey reconnaissance tanks and an inter-communication jeep. A Squadron left its transporters at Venafro, and then went forward on its own tracks.page 421
Half the squadron—Nos. 1 and 2 Troops under Captain George Hart, the squadron's second-captain—went to an area near Cerre Grosso ready to support 25 Battalion's advance along the road from San Biagio to Atina, which was occupied by 23 Battalion. The rest of the squadron waited at Filignano. The Germans were now withdrawing behind a screen of demolitions and mines and at last we were moving forward.
It would be a dull story if the war diary details of troops being detached to support this or that unit, halted at this or that six-figure map reference by demolition or anti-tank gun, or fired at from such and such a road junction were recounted in full. Fortunately some of the men who took part in these actions have been persuaded to tell their stories, and although memories of the same action differ, dates are hazy and the names of Italian villages hard to recall and harder still to spell, there is atmosphere and pace and colour in their accounts that it is impossible to wring from the official records.
Hart's group advanced along the road to Atina during the last four days of May, drawing up the rest of the squadron and its A Echelon in bounds behind it like a caterpillar's tail, its pace, set by the engineers' bulldozers, being almost as slow. There were many halts while blown bridges and road demolitions were repaired and road and laager areas swept for mines, but no enemy was encountered.
The leisurely advance gave the tank crews a chance to have a close look at the defences of the Winter Line. The enemy had planned to stay there as long as possible and had riddled the hillsides ‘like a rabbit warren’ with trenches, tunnels, and dugouts. One man remembers one position on the hillside ‘with a hinged long pole, which was supposed to be used for catapulting a round sort of mines or bombs downhill to explode midst the attackers’, and adds the comment: ‘Appears an old method, but the evidence was there.’
B Squadron, with 5 Brigade, made faster progress than A but was not so fortunate. It lost one tank over a steep bank on the way up to Sant' Elia, the tank commander (Sergeant Jim Boniface) being killed and two of his crew injured, but not seriously. In the dark neither the tank in front nor the one behind Boniface saw him go over the bank, and it was not until his wireless operator broke radio silence next morning from the damaged tank that the accident was reported. Captain Eastgate led the tanks into the laager area along a narrow track with the light from a bottle which he had filled with fireflies.
After a wait of two days among the olive trees and poppies at Sant' Elia the squadron moved up the narrow defile through the hills to Atina. Mines and narrow bottlenecks delayed the move and not many miles were covered before the tanks laagered for the night near a road junction just past Atina. Here the squadron was broken up, Captain Eastgate taking half of it on a left hook through Fontechiari and the rest continuing straight on towards Sora.
The first tanks over the pass at Atina into the valley were from 5 Troop, part of a half-squadron under the second-in-command, Captain Familton. The first thing that impressed him was the view: ‘One of the most beautiful sights I have seen,’ he writes, ‘especially after the dismal aspect of Cassino and Mignano for so long. The valley was bright green, cut by the silver ribbon of the river weaving its way through a carpet of blood-red poppies.’
Eastgate's left hook on the 30th had been planned as an attempt to cut off the enemy's withdrawal, but the tanks reached the road junction north of Fontechiari only to find the enemy gone and a blown bridge over the Fibreno blocking the way. The tanks had encountered no opposition, and for the first time the crews were hailed as ‘liberators’ and regaled with page 424 ample information (most of it probably inaccurate) about the enemy's movements. At the junction the two troops were rejoined by 5 Troop and spent the night there waiting for the bridge to be repaired. An engineer sergeant attached to the squadron did particularly good work lifting mines in the dark on the road up to the river.
No. 5 Troop, moving by the main road, had had a less peaceful day than Eastgate's group. The road had been shelled by self-propelled guns from the hills around Brocco and as the tanks approached the river they came within range of the enemy's mortars. Then the fighter-bombers took a hand:
We moved forward to the demolished bridge [writes Familton] and there, for the first time, we were dive bombed by our own fighter bombers of the Desert Air Force. The advance was so quick for a few miles that the information to change the bomb line was late in arriving at the airfield. Arising out of this was an amusing incident which happened to Brig. Stewart. He came up to see the Engineers and find out when the bridge would be through and was to report back to the General immediately. The Air Force, however, put a stop to this by making another run at us and setting alight one of the Engineers' trucks between us and our Inf. and leaving the Brig. stranded with us until the excitement died down. I believe Brig. Stewart picked up a marking on one of the planes and when he got back to Div. rang the airfield and told them in no uncertain terms what he thought of them and one pilot in particular. The pilot was put on the mat and we did hear he was grounded and given office duty for 7 days.
On the way forward 8 Troop was detached from the squadron on the afternoon of 29 May and sent to assist 21 Battalion in the hills to the east. A company from that battalion had chased the enemy rearguard from Alvito that morning and the tanks' role was to prevent the enemy infiltrating back into it from the Sant' Onofrio area higher up the ridge. The troop took up positions covering the ridge and the valley to the right, the sergeant's tank going back to the village to act as a link with the infantry. About 8 p.m. a small party of enemy was seen on the ridge. The two tanks shelled some nearby houses in which it was thought the enemy might be sheltering, but no further movement was seen and they were withdrawn to Alvito, where they laagered for the night.
There was no further incident, and early next afternoon the troop was ordered to go to San Donato, in the skirts of the page 425 hills on the eastern side of the valley, with a force from 21 Battalion, the Divisional Cavalry, and some machine-gunners. Over the last mile of the winding road to the village they were heavily shelled but suffered no losses. The villagers reported that the enemy had left three days before, leaving observation posts on several prominent features from which they could bring down fire on the village. The tanks fired on these points and on buildings where movement was seen. Preparations made to consolidate in San Donato for the night were cancelled when orders arrived about eight o'clock instructing the force to withdraw. The troop took up positions back down the road near Vicalvi, spent an uneventful night and day there, and rejoined the squadron at Sora on 1 June.
In the meantime the Maoris had crossed the river and had captured the hilltop village of Brocco after some sharp fighting. B Squadron, chafing at the delay, had to wait while a second blown bridge over the Fibreno was repaired, but about 11 a.m. on the 31st the job was completed and the tanks and the Maoris moved forward down the long straight road into Sora. The hills rose steeply behind the town and from them the enemy could see clearly what was going on in the valley. The crews expected trouble, listening with one ear cocked for the crash of shells or the screech of a mortar ‘stonk’, but the tanks rolled forward steadily until a demolished culvert at the entrance to the town brought them to a halt.
Corporal Jim Bell's7 tank of 5 Troop was in the lead. He and his driver got out, ‘in some slight trepidation’, to look over the demolition, and a wireless message was sent back reporting the halt. General Freyberg then arrived in a jeep and ‘smartly sent back for a bulldozer’. However, the tanks managed to creep round the demolition and moved into the town.
Corporal Bell describes this entrance:
I remember the doors and windows had been removed from all the buildings and as we seemed to be moving abreast if not a little in advance of the infantry I had the uneasy feeling we might suffer the indignity of a bazooka or some such diabolical weapon firing at us from some of the dark, gaping holes staring at us. Just as we entered the first piazza a Maori on a bicycle who had probably page 426 woven in and out down the line of tanks flew past us and attracted spandau fire, so he swung gracefully and speedily into what appeared to be a large open garage on the right of the piazza. We put a few HE shells into likely spots near a church on a small rocky hilltop where the MG fire seemed to come from, and then, as a bridge across a river leading into a second piazza was blown, we moved up the Sora-Balsorano road, thankful to be in tanks and protected from mortar fire.
It was ten past one when the leading tanks drove into Sora and by then the enemy had left, blowing down and looting houses and even shaking the ripe fruit off the trees before he withdrew. But his machine guns and mortars on Point 539 to the north still drubbed the town. C Squadron, which had followed B Squadron north from Sant' Elia with RHQ, was detailed to stay in Sora while B Squadron, which now reverted to the regiment's command, was sent on to capture Campoli, a small hilltop village up a winding road to the north-east.
The squadron turned east at the ‘Teardrop’ road junction and moved up Route 82, keeping to the left of the road and using the buildings as cover against fire from the hills to the left. Bell's tank had just turned a corner on to a straight stretch of about 800 yards to the Campoli turn-off when armour-piercing shots bounced past him. A line of poplars on the right of the road blocked the tank's view and the gun could not be seen. It fired again, lopped the top off a poplar and holed the wall of a house—a very near miss. Bell decided to cross to the right-hand side of the road to escape the fire and asked for infantry to investigate.
This position was no safer. Movement could be seen at the end of the straight where the main road swung left, and an AP shot whistled past a foot or so away, raising a long line of dust. Fortunately all the tanks were in line too and the shot did no damage. The flash and the trail of dust gave the tank's gunner, Trevor Holt,8 something to sight on and his quick riposte was later found to have knocked out a self-propelled gun sited in a clump of trees just past the Campoli turn-off.
Holt was to do some more good shooting that afternoon. Called up by Lieutenant Carlyle, the troop commander, a patrol of Maoris advanced up the road, 5 Troop abreast of them and No. 7 in support. ‘As we came within about 200 page 427 yards of the Campoli road junction we could see a German ambulance just pulling away from the side of the road in front of a house, presumably with casualties from the SP gun,’ writes Bell. ‘As it pulled away a chap jumped out from the back and disappeared in the trees. We gave the ambulance a few seconds to get clear and then Trevor loosed off a few HE. His first knocked over a small tree and the second set some small heap on fire for a few moments. Later we found that an anti-tank gun had been pulled round behind the house in the direct line of our fire so it may be Trevor's shots frightened the crew away.
‘When we were just short of the corner where the Campoli road turns off to the right, and could see some distance down the main road as it curved to the left, the Maori officer [Second-Lieutenant Rogers9] pointed to a house about 150 yards down the Campoli road from the junction. We stopped, received his indication that the SP gun near him at which we had fired previously was KO'ed, and then Trevor traversed the turret to fire into the house. Just as he was about to fire we were hit by an AP shot on the left side near the driver. Apparently thinking it was our gun which had fired, the Maori officer set off on a 6 seconds per hundred yards sprint towards the house, so I yelled to Trevor to fire smartly to avoid damaging him. Trevor put a shot clean through a small window and as he heard later rather staggered three of the enemy whom the Maoris smartly took PW's.’
The shot that hit Bell's tank had apparently struck it at an angle, punched a hole in the side near the driver's head, and bounced off. Red-hot splinters from it cut the wiring of the instrument panel, the shirt on the driver's back, and nicked the spare driver also in the back. The crew was having an afternoon of close shaves, and now that the tank's engine could not go they seemed likely to have even more. A second shot hit the tank's left front sprocket and ‘euchered it’, according to Bell, and a third bounced off the left side. The gun was never found but it was later thought to have been sited on lower ground close to the left of the road, where its crew could see the tanks from the cover of some willow growth and scrub without being seen themselves.page 428
The crew decided not to test their luck any further and evacuated their tank. Under cover of smoke laid by the next tank in the line (‘Plonk’ Reid's10) they crawled into the ditch on the side of the road with the Maoris' prisoners.
Bell's damaged tank now partly blocked the road and a hidden anti-tank gun covered it. Second-Lieutenant Norman Loisel,11 the commander of No. 6 Troop, was sent out on foot to reconnoitre a track up a spur through the trees to see if the Campoli corner could be by-passed. Trooper Park,12 armed with a tommy gun, went with him as escort. They set out about half past two, questioned some Italians to discover whether there were any Germans around, and when told they had moved out pushed on faster. Perhaps their haste drew the enemy's attention to them for a mortar opened fire and wounded them both, Loisel in the back and Park in a leg. Loisel tried to carry Park back but was again hit and had to give up. He managed to make his own way back to his troop and a section of Maoris was sent forward on a tank to bring Park in. They found him dead. From the powder burns it was obvious that he had been shot through the heart at close range; his paybook and all his belongings were missing.
While the tanks waited for the road to be cleared, horse-drawn limbers were seen moving back down the road a few hundred yards away.13 Although the tanks opened fire the limbers got away, their retreat being followed by three rousing explosions as the last demolitions on the road were blown. One of these explosions was badly timed, eye-witnesses reporting ‘a terrific demolition in which mules appeared to be flying skywards, along with flame, black smoke, and lumber.’ This could have been the anti-tank gun which had given Bell's crew so many anxious moments; at any rate, the crew hoped that one of the two guns later found destroyed was that which had made their tank a target.page 429
No. 7 Troop now took over the Campoli task from No. 5, whose commander's No. 19 set had failed, and completed the advance up the road. Sergeant ‘Mac’ West, one of the tank commanders and an original 20th infantryman, describes it:
I felt like a duck sitting on a pond waiting to be shot at and had Cliff Cochran,15 my gunner, and Charlie McCarthy,16 my wireless operator, fire American smoke and 2” mortar smoke into the trees on our left. One American smoke shell burst in branches close by and seemed to drift at our speed, affording a large coverage of beautiful smoke.
We had two tanks in front going flat out and one behind. ‘Plonk's’ tank rounded the corner with a flourish, Charlie Innes,17 our officer, was next. Then came my turn, hand on pistol grip of Ac-ac .30 calibre Browning, peeking over the cupola ring trying to be ready for anything. With a grinding lurch and much flying gravel we made it and the tension dropped immediately. Parts of the advance to Campoli after that were quite enjoyable, trundling along in warm sunshine, keeping a reasonable distance from one another across the general front of the assault.
Peace and quiet was shattered when retreating Germans appeared over a brow about 600 yards on our right. It was practically a case of target practice and we opened up with air burst and .30 Browning. The Germans quickly threw themselves down in whatever cover they could find. I remember concentrating with .30 Browning on one particular gent who seemed determined to snipe someone. Two ambulance men surrendered to us but I'm afraid the others suffered terribly.
Moving on again the corporal behind noticed a German near a house and as he had the two ambulance men up on the tank behind him we took this one prisoner and, not without some misgivings, I had him standing behind my turret. I pointed to my tommy gun, pistol, etc., and he spoke in excellent English, said he was an Austrian conscript and very tired of it all. He insisted that I share some cherries he had in his mess dixie. Not to be taken in I drew my finger across my throat and plainly showed him what would befall him if he tried anything and I got in first.page 430
Shortly afterwards the tanks were engaged by small-arms fire coming from a scrubby bank slightly above the road, but the opposition quickly disappeared when the tanks' machine-guns set fire to the scrub. A section of the road farther along was covered by some of the enemy's heavy guns, whose first shells fell close to the leading tanks. The troop drew back into cover and, ‘after a little deliberation’, decided ‘to dart across the gap at irregular intervals’.
No contact had yet been made with the infantry and, with darkness approaching, the crews had expectations of an anxious night. Just on dusk the tanks halted. Tank commanders took stock of their position, arranged pickets for the night, and drew up a plan should they be attacked.
Sergeant West describes the night's activities:
Judging by sounds heard on the slope above on our right at about 8 o'clock we estimated that a large party with mules was pulling out. Rumour had it that this party was equipped with mountain guns. Not wishing to bring a hornets' nest about our ears we stood to quietly and waited, knowing full well that our tanks must have showed up very plainly on the road below the enemy.
A great hush descended on the countryside till about midnight when faint sounds very much like those made by picks and shovels were heard back down the road we had come. Thoughts of mine-laying parties or road blocks flashed through my head and I received permission to take a reconnaissance party and find out what was happening. Several hundred yards down the road our small party encountered two German sentries. The moonlight showed them plainly a few yards above us. Recognition was mutual and as they were holding Schmeisser automatics we opened up with our Thompson sub-machine-guns. I ducked behind a boulder, tripping as I did so, and wondered if the others thought I was hit. In the rumpus the sentries disappeared and we made our way back to the tanks. There it was decided that I should take a tank and investigate further. No. 11 tank was used and, with the gun traversed and pointing over the rear so that we could make a quick get-away if necessary, it was carefully and faultlessly reversed round several bends by Driver George Leggoe.18 Some grenades were tossed up the bank where the sentries had been observed. After going a little further I decided to stop and engage the estimated area from which the sounds had been coming. The Ac-ac and co-ax. Brownings were both used and I also used the bottom half of the 2” mortar by hand and lobbed several HE's up the road ahead. This was done simply page 431 by tilting the gun to the approximate angle and holding it with the butt firmly wedged against the cupola ring. No opposition was encountered and we withdrew. No further sounds were heard that night.
The following morning all tanks withdrew to find the Squadron Commander's tank blocking the road with a track off.19 Here it was that a large group of Germans was seen making south in the direction of our front. Remembering that one of our prisoners spoke English I instructed him to call them over to surrender. As they appeared reluctant to do so I endorsed the command with a shot from my .30 Browning, ploughing up the dirt in front of them. My spokesman shouted again and they straggled over and up to the road. It was then I noticed a New Zealand soldier bringing up the rear. He claimed to be escorting them back. An infantry officer arrived shortly afterwards and the prisoners, plus our little lot, were marched down the road.
Later that morning the rest of B Squadron took up fire positions on San Pancrazio feature, south of Campoli. Innes's troop and the 5 Troop tank entered the town about half past ten without opposition and then withdrew to positions behind it. In the afternoon 8 Troop advanced across difficult country to Pescosolido only to find that the Germans had withdrawn during the night. The squadron returned to a laager area near the Campoli turn-off that evening, complete save for 8 Troop at Pescosolido and 5 Troop forward with the Maori Battalion on Point 351, both of which rejoined the squadron next day.
By the 1st June A Squadron's crews had had little fighting but all had had more than their share of being ‘messed around’. Operations were cancelled, plans were changed, troops were switched from one battalion's command to another with almost bewildering speed, and commanders and crews began to get very browned-off indeed. On 31 May, for instance, Hart's force was switched from 25 to 24 to 26 Battalion, with whom it was held up just short of the Fibreno River while the blown bridges were being repaired. The rest of the squadron was then some way behind on the road to Atina.
On 1 June Hart's force was switched back again to support 24 Battalion. Its role was to cross the Liri and move up the west bank, but it had to wait until next morning while the page 432 engineers put a Bailey bridge across the river, the old bridge naturally having been blown. The tanks crossed shortly after dawn and moved along a narrow road at the river's edge in single file: they found difficult going but no enemy. Second-Lieutenant Howorth's tank was bellied over a bank when the edge of the track gave way. All attempts to move it failed and Howorth took over his corporal's tank.
The tanks reached an open piece of ground and did some long-range shooting across the river, not seeing any enemy but hoping that their fire would be of some help to the infantry attacking along the eastern bank. Their fire drew more attention than they had bargained for, forcing the tank commanders to ‘pull their heads in’ and slam down the turret hatches. It was just as well they did, for on Howorth's tank the ack-ack Browning was shot to pieces and all water cans punctured.
The track the tanks were using followed the line of a railway, which crossed the river about a mile north of Sora and skirted its western bank before crossing it again and disappearing into a tunnel just below Balsorano. The flat ground ended where the valley narrowed, and here the railway climbed a saddle and the going became too rough for tanks. Captain Hart, leading on foot, took one tank up the side of the hill to try to get a better position from which to do some shooting. The hillside here was terraced and the climb difficult; it was a fine piece of driving. The tank fired a few rounds and drew heavy fire in return, forcing it (and the men on foot with it) to withdraw downhill.
The tanks withdrew a little way on to a small flat area where they had a good view of the road along the escarpment on the other side of the river. They had left the infantry well behind. But here the lack of infantry support was not as important as it had been at Albaneta, for the enemy was retreating —slowly and methodically and as doggedly as usual—and was fighting back with guns and mines and demolitions while his infantry were hurried north. In fact his shelling and mortaring was so heavy at times that it was probably a good thing the infantry were not up with the tanks for their losses could have been severe. But at night the lack of protection worried the tank commanders and crews. The gunners were left in the tanks and the rest of the crews, in pairs, provided pickets and page 433 listening posts. All was well, although one officer confesses, ‘I myself stayed wide awake the whole night.’
The enemy had artillery OPs in the hills on both sides of the valley and the tanks down by the river were severely ‘stonked’, possibly, one eye-witness believes, because the enemy ‘had seen some of our chaps having a wash down at the river.’
At dawn next day (3 June) some of the tanks moved up to fire positions and engaged targets across the river, ‘pumping away the shells fairly smartly so that we had to go back to meet the ammo truck which had brought forward replenishments,’ records Sergeant Basil Simmons20 in his diary. Simmons was a member of the reconnaissance troop, two tanks of which (Honeys) were attached to Hart's half-squadron.
Quick thinking and good shooting by Sergeant Bill Russell and his crew later in the day disposed of a German bazooka crew before they could fire their weapon. The Germans were seen coming through the bushes and the tank's gunner took a hurried shot with the seventy-five at the leader of the party as he was getting the bazooka into position. ‘I will never forget the look on his face before he fell,’ writes Russell. ‘His mate disappeared over a ridge in a burst of Browning…. Infantry told us later that one was a Jerry officer with a good watch.’21 Russell's troop commander, Lieutenant Howorth, confirms the incident and adds: ‘A good example of fine team work by a well trained crew under an absolutely first class commander.’ The tribute is well deserved.
At dusk the tanks withdrew a little way to replenish and laager for the night. Hart's tank pulled up alongside a house, the only building there, sheltering close to the wall; others found positions beside a stone fence where they laagered and waited orders to move. ‘I had just finished having a shave and wash and was the only member of my crew outside my tank,’ says Howorth. ‘A shell arrived. It must have been high velocity stuff because I did not hear it coming. Exactly where it landed I do not know but I think it was nearer to George's tank than mine. The next thing I remember was being on my hands and knees with blood streaming into my left eye. I was really very lucky, being just nicked in the forehead by a passing splinter. Poor George got it badly.’page 434
Captain Hart died of his wounds that night at the main dressing station at Sora. Well known in New Zealand as one of our best All Black wing-threequarters before the war, he had proved in battle a gallant officer. The isolated building had probably been ranged and pinpointed by the enemy gun beforehand in anticipation of such a target, for although there was only about three feet of space between the tank and the wall behind which it was sheltering, the men standing there were all hit. Howorth's tank was about fifty yards away. Four men were wounded besides the two officers, one of them fairly severely, the rest lightly.
The wounded were evacuated by Simmons's section and after dark the tanks withdrew a few hundred yards. They still had no infantry with them and their crews spent another tense and sleepless night. Lieutenant Low, the only officer left in the two troops, kept continuous wireless watch all night. It passed quietly but slowly.
The two troops stayed in this area until 5 June. Their tanks carried out fire tasks against mortar and machine-gun posts on the escarpment at Balsorano—a sheer bluff of black stone above the road—and shot up any vehicles using the road. Two tracked vehicles just below the ridge were set on fire on 4 June. As usual when he was retreating, the enemy seemed to have plenty of ammunition for his guns and mortars and did not take kindly to being shot up, but it was mostly war at long range. A Squadron on the 5th became part of Wilder Force, a column consisting of the Divisional Cavalry, A Squadron of the 20th, two infantry companies, two machine-gun platoons, two sections of mortars, and one battery. It was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Wilder,22 CO of the Divisional Cavalry.
We left C Squadron on 31 May waiting in Sora while the enemy on Point 539 and other observation posts in the hills called down mortar and gun fire on the town. The tanks shot up likely positions and destroyed at least one OP. It was not an exciting or a rewarding task, although the supporting infantry claimed that the tanks' fire caused the crews of four machine-gun posts to come down from the hill to surrender. Except for page 435 10 Troop, which moved up Route 82 east of the river behind B Squadron and the Maoris, the squadron spent the next day in much the same way, engaging targets farther afield on Colle Sant' Angelo as the enemy withdrew.
On the morning of the 2nd C Squadron joined the Maori Battalion advancing along Route 82 towards Balsorano. No. 9 was point troop. After a wait of an hour and a half at a demolished bridge, this troop moved ahead to Colle Castagno, on the right flank, and ‘for the next three days pooped at any possible targets and also acted as OP for the mediums—quite good fun.’ No. 12 Troop, keeping to the road, encountered one demolition after another and made plodding progress until it handed over the lead to 10 Troop that night. ‘Our troops are making a hell of a mess of the Balsorano valley,’ an enemy staff officer reported on 2 June.
‘We crawled up the road at a snail's pace,’ writes Lieutenant Nigel Overton,23 then a corporal in 10 Troop, ‘and about midnight came to a large demolition and it took a bulldozer some time to make a track to let us through. The demolition was heavily mortared most of the time the dozer was working. He did a great job! We eventually crossed and pushed on another quarter of a mile, when the Engineers reported trouble ahead. At this stage we were … passing along a road with green bush right down to the edge on both sides.’
The tanks were ordered to stay put until first light, when 21 Battalion was to pass through the Maoris and try to push on towards Balsorano. The company advancing up the road ran into trouble and pulled back behind the demolition. ‘We stayed along the road till they were back,’ says Overton, ‘then we had to back our tanks along about a quarter of a mile as the road was too narrow to turn on. As soon as it was light the enemy who were in the bush on the hillside above the road tried shooting down into our turrets and we had to close down completely. We backed right back to the demolition before we could turn and I popped my head out to get a better view to direct the driver and crack, a sniper's bullet hit the blanket box just behind my head. I kept in after that.’
The tanks moved back across the demolition and spent the page 436 day in a holding position trying to pinpoint the snipers still needling the tanks and infantry and holding up the advance. In the middle of the afternoon (3 June) the troop was relieved by half the squadron (Nos. 11 and 12 Troops) under Lieutenant Hazlett, whose arrival a sniper welcomed with a bullet through the slack of his beret. That evening a despatch rider going forward apparently decided to take a risk and push on. Rounding the bend in the road where the tanks were holding their position, he was ‘bagged’ by a sniper and lay wounded on the road and covered by the enemy's fire. Directed by radio from Corporal ‘Shorty’ Shorrock's tank, Sergeant Rex Miller backed his tank over the wounded man, who was then lifted up through the escape hatch into the spare driver's seat. Miller's tank was later hit by a heavy shell, the concussion disrupting the electrical equipment. The engines could not be started, but fortunately the wireless still worked. The recovery section was called up and the tank towed back out of danger by Captain Taylor and Sergeant-Major Lilley, ‘a very neat piece of work in this exposed position’. In two hours' time the tank was again in running order.
On the 5th C Squadron handed over to half of A Squadron under Lieutenant Donnelly and returned to the regiment's concentration area near Brocco.
In the meantime B Squadron had been engaged chiefly in support of the Maoris and 21 Battalion on the eastern side of the Liri, clearing the high ground overlooking Route 82. Its tanks had acted as observation posts for the artillery, with good results, and had done some shooting themselves against mortar and machine-gun positions.
It was now time to reorganise some of the scattered troops, and with this in mind the regiment planned to concentrate south-east of Sora. On the afternoon of 5 June A Squadron was given control of both sectors, right and left of the river, while the rest of the regiment withdrew to the concentration area. No. 6 Troop of B Squadron was relieved by Captain Caldwell's half of A Squadron during the afternoon and supported 21 Battalion companies closing on Balsorano, but withdrew that night with the infantry.
June the 6th was an eventful day in history but a quiet one page 437 at Balsorano. A Squadron, now part of Wilder Force, opened it noisily with a shoot on the escarpment as it was thought that the enemy might have withdrawn during the night. No fire was returned and the squadron's suspicions were confirmed. Caldwell's tanks fired further testing shots along Route 82, but again there was no answer. A Divisional Cavalry squadron moved up to take a look and was stopped just short of Balsorano by a large demolition: the road round the cliff face had been blown and had brought down a large landslide into the river. The engineers were called up to clear a way and 4 Troop and A Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry drove into the town. They spent the night there while the rest of the regiment regrouped and discussed the news—the long-awaited news of the Allied landing in Normandy and the opening of the Second Front.24 Rome, one of the greatest of the milestones on the long road to the end of the war, had been entered by the Americans two days before.
Wilder Force had had its brief moment in the lead and on the 7th it was disbanded. Now that the Germans had gained time to strengthen their line in the hills before Florence, the advance was measured by demolitions rather than by battles. Out in front were the infantry of 6 Brigade, and behind them came the Divisional Cavalry and A Squadron. A bridge-layer tank was brought up from Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade to help tanks and bulldozers over minor demolitions. No. 4 Troop stayed in the lead, now well ahead of the rest of the squadron, which on 8 June moved into San Vincenzo, a pretty little town surrounded by hills on the eastern bank of the upper Liri.
San Vincenzo was a beautiful spot, nestled among terraced hillsides which rose to bare, rocky heights. The Germans may have admired the countryside but they had also used most of the buildings in the town as stables for their horses and mules. The people were busy cleaning up the litter and filth in their homes, the women still managing to walk gracefully while page 438 carrying on their heads huge loads of furniture which they had hidden in the hills during the German occupation.
The enemy evacuated Avezzano on the 9th and on the 10th the squadron received word not to make any further moves. The rest of the regiment was concentrated at Brocco, where A Squadron was to rejoin it on the 12th. No. 4 Troop under Second-Lieutenant Pedder went ahead with the Divisional Cavalry, 26 Battalion infantry, and engineers to Avezzano. One man from this troop (Ben Bertrand25) had been killed on the 7th while helping the engineers to lift mines (some of which were booby-trapped), but the enemy was now well ahead of the chase and the troop had no other casualties.
Once again the engineers set the pace for the road ‘was blown to blazes and we had never seen so many mines’; near Capistrello the cliff face had been blown completely away into the river, leaving ‘the father of all demolitions’, a sheer drop of a couple of hundred feet. Lieutenant Pedder and Sergeant Neil Dudfield26 climbed the saddle with the engineers and decided to give it a go in their tanks. ‘The main trouble was likely to be met coming down the other side, where the steep grade of the hill finished with only the width of the road between the hill and a sheer drop into the river over the edge of the road,’ says Pedder. ‘My tank negotiated it safely and we parked it on the outside of the road to act as a stop in case one of the other tanks went into a slide coming down.’
The rest of the troop also negotiated the hazard safely and reached Capistrello. The tanks had now caught up with the infantry and the flat going encouraged them to push ahead. Progress was still slow as one man had to sit out on the front of each tank and keep a lookout for mines. Half-way up the last saddle before Avezzano the tanks were held up overnight by yet another demolition and it was late on the morning of 10 June before the engineers had repaired it. In the meantime 26 Battalion patrols had entered the town earlier that morning, one party crossing the hills from le Cese and another taking a short-cut through a railway tunnel.page 439
To compensate them for their wait the tank crews, once over the demolition and at the top of the hill, could look down on a view which seems to have impressed all who saw it. Avezzano is on the edge of a large plain, roughly nine miles by six, that was originally a mountain lake 1800 feet above sea level. About seventy years ago it was drained by a French engineer and is now arable farm land, its green fields bordered by trees and small canals. When 4 Troop saw it ‘wild flowers of every colour grew in profusion and the squares and rectangles of cultivated land gave the appearance of being painted on a canvas.’
An English-speaking Italian invited the troop to visit some of the villages. Sergeant-Major Dudfield describes the tour: ‘Plenty of vino, speeches, etc., and a good time had by all, and they would have us go on to the next village, and away we went with guides on the leading tank. Here things were jacked up properly. Had to break the white ribbon across the road before we entered and the band was there to lead us in. The last place was crowded but this [Trasacco] was just overflowing. Into the town hall (I presume) and up on the balcony we went for the speeches. What was said I don't know but it was plenty.’
While the ‘liberators’ were being welcomed some of the more canny Italians in the crowd below the balcony reassured themselves about the strength of Allied arms. Dudfield was amused when he saw a couple of them rapping the side of his tank, and he asked one of the ‘Yank Ities’ (in any Italian village there was inevitably at least one who had lived in the United States and who was anxious to win brief prestige as the interpreter and confidant of the Allies) what they were doing. The Germans had told them that the Allies' tanks were made of cardboard was the reply.
The doubters convinced and the speech-making over, the procession moved on. ‘The band mounted the tanks …, some acting traffic cops cleared the crowd back, and we headed out followed by most of them,’ says Dudfield. ‘On the outskirts we dropped the band, waved the last goodbyes, and hiked off —a day those of us who were there will never forget…. Next morning we cleared the dead flowers, confetti, streamers, etc., out of and off the tanks and with orders to rejoin the 20th set off the way we had come for Sora, picking up A Squadron there.’page 440
The advance from Cassino to Avezzano cost the regiment one officer (Captain Hart) and two men killed, two officers and six men wounded. Another NCO, Sergeant Boniface, had died from injuries when his tank turned turtle over a bank on the way up to Sant' Elia before the advance really began. Two NCOs, Jim Bell and ‘Mac’ West, won MMs. No tanks were lost and all casualties were recovered.
The credit for the last must be shared between the regiment's drivers and the recovery section; but for their skill its casualties in men and tanks would have been much heavier. Even without the additional hazards of demolitions and enemy mines, the difficulties of driving tanks over Italian mountain roads were considerable. Heavy rain at times had not made the drivers' task easier and wet periscopes had also added to the difficulties of the gunners. Like the rest of the tank crews, the drivers were in action for long periods without rest. One troop commander reports how he literally went to sleep on his feet while talking to some infantrymen, ‘having been without sleep for some 60 hours’, and thus excuses adequately his hazy recollection of the events of the next few days.
On such roads and on cross-country moves it was inevitable that there should be accidents as tanks slipped into ditches, capsized over banks, or became bogged in demolitions. A damaged tank blocking a narrow road or a mountain cutting could hold up the advance for hours while enemy guns and mortars ranged on working parties trying to clear a way. In this advance the work of the recovery section under Captain Taylor was particularly valuable, the newly acquired American T2 proving its worth in salvaging tanks and in clearing road blocks and bringing up bridging materials. The section helped to keep the squadrons at full fighting strength, and the courage of its men in recovering damaged tanks from exposed positions under fire won the admiration of the whole regiment.
Another specialist section which proved its worth in this advance was the regiment's reconnaissance troop. The troop had arrived in Italy in scout cars, its role being to reconnoitre routes for the tanks and lead them forward. In action it was used for inter-communication tasks between squadrons and Regimental Headquarters and between forward elements of the squadrons and their B echelons. But plans made in Egypt page 441 had not fully provided for a winter campaign in hilly country in which any vehicle which moved off the roads at once became bogged in a sea of mud; and in these conditions scout cars were practically useless. At Cassino the troop was given some jeeps, which it used to carry forward supplies and relieving tank crews and for carrying messages from RHQ to the squadrons' harbour areas around San Michele.
At Pietramelara the troop traded in most of its scout cars without regrets and was issued with light Stuart tanks. The turrets were removed from these ‘Honeys’ and a .50 inch Browning mounted on the cupola ring and a .30 in the hull. The crew of each tank consisted of a commander, who fired the .50, a driver, and a wireless operator-gunner. The Honeys were mobile and light, excellent across country, had a good turn of speed and a reputation for mechanical soundness. At last the troop could fulfil its proper role.
Sections were attached to each squadron and they were kept constantly busy: pushing ahead to reconnoitre routes for the tanks, going back to take out wounded or bringing up ammunition and supplies and replacements, moving out to protect an exposed flank. The removal of the turrets allowed the Honeys to carry extra men and bigger loads without inconvenience.
The troop's comings and goings did not often pass without notice from the German gunners: ‘During one load we had to stop for about half an hour to let Jerry have his bit of fun,’ Sergeant Simmons records. Nor did its crews have to rely solely on their own eyes to find the enemy. ‘At one stage I stopped two Ities and asked them where Tedeschi was,’ writes Simmons, recording the events of 2 June. ‘One told us that Jerries had been there the previous afternoon but last night “tutti scapare via”.27 … During the advance I felt quite at ease as the Ities were moving about quite openly and freely.’
The advance to Avezzano fully tested the co-operation between tanks and infantry, and if at times they worked together well, at other times there was room for improvement. ‘It was my first experience of being in a tank which had radio communication with the infantry through a 38 set mounted in the tank and tied in with the 19 set,’ writes one officer. ‘I did not find it a success, first because the infantry filled the air with page 442 their own chatter and secondly because I could not cut it out of my own I.C.’28 It took some time before there was mutual understanding between infantry and armour of each other's problems in battle, and at first each blamed the other for getting out of touch. One troop leader who set out on foot to investigate the reason for his difficulties in raising a Maori platoon over the air at length located the cause of the trouble when he heard dance music and found the operator tuned to the BBC.
On the tactical side of tank fighting the retreating enemy posed a few new problems. The orchards, trees, and fields of crops that fringed the road forward provided grand cover for small enemy rearguards armed with anti-tank guns and ofenröhr (bazookas). Houses and farms were also strongly held by groups of a few men until the last possible moment, when they would slip away and take up another position farther back. In these conditions tanks had to be careful to give each other mutual support as they advanced, the leading tanks nosing forward in bounds while the others waited ready to blast any enemy post which might show itself. As Corporal Bell's experiences at the Campoli turn-off showed, the enemy selected his positions well and did as much damage as possible before he slipped away.
The enemy was careful, too, not to take post in the most likely positions, and tanks and infantry often had to search before they could find the core of an enemy strongpoint. In holding a farmhouse he would dispose his troops in outlying buildings, in haystacks, or in vantage points up to fifty yards in front or on the flanks, leaving the main building for living quarters and holding it only lightly. Even should the tanks' guns wreck the most obvious target, they would not greatly affect the strength of the post. The new delayed-action fuse of the Shermans' 75-millimetre high-explosive shells proved effective in these conditions, especially if the gunners could bounce their shells off the cobbled farmyards and explode them in the air.
10 Sergeant-Major Reid had taken over this tank on 30 May when 5 Troop's sergeant, ‘Dad’ Shaw, was hit by a stone thrown up by a bomb in the raid by our own aircraft at the bridge over the Fibreno.
11 2 Lt N. E. H. Loisel; Waihau, Tolaga Bay; born NZ 21 Jun 1905; sheep-farmer; wounded 31 May 1944.
14 According to the squadron commander (Major Clapham) Reid was not ‘detailed’ for this task: ‘I ordered 7 Tp to take over,’ he says. ‘“Plonk”, not wishing to be left behind, said over the air in his slow drawl, “I'm giving it a go” and went, with all guns firing.’
15 Sgt J. C. Cochran; Tuatapere, Southland; born Clifden, 14 Jan 1911; farmer.
19 Major Clapham had tried to get forward that night to visit 7 Troop, but when his tank shed a track and he found enemy blocking the way he made his way back on foot to RHQ. He returned to his squadron in a Honey tank.
21 The officer and one man were killed; the other two men escaped.
24 C Squadron heard the D Day news over a radio set which Ray Hodge had converted to pick up the BBC. ‘The boys used to drive me crazy at times running the wireless all night when in laager tuned to the BBC—ear-phone in gun breech and spout of gun in tent,’ he says. ‘It didn't matter for an hour or two but they often went off to sleep and left it on, to find in the morning half the battery down and out of balance, making it difficult to recharge.’
27 ‘Last night they shoved off up the road’ would be an idiomatic translation.
28 Internal communication.