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21 Battalion

CHAPTER 11 — Entr'acte

page 270


When a war that has become second nature suddenly ceases, you are left with a let-down feeling, one of anticlimax, just as if you were suddenly thrown out of a job that you thought was yours for life. Your eyes have been conditioned to picking out every scrap of cover, your ears tuned to the distant drone of planes, and you keep on listening and looking. Nothing happens and you don't believe it. No enemy, no danger. After a while you risk standing up, then you walk erect instead of moving like an animated hairpin. Then gradually values change and a battle bowler becomes a helmet, steel, to be charged against your next pay if you cannot produce one at kit inspection. You do produce one, for you haven't been a front-line soldier for nothing, but it isn't a life insurance any more. It is just something you carry around like your rifle, and if you fired that now you would probably face an orderly room charge for some such offence as ‘Conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline inasmuch as he fired a rifle without permission.’ The folks at home are no longer shadows of somebody you knew in a past life in another world. It takes a while to sort things out.

There was a minute percentage of leave to Tunis, but considerably more than this percentage managed a visit. Tattoo reports were works of art and orderly sergeants' mathematics something to marvel at. Apparently the problem of being in the lines and in Tunis simultaneously was not insoluble.

Actually Tunis was something of a let-down, for it was full of self-important American, French, and English soldiers with anything up to three months' active service. They were dressed as for a regimental parade, while the mostly present-without-leave Kiwi was no picture of what the well-dressed young conqueror of North Africa should wear. The New Zealanders' torn and travel-stained battle dress drew supercilious glances from the fashion plates parading the streets, and their weird assortment page 271 of enemy head-dress was frowned upon by the Provost Corps. Nevertheless they saw what there was to see, and perhaps some of the more thoughtful found time to look over the ruins of Carthage and wonder if Cato's ‘Delenda est Carthago’ might not be freely translated into Montgomery's ‘We will hit the enemy for six right out of Africa.’ At any rate both slogans worked out that way.

In the meantime the question was where do we go from here? No. I rumour was that the Division was destined for landing on an enemy coast. Of course we know now that as early as January planning had commenced for operation Husky, the code-word for the invasion of Sicily, and even though the rank and file were not in the confidence of the High Command, the average Kiwi was no mean strategist. Rumour No. 2 was that the Division was going home prior to service against Japan. You helped yourself to the one you preferred.

Opinion was evenly divided until another factor was introduced. It became known, strictly contrary to instructions, that two lists were being prepared: the first was of all the original members (50 all ranks) still serving with the battalion; the second, of all members of the First, Second, and Third Echelons who had transferred to 2I Battalion and were then on its strength. It was deduced from this information that the oldest hands were either going to stiffen up forces serving in the Pacific or to New Zealand in exchange for further reinforcements. After that security measures were really efficient and no confirmation or refutation was obtainable.

The order to move back to Egypt came by way of a message from Battalion Headquarters to all companies:

14 May

Bn will commence return trip 15 May. Order [of] march as already notified. Bn start point entrance to Bn area. Start time 0900 hrs. Column of route….

G. E. Cairns

Capt Adjt.

Time of origin


The order produced grey hairs in some quarters because a very senior warrant officer and several very junior commissioned officers were not immediately available, being on unofficial leave in Tunis. Their understudies were equal to the occasion, page 272 and the unit moved without their assistance until they rejoined it unobtrusively a few days later.

The route back was as follows:

The battalion changed its commanding officer for the move to Maadi. Colonel Fairbrother went to 23 Battalion and Colonel Harding relinquished command of 5 Brigade and returned to 21 Battalion.

On arrival at Maadi the composition of the first draft to proceed to New Zealand on furlough was announced. Rifles were handed into store and the furlough draft was relieved of all duties. There was a memorial parade, the battalion was photographed by companies, and on 5 June half the unit went on 14 days' leave. The other half played a little cricket and drank a lot of beer until its turn came.

On 4 June Colonel Harding again relinquished command of the battalion and went to Brigade in the place of Brigadier page 273 Kippenberger, who was to command the Ruapehu furlough draft. Lieutenant-Colonel McElroy became the battalion's sixth commanding officer.

Company orderly rooms became very proficient in handling AWL cases and the GOC was publicly terse about the dress and behaviour of the troops. Nobody held it against the General and the celebrations continued. The furlough draft left on 15 June; the pace of the last fortnight's celebrations gradually slowed down and the Army began to reassert itself.

Early in July Eighth Army, less 2 New Zealand Division, left North Africa. Its departure was unheralded, but on 10 July, in company with the Seventh United States Army, it landed in Sicily. Thirty-eight days later the Allied troops were looking across the Straits of Messina towards the Italian mainland.

At Maadi reinforcements were marched in and 21 Battalion began to look like a battalion again. July passed in routine training, sports, picnics, and in reorganisation, for with the departure of the leave draft there were many gaps to be filled among the NCOs. August saw the training brought up from company to battalion level, with specialist platoons practising in attack and defence.

Sensitive noses that had smelt out coming events before began to twitch when brigade exercises started in September, and when word got about that the Division was to march on its flat feet to Burg el Arab, over one hundred so and so miles away, platoon strategists came into their own. The battalion left Maadi on 19 September, and in seven night marches—the last a 30-mile canter—reached the Burg el Arab area. And now the betting was any odds on Italy.

Divisional exercises, with all the usual trimmings for battle inoculation, including barrages, live mortar and machine-gun shoots—very interesting to the new hands, but a pain in the neck to the old-timers—followed until the end of the month. For the purposes of the training the desert became in imagination a country of roads and tracks, and the technique was practised of breaking through a defensive position covered by minefields and wire—not the odd strand of wire denoting a minefield, but wire defences, barbed wire, dannert wire, all sorts of wire. The only thing the officers who explained the page 274 objects and plans of the exercises were quite dumb about was the locality of the new war.

There were more and more signs of an early move: the issue of battle dress and winter clothing, muster parades, a talk by Colonel McElroy on the possibilities of the future role of the battalion, lectures on security, the departure of some vehicles and their drivers, medical inspection and trial packs.

Those trial packs were really something. Your worldly estate had to be carried on your shoulders to and from the transport, and when you had fastened around yourself a blanket roll, winter and summer clothing, an empty two-gallon water can, a bivouac tent (one between two men), emergency rations, respirator, anti-malarial equipment, your weapon and normal ammunition, and any odds and ends of loot you hadn't parted with, climbing a steep transport gangway was not easy. In fact, unless you were a close relation to Samson, it was barely possible. The apparently insane order, that each man was to carry his own belongings was dictated by the fact that the transports would have to enter and leave harbour the same day. Nobody thought it worth while to let the troops know why they were to carry loads that would put a camel to shame, and there should have been some burning ears in Divisional Headquarters as a consequence.

The 21st Battalion moved on 12 October to the transit camp at Ikingi Maryut, twelve miles away, and on the 17th was divided into three groups and went aboard the transports Llangibby Castle, Nieuw Holland and Letitia.

The convoy sailed at dawn the following day, had an uneventful passage across a calm Mediterranean while the troops did the things they usually do on transports, and entered Taranto Harbour in the morning of the 22nd. The ships anchored off shore and the hardy veterans of the desert, while waiting their turn to stagger into the lighters, thoughtfully eyed the Italian mainland. Those in the battalion who had yet to face their first campaign wondered what fortune would attend them in this land where villages and farmhouses nestled and perched among trees on hillsides. The buildings along the waterfront looked imposing in the distance, but the men knew that the Air Force had bombed Taranto.

page 275

The battalion was ashore by midday, stacked its heavy gear on the quayside, and was ready to march the five miles to the divisional base area outside Taranto. There was plenty of evidence of the work of the Air Force. As the men swung through the wrecked waterfront and along the garbage-littered streets, they returned the gaze of the inhabitants, who were doubtless wondering how many of the tales told by the Germans about these men from North Africa were true. When they had passed out of the squalid waterfront, through the better streets of the commercial area and into the open, they found that the tiny stone-walled paddocks, the whitewashed stone houses and the greenness of the Italian countryside, after the blinding glare of the Egyptian sand, were of a surpassing loveliness.

But life in a base area, whatever the country, is much the same. After the settling-in period comes boredom. There was 15 per cent daily leave to Taranto—if you found your own transport—where you could buy next to nothing. The Germans were very thorough looters, but for all that they could not take with them all the wine of the country, which sold at fourpence a pint.

The town, particularly the older portion, was dirty; the inhabitants were hungry and apparently stood all day in food queues. Besides the civilians, Taranto was full of unkempt, unshaven sailors. It had been a naval base and the harbour was still full of Italian destroyers. By way of contrast the officers were objects of sartorial splendour, with yards of gold braid and coloured sashes and at least three campaign ribbons celebrating real and imaginary victories. Technically they were our co-belligerents, for the Italian Government had not only surrendered unconditionally but had declared war on its late partner. Nevertheless the shore-bound navy looked at the perambulating Kiwis as if it did not like them very much. After the sightseers had walked until their feet ached and had drunk ‘purple death’ until their heads were as sore as their feet, Taranto was largely written off as an amusement centre. It was not a good introduction to Italian civilisation.

Training was conditioned by the new type of warfare in prospect and consisted, besides the inevitable route marches and organised sports, of close-country tactics, keeping direction page 276 by night through wooded country, patrols, house fighting, camouflage and taking cover. The route marches around the area got the troops used to little grimy villages, olive, fig and almond groves, ox-drawn ploughs, and the sight of women working in the pocket-handkerchief fields. Fruit was plentiful, with grapes at two dixies full for a shilling, nuts the same, and peaches and apples six for a shilling. Very often they were even cheaper than that, when the unwary peasant wanted to smoke and was not acquainted with the near-lethal qualities of issue cigarettes.

Towards the end of October rain began to fall, the first since Tunisia. At first it was a pleasant novelty; then, when the countryside turned into a sea of creamy mud, it became a nuisance; and finally, when a heavy electrical storm raged for three days, with consequent flooded bivvies and saturated blankets, it was an unmitigated curse. The old-timers spoke of the good life in the Desert.

On the morning of 18 November the battalion left Taranto to join the rest of the Division, already in reserve positions near the fighting. The route lay through Martina and Noci to the staging area near Altamura, where the troops camped on the side of the road. The following day it continued through Canosa and Foggia to the staging area at Lucera. The 20th was a day of conferences while the troops waited in the rain, but they made up time the next day by travelling nearly one hundred miles through San Severo, then along a road that wound, twisted, and climbed into the hills via Serracapriola to Furci, and spent another night on the side of the road.

The country 5 Brigade was moving across was a system of rivers flowing eastwards to the Adriatic, and the roads north crossed watershed after watershed. The Italians, whatever their soldierly failings, are superb roadmakers, and what the maps called second- and third-class roads were considered by the Kiwi drivers to be good to excellent. It was no trouble to Italian engineers to carry a road up a sheer cliff with, of course, fearful hairpin bends, so that when looking down you could see at different levels parts of the column apparently travelling in opposite directions. The Germans, who are also excellent engineers but with a taste for destruction, had dynamited the page 277 outside edges of the worst bends. Our bulldozers had gnawed a way round these demolitions and, though the troops had the utmost faith in their drivers, there were, in spite of the entrancing scenery, many white faces and squeamish stomachs.

The battalion rested on the 22nd and dried itself in the sun. The war was not far away, and the congestion on the road from Furci was unbelievable to drivers used to picking their own route across the desert. They made eleven miles in seven hours the next day, going into the bed of a stream below Gissi. It was here that the German engineers made one of their few errors in timing, for a bridge that would have held up the advance for days had not been blown. They had not forgotten to lay charges but had overestimated the length of fuse needed, and an English sapper had torn it out with his hands when the fire was within inches of the detonator.

The village of Gissi, high up on an almost perpendicular hill, is itself like something out of a child's picture book. The church stands on the edge of a sheer rock face at least 500 feet high, and the steeple rears up above the cliff like a needle in the sky.

The 24th was a busy day. B Echelon was established at the crossroads of Atessa, high up on the last hill looking down into the valley of the Sangro, then miles to the north, and after dark the battalion was guided into position on the Sangro River.