CHAPTER 17 — The Winter Line
The Winter Line
The route back was through the battlefields—Rimini, Pesaro, Fano—to lesi, where the column staged until the following day. A midnight start and a roundabout route through Fabriano and Foligno ended in a mountain valley tucked away in the heart of the Apennines. It was a wide valley flanked by high, craggy mountains and rose gradually to the hilltop university town of Camerino, centred around a twin-spired church. The war had passed the valley by and left it drowsing, a backwater of peace and tranquillity.
The troops stayed a month in the upland villages of Morro, Mucia, Serravalle and Strada, scattered within an hour's march of Camerino. The platoons were billeted in houses and lived with the Italians. For the most part they were friendly people, and where there were barriers of distrust the smiling Kiwi, with his half-dozen words of Italian and pockets full of chocolates for the children, soon broke them down. Within a matter of days the boys were sitting around the meagre fires of gathered twigs or fanning the charcoal burners at the side of the open fire with Emilia or Ginlia or Silvana perched on their knees playing draughts. Those kids could play draughts as well as they could sing, and what Italian cannot sing? Sometimes a tin of army rations would supplement the evening meal, and occasionally the troops would wrestle according to the local rules with a plate of pasta. Some casas had baths and most had electricity, generated by a diesel plant which did not work very well, for often the light was only a red smoulder in the filaments of the low-powered globes. But of all the amenities, what intrigued the guests most were the pull-chain closets in full working order. Buono! Just like being at home.
The peasantry appeared to own or at least to have a definite stake in the land they worked. Friday was market day and carts converged on Camerino from all directions. Car-minded Kiwis looked with interest on the donkey, bullock and cow- page 395 drawn vehicles laden high with produce, and ex-farmers studied the tall thin stacks of wheat built around poles and the winter quarters of the livestock. Others cast speculative eyes on the hordes of hens, ducks, turkeys, geese and pigs roaming at will around the farms and along the village street. It was a nice spot.
The troops, with the exception of 60 junior NCOs who entered a training school run by the battalion, rested for a week while the officers attended a series of conferences at battalion, brigade, and divisional level. A little desultory football was played and arms and ammunition cleaned, but the weather was mostly wet and cold, so the battalion cultivated the acquaintance of its new hosts.
A change of command took place on the last day of October. Lieutenant-Colonel Thodey and Major Tanner marched out on furlough and were replaced by Lieutenant-Colonel McPhail,1 with Major Ashley as second-in-command. McPhail was an original member of 20 Battalion, and had served in almost every capacity from ‘full private’ to CO of 23 Battalion before taking command of 21 Battalion. The retiring officers took the good wishes of the troops with them, for they were both brave men and capable leaders, which is not an invariable combination.
There followed three weeks of light routine training in the mornings and hard football in the afternoons. Limited leave to Florence began, and for those who did not get away, there were picture shows in Camerino and shows by the Kiwi and Canadian concert parties. The Italians produced some local talent; the sergeants' mess entertained itself; the battalion was host to 23 Battalion for a day's football, each company playing its opposite number by day and entertaining it by night. Subalterns held formal and informal parties and senior officers forgathered with their opposite numbers. Rank and file parties were numerous and exhausting. The first fall of snow, six weeks earlier than the previous year, might have furrowed the brows of very senior officers who remembered the Sangro and Orsogna, but in the villages around Camerino the troops were working too hard at resting to worry about the future.page 396
The advance party left on 23 November to lay out a concentration area near Cesena, 30 miles along Route 9 from Rimini. Eighth Army had not been idle while the New Zealanders were resting, and in spite of dwindling manpower and the difficulties of a winter campaign, 1 Canadian Corps was nearing Ravenna and 5 British Corps on its left had reached the Lamone River, nine miles beyond the considerable town of Forli and 20 miles from Cesena. But the enemy defences were still holding and there was no breakthrough.
The troops packed up that night and were ready for an early move in the morning. It was nearly as bad as leaving home after final leave—red-eyed women and children gathered round the trucks, while the men of both races spoke a little gruffly, no doubt owing to the cold, wet mountain air. The concentration area was reached in due course, and the battalion team beat the Divisional Signals 21—9 the same afternoon. The team had been left behind at Camerino for the purpose and rejoined the following day.
The troops stayed in the area while Colonel McPhail, company commanders, and platoon officers reconnoitred the part of the line the battalion was to take over. The situation at that period was that Eighth Army was regrouping for yet another attempt to break through. The enemy had withdrawn behind the Lamone River, which had been reached in the last advance, and the mission of 2 New Zealand Division was to probe for assault crossings, while 4 (British) Infantry Division was going out for a rest. The New Zealand Division took its place between 10 Indian Division on the right at Corletto and 46 (British) Division on the left, with Route 9 included in the New Zealand sector.
The instructions mentioned that some mines and booby traps were to be expected and that the conditions were unpleasant, which was another illustration of the English leaning towards understatement.
Fifth Brigade was on the right in the New Zealand sector, with 22 Battalion, now back in the brigade as an infantry battalion, on the right, 21 Battalion on the left, and 23 and 28 Battalions in support. Sixth Brigade, with a shorter line, had only 26 Battalion up.page 397
The route up was along Highway 67 to Cesena, then along Route 9 for five miles, where a secondary road was taken to Reida village. It was an area of long fields of winter wheat and sugar beet, separated by lines of mulberry trees latticed in grape vines. Ditches and small canals criss-crossed the countryside and drained into the Lamone. It was still Rimini country, though, further inland. The houses ranged from substantial villas set among small plantations of oak and pine, substantial farmhouses with their groups of outbuildings and straw stacks, and the more numerous cottages clustered around the secondary crossroads. Dull and overcast skies gave place to a cold drizzle, and the troops were glad to reach the casas that were their platoon posts.
The civilians had been evacuated or had left of their own accord, and the platoons occupied the newly vacated dwellings. According to the luck of the draw the houses were good, bad, or indifferent, but nearly always there were beds, a stove, and provisions. It was a period of intermittent rain, incessant patrolling by night, and counter-battery work by day. You hoped Jerry would not pick on your house for a target. Movement by day was discouraged by enemy observation posts, and the troops found relaxation in various ways: reading, writing home, playing crib without a scoring board. On account of the weather conditions (when there was no rain, which was seldom, the dull visibility made it fairly safe to light fires), some surprising culinary talent was discovered at the expense of the supplies left behind—flour, fat, sugar, and fruit. For a while scones were commonplace, and pikelets not uncommon, while the more accomplished cooks produced real apple pies with pastry under and over. It was some recompense for the utterly vile conditions outside.
Battalion dispositions were A Company on the right, B Company on the left, with D and C in support. Patrols went out immediately, but their reports were not encouraging. The control banks were a hundred yards apart, the river itself two chains wide and running, according to the rainfall, in four channels or from bank to bank. The banks themselves were 20 feet high and seven feet wide on top, with a sharp drop to the water—definite tank traps and only passable to infantry page 398 after a spell of fine weather. There was, however, no evidence of enemy standing patrols on the eastern side of the river. Sergeant Spinetto, a very strong swimmer, tried to cross with a rope, but found the current too swift and had difficulty in returning. Obviously the only way to cross the Lamone was with assault boats.
On the night of 3-4 December the Division had an unusual role for assault troops. It was to simulate a crossing to cover a real crossing by 46 Division on the left of the enemy-held town of Faenza, and all arms did their best to make it a good show: tanks lumbered about without going anywhere, engineers dumped bridging material in full view, and mortars became active.
The night was cold and dark, with a moon due to rise at 8.15 p.m. At seven o'clock a barrage by 25-pounders came down 400 yards on the enemy side of the river and after half an hour began to creep forward at the rate of 100 yards every five minutes. Simultaneously the battalion three-inch mortars opened up with smoke and high explosive, while the six-pounders used high explosive and tracer. The platoons opened fire with Brens, rifles, Piats and three-inch mortars, and the machine-gunners fired belt after belt into the darkness.
Wireless silence was broken for the occasion and the enemy should have picked up some surprising information. Messages were sent in clear to give him every assistance, and the battalion conducted an imaginary attack over the river. Platoons reported the capture of strongpoints, asked for artillery support, stirred up the engineers for not getting bridges over the river, reported casualties, and jeered at each other for not getting forward fast enough. A good time was had by all, and the deception was so effective that intercepted enemy messages reported that they were being savagely attacked, and later, when the show was over, that the attack had been beaten off. The New Zealand casualties were two wounded, and 46 Division made good its bridgehead. Two more feint attacks were put in the next day by the field guns and smoke-generating units while 46 Division was consolidating and extending its position. Nothing further of note occurred in the 21 Battalion area until the afternoon of the 6th, when it was announced that the battalion page 399 team would play 5 Field Regiment at 1 p.m. on 8 December. They won 5—3. With the 46 Division across the river on one flank and the Canadians wading through the mud to capture Ravenna on the other, the German High Command had enough on its hands without stirring up trouble on 21 Battalion's front, which remained quiet until the battalion was relieved by 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade on the night of 10-11 December.
The troops were billeted in Forli and close to the village where the man who was responsible for their presence in Italy was born. If the Italian papers ran a births, deaths and marriages column in 1883, the Forli Times or its equivalent would probably have contained an announcement to the effect: ‘To Mr. and Mrs. Mussolini at Dovia on July 20, a son.’ It is a pity he was not born a girl.
The billets in Forli were a definite come-down after the Lamone casas, and for once the troops almost wished they had not been relieved. The nights were bitterly cold, with hard frosts and a ground fog in the mornings. The rooms were bare and the wood and charcoal issues microscopic. Anything made of wood had been used for fuel by previous garrisons and even demolished houses had been thoroughly searched for odd rafters. There just wasn't any wood. Nevertheless 21 Battalion's luck was really in, for another switch had begun and the New Zealand Division was moving south of the railway line and over the river to replace British units west of Faenza, still held by the enemy. The 23rd and 28th Battalions, representing 5 Brigade, were under the command of 46 Division, but returned to New Zealand command the next day, when the switch was complete and 6 Brigade was up on the brigade's left.
The 21st Battalion returned to the line during the night of 14–15 December. A two-divisional attack had been planned for 10 Indian and 2 New Zealand Divisions, with 5 Brigade to advance about four miles and seize the slightly higher ground overlooking the Senio River. The brigade attack was to be on a three-battalion front, with 21 Battalion in reserve. A long forced march after debussing was expected, for the battalion was to advance through 23 Battalion and seize a bridge over the Senio on Route 9, but the operation did not go according page 400 to plan. The instructions were cancelled and the troops were billeted in the Orestina area, just north of the Lamone River.
The battalion waited in cold and draughty billets while the battle ebbed and flowed. The key positions of Pogliano and Celle2 were taken and lost and taken again, but by the late afternoon the enemy had had enough of a combined air, tank, artillery and infantry assault and was pulling back to the next of the innumerable rivers, the Senio. At first light on the 16th the Division attacked again, with four battalions forward, the 28th, 23rd, and 22nd from 5 Brigade and the 25th from 6 Brigade, and with the 21st still in reserve. The advance went well and by evening outposts were well up to the river line, but enemy rearguards were still on our side of the river. The Divisional Cavalry Battalion cleared German rearguards out of Faenza, and D Company 21 Battalion (Major Rogers) went into Celle in case of enemy counter-attack.
Celle was more than usually battered. Built around a crossroads, the main one in the area, its possession by the enemy had prevented wheeled transport towards the Senio. It had in consequence suffered the fire power of two armies. First the New Zealand divisional artillery had shelled Celle; then, with both sides holding part of it at the same time, mortars and bazookas had taken their toll; finally the Germans, after it had been wrested from them, had smothered it with retaliatory fire.
D Company passed over paddocks of winter wheat that had been so torn up that the shell holes were only a few paces apart, and through fields where the cornstalks were mown chest high by enfilading machine guns. The church was the only building not entirely in ruins, and it had one wall missing; the rest of the buildings were rubble heaps that the engineers used for roadmending. Scattered around were empty machine-gun belts and civilian clothing, meat tins and sheets of music, barbed wire and broken beds, cartridge boxes and crockery, mortar cases and school books. Hidden by the tree tops straight ahead stood the tower of Castel Bolognese, to the left were the ridges of the southern hills, and everywhere else stark tree trunks and farmhouses with wounds hidden by distance.
Limited advances from house to house were continued behind page 401 barrages, but it was not until the evening of the 20th that 21 Battalion was called on to move and relieve both 23 and 28 Battalions before first light.
The take-over was complete before daylight, with the battalion straddling Route 9. The line had been advanced from the sea to the mountains, but there was still no breakthrough. The decision had already been taken not to continue the offensive beyond the Senio, but to remain static for the winter months. The enemy had more divisions than we had, and our lack of depth invited a counter-offensive. We had tried to win a game with too few pieces on the board, and had failed to reach the Po Valley by the narrowest of margins—but had failed nevertheless. The Americans were stuck in the mountain snows and Eighth Army was stuck in the mud for the winter. The first thing to do was to convince Jerry that even if the advance was postponed, which he knew, and that our artillery was very short of ammunition, which it was hoped he did not know, he was not to assume that the static period was going to be in his favour. The general position was to his advantage, for with the winter closing down, it was natural to assume that our troops, like his, would for the most part be living in houses. The houses close to the stopbank could not be seen from ground level because the banks themselves were over twenty feet high and he held both of them. They were, of course, all marked on the maps, and while he held the observation points he could both observe and predict shoots on our houses, while we could only predict shoots on his.
The enemy made good use of his advantage and fired his mortars and machine guns freely by day, while self-propelled guns or tanks came up nightly and shot up our forward houses. Even if our guns were restricted to a few rounds a day, that sort of thing could not be permitted. There was plenty of tank ammunition available, and the divisional tanks were lined up a couple of thousand yards behind the forward posts and returned every shell several for one. In addition the counter-mortar organisation, long prepared for such an emergency, found full employment supporting the tanks. It had its own methods of detecting enemy weapon positions which were not ineffective —flash spotting and sound bearings from the forward troops— page 402 but these methods needed prompt reports. The forward troops were only too happy to co-operate, and telephone communication was arranged to all forward posts, with the result that by constant vigilance on the part of the pickets the direction of enemy fire was quickly reported. The resulting concentration of fire from mortar, medium machine gun, tank gun, and heavy anti-aircraft airburst changed the position materially, and the troops were able to get some sleep.
Snow fell on Christmas Eve. The troops sat in their casas with barricaded windows and doors and hoped that Jerry would remember the date. He was in fact very quiet all day, and the battalion did nothing to annoy him. Patrols went out as usual after dark, lifting mines and clearing tracks to the river bank, and one of them upset the peace by tripping over an alarm wire while coming back, causing a stand-to in B Company. There was scarcely a shot fired on Christmas Day until late in the afternoon, and the troops in the line had their dinner in peace. It consisted of tinned rations, with each strongpoint providing its own menu, and ran mostly towards soup, oxtail or steak-and-kidney stew, roast pumpkin (scrounged by the troops), plum pudding, oranges, nuts and sweets. The padre visited each platoon and held short services, and Sergeant Don Naylor organised a carol team to accompany him from post to post. The CO also paid informal visits to all company posts.
There were frequent inter-company reliefs, but nothing of note occurred until 30 December, when the Maoris relieved the battalion and it went into billets in Faenza. Forli and Faenza were the nearest approach the troops ever had to Armentieres and other behind-the-line towns in France in 1914-18. Certainly the mademoiselles were signorinas, but otherwise, with due allowance for 25 years' advance in civilisation, the amenities were the same. There were cinemas and restaurants with waitresses, and cosy spots where small gatherings could discuss a bottle or so of vino. The Dorchester in Forli was an English Naafi, which was a home away from home for mud-caked Kiwis back from the Senio, while in Faenza the troops could relax and gaze on a ceiling painted by an amateur Michelangelo.
The possibility of an enemy push across the Senio was still page 403 in the minds of General Headquarters, and the troops were put to digging defences around Faenza. It was a wet, cold and miserable job digging trenches in the waterlogged countryside, and it would have raised a sardonic grin on the face of an old-timer from France should he have passed that way. When not trench-digging it was a time of light training and heavy relaxation until 9 January, when the battalion took over from the Maoris in the old sector. It was during this spell in the line that the battalion made itself the most talked of unit in the Division by reporting the presence of a train. During the night of 14-15 January a train was distinctly heard due north of 15 Platoon.
No train could possibly use that damaged line, and the troops did not believe their own ears; nevertheless it was heard three times during the night. The Ghost Train, as it came to be called, caused a tremendous stir at Brigade Headquarters. The artillery lost a lot of sleep shelling the track, and the brigade tanks were alerted. Daylight put the report in the right perspective—clearly a case of jitters, or reinforcements with overripe imaginations, or the delayed action of an overdose of vino. The fact that a standing patrol of 17 Platoon of D Company 26 Battalion also heard the ghost train that night was attributed to the same cause or causes. Divisional Intelligence really sat up when the following night's reports were analysed. No. 16 Platoon reported a train moving across the front before daylight, and 22 Battalion turned in two reports of a train heard in the night. Air photographs were called for and clearly showed that the line had not been repaired, and it just was not possible to run a train on what was left of the rails; and if it was possible, that train would have to dispense with bridges. More reports were compiled by Divisional Intelligence and weighty deductions made, which boiled down to the theory that, if the enemy was capable of performing miracles of engineering, he was bringing up panther turrets to strengthen his defences.
The 21st Battalion did not hear the ghost train any more, but others did. The 22nd Battalion heard it during the night of 16-17 January, an anti-aircraft battery heard it the next night, and 10 Indian Division reported train noises during the nights of the 18th and 20th. The 21st Battalion was relieved page 404 by 28 Battalion on 23 January and, not to be outdone, the latter reported the ghost train during the nights of the 26th and 28th.
No explanation was ever forthcoming. Probably the answer was the combination of still, frosty nights and a blanket of fog, plus a train that was running ten miles away and a trick of acoustics.
The battalion was given the option of remaining in Faenza or moving back to Forli for the rest period, and it chose the latter town. The air in Forli was full of smuts from diesel oil burners, which were converted charcoal burners and exploded at irregular intervals. But Faenza was under distant shellfire and Forli was not. The determining factor in the choice of locality was neither the absence of shellfire nor the presence of oil-fuel burners, however, but the fact that a furlough draft of four officers and 98 other ranks of the 5th and 6th Reinforcements, who had been in Fiji before serving with 2 NZ Division, were marching out, and the facilities of the larger town offered more scope for farewells.
The Tongariro draft list was circulated on 1 February, and farewells began immediately. There was a formal parade the next day, when the CO spoke to and inspected the draft, the battalion presented arms, and the brigade band played them off the parade ground. Within the hour the depleted battalion was moving back to Faenza. The next day 103 reinforcements marched in. They were mostly 3 NZ Division men from the Pacific, arriving via New Zealand and Egypt. They had done a lot of training and some campaigning against the Japanese, and it was not their fault that there were not many Japs around their part of the Pacific. They called themselves half-defiantly and half-bitterly the ‘Coconut Bombers’. They had their first taste of Italian active service when the battalion relieved the Maoris from 6 to 21 February.
The 14th of February was notable for the introduction by the enemy of a little psychological warfare. Leaflets were fired over the area containing information on how to produce symptoms of various diseases. The instructions were guaranteed harmless, and ended with the motto,‘Better a few weeks ill than all your life dead’. You could take your choice of skin inflammation, dysentery, paralysis, stomach ulcers, heart disease, or tuberculosis. page 405 The pessimists pointed out that various chemists' supplies were needed, and that chemists' shops were not usually found in the forward area; also that army medical officers were notoriously suspicious, and what would happen if half the battalion paraded sick with heart disease or stomach ulcers did not invite contemplation. The desirability of staying alive was emphasized by a blitz on platoon houses, five of which were badly knocked about with delayed-action shells that penetrated a couple of stone walls before exploding, necessitating hours of reinforcing with sandbags. It was hoped that our counter-blitz was equally successful.
A new policy regarding machine guns was introduced about this time. Each infantry battalion had its own guns and trained its own gunners. Second-Lieutenant Knowles,3 who had been in charge of the attached platoon from 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, was attached to 21 Battalion and took over its Machine Gun Platoon. With the paramount need for another infantry brigade, 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion was changed into an infantry battalion and became a unit in the newly formed 9 Infantry Brigade. The Divisional Cavalry was also disbanded as such and formed into an infantry battalion, while 22 (Motor) Battalion made the third unit of the new brigade.
The Division had thus returned to its original formation of three infantry brigades, but had its armoured brigade in addition. Even with this accession of infantry strength, another brigade (Gurkhas) had to be taken under command to keep up the momentum in the next campaign. Truly the infantry soldier had come into his own again.
That tour of duty was much the same as the previous one: a mixture of snow, rain and mud, hiding up by day and patrolling by night. All day you tried to convince yourself that snow capes reaching from neck to waist made you invisible, and that legs and arms black against the snow did not really matter at night when you were worming your way up to a Jerry post with the idea of throwing the odd grenade. At night you were quite convinced that the cape itself did not matter with extremities showing like dark hemstitching on a white sheet.4page 406
By day there were the usual mortar, artillery, and rocket guns searching for and occasionally finding inhabited casas, and if there was rain and poor visibility each side improved its defences; companies in reserve maintained the roads in the battalion area, and the Machine Gun Platoon finished its training and came into the line for a little live target experience; the machine-gunners dug their guns in and shot up every known enemy post and thoroughly enjoyed themselves, particularly as the enemy did not retaliate. Prior to relief on the 21st the battalion organised a shoot called a ‘Chinese attack’, with all its own and attached support arms. Again every known and several unknown enemy posts were shot up and again there was little retaliation. Taken by and large it was an instructive period for the Coconut Bombers. The rest of the battalion was glad to get back to Faenza again.
The following rest period was taken up with practising river crossings with kapok bridges and assault boats, watching demonstrations with Wasp and Crocodile flame-throwers, and wondering where and when the real thing was coming off. The Russians were close to Berlin, the British and Americans not far off and maybe the war would end first.
On the afternoon of the 24th the battalion gave a demonstration of river crossing. The distance between stopbanks was about a hundred yards and the river 25 feet wide. The audience was a distinguished one, consisting of the GOC, CRA, CRE, brigade commanders, staff officers, battalion commanders, 9 Brigade officers, and newly arrived officers from 3 NZ Division.
Launching two kapok bridges and assault boats, the troops were completely across in three and a half minutes. Wasps then demonstrated their flame-throwing capacity by mounting the stopbanks and flaming the opposite bank, while Crocodiles showed what they could do by directing their fire from the foot of the bank.
Colonel McPhail was informed that the battalion would not change over as planned with the Maoris in the line, but would repeat the demonstration in conjunction with the engineers, who would throw bridges over the river behind the assaulting troops. The show was arranged for 3 March and the audience was even bigger than at the previous command performance. page 407 Everything went well, the sun shone brilliantly, the engineers threw a high and a low-level bridge across the river in record time, and General Freyberg was complimentary. Two days later the troops returned to Camerino to train and organise for the spring offensive—if the war did not end first.
A and C Companies were billeted in Morro, B, D and Administrative Companies in Muccia, Support in Serravalle, and Battalion Headquarters in Strada. While training and sports filled the days, there was a thorough comb-out of all those, irrespective of rank, who showed the slightest signs of war weariness. The last campaign—and everybody knew it would be the last campaign—was no place for tender nerves or low morale. The result was a battalion with a hard core of tough fighters to whom the prospect of another battle was not distasteful, while the rest were fresh troops from 3 Division and the Pacific.
The battalion took a day off on 18 March and entertained all the children in the area at a party. There were actually two parties, one at Muccia and the other at Morro, and at both there were sports, music, and games with prizes that came out of the battalion funds, and afternoon tea provided by the cooks out of the battalion rations. The troops enjoyed it as much as the kids.
The sure sign that training was nearing its end came on the 20th with orders to prepare for a brigade ceremonial parade on the 24th. The battalion steadied its nerve by beating the Maoris at both Rugby and hockey, and began to smarten up in readiness for the ordeal, for ceremonial parades are not popular with front-line soldiers. A battalion rehearsal on the 22nd was followed by a brigade rehearsal the following day; but that was an occasion, for the salute was taken by the brigade's former commander, Major-General Kippenberger, standing, with the aid of a walking stick, on two artificial feet. He had lost his own at Monte Trocchio before Cassino. The big parade was held on the 24th at Castel Raimondo, where the troops were inspected by the Eighth Army Commander, Lieutenant-General McCreery, accompanied by Lieutenant-General Freyberg. The New Zealand High Commissioner in London, the Hon. W. J. Jordan, was also present and visited the unit the following day. He was in high good humour at being mistaken page 408 for an Italian, or possibly an enemy agent, the same morning. He said he had risen early and was leaning on the rail of a bridge in Camerino admiring the view spread out below. He remarked to a passing soldier: ‘My word, this is a beautiful country.’ The Kiwi looked at him suspiciously for a moment and then asked: ‘Where the hell did you learn to speak such good English?’
The troops entertained 24 Battalion at a sports gala at Serravalle on the 28th, which was run on the same lines as that held with 23 Battalion on the same ground the previous year. The officers and sergeants of each company played their opposite numbers at football and hockey, and on the day the battalion had the greater array of sporting talent. The provision of a little drop of something on the sideline added to the conviviality of the occasion. The highlight of the day was the officers' match and it was the only really closely contested game, with the battalion scoring a one-point lead in the last few minutes. The spectators were loud in their approbation and generous with their advice.
The next day, in spite of the handicap of a slight hangover, the battalion team played 18 Armoured Regiment in the final round of the divisional competition and won 13—9, thus establishing the team as one of the three divisional champions. And the next day, 30 March, the news was out—back to the Senio tomorrow. It was a quick move, but it suited everybody. The Coconut Bombers were keen to show their mettle and the old-timers liked it better that way.
The battalion's casualties from October 1944 to March 1945 were eight killed and 25 wounded.
1 Lt-Col E. A. McPhail, DSO, MC and bar, m.i.d.; Wyndham; born Wanganui, 31 Dec 1906; bank official; CO 23 Bn 6 May-10 Jun 1944, 4 Aug-13 Oct 1944; CO 21 Bn 30 Oct 1944-25 May 1945; wounded 9 Apr 1943.
3 Capt J. L. Knowles; Timaru; born NZ 20 Oct 1920; bank officer.
4 White jackets and trousers replaced snow capes about this time.