CHAPTER 17 — To the Senio
To the Senio
THE last week of October and the first three weeks of November 1944 constituted one of the happiest months the battalion spent in Italy. The weather was often brilliantly sunny, although on some days it was wet and cold and on 10 November it snowed. The surroundings were lovely in the extreme—a well-cultivated valley with snow-capped mountains on the skyline, trees of various kinds with late autumn leaves red and gold in the sunshine, white oxen drawing the ploughs, houses cleaner and people more welcoming than they had been farther south. Indeed, relations with the local Italians were never better.
Thus, Colonel Thomas could later write. ‘November 44 was the most pleasant and comfortable month yet experienced in Italy—for we met for the first time the Italian of Shelley and Keats, the simple country peasant, generous and for the most part sincere, who welcomed us into his home and played the courteous host. We all had good billets and there were few who did not know of a fire-place where they were welcome to foregather, drink the various wines of the district, and have even an incentive to learn the language. In some cases, indeed, the “incentives” were most attractive, many quite reached the standard of Italian beauty we had learned to expect from prewar fiction.’
The CO reinstituted the writing of company diaries at this time and the official diarist of C Company was able to confirm the Colonel's judgment: ‘Our stay in Camerino proved very enjoyable. The local population who had treated us well were very sorry to see us leave: women and children were seen crying when our trucks were pulling out.’
But, of course, the establishing of good relations with the Italians was secondary to training, which was pursued in the mornings with great vigour. An inter-company parade-ground drill and marching competition, won by B Company under Captain Dodds, stimulated interest that might otherwise have been lacking. But even the older hands, who found some aspects of routine training in drill monotonous, were interested in the page 407 ‘Lifebuoys’ and larger flame-throwers on which some training was now given. Members of the signals platoon also found their new 48 sets to be the best ever. But even route-marching was a pleasure in those days when men were getting fit and able to enjoy the scenery. ‘All-day route march, which was quite enjoyable, passing through beautiful country, through village of Seppio, along a hillside road and up a steep rocky gorge to little town of Pioraco. Truck came out to meet us at midday with lunch on board. On way home called in at showers on river below Mecciano.’1
Most of the afternoons were devoted to sport, mainly intercompany and later inter-unit rugby matches, although those who preferred other sports were also given every encouragement. On 9 November, all companies played their opposite numbers in 21 Battalion: the games and subsequent parties did much to build up what the CO described as ‘a camaraderie between the two units such as we have never been able to attain previously’. The 23rd was well represented at the divisional boxing tournament held at Matelica on 19 November, when Cyril McKenzie2 won the middleweight title. Leave to Rome, Florence and Riccione was rather strictly rationed, but the 21st and the 23rd ran their own private leave scheme in which men took their bedrolls and were billeted in a house six miles out of Florence. This worked very well and over half the battalion enjoyed a few days’ leave. Entertainment in Camerino was also plentiful and good. British ENSA, Canadian and Italian concert parties entertained the troops in the Opera House and films were also shown regularly.
During this period, 8 officers and 113 other ranks joined or rejoined the unit, bringing its strength up to 36 officers and 746 men. Some important changes in command took place: Brigadier Burrows was succeeded in command of 5 Brigade by Brigadier C. L. Pleasants; Lieutenant-Colonel McPhail left the unit to take command of the 21st, a fact which had more than a little to do with the closer relations established between these two units. Major Don Grant now became second-in-command of the 23rd, while Captain Brittenden took command of A Company. Captain T. C. Buchanan3 became Adjutant; Captain K. M. Emanuel4 became RMO in place of Captain D. B. Robertson, who had rendered excellent service since the unit left Africa.page 408
While emphasis was placed during this training period on physical fitness and mastery of weapons, Colonel Thomas was determined to build up the unit spirit and morale. Each company was encouraged to build up the finest possible company spirit: men lived and trained together and soon found themselves united as they had not been before. An NCOs' school under Major McArthur was planned for newly appointed and promoted NCOs but its programme was curtailed by the move back to the line. The CO also saw that the officers checked any tendency to slackness in dress and discipline in their men. Battalion parades were held frequently to bring the companies together and to give men the feeling of belonging to 23 Battalion. At the end of this training, the C Company diarist recorded: ‘The result has been a definite building of a team spirit and the platoon commanders have at last a personal touch with the men’.
On 24 November the battalion moved in RMT trucks north to the divisional concentration area, which was about 30 miles along Route 9 from Rimini. Since the withdrawal of the New Zealanders from the line, the Eighth Army had been slowly pushing the enemy back. On the coast, 1 Canadian Corps was nearing Ravenna while, on the inland sector, 5 British Corps was touching the Lamone River about nine miles beyond Forli, the large town which was to serve the New Zealand Division as a winter base. After two miserable days in the village of Borello, the 23rd moved into Forli to await its turn in the forward area. By this time, with the addition of the dismounted Divisional Cavalry to 6 Brigade and of 22 Battalion to the 5th, the New Zealand Division had two infantry brigades with four battalions each. The winter war was more than ever a struggle of infantry against infantry. No division could have enough infantrymen.
In 5 Brigade, 21 and 22 Battalions entered the line east of Faenza while the 23rd and 28th remained in reserve. For ten days the 23rd waited in Forli, route-marching in the mornings and having lectures on river crossings and the like. Instruction in the use of assault boats was followed by a ‘live’ exercise on the Montone River. ‘The river was in flood and many anxious moments were spent when things went wrong, but no one took to the drink,’ says the B Company diary.
While the 23rd waited in some discomfort to be called forward, the campaign made a distinct advance. Assisted by mock attacks made by 5 and 6 New Zealand Brigades and by 10 page 409 Indian Division, 46 British Division, now under General ‘Steve’ Weir, crossed the Lamone to the west of Faenza on the night of 3–4 December. On 8 December the 23rd was informed that 5 Brigade would relieve 138 Brigade of 46 Division within the next day or two. As events turned out, 5 Brigade had to relieve part of 169 Brigade as well as 138, and the 23rd therefore had to relieve both 6 York and Lancaster and 2/6 Lincolnshire Regiments. This relief was completed by 9 p.m. on 10 December after a most exhausting march into the area. Troop-carrying vehicles were not allowed to use the secondary roads, which were practically rivers of mud, and the men had to march in the mud or along the uneven verges for over ten miles. Owing to the impracticability of moving in any New Zealand tanks for the first few days, the tanks of the Queen's Bays, fifteen in all, remained in position under command of Colonel Thomas. In the 23rd area, B, C and A Companies, from right to left, were forward while D was in reserve. As only one bridge was up to supply 22, 23 and 28 Battalions, the problem of supplying these units, especially after wet weather had made the roads deteriorate still further, was a real one.
Some drivers who had known the Terelle ‘Terror Track’ declared they preferred it to the one they now had to use to supply 5 Brigade across the Lamone west of Faenza. Whereas at Terelle they could and did move at full speed, this was quite impossible in the mud. Thus, it often took the jeep train with rations twelve hours to get from Forli to 5 Brigade Headquarters. Harassing fire was a trouble but was nothing compared with the condition of the roads. On the night of 12–13 December, for instance, out of a convoy of twenty-six jeeps with trailers, two jeeps crashed over a bank, six trailers had to be temporarily abandoned beside the track and only sixteen won through to Brigade Headquarters. But that was not the end of the journey. All the 23rd companies, except B, which had to be supplied by mule train, had their rations delivered by jeep. If jeeps had accidents, so, too, did mules. The B Company diary or report for December picturesquely describes the mules' reactions to nebelwerfer fire: ‘On one occasion just as they reached Coy HQ, the mules decided that they did not like “Minnie” and headed for home and Mother, scattering their loads far and wide’.
Before joining in a large-scale attack, the 23rd occupied this area for four days, days that were full of incident. Enemy guns, mortars and tanks were all very active. The houses, in which the men took turns to rest, were subjected to some severe con page 410 centrations. For example, 9 Platoon's casa received six direct hits. Some casualties were sustained but, as 5 Brigade occupied the higher ground and had slightly better observation than the enemy, the Germans suffered more severely. But casualties on 11 December led to two stretcher-bearers and another man from B Company being sent in error to an enemy-occupied house, where they were taken prisoner. This meant that the Germans knew the New Zealanders had re-entered the line and were probably going to be used in an attack. At any rate, the Germans shot propaganda leaflets over the battalion area next day. These leaflets praised the courage of the New Zealanders but declared that whenever the British were held up they employed the New Zealanders to do their fighting for them. ‘You may reach Faenza but every yard towards that town must be paid for with the life-blood of hundreds of New Zealanders.’
As usual, patrolling preceded the attack. The patrol activity was very much a two-way affair. C Company patrols which tried to occupy Casas Magnana and Colombarina came under heavy fire. These houses were consequently hammered thereafter by both tanks and mortars. An enemy patrol into C's area on 11 December led to the firing of DF tasks by artillery and mortars. But it was on B's sector that the enemy concentrated his attention. In the early hours of 13 December, he tried to capture houses occupied by 10 and 12 Platoons. The enemy efforts are fully described in a German ‘Report on the Action’, subsequently captured and translated by W. D. Dawson of the 23rd intelligence section:
‘Cpl. Kaminski's patrol left Company HQ at Fondi di Sotto at 0240 hrs and went on from there to the point of attack at 0300 hrs. The Assault section of Cpl. Kaminski's fighting patrol forced an entrance to the house with Faustpatronen and hand grenades, but fighting developed inside the house, machine pistols and hand grenades being used. The Assault covering section then opened fire with MG and hand grenades but were themselves attacked by MG fire from the rear. The enemy then put in a counter-attack.
‘Cpl. Dieselmeier's patrol came forward…and reached the house on the other side. It began firing and attacked immediately. On the open ground in front of the house the patrol leader was hit by MG fire and wounded, as were also the Nos. 1 and 2 on the LMG. In order to get a clear picture of the situation, I ordered a third fighting patrol under Cpl. Ungar to go in from the front, with orders to attack and make contact page 411 with the other fighting patrols. Cpl. Ungar's patrol reached the patrol in front of the house with the aid of strong MG and machine pistol fire. They could, however, get no further forward. Ungar's patrol then returned bringing Cpl. Dieselmeier who had been seriously wounded and another wounded man with them…. After the arrival of Cpl. Ungar and a further three wounded I was able to get a clear picture of the situation. Both fighting patrols had suffered casualties and had been warded off in close in-fighting by the occupants of the house but, above all, by the immediate enemy counter-attack. I sent in a further section to get in the wounded who were crying for help. This section met such heavy fire that I had to recall it and await daybreak…. Three wounded were captured by the enemy…. Losses in men: 1 dead, 9 wounded. Losses in weapons: 2 LMGs, 2 Machine pistols, 1 signal pistol, 1 rifle 41, 5 carbines 98 K and 1 discharger cup.’
The B Company account of this action differed from the German only in explaining that both 10 and 12 Platoon houses were attacked. No. 10 Platoon, under Second-Lieutenant McIntosh,5 had taken one wounded prisoner while 12 Platoon, under Second-Lieutenant R. J. Wilson, had killed one and taken three prisoners from I and III Battalions 200 Panzer Grenadiers. About 9.30 a.m. seven German stretcher-bearers approached 10 Platoon area under a Red Cross flag and were allowed to remove a wounded German from a dugout below an enemy-held house. One outcome of this German setback was a substantial increase in German mortaring and shelling of the area. As Private J. McDowall of B Company recorded in his diary: ‘Sat in house and Jerry threw everything at us. As bad as Cassino the older boys say’.
B and C Company patrols sent out prior to the attack secured the required information concerning ‘going’ for tanks and proposed lines of approach to enemy houses. Not on patrol but as a sniper in a forward observation post in C Company's area, Private Bruning6 did good work until he was wounded. He was able to claim one ‘certainty’ and one ‘possible’, but his good shooting had also discouraged German observers of C Company positions.page 412
By noon on 13 December, eighty New Zealand tanks had crossed the Lamone and the stage was practically set for a night attack with supporting barrage plus tank, mortar and machinegun fire. This was to be the first large-scale attack of the kind that the 23rd had participated in since December 1943. On this occasion, 5 Corps was to attack on the night of 14–15 December with the New Zealand Division on the right and 10 Indian Division on the left. Farther to the left, 2 Polish Corps was also to join in the attack. Fifth Brigade was the attacking New Zealand formation and it was committing the Maoris on the right, the 23rd in the centre and the 22nd on the left. On the right of the Maoris, two companies of the 25th were to cover the right flank against an attack from Faenza, which was still held in strength by the enemy. The infantry objective was a series of road and track junctions north-west and north-east of the village of Celle. Once this objective was taken, the tanks of 18 Armoured Regiment were to exploit to the bridge at the crossing of the River Senio by Route 9 and, if possible, establish a bridgehead over the Senio. A consequence of any serious threat to Route 9 was expected to be the enemy evacuation of Faenza. The taking of this town and progress along Route 9 were the expected dividends from the operation. As 90 Panzer Grenadier Division, the successors to the old 90th Light, held the line opposite the New Zealanders, the fighting was expected to be hard, especially as the Germans were understood to have some sixty-four tanks, including nine Tigers, on the near side of the Senio.
The supporting artillery barrage was to be heavy. The economies that had been observed for so long with ammunition had enabled a sufficient reserve of shells to be built up for just such an operation as this was to be. On the whole attacking front were 424 guns of various calibres, made up of the guns of the three New Zealand field regiments, 1 RHA, the four field regiments of 46 Division, 1 AGRA and the Polish AGRA.7 The barrage on the 23rd's front was to be supplied by 4 and 5 Field Regiments, which were each to cover half the sector, while 1 Regiment 46 Division was to superimpose its fire on the whole sector. The barrage was to lift 100 yards every 7 minutes for the first thousand yards, then halt for 37 minutes while five regiments fired on Celle and other known enemy positions, and then move forward again at the same rate as before to just beyond the objective. Bofors guns were to mark page 413 the inter-battalion boundaries on both flanks of the 23rd by firing tracer in bursts of three rounds every two minutes. The operation orders provided for 7.2-inch guns, heavy mortars and Vickers machine guns to give special attention to Celle.
In view of later developments, it should be specially noted that no tanks were placed under command of the infantry battalions. Although he was pressed by his senior staff officer and requested by Colonel Thomas to place tanks under command, Brigadier Pleasants would not go beyond placing B Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment in support of the 23rd.
In the battalion itself, the plan was for B Company, under Major McArthur, to attack on the right, while C Company, under Major Low, attacked on the left. Since a 2000-yard advance on a company front, extending at times to 500 yards, was being undertaken over broken undulating ground, and since the enemy was known to be centring his defences around the houses as strongpoints, separate plans were worked out for each platoon. These provided for an advance, not in line as was the standard practice when following a barrage, but according to the ground, and with the definite intention of making for and capturing the various houses in the platoon sector. In his orders, Colonel Thomas named the enemy houses marked on the map and allocated them all to B and C Companies. A Company, under Major Brittenden, was to follow two to three hundred yards behind B. It had to mop up enemy posts by-passed by the leaders, collect prisoners, evacuate wounded and, if necessary, provide a platoon for the final assault on the objective. D Company, under Major Buchanan, was to remain in reserve and be available to assist the 18th tanks in the daylight exploitation role next day.
The attacking infantry in B and C Companies were most carefully briefed: all the information concerning the various houses collected from German prisoners and Italian civilians was passed down to the sections, while the nearer enemy houses were studied from the 23rd FDLs.8 All ranks knew the plan in detail, knew where to go and what to do. As one C Company private said afterwards: ‘We were so well prepared that we knew each house before we got there and the men knew exactly what to do, which window and which door to go for.’ One change in orders was made after 8 p.m. on the night of the attack. No. 12 Platoon, under Second-Lieutenant Bob Wilson, already somewhat reduced in numbers through casualties, was page 414 page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page 415 subjected to severe tank and mortar fire. A haystack in its area, occupied as a section post, was set on fire by an enemy tank, and thereafter the whole platoon area was heavily mortared. The platoon, which had entered the line 22 strong, was reduced to seven fit men. Colonel Thomas therefore arranged for 7 Platoon of A Company to replace 12 in B Company's attacking force, while 12 Platoon joined A Company for the time being.
Outside the battalion RAP, San Donato, July 1944. From left: ‘Blue’ Holdaway, Jim Penberth, Joe Cronin and Ben Rice
16 Platoon, on a 19 Regiment tank, enters Florence
Mr Churchill, wearing topee and accompanied by General Freyberg, drives past 23 Battalion
Platoon casa, Faenza. The officer is Barron Grant
‘Brewing up’, Faenza
Looking towards the Senio, just forward of Battalion Headquarters
Spring on the Senio, 8 April 1945. From left: S. J. McLaughlan, T. O'Brien, D. W. Gray, G. Cumming, R. W. J. Ryder and S. V. Cullen
By pontoon bridge over the Adige
B Company baby show, Trieste
H-hour was fixed for 11 p.m. on 14 December. About 10 p.m., the forward platoons were withdrawn to provide an adequate safety margin for the artillery's opening fire. The ‘Q’ staff served a hot meal. Battalion Headquarters moved forward into Casa Ragazzina, which was right on the start line. The night was clear and starry, the ground still muddy from the recent rain. Powerful searchlights beamed on to the 5 Brigade front at H-hour provided ‘artificial moonlight’, which was some help to the attackers and which the Germans were known to dislike. Promptly to the second at 11 p.m., the opening roar of the guns announced that the attack was on. As the shells were due to fall for seven minutes on the opening line, B and C Companies took their time about approaching the start line. No one wanted the casualties sustained in the attack a year before when so many were wounded before leaving the start line on Sfasciata ridge. As the men of B and C Companies knew the ground to their immediate front so well, they preferred to wait for the barrage to settle down, then to make their first bound at speed, and thereafter try to keep up with the barrage.
The first shells of the barrage showed that the battalion tactical headquarters was certainly sited well forward. ‘Trust Sandy Thomas to take a chance!’ said one signaller, as he flattened out. This hilltop house was none too robust and it shook as it received several direct hits. Prepared for the worst, most of its occupants ‘sat in underground cellar while our barrage started off, shells raining all round the house, and Jerry sent some fierce stuff back too, lasting some hours’.9 Fortunately, no one was wounded. For more than an hour, no radio communication was received from the advancing companies and there was some speculation as to whether or not the enemy was jamming the 23rd's messages.
The infantry were, in fact, advancing and taking the houses according to plan. Once they caught up with the barrage, so closely did the men of both companies follow it that the enemy who had taken shelter in the houses had no time to reoccupy slit trenches outside before the South Islanders were upon them. page 416 In almost every case, prisoners were taken after more or less torrid exchanges of fire and varying numbers of casualties.
On the right of B Company, 7 Platoon, under Second-Lieutenant Morrison,10 took its first house, an unnamed casa halfway between the Celle road and Casa Colombaia, after a brisk encounter in which twenty Germans eventually surrendered. Plans went wrong for a few minutes as Maoris, executing a flanking movement on the right, opened fire on 7 Platoon. ‘But my fluent command of “French” even surpassed the din of battle and stopped their fun and games before they managed to bump any one off,’ commented Major ‘Wiff’ McArthur later. Nevertheless, what with the fighting and the shell and mortar fire it had struck, 7 Platoon had lost its officer, its sergeant (Frank Fielding), and other NCOs wounded, and was left with only enough men to guard the prisoners. Major McArthur got in touch with Major Brittenden and 9 Platoon was sent forward to take over 7's task in the attack.
In the meantime, the rest of B Company, 10 and 11 Platoons, had continued down the Celle road. They encountered quite a surprising number of Germans. Some were already dead, killed by the shells of the barrage. The rest were either shot or forced to surrender. The B Company men cleared the Casas Gavallana and Domenico without much bother but struck opposition as they approached Celle. In and around Celle itself, the artillery and heavy mortars had wrought frightful havoc, but some determined enemy survived to give fight. B Company was now hard on the heels of the barrage and the noise was such that men ‘could not hear one another shout’.11 The softening-up process had its effect, however, and, although 11 Platoon lost some men at this point, Celle was occupied soon after 3 a.m.
Major McArthur now left 9 Platoon of A Company in Celle to hold the crossroads there while he pushed on northwards to the cemetery with the rest of his force. This was only a remnant by this time, as only fifteen men were left in 10 Platoon, eight in 11, and five in Company Headquarters. This force, scarcely a platoon in strength, reached the cemetery safely. Two Germans came sauntering down the road, probably expecting to join their comrades or to discover from them how the battle was going. They joined their mates ‘in the bag’. During the OC's reconnaissance of the area, tanks were heard moving and, shortly page 417 afterwards, three tanks and infantry opened fire on the B Company men. Fortunately, perhaps, these tanks preferred to wait till daylight, or until the whole situation was somewhat clearer, before advancing. Leaving the 11 Platoon men to dig in at the cemetery, whence one stalwart had made an unavailing attempt to Piat a tank heard moving some distance away, Major McArthur proceeded to establish a strongpoint with Company Headquarters and 10 Platoon at the farthest forward house on the outskirts of Celle. Only at this stage did McArthur manage to get through on his radio to Battalion Headquarters and report progress. He was pleased to report a good bag of prisoners but was somewhat concerned about the very obvious nearness of German tanks. His need for tank support was equally obvious.
On the left, C Company had also made good progress and taken nearly one hundred prisoners. No. 14 Platoon lost its officer, Second-Lieutenant Steele, on the start line, but the platoon carried on with Sergeant Eric Batchelor giving a good lead. Its first house, Casa Colombarina, was a recognised enemy strongpoint and it certainly gave trouble. Casualties were sustained: Private J. H. Robinson,12 the wireless operator, was one of the wounded and his 38 set was temporarily put out of action. The ten prisoners, who survived the assault, were sent back with the walking wounded. The platoon took its next house without any bother. The next, Casa Bersana, was easier still as it contained no enemy. Batchelor and his men were advancing to the final objective when they heard two tanks moving quite near and, separated as they were from the rest of the company, they decided that discretion was the better part of valour and withdrew to Casa Bersana where, somewhat to their surprise, they found a strong patrol of Germans in occupation. Sergeant Batchelor and Corporal Howat13 promptly opened fire and led the attack on this house. They shot two Germans and the rest surrendered. The platoon proceeded to consolidate and to wait word from Company Headquarters.
The capture of each house cannot be detailed but the experience of 15 Platoon, under Lieutenant Bill Williams, in taking the Casa Canovetta was probably reasonably typical of the many platoon attacks launched that night. The shells of the barrage were still hitting the top story when Williams and his men arrived in the yard and fired a few bursts of Bren or Thompson page 418 sub-machine gun fire through the windows. Once the barrage had rolled on, Williams strode up to the nearest door, opened it and gave it a vigorous kick. It opened only a few inches but sufficiently far for a German inside to fire a volley through the open crack. Standing with his back to the wall a yard away from the door, Williams drew the tape from a phosphorus smoke bomb, kicked the door open again and pushed the bomb inside. This no doubt caused the nearer enemy acute discomfort but it did not stop the fire which came from most of the windows. Williams's men had taken up positions on both sides of the house according to plan and were returning the enemy's fire, but drastic action was required to end this fire-fight. Sergeant Ivor Harvey14 seized the platoon Piat and dashed forward through the machine-pistol and rifle fire to shoot two bombs through the main front door. The first failed to explode but was later found to have wounded an officer, the commander of I Battalion 200 Panzer Grenadiers. The second bomb exploded and shook part of the building. The platoon of West Coasters dashed in to exploit Harvey's success. Germans began to emerge from a side door but Private ‘Cheetah’ McIndoe shot the leaders. Williams and some of his men hurled a few grenades into the house and the attack was all over. The Germans surrendered.
Then followed an interlude with its humorous side. The prisoners were called out and emerged, one at a time. Charles Monaghan,15 a wag from Southland, halted each man in turn with his Italian request ‘Uno momento!’ as he relieved them of their machine pistols, Lugers and other weapons, as well as binoculars and other useful items. Two lightly wounded members of the platoon, who lacked both the German and Monaghan's command of Italian, pushed and pulled the thirtynine prisoners into a column of three and marched them away. Inside the house, Williams found ten more dead and wounded Germans. But it was more than time to push on if the barrage was to be caught while it observed the 37-minute ‘stander’ at Celle. Thus, from house to house, the troops moved, losing a few good men but rejoicing in the number of prisoners taken and in such a sight of dead Germans as few of them had ever seen before.page 419
No. 13 Platoon, under Lieutenant C. B. Grant, also made a good advance. At one house—probably Casa Fondi—Grant sent Corporal P. J. Robinson and his section in search of Germans who had been seen pulling back into a building. While Private R. F. Thomson16 pushed a door open with his rifle, Robinson threw a grenade inside. After the ensuing explosion, Robinson walked into what proved to be the cow byre part of the house in which the enemy had constructed an additional dugout or shelter. Robinson says: ‘One German was dead, some were shamming, some just scared. In the “dugout” a candle was lit and one cheeky sod spoke in English inviting me in…. Major Low came in and, with his torch, roused the last one from a shelf. Total prisoners here were 16.’ As they advanced across some open ground, some of the leaders were pinned down by a Spandau operated from a slit trench. A burning haystack behind the German machine-gunner enabled Private Litchfield17 to stalk him and, after shooting one man, to take two prisoners. Robinson and Private Thomas18 investigated one straw stack which had not been set on fire and hustled five Germans out of it. Inside they found a heavy wireless set. Thus the advance went on to the objective.
Major Low moved his headquarters forward from house to house as his platoons cleared them. Occasionally, he caught up with and got involved in the fighting. But, for the most part, his communications with 13 and 15 Platoons worked so well that he was kept well informed of developments. His chief problem was to find enough men to evacuate the wounded and to look after the prisoners, who could not be thumbed back in those numbers in that country. When he heard over the air of this problem, Colonel Thomas sent Captain Dick Harrison and a detachment of HQ Company men forward to relieve the C Company men of their prisoners. Two or three of C's walking wounded, such as Private Sinclair,19 were floundering back across a field of beet when they came up behind enemy posts, still manned but by-passed by the attacking infantry who had concentrated on the houses. Sinclair and his friends thus collected five or more prisoners.page 420
A Company, following in rear of B, found plenty to do. No. 12 Platoon was quickly used up in stretcher-bearing, especially when 7 Platoon suffered so many casualties. With his company reduced to 8 Platoon and Company Headquarters, Major Brittenden decided to consolidate in Celle itself. As they passed a row of burning haystacks, short of which the tanks of B Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment were halted, these A Company men came under heavy mortar and some sporadic tank-gun and machine-gun fire, but they managed to get forward to Celle. There they could find no sign of B Company. Brittenden had had his own 48 set knocked out and he therefore returned to the tanks, through whom he managed to get in touch with Battalion Headquarters. Colonel Thomas told him that B Company was forward of Celle and that A should link up with B. After much moving from ruined house to ruined house, collecting a few stragglers and two or three badly shaken prisoners, Major Brittenden and his runner reached Major McArthur. The two company commanders decided to form a firm base in the church in Celle. Here they found 9 Platoon, and a stronger force was built up to hold this key point to the front.
Around 4 a.m. on 15 December, therefore, the attack had run its course. The bulk of the objective was in 23rd hands but Casas Salde and Gessa were still held by the enemy. The success of the attack could not be assessed in full until the danger of a counter-attack had passed. B Company had already had reason to fear the tanks on its front. Now 11 Platoon came under tank and machine-gun fire. Its men felt that they stood less than a fair chance of fending off the tanks and therefore withdrew to join the rest of the company in the north of Celle. The enemy appeared ready to launch an immediate counter-attack, supported by Mark IV tanks. On its wireless link with Battalion Headquarters, B Company called loudly and clearly for support from the B Squadron tanks.
At about the same time, Major Low was establishing C Company headquarters in Casa Camerini, with one platoon forward of the road which ran west from the junction B Company was holding. C Company could also hear the enemy tanks moving on its front and over to the right in front of B Company. At 4.3 a.m., according to the unit war diary, ‘C Coy requested tank support’. Between then and dawn, C Company had tanks at Casa Gessa firing at it. No. 15 Platoon came under the worst of this tank fire. C Company repeatedly, therefore, asked for tank support. The B Squadron tanks, however, remained down page 421 the Celle road, short of the burning haystacks, and although Colonel Thomas asked the squadron commander to get his tanks forward, and later personally appealed to the tank crews when on his rounds about 6.30 a.m., the tanks did not move up to the infantry in Celle until 8 a.m.
Just about dawn, Major Low called his platoon commanders into his headquarters at Casa Camerini in order to give instructions. Although 14 Platoon's wireless had been restored to working order, Sergeant Batchelor did not know where the company headquarters was. But, taking Colin Bisley,20 Laurie Quinton21 and Cyril Neville22 with him, he set out for the house, Casa Salde, which he took to be Major Low's. While still unobserved, they saw a sentry at the door, a German wearing a German helmet. This fellow luckily chose that moment to step inside and the New Zealanders, welcoming the opportunity to increase their bag, moved in to the attack. Batchelor boldly challenged the occupants and, undeterred by their superior numbers, proceeded to shoot all who offered resistance. A German NCO engaged him in a shot for shot duel which Batchelor won. Germans tried to escape from every possible exit, but few got away as Bisley, Quinton and Neville were ready for those who were trying to dodge Batchelor. Five Germans were speedily killed. The rest surrendered and Bisley calmly entered the house to disarm them. Batchelor, who was accustomed to successes in taking prisoners, writes: ‘When I said “Bring out your prisoners” and 19 appeared, I nearly dropped’. As he had run out of ammunition, Quinton seized a German rifle to assist in herding the prisoners back and to beat off the counter-attack which appeared to be developing from the nearest German-occupied house. These signs that the enemy were going to try to rescue their friends made Batchelor hustle them along. Like a sheepdog, he herded the flock along but, instead of barking, he let a round go first to the right and then to the left rear of his flock. At the double they raced back to Casa Bersana, where the total of prisoners held was now brought to forty. Batchelor next went more directly to his conference with Major Low.
Shortly afterwards, 15 Platoon was counter-attacked by enemy infantry supported by tank fire but, aided by fire from 13 page 422 Platoon, the 15 Platoon men beat off this assault. Major Low adopted the somewhat desperate expedient of calling down artillery fire on the house occupied by his own men in order to break up the worst counter-attack. The artillery fire arrived in time and ended the threat for the time being. The artillery ‘murders’ and ‘stonks’ on targets given by B and C Companies left nothing to be desired, but Low later declared that the direct shooting an FOO could have summoned ‘would have yielded a “Hun harvest”’.
At Battalion Headquarters Colonel Thomas could see that from the point of view of the number of prisoners taken—over seventy had passed through by 4 a.m.—the attack had been a great success, but he was worried about the position of the forward companies. At 5.30 a.m., therefore, he told Major Buchanan to have D Company ready to move. When word came that C Company had been counter-attacked and 11 Platoon had been forced to fall back, the CO ordered D Company forward to Celle to consolidate the position there and between Celle and C Company. He himself, with Lieutenant Jim Bevin, then went forward to investigate the position on the spot. They were in Celle when D Company arrived there about 7.30 a.m. to link up with the forward companies. Half an hour later, four tanks of B Squadron arrived in Celle. Two of them took up a position behind B Company headquarters, now in the church, and two pulled in behind the house of a D Company platoon. During the distribution of D's platoons, Second-Lieutenant Paterson23 took one section down to the road junction formerly occupied by B Company headquarters and placed men in the houses on either side of the road. Tanks could be heard moving, and some time after 8 a.m. two Mark IV tanks supported by infantry came down the road. Second-Lieutenant Paterson ‘saw a Mk IV tank coming down the road towards him about fifty yards away with the tank commander sitting on top of his tank’. These tanks came right up to the forward houses of his section. His men had no Piats and could not offer fight. Some of them ran back to Celle as the tanks approached but five remained, lying flat on the floor while armour-piercing shells tore through the walls of their house. One man, Private Warner,24 was captured outside the house. page 423 The two tanks next approached the centre of Celle, but artillery concentrations summoned by both Lieutenant Bevin and Major Low when the tanks had been first sighted came down and the enemy infantry were forced to ground and then withdrew.
The major threat had passed, but so long as the tanks remained, as they did, outside Celle with their guns pointing into it, the 23rd could not feel very happy. As it was, the men felt somewhat aggrieved at not receiving more effective support from the tanks of B Squadron. Thus Colonel Thomas later reported: ‘Whilst I was in the village, two Mk IV Specials came in from the North of Celle and it was extremely disappointing that our tanks were not able to give battle’. Major Low observed the situation in and around Celle from the left flank and he too referred to the ‘most ineffectual and disappointing support’ given by the tanks. He wrote: ‘Throughout the day, both tanks and infantry moved up and down from Gessa to the cemetery only 350 yds from the buildings in Celle behind which we could see one of our tanks. At no time did our armour move out to engage the enemy who was dive bombed both morning and afternoon and repeatedly stonked by Mediums and Field whenever we saw him move…. Our troops, who had been halted by the tanks alone, were greatly disheartened at seeing German tanks advance, force back our right flank troops, withdraw and then manoeuvre throughout the day only 300 yds to 500 yds from our positions whilst our armour sat back evidently unable to compete’.
After this action, Colonel Thomas and his senior officers felt strongly that the operation would have been more successful if the armour had been placed under command, as requested.
The enemy tanks withdrew about midday. Major Buchanan and an NCO went forward to collect the five men who had been left in the forward house. They were found to be none the worse for their experience. The rest of the day passed quietly, apart from vigorous enemy shelling of the forward areas.
The most pleasing features of the day for the 23rd were the size of the bag of prisoners and the warmth of the congratulations received from General Freyberg. By 9 a.m. on 15 December, the battalion had checked 3 German officers and 87 other ranks through its headquarters. Most of these prisoners came from 200 Panzer Grenadiers, who had been specially moved down from Bologna to stop the Eighth Army advance. The adjutant, the orderly officer and RSM of I Battalion of this regiment were among the prisoners, one of whom declared that their CO had page 424 been killed. During the day, small numbers of prisoners were sent back, and about 7 p.m., when it was dark enough to move them back with ease, C Company sent a party of 1 officer and 37 other ranks back. Again, they were mainly from 200 PGR, but a few were from 190 Artillery Regiment and there were three Russian mule drivers. In the battalion headquarters of I 200 PGR were found many documents and marked maps which were of value to divisional and corps intelligence staffs. One of the less important documents was dated ‘14 Dec 44 Bn HQ 1/200 PGR’ and dealt with a relief and the strengthening of the German positions in the area over which the 23rd attacked that same night. In translation, these orders stated ‘… The Bn and attached troops will, in the course of relieving 2/200 on 14 Dec 44 (relief to commence at 1700 hrs) take over half the sector…. The Special Duty Pl, under comd 2 Lt. Voight, is to take over the present positions of the Assault Pl and is to prevent at all costs a break-through of enemy tanks along the road. For this purpose they will receive extra Faustpatronen….’
The fact that this relief had not been completed when the artillery barrage opened was the explanation of the number of dead Germans found on some of the roads and tracks, as well as of the large numbers found in some houses. After his morning visit to the forward companies, Colonel Thomas estimated that there were at least sixty dead Germans in the 23rd sector. Later reports indicated that the number was over eighty.
Late on 15 December, General Freyberg telephoned Colonel Thomas, congratulating all ranks of the 23rd on what he termed ‘a magnificent show’, probably the best operation the 23rd had ever performed. Although the Maoris had been pushed out of some of the houses on their objective by enemy tanks, the operation had gone well for both units on the flanks of the 23rd, and General Freyberg described it to the Brigade Major of 5 Brigade as ‘the best night operation ever carried out in Italy’.
But perhaps a member of the 23rd who had recently earned his first stripe might be allowed to have the last word on the battle for Celle. Lance-Corporal Somerville, as usual, kept his private diary up to date. He wrote:
‘We had fairly heavy casualties, though no idea of total yet. However the Ted25 got a helluva hiding. Probably will reach the Bn record for the number of prisoners…. The number of Jerry dead in our area alone is estimated at 70 so have come page 425 out on the credit side…. Where our stonks hit down there is utter terrible stark destruction…. One corner here has about 10 dead Jerry. This has been the most successful show we have had, I should say, and will go down in history of the battalion.’
On the night of 15–16 December, A and B Companies were withdrawn to the houses they had occupied before the attack and D Company took over Celle. Radio ‘intercepts’ that night indicated the likelihood of a German withdrawal over the Senio. At 4.30 a.m. on 16 December, therefore, Brigadier Pleasants ordered the advance to be continued along the original axis. The Germans evacuated Faenza that day and, in the afternoon, blew the Route 9 bridge over the Senio. D and C Companies, supported by tanks of B Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment, moved forward to houses recently vacated by the Germans. No. 17 Platoon was still some distance from the bridge but close enough to feel its house shake with the violence of the explosion when it was destroyed.
Towards evening, 15 Platoon saw eight Germans coming down the road towards the house which it had just occupied. The Germans were apparently quite unaware that the 23rd had advanced so far. Private Ramsay26 tells the story:
‘15 Pl organized a Reception Committee. Sgt. Alexander watched them through his binoculars and described them individually as they crossed a wire netting fence. “The first bastard's got a pair of glasses on him,” he said, “they're mine.” The platoon took up positions in the lean-to implement shed outside the house. I got bandages and RAP gear laid out on a table for treatment of Jerry casualties. The boys were all organized when a 13 Pl picket, seeing the enemy within 80 yds of our house and thinking we must have gone to sleep, opened fire. That spoilt the fun, as the Huns bolted. Our boys opened up but out of the party we got only two wounded whom we took prisoner.’
On 17 December both C and D Companies sent patrols forward towards the Senio. C discovered that Casa Ghiarona, shown as a large house on the map, had been demolished by the Germans. Casa Lugaccio had also been demolished. The D Company patrol towards the bridge site came under heavy fire, some of which came from the south-east side of Route 9 on the near side of the Senio. Feeling that the right flank was somewhat exposed, the CO instructed Captain Harrison, OC Support Company, to organise his carrier and anti-tank men as page 426 infantry platoons. When this was done they were sent under Lieutenant F. R. Coe to occupy the house Larghe Barbavara. The forward areas were heavily mortared in the late afternoon and Major Neil Buchanan received wounds from which he later died. ‘He was a fine chap!’ Sergeant Blampied recorded in his diary when news of his death reached him, and never was truer word written. The 23rd had known many gallant officers and men but few of finer character than Neil Buchanan. His command was temporarily taken by Second-Lieutenant Paterson, who later handed over to the company second-in-command, Lieutenant Bernie Cox.
Rationing the troops in these forward areas was a problem. In addition to the sticky roads just forward of the Lamone, there were demolitions which neither tank nor jeep could pass. Captain George Lawrence, second-in-command of C Company, solved the problem by borrowing a bullock and ox-cart which performed admirably across country, although the bullock was too slow for George's liking when machine-gun fire was coming in their direction.
On 18 December a carrier platoon patrol, under Second-Lieutenant ‘Scotty’ Anderson, tried to reach the bridge site but found the area so strongly held that Anderson considered that it was a task for a full company with tank support. The Support Company men edged forward toward another house on the early morning of 19 December but found the enemy to be holding out in a house only twenty yards away. Under a smoke screen, tanks were brought up and they proceeded to demolish the enemy-held house with AP and HE.27 Later that day, A Company came forward to relieve C. That night the tanks and the 23rd mortars fired in support of a 6 Brigade attack which was successfully directed at right-angles to Route 9. On 21 December the 23rd was relieved by 21 Battalion and all companies moved into Faenza.
The battle for Celle did much to consolidate what had been begun in the strenuous training of November, namely, the building up of morale and a confident battalion spirit in the 23rd. In war, some measure of success is necessary to prove that training, weapons and leaders are good and sound and that the men are not fighting in vain. In his letter to the wounded, written the day after the unit arrived in Faenza, Colonel Thomas thanked the men for the efforts they had made to uphold the traditions of the 23rd and stressed the decisive character of the battle they had fought. He added:page 427
‘I am afraid our casualties over the whole action have been heavy—12 were killed, 3 have died of wounds and 76 of you were wounded. The G.O.C. prior to the action stressed how vital the capture of Celle was to the Army plan and after the action expressed deep regret at our casualties together with appreciation of our success—after all there is no other Unit that can claim 80 to 100 dead Huns in the area and produce 168 fit with 24 wounded prisoners from a crack German Unit.’
In his private diary, Thomas exulted in the victory and also breathed a sigh of relief. ‘It was exhilarating—the success of it. I had been terribly worried, there were many dangerous factors, but the officers and men, particularly I might say Harry Low, did a grand show—you can always rely on the 23rd.’
In confirmation of this view on the stimulating effect of the success, Major Low stated in his report on C Company: ‘The successful night operation and the taking of large numbers of prisoners has had an excellent effect, especially with the new men. All ranks are confident of their superior ability in close fighting with German Infantry and have displayed marked aggressiveness since the attack.’ After referring to the way in which 15 Platoon had allowed an enemy party to approach it —as described above in Private Ramsay's words—he added: ‘Such keenness augurs well for future operations.’
But, for the moment, no one was concerned with future operations. After catching up on losses of sleep, most members of the 23rd concentrated on preparations for Christmas. The arrival of mail, including parcels, and beer helped to stir the feelings normally associated with the Christmas season. On Christmas Day, Padre Harding had an early morning Communion service and another service at 10 a.m. in which the battalion choir, which had been practising hard both before and after the Celle battle, distinguished itself. As usual, the officers and sergeants acted as waiters for the men at dinner. C Company's report must suffice for the battalion, although there were many variations of activity and menu. ‘The cooks excelled themselves in putting on a wonderful meal, consisting of Tomato soup, Turkey, Pork, fresh potatoes, green peas, Christmas pudding with dressing and cheese straws. Jimmy Hall28 was busy issuing each man with four bottles of beer, sweets and chocolate’. Possibly Boxing Day was not quite so page 428 happy. Certainly, Lieutenant Keith Burtt wrote in his diary: ‘Everyone seemed off colour and inclined to be short-tempered’, but possibly he was referring to officers only.
Before returning to the line on 29–30 December, all companies did some route-marching and learned something about flame-throwers and kapok bridging. The men were impressed by the converted tank Crocodile flame-throwers, but some of the men in the carrier platoon had doubts about the ‘Wasp’. ‘One of the carriers has been fitted with a flame thrower known as a “Wasp”. “Chopper” Johnson29 is on it and declares he is a certain candidate for the posthumous V.C. when he brings it into use. Tried it out in the afternoon with good effect.’30
On 27 December 54 reinforcements joined the battalion and 22 more arrived a day later. Patrols from A and D Companies went forward to reconnoitre the river-bank that day. They did not meet any enemy, but one jeep was mortared and Second-Lieutenant Wylie31 and another man were wounded. On 29 December A and B Companies relieved two companies of 2/6 Gurkhas on the right of Route 9 while, on the following day, D Company took over from A Company of the 21st on the left of the road. C Company remained in Faenza for over a week before going forward to relieve A Company. The unit spent a fortnight in the line on this occasion. As the Germans were showing aggressive intentions and the weather, combined with a serious shortage of ammunition of the heavier varieties, had precluded any possibility of another New Zealand attack for some time, the battalion was put on the defensive. Anti-tank and anti-personnel mines were therefore laid on the immediate front of the forward platoons. Patrols under Second-Lieutenant J. R. McIntosh and Lieutenant C. B. Grant discovered what use the enemy was making of certain houses and wounded two of the enemy in an unsuccessful attempt to secure a prisoner. As the Germans were using heavy guns to destroy houses, orders were given to strengthen all houses with sandbags, railway sleepers and rails. Even the mortar section in Casa Spadini in rear of D Company prepared its house against attack or heavy shell. As Private Berney32 of that section recorded on 5 January 1945: ‘Started on “Atlantic Wall” today and have “Fort page 429 Spadini” pretty well organized so it should take the whole 29 Pz to take it.’ In 15 Platoon, such West Coasters as the two Bannister brothers33 and McIndoe were in their element: in each ground-floor room of their house they put a dugout, which they joined by underground tunnels; and no part of the house was without observation, as slit trenches were placed in each corner but sealed off from the rest of the room with sandbags, which were also placed across the windows and doors. Determined that the defence should have an aggressive character, Colonel Thomas ordered each company to undertake each day at least one offensive patrol or shoot with Brens, 2-inch mortars and Piats. He himself went up twice in an Auster aircraft to observe the Senio banks, the tracks in the snow and other evidence of enemy activity.
On 4 January the GOC visited Battalion Headquarters with Brigadier Pleasants to pass on certain decisions. The Division, he said, could expect to stay in the line for at least six weeks and then withdraw to train for a big spring offensive. Fifth Brigade was to work with two battalions in the line, one in Faenza and one in Forli. Every effort was to be made to prepare for a long but vigorous defensive.
The winter conditions and the troops' reactions are perhaps best described in the words of Colonel Thomas's private diary.
‘6/1/45…. Today jacked up a variety of machine guns for the forward platoons, and so with the wiring and mining we are effecting we should be quite snug. Tonight it is snowing heavily, already it is six inches deep. The fruit trees and grape vines look weirdly beautiful now and the shell-scarred ground is finding that it can still put on, however temporarily, some of its old charm. The Hun shells methodically and we reply with feeling…. 11/1/45. The snow lies thick everywhere now and has quite lost its novelty. It is miserable. The Brigadier called in and we went round the platoons in the snow. The men have done really great work on their defences, especially as this is the first time we have attempted to construct a defensive line in Italy. Casualties have not been heavy and most of the men have a fire to warm themselves with after pickets and patrols. Everyone seems in grand spirits, despite their discomfort.’page 430
On 12 January 22 Battalion relieved the 23rd which, after collecting gear in Faenza, moved back to Forli for twelve days of what has elsewhere been described as ‘light training and heavy relaxation’. A concert by the Kiwi Concert Party, the arrival of twenty-four reinforcements, training on kapok and other bridging material, the inevitable route marches, vaccinations and inoculations—these were included in the activities of those days.
The 23rd's next period in the line lasted from 26 January till 14 February. C and D Companies moved into the houses they had occupied before. A took over B's old area, while B moved into reserve. Patrolling and exchanges of fire of all kinds continued. The more-important patrols were now directed to obtaining prisoners or setting ambushes, but the frozen snow made silent movement virtually impossible and patrols usually clashed with the enemy without securing a prisoner. Platoon commanders in C. B. Grant, J. P. Scanlan,34 P. W. Gresson,35 W. D. Williams36 and Sergeant Kerr37 led the more important of these patrols.
On occasion the amount of shooting was stepped-up. Thus, when General Freyberg thought the enemy might be thinning-out on the New Zealanders' front, a mock attack or heavy fire demonstration was laid on. On occasion, too, the enemy brought up an SP gun or tank to shoot up the houses occupied by the 23rd. The worst of these occasions was on 10 February, when the Germans managed to collapse 16 Platoon's fortified room and temporarily bury several men. Major Reginald Boyle, OC D Company, hurried forward to assist with rescue operations. Apparently aware that they were on their target, the Germans brought more fire to bear on the house, killed Major Boyle and Private A. B. Stewart and wounded four men. In his private diary, Colonel Thomas referred to Reg Boyle's gallantry and added: ‘One of the old originals, young and popular, his death had affected us all, coming so soon after Neil Buchanan's’. Captain Bernie Cox took command of D Company once more.
Although the business of living in the line had been reduced to a fine art, the majority grew weary of the static conditions. Some efforts were made to stimulate interest. For example, tanks of 19 Armoured Regiment were brought forward to shoot up page 431 the enemy-held stopbank and houses—in other words, to give them the treatment they had meted out to D Company. The mortar officer, Lieutenant Laurie Smylie, sometimes went up with the Air OP officer to observe the ranging of his mortars and to get corrections made quickly and accurately. A Company secured three prisoners during this period. Details of all the minor events of those days cannot be given but the unit war diary gives this story about one of the prisoners: ‘PW said he had been a member of a fighting patrol 15 strong who had come over to take PW from 8 Pl. The fact that the boot was now on the other foot appeared to be a source of extreme amusement to the PW.’
A major change in policy and establishment within the New Zealand Division took place at this time. Twenty-seventh (Machine Gun) Battalion was converted into an infantry unit and with the Divisional Cavalry, also an infantry unit by now, and 22 Battalion constituted 9 Infantry Brigade. The Division once again had three infantry brigades, with a brigade of armour as well. The Vickers guns were allocated to all infantry battalions, and on 2 February Second-Lieutenant McCracken38 arrived to train part of the carrier platoon as the 23rd Vickers MG platoon. About the same time, Sergeant Batchelor and other NCOs visited 27 Battalion to assist in training its men as infantry. The new emphasis on infantry was the direct result of the type of warfare imposed by the ground and weather conditions in Italy. The desert had been an armoured playground but Italy was primarily an infantryman's country.
Another important change arose from the replacement scheme. On 2 February, in the Tongariro draft, it took away sixty men, mainly from the 5th Reinforcements and from those who had already been on furlough, and several senior NCOs a little later on. Promotions consequent upon the departure of so many old hands were common. For example, W. D. Dawson replaced Blampied as Intelligence Sergeant. Reinforcements, mainly from 3 Division and therefore with some experience in the Pacific fighting, came in to make the unit up to strength. The newcomers were to prove good soldiers, but, at first, they could not be expected to have the same feelings for the 23rd as those who had known it as their army home for nearly four years. The latter were delighted to be on their way home, but after a few days away from the battalion they were wondering if ever again they would live with men in such a team and with such a spirit page 432 of comradeship. Thus, Sergeant Blampied wrote in his diary a fortnight after leaving the 23rd: ‘My keenness for going home seems to have vanished—have lost enthusiasm—if it wasn't for Mother and Agnes I would sooner remain over here’.
On its relief by the Maoris on 14 February, the battalion marched back to Faenza. Resting, cleaning and checking equipment, and dental inspections preceded some serious training in river crossings. After a day spent in rehearsals, A and B Companies as one group under Major McArthur competed against C and D in crossing the Lamone River in the fastest time. In full battle order, the troops had to get assault boats across first and then lay a kapok bridge on which the rest of the group had to cross to take up battle positions on the far bank. General Freyberg, Colonel Gilbert,39 his senior staff officer, and others came to see this time trial. The group under Major Low took three and a half minutes to complete the crossing as against the four minutes taken by the other group. Everyone was suitably impressed. On 19 February A and B Companies repeated the performance by night and, despite the handicap imposed by darkness, took only five minutes for the assault river crossing.
On 21 February the 23rd returned to the line, relieving 21 Battalion in a sector farther to the east of Route 9 than any previously occupied by the unit. On this occasion, B, D and C Companies, in that order from right to left, were forward and A was in reserve. In these new surroundings, the routine was very much the same as before. The troops had to contend with mud instead of snow, but the unit mortars and machine guns did a considerable amount of shooting.
The war elsewhere in Europe appeared to be hurrying to a close as the Russians were reported to be within 60 miles of Berlin and the Anglo-American advance from the Rhine was making good progress. This set off a small propaganda war on the Senio. The New Zealand leaflets asked the Germans the pertinent question: ‘The Russians are in Germany—Why are YOU fighting in Italy?’ The Germans reciprocated by asking what Britain had to gain from a Soviet victory, apart from finding ‘herself faced with a far mightier imperialist colossus’ than ever before.
The biggest ‘battle’ the 23rd fought in this sector was the ‘All Time High Chinese Attack’, a bigger than ever mock page 433 attack launched on 2 March ‘to celebrate Egypt's entry into the War’. Colonel Thomas and his officers, ‘The Lord High Executioner and Hangmen of 23 Bn’, issued special invitations to neighbouring units and various artillery batteries asking them to join in this stupendous shoot. A most comprehensive operation order, giving the targets to be engaged and the times, indicated that the shoot might serve some useful purposes, apart from alarming and killing some of the enemy. ‘Subsidiary intentions (i) To accustom the enemy to violent fire demonstrations in order to achieve maximum surprise for a future attack (ii) To test and plot enemy D/F (iii) To plot hostile guns which reply (iv) To demonstrate to new personnel weapons of 2 NZ Div.’ The enemy reaction was marked and did provide some useful information concerning his guns and defensive fire. Of course, some of the older soldiers shared the ‘I’ sergeant's feelings: ‘Very noisy during the show … not very much to do and not very interesting. Too much like “Playing soldiers”.’ The real thing was to come a little over a month later.
Included in the new ‘personnel’ who were being introduced to the war in Italy were some sixteen officers, ex 3 NZ Division, who were attached to the 23rd at this time. In his diary, the CO wrote: ‘We had posted to us last night some officers from the 3rd Pacific Div, including a son of the Leader of the Opposition, Holland.40 They seem good types.’ Former officers of the 23rd in Captains Fred Marett and Tuan Emery returned after an absence of some months. As Majors Brittenden and Low were sent back to Camerino to make the necessary arrangements there for the approaching arrival of the battalion, Marett and Emery soon found themselves in charge of infantry companies in the line.
On 4 March the 23rd was relieved by a Polish battalion. This ended the long and rather tedious time of ten weeks in and out of the Winter Line on the Senio. Next day the battalion was on the road back to that very pleasant rest and training area, Camerino. The three and a half months away from there had seen the unit suffer casualties totalling 21 killed and died of wounds, 95 wounded and 4 taken prisoner of war. All members of the unit, old and new, were confident they were now going to prepare for the last campaign in Italy.
1 W. D. Dawson, diary, Nov 1944.
8 Forward Defended Localities.
9 W. D. Dawson, diary, 15 Dec 1944.
11 J. McDowall, diary, 15 Dec 1944.
25 Tedeschi, Italian for Germans, abbreviated to ‘Teds’.
27 Armour-piercing and high-explosive shells.
30 D. Leckie, diary, 31 Dec 1944.
33 L-Cpl D. I. Bannister; England; born NZ 5 Jun 1918; bushman; wounded 15 Dec 1944.
39 Brig H. E. Gilbert, DSO, OBE, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Wanganui, 20 Jul 1916; Regular soldier; BM HQ Div Arty 1941–42; GSO II 2 NZ Div 1942–43; CO 6 Fd Regt Nov 1943–Apr 1944; GSO I 2 NZ Div 1944–45.