27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 20 — Cardito, Terelle, Balsorano
When6 Brigade, with 2 and 4 MG Companies under command, relieved a Polish brigade on 12 April in the mountain sector astride the Cardito-San Biagio road, about ten miles north-east of Cassino, the changeover was complicated. Captain Aislabie wrote that the Polish interpreter who accompanied him on the reconnaissance before 2 Company's arrival ‘knew about as much English as I knew Polish…. Pushed on with guide up thru hellish hills—snow on most…. Poles wouldn't show us much … no idea of area & hope for the best when we go in at night.’
From the Volturno valley the convoys climbed a winding road through steep-sided valleys and small villages to the point where the guns and equipment were transferred to mules, and after dark the men and mules, with Indian muleteers, struggled up the very steep, zigzagging tracks which rain had made extremely slippery. A 4 Company man, hearing a group talking in what he mistook for German, shot at them with his rifle and missed his platoon commander's head by inches. A sudden, violent hailstorm saturated everything, and ‘balls of ice the size of peas stung like BB shot.’
‘Remained in our sangers all day,’ wrote Private Sherlock1 (10 Platoon) on the 12th. ‘It was necessary to keep in them all day on account of direct observation…. these sangers are stinking with foul food. It came on to rain during the afternoon. Our sanger proved far from water proof and consequently got wet through as we could not even move outside to pull a bivy tent over it…. It was not until the following night when occupying our gun position that a foul smell polluted the keen fresh air—a dead Pole lay unburied not two yards from our position.’
Both 10 Platoon, on the San Pietro ridge, and 11, across the deep gully on its eastern side, supported 25 Battalion on the right flank, while 4 Platoon was with the 24th facing Monte San Croce in the centre, 5 with the 26th on Colle dell Arena on the left, and for defence in depth 12 on Colle Belgiovane and 6 on Colle San Eustacchio. Between San Pietro and San page 405 Croce the road ran through the pleasant, cultivated valley into which the Rapido River descends; away beyond the intervening hills Montecassino and the ruined Monastery were plainly visible.
The sector was described as a quiet one, but was overlooked from the mountains to the east and north and also the higher of the two humps of San Croce (the New Zealanders occupied the lower), where 4 Platoon was soon called upon to do some shooting. The exchanges of fire were not infrequent; mortar bombs sometimes came uncomfortably close, but the shells usually passed safely overhead. On one occasion ‘Jerry got jittery and had a little war with himself.’ He shot off flares and kicked up a din with grenades, a spandau and a light mountain gun; he probably had been startled by a rock rattling down a slope.
Captain Blair (who had recently taken command of 4 Company) and Sergeant Doyle were shelled while visiting 10 Platoon. ‘We took refuge under a terrace,’ says Private Lister,2, the driver of their jeep, ‘and when we decided to go found that a shell had blown all the steering wheel away but one spoke; and as we had over six miles of shelled road, around steep hills, it was a bit of a job.’ Doyle says he will never forget that drive. ‘I don't know what scared me most, [the risk of] going off the greasy road or the shells. However we reached Coy HQ safely.’
‘Tom Doyle & I had another close shave one night …,’ says Lister. ‘We were taking in three new men & our usual rations & ammo. and as the road was within 3,000 yds of jerry we could only travel at night, & he used to plaster it heavily, and this night we landed in the middle of one of these plasters, so took cover in a ditch for a while, and he landed a big shell about 20 yds in front of us, and completely blocked the road, actually blew it out. Tom & I got to and filled it up again, near enough to get our jeep & other trucks over.’ Meanwhile their passengers had taken cover and it was some time before they could be found. ‘We couldn't go without them, as they didn't know where to go.’
After about a week in this sector 6 Brigade was relieved by 2 Independent Paratroop Brigade. While 2 Company went back to rest near Collemacchia, where Battalion Headquarters was, 4 Company stayed to support the paratroops. Taking over 6 page 406 Platoon's counter-penetration role, 10 Platoon crossed from San Pietro to Colle San Eustacchio, a succession of wooded knolls overlooking the Rapido.
At the same time 1 Company, reinforced by half of 3, went with 5 Brigade to the Terelle sector, four or five miles north of Cassino and previously held by a British infantry brigade. They drove up the eastern side of the Rapido valley to the ridge-top village of Portella, descended to cross the river, and then, at night without lights, the loaded jeeps climbed very steeply up a series of hairpin bends on the road which led towards the enemy-held mountain village of Terelle.
From near the top of the hairpin bends 1, 2 and 3 Platoons and No. 1 Section 7 Platoon, assisted by mule teams, carried their guns and gear to the positions where they were to support 21 Battalion in the Colle Abate salient and 23 Battalion on Colle Belvedere, while 8 Platoon stayed near the bottom of the hill to guard the approaches.
‘No sooner had we arrived when Jerry put three mortars among us,’ says Lieutenant Hutchinson (2 Platoon). ‘I found myself hard up under a mule's tail listening to the cries of a wounded Tommy up the hill a bit. We carried our gear to the new position without incident & I took over the H.Q. a small stone hut with no roof. The poor Tommy officer had had it properly. The Jerry shells had been just clearing his H.Q. for some time. The place was filthy & the sangers stinking….’
On the reverse slope of Colle Abate 3 Platoon was accommodated in sangers which Gladstone3 says ‘smelt to high heaven & it was difficult to move in darkness without setting up a hell of a clatter among the empty tins that covered the ground…. The infantry sangers were on the brow of the hill as we saw it [from about fifty yards down the slope] although I believe in fact the ground rose again shortly beyond their positions…. At the foot of the hill in a fairly sheltered position on our right was a group of 3? mortars. We could almost look down the barrels because of the steepness of the slope.’
Each night supplies were brought up from Hove Dump, in a gully near Portella, by jeep trains which left at dusk and made a nightmarish dash over the Terelle ‘Terror Track’, unloaded at the jeephead (where the mules waited) and raced back again. While returning to Hove one night 1 Company's ration jeep page 408 was destroyed by a shell, and the driver (Private Brice4) seriously wounded; the first aid he received from Sergeant Mayfield, who was himself injured, saved his life.
Gladstone says that ‘the manhandling of the daily rations from the jeep head to the No. 3 Platoon HQ was no picnic either. The HQ was in a semi ruined house at the base of Colle Abate and because of it being close to the foot of the hill seemed to have escaped the destruction meted out to the houses on the ridges which led to Colle Abate. The track to the jeep head led along a very stoney ridge back to where 2 platoon had their positions in and rear of a very much ruined casa. Thence back to a further house occupied by a section of 28 Bn who I think were in reserve. From here a fairly steep sided gully led down to the roadway and the jeephead. The trip was always made turn about in pairs as soon as it was dark enough and the eeriness was quite impressive. Every sound seemed to echo for miles. The trip down with empty containers was easy enough although it was prudent when approaching the vicinity of the held casas to have ears well strained for a semi whispered challenge.’ The return journey ‘was a very stiff climb especially with a good load up and was usually made more interesting by the occasional annoyance shell which the Hun used to throw ad lib all over the area.’
Fifth Brigade handed over responsibility for this sector to the 6th at the beginning of May, and at the same time 2 Company, plus 9 Platoon and No. 2 Section 7 Platoon, replaced 1 Company and the other half of 3 Company; the new arrivals took over all the gear and blankets of the men going out.
Shortly after 6 Platoon relieved 3 on Colle Abate on the night of 1–2 May the Germans attacked immediately in front. Lieutenant McLennan5 had gone up to inspect the gun positions and while returning was slightly wounded by a splinter; he was able to remain with the platoon, but Sergeant Stuart,6 who was with him, was badly wounded and had to be evacuated The infantry were compelled to vacate some of their posts, but the enemy could not hold his gains and withdrew soon afterwards. By that time, of course, it was impossible to put the machine guns in place before daylight. Two of 6 Platoon's page 409 reserves had ‘got tangled up’ in an infantry counter-attack and one of them did not return until the following night.
‘A brilliant moon tonight which made the relief of gun teams a bit risky, but by changing over by two men at a time we got away with it,’ McLennan wrote on 3 May. ‘Nevertheless our track is well taped & the odd mortar keeps crashing on it…. The whole area is pockmarked with shellholes…. About 0300 [5 May] a fair stonk came down & a general little war started. There was lashings of SA fire and my No. 2 Sec got away 2000 rounds on a call from 24 Bn on our right. We had moments of anxiety but everything died away at daybreak….
‘Our Mor [mortars] lobbed over quite a lot of stuff but Jerry didn't return very much, though some were damn close to the house [occupied by Platoon Headquarters]. Geoff Hall7 and Bob Bly8 got wounded by a Mor landing on their sangar & were evacuated.’ The platoon was not in suitable machine-gun positions, and ‘with the best will in the world’ could not use the Vickers in its proper role. Private Brew9 was killed, Private Green10 wounded and a gun chopped to pieces. ‘All the result of a direct hit by an 88 (?) on one sangar. Same one as was hit yesterday.’
When one of 4 Platoon's guns, on Belvedere, also received a direct hit, Sergeant Spotswood,11 a former LRDG man who had just returned from furlough, and Private Downing12 were killed and Private Crawford13 wounded.
Hove Dump, where vehicles, ammunition and supplies were crammed together, was ‘knocked to hell’ on 6 May. A shell landed in a stack of ammunition, which raised a column of smoke visible for many miles, and before long the German guns set fire to other parts of the dump, which became an inferno of exploding ammunition and bursting petrol cans. page 410 The jeep train was saved and went up the Terelle Terror Track as usual that night; the B Echelons were transferred from Hove to Acquafondata.
The Allies completed their regrouping—Fifth Army between the coast and the Liri valley and Eighth Army continuing the line through Cassino into the mountains—in preparation for the battle that was to turn the Germans out of their Gustav Line and open the way to Rome. The New Zealand Division's role was to hold its mountain front with the British paratroop brigade, a Canadian brigade (later replaced by a South African motor brigade) and 6 Brigade.
The Vickers of 2 Company in the Terelle sector were to fire, if called upon, in support of the Polish brigade on 6 Brigade's left, but were not asked to do so; in the Cardito sector 4 Company was to assist the paratroop brigade in two simulated attacks towards San Biagio to persuade the enemy to retain on that part of the front as many of his troops as possible.
Two thousand guns, about twice as many as at Alamein, began their counter-battery fire and barrages at 11 p.m. on 11 May; they sounded like kettle drums. Three hours later the artillery began a 42-minute barrage on Monte San Croce, and the mortars and Vickers (including 12 Platoon and a section of 11) opened up in support of the paratroop brigade's feint. ‘Going flat out to fire 26000 rounds, 2000 short of our task— by 0302 hrs—programme too ambitious,’ wrote MacLean. Each gun was expected to fire a belt every three minutes for the first forty-two minutes and then rapid (a belt a minute) for twenty minutes.
This was 10 Platoon's task in the second feint, which began at 2 a.m. on the 14th. ‘It was hot work for the guns, which had to be filled half-way through, and even then, towards the end clouds of steam were pouring back into the gunners' faces,’ wrote Moss.
The Poles' first assault on Montecassino did not succeed, but the British crossed the Rapido south of the town, while the French, with the Goumiers (Moroccans) in the van, made astonishing progress through the Aurunci Mountains south of the Liri valley, and the Americans pushed along the coastal strip. The 19th NZ Armoured Regiment, under the command of a British division, reached Route 6 beyond Cassino on 17 May. The Poles launched their second attack on Montecassino and on the morning of the 18th raised their standard trium- page 411 phantly above the ruins of the Monastery, while the same day British troops searched the town, from which the enemy had gone.
Fifth Brigade relieved the 6th in the Terelle sector, and 1 Company, still reinforced by half of 3, replaced 2 Company. Lieutenant Hutchinson, whose 2 Platoon took over from 6 on Colle Abate, says, ‘The fact that the crest in front was only about a chain away made this a very nerve wracking position to hold…. One weird feature … was hearing the approach of our 25 lb shells coming up from the valley far below. 2 Pln did no firing here but were glad to move out. We had to lie very close. Finally the Jerry pulled out & my boys went looting & came back with some interesting but rather smelly souvenirs.’
Fifth Brigade entered Terelle village at daybreak on 26 May, and in the next five days pursued the retreating Germans through the mountain pass to Atina and across the Melfa, Mollo and Fibreno rivers to Sora, which opened the way into the upper Liri valley.
There were few opportunities during this pursuit for 1 and 3 Companies, which accompanied the brigade. ‘We were constantly on the move—Jerry was falling back fairly rapidly,’ says Major Luxford (who had recently taken command of 1 Company after a long absence from the battalion). ‘It is a wonder to me that there wasn't more shelling because I can remember one or two bottlenecks at bridges, when masses of transport was held up and we waited there sweating….’
After a stiff fight 21 Battalion secured the hilltop villages of Alvito and Vicalvi on the right flank. No. 2 Section 3 Platoon, under the command of this battalion, left a skeleton crew on its guns ‘and the remainder joined the infantry for the assault on Alvito and the ridge beyond,’ says Knowles. ‘Successfully completed without casualties.’ With a ‘scratch force’ of infantry, tanks and armoured cars the section rushed along the road which ran eastwards from Alvito to San Donato. ‘This was quite an exciting chase but Gerry [who numbered about 300] took to the hills beyond. He returned at nightfall and the force was recalled in the darkness. It had to fight its way out in a short mobile engagement.’
When the Germans were reported to be infiltrating in strength to Posta, beyond Vicalvi, 3 Company was ordered to hold a stretch of road in the vicinity. ‘When nobody worried us we went into the town looking for them,’ says Captain page 412 Pleasants. ‘The town was empty so we moved in that evening with some British troops [from an RAF regiment]….’ The only excitement was caused by a box which the RAF had collected as loot and left in the building shared by their headquarters and Company Headquarters. Somebody heard the box ticking. It was exploded by rifle fire and did an incredible amount of damage.
Meanwhile, after leaving the Terelle sector, 2 Company joined Pleasants Force (22 and 24 Battalions and Divisional Cavalry) in the Division's central sector, between Sant’ Elia and Vallerotonda, which had been occupied previously by the South African motor brigade. The company did not stay there long, however; on 25 May it was withdrawn for a short spell before returning to the Cardito sector where, together with Battalion Headquarters and 4 Company, it came under 6 Brigade's command for the pursuit.
Since the fall of Cassino the paratroop brigade had been holding this sector with one battalion; 10 Platoon was protecting the left flank on Colle dell Arena, 11 was in 10's former position on Colle San Eustacchio, and 12 in the same place on Colle Belgiovane. When the paratroops occupied Monte San Croce on 27 May, the 4 Company men could walk freely about their gunlines in daylight for the first time in the six or seven weeks they had been there.
Sixth Brigade took over from the paratroops and advanced along the San Biagio-Atina road, on which every culvert and bridge and corner round a cliff seemed to have been blown. The machine-gunners with the brigade passed through Atina on 31 May and halted not far from Sora.
Beyond this town the main road (Route 82) and a railway followed the narrow, mountain-flanked valley of the upper Liri for 20-odd miles before branching off to Avezzano. The New Zealand Division was to drive up this valley.
After taking a hill surmounted by a castle immediately behind Sora, 24 Battalion led 6 Brigade along the western side of the valley, while the Maori Battalion of 5 Brigade conformed on the other side, and tanks of 20 Armoured Regiment pushed over the easier ground near the railway on the valley floor.
Below Balsorano the river, Route 82 and the railway threaded through a narrow gorge between Colle Piano (on the western side) and a rocky escarpment, beyond which the enemy was entrenched on the plateau containing the town; the mountains rise abruptly to about 6000 feet on both sides. Two blown bridges and a crater on the road halted the tanks. Mortar and shellfire fell on the leading infantry and around the demoli tions; some trucks, including one or two of 4 Company's, were hit.
Accompanying the Maori Battalion, 2 Platoon ‘carried all gun gear, ammo, packs, bedrolls for miles, up and down steep slopes,’ according to Private Butt,14 whose section did one or two shoots during the advance and then set up its guns ‘right in the Maori front line…. After an all-day carry we had had enough.’ With orders to seize Balsorano, 21 Battalion (supported by 7 Platoon) was brought up through the 28th, but was unable to clear the escarpment that night. The rest of 3 Company had also entered the valley and was in reserve with the Maoris.
The 25-pounders had moved up audaciously close to the front and were engaging targets over open sights. ‘A troop of guns is about 100 yards behind us [10 Platoon] and nearly stun us when they fire….’
‘About mid-afternoon,’ says Captain Halkett, ‘our 25- pounders, who had occupied hasty positions just forward of 9 Pl's carefully camouflaged vehicles, were heavily shelled by enemy self-propelled guns and suffered quite a few casualties.’ Some artillery vehicles moved into 9 Platoon's area for cover, and during the ensuing shelling one of the machine-gunners’ trucks had a direct hit and was completely gutted by fire.
‘Have to keep under cover all day—enemy on 3 sides of us— fire a few belts & then retire behind the knoll until the re taliatory mortar stonk is finished,’ wrote MacLean (12 Platoon) on 3 June. ‘I thought we would have a joy ride to Rome….’
The Vickers harassed the places where the enemy might have observation posts. ‘It was a case of selecting any likely positions … and hope that some of our shots were striking home,’ says Captain Pleasants. ‘We were unable to assess the value of this work as the targets selected were to the rear of the enemy lines.’page 415
During the night of 3–4 June the guns on the eastern side of the valley fired harassing tasks in support of an attempt by 21 Battalion to form a strongpoint on the escarpment. Both 8 and 9 Platoons were ready to go forward to place their guns with the leading troops when they had secured their objectives, with the object of being able to pick up opportunity targets at first light. Unfortunately the attack did not succeed.
Plans were made for 24 and 26 Battalions to continue the advance beyond Colle Piano. In support, 4 Company's Vickers were to fire for 107 minutes at the rate of a belt from each gun every five minutes, and 10 Platoon was to go up onto Colle Marrone for this task.
‘I wasn't too keen on moving the vehicles in daylight,’ Moss wrote, ‘but as we had to be in position by 2200 with a minimum of 21,000 [rounds] up at the guns, it was unavoidable…. So as not to make too much of a show I sent the vehicles up at two minute intervals, but Jerry had just finished shelling the troop of guns behind us and must have still been looking in our direction. My truck and the two one-section trucks had arrived and unloaded and [another] truck had just pulled in. I couldn't send any vehicles back until the last one was up, because the track was too narrow for passing. We were all standing round among the gear when a 75 [millimetre shell] came in with the long hiss it makes like boiler steam from a faulty valve. It whanged into a wheat patch about two hundred yards away and was quickly followed by two or three more. The gun then lifted to the right and beyond, and sent about three more whistling straight overhead to explode about three hundred yards past. Then he dropped the range and went to town on us properly.’
One driver managed to get his truck away, but the other three vehicles and most of the men, with all their gear unloaded, were caught. Everybody went flat behind the trucks and a light tank parked alongside a bank. ‘The shells screamed in as fast as three guns could put them over and to give the Hun due credit, his shooting was hellish accurate.’ Private Johnson15 was killed and four men wounded. All the vehicles and one Vickers gun were damaged.
Moss collected his men and gear and started up the hill. ‘It was a trying carry up a rocky track to the position…. It began to rain hard before we got there … a short 25 pr. just cleared page 416 our heads and burst beyond…. I decided it would be worth- while lugging the gear a little further uphill to a large house. It proved a lucky find…. About this time we had word that the attack was off but we did three shoots before midnight….’
Moss got word that his platoon would be pulled out after dark next day (the 5th) and could shoot off all its ammunition. ‘Accordingly we worked out an all day “reprisal” for our pasting the day before. Every forty minutes or so, we would go out and let go two or three belts. We picked on tracks, groups of houses and reverse slopes mainly, and interspersed with our shooting the platoons of 3 Coy and 4 Coys’ other two did their own hates. During the whole of the day he got intermittent fire from 24 MMGs and he didn't like it much at all. … The arty. gave him some wicked stonks in reply to his counter battery fire.’
The German guns and mortars were still active, however. ‘Enemy has O.Pips in mountains on both sides of us—not safe to move from slit trench,’ wrote MacLean. ‘A small house about 20 yds from us [12 Platoon] is used as D Coy 24th Bn H.Q. Heavy shell lands at back door collecting about 10 of them. … I learn anew the meaning of the term “a shocking sight”.’
The three companies which had participated in the fighting near Balsorano were withdrawn through Sora to the vicinity of the Fibreno River. Next morning they heard that the long awaited Second Front had been opened: Allied troops had landed in Normandy.
After about a week's inactivity at Sora, disturbed occasionally by shellfire, 2 Company joined in the pursuit. First of all, 5 Platoon was sent up to the infantry on the eastern side of the valley for a very brief harassing shoot. By 6 June the enemy had gone from Balsorano, and early next day 26 Battalion, supported by 2 Company, a troop of tanks and some engineers, set out for Avezzano. Beyond Balsorano the enemy had demolished the very many culverts and bridges along the road, and had left mines and booby traps. For several tedious days, therefore, progress was exceedingly slow.
On 8 June 4 Company drove up past Balsorano to the villages of Castronuovo and Rendinara, where MacLean says the Italians ‘gave them a wonderful reception—strewed the streets with flowers, deluged them with vino & invitations to their homes. page 417 … The countryside here is quite enchanting at this time of year. Thickly wooded terraced slopes—vineyards, wheat & barley fields, masses of scarlet poppies, roses etc—it would do me for life.’ The company stayed a week. Dozens of escaped prisoners of war came down from the hills where they had been sheltered by the Italians.
Meanwhile 2 Company, still with the 26th, reached Capistrello, where Route 82 leaves the Liri valley and crosses the hills to Avezzano. The bodies of about thirty Italians were found in a large bomb crater. Believing the Germans had gone, they had brought their hidden stock down from the hills, only to have it commandeered; they had objected and had been shot.
The Germans were now miles away. Avezzano, an important communications centre which had been heavily bombed, was found deserted and was occupied by an infantry platoon on 10 June. Next day the machine-gunners went to have a look. A large plain, which at one time had been a lake, was covered by crops; the villages perched on the surrounding hills. Captain Aislabie ‘pushed on down road & into a village. One hell of a commotion—first allied troops to go there—viva'ed & vinoed —band turned out flag waving & great to do. Jeep decked out with flowers & flags—we bowed & waved—conquering heroes. The wine was good though.’
For the next two or three days it was ‘free & easy—visited some more villages with same result.—Many escaped Brit P.O.W.s about, some married to Iti girls … seem to have been well treated & lots of tears when they left…. Countryside beautiful—1000's acres of wheat barley maize grape vines etc & quite a lot of stock being brought down from mountains plus women & girls—bells rung in villages as we passed thru to warn them to return…. Chaps had a good tour round & well behaved—Sjt Wallace gave an “official” speech with interp. at one place—everyone immensely tickled.’
The Division, having completed its share in the battles for Rome, withdrew to camp and train in pleasant surroundings near the town of Arce, where Route 82 joins Route 6 about 20 miles from Cassino. Many rumours circulated, among them that the Division was to be got fit for action near Florence, that such rigorous training (including frequent route marches) must be preparation for an invasion of Greece, that the Division was being kept fit while waiting to go to Algiers to take part in a landing in the south of France, and that ‘we are going page 418 route marching because they don't know what else to do and even Tiny doesn't know what's happening to the Div.’
The four machine-gun companies were back under battalion command. In the fighting at Cassino and in the mountains and the upper Liri valley the battalion had suffered thirteen killed and forty-eight wounded. Total New Zealand casualties in this period were almost 2400.
The route marches took the platoons to many places, even up the sharply zigzagging roads to hilltop villages; they also picnicked along the banks of the Liri. The weather was really hot. Showers and sudden thunderstorms cleared the air and drenched the camp.
Leave parties went to Rome for the day, visited Saint Peter's and the city's ancient monuments, and bought souvenirs. The high prices were attributed to the affluent Americans’ willingness to pay whatever might be asked. One of the most palatial hotels, the Quirinale, was taken over as a New Zealand club and met with universal approval.
Excursions were made to Cassino, where the machine-gunners saw at close quarters the targets they had fired on for weeks in February and March. New Zealand infantry searched among the ruins for their dead comrades; there were many gruesome sights. ‘I can't see Cassino ever being rebuilt. I predict that it will be fenced off for its tourist value,’ wrote a man who had fought there with 12 Platoon. Years later, however, both town and Monastery were rebuilt.