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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Manning a Winter Line

Manning a Winter Line

For all but the OP parties, the heavy mortar crews, and a few of the 17-pounder and 25-pounder crews—those who were page 681 page 682 well forward on the Senio front, within reach of hostile machine guns and mortars—the days passed quietly and the men did all they could to make themselves comfortable on what had evidently become the winter line of Eighth Army. Ammunition restrictions were severe and gunners were allowed frequent spells, battery by battery or troop by troop. Several cinemas were running in Forli, many other organised entertainments were provided there, and even in Faenza (which did not get heavily shelled as Freyberg expected) a good deal of amusement could be had. Leave for Florence, Rome and other centres had been available by roster throughout the fighting and it still continued. The Divisional Artillery had acquired a pipe band, first seen in the forward area when members of it piped in the New Year at various points. What attracted most attention, however, was the recurrent problem of keeping out the winter cold and many ingenious solutions of this were worked out. The drip-feed oil heater was perhaps the most efficient; but it was too noisy for casas close to the enemy. Coal, coke and charcoal could be found in Faenza, but there was keen competition for them.

black and white map of winter line

the winter line as at 21 january 1945

The 4th Field moved to positions 1000-2000 yards south of Faenza and on 28 January the 6th Field made their long-delayed move—to positions north-east of the town vacated by the 113th Field. The 5th Field remained well forward west of the town. All regiments, however, maintained a ‘duty battery’ which occupied an alternative position for a week at a time, and as a rule only this battery fired. There was therefore little or no firing from the main battle positions and no encouragement, accordingly, for the enemy to trouble them. The 6th Field positions seemed good, but a gradual thaw towards the end of the month (after several fairly heavy falls of snow) made them very muddy and access routes to some troops became quite impassable. The 7th Anti-Tank deployed an M10 troop in an indirect-fire role with the 5th Field, another in anti-tank reserve with 5 Brigade and the third in a similar role with 6 Brigade. One 17-pounder troop deployed with each of the two infantry brigades and the third troop was part of the local anti-tank defence of Faenza. The mortar battery remained as an entity under the CRA's control, its tasks tied in with those of the field artillery.

These bald details explain in general terms what the gunners were doing in the winter line. A change of focus is needed to view the strange, intense little world of those who were at the page 683 tip of the ‘sharp end’, observing the enemy on the Senio and directing the fire of the guns and mortars. Casas there were in short supply, most of them were in poor shape, and they kept getting hit by shells or mortar bombs'. ‘Spandau Pete’ delighted in machine-gunning their windows and environs at odd hours. The unnerving shriek of rocket missiles was liable at any moment to destroy the peace of mind of their occupants—and all these casas were overcrowded. By night white-coated patrols might raid them, squirting them with tommy-gun fire and tossing in grenades. By day the frozen landscape with its farmyard foreground, the dim outlines of the stopbank, the black trees and scattered casas, and in the background the buildings of Castel Bolognese, Felisio or some other village across the river, could claim a quiet beauty—though observers seldom had an eye for this. But no night was truly peaceful. Voices carried clearly in the still, cold air and the sounds of working parties commanded attention. Even by day the calm might be broken by the sudden emergence of an SP gun from some hiding place to make a quick bombardment and then disappear. When the days were clear and sunny the shimmering snow played tricks on the eyes. When mist or fog came down as they often did, all kinds of sounds could be heard and observers would strive to attain an acute state of sensitivity trying to resolve their nature and to peer through the gloom.

The OP party of G Troop, 34 Battery, had typical experiences. In the night of 28 December it was sharing a casa with a 5th Field party in support of the Maoris when a 105-millimetre shell came through the roof and finished up on the floor between Lieutenant McSkimming and a 5th Field officer. It failed to explode. When the other officer carried it into the next room, where some gunners were talking to two Maoris, and began scraping it to ascertain the data, the Maoris made off rapidly. Then, on 9 January, another shell blew in more of the roof, bringing beams and rubble down on the occupants—they were then supporting the newly-arrived 21 Battalion. A 5th Field signaller, Gunner Miles,26 of C Troop, was smothered and page 684 suffocated by the powdery debris. A mortar gunner sustained a glancing blow from a falling beam and two other men escaped with scratches.

The previous night Lance-Bombardier McGowan27 of 34 Battery was out repairing a telephone line broken by an enemy concentration. He was not one of the lucky ones who had been issued with white duffel coats and his battledress showed dark against the snow. While searching for the break he was suddenly fired on by an enemy patrol and dived for cover in a ditch full of water topped with ice. He was pinned there for a short time and then he continued to trace the line through the snow and ice until he found a break and repaired it. He then went back and reported to his officer, who told him to wait until the patrol was driven off. But McGowan knew the mortars could not fire until the line was mended and so he crawled back along it, still under fire from the enemy, until he repaired two more breaks and re-established communications. For this he earned an MM.

Lieutenant-Colonel Nicholson had taken over command of the 7th Anti-Tank on 13 December28 (when Sprosen went on leave) and, having served as a battery commander under Jack Mitchell, he was imbued like his former CO with a burning desire to visit all his gun crews as often as he could—daily if possible. But the mortar troops were sited well forward northwest of Faenza, near the 31 Battery 17-pounders, and the route—a jeep track through Celle—was absolutely restricted by day and by night was limited to vehicles carrying essential supplies. So his visits to these guns and mortars were far less frequent than he would have liked.

In mid-January an M10c arrived in 32 Battery—an M10 with a 17-pounder gun, far more powerful than the 3-inch of the normal M10. It was taken out on the 18th for a practice shoot with HE ammunition. The gun behaved very well, but the bursts were hard to observe in the snow. The same trouble occurred at the end of the month when an Air OP tried to direct the fire of a 4.2 mortar. Early in February the 17-pounders page 685 of B, D and F Troops began to take over a new range of duties. A purely anti-tank role in the Senio line was almost no role at all. But HE ammunition with reduced charges and the addition to the gun carriages of graduating arcs and vernier scales allowed the 17-pounders to undertake indirect fire tasks, which added greatly to the usefulness of the guns and the morale of their crews. At Esanatoglia defects in the 4.2 mortar baseplates had been remedied by strengthening them at the LAD. New skirtings arrived from the United Kingdom in February; but even these did not work well until modified according to suggestions made by the EME, Lieutenant Pounsett.29 The higher echelons of the RA and REME evinced enormous interest in these simple but effective New Zealand adaptations.

January ended in a flurry of activity when a platoon of 25 Battalion, as part of a series of small actions to test the enemy's Senio defences, gained a stretch of the stopbank only to be heavily counter-attacked and cut off. The guns fired about 1000 rounds in the night, which, as the diary of Artillery Headquarters remarked, ‘is exceptional under present conditions’; but to no avail. The platoon was lost. A platoon from 26 Battalion also reached the stopbank but withdrew safely.