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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

A Sudden Move to the Front

A Sudden Move to the Front

The women of the villages worked hard as the end of the month approached, ‘cleaning up their casas and baking feverishly for the big fiesta of Easter Sunday’, the G Troop diary explains, page 691 ‘and most of us had been invited to dine with various families on that day’. Easter fairs at Castel Raimondo and other places brought country people into town with their bullock carts. Eggs went up in price from 16 to 20 lire each. Preparations for a grand 4th Field dance on Easter Monday were far advanced. A wonderful weekend was in the offing. But all the schemes suddenly fell flat.

Church parades were held on Good Friday, but COs did not attend. Instead they went to Artillery Headquarters and learned of an immediate move to the front. Reconnaissance parties left in the afternoon or evening. Batteries followed in the next two days. Secrecy was vital and elaborate deception plans had been drawn up. But neither the villagers nor the enemy were deceived. Tearful farewells showed how little credence the villagers placed on the story they were told of a temporary move to Ancona. The coincidence of the departure with the Easter gatherings in the villages made what were meant to be hush-hush moves something more like carnival processions. A mortar battery diarist describes it thus:

‘Just on midday, as we were deeply immersed in thoughts of the fun ahead of us, Clicker [Lieutenant McCliskie] stalked in with a stricken look and the news that we were moving pronto. This rocked us … but we didn't have time to moan…. Much scurrying about ensued as we scattered in all directions to collect our washing and cancel our Easter engagements.’

Vehicle markings disappeared under a washable distemper issued for the purpose; but Italians along the route could tell at a glance that the men were New Zealanders. The columns of vehicles did not strike Route 9 until after dark and at their destinations north-east of Faenza the gunners had to keep out of sight.

The countryside had put on its spring clothes and wore them well except for one detail. Dust had replaced mud and roadside notices warned drivers that ‘Dust Brings Shells—Shells Bring Death’. But this was only faintly jarring. The front, on a loop of the Senio north and north-east of Faenza, had a peaceful air. Artillery of 78 Division on the right carried out normal firing tasks and only one battery each of the 5th and 6th Field and none of the 4th Field were allowed to join in. They would all have plenty to do when the time came. Meanwhile the gunners competed with the infantry—and on the left the Poles—for the few available casas.

page 692

History was in a sense repeating itself. The 2nd New Zealand Division, like its predecessor of 1918, was the strongest division in the theatre. It had three infantry brigades and an armoured brigade and they were all up to strength. It had a unanimity of tactical doctrine achieved through long, shared experience and a confident co-operation of all arms. There was a high level of self-sufficiency in transport and rear services, the knowledge of solid support from home, and enormous esprit de corps.

In 1945, in addition, there was the incalculable advantage of being led by the most experienced divisional commander in the world and one who remained young in mind and adaptable. Freyberg's personal graciousness, moreover, permeated his headquarters, predisposing those who worked there or came and went on their various affairs to be considerate of other points of view. In Colonel Gilbert the Division had a chief staff officer who had shown gallantry in action at Medenine and over a long period at Cassino, and whose experience of operational staff work dated back to the time when he was BM of the Divisional Artillery in 1941. In Major Cox8 it had an intelligence officer with a penetrating insight into German intentions. The main land fighting resources other than its own on which the Division had to depend for the forthcoming battle were those of the Royal Artillery, which Freyberg had always regarded as the best-trained and best-led part of the British Army (a judgment with which the New Zealand gunners warmly concurred).

8 Maj Sir Geoffrey Cox, CBE, m.i.d.; London; born Palmerston North, 7 Apr 1910; journalist; editor, Independent Television News, London.