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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

From Venice to the Piave

page 727

From Venice to the Piave

In such a situation the irrepressible Huck Sawyers of the 5th Field, who had been following the 6th, could be expected to be out in front looking for trouble. He had reconnaissance parties well forward to find out what was happening and to prepare for deployment. When he found that this was not called for, however, he pushed on into Venice and was the first Allied soldier to enter the city, beating the D Troop FOO of the 6th Field (as the diary of that unit admits). It was 1.50 p.m. on the 29th when he signalled that he was there, and Major Angell, Second-Lieutenant Thompson50 (the IO) and Second-Lieutenant Stewart51 (the regimental survey officer) soon joined him. ‘The reception was tremendous’, the 5th Field diary states, ‘as we had passed the tanks by many hours.’ The regiment spent the night at Marcello, a few miles beyond Mestre. On 1 May Sawyers left the 5th Field for well-deserved leave home and Lieutenant-Colonel Hanna replaced him.

The various parts of the 7th Anti-Tank (other than the crews of the M10s who were biting their fingernails as they waited to get across the P0) shared these experiences. On the 30th, however, the heavy mortar battery—with its jeeps by far the most mobile of the Divisional Artillery—took the lead when A Sub-battery crossed the Piave by ferry and spent the night at San Dona di Piave. In the late afternoon 26 Battery of the 4th Field also crossed; but 25 and 46 Batteries became engaged in a sharp clash with enemy counter-attacking 9 Brigade from the south-east. For nearly two hours both batteries fired vigorously, using up 1486 rounds. During this time Bombardier Mercer,52 the radio operator for the 46 Battery FOO, Captain Davis,53 came under small-arms and mortar fire; but he continued calmly and efficiently to work his set from the back of a jeep. The fire called down by Davis undoubtedly helped to keep down casualties in 27 Battalion. It was a splendid example of observed shooting by night. Davis, for this and earlier work, gained an MC and Mercer was in due course awarded an MM. The transport of the 4th Field had meanwhile continued to cross the Piave and at the end of their action 25 and 46 Batteries followed, about 2 a.m. on 1 May.

page 728

The destination was now Trieste and there were several river lines in between of great natural strength which might yet be defended as they had been in the First World War. On 1 May, however, it soon became evident that only isolated pockets of enemy remained and that, except for mopping up, the war in that part of Italy was over. The advance continued at high speed. The bridges on the main road were intact except that across the River Stella, where there was a 12-mile detour. A Sub-battery of heavy mortars were the leading gunners, with 31 Battery less the M10 troop, followed by the 4th Field. It was a flat land at first of vineyards and olive groves with riotously happy inhabitants at every township or group of buildings. Hundreds of Italians conscripted to work in Germany were trudging back home, however, weak and ill-clad. At Monfalcone, well on the way to Trieste, Italian flags gave way to red-starred flags, and the welcome from the local people dropped from boiling point to lukewarm. Tito was the hero there and next to him Stalin. It began to rain.

On 1 May 47 Battery was attached to 21 Battalion to help round up prisoners. But they first had to be persuaded to surrender and some of them were prepared to argue about this. The first task was near the Piave, not far from where the 4th Field had been engaged the day before. Some 4000 prisoners were taken and then, on 2 May, the battalion went to investigate the landing from naval craft at Lignano, near the mouth of the River Tagliamento, of 6000 or more Germans. These were very argumentative indeed until they saw 47 Battery deploy. The field gunners clearly meant business. When New Zealand tanks also appeared there was no further argument.54

50 Lt R. W. Thompson; born Feilding, 3 Jun 1922; bank clerk.

51 Lt J. A. Stewart; born NZ 30 Jul 1917; bank clerk; died 18 May 1960.

52 Bdr F. Mercer, MM; England; born Blackburn, England, 25 Jan 1913; plasterer and tiler.

53 Capt O. P. Davis, MC; born Greymouth, 17 Mar 1920; civil servant.

54 An ‘original’ of the 5th Field, WO II Nicholass, who had been the TSM of F Troop, 47 Battery, for the past year and had performed his many duties splendidly throughout, was largely responsible for the timely arrival of the guns. He was acting as battery leader and appreciated the urgency of the situation while the battery was still waiting to cross the Piave. He therefore got the priority for the guns in the crossing of the river raised and shepherded them across quickly, regardless of harassing fire which was falling in the area. Then he deployed them at high speed near the mouth of the Tagliamento. This was mentioned in the citation for his MBE. Nicholass had been in almost every action of the 5th Field except for a brief furlough in England and was one of the few who had volunteered to stay with his unit when the ‘echelon men’ went home under the replacement scheme.