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Journey Towards Christmas

(1) The Rivers

page 405

(1) The Rivers

WE left our adopted village on Good Friday evening with the bells ringing and the sunlight slanting across the mountain. We went first to an area a mile east of Forli, but it was unsatisfactory, and Easter Monday found Company headquarters, Workshops, and the Jeep Platoon in a large white building, once a children's clinic, on the western outskirts of the town. Nos. 2 and 3 Platoons were in paddocks a little distance away, and No. 1 Platoon, which had stayed behind to uplift the Divisional Cavalry, was still in Albacina. Its holding of 25-pounder ammunition had been brought forward by the other lorries and dumped in an area nine miles north of Forli to form the nucleus of an ammunition point. This was opened by the Ammunition Platoon later in the day.1

The Division was again under the command of 5th Corps, and that night the 5th and 6th Brigades relieved the 11th British Infantry Brigade on the line of the Senio, north of Faenza. The situation had changed hardly at all since the beginning of March except that the ground was now dry and firm.

During the next few days, while our infantry edged up to the south stopbank of the Senio, the start line for the coming offensive, the drivers of the load-carriers fetched large quantities of ammunition from Ravenna and Cesena, delivering some of it to the gun positions.

Those who were living with Headquarters in the children's clinic had little to do and the warm spring days passed slowly. There was none of that tense excitement that had gripped us before earlier campaigns, and the general feeling, perhaps, was one of yawning impatience for the last battle to begin so that we could finish a long, dirty job.

No one was allowed in Forli, and every evening, to pass the time away, drivers gathered at the clinic gate to exchange badinage with page 406 the signorine and draw conclusions from the great stream of vehicles flowing towards the river. Long after we had gone to bed the highway was loud with traffic and we would say to ourselves between sleep and waking: ‘Tomorrow, perhaps’.

The day dawned like any other but by breakfast-time conjecture had crystallised into certainty. Early in the afternoon, exactly when we were expecting them, heavy bombers appeared. They came over twenty-one at a time, flying in arrowhead formation, and the roar of their engines never stopped. Sometimes they were almost transparent, like a shoal of whitebait swimming upstream, and sometimes they caught the sunlight and glittered in the clear sky like twenty-one diamonds. And with them came innumerable fighters.

Later in the day the barrage started and for a long while we listened to the big guns, thudding, thudding, thudding.

‘The Two Platoon boys,’ we said, ‘they'll be in it.’ (Four days earlier No. 2 Platoon, after leaving its ammunition with No. 3 Platoon, had passed to the command of the 5th Field Park Company and moved to a farmyard near Villafranca, five miles north of Forli. The next day it had been sent to Ravenna to load bridging.)

In the evening the YMCA Mobile Cinema showed a picture in the grounds of the children's clinic. It was a musical picture in colour and the attendance was large. In the darkness beyond the screen—ages ago it was African darkness and James Cagney—the horizon glowed and flickered, and you could hear, growling beyond Betty Grable's top notes, tanks moving forward to the Senio, night-fighters bolting through the sky, guns thundering.

It was Monday, 9 April.

On 9 April, at half past nine in the morning, Captain Williams—this was Jack Williams who had once been our quartermaster—called his men together to tell them the story:2

Well, it was tonight, and five bridges were going across the Senio: Woodville high-level and low-level (100-foot and 30-foot), Raglan high-level and low-level (100-foot and 60-foot), and Sey- page 407 mour low-level (40-foot). The Woodville bridges were the 7th Field Company's job, and the material for the high-level one would be carried by No. 1 Bridging Train (eighteen vehicles under Captain Williams). The 5th Field Park Company would do the Raglan bridges, and the material for the high-level one would be carried by No. 2 Bridging Train (seventeen vehicles under Second-Lieutenant Denny Wells3).

The Eighth Army attack was a three-division job—8th Indian Division on the right, New Zealanders centre, 5th Kresowa (Polish) Division left—and the plan was to cross the Senio and get and hold a good bridgehead over the next river—the Santerno—in one operation. (Then, though Captain Williams didn't say this, the Fifth Army was to drive through the mountains to Bologna.)

The New Zealand infantry would go in at twenty minutes past seven and it was thought that the first bridging lorry would be needed an hour later. Bridging sites and assembly areas were likely to come under fire, and it was up to every man to see that he had with him his tin hat and his emergency field dressing. There would be a man with a first-aid kit in each train; if both drivers of a lorry were knocked out the second driver of the nearest lorry was to take over. If a lorry broke down it would be put on tow at once or its load transferred to an empty vehicle. Whatever happened the loads would have to be available when they were wanted. The Divisional Cavalry was providing a covering party but it was up to everybody to look after himself. Keep Bren guns, tommy guns, rifles, etc., handy. It was believed the ditches were clear of mines but it was not known for certain. Well, that was about all….

Morning and afternoon passed slowly. Loads had been checked and rechecked and the moving parts of the bridging oiled and greased. The lorries were in perfect order and there was nothing more to do except think about the night's job.

Everyone knew in theory exactly what it would be like and everyone was familiar with the mechanics of bridging. While practising with the engineers during the winter our drivers had learnt to distinguish between grillage and panels, decking and skin-decking. They knew in what order the materials would be called for and page 408 how long it would take to unload them. The scene was plain in their minds.

After the bulldozer had carved a passage through the stopbank the first two lorries in the train, or the first three perhaps, would go forward to the bridge site. Swiftly but without bustle, accessories, timber, and base-plates would be off-loaded and stacked near the river's edge, and soon, with beautiful obedience, as though it were being not built but ordered into position, the bridge would begin to take shape. It would be dark and there would be little noise—only the ring of steel and the quiet orders of officers and sergeants. In the background, dim shapes in the darkness, creaking and grumbling, bulldozers would be at work on the approaches, biting, shoving, lifting….

But that was the picture under a quiet sky miles from the front line. How would it be with the enemy only 1000 yards away? How would it be with flares, nebelwerfers, mortars, bursts from spandaus, lorries blazing? The drivers remembered what the engineers had told them: ‘She'll probably be a fair bastard’. This was in Captain Williams's mind when he wrote in his diary: ‘Hope none of my lads gets hurt tonight’.

The silver procession of heavy bombers was a comforting sight. No. 2 Platoon's drivers were in a better position to see it than the rest of us and by three in the afternoon they had counted 1600 aircraft. When the barrage started they heard the crack and bark of the 25-pounders and the deep, mocking guffaws from the heavy guns, and they said:

‘“Sport” Williams reckons the artillery's laying on one hundred and forty thousand shells for the first barrage.’

‘Hell, that's got Alamein beat!’

‘They reckon it's going to be the biggest artillery show ever seen on any front of this size anywhere in the Mediterranean.’

Tea was a hurried meal and appetites were only moderate.

At twenty minutes past five, No. 1 Train, led by Captain Williams in his jeep, pulled out of the farmyard into the Hogg route, which led to an assembly point near Granarola. This was six miles northwest by north of Villafranca and about a mile and a half from the Woodville bridge sites. No. 2 Train moved out under Second-Lieutenant Wells at ten to six and went to the 5th Field Park Company's area, three miles up the Hogg route. The verges of the page 409 road were broken, the hedges battered, and the fields on either side of them white with dust.

No. 1 Train, led by six 7th Field Company vehicles carrying low-level bridging, reached the assembly point at half past six. By then the bombardment had been going on for more than three hours and the noise was deafening and almost stupefying. The countryside was alive with leaping flames and the ground beat underfoot like a pulse.

From the assembly point it was impossible to see the river, but its position was marked clearly by a great, ragged curtain of yellow smoke, among which tall columns of a darker shade aspired and dissolved. Into this dreadful pall fighter planes dived continually, and all the time, high above the tumult, like specks of soot supported by an uprush of hot air, two spotting planes hovered. As far as our drivers could see there was no enemy ack-ack fire.

When the sun was on the horizon the guns stopped firing and Wasps and Crocodiles,4 crouched below the south stopbank, went into action with flame-throwers. Like small, dark dragons—some of our drivers had climbed a haystack and could see them—the Wasps breathed long, slim jets of fire, which arched over the Senio, faltered or seemed to falter for an instant, and then fell in gold sheets on the far stopbank. A violet haze rose over the river, darkening to purple as it mounted and glowing with the heat and fire inside it.

The artillery was silent, fighter-bombers flew up and down above the stopbanks through the smoke, and the infantry crossed the river. It was now twenty-two minutes past seven. The guns fired again, flashing more brilliantly than before, though only two minutes had passed and there was plenty of light left.

Soon German prisoners came down the road, their hands locked behind their heads and their safe-conduct passes clutched in their fingers. There were about seventeen in the first batch and they looked like men who had seen the Last Judgment. Some were smiling, twisting their mouths to express a kind of idiot good humour, but their eyes were empty and quite stupid. One or two of our drivers, curious to hear them speak, called ‘Buono sera’, and they answered, most of them, with a sort of eager gulp: ‘Buono sera! Buono sera!page 410 They had been fine soldiers once, otherwise they would not have been where they were, but nearly all the manhood had been tortured out of them.

More prisoners went past a little while later. They came padding out of the storm, their faces and uniforms stained with dirt and battle, and the horror and strangeness of their ordeal was about them like an aura. Our drivers stared and stared.

When the barrage lifted, which it did twice in the next hour and at five-minute intervals from then on, there was an instant's lull, local and incomplete, like gaps in fog. Then, until the renewed fury drowned everything, you could hear rifles snapping like kindling wood and the rip-rip-rip of spandaus and the steady hammering of Brens.

Our drivers waited beside their lorries at the assembly point, finding difficulty in keeping still. At nine o'clock No. 1 Train was ordered to move towards the site of the Woodville high-level bridge, and it crawled forward with intervals of sixty yards between vehicles, halting on a stretch of straight road about a mile from the river. Here there was another wait.

The bombardment stopped at half past ten and it was quiet under the artificial moonlight. This started from points of dazzling whiteness and arched over the Senio, the beams broadening to spread a livid canopy over the whole battle area. Everything was blue-green—a cold, dead, ghastly colour that reminded you of an aquarium. Faces looked corpse-like, leaves and branches took on the brittle delicacy of coral—of fronds—and the whole strange landscape belonged not to this world but to one long drowned and forgotten.

As the drivers stood beside their lorries, talking in low voices and sneaking puffs from cigarettes held in cupped hands, they heard a low whistle, which rose quickly to a scream. There was a tiny instant of silence and then an explosion as a mortar bomb landed only a yard from Corporal Bill Ingham and his driver. They were lying flat and were not hurt, but their lorry was riddled with holes, and water started to pour from the radiator and petrol from the petrol tank. Bill took charge of the situation at once, telling the drivers of the next vehicle to take the wreck in tow. While the tow-chain was being fastened there was another low whistle, flash, and explosion. Mortar bombs and 88-millimetre page 411 shells began to land three or four at a time. Some drivers sheltered under the vehicles, heads against differentials. Others, forgetting about mines, lay down in the ditches, and a few took to the fields. Shells and mortar bombs, which seemed to be coming from the direction of Cotignola, a mile and a half away on the other side of the river, ranged up and down the line of vehicles, some landing beside the road, some on it. They came over with a sort of curved shriek and exploded like a box on the ear.

It was now after eleven, and the engineers' lorries at the head of the column were moving up to the low-level bridge site, which was on the left of the high-level site and only about a hundred yards from it. One of these was hit by shrapnel and the driver killed. The second driver needed help to get the vehicle moving, so Lance-Corporal Duncan McLean5 (No. 2 Platoon), careless of his own safety, went to the rescue. For this he was later awarded the Military Medal.

By now Captain Williams had a traffic problem to deal with, the lorry at the end of the low-level train having come to grief just past the last crossroads between the bridge sites and the high-level train. With two wheels in the ditch and two in the air, it was blocking the up-route and there was no room even for a jeep to squeeze past.

Being without a winch, the three-tonner from the Supply Company next in line was unable to help, so Captain Williams shunted it down the right-hand turning at the crossroads and brought forward a No. 2 Platoon Dodge. Working under fire and in semi-darkness and with so much noise going on that they had to bellow to make themselves heard (the barrage had started again), ‘Chum’ Lee6 and ‘Ned’ Kelly,7 directed by Captain Williams, tried to winch the ditched lorry hind foremost on to the road. When it refused to budge Captain Williams went forward to the bridging report centre to borrow a bulldozer.

In a surprisingly short time the bulldozer came rumbling out of the night, and with shattering roars and a sort of ponderous fussiness it started to push and shove.

page 412

It was now that an orange glow appeared farther down the road. Above it, flames lighting its rolling belly, was an oily cloud, showing that a vehicle had caught fire. It was the one that was badly damaged and on tow. Either it had been hit again or the petrol-soaked ground had been fired by hot shrapnel; anyway it had gone up in flames with a great, gusty sigh. While Bill Ingham cast off the tow-chain other drivers got to work with fire extinguishers. The same thought was in everyone's mind: ‘Hell, you could just about see this from the Alps!’ The enemy certainly could see it, and after battling with the flames for ten minutes or a quarter of an hour the drivers had to take cover. Some fled to a nearby house—the Villa Agrippina of blessed memory.

The Villa Agrippina was Heaven. Thoughtful German infantry had barricaded its windows with baulks of timber and its walls were comfortingly solid. The drivers sat down on the floor in the large kitchen and never had cigarettes tasted so good. The room was full of engineers, RAP men, and tobacco smoke. At a table officers conferred and a man at a microphone spoke quietly and earnestly to someone called ‘Uncle Fox-Fox’. Everyone was in high spirits and the news was good. The infantry had got across with few casualties and all was quiet at the bridge sites. The storm, though, was still raging outside: the burning lorry was still there, and the artificial moonlight, and the straight, narrow road. The idea of leaving the kitchen—the warm, cheerful, tobacco-filled kitchen—appalled everyone, and little enthusiasm was shown when Captain Williams arrived and said there was work to do.

He wanted a panel lorry to replace the one that had caused the trouble by the crossroads. Having failed to scoop it on to the road, the bulldozer had pushed it farther into the ditch (and good riddance), and the up-route was now clear in front of the burning lorry. But all the panel lorries, unfortunately, were behind it, and they could reach the crossroads only by the down-route. Getting a panel lorry on to this meant backing five lorries at the end of the train into a farmyard.

The drivers involved came out of the cosy kitchen into the storm, and when the road was clear the last panel lorry in the train, followed by three decking lorries that were needed to complete the low-level bridge, set out for the river by the down-route, Bill Ingham page 413 leading the way in Captain Williams's jeep. Captain Williams stayed behind to assess the damage to his transport.

As always on these occasions it was found to be disproportionate to the sound, the fury, and the expense of spirit. There were holes in trays, chassis, and engine cowlings. One lorry was on tow with a gash in its radiator, and the front of another was smashed. Someone had backed into it while arrangements were being made, rather hastily perhaps, to give the burning lorry more room. Two bottles of Canadian beer had been broken in a tucker box and there were six punctures, most of which had been dealt with already. ‘Spieler’ Sinclair8 and Lance-Corporal Sid Bracegirdle9 had changed a wheel under fire in less than five minutes.

Shells were still coming over but not so often now. Two heavy shells landed near the crossroads while ‘Chum’ Lee and ‘Ned’ Kelly were making themselves useful with their winch for the second time that night, the lorry in trouble being the one with that ill-omened load of panels for the low-level bridge.

It was now after midnight, and the high-level bridging was likely to be needed very soon. As the up-route was still closed to a large part of the train by the burning lorry, Captain Williams organised a fire-fighting party. When the blaze sank to a resentful smouldering he went forward to the bridge report centre to ask for a bulldozer. One was sent down immediately, and the hot mass, flaring like a stoked fire at the first touch of the blade, was shoved into the ditch.

The lorries moved forward, passing through a fringe of flame, and at one in the morning the engineers started work on the Woodville high-level bridge. As they were called for the lorries went to the bridge site in groups of three and unloaded. Then they set out independently for the Ravenna bridging dump to reload. It was as simple as that.

By the river all was orderly and quiet, though two men had been killed and several wounded. The battle had ebbed north and the work went forward smoothly and quickly under the artificial moonlight. It was no different from a rehearsal except that the far stopbank was torn and blackened and you could taste all the time page 414 (now faint, now strong, now sour, now sickly-sweet, always evil and darkly exciting) the foul breath of battlefields.

Back at the crossroads the ditched panel lorry was still making a nuisance of itself, one wheel being thrust spitefully across the road. By squeezing against the tire the 3 ½-ton Dodges were just able to get past, but many of them would have ended in the ditch if it had not been for Captain Williams and Bill Ingham. They gave directions under fire, and it was entirely due to their efforts that the bridging arrived on time. As a result Captain Williams was awarded an immediate Military Cross and Bill an immediate Military Medal.

By one in the morning the low-level bridge was finished, and on the far stopbank the bulldozers began to carve a passage for the long column of tanks that was waiting to move across the river.

Meanwhile, under artificial moonlight and enemy fire, work had been going forward on the other bridges—Seymour low-level, half a mile west of the Woodville bridges, and Raglan high-level and low-level, half a mile south-west of Seymour.

By half past two in the morning traffic was moving over the three low-level bridges and work on the high-level ones was going smoothly. The No. 2 Platoon vehicles in No. 2 Train came under heavy mortar and shell fire while waiting a quarter of a mile from the river with material for the Raglan high-level bridge, but none of our drivers was hurt.

The night passed and the sky lightened in the east and it was nearly six. In two hours the Woodville high-level bridge would be open. Already it was possible to cross the river and stand where the enemy had stood all through the long winter. ‘Thus far,’ he had said. ‘No farther.’

By scorched and ravaged banks the Senio flowed sluggishly. It was narrower and meaner than our drivers had thought it would be and no sewer could possibly have looked less impressive or less worthy of a place in history. A dull gleam was on the water, and from lacerated hedge and tree, drowsily at first but louder as the dawn came and clamorously with the rising sun, birds called and answered. It was a lovely morning.

Raglan high-level bridge was opened three hours after Woodville page 415 high-level, and by noon the last No. 2 Platoon lorry had reloaded and was back in the farmyard off the Hogg route. After a meal our drivers serviced their vehicles, patched punctures, and examined, not without complacency, the evidence of their ordeal. Holes not noticed until now were examined and commented on.

Before dusk the platoon was dispersed in a railway yard at Granarola, and at lunch-time the next day it set out for an area two miles north-west of Cotignola. As they approached the Senio the drivers gazed gratefully at the Villa Agrippina, with interest at the burnt-out vehicle, and with solemn pride at the bridges.

That day—it was the 11th—New Zealanders crossed the Santerno and the engineers started to bridge it, our unit being represented by two members of the Jeep Platoon who were attached to the 6th Field Company at that time.

At half past one on the 12th, while the infantry struggled to hold their bridgehead, seventeen No. 2 Platoon vehicles loaded with high-level bridging set out under Captain Williams for an assembly point in the little village of San Martino, some four and a half miles north-west by west of Cotignola and less than a mile from the bridge site.

The vehicles halted in the village street, and there was a long wait while the 8th Field Company worked on the stopbank under fire. Sometimes a shell landed near the head of the bridging train but no damage was done.

San Martino was silent and shuttered but it was not deserted. Something—a warmth, an odour, an absence of desolation—suggested that behind barred doors and windows people were waiting and praying for the wave to break over them and wash away into the distance. A few of our drivers, voicing their contempt for all Fascists to show they were acting not from selfish motives but as instruments of justice, burgled some of the more likely looking houses and came out with clocks, chickens, ornaments, and mattresses. San Martino, holding its breath under the collapsing wave, kept silent.

Soon after four the first two lorries in the train were called to the bridge site and unloaded hurriedly as the front line was only a few hundred yards away. Until daybreak the lorries went forward in twos, and by then our armour was across and what was left of the train was able to move up to the river. As long as the drivers page 416 stayed below the level of the stopbank they were safe, but the bridge site itself was still dangerous because of a sniper on the left flank. He was brave but quite fanatical, and when four of his comrades appeared on the stopbank with a white flag he fired on them. It took the artillery to quieten him.

The bridge, a 100-footer, was finished by one in the afternoon, and by five the last lorry had reloaded at Ravenna and was back in the platoon area.

During the day eleven No. 2 Platoon vehicles, part of a train of seventeen under Second-Lieutenant Wells, helped the engineers build another bridge across the Santerno. It was a quiet job, for the enemy was falling back now and preparing to evacuate Massa Lombarda, a fair-sized town two miles beyond the river.

Towards evening the weather turned cooler and clouds appeared. After tea, light rain fell. Being loaded with bridging, many of the lorries were without canopies, so their drivers crouched damply under improvised shelters, hearing the rain on the roof and wondering anxiously if the weather had changed sides. Our fighter-bombers, anyway, were unaffected. A ragged wall of smoke, darker than the darkest cloud, hung over enemy positions on the far side of the Santerno. Into it plunged a succession of Mustangs, stoking the fires they had started to new fury, so that the wall rose ever higher and blacker. They came down in fives, one on the tail of the other, and it was as though some celestial card-sharp, casually dexterous, were dealing poker hands.

By morning the sky was clear and it promised to be a lovely day. Massa Lombarda had fallen at midnight, and after breakfast Second-Lieutenant Wells and a sergeant left to reconnoitre the platoon's next area, returning with the news that it was pleasant enough as a place but that the drivers must expect to see some grisly sights. The platoon moved after lunch, travelling in convoy behind the 5th Field Park Company.

Beyond the Santerno dead mules lay by the roadside and near them was a dead German. He was lying on his back in an orchard and he was pitiful in his meanness and ugliness. Death, which dignifies kings and statesmen, is unkind to soldiers.

The new area was three-quarters of a mile from Massa Lombarda (eight miles north-west of Cotignola) and the field regiments were dug in all round it. Like the last area, it was planted in fruit trees page break page break page 417 —long lines of cherry, peach, and mulberry—and in the spaces between them alfalfa grew. While Italian peasants spread despairing palms over the fate of their alfalfa the lorries were parked under the trees beside long-dry drains that could be turned without much trouble into good slit-trenches. Above these drains, stretched on spars between tree trunks, was a system of parallel wires. These were for vines to cling to but they did equally well as a framework for bivouacs and canopy covers.

black and white photograph of Italian group

Easter Sunday at San Agapito

black and white photograph of location under fire

Cassino under shellfire

black and white photograph of pontoon bridge

Fiume Piave

black and white photograph of outdoor christian ceremony

Thanksgiving service at Perugia

The work of enlarging the drains started almost at once, for no sooner had the platoon settled down than it came under shellfire. Shrapnel whizzed between the fruit trees and pinged viciously against the transport, and our drivers, stopping only to flatten out when the whistles sounded very near, dug furiously, quite altering the appearance of the area in five minutes. Shells came over throughout the afternoon and at tea-time it was learned that Divisional Headquarters had been forced to leave a neighbouring area after sustaining sixteen casualties.

That night, while the Division pressed on towards the next river—the Sillaro—our drivers were kept awake by the artillery. The 25-pounders fired all night and shells from a battery of heavy guns roared overhead like express trains going through a station.

By dawn New Zealand infantry were across the Sillaro and late in the afternoon, when the news was of bitter fighting in a small bridgehead, two trains of eight vehicles loaded with assault bridging were ordered to stand by in the platoon area. They waited all through the night and all the next day, moving at last at half past seven in the evening. At last light the whole New Zealand line was to advance behind a terrific barrage while the 6th Field Company built two low-level bridges across the river. The sites were about one hundred yards apart and about five miles west by north of Massa Lombarda.

The two trains, one under Captain Williams and one under Second-Lieutenant Wells, drove through the soft spring evening to rendezvous with guides who were waiting on a stretch of straight road some distance from the river. Here the trains halted. Away on the left among trees a rifle gave an occasional crack but no one took notice of it until bullets sang between the drivers of the leading vehicles. After that everyone avoided the skyline.

At half past eight, just as the sun was going down, both trains page 418 set out for their respective assembly areas near the stopbank.

The barrage had started now and although it was no louder than the Senio barrage (comparisons are impossible above a certain pitch) the drivers were more vividly conscious this time of the immense weight of metal screaming over them. It was like being in a high wind, and you were tempted to put your arms over your head. As night closed in the trees and houses sheltering the guns leapt out of the darkness with mechanical regularity like sky signs.

Driving along a stretch of road that ran parallel to the front, our drivers felt peculiarly exposed and naked. On their left, where the guns were firing, the whole countryside was jittering in a mad torch dance, and on their right, bathed in artificial moonlight, silver meadows and ploughed fields, newly minted, stretched away to the river. It was like driving across a stage.

After leaving the main road the trains moved slowly towards the assembly areas, taking a long time to reach them because of bad bends and the darkness. Captain Williams's train halted in open country near a farmhouse occupied by Headquarters 22nd Battalion.

The barrage was still going full blast and the sky above was in torment. In shoals, in endless processions, the shells came over, and the sound they made was almost human in its vindictiveness. They seemed to be saying, and fantastically there was a touch of Cockney in their accent: ‘Yew!—Yew!—AND YEW!’

Captain Williams went from lorry to lorry, shouting: ‘The show's going very well. Everything's kapai! The 27th boys are well across on our left and the 22nd on our right. They've got a swag of prisoners and they're doing fine.’

‘“Old Sport's” as pleased as hell,’ said someone. ‘He thinks it's just Christmas.’ The drivers grinned approvingly, grateful to Captain Williams for his habit of passing on information. Some officers treated it like racing tips.

In groups of three to indicate brigade boundaries, of ten to indicate the end of pauses in the barrage programme, red tracer shells from Bofors swam across the sky in a perfect geometrical pattern. Brilliant against Prussian blue, unhurried, travelling with the oiled smoothness of billiard balls, they sailed over the Sillaro and vanished with a blink of yellow. This happened time after time and the fascination of it never failed.

page 419

When the barrage stopped it was followed by an uneasy silence and everyone had the same thought: ‘Now it's his turn.’ Presently shells began to land between the river and the assembly area, and next there was a pattern of crumps, and then—much nearer—a whine and an explosion. Away to the left, fifty yards from the bridge site to which Second-Lieutenant Wells's train was waiting to go forward, a Sherman tank was burning rosily.

The first lorry was called for shortly before ten and the drivers found they needed all their nerve to move steadily towards the blaze. Seated in the high cab they felt they were ten feet from the ground. The tank was lying close to the floodbank with flames and smoke spouting from its open hatch as from a Benghazi burner. Its tracks were bordered with a yellow frill and the air was sickly with the stench of burning rubber. The entire bridge site was lit up, and when the lorry swung round to climb the approach to the floodbank its windscreen flashed brilliantly as though signalling to the enemy. For hours the Sherman went on burning with a horrible slow thoroughness, drawing shells, mortars, and machine-gun fire.

The bridge was completed at half past one at a cost of two casualties.

Captain Williams's drivers, meanwhile, had been forced to take cover from mortaring and shelling, most of them either in the 22nd Battalion's farmhouse or under haystacks. Drivers who had been to the bridge site said the work was going fairly smoothly and there was not much danger. The track, though, was very bad. One lorry returned with four prisoners, boys who should still have been at school. They had waded through the river to give themselves up and they were shivering with cold and excitement.

The enemy seemed to be feeling about for targets. Shells groped their way towards the farmhouse and then turned back just as they were becoming dangerous. Away on the right, where the 8th Field Company was building a low-level bridge, two men were killed and three wounded. Later, lorries from Captain Williams's train came under fairly heavy fire at their bridge site. ‘Ned’ Kelly and ‘Chum’ Lee,10 backing to avoid a Honey tank, were blown out of their cab, escaping injury by a miracle. They found two jagged page 420 holes under the driver's seat and a hole in the petrol tank. Another lorry was holed nearby.

At the very last, when it seemed as though the job would be finished without casualties, a shell landed beside a jeep carrying Second-Lieutenant K. R. C. Rowe,11 the liaison officer attached to No. 2 Platoon from the 5th Field Park Company. He escaped with a scratched nose but his driver was wounded in a leg and arm.

As soon as the lorries were unloaded they left independently for Lugo, four or five miles east-south-east of Massa Lombarda, which was now their replenishment point. Lumbering through the night with shafts of artificial moonlight bending over them like boomerangs and the sounds of battle dying away in the distance, our drivers felt fine. Roaring, rattling, raising great columns of dust, shaking the whole earth, the tanks were going forward to the bridges—their bridges.

Spring with a green explosion had shattered our winter sleep and from all the coverts in the Po Valley the quarry was being flushed, but our unit was still at Forli.

With impatience, with envy, with an attempt at philosophical detachment—‘Forli will do us at this stage of the piece’— Company headquarters, Workshops, and the Jeep Platoon waited at the children's clinic while the battle swept on out of sight and out of sound—across the Senio, across the Santerno, across the Sillaro. Forli was now a backwater.

No one resented this more than the Jeep Platoon drivers. They had come to look on the forward areas as their proper environment and it galled them cruelly to be left in the rear with Headquarters and Workshops. They envied No. 1 Platoon and the Ammunition Platoon their forward point near Massa Lombarda and No. 3 Platoon the day-and-night job of replenishing it, but most of all they envied the five jeep drivers who had been attached to the 6th Field Company since 6 April, and the two who had been attached to the 36th Survey Battery since the 12th. The latter returned to the unit on the 17th and were able to talk, in a way highly irritating to their colleagues, of snipers, ambushes, heavy concentrations of fire, and prisoners. (‘As soon as we pulled up, three Germans page 421 rushed out of the house and dived into their dugout. When we started to close in—there were about six of us—they dropped their weapons and put their hands up. One of them, a little joker aged about 15, burst into tears and held out his wallet.’)

By this time—the 17th—the New Zealanders were twenty miles from their starting point. Two days earlier they had come under the command of 13th Corps and their role was no longer subsidiary to the Fifth Army's: they were to smash through to Venice and Trieste. Soon no New Zealander would be idle.

On the evening of the 17th, instead of writing in his diary ‘Very quiet today and I'm off to bed early’ or ‘Another warm day spent in loafing’, Corporal Ted Paul12 (Workshops) was able to record:

Tuesday—We left Forli at nine this morning and came twenty-eight miles to an area just south of Massa Lombarda, getting here at midday. The loads are terrible—narrow, full of deep potholes, and covered with a couple of inches of dust. We crossed the Senio and Santerno and found both of them disappointing.

All along the road, especially near the rivers and canals, we saw signs of bombing and fighting. Huge bomb-craters, often so close together that their edges overlapped, were everywhere. Our area tonight is dirty, dusty, and stinking, and there are swarms of flies, and the smell's anything but pleasant. The big guns have been going all afternoon and the enemy has been bombed heavily. It is now half past six and planes are going over in force and the guns are still booming. The sun is fairly high but a pall of dust has risen fog-like and it threatens to hide the sun long before it sets. No. 1 Platoon and some of the Ammunition Platoon are moving forward to open an ammunition point on the far side of the Sillaro….

Later the news was read. The measured voice that had warned us of disasters in Greece and Crete and Tobruk told us that American troops had reached the Czech border, that Germany proper was cut in two, that Marshal Zhukov was reported to be only twenty-eight miles from Berlin, that the Fifth Army, since launching its large-scale offensive the day before, had been making progress against fanatical German resistance and was closing in on Bologna.

In their dusty, stinking area, without a thought for the comforts of the children's clinic, the drivers made ready for bed.

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No. 2 Platoon moved on the 17th also. After an early lunch it left for an area near Medicina (nine or ten miles west by north of Massa Lombarda) and travelled along the main road through open country. The beast was only just out of view, as evidence of which our drivers passed two burning troop-carriers, a burnt-out Sherman, and a smouldering Honey tank. A huge dead horse, swollen and statuesque and looking for all the world as though it had tumbled from a plinth, lay on its back by the roadside, its legs stiffened in an heroic attitude. Cattle, from which civilians were ghoulishly carving steaks, blew gas among the long grass, and nearby there were German soldiers whom none had had time to bury. A dead Tommy, his shock of ginger hair pink under its powdering of dust, lay on an embankment as though asleep. Hardly a house had escaped damage, but the fields and orchards were still fairly orderly except where an acre or so had been torn up by desperate fighting. The crops, tender and green as lettuce, stood ripening under the bright sun, and everywhere Italian farmers were going about their work, ignoring the stream of transport, the crumbling houses, the intolerable stench of death.

Once a British spotting aircraft flew low over the fields and a little girl in a red dress, after looking round for cover, dropped in her tracks like a trained soldier. Presently she picked herself up, dusted her dress, and trotted off.

The new area, which was reached at three in the afternoon, was no different from the last—fruit trees and alfalfa.

On the 18th, while New Zealanders pushed on towards the Gaiana River, and during the night of the 18th-19th, while they crossed it under savage fire on a front some two and a half miles north-west of Medicina, No. 2 Platoon rested. On the 19th only four vehicles were employed, and on the 20th two trains of nine vehicles did uneventful jobs for the 7th Field Company. Early in the afternoon two companies of the 26th Battalion crossed the Idice River, the last and strongest barrier before the Po. The Germans had given it a great deal of publicity as the Genghiz Khan Line. In the evening the platoon set out for an area near Budrio, a small town six and a half miles north-west of Medicina and a mile from the river.

Every tank and lorry in Italy seemed to be rolling towards the Idice and the convoy moved through a fog of dust. The sun had page 423 gone down before the platoon was dispersed in its new area, an open field peculiarly bleak and inhospitable.

The next day was Saturday, 21 April. Poles entered Bologna at first light, and the Eighth Army, the Idice crossed and the Genghiz Khan Line broken, poured over the plains and pressed the enemy into the great bend of the River Reno between Bologna and the Po. It was a quiet day for No. 2 Platoon, only eight vehicles being employed in bridging the Idice.

At half past eight on the 22nd the platoon moved to an area seven miles north-west of Budrio and eight miles north by east of Bologna.

Beyond the Idice the countryside was different. So far as our drivers could see hardly a house was damaged. The tide of battle had flowed swiftly past, leaving little in its wake beyond an occasional splintered waggon or smashed limber. No longer were there heaps of rubble in which children and old men and women probed miserably for a piece of furniture or a twisted bicycle. Instead everything was neat and trim and the handsome villas were much as their owners had left them.

After travelling a few miles the convoy was shunted into a field beside the road and a reconnaissance party went forward. Some shells landed fairly close at lunch-time and Jimmy N—— was unfortunate enough to mistake a plate of herrings in tomato sauce for his steel helmet.

The new area was reached late in the afternoon. It followed the familiar pattern but a kind of sweetness was upon it. Summer, outdistancing the Eighth Army, had moved forward with a great leap, occupying the whole of northern Italy.

Soon after half past six a small bridging train left to join the 7th Field Company in the neighbouring village of Bentivoglio, where the Germans had blown a bridge over a canal at half past five that morning. Bentivoglio, it was easy to see, had once been charming, but now it was in a bad mess. In an attempt to block the main street the Germans had wrecked a granary, a children's home, and some buildings belonging to a military hospital.

Although Bentivoglio had had a tiring day it turned out in strength to watch our engineers at work and the bridge went across the canal to a continuous murmur of bravos. Plainly Bentivoglio thought it was witnessing a miracle.

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Not everyone from the village was present. The report of firearms showed where partisans were happily hunting down and liquidating local Fascists in the surrounding fields. Once a jeep sped past, carrying in the back a man in Italian uniform, dying or dead. A gang of partisans, their faces stained by sun and wind as by walnut juice, and grenades hanging from their belts like clusters of fruit, came into the village square with a German sniper. He was a big, lumpy youth, pale and pimply, but he had a kind of sullen courage. One of our corporals wanted to know what would happen to him and the partisans answered with gestures and gay laughter: ‘Boom-boom-boom! Finito!’ Their manner was expressive of so much innocent enjoyment that popular feeling—at any rate on the part of the New Zealanders—began to favour the prisoner in spite of the tufts of fresh grass that decorated his steel helmet. There was a chorus of disapproval—‘Italian partisan bastards! Game as hell now Jerry's plucked off.’ On the corporal's insistence the prisoner was handed over to our infantry, his pimply mask expressing neither relief nor gratitude. The partisans, sulking like children who have been done out of a treat, went away to find another German to play with.

On their way to Medicina to reload the drivers passed Nos. 1 and 3 Platoons, which were heading for an area a few miles from Budrio with orders to open a forward ammunition point by half past eight the next morning. It was not a pleasant night for anyone, for the Luftwaffe, forgotten for weeks, had come suddenly and disconcertingly to life. Perhaps the pilots had been ordered to use up bombs, ammunition, and petrol as an alternative to destroying them or leaving them to the enemy, or it may have been that the air squadrons in Italy had been reinforced to give a fillip to German morale. Aircraft droned backwards and forwards all night long, the sky twinkled with butterfly bombs, and the earth shook. Every so often there was the long, rattling roar of machine guns. None of our drivers was hurt, but the Supply Company suffered ten casualties in an area next to the new ammunition point.

Meanwhile a train of fifteen vehicles had been standing by under Second-Lieutenant Wells in an area near San Giorgio, a village two and a half miles west-north-west of Bentivoglio. This was to go forward to the Reno River when sent for by the 7th Field Company.

The call came at sunrise and the train moved quickly to the bridge page 425 site, which was about twenty miles north-north-east of Bologna. It was still early when our drivers got there and at once they were surrounded by excited civilians, most of whom had white flags. They had gone to bed under the New Order and woken up to find New Zealanders, the 23rd Battalion and the Maoris having crossed the river before dawn. A man who was to have been sent to a labour camp that very day grabbed his girl round the waist and did a dance of joy.

The Maoris were still at the bridge site and they were enjoying themselves. In the hurry of departure the Germans had left thirty or more vehicles near the stopbank, a roast chicken, a feast of pork and potatoes, and some beautifully groomed horses. An armourer's caravan filled with spandaus and a cooks' lorry filled with beef and bacon were giving pleasure, and so was a half-tracked vehicle that had been coaxed into life and was roaring and shrieking below the stopbank. A thunder of hooves died away in the distance as Maori huntsmen disappeared after an imaginary fox.

There was no shelling or enemy activity, but the work was slowed down by the awkwardness of the bridge site and three times extra loads of material had to be sent for. In the afternoon Field-Marshal Alexander, Lieutenant-General McCreery (Eighth Army Commander), and Lieutenant-General Freyberg, arrived. They stood on the bridge and talked while the engineers laid skin-decking and an Italian asked innocently: ‘Po-leece?’ Earlier he had seen a British red-cap.

The bridge was finished at four in the afternoon, by which time two regiments of tanks at the head of a mile and a half of traffic were waiting to move across the river.

In the meantime fourteen lorries had been serving the 5th Field Park Company, and the rest of No. 2 Platoon—the domestic vehicles and two load-carriers—had moved to an area near San Alberto, five miles north of San Giorgio. The New Zealand Division was still well in the lead.

By now the advance had begun to show signs of turning into a triumphal procession. On their way to San Alberto our drivers saw many partisans—here a lorry-load of men red-neckerchiefed and brandishing rifles, there a single buxom young woman with a Sten gun across her shoulders. Groups of children in party frocks held up green branches and bunches of flowers and squealed ‘Ciao! page 426 Ciao!‘In San Pietro, a town south of Alberto, people were lining the main street as though for a circus and every lorry was given a special hand-clap. Truly moved, but feeling more than a little foolish, our drivers did their best to appear gracious and at ease, and it was not their fault if they resembled performing sea lions rather more closely than they did liberators.

After tea Captain Williams called his men together in the San Alberto area and gave them the latest news. New Zealanders were racing towards the Po with British armour on their right and Americans and South Africans on their left. Ferrara, thirteen miles to the north-east and the last important bastion before the Po, was in our hands, and there was an unconfirmed report that Americans were across the river on the Fifth Armv sector. The nine o'clock news added the information that Russian troops were bashing their way into Berlin from the north, east, and south. Later this long, pleasant day was brought to an end by an issue of stout and beer.

After breakfast the next morning the platoon set out for an area near Bondeno, a small town ten miles west by north of Ferrara and less than three miles south of the Po. There was a long halt on the far side of the Reno and then the lorries moved swiftly along a good road through open country. It was a lovely afternoon and it had everything—blue sky, golden sunshine, rippling cornfields, a slight breeze, careful husbandry: all the ingredients of the Georgics.

The new area—green and expansive, a spectacle of smiling plenty—was dotted with large white flags improvised from counterpanes and tablecloths. These the Italians hauled down as soon as they saw our drivers. They were friendly but their manner made it quite plain that soldiers were a visitation from Heaven like blight or frost—that they trusted their liberators with tablecloths about as far as they could see them.

Earlier in the afternoon Second-Lieutenant Colston, eighteen men, and thirteen jeeps had passed to the command of the 6th Brigade, and eighteen men and twelve jeeps to the command of the 5th. Eight men and six jeeps were sent to the 21st Battalion, the same to the page 427 23rd, six men and four jeeps to the 24th, seven men and four jeeps to the 25th, and five men and four jeeps to the 26th.

Very early the next morning (25 April) the 21st and 23rd Battalions crossed the Po almost without incident. Jeeps and six-pounders were ferried over in assault boats and after these came Fantails (armoured and tracked amphibious troop-carriers) and Ducks (wheeled amphibious troop-carriers). By half past three the 23rd Battalion's anti-tank platoon was on the far side of the river and with it was one of our drivers, his jeep towing a six-pounder. The driver of a second jeep would have been there too if the boat in which he was crossing had not gone aground in the mud.13

Soon after 5 a.m. the 7th and 8th Field Companies began building rafts for support weapons, guns, tanks, and bulldozers, and two hours later the 6th Field Company started work on a 460-foot pontoon bridge. There was no call for No. 2 Platoon's transport. It stood by all day in the Bondeno area and the drivers were not pleased.

By half past five in the afternoon the pontoon bridge was finished and ready for testing, so Lance-Corporal Sid Bracegirdle and ‘Spieler’ Sinclair, with their lorry under full load, drove to the bridge site, expecting to see great things. When they arrived they were disappointed. The banks of the Po were more like a contractor's yard than a battlefield and there was nothing to see except a few wrecks, the long straight line of the pontoon bridge, and an expanse of water, pale and colourless in the half-light. Gingerly, watched by an Engineer officer, they drove on to the bridge and moved slowly across it while it bent under them like a tightrope. The test was satisfactory.

They spent the night on the north bank of the Po. All night long a continuous stream of traffic flowed over the bridge and a petulant-looking moon floated in a sky like curdled milk, casting a lunar doubt on the importance of a day's history—a day's history that included the bridging of the Po, the battle for Berlin, a peasant's concern over his best counterpane, and the solemn session of the representatives of forty-seven nations at San Francisco.

1 The new 6-ton Macks enabled us to carry as much as we had done before the unit was reduced by a platoon.

2 The platoon's strength had been increased by the attachment of six three-tonners from the Supply Company.

3 Lt D. A. Wells; accountant and secretary; Gisborne; born Wellington, 21 May 1912.

4 Bren carriers and Churchill tanks equipped with flame-throwing apparatus.

5 L-Cpl D. J. McLean, MM; butcher; Balfour; born Balfour, 2 Dec 1917.

6 L-Cpl J. G. Lee, US Bronze Star; grocer; Ohaupo, Hamilton; born Frankton, 23 Feb 1918.

7 Dvr W. G. Kelly, m.i.d.; farmer; Te Kauwhata, Waikato; born County Westmeath, Ireland, 7 Jul 1915.

8 Dvr A. D. Sinclair; shepherd; Tarawahi, Featherston; born Featherston, 14 Oct 1920.

9 L-Cpl S. Bracegirdle; motor mechanic; Auckland; born Auckland, 12 Dec 1920.

10 For his work in this campaign Dvr J. G. Lee was awarded the United States Bronze Star.

11 Lt K. R. C. Rowe; architect; Wellington; born Wellington, 16 Dec 1910.

12 Cpl E. Paul; journalist; Christchurch; born Frankton Junction, 22 Sep 1907.

13 The jeeps towing six-pounders for the 21st Battalion were taken across by infantry.