CHAPTER 22 — Across the Rubicon
Across the Rubicon
For the time beingFlorence was to be the limit of the drive on the west of the Apennines, and the next blow was to be delivered beside the Adriatic. The New Zealand Division was now scheduled to be taken out of the line for a short spell before travelling over to join the fighting round Rimini.
While the Arno sector was being taken over by the Americans of the Fifth Army the New Zealanders remained in positions a little east of Empoli to cover the changeover, B, C and A Squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry being placed, in that order, under the command of 4, 5 and 6 Brigades. On the night of 10 August, C Squadron was placed in support of 23 Battalion which, together with 26 Battalion, cleared the country from the railway on the east side of Empoli to the Arno. At first light Staghounds went forward, protected by two platoons, and shot up houses which had been by-passed by the leading companies, so that once these strongpoints had been reduced, the infantry could then continue on to their final objective.
The 362nd American Regiment, which was to advance simultaneously further to the left, did not manage to get right up; but the enemy made sure of getting back over the river, so it did not prove very difficult to hold the gains with an open left flank. Presumably the Americans did not believe that the New Zealanders had got forward so easily, because they sent down shellfire containing propaganda leaflets round the village of Isola at the edge of the river. Early the next day No. 5 Troop, patrolling round the same area in order to make contact with the left flank, was hustled out of it by shellfire from its left rear. The troop was not slow to complain, but word came down from Division that its American friends disclaimed any such unneighbourly behaviour, even though the troop had established the direction of the fire by a positive compass bearing. It then thought it would be rather fun to send one of the Americans’ own pamphlets back to them by runner, but when they tried to get one the same gunfire became uncomfortably attentive; so discretion became the better part, in this case, of a practical joke.page 366
B Squadron was to remain to the west of Signa until all the country south of the Arno was tidied up, and it established its headquarters round San Vito, ‘a geographical expression’, as Cotterall describes it, ‘embracing a half-destroyed church with presbytery attached, and little else beside.’ The squadron received its share of attention in the form of fire from mortars and nebelwerfers from an anxious and attentive enemy across the river. To quote Cotterall again:
‘By night we can hear his big mortar thumping away, the odd Don-R, half-tracks, and (so No. 2 Troop avers), occasional drunken choruses from across the river. Reminds one of the lieder across the Rapido.’
A Squadron spent this period back behind the Pesa a few miles south of its confluence with the Arno at Montelupo. It enjoyed a quiet ten days but for occasional disturbances in the form of counter-battery shoots between the guns.
On the 16th the regiment moved back to the divisional concentration area just south of Castellina in the Chianti district. Full maintenance on all vehicles and equipment was put in hand immediately and there were route marches to keep the men fit. A limited number of men were allowed to go to Rome on six days' leave. There was leave by day into Siena, about 15 miles away, to stroll through the narrow stone-flagged streets or to see the wonderful frescoes of Pinturicchio in the cathedral library. Already the Roman Catholics had visited the town. They had attended High Mass in the great cathedral when Cardinal Griffin had preached to a tremendous congregation that included: ‘Sir Oliver Leese, a charming blonde nurse, and a great collection of “askaris”—N.Z's, Aussies (Air Force), English, Scots, Irish, Canadians, Poles, Indians, South Africans, Basutos, Somalis; no Brazilians noticed.’1
A cryptic message in the ‘Admin. Instructions’ recalls a story of a visit during this period by the GOC. The entry reads: ‘The Regimental headdress is BERETS. No other form of headdress is allowed except when steel helmets are ordered.’
The regiment had adopted the current fashion of unusual headgear, as a steady number of panamas and Borsalinos had been ‘liberated’. When the General called on Div Cav to remonstrate, he first encountered one of the RHQ NCOs in the full-dress uniform of an Italian admiral. This must have shocked him a bit, but a moment or two later he was put under even page 367 greater strain. He found next a group of Staghounds, not one of which was battle-worthy, it being impossible to traverse the turrets for the great barrels of Chianti strapped to the hulls.
C Squadron had just previously found a large quantity of the most exquisite china, some of which it sent back for the officers' mess. The discerning eye of a visitor happened to notice a young subaltern having a meal sitting on top of his Staghound, his feet dangling down inside the turret; on his lap was a plate of beautiful, delicate egg-shell china and on his face an apologetic look. His mild shame rose from the fact that the vintage Marsala he was drinking with his food was contained in a homely enamel mug instead of that more appropriate adjunct to gracious living, the goblet of cut crystal it deserved.
The last handful of the 4th Reinforcements to leave the regiment en route for furlough in New Zealand left on 22 August. Three weeks previously one man had regretfully left. Harry Kaitaia—by now the name ‘Padre Taylor’ was so little used as to induce a momentary uncomprehending stare—was sent to England to take up duties on the Prisoner of War Commission. To lose, even while completely engrossed with a battle such as the one for Florence, such a respected, indeed deeply loved person, sent a wave of resentment through the regiment. ‘They've flogged our pet bishop. They pinched Harry Kaitaia!’ It was thoroughly undeserved hostility that, in some quarters, greeted his successor, the Very Rev. A. K. Warren,2 as some men seemed to feel that nobody would be able to fill Harry's shoes. But fill them well he did, and he himself was later wounded and decorated with the MC.
The regiment had missed seeing the King when he visited Italy but it did see Winston Churchill. Even that was not a particularly enthusiastic occasion. After a series of timetable changes reminiscent of early recruit training days, there was a two-mile march down a dusty road during the morning and then a wait amongst heat and blasphemy until midday, when the great man drove past in an open car with the GOC. He seemed lost in thought, rather pallid and tired, but grim and resolute as he stood up and waved in response to rather restrained cheers. It takes a lot to make New Zealanders demonstrative.
There was a casualty list published about this time in which ‘Clarry’ Roderick was posted ‘Killed in Action’. Clarry, who page 368 was in the LRDG at the time, was the regiment's first PW loss. His death exposed a sad coincidence. Somewhere near Sora, when escaped prisoners were very much in everybody's mind, Dan Tomlinson3 happened upon a great sheaf of messages held by a local priest. They had been written by some 1200 prisoners whom he had helped. This priest had sorted out one from ‘a New Zealander’ of recent date and this happened to have been written by Roderick, only a few weeks before, saying that he had received assistance and was on his way back to the Allied lines. He must have been killed trying to get through the German lines; it was tragic that he should come to his end so near to friends and freedom after long captivity.
The move to Iesi, on the Adriatic, was another security move, with all identifications taken off. The Divisional Cavalry was part of a 440-vehicle convoy which travelled in two night stages in what proved to be the most difficult and tiring move the regiment ever did. It was supposed to be done at the rate of 12 miles in the hour, but as it takes years of training to maintain a certain speed through a large convoy, by the time this one had reached Siena every vehicle seemed to be doing a full 50 m.p.h., ‘much to the dismay of M.P's and jaywalkers’. There was a wireless silence and some operators tuned in to the BBC, and as they looked back along the twisting roads, now a multitude of bright headlights coming and going through the blinding dust, they could clearly hear the acclaim of the French crowd as General Leclerc entered the Prefecture in Paris and the sound of distant rifle shots as it gathered round the Arc de Triomphe.
On through the night the convoy drove; round the shores of Lake Trasimene and east to Perugia, where one of the B Squadron Staghound drivers, dozing off at the wheel, scattered a pretentious pair of Italian gates in a shower of sparks and tumbling masonry before coming awake again. They drove past Assisi, asleep on the hill above them, and at dawn they stopped just past Foligno to rest during the day.
As they pulled out again in the evening of the 28th the operators heard more from the BBC. This time they heard the actual volley of shots fired at General de Gaulle from the gallery of Notre-Dame Cathedral as he entered for a solemn Te Deum to celebrate the day of freedom, and the commentator's excited voice rising as the General squared his shoulders and marched unhesitatingly up the aisle.page 369
Climbing up into the Apennines beyond Foligno, the head of the convoy could look down 600 feet upon its own tail with its lights twinkling like some fairy procession. On they drove until they had passed Macerata, and in the freshness of the early dawn they had run through the prosperous rolling country to a destination amongst the grape vines and olive trees near Iesi.
For about three weeks life was very pleasant. There was football, and a sports meeting on the beach, which was close to the concentration area near Fano to which the regiment moved on 5 September. There was glorious swimming in the Adriatic, where the water seemed a deeper blue than ever for the silver balloons glinting in the haze above Ancona. But all this came to an end only too soon. On 22 September the regiment moved into the line at Rimini.
Regimental Headquarters was set up here in the town in a good sheltered position amongst some back gardens near the beach. The town had been completely evacuated of civilians for some time by the Germans, and by now was not only deserted but also badly devastated both by bombing and by naval shelling.
The general direction of the advance was along Route 9 across the flat plains towards Faenza, the New Zealand Division being allotted the extreme right flank against the coast. Its axis in the meantime was therefore Route 16, which together with the accompanying railway, follows close to the coast in the direction of Ravenna. This axis was crossed at right angles by a maze of rivers and ditches which made ideal country for an obstinate defence. As far as concerned Div Cav, the problem was attack in a conventional manner, with a squadron pushing along either side of the road. Not only did the nature of the country, so ideal for demolitions, preclude swift advance, but also the enemy appeared to be well equipped with artillery and nebelwerfers and only too ready to use them. A Squadron, on the left, did however manage to get about two miles forward of the city on the first day.
The following morning a further patrol, working with forward elements of the Maori Battalion, managed to advance another mile until held up by enemy shellfire. Even though the cars took shelter behind some houses until things quietened down, they got caught in a ‘stonk’ which cost one man killed, Lance- page 370 Sergeant Davidson,4 and another fatally wounded, Trooper Lennard.5 One car was destroyed and another damaged. The enemy was giving away no ground easily.
One factor which went far towards keeping all ranks' eyes open for such material was the listing of them in a daily bulletin published by the regimental Intelligence staff. This answered to the name of ‘The Griff’ and was intended to be, as the war diary puts it: ‘… some small incentive to those troopers of an argumentative disposition.’ It contained much of topical and contemporary interest on such things as enemy morale, as well as one or two startling translations of captured documents and some revealing opinions gleaned from captured soldiers.
Progress was slow—and expensive, too. By 26 September C Squadron, working away up a road close to the shore, had penetrated five or six miles to the near side of the mouth of the Uso River (the Rubicon) and by last light was still well in contact with the enemy. But A Squadron's patrols were not blessed with such success. Troops under Lieutenants Spiers6 and Stace had been held up by demolitions and mines a mile short of this, near the Uso. Stace had been in the lead when he discovered the mines. Spiers, who had recently done a mines course, came forward to clear the way for him. One of Stace's cars, in trying to by-pass them, had got two wheels in a ditch and bellied, and was getting a pull from one of the others. Orders were coming down from RHQ to push on so, in the meantime, Spiers cleared the mines and then took his troop ahead to within a few hundred yards of the river. He and Sergeant McDonald7 went forward on foot to reconnoitre it, but they made an elementary mistake. They conferred in the open with a group of people from other units. One shell killed eight men, including Spiers. McDonald was lucky to be amongst those who were only wounded.
In this country of unlimited opportunity for demolitions much use was made by the enemy of all sorts of obsolete bombs and shells. As well as this, he was making a practice of covering them with small infantry rearguards, which laid low until our troops got down to lift mines or remove fuses, and then brought down sudden fire upon them. The boot was now on the other foot, as Div Cav, now at the winning end of the war, was suffering from just the very same ruse at which it had become so expert in Greece.
The Uso, at present a muddy little stream contained by the usual stopbanks, was much more than a match for the Stag- page 372 hounds. What had promised to be ideal country for tanks and armoured cars was now threatening to become, with the autumn rains, just a quagmire. Where there were vines they were still in leaf, and with visibility thus limited, it was ideal country for snipers. Land that was used for cropping was as flat as a billiard table and with about as much cover; so movement was impossible. Forward patrols could get only occasional shots at fleeting targets, and C Squadron's cars on the banks of the Uso had run into wire and mines and dragon's teeth, with the enemy covering all this from pillboxes. These were engaged with the 37-mm. guns but without effect. Life had become frustrating. That ‘last month in Italy’ was going to turn into another and yet another. Then after some days of poor visibility, down came the rain in earnest.
B Squadron patrols had been trying hard to get up abreast and left of C Squadron. Until the 29th they had been working in conjunction with infantry of 3 Greek Mountain Brigade, which was under command of the Division, but during that morning the heavy rain and the poor visibility necessitated the recall of all armoured cars.
There was, however, one job to be finished off. The previous day, movement had been noticed in a house on the near side of the river close to Route 16 and a ‘stonk’ called down upon it. Sergeant Kidd8 went forward with a small party of Greeks to see how successful this had been. In the house were two machine-gun posts knocked out, and several dead lying around. There was yet a third post, but the enemy there had no fight left in them and were only too glad to give themselves up. There were six of them, of 162 Turcoman Division. They had long since had enough.
Now that the cars were recalled, the Divisional Cavalry once again became infantry. Sooner or later it would stay that way, for the writing was on the wall. The plains ahead were just a sea of mud. All the previous visions of racing across them at 50 m.p.h. in the Staghounds, shooting to right and left as they went, were gone: gone with the memories of the plains beyond Wadi Akarit. The men left their cars in a muddy field, forlorn under a weeping grey sky, and marched off on foot on the dreary wet flats of the Romagna. On 3 October orders were received for the formation of another Wilder Force, a dismounted one, to come under command of 6 Brigade which was relieving the 5th. The Divisional Cavalry was ordered to take over a sector page 373 of the line from 22 Battalion, so B and C Squadrons, together with a fourth squadron formed from 33 Battery, 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, were given the job. Placed also under command for the occasion was No. 11 Platoon, 27 MG Battalion.
They took over from the 22nd in daylight on 5 October, with the Anti-Tank and C Squadrons forward, near the Fiumicino River, and B Squadron in reserve. A Squadron remained with its cars.
During the first half of October, owing to the use of various other arms as improvised infantry, the question of identifying them gave rise to the practice of naming them after their commanders. Wilder Force, for example, consisting of cavalrymen and artillerymen and under immediate command of the Cana- page 374 dians, was a part of Cumberland Force and, for a time, of Landell Force, itself part of the composite brigade commanded by Brigadier I. H. Cumberland.
There was an attack planned for the night of 6–7 October and, in order to gauge the enemy's gun strength, a dummy barrage was put down in the early hours of the 6th. It was effective only in so far as it drew small-arms and mortar fire on the forward lines. C Squadron suffered five men wounded through this, and later Corporal McLeod9 of B Squadron was killed. In the evening there was attention from nebelwerfers but things quietened down after dark. It was obvious to the enemy that an attack was imminent, and as a result he showed every sign of uneasiness. On the 7th he treated the forward areas to general shelling and mortaring all through the day. One C Squadron post received a direct hit resulting in the deaths of Corporals Holland10 and Bruhns11 and of Trooper Brayfield.12 Four others were wounded, of whom Trooper Waddick13 died later.
The bad weather thwarted the original plans to cross the Fiumicino in the coastal area, and after several postponements it was decided to make the crossing further inland, along Route 9, directed at Cesena. This became the task of 5 Brigade, and the 6th, on the left, was relieved by part of 1 Canadian Corps. Cumberland Force remained where it was on the right in a holding role, Wilder Force coming under direct command of the Royal Canadian Dragoons.
While the crossing was being made and the bridgehead established and enlarged, Wilder Force enjoyed a reasonably quiet two or three days. That, of course, is by comparison, for until the 21st, when fog reduced visibility almost to nil, its front was still subjected to some shelling and mortaring. The headquarters of the Anti-Tank Squadron collected a direct hit on its casa which buried four men, but they were uncovered little the worse for wear. Night patrols went out and sometimes were greeted with mortar fire. On the 11th C Squadron was relieved page 375 by B and on the 13th the Anti-Tank Squadron by A. The same day some Canadian MIOS14 came forward to demolish houses used as enemy strongpoints.
The bridgehead was well and truly established now and was beginning to spread sideways so, during the night, Second- Lieutenant Studholme15 lead a patrol down to the near stopbank with a view to forcing a crossing at dawn. It was difficult having to cross line after line of vines strung on wires, but eventually the patrol established themselves under the bank, well within hearing of the Germans on the other side, who did their best to get at them with rifle grenades. However, the banks were steep enough to provide plenty of cover, though the intended crossing was thoroughly discouraged.
Early in the afternoon of the 14th, however, another B Squadron patrol managed to take advantage of poor visibility to sneak across. They were not able to establish themselves permanently, but on looking into a dugout they discovered, and spirited away, a hungry German paratroop corporal who was cooking a rabbit for his sleeping men over a green wood fire.
Prisoners taken on this front were completely unaware of the Allied advance to the Rhine. The Turcoman prisoners were a particularly ignorant and surly bunch. They had originally been captured from the Russians and released to fight for their captors. Though they had German paybooks—with one page entered in Russian—these were not of much real interest to them, for many of them were illiterate. It was not impossible that they even thought they were still fighting for Russia. Though the prisoners were ignorant of events on the Second Front, German newspapers lying about did not try to hide the gravity of the situation. Rather did they urge the troops to play for time—for the spring—when all sorts of secret weapons would be there to knock the Allies out once and for all.
It was not just hungry prisoners who suffered, nor our own troops struggling in the sodden plains. So, too, did the civilians. About this time a complete clean-out of them was ordered. In the Wilder Force area some twenty-eight of them were bundled back over the Uso River on the 14th, following upon definite proof of interference with army telephone lines. Some of these had been found with long pins piercing the wire and the whole taped so as to appear as a join.page 376
In the cold of the approaching winter, and with the hunger that comes with the disorganisation caused by battle, civilians become desperate. The war diary for the 15th reads: ‘We cannot cope with all the civilians who swarm everywhere. No sooner do we put ten out than twice the number return by divers routes.’
It was hard to drive these people from their homes, if homes they could now be called: casas yes, but not really homes. Under a thin military veneer there lies in the minds of New Zealand soldiers a strong sense of sympathy, and they were deeply conscious of the state of these peasants, a state best expressed in its own tongue, disgratzia. Imagine a simple peasant's plot of a few acres, a summer gone and now nearly an autumn. His wheat and his maize have been pounded into the ground by machines of war; his tomatoes and potatoes, his pigs and his poultry, his draught cattle, all steadily stolen by soldiers of two armies; his carefully cached preserved eggs were discovered in minutes by expert finders; his house, long since looted, is now seriously damaged as well. The last of the previous year's wheat is piled in the upper windows for sandbags; his olives are rotten on the ground, and his overripe grapes are still on the vines. This is misery, ruin, and despair, as well as disgrace. He suffered some disgratzia under the hated Facisti. Now, as an ex-enemy, he suffers disgrace for being of their nationality. And he keeps on suffering, as now everybody is driven away from the battle area with nowhere to go for shelter and nothing to eat. Everybody has to suffer because one man was spying; and he was probably a German in civilian clothes.
The right flank was kept fully prepared to speed the departure of the enemy but was with orders not to mount any major attack. Some Wilder Force patrols were able to remain forward under the stopbanks by day, watching for an opportunity to slip across the river and establish themselves permanently. The first of these succeeded in doing so on the 15th. The following day, with the village of Gambettola now well secured and the Maoris applying pressure from the east, word came down that the enemy was pulling out opposite Cumberland Force. Immediately more patrols were ordered forward over the Fiumicino.
Studholme's troop got across and pressed on over the Baldona Stream and the Rigossa Canal, and was studying the open country towards the village of Castellaccio, when it was ordered to get back over the Rigossa. A counter-attack of about company page 377 strength was being launched on its right against a similar A Squadron patrol led by Second-Lieutenant Purchase. One of his troop, A. D. Davie, writes:
‘Everything was going sweet till I received a message from Bert16—“We are being strongly fired on.” He left his set on Send for a few seconds and I could hear the rattle of MG's etc. That was the last thing I heard from Bert….’
Purchase had taken cover by a house which was soon knocked down by bazookas. They then withdrew to a ditch a short way back and, since the wireless was now out of action, a runner had to be sent asking for artillery support. Until this came over Purchase, by now severely wounded, kept his men fighting back and they managed to contain the counter-attack at an early stage until the gunfire broke it up. Three of the patrol were made prisoner with two of them wounded, whilst three others page 378 were also wounded. Purchase himself, a casualty now for the second time in three weeks but still with enough stamina to walk out, was awarded an immediate MC.
Away to the west, the town of Cesena was due to fall into our hands and 6 Brigade was shaping up to cross the Pisciatello River near Bagnarola. So at dawn on the 17th A and B Squadrons were again ordered to push patrols ahead, their objective being the same river. Each squadron had the support of a troop of tanks from C Squadron, British Columbia Dragoons; but the enemy was fighting back doggedly and the objective was not reached. Individually the defenders—except perhaps those who had been on the Russian front—could not have imagined a worse place to be in, for as Davie writes:
‘This afternoon we moved to another position across the river and more to the left. This was the worst possie we have ever had to spend the night in. There were 3 dead bullocks just outside the door and Murray17 and Co had to actually remove the crawling remains of a pig from outside the house so we could establish a strongpoint there.’
Of B Squadron, Pinney writes:
‘… we had only sleep and cold to fight against and the battle continued all night long. To keep warm we searched for clothes and even rags. Lofty Magan looked sinister in a black peasant's cloak with a fur collar.’
But this was not to last for much longer. The Divisional Cavalry was due back on wheels any time. B Squadron joined C in reserve, being replaced by the Anti-Tank Squadron, it by A Squadron, and A by the 27th Lancers.
Fighting went on. After a heavy fog during the night one patrol managed to establish a strongpoint in a house half a mile short of the Pisciatello, but a counter-attack soon came in, and the walls were blown down by bazookas and the patrol had to retire under cover of smoke. Another patrol, from the Anti-Tank Squadron, under Second-Lieutenant Hugh Hodson18 fought its way into a house in Castellaccio, killing three and wounding another. It also was counter-attacked and driven out, taking with it one prisoner.
So ended the infantry job. The weather kindly treated the place to a fog on the 19th, allowing 27 Lancers to relieve the page 379 forward squadrons. They trudged back, the tension now relaxed, over the Fiumicino, and were taken by lorry to the Staghounds north of Viserba.
The advance continued. The 6th Brigade was now in a position to attack across the Pisciatello and 4 Armoured Brigade was to spring from there and clear the country right to the Savio. During this brigade's build-up across the Pisciatello, the village of Bagnarola would need to be held in strength against possible counter-attack, and Div Cav was given a day to rest and clean up before moving up there. C Squadron, however, was detailed to go forward sooner and come under command of 6 Brigade for its attack. The squadron moved on the 19th and next day was used to extend 4 Brigade's line to the right, against the Cumberland Force boundary. The instructions were just to make, and keep, contact with the enemy.
Three troops went forward on the flank of 18 Armoured Regiment, and when the tanks' advance swung westwards to face up to the Savio, established themselves at two crossroads, both marked by big demolitions, on the Pisignano road, the brigade boundary. The more northerly of these troops had a brush with the enemy and claimed some of them killed.
The B Squadron cars on their left found the going not only far more difficult but also disillusioning. Pinney writes:
‘It was our day in country we had dreamed of as ideal for armoured cars. How different proved the reality. We hacked down trees to fill ditches. Axle deep, we just got up the very slight inclines beyond, and ahead was another ditch to cross. It was ironical not to have any longer the bridges we had carried in the early summer…. Later in the afternoon the lanes became unpleasantly narrow. Our tanks shot up the whole countryside and infantry filed forward between the roads. We too took no chances and machinegunned suspicious places. The lanes were very muddy and with a wheel touching a ditch on either side it was a strenuous day.’
Accordingly on the 21st, C Squadron of 18 Armoured Regiment, together with a platoon of 22 Battalion and with B and C Squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry, set off to clean it up as close to Pisignano as possible. For quite a while there was no page 380 opposition, but the going was very soft and there were big craters blown in the roads. But eventually some minor shelling and mortaring was encountered. A party of men on foot was sighted crossing B Squadron's front and was shot up. This was most unfortunate as it turned out to be of the 27th Lancers, who had strayed some 2000 yards west of its boundary line. By the end of the day both B and C Squadrons had managed to penetrate well within a mile of Pisignano, the town being discovered, as was expected, to be strongly held. So strongpoints were established until the 22 Battalion men came forward to occupy the area.
This was the regiment's last day in action as cavalry.
What a pity to fade out of the picture struggling with glutinous mud and narrow lanes instead of roaring up to Trieste, triumphant, victorious!
1 A Brazilian division had been reported to be with the Fifth Army.
14 Self-propelled anti-tank guns.