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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

Leave in Taranto

Leave in Taranto

Leave to visit Taranto was liberally granted, and although unit transport was limited there were many vehicles on the roads and hitch-hiking was a simple matter. The town itself had little to offer to the motley crowds of Allied troops who thronged its dingy streets. What had appeared from the troopships to be a canal proved to be the entrance to a large inner harbour, called the Mare Piccolo, in which many cruisers, submarines, and motor torpedo-boats of the Italian Fleet still lay at anchor. The exaggerated magnificence of the Italian naval officer's uniform was well in evidence in the vicinity. It was hard to believe that men could take themselves seriously while wearing such a rigout.

Taranto and its rival port of Bari were the chief markets of a fertile, intensively farmed hinterland. Nevertheless, Taranto was short of food, and long queues in the market each morning, with civil police present to keep order, soon bought up all the available vegetables, fish, and fruit. The fish were minute, smaller even than sardines, and there seemed to be no root crops among the vegetables.

There was little evidence of bombing in the areas away from the page 304 waterfront, though the station was badly smashed. The more important streets were well paved and maintained. Beyond lay a maze of smaller streets and alleys that were broken, neglected, and dirty. There were two large, pleasant squares near the MDS. In one was a small, tree-planted enclosure, and in the other stood a massive, muscular, emotionally posed group of statuary, a memorial of the First World War. Opposite the statuary, in what had once been a fine café, the NZ YMCA opened reading and writing rooms and provided tea. Facilities were limited, and troops were instructed to take their own pannikins. Some did so. Others relied on borrowing and fared just as well, as no one can reasonably refuse to lend a drinking mug for a few moments. Later, a Naafi opened in the other square. ENSA took over a concert theatre near the waterfront and screened a series of good films. The seating accommodation was excellent, but the ventilation system left much to be desired. When the house was full the crowd literally stewed.

And, as Pte A. T. Green,1 of 6 Field Ambulance relates:

‘Some of the coffee shops served a satisfying beverage. Though the coffee was ersatz, it was boosted with a liberal dash of rum. Inevitably, however, the favourite resorts of troops were the wineshops. Usually operating in back rooms, and filled with soldiers and sailors of a variety of nations singing or fighting with alcohol-inspired camaraderie or rage, they were guaranteed to provide an interesting afternoon. The source of half of the pleasure of such occasions is the constant awareness that a single word out of place can change a friendly carousal into a brawl.

‘The New Zealanders were still incognito, which was to their advantage in their dealings with the local populace, who, filled with Axis propaganda, imagined them to be some particularly savage breed of barbarians. However, to anyone familiar with them they were unmistakable. For example, could a band of hard-visaged, rather more than ordinarily brawny soldiers, cavorting jovially along with dainty brassieres strapped on over their battle-dress jackets, be anything but New Zealanders?’