CHAPTER 16 — All Roads lead to Rome
All Roads lead to Rome
The New Year blizzards of 1944 marked the end of our efforts to capture Orsogna, and of Eighth Army's plan to reach Rome via Chieti. Two months of fighting along the River Sangro had cost the New Zealand Division 399 men killed or died of wounds, about 1100 wounded, and 103 captured or missing. For the first two weeks in January our Engineers fought their own private war against snow and slush, attacking with bulldozers, graders and mechanical shovels, and fascining roads to keep supply routes open.
Troops in the forward area had settled down to a kind of static warfare, known officially as ‘offensive defence’. The storms carried away signal lines, filled gunpits and trenches, buried bivvies, blocked roads and bridges. Food and ammunition were packed out by mule train to front-line men who shivered in sodden clothing along the muddy ridges, manning slit trenches and weapon pits sometimes only a few hundred yards from the enemy. Soldiers in the line were frequently relieved, mixing in their off-duty hours with civilians in the nearby towns of San Eusanio and Castelfrentano. Meanwhile both sides shelled and patrolled continually.
For Petrol Company it was ‘business as usual’ under the vilest conditions. Despite the sappers' efforts, roads were often axle-deep in snow, or covered with a slushy mixture which squirted in squelching streams from chain-fitted tyres. Driving rain or sleet reduced visibility to zero. Hands, numb even when gloved, clung desperately to ice-cold steering wheels as vehicles slithered and bucked over ruts and potholes. Balaclavas and greatcoats were worn ‘round the clock’.
The Company's main chore was a daily run to the railhead at Vasto to pick up the Division's POL pack. This was then delivered to the Sangro Dump, where Captain Butt and his detachment still remained, or to a subsidiary dump controlled by Second-Lieutenant Burt. Trucks and drivers not on this page 299 run were fully employed clearing the roads into the Company area, and carting gravel, from the Sangro riverbed, to improve it. Workshops, in their whimsical way, spent their leisure hours building toboggans.
On the other side of Italy, British, American and French troops of the Fifth Army were also held up. Their ‘road to Rome’ was blocked by powerful enemy defences based on Cassino. These defences formed the western end of the Germans' mighty Gustav Line, which stretched right across the narrowest part of the peninsula and had first-class natural obstacles in the region's many mountain peaks and ridges.
To avoid stalemate and retain the initiative, the Allies changed their over-all plan. The idea now was to tie down the largest possible enemy force in the east while Fifth Army launched a heavy offensive in the west. The aim was to reach Rome via the Liri valley, the approach to which was dominated by the forbidding heights of Montecassino.
In mid-January, therefore, the New Zealanders handed over to 4 Indian Division in the Adriatic sector and moved across to reinforce Fifth Army. The strictest secrecy attended this move. Badges and shoulder titles were removed, truck emblems painted out. Only a few senior officers knew the Division's ultimate destination.
The bulk of Petrol Company, comprising Company Headquarters, Workshops and Nos. 1, 2 and 5 Platoons, moved off with the NZASC Group at 2.35 a.m. on 14 January. Nos. 3 and 4 Platoons had been detached to uplift 5 Brigade's Bren carriers—awkward loads, each weighing four tons, for vehicles designed to carry three tons. Ahead of Petrol Company and leading the convoy went Headquarters NZASC; behind Petrol Company were Divisional Ammunition and Divisional Supply companies. By 1 p.m. the column had travelled 106 miles and staged on the San Severo-Lucera road. Ammunition salvage, carried by Nos. 1 and 5 Platoons, was off-loaded en route at San Severo. Nine trucks of 1 Platoon were sent on to Lucera to load wheat and flour for delivery at Naples.
At 7 a.m. next day the convoy pulled out, travelling through Lucera, Ariano, Grottaminarda, Avellino and Ciccano, to reach the staging area by 2 p.m., after covering 101 miles. page 300 The route traversed some very rough country, with steep grades which taxed the more heavily laden vehicles. Petrol Company had a number of breakdowns, including two Workshops vehicles with major engine trouble, and two from No. 12 Section with their radiators damaged by collision on a steep grade. That afternoon the Company had its first view of Mount Vesuvius, smoking placidly some miles away to the west. At 3 a.m. on 16 January, Petrol Company set off for its new location (‘recced’ in advance by Captain Burkitt) at Piedimonte, in the Alife area.
The platoons took up their allotted areas soon after breakfast, and the rest of the day was spent on vehicle maintenance and setting up camp. The nine trucks from 1 Platoon delivered their loads of wheat and flour to Naples and returned. Next day the Company was hard at work, carting MT 80 from the Petrol Depot at Casoria to a new dump, now being set up under the supervision of our Company's Sergeant Hamlin, as a petrol point to supply the New Zealand Division. Workshops busied themselves off-loading MT stores and reconditioned engine assemblies. The Company and its affiliated units had suffered heavy engine casualties during the move, so Workshops was required to estimate the number of engine replacements needed.
During the next few days, Petrol Company uplifted POL from Casoria and Torre del Greco for delivery to the Company dump. This was taken over, on 19 January, by Captain Butt and his group, who had returned from the Sangro the previous day after handing over there to 13 Corps. The Company's transport details were reduced to a minimum to enable Workshops to concentrate on urgent vehicle repairs, and our drivers to catch up on maintenance.
The Company was now, with the rest of the Division, in the Volturno valley some 30 miles south of the Gustav Line. Here conditions were very much better than on the Adriatic sector, and life passed pleasantly enough for a time in peaceful camps among olive groves and woodlands. Nearby was the picturesque town of Piedimonte d'Alife; beyond, the purple mountains. Though some rain fell, the air was losing its bite. Football began again; sightseeing parties visited Pompeii. Some assign- page 301 ments took Petrol Company drivers into Naples, which, though badly scarred by bombing, they found still buzzing with the normal daily life of a large maritime city. The Luftwaffe had paid particular attention to Italy's transport systems and Driver Feisst remarks in his diary: ‘The railway yards are a real mess of twisted rails and trucks etc…. The waterfront area has been badly knocked about but the centre of the town is intact, and quite modern and clean…. The nearby villages are filthy, with garbage thrown into the streets—worse than the Wogs, actually, because better is expected of them.’
Features of life at this particular period were the frequent contacts and occasional close friendships with United States servicemen also encamped in the Volturno area. ‘Roads busy with U.S. traffic’, Driver Feisst notes on 19 January. ‘The Yanks have about everything imaginable in equipment.’ The Americans believed in waging war in comfort, and were generous with their goods and facilities. Hot showers, ‘cawfee’, ‘seegars’ and ‘candy’—to say nothing of Lucky Strike cigarettes —were freely offered to our drivers when they called (as many did, especially around meal times) at one or another of these Allied camps.
Equally hospitable were the Italian civilians; but they, of course, were appallingly poor, and usually hopeful of making a gain. Pilfering by the civilian population, from army trucks and dumps, seemed almost as prevalent in Italy as it had been in the Middle East, and stringent measures were needed to counter it. Petty ‘rackets’—and a few gross ones—were developed by some of the less scrupulous soldiery who had access to military stores or transport.
About this time, also, our drivers encountered the American traffic control system, which operated in the Fifth Army area. All convoys were given a serial number, based on a system of priorities, with a strict timetable to adhere to. The convoy commander would state how many miles in the hour he could cover, and his schedule of movements was worked out accordingly. If he ran behind time, or ahead of it, the convoy would be pulled off the road at check points, placed near convenient parking areas.
‘It was’, Bill Washbourn remembers, ‘a most fantastic organisation, run, I believe, by a group of traffic experts from page 302 New York. At first we would not believe that it could work, after so many months of traffic shambles on the Adriatic Coast. But we soon learnt that the Americans did indeed have the gen on traffic control; and this eliminated all the frustrating business of overtaking, “tangled” convoys, and long enforced halts such as we had been used to.’
By 21 January the Division had assembled, and was awaiting the result of furious assaults then being made by Fifth Army against part of the Gustav Line. Our role was to reinforce success in any sector, and take part in the hoped-for drive upon Rome. But despite bitter fighting, and small gains made at heavy cost, there was no break-through. Before dawn on 22 January 6 United States Corps landed behind the Germans at Anzio. It won a foothold but could not extend it.
On Sunday, 30 January, with our Division still ‘standing by’, the NZASC paraded before General Freyberg on a landing ground near HQ 2 NZ Division. A total of 4200 attended, including 427 from Petrol Company, and the newly-formed NZASG Band. After inspecting the parade the GOC paid a tribute to the good work done by NZASG in all campaigns. A church service followed, then a march-past, after which the companies returned to their own areas. Next day, three football matches were played, in the course of an inter-platoon competition. Easier transport requirements, now that the Division was static, allowed more time for sport.
Early in February, while Fifth Army was striking hard but unsuccessfully against Cassino, a New Zealand Corps was formed with Freyberg in command. This comprised 4 Indian Division, our own division, an American armoured force (Combat Command ‘B’) and a heavy concentration of British, Indian and American artillery units. A British division—the 78th—was also to join when required. Command of the New Zealand Division went to Brigadier Kippenberger; but unfortunately, while on a forward reconnaissance on 2 March, he stepped on a land mine and was seriously wounded. Brigadier Parkinson1 took over.page 303
The first task assigned to New Zealand Corps was the most difficult we had ever undertaken. This, in brief, was to capture the town of Cassino, the 1700-foot crag of Montecassino, and the famous Benedictine monastery, within the German defences, at its summit. For days 2 United States Corps had hammered away at these objectives and had made small gains. On 12 February, New Zealand Corps took over the sector and three days later launched its first assault. This was combined with devastating air attacks on the Monastery itself, after the monks had been warned to leave and to take with them, or otherwise make secure, as much as they could of their art treasures, rare books, and famous manuscripts.
Despite heroic and costly efforts by Indian regiments to take the Monastery via steep ridges to the north-west, and equally valiant attempts by the New Zealanders, with an American armoured force under command, to cross the Rapido and Gari rivers south of the town, our Corps failed to take its major objectives and the attack was called off. Another, with the code-name Dickens, was planned; but before it could be put into force rain set in and continued to fall day after day, filling the countless shell-holes and bomb-craters, and turning the surrounding plains into a muddy lagoon. Tanks, guns and transport became immobile, the bomber force was grounded, and any large-scale operations were impossible.
Petrol Company began its move into the Cassino area on 3 February, when Lieutenant Knyvett's Petrol Issuing Section was ordered forward to a proposed new Company location near Presenzano. A Corps FMC was to be set up there, with Supply, Petrol and the two Ammunition Companies domiciled nearby. The new pipehead (petrol supplies at this stage were coming by pipeline from Naples) would then be at Sparanise and would fill tankers of 8 Mobile Petrol Filling Centre as from 5 February. The situation on 4 February was that the petrol point near Alife would refill 4 Indian Division's first and second line with POL (for 150 miles) on its arrival from the Adriatic sector and supply maintenance needs for the New Zealand Division. About 40,000 gallons of MT 80 would be required for this purpose daily. The Alife FMC was to continue supplying New Zealand Corps until all had assembled in the page 304 new area around Mignano; the new FMC near Presenzano would then maintain supply.
At noon on 4 February, HQ Command NZASC advised that the Division's move was delayed for one day, and that no further transport or commodities would be moved to the Presenzano area. The Company was also advised that its new location was in the zone occupied by 2 US Corps, who seriously objected to any further concentration there. In the afternoon Major Forbes and Brigadier Crump made a ‘recce’ of the road on Route 6, as far as Mignano, with a view to siting a maintenance area along it; but the only suitable locations were occupied by units of 46 Division. At nine o'clock that evening Company Headquarters received orders to supply 100 3-ton trucks next day to uplift 25-pounder ammunition from the BAD2 at Nola.
This instruction posed some problems. Nos. 1, 2 and 3 Platoons, with their Platoon Headquarters, were already established in the new Presenzano area. Their state was: No. 1 Platoon empty, No. 2 loaded with POL, No. 3 loaded with empty jerricans. Rain was now falling heavily there, and the new area was becoming a sea of mud. At Alife, No. 4 Platoon was loaded with empty jerricans, No. 5 with Derv. To comply with the new order, these loads would have to be quitted… but where? Captain Butt, seeking direction at HQ NZASC, got no clear answer. Eventually 2 and 3 Platoons dumped in the new FMC area, and No. 5 off-loaded in their own.
By 11.30 p.m. a detail had been arranged, and Company HQ awaited a movement order. This was received at 1.30 a.m. next day, and signals were despatched at 1.45 to the platoons. They were instructed to leave Alife in four groups commencing at 8 a.m.; muddy conditions delayed departure from the Presenzano area, and 3 Platoon was two hours late.
With the ammunition finally loaded at Nola, the next question was what to do with it. The movement order gave no clue. Brigadier Crump advised that the north side of the road at Presenzano could not be used under any circumstances, and the existing ammunition dump at Taverna di Conca was not be to increased. An OCs' conference was ordered for 3 p.m. at HQ Command NZASC to discuss the whole S and T position; in page 305 the meantime a reconnaissance was to be made on the south side of the Presenzano area to find a suitable Company location and a site for the Mobile Petrol Filling Centre.
At the conference the Brigadier announced that our ammunition dump was in the centre of a brigade's assembly area, and the petrol dump was in the centre of 2 US Corps' area. To solve the situation he ordered an area which the Petrol Company reconnaissance had discovered (south of Supply Company) to be used for ammunition; Petrol Company was to build an MPFC site on the south side of the road and use the existing dump for issues until exhausted. Petrol Company platoons were to return to the Alife area, and the ammunition loaded at Nola was to be delivered to 1 NZ Ammunition Company at Alife. No. 6 MPFC and one platoon of tankers (from 510 Tanker Company) was to operate as from 8 February at Presenzano, and 8 MPFC, with the balance of the tankers, at Alife.
During this period Workshops, whose vehicles had remained packed for the expected move, enjoyed a little leisure. No. 13 Section, however, pushed on with the building of a new map wagon for the GOC, the carpenters working until 8 p.m. and sometimes later. Welders from other Workshops sections carried out modifications to three Sherman tanks of a neighbouring British squadron.
On 8 February, Commander NZASC advised that an Indian pioneer labour unit numbering 350 was coming under command of NZ Corps, and that fifty Indians would be allocated to each MPFC. That would boost the operations of the Filling Centres, and, with the machinery held by 8 MPFC, make possible a daily output of 40,000 gallons. Such an output would meet current requirements of the New Zealand Corps and enable the building up of a much-needed reserve. No. 510 Bulk Petrol Transport Company now had 30 tankers with 8 MPFC, and 21 with 6 MPFC. With the petrol pipehead at Sparanise, two trips per day could be made by each tanker.
Petrol Company moved on 9 February to its new location near Presenzano, and next day all drivers not on detail worked at road construction. Thirty trucks from No. 3 Platoon and six from No. 4 left to pick up mules at Capua, staging near that page 306 town for the night. Workshops found their location a very poor one, but settled down quickly to routine work. Heavy showers and a cold wind on 10 February made conditions most unpleasant for the whole Company, the terrain quickly becoming a quagmire. Next day badges and shoulder titles were resumed, fern leaves repainted on area signs and vehicles— a source of much satisfaction to all, since our soldiers were proud of their country and their Division, and always disliked having their identity clouded. On 11 February Captain Frank3 marched in, posted as OC Workshops Platoon.
March 1944 found Petrol Company still largely ‘static’ in the Presenzano area, and not specially pleased at their relative inactivity. Pipeline supply, of course, eliminated the laborious shuttling of convoys to and from railhead. At first, tankers drew petrol in bulk from the pipehead, then transferred their loads to ‘mechanical cows’ of the Mobile Petrol Filling Centres. These filled jerricans through sets of hoses, or ‘octopi’.
In March the system changed to one of direct filling from the pipehead. This was effected by pressure nozzles coming from a 15,000-gallon surge tank. The point there had four heads, each with four nozzles, half the total number being used by the Americans, half by the New Zealanders. Pressure at the nozzles was 60 lb to the square inch, the system necessitating a carpet of cans, arranged in rows, handy to the pipe. The carpet comprised 16 rows of 320 cans—a total of 5120. Filled cans were removed from the pipehead to the Petrol Company dump, and issued from there.
This system allowed our drivers much more spare time than usual, and the ‘slack’ was taken up in various ways—sport, marksmanship contests with rifle and Bren gun, the metalling of roads and platoon locations. But the period was a dull one; and the men ‘let off steam’ in their diaries and letters:
1st March, 1944. Still in the area without any move. Nothing much doing. Odd trucks have been out for metal and other jobs. Have been down to the Yankee showers a couple of times. Tonight a Jerry plane has been over and there were a couple of alerts on the siren in the village. There have been a couple of attacks up the Cassino front, but no progress has been made. On the Anzio page 307 front there has been much of attack and counter-attack. A number of chaps have gone to hospital with various complaints. Hope there is some movement soon.
14th March (Tues). There has been very little happen since last writing-up, a fortnight ago. Have had three trips to Nafto Naples and Fertilio. It was a nice change to get away from the Platoon area. Also we've moved about four miles to an area on the Cassino road about 12 miles below Cassino. Moved last Sunday (12th). Area is quite pleasant under olive trees just over the rear vehicle line which is operating to Mignano. Yesterday was a beautiful day and today was pleasant. It seems as if the rainy spell is over and things may move forward again. The ‘hanging around’ has been very monotonous and trying—more so than work.
Things did indeed begin to move again, the very next day; for Dickens, at last, was on. From 8.30 a.m. until midday on 15 March, wave upon wave of medium and heavy bombers plastered Cassino, while 200 Warhawks, Invaders and Thunderbolts hammered enemy positions south and south-west of the town. German guns were attacked by Kittyhawks and Boston bombers of the Desert Air Force, while Lightnings and RAF Spitfires kept watch high above.4
When, at noon, the aircraft ‘switched off’, the artillery opened up, with 610 guns firing 1200 tons of shells in less than four hours. Then in went the New Zealand Corps infantry, led by 25 Battalion. But such was the devastation caused by the bombing and shelling that our armour found their movements greatly hampered. Some tanks were bogged, others held up by immense masses of rubble. Some capsized over banks or slithered into craters; a number were knocked out by enemy fire. On the spurs and ridges Indian troops trying to reach the Monastery met a withering fire from mortars and machine guns.
Again and again the attack was pressed by New Zealand, Indian and British troops in a dour eight-day struggle. The Rapido was crossed, and most of Cassino taken. But so stubbornly did the enemy hold out on the slopes and round the fringes of the town that by 23 March it was obvious that any page 308 further gains would, be paid for far too dearly. The attack was called off. For the next week or two the New Zealanders held their ground in Cassino. Then they became involved in a general regrouping of the Allied armies in Italy. So, when New Zealand Corps was disbanded on 26 March, the Germans still held this road to Rome.
All through the period of activity ‘up front’ Petrol Company remained, in the doldrums, near Mignano. Only once did they take a direct hand in the game—on 18 February when the Maoris, who had captured the Cassino railway station the previous night, found themselves under observed fire from neighbouring hummocks and the slopes of Montecassino. Only a continuous smoke-screen could save the 28 Battalion men from serious trouble. But our artillery did not have enough shells to keep the smoke-screen going all day—and the nearest supplies were in a dump near the foot of Mount Vesuvius, 70 miles away.
Petrol Company's No. 1 and 3 Platoons were despatched, post-haste; and here we saw the value of the American traffic control. Our convoy had not only a number but also an ‘A’ priority; and Captain Washbourn, trying to get his trucks out of the Company area on to Route 6, was soon joined by an American MP on a motor-cycle. Observing that ours was an ‘A’ convoy, the MP held up all other traffic until we got clear. Some time later, Washbourn was advised at one of the check- posts that we were not making the headway that we should.
The Americans offered a motor-cycle escort, and asked what our top speed would be. Washbourn replied, ‘About 45 miles an hour—15 m.p.h. above army authorised speed’. We were then told to ‘go to it’; and with the motor-cyclists whizzing ahead and policing all crossroads, we went ‘flat out’ for the ammunition dump. This was something our drivers had dreamed about—travelling at top to get an urgent job done, with no one to blame or abuse them for speeding.
But such highlights, at this time, were rare. On 15 March another was provided by planes of the American Strategic and Tactical Air Forces as they zoomed over in tight formations, wave upon wave, throughout the morning. More than 500 medium and heavy bombers flew past—Fortresses, Liberators, page 309 Mitchells, Marauders—to drop a total load of over a thousand tons of bombs on Cassino and its surroundings. The town, badly damaged before, was now completely flattened; and from their vantage-point a few miles off, Petrol Company watched, fascinated, as a vast pillar of dust and smoke rose high into the air.
Four days later, more excitement came from a fire at the 1 NZ Ammunition Point, just across the road from Petrol Company's area. For five hours a vast conflagration raged, with explosion after explosion as 75-millimetre and 25-pounder shells went up, showering jagged lumps of metal, ammunition boxes, and shell cases over a wide area. This fire destroyed over a quarter of a million rounds of machine-gun ammunition and about 6500 rounds of heavy calibre stuff, besides trucks, tents, bivvies and men's personal gear, worth altogether about £48,000. Two soldiers of an American fire-fighting unit lost their lives, and another was badly wounded. Many Divisional Ammunition men showed great courage in trying to control the blaze, and in shifting trucks, stacks of shells, and so on, out of danger. Brigadier Crump, while inspecting the scene, narrowly escaped having his head knocked off by a flying piece of jagged shell case.
Shrapnel and bullets flying from the exploding stacks prevented all movement along the road; and by 2 p.m. so much stuff was landing in the Petrol Company area that 5 Platoon, nearest to the road, was forced to move out. Some trucks suffered minor damage, and Driver Corby5 was wounded. Earlier in the month (10 March) Driver McComb6 received a fatal gunshot wound to the head. On the afternoon of 31 March Workshops' cookhouse caught fire, severely burning Driver Way,7 who was sent to hospital.
On 7 April survivors of the 5th Reinforcements celebrated— with wine, and what passed for song—the anniversary of their sailing from New Zealand. Small groups returning from the Ruapehu furlough draft marched in; and on 13 April (‘unlucky for some’) five Petrol Company officers were listed for page 310 home leave under the Wakatipu scheme. They were: Captains F. G. Butt and R. K. Davis,8 Lieutenants E. T. C. Sopp,9 B. W. Roberts and L. M. Taylor. Four days later Major Forbes, who had left New Zealand with the First Echelon and had commanded Petrol Company since June 1941, left for Egypt to become OC, Base Training Depot, NZASC. Command of the Company then passed to Bill Washbourn, promoted temporary major on 18 April.
Early in April, the New Zealand Division regrouped with Eighth Army, coming (except for 4 Armoured Brigade, which went temporarily to 6 British Armoured Division) under command of 10 Corps. The Division's role now was to defend part of the line across the Apennine Mountains. By the middle of the month most combat units had moved into mountain positions in the Venafro-Isernia-Casale triangle, above Cassino. Petrol Company moved, on. 10 April, to a new position on Route 85, about six miles from Isernia, on the Venafro side.
Throughout the month troop-movements, by night, were continuous in this sector, as units were relieved and others took page 311 over. From the mountains enemy OPs kept approach roads under view and their guns trained on them, giving ‘the works’ to any Allied transport daring to move by day. Petrol Company shared in the night operations, taking the forward units into and out of the line—or as near as motor transport could approach it.
Acquafondata was then the closest point of safe approach for vehicles by day. This town was in an ancient volcanic crater whose basin became the assembly ground for a vast mass of troops and transport. Throughout the night, on a clockwork schedule, a succession of Jeep-trains—columns of loaded jeeps and trailers—took supplies forward to sheltered Jeep-heads. Thereafter all further movement was on foot, or by mulepack.
Two roads, both vile, squirmed westward among the mountains from Acquafondata to Hove Dump, our most forward supply and petrol point, about 13 miles away. These were the North Road and the well-named Inferno Track, along which Petrol Company convoys, carrying troops and POL, frequently ran the gauntlet by night. Enemy shelling lent speed to these detachments, or caused them to ‘hole up’ in riverbeds or quarries. On the night of 21-22 April Driver J. J. Robertson,10 of 5 Platoon, was killed by shellfire—Petrol Company's first fatality due to enemy action for almost a year, and their first in Italy.11page 312
Next night (22-23 April) was a specially lively one. No. 5 Platoon were shelled again while bringing out troops from Hove Dump, but all got back safely. At 4 p.m. eleven Petrol Company trucks under Captain G. W. Lyon and Second-Lieutenant F. W. Burt uplifted men of the 2788 RAF Squadron and delivered them, via the Inferno Track, to Hove Dump. No sooner had the trucks off-loaded than shelling began, killing and wounding a number of the airmen.
‘Several trucks were also set alight’, says Petrol Company's war diary, ‘and as one of these was loaded with ammunition, it added considerably to the fireworks already in the area. The shelling was intermittent throughout the night but our men and vehicles escaped damage only by being parked under a cliff in dead ground. During the night Cpl L. R. Burling12 did excellent work, driving trucks away from burning vehicles, putting out fires and attending to the wounded—all under heavy shellfire.’ For this Burling gained a mention in despatches.
On the return trip our trucks were to bring out men of 2771 Squadron. Some were late in making the rendezvous, so three three-tonners remained at HQ 5 NZ Infantry Brigade to await them. The others took on airmen at 5 a.m. on 23 April, returning via the Inferno Track, since the North Road was then under heavy shellfire. Negotiating the steep and winding Inferno Track, without lights, was no picnic; but the convoy reached Acquafondata safely as day was breaking, then continued on with the RAF men to Presenzano. Meanwhile, Sergeant Davey brought out the three three-tonners left behind at 5 Brigade Headquarters, debussing the airmen on the Venafro road, where they were picked up by their own transport.
On 26 April Major Washbourn visited sick members of the Company in hospital at Caserta. He then went on to No. 4 Platoon, which was attached to 4 NZ Armoured Brigade, recently withdrawn from the Cassino area and now resting at Pietramelara. Heavy rain that day made conditions very bad in the Company area, restricting the use of transport. A further tribulation for our men (though actually a blessing in disguise) page 313 was the introduction of anti-malarial precautions. Sleeves had to be rolled down, and long trousers, with anklets, worn during and after the evening meal. These measures followed a series of lectures and routine orders stressing the need for special care over hygiene now that the Italian summer was approaching.
About this time Captain Lyon and his driver, Jack Brass,13 caught up on a neat little racket being run by a couple of men from another NZASC Company camped in the neighbourhood. From time to time they had noticed an army Bedford (of a type not then in use by the New Zealand Division) parked behind an old farmhouse some distance away. Our chaps decided to keep the truck under observation. They found that it went out at night and came back in the early hours of the morning. Obviously, the driver and his mate were up to no good, and this was reported to Field Security.
Next night, with an FSS man, Lyon and Brass investigated and found that the truck had a full load of grain on board; so they decided to hide up and follow in their jeep when the vehicle pulled out. Their quarry led them on an 85-mile jaunt to a little village near Naples. Not choosing to follow too closely, they lost sight of the truck when it entered the village, and, deciding that the others had given them the slip, they pulled up and boiled the billy—at about 2 a.m.—in the village square.
Just then the truck came clattering back into the square again, and the jeep gave chase. It overtook the other vehicle on a country road. Lyon and the FSS man drew their pistols, jumped out, and bailed the others up. One of the Kiwis in the truck (they had two Italian civilians with them also) tried to draw a revolver; but the FSS man thrust his pistol into the other's midriff and ordered: ‘Drop it—or I'll drop you!’
At this moment both Italians made a bolt for it. Some shots were fired after them, and one man stopped; the other got clear. The three prisoners were handed over to the nearest provost headquarters—an American one—and eventually the whole story came out. The racketeers, it was found, had picked up an abandoned vehicle and managed to get it mobile. Then, working for their Company by day, they drove on each page 314 alternate night right back to Foggia, where they picked up a load of grain. This was taken to the farmhouse and, on the following night, delivered at Naples. Each load netted them about 10,000 lire.
At the beginneing of May, 4 Brigade was still resting at Pietramelara; 5 Brigade lay up in the Volurno valley; 6 Brigade held the Terelle sector in the Apennines, alongside other components of 10 Corps. Second Polish Corps occupied the mountain approaches to Monastery Hill and Cassino; 13 British Corps faced Cassino and the Liri valley. South of the Liri River was the American Fifth Army, comprising 2 US Corps and the French Expeditionary Corps, mainly Algerian and Moroccan troops known to the soldiery as ‘Goums’. Sixth United States Corps was consolidating at Anzio, while the British 5 Corps maintained a light hold on the Adriatic flank.
With their forces so disposed, the Allies were now planning an all-out attack on the Germans' Gustav Line. Eighth Army had in reserve a Canadian corps, whose 11 Infantry Brigade came for a time under New Zealand command. In the final reshuffle this unit was replaced by 12 South African Motor Brigade.
On 1 May Petrol Company took over the Hove and Brighton dumps from the Canadians, replenishing the former under shellfire. Five days later, 24 three-tonners from No. 2 Platoon, and nine from No. 3, picked up troops of the Candian Irish Regiment and moved them back to the Capua area. On 7 May Major G. G. Good14 marched in, taking over command from Bill Washbourn, who reverted to the rank of captain and resumed his former duties as second-in-command of the Company, with additional ones as Petrol Officer. That day Hove Dump was destroyed by enemy shelling, so Venafro and Acquafondata became the main forward supply points for troops in this sector.
For the whole of May Petrol Company (less 4 Platoon still with 4 Armoured Brigade) remained near Isernia on routine duties. These consisted mainly of replenishing the Petrol Issuing Sections and the Brighton Dump, with occasional page 315 assignments to cart troops, salvage and ordnance stores. An outstanding event was a visit from New Zealand's Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser, on 30 May, when the whole Company paraded at 1 NZ Supply Company's area. That night the Company's officers attended an NZASC dinner given for Mr Fraser at 2 NZ Field Bakery.
Meanwhile a climax was developing in Italy. On 11 May, shortly before midnight, the Allies launched a massive two-army attack on the Gustav Line. The New Zealanders (still mostly on the sideline) watched amazed while to their left a thousand guns in the 2 Polish and 13 British Corps' sectors alone lit the sky with a myriad stabs and flashes, closely followed by the crump, crump, crump of exploding shells. New Zealand artillery gave support to the Poles in an attack upon the Monastery. On 14 May 19 NZ Armoured Regiment moved its tanks across the Gari River in support of 4 British Division in the Liri valley. For the next few days our armour, followed by British infantry, carried out a left hook to cut Route 6, the enemy's main line of withdrawal from Cassino.
On 18 May Cassino itself was assaulted. But the Germans, by then, had already pulled out. The remnants of this town, once so bitterly contested, and at such cost, fell without a struggle.
The Poles, in their first attack on the Monastery, met a stubborn resistance which held them up. But swiftly the ‘Goums’, on Fifth Army front, surged across the Aurunci Mountains and entered the Liri valley. Thus faced with encirclement the German forces began to withdraw. And so, on 18 May, when the Poles attacked again up Monastery Hill, they took their objective, and Allied flags fluttered over the mountain.
So fell the stubborn Cassino barrier, which for eight months had blocked our road to Rome. The enemy now was in full retreat, with vast Allied forces preparing to pursue him up the peninsula of Italy.
1 Maj-Gen G. B. Parkinson, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Christchurch; born Wellington, 5 Nov 1986; Regular solider; NZ Fd Arty 1917-19; CO 4 Fd Regt Jan 1940-Aug 1941; comd 1 NZ Army Tank Bde and 7 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) 1941-42; 6 Bde Aug 1944-Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 3-27 Mar 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div Jun-Aug 1944; comd 6 Bde Aug 1944-Jun 1945; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1946-49; Commander, Southern Military District, 1949-51.
2 Base Ammunition Depot.
3 Maj J. J. Frank, m.i.d.; Eastbourne, Wellington; born Timaru, 9 Jan 1920; motor mechanic.
4 One American plane ‘laid an egg’ near our lines, splintering a 2 Platoon truck. Other bombs fell near the village of Venafro, causing casualties among civilians and Allied troops. Alongside one huge crater there, a Kiwi put up a signboard: ‘Precision bombing. Cassino 17 miles ?’; for at that time there was much talk of a new American bombsight, by which they could ‘drop a bomb into a barrel’.
5 Dvr L. Corby: Hastings; born NZ 25 May 1918; orchard and farm labourer; wounded 19 Mar 1944.
6 Dvr J. McComb; born NZ 9 Sep 1912; shearer; died on active service 10 Mar 1944.
7 Dvr R. V. Way; born NZ 22 Sep 1907; builder.
8 Maj R. K. Davis, m.i.d.; Melbourne; born Auckland, 2 Mar 1917; clerk.
9 Lt E. T. C. Sopp; born NZ 8 Nov 1909; motor salesman; killed in accident 12 Feb 1949.
10 Dvr J. J. Robertson; born Maheno, 7 Apr 1916; farmhand; killed in action 21 Apr 1944.
11 Bill Washbourn writes: ‘For thirteen consecutive nights Petrol Company trucks went into Hove Dump…. There were three roads used—one was a road that ran parallel to Highway 6 where they could go only so far before dark, and it was whilst waiting on this road for darkness to come that No. 5 Platoon was shelled and Driver Robertson killed. The second road was the one that was available to jeeps and used in both directions. The third road was the one that the trucks used to come out of by night because it was absolutely essential to be off it at daylight, since it faced the enemy and the whole of it was under gunfire. I did a reconnaissance of this road during daylight hours in a jeep, and reported back to the Brigadier that it would be possible to be used by three-tonners at night. From memory there were 29 corners in this road, and at many of them trucks could not get round in one turn, but had to back and fill. When we started the trucks off, loaded with troops (which they always carried from Hove Dump) it was approximately half-an-hour before we could hear them going round a corner directly above us. The only thing to guide the drivers was a narrow white tape on these corners, and most times the spare driver either stood on the bumper-bar guiding the driver, or walked in front with a white towel on his back. During the whole of this job we did not have one accident nor had any driver ever been over this road in daylight—perhaps just as well. After the fall of Cassino I deliberately took No. 3 Platoon over this route one day and they were absolutely aghast to see where they had been driving. Personally I feel that this was one of the greatest exhibitions of driving ever given by the Company, and their job was more onerous because they were carrying troops, not just empty trucks or supplies.’ (Letter to the author.)
12 Cpl L. R. H. B. Burling, m.i.d.; Woodville; born Palmerston North, 28 Sep 1907; shepherd; wounded 10 Dec 1944.
13 Dvr J. R. Brass; Otautau; born Southland, 22 Jan 1920; shearer.
14 Maj G. G. Good, OBE, m.i.d.; Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia; born NSW, 14 Nov 1913; dental mechanic; OC 6 RMT Coy Feb 1942-Sep 1943; NZASC Base Trg Depot Sep 1943-Apr 1944; Pet Coy May-Jul 1944.