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Petrol Company

CHAPTER 18 — Home at Last

page 341

Home at Last

New zealand forces, with 22 Battalion ‘first in’, entered Trieste during the afternoon of 2 May. That day the German Commander-in-Chief, Italy (Colonel-General von Vietinghoff-Scheel) surrendered, and the war there was over.

Forty-eight hours earlier, a crazed Nazi Fuehrer, amid the ruins of his devastated capital (on which, he had promised, no bomb would ever fall) took his own life. His successor, Admiral Doenitz, lost no time in suing for peace. At Rheims, on 8 May, he signed an instrument of unconditional surrender; and that ended the fateful German Third Reich—the ‘Thousand Year Reich’ of Hitler's wild dreams.

Once more at the spearhead of a triumphant Eighth Army, the New Zealand Division had fought its way in twenty-three days from the Senio to Trieste, a distance of 225 miles. In this advance it had smashed at least three German divisions and taken tens of thousands of prisoners.

To keep the Division fuelled, and so assist in sustaining Eighth Army's victorious drive, the load-carriers of Petrol Company drove an aggregate of nearly a quarter of a million miles, with POL issues, from 9 April to 4 May inclusive, totalling close on a million gallons. Daily issues of petrol and diesel fuel averaged 35,088 gallons. Besides this, our Company carried troops, ammunition, prisoners.

Traffic congestion, at its worst in this phase of the campaign, and comparable to that of the big retreats in Greece and North Africa, added both to our drivers' difficulties and to the over-all petrol consumption rate. To quote only one example: it took twelve hours for a convoy to travel 22 miles, mostly in low gear, on account of the general slow movement of traffic—which was not, alas, under United States control. Also, at this time, our Division was augmented by a number of British units placed under its command; and all these, too, required servicing.

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While our forward elements were carving their way through strong German forces along the road to Trieste, Petrol Company opened and maintained petrol points, first at Mestre, then at Cervignano. On 1 May, troop-carriers of No. 1 Platoon, attached to 6 Brigade, moved to an area ten miles north of Venice, our transport taking some of the infantry for day leave to the city. Trucks from 4 Platoon moved with 5 Brigade into the same area and in the afternoon provided transport for the Maori Battalion, on mopping-up operations south of the Piave River. Next day 6 Brigade moved across the river to Villa Vicentina, while our vehicles with 5 Brigade carried troops to an area five miles east of Monfalcone. On the same day (2 May) eight three-tonners from 2 Platoon and ten from No. 1 went to 130 FMC at Ficarolo to uplift diesel fuel for the tanks. They found on arrival that ‘the cupboard was bare’, so they had to go right back to No. 3 Army Petrol Depot at Ferrara for supplies, their day's travel totalling 184 miles.

On 3 May Company Headquarters, with Nos. 2, 4 and Workshops Platoons, moved to Cervignano, some 40 miles short of Trieste. Next day they were joined there by all vehicles previously attached to the infantry brigades. Troop-carrying resumed on 6 May when twenty-two trucks from 3 Platoon uplifted 1 Battalion, Scots Guards, from Cervignano and carried them to 9 NZ Brigade's area near Trieste, while 4 Platoon, with thirty vehicles, went back to Forli for 2 NZEF reinforcements. In the meantime, maintaining the petrol point and carrying prisoners of war had kept the Company fully occupied.

By now Petrol Company, with the rest of the Division, was experiencing again that sense of anti-climax, amounting almost to frustration, which seems to follow inevitably on the heels of victory. Here as in Africa, a long campaign, full of trials and difficulties and with its quota of disasters and defeats, had ended triumphantly, climaxed by a swift, exhilarating pursuit and the surrender of a soundly beaten enemy. But in Europe now, not only a campaign but a whole war had ended; and for our ‘citizen soldiers’ what else remained, except home?

But home, for most, was still far off, especially for those who, caught in the ‘pipeline’, were only just arriving at this page 343 theatre of war. For them there was not even the taste of victory; no objectives, no incentives, no fierce gusts of action now, to lend a savour to army life—nothing but dull routine, the tedious task, and nostalgic longings for those either far away or gone, forever, beyond recall; and through it all, the gnawing conviction that these were years that the locusts had eaten. There was not even faith in the ‘brave new world’ which, they had been promised, peace would bring. For the aftermath of the last great ‘war to end wars’—the greed, the selfishness, the slumps on ‘civvy street’—were still quite fresh both in time and in memory.

On 12 May Petrol Company sent two platoons (Nos. 2 and 3) complete with cook-trucks and platoon headquarters, to the docks at Trieste to unload supplies and POL. In the city they found an ‘uneasy peace’, with dour Yugoslavs (both men and women) of Marshal Tito's forces patrolling the streets, their red-starred tricolour freely displayed. The Yugoslavs claimed Trieste as their own; and great care was needed, in a trigger-happy situation, to avoid incidents. Our men carried arms wherever they went; concentration areas were allocated in case of a general disturbance. Eventually an amicable settlement was reached and the Yugoslavs withdrew, the conduct of our troops having served very notably as a smoothing influence. Quick action by one New Zealand brigade, in fact, prevented a clash between Tito's Yugoslavs and 12,000 of General Mikhaelovic's Chetniks, who were induced, in the end, to lay down their arms.

Soon the ebullient Harry Barnett got a leave-scheme going for Petrol Company. At Grado, a lovely little spa on the Adriatic coast, he took over and staffed the Villa Saturnia, an albergo close to the waterfront, as a rest camp for the Company. He also formed, from Petrol Company members, a five-piece orchestra, which frequently played in the evenings for dances. In batches of forty to fifty, the Company took turns at spending a week in these pleasant surroundings. Mark Knyvett and some cronies found the hull of a derelict launch; so they ‘acquired’ a Chev motor which Joe Frank and Co. Ltd (Workshops— always playful) managed to fit. But not being qualified marine engineers they struck some trouble with the pitch of the page 344 propeller, and couldn't get the motor out of second gear. With this minor drawback the launch functioned well as an all-purpose pleasure-craft, and many happy hours were spent ‘mucking about’ in it.

Equally enterprising were other Company members, now pretty comfortable in a Fiat factory, who collaborated with Divisional Supply Company (their Cervignano home was a cellulose works—a village in itself some three or four miles away) in cleaning out and filling a disused swimming bath. The water-supply was artesian, from deep underground; and when our chaps dived in, the ice-cold water gave a shock to their systems. Nevertheless the pool was used, on 3 June, for an NZASC aquatic sports meeting, when Petrol Company won the inter-unit swimming relay and the water polo. On points the placings were 1 NZ Supply Company, Ist; 1 NZ Ammunition Company, 2nd; 1 NZ Petrol Company, 3rd. Driver Brewer1 was judged the most outstanding swimmer.

On 17 June the Company moved to an area near Prosecco, on the outskirts of Trieste. A petrol point was established there, and platoons not engaged in its operation and maintenance undertook duties of a varied nature. These included much transportation from the Trieste docks to dumps at Udine and Palmanova; loads of fish, flour and other foodstuffs to an AMGOT store in the Company area, and POL for 132 FMC at Cervignano. Two loads per day were usual for our drivers, who often worked until 11 p.m.

Prisoners of war were also carted, from Trieste railway station to the refugee camp at Mestre. On 20 June 3 Platoon uplifted Yugoslav troops at the railway station and transported them to a hill position near Monfalcone. Some trucks were loaded with furniture, including several radios and a grand piano; but MPs arrived, and after an argument lasting five hours, the furniture was off-loaded. At the conclusion of this job, sixteen trucks returned to the Company area at 4 p.m.; the other fourteen, which had been involved in the furniture episode, got back at 10.45.

But all was not toil and trouble. Four-day leave tours of Italy began, and daily excursions into Austria. An Alpine page 345 Leave Centre opened in the Dolomites. Dances were almost nightly affairs: at Grado, Tarzo, our officers' mess, the village hall at Prosecco—which had a large 74 painted on its main door—our men tripped the light fantastic (and no doubt performed other manoeuvres) with the comely local belles. Cricket began with inter-platoon matches. Nevertheless, despite this leisure and the slump in hostilities, the Company's vehicles travelled an aggregate of 293,444 miles during June, and POL issues exceeded 547,000 gallons.

At 6 p.m. on 21 July the Company left Prosecco, on the first leg of a journey which took them back to Lake Trasimene, some 440 miles farther south. They reached there on the evening of the 23rd, and next day opened a petrol point.

Soon it became clear that a large-scale ‘fiddle’ was being worked with petrol. Records of supplies drawn from the FMCs did not tally with issue totals (which in July still exceeded half-a-million gallons) and a strict watch was kept.

This led to the court martial of one suspect, who was already on his way back to Bari, for repatriation, when picked up. An identification parade was held, but through an oversight its members were not all dressed alike, as required by regulations; so the prisoner was discharged on this technical ground.

Better luck attended a fine sleuthing effort by Petrol Company officers, and led to an exciting ‘cloak and dagger’ adventure. On the evening of 28 July, two Italian civilians approached Lieutenant Perkins (who was wearing shorts and shirt, without badges of rank) and signified their willingness to purchase petrol. Perkins dickered with the two for a while, then went off to fetch Captain Crawford,2 making sure that he, also, appeared ‘incognito’. These two then arranged to produce a hundred four-gallon cans of petrol on the night of 29 July, agreeing to meet the purchasers at 8.30 p.m. for further directions.

Major Barnett and the Divisional provost were apprised, of course, and Perkins duly kept his rendezvous. He was instructed to take the petrol at 10 p.m. to a house not 400 yards away from the Company area. He protested this was too risky; they would be discovered, etc., etc. But the Italian assured him page 346 that a vehicle would uplift the petrol during the night and take it well away. Eventually, Perkins and Crawford delivered the load, and were paid 48,000 lire. Meanwhile Harry Barnett, Mark Knyvett, and Lieutenant Chamberlain of Petrol Company, with a provost sergeant and lance-corporal and a couple of jeeps, kept watch along the road, where they were joined later by Perkins and Crawford.

Soon after midnight a truck was noticed leaving the house. One of the jeeps then pulled out into the roadway and staged a ‘breakdown’. The driver flagged the oncoming truck, asking for the loan of a pair of pliers. While these were being produced, other members of our party emerged from the shadows and, unobserved, searched the back of the truck. They found no petrol.

The jeep party then parked off the roadway and waited. About two hours later, a four-and-a-half tonner drove up to the house; and soon our party heard the tell-tale sound of cans being loaded. Eventually the truck came belting past, with headlights blazing. The jeeps gave chase, without lights, and one of them managed to trail their quarry.

The truck was overtaken after about 12 miles; and on being pulled up, one of the two Italians made a break for it. A pistol shot soon brought him back. The civilians then agreed to lead our party to the home of their employer.

The padrone and an associate were in bed when the visitors arrived, but they were quickly routed out and put under arrest, along with the two Italian truck-drivers. All were then piled on top of the load of contraband and driven back to Petrol Company Headquarters.

Throughout August, and for most of September, the bulk of the Company remained in the Lake Trasimene area, on miscellaneous carrying duties and running a petrol point there while a detachment (from Nos. 2 and 3 Platoons alternately) operated another at Mondolfo. On 10 September 138 single men—the balance of the 8th Reinforcements—left on the first leg of their return to New Zealand.

This marked the ‘beginning of the end’ for Petrol Company. From then until it finally washed up in mid-December, the Company was in a state of flux, seeming to disintegrate rather page 347 than disband, as one group after another joined the ranks of departing drafts—up to and including the 12th Reinforcements —or transferred to J Force. On 4 October the Company moved into billets at Florence, where HQ 2 NZEF (transported from Senigallia by thirty-one trucks of our No. 1 Platoon) also settled in on 10 October. That day Harry Barnett handed over to Major Coutts as OC Petrol Company, but later in the month both Barnett and Coutts went on leave to the United Kingdom, where Petrol Company men, in batches of up to sixty, were also proceeding. Meanwhile Captain Richards3 assumed acting-command.

When Barnett returned to Italy early in November he was given the task of organising the J Force 19 ASC Company, which he eventually took, as its first commander, to Japan. This company numbered over 400, including our Nos. 2 and 4 Platoons, which it absorbed on 17 November, together with selected vehicles from Nos. 1 and 3 Platoons.

And so, bit by bit, Petrol Company faded out. By the middle of December only a handful of its trucks remained to service the remnant of the Division in Italy. As vehicles became surplus through the departure of their drivers, they were delivered to a British depot at Assisi. Trevor Sims drove the last Petrol Company truck there—a fitting ‘final flourish’ to his six-and-a-half years' service with Petrol Company, from the day of its inception to the last return home, and including every campaign in which the Company took part.

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1 Dvr G. H. Brewer; Wanganui; born Wanganui, 28 Feb 1914; hairdresser.

2 Capt A. M. Crawford, ED; Lincoln; born NZ 8 Oct 1919; commercial traveller.

3 Capt K. L. Richards, m.i.d.; Rotorua; born Palmerston North, 21 Mar 1907; transport manager.