18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 34 — Northwards
In June ‘sunny Italy’ at last comes into its own. Crops ripen, grapes sweeten, tomatoes and melons appear. The sky is deep blue, the sun bright and hot—a hard glaring heat unless diffused by trees. Happily, the regiment had trees in abundance. Most of the tanks and trucks were parked under them, with the bivvies in the shade round them or in tall standing crops. Here the war could be forgotten again for a while. The rest of the Division was several miles away in the Liri valley, the rest of 13 Corps had moved on, the unit had this place almost to itself. There were parcels and a big mail from home, there were private excursions to Veroli and the surrounding farms, there was a little leave.
Even near at hand the boys could have filled in all their spare time quite happily. Veroli was a pleasant place, amazingly clean for an Italian country town; the people had not been soured by an overdose of Allied soldiers, and there were very few in the regiment who did not gain entry to at least one household. After eight months most of them could get along fairly well in quaint, ungrammatical Italian, and even though they could not understand much of what their hosts said, that did not matter. They went into the houses as honoured guests, they drank wine or sang songs, they left their washing and mending to be done by ‘Momma’ and the girls. A few contraband gifts in return and everyone was happy, for the civilians were short of such things as meat and salt and footwear. Here round Veroli, indeed, the men saw real starvation for the first time, for Jerry had systematically stripped the district of all food. The local children, queueing up for the cookhouse ‘left-overs’, were pretty well looked after by the cooks.page 494
The 18th wandered farther afield too. Many of them, with or without the unofficial blessing of their squadron or troop commanders, hitch-hiked over to the Liri to visit friends in other units or to swim in the dams at Fontana Inferiore. There were troop picnics to the river. Truckloads of sightseers went to Sora, 22 miles away, where the rest of the Division had been fighting. Later in the month many of the truck drivers had several days away, carting ammunition up to the battlefront north of Rome, a wonderful trip which gave them a preview of the lovely prosperous hills of central Italy and took some of them to Anzio, scene of the Fifth Army's landing in January.
There was also a well-organised private leave scheme to the island of Ischia, near Naples, which offered every delight to the tired soldier—‘hot mineral baths, girls and grog’, one man remembers. Here the regiment had a place where parties of thirty men could go and relax for four days, but unfortunately only a few had the chance of going there before orders from Higher Up stopped all leave to Ischia.
And then there was Rome.
Throughout 2 NZ Division Rome was the Topic of the Month. Ever since the Italian campaign opened the Allied commanders had sent out the call ‘On to Rome!’, dangling the Eternal City as a kind of bait in front of their armies. But after all this anticipation, the reality was anticlimax. Until 19 June Rome was not officially open to Kiwis at all, and then, when at last leave to Rome began, it was doled out like some rare precious drug. Eighteenth Regiment, with 650 men, had a quota of 24—one truckload—every second day; though if more wangled their way in and dodged Authority's eye, it was nobody's business but their own. The drivers on the ammunition trip, too, would have wasted a unique opportunity if they had not made time, off the record, to go into Rome. But to see such a city in a day! Any good Italian would lift his hands in horror at the suggestion. All you could do was to rush madly round from the Pantheon to St. Peter's and back to the Forum and the Coliseum, perhaps out for a few minutes to Mussolini's massive sports stadium, till in the evening, your head swimming, you caught the truck home to be besieged by those who had not been there yet, all eager to hear every little page 495 detail. A day in Rome was much more exhausting than a day's work in camp.
In spare hours there was the usual baseball and cricket, while other enthusiasts spent hours at deck tennis, which was just beginning to spread like an epidemic through the Division. The Kiwi Concert Party came round with its usual good show, and a British ENSA party with one that was not half as good. For the first time the Education and Rehabilitation Service began to be spoken of, and some keen men wrote away for trade training courses and buried their noses in ‘swot’ with an enthusiasm that often petered out before long. The athletes went into training for a 4 Brigade sports meeting, a gala occasion which, by the worst of bad luck, was literally washed out by an early afternoon downpour.
These sudden storms, characteristic of the Italian spring, seemed to abound in summer too, for in late June there was a succession of them. One in particular was a sight to remember, a violent thunderstorm with great tongues of forked lightning and hailstones the size of marbles. Of this the war diary says:
Many of the tents got flooded out and men were to be seen in all sorts of garbs digging drains in an endeavour to stem the flood.
Evidently the lovely weather of the first half of June had lulled them into a dangerous sense of security.
With all this sport and leave and recreation of so many kinds, it does not sound as if there was much time left for work. But that is not so. From 10 June onwards there was quite a solid training programme, route-marching and drill, weapon training and range work. There was a school to train the newer members of tank crews in the basic skills that had been drummed into the older hands at Maadi. There was an NCOs' school in drill and discipline which caused a few curls of the lip—drill does not make a fighting unit, said the sceptics, and as for discipline, well, the Kiwi discipline may be free and easy, but it is there when needed.
A notable feat was C Squadron's two-day march into the hills late in June, to keep fit and perhaps to find a bear. Bears were said to exist still in the wild mountains of this part of Italy. It was a great success and most of the boys kept up very well, page 496 though the nearest approach to a bear that they found was a flock of Merino sheep which, Major Deans says, provided ‘the toughest meat I have tried to eat’. They also found a large dump of German ammunition in a secluded part of the hills, a sight to gladden every heart.
From late June, when the harvesting was finished in the Amaseno valley, there was more infantry-tank training on a manoeuvre ground-cum-range near Casamari. Before that the regiment exchanged groups of officers and NCOs with 21 Battalion for a few days, and parties from 24 Battalion came from time to time to spend a day with the 18th, inspect the tanks, and, in the words of the war diary, ‘climb all over them and see what makes things go’. Then the squadrons went out one by one and held half-day manoeuvres with 21, 22 or 24 Battalion, finishing up on 8 July with a grand finale, a big all-day regimental exercise with 22 Battalion, Vickers and 25-pounders. The net result of all this was most encouraging. Even in the successful campaign with 8 Indian Division there had been rough spots—the ‘drill’ for joining up with infantry before a battle had not been perfect; neither had the wireless ‘tie-up’ between tanks and infantry; and nobody had yet produced a good foolproof system for infantry to point out to the tanks in action exactly where they should fire, and where German anti-tank guns were lurking. Here in the Amaseno valley these details were discussed, rehearsed and rehearsed again, down to the lowest possible level, the single tank supporting the single infantry platoon. Until now the 18th had not had much chance of battle training with its own New Zealand infantry, but at the end it seemed as if, next time they went into action, these difficulties should be considerably smoothed out.
When the Kiwis first came to Italy there had been some big talk about an armoured sweep along the valley of the Po River, which had died out about Cassino time, but it now began again as the Allies pushed Jerry farther and farther north. At the beginning of July the advance was going well and it did not seem as if 2 NZ Division would be needed for some time. But on 7 July, with the Germans making a stubborn stand at Arezzo, 45 miles south-east of Florence and 200 miles ahead of page 497 the Liri, there was a sudden call for the Division to go up and reinforce 13 Corps to break this defence. The move was to begin almost at once.
To 18 Regiment this news was not unwelcome. It was time, most men felt, to be moving on. After a month in one place you were apt to stagnate a little. And with Jerry still on the retreat it was a pity not to be in.
The tanks went away in two parties, forty Shermans on the morning of 9 July, all the rest on the 10th. Their dust disappeared over the Veroli hill, and the rest of the regiment set about packing and tidying up, painting out the fern leaves on the trucks, taking down New Zealand badges and titles, all the old familiar rigmarole of ‘security’—rather a farce, for the local civilians knew perfectly well what was afoot. Almost the entire population of Veroli was on the streets when the tanks left, waving farewell with flowers and noisy tears.
On the road near Alatri the tanks were taken up on transporters and began their three-day journey north towards the front. At 2 a.m. on 11 July the harsh chorus of motor horns roused the Veroli camp for the last time, and at 3.30 a.m. the soft-skinned convoy was away, following the road the tanks had taken, along Route 6, past an amazing number of derelict German tanks and guns and vehicles, round the outskirts of Rome, then north by Route 3 through a country of rolling hills and farms and many towns, almost unscarred by the war except for blown bridges. At first the road was tarsealed, wide and clean; on the second day it was not nearly as good, sometimes rough, corrugated and deep in fine dust that recalled the old desert sand. When the 18th reached its destination—tanks on the evenings of 11 and 12 July, trucks at lunchtime on the 12th—everybody was grimy and tired and quite ready to stop. It had been an uneventful trip, with no major mishap, though fast travelling with heavy loads had been rough on tyres and had caused a lot of blowouts.
The regiment now camped in plantations of pines and scrubby oak trees, and would have been satisfied to spend a few days there just doing nothing, for this part of the country was very attractive and cooler than the Amaseno valley. But this was only a brief halt. On the evening of 13 July the convoy was off again, tanks and all together, round the western shore of page 498 Lake Trasimene and up a broad valley to the north-west, with the rumble of the guns audible for the first time in six weeks. Off the main road seven miles past the lake, then by farm lanes to its next camping ground in flattish fields with hills rising to the north. By 10 p.m. the whole unit was in and settled, except for one tank which went over a bank in the dark and had to be left till morning. Nos. 11 and 12 Troops of C Squadron were not there either, for they had gone straight on towards the front, where there was an immediate job for them.
This place, when the boys could inspect it in daylight, turned out to be very pleasant, in a sort of amphitheatre of the hills, with the town of Cortona perched straight up above it. Here, the regiment learnt, it was under 5 Brigade's command, in reserve meanwhile, but waiting to go into the line if needed to reinforce 6 Brigade's thrust on Arezzo. The two absent troops of C Squadron had gone under 6 Brigade's command, and were very likely in the thick of things already.
As it happened, 5 Brigade was not called on, so the regiment spent a happy week at Cortona, listening to the artillery going hammer and tongs not far ahead until Arezzo was captured on 16 July, the noise then receding day by day as the advance went on northwards. Apart from the routine tank and vehicle maintenance the boys had nothing much to do. A and B Squadrons did small co-operation exercises with 21 Battalion; a draft of thirty-five 4th Reinforcements going home on furlough was farewelled with the usual wine and song; the regiment's old friend Lieutenant-Colonel Ferguson came back and took over command from Lieutenant-Colonel Robinson. About thirty men from each squadron had two days' holiday by Lake Trasimene, which they found a little disappointing, as the shallow, reedy edges of the lake were not much good for swimming.
On the afternoon of 16 July C Squadron's two errant troops came back from the front, remarkably intact and with very little to report.
On the first evening 11 and 12 Troops went only six miles past Cortona and halted for the night by the main road at Castiglion Fiorentino, ready for action in the morning. On the hills north of Castiglion 6 Brigade was sitting, in unpleasantly page 499 close touch with Jerry, under shell and mortar fire as it shaped up for its attack towards Arezzo. On its right a narrow winding road led diagonally forward through a gorge to the village of Palazzo del Pero, six miles ahead, on a major highway (Route 73) running east out of Arezzo. Along this tortuous road the tanks were directed, along with a company of 26 Battalion, a squadron of Divisional Cavalry with its armoured cars, and some engineers to deal with the inevitable demolitions. Early on 14 July the column set out, the Staghounds first, then Second-Lieutenant Greenfield's 12 Troop.
Nobody really expected to get to Route 73 the first day, and indeed it was rather a frustrating day, with mines and demolitions delaying matters at several points along the road. It was not easy country for tanks, as on each side thick scrub covered the hillsides right down to the road, giving no room for manoeuvre and cutting visibility down to almost nil. By mid-afternoon the Staghounds were at a road junction two miles short of Palazzo del Pero, with the tanks just behind them and the infantry nowhere in sight—though from the noise of firing that sometimes filtered down from the hills to the left it seemed as if 26 Battalion was having its own fun up there. At the junction a big demolition held up the advance completely, so the tanks, turning off the road, parked on a grassy flat beside a stream to wait while a bulldozer went up to put things right. But Jerry was shelling and mortaring the demolition, and the bulldozer had to give up; the Shermans, unable to do anything useful, spread out among the scrub and harboured for the night. There was a big night attack on 6 Brigade's programme, but the tanks were to take no part in it.
This was a noisy night and quite spectacular, with a twoand-a-half-hour barrage up on the heights, flares going up along the skyline, and a vivid thunderstorm for good measure just before the party opened. Next morning Jerry's shelling on the demolition was half-hearted; the engineers went forward and made a bypass round it by 11 a.m., and then the tanks and armoured cars, squelching through a muddy creek, made their way past and set sail for Palazzo del Pero. Jerry seemed to be pulling back through the hills ahead, and the tanks gave him a bit of ‘hurry up’ whenever a target appeared. But they could not do very much, for nobody was quite sure where 26 Battalion page 500 was, and Jerry's shells and mortars were cramping everyone's style. The advance faltered and stopped for the day. That night was an uneasy one for the foremost tanks, with shells still falling all round, very little infantry protection, and at one stage a battle to the left rear as Jerry counter-attacked 26 Battalion up on the hilltops. So everyone was jumpy during the night and very glad to see daylight again.
That was all the tanks did at Arezzo. Hard-pressed by attacks both to west and east of the New Zealand sector, and pushed off his commanding hills by 6 Brigade, Jerry abandoned Arezzo on 16 July; 6 Armoured Division entered the town, and 6 Brigade was pulled out of the line. The two troops of C Squadron, after a short foray along Route 73 to see if there were any prisoners or loot to be picked up, were ordered back to Cortona.
Four more days of peace, and then on 20 July 18 Regiment was again thrown into brief turmoil by orders to be off next day, still with 5 Brigade, westwards through Siena and then northwards towards Florence, and so once more into the line.
Thirteenth Corps' original plan had been to make its main thrust on Florence down the Arno valley from Arezzo, but events caused it to revise this and switch its weight west to the line of Route 2, the main Siena-Florence road. The new sector sounded interesting, for the Division would be advancing through the Chianti district, perhaps the best wine country in Italy. If this was so, the Kiwis were very much in favour of the switch. There were some good German divisions there, so the story ran, and the Division could expect some pretty tough opposition, but that drawback could be faced when the moment arrived.
This 57-mile move took the regiment through rolling, thickly cultivated and wooded hills, obviously well-to-do farm country, vineyards alternating with olives and oak woods, lanes flanked with tall hedges leading off at every turn of the road. Beautiful country indeed, but not ideal for fighting a mobile battle, for there was abundant cover everywhere, and a very small rearguard could do a lot of damage before scuttling away among the trees.page 501
The soft-skinned convoy left Cortona after an early lunch on 21 July, skirted Siena with its tall tower and sea of rust-red roofs, turned off Route 2 on to a dusty gravelled road that wound forward for miles and miles among the hedges and olive groves, and about 5 p.m., after a stifling hot afternoon's run, reached its destination in gently sloping fields beside the road. The tanks, setting out at dusk and travelling with masked headlights, took all night over the move, partly due to a misadventure, for the officer guiding the column missed the turnoff, went a mile too far along Route 2, and then, as he says, ‘had to go from tank to tank & turn the entire Regiment in its own tracks and go back the way we came’. So it was daylight when the last of the tanks arrived in.
In other ways this move had its sticky moments, for there were two breakdowns and a real epidemic of broken bogey wheels. But, as another officer recalls:
It wasn't all that bad a show…. We were rather proud of it. To shift a whole regt, on tracks, over that distance & on those roads was regarded as quite a feat. It was dark—spare driver or gunner of each tank had to sit out in front … to give the driver a hand.
Then, when they arrived, longing for food and sleep after that dark and dusty drive, they had to get straight to work, refuel, load up with ‘ammo’ and prepare their steeds for action, for the infantry of 23 and 28 Battalions was already nosing ahead through closely wooded country infested with Germans, with orders to keep Jerry moving backwards, but at the same time not to get tangled up in heavy fighting, and not to advance without tanks. There were a few American tanks up there, but their crews had ‘had it’ and were to be relieved at once. So there was haste. One squadron of 18 Regiment was to go up and take over as soon as possible, and it seemed very likely that the whole regiment would be in, boots and all, before the war was much older.