19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 23 — Faenza to Trieste
… it is not the beginning but the continuing of the same, until it be thoroughly finished, which yieldeth the true glory.
—Sir Francis Drake
InJanuary 1945 the New Zealand Division was on the Senio, with its headquarters at Forli. The 19th Armoured Regiment was wintering in Faenza, with one squadron (B) forward on gunline duties and another (C) astride Route 9 behind the Senio crossing in a supporting role. The weather was bitterly cold. Those who had served on the Orsogna front a year earlier knew just how fortunate the unit was to be billeted in this dingy, unattractive town where there was ample shelter for everyone, firm standing for the vehicles, and a certain amount of cover, even when moving about on duty.
Stores and personal equipment could be kept dry, meals were regular and served hot, and in most billets the men had managed to rig up a stove or a drip-fed oil burner to keep the temperature pleasantly warm during off-duty hours. Even on the gunlines and in the support position there were casas for the tank crews, and despite icy roads and muddy approaches, the jeep train called daily with supplies. Rations, fuel, and ammunition came up without interruption, for B Echelon did a grand job. Its efforts in Faenza from December 1944 to March 1945 deserve the highest praise.
As an example of the ingenuity displayed in billets, No. 5 Troop’s effort is worth mentioning, for not only had this troop made its quarters very comfortable but it had appropriated a porcelain bath. Last thing every night this bath was wheeled into position in front of the fire, where it was filled with water from tins which had been heating all evening, and in turn each member of the troop enjoyed the luxury of a hot bath. When the bathing was completed, the page 483 tub was moved—water and all, to the passageway, and next morning the water was a solid block of ice. This of course was easily disposed of; tedious bailing or special plumbing fixtures were unnecessary.
The infantry were far less fortunately situated, for their forward positions along the Senio River line were exposed, bleak, and deep in mud. The enemy front line was bastioned in the great earthworks which formed the stopbanks of the river, and his forward troops, burrowing into the reverse slopes, had not only the security of the solid bank between them and their opponents but also a good slope where dry dugouts could be constructed. They overlooked all our positions, so that all daylight movement was perilous and at night supplies had to be manhandled forward over the badly churned up, muddy approaches. At this time, the battalions were doing two weeks in the forward positions, one week in Faenza in reserve, and then one week resting at Forli. Even so, their lot, compared with that of the units in support, was harsh and strenuous.
The German infantry, fighting a defensive campaign, welcomed winter as an ally and was in an aggressive mood. Patrolling by both sides was a nightly feature, and in the vulnerable area occupied by the New Zealand Division, elaborate precautions were taken against surprise attack. A comprehensive counter-attack plan was worked out, and both forward and reserve units were constantly on the alert; bridges were mined, and civilians evacuated from the forward areas. On 3 January C Squadron, supporting 5 Brigade, was ordered to stand by ready to move on one hour’s notice, and at dawn each morning thereafter stand-to was rigorously observed. This squadron had the satisfaction, while in support of the infantry, of retaliating when enemy nebelwerfers and mortars shelled the forward positions. Casas in the enemy’s rear areas and dugouts on the stopbanks were shot up by the tanks, and our infantry patrols more than once saw signs of the success of the shooting. The tank crews took up defensive positions around their tanks and after dark posted sentries against the possibility of patrols penetrating the area.page 484
On the 5th Campbell Force was disbanded, and 19 Regiment reverted to the command of 5 Brigade. Headquarters 4 Armoured Brigade left Faenza for Forli, and Regimental Headquarters took over the four-storied building it vacated. It was dry, roomy and partly furnished, a headquarters in which the unit could cope with administrative problems in comfort and entertain in style if not in luxury. During tidying up operations the keen eyes of a unit philatelist spotted some very early issues of Italian postage stamps among the litter of papers being thrown out. They became a valuable addition to his collection and were studied with interest and envy by many whose boyhood hobby had been reawakened by overseas service opportunities. There were keen collectors in all units.
B Squadron was relieved on the 6th and A Squadron took over the gunline, the outgoing crews returning to Faenza as it began to snow. B Squadron considered its relief to be well timed, for the fall continued for two days, covering the whole countryside to a depth of six inches and in some places piling up into drifts as much as nine feet deep. Thereafter it was a constant job to keep the tanks, ammunition dumps, and routes clear. Calls to the gunline for counter-mortar and harassing fire were frequent, and to date the expenditure of ammunition had been 12,236 rounds. Fire from the tanks in response to infantry requests was prompt and effective, especially on the few occasions when enemy patrols had penetrated; then a sticky situation would be relieved before it had time to develop into a serious one.
One task at the gunline which caused great excitement at the time was the call for fire on a train which could be heard operating at night on the other side of the river. As the railway was known to be extensively damaged, it was surprising, to say the least, that the enemy had been able to get anything to run on it. When subsequent air reconnaissance revealed that no repairs to the track had been done, it became apparent that the noises heard were of some other origin. There were many theories put forward, the most likely being that a powerful radio amplifier was being used page 485 to broadcast railway noises and so draw our fire onto an unoccupied area.
There was great keenness to show the utmost speed in bringing fire to bear on targets indicated by the infantry, and the ‘tank artillery’ became very proficient in this role. At night the duty crews slept alongside the field telephone, and the first ring caused a scamper for action stations, each tank being ready and waiting by the time the fire orders had been received. When the series had finished it became the custom to elevate the gun to the maximum and send over the last round as ‘one for the B Echelon’.
Considering the amount of work it did, it was remarkable that the main gunline position was never picked up by enemy aircraft or artillery. The only shells ever to find their way into the area—which was just off the road—were two strays. These fell on the improvised cricket pitch not five feet from the stumps. The players fortunately had just adjourned for the luncheon break, and the only two men in the open were digging a large pit for rubbish and happened to be below ground. Damage, therefore, was confined to the cricket pitch, which required considerable repair before the game could be resumed.
On the 16th B Squadron returned to the forward area, relieving C in support of 5 Brigade. The changeover was made without incident over frozen ground which was ideal for tank movement. The following day the Reconnaissance Troop moved a tank up to Headquarters 21 Battalion, where it was to act as a link to the two forward squadrons. For the remainder of the month, which continued cold with occasional snowstorms, the gunlines and the tanks in the support position fired as required in answer to calls from the forward positions. Owing to a shortage of 75-millimetre ammunition, however, the main tasks became counter-mortar work.
From the beginning of February the tempo of the winter war showed signs of quickening. Both sides increased their patrolling, and each tried by various subterfuges to make the other uncomfortable. Even A Squadron, from its reserve position in the town, was called upon to fire on several page 486 suspected enemy observation posts, among them the tower at Castel Bolognese, which was successfully demolished. The Division at this time began a series of ‘Chinese attacks’—carefully prepared fire programmes in which all available weapons were used and fake wireless traffic passed, planned to trick the enemy into preparing for a full-scale attack and to accustom his troops to heavy fire from our side so that when the real thing did come they would be unimpressed by the preliminaries.
The first of these demonstrations on the Senio was controlled by 23 Battalion which, in a special souvenir operation order, styled its arrangements: ‘23 Battalion’s All Time High Chinese Attack—to celebrate Egypt’s entry into the war—Vellee Big, Vellee Fine, Vellee Stupendous Pyrotechnic Display: the greatest ever staged on any front in any war.’
The fire was mainly directed against the positions held by 9 and 10 Companies, III Battalion 2 Parachute Regiment. Guns of all calibres were used by supporting arms, while 23 Battalion used everything it had—flame-throwers, Piats, mortars, medium machine guns, .30 Brownings, and rifles. The fire plan was most carefully organised to ensure that every known and suspected enemy position in the target area was thoroughly done over.
As seen from the forward positions, to which several members of the 19th had been invited as spectators, the show was most spectacular. The stopbanks were lit up by the lurid glare of the flame-throwers, and streams of tracer patterned the darkness. An enormous amount of ammunition was expended, but the enemy did not seem to be unduly put out and very little counter fire was experienced. A suspicion was voiced at the time that security had slipped and that too much talk prior to the show had resulted in the enemy getting wind of it.
The 19th Regiment’s part in this ‘Chinese attack’ was played by B Squadron, which took on five casas known to be occupied, and by C Squadron, which had as its target the suspected headquarters of 1/10 Parachute Regiment.
During the month the Reconnaissance Troop (Captain page 487 Griggs) was active, its duties varying between reconnaissance work in the forward area, road repairing, and shooting up the stopbank opposite 28 Battalion’s positions, where four enemy dugouts, awkwardly sited for treatment by infantry weapons, were destroyed.
As an important addition to the establishment of the armoured regiment, the unit was allocated two new 17-pounder Shermans while at Faenza. This heavily gunned tank was capable of taking on a Panther or a Tiger on something like equal terms. Its solid shell could, with a direct hit, penetrate the heaviest armour plate, as a demonstration using a knocked-out Panther as a target clearly showed. Owing to the large size of the gun and the space required for ammunition, the 17-pounder Sherman carried a crew of four, one fewer than the conventional 75-millimetre tank.
Later each squadron was to have one troop consisting of one 17-pounder, two 105-millimetre and one 75-millimetre, all Sherman tanks. The 105-millimetre gun took longer to get into action than the other two weapons, especially when the hollow-charge armour-piercing shell was used, and the lack of a powered traverse made this tank useless for close co-operation with the infantry. It was decided during the advance to the Po, therefore, to add a 75-millimetre tank to the troop. This was drawn from Headquarters Troop.
Some 19 Regiment stalwarts said goodbye to the unit they had served so faithfully and well when the Ruapehu and Wakatipu furlough drafts left Faenza on the first stage of their journey home. These men had been with the 19th since Trentham days. Their going caused a considerable amount of reorganisation, for some important posts had to be filled. Those who left included RSM Rench, RQMS Brown,1 TQMS Oliver, SSMs Robertson and McGregor, Staff-Sergeants Mainwaring,2 Neilson3 and McKinlay,4 Ser- page 488 geants Bush5 and Booth,6 Corporals Johnston,7 Muschamp,8 Padbury9 and Cottingham,10 and Lance-Corporals Hiskens and Le Lievre.11
By the beginning of March the countryside around Faenza showed the first signs of spring, and as the vines and trees began to bud the New Zealand Division was withdrawn from the Senio front to the rest areas where, three months earlier, its units had spent such an enjoyable period. Regrettably for those who had formed warm attachments at Fabriano, 4 Armoured Brigade, in exception to the general rule, was sent instead to the Adriatic coast, the 19th moving to the seaside resort of Cesenatico.
When the regiment, its tanks on transporters and its wheeled vehicles going by road, pulled out from Faenza, the vehicles resembled well-laden gipsy wagons, for a reconnaissance of Cesenatico had revealed that it lacked the amenities and comforts with which the men had managed to equip their winter billets. Nothing likely to be useful was left behind: a piano, many stoves, and even some glass windows were transported to the new area.
The Cesenatico billets, recently vacated by coloured troops, were in a filthy condition, and much hard and dirty work was done during the first few days to make them sanitary and comfortable. Once cleaned up, the accommodation was excellent, but the regiment was not satisfied. Under the direction of the Technical Adjutant (Captain Bob McCown), the electric lighting system was put in running order and added considerably to the civic amenities. The weather in the daytime was now pleasantly warm, but swimming at the beaches was not possible for the coastal strip in page 489 this area had been heavily mined and had not yet been cleared.
As was customary during periods out of the line, opportunity was taken to improve military and mechanical standards. Courses for officers and NCOs, tests and demonstrations of new equipment, and comprehensive overhauls of the old equipment began immediately. The light aid detachment and unit fitters had a full programme, for each vehicle was thoroughly checked, and a schedule of work was drawn up to ensure that every point received the attention needed for maximum efficiency. Sports, so important to physical fitness, were again well catered for. Teams were selected among the squadrons for Rugby, soccer, hockey, and athletics. The unit Rugby team had a match each week against various teams from RAF and SAAF units stationed nearby, and two representative matches, though played some miles away—Eighth Army v 9 NZ Brigade and Eighth Army v RAF—drew a good muster of spectators from the regiment.
Several day-leave parties made trips to the tiny mountain-top republic of San Marino, whose distant spires and walls had been such an intriguing sight when seen through binoculars during the wait outside Rimini and in the early stages of the advance up the coast. The Easter Festival fell during the unit’s stay at Cesenatico, and in addition to the special church services, Padre Somerville organised a sacred concert and produced a play appropriate to the occasion. Both functions were well attended, and congregations at the voluntary church services were good.
On the 30th a special ceremonial parade was held and the GOC presented the ribbons of decorations awarded to members of 4 Armoured Brigade for gallantry during the campaign. Those from 19 Regiment so honoured were: Lieutenant-Colonel Everist, DSO; Captain McCown, MC; Captain Kerr, MC; Lance-Corporal Ross, MM.12
By the end of March the 19th had completed all reorganisation, and like all other units of the Division was ready to take part in the forthcoming offensive. On the 17th Lieu- page 490 tenant-Colonel Everist had returned from furlough and resumed command, Lieutenant-Colonel Parata being posted to 20 Regiment. A few days earlier Major Daryl Carey had left for home, and by the beginning of April, when preliminary orders were received for the impending action, the appointments in the regiment were:
2 i/c: Maj B. H. Wakelin
Adjt: Capt A. H. Woolven
Tech Adjt: Capt R. C. McCown
IO: Lt J. A. McPhail
Assistant IO-Adjt: 2 Lt G. C. Laidlaw (attached)
OC RHQ Tp: 2 Lt C. L Don (attached)
RMO: Capt H. G. Bremner
Padre: Rev J. S. Somerville
LAD officer: Capt O. L. Jenkins
YMCA representative: Mr G. W. Edwards
2 i/c: Capt T. G. S. Morrin
QM: Lt G. S. Hampton
Sigs officer: 2 Lt A. H. M. Maurice
OC Recce Tp: Capt W. D. Blair
2 i/c Recce Tp: 2 Lt R. W. Wayne
spare: 2 Lt R. G. McMillan (attached)
2 i/c: Capt D. Kerr
2nd Capt: Capt R. N. Griggs
OC No. 1 Tp: Lt A. R. Monson
OC No. 2 Tp: 2 Lt C. G. MacDiarmid
OC No. 3 Tp: 2 Lt B. G. Falk
OC No. 4 Tp: 2 Lt R. A. Vazey
spare: 2 Lt H. T. Stribling (attached)
2 Lt C. J. Lorimer (attached)
OC: Maj C. K. Saxton
2 i/c: Capt R. J. Hislop
2nd Capt: Capt C. C. Jordan
OC No. 5 Tp: 2 Lt A. J. Cameron (attached)
OC No. 6 Tp: 2 Lt F. B. Ryan
OC No. 7 Tp: 2 Lt B. N. Vickerman
OC No. 8 Tp: Lt W. M. Hobson
spare: 2 Lt A. H. White (attached)
2 i/c: Capt H. N. Davis
2nd Capt: Capt P. G. Brown
OC No. 9 Tp: 2 Lt T. L. C. Williams
OC No. 10 Tp: Capt L. F. Brooker (attached)
OC No. 11 Tp: 2 Lt W. K. Lloyd
OC No. 12 Tp: Lt G. D. Brown
spare: 2 Lt C. E. Dalwood (attached)
2 Lt G. Ryder (attached)
This list is as at 7 April. It has not been possible to make a further check for the period 7 April to 3 May, during which, owing to battle casualties and other reasons, there were some changes.page 491
No longer could the 19th claim, as it had done for several years, to be a North Island unit. The provinces it first drew on—Wellington, Hawke’s Bay and Taranaki—were still represented, but so was the rest of New Zealand. In fact, the statement was now frequently made, not without some justification, that there were more ‘mainlanders’ in the regiment than North Islanders.
On 4 April, with high hopes and with morale and physical fitness at their peak, the regiment moved to a concentration area north-west of Forli in preparation for battle. Though very confident, not even the most confirmed optimist among the troops could have predicted that by the end of the month the campaign in Italy would be virtually over and that the unit would have taken part in brilliant battles and sensational advances which would culminate in the utter rout of the German forces. During this period the New Zealand Division was to crash its way through the enemy defences from the Senio to Trieste. Then, within a few days of the Germans’ capitulation in Italy, would come news of victory in Europe.
D-day for Eighth Army’s offensive was 9 April, and the initial plan was for 2 Polish Corps on the left, 2 New Zealand Division in the centre, and 78 British Division on the right to assault the Senio simultaneously, and to cross and establish bridgeheads on a three-divisional frontage over the Santerno.
While the 19th was in the concentration area, 18 Regiment, with 5 Brigade, and 20 Regiment, with 6 Brigade, were already on the Senio, where the infantry with armoured support drove the Germans across the river and manned the eastern stopbank in readiness for the main assault on 9 April. This action was to prove of the greatest consequence, for it enabled the New Zealand Division to get away to a flying start and was a material factor in the speedy success of the first stages of the drive north.
Between 5 and 9 April 19 Regiment spent the time exercising with the troops it would support in battle, fitting grousers to the tank tracks, and carefully studying the arrangements for the attack, with the aid of maps and air page 492 photographs of the country on the proposed line of advance. In the interests of secrecy operators from the Royal Armoured Corps came over to net the wireless sets. For the operation the 19th was under the command of 9 NZ Infantry Brigade, which comprised 22 Battalion, 27 Battalion and Divisional Cavalry Battalion, all veteran units converted from their former specialist roles into infantry. A Squadron was allocated to 27 Battalion, B Squadron to Divisional Cavalry Battalion, and C Squadron to 22 Battalion.
At a conference at Main Divisional Headquarters, attended by all officers down to squadron commanders, it was revealed that the attack was to be on a two-brigade front of 4500 yards, with 5 Brigade on the right, 6 Brigade on the left, and 9 Brigade in reserve. The 27th Battalion, supported by A Squadron, was given a special task on the right flank of 5 Brigade, the occupation of Cotignola. The main points for the operation were:
Secure and command the Senio stopbanks.
Advance and establish a bridgehead over the Santerno River.
Break out from behind the bridgehead over the Santerno.
An intensive two-hour bombardment of the area between the Canale di Lugo and the Santerno River, using 2000 tons of fragmentation bombs, began at 1.50 p.m. on 9 April, a clear warm day. At 3.20 p.m. the artillery took over. The programme was divided into five gun attacks, with ten-minute pauses between each. During these pauses fighter-bombers strafed the Senio positions. At 7.20 p.m. the artillery became silent and for two minutes flame-throwers went into action against the far bank. Then the barrage opened up and the infantry assault began.
A Squadron was the first to move out of the regimental area; with its A1 Echelon, it left at 7 p.m. under cover of the noise made by the barrage, and moved forward to a lying-up area. This move, though still well behind the page 493 fighting zone, was not without its excitements. From the Apennines on the left to as far as the eye could see to the right, the gun flashes of the barrage were an almost unbroken line of flickering lights. The din was terrific. There was little return fire, and the few heavy shells which did come back towards the lying-up area exploded harmlessly in the fields.
Under this tremendous barrage the infantry of 5 and 6 Brigades crossed the Senio in assault boats and on kapok bridges and cleared the enemy from the far stopbank. Moving forward again, they encountered tanks and quickly proved the worth of the Piat gun in determined hands. Several Tigers were destroyed, as were some self-propelled guns, by this weapon. By midnight the final objectives, some 4000 yards from the Senio, were taken.
A Squadron, which had planned to be over the Senio and in a lying-up area by dawn on the 10th, was delayed and could not get up. As Cotignola was already in the hands of 78 British Division, this delay was fortunately not serious. The squadron and 27 Battalion subsequently made contact with 78 Division and learned that the town—apart from stray Germans—had not been occupied by the enemy. Not required to carry out its original role, this force therefore returned to 9 Brigade’s assembly area. The rest of the 19th moved during the morning of the 10th over the Senio to a position about a mile forward of the river, and remained there for the rest of the day and most of the 11th.
The barrage and the bombing had gashed great gaps in the spring crops, and broken and twisted trees and vines held some grim sights, yet none stirred such interest as a pair of hares lying by the side of the tank track. Where dead men had been passed almost unnoticed, these fleet, furry little creatures, stretched stiff in death, seemed by their very insignificance to emphasize the sadness of the scene and to reawaken feelings of pity for the now all too familiar sight—a war-ravaged countryside and its unfortunate inhabitants.
On the evening of the 11th 19 Regiment moved forward again to another lying-up area. From there the CO and the squadron commanders attended a conference at which the divisional plan was outlined. The 5th and 6th Brigades were now to secure a bridgehead over the Santerno, and when this had been accomplished, 9 Brigade was to take over from 5 Brigade and advance parallel to the railway and south of Massa Lombarda. The two brigades not only successfully established this bridgehead on the night of the 11th–12th, page 495 but forged well ahead towards the next major barrier during the day.
At 7 p.m. on the 12th orders were received for squadrons to move with their respective battalions to an area facing up to the Sillaro River. The two forward brigades were now firm on their new line, having fought magnificently and advanced twelve miles since the opening of the offensive. Their original opponents, 98 Division, were practically wiped out, and the enemy had lost fifteen German officers and 1083 other ranks as prisoners of war.
The policy now was to keep on crashing through the enemy defences, and General Freyberg decided on a night attack on the Scolo Correcchio, which was held by strong forces of infantry supported by tanks and anti-tank guns. The attack was to be on a two-brigade front and would be launched under a heavy barrage, which would carry the advance forward to the Sillaro. Sixth Brigade was on the right and 9 Brigade on the left, the latter disposed with Divisional Cavalry Battalion and B Squadron on the left, 22 Battalion and C Squadron on the right, and 27 Battalion and A Squadron in reserve and responsible for flank protection.
The attack began at 3 a.m. on the 13th, and by dawn 6 Brigade had captured both banks. Ninth Brigade struck harder opposition and was still fighting when the tanks which had moved up during the night joined their battalions. At 8 a.m. A and B Squadrons each had two troops up with the infantry, and the other two handy in reserve. C Squadron ran into some pockets of enemy during the move up and had successfully dealt with these when it was held up at the Scolo Viola and had to call on the engineers’ assault squadron for assistance in making the crossing. It was 8.30 a.m. by the time the first tanks got to 22 Battalion. Here good progress was made, the tanks pushing out in front until pockets of strong resistance were encountered and the infantry vacated their Kangaroos (troop-carrying Shermans) to mop up.
Enemy shelling was heavy, and Divisional Cavalry Battalion had some casualties. Prisoners were coming in page 496 steadily from all battalions; noticeably shaken, they were a very mixed bag. Some seemed to be mere boys; others were quite elderly men. During the morning Tiger tanks were reported on the brigade front, but despite these and heavy shelling B Squadron moved several tanks forward some hundreds of yards to a local bound on the Fosso Squazzaloca. C Squadron also moved two troops forward of the main line, but encountered no opposition until the afternoon, when a Panther knocked out No. 10 Troop commander’s tank and caused casualties to the infantry. Quick work by ‘Amgot’, the 17-pounder tank, resulted in a direct hit, and to the intense satisfaction of all who saw the duel, the Panther caught fire.
All the morning our tanks, the artillery, and the medium bombers had been searching out the enemy tanks, but these managed to elude every attempt against them. In the afternoon the brew-up of the Panther was quickly followed by two further victories when the bombers caught two Tigers. Despite this, however, resistance continued to increase, and in Divisional Cavalry Battalion’s sector the forward infantry and B Squadron’s tanks were forced to withdraw towards the Scolo Viola. It had been an active day, and the 19th’s casualties were one man died of wounds and two wounded. One tank (B Squadron’s) had been knocked out, a scout car had brewed up, and the Divisional Signals instrument mechanic’s truck had been hit and set on fire, but prompt action by Signalman J. Brady had prevented a full-scale brew-up.
A good eye-witness account of the day’s work has been supplied by Second-Lieutenant Cameron, OC No. 5 Troop, who kept a diary and recorded regularly the events which were highlight experiences in his troop:
My troop, No. 5, was with A Sqn Div Cav Bn, and I was fortunate in knowing the Sqn Comd and the three platoon comds. The attack started well; we had prisoners before we had been moving ten minutes and without firing a shot. Later things were not so easy.
The day wore on with all the usual hold-ups for mopping up, negotiating deep muddy drains, making detours to cross small page 497 canals as well as stops while dragging information out of very scared civilians.
At some stage during the early afternoon—time did not seem to matter then, only daylight when one could see and darkness when one could not—we came on a nasty obstacle. It was a muddy-bottomed canal with the far bank much higher than the one we were on. My Sgt’s tank tried to cross on a small flimsy bridge but that collapsed. He then tried a direct approach and became well and truly bogged. It took some time getting the tow ropes secure owing to the mud but after that we soon got the tank free.
We returned to the collapsed bridge and used our tracks to chew enough of the far bank down to get the troop across.
In the meantime the infantry had de-kangarood, crossed the canal and continued to advance. They had not got far when they came under heavy mortar and machine-gun fire, plus some high-velocity shells which sounded like tank fire. We moved forward past the infantry, and as I was making a wireless report to my Sqn Comd, Maj Saxton, I saw two enemy tanks moving at right angles to my advance about 1500yds away. My gunner, Jack Ferguson,13 immediately opened fire with the 75-mm but the range was too great. At the same time I called up the 17-pounder tank but by the time he was in a firing position the enemy tanks were out of sight. Then the fun started!
We continued to move the troop forward among the olive trees but the visibility was very bad and the enemy tanks continued to move backwards and forwards along our front. It became a time of great tension. When both sides would come into view, we would fire, the Germans would fire and both would move. We could not afford to stay still, their gun was too powerful—I can still hear those 88-mm shells going past my turret!
I can only remember seeing one hit on a German tank, low down on his tracks, but it did not stop him; their hides were too thick.
On my right flank was an open stretch of semi-swamp land with a road on the far side, and after some time at this pot shooting we had advanced perhaps six to eight hundred yards. Suddenly my Sgt saw an enemy armoured vehicle come out from cover on the far side of the swampy ground. It was an open topped tracked vehicle with an 88-mm gun mounted; a nasty weapon. He immediately gave the necessary fire order and his gunner scored a hit. The vehicle turned off the road and re-entered cover and a few minutes later dense smoke appeared page 498 from in the cover. However we were not able to confirm a definite kill.
While this was going on our ‘little friends’ were having a tough time, casualties were mounting and we seemed to be unable to silence the opposing fire. They called for smoke from the field arty and as usual they were quick to answer this call for assistance. The first I knew of this was when I saw a canister with smoke streaming from it land just in front of my tank. I glanced upwards and the air was literally full of smoke shells. In a few minutes my Tp was completely hidden and of course we could see nothing. I reported back by wireless and was told to return behind the inf at last light—which I was very thankful was not far off.
That night while waiting for rations and supplies to come forward the troop was discussing the day and I realized how fortunate we were that those German tank gunners were not crack shots!
At 2 a.m. on the 14th 9 Brigade put in a further attack on the Sillaro position. By first light Divisional Cavalry Battalion and 22 Battalion, with B and C Squadrons in support, were on the stopbanks. A Squadron, supporting 27 Battalion, was on the left flank along the Scolo Zaniolo. With daylight the enemy put down a tremendous volume of fire and some of the forward elements of both battalions were eventually forced to withdraw. D Squadron Divisional Cavalry Battalion, with No. 7 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Vickerman14) in support, hung on and in the afternoon an attack by C Squadron Divisional Cavalry Battalion restored the position. No. 6 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Bill Ryan15) earned high praise from the infantry for its support during this attack. The tanks moved to the crest of the stopbank to give supporting fire, and when the troop commander’s tank was hit and set on fire he changed over to the corporal’s tank, from which, with his head out of the turret, he directed the shooting of the troop and dealt quickly and effectively with the enemy posts and mortar positions. Despite sniping and shelling, Ryan maintained his dangerous position until page 499 the attackers were firmly established. He was later awarded the MC.
During the whole of the 14th nebelwerfer and mortar fire, particularly from the vicinity of Sesto Imolese, was most troublesome. It was evident that the enemy was making a desperate attempt to stem the New Zealanders’ advance. Intelligence reports advised that 278 Infantry Division (a fresh formation) was now facing the New Zealanders. Paratroops, a number of whom had also fallen into our hands, were also being used to bolster the defence.
Casualties in 19 Regiment for the day were one killed and seven wounded, B and C Squadrons each losing a tank.
That night, as a result of the Army Commander’s decision to reinforce the successful thrust by the New Zealand Division, the Division left 5 Corps and came under the command of 13 Corps. On the 15th preparations for enlarging the Sillaro bridgehead were well in hand.
The barrage began at nine o’clock. In 9 Brigade’s sector the infantry surged forward and 27 Battalion was quickly through Sesto Imolese, the trouble spot of the last two days. It took a large number of prisoners, then ran into enemy tanks. Fighting their way forward with determination and daring, the leading troops of 27 Battalion were undeterred by the 60-ton Panthers in their path. Moving boldly in the darkness, they tackled them with Piats and phosphorus grenades, and in a very short time performed the almost incredible feat of knocking out or setting on fire no fewer than four of these monsters.
By 4 a.m. on the 16th the engineers had a bridge over the Sillaro. The tanks crossed and by dawn were up with the infantry. The reserve squadron (B) and Divisional Cavalry Battalion also crossed.
Throughout the day the advance along the axis of the railway line continued steadily. Tank obstacles were encountered at the Scolo Sillaro and again at the Scolo Montanara. With the aid of 28 Assault Squadron, these were quickly crossed, and the infantry was able to move much of the way in Kangaroos, with the tanks exploiting forward in reconnaissance. Isolated pockets of resistance and mortar and page 500 machine-gun posts were speedily dealt with by fire from the tanks, and just before sunset patrols pushed ahead into Medicina and reported the town clear, with 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade in possession.
This attack on the 16th had been a spirited success. Both New Zealand brigades (the 9th and the 6th) were at the peak of fighting form and had forged rapidly ahead. They were ready and eager to keep rolling on.
Supporting arms and reserves, despite the speed of the advance, were well up and the 9 Brigade reserve units—Divisional Cavalry Battalion and B Squadron—were forward of Sesto Imolese. They had helped to handle the many prisoners passed back and had witnessed the excellent air support given the attacking troops, which had been a material factor in the rapid progress made by the Division.
One incident which will be remembered by all in the reserve units was the spectacular crash of a Spitfire, which occurred close to the headquarters forward of Sesto Imolese. The plane had been damaged by anti-aircraft fire and the pilot, attempting to land on the roadway, suddenly swerved into a field to avoid some infantry. He landed upside down and was extricated from the wreckage with difficulty.
At dusk the forward line had its left flank within one mile of Medicina, and in preparation for continuing the advance next morning, reconnaissance parties went ahead for considerable distances. No contact was made, and it was evident that the enemy had pulled well back. As the area immediately in front was crossed by many irrigation ditches running parallel with each other but at right angles to the axis of advance, suitable routes for the tanks and Kangaroos were reconnoitred, and the assault squadron made ready to assist where crossings could not be found.
At 5.30 a.m. on the 17th, without any opposition, 9 Brigade moved off again, 22 Battalion and C Squadron on the right and 27 Battalion and A Squadron on the left. The infantry were in Kangaroos. Apart from the delays occasioned by the many ditches to be crossed, the advance went unhindered until the next major barrier, the Gaiana River, was approached. Here the New Zealand Division’s old page 501 opponents, 4 Paratroop Division, were holding a line. Bazooka, mortar, machine-gun and small-arms fire greeted the attacking force, and casualties were heavy, for the terrain in this area was flat and treeless and there was little or no cover from fire or from view.
Nevertheless, without any delay, a forceful attempt was made to assault the stopbanks. On the right 4 Company 27 Battalion, with No. 2 Troop (Second-Lieutenant MacDiarmid16) in support, and on the left 2 Company with No. 4 Troop (Second-Lieutenant Vazey17) in support, moved up smartly to attack. Ron Vazey led his troop to within thirty yards of the stopbank, coolly left his tank, and went forward on foot to climb to the crest to reconnoitre the position. In the face of heavy fire he made his observations and returned to his tank with vital information concerning the canal and the demolished railway bridge. He then directed the troop on to enemy positions and continued to give supporting fire to the infantry until his tank was hit, first by heavy mortar and later by bazooka, and set on fire. Vazey was seriously wounded, but as a result of his bold venture and cool leadership, a hold was secured on the near stopbank. His daring exploits in this engagement earned him the MC. Second-Lieutenant Ryan (OC No. 6 Troop B Squadron), working with Divisional Cavalry Battalion, also distinguished himself by repeating the performance which had earned him such high praise from the infantry during the Sillaro attack. His tank, from the top of the stopbank, once more played a leading part in subduing the enemy fire.
At this stage things were extremely sticky, and self-propelled guns began to engage the tanks from the flanks. The infantry was also having heavy casualties, and the forward troops were withdrawn while the armour and artillery shot up the enemy positions. The paratroops, however, were fighting true to form and reacted strongly with heavy mortar and machine-gun fire. When things were at their worst, page 502 Padre Somerville arrived and went about the task of attending to the wounded and organising their evacuation with his usual quiet courage and cheerful efficiency. His presence in the forward area caused no surprise; in fact, the timely arrival of the Padre at hot spots had become so much the usual thing that it was accepted without comment. Considering the practical difficulties of getting forward in a fast-moving advance, it must always remain a puzzle just how he invariably managed to materialise when needed most. Throughout the whole advance from the Senio to Trieste his work was a grand example: entirely on his own initiative, he worked with the forward stretcher-bearers, and there are many 19th men who have reason to be grateful for his ministrations.
By nightfall the enemy had quietened down, and Divisional Cavalry Battalion and B Squadron were able to relieve 22 Battalion and C Squadron. Casualties for the day were one other rank killed and one officer and six other ranks wounded. One tank had brewed up and a 17-pounder Sherman had been hit on the gun. One tank had a track shot off and another was bogged down. The Technical Adjutant reconnoitred the two immobile C Squadron tanks, but the enemy on the stopbanks was keeping them well covered, and recovery was not practicable while the snipers were so active.
The day’s operations, so far as they concerned the units on the left flank, were recorded in a narrative entitled ‘Operations of “A” Sqn 19 Armd Regt under comd 27 NZ Bn at Villa Fontana’ by the squadron commander (Major Wiseley) a few days afterwards:
At first light (17th) the tanks were back with their inf. coys all grouped in a small area and all anxious for an advance. Some delay and much bustle ensued owing to the late delivery of maps and codes and the necessity for getting such a large number of sets—tank, kangaroo and infantry—satisfactorily linked. About an hour after first light the Bn moved out with two troops of tanks leading, each with a coy of inf in kangaroos in support. The remainder of the tanks followed Infantry and Tank HQ and all tanks but those of the two leading troops carried a smothering array of inf.page 503
Only blown bridges and canals impeded the advance which proceeded at a high rate with the leading tanks doing their own recce and pushing on with little chance of caution. The one idea was to catch the enemy while he was still disorganised and in retreat. Just short of Villa Fontana a more serious obstacle was encountered and there was a delay while a route round it was found. During this hold-up all vehicles of the group closed up on HQ which was travelling behind the forward elements. A crossing was now found, and Villa Fontana added to the list of liberated places amid the usual fusilade of flowers and vivas from the populace.
The leading troops had passed on a further 500 yds, and HQ were on a lateral road just clear of the town and in view of an open stretch of country where the stop-bank of the Gaiana could be seen in the distance. The road of advance led straight to the bank and the leading troop on the right—No 2, Lt. MacDiarmid —called up reporting the position and suggesting an Inf Recce on foot as the possibility of anti-tank defences seemed worthy of investigation. I agreed in principle and the Inf decided to go forward in kangaroos. Two kangaroos proceeded up the road and immediately drew heavy mortar and SA fire which covered the whole area but concentrated mainly on the forward moving vehicles and those at Inf and Tank HQ. There were casualties among the reserve personnel.
No 4 Coy Comd decided to immediately reinforce his one forward platoon and the coy raced forward in kangaroos under very heavy fire. Coy HQ were established in a casa about 80 yds short of the stop-bank. Losses to the Inf were severe; two kangaroos brewed up, others were caught in spandau and mortar fire. It was a dashing operation designed to secure the stop-bank and if possible the initiative. But the dash of the kangaroo crews and the gallantry of the infantry had to compete with stiff opposition. The line was heavily manned by 1 and 4 Para Div men in carefully prepared and well dug in positions.
Our infantry reached the stop-bank and endeavoured under heavy fire from the front and flanks to consolidate: this they never achieved completely, but decided nevertheless to hold on. The tanks throughout had been within three to four hundred yards of the stop-bank giving all possible support with all armament. They now moved in to two hundred yards for more effective observation. During the first hectic half hour they fired continuously inflicting heavy losses on the enemy and destroying many posts which had been raking the stop-banks with spandau fire from the flanks. Targets indicated by Inf HQ over the 38 wireless set were smartly dealt with but the engagement had been so hot that ammunition supplies had been seriously reduced and AP was being used for fire against slit trenches.page 504
By this time the action on the left had required the committal of one reserve troop and with the position still in the balance I had to relieve No 2 Tp with No 1 and for a time be entirely without reserves—a reluctant decision for the battle was yet young.
No. 1 Tp (2 Lt. Stribling18) moved in and No 2 Tp came out to replenish and to repair damage—a job which had to be tackled with all haste. Supply were equal to the task and by the time the troop were clear of the area of mortar and sniper blitz, the trucks were up and waiting. With the arrival of No 1 Tp the action in this sector died down to a continuous hate of fire by both sides from under cover. This sector was flanked on the left by the railway line and about 80 yards from the intersection of the stop-bank with the railway embankment was a casa which with its out-buildings served as Inf Coy HQ.
The decision to attack on this side had been taken simultaneously with that on the right, but more time had been available for a recce. 2 Lt. Vasey [Vazey], Comd No 4 Tp, after a foot recce, decided that the enemy were definitely in strength but that A/T guns were not likely in that area. I agreed. The infantry were hopeful of outflanking the enemy on the railway side, and the attack went in at high speed led by the tanks. Opposition was very heavy; the kangaroos were under punishing fire and in order to try to relieve the difficult situation created by the infantry having to attack the dug in position after a 600 yard approach across perfectly flat country, 2 Lt. Vasey rushed the bank with his own tank. He was supported by the remainder of his Tp and the enemy was thus held at bay for the all important few minutes it took to unload the infantry at their positions.
It was a daring gamble taken with the full knowledge of the risks involved and it succeeded at least in part, for the infantry established themselves in positions to command the stop-bank and in buildings close to it.
2 Lt. Vasey had his tank hit by a bazooka and a hail of mortar bombs came in; the tank brewed, he was seriously wounded and the operator killed. Another tank of this troop was also put out of action and I immediately sent in the reserve troop via the railway line. This troop moved in to support and was forced to occupy open positions close to, and in full view of the enemy. Their only protection was the stop-bank and the railway embankment and this made it necessary for the enemy to show himself in order to bring direct fire on to them. That troop watched those banks!page 505
Contact with the infantry was close and was well maintained with 38 sets for the tanks were scattered in support all within 2–300 yards of Inf Coy HQ. The infantry were roughly handled by very heavy mortar fire and by many snipers, but were themselves in a belligerent mood and at no time did they allow the initiative to slip from their grasp. Throughout the day the tanks took a good toll of snipers and of Huns who tried to push forward and re-establish on the near bank. For the remainder of the day something in the nature of a fire fight and a sniper v sniper contest ensued, but the position otherwise remained unaltered.
Towards evening the enemy attacked the Inf HQ on the right with heavy stonks and with bazooka fire almost completely demolishing the building and starting fires. At the same time he started to close in. The Inf had not sufficient numbers to resist the attack and 2 Lt. Stribling, seeing their desperate plight but in the failing light being unable to do much to assist, took his Tp in still closer to give moral support and to do what he could with SA fire. His eventual objective was Coy HQ where he thought in the worst of contingencies he could evacuate the personnel or give absolute cover. However the infantry decided to retire. He saw what few were left, leave, and then concentrated on covering the open ground to prevent the enemy from coming forward. I was without reserves to commit in his support, but No 2 Tp was rapidly approaching battle-worthiness and were ordered to make all haste, for it was felt with 6 tanks, even on fixed lines of fire, the enemy could not hope to cross the open country.
The Hun did not risk it and shortly after last light 27 Inf Bn were in a position to commit another company which reached this section of the stop-bank under cover of darkness. By morning they were dug in, consolidated, and prepared to dispute ownership with any Paratroops. The tanks remained in support on each flank.
For the first three hours of the above operation Inf Bn Hq were established in a kangaroo on a lateral road. The Comd tank was immediately behind. Communication between Inf and Tank Comd [was] difficult by wireless and hazardous on foot. There was heavy mortar fire and snipers were located both ahead and in the town (Villa Fontano) at the rear. With the action in the balance however no move was made till noon. A large casa slightly forward had a stable suitable for the purpose required and Hq established here proved more satisfactory, for information from the tanks was then immediately available to the Bn Comd.
The enemy later gave close attention to this group of buildings scoring direct hits with a heavy calibre gun. Late in the page 506 afternoon was a trying time, the Inf Comd was at Bde HQ conference, the enemy were in the process of trying to drive 4 Coy off the stop-bank, and a shell wrecked the ops room. All infantry communications were cut completely, the Adj killed and several others wounded. The only forward link now remaining was the Tank OCs represented in the ops room by the Sqn Comd, operator and dual lead. No time was lost in transferring this all important set and group to the turret of the tank in the lee of the building.
A conference was held that evening—again in the stable—a plan to force the stop-bank was outlined and several more direct hits occurred. The plan was cancelled shortly afterwards and a change of HQ soon followed. Next evening saw a tremendous concentrated barrage, which had been preceded by a day long air attack, and was followed by a mass flamethrower attack. This set the stage for the final removal of the Para Divs from Gaiana Canal and indeed, from the entire battlefront in Italy.
On the 18th the forward troops of both squadrons shot up enemy-occupied houses and strongpoints over the river, while at Divisional Headquarters arrangements were being made for a full-scale assault on the Gaiana, with plans to continue over the Scolo Acquarolo and the Fossadone and then exploit to the Quaderna. For this operation 9 Brigade would be on the right and the Gurkhas on the left. A tremendous barrage (over 150,000 rounds) would be put down and flame-throwers were to be used en masse ahead of the infantry assaulting the Gaiana stopbanks.
The fireworks began at 9.30 p.m. From Tactical Regimental Headquarters an excellent view was obtained of the enemy area. The paratroops’ line received the full weight of the heaviest barrage our troops had yet worked behind; the flame-throwers then followed up with a sheet of fire which seemed to envelop the whole of the far stopbank. It appeared impossible for any living thing to have survived the terrifying preliminaries to this attack. But the paratroops were tough and were still able to put up a fight. As the barrage opened they were busy engaging our forward positions with nebelwerfers and mortars. Expecting an attack, they had sent patrols towards the near stopbank under cover of this fire. These men, caught in the open, were incinerated page 507 by the flame-throwers, and their charred corpses bore horrible testimony to the terrifying efficiency of this new weapon.
The infantry had successfully taken the first objective by 2.30 a.m., but the enemy quickly filtered back on the right flank and engaged the engineers working on the tank crossing over the Gaiana. Operations had to be suspended while this opposition was dealt with. Meanwhile fresh crossing places on the left of the sector were reconnoitred. The 27th and A Squadron were now sent forward in a flank-protection role, but the tanks supporting the attacking battalions did not get across the Gaiana until 6.15 a.m., and were held up again at the next barrier while crossings were constructed under fire.
The sappers did a splendid job and the bulldozer drivers in particular came in for high praise, as this extract from a B Squadron troop report shows: ‘Excellent work performed by the two open bulldozer drivers (from 6 Fd Coy) operating with this Sqn on the morning of 19 Apr, at point 154. After completing a crossing … they moved on to the next demolition where they continued to work under heavy and accurate mortar fire until wounded and unable to carry on. Even though wounded they did not leave their machines where they were but drove one out to safety and placed the other on the side of the demolition where it would not impede any future efforts by the tanks to get across. It was largely due to the efforts of these men that the tanks were enabled to eventually cross and link up with the infantry.’
By late morning the forward squadrons had tanks with their battalions ready to support the attack to the next bound. This attack was made with air support and the enemy positions were bombed and strafed as our troops moved forward. A succession of canals intersecting open country had to be crossed during the first 1000 yards, and the initial progress was somewhat slow. Fortunately, however, the withdrawal of the paratroops had been too hurried to permit them to carry out their usual thorough demolitions, and the bridge over the largest canal—the Quaderna —was taken intact.page 508
At 5 p.m. Divisional Cavalry Battalion, with two troops of B Squadron, was on the next bound. The 22nd Battalion, on the left, had been held up by heavy mortar fire, and the supporting C Squadron tanks had to move round to the right flank because self-propelled guns had the open ground to the front well covered. By sunset the left flank had moved up and 9 Brigade was on the Canalazzo and already moving forward again. The reserve battalion (the 27th), with C Squadron in support, had also come up and was guarding the right flank.
It was here that a tank commander (Sergeant Perry19) in C Squadron had a tense moment when a fanatical SS man popped out of a canal and at point-blank range fired at his turret with a bazooka. Perry bowled this daring German with a grenade—without even pausing to pull the pin! The throw was a good one, for its force knocked the bazooka man flat on his back, and the following tank delivered the coup de grâce before he could recover his balance. Perry later became RSM, and grenade training in the regiment was always the opportunity for someone to ask with an innocent air, ‘Do you throw them before you pull the pin or after, Sar’ Major?’
The advance was still proceeding, when at 8 p.m. orders were received that 9 Brigade would be relieved by 5 Brigade and 19 Regiment by the 18th. During the evening the advance had been so rapid that the forward tanks were well past the advised bomb line, and the point troop of C Squadron was bombed by Spitfires in mistake for German tanks. Fortunately there were no casualties.
The relief by 18 Regiment took place during the night without a hitch, and 19 Regiment’s tanks moved back to a rest area close to Medicina. At 1.30 a.m. all squadrons reported safely in, except for one tank from B Squadron which was bogged.
The 20th and 21st were spent in maintenance and replenishment. A sugar factory in Budrio yielded a good supply of that most useful commodity of trade. Some of the tanks were able to carry enough to ensure that their crews page 509 would not lack for anything for the rest of the campaign. The crews were also able to have a much needed and much appreciated clean-up. At conferences at 9 Brigade Headquarters plans for the next phase of the operations were outlined. The Brigade Commander visited the regiment in the rest area and congratulated all ranks on the co-operation and gallantry shown in the recent operations. He also indicated that in the event of a successful breakthrough the 19th would have an important job out in front, for the brigade would then become mobile and the regiment, in the lead, would have a battalion in Kangaroos under command. The rest of the infantry would follow in lorries.
The unit was now on one hour’s notice to move, and there were high hopes that the mobile role would soon materialise. There was a distinct air of impatience abroad, for the news from the two forward brigades was good, and 9 Brigade and 19 Regiment were anxious to get cracking. Next morning (the 22nd) a warning order to be ready to move at 10.30 a.m. was received with much satisfaction, and approximately at that hour engines were turning over and the head of the column began to start up. The order of march was Reconnaissance Troop, A Squadron, B Squadron, 31 Anti-Tank Battery (now under command), Regimental Headquarters, C Squadron and AI Echelon. The B Echelons were to follow later. The destination was north-westwards of the Idice River.
The trip was a long and dirty one along back roads and across fields, and twenty-seven miles were covered before the concentration area was reached. Here orders were received for an attack along the brigade axis to the River Reno, and dispositions for battalions and squadrons were arranged. A Squadron moved out immediately to the forward left flank, but before further positioning moves were made the attack was called off because of darkness.
At the Fossa Quadria, however, A Squadron, still without infantry support, had made contact with the German rearguard, which was in strength along its banks. The squadron attacked and the enemy returned the fire with heavy mortars and small arms. The squadron had three casualties: Sergeant page 510 Gordon Riggir, a popular NCO, died of wounds and two men were wounded.
After A Squadron had been withdrawn an enemy plane hovered over the area dropping anti-personnel bombs, but otherwise a quiet night was spent, and at dawn the interrupted advance was resumed. On the left A Squadron, with two companies of 22 Battalion, and on the right B Squadron, with a further two companies of the same unit, moved forward with little opposition. C Squadron was in reserve and was followed by Divisional Cavalry Battalion and 27 Battalion in motor transport. The Reno was reached soon after midday and a reconnaissance revealed no sign of the enemy.
While the regiment stood easy awaiting orders, the engineers were busy repairing a ford over the river in the vicinity of Barca di Dosso. By 4 p.m. they had the road ready for traffic, but two hours later Brigade advised that there would be no move before next morning. Out in front 5 and 6 Brigades had lost contact with the enemy and were continuing to advance unopposed. Now began a frustrating period. The whole of Eighth Army was surging forward, and the regiment, eager to be in at the kill, was destined to be kept fretting at the bit for several days.
There were numerous conferences during the night of the 23rd–24th and various plans were discussed, but by morning, as there had been no contact on the Division’s front, a non-tactical move was ordered.
Traffic on the brigade axis was packed nose-to-tail, and 19 Regiment joined the stream of vehicles, crossing the Reno at 10.30 a.m. and moving slowly until 3.15 p.m., when a halt was called and a concentration area occupied. Brigade advised that there would be no further move that day, and news was received that 5 Brigade had reached the Po without making contact with the German forces. It was a peaceful evening, and around the vehicles—each festooned with greenery and flowers by the Italians who had lined the road as the regiment moved into the rich valley of the Po—groups gathered to discuss the news. Jerry had ‘had it’. The enemy had not stopped at the Po—that fact seemed incredible. The page 511 paratroops taken during the advance had been as full of fight as ever. Bitter opposition between them and the New Zealanders since Crete had provided endless incidents for discussion. Their prowess had long been acknowledged, and while they were not regarded as invincible, they were reckoned as easily the best troops in the German Army. Now they had folded up. Many flagons of the local wines were emptied that night. Confusion to the enemy and the chance to give him one more kick in the pants was the spirit of the drinking.
Though not manned by the enemy, the great River Po was still a formidable barrier. It was over 300 yards wide, deep and swift, and it had the usual high stopbanks; no bridges were left of course. On the 24th and 25th, while the regiment cooled its heels in the concentration area, the forward formations of the New Zealand Division were making the crossing in assault boats. Fantails and a ferry were employed, and as Anzac Day wore on the New Zealand Engineers completed Eighth Army’s first pontoon bridge. An unbroken stream of traffic pushed on over the Po.
But many bridges were needed to cope with the vast northern movement of a whole army, and every hour saw 19 Regiment losing its place in the list of priorities for crossing. But the regiment was not idle. Reputed fords were reconnoitred and found fictitious. Headquarters of varying importance were importuned unsuccessfully. Guile was attempted, but tanks were too solid to escape detection and moved too slowly to manœuvre into momentary gaps; besides, the only structure capable of taking a tank was the pontoon ferry. A class 40 bridge was being erected, and on this the unit built its hopes.
The 25th passed, then the 26th, and the only vehicle of 19 Regiment across the Po was the reconnaissance officer’s scout car. At 1.30 p.m. he reported being at Badia, just short of the Adige, so it was obvious that the gap to the forward troops was now a wide one, and impatience grew hourly. It should have been a pleasant rest, for the surroundings were ideal. The war had not touched this part of the country, and it was a change to see farmhouses which page 512 were not in ruins, and growing crops ungapped by shell holes. The people, too, were most friendly, and wine and produce were freely obtainable. But the wait at the Po was not regarded with any satisfaction; everyone was too much infected with the urge to push ahead to derive much benefit from it.
On the 27th the Brigade Major from Headquarters 9 Brigade—now over the river—got permission for one 17-pounder of 31 Anti-Tank Regiment to cross, and just after lunch the reconnaissance officer called up with the information that 19 Regiment had priority for one squadron and Headquarters to cross on the ferry. C Squadron, moving speedily across country, was soon waiting at the ferry point, but by 7 p.m. had been able to get only five tanks over. At that hour all work ceased on the ferry, and the CO tried to get permission to use the class 40 bridge which had just been opened for traffic. His endeavours were foiled by a Corps’ order that until additional decking was available the bridge was to be used by wheels only. As a final blow, just at dusk an explosion caused by a floating mine wrecked two pontoons and some girders in the centre of the bridge. The ferry was requisitioned to repair the gap. There was nothing for it now but to wait in patience.
Late that night news came through that tanks of 18 and 20 Regiments were in support of 27 Battalion across the Adige. Ninth Brigade had taken over from 6 Brigade, and next morning (the 28th), after a bad start in heavy rain, the advance was racing on again, with Venice as the objective.
The 19th was not the only armoured unit biting its nails on the south bank of the Po. Part of the 18th and 20th were also still waiting, as were some British tanks. Some of the latter tried to make the crossing in an amazing contraption, a rubberised fabric boat which fitted over the tank like a huge shoe. Twin propellers driven by the tank engine provided the power. Launching was a tricky business, however, and did not seem to be attended by much success. One Sherman which was safely floated was ignominiously sunk by an accidental burst of Browning fire from the following page 513 tank. The fabric hull was not proof against small-arms fire, and the resultant ‘scone-doing’ was spectacular. The taking of a photograph by a New Zealander during recovery operations was not appreciated by the Tommies, who were also resentful about the mirth and pleasantries the incident evoked.
On the 29th the brigadier in charge of the class 40 bridge let slip to the CO that some tanks could now cross, and quick action resulted in the rest of C Squadron and Regimental Headquarters getting over. C Squadron was away like the wind, and by evening had succeeded in getting its tanks ferried over the Adige also. Meanwhile permission for the rest of the regiment to cross was obtained from Rear Headquarters 4 Brigade, the only higher authority still within reach. By persistent pestering and swift action by the drivers—who watched for breaks in the traffic and nipped in speedily—the whole of the regiment, including B1 and B2 Echelons, was over the river by 6 a.m. on the 30th. The chase was on.
Meanwhile Regimental Headquarters and C Squadron, which had got their tanks one by one across the Adige, started out on a point-to-point. Their first halt was just short of Padua, where they refuelled and received the bad news that the only bridge over the Brenta Canal had been closed to tank traffic. A possible ford was reconnoitred, but engineer assistance was required to make it usable. Frantic inquiries elicited the vague statement that in 13 Corps’ area, some 10 miles away, a class 40 bridge might be available. A detour was made and by 9 p.m. the crossing was accomplished, but a dark wet night, bad roads, and an impassable traffic jam caused a midnight decision to halt, bed down and get away again at daylight.
By noon on 1 May, after a flat-out chase, this group had made contact with 4 Brigade and the regiment’s A1 Echelon in an area north of Venice. Orders were received that as from 1 p.m. they would come under the command of 9 Brigade and were to push ahead as soon as possible. A and B Squadrons were to remain under the command of 4 page 514 Brigade until contact had been made with 9 Brigade, when they would also be sent forward.
But the hunt was almost over. The German Army was already routed, and the only resistance being offered came from small do-or-die skirmishing groups or from startled outposts which were unaware of the disaster which had overtaken their forces.
With the first signs of enemy disorganisation the partisans had struck; they came as a valuable ally to the pursuing units. They did not flinch at a pitched battle, and before our forward troops reached them they had already captured several towns. Perhaps their greatest contribution, however, was the accurate information they had gathered about routes, enemy locations and movements. With their aid the advance forward of the Adige had been swift and certain.
The 19th Regiment, now in two groups, again pressed on. C Squadron and Regimental Headquarters, after an all-out drive at their best speed, reached Sistiana, at the extreme north of the Adriatic, on 2 May and, contacting Headquarters 9 Brigade, were ordered immediately to Trieste.
News had already been received that Trieste had fallen to Tito’s troops advancing from the north, but this proved to be somewhat premature, for the Germans still had strong forces on the coast outside the city. They were also manning road blocks near Miramare, and though a few Yugoslav troops had entered the city on the 1st, they had not been able to take several strongpoints. It was a somewhat explosive situation, and this was explained to the troops before movement began. The role of the regiment was mainly to impress the occupants of Trieste—civilians, partisans and Yugoslav troops alike—with a show of force. No fighting was expected at that time.
After a reconnaissance C Squadron, under the command of 22 Battalion, entered the outskirts of the city. Here they were greeted with tremendous enthusiasm by crowds which lined the streets and pressed in on the tanks until a lane barely wide enough to drive through was left. Towards the city centre the spectators thinned out, and the leading tanks page 515 ran into some sniping shots from a needle gun, a light anti-tank weapon, whose crew was obviously ducking from intersection to intersection. One tank pulled out of the column and ran round the block to stalk this daring opponent, and had just got into a firing position when a woman wheeling a pram walked into the line of fire. The tank’s aim was spoiled, and by the time the shot could be got away with safety the needle gun and crew were disappearing. They were not seen again.
A large force of Germans was found to be in possession of the Palazzo di Justizo. They were keeping at bay a party of partisans to whom they were unwilling to surrender. They were quite prepared to surrender to our troops, but the partisans were naturally unwilling that we should steal their plums. After much unavailing talk the contretemps was resolved by the tanks firing several rounds of armour-piercing high-explosive in the windows and doors, after which the partisans had no difficulty in entering the building and taking over. Another German party, found in the Museum, fled on the approach of the tanks. One man was wearing part of an ancient suit of armour, which not only impeded his progress but left his rear unprotected; his predicament caused much merriment among the tank machine-gunners, who kept him skipping for some time.
Both infantry and tanks worked round the streets, but the Yugoslavs were uncooperative, the civilians as usual were too voluble and contradictory, and there was little daylight left. With the position not at all clear in the rest of the town, at dusk the tanks were sited at strategic spots for the night.
The campaign in Italy was virtually over. At noon that day Colonel-General von Vietinghoff-Scheel had formally surrendered all land, sea and air forces under his command. Cables of congratulation on the New Zealand Division’s part in the victory were received by General Freyberg from many sources. The New Zealand Government’s message read: ‘The heart of every New Zealander is overflowing with today’s news, with relief that a stubborn campaign through rough country and in bitter weather is ended, and with pride that New Zealanders, who have always shared in page 516 the hard going, should have been triumphantly at the spearhead of victory.’ But in Trieste it was an uneasy peace; tension robbed the moment of the joy it should have brought.
That night A and B Squadrons laagered outside the town in the Barcola area. Evidence that scattered enemy resistance was still likely to be encountered was confirmed by a report that early that morning, while on a reconnaissance ahead of the advanced group, the RSM (WO I Massey20) and his driver (Trooper Davey21), together with a despatch rider (Trooper Rohloff22), had been ambushed by some Germans with an anti-tank gun and taken prisoner.
The incident occurred in front of the divisional forward positions one mile below the Trieste-Villa Opicina road fork. The party headed north at 4 a.m. to contact our tanks, wrongly reported as being two miles north and on the move. Ten minutes later a German marine section hit the scout car dead centre at 50 yards with a captured two-pounder and opened up with small-arms fire, wounding all three men. The driver, Vic Davey, was hit in the shoulder, and the car went over the edge of the autostrada, landing upside down 30 feet below.
About twenty Germans surrounded the wounded men, gave first aid, and sent them back to their company headquarters for brief interrogation. Davey, who was badly hurt, was put in a truck, but the RSM and Rohloff were put with some other prisoners (five men from Divisional Cavalry Battalion, the original crew of the two-pounder gun). The whole group, which comprised about 500 German troops, seven diesel trucks and four light anti-aircraft guns, moved off towards Opicina.
The Germans and prisoners spent the day shuttling up and down roads while the RAF bombed and strafed. About 2 p.m. the enemy deployed and formed a defensive arc in page 517 front of the village, into which he moved his transport. Soon afterwards continuous strafing and small-arms fire from Divisional Cavalry Battalion and 22 Battalion, which were working down the road, broke up the enemy party into small groups. The RSM managed to persuade the group he was with to let him go out towards the Divisional Cavalry with a white flag. As he moved other German posts opened fire, so he threw the flag away and ducked down into a gully. He eventually made his way to a self-propelled gun of 16 Lancers and then to the CO of Divisional Cavalry Battalion, to whom he reported the German dispositions and strength. The Divisional Cavalry pushed ahead, with the RSM acting as guide to the leading platoon. Some 20 Regiment tanks came up, and he was able to guide them round the mines which he had watched the Germans lay earlier in the day.
The enemy offered little resistance beyond desultory fire. Many surrendered, and others withdrew down the left-hand fork from Opicina, blowing the road behind them. The Divisional Cavalry Battalion and the tanks turned right and passed down the hill road to Trieste. There the partisans lifted the minefield, and the New Zealand infantry and tanks arrived in the city just after dusk. Rohloff’s group surrendered immediately our troops made contact, and Vic Davey was handed over when the remaining Germans surrendered to Lieutenant-Colonel Donald two days later.
On the 3rd, while the infantry (22 Battalion, with half of C Squadron, and 27 Battalion, with the other half) were engaged in the final clearing of Trieste, the rest of the 19th spent a busy day on maintenance. The performance of the unit fitters and the tank crews was outstanding. Between the River Po and Trieste, 244 miles had been covered, mostly flat out and with only very brief halts. Extensive adjustments or major repairs had been impossible. Nevertheless, only two tanks (both radial-engine Shermans) had failed to arrive at the destination in first-class mechanical and fighting condition. The crews now made the most of the opportunity for a good clean-up. Looking spic and span page 518 once more, squadrons split up the following day, rejoined the original infantry units they had been supporting, and with them moved into and quietly occupied Trieste.
The number of Yugoslav troops in the city increased hourly, and the tension mounted proportionately. As a precautionary measure all unnecessary men and vehicles were evacuated to unit B echelons outside Trieste, but despite constant patrolling in the streets by bands of heavily armed partisans, male and female, there were no incidents. Plans had been made, however, for the withdrawal of our troops if the attitude of the Yugoslavs forced hostilities.
Though it was an uncomfortable experience, for the situation was electric and dangerous, the first few days of the occupation of Trieste were interesting. The easy manner and commonsense attitude of our men were in direct contrast to the truculent and emotional air of the Yugoslav and partisan troops sharing the occupation. Tactful handling of awkward incidents and firmness where necessary prevented clashes and ensured that the status quo was maintained.
Notices posted around the city by the ‘Supreme Command of the Yugoslav Army of Slovenia’ were studied with interest by our troops. Each notice was signed by the military commander and a political commissar, and each concluded with the slogans ‘Death to Fascism—Liberty for the People’. Yugoslav foraging parties, with horse and donkey-drawn transport, systematically searched whole streets and carted off—ostensibly for military use—loads of the most unlikely looking gear. The areas occupied by our units were spared this searching, and the inhabitants were grateful. For some time there was no fraternising between the two armies, but neither was there any serious attempt to interfere with each other’s activities. This situation in Trieste still obtained on 9 May when the end of the war in Europe was announced.
The news, tremendous though it was, was received calmly. The tense atmosphere made any form of celebration seem out of place, and the British and American units which for the time had replaced the 9 Brigade battalions the regiment had been supporting also let the occasion pass without page 519 noticeable joy. While most of the war-weary world went crazy with delight, the troops who had played so great a part in bringing about the victory felt capitulation to be something of an anti-climax. In Trieste they were experiencing a new development, later to become better known as the ‘cold war’.
A thanksgiving service conducted the following Sunday by the Padre was the only official, and in any case perhaps the most appropriate, function held by the regiment to mark the end of the fighting in Italy and in Europe.
The Yugoslavs, partisans, and the Guardia del Popolo maintained their grim demeanour and kept up their own one-sided assault on fascists, ex-fascists, suspected fascists and other real or imagined political opponents. The plight of the population of Trieste was unenviable, for many were arrested, no doubt on the flimsiest of pretexts. It was, so the story went, a bad thing to have a fascist background, but it was even more unfortunate to be a creditor of a member of the Guardia del Popolo.
As they went about their politically imposed task of dealing out ‘Death to Fascism’ and presumably arranging ‘Liberty for the People’, members of the Guardia del Popolo made no secret of their resentment against our forces in the city. The continued restraint and good discipline of the troops, however, gave them no excuse for incidents which might quickly have turned ugly. The Yugoslav command, too, was wise enough to recognise that the few men we had in Trieste were backed by powerful forces. Daily flights of Allied aircraft massed in large formations over the city were another potent argument for peace. Nevertheless, despite the odds against them, the Yugoslavs maintained a bold show; they covered all our positions, pointed their two-pounders at 19 Regiment’s tanks, trained machine guns on cricket match crowds, and did not permit their troops to reduce their heavy load of weapons by so much as one grenade.
The weather was now warm and sunny, and on the 11th summer kit was issued. Clad in drill, our men looked cool, smart, and efficient by comparison with the heavily clad, page 520 bandoliered, and bewhiskered people facing them. Certain of the Triestini were quick to notice this, and with only a phoney war to attend to it was natural that there should be some spare-time skirmishing in a more romantic field. Swimming was popular with the New Zealanders, and on many of the beautiful beaches mixed bathing with the local lovelies allowed excellent opportunities for opening moves by both sides. Until supplies were obtained from Venice, swimming trunks were at a premium. With only 25 per cent permitted leave, the few fortunates who possessed a pair were able to lend them at a profitable rate.
Trieste, though cosmopolitan, had an essentially Italian core, and most of the Italian folk were friendly, especially so towards the New Zealanders. Indeed, during those uneasy days of May and June 1945 there were many residents of that strategically important seaport who regarded the New Zealanders as the saviours of their city. Throughout their unhappy history the people of Trieste had been pushed around by various nations and factions, and now Regimental Headquarters and all other New Zealand headquarters were constantly embarrassed by tearful, terror-stricken Triestini begging for protection or asking for intervention on behalf of relatives who had fallen into the hands of the Guardia del Popolo. Protective duties were undertaken quite unofficially by many of our men, and some homes were provided with relays of callers, for it was soon found that the presence of a New Zealand soldier in the house kept away unwelcome visitors.
By the middle of the month diplomacy had so far progressed as to allow formal official visits between senior officers of the two armies, and for a few carefully staged sporting events to take place between the Yugoslav and New Zealand troops. All functions were attended by much ceremony. The Yugoslav tank brigade, which now had twenty-seven Russian tanks in the town, was 19 Regiment’s main contact. Its officers entertained the second-in-command and adjutant to dinner, and this compliment was returned a few days later. A soccer match between the two armoured units resulted in the 19th team being beaten, but it was an page 521 excellent game and the losers were presented with a pennant. A brass band was in attendance, and Lieutenant-Colonel Everist’s arrival on the sideline was marked by the playing of the National Anthem and a vast amount of well-mannered saluting and bowing by the Yugoslav officers.
Sporting fixtures between the New Zealand units and Royal Navy and British Army units put much less emphasis on impeccable behaviour and were both popular and frequent. Each day the Trieste harbour became more and more crowded with small craft as units put into commission almost every type of boat which could be floated, enemy midget submarines included. The regiment re-engined two German launches which had been put out of commission and also acquired several yachts. Rowing and sailing races were daily events, and with swimming and water polo already popular, aquatic sports had almost as many adherents as the more usual land games. Sightseeing was also a regular feature, and the 19th fleet did daily runs to the cove where the liner Rex and several other large ships lay scuttled.
On 1 June 20 Regiment relieved the 19th in Trieste, and the unit moved to an open-air camp on the pine-covered hills above the city. From vantage points about the camp site the view so resembled Wellington that it seemed hard to realise that home was 10,000 miles away. The area was an attractive one, and for the first time since Cesenatico the unit was concentrated. Regimental messes and a co-ordinated programme of sporting and social events was now possible. With the easy conditions prevailing the change was welcome.
Many Italian families living nearby opened their homes to our men, and the unit did its best to return their hospitality. Squadrons organised dances, garden parties and picnics, and had as their guests many of the fair sex. This was a most enjoyable period; relieved of an operational role, the whole unit could relax and take full advantage of the attractive surroundings. The sea was close, and below the camp, at Villa Sistiana, the 19th’s fleet of small craft were moored for the few hours in each day when they were not at sea crowded with sun-tanned troops and their friends.page 522
Leave was generous, and the Division’s leave centres at Venice, Rome and Florence were well patronised. ‘Swanning’—unofficial extensions of official trips in transport—enabled many men to see something of the Dolomites, southern Austria and Switzerland. Meanwhile the tension in Trieste had gradually died down. A demonstration on 8 June and a strike on the 25th provided the only incidents of note, but did not unduly disturb the pleasant days.
At this time there was much coming and going. Those with long service were marched out at intervals to the New Zealand roll and departure home, others took up appointments elsewhere, and there was necessarily a general post in regimental appointments. Among the old hands who left the unit at Trieste were Padre John Somerville, the second-in-command (Major Wakelin), OC C Squadron (Major Swinburn), and Captains Ron Griggs, Strat Morrin and Bill Jordan. Several newly commissioned officers—former 19 Regiment NCOs—marched in from the New Zealand Officer Cadet Training Unit, which had put through its first intake after being set up at San Basilio in January.
June drifted pleasantly into July. The Yugoslavs had pulled out of Trieste and the only ripples in the calm of the New Zealand summer holiday atmosphere—and even these added to the homely touch—were when working parties were called upon to take the place of the striking watersiders at the docks. The 7th Reinforcements had already left for New Zealand, the 8th were getting ready, and there was much conjecture among those who remained as to the future of the Division. It was expected that it would soon move to the Japanese theatre, but no official announcement was forthcoming. The 9th and 10th Reinforcements were hopeful of getting home, but the remainder were popularly given no chance at all.
Training had recommenced but was not too strenuous and was confined mainly to smartening-up drill, small-arms practice and physical training. Leave was still extensive, and some special courses were being run at various spots in Italy and even as far away as England. Those eligible by reason of service and previous study were able to arrange through page 523 the Education and Rehabilitation Service, which was now functioning throughout all divisional units and establishments, for opportunities to continue their interrupted vocational studies. Towards the end of the month preparations were made for a move, and the regiment began to pack up.
The tank crews and scout-car drivers got ready to hand in the vehicles which for so long had been the focal point of their whole existence. Only then did the impact of the changing times really begin to be seriously felt. Moving to Lake Trasimene, was the announcement. Well, the unit had been there before. Not such a bad spot, but not to be compared with Trieste of course. No tanks this time; no war either. Wonder what the next move will be, and when? These were the sentiments and questions which found a place in almost every letter home, for censorship now was a thing of the past. It was a paradox, too, now that a man could write almost anything, that the news should dry up. There was still a steady official silence about the future, but as usual there were lots of rumours.
On the 26th 19 Regiment’s drivers took their tanks on their last trip and handed in thirty-five Shermans at the Udine depot. Four days later the balance, plus all the scout cars, were handed over to 20 Regiment. Then, on the 31st, after many farewell functions, some of which had lasted long into the night, the regiment left Trieste in the early morning for the staging area at Mestre.
The journey was made in easy stages, four days being spent on the road, passing through Mestre, Bologna and Fabriano, with time to look around in each centre. At noon on 3 August, just over a year since it was in this part of Italy, the 19th set up a camp in an area midway between Perugia and Assisi. A few days later the 8th Reinforcements departed, and once administration and camp construction had been completed, leave parties set out for the official centres in Rome, Florence, Venice, the Alps and Senigallia, and unofficial centres not listed in the New Zealand Division’s excellent selection. Trieste was among these unofficial centres, for a tenderly whispered ‘Ciaou’ was page 524 capable of several translations; to most it meant ‘Goodbye and thanks’ but to others it called ‘Come back, come back’, and without stern duty to forbid, it was hardly surprising that there were some who fretted to return.
August was hot, so was September, and for those who stayed in camp these two months were frustrating and uncomfortable. The war with Japan had ended with dramatic suddenness on 15 August, and now, except for occupation duties, there was no further need for soldiers. It was natural that the troops of a citizen army should become restive; nevertheless, the habits acquired as soldiers died hard, and despite constant goings and comings, full regimental organisation was maintained and discipline did not deteriorate noticeably.
Organised sport had replaced to a great extent the many duties which had filled the days while on active service. The rigid standards of physical fitness imposed and inspired by the team spirit paid high dividends. Never was esprit de corps more necessary than now. Standards of conduct and discipline were maintained without undue policing or resorting to long periods of ‘square-bashing’. Groups with similar interests were able to get together and devise programmes to pass the time pleasantly and to some profit. Rugby trials began, and competition was keen. Hockey, soccer, and basketball teams began training as summer gave way to autumn.
On 27 September the 9th Reinforcements left the unit on their way home, and now many letters from New Zealand began: ‘We had first-hand news of you today when … paid us a visit.’ Almost every man who had left the unit had taken a visiting list from comrades still in Italy. Those who were travelling around New Zealand on discharge leave were honouring the promises made, and so friendships formed on service were extended, and the name of the 19th and the men who served in it became better known to those whose husbands, sons, brothers or sweethearts still waited until shipping could be found to bring their men home.
At the end of the month the announcement of a further move was joyfully received. This time the destination was page 525 to be Florence. To go back to a city would be a welcome change, and when the wet weather set in, billets instead of tents meant comfort. The poverty-stricken little village of Petrignano d’Assisi nearby had little to offer as a wintering place. Packing up began at once and reconnaissance parties left to arrange accommodation in ‘the City of Flowers’.