CHAPTER 14 — Advance on Rome
Advance on Rome
New Zealand Corps had not been able to succeed where the Americans had failed, and on 26 March it was disbanded. Fifth Army relinquished the Cassino and Liri Valley sectors to Eighth Army and concentrated in the Aurunci Mountains, between the Liri and the sea, whereupon 2 New Zealand Division found itself back in Eighth Army again.
Tenth Corps and Eighth Army were to take over the Apennine mountain sector, relieving 2 Polish Corps for another attempt on Cassino. The role of the corps was in general to protect the mountain flank of Eighth Army, and the New Zealand Division under command was made responsible for the safety of the Poles' right flank. Large troop movements were involved in the reorganisation, and in the interim 5 Brigade went into divisional reserve.
The 21st Battalion left San Pietro on the morning of 8 April, rolled over a range and down to Venafro, out across a plain and a river, and into a valley near Isernia. From the top of the hills the fields in front looked like a chessboard, and from the camp area on the side of a hill with grassy slopes and tree-covered top, the country was like almost anywhere in New Zealand.
The troops built camp and settled in; the usual inspections, without which the Army could not exist, took place; the usual sudden cancelling and reinstating of leave occurred. The men of 21 Battalion relaxed, indulged in some swimming in a nearby creek, and tried not to interfere in the affairs of a number of three-foot-long black snakes that shared the area with them. An interesting event was a shipboard race meeting at which Brigadier Stewart presented the prizes. There were six races, with six horses in each. The tote rules were simple: tickets cost 20 lire; there were six purchase windows and one payout one; the tote was opened for ten minutes and no race was to start until it was balanced.page 329
A Company's stable almost scooped the pool with four wins. The race card was typed in the battalion orderly room, and the results read:
21 Battalion Easter Race Meeting, Wed, 12 Apl 1944.
Maiden Sprint. Stake L2150.
Won by Chaos, by Detail out of Orderly Room; owned by Lt Sexton and ridden by Pte Wells, A Company.
Orsogna Hurdles. Stake L3200.
Won by Happy Again, by Kiwi out of Cassino; owned by Sgt Sylvester and ridden by Pte Rouse, Support Company.
Sangro Scurry. Stake L3110.
Won by Bashful Lady, by Unexpected Kiss out of Devilment; owned by Cpl Welsh and ridden by Pte O'Rourke, A Company.
Cassino Scramble. Stake L6400.
Won by Returned, by Kiwi out of New Zealand; owned and ridden by Maj Smith, C Company.
Berlin Stakes. Stake L3510.
Won by Sweet Music, by Bagpipes out of Hearing; owned by Sgt Brown and ridden by Pte Raunter, A Company.
Battalion Steeplechase. Stake L5270.
Won by Little Basket, by Batchelor out of Control; owned by Lt Kirkland and ridden by Cpl Perry, A Company.
The meeting was a great success and one of the highlights of the period.
In some respects it was a difficult time, for with the smoke of Cassino out of its eyes and lungs, the battalion felt new ferments working.
Firstly, there was the reaction to the return of the furlough draft farewelled so enthusiastically in Cairo; or rather those of the draft who had not remained in New Zealand. Those who had returned overseas were regarded as not quite level-headed, while those who stayed in New Zealand were reviled for spoiling the chances of further drafts. The 4th Reinforcements, due next for furlough, had missed only the short campaigns in Greece and Crete.page 330
Then there was the question of the surplus senior NCOs. They were of two categories: ex-furlough-draft NCOs with a full and complete knowledge of warfare as waged in North Africa, yet strangers to Italian conditions; and ex-officers who had voluntarily relinquished their Territorial commissions in New Zealand with the waning of the Japanese menace. ‘Fallen stars’, the troops called the latter. The veterans were resentful at finding their places filled, and the ‘fallen stars’ blocked promotion for the junior NCOs. The ex-officers were in a particularly difficult position, because naturally enough the troops preferred their own battle-tried sergeants of either North African or Italian vintage to men who were their juniors in combat.
Finally, there were changes in the composition of the battalion itself. The Support Company had already been put in the line as straightout infantry with, to them, callous disregard for their specialised training, and the Anti-Aircraft Platoon was going out of existence, as also was a section of carriers.
Actually the Division was beginning to adjust itself to new conditions, for when it left Egypt it was perhaps the most heavily armed and most mobile division in the British Army. One infantry brigade had been converted into an armoured brigade with three tank regiments, prepared for a role that had not yet presented itself—that of pursuit and exploitation. It could be said in the light of after knowledge that when 2 NZ Division arrived in Italy it was trained and equipped for a war in North Africa. In a country of restricted manoeuvrability, armour was not the dominant factor in battle, and it followed that, as a corollary, anti-tank units were in over-supply. Anti-aircraft batteries also lacked employment, because German aircraft were mostly in France. In Italy it was back to first principles again—the infantry soldier with bayonet and tommy gun was the most important man, and there was not enough of him.
While the commanders wrestled with these problems, the troops, between training and camp duties, visited around. Naples was a rotten apple, fair enough to look upon at a distance, but beneath the skin a mass of corruption—a listless, half-starved population and a black market of terrific dimensions. It was crowded with American rear-area troops employed in repairing the harbour facilities and demolishing buildings page 331 that the retiring enemy had been too workmanlike to destroy himself—he had merely put the multi-storied structures in such a state that they were beyond repair, liable to collapse at any moment, and they had to be pulled down. The semi-millionaire American troops had bought up everything worth while, leaving the Kiwis the choice between third-grade silk stockings and cameo rejects saved for tourists, and there were daily notices of shops put out of bounds for profiteering.
Caserta, nearer home, was a hospital town, where 2 NZ General Hospital shared an Italian army barracks with an English hospital. Caserta also contained a royal palace, a summer residence of the King of Italy, an enormous building with grounds to match; but the rank-and-file Kiwi had more chance of becoming familiar with the interior of 2 General Hospital.
Pompeii was different. You cannot do much to spoil a show place that has been buried for nearly two thousand years, except to sell obscene postcards. The troops roamed the ruins of the amphitheatre and inspected the tiny stone rooms where the lions were housed for the games. They visited the homes, wineshops, gambling and assignation houses, and thought that the ancient Pompeiian's idea of permanently running water in the streets an improvement on the present-day practice of roadside sanitation with its attendant smells and putrefaction.
The third week in April was the end of the rest period, and there was the usual bustle of preparing battle packs, getting rid of personal gear, and writing home. The 21st Battalion's destination was the Colle Abate salient, in the mountains west of the Rapido and about five miles north of Cassino. On 21 April the column travelled through Venafro and San Vittore to Cervaro, where there was a long delay because of congestion ahead. It was an unfortunate place to have to halt a convoy, for the stretch of road was under enemy observation and within shell range. There was a rushing roar, and a dozen high-explosive shells fell among the trucks, causing three casualties before the troops could find shelter. It was fortunate that the shelling did not persist.
The column remained there until dark, when the move was continued along the Michele track, a country lane that the engineers had improved but which was still rough, steep, and page 332 winding. The ridge-top village of Portella was reached safely, and Major Tanner established B Echelon at Hove Dump nearby.
From Portella the road wound down in a series of hairpin bends to the Rapido below, crossed the river at Sant' Elia, then again writhed its way up the other side to the mountain village of Terelle. Terelle was held by the enemy, and the road from Portella forward, the much-shelled Terelle ‘Terror Track’, was possible for convoys only after dark. It was less than two miles from the front line, in full view for most of the way, and the enemy gunners knew every yard of it.
The 21st Battalion, after debussing near Portella, moved down into the valley by another foot track, crossed the Rapido, and entered the lying-up area—a steep, narrow, tree-covered ravine at the bottom of Colle Belvedere. The walking distance was approximately five miles but, carrying a blanket, greatcoat, leather jerkin, gas cape, arms and ammunition, it took nearly three hours. A hot meal arrived at 1 a.m., after which the troops bedded down and were torn to pieces by mosquitoes.
As soon as it was dark enough the next night the troops assembled for the climb into position, and at 8.30 p.m. started up the track that was the battalion axis. Further forward there was a road to the top of the ridge used by jeep trains with rations and supplies. It doubled back on itself ten times before reaching jeep-head at the top, where the supplies were transferred to mule trains and delivered to the various units holding the mountain line. The position had recently been won by French colonial troops, the legendary Goums, who came from the Moroccan highlands and to whom, apparently, inaccessible precipices were child's play.
Battalion Headquarters was set up at jeep-head, half a mile above the valley of the Rapido, and when the all but exhausted troops staggered into the area they found the climb had merely started. The position was astride a road that led onwards and upwards to the ridgetop village of Terelle, with a valley dividing the opposing forces. For B Company (Captain Ashley) on the right flank, there was still another 700-foot climb on to Colle Abate, a mile further forward, the highest point in our lines and the key to the area. D Company (Major Copeland) plus 14 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Oates) held the centre with page 333 a gully between them and Colle Abate. A Company (Captain Kelleway1) straddled the Terelle road on the left of the battalion line and C Company (Captain Harding), less 14 Platoon, was near Battalion Headquarters in reserve. Altogether it took five hours of stumbling, slipping, and scrambling to get into position, and nobody who took part in that nightmare climb will ever forget it.
There was no more than normal sporadic fire during the relief, which was effected by degrees as the less fit struggled up the side tracks that led to the company and platoon areas. By the time the changeover was complete there was a bare hour of darkness to settle into the sangars built with rocks and roofed over with blankets. The English garrison said the day was divided into two periods, one of 17 hours of daylight, when movement was impossible, and one of seven hours of darkness, which was full of movement. Water had to be carried up from wells scattered over the area, each ranged to a yard by enemy mortars. Boxes of rations, ten men's rations for one day in each box, had to be brought up and distributed and the empties returned. Cooking was out of the question, but an issue of heat tablets permitted an occasional brew up. Ammunition and grenades had to be replenished. In addition enemy patrols were likely to turn up at any moment, let go a burst of spandau, and disappear. No, we do not know where the enemy FDLs are, somewhere across the valley, but there are plenty of snipers hidden around, as you will very soon find out. Well, goodbye, and we hope you have a quiet time, which was more than we had.
The troops waited for the mountain mists to clear to see if the Tommies had been having them on. They found themselves perched on the forward slope of a ridge with a deep valley in front and the village of Terelle on a hill on the far side. To the right nothing but hilltops; to the left more hilltops; beyond Terelle the white pyramid spire of Monte Cairo, and behind them the flat valley of the Rapido.
Very soon snipers were knocking chips off the sangars and shells were being exchanged by the opposing gunners. Definitely the Tommies had not been exaggerating.page 334
The orders were to rest and not look for trouble, but what really upset B Company, who from their Colle Abate salient could look over the crest of the enemy ridge, was the sight of their opponents airing blankets and, stripped to the waist, sunbathing in odd corners. Even the most easy-going Kiwi could hardly be expected to put up with that sort of thing, especially as, owing to the configuration of the country, he was forced to crouch behind a heap of stones or risk being shot at from both flanks, from Terelle above him, and from the ridge in front.
The suggestion was passed to the attached machine-gunners that a little indirect fire would relieve B Company's feelings, but Colonel McElroy was quite harsh over the disturbance which followed. Thereafter Jerry sunbathed in peace.
As soon as darkness fell patrols nosed around gaining a little local knowledge, but found no enemy. Nightingales and cuckoos sang and called to each other, for spring was in the air. Mail came up with the rations, and Anzac Day passed with the troops alternatively sleeping, brewing up, or playing crib. Major Trousdale, who had left the battalion in Libya, rejoined as second-in-command, and Major Tanner went on leave before returning to A Company. Routine shelling with some airbursts in the afternoon spoilt the day, and noise of movement at night was answered by the battalion mortars, who had inherited a good pile of ammunition and were aching to use it. Rain on the 26th made life miserable under the blanket roofs of the sangars, but a yell from the top of Colle Abate, followed by a burst of small-arms fire, confirmed the story of daylight raids. An enemy patrol had been spotted in the gully between B and D Companies and had disappeared in the mist, but it must have been peeved by the reception accorded it for D Company was mortared for two hours. The battalion mortars still had plenty of ammunition and took appropriate action in reply.
The period that followed was of much the same pattern until 1 May, when the enemy registered with guns much heavier than anything previously used. May Day on the Continent is a public holiday, and the Germans in Terelle celebrated with a concert supported by a brass band. The 21st Battalion sat outside their sangars and listened until the singing ended with ‘Lili Marlene’, whereupon the artillery was asked to mark their appreciation in the usual manner.page 335
The early night was quiet—too quiet—and at 2.30 a.m. the whole of the battalion front was covered with a concentration of everything that had been ranging during the day. The blitz lasted for nearly an hour and destroyed all communications, both line and air. A Company reported movement on its front, but it proved to be a feint for the attack came in between 10 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Brewer2), on the top of Colle Abate, and 14 Platoon, across the gully on its left.
While one party engaged 10 Platoon frontally, another worked around the left and penetrated among the sangars. Brewer withdrew his forward posts to the right of the position to keep the platoon intact, and there ensued a fierce exchange of grenades until the supply ran out, whereupon the platoon fell back to the forward post of 11 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Burton), which had hitherto been unable to fire owing to the close-quarter fighting in the darkness. Burton sent a runner back to Company Headquarters with the information that the enemy was on the top of Colle Abate, and Colonel McElroy turned the battalion mortars and as many guns as could register on to the colle. The position was vital because the point, a mere heap of loose rubble, commanded the area and would have meant a deep withdrawal if the enemy remained in possession. While a counter-attack was being prepared Lieutenant Voss, who happened to be at B Company headquarters showing Lieutenant-Colonel Hutchens3 of 26 Battalion around prior to relief by that unit, gathered a handful of runners and odd men and dashed up the hill, closely followed by a party from C Company. They found that the enemy had not been able to get established and had withdrawn, whereupon 10 Platoon reoccupied its posts.
No. 14 Platoon was also hotly engaged. It was concentrated around a farmhouse—the usual stone building with four rooms on the ground level and one large one above, but owing to the damage it had received there was no inter-communication between floors. As soon as the attack opened several mortars landed on the roof, and the resultant fall of rubble wounded page 336 Sergeant Joe Ward,4 who had taken over from Second-Lieutenant Oates, slightly wounded that day, and two others in the top room. The right-hand section was forced to take shelter in the ground floor of Company Headquarters, where Ward, after dropping from the top story, joined them. The enemy brought hand-operated flame-throwers into action against the building and called on the occupants to surrender, but the left-hand section helped the besieged garrison to drive the raiders off. The casualties in this action were two killed and 18 wounded, and in due course the following signal was received from General Freyberg:
From Main 2 NZ Div to 5 Inf Bde.
For Lt Col McElroy commanding 21 NZ Bn from Gen Freyberg. I have now heard details of engagement on Abate feature. Please convey to officers and men concerned my congratulations on way in which would-be determined enemy assault was held and counter attacked and situation fully restored.
The battalion sector remained reasonably quiet until 26 Battalion arrived to take over. It came in soon after midnight on 3–4 May and made a quiet and efficient changeover. The relieving troops moved in silently with sandbags tied around their boots, but did not carry greatcoats and blankets; 21 Battalion left theirs for them and got a new issue later.
The troops slid and slipped down the tracks to the lying-up valley, where they found a hot meal waiting. They moved out the next night to a point near Sant' Elia, where transport was waiting, and after a very rough ride along the North Road were deposited at Montaquila, about five miles north of Venafro, in the Volturno valley again.
They found everything ready for them. The LOB party and B Echelon had put up bivvies, complete with blanket rolls, and a hot meal was waiting. A good night's rest was followed by the usual routine after a spell in the line—showers, washing clothes, cleaning up, sorting out gear, absorbing reinforcements, reorganisation and routine training.page 337
A brigade ceremonial parade was preceded by smartening-up drill, and on 8 May General Freyberg presented the recipients of awards with their ribbons. There was a brigade sports meeting on the 11th, and in the evening each battalion entertained 30 officers and other ranks from the other battalions at a smoke concert.
Thirty miles away, at eleven o'clock the same night, another entertainment of a grimmer nature commenced. The night sky flickered with dull red light, and there was a sound of distant thunder. One thousand and sixty guns in Eighth Army and another thousand in Fifth Army opened the third battle of Cassino. The Poles advanced against the fortress that had defied Americans, New Zealanders and Indians, and within twenty-four hours were largely back on their start lines again. The English troops of 13 Corps, further west, had more success, and were fighting grimly to improve a precarious advance. Still further west the French Algerian Goums of Fifth Army broke through the enemy defences in country which both sides had regarded as practically impassable.
It was not 5 Brigade's war, however, and training continued according to syllabus. The Kiwi Concert Party, newly back from furlough, put on a good show, and the ENSA Concert Party did the same the following night.
The Poles attacked again on 17 May, but it was not until after bitter fighting that the Polish standard was hoisted over the remains of the Cassino Monastery on the morning of the 18th.
Sixth Brigade, holding the mountain line, was due for relief, and warning orders came to 21 Battalion on 17 May to prepare to move that night and take over from 25 Battalion in brigade reserve. The battalion left at 6 p.m., and the convoy waited at Vallerotonda until it was dark enough to carry on down to Sant' Elia, where the troops debussed and marched to the lying-up valley.
The enemy was still holding his mountain line, although his right was being forced back across the Aurunci Mountains by Fifth Army and Eighth Army was squaring up to the second line of defence, which also, like the shattered first line, hinged on Monte Cairo.
The march up, or rather climb up, to the relief was a welcome page 338 surprise, for the sappers had made a wonderful improvement in the track. The grade had been improved and steps had been cut in the steepest parts. Less than two hours' climbing brought the battalion into the brigade reserve area, and the changeover was completed without incident. With 23 and 28 Battalions holding the forward areas, 21 Battalion passed a quiet week.
Not very far away the Canadians were preparing to blast a hole through the Hitler Line in support of the French in Fifth Army, who were looking into the rear of the incomplete defences. The main assault began on the morning of 23 May, and by the evening of the 24th the German line across Italy was withdrawing northwards.
The role of 13 Corps was to secure the right flank of the advance, and as part of that operation 2 NZ Division was directed down mountain valleys to Atina, where the roads from Cassino and San Biagio joined, and where a possible enemy threat from the Adriatic coast could be sealed off.
From Atina the thrust line continued to Sora, the capture of which would open the way through the upper Liri valley that in turn led to Balsorano and Avezzano, the objective of the Sangro-Orsogna battles. So much for strategy.
With the Poles clearing the Monte Cairo slopes, the enemy facing Colle Abate evidently felt disinclined to leave any ammunition unexpended before departing, for the support area was under intermittent fire up to the afternoon of 25 May, when 21 Battalion was ordered to patrol along the road to Terelle after dark. The battalion plan was for D Company to advance along the lower slopes of Monte Cairo on the left of the road, C Company to move across country following the right of the road, B Company to go along the road, with engineers sweeping and clearing mines, and A Company to work on demolitions.
At this stage the companies were commanded by Major Tanner (A), Major Hawkesby (B), Major Smith (C), and Major Copeland (D). There were hours of hard climbing before the companies were in position around Terelle, but when B Company with due circumspection entered it the troops were amazed to find Colonel McElroy and Lieutenant Voss leaning out of the castle window (no village in Italy is complete without a castle), grinning like a couple of mischievous schoolboys and page 339 waving the battalion flag. That flag, a completely unauthorised piece of equipment, had its origin around Cassino and was the result of the battalion's short sojourn in the American Fifth Army. Every American formation appeared to have one, and the whole countryside was littered with masts and flags. The 21st Battalion felt rather out of it and decided to have a flag of its own. The padre was deputed to do something about it and in due course handed over the result of his labours to the CO, who with his Intelligence Officer had taken the risk of blowing themselves up on mines and had driven into Terelle ahead of the troops. That flag waved from many a castle window and church steeple before the war was over.
Some tanks and the battalion carriers were in Terelle by daylight but, with no employment offering, were being withdrawn when a burst of fire from somewhere disabled one of the carriers. Private Mick Glucina5 immediately took his carrier back and, under fire, pulled the other out of trouble.
With the Poles clearing Monte Cairo, Terelle secured 5 Brigade's left flank. The 23rd Battalion was ordered to occupy Belmonte Castello, half-way up the valley that led to Atina and the important Melfa River. The 21st Battalion was to hand Terelle over to 32 Anti-Tank Battery and secure the high country on the left of 23 Battalion, while 6 Brigade would perform a similar service further east.
A Company, directed to occupy the top of Monte Piano, half-way between Belmonte and Atina, moved off at last light on the night of 26–27 May; D, B, and C Companies followed in that order to points above the road between Monte Piano and Belmonte. It was a solid eight hours' scramble up hill and down dale, along creek beds, across plough and fallow fields, through orchards, grape terraces and plantations. A Company was the only one to meet opposition during the night's scramble. It exchanged shots with and captured an enemy observation post on Monte Piano. Four prisoners were taken, and patrols pushed down the mountainside almost to the road without further opposition. The 23rd Battalion entered Belmonte two hours after the Germans had left and followed them to Atina, which it also found empty.page 340
A Company remained on Monte Piano. D Company moved down to the road and level with A Company, while 23 Battalion passed on to Atina. C Company joined D Company, while B stayed in reserve overlooking Belmonte.
Soon after midnight—that is on the night of 27–28 May—they were on the move again. D Company did another long climb to the top of Monte Circuto overlooking the Melfa River, while C Company passed through 23 Battalion and patrolled to the river. The bridge had been blown, but the water was not deep and the troops crossed quietly and secured the bridgehead. The enemy rearguards must have had great faith in their road demolition parties, for 120 of them were scooped up by C Company before they were properly awake.
C Company reconnoitred ahead to the inevitable crossroads that abound in this closely roaded country, while 23 Battalion crossed the river on its right. No. 15 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Blackie) was leading the company, and Corporal ‘Padre’ Neale6 writes:
We were in file, and as the country had not been reconnoitred, we were sticking our necks out a bit. My section was sent forward about a hundred yards ahead, presumably to draw fire and give the alarm—live bait as it were.
The 23rd Battalion spread across 21 Battalion's front and secured the Mollo River crossing, while 21 Battalion concentrated for the next move, which was the capture of the hilltop villages of Alvito and Vicalvi. A Company was to move on Alvito, B Company to Vicalvi, D Company to clear Monte Morrone, between and north of both, while C Company stayed in reserve. The battalion started along the Atina-Sora road about midday and had not gone far when B, the leading company, came under fire. Sergeant ‘Humph’ Ward7 wrote in a letter home:
What a day of hikes! Runners located us at six, and in a few moments we were on the move through Belmonte and along the road to Atina. After marching four miles or so, we stopped by a page 341 well, cleaned up and had a meal. Then on through Atina and down the valley.
We crossed several demolitions and two rivers, and were going flat out for a village away on a hill in the distance, when a burst of fire from behind a tree fallen on the road, stopped the leading platoon, then the rattle of machine guns made everyone vanish. They were just spandau nests that had been left to delay us, but cleaning them out took time, and we had to call up the carriers with the three-inch mortars to assist. The Italians in the area came forward with valuable information, and we were greeted as liberators. I'll never forget the sight of one old woman with a water jug nipping around giving everyone a drink just when we were too frightened to move from shelter too. In the running fight we lost one man killed and a couple wounded, and collected a few prisoners —Austrian Alpine troops they were.
It was some time before the opposition was removed and the battalion was able to approach its objectives.
At 8 p.m. A Company set out for Alvito across country, while B Company moved along the road towards Vicalvi. Patrols reported Alvito clear; Major Tanner led A Company into the village to find that the report was not quite correct, and a few prisoners were collected after a little firing. The church bells were rung as a success signal, and Lieutenant Voss, who had by this time arrived from Battalion Headquarters, produced the battalion victory flag and flew it from the steeple. The celebrations, however, were a little premature, for Alvito was a peculiar place—above the village at the foot of the hill was a belt of trees, and above that another village, the real Alvito. It was a summer resort for wealthy Romans, and the enemy was there in force, as 8 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Mackintosh8) discovered when it attempted to move up the road connecting the two Alvitos. Major Tanner called for tank assistance and was told there were no tanks up yet, but that some armoured cars (Staghounds) were on the way.
Meanwhile B Company was moving along the road to Vicalvi and D was preparing to tackle Monte Morrone. B Company headquarters had organised a party of a couple of prisoners to carry their heavy gear; they were very glad of their foresight, page 342 for they shared a considerable amount of fire directed against the Staghounds of the Divisional Cavalry accompanying them, and took to the fields, where they had to push through shoulder-high wheat crops. Half a mile ahead there was a crossroads that led to Alvito (right), up the hillside to Vicalvi (straight ahead), and to Sora (left). B Company was directed to remain at the crossroads for the time being and it occupied a large building. Major Hawkesby was wounded during this move and command of the company fell to Lieutenant Campbell. The hostile shelling ceased after an hour, and B Company waited for the ration truck to arrive. It waited in vain.
D Company started an hour after B Company and was halted in the same area as B Company for the same reason. When the concentration lifted, D Company emerged from the ditches the men had dived into and moved towards the track between Vicalvi and Alvito leading up to Monte Morrone. After the troops had climbed about a third of the distance to the top of Morrone, Major Copeland found that he had only two platoons with him and decided to wait for daylight.
By this time two Staghounds had reported to Major Tanner. After the position was explained, they offered to go straight up the track without waiting for minesweeping operations, in spite of the fact that several of their number had already been knocked out by mines and shelling. No. 8 Platoon and 9 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Sexton) followed the armoured cars; the enemy departed hurriedly down the far side of the hill, and the troops consolidated. The battalion was going to stay on the Alvito-Vicalvi line, and as Alvito was a village of some importance the CO had told Major Tanner to act as Town Major. The position at 3 a.m. on 29 May, therefore, was that A Company had occupied Alvito, B Company was sheltering in a house near Vicalvi, D Company was waiting for daylight on the side of Monte Morrone, and C Company was at Battalion Headquarters in reserve. Somewhat intrigued by evasive answers to his inquiries about the state of affairs in Alvito, Colonel McElroy decided to drive up and see for himself. He heard most unwarlike sounds coming from a large house in the upper village and walked in on a dance that had been organised in honour of the new Town Major. The CO stepped page 343 a stately measure with the hostess before he withdrew to carry on with the war.
D Company began climbing again shortly before daylight and encountered an enemy strongpoint, which was captured after a stiff fight and 24 prisoners taken. Ammunition was getting low, and the troops discarded their own arms in favour of their opponents', who had not been climbing like mountain goats for three days, and then pushed on to the top of Morrone, where they found the best part of a German battalion waiting for them. A counter-attack in company strength was beaten off, and D Company dug in. A second and heavier attack was repulsed with difficulty and the outlook was gloomy. Battalion Headquarters could not be raised on the air, but after repeated attempts a Divisional Cavalry armoured car picked up the signal and relayed it to Brigade Headquarters. A mortar concentration was immediately laid on, and D Company, assisting its wounded, who included Major Copeland, returned to Battalion Headquarters and went into reserve.
B Company sent a patrol towards Vicalvi at first light, but it was fired on and returned. Artillery assistance was called for and, before D Company was forced off Morrone, B Company attacked Vicalvi. As soon as the shelling ceased, and before the troops were properly moving up the hill to the village, there were sheets, towels, and anything white waving from every house. The rearguard had left and Italians—men, women and children—came out of the houses yelling, screaming, laughing and singing, crying and praying. They rushed on the nonplussed attackers, shaking hands, patting backs, hugging and kissing the embarrassed deliverers. Bottles of wine were handed around, the areas where mines had been placed were pointed out, and then the procession led the company to the castle around which the village was built.
Company Headquarters set itself up and made itself very comfortable in the living room of the castle, and by dark the position was secure. Ration trucks had been delayed by the road demolitions and the troops were glad to see the QM arrive in the morning. The ‘Q’ branch added to its stature by not only arriving but also by bringing extra rations souvenired from knocked-out Staghounds and tanks along the road. For the rest of the day the billy was never off the boil.page 344
A very vigilant eye was kept on Monte Morrone, clearly a rearguard position of the retreating Germans, until the Maoris continued the advance in the evening (29–30 May).
While the battalion rested after its strenuous days on the mountainsides, days that brought an approving signal from Brigadier Stewart, ‘Well done 21 Bn Goums’, armoured reconnaissance patrols poked up side roads and 6 Brigade was coming up. Further west Eighth Army had cleared the lower Liri valley, and Fifth Army was fighting in the Alban Hills south of Rome.
The occupation of Sora by the Maoris, with 23 Battalion clearing the hills on their right flank, prepared the way for a further push along Route 82 to Balsorano and Avezzano, the objective of the previous campaign on the Adriatic coast. It was again the turn of 21 Battalion to take the lead, and it handed over its comfortable quarters to 22 Battalion on 1 June, slept on the side of the road, and moved off the next day in convoy for Balsorano. The valley was to be cleared by 2 NZ Division on a two-brigade front, with 6 Brigade on the western and 5 Brigade on the eastern side of the river. Immediately south of Balsorano the hills commanding the road were steep enough to be called an escarpment, and their clearance was a necessary preliminary to the attack on the town.
The companies moved in the order of C (Major Smith), D (Lieutenant Voss), A (Captain Kirkland), and B (Lieutenant Campbell) to a point on the road three miles short of Balsorano. A and B Companies were to stay in reserve. They discovered a dry creek bed, also a patch of new potatoes and green vegetables, and set about organising a meal for themselves. C and D Companies girded their loins for the 2500-foot climb to the top of the ‘Katipo Feature’, as the escarpment had been named. Company commanders were instructed before departure not to get involved in heavy fighting.
C Company left after dark and marched, along the road for half a mile to a steep wadi, up which they clambered, then across gullies to the top of the escarpment. D Company took a longer route, with equally hard climbing, to between C Company and the road. Both companies reported that they were on top before daylight. Lieutenant Voss sent 16 Platoon page 345 (Second-Lieutenant Gledhill9) forward as soon as it was possible to see, and within a few minutes the chatter of automatics, the whine of grenade fragments, and shouted commands in English and German told their own tale. The enemy had 16 Platoon pinned down and almost surrounded. There was only one thing to do—fix bayonets and charge. The two platoons swept forward, with the sun glinting off the steel, and the Germans pulled back. Voss and Gledhill were both wounded in the mêlée, and Second-Lieutenant Fitzgibbon, now in command, decided to withdraw the company back to the road as the enemy force was much stronger than his own.
There was no report from C Company, out on the right, after daylight. When wireless contact could not be made, a patrol was sent out to locate it, without success, and it was not until midday that a runner came in with the information that the company was safe in a position overlooking Balsorano but was not able to move in daylight.
At 4 a.m. B Company was sent to test the road into Balsorano. It passed through tanks waiting for bulldozers to fill in demolitions to within half a mile of the town before it was fired on. Second-Lieutenant Burton, leading the company with 10 Platoon, asked Sergeant Cliff Harris,10 commanding 11 Platoon, to come up on the right flank and create a diversion, but Lieutenant Campbell, with his orders to keep out of heavy fighting in mind, ordered a withdrawal to some houses on the side of the road. It was there that B Company witnessed an incident that culminated in the whole company recommending a sapper officer for a decoration. Burton writes:
While in this casa we witnessed a magnificent piece of work by a bulldozer driver in the engineers. Two officers, who had been making a forward reconnaissance in a ‘dingo’ scout car, got stranded in a big blow left by the Hun and were being sniped at from the hills; they managed to get out and make a run for our casa which they reached safely. The ‘dozer’ driver11 who was sheltering with us offered, if the tanks would give him a smoke screen, to do something page 346 about the ‘blow’ so that the scout car could get clear. He did a magnificent job with the result that eventually [he was able to push the dingo back onto the road].
The companies stayed in their positions all day, and plans were made for another attempt to enter Balsorano after dark. A Company was instructed to join D Company and return to the top of the escarpment, where a strongpoint facing the road was to be established. C Company was recalled by a message sent with the runner who had reported in earlier, and 23 Battalion prepared to cover the rear of the two companies' strongpoint. C Company reported back at 10 p.m. and D and A Companies left at 3 a.m. They were not long gone before they wirelessed that, on account of the difficult terrain and severe opposition, they would not be able to advance further without being engaged in heavy fighting. They were accordingly told to return, and Brigade Headquarters made plans to pass 23 Battalion around the right of 21 Battalion and try from another direction. The operation, however, was cancelled before the battalion moved, owing to a change in higher policy. The 21st Battalion stood fast during 4 June, and 6 Brigade prepared to attack Balsorano from its side of the valley. It was a day of intermittent mortaring from the stubborn enemy rearguard, but it ended with the electrifying news that Fifth Army had entered Rome.
There was now no point in forcing the enemy rearguard out of Balsorano—he would have to withdraw in any case—and the 6 Brigade effort was cancelled.
Enemy activity was on a much smaller scale the following day, and after a battalion conference the welcome news was announced that 21 Battalion was being relieved by the Divisional Cavalry and that 5 Brigade was moving back, while 6 Brigade continued harrying the enemy rearguard.
The troops marched back to the embussing point after dark and were carried back to B Echelon, five miles south-east of Sora, where they bedded down for the night.
In the morning of 6 June the troops set about making camp, cleaning weapons, checking gear, and all the usual routine after a period of action. The wireless brought the news of the landing in France, and that was the end of all work for the page 347 day. Discussion groups formed, broke up and reformed; platoon strategists agreed that it would not take more than a fortnight —three weeks at the latest—to enter Berlin. The heat of the day, the dust, and the discussion provoked an intense thirst, and the landing was suitably celebrated.
The enemy vacated Balsorano and 6 Brigade advanced on Avezzano. Fifth Brigade played games, swam in a nearby lake, discussed the latest bulletin from France, and offered advice to ‘Monty’ and the Allied General Staff.
There was a muster parade on the 12th at which Lieutenant-Colonel McElroy announced that he was marching out on furlough to New Zealand, and he thanked the battalion for the way it had worked under his command. Everybody agreed that the Colonel deserved his trip home. He was a foundation member of the battalion, a double DSO, and had probably seen as much action as any battalion commander in the Division.
The troops commenced marching at 4 p.m. The first hour was a long steep climb as the road wound up a ridge. At Fontechiari the battalion left the road and struck across country through Arpino to the camping area a mile beyond the town. After tea the troops retraced their steps to Arpino to have a look around and maybe sample the local brew. Arpino is off the main road a couple of miles, and the inhabitants had not seen many troops since the Germans had departed. They were plainly puzzled about the nationality of their visitors, whose actions quite clearly indicated their desire for liquid refreshment and their ability to pay for it. As is usual in most Italian towns, English-speaking inhabitants were soon located and the troops heard all about the German occupation. Actually very little damage had been done to the place beyond destroying the largest buildings and the electric, water, and telephone installations.
The troops were marching again at 4 a.m., and by seven o'clock had reached the battalion area at Arce. The usual round of elementary training and smartening-up exercises were suffered with as much grace as possible. It was now almost page 348 mid-summer, and the routine was early reveille, training in the morning, and sports in the afternoon. An instructional class for junior NCOs was set up and a course for snipers commenced. Instructors from other arms lectured on subjects of interest and the need for understanding each other's problems. There were manoeuvres with tanks and picnic leave to Lake Albano. In the evening there were pictures and concert parties. A small amount of leave to Rome began on the 18th; it was soon noticed that the lucky ones were mostly Catholics, whereupon wholesale conversions appeared probable. The necessity of having the change of persuasion noted in paybooks brought the matter to the notice of the authorities, who took the hint, and thereafter the selections were more evenly spread. On the same day the Colonel left on his furlough and Major Trousdale took temporary command of the battalion until Lieutenant-Colonel Thodey,12 from 4 Armoured Brigade, marched in early in July.
In the best Army tradition leave to Rome was cancelled on 8 July and reinstated with an increased quota on the 9th; and the next day was spent in packing up preparatory to moving north the following morning.
The battalion's casualties from 23 April to 4 June were 13 killed, 64 wounded, and two prisoners of war, a total of 79.
Battalion parcels, south of Sora
A direct hit on a carrier at Gatteo
Serravalle, in the divisional rest area in the Apennines
Officers and sergeants serve Christmas dinner for a platoon near Faenza
Going forward along Via Emilia (Route 9) near Castel Bolognese
Bailey bridge over the Lamone—from captured German positions on the north bank
In the mud north of Faenza
3 Lt-Col R. L. Hutchens, DSO, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Hawera, 26 Nov 1914; civil servant; CO 27 (MG) Bn Feb-May 1944; 26 Bn May-Jun 1944; 24 Bn Jun 1944-May 1945; wounded 21 Jul 1942.
10 2 Lt C. C. Harris; Te Poi, Matamata; born NZ 17 Apr 1921; dairy farmhand.