CHAPTER 12 — Adriatic
Back from the Arno River by Florence to the area near Siena, and standing in the cool shade of its old buildings on a hot afternoon (something mellow about this place) it gave the impression of being full of memories and seemed to hint at a smell of mosaics and varnish, with old fashioned lace glimpsed through windows. A charming place [writes our 22 Battalion soldier].
And in our area we still did a bit of the usual growling, but looking back surely there must have been many worse places to be in at that time. Wind seemed to be a forgotten thing at that time of the year in Italy. Every morning was the same—the sun burst forth on a cloudless sky and the countryside took on that golden dusty look of harvest time (it had started to look like that at Fontana Liri)—but crowded everywhere by the greenery of such plants as oaks, pines, fruit trees and grape vines—and they threw their black mottled cool shadows over the roads and into the fields. And standing looking across miles of sloping ridges to more ridges blue in the distance on those long glorious afternoons it wasn't hard to believe travellers when they said that Italy had some of the most beautiful countryside in the world….
Then off in the trucks for a few days at the beach…. The air seemed hushed under a hot breathless sun and the water in the bay didn't even sparkle—its surface was too smooth for that—it just had a smooth polished glassy look. We spent most of our time either lying in the shade of the pines just off the beach or baking on the beach or lolling in the more than lukewarm water. And someone said ‘See those islands out there—well that big one in the middle, that's Elba—and that one out to the left, that's Montecristo.’
Back at our area and then pack up, gear on the trucks and over the hills and valleys of Italy on the dusty trail to Foligno—past that patch of barren looking country, then later round historic old Perugia. Next morning away again on the road from Foligno, and soon we started to climb the Apennines—up up up the road wound. But finally we reached the top. Here you naturally expected the road to start winding down the other side, but instead it flattened out and roved over undulating countryside for a number of miles— a land of green fields dotted with casas which seemed to be completely cut off from the rest of Italy and at a height of over three thousand feet—another land. (You remembered seeing the film ‘Lost Horizon’ before you left NZ.) Then we went down the other side, right down to Iesi, and our area for the night. And by that page 338 time, sitting looking at each other with our backs against the sides of the tray—you could easily have imagined we were back in the old desert once more—in our coating of fine powdery dust we looked grey—just like the vegetation at the side of that and so many other roads in Italy at that time of the year. Just like that Amiriya dust.
And now [on the Adriatic, below Rimini] it was the grape season (if all the lines of grape vines in Italy were placed end to end I wonder just how many times round the earth they would reach). And it wasn't hard—in many areas we went to—if you like grapes, to find a place for your bivvy beside a row—and then what better to do first thing in the morning than reach out from your bunk, pick a bunch, lie back again and enjoy them—they sweetened your mouth at that time of the morning. Near the roads they were often covered with dust, but you wiped that off as you went along. And there was plenty of other fruit to be had too. It was harvest time for many things, among them a field of tomatoes, an acre or so of them right beside our bivvies at Fano—big red smooth eggshaped ones weighing down the plants. Many a Kiwi boot must have trodden the ground around those plants, but when we left there after some days, you couldn't see where we had been.
Then there were all those days when we used to route march down to the beach—swim and sit on the beach—have our midday meal and return in the trucks in the afternoon—pleasant memories.
And as we moved up the coast in short hops the arty always booming away in front of us got louder as we got nearer the front line. And always we were hearing of success and hope—how well the Poles and Canadians were going—at first Pesaro had fallen and one after the other coastal towns fell—not far to Rimini—and once that fell we would be through his line. And then—there wide open before us—there was no mistake this time—would be the Po Valley or Lombardy Plains—something we had been waiting for ever since we arrived in Italy. Of course we had heard tales like that for so long, but this time there was no doubting it—you only had to look at a map of Italy. Our tanks would soon have the country they had waited for. The Brenner Pass was mentioned. (But no one mentioned that it was September and—well—we knew what winter was like in Italy—and what would it be like in a month or so?)
And these tales weren't very old when, if you took notice, you could feel a change in the air. Those white afternoon clouds were just a little less white and a little more grey and were inclined to spread across the sky. And the thunder storms were a little less thunder and a more steady rain fell from them. And the breezes were just a little cooler—and the air was warm and soft but not hot. Soon those clouds would become very grey and spread right across the sky on many days. And as the thunder died out so the rain would fall more steadily and more often. And the cool breezes would gradually become cold winds. And then often they would lash the page 339 rain against canopies and bivvies with a sharp pattering noise— then swish under tailboards, and carry on to the hard stone casas, driving in doorways and windows and brushing round corners. Little more than a month ago the scene had been a calm one of blue green yellow and gold, but now the colours were becoming drab.
‘Ah well—think I'll hit the sack—best place on a night like this.’
‘Pretty good on the backs down racket aren't you, soldier.’
‘I dunno about that—if there's anything worth going to see I'm a starter—not like you on Rome leave—too tired to get off your bed and go to see the things of historic importance.’
‘Christ a joker needed a rest after climbin’ that bloody great staircase—anyway it's the first time I knew you had things of historic importance tucked away in your valise.’
‘Now listen here dig I've said time and again that just because I don't smoke and you jokers do, it doesn't mean I have to go without the benefits of a cigarette issue—anyway you're too bloody lousy to eat your chocolate.’
With the fall of Florence about two-thirds of Italy now was cleared. But here the Apennines angled directly across Italy, almost from one coast to the other, and in the ranges and rough heights and canal-cut plains the German manned yet another formidable line—the Gothic line, a belt many miles thick of minefields, concrete emplacements sheltering guns, and the steel-cased turrets of Panther tanks mounting their deadly 75-millimetre anti-tank guns.
This line, slanting across the face of Italy, ran from Pesaro (on the Adriatic) to just north of Florence. It had only two weaknesses: one was the rough Futa Pass (between Florence and Bologna), in the Fifth Army's area. The other weakness— and this was where the Eighth Army and the New Zealanders would battle again—was the narrow strip of coastal plain on the Adriatic end of the line. This small plain was thoroughly prepared to meet assault. From Pesaro a band of seaward fortifications ran back for 30 miles to Rimini. The enemy defences took advantage of the foothills running down towards the Adriatic and of an ever-increasing mesh of rivers, ditches and canals. Once past Rimini the Gothic line would be turned from the east, and the Po valley entered.
September found the New Zealand Division around Iesi, back on the eastern side of Italy again. The new positions on the Adriatic coast were about 110 miles north of the previous page 340 year's Sangro River positions. The New Zealanders reached Iesi as the Canadians made their first dent, a ten-mile dent, in this end of the Gothic line. Swinging left behind Pesaro, the Canadians fought their way into Cattolica. The Poles took Pesaro on 2 September. Slowly—death, destruction, and desolation mounting as Eighth Army's losses averaged 155 killed and 600 wounded every day for a week—they ground like some great bleeding glacier towards Rimini, with Canadian Corps on the coast, 5 British Corps in the middle, and 10 British Corps in the higher foothills and mountains.
One Company 22 Battalion and the supporting tanks were the first New Zealanders (apart from the artillery) to go into action against the Gothic line. The company joined battle on 14 September, two days after a renewed offensive all along the Adriatic front, when the Germans reported ‘an absolute wall of shellfire … ploughing up the whole countryside and carpeting us with bombs …. he is tearing into it…. Our casualties are even higher than at Cassino.’
Some recent arrivals took a look at the front from Gradara Castle. ‘Standing on the top we could get a great view of our front line a few miles to the north. We could see (in the dusk) the tiny sudden flickers as various guns of our arty fired on different parts of the front—they were flickering almost continuously somewhere. (Was it that evening that we also saw the Navy firing from out at sea—we saw that happen several times and sometimes saw Jerry retaliating as spouts of water went up near the ships.)’
The grey, semi-swamp land stretching ahead, cut up by roads, canals, ditches and hedges, was the hunting ground of a most sinister German weapon, the nebelwerfer, or ‘cloud thrower’, now described by Bob Foreman, who soon was to be out of the war when a bomb from his own mortar exploded against an overhead branch of a tree swaying in the wind: ‘A little while after we had turned in (in a casa) there was this sudden screech-crash all in a fraction of a second (an 88 I suppose)—it sounded as though it just went past one wall and burst about a chain away. (It's funny how these little things stick in your mind, but I'm sure the room was silent before the shell came—and was silent again for a few seconds after it burst. But the latter silence seemed different to the page 341 former. Was it that unconsciously you had heard breathing in the first silence, whereas everyone held their breath for a second or two in the second silence—I wouldn't like to say. It was a silence of hesitancy.) We had just settled down again from this disturbance—and then we heard them start winding up “Minnie”. (We used to say “winding up”—what caused that noise anyway?) It would be hard to describe that winding noise—something remotely like a nearly flat battery turning over the engine of an old Ford car—but it must have been a hang of a noise when you were standing beside it. Then the moan as the rockets set out on their journey—something like those multiple air raid sirens—but with a steady pitch. We heard them gradually getting closer as they lost height—then the distant “Bash” as the first one landed—it sounded more than a quarter of a mile away. Then—like some enormous giant striding across the countryside in hobnailed boots and taking strides chains long—they marched towards us. Bash-bash- bash-bash-bash—each one getting louder and finally (at this stage between the last bangs there was a fumbling noise within the room—I think others doing the same as I was—starting to reach for my tin hat) one last big bash as the last one landed about, say, five yards from the wall of our house.’
Twenty-second Battalion joined the Adriatic campaign in mid-September. The unit, for a while the most advanced of all New Zealand battalions, drove up a traffic-crowded highway, Route 16, to the town of Riccione on the afternoon of 13 September.1
attack on monticelli, 14 september 1944 B Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment and 1 Company in support
‘As we were moving up, my first time in …,’ Private Price,2 a remarkably honest man, relates, ‘in the distance I page 343 heard the bang of artillery and as we had been told that you could hear the shells coming towards you I heard the whistle and made a dive for the ground where I lay shaking like a leaf until the other jokers started to laugh. They then asked “What's the matter, Shorty? They are our own shells going over.” But that didn't worry me because I still hadn't got over the shock of hearing them.’
When the men were under way, tanks from B Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment came in too. The company's task simply was to protect the tanks. Had the infantry been expected to bolster the attack, the whole battalion would have gone in. Eight Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Avery3) followed Greek infantry and some of the tanks over vineyards into the smoke and dust-covered remains of farm buildings, Monaldini, which fell easily enough as they were defended by only two spandaus and a handful of troops. Before the tanks arrived, a New Zealand tank officer on reconnaissance ‘admired the spirit of the Greeks who were firing [on the farm buildings]. From time to time some of these men rushed out of a house, fired a few rounds, and then dashed back into the house before the answering mortar stonk could catch them in the open.’ After the farm buildings had became ours, 7 Platoon (Lieutenant Bassett), with tanks, moved up the road to attack Monticelli settlement, but the enemy pulled out as the platoon drew near, leaving behind a badly wounded German in a building. ‘The place was a wine-making centre,’ recalls Bassett. ‘I remember the immense wine casks which completely filled one of the buildings. We were all rather perturbed next morning to see large notices outside the building proclaiming in German the place to be infested with typhus—this after we had occupied the place overnight.’
When they had settled into their new position, Bassett's men were able to see the enemy's defences, which had been dug behind the surrounding fences. The platoon commander thought they were perhaps the best constructed positions he had seen. They were well camouflaged, and stretched for about half a mile up the road as well. As Private Jamieson4 walked page 344 across a stone courtyard, ‘There was a hell of an explosion and I was hit in the forearm. I stuck my hand into my trouser pocket to get my tin of cigarettes and cut my hand on a piece of shrapnel and needless to say, no smoke.’
The two attacking platoons had had a fairly easy time that afternoon, but not so the rest of the company, which was getting into position about 500 yards east of Monticelli and preparing for a descent on the place if need be.
‘We were walking along a track (in a sort of canal) in single file like a lot of ducks when the mortar dropped through the trees, bursting in the water and sending water and mud in all directions,’ writes McNeil.5 Lance-Corporal Astwood6 met his death here, and eleven others were wounded, all from this one bomb. McNeil goes on: ‘The wounded were quickly attended to and shifted to an Italian house nearby where the badly wounded were despatched as quickly as possible. Our main difficulty in getting out was getting through the Greek guards who were inclined to be trigger-happy and very jittery.’ Hit on the back of the right hand, Sampson7 ‘could have sworn it was blown off, but was not game enough to find out for myself, so I asked my friend Bernie Spranger8 right next to me to tell me if my hand was missing. The cheering words came back: “She's right Snow, it's bloody well there alright.”’
The badly wounded had just been hustled under cover when five mortar bombs came over like a pack of hounds. Sampson, exposed, ‘curled up in my tin hat … scared stiff, and I think my hair must have pushed my hat up 2 inches.’
On the way back to a Canadian casualty clearing station the wounded had to take cover again, this time in a dugout where Germans had been living for weeks. ‘It was filthy,’ one wounded man remembers, ‘and stank worse than rotten eggs. In this dugout, among the wounded, our company commander Bert O'Reilly was busy among us, doing his best with the Greek interpreter, calling for stretcher bearers, and passing on the odd encouraging word.’page 345
The Greeks now aimed for the Rimini airfield, about a mile away. The first advance of the new day was made in the centre by 1 Greek Battalion (followed by 6 Platoon), which crossed the Marano River before 10 a.m. and reached a house before machine-gun fire from the airfield's fringe sent them to earth. Early in the afternoon all of the Greek Brigade went forward after the armour had been relieved by tanks of C Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment. Fighter-bombers appeared to pound the western side of the airfield. First Greek Battalion again had to halt just short of the airfield. Directly at this party came strong bazooka and machine-gun fire; from the left, at the bottom of the airfield, a self-propelled gun fired back, joined by shells from the right from a well-protected Panther turret. One by one the New Zealand tanks edged along a line of hedges, trying to avoid this fire. A New Zealand tank was hit and two gallant tank men, (Lieutenant Collins9 and Sergeant White10), ignoring ammunition on the point of exploding, dragged out the trapped driver from among the shambles. Thirty-six enemy were killed, a dozen prisoners taken, and the force camped for the night near the southern end of the airfield. In the dark a sudden flash and explosion to the right announced the end of the Panther turret: its crew had destroyed it before withdrawing.
Third Greek Battalion (attended by 7 Platoon) captured the hamlet of Casalecchio. Only the church continued to hold out until the artillery got on to it, and then a Greek platoon, plus tanks and the escorting 7 Platoon, took the church—or what now passed for a church. Fire from the airfield stopped any further advance for the day. The Greek Brigade's right-hand battalion, 2 Battalion (and 8 Platoon) made a short advance up the main road to the Marano River. The day had cost the Greeks thirty-three casualties: losses in 22 Battalion's company were slight.page 346
This day, forsaken amongst shot and shell, a cow stood by a well bellowing for water. Private Devereux11 grabbed her by the neck, pulled her into the door of a casa, and started to milk her. The Greeks were delighted; a sergeant swore that he never saw a cow milked before (and never expected to see one milked again) with mortars dropping around.
Any attack up and beyond Rimini airfield would be useless until 2 Greek Battalion drew level with the airfield, so next morning (16 September), sweeping the area before them with machine-gun fire, the infantry came up to link with 1 Battalion on the left. The remaining Greek battalion advanced 700 yards on the left flank. Rimini airfield now lay within the brigade's grasp, but in hangars, buildings, and houses round about defiant snipers and mortar and machine-gun crews had survived the bombing. The field itself, about a mile square, was covered by fire and thick with mines, and further back another shrewdly dug-in Panther turret made deadly use of a perfect field of fire. To the left of the Greek Brigade Canadians were battling against fanatical resistance from Coriano Ridge.
This Panther turret fell next day as 2 and 3 Greek Battalions slowly began working their way up either side of the airfield. Skip-bombing by six aircraft left the turret unscathed, but Lieutenant Collins (6 Platoon was with his tanks) was determined to get it. While the guns smothered the turret in smoke shells, Collins took his tank west, turned to face the turret and, when the smoke thinned, pounded home seven deadly direct hits. The crew fled from the ruins and the lieutenant received the MC.
In a parallel drive during the next three days, 2 and 3 Greek Battalions (accompanied by 8 and 7 Platoons)—and fresh tanks from C Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment—reached out to enter in triumph and drizzling rain the city of Rimini early on 21 September. Although they had had their share of fighting, the success of this advance was due to the furious fighting inland, where the Canadians were shouldering the burden of the assault.
Who was first into the ancient and undefended city of Rimini? The New Zealanders say ‘New Zealanders’, and the page 347 Greeks say ‘Greeks’. Twenty-second Battalion's war diary says: ‘At first light a tk tp comd of the 19th, accompanied by 2 Lt. Avery, recced fwd along Route 16 into Rimini, and returned to lead their men fwd before 0800 hrs…. [On the fringes of Rimini both Greek battalions] paused to raise and salute with reverence their national flag in a tribute to comrades who had fallen…. Meantime, the New Zealanders pushed on and if, therefore, the BBC announcement of the capture of Rimini by Gks alone was a trifle in error, the error was, perhaps, in tribute to the gallant Greek dead, trifling.’
It is clear that a handful of New Zealanders (8 Platoon 22 Battalion and 11 Troop 19 Armoured Regiment) were first into the old city and reached the main square (the Piazzo Cavour, where the Town Hall stood) before the Greeks. It is certain the Greeks (2 Greek Battalion) were the first to enter the new part of Rimini, called Rimini Marina, a summer resort on the coast and about a mile from the old city square. Nobody disputes that the city fell to 3 Greek Mountain Brigade at a cost of 314 casualties over thirteen days. ‘I was glad,’ wrote General Alexander in his despatches, ‘that this success had so early brightened the fortunes of that heroic country which had been the only ally to fight by our side in our darkest days and that a new victory in Italy should be added to the fame won in the mountains of Albania.’
In Rimini's town square Avery and his platoon were joined about half an hour later by the 11 Troop tanks (delayed by a river), which parked by the Town Hall. Then came the first of the 3 Battalion Greeks and, says a Greek operations summary, ‘at 7.30 a.m. the Mayor of Rimini informed Captain Apostolakis that he was ready to hand over the town. The handing over protocol was therefore drawn up, in Greek, English and Italian.’
The city had taken a battering from bombers, artillery and naval guns, especially on the coast; some most pleasing homes and villas had been badly knocked about. Buildings south of the canal yielded a few prisoners and ‘the silence of desolation’. Then one by one citizens began emerging: from buildings, from basements, from sewers.
Beyond Rimini the battalion would find the countryside more open, with more land in pasture. Vineyards had not entirely disappeared, but generally the picture was similar to farmland page 348 on a plain in New Zealand. Many of the fields were hedge-lined, and as this was marshy land, most roads were bordered by deep ditches—ready-made trenches if they ran in the right direction. Here and there stood odd clumps of trees, perhaps near a big house, but compared with the country the battalion had passed through earlier in the campaign, the landscape was relatively bare of trees. Some of the casas ‘were still inspiringly solid’, but the newer type of farm villa, with the stable attached to the house, was often built of hollow tile-like bricks, which as Major O'Reilly remarked, ‘come hell or high water, gave protection only in the case of high water.’ In the days ahead some of the battalion in a reserve position would have to occupy one of these hollow-brick houses for a week when the shelling and mortaring were heavy. ‘The only habitable part was the stable which ran along the back of this house,’ one man recalls. ‘We shared the stable with four cows that were a picture of placid contentment even during the heaviest shelling.’
References to rivers in this region should not bring to mind a picture of pleasant meandering streams with tree-lined banks. Rivers past Rimini were nothing but ditches on a grand scale with ugly steep banks from 12 to 20 feet high. The New Zealanders had not left the hills far away—they rose on the left about two or three miles away. (In the hills British soldiers fought with distinction, several times outflanking the enemy and forcing a withdrawal on the narrow plain below.)
The weather at this time was abominable. Dark clouds hung like a pall over the most depressing front. The nebelwerfer wailed over sodden landscapes where corpses of men and farm animals lay in the mud. Adding to the melancholy atmosphere, artificial moonlight appeared—massed searchlights focussed on the low clouds—the reflected light bathing the land ahead in a weird, purplish half-light. Clouds of dust and debris from shelling rose up like wraiths in the artificial moonlight. Soldiers remember a couple of rum issues—a rare event indeed—and probably the miserable conditions called for the rum.
Twenty-second Battalion scarcely paused in Rimini. That night (still 21 September), in the cold and the pitch dark, the battalion, now gathered in force, went over the Marecchia River, just above Rimini. At last the time had come to show how swiftly an attack could be mounted by a motorised battalion. page 349 Colonel Donald's orders group did not disperse until 6.30 p.m.: at 7 p.m. troops were beginning to cross the river. Two bridges crossed the Marecchia. One was a destroyed railway bridge by the coast, and a little further inland an old Roman bridge (built in 27 AD, and left intact by the enemy) went part-way over the river—a modern bridge which used to carry the road the rest of the way across had been blown up well and truly. Round this part-Roman, part-modern and part-ruin bridge, the battalion would wade across, 1 Company (O'Reilly) on the left and 2 Company (Hutcheson) on the right. Spandaus had stopped any of Hutcheson's daylight patrols from testing the river, and because of this 2 Company would have a miserable crossing, but in 1 Company's case all went very well indeed, thanks to Sergeant Hughan.12 He and a few men had found and reconnoitred a safe crossing place west of the demolished bridge. This sent 1 Company off on a detour which circled about 200 yards to the left, crossed the river and then, under cover of the northern stopbank, took it back into position alongside Hutcheson's sopping men, who somehow managed to flounder through their unexplored part of the river. Then, side by side, the two companies would advance, attacking over a mile to a watercourse called the Fossa Turchetta. Canadian troops—who a little earlier had made a crossing of their own further up the river and were now finding that the crossing was becoming well gummed up by mud churning and spreading from a tangle of transport and tracked vehicles—would link up with 1 Company near the watercourse. New Zealand tanks would come up to the 22 Battalion attackers once the engineers had fixed a ford across the river.
Houses thickly dotted the land ahead and gave good cover to the enemy machine-gunners and riflemen waiting to meet the advance. Dug-in Panther turrets with 75-millimetre guns and machine-gun posts lay around the little settlement named Celle, at the crossroads south of the watercourse. There 1 Parachute Division lay in wait for O'Reilly's men. To the right, nearer the coast, Hutcheson's force would clash with well-equipped troops from 303 Grenadier Regiment and 162 Turcoman Infantry Division, who would make the best use of fortified villas, minefields, and fortifications which had been intended to smash any invasion from the sea.page 350
New Zealand tanks, belching flame, for twenty minutes pounded enemy hideouts over the river. As the tanks fell silent the infantry waded into the river at 7 p.m. Thirty-five minutes later one German general told another over the phone: ‘The enemy is building up for a new main thrust along the Via Adriatica towards Ravenna. We must have fresh troops there, because the Turcomen can't be used again except as second-line troops….’
Most of 1 Company crossed easily, although one or two men had to swim in some parts. Hutcheson, on the seaward side of the smashed bridge, was in difficulties. The spot he chose to cross had been recommended by a Canadian officer: ‘No more than two feet deep,’ he had said with assurance. On the other side a bomb had smashed the steep, smooth, ten-foot-high retaining wall protecting the riverbank. The attackers could scale this broken part, but unfortunately another bomb had blasted a crater in the riverbed too. ‘As the company (hungry, for the hot meal had not got up in time) forded the river in the pitch dark of a cloudy evening every man must have had the experience of plunging into a hole four feet deep,’ Hutcheson recalls. ‘With great difficulty I raised both arms and managed to keep dry my map board and walky-talky wireless. The Sigs. men were unable to do this with the heavy 22 set they were packing in on their backs, and the soaking put it out of action.’
Ahead of Hutcheson had gone an advanced guard which was to silence the spandaus immediately ahead. Two spandau crews were seized without mishap, and 2 Company (except for the hole) crossed safely.
Both companies now were across. The heavy mud was thick on their boots. One Company was getting into position for attack when someone from Intelligence told Lance-Corporal Kevin Dillon (incorrectly) that the attack was to go in from the top of the stopbank. Dillon's section in a few moments reached the top of the mound and walked almost on top of a machinegun nest. From a range of ten yards a startled machine-gunner opened up, wounding Dillon, Dick Goodall,13 and Jack Wallace14 all in the legs, while Sergeant Stevens, further back, page 351 was hit in the chest. Wallace, unlike the others, didn't lie flat on the ground, but partly rose, attempting to crawl away, and died instantly, shot through the head. Promptly shouting ‘Follow me!’ (to rally some new members of the company who were bemused by the sudden flare-up), Corporal ‘Jock’ Cockburn15 charged the machine gun from the flank, silenced it, killed two and dragged out a third German badly wounded. He then looked round—nobody had followed him! (A few nights later Cockburn, after some good work searching houses on his own, was hit in the eye and the elbow: his soldiering days were over. Alongside him Lloyd Grieve, bleeding from the head, gathered up his badly holed No. 38 radio set and carried on until daylight. ‘The set's aerial and my rifle and the shovel caused no end of bother in the wired rows of vines.’)
The attack began. They charged over the stopbank. One Company advanced in extended order on the right of Route 16. The cumbersome No. 22 radio set, carried by two men and cursed steadily throughout the night, not once raised Battalion Headquarters. They could have left the thing in the river. When 1 Company charged over the stopbank, the enemy opened up, but his forward positions were quickly wiped out and three prisoners taken. The company's only casualties in this first charge were the one killed and three wounded in Dillon's misadvised group.
The company moved forward steadily in the dark, showery, muddy night. Boots soon became ponderous and heavy with further accumulations of mud. A section led up the road by Bob Ferris16 silently clashed with one or two enemy. One man seized a German in a headlock and captured him after a brief tussle. Another man fell into an Italian cesspit full of straw, water and manure, and continued to advance, only the whites of his eyes showing. An uproar flared near Celle crossroads, where a wounded prisoner was taken by Corporal Joe Coppell.17 He was one of a party of Germans moving down Route 16 in the direction of Rimini; the rest escaped in the gloom while page 352 Max Tarr,18 tears of rage running down his face, swore at his Bren gun, which had every stoppage possible. (About an hour later the same Bren got away seven magazines in about as many seconds.) Near Celle a man watched ‘the spectacular arrival of the enemy shells which glowed salmon pink—probably armour-piercing.’
‘When we were just on the Celle junction, a tracked vehicle was heard moving slowly and quietly down the highway towards the junction from the left,’ says O'Reilly. ‘Fire was coming from the west just beyond Celle, so we assumed it was an enemy vehicle and opened fire on it when it was a few yards short of the junction. It stopped immediately and there was a grand silence. Investigating, we found it was a Canadian carrier. The crew had made a fast getaway, so 1 Company did not establish friendly contact with the Canadians!’
Eight Platoon, weaving up to the right of the cemetery, met with no enemy opposition and settled down on its objective about 1 a.m. without contacting the enemy. Five Platoon, taking prisoners and killing stragglers in the dark, also reached its objective. Six Platoon, however, was held up by the railway line; it was weak in numbers and had lost its officer, Wally Hart, an original member of the battalion and not long back from furlough. He had been mortally wounded while charging a spandau over the railway line. Norm Callesen,19 Reeve Collins20 and Ray Gurney21 picked him up and placed him on a stretcher. Hart was ‘a truly fine chap, all man, and a great soldier, we were all more than sorry to hear the news.’ Ken Hansen22 and Bob Ferris were wounded close by, the latter in and about an eye, which was promptly and effectively dressed by Brian Douglas23 and retained its sight.
A dead-tired 7 Platoon (just back with the company after a mopping-up job in Rimini) now came through and ran into page 353 severe fire from a Panther-type turret manned and heavily defended by Germans. While his section blazed at the strongpoint, Corporal Reeve24 charged across open ground, met a shower of hand grenades, and in turn lobbed back grenades until the enemy bolted. With no spare men to occupy the strongpoint, Reeve and his section had to press on to the watercourse. The enemy quickly returned and opened fire again. This fire perplexed the company commander, who knew 7 Platoon already was well past this area. He sent over a party from 6 Platoon, but it was spotted, and two particularly good men fell wounded, Lance-Sergeant Roberts25 (Hart's right-hand man) and Private Revell,26 while Joe Coppell, in a furious one-man charge, almost succeeded in capturing the strongpoint alone. As soon as possible Reeve and his men were brought back and attacked yet again so resolutely that the enemy (estimated at twenty) fled once more, leaving several stricken men and six prisoners. Reeve received an immediate MM.
One Company consolidated about its objective. One officer and one other rank had been killed and eight other ranks wounded for a bag of thirty paratroopers and thirty abandoned spandaus. The velvet blackness made it impossible for the company to scour all the area from the river to the watercourse, and later five Turcomen (162 Infantry Division) were rounded up by the Medical Officer, Captain Baird—a characteristic touch. The doctor's ambition was to have his RAP the most forward one in the Division. The battalion's Red Cross carrier did heroic work this night.
Over on the right 2 Company moved up parallel with the railway line as fast as it could, leaving mopping up until daybreak. Minor tussles took place with Turcomen holding fortified houses. The beach area was heavily fortified against assault from the sea: three or four heavy naval guns in camouflaged concrete emplacements disguised as ice-cream stalls faced out to sea, and land round about was mined thickly. In one of these minefields 10 Platoon foundered. Mines abruptly exploded page 354 in quick succession at chest height, a horrible sensation. Lewis27. was killed; Roy Lorrigan,28 Jim Hill,29 Knuckey30 and Braybrook31 were among those wounded. Knuckey, wounded in the elbow, blown face down into a creek and fearing he might drown, heard the stricken Jim Hill say distinctly: ‘That's a fine thing to do to a man.’ Second-Lieutenant Keith Cope32 and Clem Lawson33 were wounded simultaneously in the leg, probably from the same mine.
Lawson goes on: ‘We then saw the enemy wires marking a corridor in the minefield which led to some Italian casas. Finding one of these casas free of enemy troops, all wounded were evacuated to the ground floor and others were placed on the second floor and on guard around the building. Lieutenant Cope and I limped along this corridor, each having an arm across each other's shoulder, and reached a point about 50 to 60 feet from the entrance door of the casa. We leaned on a fencepost. Our sergeant, Ian Ford,34 reported to Lieutenant Keith Cope that all wounded were in, except the two of us.
‘Keith then instructed me to go in with the sergeant. I being a friend of Keith's suggested that I would wait and go in when he did. However it was not to be—fortunately for me. I will never forget Keith saying “Orders are Orders, and you must go in.” I immediately obeyed, and as I entered the door of page 355 the casa there was a heavy explosion. Keith had not moved his position. We had been standing on a mine which was set off by some of our gang who touched a concealed tripwire. Keith died after a few minutes.’
Harassed by this tragedy, Hutcheson ordered 12 Platoon to consolidate in a house near hapless 10 Platoon. His two remaining platoons consolidated by the railway line, 300 yards short of the objective, but from here to the watercourse the ground was open and within the company's killing range. After midnight, thanks to 6 Field Company engineers, the tanks crossed the Marecchia River.
The smashed bridge had taxed the ingenuity of the stretcher-bearers to the full and had severely tried the patience of the wounded. The bridge was doubled up to a peak in mid-river by the force of the enemy demolition. Up this a party of stretcher-bearers shouldered each other, those at the foot of the steep and slippery slope lying flat while the others clambered over them. Those below were hauled up, hanging on each other's feet, by the man suspended head first. The descent of the peak was made something along the lines of a human rope ladder. All this, with the stretchers as an additional burden, went on in the dark while enemy fire sometimes fell round them. On one steep slope of the broken bridge the medical men lost their grip on Kevin Dillon, and down he slid, into the river. They fished him out and carried on. Padre Sergel, characteristically and ingeniously, was busy in the river. Hearing that a sergeant was badly hit and his leg broken, the Padre, his batman (Home-Douglas35.) and two others with plenty of rope, had clambered across the river into 1 Company's fireswept area. The stretcher party was well equipped. As a result of his experience with cumbersome stretcher-work in Cassino, the Padre had invented a shoulder-strap harness, which he later learned had been standard equipment in the First World War and apparently had been forgotten. ‘Our padre, a most practical man, had found a few good New Zealand oaths were the best passwords on approaching some unknown place at night.’ Freely using this method, they eventually reached the stricken sergeant, tied him into the stretcher, and ‘what a wonderful difference it makes to one's nerves if there is somebody else to page 356 think about besides oneself. And every yard further back gives one an increasing sense of security.’ The broken bridge looked quite impossible, so they struggled across underneath, among boulders and mud, to the steeply sloping wall on the other side, some twenty feet high. Here one man lay flat against the slope, another crawled up him, and then Home-Douglas scaled up these two human ladders to the top. Padre Sergel threw a rope up to Home-Douglas, the stretcher was gradually hauled up the smooth wall, and the sergeant was delivered to the RAP in time.
Lieutenant Jock Wells, leading an early morning 11 Platoon patrol along the seafront, ran into Turcomen, who were just stirring, pottering about half-asleep and hanging out blankets. One Turcoman, opening fire with an automatic, felled Small36. with a bullet just below the knee. Hutcheson saw six enemy running along the beach, set after them with a couple of comrades, landed up by a big gun emplacement and bagged fifteen Turcomen cowering in a nearby trench. The Russians obligingly pointed to a camouflaged dugout, where a solitary German under-officer was added to the bag.
The party of wounded men, stricken in the minefield and taking refuge in the casa, was not left in peace. At dawn the men on the top floor repulsed an attack from the beach, and even succeeded in collecting some prisoners. In the house Hill and another were in a bad way, but the hot drinks made from the issue of cocoa, milk powder, and sugar which each man carried seemed to save Hill's life. Later in the morning the wounded were taken away.
One of the wounded died unexpectedly in hospital some days afterwards. His wound was not severe, but he developed pneumonia through lying wounded most of the night in soaked clothing. The battalion was still in summer clothing and battle dress would not arrive for a fortnight yet. The body of the dead man, Lewis, had remained in the minefield. After dawn two of his pals, Gillon and Athol Jimmieson,37. gallantly determined to bring back their comrade's body, returned to the page 357 minefield. They met with disaster. Another mine exploded, killing Gillon, and Jimmieson later died of wounds.
About 10 a.m. battle was joined once again, 2 and 3 Companies, with tanks, starting off up the coast towards the small seaside resort called Viserba and the canal almost a mile away. Just nine hours later, the Chiefs of Staff of Tenth Army (Major- General Fritz Wentzell) and of Army Group C (Lieutenant- General Roettiger) held this telephone conversation:
|Army Group:||‘I don't understand what is going on on your left.’|
|10 Army:||‘That's right… 303 Turcoman Regiment was there.’|
|Army Group:||‘But isn't the line at Viserba?’|
|10 Army:||‘It was. A strong enemy patrol with tanks broke through at Viserba….’|
Twenty-second Battalion, with 19 Armoured Regiment's tanks, was responsible for this part of the chat and for scattering 303 Turcoman Regiment, in the words of the Germans, ‘to the four winds.’
Two Company made good speed up the coast road to reach in half an hour the outskirts of Viserba, where the company slowed up with a jerk. All the buildings and fortifications had to be searched. By noon the company was about a quarter of the way into Viserba. Heavy anti-tank fire swept the coastal road, and north of the canal mortars and machine guns kept the infantry on their toes. The tanks had to approach in the open, so for a start the infantry went on alone. The infantry would move on about 800 yards, while the enemy slowly fell back in front of them. The tanks followed in bounds as soon as the infantry reported that part of the road clear of anti-tank fire, because ‘it would have been suicidal for the tanks to have moved up before us or with us.’
On the way up there was a touch of comedy. One group, spotting three or four enemy soldiers standing in the open a couple of hundred yards away, covered them with a concealed Bren, and waited. ‘They beckoned to us. We beckoned back. We beckoned to each other for three or four minutes—neither side opening fire. Then a section went out to stalk them while we tried to keep them occupied, but suddenly they disappeared.’
In Viserba, just before tea-time, mortar fragments splattered a courtyard, striking Corporal Burcher38 in his back, face and page 358 arm. Privates Ken MacKenzie,39 Cliff Smith, and Tony Howie40 dressed the Corporal's wounds. Late in the afternoon 3 Company settled down for the night by the canal. Starting off in the morning, this company promptly ran into solid mortar fire, which killed a tank troop commander. Then two tanks bogged down in the soft ground. Until noon they hadn't got much further on, but in the afternoon the advance improved and by 4 p.m. 3 Company had reached a factory. Private Herbert41 had been wounded in a skirmish. A mortar had collected Mick Eades, who says, ‘Sergeant Bill Windsor did all in his power to help me and make me comfortable, in particular going to a lot of trouble to hunt up an enamel basin while the mortars were still landing.’ Despite his great need, Eades could not use the basin, and his main thought then was ‘the boys must be disgusted with me, asking for it and then not using it.’ He records ‘My sincerest thanks and admiration to our doctors, sisters, nurses and padres for their careful, efficient and cheerful manner in which they cared for us. Being in their care after having been through a scrap or two and had one's nerves strained to blazes is the nearest thing I knew to heaven.’
Near the canal both companies found the firing better. The enemy hadn't attempted to hold Viserba and instead was fighting a rearguard action and falling back slowly in the face of the advance. Writing about the move through the centre of Viserba, an officer notes: ‘Civilians were mostly barricaded in houses. Though scared, they were cooperative. They presented a difficulty though, as they were inclined to celebrate the liberation, and wanted my troops to join in. The troops behaved well, but found Viserba interesting.’
From the crossing of the Marecchia the night before up to the canal, 22 Battalion had suffered thirty casualties, including two officers and four other ranks killed. During the advance through Viserba about thirty enemy had been killed and 123 prisoners taken, many of them Turcomen.
This day wounded from all kinds of units passed through the battalion RAP, where Padre Sergel ‘saw many struggles with page 359 almost lifeless figures, but although one came to distinguish between those with some chance and those with that dreadful grey look of death in their eyes, I find that nobody died in that R.A.P. that day. Some of the Germans were among the wounded, the Doc always took the most serious cases as they arrived no matter what they belonged to. The walking wounded had to wait.’
At midnight a mighty barrage crashed down, 400 rounds a gun, and to the left, in artificial moonlight, 21 and 28 Battalions advanced towards the Scolo Brancona, another watercourse.page 360
Fifteen minutes after midnight the battalion was away again, still on foot and still with little if any sleep, on a big advance. The force was small: 11 and 12 Platoons (2 Company) moving across an undefended bridge over the canal and up the coast road, and 15 and 16 Platoons (3 Company) on the left of the railway line. Tanks went with them. They advanced unopposed, and in an hour 2 Company was almost on to the river. Three Company didn't have the advantage of travelling along a road; some of the ground was soft, and a fog slowed down the men.
Pleased with his battalion's sprint, Colonel Donald was keen to keep on going to the Division's main objective, the Rio Fontanaccia, 2000 yards on from the banks of the Brancona. His optimism was justified. The success of these battalion attacks was due largely to the speed with which the infantry followed up. The high pitch of training and co-operation between all arms reached by this time enabled 22 Battalion to make plans and carry them out in the least possible time. Furthermore, the battalion's extensive use of transport to bring its men right up to the front line sent the fighting men, fit and fresh, straight into the attack. By not pausing in Rimini but going straight into the attack in the evening, the battalion had kept the enemy pinned down all day without any chance of reorganising. This also kept the enemy's guns on the move and gave him little chance of registering on our troops or on Rimini.
The Colonel wanted to carry on, but Brigadier Burrows42 said the 22nd was outstripping 5 Brigade too much. The force crossed the shallow river (the tanks silencing small-arms fire directed at 2 Company) and halted about 400 yards up the road just after 3 a.m. Two hours later Major-General Weir43 (replacing for a few weeks General Freyberg, who had been injured in a plane crash) ordered the 22nd on again. Its destination was the Fontanaccia—and no further. Within half an page 361 hour the most advanced men were only 700 yards from the stream. But here a tank went up, and a really virile bombardment of mortars, plus angry spandau fire, forced 2 Company back into sheltering houses—just as one man ‘was thinking of a stop and a cup of shai (lovely thought!)’
Further back, trouble loomed for 3 Company. Fifteen Platoon, nearing a house, saw a top window suddenly ablaze, and Sergeant Windsor fell, hit in the shoulder. A Tiger tank crawled away from the back of the house and withdrew while a bazooka set one New Zealand tank blazing and knocked out the other. The enemy in the house (content enough with two tanks to his credit) didn't linger to meet the platoon attack, but heavy mortar ‘stonks’ landed all round the place, ‘and things were pretty lively for a few minutes, one of our men, V. Bransgrove,44 being killed,’ writes Watt.
In this fire Corporal Kain45 and Lance-Corporal de Joux46 volunteered to go forward with Kriete47 to aid two seriously injured tank men: an officer with a large piece of shell casing through his thigh, the other man with a gash on the back of his neck. Kriete thought to himself: ‘If I'm not careful here, his spinal cord might get nipped in between the joints, and that will be the end of him.’ They put this man face down on a door to keep his neck quite straight, placed the officer on a stretcher, and sheltered in the nearest casa, where Sergeant Bill Windsor and a few others were taking cover. While attending to the wounded, Kriete heard Schmeisser bullets coming through the door, ‘and then some unfamiliar people came through the door. A thought seemed to strike me that we might be a bit restricted in our movements from then on! How right I was.’ The German party, commanded by a good-looking, English-speaking officer, took over. This officer's main anxiety seemed to be for ‘rememberances’ (souvenirs), ‘which made him seem one of us. There was a disposition map from one of page 362 the tanks on the ground, and we unobtrusively edged this under some furniture with our feet.’
Heavy shelling continued. General pandemonium reigned in the headquarters. Kriete, worried about the wounded officer, ‘could not do much about his loss of blood owing to the terrific piece of shell casing through his thigh. His life was just steadily dripping away. The Germans had only first aid equipment and could not do anything owing to our heavy fire. The other one was looking much better, his colour had come back, it looked as if he would be all right. The officer seemed to be dead, could not detect any breath or heart beat, so covered his face. I was glad to see him die, in a way; to see him gasping for breath and know you could not do anything for him was hard to take.’
Leaving the dead officer behind, the party moved back along the long, dreary trail of the prisoner of war. Maurice Kain writes: ‘Our interrogation at what would be the equivalent of Div. H/Q was conducted by a very polished officer who had been a farmer in Nova Scotia before the War and spoke and behaved perfectly. On being given the usual P.O.W. answers he sighed, turned to a well-bound volume and recited off who we were, the Tanks we were working with, names of our C/O and battalion officers, the route we had recently travelled (in supposed security), and our supports on both flanks. He was most insistent for information about the 9th Brigade and its composition but as news of its intended formation had not trickled down to our level it was no trouble to look completely blank…. but he had all the gen. The next day's interrogation at Forli where after marching through the streets and being spat on by the local populace (could these be the same Eytes as behind our lines?) we had a going over by the Bully type….’
‘… food was a bit scarce,’ says Kriete. ‘At one stop we partook of boiled donkey. I cannot recommend it. Eventually we crossed the Po, and so to Moosburg Camp. Our cattle-truck was supposed to carry 40, but there were 63 when we got there, and I looked in a mirror, I fully expected my hair to be grey, but it wasn't.’
Twenty-second Battalion, stalled by stiff opposition, was now out on a limb: the CO sent Support Company up the coast road to a handy position in case of emergency, but no crisis came. page 363 Vigorous spandaus over to the left were silenced by tank and machine-gun fire, and the makings of an enemy counter-attack by the railway line was broken up. Over the whole front artillery fire raged. The battalion mortars, hard at work on this attack up the coast, were now feeling particularly ‘pleased at the way we got each bomb away; each bomb seemed to go down the spout and then away from each mortar at the same time—one-two-three, and so on.’
Lieutenant Doug Caldwell, the mortar officer, returned in his jeep with a German prisoner. When he approached an array of 25-pounders, Caldwell stopped the jeep. The German asked: ‘How do you expect us to stand up against that? How can you lose with the mass of weapons that you have?’ A soldier hearing the remark writes: ‘I don't know if he ever thought about Greece and Crete or tanks in the desert with 2-pounder guns etc.—when the boot was on the other foot.’
Despite the enemy's frequent fire on 2 and 3 Companies, the infantry and the supporting tanks (A Squadron 19 Armoured Regiment) held on, and only five infantrymen were wounded. Two Company had set up a rather precarious lookout in a flimsy house, and here an observation post was manned to help pick targets for the artillery and tanks. A man in this uneasy building writes: ‘During that day, the 23rd., I felt exhilarated by watching our tanks and artillery inflict so much damage on the enemy. The platoon didn't occupy any of the rooms on the north side, but upstairs they had opened or removed all windows facing the enemy, and opposite them had knocked peepholes in the wall from the next room, so that they could stand with cover from view and a certain amount of cover from fire, and observe the enemy. We had an excellent view of a three-storeyed building evidently being used as an OP. Here the tank troop sergeant did some excellent work. With some fine shooting he put a couple of rounds of HE through the roof and upper storey to make the enemy run downstairs, and then pumped a dozen or so rounds rapid (armour piercing and high explosive) into the lower storeys. The building was evacuated fairly rapidly. From the number of people we had seen moving about there it must have been a headquarters of some sort.’
At this stage it might appear that the enemy more or less comfortably and calculatingly pulled back in the night (instead page 364 of being driven back) and plastered the battalion in the daylight ‘according to plan’. But the German, as always, would not go back except under pressure, and the pressure was certainly felt, according to German documents. ‘The speed of our advance was largely due to the speed of his withdrawal,’ comments a company commander, ‘and the speed of this was due to the fact that we kept in close contact with him and didn't give him a chance to consolidate. Events inland too might have made him want to keep his line straight.’
Next day a dawn patrol found that the enemy had gone back over the river, but he was moving purposefully about on the far bank. Within half an hour New Zealand shells were bursting on the north bank. The battalion's mortars, which had been particularly active the day before, later pumped 300 rounds across the river, and followed this up, working non-stop for an hour, by plastering sixty rounds each on two targets. The battalion, now due for relief, was kept for one more attack— the bitterest and most frustrating of them all—on a one-company front across the Fontanaccia (little more than a wide ditch) after eight o'clock that night.
The platoon leaders were away at a meeting, and there was a certain air of unrest and tenseness in our digs. We older hands knew in ourselves, tho' not in detail, the results of such a meeting; even so we hoped we were wrong and would be going out of the line to a rest area for a time [writes a man who would be a casualty himself that night, Private E. O. Jones,48 of 3 Company.] However we settled down to laboriously cleaning our mechanism such as rifles, tommyguns, Brens, and checking grenades and rifles. At the same time we were anticipating our next move forward which to us would inevitably result from the leaders meeting this day. The new chums who had come up to swell our numbers were a mixed lot, and I was allotted a young chap who was very green, and we set about to put them at ease regarding their position and completed their knowledge, the bits that can't be learnt from the old text book, and certain little things of advice.
Everyone is quiet and solemn as we find ourselves on a start line,49 a latitudinal road from the coast, and the eerie blanket of light of the artificial moonlight along with the dark clouds and the sudden stillness as we wait almost spellbound, gets you deep inside, and page 365 then it's on; the Arty have commenced a bombardment of the enemy positions, ‘poor Jerry’, which carries on for a good five minutes. Then we're off. How we got over a very high hedge directly in our front I don't remember, nevertheless we're on our way—some thinking: to what or where?
My new mate on the Bren gun sticking close by me reveals a strange look as the moon comes out for a second and I know then that he has mixed feelings, and wondering if in his first show he'll be brave, and not show cowardice, and then I give him some sweets for we all get that taste in the mouth which seems to come from a silage pit, it's so vile. The sweets help for a while and then the chewing gum gets stale too.
We knew that Jerry or Tedeski wouldn't take long before he comes out of hiding, for we older hands had experienced similar approaches to him before this, and sure enough the quiet lull after the shelling ceased, and we're settling down to a steady gait, was broken by the scream overhead of the Moaning Minnie (Nebelwerfer mortar), and fortunately a certain amount of warning was given and next we find ourselves—Peter and I—in a ditch full of nice comfortable water [Rio Fontanaccia]. However we were better off than some of the other lads. Confusion reigned for a while and then we are on the move again, and we pass a couple of bodies freshly broken and are thankful for the blanket of night, tho' some poor guy… hasn't many moments left, all we will remember will be his haunting scream. Our medical orderly is a good lad and a busy one too from now on until he himself later is stopped by a grenade.
Occasionally a reassuring voice can be heard giving encouragement to all in the deathly age we're going through and especially does Jim Hanham50 put new spirit into us as we find it at times difficult to control ourselves from going berserk. We seem to have been through all this barbarity before for countless years it seems, and we think surely this isn't the age of Christianity or Christians.
And suddenly our thoughts are brought back to reality by a Burrrr. Burrrr…. as a Spandau opens up and we realize it even before we hear the clatter, for the dust alongside is whipped up into a frenzy. And we know we have arrived at our enemies' positions, and ‘fun and games’ are about to commence.
There is a series of scrambling as the front section, having been taken by surprise completely, are slipping back to better cover, and we shoot off to the right across a paddock to the lateral road and pile into the cover of the ditch and Peter and I are really in it. From what we can make out the Teds are well cached in a hole just ahead of us not more than 25 yards. While we were engaged Jim Hanham manages to get even nearer and we hear a happy bark of his Thompson, and almost instantly the Jerries fire their last burst at us which causes Peter beside me to scream horribly and then it is I realise page 366 he has uttered his last sound on earth. He suffered little and was never for one moment anything but brave. I never knew his surname only that he was young in age, about 20 years….
Sixth Brigade attacked on the left, moving up fast through the carnage wreaked by the crushing barrage, but over on the coast 22 Battalion ran into serious trouble in its last night of this action. Expecting the main attack would come up the coast, the enemy laid the weight of his artillery on this area, which was fair enough for 6 Brigade's battalions, but a dismal business for the 22nd. Shells cracked and whined over the start line, where the two companies were forming up to support the attack, and from only half a mile away two self-propelled guns hammered the road with solid shot. Great page 367 showers of sparks flew up from the road wherever a solid shell landed. One Company (on the right by the sea) and 3 Company (on the left), backed by tanks, got painfully under way into a storm of mortars and spandaus firing from shrewdly sited positions on the low sandy ground beyond the Fontanaccia. No Turcomen these, but paratroopers and panzer grenadiers on the job with a vengeance. ‘Suddenly a terrible enemy stonk came right down on our HQ [2 Company, just relieved on the coast by 1 Company],’ Keith Hutcheson says. ‘We all dropped below the window level and I was a bit slower than the rest….’ Doctor Baird went up and returned with the stricken major through heavy shellfire. At times Baird lay on top of him to protect him. Armstrong now took over command. At the RAP Hutcheson, almost unconscious, lips numb, vision only a pinpoint, was given a transfusion of plasma. ‘I felt the vitality returning to my lips, and I could talk again. Soon I was feeling fine.’ But for days he lay near death.
Tanks couldn't spot enemy positions just ahead. Striving to detect them, the infantry was flayed with spandaus. A hapless platoon of 3 Company managed to make the Fontanaccia, and the tanks floundered across too. Soon 3 Company was brought to a final halt. Sainsbury feared his company was suffering rather severely, and communications were almost hopeless— the old story. On the right 1 Company painfully crossed the stream and went a few hundred yards over sandy ground to a large three-storied house by the beach. Here, about midnight, Colonel Donald reported to 4 Brigade that 3 Company was stalled and 1 Company's tanks were baulked by mines along the coast road. General Weir weighed the chances of sending 26 Battalion to the 22nd's aid, while Donald, personally visiting 3 Company, decided it might be better for his men to detour into the protection of 6 Brigade's area, then turn to strike back at the enemy flank, rather than bulldoze a way on this frontal attack. Three Company, however, made a little more progress, and the idea of attacking from the left flank was dropped. A tank with 1 Company was blown up, and the engineers tried (with not much success, for the fire was cruel) to clear mines ahead of the troubled tanks.
The German had a perfect crossfire of spandaus using tracer. The ruined tank had struck a double Teller mine, and the page 368 explosion and bits of tank hit nearby men and most of 5 Platoon headquarters. ‘The Jerries were covering the minefield with schmeissers, and while I was patching up Lionel Lapworth's51 stomach wound an enemy threw a hand grenade,’ writes Corporal Tansley.52. ‘I was hit but we managed to fire-fight the Jerries away: the RAP collected our wounded.’
Brigadier Pleasants53 came up to see for himself, but throughout a night of uproar the 22nd advanced not much more than 500 yards beyond the river. At daybreak casualties proved much fewer than expected: eight in all.
Next day (25 September) the enemy decided to quit the coastal strip, which was too exposed after 6 Brigade's advances a little further inland. Demolitions sounded a mile away towards the settlement of Igiea Marina, and civilian refugees straggled through with stories that the enemy, plus artillery and Tiger tanks, was withdrawing back beyond Igiea Marina. Acting quickly on this heartening news 1 and 3 Companies, supervised by the CO, got under way again. Fighter-bombers and artillery scoured ahead of them. The advance went well to the river south of Igiea Marina, but near the water the enemy mortars awoke again, especially round the partly damaged bridge. Early in the afternoon the battalion reached the fringe of Igiea Marina, where (at last) 26 Battalion relieved it. Major-General Weir expressed the highest praise for the work the unit had done in the advance up to and then beyond the Marecchia River. The battalion's casualties from Fontanaccia to Igiea Marina were sixteen: one officer killed and one officer and fourteen other ranks wounded.
‘The battalion had performed remarkably well, and by the speed of its advance broke through heavily defended positions thick with gun emplacements, mobile pill boxes, mines, etc,’ summed up Colonel Donald, looking back over the operation. ‘With very few casualties it accomplished with speed what might have taken perhaps weeks of heavy fighting.’page 369
Padre Sergel was taking note of the refugees: ‘One morning literally hundreds came flocking past, I intended to take some snapshots of some of the more fantastic groups but their pathetic and frantic expressions somehow deterred me. One could visualise the scene as they had hurriedly snatched together their most treasured possessions as they left their homes in flight. Some had donkey carts laden to the skies, others pulled carts themselves, piles of bedding, odd pieces of furniture, ornate family pictures, bird cages, poultry in crates, often the youngest and oldest members of the household sat in state amidst all this conglomeration. Other families had escaped with only a few possessions clutched under their arms, and some came empty handed. They had all passed through shell fire and although during this particular morning most of the shells were passing over from our twenty-five pounders, yet the shriek of each missile added to their terror. We tried to tell them they were safe, that the shells were British, but they were too dazed to understand. One felt that these poor simple people in exposing their worldy treasures to alien gaze were exposing their naked souls whose simple existence had been broken and shattered by war. But it was not all sad, I remember one stately old man, whose upright walk showed him to be a veteran of some former war, who boldly marched ahead of one group with no possessions but on his head instead of a steel helmet was a well known enamel article of bedroom equipment.’
After resting for a few days at Viserba 22 Battalion relieved 23 Battalion, under a clear sky and a full moon. Two Company took over before midnight on 30 September, but 3 Company was delayed a couple of hours. A fighting patrol twenty strong, armed with grenades and bazookas, gave trouble ahead and held up the relief, which cost the battalion two wounded. The front was alive this night, and taking advantage of the clear sky two rare German bombers flew over, sprinkling butterfly bombs and high explosive to a violent barrage of anti-aircraft shells (the New Zealanders alone fired over 2000 shells in a few minutes). All over the front fire increased: ‘I stood and listened and thought. Years ago we had been told that the RAF—and later the Americans—were knocking his factories out right and left—surely by now his arms production must be well behind schedule, to put it mildly. And yet as you page 370 listened all along the front it was crump-crash-crump-crump. And it went on for long periods at a time. It made you think: just how long can he keep going? I had never heard so much Arty activity from him—at times he seemed to be doing all the shelling.’
On the night of 1-2 October the battalion came under considerable enemy artillery and mortar fire. Before dawn a raiding party of fifteen enemy attacked a forward platoon with bazookas, killing one man and wounding three. ‘We are in a house, a typical Iti outfit, with the barn for the animals underneath and the living quarters on top,’ concludes ‘Shorty’ Price, a somewhat different man now from the one who began the advance with the Greeks. ‘Some of the boys are up the stairs watching out for the Jerries. A patrol comes back without seeing any Jerries. We have our pickets posted and think we are in for a quiet night when all of a sudden we hear a Spandau open up and our section leader Clarke54 who is standing in front of a double wooden door stops the lot. I hop up to a window with my Bren gun to see what I could see and there isn't a sign of anybody. I'm there a few minutes looking out and the next thing I know is a terrific bang alongside me and I fell to the ground. I looked down at my stomach and saw blood spurting out like a fountain and I thought I was a goner.’
Two patrols went out to reconnoitre the river front and came back with details about the size and the condition of the stopbanks, the depth and width of the stream, and impressions of enemy defences. There was not much to be seen of the defences because the enemy was well hidden by the high stopbank on the far side. In one place the river was seven to eight feet deep; in another only eighteen inches to a couple of feet. The stopbanks were fifteen feet high, and between them was a stretch of forty feet. Plank bridges crossed the Fiumicino in one place. Guns, mortars, and machine guns kept going through the day; one of their objects was to drown the noise of the engineers’ bulldozer busy on repair and demolition work.
A bright moon on the night of 3-4 October made patrolling difficult and brought prompt machine-gun fire from an enemy page 371 keeping a keen eye on the southern bank of the river. With rumours of Germans on the prowl, a sentry's hair rose as rusling round a haystack grew nearer. Then came a shaky voice: ‘Don't shoot—it's only me.’ Taking no chances, his relief had crawled all the way. The right-hand company (2 Company) sent a strong patrol (10 Platoon) out and reconnoitred the river front and confirmed that the forward slopes on the bank opposite were occupied. Here came the best example of cool courage that Lin Faull can remember. ‘Sid Tsukigawa (one of the finest soldiers and gentlemen I was privileged to meet) crossed this river in bright moonlight and avoiding a trip wire on the river bottom climbed the far stop-bank and stood on top and had a good look at the Jerries dug in on the reverse side.’ But the patrol, hampered by the moonlight, later ran into strong enemy fire by the river and suffered casualties. A heavy artillery and mortar ‘stonk’ was called down on the suspected enemy positions.
Donald had ordered Lieutenant Twigg to take his platoon (from 3 Company) out at dusk, advance to the bank of the Fiumicino, and attempt to ambush an enemy patrol, take prisoners, and generally observe. Some time before the platoon set out, however, a heavy ‘stonk’ came down on the platoon's immediate front from our artillery. No change or cancellation of orders was issued. As they expected, Twigg's party reached the river to find the enemy standing to, and was engaged immediately. Simultaneously the enemy laid down heavy counter-fire. Fully expecting the enemy to follow up behind his fire, Twigg sent his sergeant and the platoon back, but stayed himself with two of his best men to observe the enemy lines. Before reaching the platoon area the two men were killed and Twigg, wounded, recalls ‘trying to decide (a bit dazed, no doubt) which I should carry back with my one free hand, my Thomson or a bottle of rum, which was to have been consumed once our patrol had succeeded. My mouth was pretty well shattered, and the platoon sentry was rather inclined to shoot me because I couldn't reply to his challenge.’ Pitying Twigg, with his mangled mouth, in the ambulance was Sergeant Gilbert, who had recently returned to the battalion from New Zealand and was now out of the war, partly paralysed and in agony, the back of his neck gashed by a mortar-bomb page 372 splinter. He was on the stretcher above Twigg in the ambulance.
Gilbert had been working out some accounts for comforts which the platoon (Lieutenant Cave's) had just received from Company Headquarters. A heavy mortar ‘stonk’ had burst all round the house and one bomb had landed on top of a haystack just outside Gilbert's room. The only fragment to penetrate the house came through the transom over the door and passed through the sergeant's neck. Private Pemberton55 (who afterwards lost a foot on a Schu mine) was one of the stretcher-bearers who carried the sergeant out. ‘We got a pasting on the way. Several times we were forced to drop Gilbert and take to earth.’
On the night of 4-5 October 10 Platoon56 (well informed, thanks to Tsukigawa's daring ‘look-see’ over the Fiumicino the night before), crossed the river by La Chiusa, captured a German from 4 Parachute Regiment in one dugout, and probably killed two other Germans with grenades and tommy guns in another. The other company, moving back to the scene of last night's clash, spotted an enemy party carrying boxes—probably mines—to the stopbank. They held their fire until these men had gathered together and then killed three and wounded or killed two others. The patrol next threw grenades at another enemy party further downstream and shot up a house across the river. One man was wounded in this patrol.
A high-velocity gun scored seven direct hits on one of the battalion's positions and heavily bombarded Battalion Headquarters, but only one man was wounded. Eleven Platoon met fire from an enemy patrol which was thought to have crossed the river, but mortar and artillery fire checked any further threats. The last day in this place was overcast and showery. The changeover went quietly enough, except for traffic difficulties along slippery roads.
While the battalion rested in Viserba again, the New Zealand drive to the Savio River began—a seventeen-day task. Once the Savio was reached, all the New Zealanders would take a page 373 well earned rest and leave the mud and the canals and the wretched outdoor living conditions for clean and peaceful stone houses tucked away in quiet little Apennine towns.
The attack, in the last autumn of the war, began with the Canadians on the left lined up by Route 9, the New Zealanders in the centre, and some miscellaneous units known as Cumberland Force over by the now unimportant coast. Fifth Brigade crossed the Fiumicino River and by 16 October was nearing the Pisciatello River. There 22 Battalion reappeared on the scene and took over from 21 Battalion.
By this time the dust was back again, and great, rolling yellowish-white clouds marked the paths of advancing columns of all types of transport—trucks, guns and tanks. But close under the surface the mud waited.
On the New Zealanders' right flank 22 Battalion, in a smart advance in which two were killed and three wounded, came to within half a mile of the Pisciatello. During the day (16 October) 1 Company marched across country and two small rivers without opposition other than mortaring and took up platoon positions about 400 yards south of Via Ventrata. That night a patrol from 7 Platoon to Via Ventrata did not contact the enemy—so far so good—and early on the 17th the company moved forward and took up positions along the road. Orders came to attack the enemy paratroopers, who were in a position round casas about 400 yards ahead. Six and 7 Platoons got their objective, but 8 Platoon was pinned down by spandau fire. The tanks, which were called up, drew awkward fire from heavy guns and blasted unsuccessfully at the spandaus. Under cover of the tanks firing, a withdrawal was made to a deep ditch, wide at the top but narrow at the bottom. Here they were pinned down by mortar fire, then hit by a mortar bomb which wounded Laurie Duffy,57 Ernie Burch58 (in fifteen places), and three others. They then retreated again, still under heavy mortar fire, attacked again and took the casa objective from the flank. Privates Grant59 and John Harold60 were killed.page 374
In this charge 6 Platoon in particular staged a model attack to seize firmly-held Casalini. A troop of tanks supported the platoon, and with these tanks one section made as if to attack from the front. Meanwhile Sergeant George Palmer led the remaining two sections to the right flank, where one section, owing to hedges and obstacles, did not see Palmer and his section (a mere eight men) move off into the final attack. Making the best possible use of cover, these eight men crept undetected to within striking distance, and then charged into the middle of thirty unsuspecting paratroopers. The eight men seized the Germans' house while the enemy dived into their trenches round it. The section then was able to shoot them down from the second-story windows. Fierce fighting ended with the enemy utterly routed, leaving four machine guns behind as well as dead and wounded.
Further parties from 6 Platoon came up to hold complete superiority over the ground. This smart piece of work was described as ‘a copybook demonstration of the values of speed and surprise’, but Palmer says: ‘The credit for this should go to the chaps with me. I was lucky enough to give the right orders at the right time and the section did the job.’
But trouble was looming for 7 Platoon, which was holding a forward position on an open flank. After midnight a heavy enemy ‘stonk’ and smoke barrage came down, particularly round this platoon. Then, with bazookas, rifles and grenades an enemy party, thought to number fifty, closed in and surrounded the house, which was defended by two sections under Lieutenant Graham Bassett. In the following fight 7 Platoon, tried to the utmost, fought back viciously. Bazooka fire smashed into the casa's walls. Four men were wounded, including Bassett himself, and with the No. 38 radio set soon wrecked, the defenders lost all contact with Company Headquarters. Ignoring great pain from his wounds, Bassett kept control of his besieged platoon and, as further casualties were suffered, overcame the loss in manpower by cleverly altering the positions of his men.
For more than six hours and until well after dawn the enemy continued to press. The platoon's grand defence beat off every attack. With the coming of the longed-for dawn fire slackened, but then another strong party returned, again enveloped 7 Platoon's house, and in the ensuing heavy fire-fight made skilful page 375 use of haystacks and natural cover. Again 7 Platoon defied the attackers until tanks and 6 Platoon moved up in support. Then 200 yards away a white flag went up, and the exhausted platoon collected a number of prisoners. At least eight enemy dead lay about, and other casualties had been carried back in the night. For his ‘quiet, cool leadership, and his complete disregard for his personal safety’, Bassett received an immediate MC. Seven of his men were casualties.
Bassett writes: ‘It was a platoon show: every member of Number 7 played his part to the best of his ability and as I would have wished him to.’ He pays tribute to ‘the excellent work of Sergeant Ian Park61 who was killed in a later action. Park maintained the morale and discipline of the platoon after my wounds made me hand over.’
That night Major O'Reilly, returning from a trip round his platoons, was picking his way down a track leading to a casa. From a top-story window Russell,62 a tommy-gunner, spotted the figure in the gloom. Now Russell favoured the big drum magazine on his tommy gun, but the Major was dead against it because of stoppages. He was always trying to persuade Russell to use the short clip magazine. Spotting the unidentified figure approaching at 20 yards, Russell let rip with a shower of twenty rounds. The officer survived, came uninjured through the doorway, and told a shaking and apologetic Russell: ‘If you shoot again at such short range, boy, and miss you'll be taken off that tommy gun.’ An hour later Russell was overheard telling a comrade: ‘Anyhow, the old b— won't be talking about stoppages again.’
George Barnes63 and four comrades slept in a barn until ‘a terrible uproar: four Ites (two men and two women) on the business end of a rope trying to assist nature in the birth of a calf. The cow gave a convulsive heave, the Ites threw a couple of buckets of water over her, and all screamed enough to wake the dead, but George Barnes never woke or stirred.’
The battalion had arrived just in time for a spectacular change in tactics: a heavily armoured right hook over more page 376 than five miles of countryside to the Savio River, which flowed more or less north from Route 9. This hook would smash the front between the inland town of Cesena (on Route 9) and Cervia by the coast, cut all roads below the river leading to the coast, bring about the fall of Cesena, and free yet another stretch of the highly important Route 9. More important than all this, as far as 22 Battalion was concerned, was that for the first time 4 Armoured Brigade would work all together as one brigade. Previously its tanks had been split up under infantry brigades in support of infantry advances. Now the tanks had come into their own, in a drive of their own (in mud of their own, too), and a company from 22 Battalion would support each regiment. While the tanks shot up other tanks and strongpoints, the 22nd's men would protect them from attacks by enemy infantry and light anti-tank guns. ‘We were going to rush through like the Panzer outfits of the early days.’
In the darkness of the last hours of 18 October the artillery flayed the banks of the Pisciatello. Two battalions crossed. By mid-morning on the 19th two regiments of New Zealand tanks were over. Some of the 28-ton Shermans crossed by ark bridges; others, striking trouble on the mucky banks, crossed by other bridges.
At 9.50 a.m., and to the very day exactly one year after the brigade left Egypt after its months of training for just such an assault, Brigadier Pleasants gave the orders for the tanks and the 22nd to advance. Forward they went, 18 Armoured Regiment on the right with 2 Company 22 Battalion carried on the tanks themselves. (‘OK for the tank commander inside the tank with just his head showing,’ comments Ken MacKenzie, ‘but what about the P.B.I. on the outer like lollies on a wedding cake?’) On the left was 20 Armoured Regiment, with 3 Company.
Flat farmland stretched before them on their 2000-yard front, dotted with houses and trees and criss-crossed with narrow lanes. Further rain arrived in the night, but the ground was not yet ‘untankable’. The chief obstacles were mud and deep ditches, and here good work was done by Sherman bulldozers hauling out stalled tanks. During the day the armoured brigade won almost three miles, at the cost of seven tanks knocked out and twice as many bogged down. The enemy, startled at first when page 377 tanks attacked instead of infantry, soon settled down to a steady resistance. Frequently a tank would plug two or three 75-millimetre shells through a house, the infantry would rush the place in extended order—three yards between men—and a flanking section, leaving the others to deal with the front of the building, would swing round, gallop to reach the rear and catch any enemy escaping from the back door.
In this attack Private Watt wishes ‘to pay a tribute to some of the platoon officers: the one and two-pippers who actually led the platoons into battle: a platoon (often composed largely of men like me, a bit jittery and not too sure of themselves) prepared to follow anyone who would lead.’
Going up to the start line, Watt saw ‘Snow’ Pearce64 hand his wallet and a few little things to a comrade who was left out of battle, saying: ‘Here, you know what to do with these.’ The advance at first was very quiet: men were resting by a three-feet-deep drain when Cash65 ‘got a very uneasy feeling of being too high in the air’, so got into the drain. His neighbour, Pearce, said: ‘What the hell are you getting down there for? There's nothing—’. From out of the silence two shells landed. ‘Not even finishing what he was saying he fell on top of me dead.’
The first objective, a road called ‘Cassy’, was reached, with the German retreating under the cover of lively shelling. Charlie Pollard66 had a large hole knocked through the brim of his helmet, and ‘what a relief to bolt into those big stone casas with the cattle standing quietly in their stalls in the one room and the Ites in the next having their dinner or, more often, down a hole under the floor.’ Watt continues: ‘As we stood in that casa looking out the window at the shells and mortars falling all round, I, and probably some of the others, felt “this is too hot, we'll just have to shelter here for a while.” But after a few minutes [the platoon commander, Maclean] looked out the window at the shells falling and said to the chap with the 88 set: “Send a message. On ‘Cassy’, pushing on to ‘Gertie’” [the second road and the second objective]. Then turning to us all he said quietly: “Well chaps, we've got to go on.” I don't honestly think I'd have the courage to go out that door. But if a man like that was willing to lead, we were all willing to follow. I take off my hat to men like that.’67
‘Gertie’ was reached, and cover taken inside casas, but a short withdrawal was made after dark; the tanks did not like the chances of Germans sneaking through with bazookas. The three tanks with Maclean's platoon got bogged in a field; the page 379 platoon went into a house, and the sections drew lots for who would go first to dig a slit trench by each tank ‘and guard those tanks under the heaviest fire I have ever experienced. [McGirr and Lindsay68 were killed by a shell as they were crossing a ditch towards the bogged tanks.] I will never forget the hush that came over the platoon and the look on the face of our officer as he came into the room and said “They're both killed.”’
Although the plan to occupy Calabrina and Osteriaccia that day failed, the German was about to leave. Under cover of heavy shells and mortaring, and to the sound of demolitions, he began his move back behind the sheltering banks of the Savio.
The armour now swung west towards the Savio River. With the Canadians battling up Route 9 and forcing the enemy out of Cesena, the enemy's main aim was to get behind the river with all speed. Delayed by the swampy ground and the skilful demolitions on the roads and particularly on the crossroads (some craters could have held a cart and horse comfortably), the armour took most of the morning to reach the Rio Granarolo stream, where bridge-laying tanks went to work. From here 18 Armoured Regiment (on the right, accompanied by 2 Company) pressed on uneventfully almost to the bank of the Savio itself by dusk. Twentieth Regiment (with 3 Coy),69 finding the going more difficult, nevertheless drew level with them by sunset. Keith Whisker70 (3 Company) ran into a deep cesspit.page 380
The platoon, mostly new reinforcements, had a tendency to bunch when advancing. There was no more bunching against Whisker, at least, that afternoon. The house where he fell was full of Italians, among whom a woman gave birth to a baby when the tanks shelled the buildings.
The battalion ran into little opposition, and at night the two companies grouped about their tanks to protect them from sudden attack. The hook was accomplished, but commanders were worried about the right flank, which lay open to attack from the coastal sector. During the day not one tank had been lost, and twenty Germans were in the bag.
After midnight a patrol from 14 Platoon reconnoitred the river area opposite 18 Regiment's front. Led by a sapper, Lieutenant Skipage,71 the patrol found the Savio a tough proposition. The banks, high and steep, seemed impassable to tanks; the water itself was about 65 feet wide and three feet deep, and a Bailey bridge 130 feet long would be needed to make a crossing. The patrol, although suffering no casualties, did not gather this information undisturbed. By a partly wrecked steel pontoon bridge a spandau post spotted the infantrymen. Brens replied, and the work went on.
Next day (21 October) advanced patrols from the battalion safely checked tracks running west to the river and consolidated with the tanks, 2 Company with 18 Armoured Regiment moving across to link with the Divisional Cavalry near Pisignano. That night every New Zealand gun handy to the river opened up to fox the enemy while the Canadians further south unsuccessfully attempted to cross.
Meanwhile 7 Platoon (led admirably by Sergeant Ian Park after Bassett had been knocked out), again distinguished itself in another Bassett-like stand. Sergeant Park, Sergeant Reeve and his sadly depleted section had been sent up to aid a knocked-out tank near La Rossa. The two sergeants, from a drain, exchanged grenades ‘with our unpleasant neighbours’ until a call came from the back of the section that Germans were cutting in behind the party. The two raced back to a casa, where in the meantime others from the party had barricaded themselves in. A tommy-gunner killed two of the page 381 advancing Germans as Private Devereux turned to thrust a large table on end against the door. Devereux goes on: ‘We climbed the stairs and Tedesky was out in canals and ditches in front of us a few chain—maybe two chain. He let fly with Spandaus and I got right onto him with the Bren. I got a burst through the shoulder and I remember nothing till Tom Dolan and Private Heffernan were treating me down the stairs. Tedesky hit the door with a grenade, and Dolan shot him through a small window. They said if it hadn't been for that propped up door he would have got us all.’
Park, Reeve, and a few others entered the besieged casa. Then, despite urgings to stay put, Park, Reeve and two privates swept out and attacked round the casa; Park met his death and a grenade wounded Reeve and Burlace.72 The casa held out until dusk, when the wounded were taken away. After dark Major O'Reilly ordered 6 Platoon (Sergeant Palmer) up the machine-gunned road to support 7 Platoon, which had retired successively to one house, then to another. The loss of the two NCOs, Park and Reeve, had led understandably enough to a certain amount of confusion. Six Platoon found the area lit up by blazing haystacks. One tank was bogged down helplessly. Palmer (who received an immediate DCM for his leadership this night and for his achievements on 17 October) swiftly organised 7 Platoon to give immediate cover to the tanks and the ground ahead, and was preparing to attack north when Maclean arrived with 5 Platoon to take charge. This platoon and 6 Platoon occupied two neighbouring houses without fighting; Palmer and Lance-Sergeant Coppell (who also was prominent this night) found no sign of movement around bamboo clumps to the right.
Then twenty to thirty German paratroopers came down the road to occupy the two houses. The two platoons waited, then poured out a hail of fire. The battle was on, a confused mêlée with violent firing on both sides. At times it was difficult to discriminate between enemy movement and moving shadows caused by flickering flames from the burning haystacks. Finally the Germans crawled away up a deep drain, leaving behind dead, wounded, bazookas and a machine gun. Private Lealand73 page 382 later died from wounds, and the day had cost the company no fewer than ten casualties.
Some 88-millimetre shells fell very close to the houses during the night, and at one unfortunate stage the tanks were machine-gunning through the back door of 5 Platoon's house, much to everyone's annoyance. A great deal of small-arms ammunition was used during the night for defensive fire, particularly by the tanks.
During the fracas round the house Private Hawley74 won the MM. Roving out into no-man's-land, if not into enemy territory itself, in his ambulance carrier, Hawley had evacuated the wounded in the first action and returned before the engagement with the parachutists began. This time he went out with a stretcher party to bring in a wounded NCO lying 50 yards from an enemy post. Burning haystacks lit up the place, and there was next to no cover. While returning they saw an enemy patrol following only 30 yards behind. During the attacks which followed, Hawley volunteered to carry a message back to 1 Company headquarters, and he got through, despite the light from the flaming haystacks and the enemy close at hand. ‘At times,’ Adriatic campaigners say, ‘that blessed RAP of ours was just about catching casualties as they fell.’
All through this drive up the waterlogged Adriatic coast the Medical Officer, Baird, was well to the fore. A company commander says: ‘Only with great difficulty did one CO restrain Baird from getting in front of the troops. On the occasion Palmer was surrounded in the house, Baird brought his RAP right up in front of a certain Company and throughout did an excellent job.’
An officer who saw a good deal of the RAP staff writes: ‘One could relate at some length the story of our RAP and its members under the leadership of the Doc. How we were besieged one night when some German patrols infiltrated round behind our lines. How we had a direct hit on the upstairs room where the doctor and padre were sleeping and how they were half buried in rubble. How the RAP liberated several villages ahead of the Eighth Army. How we made new routes for our ambulances only to see them churned into impassable quagmires by the 4th Brigade tanks. But of this I am sure that page 383 never did a buttalion have such a medical unit. From Doctor down to the humblest drive they could handle the most severely wounded with the care and tenderness of a nurse, and deal with the shirker and malingerer with the harshness of any sergeant major.’
Another man remembered for his work, both spiritual and with the wounded in the forward areas, was Padre Sergel. ‘He usually ws around when chaps ran into trouble. One can recall some touching and memorable church services held in all kinds of places and under all conditions. There were times at Communion when men couldn't kneel down for the mud, and the padre himself was in gumboots.’ One man's impressions can be condensed into these few words: ‘The dying and the frightened remembered him.’
A Canadian armoured division began to take over from the New Zealand Division. Twenty-second Battalion, which with the tanks had opened the New Zealand attack on the Adriatic a month ago, featured in the last New Zealand action here, entering and occupying by itself Pisignano, Borgo Pipa and La Rosetta. Then away down the grey coast they went, turnig near Ancona, then inland through Iesi to the peace and quiet of the rest area high in the Apennines. In its second period by the Adriatic the Division had 1125 casualties, of which 188 came from 22 Battalion, just 100 fewer than those during the Arezzo and Florence campaigns in July and August.
And so the New Zealanders ended their association with 1 Canadian Corps, which had broken the Gothic line, and, in four weeks, had covered 14 miles of ‘ideal tank country’, which unhappily had turned out to be little more than a reclaimed swamp ideal for defence.
On the way back the convoys twisted past notices erected by the generous Canadians. Twenty-second Battalion read, and remembered fondly, one such notice which said: ‘Cheerioh Kiwis all—nice having worked with you.’
1 Here Captain C. N. Armstrong returned (via Italy, Germany, Poland, Sweden, England and New Zealand) to his old unit, temporarily going to Support Company. Captured in Libya in 1941, he received a bar to his MC for many escapes from PW camps which led finally to freedom in Sweden. After furlough in New Zealand, he volunteered to return to the war. Among reinforcements were several old members of the battalion, including Dick Kendrick and Ted Bassett who, after being taken prisoner at Ruweisat, escaped in Italy and went home before rejoining the battalion.
Battalion appointments were: CO, Lt-Col H. V. Donald; 2 i/c, Maj D. Anderson; OC 1 Coy, Maj A. W. F. O'Reilly; OC 2 Coy, Maj K. R. Hutcheson; OC 3 Coy, Maj G. S. Sainsbury; OC 4 Coy, Maj L. G. S. Cross.
30 Knuckey was taken to 3 NZ General Hospital and within a day or two ‘in came General Freyberg to see the wounded and displayed the wound [caused by an aeroplane accident] in his side. Very proud of it he was, just like a big schoolboy watching all the time to see there were no sisters about as he was not supposed to be out of bed. He's a tough old stick though.’ A favourite time-killer in hospital (among the wounded) was to recall people and places—and pubs. Two stricken comrades one night traced and discussed all the pubs in Napier. Next morning one comrade, greeting the other with the customary ‘How are you?’, was told: ‘Lousy—I've got a hangover—those last two at the Albion topped me off.’
42 Brig J. T. Burrows, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Order of Valour (Gk); Christchurch; born Christchurch, 14 Jul 1904; schoolmaster; CO 20 Bn 1941-42, 20 Bn and Armd Regt 1942-43; comd 4 Bde 27-29 Jun 1942, 5 Jul-15 Aug 1942; 5 Bde Mar 1944, Aug-Nov 1944; 6 Bde Jul-Aug 1944; Commander, Southern Military District, Nov 1951-Oct 1953; Commander K Force, Nov 1953-Nov 1954; Commander SMD, Jan 1955-.
43 Maj-Gen C. E. Weir, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 5 Oct 1905; Regular soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939-Dec 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941-Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 4 Sep-17 Oct 1944; 46 (Brit) Div Nov 1944-Sep 1946; Commander, Southern Military District, 1948-49; QMG Nov 1951-Aug 1955; CGS Aug 1955-.
49 Other accounts say the start line was anything but quiet.
53 Brig C. L. Pleasants, CBE, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Halcombe, 26 Jul 1910; schoolmaster; CO 18 Bn and Armd Regt Jul 1942-Mar 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Sep-Nov 1944; 5 Bde Nov 1944-Jan 1945, May 1945-Jan 1946; twice wounded; Commander, Fiji Military Forces, 1949-53; Commander, Northern Military District, 1953-57; Central Military District, 1957-.
67 ‘In this tribute I would also include platoon sergeants like “Rocky” Long, our sgt at that time. When we were sheltering in a ditch with bullets flying he would always be the first to stand up and walk up the line saying: “Just stay where you are a minute or two and she'll soon blow over.”’
69 A massive hedge, with perhaps a tank-trap ditch behind it, barred the way at one stage. Spandaus, too, were expected on the other side. Halting his tanks, the troop commander asked an officer to look through the hedge. Hearing the request, Fred Fisher, with his No. 38 set, and knowing of the possible dangers, ran to the hedge and had to be hauled out by his heels and ordered to sit down while the officer wormed his way through and viewed the other side. The officer writes: ‘He, in that instant was prepared to give me everything, literally, and not to me personally—I don't recall having seen him before this, for I had just come back from two months in hospital. He was prepared to do that for any of us. But there were so many things done like that amongst the companies….’