CHAPTER 13 — Liri Valley
During the night of 25 – 26 May units of 5 Brigade in the Belvedere sector, where on 16 – 18 May they had relieved 6 Brigade, patrolled to the north and north-west towards Terelle and on the 26th slowly advanced northwards towards Belmonte and Atina; they were instructed ‘to ease forward gradually’, avoiding direct attack on any enemy they encountered. Atina was five to six miles away.
Twenty-fifth Battalion in the rest area at Montaquila was about 20 road-miles from Atina and its task was to clear the road San Biagio–Atina for use as a possible main axis for the Division. From 1 p.m. on the 26th the battalion was at one hour's notice to move, and eventually, at 7.30 p.m., it started off as the spearhead of 6 Brigade Group for the Monte Croce area via Filignano and Menella, the same route as was followed on 10 April to the S. Pietro sector. Halting for the night near Menella, the battalion at 1.30 p.m. the next day resumed the march along the Cardito–S. Biagio–Atina road. A vanguard of a section of carriers, a troop of tanks of A Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment, D Company, a detachment of mortars, and an engineer reconnaissance group, accompanied by an artillery FOO and the RMO, led the advance. This party was followed by the mainguard consisting of Battalion Headquarters, a machine-gun platoon, a troop of tanks, C and B Companies (each with a detachment of mortars and an anti-tank section), A Company, and a section of engineers, in that order, and accompanied by a Corps Artillery officer, an artillery liaison officer, and numerous vehicles.
Various report lines about 1200 yards apart had been selected, from each of which the vanguard was to report all clear or otherwise to the advanced guard commander (Colonel MacDuff), the mainguard moving forward from one bound to the next as the vanguard progressed. This was the standard advanced guard operation along a road, which hitherto had rarely been undertaken by New Zealand units. Patrols from the vanguard explored roads and villages on the flanks to guard against surprise attacks. After the S. Pietro sector was passed, many page 437 road blocks were encountered but these gave little trouble, and the failure of the Germans to destroy two useful bridges, though demolition charges were in place, gave rise to much ribald comment on the haste of their withdrawal.
By 6 p.m., after an advance of six miles, the vanguard had reached the outskirts of S. Biagio, seven miles from Atina, the only encounter with the enemy being with two of his mules which were added to the column. From air reports received early on 28 May it was learnt that the road ahead was badly damaged; a bridge in S. Biagio and another two and a half miles to the west had been destroyed and large road craters page 438 had been observed 1200 yards west of the town, also 700 yards east of Atina, and in Atina. The destruction of bridges along the side roads indicated that six villages along or near the road and Atina itself were not occupied by the enemy, and destroyed bridges and road craters along the enemy line of retreat north-west and north-east of Atina strongly confirmed that view.
Shortly after dawn on the 28th the vanguard found that the large crater west of S. Biagio, Teller mines, and a demolished bridge a mile or so farther west blocked the way for the tanks and other supporting weapons. Farther on, two damaged bridges, a blown-up culvert, and three craters blocked the road. These obstacles, it was thought, would take days to clear, and to avoid delay it was proposed that the route be abandoned in favour of that followed by 5 Brigade via Belmonte; however a detour was constructed and repairs to bridges and road pushed on and the advance continued, the vanguard halting at Villa Latina, within three miles of Atina.
Held up by the demolitions, the men had ample time to enjoy splendid bathing in the Mollarino River which ran alongside the road, while the luscious cherries which abounded in the district did not escape attention. Early in the morning of the 29th Colonel MacDuff told Brigadier Parkinson by telephone that he estimated the road to Atina would take three days to clear, and a couple of hours later he was able to discuss the matter with him at Battalion Headquarters when the Brigadier arrived there with General Freyberg and the Crown Prince of Italy. It was decided that there would be no change of plan.
The following day the completion of a road deviation and the erection of a Bailey bridge enabled the advance to continue, and early the next morning the battalion reached the brigade lying-up area 1200 yards east of Atina. Twenty-fifth Battalion there came under direct command of 2 NZ Division and was required to send two companies with supporting arms to hold a position covering crossroads four miles to the north, so that there should be no enemy infiltration along the roads leading to Atina from that direction. A and B Companies were given the task. B Company found and taped a minefield on both sides of the crossroads and discovered that ten of the thirty mines lifted by one of its sections were booby-trapped.page 439
Italian civilians in the area were a problem and on the morning of 1 June A Company sent back a man who appeared to be acting suspiciously. At Battalion Headquarters an Italian brought in by a Field Security NCO reported that twelve Germans were hiding in a cave; ‘McLean Force’ consisting of two sections of 14 Platoon was sent off immediately, guided by the Italian, but found the cave empty. Four hours later three civilians who had passed through the enemy lines were taken to Battalion Headquarters in the RAP jeep and thence sent on to Brigade Headquarters for interrogation. The battalion would shortly be in the vicinity of Sora, occupied at the moment by 28 Battalion, and the attitude of some of the civilians was doubtful; all ranks were warned that women there were suspected of being enemy agents and that information brought in by Italians could not be accepted until tested or confirmed.
Again under command of 6 Brigade, 25 Battalion on 1 June withdrew its two forward companies on their relief by detachments of 12 Lancers and advanced to Carnello, a small village two miles south of Sora. There the battalion was pleasantly situated in a shady area on the Fibreno River, which provided very cold but excellent bathing within five minutes' walk of the camp. An interesting incident that day was the passage of Allied aircraft carrying paratroops forward, but the drop took place out of sight in the hills. During the night the Atina–Sora road, two miles to the east, was shelled but the battalion was not molested.
By the morning of 3 June the leading battalions of 5 and 6 Brigades—28 and 24 Battalions—had advanced up the Liri valley north of Sora and were within 2000 yards of Balsorano. The next morning 25 Battalion moved into Sora, the men almost deafened by the roar of 4.5-inch and 5.5-inch batteries in action along the roadside as the column passed close by. Battalion Headquarters, C Company, and the Support Company occupied buildings in the town, B Company was in the southern outskirts, and A and D Companies 1500 yards to the north. For a couple of hours in the early afternoon the enemy shelled a knoll just outside D Company's position but otherwise the day was quiet.
Shortly after midday B Company (Major Finlay) with an interpreter and two civilian guides was sent off to deal with 150 enemy reported by civilians to be in position on high ground four miles north-west of Sora; another hundred or more were said to be 1200 yards farther to the north-west. Apart from page 440 the reported strength of the enemy, B Company had no light task. The enemy positions were at an altitude of 4600 feet, involving a climb of 3500 feet in the approach march of about six miles along narrow and steep tracks. The company was expected to return on the evening of the next day. Private Price1 of Headquarters Company, who accompanied B Company, gives an interesting account of the operation:
‘The Company left Sora about midday of June the 4th with the object of penetrating the hills to where it was suspected that scattered parties of Germans were hiding out. For this the patrol had Italian guides and muleteers and enough stores were carried to last the Coy for three days.
‘10 Pl led the way with an Italian guide and one man about 100 yds in front. For the first two hours the going was fairly easy and then as the patrol entered the higher country the climbing became more difficult. The day was extremely hot and with the amount of equipment carried the climb was not as pleasant as had been hoped. Halts were numerous and at odd occasions the Italians who were very friendly offered wine. To add to the discomfort, early in the afternoon a thunder-storm broke lasting for nearly half-an-hour and giving a great display of lightning. As a result of this all the men were drenched and the equipment sopping wet.
‘A stop for a meal was made about 1830 hours and after this 11 Pl took over the lead. The track was very narrow and with the rain on it most slippery. Control over the mules became difficult and progress was delayed often on account of their going over the bank. In many cases too it was necessary to leave the track and take to the scrub to avoid being seen.
‘The climb continued until 0300 hours the next morning when the lying-up area was reached. Here the men rested and got what little sleep was possible under the wet conditions. At first light a patrol under Sgt Gordon2 and led by one of the Italian guides was sent out on a recce of the area where it was suspected that the enemy were. The patrol was successful, returning with three Germans who were captured while still asleep.
‘It was decided to attack at once and plans were laid accordingly. A dump was to be left at the lying-up area and only skeleton gear carried. The Coy worked round the Germans and above them with the object of cutting off their means of escape. 10 Pl was to the left and the other two platoons more to the page 441 right. All went well until the Coy was about 200 yds from the objective when a German discovered their presence and gave the alarm. Shots were fired at him and as one man the whole Coy charged forward, firing as they advanced. Within the brief space of 15 minutes the whole show was over with three Germans dead and 12 captured. As soon as the area had been cleared and the three dead buried the Coy set off back to the lying-up area to collect all the gear and the guard that had been left there. It was here that another German, this time a barber, walked into our picquet and was made prisoner. From this area another patrol was sent out to a feature where it was suspected that more Germans were hiding. After three hours the patrol returned empty handed, the birds had flown.
‘After a light meal at 1800 hours the Coy set off on the track back to the Bn. As the need for concealment had passed a shorter route was taken and about 2200 hours the Coy reported into Bn after an extremely successful show.’
At the second area searched a prepared meal, personal effects, and a machine gun were found. Another area, pointed out by a shepherd, was also visited but had been abandoned. During the operation communication with the battalion was most unsatisfactory, despite a link-station left halfway between Sora and the company's lying-up position, the mountainous country proving too much for the No. 18 set used. The prisoners, who included an officer, were from 1 and 2 Companies 131 Regiment, which had been withdrawn from the Garigliano River sector south of Cassino and had arrived in the Sora area three days before. B Company's operation had been well conducted and the behaviour of the Italian guides, who co-operated to the full and took part in the engagement, was highly commended by Major Finlay. Unfortunately, the company lost several secret documents, including the code vocabulary and strip in current use, as well as the list of unit signal call-signs up to 7 June. Although it appeared most unlikely that the enemy had secured these documents, the risk could not be accepted and changes were made accordingly. The only casualty that day was one man wounded.
News that Rome had fallen the previous day reached the battalion on 5 June and, with the invasion of Normandy the following day, caused great excitement and much conjecture as to the likelihood of an early end to the war. This was followed by information, which in the circumstances seemed appropriate, that 2 NZ Division as part of 10 Corps had been placed in a page 442 pursuit role; its front was to be taken over by the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry, reinforced by infantry, mortars, and machine guns, together with C Company of 25 Battalion which during the evening moved four miles up the Liri valley to a position at Colle Castagno, on the eastern slopes about a mile from Route 82. The company had a short stay there, rejoining the battalion the next evening on relief by a troop of Staghounds of the Divisional Cavalry.
The following morning, 7 June, the battalion advanced several miles to the north along the Liri valley to the village of Urbura, a mile beyond Balsorano, where it remained concentrated, ready to move at a few minutes' notice. There were few Italians in the place, which was shattered and very dirty, though people in increasing numbers arrived next day, many carrying furniture which had been hidden in caves in the mountains. Some of them produced letters from Allied prisoners of war stating that they had been housed, fed, and helped generally by these people. During the past week many Australian, Belgian, British, French, and South African troops who had been prisoners of war passed through the battalion's lines.
Farther north 26 Battalion was leading the advance of 6 Brigade towards Avezzano, 17 miles from Balsorano, but was much impeded by demolitions, patrols reaching the town on 9 June. Meanwhile, 25 Battalion remained at Urbura and resumed training. The mobile baths had moved up and erected showers in the village square, the brigade band gave an excellent concert, there was much cherry-picking, and queues of civilians sought scraps from the cookhouses (though there was an organised distribution of flour in the district); all these gave much interest to the waiting troops.
D Company in Balsorano captured a German, as a document in the battalion's war diary relates:
‘Legend has it that two D Coy men were sampling a crop of fine black cherries perched on the upper branches of a tree. One of them espied a figure he took to be an Italian dressed in the usual assortment of enemy, native, and Allied clothing, peering round some bushes nearby. He called out “Catch” and threw the man a cherry, whereupon, to the thrower's surprise, a German emerged, threw up his hands and surrendered, begging them not to fire.’
A considerable service was rendered to the inhabitants of the district by the RMO (Captain Pearse) and the RAP in giving medical attention to from seventy to a hundred people page 443 a day; escaped or released prisoners of war of course also received every attention. However, Captain Pearse was not at all pleased with the anti-malarial precautions within the battalion; in a routine report to the ADMS of the Division he commented that only thirty to forty per cent of mosquito nets were up at the time ordered. Flit guns were not used sufficiently, trucks were not sprayed, and there were many shirts with sleeves removed. The report was no credit to 25 Battalion. On the other hand the RMO reported very favourably on the excellent work done by companies in improving the general sanitation of the area. Referring to this question at a conference of senior officers, General Freyberg urged that special attention should be paid to anti-malarial precautions and told the officers that ‘he would judge units on statistics of sickness to see whether or not proper precautions were being carried out’.
During its stay in the district the battalion suffered another fatal accident when on the evening of 8 June Captain R. G. Stevens, MC, the officer commanding the Support Company, was accidentally shot in the company lines and died on the way to the ADS. Six days later another accident occurred, though luckily without serious results, when fragments flew back from the target during a Piat mortar practice, slightly wounding an officer and a private.
By 11 June it had been decided that the Division would go into Eighth Army reserve and concentrate in the Arce-Ceprano area, 15 miles north-west of Cassino. A battalion reconnaissance party was sent back on the 13th and was followed two days later by the battalion in artillery vehicles to an attractive wooded area near Route 6, two miles to the north-west of Arce. Once again there was the usual round of entertainments and sports, the most noteworthy features being a performance by the South African concert party, a gala day and ‘race meeting’ organised by the units, and aquatic carnivals in the fast-flowing Liri River. Some care had to be taken in moving off the beaten tracks in the area, and especially along the river banks, because of mines and booby traps which were reported to be prevalent.
On 20 June General Freyberg told the senior officers that the Division would not be required for operations for thirty days as maintenance difficulties prevented the concentration of an additional division north of Rome. In the event this period was shortened a little but the battalion enjoyed twenty-four days in its tented camp in the Arce district. The weather page 444 generally was fine though punctuated by showers and sudden thunderstorms, one of which on 25 June brought hailstones as large as marbles and threatened to flood the camp. Training was resumed, with special emphasis on co-operation with other arms, officers being interchanged for a week to gain experience in arms other than their own. Infantry officers assisted 7 Anti- Tank Regiment in training in infantry tactics and the use of infantry weapons in preparation for its employment as infantry, a role sometimes required of it, especially in country unsuitable for tanks. The nine M1os on issue to that regiment aroused much interest throughout the battalion; these were the new self-propelled anti-tank guns, 3-inch American naval guns mounted on Sherman tank chassis. Co-operation with armour received special attention, A Company attacking under tank command and, later, B Company attacking with tanks under its command.
Day leave to Rome on a percentage basis was available every five days, overnight leave not being permitted. This bar was the result of a decision made on the highest political level for diplomatic reasons, and there was also the difficulty in finding suitable accommodation in Rome for men from all the Allied forces in Italy—Americans, British, Canadians, French, Indians, Poles, and South Africans—who wished to enjoy the privilege. The battalion's allotment was eighty-five men every five days, but as the Division's allotment was exceeded the unit quotas were reduced, and a shortage of petrol caused a further reduction at the end of June. On 21 June special leave was granted for Roman Catholics—one officer and twenty other ranks—to attend a service in Rome and hear an address by His Holiness the Pope. On 23 June a New Zealand Forces Club —the Hotel Quirinale in the Via Nazionale—was opened in Rome. Picnics to Lake Albano, 13 miles south-east of Rome, where there were saline springs and mud baths, three days' leave at the Isle of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples (by courtesy of the Royal Navy), and visits to various other places of interest were also arranged.
As in North Africa the opportunity was taken to attend to the graves of the fallen, and parties visited the Cassino area for that purpose and, more especially, to tend the graves reported to have been disturbed by shellfire.
On 16 June Lieutenant-Colonel MacDuff left to command Advanced Base, 2 NZEF, and was succeeded in command of page 445 the battalion by the second-in-command, Major Norman; eight days later, Major Neil3 of 22 (Motor) Battalion joined 25 Battalion as second-in-command.
Apart from accidents, casualties in the battalion between 26 May and 30 June were two men wounded; accidents caused the loss of one officer and one other rank killed and three other ranks injured. During this period, however, sickness was a serious factor, 8 officers and 107 other ranks being evacuated, the number of sick being unduly high in a brigade total for the three battalions of 9 officers and 223 other ranks. The main complaint was diarrhoea, possibly partly of cherry origin but chiefly fly-borne, as the area had been badly fouled by the Germans; there were a good many cases of fever (not diagnosed before evacuation) and some cases of venereal disease as well as miscellaneous ailments. The battalion had, however, commenced the month (June) with about forty men over establishment and these, together with reinforcements, maintained the unit at full strength except in officers, who were three short.
In July training continued as usual with emphasis on route-marching and on co-operation between tanks and infantry in the attack. As part of the ‘keep fit’ campaign sports programmes occupied most afternoons. It was fully expected that this routine would continue for some weeks but it was not to be. On the 6th D Company was sent off to the vicinity of Lake Bolsena, 50 miles north-west of Rome, for special duties. On the next day all leave was cancelled and, quite unexpectedly, the Division was ordered to move north in two days' time.