Chapter 15 — The Advance through the Liri Valley
The Advance through the Liri Valley
AFTER the Cassino sector was handed over to 23 Battalion the 26th moved back to B Echelon, which was situated close to Route 6 and about 18 miles from Cassino. Bivouacs were erected, bedrolls brought out of storage, and the troops settled down to enjoy the spell. Everything possible was done to make it enjoyable. Accumulated parcels and mail were distributed and restrictions on leave relaxed. Many of the men went on a seven-day visit to Bari, where a New Zealand Club had been established. Others visited Naples and Pompeii. For those left in camp there was day leave to Caserta, where most of the Cassino casualties were being treated in 2 NZ General Hospital. Not far away was the Eighth Army rest camp at Campobasso where an ENSA concert party was performing, and several lorryloads of men were taken to see the show. Pictures were shown almost every night in one or other of the three battalion areas.
A change in the war establishment of the battalion enabled Col Richards to reform D Coy, with Capt Barnett as its commander and Capt Boyd as second-in-command. The Anti-Tank Platoon was disbanded and the Carrier Platoon reduced by one section. These personnel and the few reinforcements who arrived about this time were posted to the rifle companies which, however, remained numerically weak. Anti-tank support in future was to be provided by 7 Anti-Tank Regiment.
Although the troops looked and felt considerably better, the news that 6 Brigade was moving back into the line on 12 April was not enthusiastically received. It was some comfort to know that the new sector, which lay in the mountainous country north-west of Cassino, was fairly quiet. Sixth Brigade had been directed to relieve 6 Lwow Brigade, and for several days until 2 NZ Division was wholly withdrawn from Cassino would come under command of the Polish 5 Kresowa Division. The 26th Battalion was to take over the left-hand sector in the vicinity of Mount Croce and would have Canadians on one flank and 24 page 390 Battalion on the other. For several days before the move battalion officers went forward to the new sector, the approaches to which were very difficult. It was decided to set up B Echelon at Folignano, a town near the head of the Volturno Valley on the eastern side of the mountains. From this town a rough, muddy road ran north-west through the hills to some mountain tracks, which formed the only approach route to the battalion positions. These tracks, poorly defined, steep and slippery, climbed over hills into heavily wooded gullies, across swift-flowing streams to end high up on the slopes of Mount Croce and the Arena, a plateau-like feature on the left of it. Because parts of the approach road and the tracks were within range of enemy guns, all movement on them had to be carried out after dusk and without lights. The Poles had taken their cookhouses into the line and were using mules to carry supplies from the road to the sector, and the CO proposed to follow suit.
An advanced party went through to the new sector on the 11th and spent a rather amusing night trying to converse with the Poles. Conversation was difficult even with the aid of interpreters. The next morning the battalion embussed and travelled to Folignano, 21 miles away. Here much of the heavy gear was off-loaded and packed on mules. After dusk the journey was continued, the trucks climbing through the hills towards the Mule Point and the mountain tracks. A thunderstorm during the afternoon had made the roads wet and slippery and mud clung to everything. It was still raining when the convoy reached the small secluded valley where the Indian muleteers and Polish guides were waiting. In a surprisingly short time the mules were loaded and the companies had set off up the mountain tracks, accompanied by the long line of mules. It was very dark, and it was difficult to retain a foothold on the steep, narrow path. Sometimes a pack slipped or a mule went astray, and the hot and tiring column was held up until matters were straightened out. As the four companies neared their positions they came under mortar and shell fire, particularly severe on B and D Coys which were following the same path. In the confusion caused by this bombardment the guides and some of the muleteers disappeared, the mules became scattered, and the columns were disorganised. B Coy reached its new position in page 391 small groups, and Capt Kerr, who was acting Company Commander, directed the men to their various areas. Because of the enemy fire and the confusion it caused, the relief was not completed until nearly dawn. At daybreak the companies set out to find the missing mules. About six dead or badly wounded animals were found near B Coy HQ. The rest were scattered. Some had slipped their loads and disappeared and others had fallen over steep banks. The Indians in charge of them had also disappeared, but by midday most of the missing gear had been recovered.
The companies were spread out across a wide front, extending south-west from B Coy's positions, high up on Mount Croce, to C Coy occupying the Arena area and A Coy on the lower slopes of another feature. D Coy was close to Battalion HQ, about a mile to the rear of B Coy. Some of the platoons were situated about a mile from their Coy HQ and had a long and tiring walk each day to collect rations and supplies. Eight days were spent in the sector and, apart from trouble over supplies, it was quite a pleasant change. The Poles had left well-constructed dugouts, most of them roofed, and these were promptly reoccupied. There was scarcely any shelling or mortar fire, and the silence was broken only by the song of the cuckoos by day and the hooting of owls and the croaking of frogs at night. Working parties widened the mountain tracks and white tape was run out to guide the muleteers across difficult sections. Friendly treatment of the Indians and improvements to the track bore fruit, for by the time the battalion left the sector rations were arriving in record time and were being carried out on mules to some of the more isolated platoons.
Although enemy troops were not seen, working parties were often heard moving about forward of the sector. The battalion mortars and the 25-pounders fired concentrations on their reported positions. About midnight on the 15th a strong patrol was sent to examine a house forward of A Coy. It was believed that the enemy was occupying this house but the patrol found nothing. Four days later an enemy patrol infiltrated between 10 and 11 Platoons under cover of a heavy fog. An uncharted minefield had been laid between the two platoons and the explosion of one of these mines was the first warning of the patrol's page 392 approach. Both platoons opened fire and nothing more was heard of the Germans. Later the same day two men from 12 Platoon went for a stroll. The fog was still heavy and they wandered into the minefield. Both were found dead some hours later, and B Coy lost two good soldiers, Sgt G. L. Maze and L-Cpl W. T. Coster.1 Five men were wounded during the period, four on the day of arrival and the fifth the day after. One of them, Pte Stevenson,2 a popular performer at company entertainments, died after he reached the hospital. Major Ollivier, who had been with the battalion in Greece, left to return to New Zealand on furlough. Fifty-two reinforcements joined the unit and were posted to companies.
The advanced party of 6 (British) Paratroop Battalion arrived to relieve the battalion on the afternoon of the 20th and the main body about 10 p.m. The relief proceeded without incident and by dawn the troops had reached the new rest area, which lay east of Mount Croce in the northern end of the Volturno Valley. The camp site was an excellent one set amongst pleasant surroundings on the banks of the river. The hillsides were covered with bright spring growth. The endless rows of vines were losing their winter bareness. Only 14 miles from the Mule Point, the camp was within range of enemy guns, but during the nine days spent there no shelling occurred. Another 133 men joined the battalion and brought it to nearly full strength. Amongst the new arrivals were a number of ex- officers who had voluntarily relinquished their Territorial commissions to join overseas drafts. Subsequently many of them were recommissioned. To train the many newcomers a training programme was put into effect. As it was expected that the battalion would be engaged in mountain warfare for some time to come, instruction was given in packing and handling mules, minelifting and minelaying, and range firing. To complete the morning's work stiff hill-climbing tests were carried out, sometimes with mules.
HQ truck in the mud near Rimini
The outskirts of Gambettola — a platoon moves up to the line
Draining the camp at Castelraimondo
Testing a ‘Wasp’ flame-thrower near Forli
* * *
The new sector was somewhat similar to the previous one. It lay in the mountains west of the Rapido River and about four miles north of Cassino. To reach it the battalion would have to cross the lower slopes of the eastern range into the Rapido Valley and follow the steep, winding road which led to the town of Terelle. Part of this road was under close enemy surveillance. Fifth Brigade, which had been holding the sector for some time, was using mules to carry supplies. The 26th Battalion was to relieve the 21st in the centre sector on 2 May, and arrangements were made for the outgoing unit to leave behind all its heavy equipment, blankets, and supplies.
The move was made in two stages. Shortly after 1 p.m. on 1 May the troops embussed on transport, which carried them to Acquafondata, a town on the western side of the hills. The page 394 Rapido Valley was under close observation from Monastery Hill, and the next stage of the move did not begin until dark. The trucks dropped their passengers in the bed of the valley and the troops marched about three miles to the lying-up area at the foot of the Terelle road. B Echelon moved to ‘All Nations' Gully’ and an advanced party went ahead to 21 Battalion HQ. Twenty-four hours later the main body followed on foot. It was a gruelling three-hour climb up the steep sides of the mountain. At various points the companies turned off to follow mountain tracks leading to their positions. B Coy for a second time took up a position on the right flank, with D Coy alongside it and A Coy on the left close to the Terelle road. C Coy was in reserve and dug in close to Battalion HQ. The previous occupants had constructed solid shelters and dugouts and company commanders did not attempt to alter platoon dispositions.
It was soon evident that this sector was going to be more lively than the last, for it was in full view of enemy gunners stationed on the slopes of Mount Cairo and the high ground around Terelle, which lay about a mile beyond the FDLs. Any movement during the daytime drew heavy fire from these guns. At night it was the turn of the German infantry, and during the next fortnight enemy patrols were active all along the front. It became almost a nightly occurrence for the forward platoons of A Coy to defend their ground against these patrols, who were sometimes armed with flame-throwers. Reconnaissance patrols were accompanied by dogs. The aggressive tactics of the Germans—intensive patrolling by night and concentrated shelling and mortaring by day—were very trying, but by adopting similar tactics the battalion succeeded in reducing the enemy activity. Lines were run out to each company headquarters and, although signallers found them difficult to maintain, they proved invaluable in calling down artillery and mortar fire on enemy troop movements, patrols and working parties. Nearly every night Bren guns fired on fixed lines forward of the sector, while the Mortar Platoon fired heavy concentrations on suspected enemy positions. The 21st Battalion had been unable clearly to establish the location of the German FDLs and reconnaissance patrols sent out by 26 Battalion were also unsuccessful.page 395
The problem of getting supplies to the forward troops proved less difficult than at first thought, largely due to good organisation. After dusk jeep trains loaded with supplies left Hove Dump in ‘All Nations' Gully’ and raced at high speed across the shell-cratered valley. At the lower jeep-head, half-way up the road to Terelle, the jeeps were unloaded and drivers turned and began their nightmare journey back across the valley. Mules carried the rations on to the companies. Although they came under fire on several occasions, the muleteers did an excellent job and the men never went without meals. At each company headquarters rations were divided amongst platoon representatives, and it was left to each platoon to do any cooking that might be possible.
Three officers and 68 other ranks joined the battalion during the second week in May, bringing it to approximately full strength. Casualties by the 17th of the month totalled 21, including three killed. An unfortunate accident on the 3rd caused nearly half of them. A shell splinter exploded a heap of grenades near 14 Platoon HQ. One man was killed and eight others, including Lt Quartermain, were wounded. A few days later the platoon lost Sgt Tombs, who was fatally injured during a period of heavy shelling. On the 6th came another unexpected incident.
When B Echelon was established at the Hove Dump there was plenty of room in the gully, but the arrival of several Polish B Echelons forced the others to move farther up the gully and occupy a smaller area. This prevented normal dispersement of vehicles, and tents, supplies, ammunition and trucks were crammed together in one corner. On the morning of the 6th shells began to land about 300 yards up the gully and not far from B Echelon. The shelling continued all morning without doing any material damage, but in the afternoon a heap of ammunition covered by a camouflage net received a direct hit. The net caught fire and in turn set alight the grass and scrub on the bank behind it, sending up a cloud of smoke visible for miles. The enemy increased the tempo of his bombardment and before long had set fire to several more dumps and a number of vehicles. Frantic efforts were made to shift the burning trucks away from the others and put the fires out. Everyone lent a page 396 hand—drivers, cooks and QM personnel. Despite the danger of exploding shells and ammunition, the salvage work went on until a large dump of petrol cans and a heap of 75-millimetre shells received direct hits.
Within a few seconds the gully became an inferno of bursting petrol cans, crashing enemy shells, and exploding ammunition. Flames leapt high into the air and the ground reverberated to the explosions. It was an indescribable scene, the flames and explosions being seen and heard by the troops miles away at Terelle. The expletives of the battalion QM and his inability to gauge correctly the flight of enemy shells, and the dismay shown by another soldier as he watched the dollars he had received only the night before from the sale of a German automatic go up in flames, caused much amusement in an otherwise unpleasant afternoon. The four casualties suffered were all caused by the one shell; they included Pte Lever,5 a cook who had been conspicuous amongst those trying to save the battalion trucks, and Lt G. J. Thomas, wounded badly in the leg and slightly in the arm and hand, whose hilarious disregard for such ills and profane refusal to go to a Polish MDS completely nonplussed an audience of British officers. Eventually he was ordered to go. The jeep train had been saved and that night it went forward as usual. Fearing a repetition of the shelling, the brigade B Echelons transferred to Acquafondata and operated from there.
Five days later, on the night of 11 May, the troops on both sides of the valley were treated to a much greater spectacle than the Hove Dump fire, as hundreds of guns from all over the valley opened fire in support of the Polish attack on Cassino and Monastery Hill. All night the guns thundered and roared and by morning the valley was hidden under a pall of smoke. Under cover of it armoured units moved around in an attempt to cut the enemy's supply lines to the Monastery. For days the guns continued to fire and the smoke from the valley reached up into the hills. All ranks eagerly awaited the outcome of the battle, but the Poles were finding it difficult to gain their objectives and were making only slow progress. By the 15th the German page 397 troops opposing 26 Battalion had become very jittery and the slightest movement or noise was sufficient for them to open fire. The German commander apparently believed that a general attack along the whole front might develop, and his use of long-range, large-calibre guns indicated that he was moving his shorter-range guns out of the line.
The weather was fine until the 16th. Clouds built up during the morning and early in the afternoon it rained heavily. A high wind and hailstorms made conditions very unpleasant. Many of the dugouts and shelters were flooded and almost every roof leaked. Clothing and bedding were soaked. A thick fog followed the rain, and after dusk the forward platoons stood-to in case the enemy took advantage of the weather to launch an attack. Next day, the 17th, came word that 23 Battalion would be arriving after dusk to relieve 26 Battalion, which would return to its rest area on the banks of the Volturno. Blankets, heavy equipment, supplies, etc., were to be left behind for the incoming battalion.
The 23rd Battalion began to arrive soon after midnight, and as each company reached Battalion HQ it was guided towards the FDLs. Shortly before A Coy was relieved, a strong enemy patrol attacked the forward platoons. In a short action in which the platoons fired all the weapons in their possession, the enemy was beaten off and withdrew after suffering casualties. One A Coy man was killed. While the relief was taking place a heavy mortar concentration was fired on the area thought to have been the assembly place for the enemy patrol. The Germans were caught for wounded were heard to cry out. Shortly afterwards came the enemy's reaction—an intense bombardment of the FDLs, particularly on the right flank. For over an hour the troops crouched in their dugouts as shells and bombs exploded all around. The waiting period seemed endless and each shell seemed nearer than the last. When the 23rd Battalion men arrived little time was wasted in handing over the sector and setting out over the brow of the hill. B and D Coys were the last to move and, strung out in Indian file, they trudged down a track made slippery by the rain and difficult to negotiate in the darkness. It was dawn before the last platoon reached the bottom of the hill and rejoined the others in the lying-up area. page 398 The men rested all day, and at 10 p.m. marched across the valley to where trucks were waiting to take them on to the Volturno camp. By 4 a.m. the journey had been completed and everyone was asleep.
Because of the darkness the troops did not see the British and Polish flags flying on the crest of Monastery Hill. Events had moved swiftly. British troops, supported by 19 Armoured Regiment, had cut Route 6 south-west of Cassino and denied the enemy his main line of withdrawal. French Moroccan troops driving across the Aurunci Mountains into the Liri Valley made spectacular progress. On the 18th the Poles launched another attack on Cassino and Monastery Hill. The town fell with scarcely a shot being fired and, although they suffered heavy losses in doing so, the Poles succeeded in capturing the Monastery too.
So while the Fifth and Eighth Armies began their drive up the Liri Valley and the hills west of it, the troops rested. The Volturno Valley was greatly changed. The spell of fine weather had caused a resurgence of growth which half hid the ugly shell and bomb craters and softened the harsh outline of the hills. The green foliage of vines and trees blended with the scarlet blooms of poppies. The peasants too seemed gayer as they tended their small plots. The brown mud encrusted on the roads had turned to dust, which followed each vehicle as it moved through the valley. For a week the battalion was left to enjoy its pleasant surroundings. Light training was carried out, generally in the mornings. Platoons or companies either went for short route marches up picturesque valleys green with spring growth or sat in the sun listening to lectures on tactical or technical subjects. The firing range was given plenty of use. Battalion vehicles were repainted to give better camouflage, and vertical standards designed to give drivers some protection against trip wires were fixed in front of jeeps. The arrival of more reinforcements brought the unit to full strength.
Nearly every afternoon was devoted to sport. Cricket, basketball, tenniquoits, and baseball all had their followers. A Coy, which had a strong batting side, won an inter-company cricket tournament. Very little leave was granted but the troops found plenty to do during the evenings. The Kiwi Concert Party, page 399 recently returned from New Zealand, made a welcome re- appearance, and on the 24th an ENSA party staged its show ‘Old Scotch’. The female members of the cast were warmly applauded and gave frequent encores. At the YMCA tent were facilities for reading and writing and, at supper time, a hot cup of tea. Good and poor wines could be bought cheaply from local farmers or at the nearby village of Montequila. All ranks were following the progress of the two armies with great interest. By the 25th the barrier that had stretched across the main road to Rome since October the previous year had been completely smashed, and the pursuit of the Germans up the peninsula of Italy had begun. The 23rd Battalion, patrolling from its sector east of Terelle, had found the enemy gone and had set out in pursuit. It was following the Belmonte-Atina road and was directed on the upper Liri Valley. That night enemy bombers dropped several bombs not far from the camp.
On the 26th Col Hutchens was called to Brigade HQ. There he learned that 6 Brigade was to join in the chase, moving east around Mount Croce along the road leading to Atina and the upper Liri Valley. Mines and demolitions were expected to be the main obstacles. The 2nd Paratroop Battalion on Mount Croce reported no sign of the enemy and it was directed to clear the two remaining heights south of the line of advance. For its advance the brigade was given strong support, 43 Anti-Aircraft Battery, 33 Anti-Tank Battery, and A Squadron 20 Armoured Regiment being placed under command. The 8th Field Company NZE, plus a party of Corps engineers, was to be responsible for clearing the roads. The 25th Battalion was to lead the advance, with the 24th following and the 26th in reserve.
The advance began after breakfast on 27 May and the battalion travelled to Folignano, twelve miles from the rest camp. No further move was made that day. The next morning the CO went forward along the road to Atina to inspect 5 Paratroop Battalion's sector near the village of La Selva. The New Zealand Prime Minister arrived at Folignano and had a talk to each company. Early in the afternoon the battalion embussed and moved to La Selva, taking over the Paratroop Battalion's sector. The troops dug in beneath the shade of olive trees and page 400 settled down to await the next move. The new sector had become only semi-operational and there was little for the men to do.
Two days passed. The 25th Battalion, held up by extensive minefields and demolitions, was making little headway. On the other flank 5 Brigade, driving along the Belmonte road, captured Atina and was advancing on Sora, the next town of importance. There were few in 26 Battalion who were worrying about the slow rate of progress. Around La Selva the scenery was beautiful. The weather was fine and the villagers very friendly. Many of them had gone into hiding when hostilities began in their district and they looked half-starved and haggard as they arrived back at their shelltorn homes. On the last day of the month came news that 5 Brigade had captured Sora and the high ground west of the town. About the same time the road to Atina was reported clear. After midday the troops embussed and the convoy set out for a staging area near Atina. En route the battalion was redirected to continue on to another area about five miles south of Sora. Just as the leading vehicles reached this area there was a sudden outbreak of shelling. Everyone dived to cover but a few were caught. A shell exploded alongside one carrier, wounding the six occupants, two of them mortally. The enemy shelling ceased as suddenly as it had begun. The companies dispersed amongst the rows of vines and settled down for the night. Major G. P. Sanders6 joined the battalion as second-in-command and Maj Williams resumed command of C Coy.
The capture of Sora had opened the way for an advance north-west through the Liri Valley. From the town a good tar-sealed road, Route 82, followed the line of the upper Liri River to Balsorano and Avezzano, the objective of the abortive Sangro-Orsogna battles. The valley was narrow and flanked by high hills, which near Balsorano formed an escarpment which was expected to be strongly held. Both infantry brigades were to take part in a drive up the valley, 6 Brigade along the western page 401 banks of the river with 24 Battalion forward. The 25th Battalion was to move into reserve, and 26 Battalion was to be in a position to assist the 24th if the need arose. On the left flank of the Division 8 Indian Division, with 20 Armoured Regiment supporting it, was following a parallel route.
On Friday, 2 June, the battalion moved into Sora, most of the men occupying buildings in the town. Ahead 24 Battalion was slowly advancing along Route 82. Sora had not been badly damaged by bombing or artillery fire but the Germans had treated the civilians harshly. Consequently the townsfolk gave the men a royal welcome and everywhere they were fêted. Cherries were plentiful and the Italians gladly exchanged them for chocolate and other foodstuffs. The battalion stood by all day Saturday ready to move forward, but the order did not arrive until after dusk. In the meantime a few enemy shells had landed in the town, causing damage and casualties. An ammunition truck was set on fire and two men from the Carrier Platoon were wounded.
At 9.30 p.m. the battalion embussed and moved forward about nine miles to dig in behind 24 Battalion, which had encountered strong opposition from enemy rearguards covering Balsorano. It had been decided that 26 Battalion should pass through the 24th and attack the town after dusk the following night. At dawn the CO went forward to make a reconnaissance. Intelligence reports indicated that the Germans were strongly entrenched on the plateau which contained the town, and obviously intended to hold their ground until the bulk of their forces could withdraw north. The approaches to the town were expected to be mined. The Colonel's reconnaissance confirmed the view that the attack would be difficult and possibly costly because the enemy held such a commanding position. Before he returned to the lines the CO stumbled over a sleeping German, who was promptly taken prisoner.
The troops prepared for action, knowing a sleepless night lay ahead of them. Conferences were held and a plan of action worked out. About two o'clock in the afternoon the battalion lines were heavily shelled. Two D Coy men lost their lives and six others, including four from D Coy, were wounded. Fortunately the shelling was all over within half an hour. Shortly page 402 before dusk came welcome news. Rome had been captured and the attack had been abandoned. Late that night the battalion marched back along Route 6 to a reserve area about four miles south of Sora, arriving at the new camp about 4 a.m., footsore and weary but thankful to be moving south.
The news that Rome had fallen was still being eagerly discussed when another electrifying message was received. Allied troops had landed in Normandy! The Second Front had been opened! All ranks were highly excited. In all parts of the camp groups of men were debating how soon the war would end, and many entertained hopes of an early return to New Zealand. The Calcutta sweepstake on the probable date of the opening of the Second Front was won by Maj McKinlay.
All hopes of a sudden German collapse and an early return to New Zealand were interrupted by orders from Brigade HQ. The enemy had withdrawn from Balsorano and 26 Battalion was to lead the Division's columns to Avezzano. Its role was three- fold: to clear any rearguard parties, to protect sappers repairing the road, and to assist with the minelifting. The advance would begin on the following day, 7 June, and the battalion would be supported by a squadron from 18 Armoured Regiment. For the first time in Italy the Division was to move as a mobile force although the rate of advance was largely indeterminable.
At 6.15 a.m. the troops embussed and the convoy moved up the Balsorano road. All went well for about an hour until the leading vehicle was halted by a huge demolition which blocked the road. Bulldozers were already at work. Brigadier Parkinson was there too. He waved his stick and told the infantry to ‘get cracking up the road on foot.’ B Coy immediately debussed and set out. When his men had travelled about two miles Maj Harvey gave the order to halt. No opposition had been encountered but several enemy stragglers had been rounded up. Civilians had gathered in small groups all along the way to welcome the men. Flowers, bread, wine and fruit were pressed on the somewhat embarrassed soldiers. In one instance the villagers' enthusiasm had an unfortunate sequel when a woman trod on a mine and was killed.
At 4.30 a.m. the road was again reported clear. A Coy took over the lead, with the rest of the battalion following in transport. A short distance from the town of Morino another large demolition blocked the advance. This area was thickly mined and sappers and infantrymen cleared lanes through each belt. The journey was resumed after midday and continued at short intervals until midnight. Eight miles had been covered in 18 hours. Mines and demolitions had been the only cause for delay, and the pace of the advance was solely dependent on the ability and efficiency of the engineers. Many of the mines were linked together and booby-trapped, and in helping to clear them A Coy had six men wounded. More enemy stragglers had been rounded up and escaped prisoners of war were constantly arriving from hideouts in the hills. A Coy halted near the town of Capistrello, only four miles from the objective, Avezzano.
The advance was resumed at half past five next morning, 9 June. C Coy had come forward to take the lead, and B and D Coys had also debussed so that a wider front could be covered. A Coy moved into Capistrello, where the now accepted welcome awaited the men. The townspeople had a very real grievance against the Germans. Only a short while before a party of civilians, believing the Germans gone, had brought hidden stock down from the hills, only to have it commandeered by the retreating enemy. The Italians objected and 29 of them were shot. Their bodies lay in heaps in the town.
C Coy halted when it was about two miles from Avezzano and Maj Kain sent a two-man patrol on to the village of Le page 405 Cese. The two men continued past the village and, on their own initiative, crossed the low hills and entered Avezzano, which they found deserted. Another patrol from D Coy accompanied a party of engineers along a branch road as far as the Imele River. They found the bridge blown and the road mined. On the 10th Maj Kain sent a platoon forward to occupy Avezzano, a town of about 27,000 inhabitants and an important communications centre. The rest of the battalion moved closer to C Coy. D Coy assisted sappers to clear the road to Corcumello and Route 5, while ahead of the battalion other engineer parties were clearing the road to Avezzano. As soon as this road was reported clear, efforts were made to link up with the divisions on both flanks. Sappers accompanied these parties to repair the roads and lift mines. They had some hectic experiences, but the overwhelming welcome given them by the villagers and townsfolk more than made up for their hard work filling in road craters.
The next few days were memorable ones for all ranks. Before the area could be pronounced clear all side roads and the villages on them had to be patrolled. Remembering the welcome given to them during the advance, all ranks were well aware of what would be in store for them in these as yet ‘unliberated’ areas. Although the parties were sent out ostensibly to lift mines, it was inevitable that the day should end in some small village with the civilians playing host with liberal generosity. Many of these villagers had hidden escaped prisoners, who continued to arrive in large numbers. Some came alone, some brought wives, and a few their wives and children.
Colonel Fountaine, who had resumed command of the battalion after an absence of five months on furlough, took a leading part in the most noteworthy social event. With the aid of a few staghounds, jeeps, and several officers and men from the unit, he staged an impressive display which captivated the fairer sex and dignitaries of the town of Le Cese. Two British officers, both escaped prisoners of war, made an unusual request when they reached Battalion HQ. They had promised the widow who had befriended them since their escape that an English general would publicly thank her for her kindness. This they believed would enhance her reputation with the townsfolk. page 406 In the absence of Brig Parkinson, filling the temporary appointment of CRA of the Division, Col Fountaine, as acting Brigade Commander, agreed to their wish.
Riding on the turret of a staghound, the Colonel led the procession of staghounds, jeeps, and a lone staff car. The whole town turned out for the event. Decorations and banners were strung along the streets and walls were painted with all manner of patriotic signs and slogans. The townsfolk, young and old, lined the footpaths and cheered furiously as the procession slowly made its way to the main square. Embarrassed soldiers were bedecked with garlands of flowers and publicly kissed by pretty girls. From the background flasks of wine appeared. At the square the Colonel dismounted and, accompanied by several officers, mounted the dais to join the local Mayor and other dignitaries. The Mayor read a speech of welcome, after which cheering broke out anew. Later the Colonel replied, a wildly gesticulating interpreter assisting him, and the crowd surged forward, yelling more than ever. A banquet followed. Chicken, eggs, and pre-war champagne were a few of the highlights. The dance which followed was an hilarious one, and very late that night the procession returned to camp in a manner much different from its departure.
On a less elaborate scale, but equally as enjoyable, scenes similar to this were taking place all over the countryside, and general disappointment was voiced when it was learned that 6 Brigade was being withdrawn to a divisional concentration area near the town of Arce, and about 20 miles north of Cassino. The advanced party left late on the afternoon of the 14th, and 24 hours later the main body followed. By dusk everyone was busy erecting tents on grass-covered slopes about a mile from the Liri River. That night a South African concert party staged an enjoyable show in the area, and this helped the men to adjust themselves to the more peaceful atmosphere of the new camp.
The battalion remained at Arce until 10 July. The camp site was an excellent one, set on easy slopes with plenty of trees to give shelter from the hot sun. Summer clothing was issued and the troops trained in readiness for another spell in the line. After a few days of elementary training and smartening-up exercises page 407 the syllabus became more varied and interesting, culminating in a series of platoon, company, and battalion exercises. Lectures were given by officers of other units on a variety of subjects, the most important being minelifting. As the war progressed the Germans had devised many new types of mines, some of them difficult to detect and dangerous to render safe. Selected men from each company were sent to a snipers' course, for the value of snipers had been enhanced by the conditions and the closer fighting in Italy.
The need for a better understanding between tanks and infantry was fully realised and efforts were made to improve this. After a series of lectures a practical experiment was carried out with a squadron from 19 Armoured Regiment. The exercise proved fairly successful and was carried a stage further next day when the companies advanced over country in a live-shoot exercise, tanks accompanying each platoon. Guided to their targets by the infantry, the tanks did a lot of shooting which added to the reality of the scene. Radio communication between tanks and infantry was still not very successful, but when the radio failed use was made of the telephone fitted to the rear of each tank. As part of a scheme to promote better understanding between all arms of the Division, officers of the battalion spent a day with artillery units and artillery officers accompanied the infantry on some of their exercises. On 3 July Divisional Cavalry personnel demonstrated the use of their staghounds.
Although training took up a large part of the day, sports were not entirely neglected. Cricket, basketball, baseball, and tenniquoits continued to flourish and many who had never played before were persuaded to do so. In the river were several excellent swimming pools. Very little leave was granted. New Zealanders had a new mecca in Italy—Rome. An excellent club had been established in the city but only a few were able to visit it. Picnic parties were taken to the popular tourist resorts, Lake Albano and Lago di Canterno, where the troops went tramping, boating and swimming. The party which went to Lago di Canterno stayed three days.
During the long evenings some sort of entertainment was usually provided. Pictures were shown in the nearby railway page 408 shed and several concert parties, including the ever popular Kiwis, gave performances. The town of Arce was not very interesting. Some heavy fighting had taken place in the neighbourhood and there was plenty of evidence of recent enemy occupation. The town was not large but the inhabitants made up in hospitality for their lack of numbers. Before the month passed there were few, including the 90 reinforcements who joined the battalion at this stage, who had not made civilian friends to whose homes they could go, always assured of a smiling welcome. Beer was still rationed but the townsfolk were always ready to sell or share their own supplies of wine. Fresh fruit and vegetables could be bought cheaply from local farmers.
On 21 June an official burial party went to Cassino. Its task was a sad and gruesome one—to find and bury those of the battalion who had died there. Every member of the party had taken part in the fighting and knew where most of the killed had fallen. On their arrival they found that landmarks they had known had disappeared. Bombing and shelling had obliterated craters in which they had sheltered and where their mates had died. Tracks had disappeared to be replaced by other tracks. The bodies found were hardly recognisable; others were never found. Its grim task completed, the party returned to Arce with sad and unpleasant memories reawakened. Later, others who had taken part in the battle for Cassino visited the ruins. They saw huge piles of mines lifted from ground over which they had often trodden, the almost impregnable defences held by the enemy, and the amazing network of fortifications on Monastery Hill. One and all marvelled that they, too, had escaped unscathed from such a place.
3 Lt-Col R. L. Hutchens, DSO, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Canberra; born Hawera, 26 Nov 1914; civil servant; CO 27 (MG) Bn Feb–May 1944; 26 Bn 8 May–8 Jun 1944; 24 Bn Jun 1944–May 1945; wounded 21 Jul 1942.