27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 23 — Machine-gunners into Riflemen
Machine-gunners into Riflemen
The conversion of 27 (MG) Battalion into infantry ‘was the saddest thing that ever happened to the MG's in the opinion of some of the old hands,’ says a First Echelon man (Sergeant Saunders).
The machine-gunners had taken their full share in every campaign in which the Division had fought. They had played their traditional defensive role in Greece. Only the lack of equipment and ammunition had prevented them from fighting even more effectively in Crete. In the Desert they had demon- trated, when they had the opportunity, that their weapon still possessed the death-dealing capacity for which it had won its reputation in the First World War. In Italy they had been employed almost continuously on harassing tasks and had supplemented artillery barrages.
Some machine-gun officers believe that the battalion would not have been converted into infantry if the Vickers gun's capabilities of concentrated, indirect, overhead and enfilade fire had been fully appreciated and if it had been used more often to the best advantage. It cannot be denied, however, that the Division needed more infantrymen, and for this reason 27 Battalion together with 22 Battalion and Divisional Cavalry Battalion formed 9 Infantry Brigade. The Vickers gun was not discarded altogether: each of the Division's nine infantry battalions now had one medium machine-gun platoon of its own. The disadvantage of this, the experienced machine-gunners would argue, was that the Vickers could be used only in ‘penny packets’; combined shoots by two or more platoons would be impossible.
With genuine regret the battalion said farewell to its Vickers. ‘For five years,’ says Victory Souvenir, ‘successive gunners had lovingly kept them in the best mechanical condition…. Guns were more than just pieces of mechanism, they were individuals. Sub-sections could recognize their gun by its note…. Whenever the guns were in action they were on call for the infantry twenty-four hours of the day. It was our pride, when an “all arms” stonk was called for, to strive to be firing before the artillery, a feat often accomplished. We probably lost as much page 464 sleep as any supporting arms, and picquets on casas further back rarely completed a shift without hearing the long, spaced bursts of the Vickers somewhere out in the night….
‘But as time wore on, and our new status became an accepted fact, a feeling of pride in the new job began to develop. Like all supporting arms, we had always felt an admiration for the infantry as the ones who really did the job of fighting the enemy, while we assisted from a safer distance. Now we were to become part of that infantry, and narrow indeed would have been our outlook had we felt it a “come down” to join the ranks of those whom we had always admired. The fact was, though most would have died rather than admit it, we were beginning to like the idea!’ As a ‘battle honour’ the battalion was permitted to wear the machine-gunners' black triangle superimposed on 9 Brigade's red diamond distinguishing patch.
After handing in its machine-gun gear and surplus transport the battalion went back from the Cesena area to Esanatoglia on 7 February 1945 and spent the next few days settling into billets. ‘Esanatoglia,’ wrote Moss, ‘is not such a pleasant little town as Pioraco being much older and occupied by farmers rather than industrialists. It is built along a narrow valley bottom and is extremely rambling having no regular street system at all. The main street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, winds in serpentine fashion up a hill, swelling out in three places, into a small piazza. The remaining streets are canyon like little vias barely wide enough for jeeps and mostly too steep anyway. Also they are very dirty as the rubbish disposal is by way of the front door….’
Reorganisation began with the formation of Battalion Headquarters, Headquarters Company and the specialist platoons,1 which were accommodated in the village. The remaining men were placed in one rifle company, which was billeted in a school about a mile from the village, and a weapon training and fieldcraft school to train prospective NCOs was set up in an empty villa.
With the arrival of reinforcements, including officers, NCOs and others who had served with 3 New Zealand Division in the Pacific, the rifle companies were formed under the command of Major Frazer (1 Company) and Major Titchener (2 Company), both of whom were original machine-gunners and had page 465 been home on furlough, and Major Bell2 (3 Company) and Major Bullen3 (4 Company), both from the disbanded 3 Division. Bullen had been awarded the DSO while serving as a company commander on Nissan Island.
At first the training was repetitive and elementary, devoted to weapon handling and individual, section and platoon tactics. The former machine-gunners had no difficulty in mastering the infantry weapons; most of their officers had done infantry courses, and some had had tours of duty with infantry battalions during the fighting at Faenza. The men from 3 Division of course were well grounded in fieldcraft and infantry tactics. Morale was high, the men were fit, and the cold temperatures which accompanied two or three light snowfalls gave zest to their work.
The companies practised street fighting and a dawn attack with live ammunition and tracer; they were instructed in mines, bridging, rafting and rubber boating by the engineers; they watched an anti-tank demonstration by 17-pounders and an artillery stonk and a ‘murder’ (‘72 shells in three seconds crashed into a 3ox diameter maelstrom’); they advanced behind an artillery barrage; they hunted tanks by night. An impressive demonstration with the bangalore torpedo was given by 4 Company men ‘under the able direction of George Holden…. They not only disintegrated the apron fence but effectively cut the power lines of the village and blew in all the glass windows on one side of the hospital as well.’
The battalion made a mock attack on the village of Collamato, and also a daylight attack in co-operation with tanks. ‘The Italians in the area had been warned about the manóuvres but some still remained working in the fields. One old woman calmly (it looked calmly from where we were) went on ploughing a strip of land with her two oxen while mortar and tank smoke shells burst just beyond her. We [the Intelligence Section] had a good grandstand view of the infantry advancing right up to their final objective, beyond which the tank shells had started a fire in the oak scrub.’
A brigade exercise began with a night attack by Divisional Cavalry and 27 Battalions, which ‘went better than we expected. … All objectives were attained by midnight. Digging in and consolidation was commenced immediately and though the Inf page 466 were secure by daylight the Sp arms were not. The single road forming the Bde axis was blocked for a period by an Armoured car in a ditch and daylight caught Atk gunners and MMGs improperly dug in and camouflaged…. During the day the “enemy” launched several counter attacks which were beaten off by Arty. Cold rain fell in the afternoon….’
The battalion Rugby fifteen, after an initial defeat, won every succeeding game, and six of the battalion's players were included in the 9 Brigade team which defeated Eighth Army by 26-nil. Five of these six were then chosen for the Eighth Army side which defeated the RAF in a game in which the 27 Battalion men scored all twelve points.
A highly successful gymkhana on the flats below Esanatoglia included shooting and grenade-throwing contests, athletic events, goal-kicking, and three races for which mounts were procured from a mule park at Iesi. ‘It was a shemozzle,’ wrote Captain Young,4 ‘for practically all the boys got high on vermouth & in the last two races chased the leading mokes off the course & pushed the one that was running last over the line so that it won! Then there was a row for all those who'd put bets on the donks chased away, went mad….’
Leave parties visited Pioraco, where the villagers had expected the battalion to return; they had arranged for the children to vacate the school again and had kept rooms clean and vacant in private houses. They gave the visitors a very warm welcome. There was some jealousy when another New Zealand unit was billeted in Pioraco.
The spring flowers were reminders of April at Cassino. ‘Double buttercups were the first comers…. There are virgin white sprays of hawthorn in many hedges and the pink blossomed almonds have caught up with the plum trees…. Now the weather is becoming warmer the signorini also are coming out like spring flowers in brighter and prettier dresses.’
The last formal battalion parade was held on 1 April, and after a church service Brigadier Gentry spoke of his confidence in the units of 9 Brigade and briefly outlined the Division's probable role. Next day trucks were packed and billets cleaned; once again badges and titles were removed and fernleaf signs overpainted. ‘Curious civilians were told that we were merely leaving for another manóuvre area, though few seemed to be convinced by this explanation.’
1 The battalion's establishment was 32 officers and 741 other ranks organised in Bn HQ, HQ Coy (comprising signals, medium machine-gun, mortar, carrier and anti-tank platoons) and four rifle companies, each of three platoons of three sections.