Italy Volume II : From Cassino to Trieste
The weather was good, the countryside interesting and varied, and the New Zealanders felt that the war was progressing well. Nevertheless General Freyberg was displeased. He had come to the page 207 conclusion that very strict action would have to be taken against looting and improper dress. ‘People were getting more interested in what they were going to get out of the advance than anything else. This struck at the very root of morale. Another thing was hats. It is now impossible to know when going along the roads whether a man is an Italian or a New Zealander.’1
When war passed through a closely settled and almost feudal region like the Chianti, it was inevitable that works of art should be destroyed. The Italians were permitted by the Germans to remove many of the treasures of Florence to isolated villas outside the city, and the owners of the villas themselves often possessed collections of great value. Where these villas escaped the ravages of war the responsible Allied authorities took charge of their contents for safe keeping. Undoubtedly, however, many items found their way into the hands of New Zealand (and other) troops, some to be damaged, lost, or sold to civilians, others to be kept with care and sent or taken home.
Officers were as culpable as other ranks, if not more so, possibly because they had a greater appreciation of values and better opportunity of getting parcels past the censor. But some troops had no compunction in blowing open a bank safe (as happened in San Casciano), looting the art treasures of a large villa, freely helping themselves to the contents of a wine cellar, or to a pig or some fowls from a small homestead. Some units looted systematically, justifying their actions by the excuse of the communal good; their acquisitions then included what might be used by the unit, such as stocks of wine, china, cutlery, musical instruments, clothing, and even articles which could be sold to bolster regimental funds. Many of the officers' messes were soon equipped with rare and valuable china and cutlery.
1 GOC's diary, 5 Aug 1944.
This urge to dress with distinction was not confined to the Maoris. A pakeha tank crew brewing tea behind their Sherman included a trooper wearing a beautiful fawn bowler; another (rather unnecessarily in the heat) had a well-cut black overcoat with wide astrakhan collar negligently thrown around his shoulders; they were eating from a set of china plates which probably would have fetched about a year's army pay in a peacetime antique shop.
In the villages and the suburbs of Florence shellfire and demolitions had scattered goods from deserted shops and houses, and men picked up what took their fancy. Tavarnelle yielded a shop of piano accordions which attracted a procession of Maori and pakeha musicians or would-be musicians. These cumbersome instruments were carried through the Division's subsequent advance; some were discarded, others sold, but for a long time there was a background of tremolo wheezings at convivial gatherings. A few accordions eventually reached New Zealand.
Most of the men just took what appeared deserted and unwanted– goods spilled from demolished buildings where they soon would have been ruined by the weather and the passage of the army. Nevertheless a few keen professional looters searched for easily transportable articles, such as jewellery and ornaments, or cut pictures from their frames, with the thought of how much they could get for them in Rome or back home. Among this group were some senior officers who should have set a better example. The knowledge among the other ranks that their officers were trafficking in loot made the enforcement of regulations on this practice almost impossible.
The General spoke about discipline at a conference of brigade staffs and the heads of divisional services on 8 August. He said an analysis showed that about three-quarters of the Division's casualties were from shell or mortar fire, and the total casualties in the latest operations were one-fifth of the force exposed to the enemy. ‘The shellfire was not heavy. If the German battle discipline was the same as ours their forces under our shellfire would have page 209 been annihilated. There seems to be a slackness of leading and a slackness of battle discipline.’1 A definite battle routine in the occupying of a position should give cover from shell and mortar fire. ‘You don't mess about in the open…. I cannot help but think that casualties are due to lack of experience of junior leaders and the absence of battle drill. When you see a force going forward you see it straggling and not under command. You don't see any proper battle formation and I don't think in a lot of cases that the men are properly under control.’ The General, however, qualified these strictures by saying ‘we have taken every objective and the men have fought magnificently. What I am worried about is the large number of casualties we have had in the last operation from shellfire.’2
He then spoke about dress and drink. He had ‘a great deal of evidence’ against units which made him certain that battalion, company and platoon commanders were ‘not doing their job. Isolated instances are funny but they are far too frequent now and they are getting the Division a very bad name…. There are dozens of cases of vehicles moving all over the country in search of either loot or drink…. I take a very serious view of it…. I want you to get this question of drink, this question of pillage, this question of dress under control. If you explain to the men the very bad impression that we are giving to South Africans, Canadians and British, I am sure they will realize it must be taken in hand.’3
Divisional Headquarters issued over General Freyberg's signature a very strict memorandum on discipline, which quoted cases of misbehaviour with wine, women and loot, and threatened that a charge of neglect of duty might be brought against the officer or NCO who had authority over the offender. A tightening up of discipline reached down through the units. The Maori Battalion, for example, drew attention in routine orders to the high alcoholic content of Italian wine and the restriction on the carriage of liquor in army vehicles, and forbade the wearing of unauthorised headgear at all times, the wearing of any item of clothing not part of the uniform, and the wearing of tan boots or shoes of any colour by other ranks. The indiscriminate firing of arms was to cease. All men were to get rid of any loot they possessed, but ‘requisites, furniture, such as radios, or tables or chairs which in the sincere opinion of the company commander (and no one else) would be of worth or value to the coy as a whole may be retained.’4
1 GOC's diary.
4 War diary, 28 (Maori) Bn.
The decision that other ranks could not stay in Rome overnight was causing so much dissatisfaction that Divisional Headquarters issued an apology and explained that this decision had been taken on the level of the President of the USA and the Prime Minister of Great Britain. The GOC had made representations to have this decision altered so that other ranks could stay overnight at the New Zealand Forces Club. It was understood that the reason for the restriction was diplomatic, as well as the difficulty in finding suitable accommodation in Rome for all members of the Allied forces in Italy. Complications might arise if permission was granted to New Zealanders and not to British, American, Canadian, South African, Indian and Polish troops.
Two officers who shared a double bedroom and a bathroom at the Quirinale Hotel agreed that General Freyberg ‘must have done a smart piece of work in securing it as an exclusive New Zealand Club…. It was the most palatial place we had ever stayed in…. The main lounge downstairs is circular, with a domed glass roof supported by marble pillars, and luxurious furniture. A special stage is occupied at lunch and dinner times by a first rate Italian orchestra…. It is a wonderful atmosphere to eat a meal in…. There are three spacious dining rooms, a wine bar, hairdresser's shop, canteen, tea garden and many small services such as parcel-wrapping, guides to the city, information, etc.
‘Our four day stay including board and meals cost us 650 lire or 32/6. Morning and afternoon tea with cakes was provided free and NZ icecream could be bought for 5 lire a carton. Every morning and afternoon the club arranged conducted tours to places of interest in the city. Twenty men in a 3-tonner with a genuine Italian guide constituted each party, and each tour would be to a couple of places—the Pantheon and St. Peters or the Sistine Chapel and Raphael's art gallery or perhaps the Castel San Angelo and the Foro d'Italia….’1
New Zealanders on six-day leave who could not stop overnight in Rome could stay at an Eighth Army rest camp seven miles outside the city. If they were too late to catch the last bus they would have to walk this distance—or else stay in Rome and risk being caught by the military police. A New Zealand rest camp was set up at Civita Castellana (on Route 3 north of the city) for four days' leave and an organised day trip to Rome. In addition a day-leave scheme was started to take as many as 1100 men to Siena, where the South Africans had opened their officers' restaurant, warrant officers' club and other ranks' club to New Zealanders.
1 Diary, B. C. H. Moss.
Some New Zealanders even managed to take what they thought might be their only chance of seeing Florence, where ‘there was still a little shelling and partisan versus Fascist encounters. While we were there a few shells went overhead to the south side of the river and others crashed into the northwestern approaches…. Almost all the troops in the city were armed and patrols of four or five armed with rifles and tommy-guns were still walking round. Partisans were scattered over the city but though ready to go into action seemed to be going about their everyday business. Their “uniforms” consisted of a mixture of civilian and army clothing and each one wore a large red, white and green neckerchief for identification. Some were armed with pistols sticking out of their hip pockets while others had rifles or beretta tommy-guns. They were a motley, unorganised looking mob, but they are undoubtedly a great worry to the hun, and a help to the allies in locating the Fascists….’1
As the Allied armies advanced into northern Italy the partisans increasingly hindered the enemy and contributed to his defeat.
1 Diary, B.C.H. Moss.