Journey Towards Christmas
(3) And So To Rome
(3) And So To Rome
The walled town of Isernia lies about twenty miles east-northeast of Cassino. It clings to the side of a steep hill, and in front of it the road divides into two white twists that sinuously embrace its old walls and meet together at the top. It is just possible to drive a jeep or a small truck through the stone archway at the page 341 bottom of the interminable main street, but only at the risk of brushing pots and pans from the open-fronted shops of the copper-smiths and of overturning trays of spring onions, small crucifixes, and coloured postcards—views of Isernia and of Monte Cassino; pictures of the Sacred Heart, of Bonzo, and of Felix: fat dog and thin cat, pale forerunners of Mickey and Minnie Mouse and older than most of the New Zealanders in Italy.
When we saw it the upper part of the town looked as though some careless giant had come strolling down the Apennines in his seven-league boots, placing a casual toe on Isernia's hilltop. This was because American pilots had paid a visit to a neighbouring bridge.
Much of Isernia, though, was only chipped, and this part was crowded beyond belief, all the squawking gesticulating life from the bombed part having been squeezed into it. Even before the disaster space must have been at a premium; for the alleys were of the narrowest, the courts and squares were minute, and there was barely room for another knick-knack in the dusty painted churches or another bulging plaster cherub in the tiny theatre. But it was very much alive, this Isernia, and though built only for foot traffic and hoof traffic, very much aware of itself as a town. In a hundred different ways it protested its patronage of the arts, the trades, the humanities, the vices. Possibly a miniature university was tucked away in one of its small courts.
About three miles to the south-west, sitting like a poor relation on another hilltop, was the little village of San Agapito. Huddled above cobblestones, the tall houses were so old that they seemed to have grown out of the hill like teeth—grey molars and crumbling bicuspids in a green gum—and the people were so miserably poor that all their best rooms, the ground-floor ones, were given over to the precious sheep, pigs, goats, and donkeys. To light them after dark many families had only the dancing open fire and tiny twists of wick in saucers of oil. The furniture was of rough, unpainted wood and more often than not fowls roosted above cupboards and in corners. For decoration there were cheap oleographs, telling with a wealth of haloes and thorns, of gold and madonna blue and vermilion, the story of the Manger and the Cross. At mealtimes the pasta asciutta was slapped on the bare board without benefit of plate or tablecloth. It was spread out like pastry, page 342 smeared with a tomato dressing, and sprinkled with tiny fragments of meat. Then, each from his or her different angle of approach, the members of the family forked their way steadily towards the centre, so that the big pancake became consecutively a ragged map of Australia, a map of Crete, a map of Malta, and finally vanished altogether.
The village was too insignificant to own an important bridge so not many people had been killed there—only a few men whom the Germans had taken away and shot.
Before daylight the men, women, and children of San Agapito, driving the beasts in front of them, went down by the winding, rocky lane to the orchards, potato fields, and vineyards. Some of the younger women had the downy, velvety look of a dark rose and most of them wore the traditional peasant dress, thick, pleated petticoat and bright bodice, but the old ones wore rusty black. All wore boots, mostly army boots, and all, even the ugly and old, who formed the majority (for youth flies early in San Agapito and beauty becomes a leather mask), carried themselves like queens. The children, with hardly an exception, were gay and pretty.
Spring had come to the valley, and the cherry trees were in blossom and the grass under the trees was deep green and already taller than the spring flowers. Water chuckled in the small streams and was carried through the fields by a system of channels. In the early morning birds swept through the new green leaves like bullets, scattering a spray of dew, and New Zealand lorries, going almost as fast as the birds, rushed along the white road to the ration point, raising a spray of dust.
Our platoon areas were on either side of the road, and these, as we had seen at once, had everything an area should have: green grass, trees in blossom, a stream, and—conveniently placed for relaxation and commerce—a town. True this was likely to be tyrannised over by an English Town Major or by a diligent Provost Marshal who would delight in tearing around in his jeep and interfering with the pleasures of New Zealanders, but there were villages and hamlets in the neighbourhood and on these the hand of AMGOT,1 with its itch for controlling the sale of liquor and plastering up out-of-bounds notices, would rest but lightly. The hilltop village of San Agapito, for instance, was almost jeep-proof.page 343
The New Zealand Corps had been disbanded on 26 March, and by 13 April the last New Zealand unit had been withdrawn from the Cassino sector. The Division, now under the command of 10th British Corps, was to assist British and Polish troops in bringing pressure against the enemy in the mountainous central sector north-east of Cassino. Our unit had moved to the Isernia area on 7 and 8 April.
During our first fortnight there we had little time for exploring the neighbourhood. Having dumped their ammunition at Mignano, the transport platoons had to make a three-day trip to a base ordnance depot at Bitonto, near Bari, to replace it. This took them into the clouds on the Apennines—eagle country where patches of snow lay like sleeping polar bears—and put them down on the familiar plains of Foggia. Two days after they got back Nos. 2 and 4 Platoons, and a detachment from No. 1 Platoon, working over three days and nights, took a paratroop brigade into the line on the Monte Croce sector (Monte Croce being fifteen miles southwest of Isernia) and brought out the 6th Brigade. Driving at night along winding mountain roads, the new drivers (it was about now that the old hands stopped calling them new) showed how little they had to learn.
When the 6th Brigade was relieved, the 5th Brigade took over the Terelle sector, near Monte Cairo. This was supplied from the Brighton dump, twelve miles west by south of Isernia, and from the Hove dump, seven or eight miles nearer the front line, the two being connected by the Inferno Track, a driver's nightmare of corkscrew bends, chasms, dizzy drops, darkness, and danger. Brighton dump was supplied from the ammunition point (now four miles south-west of the unit area) by No. 3 Platoon and a detachment from No. 1 Platoon, and from 28 April onwards NZASC convoys assembled nightly to brave the Inferno Track with ammunition, petrol, and rations.
All went well until 13 May when the Hove dump was destroyed. A shell scored a direct hit on an Artillery cookhouse and later in the day others set alight grass and scrub, the smoke showing the enemy where to aim. The dump was in a deep gully and shortly before 4 p.m. shells started to pour into it.
‘After that it was lovely,’ said Lance-Corporal Bill Frazier,2 page 344 one of the four men from our unit in charge of the ammunition section of the dump. ‘Everything started to burn—tents, bivouacs, transport, and the camouflage nets covering the ammunition stacks. Until then an Artillery officer and an other rank had been doing a nice job driving burning jeeps away from the ammunition, but now it was hopeless. Both men were wounded—the other rank badly.
‘At about a quarter to six the bastards scored a direct hit on the stack of 75-millimetre ammunition just about opposite our dugout and the wooden crates started to burn. Already shells had carried away two bivvies we had rigged up alongside our dugout, so this was the finish as far as our party was concerned. We made a dash for it and got safely to a deep ravine some distance from the dump. Meanwhile the old Jerry had scored a direct hit on the petrol section and now this was going up—between two and three thousand gallons of it.
‘We didn't want to hang around, so we made our way to a point on the Inferno Track where we met some machine-gunners who gave us a cup of tea and a bite to eat and some smokes. None of us had anything except what we stood up in but I was getting used to this. I lost everything when the ammunition went up on Route 6.’
That was the end of the Hove dump. From then on the Brighton dump was the terminus for all supply convoys.
Remote from blazing dumps, shut out from the sound of guns, and with plenty of time for play, we enjoyed ourselves in our leafy valley.
They started, those golden days, with a kind of imagined click and a little whisper of wind, as though somewhere in the sky—above Carpinone perhaps—a small door had opened, not wide but just a crack. At once, with a drowsy throatiness that told of sleep-ruffled feathers and tiny yawning beaks, the first bird-calls sounded, coinciding, often, with the final despairing echoes of ‘Lili Marlene’ sung positively for the last time by the last returning revellers. Then the door opened wider, silently and inch by inch, and the stars paled and went out and all the birds tried over their morning songs. There was a grey moment and a green moment, and golden fingers of light rested on top of the cherry trees, and then, with page 345 a great unrolling of yellow carpets down all the western hillsides, the sun came. The birds went mad and swept through the drenched branches in clouds, and the cooks woke. They came out of their musty tents, the ones whose turn it was for early duty, and lurched into the sunshine, scratching their tousled heads and glancing grumpily at the burners. As soon as the burners were alight their hissing roar drowned everything—the bird songs and the strangled snores of the revellers.
In ones and twos the drivers who were going to Naples on day-leave climbed from the backs of their lorries and walked through the wet grass to the cookhouses for early breakfast, rattling their dixies and hoping it would be spam and beans and not (for the third time running) soya links. The leave lorry, its shadow on the sunlit grass a huge rhomboid, a huge square, a long spike, bumped over to Headquarters pursued by angry shouts from drivers who imagined they were being left behind. Not all who were having early breakfast were for Naples; some were for Campobasso and to them time was important. They gulped their soya links, shouldered their bulging haversacks, and slipped quietly along the hedge, casting sly glances at the 15-cwt. bugs in which the officers and sergeants were still snoring. They had no leave passes.
The lorry left for Naples, and from the tops of all the mountains the white mists were drawn up into Heaven like the figures in the Ascension, leaving the whole sky one stretch of blue. One after another, with a beating of shell cases and iron pipes, with a winding of sirens, the cooks called their platoons to breakfast, the drivers who responded coming with clusters of dixies and enamel mugs in both hands. We liked to lie late even in spring but we also liked breakfast, so we took it in turns to get up.
The cherry trees were dry now and the day fairly launched. Under a fire of raillery—‘Four of our mosquitoes failed to return.’ and ‘How many d'you reckon you'll bring down today, Digs?’—the Mosquito Men shouldered their pickaxes, shovels, spray-guns, and rubber boots, adjusted the harness of their home-made flamethrowers, and set out for the creek. Presently a column of black smoke rising above the willow trees showed where they were at work. Ever since 1 May—the start of the mosquito season—they had been grubbing up boulders in the creek so as to ensure a free flow of water, burning bushes and undergrowth on its banks, and page 346 spraying ponds and puddles with a mixture of petrol and dieselene and houses and farm buildings with liquid insecticide. Using the flame-throwers was good fun but the best job of all was spraying the houses—it was also the most rewarding. At first the villagers and farm-people had been appalled by the sight of parties of soldiers advancing on them with spray-guns in their hands and flame-throwers on their backs. Old women, with tears streaming down their leathery cheeks, had called on the Holy Mother of God to protect them, and the men had gabbled and gesticulated, protesting their innocence, their poverty, their despair. There was not, there never had been, there never would be, one mosquito in the neighbourhood. (‘No zanzari! Niente—niente zanzari!’) Kindly but firmly, and with just a touch of that smugness inseparable from entering houses in the King's name, our drivers had done their duty—and lo, no beasts had sickened, no deadly poison had settled on the raisins and the Indian corn hanging in kitchen and bedroom. And then what a change! Now a visit from the Mosquito Men was like a visit from the painters and decorators—it increased the consequence of a household. Under these circumstances it was quite proper for our drivers to accept wine and eggs, make professional appointments, and allow themselves certain liberties.
The sun mounted higher and the circles of dark shade contracted about the tree trunks. Hell but she was a snorter! In the backs of some of the lorries poker and pontoon schools were in full swing and the sweat poured off the gamblers and ran down their chests in streams. Hell but she was dry work! ‘What about playing my hand, “Grump”, while I fix the billy?’ And the driver-mechanics were saying, putting down screw-drivers and feeler-gauges and wiping their oily hands on their shorts and feeling for tobacco tins: ‘Yes, Dig—what about doing the right thing? What about the old Benghazi?’ The column of smoke over the willows had sunk to a grey haze, showing where the Mosquito Men were stretched out on the grass.
In hot bivouacs, in the backs of lorries tightly shut to keep out the sun, the revellers woke one after another, bathed in sweat. They stirred feverishly in their tumbled blankets, tore aside their mosquito nets (if they had bothered to use them) and said out loud: ‘Off her. Definitely off her. Learnt me lesson.’ With un- page 347 certain fingers they fumbled for the billy, the water can, the precious primus.
Standing outside Headquarters' orderly room, the defaulters—the ten o'clock men—were feeling the heat, too. Through some mistake (which they couldn't help feeling redounded to the discredit of Company Sergeant-Major Arthur Salmond3) they had been ordered to parade in battle dress. ‘Ah well,’ they said. ‘“Gibby” won't rock it in. We must be just about his first cases.’ (‘Gibby’, of course, was Captain, now Major, Gibson. The command of the company had passed to him on 17 April when Major Sampson had left us to return to New Zealand.)4
But it wasn't really hot. Not hot unless you were bent over an ammunition box in the back of a stuffy lorry trying to figure out whether old ‘Baldy’ was sitting pat on a swinger. Not hot unless you were swollen with stale vino or wearing battle dress. Down in the bathing pool by Workshops' area—we had made it by damming the creek—no one was too hot. Here we splashed and swam, losing the last vestige of our winter pallor.
The sun was almost overhead now and it was lunch-time. The gongs sounded and the cooks dished out tinned salmon, chopped onion, and two slices of bread to each driver. There was also margarine, marmalade, and cheese.
‘Three lorries to pick up 3-inch mortar from amm. point,’ said Jock. ‘Three of yours can go, “Goldie”, “Parky” hasn't been out this week.’
‘Don't scone, Jock,’ said ‘Goldie’. ‘Whatever you do, don't do the scone.’
The afternoon passed slowly and time itself seemed to be resting. Thunder rumbled in the distance and a ragged thunder cloud—blue-black like a Gillette razor-blade—sailed over Isernia, the skirts of its great shadow just brushing No. 2 Platoon's area.
‘Seeing she's three o'clock I thought I'd bring the old mug along.’
‘One load of 25-pounder and two of Mark VIIIZ for amm. point.’
‘Don't do your bundle, Jock.’page 348
‘Goin’ up the hill tonight?’
Again the gongs. There was roast beef, tinned peas, tinned potatoes, and for pudding doughnuts and treacle. For dessert a mepacrine tablet.
It was cooler after tea and footballs crashed through the branches and the teams swayed backwards and forwards on the improvised playing fields. In No. 1 Platoon's area the game was Association football without rules, the players being at liberty to come and go just as they pleased. Seldom were the sides even approximately equal.
Not all the noise, and the area was echoing with shouts and laughter, was made by the footballers. It was shower time, and George Laverick, his old felt hat on the back of his head, was standing beside No. 1 Platoon's water cart and rhythmically pumping hot water over a dozen glistening bodies, or over as many as could push their way under the single perforated jam tin that did duty as a sprinkler. Ever and again George would remove his pipe and call out in his deep, gruff voice: ‘Showers on NOW! Any more for SHOWERS?’
And the shadows came together like lovers, and the sun was hidden by the trees after being tangled for one moment like a puzzle of gold wire in their topmost branches. The football ended and it was time for everyone to change into long trousers, roll down his sleeves, and smear face and hands with mosquito repellent. The footballers, flushed and sweaty, ran over to the water cart, undressing as they went and shouting to George to keep on pumping.
The mountains were jagged against the sky, and form and colour faded from the foothills, and the blue twilight came. For a wonden there were no films or ENSA shows to go to, but there were other ways of spending the evening. Already groups of drivers (and among them, no doubt, were some who had learnt their lesson as recently as that morning) were sitting or reclining on the soft grass like the guests in the Rubaiyat, wine glasses beside them and great jars cradled in wicker baskets. For an hour past, dressed in their ‘Groppi mokka’, others had been leaving for Isernia or for neighbouring villages. The four drivers who went always to San Agapito had just left. They had a tidy walk in front of them, and long before they reached the bottom of the hill the moon and the stars page 349 were shining, and the fireflies, borne on a current of warm air as on water, were swimming between the hedges and zigzagging from side to side with quick, darting movements like fish. The air was full of the sweetness of warm grass and honeysuckle and ripening fruit, and from cottages beside the lane children came running, begging cioccolatta and dolci, and getting them because of the moonlight and the fireflies and the smell of honeysuckle. It was a perfect night, peaceful and yet exciting.
From Workshops' area came the first song of the evening, ‘Lili Marlene’ rendered by the Salome Gang: Bill M—- (guitar), Bill S—- (guitar and songs), Joe H—-, ‘Snow’ T—-, and Dick C—- (general singing).
Below the bathing pool the fishermen paced beside the creek, smoking their battered pipes in slow content and from time to time casting a contemplative Mills bomb into the shining water.
George, who had appointed himself ARP warden (he knew more about bombing than most of us and German aircraft were overhead almost nightly), made a tour of the area, greeting each chink of light with a gruff ‘What about the blackout, you jokers? Bit of a blackout man myself.’
The leave lorry returned from Naples.
Time lapsed and the nightingales sang.
In San Agapito, high above the valley, the moon was shining on one side of the main street and on all of the main square, lighting the great, broken crucifix and the great archway, beneath which three or four drivers had gathered to discuss a last litre of vino rosso. The stone seat struck chill through their summer clothing and they were sleepy. Only the children of San Agapito, who seemed not to need rest or warmth, were awake and alert. They listened to the rambling talk as though it were wise and beautiful beyond parallel and they could understand every word of it.
Our drivers said goodnight to the children beneath the crucifix (bare now except for the wooden hammer, one wooden nail, and a fragment of the wooden spear) and the children said: ‘Buona notte, Pietre—Tubby—Giorgio. Ritornerete una seconda volta?’
All over this corner of Italy our drivers were standing in lighted doorways and saying goodnight and thank you.
‘Buona sera, Angelo. Buona sera, Giovanni. Mille grazie.’
‘Buona sera, Assunta.’page 350
The closer they got to home the louder became the noise of singing, for No. 2 Platoon was celebrating a birthday. At midnight, after which authority could hardly be expected to continue turning a deaf ear, the singing moderated; but it kept on breaking out afresh, hour after hour, as waves of beautiful feeling (beautiful solidarity, inexhaustible mirth, welling tenderness) swept over the wine-drinkers.The next to come was Goering's wife
And she was anti-Nazi….
O Trombettier, stasera non suonar….
The Poles, the Czechs, and Germany itself….
The nightingale sang too, also straining to express through his small hot throat, the inexpressible.
The party from Campobasso, sober now after a long lorry-ride, crept home, and at last, over towards Carpinone, high up and secret, a door opened. A cool breath set all the leaves dancing, and somewhere, drowsily, a bird chuckled.
Not all our days were like this. Mostly we were very busy, though it would be difficult to connect our work directly with any of the momentous events that took place during May: the full-scale attack launched by the Fifth and Eighth Armies on the night of 11-12 May when troops in the New Zealand sector made feints and the Divisional Artillery supported the Poles in an attack on Monastery Hill; the crossing of the Aurunci Mountains on the Axis right flank by French Moroccan troops (the nightmare Goums); their arrival in the Liri Valley, and the beginning of an enemy withdrawal under this threat; the resumption of the Polish attack on the Monastery; the left hook led by the 19th New Zealand Armoured Regiment and the cutting of Route 6; the final scene on the 18th when British and Polish flags flew over Monastery Hill.
These were events in which we played no outstanding part. Our job was to see that the Brighton dump never lacked ammunition, and this we did with the help of the Reserve Mechanical Transport companies, replenishing it from a field maintenance centre near Carpinone, seven miles east by north of our area.
On 23 May the Anzio force attacked from its bridgehead, linking up with the Eighth Army two days later. The next day New Zea- page 351 land infantry started to advance, and by the end of the month it was plain that strangers would eat the cherries ripening in the Isernia area.
No. 2 Platoon, with detachments from No. 1 Platoon and the 2nd Ammunition Company, made the first move on 30 May, establishing a forward ammunition point near San Elia, three and a half miles north-east by east of Cassino; and on 1 June the rest of the unit moved to an area in low hills three miles south-south-east of this. The whole neighbourhood was dirty and tainted under the blue sky and the golden sunshine. Empty gunpits with all their mess spoilt the clearings in the woods and used shell cases lay thick under every hedge.
Cassino was within easy walking distance, so most of us took this opportunity of visiting it while it was still, so to speak, warm. The ruins looked moving from a distance and of course they were soaked in heroism and glory, but when you got close none of this was apparent. Then they were just dirty and insulting—like a mess on the pavement. Photographs and newspaper accounts had told us what we should see—green, stagnant pools by the Rapido, sightless houses, streets featureless as lepers, tree trunks stripped even of bark—but nothing had prepared us for the silence—the smashed stones seemed to be able to absorb sound as quicklime absorbs water—and the stench. It was not the stench of corpses, though burial parties were still busy, but of dead houses—the stifling, sweetish reek of old mortar, mice, dirty wallpaper, broken wainscots, domestic dust. Traffic rolled along Route 6 and groups of sightseers gaped at what was left of the Continental and the Hotel des Roses. Cameras clicked busily, but for all they showed afterwards they might as well have been photographing a midden.
On the day following our move to the new area the transport, helped by a platoon from the 2nd Ammunition Company, cleared the Brighton dump and the last ammunition point, and No. 1 Platoon, whose 25-pounder was more likely to be in demand than No. 2 Platoon's mixed loads, took over the ammunition point at San Elia.
When the liberation of Rome was announced we were still in the same areas—No. 1 Platoon in a green cornfield below battered San Elia, a bathing pool on its doorstep, the rest of us three miles away and getting sprayed with white dust by every passing lorry. page 352 It was 4 June, a Sunday, and Americans had entered the city at breakfast-time that morning.
The ammunition point was closed on the 5th and the whole unit moved to an area nineteen miles north-west by north of Cassino. Here there was a shallow stream in which we could wash our clothes and our dusty bodies, and all around us were hills with toy villages perched on them. We were now in the Liri Valley, and ahead of us, fifteen miles to the north-north-west, the battle for Balsorano was ending.
The town was occupied the next morning and the New Zealanders pressed on towards Avezzano, seventeen miles north-north-west of it. Again the enemy was in full retreat and the demand for ammunition had fallen off.
That evening crowds gathered round the platoon radio sets. The news was old now—the German News Agency had announced it at 9.2 a.m., Cairo time, and an hour and a half later it had been confirmed by the Allies—but we wanted to hear it for ourselves:
Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies on the northern coast of France….
At the end of the news there were recordings of scenes at the embarkation ports. We heard snatches of ragged singing—‘You Are My Sunshine’—and snatches of conversation. The Tommy accents caused laughter and some of our drivers tried to imitate them, but not ill-naturedly.
In the backs of the lorries the primuses sighed and purred, and under the green tendrils of the vines the midges and mosquitoes, mixed in a grey smudge, made a noise like the highest imaginable note from a violin. And the Tommies sang ‘You Are My Sunshine’—but that was yesterday and in England.
For a long time, in the darkness, the announcer went on talking about the Second Front, making it sound grave and in rather good taste. But it was chilly among the vines and only a few people were listening.
The next morning it seemed quite natural that the Second Front should have opened—natural and indeed inevitable.
After the fall of Avezzano on 9 June the Division reverted to the command of the Eighth Army and for the time being its labours page 353 were finished. On the 13th it started to concentrate in a rest area near Arce, some fifteen miles west-north-west of Cassino. Most of the NZASC, however, was to continue working, and that suited us down to the ground. Rest areas with their unavoidable concomitants—parades and inspections—were not at all to our taste, whereas driving, oddly enough, was. A few old-timers, true, said they never wanted to touch another steering wheel as long as they lived (though when jobs at Base were advertised we did not see them rushing to the orderly room), but for most of us the sight of the lorries lined up on a sunny morning, their canopies tied down and their engines putt-putting as they warmed up, still spelt happiness.
If that was indeed so joy immeasurable lay in wait for us. We had our first taste of it on the evening of 8 June when the transport platoons, after dumping their second-line holdings in the unit area, set out for Venafro, eleven miles east of Cassino, to report to the CRASC 10th Corps. During the next week they were employed in bringing forward petrol and ammunition from Vairano to a dump forty-five miles east by south of Rome, and from Mignano to one only eight miles east of the city. The time allowed for these trips was thirty-six hours but our drivers reduced it by half a day.
Company headquarters and Workshops moved from Sora on the 13th, and the next day the transport platoons, their work with 10th Corps finished, picked up their second-line holdings and joined the rest of the unit in the new area. It was on Route 6 and three and a half miles south-west of Arce.
The surrounding country was green and beautiful but we had little time for exploring it. On the 15th the transport platoons passed to the command of the Eighth Army, and during the next three days they were employed in bringing forward ammunition and supplies from Vairano and Mignano to Valmontone, twenty-two miles east-south-east of Rome.
Since leaving Isernia we had been exposed to more new impressions than we could assimilate comfortably. We had been seeing at the loveliest time of the year some of the loveliest country in the world. It remains for most of us a beautiful blurred memory of long, slate-coloured roads dappled with sunshine and leaf patterns, but here and there a scene stands out boldly: windy weather on the Campagna di Roma; rain clouds like great bruises invading the blue sky and dragging their purple shadows over the new gold of page 354 the cornfields; and—unforgettable—our first glimpse of Rome, all her spires gleaming, the sun going down behind her seven hills, and a voice saying: ‘That round thing there—you can just see it—that's the dome of St. Peter's.’Last week in Babylon
Last night in Rome….
Rome! Except for one or two enterprising drivers who had taken wrong turnings none of us had seen her yet, and now, thanks to our duties with the Eighth Army, we were to live right on her doorstep. Not all of us though. The Ammunition Platoon, the Cinderella of the unit, was left to guard our ammunition in the Arce area.
We moved on the 18th—a Sunday of course—and drove along Route 6. When we were five miles from the city we turned right off the main road, and two more turnings brought us to a narrow lane on either side of which were the platoon areas. Rome, eight miles east of us, was hidden by a grey veil. Wind ruffled the grass—corn and rolling grassland was all we could see for miles—and it rained. But no one minded that.
Tonight in Rome!
Painfully, as though searching for enemy aircraft, we twisted our necks to observe the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Obedient as flocks of sheep we wandered over the coloured marble of St. Peter's, catching a phrase here and there (‘… length 669 feet … Michelangelo and Raphael….’) and all the time thinking longingly of morning tea. The Colosseum was better, for there you could at least sit down for a moment in the cool. The Torre dei Conti, the Forum of Nerva, the Forum of Augusta, the Temple of Marte Ultore (‘… delicate Corinthian columns carefully restored….’)—it was educational all right and a man would be a fool to miss it, but hell it was dynamite on the old feet! Most of us wore our light sandals in Rome (for they were smarter than boots) and the protection they gave against the uncompromising stone pavements was negligible.
Standing drenched in sunlight in the Piazza Venezia, we gazed wonderingly at the Palazzo from whose small balcony the ‘Bullfrog’ had been accustomed to harangue the mob. (It looked—as page 355 the poor ‘Bullfrog’ so longed to look—clenched, massive, impervious to storms.) But what we really admired, what struck us as truly elegant, was the gold and white wedding cake built in honour of the second Victor Emmanuel. Here, we felt, they had something.
We admired also the shining hairdressing saloons in which flushed soldiers, faintly protesting, were being anointed with sweet oils, rubbed with unguents, assaulted with hot towels, and generally mishandled in ways that could not have commended themselves to anyone except an effeminate Latin. And we admired the shining bars and cafés whose scarlet tables and chromium-plated chairs encroached so charmingly on the busiest pavements, and we admired the shining, expensive women who looked at us with kind eyes.
For the matter of that everyone regarded us kindly, none seeming to regret that the new customers were wearing khaki instead of field grey. That we were looked on as customers pure and simple was made abundantly plain to us, and it was plain, too, that of all the new freedoms we brought the one most valued was the freedom to profiteer.
But we liked Rome. It was pleasant to feel the calm atmosphere of the buildings, their elegance, their ease, their charming disingenuousness—pleasant to walk through wide, shady streets whose creams and gentle greys were relieved by newspaper kiosks gay as bunches of flowers—and pleasant indeed to wander up the Via Nationale, passing fine shops filled with useless and expensive gewgaws, and seeing ahead, with a recrudescence of thirst, the blue folds of the New Zealand flag.
But perhaps it was pleasantest of all, once having seen the city, to stay at home, comfortably shirtless and bare-footed. Besides we were very busy at this time.
By 19 June the Eighth Army roadhead had reached Narni, forty-three miles due north of Rome, and to this we were moving ammunition from the dump we had helped to establish near our area. The round trip, which entailed crossing Rome twice, was seldom made in less than twelve hours.
What trips they were! At every bad corner Indian drivers with smiles on their kind brown faces did their best to kill us. On all the bad hills tank-transporters conditioned our speed, cutting it down to a kind of staggering crawl. Our cabs were like ovens, and British officers, tearing past red-faced and angry in ‘bugs’, cast page 356 scandalised glances at bare feet poking through open doors and windscreens. There were interminable traffic blocks, and when we did reach our destination, tea-less and tired, there were long waits while fussed sergeants and corporals frantically tried to discover what we were to do with our loads. Coming home at night, more hindered than helped by a single wan beam, we scuttled along in an effort not to lose touch with the bobbing tail-light of the vehicle ahead. This was tiring work, and tiring also were our daily battles with punctured tires, worn engines, worn steering assemblies.
Man dies in full content
Of trouble past….
So does transport.
Most of our vehicles had been on the road since 1941 and now they were slipping gently westwards. A wheeziness, a puffiness, an habitual languor, an insatiable thirst for oil—with these and with kindred ailments they were paying for the over-exertions of their youth, the excesses of their middle age, and their final folly in exposing themselves to the rigours of an Italian winter when younger lorries were either in their graves or pottering around Base in well-earned retirement. From seven in the morning until ten at night Workshops laboured to keep them rolling.
Consequently, when we did get a morning or an afternoon to ourselves, most of us preferred to stay at home, though in the evenings we often slipped away to the New Zealand flats. These, shabby-new and nominally the property of the Italians, were only a few miles from our area, and here, relaxed and perfectly at home and with no slender Corinthian columns or world-famous frescoes to reproach us, we could talk the eloquent language of chocolate and bully beef, creeping home tired and triumphant in the early hours of the morning. But not always triumphant. Sometimes there was a surly face at breakfast because she
Would not yesternight
Kiss him in the cock-shot light.
Hard-working days but happy ones! Once or twice they were varied by an organised picnic to lovely Lake Albano, near Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the Popes. This meant bathing and being able to buy armfuls of peaches at only two or three times their correct price, and a journey home along the Appian Way, and a visit to the Catacombs, where you could commune with page 357 the Christian dead or (in lighter mood) bark like a dog, stretch out in niches, humorously extinguish candles.
We returned home from one of these picnics to find that Lance-Corporal Owen Penney5 (No. 4 Platoon), brother of No. 1 Platoon's Dick who was now in New Zealand, had been killed by the accidental explosion of a bakelite hand grenade.6 That was the only shadow.
By the end of June the NZASC units under the command of the Eighth Army had finished clearing the Rome dump, and on 1 July they started carting ammunition to the Narni roadhead from the 21st Advanced Ammunition Depot. This was on the outskirts of a small town known to history as Antium. It was there that Coriolanus, the uncompromising patrician, sought refuge from the indignant ‘plebs’. Cicero had a villa there and the Emperors Nero and Caligula were born there. Of late months the town had acquired a new title to fame under the name of Anzio.
Naturally it was in poor order, and so were most of the romantic coast villages on the Via Severiana. When we came home by this route—we used to spend the night in the unit area and go on to Narni the next day—we had on our left the Tyrrhenian Sea, blue and sparkling, on our right smashed houses. We said little (‘Navy, eh? A fair sort of a towelling.’), but more than one of us, seeing for a moment through the eyes of the broken and dispossessed, thought to himself: ‘They paid all right, the poor bastards. They don't owe us a thing.’
But it was no time for sentiment. All over the world full payment was being exacted both from the guilty and from the less guilty. On the Eastern Front gallant Finland was paying the last red cent (the Mannerheim Line had been broken on 18 June); in France, Germany was paying (Cherbourg had fallen on the 27th); in England, the British people were paying (for over a week now flying bombs, putt-putting through the air like motor-cycles, had been falling on their small island); and in Italy, by land and by air, items were being struck daily from Marshal Kesselring's account.
And now it was time for New Zealand to make a further payment.page 358
We had finished the Anzio job the day before (6 July) and we were in the mood for a little relaxation. At midnight, when the move was announced, many of us were miles from the area. Worried corporals stumbled around in the dark and motor-cycles and at least one lorry were sent surreptitiously to the New Zealand flats.
In some miraculous way news of an emergency out-distanced the speeding messengers, beating them even to Rome, and when the load-carriers pulled out at three in the morning only a few drivers were unaccounted for.
Yawning and nodding, we rushed smoothly through the warm night, heading for the rest area near Arce to pick up our secondline holding and the Ammunition Platoon. The beating engines and whispering tires made their usual nonsense in our sleepy brains (anything you like: In-again-Finnigan, in-again-Finnigan, in-again-Finnigan), but it was cheerful nonsense.
The Division was going in again—hell for the fighting units perhaps, but for us (and we said it with all the apology in the world) a kind of holiday.
Route of 2nd New Zealand Division: Rome to Pesaro
4 Capt May was in the same draft. Lts Sloan and Delley took charge of Nos. 1 and 4 Platoons respectively with the rank of captain.
6 The fire destroyed, among other items, over a quarter of a million rounds of machine-gun ammunition, nearly 6000 rounds of 75-millimetre ammunition, and nearly 500 rounds of 105-millimetre ammunition—a loss of £48,000.