4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
CHAPTER 18 — To Rome
WHILE the enemy awaited attack, snug and confident as a hermit crab in his rocky shell of ruined Cassino and the bombed monastery, over behind the Rapido River the ammunition build-up continued. Section by section, platoon by platoon, RMT lorries added their share. The busiest of the lot in March, 4 Platoon 4 RMT delivered 113,000 25-pounder shells (enough to give each gun in the Division about 1570 shells), 5000 smoke generators (gadgets about the size of thermos flasks which, when lit, poured out columns of smoke), and over 1000 leaflet shells (mainly news sheets containing BBC news in German).1 No. 4 Platoon clocked up 30,000 miles for March, just double the mileage of other platoons. The lorries ran mainly from Teano to forward ammunition dumps. The dumps fattened and spread out; the piles beside the gunpits grew. The lorries sped up and down. Then:
The day dawned bright and clear. All along the front there was a strange calm…. The valley, the square white buildings of the town, the Monastery, and the hill slopes were quiet and peaceful (says a 2 NZEF survey, Roads to Rome, describing Wednesday, 15 March 1944, the day of the second big blitz on Cassino). Men waited expectantly, their ears attuned for only one sound. It came at about half past eight, a distant murmur that swiftly grew to the unforgettable threatening music of a great air fleet overhead.
Smoke and flame mushroomed out from among the buildings of the town as the first wave of aircraft unloaded its bombs. Thereafter until midday blow upon crashing blow was delivered at intervals of between ten and 20 minutes upon the town and the slopes beyond. Squadron after squadron attacked. Dust, smoke, and gouts of fire erupted from the trembling earth as though from a volcano, while the sound of the bombs roared and thundered through the hills.page 312
More than 500 heavy and medium bombers from the American Strategic and Tactical Air Forces dropped just over 1,000 tons of bombs on an area considerably less than one square mile. [Stray bombs also landed among 6 Brigade and others at Venafro which, closely resembling Cassino, was 12 miles away. Wayward fragments also battered the caravan of General Clark.] At the same time approximately 200 Warhawks, Invaders, and Thunderbolts of the 12th Air Support Command attacked the enemy to the south and south-west of the town. Boston bombers and Kittyhawks from the Desert Air Force engaged enemy guns, while high above the bombers, Lightnings and Royal Air Force Spitfires kept constant guard.
Precisely at noon the last of the medium bombers dropped their loads, and as the amazing spectacle of the air bombardment ended, an equally amazing demonstration of artillery power began. As the black columns of smoke from the last five bombs erupted on the flat, the whole hillside became a mass of fleecy white puffs marking the bursting of shells on almost every yard of ground from the town below to the Abbey above. In all, 610 guns of all calibres fired 1,200 tons of shells within four hours. American, British, Indian, Free French, and New Zealand gunners all co-operated.
Now, while the infantry went forward, then ground to a bloody halt before an enemy quickly recovering behind greater and more secure mounds of rubble and debris—‘houses converted from mouse-traps into bastions of defence’, the Germans said—the RMT's job was to wait. Few transport details (most of them were for more ammunition) came in, and more time was taken up by sport, including hockey, baseball, basketball, and deck tennis. On some nights the mouth-organ or accordion would be out with the wine, and the songs would range from ‘One Day When We Were Young’ to ‘How Ashamed I Was’.
Among all the news and chat in one New Zealand mail were, of all things, school reports. A driver, elated with his two children topping their particular forms, began pontificating on the importance of heredity. A driver cut him short with: ‘How bloody lucky you married a very clever woman.’
The first Cassino casualty for 6 RMT came among a few trucks attached to 6 Brigade for day-to-day duties. After dusk on 27 March a three-tonner with a few 26 Battalion men aboard moved off up towards Cassino cemetery area. Only one truck was wanted, and Dick Reeves2 cut the lowest card. page 313 Nearing its destination the truck ran into shelling. Both drivers and a CSM of 26 Battalion (who was acting as guide) went to help the wounded. More shelling killed the CSM and wounded Reeves who, vainly attempting to drag himself to a first-aid dressing tied to his truck's steering column, bound up his shattered right leg with a woollen scarf. His leg was amputated at a dressing station.
Early in April trucks went up to lift the sorely tried New Zealand riflemen. (‘The ASC is like the Valley of Avalon compared with the Infantry. It's only a question of time in the PBI—if you miss this time there's always next time,’ wrote one 6 RMT corporal on the job.) Battalions crawled out from the enormous rubble heap that was Cassino. They left for good those smoke-stained slopes, drab and depressing beneath an almost continuous blur of artificial smoke. The Division was to rest briefly, then occupy a quieter and more mountainous sector further inland. The 6th RMT, with 6 Brigade, made off for about 20 miles to Presenzano, in the Volturno valley; 4 RMT, with its brigade, carried on, to rest some 25 miles further on by Isernia. Then the platoons left their brigades and returned to the general carrying business. This time, until wanted by the Division, 4 and 6 RMT would be on the run for the British of 10 Corps, which was holding the line beyond Cassino.
A nunnery was occupied, quite officially, by 4 RMT on 18 April. This was at Boiano, not far from Isernia. The nuns lived in the two top floors; Company Headquarters, nodding and beaming, took to the ground floor and basement. All went well until the night of 24-25 April, when a sprinkling of enemy aircraft passed overhead. Patches of panic broke out in the village; in the nunnery a group of alarmed nuns made a beeline for the basement. ‘They were dispersed,’ in the words of the war diary, ‘only upon repeated assurances of “Niente Tedeschi”. Several soldiers in the village who happened to be guests of civilians at the time suddenly found themselves in the fortunate predicament of having to dispel the fears of womenfolk (inc signorinas).’
This nunnery (the first billet occupied by the company since Rayak, back in Syria in April 1942) had been partly occupied page 314 by some Poles who had left their quarters in a filthy mess. Much ‘interior economy’, scrubbing, and flinging about of disinfectant had to be done before drivers moved in. Then a piano turned up; the Town Major seemed a genial, obliging chap; the local cinema reserved a special session for drivers; and arrangements were quickly completed for buying wine at controlled prices.
But the new quarters did not last even a fortnight. A Polish hospital demanded the building and sent the RMT men out in the cold, to camp in the deserted railway station building. Moving with the cookhouse to the new area was an Italian, an ex-steward from the Mauretania, but more recently a medical orderly in the Italian Army. He helped do the chores around the cookhouse in return for some food. He wasn't there very long before he was joined by his wife and daughter. They also assisted with the chores. The potatoes were peeled in record time, and the food and the service brightened up immensely.
At the same time the officers were doing well, too, in their own establishment in Boiano Piazza, part of the Town Major's building. From here a particularly good view could be had of the population coming out for its nightly stroll.
The company left the nunnery with a bang—a rousing concert on 27 April. A swing band from the NZASC band helped the fun along, and company artists, organised by Corporal Max Tait, turned on a very bright show. Two girls who had promised to join in backed out at the last moment, but to see Corporal Roberts3 in rope locks, powdered chalk, and red ink was compensation enough. Long before the final curtain fell the concert had become a popular hit. Made up of humorous sketches, choruses, songs, and solo items (one memorable story concerned two ATS girls climbing a wall), it ran to four performances at Boiano cinema, where talent-scout Major Toogood, from Headquarters NZASC, booked it for a night's run before other drivers at the Garrison Theatre, Isernia. Italian friends were specially invited to one show. They turned up in full force, laughing and applauding delightedly—always exactly at the wrong moment.
Boiano was within an hour of Campobasso, probably the prettiest town in southern Italy and at least the cleanest. Many page 315 a gift for loved ones back in New Zealand was chosen and wrapped up at Campobasso, which was full of lovely cutlery —knives, scissors, and so on—delicate lace and embroidery work. It seemed only right and proper that the war had just skimmed past Campobasso.
While 4 RMT was based at Boiano fleets of its trucks were working on the long and tiring run over the Apennines, carrying ammunition from Lucera (back by Foggia) to near Carpinone. Blowouts on this run gave a lot of trouble until tire pressures were reduced by 15 Ib. Working with pressures at 55 Ib. in the rear tires cut blowouts by half. Sometimes tires burst because of pressure building up through the constant sway of heavy ammunition loads over rough, winding, mountainous roads. Sometimes blowouts resulted from too much speeding, and platoons got on better by keeping in convoy and halting often.
Meanwhile some 6 RMT men had put up a sign: ‘Corporal XYZ—Bridge Builder & Gravel Contractor. 15 trucks at your disposal day or night. If said Corporal should [be absent frisking] apply to Corporal UVW, his Second in Command.’
The 6th RMT was based by Isernia, where a gnarled old man, working away with brace and bit, some shellac, and a slab of walnut wood, created three particularly pleasant pipes a day, and sold them as fast as they took shape for 150 lire (7s 6d) each. Here, on 17 April, Major Pearse4 replaced Major Hunter5 as OC 6 RMT. The unit was especially busy this month, what with one platoon attached to 1 Ammunition Company, another away helping 4 RMT on its ammunition shifts, and half each of the two remaining platoons divided between 622 Cheshire Field Squadron RE and 572 Army Field Company RE. Scattered far and wide among the British engineers the 6 RMT men (saying among themselves, ‘bags uf smashin’ groob', and telling an evil story which clearly defined the difference between a ‘chum’ and a ‘mate’) carted first of all civilian labourers to and from their reconstruction and repair page 316 work on roads and bridges, and then lent a hand in bringing up metal for the roads and material (cement, rubble, sand, gravel, girders, and so on) for the bridges. An odd job or two included running a few loads of AMGOT (Allied Military Government Occupied Territory) flour, almost as precious as gold dust and infinitely more useful, from Forli del Sannio to Santa Maria.
One 6 RMT detachment, billeted for a while in a mountain hamlet, received an occasional titbit of blancmange made from goats' curds, and thin wafers of dough boiled in olive oil. Drivers had Hell's own job getting rid of this stuff on the sly. Women breast-fed babies quite openly and with a natural grace, and sometimes even four-year-olds were fed like this. It seemed odd to hear a stripling ask in his best Italian: ‘Hey Mom, what about a feed?’ A two-year-old, Pietro, grinning disarmingly, wet on the floor about eight times a day. Soon the New Zealanders got quite used to all this, and after a while even one driver (a slaughterman in Civvy Street) no longer eyed professionally a very pink and surprisingly clean pet pig. The poverty in some of the shattered villages was appalling. Pathetic groups argued over a few scraps of timber and the twisted bits of iron that were once parts of their homes. A driver remembers ‘their dazed, fumbling efforts at rebuilding from the ruins’. Around every army cookhouse little children —often beautifully dressed and inevitably attractive—plaintively held out their billies, begging for scraps and leftovers.
‘In another village,’ recalls Pat Ward, ‘there were about ten pretty girls, one or two really beautiful. There was little for them to do except live, and usually as we went backwards and forwards on our short-distance work there would be a girl in the front seat … and, unfortunately, always a Momma in the tray at the back. They seemed as inseparable as the kangaroo and its young. I shall never forget Whitey's confusion when he asked one particular Momma if he could drive Yolanda on her own down to the Ponte (bridge). Momma shook her head and said: “When I married I was a virgin (my mother saw to that). When Yolanda marries she too will be a virgin (I will see to that). Soldato non marito! Yolanda non ponte!” ’
Spring was now counter-attacking. As the first rare flowers poked through on reconnaissance, 1 Platoon 6 RMT took over page 317 20 new Dodge trucks, the first move in changing 6 RMT from a Chevrolet to a Dodge company by 19 August (when the last four Chevs were replaced in 3 Platoon). Then summer clothing, not to be worn until May, was issued: ‘Shorts KD 2, Vests cotton 2, Shirts KD 2, Drawers cotton 2, Trousers KD 1, Hosetops, Bush net and buckles 2.’ (The bush net was part of the precautions against malaria-carrying mosquitoes.) And then, finally and without doubt, on 17 April 2 Platoon 6 RMT recorded happily: ‘Weather brilliantly fine. Fruit trees well in blossom and many wild flowers out. The first real signs of spring.’
‘And how these peasants work!’ wrote a driver. ‘All day long they are out in the paddocks hoeing, raking, digging. They look healthy, even happy. Some of the girls are moderately attractive, but they seem to have the same instinctive dislike for water as their Egyptian sisters did. In the shattered villages and cities of course the story is a sadder one: hunger, poverty, black markets, disease: all these charming little sisters that tag along after old brother War.’
Leave to the New Zealand Forces Club at Bari and day leave to Naples continued, drivers flashing with some pride the newly arrived company souvenir wallets. These wallets, commemorating Christmas 1943 in Italy, were bought from regimental funds, and quite a few lasted out the war and the trip back to New Zealand.
A curious incident was recorded by 6 RMT on 28 April: ‘At 0900 hrs an aircraft thought to be a Kittyhawk and with a red nose and tail, circled the Coy area. No attention was paid it until it displayed hostile intentions by dropping a bomb (approx 100 kilos) near to a bridge on the Isernia road approx 1 mile distant from Coy HQ. No damage or casualties. Flying low over the Coy area the machine departed in a North Westerly direction. It bore what appeared to be American identification markings. YMCA Mobile Cinema screened “The Sky's the Limit” in Coy HQ area at 2015 hrs.’
Throughout May, ‘one of the most pleasant months on record’, 6 RMT carried on with the road-building and ammunition-carrying tasks, and 4 RMT, except when diverted to carry a British reconnaissance regiment from Vandra to Foggia, page 318 kept on the ammunition run from Lucera. Socially, life looked up a bit too. Speculation and discussion on the post-war world began to be encouraged officially, and occasional lectures and talks, hovering around the ‘When the lights go on again’ theme, filled in spare moments. Two unit historians, F. W. Sargent and H. Gibbs, were appointed with the rank of sergeant to write their units' history, and on 30 May, the day the old FS caps (known to a minority as ‘fore and afters’) were replaced by berets, New Zealand's Prime Minister, Rt Hon Peter Fraser, visiting the Division, paid a flying call at 6 RMT Headquarters and addressed a parade of about 300 men from the two companies. Just before this men said goodbye with regret to Padre Read, transferred to England for duties among repatriated prisoners of war. His place was taken by Padre Burnett.6
While the RMT worked away for the British, the New Zealand riflemen held sangars (breastworks of stone used in hill fighting) in the peaks and slopes around Terelle and kept firm eyes on a prudent foe. In this rough country supply and the control of movement were the greatest problems, and worries increased when on 7 May the Hove Dump, set forward in a deep and supposedly concealed ravine, caught fire through enemy shelling, erupted violently, and blew itself to smithereens. Two main roads, narrow, steep and tortuous, served the divisional line. Both roads were carefully watched and kept under fire by the enemy.
It was into this tricky area that two RMT platoons drove at the end of the pleasant month of May. The stubborn front under a two-army attack had cracked, flaked, faltered, and broken at last. On 18 May Polish and British flags rose over Monastery Hill. Anzio beachhead finally began an advance, British and Canadian troops pushed up the Liri valley, and by 25 May the mechanised sweep towards Rome was under way.
Two RMT platoons began the first movement starting off the mass advance of the Division. The two brigades—one in the line at Terelle, the other resting 20 miles away round Montaquila in the Volturno valley—were to join forces at Atina, a few miles to the north, and thrust in pursuit up the valley from page 319 there. The roads to Atina were narrow; to avoid too much milling of traffic, battalions began moving on one at a time. First away, 1 Platoon 6 RMT reported to the resting 6 Brigade, which was to reach Atina by way of Cardito. Within five days, by 31 May, 1 Platoon not only had taken the three battalions in turn to Cardito, but had moved on a British paratroop battalion, brought up and dumped about 70 tons of mixed ammunition, and on other swift little local moves helped on their various ways the brigade band, stores, sundry equipment, and (yes, again) still faithful and smelly mules.
On 5 Brigade's short but dusty and trying move past Atina on 28 May, 1 Platoon 4 RMT abruptly ran into trouble. Just by Atina, drivers moving D Company of 28 Battalion were edging slowly along the road twisting down to the river. Suddenly a smoke shell burst to the right, then shells smacked hard around the road as trucks stopped and men scattered. Flying fragments shattered Driver Bebbington's7 arm, severely wounded two Maoris in his truck, and fatally wounded Driver Trott.8 Under fire, Corporal Linder9 drove the wounded back. Corporal Davis,10 on the scene, reported: ‘Driver Bebbington showed great fortitude after being wounded and by his coolness and composed bearing, gave an excellent example to the rest of the drivers.’ Two other vehicles were hit in this action, and one had to be towed back for repairs. Two days later the platoon in close convoy (everyone in picnic mood: ‘No Jerry about for miles’) took 23 Battalion on from Atina, crossed the cold little gravelly Melfa River, passed by fields and vineyards bordering a pretty country road, and pulled off down a narrow path into a field, where the trucks parked in neat rows of five and everyone climbed out to stretch, to splash quickly in a little creek, and to brew up for morning tea.
‘We were just making a cup of cocoa when our peace was rudely shattered by the worst bout of shelling I had been in —worst because it came like a bolt from the blue when we page 320 were not expecting any such thing, but were taking it easy in the sun,’ wrote one RMT passenger, Private Dawson.11 ‘Shells came from a slow gun, and we could hear them coming for seconds before they landed, which made it more terrifying still. I dived under the bank of the creek among some brambles and got roughly scratched on chest and arms.’
The trucks were caught with their tailboards down indeed. After 15 to 20 minutes' shellfire from two self-propelled guns (probably 105-millimetre) in the hills to the right flank, trucks and men were ordered out of it, the RMT getting under way and off one at a time ‘when possible’. In the words of Captain Burt's report: ‘Removal of vehs singly commenced but interrupted frequently by shellfire as enemy observed our movements. Altogether 23 3-ton vehs damaged to varying extents. Bde Major said he would signal for a pl to replace us. Driver Stables12 was wounded in the arm in this action and was evacuated to ADS. During the course of this action the work of the pl in changing tyres and removing vehs to a safe place was carried out without further casualties, although one of the vehicles being evacuated received a direct hit, and there were many near misses. The work accomplished by Sgt Pulley,13 driver-mechanics and drivers was of a very high standard. LAD under Cpl Emmerson14 worked particularly well in repairing radiators and petrol tanks, etc., on this occasion and also on the night of 28-29 May with Maori Battalion.’ Driver Gordon Richards15 carried out urgent repairs under heavy fire, setting a fine example in the withdrawal. That night 1 Platoon had 18 lorries running and roadworthy, and in relays carried 23 Battalion on towards Sora. Camping at Atina, the mauled platoon was relieved next morning by 2 Platoon, and the rest was up to 4 RMT Workshops.
These were the last 4 RMT battle casualties for 1944, and 2 Platoon, joined by 4 Platoon, helped move the brigade up page 321 towards Sora without further mishap. The trucks then left the infantry and returned to urgent carrying duties under 10 Corps, being joined within a day or two by 6 RMT. The latter, toiling over broken and mine-bordered roads, had taken 6 Brigade on past 5 Brigade and up to the neighbourhood of Balsorano16 before hurrying back to report to CRASC 10 Corps at Venafro for third-line transport work.
Without serous troble except form rearguards, 6 Brigade probed on to Balsorano, then to Avezzano. The town had been reached at last, but by a far longer and far different route from the one planned back by the Sangro in 1943. Having reached Avezzano, the Division pulled back to the Liri valley for a month's rest and training and for leave to Rome, which had been entered by the Americans at dusk on 4 June. ‘All ears were now on the radio,’ noted 6 RMT, for the invasion of France had begun on 6 June. The news value of the Italian front depreciated heavily.
Back from the infantry, the two RMT companies really got stuck into the carrying business, moving mostly ammunition. June saw 4 RMT break all its own monthly mileage records in Italy by covering 343,446 miles. Still unbroken stood the grand old record of June 1942, exactly two years ago: 346,638 miles, which of course included the spectacular dash from Baalbek to Mersa Matruh.
Strictly speaking, 6 RMT did not get so far in June 1944; it did 336,547 miles; but briefly attached to the company were 60 three-tonners from the artillery which covered a total of 152,350 miles of their own. If the gunners' mileage can be added, 6 RMT then hovered near the half-million mark with an astonishingly all-high monthly record of 488,897 miles. This distance—from the earth to the moon and back—was covered with just 100 tires blowing out. The 6 RMT-gunner combination carried an 8000-ton load in June: 6192 tons of ammunition, 1197 tons of petrol, 618 tons of ordnance stores and supplies. Moving ammunition and supplies with a rush involved platoons in heavy work over long hours, and although drivers stood up well to the strain of long hours and the choked page 322 and often dusty roads, an avoidable annoyance was poor administration at some dumps, together with some double-talk of orders and counter-orders which led to a certain amount of confusion, waste of time, and ripe cursing. Drivers did not have enough time for regular maintenance and, although by now all except nine old Chevrolet trucks had been replaced by new Dodges, 6 RMT's workshops were still as busy as ever. The artillery vehicles, old and in bad repair, needed much attention and many spare parts.
All NZASC companies took part in this work of clearing various depots in rear areas—Carpinone, Isernia, Vairona— and carrying the depots' stocks on to Alatri, roughly midway between Cassino and Rome. With Alatri well heaped, the lorries ranged further north to build new dumps at Valmontone and Narni. The weather was very hot; the flies swarmed; the sun beat down; the dust rose up. The 4th RMT Headquarters, now about ten kilometres east of Rome, thought back wistfully to its camping ground a few weeks ago near Cervaro with its scarlet poppies, cherry and walnut trees, and a stream of water where a spout bath had been fixed up for appreciative drivers. Daily leave to Rome began. Basically, twelve men were supposed to go from each company, but as 6 RMT put it: ‘A crystal ball might have helped the Coy to anticipate the almost daily official fluctuations in quotas.’ One or two managed special leave to the Isle of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, and came back saying it was a damn fine place with beautiful people and houses and wine and everything.
On 20 June a number of Roman Catholic drivers went to a thanksgiving service in Rome, and afterwards saw the Pope. Two good churchgoers returned from St. Peter's. Said one: ‘It'd make a rubydazzler shearing shed.’ Said another: ‘It'd like to be let loose in there with a motorbike.’
1 Writing about ‘the large organisation engaged in propaganda and “Psychological Warfare” to the German troops' in Italy, General Alexander says in his despatches: ‘In general the verdict must be that this had no military effect whatsoever.’ Most deserters were not Germans but conscripts from other nations. ‘There will always be deserters in a war fought in such unpleasant conditions; the surprising thing is that their numbers were so entirely insignificant.’
13 For their work here Sgt Pulley and Dvr Richards were awarded the MM.
16 For this 6 Bde move 3 and 4 Pls 6 RMT joined 1 Pl. 2 Pl was carrying parts of bridges for the Engineers.