CHAPTER 15 — On to Italy
On to Italy
By mid-May 1943, the tides of war had swept the enemy right out of North Africa and carried the New Zealand Division nearly 2000 miles from its main Middle East base at Maadi. Now we had to face about and make the long journey back again, through lands and by pathways fraught with memories and strewn with reminders. Over some of those miles the Division had toiled and fought not once but many times, taking knocks and giving them, in a struggle that had lasted two and a half years. The return came almost as an anti-climax. We were not being pushed back; not scuttling back to avoid disaster; not even ‘withdrawing according to plan’. We were simply going back—and that, somehow, seemed flat and flavourless.
Petrol Company's movement order was issued to the platoons on 14 May—with the starting time set for 5.15 a.m. next day. There was, however, some prior notice, since on 13 May Major Forbes got verbal warning that a move back to Egypt would start on the 15th. On 13 May, also, an instruction was issued that no vehicles of 2 NZ Division were to proceed to Tunis; but next day permission was given for a visit to the city by a sightseeing party which included twelve men from Divisional Petrol Company. Our company provided a 3-ton truck to take their own quota and that of Divisional Ammunition Company.
3 Platoon dispersed off Route 6 near Mignano
Petrol Point at Alvito, June 1944
Petrol Company vehicles in Forli
Crossing the Po River, April 1945
Next morning Company Headquarters, 2, 4, 5 Platoons and Workshops, in that order, moved out in column of route, following 4 and 6 NZ Reserve MT Companies, as part of NZASC Group Convoy, Serial I, with Major Stock as OC. The move back to Egypt was to be made over a period of fourteen days. Instructions had been issued for staging areas to be left clean, with all refuse burnt or buried. All buildings en route were to be treated with suspicion, as potential sources of booby traps. Platoons were also instructed to use great care when pulling off the road during halts, and were reminded that the area from Misurata to El Agheila was not yet cleared of mines and booby traps.
At Kairouan the head of the convoy took a wrong turning while seeking a mysterious ‘Y track’ named in the Divisional movement order. The upshot was that at one stage Petrol and Supply Companies found themselves travelling as an independent convoy and gumming up roads required for the use of other units. This and other troubles were finally sorted out and by 9 p.m. our Company halted at the appointed staging area, after travelling 200 hot, dusty and often execrable miles. A Workshops detachment, under Captain Trewby, was still back at the old area with instructions to complete urgent work in hand and then follow the Company as soon as possible via the main road.
Next day (16 May) Forbes went on ahead, taking the Signals van to act as an intermediary station between advance party Signals and Divisional Headquarters. He reached the Ben Gardane staging area at 11.30 a.m., finding Nos. 1 and 3 Platoons already there, as ordered. The platoons were told to dump their loads forthwith and proceed to Tripoli, reload, and camp in that staging area, where a petrol point would be opened on the arrival of the Division. Forbes next made contact with Ammunition Company, which was then travelling ahead of the Division with orders to dump their ammunition at 501 AAD and reload four platoons with MT petrol at Tripoli. The Company, again following 4 and 6 Reserve MT Companies, left Ben Gardane at 7 a.m., passing through Mareth page 284 about four hours later. At 3.30 p.m. we made camp in a sandy area near Kilo 70 and opened a petrol point, issuing from the loads of Nos. 2, 4 and 5 Platoons which they dumped on the ground. The detached platoons (Nos. 1 and 3) halted for the night at 8 p.m. close to No. 3 Petrol Depot, five miles west of Tripoli; but the Divisional Ammunition Company convoy was not so lucky, as Movement Control pushed them off the road ten miles short of Tripoli to allow 150 tank transporters, also travelling in front of the Division, to get clear by morning.
At 6.55 a.m. on 17 May, as the Company was preparing to move from its overnight camp at Kilo 70, an explosion occurred in 4 Platoon's area. Second-Lieutenant Templeton, in a 15-cwt, had run over a mine. He was blown through the hatch and sustained leg injuries, but was able to remain with the Company. His batman (Driver Chammen1) suffered injuries and shock and was evacuated to hospital. The main Company pulled out at 7.5 a.m. and had a good run over rough roads, crossing the Tunisia-Tripolitania border at 9 a.m., then on through Zuara, Sabratha, Zavia and Zanzour to Suani Ben Adem. The staging area was reached at 4.30 p.m., with 135 miles covered that day. At night a concert given in Tripoli by the Kiwi Concert Party drew a large and vociferous audience. During the day, Nos. 1 and 3 Platoons had reloaded at No. 3 Petrol Depot and dumped on the staging area. Ammunition Company had quitted their ammunition and reloaded with petrol, which they also brought to the staging area.
No move was made on 18 May. The Company drew four days' rations from Divisional Supply Company; Patriotic Fund parcels were distributed, along with cigarettes and tobacco. An issue of beer was made, one bottle per man. North African currency (francs and sous) was called in and exchanged for Egyptian and BMA money. At a conference with his platoon commanders Major Forbes detailed plans for the next phase of the move, ordering 5 Platoon and part of No. 4 to be detached and remain behind at Tripoli to unload mail at the port and to help move the Division's Advanced Base to Cairo. The remainder of No. 4 Platoon—two sections—were placed under page 285 command of Nos. 2 and 3 Platoons respectively. The Tripoli detachment was expected to complete its assignment by 27 May. Corporal Aitken (Workshops) went on ahead to Benghazi with Drivers Christison2 and Foster3 to try to pick up truck tyres from salvage dumps along the road. For, despite close attention to pressures, with checks made at all halts, a considerable number of tyres had already collapsed. Corporal Clemmens4 and Driver Williams (Workshops) were also detached at Tripoli to service Company vehicles left behind there.
The balance of Petrol Company left Tripoli at 6.30 a.m. on 19 May, on good roads which made travelling a pleasure after so much bumping over rough tracks and desert. We camped that night with another 140 miles notched, but with some uncertainly as to whether a move would be made next day. The road, some 30 miles ahead, had been washed out by a cloudburst. By 6.15 p.m. on 20 May, however, a deviation had been built across swampy country and our convoy set off again in bright moonlight, passing a long column of loaded tank transporters held up at the washout. We covered 71 miles that night, and another 109 miles by lunchtime next day, when Major Bracegirdle instructed Forbes to open a petrol point at Nofilia, the next staging area, 73 miles farther on. The point was to remain open on 22 May to service 6 Brigade, due to arrive that day in the ‘second flight’. It would be supplied from the petrol carried by Divisional Ammunition Company, and Captain Browne was detailed to oversee the issuing.
By 23 May our Company had by-passed Benghazi and reached the next staging area ten miles east of that town. Here a novel plan was suggested for refuelling the first flight, since our Company's resources proved unequal to the task of supplying heavy petrol-tank requirements plus the balance needed to build up unit holdings to the requisite 200 miles. This plan—viewed with alarm at first by the Area Commander and the S and T people—was for the whole of the first flight convoy, extending over 40 miles in length—to drive through the page 286 Petrol Depot, where each vehicle would pick up its requirements, in 4-gallon ‘flimsies’, before going on to the staging area. At the last moment this plan was agreed to, and it worked very well.
So, step by step, the Division returned—through Barce, Derna, Tobruk, Bardia—crossing the Egyptian border on 27 May. A few days later Petrol Company was back in Maadi Camp, facing one of the biggest ‘flaps’ the Division had yet experienced. After lunch on the last day of May 1943, Major Forbes paraded his company and read out the names of First, Second and Third Echelon men who had been granted leave to return for three months to New Zealand or the United Kingdom. Deputies were appointed to replace officers and NCOs thus listed—and thereafter many of the Ruapehu draft (as they were called) embarked on a long and glorious ‘binge’. This was shared by a sorry few whose length of service qualified them for inclusion, but who were held back in the interests of the service. Others joined the binge from sympathy with one or other of these two groups; while others again just piled in on general principle.
Eventually all this straightened out, reinforcements marched in, and the amenities of Maadi Camp, with its hot showers, NAAFIs, the various ‘huts’ (well-found recreation buildings, actually), hairdressers, dhobis, cinemas and so on, were enjoyed to the full. A large amount of mail, both letter and parcel, had arrived from New Zealand, adding to the general sense of well-being. Fourteen clays' leave was granted to Cairo, Alexandria, Nathaniya or Sidi Bishr, with a subsistence allowance of three shillings a day for those going to Cairo or Alex. At Sidi Bishr the men could stay free of charge at I NZ Leave Camp; a Middle East leave camp, run by the Tommies, provided similar facilities at Nathaniya.
For a time—from 11 to 30 July—Petrol Company ran its own special leave camp, with Captain Burkitt in charge, at Sidi Bishr. Before that, a detachment under Captain Butt, comprising Nos. 3, 4 and 5 Platoons plus No. II Section of Workshops, had been detached for duty at I NZ Leave Camp. This, and the transport of Ruapehu parties and their baggage, with miscellaneous backloads, were the Company's page 287 main commitments. On 11 July the balance of Petrol Company moved out from Maadi to a new camp area at Fayoum. Relays of six vehicles departed at ten-minute intervals throughout the day, and by evening the platoons and Company Headquarters had settled in their new camp. There they remained on routine training duties, including the ‘running in’ of reinforcements, until Sunday, 19 September, when the Company moved again, this time to Burg el Arab. Most of the Division travelled there on foot from Maadi, a distance of over 80 miles, and the longest march ever undertaken by 2 NZ Division.
Meanwhile the war, with its broader issues, was proceeding apace. The Fifth (American) Army and Eighth Army—minus the New Zealanders—had struck across the Mediterranean to Sicily, and thence on to invade the Italian mainland. Under this pressure Italian resistance, never whole-hearted, collapsed altogether. Mussolini was deposed; Marshal Badoglio took the lead, and secretly negotiated an armistice. The Italians then became ‘co-belligerents’; and the Allied armies pushed on to Termoli without encountering much resistance. By September 1943 the New Zealand Division was preparing, with the consent of the New Zealand Government, to move to Italy, where Montgomery proposed to use our force—now reorganised and re-equipped—as an independent division directly under Eighth Army. Fourth Armoured Brigade had rejoined the Division with over 150 Sherman tanks, giving New Zealand armoured support to New Zealand infantry for the first time. The Division, now a ‘mixed’ formation instead of a purely infantry one, had 4500 wheeled vehicles (1090 of them in the ASC) and was considered the equal in fighting power to any two German divisions.
Petrol Company moved ‘piecemeal’ to Italy in various flights and parties, their departures spaced over a period of several weeks. Our Advance Party, numbering 4 officers and 92 other ranks, moved out on 3 October, setting up camp five miles from Taranto less than a week later. This party drew rations from an improvised BSD, set up in a cow byre, among lowing cattle! A feature of the ‘new life’ was an evening wine issue, though none was made on 12 October when transport, page 288 in the form of an aged horse and a very old cart, failed to return with its 50-gallon load! Other Petrol Company groups left Egypt in charge of Second-Lieutenants Slyfield5 and Chalmers6 and Major Forbes. As OC Troops on Transport AZB (the Coonibe Hill), Forbes had responsibility for the feeding arrangements, water-supply, AA defence, boat-drill and general welfare of 160 men.
Cooking facilities, our OC found, were primitive. The after- hold of the 10,000-ton freighter had been fitted with wooden partitions to provide cramped quarters for troops. Next were the main holds, loaded with vehicles and POL, some leaking. So ‘cookhouses’ had to be rigged in a clear space on the upper deck, their construction being improvised from tarpaulins, sandbags and asbestos sheeting. Despite these difficulties our cooks, as usual, did a first-class job. So good were their menus, in fact, that the ship's crew were soon noticed lining up in the army mess queues, to the disregard of their own rations (including fresh meat, not available to the troops) which often enough went over the side. There was argument, too, about bread-supply, the crusty old skipper refusing to extend his bakehouse facilities for the benefit of troops. But Kiwis have a habit of getting what they want—and one way and another bread was procured.
By 8 a.m. on 13 November the Coonibe Hill anchored at Bari, where the Port Frederick (Second-Lieutenant Chalmers, OC Troops) and other ships carrying Petrol Company vehicles and drivers had already arrived. On 6 November, while the Port Frederick still lay at anchor, enemy planes came over Bari at 10 p.m., evoking a terrific barrage from the port defences. No bombs were dropped, the enemy supposedly laying mines. During the unloading, Driver Ellison7 sustained a broken arm as a result of being crushed between two trucks. On shore that same day, Driver Walsh8 lost his life in a road accident. He was buried next day in the British military section of the page 289 Altamura cemetery. Father Callaghan9 conducted the funeral service, with the aid of a local Franciscan priest.
By 17 November the Company, now complete with vehicles and Workshops, was encamped at Ururi. A brief stay had been made at Lucera, where it was intended that 2 NZ Division would remain in reserve while other formations faced the Germans in their Winter Line along the River Sangro. But that plan was changed; Eighth Army would attack across the Sangro, with the New Zealand Division, flanked by 5 and 13 Corps, concentrated among the steep ridges between Furci and Gissi. Petrol Company's location at Ururi was on the more level country near Larino.
The Company's first task in the new area was to uplift petrol from the FMC at Larino and take it forward some 70 miles to a new dump at the ‘Red House’, near Gissi. There Captain Butt had made his headquarters, to supervise issues to Divisional units and oversee the unloading and stacking. At the same time Second-Lieutenant Burt,10 of Petrol Company, opened a POL dump on the Larino-Termoli road. This dump was supplied by 10-ton trucks of the RASC and worked by Basutoland labour.
About that time, it seems, there was some slight hitch over rations; and one observer noted that our drivers, on their infrequent return to section cookhouses, ‘found the old bounteous cordiality shrivelled to a niggardly anxiety’. He adds that for about a week his section lived chiefly on dunked biscuits and milk. The milk arrived in the nature of a windfall, when a Tommy driver with an unchecked 10-ton load invited the section to help themselves. ‘Take the bloody lot’, was his expansive offer.
Back at Larino, while stocks were being cleared from the FMC, Padre Sergel11 ran a ‘pull-up joint’ in an implement shed, where drivers could forget the rain, and their nightmare journeys, over a cup of steaming ‘chai’. The Padre's right-hand man was Petrol Company's Hori Perston (now with three page 290 stripes up), who foraged afield and was sometimes able to provide pork, lamb-chops, fried eggs and boiled puddings.
Our Division, it was hoped, would advance quickly to Avezzano, and thence to Rome. Its move into the front line took place from 18 to 22 November; and what that meant in terms of discomfort, difficulties and frustrations will well be remembered by those who took part. No more underfoot was the dry, untrammelled desert. Instead, our convoys crawled along, often in low gear, on steep, snaking roads congested with traffic. Main highways gave better going; but such was the amount of ‘stuff’ going up—and down—that main roads often had to be avoided, and slushy by-ways, lanes and cart-tracks used instead. For obstacles there were demolitions (Jerry had done a thorough job there), detours and temporary bridges, with room for only single-lane traffic. Off the roads were mines, steep drops, and mud—endless mud; while weeping skies and the bitter cold brought their own peculiar troubles. These included a number of burst radiators, despite the issue of anti-freeze fluid and detailed instructions for avoiding such mishaps.
On 21 November Company Headquarters and the headquarters vehicles of Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5 Platoons, plus Workshops, moved from Ururi to a more forward area near Liscia. Platoon transport was still carrying POL from Larino and San Severo to No. 2 FMC near Gissi, where Captain Butt remained with a small group to supervise dumping and make issues to the Division. Heavy rains soon turned the new area into a quagmire, so that vehicles had great difficulty moving in and out. To add to their troubles, drivers encountered an acute tyre shortage and mechanical defects in their reconditioned engines.
Thus Petrol Company's lot during their first winter in Italy was, like the stage policeman's, ‘not a happy one’. Some light relief came on 26 November when, about 5 p.m., the evening's peace was shattered by the arrival in Workshops' area of some very agitated villagers. These proclaimed excitedly that three Germans had taken possession of a barn and locked themselves in. So a Petrol Company ‘patrol’, armed to the teeth with a variety of weapons, set off to capture the wily Hun. The foe was commanded, in the name of the King, to come forth; but page 291 he didn't. Our warriors thereupon fired a shot—in what direction is not recorded—but it had the desired effect. Three cold and hungry Tommies emerged. Cut off from their unit, they had made their own way back from the Sangro River, ‘holing up’ for the night in the Ities' barn. A good feed and dry bedding were soon provided, and next day the men took off to rejoin their comrades.page 292
By the end of November all stocks of POL had been cleared from Larino and another forward dump established beyond Gissi, at Atessa. On the last day of the month Company Headquarters also moved to Atessa. A consignment of engine assemblies and tyres, brought from Bari by 6 RMT Company, promised relief for some at least of our drivers' worries. Issues for the month were: MT petrol, 583,954 gallons; Derv, 65,680 gallons;12 kerosene, 6380 gallons; oils, 22,189 gallons; grease, 7680 lb; anti-freeze (glycol), 630 gallons. The Company's mileage for November totalled 133,527.
Meanwhile the enemy had been pushed back across the Sangro River, and patrols in our sector made their first crossings on the night of 19-20 November. Eighth Army planned to attack in force across the river, and two regiments of 8 Indian Division succeeded in getting over in the early hours of the 23rd, under supporting fire from New Zealand artillery. But heavy rain that day, and on the previous night, caused the river to rise, the water now being neck-deep in places, and swift enough to sweep men off their feet. The main attack was postponed, and our hopes of a quick break-through on the Sangro gradually faded. Nevertheless the New Zealand Division, with 8 Indian and 78 British Divisions, established a bridgehead on the night of 27-28 November and stubbornly fought their way along the rain-sodden ridges. By 2 December we had taken Castelfrentano.
Our next main objective was Orsogna, across the Moro River; and throughout December the New Zealand Division and other components of 13 Corps struggled grimly, but in vain, for its possession.13 That month Petrol Company Headquarters remained at Atessa, while the platoons, as usual, ranged far afield. Day and night our convoys slogged away on narrow, greasy roads, uplifting POL from the Termoli railhead, and from 2 FMC near Gissi (while stocks there lasted), to build up a new ‘Sangro Dump’ north of the river.
‘3 and 4 Plns to uplift Coy POL pack Termoli 3 Dec. Down route via Palata, up route via Cupello.’ So reads a typical operation order of that period, issued from Company HQ at page 293 6.15 p.m. on 1 December. That evening Lieutenant Taylor,14 OC 4 Platoon, conferred with Captain Washbourn of 3 Platoon and arranged for the two platoons to travel as one convoy, with No. 3 in front, led by Washbourn, followed by No. 4 led by Sergeant Bell.15 No. 4 Platoon's second-in-command (Second-Lieutenant B. W. Roberts) was to go on ahead to make loading arrangements and ‘recce’ a suitable parking area. Experience had proved that time could be saved by making an early start, the roads generally being clear until 8 a.m. Orders were therefore issued that night to 4 Platoon's section corporals, with reveille set for 6 a.m., breakfast at 6.30, and starting time 7 a.m., when 3 Platoon would be through and clear of the 4 Platoon area.
Second-Lieutenant Roberts relates:
Dawn, fine but cold, was breaking as No 4 Platoon moved off at 0630 hrs. Several days of fine weather had left roads in good condition allowing normal vehicle speed. Our route lay through Casalanguida, Gissi, Furci, Carunchio, Montefalcone, Acquaviva, Palata, Guglionesi to Termoli, that being then the down route of the Div Maintenance Circuit. No traffic was encountered as far as Carunchio, approximately halfway, through which we passed at 0900 hrs. At the village of Acquaviva a convoy of 80 NZ vehicles, ex disembarkation port, was passed. This convoy subsequently caused some delay to the Petrol Company as the defiles caused by demolitions and washouts make this route suitable only for one-way traffic.
At 1115 hrs I applied to 20 MPFC's16 check post five miles north of Termoli for instructions re loading and was told by an officer there that no authority had been given for issue to NZ Div. I was advised to contact RTO at Termoli Station to apply to HQ, 1 FMC. This I did, after leaving a message for Capt Washbourn at the check post. There being no word of a POL pack for NZ Div at the Station I located the OC of No 1 FMC, who decided to ring Rear 8th Army HQ to clarify the position. I arranged then to report back at 1430 hrs and proceeded back to 20 MPFC where I found that our convoy had not yet arrived. We returned to a road junction and lunched while awaiting its arrival.
The head of the convoy appeared at 1400 hrs and I explained the position to Capt Washbourn. After parking both platoons in a page 294 field short of 20 MPFC Capt Washbourn and I proceeded to Termoli. Rear Army had not then been contacted and we were advised that information would be passed to us through 20 MPFC. At 1600 hrs 20 MPFC were advised that POL for NZ Div would be loaded from that Depot. Loading was commenced immediately. Twelve truckloads of POL salvage had been picked up at Red House en route and this was unloaded at 20 MPFC. All vehicles were loaded by 1900 hrs; orders were given to section corporals for reville at 0430 hrs, start time 0545 hrs.
We duly departed from the area at 0545 hrs, following No 3 Platoon. The weather was again clear and cold, with dry roads clear of all traffic to 0700 hrs allowing normal convoy speed. Our route lay along the main coastal road to the road junction short of Vasto, thence through Cupello to Scerni where the route forks south through San Giovanni to the Company area. From San Salvo on the coast to Cupello some delay was caused by traffic. Much of this was NZ Maintenance en route to Termoli, which, according to our instructions, was travelling against the correct circuit direction. At 1130 hrs we arrived at Coy HQ area where instructions were given that our loads would be held and not dumped at No 1 FMC as previously arranged. Instructions were received from Coy HQ during the afternoon that 4 Platoon would proceed to No 2 FMC area north of the Sangro River, establish a dump of POL there, return, and then proceed again to Termoli railhead where we would load the POL pack of 5 December and bring it back to the Company area. This operation would again be carried out in conjunction with No 3 Platoon. At 1800 hrs section corporals were assembled and given orders for the following day, including reveille 0500 hrs, breakfast 0530 hrs, start time 0600 hrs.
So the story goes, in an almost non-stop programme, with long hours and early starts the daily order for our hard-working drivers. On 4 December Lieutenant Taylor's convoy was held up north of Atessa by a Canadian airborne brigade strung out along the road. ‘We reached the Sangro Dump’, he says, ‘at about 1000 hrs, so it took 3 ½ hours to travel 14 miles. To slow the convoy down even further, the pontoon bridge across the Sangro had sunk during the night, leaving only the railway bridge to take all northbound and southbound traffic. We offloaded our petrol at the new dump, then turned about for Termoli. Good speed was made until we reached Casalanguida where the convoy was again held up, this time by two RASC vehicles which had broken down, completely blocking the road, which could take only one stream of traffic. On reaching page 295 Furci our convoy was diverted to the coast road to make way for another brigade of Canadians moving up the Div Maintenance Route—supposed to be used by southbound traffic only. Naturally these holdups made the journey irksome, and Termoli was not reached until about 1830 hrs instead of the usual 1400 hrs.’
The new Sangro Dump commenced issuing on 9 December. Next day the POL pack for 11 December was uplifted from Termoli railhead by thirty-four vehicles—six of No. 1 Platoon and twenty-eight from No. 2—in record time. Led by Captain Burkitt, this convoy did the round trip in one day. Burkitt was injured at Termoli that day, when stacked cans of petrol fell from a railway truck. He was evacuated to 4 NZ Field Ambulance with a broken scapula. No. 4 Platoon and the balance of No. 1 spent the day on vehicle maintenance and oil-changing. Heavy rain fell that night and the next, turning the Company area into a morass. All breakdown trucks were kept busy towing out stuck vehicles. Roads were now becoming increasingly treacherous; but still the work went on. Over the next few days more dumps were laid down at map reference H 3690, with Petrol Company's Sergeant Hamlin17 supervising the work, helped by two sections of Basutos and five other ranks from 5 Platoon. On 14 December 150 three-tonners of 4 and 6 Reserve MT Companies pulled in there with 380 tons of POL, all off-loaded and stacked on the ground in six hours.
Christmas Eve dawned wet and misty, with showers almost continuous throughout the day. Ninety-eight Petrol Company vehicles left the area to pick up a full Corps pack of POL, to be delivered at the Sangro Dump, at 2 FMC, and at 113 FMC, 13 Corps. Road conditions wrere particularly bad, requiring the use of chains. Trucks began returning to the Company area late in the evening and continued to arrive until early morning on 25 December. By then all vehicles for the Sangro had unloaded and returned; vehicles for 2 FMC had arrived and partly unloaded; No. 4 Platoon had staged for the night en route from Vasto to 113 FMC. At 9 a.m. Holy Mass was page 296 celebrated in Atessa Cathedral, attended by two truckloads of Roman Catholics from Petrol Company, while a church parade for Protestants took place in the Company HQ area, attended by Brigadier Crump and his staff. Some lusty carol singing resulted, to the delight of the civilian population, who quickly gathered round.
Workshops commenced their festivities about 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve with a cask of vino, purchased out of canteen funds and issued free. ‘After the evening meal’, their diary records, ‘the Christmas spirit was truly evident … the local people had thrown their homes open and all gathered round their firesides to sip their vino and join in the sing-songs that were going on in each house. Undeterred by the weather, the celebrations continued late into the night, and it was well past midnight when the last of the revellers had found their way to bed.’ Many were noticeably quiet next morning; but by 1 p.m., when dinner was served, everyone livened up again.
For weeks beforehand, cooks and canteen committees had scoured the countryside seeking certain ‘extras’ not found on army ration scales even at Christmas. Live hens, ducks, geese and turkeys were gradually acquired, by barter or purchase, and interned in weird pens made from crates, tarpaulins, and camouflage nets. Sergeant Jensen, in his unofficial history of the Company's activities, records:
As the days passed the motley collection grew, and platoons vied with one another in securing the greatest number and the most varied assortment of birds.
‘What have you stocked up for Christmas?’ a visiting and inquisitive officer from another platoon would ask.
‘Oh, just a forty gallon keg of vermouth, eight turkeys, a couple of geese and some hens.’
‘Don't you blokes work at all? Just scavenge round the countryside thinking of your stomachs?’ His remarks would be prompted by envy, and away he would go to spur his own committee on to greater efforts with exaggerated accounts of the good things he had seen on his visit.
Actually, he had not seen anything at all; for although the platoon he had been visiting undoubtedly had some bedraggled specimens in their coops, the figures quoted were more indicative of the quantity they hoped to get, rather than of what they actually had at the time.page 297
Driver Feisst18 notes in his diary: ‘Had a jolly good turnout for Christmas dinner—pork and veges and plum pudding— beer, fruit and nuts. Had some drinks—whisky, vino and beer. Most of the chaps got rather drunk, and Capt. was put to bed about 4 p.m. Had a visit from Major Forbes; he was very talkative and made a speech.’ Workshops Platoon had set up benches for their Christmas dinner in a local barn. ‘In their new role as waiters’, their diary records, ‘the O i/c, MSM and Sgts received much abuse from their “patrons”, but what they lacked in experience was outweighed by their willingness.’
Many drivers spent a quiet afternoon catching up on sleep. In the evening mild celebrations continued round the area, some lads joining in folk dances with the local belles, regardless of army boots thick with mud. And so was passed another Christmas overseas, the fourth for a few of the ‘old-timers’ still left with Petrol Company.
On 28 December three vehicles of No. 14 Section (Workshops Platoon) were destroyed by fire, and Driver Young19 was taken to hospital. News of his death the following afternoon came as a shock to this soldier's many friends, and particularly his comrades in Workshops. A memorial service attended by the whole platoon was held on 30 December in a nearby farmhouse.
Around midnight on New Year's Eve heavy gales and snow wrecked most of the Company's tents, bivvies and lean-tos. And the story goes that one man, slightly intoxicated, was saved from almost certain suffocation by the arrival, at 2 a.m., of his ‘room-mate’, who excavated both bivvy and sleeper from under a snowdrift.
2 Dvr G. Christison; Carterton; born NZ 3 May 1913; panel-beater.
12 Derv—diesel fuel.
13 In one counter-attack the Germans used two flame-throwing tanks, both of which were knocked out by our defences.
16 Mobile Petrol Filling Centre.