CHAPTER 12 — Arrival in Italy
Arrival in Italy
THE New Zealand Division returned to Maadi in mid-1943 in a mood very different from that of its former homecomings. Previously—after Crete and the second Libyan campaign—it had come back once in defeat and each time badly mauled, and with an unfinished task always before it. It came now in good trim and with a mission completed beyond dispute. And this time the homewardbound ships were taking not only wounded, but men who had earned furlough in New Zealand.
It was all very satisfactory, but the honeymoon atmosphere was too good to last. An army in war never finds rest—for rest brings rust. An army, or a division, is a weapon that must be constantly tuned and tested and given employment of some sort. For the New Zealand Division this meant training and refitting, and for Supply Company three months of routine ‘general duties’ and training, first at Maadi and then at Fayum. In the workshops at Maadi vehicles went over the pits. Engines that had drawn immense loads over immense distances were taken out and reconditioned, a policy with which the Supply Company workshops officer, Captain Barnett, emphatically disagreed. At huge cost thousands of engines were brought into apparently new condition by Egyptian labour and refitted into vehicles. But there was a serious flaw. The inside of the connecting rods had not been tinned, allowing the babbit to break out when the engines resumed their work, and later in Italy men stood up to their waists in snow while taking out engines that should never have been fitted and replacing them with new ones.
Three dull months of army routine is about as much as the human spirit can stand without some sort of reaction, and the heat and dust of the Egyptian mid-summer did nothing to make life more bearable. Cairo seemed to lose page 288 its glitter and there was at least one reminder that if the enemy was banished from Africa, the exacting requirements of active service still applied. This was brought home very soon after the return from Tunisia when, on 10 June, Supply Company routine orders noted a ‘serious leakage of information (i.e. discussion of troop movements)’ by ‘certain drivers of this unit.’ The order stressed the need for silence on details of arrangements learned during the course of duty. ‘In this respect the NZASC is regarded as being in a position of trust,’ the order told them. ‘This trust will NOT be betrayed.’ And for good measure, the order quoted a sharply worded instruction by General Maitland Wilson to presidents and members of courts martial that men found guilty of breaches of security should be awarded exemplary punishment from which they could expect no reprieve. ‘Silence is imperative,’ said the instruction. ‘Silence is my order, and I shall not condone any breach of it.’
The mood suited the times, for big events were afoot that demanded the protection of security. While the New Zealand Division was refitting in Egypt, Fifth and Eighth Armies were striking across the Mediterranean to Sicily and thence to the mainland of Italy. Fifth Army pushed on up the left flank from Salerno and Eighth Army on the right from Taranto. Mussolini toppled, and Marshal Badoglio, who assumed command, secretly negotiated a peace.
Whether the New Zealanders would join the fight in Italy or go elsewhere was still a top secret, but all through September preparations went on—preparations that were to be completed by the end of that month.
During August, the 10th Reinforcements arrived, and on 2 September one officer and sixty-nine other ranks were posted to Supply Company. The number homeward bound from Supply Company was two officers and thirty-eight other ranks, and the unit was again up to strength. The time had come for some event to mark the end of—well, almost of an era—and on 3 September Supply Company held a ball at Littoria Club, Mena. It was planned on a grand scale, and various notable guests included General Freyberg. It ended in disaster. Two Supply Company page 289 vehicles collided on Mena Road, killing one man, Driver Collins,1 and injuring five others, who were sent to hospital.
Training went on, and at last in mid-September there came a sign of movement when an advance party was sent to Burg el Arab to set up a supply point. Most of the Division marched to Burg el Arab, but Supply Company drove there at its ease on 19 September. On the 20th Major Morris relinquished command—he was off home on furlough—and Major Bean2 took over. The period of idleness was nearing an end, and Supply Company began to look forward to the future.
The signs of impending movement multiplied, and Supply Company made the most of leave to Alexandria and swimming opportunities, and took a lively interest in the Naafi tent across the road, ‘the only point of interest in this arid, sun-baked spot,’ one man recalls. ‘It was rumoured that this institution had received 25,000 bottles of beer, and half an hour before opening on the first night (after Supply Company's arrival) a queue of thirsty troops was already lined up and extended 300 or 400 yards down the road. They felt this to be their last opportunity for indulgence before departing for the unknown. The ration was two bottles a head with a repetition for those with the patience and endurance to go through the whole performance again.’
Anti-malarial ointment and atebrin tablets were issued, anti-typhus inoculations given, and non-swimmers were given swimming instruction. At last the destination was divulged; a special order of the day on 4 October announced that Italy was the next step. At Ikingi Maryut transit camp, meanwhile, the first flight had already been assembled. Units were to be distributed so that no more than a third was on each ship. The first flight of Supply Company was split between the Dunottar Castle and the Reina del Pacifico. The first convoy put out from Alexandria on 5 October. Hugging the North African coast, the ships sailed west page 290 under a constant aerial guard, then swung north, and on 9 October the sunlit coast of Italy began to appear. The troops watched as a tree-lined shore, backed by low hills, lifted into view; to the north the towers and domes of Taranto caught the morning sun.
From the ships anchored in the outer harbour the troops were lightered ashore and, watched by shabby, dejected Italian soldiers, marched in single file through the city streets. Bomb-shattered buildings fringed the railway yards and waterfront, and here and there rubble obstructed the street. The troops marched on to the divisional area about five miles north of the city.
Southern Italy somehow combines a fresh beauty with age. Age is marked across the land by deeply rutted tracks, weathered stone walls, and crumbling ruins. But overlaying this the pastures, vineyards and spreading acres of olives, rolling across the undulations like a stilled sea, tint the countryside a refreshing green. Limestone outcroppings jut from beneath, and here and there among the olives a white village flashes among the green.
In these surroundings the Supply Company advance party, which had disembarked first, set up a supply point and began to make itself comfortable. The company area was part of a large grove, in which the men set up their bivvies, two or three grouping themselves under a tree. The next day every available man was sent abroad on a scavenging expedition for timber, firewood and anything that could be used to improve the camp. The assortment of articles that was brought back included limestone blocks, doors, windows, sashes, weatherboarding, timber of all shapes and sizes—and a ramshackle German tractor. The tractor was soon put to good use. Towing a railway sleeper, on which three or four top-weights rode aquaplane style, it formed a first-class grader in the formation of a football ground in the only clearing in the grove.
During leave to Taranto and unofficial wanderings about the countryside the men learned something about the country and the people. The peasants they found to be friendly and submissive. It seemed hard to reconcile them with any conception of ‘fascist aggressors’.page 291
Later in the month Supply Company moved to a new area near Altamura. Back in Egypt, meanwhile, the second flight was wallowing through a morass of army confusion. Vehicle-loading details from various units of this flight moved down to Suez hard on the heels of the first flight and ran headlong into trouble. The tone of Supply Company's war diary grew daily more exasperated. On arrival on 7 October the detail found ‘no tentage available at VMP and men had to be conveyed to transit camp 2½ miles distant, and on arrival there found facilities inadequate’. This was just the beginning. Day by day extracts are:
8 October: Many complaints made by troops concerning quality and quantity of food at transit camp. In some instances there was nothing to eat for those arriving late from the quay. Facilities for liaison between quay and transit camp were supposed to be organised, but nothing was carried out. Port detachments did nothing to assist our difficulties.
9 October: 24 vehicles sent to quay for loading; after arrival at quay the vehicles were sent back to VMP. On inquiries being made of the queer happenings, we were informed that the loading list had been completely altered, but strange to say the person responsible for this alteration was not to be found and no one could produce an amended copy of the loading list. Weights of vehicles now became another hazard confronting the DZO group. Whereas many vehicles on the original loading list were allowed to be up to 10 tons gross weight, loading derricks at the quay could handle loads up to 5 tons. This necessitated shifting loads from vehicle to vehicle on the park, but as the vehicles had not been over the weighbridge this was only guesswork.
10 October: On going to the weighbridge some vehicles were still overweight. This necessitated offloading on the quay. This, of course, slowed down and threw a further burden on the picquet.
11 October: Loading of the ship continued with much the same result as on the 10th. Vehicles now being transferred to transports—AZE, BZX and DZO and vice versa. In addition 19 Armd Regt and 20 Armd Regt arrived from Burg el Arab to join DZO…. Incidentally these two were the only units of DZO flight who were not hacked to pieces and messed about.
12 October: Loading continued with vehicles still being messed about between ships. Officers had to hitch-hike between quay, camp and VMP in an endeavour to keep track of their vehicles.page 292
13 October: The loading of vehicles was finally complete by the evening of 13th. The question of satisfactory accommodation caused all officers some concern. The shore officials did not seem interested and it proved quite impossible to locate the person responsible for accommodation on the ship. The allocated space was a position 'tween decks not already taken up by vehicles. At best it could not accommodate more than 100 men, and in a filthy condition.
And so, trouble by trouble, the New Zealanders wedged themselves aboard ‘DZO transport’, cleaned up their quarters, and found themselves room to sleep; some men had to sleep on deck or in vehicles.
The main part of Supply Company with the second flight sailed on 17 October and reached Taranto on 22 October. Transport DZO went with a convoy to Malta, then past Sicily—‘Mount Etna snow capped and very like Mount Egmont’—and around to Bari. While part of Supply Company remained near Taranto, 4 Platoon was sent to a former prisoner-of-war camp near Altamura—well-known to other New Zealanders in less happy circumstances—to set up a DID.
The New Zealanders were at last established in Italy, and it was very soon brought home to them that the winter ahead would have its hardships. Rain, accompanied by lightning, pelted down, prompting the war diarist of transport DZO, still unloading at Bari, to note that work went on ‘while it was raining like hell.’ This was primly amended by a higher authority to ‘very heavily’.