CHAPTER 13 — Sangro and Cassino
ONE of the first measures taken on arrival in Italy was to disconnect the front-wheel drive of all transport. Very soon afterwards they were reconnected. This was just the first of many mistakes, big and small, the New Zealanders made in their ignorance of what lay ahead. It was not that they were entirely uninformed of what Italy was like. But without experience no man can know the pitfalls of or the skills demanded by any given set of circumstances. From the broad, dry expanses of the desert, the New Zealanders were dropped abruptly into the narrow, twisting, muddy, congested roads of an Italian winter in wartime. In those first two months of active operations on the Sangro NZASC drivers learned a great deal—and learned just how much they still had to learn.
The main roads were not so bad, but transport often had to pick its ways along by-ways that were designed for nothing heavier than horse traffic. Demolitions, mud and general congestion hobbled movement; parking off roads—always necessary—courted trouble as vehicles sank into the soft ground and had to be manhandled back. Looking back over the first few months in Italy, Major Bean recommended to Headquarters NZASC in January that each platoon should have a recovery vehicle attached—say a 25-pounder quad or a Bofors tractor.
In spite of the difficulties, the supply organisation operated better in Italy than it had in Egypt. The reasons are various: the Division was less mobile, railheads and bulk issue depots were nearer the front line, maps were more reliable and the country easier to navigate in.
But transport nevertheless remained a thorny problem. No longer were the sweeping manœuvres of the desert possible; to move by motor transport the Division had to shuffle in single file along inadequate roads—and there were 4500 wheeled vehicles in the Division, of which the ASC had 1090, more than any other arm of the service.page 294
The magnitude of the task of moving about the roads is graphically described in the following report by Sergeant Dunne1 on a supply convoy's journey while Supply Company was at Lucera and the Division was moving up to the line:
We left supply point at 1645 hours 14 November 43. The convoy consisted of eight vehicles, 1 sgt and 15 OR's. We proceeded along Lucera-Termoli road, which is an A1 road but having frequent S bends and steep inclines. We arrived at Termoli at 2100 hours and carried on another three miles, where we camped for the night. Rain during the night caused the area to soften and trucks had to be manhandled back on to the road. We pulled away from this area at 0600 hours on 15 November. From here on we struck a metal road which, owing to the rain, had become very greasy. Also, we had to contend with convoys both going up to the forward area and coming down. On arriving at the 2 NZ Div Cav area we were delayed for about an hour and a half while they towed their vehicles out of the area. Frequently we were delayed by salvage units that were recovering vehicles that had run off the road during the night. Further delays were caused by at least six demolitions, which were spanned by one-way bridges. From five miles south of Capello on-coming traffic had to be passed in low gear. We later caught up with a very large Indian convoy. Two of the biggest demolitions caused a delay of about four hours while heavier vehicles were being winched up a slope of about 3 in 1. At 1300 hours we contacted 5 Fd Regt, which was our furthest point of delivery. Here we had difficulty unloading supplies as the unit vehicles could not reach the road. At 1530 hours we started on our return journey. Strict black-out was observed and we had great difficulty negotiating corners several of which required reversing to get around owing to demolitions and natural features. The last vehicle came direct to Larino at 1400 hours 16 November. The approximate distance for the round trip was 210 miles.
It was into this sort of country that the New Zealand Division in November 1943 piloted and sometimes manhandled its vehicles and dragged its guns to take its place in front of the Germans' Winter Line on the Sangro. It had at first been intended to place the Division in reserve at Lucera, but it had barely arrived at this place before a change of plan sent it further forward to take part in Eighth Army's planned attack across the Sangro, and thence, it was page 295 hoped, to Rome. It was ordered to concentrate between Furci and Gissi, between 5 and 13 Corps, and all going well, to advance to Avezzano. The manœuvre, as a change from ‘left hooks’, was a kind of ‘right cross’ directed at the Italian capital. In the long run the New Zealand Division reached Avezzano, but it was very much later and by a very different route from that planned at this stage.
Supply Company moved up to Lucera on 9 November and promptly began to make itself comfortable again. The New Zealanders at this stage were still treating the Italians with some restraint; later they took possession of houses without compunction, but in these early days they made the best of things in bivouac tents. In the circumstances, every small comfort counted. Camped beneath the walls of Lucera castle, 4 Platoon was sent out on an expedition to Foggia to find timber to build a cookhouse. It found instead a salvage dump, and returned to camp with very little timber but piles of Italian groundsheets, bivouac poles and packs. Previously there had been two men to each bivouac tent, but as new tents began to mushroom each man became the owner of his own home.
The New Zealand Division's move into the line began on 12 November and continued until 22 November. It was a move made with all the delays and frustrations implied by the conditions, and on 18 November, Supply Column men aver, General Freyberg was to be seen directing the traffic of 6 Brigade.
Supply Company moved forward to Larino on 16 November, and set itself up in an old monastery. But it had barely arrived there before Major Bean went forward again to reconnoitre a new area, and on 20 November the company was off again, this time to San Buono, with the supply point at Gissi, a small town close to the line and crowded with troops. The supply point was established along the main streets, with the dry goods stacks near the village well, ‘where most of the town's women seemed to spend a considerable time gossiping,’ 4 Platoon observed. For the first time in Italy Supply Company was near enough to the fighting to see gun flashes along the Sangro front to the north. For the first time in Italy, too, the men were put into page 296 billets, but their stay here was again brief. Pressed by Indian infantry and New Zealand tanks and guns, the Germans south of the Sangro had been giving ground, and by mid-November the Indian troops breasted up to the river. Here New Zealand infantry took over and began to probe with patrols across the bitterly cold waters.
Blinding rain and a swollen, swift-flowing river delayed Eighth Army's plans for an attack on the German Winter Line. Crossings were made near the coast on the night of 21–22 November and, nearer the New Zealanders, on the night of the 22nd-23rd by Indian troops. The attack proper got under way at last on the 27th-28th. The New Zealanders secured a grip on the north bank, threw bridges across the river, and day by day inched along the rain-sodden ridges. By the beginning of December they had Castelfrentano, and from their line along an east-west ridge were looking across a valley to Orsogna. For the rest of December defenders and attackers thrust and counter-thrust as the New Zealanders grappled for Orsogna.
Supply Company moved forward at the beginning of December to Atessa, where Headquarters was set up in the cemetery, and thence on 13 December to a dispersal area on the north side of the Sangro about eight kilometres east of Casoli. The supply point, however, stayed on the south side of the river; it began operation in Archi railway station on 15 December. And at last Supply Company was settled for a while.
Supply Company's work was now completely changed. It was not possible to send forward a supply column to open a point at some convenient rendezvous behind the lines, and it was not possible to turn back to a field maintenance centre to replenish stocks; precipitous country and congested roads made traffic movement difficult and lack of open country ruled out the FMCs. The best system, it was found, was to operate a static supply point, and to hold there reserves brought direct from the railhead. The Archi point showed that railway stations were admirably suited for this purpose.
At Archi supplies were stacked in buildings and yards. Issuing would commence first thing in the morning and page 297 finish about midday, and to be on the spot for a prompt issue drivers of many units adopted the practice of coming back the previous night and sleeping overnight.
In mid-December Supply Company was catering for 31,570 troops, of whom 19,216 were New Zealanders, 3096 Royal Artillery, 4082 from 17 Infantry Brigade group, 2323 from 2 Paratroop Brigade, and the rest an assortment of Canadian, South African and English troops, some Basutos, one or two RAF men, 219 muleteers, and 1300 others. On one day a record three-day issue was made—more than 90,000 rations.
Supply Company, too, did not rely solely on the army's lines of communication for supplies. In a fertile country it was possible to draw on the land, and a local resources officer, in the person of Lieutenant Nelson, made his appearance. His primary task was to buy fresh vegetables and fruit, wood and charcoal. To aid him in his task, Nelson had a book, handed down from Eighth Army, which gave him ‘Instructions with regard to requisitioning procedure in occupied enemy territory’, and which stepped off on a fine idealistic note: ‘The ancient right of an invading army to plunder property in enemy territory no longer exists and strict rules as to the rights over such property have been laid down by the Hague Convention.’ It then set out in detail the various methods of legally acquiring things from the enemy, complete with price control formula.
The principle was, of course, beyond dispute, but in some ways had the effect of turning the conquered into the plunderers. The measure of the Italian's business fidelity was the fantastic prices he charged soldiers for cheaply made souvenirs and third-class wine. In the official field this homegrown inflation was accentuated by the units making their individual bid on the market, so that the local resources officer sometimes found supplies of some commodity he was seeking already bought out by units at exorbitant prices.
Another hindrance was the remnant fascist element. During the Sangro operations Nelson was held up with a wood contract for weeks because the local mayor, a fascist, would not permit the contractor to cut from the state page 298 forests. The problem was solved by deposing the mayor and installing a man more amenable to the Allied cause.
Thus, for Supply Company, operating at a static base and able to draw some of its needs from the surrounding country, the first Italian campaign provided an easier issuing task than the hectic days of Africa.
But, after the spacious freedom of Africa, transport drivers found the new conditions a nightmare. Supply Company drivers were spared the work of carrying forward into the tangled and sometimes hazardous country north of the Sangro, but there was still plenty to do in country equally as difficult. Crumpled into precipitous ridges and deep valleys, the land permitted only narrow, steep and winding roads, and villages perched atop peaks like rocky outcrops. Demolitions pitted the most difficult sections of the road. Unending lines of trucks, slopping through the liquid mud, wormed up the twisted gradients, through the narrow village streets and around awkward detours. Here it was not merely hazardous to move off the road; it was generally impossible. Precipitous drops were often very close to the slithering tires, and when a vehicle broke down it was sometimes necessary to tumble it over the side. General Freyberg himself once, near Atessa, ordered a vehicle to be pushed over a bank to clear the road for priority vehicles.
In places the roads were under enemy observation, and use of lights at night was strictly forbidden. Issuing an order endorsing this instruction, General Freyberg reminded drivers, ‘The Hun shells lights.’ The following day a notice appeared on a roadside: ‘No lights past this point. The Hun shells lights. By order GOC.’
Amid all this the Italians clung to their homes, or what was left of them; at Montefalcone a detour was blasted through the houses, and elsewhere street fighting had left its mark. Chillies strung along the houses gave a splash of scarlet to a grey scene, and peasants gathered in grapes from vineyards where the Germans had not mined; elsewhere the fruit rotted on the vines. Here and there less happy refugees from the north huddled in forlorn groups.
In these conditions, according to a report filed in January by Major Bean, some drivers showed lack of confidence; page 299 they were not competent on greasy surfaces, and they were —understandably—reluctant to drive at night without lights.
It was quickly learned that big convoys became entangled with other traffic and slowed down movement; at road and rail heads there was never enough room to disperse any great number of trucks, and in addition only a few could be loaded at a time from pack trains. The solution was to ‘package’ vehicles in groups of five, a practice that threw a greater responsibility on lower ranks.
In general, Archi provided plenty of work but not a great deal of excitement. An occasional shell—one in particular—that overshot the target of the Sangro bridges shook things up a little, and one day Spitfires chased a German fighter low overhead. Otherwise, the Germans were either too busy or too cold and miserable to bother about Archi station.
Christmas Day, the Division's first in Italy, came cold and foggy. But the supply organisation made a special effort, and there were pork chops all round and an issue of two bottles of beer a man—though the issue was short. Captain Smith, operating the supply point, usually had a sign around somewhere, ‘Smith's Busy Corner’, and for Christmas he had a huge sign painted along the whole side of the building containing his store, ‘Smith's Busy Corner Wishes its Clients the Compliments of the Season.’ For its own Christmas dinner Supply Company cleared a big room in a granary, set up tables and decorated them with candles and adorned the walls with appropriate inscriptions.
Hard behind Christmas came snow. As the year ran out, grey-white clouds simmered across the hilltops, and on the night of 31 December-1 January white flakes came cutting down through the darkness. In the morning the countryside was blanched a virginal white; foot-deep snow crunched underfoot and collapsed bivouacs into forlorn hummocks. It was, in fact, a forlorn morning. Many men were cold and wet, and their belongings were saturated. Roads and bridges were blocked, and many poles of the civilian telephone lines used by Signals had tumbled under the weight of snow, bringing down their lines with them into tangled confusion. Supply Company men near Casoli who were not page 300 already sleeping in trucks moved into billets, and at Archi the supply point fell into enforced idleness. With three days' reserves on hand, however, units had something to eat while they dug themselves out.
Snow spattered down intermittently throughout most of the day, and then cleared. As the thaw turned the snow to mud, transport churned the roads into slush. Off the roads the surface was slippery and brittle. Mules were used to carry supplies to units dug in along the tangled hills.
Throughout most of December the New Zealand Division, its operations clogged by mud and cold, had been grinding away at the German Winter Line in an attempt to grasp Orsogna. It remained beyond reach, and for the first half of January the men of the Division huddled into their greatcoats and probed forward only with patrols. It had been intended that the Division would remain in position here until the end of January and then withdraw for training. However, the snowfall of the New Year had frozen Eighth Army's plan to drive through Chieti to Rome. It was decided to strengthen the western sector, and five divisions, of which the New Zealand Division was one, were transferred.
In mid-January the New Zealand Division handed over to 4 Indian Division, extricated itself from the mud and moved south and then west across Italy. The move was accomplished in secrecy and with the usual security precautions to conceal the Division's identity. Supply Company men believed they were returning to southern Italy, and some became aware of their destination only when they saw Vesuvius's glow in the night sky.
To move the Division to the west took a week. At the head went an ASC group consisting of Headquarters Command NZASC, Supply Company, Petrol Company and 1 Ammunition Company; this group left on 14 January. Loaded with a bakery pack, composite rations, rum, and empty petrol cans, Supply Company moved out at the bleak hour of 2.25 a.m. The cans were dropped at Termoli and 60,000 rations put aboard. The company staged at 12.30 p.m. on the San Severo-Lucera road, and when it moved page 301 off the next day left 4 Platoon behind with 20,000 rations to supply, if necessary, the divisional units as they passed through Lucera. The next leg took the company through the Apennines, and on the morning of the third day it reached the Piedimonte d'Alife area.
Alife provided a pleasant interlude. The weather was fine and mild, and the olive groves and oak woods formed peaceful surroundings. There was leave to Pompeii, and Supply Company organised daily inter-platoon Rugby. On 31 January a Supply Company team beat 5 Brigade Headquarters 11-3.
The Division's future role, meanwhile, was being shaped. Not far to the north the German forces in Cassino blocked the way to Rome. They had blunted the nose of every attack launched against them, and while 2 United States Corps kept up the pressure, 6 United States Corps and British forces went ashore at Anzio, just south of Rome, in an endeavour to outflank Cassino by a seaborne attack. A bridgehead was secured but was contained by German forces.
During this phase the New Zealand Division was in reserve awaiting a call to the front to exploit the Americans' success. But there was no success. It was now decided to form a strong New Zealand Corps, which officially came into being on 3 February. The 4th Indian Division, which had relieved the New Zealanders at Orsogna, was now brought across to join them, and British, Indian and American artillery units and an American armoured force were added. The corps commander was General Freyberg. The Americans gave Cassino one last attempt, and then surrendered the sector to the New Zealand Corps.
New Zealand Corps moved into the shell-torn country of the Cassino front in mid-February, and almost immediately mounted its first attack, preceded by the controversial bombing of the Montecassino Monastery. The attack, like so many before it, failed, and a plan for another, code-named dickens, was put into train. All was ready by 24 February; then down came the rain. The grey clouds curled wisps about the hilltops, and deluged the raw country beneath. Clay turned to mud, bomb and shell craters to lakes, roads page 302 to wheel-rutted quagmires. Day after day the Corps waited, and day after day the rain continued.
Throughout this dreary period Supply Company operated as a link between Fifth Army's railhead at Sparanise and the forward troops. Trucks would go back to railhead in two groups in the afternoon and come forward to the supply point again the next morning. Issuing began at 8.45 a.m. and finished at 11 a.m. The ration strength varied from just over 27,000 to over 28,000. Charcoal, too, was a major item, and by 17 February 167 tons had been brought forward and 135 tons issued. As the rain softened the ground the engineers were called in to keep the point workable. They laid drains and spread shingle, carting shingle being part of the company's work.
The task of getting supplies forward to the troops was not always such a routine job. Later, when C Company of 24 Battalion became isolated on Point 202, for instance, their only supplies came from the air. Packed in felt and pieces of blanket and enclosed in a canvas bag, American field rations were parachuted down to this company by American aircraft, though many containers drifted on over the enemy's lines. It is interesting to note that these American rations, which contained various tasty novelties, were in the opinion of these men who had to depend on them for some days, not as nourishing as British rations. Corporal Cotter2 records that the American rations were most acceptable at the time, but ‘we often wished they would substitute bully and biscuits. These would have been worth six times the number of American units.’
This sort of work, of course, did not involve Supply Company, whose job began at the railhead and ended at the supply point—a dull beat in a static battle like Cassino. However, there was always sport with which to break the monotony of these inactive periods. ‘As an example of the sports facilities in field units the Company is interesting,’ noted an Archives field report on ASC units compiled in July.page 303
The administration corporal from Company Headquarters (a well-known Wellington footballer) is also librarian and sports NCO. Under the direction of a sports officer, great interest has been aroused in football inter-platoon competitions, company matches, hockey competitions, tenniquoit and cricket…. The equipment has been supplied by the NZ Nat Pat Fund Board, regimental funds, and a complete baseball set presented by a US army unit.
At Cassino the company was camped beside an abandoned airfield, and it was not long before goal-posts were up and sidelines marked. Many games were played here by Supply Company and other units, and quite an impressive who's who in Rugby could have been compiled from the names of men who were seen there.
The carefree manner in which these games were arranged almost within a stone's throw of the front line exemplifies the disdain with which enemy aircraft were now treated. Even when, after dickens got under way in mid-March, the company moved forward to within sight of the Monastery and the shellbursts puffing around it, transport drivers acted as though there was no enemy within 100 miles. NCOs of the furlough draft, who came back to the unit on 5 April, were mildly shocked to find dispersal ignored and trucks filing nose-to-tail through the supply point. Dispersal was, in any case, impossible because of the surrounding mud. Trucks were driven at night with lights, and when the RASC band gave a concert near Route 6 on 22 March, floodlights lit up the area; not far away gun flashes could be seen, and higher in the sky Vesuvius's cone tinged the darkness with a white glow.
Even so, the occasional German plane was to be seen, and after there had been a scatter one day when a stray aircraft droned overhead, a man was heard to remark, ‘Cor, there's a war on.’ On the day of the concert, the sight of eight enemy aircraft overhead was an event worth recording in the war diary; one was shot down by a Spitfire.
But enemy aircraft were not the only aerial hazard. When on the morning of 15 March the weather broke brilliantly fine, American aircraft swarmed across the sky to bomb Cassino as a prelude to a ground attack, and No. 3 Platoon page 304 scattered for cover when bombs came whistling down within half a mile of where it was camped.
Supply Company's war diary for 15 March reads: ‘1400 tons of bombs dropped on Cassino. Sky full of planes all day. Advance began approx 1230 hours. Rations issued 28,500.’
And that typified the humdrum life of the company during one of the Division's best-known battles. For eight days the New Zealand, British and Indian troops fought a grim battle amid the ruins of Cassino and on the slopes of Montecassino and other nearby features. Rain, the confusion of rubble and gaping craters in the streets of Cassino, and above all the fire of a determined enemy hindered and wore down the attack. Most of Cassino was gained, but the enemy clung tenaciously to the last fringe, and on the slopes of Cassino only a continuous smoke screen made survival possible. At last, on 23 March it was decided to abandon the attack. Isolated forward groups were withdrawn and the Corps settled down to guard what gains it had made. For the New Zealanders this meant holding an uneasy line in Cassino; and here they remained, living almost constantly under the oppressive pall of smoke, and suffering the discomforts of mud and water, and the dangers of snipers and an occasional clash, until they were withdrawn in the early days of April. The enemy's Gustav Line, barring the way to Rome, was still intact.