CHAPTER 16 — On the Adriatic Coast
On the Adriatic Coast
AND so at last the Allies were hard against the Gothic Line, considered one of the most formidable in Europe. Its main strength lay in the immense depth of the mountain fortifications; on the east coast a 30-mile broad belt of fortifications utilised low foothills and a close network of canals. It was to the east that the New Zealanders were now sent.
This again was a secret move. As a preliminary, large quantities of supplies were moved across beforehand, and Supply Company was left with just enough vehicles to maintain its day-to-day duties by working all day and every day. No. 2 Platoon was also sent ahead to pick up rations at Arezzo and set up a supply point at Foligno to replenish units as they passed through.
The Division moved across to the east late in August. The route, along which had been posted 800 fernleaf directional signs, took convoys along the dusty roads that wound through rugged hills and steep, twisting gorges. The road through the Fabriano gorge had been bombed, and the Bailey bridges that had been used to span the craters had been taken elsewhere. Convoys, which travelled mainly at night, had to feel their way along a five-mile, one-vehicle-width road at this stage, nosing down into craters and straining out again with storming motors.
While a small New Zealand artillery, infantry and tank force was sent forward to aid 3 Greek Mountain Brigade, most of the Division relaxed on the picturesque Adriatic seashore. Supply Company moved into Iesi, where replacement of trucks that had been going on in dribs and drabs since July was completed. If anyone has a mind to inquire into the durability of modern motor vehicles he might well page 326 make a study of the New Zealand Division's transport during the Second World War; Supply Company's would serve as well as any. The vehicles with which the company reached Iesi were, in the main, those with which it had been issued in Egypt three years earlier. Three years is no great age for a road-bound civilian truck, but these army vehicles had been subjected to stresses and strains that would long ago have led less robust trucks to the scrap heap. Through desert heat, across trackless wastes, up winding mountain roads, through rain, mud and sometimes snow, these vehicles had carried, day in and day out, food and later fuel for almost 20,000 men, sometimes for more. It was a constant, unremitting task that often called for hard driving and long hauls, and which rarely permitted the coddling considerations granted civilian transport.
It is true that to some extent these vehicles were almost like the old and trusted battle-axe that has had half a dozen new handles and a new head or two—almost, but not quite, because although new engines, new tires and sundry new parts were fitted, the frame into which these things fitted—the shape and tangible evidence of the original trucks—survived the wracking of these thousands of miles and went with the newer parts to the scrap.
The prospect from a workshop point of view must have been appalling. The credit for keeping these old and trusted vehicles mobile goes, of course, to the Workshops Platoon, the sort of backroom boys who, by the nature of their work, came even less into the limelight than the transport or supply platoons. It was their task to patch up the effects of age and misuse. The strength of the platoon, including one officer, was forty-four, of whom about half were technical men and the remainder administration staff, learner fitters, and so on. In September 1944 only one man in Workshops had served his civilian apprenticeship as a mechanic. Two others were coppersmiths and another a turner. The rest had all learned the trade in the Army.
Their main responsibility was the 200 vehicles of Supply Company, which had to be not only repaired but also periodically inspected. In addition they serviced the vehicles page 327 of 2 Field Bakery Section, 2 Divisional Postal Unit, which was attached, X Water Issue Section, and at one stage 359 Pack Transport Company, RASC, which was also attached. In practice they did work for anyone handy. No job was considered too big and none too small; repairs were made to 10-ton lorries and to small instruments used by the dentist.
The men in Workshops worked to a more or less civilian routine, only rather longer; their day began at 8 a.m. and finished at 4.30 p.m., and there was a half-day break on Sundays for cleaning up and doing their washing.
The trucks that replaced the old desert vehicles had to measure up to exacting standards, and in many respects they were no match for their predecessors. Though they had a ruxel gear—a two-phase gear-box that doubled the number of gears—they had only two-wheel drive and were useless off the road. They were also unstable; if not correctly loaded they would sway badly—several overturned—and even roll off their tires. Even so, they were husky workers, and their redeeming feature, of course, was that they were brand new. There was still time before the strenuous days of the advance on Trieste to discover their mechanical idiosyncrasies, and when the crucial test came and every wheel was needed, Supply Company transport was 100 per cent efficient—every truck was on the road, and stayed there. Despite their constructional advantages, the time-worn desert trucks could not have given this service.
The ration situation at Iesi became rather complex. Among the units that turned up with the rest of the Division after the trek from the west were Advanced Base 2 NZEF and 1 NZ General Hospital. The general hospital, which had previously always drawn from base supply depots or some such line-of-communication formation, had not previously called on Supply Company for service, and by the nature of its ration strength it was a fastidious client. Hospital ration requirements naturally could not match normal troops requirements, and though advance notice could be given for some special items required, each day additional demands were made, forcing Supply Company to draw from its reserves and replace the next day from a base supply page 328 depot. It was finally agreed that it would be more satisfactory if the hospital drew from a more static depot, and the change was made on 16 September.
On 11 September a New Zealand artillery group moved north of Pesaro, and convoys were sent forward daily with rations in detail. Sixth Brigade followed next day and was similarly rationed.
While the company was at Iesi, too, two convoys were sent back down the coast, through the so familiar country of the Sangro to Bari to pick up Patriotic parcels. The score: blowouts, seven, miles by each vehicle, 750; parcels, 21,000.
The New Zealand Division completed its move back into the line in mid-September and began a slow slogging match in which the force of every punch was cushioned by mud, ditches and a well-organised defence. In just over a month's fighting the New Zealanders inched forward from the bridgehead over the Marecchia River, which they took over from the Canadians, to the Savio.
Nos. 2 and 4 Platoons and Workshops of Supply Company went ahead on 14 September and No. 4 Platoon opened up a supply point at Cattolica. Two men who will remember this move very clearly were the drivers who took the water cart in search of the water point, Drivers Westrupp1 and Harvey,2 who encountered a hazard unique in Supply Company's history. Having found the point, they were returning to the company area when they were halted by an elderly woman, who gave them a note reading: ‘The bearer's daughter is very ill. Will you please supply transport to hospital.’ It was signed by an AMGOT (Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory) officer.
After some difficulty, the men found the house where the patient lay, at the end of a long, winding lane through the hills. In a dungeon of a room they found the patient in what Harvey describes as her ‘unadorned glory’ awaiting the services of a midwife. As far as they could make out, the assembled family that had greeted them thought they were doctors.page 329
After being treated with wine, the drivers agreed to transport the patient to a hospital, and mother and daughter piled in with the two men in a cab designed for two; water carts lack reserve room. At Pesaro no accommodation could be found for a maternity case, and the truck drove on 12 miles to Fano. The situation was delicate and becoming critical. A military policeman directed the truck to 19 British Casualty Clearing Station, but here a lance-corporal who came out to see if there were wounded on board told the men to ‘Get to hell out of here.’ Another MP suggested they try the town major; he was located after a long search but was no help. Moving now from the critical to the desperate, the situation was at last saved by a civilian who, seeing the men's plight, jumped on to the running board and directed them to a civilian hospital. Here they gingerly let down their fragile cargo and departed under a cloud of ‘Grazis’, having added, had they cared to think about it, another service to Supply Company's long list of extracurricular activities.
On 17 September Supply Company moved up the coast road—Route 16—to Cattolica, and camped in an area surrounded by barking 3·7s, which were firing into the Rimini battle zone nine miles away. The guns moved on with the battle, however, and in its area, flanked by Route 16 and overlooking the blue Adriatic, Supply Company became peacefully settled. ‘The cooks,’ noted No. 1 Platoon's diarist, ‘once again have the oven in action, food is good and all ranks are happy.’ Leave to Florence began, there was a fresh outbreak of Rugby, and the sea was available to anyone who cared to walk down for a swim.
All was not sweetness and light, however. No. 5 Platoon was sent forward to Rimini on 28 September to set up a more advanced supply point. The allotted site looked too soft for a secure supply point, and doubts were soon confirmed. The platoon had no sooner established its camp than the rain came pelting down and the ground became a sea of mud. When the convoy arrived with the rations, the officer in charge rightly refused to take his trucks off the road, and he went back to Supply Company with them still loaded. No. 5 Platoon, left to soak in the mud, spent a page 330 miserable night, and with the rain still pouring down abandoned the site next day and sought shelter in nearby deserted buildings.
Nor was this the worst. No. 1 Platoon's recorder, who had a sharp eye for things that mattered, winds up the month's account with this: ‘The month ends with the platoon sadly contemplating their newly painted vehicles. The paint so indiscriminately sprayed about is said to be blue, or maybe just drab.’
During this time the fighting units had been pushing forward ditch by ditch, and the rain that had soaked Supply Company's Rimini supply point broke down the pace still further. Driven by gale-force winds, the rain sheeted across the battlefront, bogging down tanks and drenching the unhappy infantry. And through it all the artillery rolled and the troops floundered. At last on 10 October the sun broke through and the advance towards the Savio plodded on.
Supply Company sorted out its supply point troubles in the first days of October, and on the 5th No. 5 Platoon opened up at Viserba, three miles north of Rimini. Here, beneath a roof and on a concrete floor, was one of the best ready-made points encountered by the company in Italy. For administrative purposes, the Division and the few British and Canadian troops also being rationed by Supply Company, were virtually static, and for most of October the point operated undisturbed at Viserba. The Savio, the limit of the New Zealand advance, was less than 20 miles away.
Having reached the Savio the New Zealanders were withdrawn towards the end of October and sent back to the Fabriano area, deep in the Apennines, for a rest. Well, a rest at any rate for the men who most needed it, the fighting troops. To bring supplies to this area meant long hauls and overnight trips for Supply Company drivers. Most of the company moved back to Fabriano on 23 October and immediately No. 4 Platoon opened a new point. No. 5 closed its Viserba point the following day and on the 25th waded south through a tide of north-bound traffic. In the narrow Fabriano gorge traffic was only one way at a time, and the last 20 miles of No. 5's journey took fourteen hours.page 331
The Division was well spread, and to shorten the turn-round for B echelon vehicles of 5 and 6 Brigades, No. 5 Platoon was despatched to Castel Raimondo, 20 miles away, to open a second point. Fourth Brigade drew from Fabriano. Supply Company itself was distributed over a wide area as it was necessary to find firm parking for vehicles. No. 2 Platoon, for instance, was five miles from Company Headquarters, ‘which was pleasing to all personnel except the Don R,’ noted No. 2 Platoon's diarist.
In a tragic manner Supply Company was reminded at Fabriano that the people in whose midst they were living had not so long ago been their enemies and that beneath the surface of the Allies' ‘co-belligerents’ animosity still remained. Towards the close of October Supply Company was called out for a task requiring all available men and transport: supplies had to be brought from Senigallia. Among the men left behind were Drivers Page3 and McFeeters.4 During the absence of most of the company, some Italians came to No. 2 Platoon's cookhouse selling wine. Page and McFeeters bought some, and after only a sip both became ill; the wine, later analysis showed, contained cyanide. Page survived, but McFeeters, who was about to return home on furlough, died.
November brought snow and biting mountain winds, and firewood, stunted oak bought by the local resources officer, became a major item of Supply Company's work. The ration was 2 lb. a man a day, delivered direct to brigades by transport platoons. Rugby, inevitably, was begun, and 2 Ammunition Company beat Supply Company 18-6.
During September 4th Reinforcement men had gone off home on furlough, and 5th Reinforcement men were now about to leave. Farewell dinners were popular, and ‘excellent beverage supplies’—so recorded—‘ensured the success of all functions.’ A typical menu is that of No. 4 Platoon, printed in colour and headed by Supply Company's insignia, a red-over-green diamond overprinted with the figure 95. The menu, complete with an error made by the Italian compositors, reads:page 332
|1 New Zealand||Supply Company|
|ITALY||22 Nov 1944|
|Creme oyster soup|
|Poultry—Roast turkey; duck|
|Vegetables—Roast potatoes; potatoes
Peas; cauliflower creamed
Seasoning and brown gravy
|Savouries—Sausage rolles; cheese straws|
From 17 November onwards the Division began to drift back to the line. The artillery regiments went first, and other formations followed in groups. While the New Zealanders had been away there had been no substantial change in the position, but there had been some gains; Forli had been cleared and Eighth Army was nine miles beyond it on the line of the Lamone River. Here the terraced stopbanks presented the enemy with a formidable defence line.
The New Zealand Division took over from 4 British Division just north of Route 9—the road passing through Forli—on 26 November, and began a sporadic exchange of fire with the enemy. While Nos. 1 and 4 Platoons stayed behind to supply the last units in the Fabriano area, the rest of Supply Company, laden with 40,000 rations, moved to Cesena, just south of Forli, on 23 November on a grey, wet day. The supply point was set up in a shingle yard, and while the rain poured down, more and more shingle was brought forward both for the supply point and platoon areas. Firewood and charcoal—the wood had to be brought up from Castel Raimondo and Fabriano—made further demands on transport, but fortunately the daily pack was drawn from 131 DID at Cesena.
Within a few days the point was moved forward to Forli and was opened on 28 November in a former silk factory. page 333 Forli was still within range of enemy artillery, which used the chimney of the factory for ranging, and shells came dropping into the town day and night. Enemy aircraft, too, had taken a new lease of life.
The silk factory was a minor show place. Before Eighth Army took over Forli it had been turning out silk for parachutes and nitric acid for the German Army. The value of the buildings and plant was reputedly £25,000,000. Its normal staff was 2000. The owner was a Count Orsini Mangelli, an anti-fascist, who had fled to Switzerland after insulting Mussolini.
Allied bombs had destroyed a good deal of the buildings and machinery, but an electric power plant escaped. According to a report, German sappers were preparing to demolish this before evacuating Forli when the works custodian persuaded them to accept a 4000 lire bribe to leave it intact. They left the explosive charges but took the detonators. The plant, needless to say, was an asset to the Allied forces.
On 29 November Major Bean returned and resumed command. Major Rawle went to Advanced Base on the first leg of his trip home.
Early in December the front, not so far to the north, began to liven up. The New Zealand Division's first tasks were ‘Chinese’ attacks—simulated attacks with plenty of noise and movement to divert the enemy's attention from real crossings elsewhere. After some brisk patrol brushes the Division at last on 14 December made a thrust past Faenza, still in enemy hands, towards Celle as part of a general assault. Celle was taken and held, after a hard fight, and. Faenza was secured. A second general attack on 19 December strengthened the gains, and a line against the Senio River was established. With Forli and Faenza now close behind, it was possible to withdraw infantry units in rotation and give them a spell from the snow and mud of the front line.
Back at Forli Supply Company's point had caught a small but deadly dose of bombing. Just after 5 p.m. on 10 December three Messerschmitts came skimming low over the town. A Bofors near the railway station belched up coloured tracer; newcomers, who hadn't seen an air attack before, gaped; and the old hands, after a moment of shock after being immune for so long from air attack, went to ground. The planes divided; one went over the town and dropped a bomb on a church; another came down over the square, where about thirty tank transporters were parked. A bomb missed the company's administration building by yards and the transporters as well, and buried itself deep in the soft earth before exploding. The blast killed four or five British soldiers, three of whom were due to return home, wounded a number of others, shattered windows, damaged Supply Company vehicles, tossed debris several hundred yards, and started small fires. The aircraft were brought down. Before traffic could move through the supply point, a bulldozer was required to clear mud and stone from the roadway. This was the company's second to last experience of bombing.page 334
Apart from this intrusion, work proceeded reasonably smoothly. Besides the daily issue of 19,000 to 21,000 fresh rations to New Zealand and other British troops, regular issues were made to Italian troops—sometimes as many as 2269—and an AMGOT unit to feed civilian refugees. Issues to refugees ranged from 400 to 2400 daily. Charcoal, coal and, most important to snow-bound troops, rum were other issues. A check at the end of the war revealed that in quantity at least every drop of rum that passed through Supply Company's hands could be legally accounted for. Whether the addition of water was ever necessary to reconcile the books is something only a few may know.
At Christmas the customary special issues, including Christmas cake, were made. Supply Company dined on oyster soup, oyster patties and chips, roast turkey, pork, roast potatoes, onions, cauliflower, cabbage and mashed potatoes, and Christmas pudding. ‘The general expressed opinion,’ says No. 3 Platoon's diary, ‘is that this is our last army Christmas.’
As 1945 began with the customary pyrotechnics, the front was static and soon the New Zealand Division was preparing to meet an anticipated counter-attack. But none came, and along the frozen front, white beneath several feet of snow, page 335 small arms crackled and the guns barked without achieving anything of note. Frosts overlaid the snow with a crisp crust, and rain beat it to slush.
If you ask a man who saw the year of victory commence in this area what his dominant impression was, he will very likely answer, ‘It was cold.’ How cold? Water just 12 feet from Supply Company's blacksmith's forge turned to ice. Water froze in hand basins; tinned milk and the liquid contents of tinned fruit froze in the can. Graders skimmed snow and ice off the roads and banked it up on either side in a churned, frozen mass. Water in a quarry across the road from No. 1 Platoon froze, and the men, fashioning skates out of angle iron, organised ice hockey.
There were ways of keeping warm—or at least of getting warm. Wood was in such heavy demand that all reserves were exhausted and fresh supplies issued as soon as they were received. Charcoal and coal—coal for hospitals only—were also on the issue, and an earthenware stove factory at Forli was pressed into service turning out stoves for the troops. The troops themselves developed their own diesel-oil-fired heaters that operated with a full-throated roar, now and then erupted with a red-tongued flame and a shower of soot, and filled the air with the heavy smell of oil. It is not recorded who first thought of warming up trucks in the same manner, but the very first Supply Company routine order of the year consisted of this one instruction: ‘Oil burning, charcoal or wood will NOT be used in any WD vehicles. Disciplinary action will be taken against offenders.’
The Kiwi Concert Party helped to liven things up during January; films were popular, and the Dorchester Club Naafi was generally thronged with New Zealanders. The 22nd Battalion and 2 Ammunition Company fought out the final of the Freyberg Cup Rugby competition at Forli stadium; the battalion won.
The routine work went on: the pack from Cesena, wood from San Godenzo, charcoal from Cesena and Rimini. The issues included civilian rations to the Don Bosco hospital, Forli, to an AMGOT unit at Faenza and the civilian hospital at Forli. One Supply Company detachment made the rounds of divisional units distributing vermouth.page 336
On 29 January Supply Company sent back Nos. 2 and 4 Platoons' cookhouses and a water cart to Pescara to set up a transit camp for men on their way home on furlough.
By the end of January there was a general desire to be on the move. It is an affliction of the soldier's life that he is perpetually wishing he were somewhere else, and after nine weeks—the longest for which any one supply point had operated during the Italian campaign—Forli was stale. Furthermore, the thaw had begun, and mud slopped underfoot.
But there was no move. The front was set fast in the snow, and no relief for the New Zealanders was yet in sight. And so the routine went on. Some, however, escaped from Forli's tedium. Early in February men released on furlough were sent back to Bari; Supply Company despatched 188 on the 10th. Of these, 150 were 5th Reinforcement men, thirteen men who had been in the Pacific and twenty-five who had been abroad since the echelon days. Among other things, this move stripped the company of all senior NCOs except two sergeants, but platoon commanders had been schooling up lower ranks in anticipation. To fill the depleted ranks about 140 replacements, mainly former members of the disbanded 6 RMT and 18 Tank Transporter Companies, who had been training at Bari for the past three months, were posted to the company on 7 February, rather earlier than anticipated. It had been intended to pick up these replacements with the fifty-eight trucks that took south the furlough men, but they dropped out of the blue before the furlough men had gone.
But there was still work for the convoy to do, for waiting at Bari were men from the Pacific. Coming from warmer climes, they hardly appreciated the dusting of snow they received as they ran north up the Adriatic coast with only the draughty flapping canopy of a three-tonner to shield them from the biting air. Two officers, a number of NCOs and forty men were posted to Supply Company from the Pacific draft, bringing the unit up to strength.
An event of note during February was the marriage of the Senior Supply Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Bracegirdle. Forewarned of the coming event by the bridegroom, No. 5 page 337 Platoon contributed to the wedding breakfast with ‘certain extras’, undefined.
Relief of the New Zealanders was at last begun on 4 March, and the Division moved back to the mountain rest area it had occupied during November. But now the sting had gone out of the weather; the snow had gone, and though there were one or two light falls they soon disappeared in the spring sun that was warming the mountain valleys.
Leaving Nos. 1 and 5 Platoons to operate at Forli until the Division was withdrawn, the rest of Supply Company went back to Fabriano and resumed residence as they had left it. The supply point went into the railway station and Workshops into the brickworks. The civilians, who somehow seemed to be expecting them, welcomed them with open arms.
No. 5 Platoon closed the Forli point on 7 March. The point had been open for three months and eleven days, the longest period for any one point in the history of the Division.
Two supply points were again operated, at Fabriano and Castel Raimondo, and a detachment was attached to 4 Armoured Brigade, which had gone to Cesenatico. There was plenty to do: the pack three times a week from Senigallia; bread and hot cross buns for Easter from Ancona; charcoal from Foligno; meat, fresh vegetables, fruit, YMCA stores and coal from Chiaravalle; eggs (appropriately) from Ancona;5 and wood from Castel Raimondo, San Severino and Porto Civitanova. On top of the ration issues dropped a big parcel mail that had been delayed in the Indian Ocean, and Patriotic parcels and cigarettes were issued. On 14 March a full company parade was held in preparation for an ASC ceremonial parade on the 19th. All ASC units were inspected by General Freyberg, and the salute for the march past was taken by Major-General Kippenberger.
One way and another there was not a great deal of time, but time enough for Rugby. In the ASC competition Supply Company first disposed of Field Bakery by nine points to five, and went on to meet 2 Ammunition Company on the Supply Company ground. It was a brilliant game, with page 338 Supply Company forwards and backs working smoothly and efficiently. They held the initiative, but when time was called the score was eight-all. To find the winner of the competition a return match was arranged for a few days later, played this time on Ammunition Company's ground. With Wally Argus and Bob Scott in their team, Ammunition Company was a formidable prospect. Supply Company, however, had Jack Taylor, and Tim Perriam was another sound leader. Watched by General Freyberg and Brigadier Crump, the teams fought out another draw—three-all. It was decided to play an extra five minutes each way. Taylor lined up his team and briefed them crisply. ‘There's only one thing that matters in life or death,’ he told them, ‘and it's this game.’ Accounts differ on just how many minutes and seconds it took Supply Company to score the winning try, but it is agreed that it was a team possessed. Breaking away in a fast movement, the backs swept down the field and touched down while the crowd roared and whistled and waved.
Later in the divisional competition a depleted Supply Company team was beaten by 27 Battalion 6-3 in a hard game. This defeat, however, was no dampener to Bean's pride, which he aired expansively at NZASC Command Headquarters. Command promptly challenged Supply Company Headquarters with the taunt that even with the smaller number to pick from, they could easily beat the company. In the words of the then unit historian, the Supply Company team ‘featured such “has-beens” as Major Fenton, Major Bean, Captain Markby and Lt Fergus.’ ‘Has-beens’ or not, Supply Company Headquarters won 9-3, with tries scored by F. Collins, L. Higginson and R. Coombes.
Three men to whom Supply Company owed a great deal for organising Rugby were S. Higgins, T. Quirk and A. Garraway, who formed an active sporting trinity. In hockey, too, Supply Company was prominent and contributed five players to the ASC team.
By the end of March there was little time left for anything—even for Rugby. There was work to do.