CHAPTER 11 — La Romola
‘My Dear—, You say that Fred— tells his wife what he does every day. Well, when we are not in the line camp life is much the same every day but front line work is different.’ —Private 492769, writing home on 30 July 1944.
And jokers coming back from Rome and talking about—woman —St. Peters1—vino bianco—woman—Appian Way—muscatella —Victor Emanuel Memorial—woman—Vatican City—cognac—Olympic Stadium—woman—Borghese—Anisetta—Cistine Chapel—woman—catacombs—hair-cut, shave, shampoo, nail manicure—1400 Lire—Romulus and Remus—vermouth—souvenirs— woman, etc., etc., [writes Bob Foreman].
In all my memories of various cities Rome stands out as something different. Although it was Italian it seemed to have dignity. There was a difference between Rome and Cairo—they both had their own personalities. Cairo was a place for fun and games—among other things. Rome—among other things—was a place where you could take it easy and enjoy the luxuries of life—something further removed from the army than was the case with Cairo. And in Rome you saw all these things which you had heard about since childhood. And the women—so many had just taken on the oldest profession in the world. And so many of them still had the charm and looks of their upbringing—their new job didn't show—as yet—in their appearance (as it did in places like Egypt). We asked one young girl in a bar one night (she went about her job still as a new chum) why she had started on this career. And her reply was the same— I suppose—as hundreds of others would have been: ‘I've got to eat.’ You had to have something more than a bit of money to live in Rome—after the upheaval of war. And after seeing all the other places in Italy which we have seen—Rome seemed clean and— well it seemed to have dignity. Everyone seemed to have something to say about Rome—anyway you couldn't go home and say you hadn't seen Rome. [At the Apollo Cabaret English military police would beg New Zealand officers forming scrums with Springboks: ‘Don't scrum sir! Sing!’—to no avail.]
The traffic didn't rush and bustle as much as in Cairo—but remember those rowdy diesel engines and their clattering exhausts page 306 —everything from great Fiat lorries and buses down to those little Fiat three wheelers. The streets reeked of diesel fumes. All day the din would go on—and keep going on till after midnight—then it would begin to slacken so that by about 2 am there would be short intervals of silence between the comings and goings. Then up till about 5 am there would be as much silence as there was clatter of exhausts (as gear changes were made), coming through your bedroom window at the NZ Club. But after 5 am the noise started to increase again so that by about 7 am they were in full cry once more. (And the motor scooters added their quota of noise.) Then there was the Italian orchestra at the Club—they played well but had a rather limited repertoire (the signorina singing ‘Trotta, Trotta Cavelina’ etc.—the boys liked it.)
Back at our area we mostly sang (with a bit of vino) the songs we had sung since we had gone into Trentham. The army songs such as ‘Who'll do it this time’, ‘Star of the Evening’, ‘Sweet Violets’, etc. were always to the fore—together with one or two of the latest song hits and one or two Italian songs some of the boys had just learnt. As the session got going a lone voice would be raised in such melodies as ‘Mountains of Morne’, ‘Shake hands with a Millionaire’, ‘Granny's Highland Hame’, ‘Will my Soul pass Thru’ Ireland’ etc., etc. Then towards the end of course there would be ‘Now is the Hour’. But there were two song hits which came out at the beginning of the war and which seemed to always stay at the top— ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘Bless ‘em All’. (How you cursed that song if you were stone cold sober and trying to get some sleep at about midnight when there was a party going on next door.) But now there was a new song which had been rising in popularity and which now stayed at the top for the rest of the war. At first you had it sung in English (‘For you Lili Marlene’) but soon you could also have it in Italian (‘Conte Lili Marlene’) or German (‘Mit einst Lili Marlene’). I heard that some of the Italians were quite surprised when we came to Italy and went round singing a German army song half the time.2
And the drunks…. You would hear them coming back over the ridge from a ‘session’ somewhere in the early hours of the morning and shouting at each other. Then there would be a long pow-wow at X's bivvy and finally all would be quiet. Next morning X would be full of remorse. He would utter such remarks as: ‘I'm no good—I've let you boys down again, I'm not fit to be with you boys'—and he would sit in the sun looking utterly dejected. And page 307 he would have a job to find his clothes. Often something was missing completely—maybe his boots, or maybe his shirt, or then again his false teeth. But a few nights later he would be off again.
Then off on another route march … with locusts or cicadas or what ever you call them kicking up a hang of a din in the trees and a continuous scuttle of lizards in front of you as you walked through the grass—two sounds so very typical of an Italian summer. (One joker swore he had a pet lizard which came to see him every morning.)
Then out to hospital with boils and carbuncles—rejoining on the Arno.
An American sergeant, James P. O'Neill, armed with notebook, pencil and Leica camera, came to visit the battalion at the end of July. The battalion had moved from resting near Rome and had travelled 270 miles north, over the dusty countryside other soldiers had captured, and on beyond Lake Trasimene. Here a ring of mountains stood between the Allies and Florence. In this mountain stronghold the German was fighting a savage rearguard action before falling back to his formidable Gothic line, which was taking shape behind Florence and stretching across the Italian peninsula from coast to coast.
Sergeant O'Neill arrived to write an article, ‘Kiwis in Italy’, for his magazine Yank, ‘The Army Weekly. 10c. By the men … for the men in the service.’ Already he had photographed one mess queue and had prepared the caption: ‘Fighting Kiwis in Italy line up for their chow. It's corned willie and, inevitably, a chipped mug of tea.’
At the command post O'Neill met the Adjutant, Captain Carson,3 ‘a dark, good-looking Kiwi, with grey rings under tired eyes and a sad, cynical grin.’ He moved on to find Colonel Donald, who was trying to fix up a bath for freshly wounded Major O'Reilly. ‘We didn't give Bert O'Reilly a bath after all,’ Donald complained. ‘Some of those crazy Maori jokers stole the bathtub.’page 308 page 309
The night's objective for the battalion was the town of ‘El Romula’ [La Romola], and a farmhouse directly across from it and in front of a hill. The artillery was to lay down a heavy barrage and then the infantry was to move in. The attack would begin at 10 p.m. on the 29th.
The American was sent off to 11 Platoon, which was in reserve. He was introduced to the cook, Alec Gillon,4 a Taranaki 'sheepherder’ preparing ‘a baffling mess of everything [30 tomatoes, 16 fresh eggs and 2 rabbits] …. it is miraculous what you sometimes get out of a combination like this.’ The visitor contributed a tin of peas and a packet of lemon-juice powder. His impression of New Zealanders took shape: ‘They wore no helmets, preferring their berets or stray Itie hats: they were all a deep, healthy tan and most of them wore no shirts. They looked like especially healthy members of a 4-H club [American equivalent of young farmers' club], except for the hollows under their eyes and the dark tense lines that marked their tan complexions.’
After dinner Gillon and ‘another ex-sheep-herder from Palmerston’, turned on a haka; a keg of chianti was tapped; the talk drifted to ‘the shielas (girls) back home and when they would see them again’; and the American was promised toheroa soup next day.
But in the morning 11 Platoon, needed in the final assault on ‘Romula’, had left for the line. Captain Carson explained the attack and said the men were moving on to a farmhouse at the foot of the hill.
‘A small Kiwi [Padre Sullivan] … straw-coloured hair and freckles, and he wore a freshly laundered shirt’ was collecting names for a burial party. The American went forward to watch the farmhouse, under fire from a Sherman, fall. Mortars started a barrage and a platoon moved forward.
‘When they were about 300 yards away, the mortar barrage stopped and the platoon opened up with small arms. Then the men started to run toward the house. They were about 50 feet away when a grenade blew up in front of them and one of the Kiwis went down. The rest were almost up to the house when two civilians crawled out of a cellar hole and began running away. The Kiwis didn't pay any attention to them. Both page 310 of the civilians started down the rise: they got about 20 yards and then one stepped on a mine and went up in a cloud of dust. The other kept running.
‘Now I could see dark forms come out of the cellar. They were Germans, about 15 of them, and they all had their hands up. Four Kiwis started to hustle them back to the rear. The rest of the platoon disappeared into the house.’
O'Neill then returned to the command post. ‘When the hill at last fell, a man said: “At least we're one bloody hill closer to New Zealand.” ‘
The staff correspondent, his story finished, packed up and moved on to other places, other stories.
Before its attack on La Romola the battalion, laden with superb peaches from an orchard in the assembly area, and glimpsing a tired King George VI driving past from a visit to the front, had searched, checked over, and occupied the hilltop hamlet of San Casciano (some sniping and shelling) on 27 July.
The battalion was preceded5 by a force clearing the way called ARMCAV, which included 2 Company under Major Keith Hutcheson, the first troops into San Casciano. ‘We saw our divebombers deal a terrific blow on San Casciano,’ wrote Hutcheson. ‘One moment the town looked smiling in the sunlight. Then came our bombers and a sickly yellow pall of dust and smoke arose. As the dust cleared away we could see the town leering in ruins.’ The company next moved on to occupy Spedaletto, a hamlet further north, where it was relieved by 23 Battalion. The company, heavily mortared and shelled during its spearhead advance, had met with casualties, the page 311 first being Lieutenant Tom Wauchop,6 found face down in long grass, killed instantly by a mortar fragment.
The occupation of San Casciano on 27 July cost two men killed and five wounded. They were caught on a long, sweeping bend of the road curving uphill to the town. Most of the men crowded together on the leading tank jumped down into the water-table between the tank and the bank when the first shell arrived, but Philip Mason,7 a wireless operator, who had his earphones on and was facing in another direction, was slow to move. He was wounded by the fast-following second shell. Private Watt,8 ‘being a new chum didn't know what to do, but the others all said: “Get off the—tank into the ditch.” Just as I was bending down to jump off I felt a stinging pain in the throat, but thought it was a flying stone till, landing in the ditch, I found blood was pouring out.’ Fraser McGirr9 promptly bound up Watt's dangerous wound, ‘and after that I always took a dim view of riding on the outside of a tank. Even now the smell of a diesel engine brings the scene back.’ Doug Shaw10 and Davidson11 were wounded simultaneously.
San Casciano stood on a ridge just over 1000 feet above sea level. North of the town the land, dotted with olive trees, dipped down over two miles to a narrow valley with a creek and a road, an attractive enough sight in peacetime. About half a mile up the steep slope on the other side stood the cluster of houses called La Romola, and a couple of miles on from that a ridge called La Poggiona. Within the next few days the battalion would storm both La Romola and La Poggiona, key positions in the final defence of Florence—a bloody assault over a week which would cost 26 dead and 80 wounded.
Beyond San Casciano heavy firing came from the hills. These new defences, called the Paula line and particularly strong in guns and mortars, were held by experienced troops including page 312 4 Parachute Division and 29 Panzer Grenadier Division. But already Florence (declared an open city) was in sight; its twinkling, tantalising lights could be seen in the distance from certain hilltops at night.
Now working with squadrons of 4 Armoured Brigade, Divisional Cavalry and other units, the battalion was about to meet particularly bitter fighting.12 But the men would shoulder their trials with distinction, many an unblooded reinforcement fighting with almost a veteran's skill. Also, for the first time in Eighth Army's history, a German Tiger tank, a massive 60-tonner in full running order and complete with crew, would be captured.
By dawn on 28 July 3 Company was past San Casciano and holding the ridge overlooking the valley which lay between the battalion and La Romola. Vehicles moving along the road in the valley were mistaken for ours, and a tank major remarked happily: ‘We'll be in Florence tonight—the 19th are through!’ A section and three tanks prepared for a descent into the valley to investigate a blown chunk of the road. They were to find a detour; if nothing happened, the rest of the platoon would come down and up the other side to occupy La Romola. Divisional Headquarters was under the impression that the Germans were pulling back steadily.
‘It was a rather chilly grey morning with the sun just breaking through to give promise of a fine day when the tanks went off with the section under Corporal Max Rogers,’ writes Second-Lieutenant Paterson. ‘Across the valley there was no sign of life at all—everything was absolutely quiet and still, almost eerily so. We watched the tanks wind down a narrow rutted track into the valley below, then trundle along the road at the bottom for a hundred yards or more to the edge of the huge hole in the road where the turnoff to the village joined the main valley road. The tanks stopped, Max Rogers spread his men out around them and they lay down. The three tank commanders climbed out of their turrets and were walking over to look closely at the hole in the road. Suddenly like a broadside from a huge battleship, the whole hillside opened page 313 fire simultaneously—88mms, mortars, spandaus, small-arms fire—everything seemed to come out at once from the whole area of the hill opposite. The tanks burst into flames in the same time as you would count 1—2—3…. The shelling continued very heavily for some time and from then on right through that day and night and next day and part of the night until the La Romola attack it was intermittently heavy to light almost without let-up.’13
Rogers's section vanished; the ridge was drenched with fire, and in fact during this day (28 July) all of 3 Company's vehicles would be shelled out of commission. Everyone on the ridge scrambled for cover in a church, where later a solitary tank man appeared, after worming his way up a shallow gully, with the news that, although one or two were wounded, most of the men were safe in a house partly sheltered by a small spur.
Tom Kriete, in his Red Cross carrier, most pluckily drove down and gathered up the wounded near the tanks, firmly refusing to take an armed officer with him and saying reproachfully: ‘It's against the Geneva Regulations.’
Among the rescued wounded was Ian Riddle,14 ‘a fine chap, quiet, reserved and solid. He died later from his wounds, although by the cheerful way he greeted me [from the stretcher] I never guessed that he was wounded so seriously.’
After a scratch breakfast (sour red wine, stale bread, and lengths of that smoked sausage often seen hanging from the ceilings of Italian farmhouses) Rogers's section, one by one at erratic intervals, dashed outside, over open and horribly exposed ground, into the shallow gully, and so safely up to the church—all except hapless ‘Lofty’.15page 314
Major Sainsbury16 remembers the sectioning drily report ‘that in their opinion Jerry had not gone.’ At that moment Colonel Donald arrived in his jeep and entered the church. A ‘stonk’ came down and collected his jeep, ‘so’, adds the Major, ‘I think even he was convinced.’
Three Company spent the rest of that day and the next in and around the church while the heavy shelling continued, and suffered some casualties. ‘No breakfast, Sweet Fanny Adams for the rest of the day, rather miserable actually.’ To the right 1 Company, less exposed, advanced some of the way towards the valley, at the cost of three men wounded by the same mortar bomb. Several units, including 1 Company, made their headquarters in a sturdy three-storied building hidden in trees and believed to be invisible from the other side of the valley. In fact, a New Zealander was light-heartedly strumming a piano when a shell bit into the top story. This was the start of half an hour's shelling which didn't seem to much affect this solid building. This fire could have come from a Tiger tank near La Romola.
During the morning of 30 July a reconnaissance patrol under Sergeant Allan Clinton17 went out ‘to establish the position of the enemy—in other words, to draw fire. It soon did. While creeping out of the ditch the four men were fired on. They decided to run back to a house about 400 yards away, and were running together when Ingpen18 broke away and ran up through some maize, ‘and the next thing I knew my leg started to go at all angles and … I was at the house with the other boys, to whom I owe a terrible lot, and to Graham Bassett19 and the boys of No. 7 Platoon for their great friendship.’
Lieutenant Monaghan had gone to an observation-post position in houses just over the top of a ridge in 3 Company's area. While looking over the ground of the next night's attack, he was caught in mortaring and severely wounded in the stomach. He returned to Company Headquarters full of apologies for getting wounded and reluctant to lie down. ‘Jack was page 315 a first-class fighting soldier and 1 Company greatly missed him,’ notes a comrade. Jim Maclean20 took over the platoon. That night a tank officer reconnoitred to the stream in the valley and found the banks too steep for the tanks to cross.
By 9.30 pm [an officer writes] we had our orders for the attack [that night at I a.m.] …. I was held back by George (‘Gharry George’) Sainsbury after the conference for further orders. I was told to send an N.C.O. and two men, equipped with a 38 set [a portable radio] to the village of La Romola. They were to go to the village, find out if it was occupied, count how many Germans were there and radio the information back, then return and rejoin the platoon in time to move off [to the start line] by midnight. I was to send good men since apparently the information must be reliable. I protested to Major Sainsbury stating that as the answer was obvious since we were even then being heavily shelled, and there was a great deal of machinegun fire coming over from the village and its surrounding area, it was a futile waste of men. I told George that although I had never before refused to obey an order I would do so now.
He reasoned with me, explaining that it was an order from Divisional Headquarters so far as he could make out, and that he liked it no more than I—that nevertheless it would have to be done. Apparently Div HQ had the word of two Italians that the Germans were pulling out and the authorities did not wish to waste the ammunition involved in a barrage. If the Hun was pulling out, the barrage could be called off, I then told George that if it had to be done, it was no job for an NCO and though I didn't want to do the job there was no alternative other than for me to do so. He reminded me that I'd have more work to do before the night was out, so once more I tried, suggesting that a spare officer he had … should be sent rather than an NCO, but orders were orders and so I returned, raging and disconsolate to my platoon, hurrying to give them as much time to do the job as possible and rejoin us— although I doubted whether they would have a ghost of a chance. It was then about 10.30 p.m.
I selected Corporal Edwards21—we called him Eddie Edwards— a keen, conscientious, thoroughly reliable and fearless soldier. To go with him I picked what I thought to be two of the most enterprising and reliable men—‘Fudge’ Valintine and ‘Nuts’ or Jack Medway. These two were friends and were as keen and fine a couple of chaps as I knew. I called them out as soon as I arrived at the platoon, telling the others to get ready for a move at midnight.page 316
they had to go towards the village and establish the fact that it was occupied. First contact with the enemy would establish this and observation from where we were would establish the width of area of occupation.
They were not to take the radio set as it would only hinder movement and I could see no reasonable opportunity of their using it anyway.
They were to travel light with only personal weapons.
They were to return to the platoon as soon as possible, making their way back to us as soon as they had established contact with the enemy.
I emphasised this last point as being important, pointing out that a recce patrol was useless unless it came back with the News. Having compromised with the authorities and my conscience as best as I could I saw them go, feeling profoundly disturbed. I then went in to give the rest of the platoon the orders for the attack. Just before we moved off at midnight word came to me that Eddie Edwards had crawled in on hands and knees, with his feet badly smashed and his scalp badly wounded, and the information that Fudge and Nuts were dead. A shell had got them not 200 yards down the hill. Three days before that, Nuts, in a moment of conversation, had told me how lucky he had always been in having such a wonderful mother and family at home, and how he thought that if a man had to finish up his life this way he reckoned it would be worth it for a family like his. He may have known something—I don't know.
I didn't tell the boys as we moved off what had happened.
Intense shelling covered the start line while the platoons crept, dodged, and ducked into position near it as 1 a.m. approached. Three Company would cross first, with 1 Company following directly behind. Three Company's start line was between two roads on the left; 1 Company would spread out to the right and make directly for La Romola. Two Company would cover the left flank round the road leading south-westward from La Romola to Cerbaia. The attackers were to advance under the barrage, which was to lift forward 100 yards every five minutes. From a crest in the rear Vickers guns of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion began their supporting fire.
A company commander says the ‘German defensive fire was very intense in that V-shaped valley—very—it filled the blasted valley—it was horrible.’ Says a platoon commander: ‘The page 317 noise, dust and smoke was terrific and hardly seemed to increase when our own barrage opened up since it had already about reached the ultimate limit.’
Into this went the battalion as the hands of illuminated watches circled round to one o'clock. Subalterns and sergeants yelled to their platoons to get cracking.
Three Company was ‘hashed about’ by shells or mortars on the start line. Its left-hand platoon (No. 14), with an enraged Triss Hegglun,22 had been dealt a heavy blow on the way to the start line, so only a small number from this platoon got away into battle, Peter Mitchell23 and Phil Powell,24 on their own initiative, carrying on with a handful of men. Sixteen Platoon scrambled in to fill this gap, but its leader, the cool and adventurous Johnny McNeil, was soon killed, and Sergeant Mick Eades25 took control. Confusing matters further, Second-Lieutenant Keith Cave's26 platoon (which was supposed to be with the rest of 2 Company), somehow caught without shelter, dived into a fairly deep ditch, mixed with 13 Platoon, and bemused that platoon when it rose and moved off into the attack. The remaining platoon in 3 Company (No. 15) on the right broke contact in the middle (Ian Thomas with one half, Sergeant Bill Windsor27 with the other), but by running in the darkness somehow managed to link up again. Doug Froggatt, the attached signaller with a radio set, was severely wounded just past the start line and lost his radio. (Elsewhere an overwrought man, believing units were being massacred, seized a radio and attempted to call off the attack until he was forcibly restrained.)
One Company, with very similar problems, and with 6 Platoon lost all night, was also ‘b—bewildered’, as its OC, Len Turner, tersely and graphically describes it. Turner was given command in battle when it was learned that Major O'Reilly had been hit in the head near the start line. The Major, page 318 bleeding profusely and surprised at the violence of the shelling, saw and heard no more that night of his three platoons attacking up the hill. Refusing to be evacuated, he stayed with 5 Platoon, the only platoon in 1 and 3 Companies which remained intact entirely throughout the night.28 Two Company, while forming up, was not only mortared, separated and to some extent tangled, but an impudent German almost offhandedly tossed a bakelite grenade into Company Headquarters for good measure.
The wonder is how the attack succeeded at all, and how La Romola fell: ‘it was a time of incomprehensibility to most of us.’ To describe the attack as a co-ordinated drive would be false. The assault became a matter of small groups all moving up on their own, none quite sure whether they weren't the only ones left on the task. Determination (which is the very basis of courage) won La Romola. Everywhere radio links failed. Men were isolated, sometimes for hours on end. In this dark and violent night visibility was poor enough (only a few feet) without the constant fog of sour-smelling dust and smoke thrown up by the shells. But the enemy was misled too: several parties of Germans, absolutely convinced that the attack had failed, walked innocently into captivity or death.
The first man to win his way into La Romola was Lieutenant Ian Thomas with 15 Platoon (3 Company). This won him the MC. His citation mentions how ‘His courage, his cheerfulness and his complete disregard for his personal safety were factors of great inspiration to his men. On two occasions the platoon was pinned down by heavy fire from machine-gun posts. Lt. Thomas himself charged both [posts] and with his tommygun killed or wounded the defenders and the advance continued.’
In the afternoon before the attack, Sergeant Johnny Hughes29 page 319 and another man from 16 Platoon had gone out on reconnaissance, but had been held up in the creek. Fifteen Platoon was not supposed to go forward until it heard from this patrol, but at night no news had come so the platoon advanced. ‘Getting off the startline was the worst part,’ says Bill Windsor. ‘We met shelling and counter shelling in the creek, keeping touch in the platoon was tough, but we got ‘em up there.’ Pushing on up the hill they lost contact, reached the first house half-way up, were shelled and fired on by a machine gun (near the house), which was cleaned up. Here Phil Wevell30 was wounded, and was killed by a second machine gun while making his way back to the house. The second nest was cleaned out (Private Wilson31 was wounded), and on the threshold of La Romola 15 Platoon was held up for a good two hours in the second house, which was not occupied, and was trying to make contact with the other platoons.
About 3 a.m., when Thomas's platoon was occupying its two-storied building on the fringe of La Romola, a burst of Bren-gun fire directed questioningly above the roof brought shouts from Thomas's men of ‘Stop that Bren, you silly b—s' and 13 Platoon's survivors emerged from the gloom.
Thirteen Platoon, when the attack opened, had gone up a ditch in single file, its men two or three feet apart in the dark. This ditch led up the hill, and Paterson, tellingly indicating what others too were enduring, goes on: ‘After a couple of 100 yards the shelling got so intense that I thought for a time we had overrun our own barrage. I accordingly halted the platoon for two lifts [of the barrage] while I tried to judge which way the shells were coming and whether there was any difference after the next five-minute lift. There wasn't, and several shells seemed to come from the front so I passed back the order to move again.’
Probably at this moment several shells landed at the back of the platoon. Private Gordon Nilsson,32 ‘a fine comrade’, Private ‘Buck’ Cruickshank,33 Corporal Terry Molloy34 and page 320 others were killed. Sergeant ‘Massey’ Wood35 and Private Fitness36 were among the wounded. Private Maidens,37 wounded in leg and arm, survived being buried by another shell a moment later. ‘Massey’ Wood, who had been told before the attack to do what he could for any casualties, now had his hands full: Corporal Max Rogers and Private Doug Baty38 helped him. Wood carried Fitness, slung over his shoulders, until he reached the stretcher-bearers, ‘although at the time…. thought it of litt e use except that Fitness was still breathing.’ Sergeant Rhys Price, calm and steady, gave efficient aid to the wounded that night.
When the ditch ended, 13 Platoon, now only eleven strong, spread out in open order and advanced in a long line. Paterson goes on: ‘Meanwhile we advanced our 100 yards each 5 minutes, having long before given up any idea of dodging shells but watching for fixed line Spandau fire which seemed to be sited at intervals along our front from somewhere over on our left. When observed we'd wait for a burst, then run across its path before the next burst came. So we went on in leaps and bounds. With five men on either side I'd get up, shout “Come on you b—s” or some such edifying words of encouragement while “Richy” [Private Richardson39] who carried a useless 38 set automatically, of his own accord, took on the job of platoon sergeant, running like a sheepdog from one end to the other of the line, making sure that all the blokes heard in the din, and all moved off together. As we went on the shelling seemed to subside then virtually petered out, with only spasmodic Spandau fire’, as the little group drew near Ian Thomas's building. They joined forces, tried vainly for an hour to make contact with Company Headquarters or the tanks by radio, ‘during which time odd Huns appeared from time to time and disappeared with an odd grenade or so.’ A small group from 14 Platoon appeared, took over Thomas's prisoners and then, page 321 as the first streaks of dawn were starting to show, Thomas and Paterson, to the left and to the right, moved off again, each with the remnants of his platoon and without tank support. ‘In this fashion we arrived at the village of La Romola40 just as daylight came up and brought us back to a world of comparative reality.’
Soon after the attack opened, and with 14 Platoon smashed, 16 Platoon crossed the road in the valley ‘and advanced up a fairly steep incline under streams of German tracer…. We were in extended line led by Lt. Johnny McNeil and in trying to keep well up under our own barrage found ourselves too far to the left of our line of advance, so veered over to the right and suddenly found ourselves amongst the hail of shells which were dropping short. We went to ground, me [Sicely41] with wireless set on the ground in front of me. No sooner were we down when a shell hit an olive tree almost above us, and in the darkness I heard a voice I recognised as Ces Murfitt's42 saying: “Oh God, Oh my God let me die”, and immediately he died. A minute or two later another shell landed very close and I collected a piece of it in the right thigh. I called to Johnny McNeil who came over with Wally Wicken43 to help me take the wireless gear off. While they were leaning over me another shell landed almost on top of us and both Johnny McNeil and Wally Wicken were killed, all I got was a blast of earth on my head.’ From this moment Sergeant Mick Eades took over the platoon and succeeded in leading it by daybreak into its La Romola objective. He won the DCM and (a high and well-deserved honour very rarely made in the infantry) an immediate commission in the field in recognition of his further brave work in the following five or six days.page 322
‘Altogether it was a sticky affair and I feel we suffered more casualties than we deserved,’ sums up Major Sainsbury. ‘I remember that … along came an English Arty Major and Sgt. [commandos] who had been detailed to trail along with us to see what an Infantry attack was like. I saw them on the starting line and then the fun started and to this day I don't know what happened to them but I hope it was good experience for them.’
Len Turner tersely describes the attack by 1 Company, which had crossed over the valley and formed up to the right of 3 Company, with 6 Platoon on the left, 8 in the centre and 7 on the right (5 Platoon, under Second-Lieutenant Arthur Woolcott,44 went up the valley on a right hook with the tanks):
‘Time passed swiftly, H Hour arrived, Major O'Reilly did not return as planned (knew something must be wrong), we kicked off on time. Hadn't gone 25 yards … [before] Alan Viles45 was killed outright by shell…. A bastard barrage was on, infantry nightmare, you know, advance say 1500 yds and then pause, and move off at right angles…. Everyone was a bit jumpy about this, you didn't dare ease over to the right too much! Time moved on…. I have never seen grapevines more thickly planted, they seemed about 15 feet apart, strung on tight wires, you had to wriggle thru, no show of bursting thru: wires too tight. Barrage leapt ahead. Rec'd wireless message from Arthur Woolcott to take over 1 Coy as Major [O'Reilly] wounded, very sweet, no link to Bn Hq, no runners, no “I” bloke, no nothing, just very intensive enemy harassing fire. Called Lt. “Junior” McLean46 and Sgt Mick Kenny 8 pl; Graham Bassett and Sgt Alan [Clinton] 7 pl; Sgt Seddon47 6 pl; together. We had a natter. Decided “up the grapes”, “push on regardless”. After a while, the grapes won; meantime 6 Pl, Sgt Dick Seddon now O.C., had veered a little to the left along a slight ridge, and lost contact; another “O” group [conference].page 323
Outcome: I would lead, Graham Bassett second, the remains of the Coy in single file in an effort to get to the objective.
‘We pressed on, ratted a few Jerry positions, and as dawn broke (first light) were in the right-hand outskirts of the village, approx 200 yds from the objective, and b— bewildered. Dispersed men in house, as heard fire and someone coming, it was Cpl Jack Shaw and 5 PI, luckily, more or less as planned. Major O'Reilly wasn't far away, he looked like a pirate, bloodied head bandaged and shirt, and greyer than ever, and looking fierce (he had reason too!). I told him the situation, and when I mentioned casually I had lost 6 Pl, holus-bolus, I thought he was going to dance the can-can.’48
Probably 3 Company occupied the left end of the village and 1 Company the right end at the same time. Twenty-one prisoners were taken and probably fifty to sixty of the enemy had been killed. The battalion had lost 1 officer and 7 men killed, 1 officer and 21 others wounded. La Romola, undefended in the daylight, turned out to have just one fairly long winding main street and plenty of short streets. It was set on a ridge, with a church tower at the left end, and the many gullies leading off the main ridge reminded some of a miniature Orsogna.
When 2 Company was mortared in the creek-bed, Company Headquarters had no choice but to advance alone and ahead of the starting time (to prevent congestion further back) and for an hour lay in no-man's-land behind a most inadequate haystack. The fire intensified. Two guns firing short in the barrage brought casualties. Finally, after the lost and scattered men had been gathered together, all the platoons came within radio touch. The leading platoons were led by Second-Lieutenants Vic Henderson and Keith Cave. Their first objective was a white house, then ‘a sort of palace’ 400 yards to the left, and finally some houses on the crest of a hill, 600 yards beyond. Landmarks, tracks, and a road were difficult to find and identify.page 324
As the men crossed the road towards the first objective, severe mortaring brought several ugly casualties—somebody panicked and raced along the road almost screaming for stretcher-bearers, but Hutcheson, grabbing him by the wrists and squeezing them hard, told him to get on towards the white house, which he did. The white house, eventually located, was found clear of enemy, ‘thank God.’ The ‘sort of palace’ turned out to be full of terrified civilians, for ‘the air was noisy with the covering fire of our MMG's and the bursts of infantry weapons.’ Company Headquarters was established here as four stranded Germans surrendered. The platoons on the top of the hill met sharp resistance but occupied their objective and took several prisoners. They spent the rest of an anxious and bewildered night standing to, but although there were bursts of fire all round, the company's front was not attacked.49
Shortly after dawn a 5 Platoon party began a routine search which yielded one of the most spectacular prizes of the Italian campaign, a trophy certainly on its own amongst the New Zealand Division's battle prizes. Lieutenant Arthur Woolcott, with a small party including Lance-Sergeant Ken Stevens,50 Lance-Corporal Kevin Dillon,51 and Private ‘Snow’ Dodunski,52 crossed over to the right of the road on the fringe of La Romola and began searching an inverted ‘V’ of houses. Approaching the top house, the lieutenant and Dodunski burst in the door and raced inside, while the rest sped round the sides of the house and, said Stevens, ‘nearly had kittens on the spot. We ran clean into a Tiger tank. An odd olive branch (camouflage) was on the top and the long gun was sort of pointing to the ground. We stood like geese.’ Presently Dillon circled the monster (‘its tracks were so big it seemed unfair’), and as it now appeared to be abandoned, began climbing onto it ‘when up comes the lid. Before I could surrender, the German did, with three or page 325 four others. We were very tough once they put their hands up.’
The elated patrol (describing the crew as ‘good chaps, surprised by that night's attack, and also they'd probably had the war’) escorted their captives into La Romola, each with a neatly packed blue bag similar to air travel ones. Woolcott, going through the tank, found it in perfect order, and tank men later took it away (the company's number chalked on it) towards B Echelon.
Noel Bird53 writes: ‘We'd been stonked rather heavily in the night and from a distance it would sound like a large counter attack. Of course messages had flown, and at first light the Tank Recovery Unit were on their way out with their valuable prize, the Tiger. But in our B Echelon it was seen through a grey misty dawn on its way down the road towards them. Someone announced that Jerry had broken through: after that, chaos. Our so-called heroes became sprinters of almost world class, but hardly dressed for the occasion. The return to duty was not quite so heroic.’
A new padre for the battalion, Padre Sergel,54 witnessed the panic as he drove towards Rear Divisional Headquarters, saw the tank, then learned of its capture, and thought, ‘This 22 Battalion have got something.’ He reached the battalion area. A little cemetery was made outside a chapel, and ‘unfortunately before we moved from there the grassy spot was quite filled with graves. I was impressed by the flowers which the local Ites laid on each grave, and when I called back weeks later I found that fresh flowers were still on each grave. Despite the fact that their homes were smashed and half or all their worldly goods were destroyed, they realised in some inarticulate way that these Kiwis from a far-off land had given their lives for them.’
Padre Sullivan left the battalion for England. ‘He was a most understanding personality, and many of the chaps stopped a punch in the ribs for using bad language in his presence,’ writes Bob Grant in a typical tribute. ‘We didn't have to call Church Parade—you couldn't keep the chaps away. His packing case draped with a Union Jack, topped with a wooden cross, page 326 dressed in his holy raiment, Padre would just talk, not preach, to us. He told us the Bible stories in a way that made their meaning clear, and where it was possible to have singing, chose hymns every denomination would know. He always became so absorbed in his narration that, before long, a corner of the flag would be lifted, and Padre's foot would be resting on the box as he pressed home the various points he decided to make.’
At 11 p.m. on the night of 1 August (‘the old story, momentum lost,’ comments Captain Len Turner,) the battalion began a two-pronged attack from La Romola, 1 Company (with 2 Company in close support) aiming for Tavernaccia, a hill to the north-east, and 3 Company attacking La Poggiona ridge, within a mile and roughly north of Tavernaccia.
On the start line 1 Company again met with disaster. Eight Platoon became badly cut up by shellfire: Frank Deehan55 was mortally wounded, Private Borthwick56 killed, and several others badly wounded. In vain Harry Mohr57 and Sid Meads, hobbling about, put a rough tourniquet on the stump of Deehan's arm. Seven Platoon was on the start line and another platoon, probably 6 Platoon, was passing to get into position ‘when a shell (we still think it was one of our shorts) landed right by us.’ Casualties altogether were about a dozen.
Ridges and steep-sided gullies disorganised the company, which was caught in our own barrage for about twenty minutes, thanks to the nature of the ground. Though scattered and dazed and also hampered by wire—grape-vines strung across the line of attack—the survivors pushed on to Tavernaccia. A large two-storied house, with a tower on top of it, appeared on the hill; it was surrounded by a cyclone fence six feet high which enclosed some three acres. Enemy shell and mortar fire increased, small-arms fire ‘was pretty fierce’, and the building was occupied, with 5 Platoon in a house further on the right flank. This platoon, losing contact half-way during heavy mortaring, had pushed on independently to its objective. A German had picked up the platoon's call-sign on the radio and, page 327 claiming to be the commander of 6 Platoon (Len Turner), insisted that Arthur Woolcott halt his attack. When the voice could not give his own nickname (‘Tich’), Woolcott went on with his men. Two Company, very tired, reached its objective but was heavily mortared as it consolidated at dawn. The tanks, up by daylight, drew some heavy shells.
Three Company, lining up to take La Poggiona ridge, had been depleted by the La Romola attack to three platoons: 13 Platoon (Lieutenant Paterson), 15 Platoon (Lieutenant Ian Thomas) and 16 Platoon (Sergeant Mick Eades). Lieutenant Triss Hegglun (of the late 14 Platoon) acted as company second-in-command in the field.
The start line was 100 yards or so on from the village on the Poggiona side. The time was 11 p.m. A barrage was laid on—100 yards every five minutes. The advance was to be along the road which led to a group of buildings set about a square courtyard, beyond which lay about 400 yards of open, flat, slightly scrubby ground leading over to the hill feature, La Poggiona, which was to be 3 Company's final objective. The company was to be on top of the hill before daylight.
The barrage opened up; 13 and 16 Platoons led, then came 15 Platoon. Away they went, lying down at the 100-yard mark while the barrage worked out its five minutes' pounding, then up and on another 120 paces. Most of the trouble came from houses bordering the road, which gradually curved and rose. After about 800 yards the attackers were on a small ridge with trees. Here our own shells certainly seemed to be hitting the tops of the trees and bursting, ‘so that there was a constant tinkle-tinkle, spatter-spatter of shrapnel and splinters on the roadway around us.’ About now 15 Platoon was sent to ‘do over’ a house on one side of the road; a shell struck the top of a three-foot wall close by and wounded about five, including Lieutenant Thomas, Corporal Dick Sheppard58 and Private Ridding,59 who mentions ‘the inspiration and confidence that radiated from Lt. Thomas both then and during all previous events.’ Sergeant Bill Windsor took over the platoon.page 328
Up the long line passed a message from Company Headquarters to halt and allow the barrage to go for three lifts, when it might clear the trees. Men crouched and lay in a shallow ditch on the side of the road. The fifteen-minute halt grew into half an hour, which was again extended on orders from Company Headquarters in the rear. The barrage was slipping away from the attackers. Much ground remained to be covered. ‘The boys lying inactive on their stomachs were not getting any great kick out of the situation. I wandered down at intervals to see how they were getting on and was annoyed to find one man out of his place in the line. As I bent closer to see who this chap was (sitting up talking to another who was lying flat with his tin hat stretched out to its extremes to give maximum coverage) I found … Foll. Carrington60 … sitting as large as life, wearing instead of his tin hat an Ite sort of greyish Panama hat at a rakish angle. He was talking nonsense, joking and laughing. I started to explain why every man had to keep in his place, so that when we got up to move the man behind would see in the dark just the man in front, and so get up and move also. If the man in front wasn't there it was too dark to see the next man again. Foll pulled me aside a little and explained that the particular chap he was talking to had been getting a bit on edge and he was simply keeping his pecker up for him, and that at the first signs of movement he'd slip back smartly to his place in the line. Knowing Foll I had no worries on that score and left him still sitting there amongst the very flat bodies, with my own pecker considerably uplifted.’
Eventually 3 Company was ordered on again, and by a group of houses the barrage stopped. Fire (including a well-placed spandau) from both the top and bottom stories of this group of houses held the attackers. A stalemate was prevented by a 20 Regiment tank-troop commander, Second-Lieutenant Bill de Lautour,61 who brought his tank forward and briskly rammed a house or two, while the infantry fired at top windows to stop grenades being dropped down into the tank's open turret.page 329
In this way the houses fell with a few prisoners. Dawn was coming up fast, the barrage had long since stopped, and the hill ahead was still in enemy hands.
Major Sainsbury decided to establish his Company Headquarters in the group of buildings and tackle the hill in the evening. It was now almost full daylight, and Sainsbury knew the approach to the hill lay across about 400 yards of cruelly open ground; the men, who had had only irregular food scavenged from here and there and little rest during the last three nights, were dead weary. A platoon sent 100 yards forward to protect the buildings drew fire ‘from almost a half circle, from about half right to full left—mainly Spandaus. From one knob on the left alone I counted four streams of Spandau tracer coming from a machinegun nest … in a few minutes bullets appeared to bounce off the hard dry dusty surface rather like a hailstorm. Before the holes were dug there'd be no platoon to man them.’ The platoon ran back to the buildings.
Bill de Lautour offered ‘to shoot ‘em up the hill’ to within 30 yards of the top with his 75-millimetre guns and .5 machine guns. With this help 3 Company got moving again, 13 Platoon on the left and 16 Platoon on the right. The two platoons advanced across the ground in a long extended line, the tanks level with them and spaced at intervals along the line. The tanks kept up a continual fire as they rolled along, ‘while Bill, with his round, sunburned face (on which seemed a perpetual grin) poked up above his turret, directed the fire of his troop. His face was a great tonic to us, and so was his shooting.’ One of many targets was the machine-gun nest of four spandaus on a knob: three tank shells dead on this target silenced them.
Half-way across the flat, as arranged, the tanks stopped and laid down a barrage for 3 Company to advance under to the top of the hill. At the bottom of the hill some of the men ran fast through a house with one wall damaged. One German ‘had half-turned you know to sling his grenade and I got him in the back, I saw three neat holes, and as he fell and I jumped over him and shoved on, I thought to myself: “Christ, you're good“, just like that. And a bit further on I seemed to be outside myself, looking at myself, and thinking: “Hell, is that me?” And then I forgot it all and just shoved on up the hill.’
‘The ground rose steeply before us, with corrugations not page 330 unlike the old Maori defences as they are today on our own hills,’ writes Paterson (13 Platoon). ‘We started to run up, firing as we went. There were quite a number of Huns on the hillside and a good many more on the top. As the boys ran up there was shooting for all, like the opening of a good duck shooting season I should think. Everyone was greatly excited, and the enemy began to drop their weapons and run as we came to the top. We ran over the top and some distance down the other side, with by this time the enemy in full flight.’
Now came the moment of exaltation, which one man describes in these words: ‘I stood there stock still, gripping the tommygun like this. You seemed to feel the strength of every muscle in your body. In front in their grey uniforms the Germans crashed away into the bushes, scuttering like great rats —or like pigs—running away—unclean, evil they seemed just at that moment in the early morning, you see. And it seemed as if a great finger was pointing straight down at you, or—no, this is closer to it—you were the tip of a great triangle of light shoving on into the darkness of a Europe the Hun had overrun and fouled for all these years. And you were doing this, you yourself were driving this darkness back, you were out in front, you were part of this crusade or history or whatever it was—and then some bloody fool fires his tommygun and we—off back up to the top of the hill.’62
Remembering an old instruction, ‘Never overrun your objective’, Paterson reluctantly called a halt to the victorious pursuit and told his men not to shoot, for in front a good many Germans seemed ready for surrender. A young German lad was seized and told to shout to his comrades: ‘Schiessen nicht’, ‘Herein kommen’, ‘Wir schiessen nicht’, and so on, in the belief that the German's accent would be more intelligible than a New Zealander's. ‘However he was terrified and his voice came out in a pitiful kind of quavery wail. I roared at him: “Louder, you b—!” He seemed to catch on, and a louder, more quavery wail came forth, but to my repeated roars he could improve no more, so I took up the burden of the song myself.’
Paterson describes the scene: ‘After a minute or two the faces page 331 of the enemy began to appear, peering through the little bushes and scrub amongst the light trees, and all over the ground for some distance down we could see them beginning to rise and put their hands up. Then one near us, perhaps 20 or 30 yards away, stood right up and started to walk towards us with his hands up. Just then unfortunately a youngster who had not long before joined the company lost his head and fired a burst of tommygun through the German's stomach at short range. The rest turned and ran down the hill while we in turn ran back to the top of the hill and started digging.’
The two platoons (13 and 16) had little time to dig in back on top of the hill. (‘I suddenly realised that the mosquito-like whines whipping about knee-high were actually bullets—brain working a bit slowly,’ as one man put it.) The Germans, with every justification enraged at their comrade's death as he was surrendering, rallied swiftly and assaulted the hill fiercely three times. Twice they were driven back by 3 Company, which was shooting as hard and as fast as it could. As the third counter-attack broke the section on the left flank reported hearing the enemy crashing through the undergrowth on the left; apparently he was starting to surround the company. After continuous firing ammunition was low: tommy-gunners and the Bren-gunners reported ‘Nearly out.’ Unwilling to be surrounded without ammunition, 13 and 16 Platoons retreated,63 section by section, ‘down the hill up which we had run so enthusiastically an hour or so before’—16 Platoon to Company Headquarters, 13 Platoon to cover the slope from inside the partly smashed house at the foot of the hill.
Colonel Donald decided to take the hill in the late afternoon with 2 Company, supported by a barrage from the 25-pounders. About six o'clock the barrage opened up, catching 13 Platoon still in its outpost. A smoke shell filled the wretched ruin with fumes; the cap from the shell struck Tracey64 on the big toe, and he cursed the artillery violently.
So the two platoons from 2 Company assembled in 3 Company's headquarters, where the RAP was also established.page 332
‘Just as the platoons under Lieutenant Cox65 and Henderson were assembling at the startline,’ wrote Major Hutcheson, ‘we were subject to one of the bitterest shellings I have ever experienced. Someone said they were our own shells and indeed it seemed to be true. I could not get the CO on our own radio, so climbed into a tank and spoke to the CO of the tank regiment asking him to lift the barrage. Then my two platoons came staggering back, shocked and disorganised, and with heavy casualties. Lieutenant Cox had a badly shattered elbow, and mutilated arms and legs seemed to be everywhere. I pointed out that the barrage was over and that the attack must go on but everyone eyed me grimly.’
Before his arm was smashed, Cox had got as many of his platoon (10 Platoon) back as he could contact. Private Wicksteed66 ‘caught it in the knee joint. I gave a yell as it was very hot as well as a jar as it stopped against the bone.’ Just before Owen Bullot67 was hit in both thighs, ‘the section were getting out of the way fast, in between hitting the deck every time anything came in. Two of the chaps in front of me went down, heads well down and stern ends way up in the air. In a lull I could not help but laugh out loud; these two chaps looked back at the sound of laughter, and the look on their faces very clearly showed that they thought I had cracked under the strain.’
Over on the right flank some of 12 Platoon pulled back and dodged some of the barrage, but among the platoon casualties were Kane,68 Robert Nossiter,69 Dick Perrott70 and Clark,71 of whom the last pressed down in vain into a shallow depression. A carrier took Norman Faulkner72 back to the hard-working page 333 RAP, ‘and what a nightmare ride this was as we were shelled all the way out.’ One explanation for this disaster is that the only maps available were old Italian ones. Men advanced up to the first track shown on the map, but the track was now non-existent, and the men came on to the barrage line as the guns opened up ‘and collected the lot.’ Men who were there think that in a very few minutes about twenty were left on their feet out of about 117, but very few if any were killed. Apparently the majority were suffering from blast and shock, and the disorganisation was considerable.
Yet it will be seen that the act of a few men, probably no more than a dozen, had a wide influence over the stricken 2 Company. On the right flank some of Corporal Tsukigawa's men (12 Platoon) sat out the storm (no new orders recalled them) and then moved forward towards the objective: the ridge, which was across a gully full of pine-trees. Not being able to see the rest of the platoon and not knowing everyone had retired, this little force, led by the resolute corporal, advanced alone. Castell-Spence73 writes: ‘We went down into the gully and were going carefully up the face leading up to the main ridge. We must have been about halfway up when Jerry spotted us and opened up with a few bursts from a Spandau. [Mel Jacob,74 on the Bren gun, was hit.] We lay down and tried to pick up where the fire was coming from.’ Mortar bombs fell a little short. The men pulled back into cover in the gully when the Air Force came over and raked the ridge with cannon and bomb.
While this was going on, Second-Lieutenant Jock Wells's platoon was down at 2 Company's headquarters and another platoon too far back to use. Neither, of course, had been on the fatal start line. ‘Suddenly word came in that Corporal Tsukigawa's section had not come in but advanced up the hill,’ Hutcheson continues. ‘This encouraged the men, and I said, “Come on, we can't leave him up there by himself.” Wells's platoon came quite cheerfully.
‘We spread out into open formation and advanced slowly towards La Poggiona. One or two wounded were still sheltering page 334 in hollows and I sent them back.’ Here men passed Private George Ireland,75 who became almost a legendary figure. He was grinning cheerfully and greeting passers-by with the words: ‘Gosh, I'm sure glad to see you. I'm on my last cigarette.’ One leg was hacked through at the shin, but was hanging by an inch or so of flesh at the calf. With his blunt bayonet Ireland was trying to complete the act of amputation. (This incident is fully authenticated by a number of astounded witnesses.)
‘As we reached the foot of the hill,’ Hutcheson resumes, ‘Corporal Tsukigawa and a couple of men appeared. He announced La Poggiona clear of the enemy. Our barrage had done some good after all. He joined our extended line [for his work the corporal won the MM], and once more an advance was made on La Poggiona. But by now the Germans had returned again. They opened up with several spandaus. We couldn't locate them through the trees, but as we plodded steadily upwards we could see twigs being cut off and bark nicked by their bullets a foot or so above our heads.’
They returned the enemy's fire, and soon most thankfully realised from the elevation of his fire that he was withdrawing. Slowly in line abreast, a few yards apart, they edged up the hill to the top, probed a hundred yards forward in silence, then suddenly met a rain of mortar bombs plus spandau fire again. They pulled back just behind the crest of the protecting ridge, just twenty-four men, and dug in frantically, using steel helmets, knives and bayonets, two men to a trench. One man shared a trench with Sergeant Mick Bougen76: ‘I wonder if Mick knew I wanted to lean on him heavily for moral support because he was calm and placid?’
All night they sat and watched the skyline, and waited for the counter-attack that never came. Parties from 2 Company joined them on the ridge, then from 3 Company Sergeant Bill Windsor and Second-Lieutenant Keith Cave arrived with their platoons. In a peaceful dawn they looked down on Florence.
‘One thing I remember,’ writes Wicksteed. ‘When we went into battle the olive trees were looking very nice, but when we came out they were all stripped and ripped to ribbons with the shelling that had gone on.’page 335
With the capture of Poggiona the enemy's effective resistance south of Florence ended. The battalion was given the chance of carrying on the chase, but the CO decided that the men needed rest more than the honour of being the first into Florence.
Now that the New Zealand Division had pierced the Paula line, the enemy had to abandon his positions south of the River Arno, and the South Africans entered Florence early on 4 August, followed by a New Zealand column.
You have just passed through a period during which every one of you has been put to the test in a way that some had never experienced before. You have stood the test in a manner which has upheld the best traditions of the 22 Bn, and I am proud of you. We have had our casualties, 116 in all since 2 Coy started its successful advance along Route 2, and some of the best and bravest are no longer with us. This is one of the regrettable hazards of war, but we shall not forget them.
There have been many instances of personal bravery that have come to my notice, and many I am afraid which must inevitably pass unnoticed because of the darkness and the fog of war. Some of these men will receive the honour due to them, and we thank them for bringing distinction to the Bn.
During the battle for Casciano, La Romola and Poggiona, you did, singularly well, the same job as the other two NZ Brigades did with three battalions. The strain was severe but you succeeded.
The 22 Battalion has fought many engagements through Greece and Crete to the Western Desert and Cassino. Its face has changed from time to time, but always there has endured the spirit of its first commander, Colonel Andrew VC. He asked for and obtained the highest qualities of courage and fighting spirit. I should like to tell you that the successes you have achieved in the past three weeks have been as great as any in the Bn's history and that our old motto ‘Twenty second to none’ is still as deserved as ever. You have done this. I am grateful to you.
On 6 August the battalion moved into a holding area south of the Arno River and some six miles west of Florence, its last battle area on the western side of the Apennines. Casualties were light here. In the battalion's lines was ‘a beautiful palace, built by Caruso and belonging to the Count of Michelo. I have never seen a more luxurious dwelling. It was sad to see such a lovely home gradually reduced to rubble by the German's regular shelling.’page 336
Johnny Begg77 (‘the only Kiwi screwdrivered in action’) was hard at work in the darkness on 13 August when his 3-inch mortar misfired. The usual misfire drill did not release the bomb, nor did Ray Potier's78 pounding on the barrel with a pick handle. So Potier removed the firing mechanism and, using a large screwdriver, attempted to push the bomb out. He struck the cartridge, which exploded, but the bomb didn't.
‘The blast blew us all off our feet,’ relates Begg, who had both hands at the muzzle impatiently waiting for the bomb to slide out. ‘Old Paddy—my number three, was blown out of the pit. I can still remember him cursing in real broad Irish! Ray lost the barrel. It took off. I was told they found it 50 yards or so downhill, and that a patrol coming in thought it was a new secret weapon of old Ted's, as they heard it whistle away.’
The next night the battalion, due for a rest in Siena, was relieved by Americans. The guide for one party says: ‘Down the hill in Indian file we came to the main road and had to turn right. In the middle of this track where it met the road was a bundle of straw. Word came back: “Look out for the straw, there might be a mine under it.” And the Yank in front of me turned around to pass the word: “Look out for the mine, there may be straw under it.” ‘
1 ‘Only a war could bring this about,’ writes Lloyd Grieve, ‘four Japanese in American uniform standing quietly in contemplation of the High Altar of St Peters.’
2 The first verse of one version begins: ‘Outside the barracks, by the lantern light / That's where I'd stand and wait for you at night. / We would create a world for two. / I'd dream of you the whole night through. / Of you Lili Marlene, of you Lili Marlene.’
‘There was a German grave near the road in the Battalion area and it was said that an Italian girl used to come regularly and put flowers on it. Some said she should be hooted out of it or given a bullet while others took a completely different view of it.’
5 They left from the rest area round Siena. Battalion Headquarters was at Vagliagli, in a twelfth-century palace built by a pope, now the seat of a junior nobleman, Terrosi-Vagnoli, who occasionally invited officers to dine and once remarked in French: ‘You will notice that I insist on the servants wearing white gloves when waiting at table. I cannot bear their touching the food with bare hands. Don't you think it a good thing?’
Within a few days King George VI visited the front. ‘What uplifted me most during the war?’ writes a member of the battalion. ‘The King of England with a dirty face. He came to see us one day—the next we were in the line. I saw no ceremonial parade; I wasn't at an organized “cheering-point” on the route. But to look out of the window of an Italian farm-house (where I was on guard over the family) and see our dust-covered monarch drive slowly by convinced me that “old George was a good bloke” and brought to light an unexpected patriotism which must have been lying dormant within me all the time.’
12 Battalion appointments were: CO, Lt-Col H. V. Donald; 2 i/c, Maj D. Anderson; OC 1 Coy, Maj A. W. F. O'Reilly; OC 2 Coy, Maj K. R. Hutcheson; OC 3 Coy, Maj G. S. Sainsbury; OC 4 Coy, Maj L. G. S. Cross.
13 ‘Don't put it there: Jerry can land them on a threepenny bit round here,’ Johnny McNeil warned a heedless guncrew digging in near his platoon in the night. At dawn ‘Jerry hurled a packet that destroyed gun, ammo and Munga box.’ A white-faced guncrew emerged and listened respectfully to Gordon Benton's quiet and thoughtful statement: ‘Well chaps, I've just made a firm resolution. If there is another war I'm not going to it.’
15 Lofty unfortunately had jumped down into the nearest shelter, the deep ditch on the German side of the road, instead of running with the others to the ridge-protected casa. Lofty stayed in his ditch, some 20 feet below a German position, all that day and late into the night, getting away about midnight after listening to a steady rumble of German conversation for some fifteen or sixteen hours. Efforts to persuade Tom Kriete to pretend that Lofty was wounded and to rescue him failed dismally. ‘Against the Geneva Conventions’, said Tom firmly and repeatedly.
23 Not traced.
25 2 Lt A. E. Eades, DCM; Woodville; born Pahiatua, 10 Jun 1917; labourer.
28 5 Platoon (Arthur Woolcott) had the task of getting the tanks up the valley road and into the village while the rest of 1 Company attacked up the hillside. Demolitions almost instantly halted the tanks, which decided to follow at dawn if possible. By the demolitions O'Reilly joined Woolcott for the night. Progress along the valley road was slow for 5 Platoon, which had to search numerous houses under heavy mortar fire but met little resistance from ground troops. Before reaching the village at 5 a.m. the platoon took a spandau nest and two prisoners. Lance-Corporal A. D. Mclntyre, the only casualty, was wounded in the knee.
34 Cpl T.W. Molloy; born NZ 15 Nov 1916; watersider; killed in action 31 Jul 1944.
40 They contacted Company Headquarters and were given their positions to hold in the village; they called the platoon rolls and tried to find out what had happened to the missing men (about a dozen from each platoon), and felt it was a grim morning; they boiled up the emergency ration in a big pot of water and added a bottle of old cognac; they posted pickets and fell asleep.
45 L-Cpl A. R. Viles; born Feilding, 19 Aug 1920; farmer; killed in action 31 Jul 1944. (‘A grand lad who was always a great source of strength in action—cool and resourceful,’ writes one of his officers.)
48 With the wounded major they moved on to the objective; 6 Platoon drifted in by sections. By 10 a.m. 1 Company was together again, a few missing. Reaching La Romola, one small group under Sergeant Dick Seddon ‘came upon quite a solid type of casa, we had to get in and the door was locked or jammed so we bashed it down with our picks and shovels, and what do you know, the front of the place had been blown in by bomb blast. A fool is born every minute: we must have been born all together.’
49 Next morning 11 Platoon 3 Company (Sgt Jock Wells) recovered the bodies of six men from 7 NZ Anti-Tank Regiment, who had been buried when a nearby house blew up. La Romola was still being shelled fairly heavily: ‘it was a case of picking up a brick or two at a time, and each shell brought down odd rubble from the upper structure. The men of my platoon worked splendidly.’
61 Capt H. M. B. de Lautour, m.i.d.; Wairoa; born NZ 27 Feb 1911; sheep-farmer.
62 This description was given at the end of a four-hour conversation. He felt like this again for a moment once or twice before the war ended, but never with the same fierce intensity.
63 Paterson still (1955) reproaches himself for ordering this retreat. He did not know that 15 Platoon under Sgt Bill Windsor was even at that moment starting to climb the hill, and also that the tanks near the bottom of the hill held boxes of .303 and tommy-gun ammunition.