CHAPTER 9 — Across the Sangro
Across the Sangro
InItaly the battalion was under fire for twice as long and suffered more losses in killed and wounded than in all the other campaigns put together. An officer (who served in the line from Sangro to Trieste and was decorated for gallantry) writes: ‘So far as 12th Reinforcements onwards were concerned I know there was a tendency for people to say: “No fighting spirit”, “Things aren't what they used to be”, etc., etc., in the same way as we of an older generation deplore the younger generation coming on. Looking back I wouldn't think it justified. The young territorial going into his first action went into it with gusto, and in most cases he went in intelligently, using his training which he had had for three years before in New Zealand. As the end of the war became more apparently within reach there may have been a certain amount of “If we don't make a noise, he won't,” but that depended more on the attitude of the men in charge of them, than the men themselves, in my humble opinion anyway.’
Out of Alex., like Fremantle and Colombo, the buildings seem to gradually sink beneath the sea—no hills around to let you know there was land there [writes a 22 Battalion soldier]. They said we kept close to the North African coast and the other coast of Sicily and Italy because there may be subs around. We got several glimpses of the old desert coastline—the last near Derna—they said it was anyway. Nearing Taranto we were quite close in and it looked good to see the green hills and the large white houses on the lower country near the coast—we were rather disappointed with the houses when we landed however—they didn't look nearly so good close up.
Taranto too looked allright from the boat, but was disappointing when you got into it. Dirty—nothing much to see—nothing much to buy—vino—pictures of Taranto and a few useless articles— many shops had their shutters up. (Generally speaking the further north you went in Italy the better the living standards became.) Not many people in the streets. Later on they were to come out again—then the signorinas walked the streets in their best frocks. And very attractive some of them were.page 235
Off the boat and we set off on the march to our area.1 It wasn't very far but we had a fair load up and it was quite a warm day. (Somewhere along the way someone said that they had been talking to a chap who had arrived a week or so earlier and he said it was good—never got any hotter than this.) When we got out into the country it was good to see all the green of hills and fields and the winding country roads. Like something you remembered long ago.
Then to our area. Grass around your bivvy—and inside it— sunlight sifting through the cool pines—how strong they smelt— kicking an unseen stone in the grass as you walked along. You felt like throwing your chest out—no stinking desert here.
Up next morning—birds whistling in the trees—dew on the grass —a fresh tang in the air. The atmosphere. Yes it was different from the desert. Then some marches and fieldcraft. (You thought back to Trentham and playing hide and seek among those trees over by the racecourse.) Then somebody found the vino factory and soon there was a steady string of jokers—a water tin (or hastily rinsed petrol Jerry can) in each hand going to get them filled. Later the grass died in circles where they had been sick.
Then those roaring open-air fires at night and the smell of pine smoke. We sat around these in the evenings and sipped ‘purple death’ and yarned. It reminded you of pictures of pioneers of North American backwoods—firelight on your face—tall dark pines at your back.
One night someone mentioned that it was 23 October and many of us thought back to the happenings of this time one year ago— and wondered just how much further on we would be this time next year. It was something new to look back on one whole year of progress.
Then on the trucks [4 November] and speeding north—cool wind in your face—across the undulating rocky country which stretches nearly to Foggia (this area covering the heel of Italy you could call rather poor and rocky—but it was covered in vegetation—and we had just come from the desert). Slabs of rock gathered from around and about and built into low stone walls. (If you walked along there in the summer you would glimpse the flickering of tails and then the moving of heads as snakes watched you pass.)
Around Monopole area we passed through that district where all those picturesque houses are—like beehives—something picturesque and really outstanding I thought. Church, house or barn— they all had the same white walls and the round pointed roofs. ‘Trulli’ houses I think they called them. (Remember those very large flocks of birds swooping over the countryside just north of Taranto?) We were still pretty new to the Italians and they seemed to have changed to their new role pretty quickly. They gathered page 236 along the roads and in the villages and towns and we got some enthusiastic welcomes from them as we went along. The signorinas greeted us with that come-hither wave—with the palm of the hand facing upwards. They had forgotten they had just been our enemy. At Foggia we saw our first bombed European town—rubble everywhere and many walls of buildings—if you looked through the windows from the street you could see blue sky. There were many of Musso's farm settlements around here on the flats—each house the same—big square looking things with words on the walls—they looked like some official buildings or something.
Onward they went to a beautiful wide valley near San Severo. Here the battalion spent ten days, getting into shape and training in fieldcraft, the men using their bayonets to cut down thistles. Signaller Jim Selwyn2 discovered that hundreds of yards of cable had been taken to mark out football fields, which were then marked with an old Italian plough dragged behind a jeep. In this area rations were supplemented with lamb, fowls, turkeys. Soon the men felt that they were being overcharged for black-market turkeys. They promptly put the Padre to work on price control. The Padre now was Martin Sullivan3 (‘Joe Ghost’ to the officers). ‘Jimmy,’ began the Padre. ‘We are not happy about the price your friend is charging for the turkeys.’
‘Oh, Signor, everything is honest and fair. Tony he buy them and sell at very small profit.’
‘Now, Jimmy, I do not think you're telling me the truth.’
‘Si, si, Signor. That is the truth. I swear. I no deceive you!’
‘Look here. You know who I am, don't you?’
‘Yes, Signor: you the Priest.’
‘Well now, Jimmy, you know what happens to people who tell lies to the priest.’
Jimmy (scared): ‘Si, si, Signor, I know.’
‘All right. Now Jimmy, I'm asking you as a priest: did your friend steal those turkeys, or did he not?’
Jimmy (after a significant pause): ‘Honest to God, Mr. Priest, I think he pinch them.’
Then on the trucks again [16 November] and moving north. Through Termoli—plenty of battle scars on the buildings there— they said the British landed there some weeks ago. It was good to be page 237 sailing along in the trucks in the refreshing air. It could have been an autumn afternoon in NZ—sunshine and cloud and no wind— when somebody pointed ahead—and away to the north we could see a range of high mountains covered in a mantle of fresh snow. We were passing through rolling green country—more attractive than further south. [The battalion turned inland soon after the Trigno River, where there were new Bailey bridges and an immense traffic jam—the convoy travelled a mile and a half in three hours.]
The road that we were on was a bit on the narrow side for two-way traffic—it hadn't been made to carry the hordes of army vehicles now on it, and bad ruts had been worn in it. Also it was built up quite a few feet above the surrounding fields. So if you moved over too far on to your own side when passing another vehicle your truck was liable to pop up onto the ridge that had been formed between the rut and the greasy sloping side—then there was nothing to stop it sliding down right off the road. And this is precisely what we did—turning over on our side as we did so. One moment we were all sitting on the gear—the next moment I remember being flung across the truck and lying helplessly with a bren box on top of me: the gear was now on top of us. Jack … was the only one of us free to move—the rest of us had to just lie there. He extracted himself from some gear and then proceeded to free us one by one, and as we got up we set to work too—flinging such things as webbing, rifles and water tins out the back as we went. We finally got to the front—two pairs of legs sticking out from under some gear—gave them a yank—and we were all out— just a few bruises.
In hilly country the roads wandered along the tops of ridges (they did this in so many parts of Italy), not along the valley bottoms as usually in NZ. These hills were dotted with farmhouses, from here north through Italy, but in the far south, from Taranto to near Foggia, most of the people lived in villages or towns and came out to the fields each day to work—a relic, they said, of the old days of brigands and robbers, not so long ago either. [Strung out, the troops struggled into Furci, where they stayed for two cold nights, with their bedrolls unrolled on the ground.]
We were sitting around talking before turning in—we heard faintly something away to the north. We listened—and sure enough it was that old familiar sound bump-bump-bump. It was about a year since we had heard the arty in action.
Waking in the morning to feel a cold damp drizzle falling on the side of your face (this was something new)—pulling the blankets up over your head to keep it off—it was cold on your cheek—just a few more winks.
Being woke up at night to do your two hours on—sitting out there in the silent blackness—just occasionally the bark of a dog from some farmhouse: down in the valley or across on the other hill. (They had said the other night that a patrol had been given away page 238 by dogs barking—one dog had barked, then a little later a bit further along another barking, and so on, tracing the path of the patrol as it moved along.) So you listened to see if there was any pattern in this lonely fitful barking from different directions. But not this time—say just one very faintly up some distant valley, then one just down the hill below you and loud, then one away over to the right. It was a bit cold. And sometimes, sitting there in your greatcoat and webb, hunched up, your rifle between your knees, or your Bren sitting up in front of you on its bipod—you felt miserable. And you thought and thought—the things that had happened to you since you went to the Drill Hall (to join the rest of the chaps— Trentham bound) that day years ago—what was going to happen in the future—those plans when you got home (?)—what were they doing at home now—right this minute. Then you worked out what time it was now in NZ (the hour, that is, as far as what day it was, well you had probably forgotten what day it was in Italy).
Then you wondered, say, if the mailman had been yet—if so-and-so still had the mail run—what that joker was doing now who used to drive the mail car—he'd got turned down (‘footballer's knee’) but he still played football (there had been some gossip at the time). Old what's-his-name had flat feet but had talked his way in: was flat-feet the mug? I suppose in ten years time old ‘flat-feet’ though would feel a bit better than the other chap. It'll soon be shearing time—back in the old shed, eh—losing some sweat. What's happening to all those young people who used to go to the dances—I suppose you'd see a lot of them again when you got home. (You didn't know then, but when you got back so many of them had vanished —before the war you knew so many—after the war, so few.)
Usually there were two of you together and if the sky was clear you could have a look round—find the north star—or argue which one was it. Or if conditions were satisfactory, get down in the corner and have a few puffs. In the first few minutes you still felt sleepy and thought: ‘Hell nearly two hours to go—what a —’. Still often the time went quite fast. But at other times…. Sometimes when you were short of sleep you would find that you would have to do something to stop from dropping off. On the few occasions when I was like that I found it a good idea to kneel or sit with my legs doubled up under me—any awkward position—so that you would have to keep moving each time your legs started to ache— the more often you moved the less chance you had to doze off. But still—now and again the old head would drop forward—then up smartly—then you would say to yourself: ‘I'll just watch that bush there in front—that one with the piece sticking out the side—I'll just keep watching that and thinking about it.’
‘It goes up there and around there and down the other side.’ ‘It goes up there and around there and down the other side.’ You would keep saying this to yourself over and over again, and think you were doing all right. But then up would come your head again, page 239 and you would realise that you had been saying it and going off to sleep at the same time. There was nothing for it: get into a more awkward position.
On the next move, from Furci to the Montagnola area (six miles in a straight line but much more by the tortuous road), 22 (Motor) Battalion was given the task of protecting the Division's left flank on its advance to the Sangro River. The task was not difficult, for the enemy was intent on pulling back to his winter line beyond the river, which the Eighth Army was about to attack. The road toiled up through the hills— rather like the Manawatu Gorge. Just before reaching Montagnola it led over the brow of a hill and dipped steeply down into the valley, winding down a forward face to a bridge at the bottom and up the other side. Apparently an enemy rearguard had observation posts on high ground at the far end of the gorge. In this tricky spot, when running the gauntlet, the battalion came under fire for the first time in Italy. Conversations between sergeants and drivers went something like this:
|Sergeant:||‘Jerry is continually shelling the road—as soon as we cross the crest we come under his fire, we go like the hammers of hell—non-stop—till we reach the bridge. The bridge is in against the opposite side and he cannot reach it, understand?’|
|Driver:||‘What happens if I get hit?’|
|Sergeant:||‘You just keep on going, boy, till you get to the bottom.’|
One driver, a Cook Islander, ‘Tip’ Kea,4 ‘had a high pitched voice and a giggle even higher than the voice. He rolled his eyes and giggled. One by one the trucks pulled away and on to that forward slope. Tip giggled, a note higher. A shell landed ahead, Tip giggled, his eyes opened wider and his foot already hard down on the gas went down harder—the floor boards bulged. Another shell, a higher giggle, more eyes, more foot.
‘One landed on the road ahead. Again the formula, giggle, eyes, foot. Around another bend—Hell!—How did we miss that Bren Carrier—the Carrier crew diving into the ditch. By now the gun on tow was airborne and the accelerator must have been dragging on the road. The next one landed on the road practically under the muzzle of the gun—stones and debris page 240 flew past the cab windows. Tip's eyes really opened this time, his giggle reached a note that would have shamed Galli-Curci —and he really took off.
‘Later shells seemed only incidental—they were dropping behind anyway—all that mattered was to hang on—and then the bridge and safety—a smoke. Any smokes alight when we crossed the brow had long since been chewed and swallowed.’
Nobody was hit; everyone was at least startled. One shell landed in front of the bonnet of Len Turner's5 jeep; another passed under the RAP truck. Carl Ring,6 the medical officer, coolly slowed down his jeep to pick up a tin hat. ‘Well, I thought someone might need it,’ he explained afterwards. Ahead a group of officers selecting company positions had their own worries— mortars. Crouched behind a rather meagre haystack, Ken Joblin7 drawled in his deep voice: ‘How thick do these damn things have to be to stop one of those things?’
This was certainly no place for a motor battalion—better for mountain goats. The battalion was on one ridge, and across the valley a village, Tornareccio, was occupied by the enemy, who was also along the opposite ridge. The valley was very deep, and the ridges were a mile or more apart.
The supply side was difficult: everything had to be man-handled, and when atrocious weather settled in the place became a quagmire. ‘We nearly proved that a jeep with four chains could climb the side of a house. (From now on we were to get used to hearing a new sound—day and night—army lorries with chains on: clank-clank or clatter-clatter—right through till the following spring.)
‘By now we had been surprised several times in hearing English spoken by Italians in unexpected places: “Hullo boys” (they usually said that), then a few pleasantries, and someone would get the vino. They usually had worked in America and returned to spend the last years at the scenes of their childhood.’
The time was ripe for the New Zealand assault over the Sangro. Twenty-second Battalion carried on northward with no undue alarms to a ridge (‘Grandstand Hill’) overlooking the river and with a view right down to the river mouth. This halt lasted a week—the Sangro, rising in flood, was holding up the crossing.
The battalion, now in reserve, waited while the Division poised below near the bank where a tributary, the Aventino, and the Sangro met about 15 miles from the coast. All bridges had gone. The shingle riverbed was scoured with channels, some trickles, some 50 yards wide, the water from a few inches deep to up past a man's waist. Ahead stretched a small flat which ended at an escarpment 150-feet high, and beyond this cultivated ridges climbed towards Castelfrentano. The battalion's area was thickly populated. From now on the troops were to become very ‘casa-conscious’. In theory the casas (houses) were good in the hot weather. Most of them had thick walls of stone which took the greater part of the day for the sun's heat to penetrate, and after dark they radiated this heat well into the night. The theory might have worked if there had been good doors and windows. In winter the houses, with their high ceilings, were cold, draughty and bare; the cold was intensified of course when a chunk of the roof or a wall was missing.
As casas were plentiful, almost everyone managed to get under cover. So did the opposition: ‘Looking across to the enemy lines you couldn't see a thing; you would have sworn there wasn't a Hun in Italy.’ In fact the almost uncanny emptiness of a battlefield is one of the many surprises a recruit receives on reaching any front. Nevertheless enemy gunners had the southern side of the Sangro well in range. On 24 November Privates Benge10 and Pearse11 (2 Company), just after finishing a cup of tea, page 243 were looking down on the river they would never cross. Shellbursts grew closer. Benge ‘didn't go flat to the ground but crouched down with my knees bent, and my body bent as far as was possible forward. The next thing I remember I was flat on my back, and on trying to get up found to my surprise that I couldn't.’ A piece of shrapnel had entered his back and had come out near the hip. Pearse died in the night.
‘The road rose steeply from the Sangro River and wound up the side of the hill to Casoli,’ recalls a corporal. ‘4th Brigade occupied the side of the hill and the flat to the river. Parked in the olive groves flanking the road were hundreds of vehicles— jeeps, pick-ups, two-tonners, three-tonners, portees, carriers and so on.
‘Up the road toiled a small group of civilians. A small group that paused frequently, then plodded wearily upwards—a pitiful little group—three old men and two women—carrying a coffin.
‘And no one thought to run out a vehicle and give them a lift. No one thought to? More than likely most of the troops who saw them were too moved to do other than fade away as discreetly as possible.’
Near Grandstand Hill the seed was sown for true co-operation between tanks and infantry. An early task was manhandling quantities of shells up a steep hill for the tanks. Major Donald moved his company down into 20 Armoured Regiment's area, and platoons and sections ate and slept and talked with tank crews. Mutual understanding spread; the tanks and the infantry began to appreciate each other's capabilities and limitations, and by working together became confident in one another. Co-operation between all arms (at last) would become one of the main strengths of the Division in the advance through Italy.
Squadron after squadron of bombers ‘softened up’ the defences across the river. The Luftwaffe was a dead duck— except for one or two brief sallies. The battle of the Sangro opened on the night of 27–28 November. The terrific barrage awakened every 22 Battalion man—they knew their turn was only a day or two away. Nothing could be seen in the pitch-black night except gun flashes. Below the battalion New Zealand infantrymen began wading through the icy water. Climbing, digging in, and climbing on again, the muddy troops pressed page 244 forward up the defended slopes towards Castelfrentano. The battle and the bombing continued all next day. Late in the afternoon some German prisoners passed by, many of them youths of eighteen, several of them badly shaken and weeping.
In the night Hewitt12 of the carrier platoon was sleeping in an Italian house with some Bailey-bridge engineers when a shell with an armour-piercing and high-explosive head (nicknamed 'spud-digger’) ‘landed so close to an engineer and myself that the heat of the explosion singed all our hair and took eyebrows and eyelashes right off.’ The previous day the Italian householder had asked Hewitt if the German would return over the Sangro, and he had replied: ‘Not bloody likely’. The Italian, beaming, had moved a haystack, dug deeply and unearthed nearly all his worldly belongings: dishes, cutlery, wine, and a lot more. ‘He grinned at me saying “Tedesky he no get”, and the whole family came out and carried it all inside. Next night the house was blown to pieces, his two bullocks stabled under the house killed, and all his labour wasted.’
The next day (29 November) 19 Armoured Regiment's tanks and 24 Battalion seized the Barone feature. The Italian campaign proper was about to open for 22 (Motor) Battalion, whose men watched this assault with even more interest; for this was where they were going. Colle Barone (on the Division's extreme left flank) was a steep, partly wooded, partly cultivated hill which guarded Route 84, the main road from the riverbed to the ridge where the town of Castelfrentano perched. Sixth Brigade's advance, swinging slightly to the right, away from Route 84, was leaving the road clear for an advance by 18 Armoured Regiment and 22 Battalion. This move, along Route 84 then westward to Guardiagrele, was intended to bluff the enemy into thinking a main attack was coming up the highway. This (it was hoped) would draw off enemy troops while the main attack made straight towards Castelfrentano.
Twenty-second Battalion crossed TIKI Bridge (built by 8 Field Company under heavy fire and bombing) over the Sangro late in the morning of the 30th and made towards the Barone feature.
‘During one halt tea was made and a hurried lunch taken. page 245 Troops sprawled on the grass at the sides of the road eating, drinking, and smoking. Had they enjoyed a higher status in the scale military a photo would, in course of time, have appeared in the N.Z. papers and inevitably the caption would have contained some reference to an “al fresco meal”. Apparently no one more lowly than the top brass rated this “A.F.M.” caption.
‘Up the road towards them slowly worked a group of engineers sweeping for mines. As they approached each vehicle the crew obligingly gathered up their benghazi burners, munga boxes, mugs of tea, and what-have-you, and stood aside while the sappers made sure they had not been sitting on a nest of Teller or “S” mines. Reassured the men returned to their previous positions and resumed their interrupted meal.
‘Good to know the “ginger beers” are on the job.’
Behind the battalion, in column after column, came the artillery, followed safely by 18 Armoured Regiment's 28-ton tanks—just four tons more, in theory, than the bridge would hold. Vehicles bogged down in the mud on the flats across the river where strips of ‘corduroy’ road (bundles of faggots) had been laid in the worst patches. One by one they were extricated and joined in their slow ‘start—stop—start’ progress following the advancing infantry. A man in Support Group remembers: ‘Groups of Italian peasants lined the road, the elders trying to coach the bambinos in a monotonous “Viva Engleesi!” “Viva Americano!”—at that stage they could not make up their minds who we were. Individual efforts by the youngsters favoured the ”Choccolatta” “Cigaretto” “Bisquite” approach. One old Tony— a veritable, if venerable, cheerleader—waved a flag, hopped about the roadside, and quavered his vivas until the necessity to sidestep a racing jeep, wave, hop and quaver simultaneously proved too much for him and he toppled over backwards into a ditch. When last seen his flag was still fluttering bravely, his two boots supported by skinny legs waved in the air and a stream of feeble “vivas” rose from the depths of the ditch.’
The battalion moved up into the Barone feature. While company areas were being chosen, Captain Knox and Lieutenant Gardiner13 (the latter evacuated) were wounded in identical page 246 places, cheek and arm, by the same shell. Meanwhile Major Fred Oldham (3 Company's commander), ‘one of the most popular and best loved officers’, went out with a sergeant and found and marked a minefield. On his way back he stood on a mine, could not get clear and, leaning against a bank, shouted to the sergeant to take cover. He did, but there was no cover for Oldham.
‘Five of us, including the C.O., went out to bring him in,’ writes an officer. ‘We went down a slope in single file, twenty paces apart, one behind the other. The place was full of mines and we had not the faintest idea how to avoid them. I was following the C.O., when he turned over his shoulder and said in his quiet voice:
‘“Keep absolutely still. I think I am standing on one.”
‘We retraced our steps and the engineers finally brought Oldham back, so that we could give him a decent burial.
‘The sequel of the story is an interesting one. The place was full of mines and the one the C.O. was standing on was the only dud in the whole nest of them.
‘That very day, incidentally, the boys brought down a Nazi plane. They were bitter and angry over Oldham's death. I shall never forget the sight of the young, arrogant German pilot who parachuted out. He struggled over the rough country until he came to the road and then he sprung instantly to attention and looked at us with utter defiance. He was a fine figure of a man; black hair and wearing a blue, polo-neck jersey. We lost Oldham and rescued this fellow. We all felt we knew who had the better bargain; death is frequently discriminating in its choice.’
As the battalion settled in Haddon Donald set off with Mick Bradford (soon to be cut down by a shell splinter, ‘embedded in the fifth cervicle as a constant reminder of the “good old days” (?), and a pension—small!’). The pair, armed with a couple of revolvers, followed a road which Divisional Cavalry had under observation. A track led to a group of silent buildings. The two topped the track, a door flew open, Bradford leapt like a startled stag, and among kisses and cries of ‘Americano! Americano!’ Donald went down in a flurry of arms, male and female. That night a patrol from the battalion found Route 84 clear ahead to the first junction, two miles on, which was page 247 mined. Turning west at the junction the patrol crept towards San Eusanio, but stopped at the sound of German voices.
The battalion pushed up the highway early on 1 December. One Company met tanks from 18 Armoured Regiment and advanced up Route 84 (the infantry at first riding on the tanks) until after two miles the mined area brought a halt by the turnoff to San Eusanio hamlet, 2 Company's objective. Houses handy to the road were booby-trapped. The body of an engineer sergeant lay in a doorway. Severe shelling stopped any further advance for the day, and 3 Company, with the battalion's 3-inch mortars and anti-tank guns, came up to protect the tanks overnight. This was not a pleasant place to camp; the narrow road prevented dispersion. One man had been killed and four wounded in the battalion and eight tanks damaged, one of them being a complete write-off.
Colonel Campbell, dashing across some open ground, suddenly hunched his shoulders and ducked his head. A shell swept across his back and burst a few yards away. Had he run upright, it would have taken his head off. (The Colonel went through the war without losing more than his little finger in a jeep accident.) Exploring the road ahead in the night, a party of infantrymen and engineers under Second-Lieutenant McNeil14 found that the Germans had blown up a house to block the road a mile ahead. Cutting some trip-wires across the road brought immediate fire and flares. A platoon under Second-Lieutenant Monaghan,15 with tanks, turned west to find San Eusanio clear, and stayed in possession of the settlement. In the dark the carriers were also making towards San Eusanio by a narrow lane, with Shaw16 in the leading carrier: ‘On reaching the track Lt. Hart17 our platoon commander directed me down it, ‘he writes. ‘As I was moving off quite happily he casually said: “Be careful Jack, it's bound to be mined.” I found it not a pleasant feeling to be in a carrier moving along a narrow mined track in pitch darkness.’page 248
Within a few hours the battalion would be in the thick of it: ‘Most unpleasant, ‘as Brigadier Stewart18 said later.
Early next morning19 the tanks left their laager and, supported by 2 Company, advanced unopposed except for shellfire until an anti-tank ditch barred the way just before the junction of Route 84 and the road to Guardiagrele. A bridging tank (a Valentine with a detachable bridge clipped to it) arrived and filled the gap, 2 Company occupied the junction at 10 a.m., and 3 Company came up in strength to the position. ‘There were Huns running in all directions but the tanks didn't miss much.’ The road, now turning left and running along a ridge leading westward, was most exposed and at the mercy of guns on higher ground towards Orsogna. The infantry, digging in on the slope facing towards Orsogna, soon came under what seemed to be almost direct fire from 88-millimetre guns. ‘Things were just fair to muddling for some time. We withdrew to the reverse slope.’ A little group, on the point of sitting down to enjoy a plump chicken left simmering in a pot, was sent packing—and still hungry. A Divisional Cavalry car came skidding down the road. An officer stuck his head out. ‘Want to know anything?’
‘Yes. What's it like?’
‘Not so bloody good.’
About 4 p.m. the Brigadier arrived in a flurry of dust in his little scout car, strode into Battalion Headquarters, placed his map on the table, pointed to a place about ten miles away, and said: ‘San Martino, go there!’
The trouble was that the road ran on the wrong side of the ridge in full view of Orsogna; some of the eighty-eights must have been firing over open sights. The nine tanks of B Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment clattered along the exposed road, the infantry walked steadily, and the A Echelon vehicles followed in bounds—prompt bounds. Mountains of earth soon began page 249 flying in all directions, and the tanks hit back in grand style, their cannon wreathed in great red flashes, ‘moving in line ahead like battleships firing broadsides.’ The tanks and the infantry, attacking with spirit, thrust west on an advance which continued well after dark and certainly took the enemy rearguards by surprise.
Two Company continued in the lead until the tanks were halted by a demolition two miles on. The company pushed on, while bulldozers went to work to mend the road. With a steep bank on the left and an abrupt fall to the right, these demolitions were most effective; drivers showed much skill in passing them. Night fell. A group of Italians, who had come out from hiding, were in a circle holding hands and dancing for joy. Their faces beaming in welcome, they shook the hands of passing soldiers.
A massive haystack, blazing in the dark, lit up the road uncomfortably. Bob Simmonds, a veteran of Greece and Crete and now the Padre's batman, had paused to pick up a greatcoat when a salvo of five shells arrived. Simmonds died instantly, and a truck and motor-cycle ahead were blown to smithereens, leaving intact, oddly enough, just one jerrican of exceptionally good vino.page 250
Another demolition blew up before 2 Company, where the road ran past a small village, Salarola. The men came under fire from the west of the village, and here Captain Nancarrow20 died from a full burst of bullets in his hip. Captain Knox, at the rear, his arm in a sling (the shrapnel had been removed without anaesthetic), heard of ‘Nan's' death, pressed forward, borrowed a tommy gun, and led the company with conspicuous gallantry which won him the MC. The heavily taxed men, on the move since early morning and under constant shellfire, were now almost asleep on their feet, but the end was not yet in sight. An enemy tank covering the second demolition blew up, and 2 Company went on, surprising and seizing a German battalion commander and two men on the way. The German officer was described as the battalion commander of 26 Panzer Division, and his loss was a bad blow to the enemy division. When captured he was directing the withdrawal of his last rearguards.
The company worked its way round a sharp bend past the village, and at the junction of a minor road leading south a third demolition went up. ‘All of a sudden this big red flash leapt up in front of us with a roar. (One of the chaps said “You could feel it in your guts”.) Then we heard a roaring noise from the direction of the “blow” and as we listened it moved out towards us like a ripple on a pond when a stone is thrown in. It took us a moment to realise just what it was—the stuff coming down again—then we ducked our heads under cover—two or three of us got under the eaves of the nearest building—a moment later great junks of sticky clay and mud were plopping and thudding down around us.’
This decisively halted the main advance and virtually ended 22 Battalion's progress in the Sangro campaign. The indefatigable Knox led a party to find a way round this last crater. A dozen or more men still kept going, now in bright moonlight, until near the Guardiagrele-Orsogna crossroads. At first they moved ‘along between the big square Italian houses: on our page 251 right their fronts were in shadow, but on the left they faced right into the moonlight with black squares for windows. We looked up at them inquiringly but they remained silent: the only noise we could hear was the crunch of our boots on the road.’ Near the crossroads they could hear metallic clinking like a sledge-hammer striking metal stakes, voices, and the noise of a vehicle. (One report says this crossroad was found to be heavily mined.) They withdrew. Back near the demolition they were challenged by grenade and tommy gun from a house (‘I was sitting hunched forward with my head down and some tiny fragments made a tinkling noise on my tin hat’), returned the fire, withdrew, and grouped together by the demolition to dig in fast. Two hapless members of 11 Platoon, leaping for cover from sudden firing nearby, landed in a latrine pit.
Men who took part in this advance believe that the battalion, with the enemy caught off-balance by the speed of the advance, could have reached Guardiagrele if bulldozers had quickly filled in the craters for the tanks. By dawn of course the enemy was prepared, his many guns and mortars waiting.
When the tanks appeared, the third demolition—about 40 feet wide—was too much for them. They laagered in Salarola, protected by 3 Company. Headquarters 22 Battalion reached Salarola at 2 a.m. on 3 December, and the battalion formed a line by the village, where it would stay, two miles short of the Guardiagrele which it would never reach. The transport, while coming up on the road, had suffered from shelling. Casualties for the day were two killed and six wounded.
No direct part in this day's tenacious advance along the road to Salarola had been taken by 1 Company, which had a different role—a left hook from the south, starting not far from the Barone feature. The company, with tanks and a Divisional Cavalry detachment, probed westward past San Eusanio, where it had spent the night of 1–2 December. The road, poor and steep (the countryside descended steeply on each side), climbed the Colle Bianco ridge. At the top of the ridge the track turned east, to run behind a prominent feature which the rest of the battalion and the tanks would attack next day (3 December). This feature was just beyond Salarola village. The wretched going hampered the tanks, and at Colle Bianco the force was page 252 shelled severely by seven guns. The tanks, aided by fighter-bombers, silenced the guns. ‘Lieutenant O'Reilly was standing up and having a “shufti” through his glasses when a fair bit of stuff landed close by. Calmly keeping on looking, the lieutenant remarked… “Don't worry. It doesn't hurt till it hits you.” ‘This became a proverbial saying in 6 Platoon.
The guns having been silenced, a patrol went forward with sappers who were seeking mines in the path as far as the junction with the main road near Salarola. This junction was where the third (and final) demolition had ended the battalion's advance. The patrol reported the path as far as the junction clear of mines by 11 p.m. One Company spent the rest of the night21 just below the crest of Colle Bianco, and stayed in position there most of next morning before joining the battalion. After dawn the company, watching the feature beyond Salarola village, saw the troop of New Zealand tanks just below the crest. ‘Every now and again,’ writes Lieutenant O'Reilly, ‘they would crawl to the crest, let fire, and move back. They were taking a lot of mortaring—Major Green,22 acting C.O. 18 Armoured Regiment, died of wounds received here—and we thought that Jerry had that position well taped. Just how well we were to find out later that day, and in the days that followed, when we were in position there….’
Now that 1 Company had joined the battalion again, it was hoped that a swift advance would carry on to the next, and important junction, a mile further on, which led to Orsogna. This soon proved to be impossible.
A small village stood at the fork, and a steep bluff (Colle Martino) rose behind it. Tanks went on to the crater to cover this objective, and at 8 a.m. on 3 December 3 Company, supported by a heavy artillery concentration, went forward to assault. But the tanks on the road drew heavy shellfire; 3 Company was soon held up, and 2 Company, close to the tanks, was forced to keep under cover. The enemy at the fork was too strong, and within an hour the attack was abandoned. Tanks page 253 covered the withdrawal and helped bring back casualties; tired infantrymen trickling back ‘had that ruffled dirty weather-beaten look that you see at times.’
In the afternoon the tanks shelled Guardiagrele and the road fork; the artillery shelled but did not silence enemy guns, and the mortars and guns vigorously engaged positions along the road. A night patrol led by Second-Lieutenant McNeil found the fork more heavily manned by night than by day, and the attack towards Guardiagrele was cancelled.
The battalion's casualties in this sector during 2 and 3 December were ten killed and twenty-five wounded. The signallers, exposing themselves as they faithfully carried out their tasks, kept open the battalion's troublesome telephone line (five miles long and often cut by shells) to 4 Brigade Headquarters.23
The battalion's anti-tank guns, after a great deal of strenuous manhandling, had worked hard engaging targets, preparing for tank attack, and withstanding shelling and mortaring.
‘Les Whiting24 had a favourite expression during heavy shelling. He would turn to us with a quizzical expression and say: “D'you know Jerry's a bloody rotten shot, isn't he. He hasn't even hit us yet.”
‘Norman (“Cordite”) Kriete,25 a crossword-puzzle fiend, used to work away in his slittie or casa during shelling, and often when there was a momentary lull his voice would hollar out: “Hey! What's a word starting with H that means—?”
‘The veteran “Pop” McLucas,26 badly shot through the chest, given a shot of morphia, and lying on a tabletop during shelling, was heard to remark slowly: “Do you know, I was through the first World War and three years in this one and never been hit. My old woman told me I was a bloody fool to come away this time—I think she was right.” ‘
Young Teddy Smith,27 mortally wounded in the back and page 254 in intense pain, ‘managed to pass the odd wise-crack before he was taken away. As we put him in the ambulance he opened his eyes and looked up at Stan Dempsey,28 who was our guncrew cook (an excellent one at that), and said with a slow smile, “Cheerio, Stan, you were a bloody rotten cook anyway”, and closed his eyes for the last time. He died an hour later.’
‘I didn't know so much of life could be crowded into seven days,’ writes Captain Johnston, describing the battalion's week at Salarola. ‘We were constantly shelled and mortared with Hun efficiency. Looking back on the sallies we did, they seem like a motion picture. I can still see the tanks trying to push on and we were going in on our feet. The fire was terrific and you could hardly see tanks for earth and flame and smoke—but luck was against us, and a good many of my old platoon made the big sacrifice here. [Hercock29 and Joe Hawkes30 killed, and several others wounded, including ‘Shorty’ Bremner.31] The first day (3 December) when the tanks appeared over the ridge we could hardly see the things, mountains of earth (he was firing some terrific stuff, big guns) and flame and the tank boys working their guns as fast as they would go. They gave the impression that they would be blowed if they would chuck it in. I saw one tank get four direct hits (high explosive), it didn't hurt a bloke inside, and with the tracks burst they just ran her backwards down the hill on her bogies. They are great tanks these of ours and our boys have confidence in them. The forward platoons couldn't move for the fire, they couldn't even stick their heads up. It's funny how in all this you manage to think, I suppose you have so much to think about you haven't got time to worry.’
The battalion held its ground for four more days, ‘and I reckon we gave as good as we got.’ One day the enemy ‘did Battalion Headquarters over for an hour flat out.’ The house, on a reverse slope, was just too hard to hit, but the chimney page 255 came down in a smother of plaster, soot, dust and debris. This day Harry Sansum, cool as a cucumber, did a conspicuously good job in aiding the wounded.
‘One night we were sitting in our slitties, no sound of action anywhere, when faintly from behind Orsogna bump-bump bump-bump-bump—on and on it went (you hardly ever heard his guns fire.) We said: “Christ, some b—'s in for it.” I didn't think to ask myself “Is it us?” Then the moans got closer and closer and then came right in on us (“Hell! It's us!”). Then down in your slittie and lie there, blinking or eyes shut, and just hope for the best. Then for a minute or so he really plastered us. Then it just died out and we got up and looked around— you could smell the smell of explosives all right—the air was thick with it. “If I ever get out of this I'll never growl again,” said one chap….’
Over the northern bank of the Sangro was a stretch of road known to all as the Mad Mile. ‘We used to watch the new chums drive sedately up to the brickworks, and on receipt of an air burst from Jerry we saw these drivers transformed instantly into demons of speed whose times over the remaining distance would have put them in top class at Silverstone. Incidentally the cooks (who had a clear view of the Mad Mile) used to lay bets with one another as to whether I would make it when I went up with the rations.’
After being relieved by a British parachute battalion on the night of 6–7 December, the battalion drew back to a ‘rest’ area32 still handy to the Castelfrentano-Salarola road. Some men camped near the gunlines, ‘and every time one of the blasted things fired the crash came in the door and out of the window and the darn place shook as though it was an earthquake.’ The gun crews were Scots: ‘good jokers: “Come and have a cuppa tea Kiwi”—made you feel like one of themselves —no fuss. The radio always going, and jiving round the room. Those guns would fire at night and we would sleep right through it. Yet in the daytime if they fired without you knowing that they were going to, they'd give you a hell of a start. We slept pretty soundly after Salarola.’
Except for 8 Platoon, 1 Company (which had taken over the page 256 exposed left flank along a jeep-wide track roughly between San Eusanio and enemy-held Guardiagrele) went back into crowded billets in San Eusanio, whose inhabitants had given the company and tanks a great send-off when they passed through a few days before.
During daylight between 11 and 22 December 8 Platoon had a section stationed in a house about half a mile forward. Three or four houses grouped around were occupied by Italians. ‘On the afternoon 21 December a very excited Italian came bursting in with the news that a Jerry patrol was in a house about 200 yards away and heading our way,’ writes N. W. Lash.33 A corporal ‘posted a Bren and rifle facing the approach and himself used the attic window with a tommygun. His tommygun firing was to be the signal to let go everything. Strangely enough the patrol walked quite confidently down the track with their weapons at ease. Three privates, we could see them plainly, and a lieutenant with Iron Cross on the tunic [who later proved to be an English-speaking cadet officer and who gave information which was thought to have washed out a scheme to attack Guardiagrele]. Approaching the corner they brought their weapons to the ready and we let them have it at 30 yards. Two were killed and we took the other two, wounded, prisoners. Our officer Jack Monaghan arrived to see what it was all about and took the two prisoners away.’
Captain Johnston later wrote home how he met one of these wounded at the RAP, on the stretcher. ‘I looked over the Doc's shoulder and there was a beautiful fair haired blue eyed kid; I blurted out “Christ it's only a child.” The Doc was doing something but the kid was looking at me all the time with wide open eyes. He kept on looking at me and then raised his arm. I did a funny thing. I caught him by the wrist. Then he said: “Where am I shutze, where am I shutze?” He thought he had been shot in the abdomen. I ran my hands over his body but assured him he hadn't been shot there. He just looked at me and said “Praise be to the Lors.” He had been shot through the chest, the bullet going under the right breast and out his back. It was a shocking wound and must have got one of his lungs. The Doctor sewed him up there and then and the little blighter never said a word. I hope he lived. I've seen fellows page 257 talk a lot then treat a wounded German like a nurse would. I must have done the same.’
Both wounded prisoners died on Christmas Eve.
A much different story about this area is told by another officer in the battalion: ‘They called him Harry the Yank. The reason for that was, of course, that he spoke American. We were never sure whether he was not a Fifth Columnist and our doubts always remained. He was a Station Master in charge of a tiny village and we used to go up to his house at night, about twelve of us, and play trains. Harry would wear his Station Master's hat and wave his green flag, and, grown men though we were, we used to go round hanging on to each other's waists, making appropriate noises. Perhaps in a way this was a link with home and children.
‘Some of us had an interesting experience one night at Harry's place. Just before 9 p.m. we noticed that several of the women folk slipped from the room: Harry said they had gone to Church. So one or two of us followed them and we found a large assembly, mostly women, gathered round in a stable with the lowing oxen nearby. They were saying the Rosary and they had done that night after night for a couple of years, because there was no resident priest in the area. One of the women led them in the devotions. It was a humble setting and somehow doubly sincere and impressive.’
The rest behind the immediate front line continued.34 Carriers helped 20 Armoured Regiment to move ammunition; a platoon went off to protect artillery observation posts and sound-ranging specialists; machine-gunners did turns of duty in Salarola; many stood-to in slushy outposts on the alert for German night patrols sneaking down from the ridges.
The gleaming eyes of a cat gave Sergeant Cassidy one of his greatest shocks in the war, and the same goes for Bill Walsh,35 page 258 who trod on a dog. Another sentry recalls: ‘Tiny and I sitting in a slitty in the middle of the night and arguing as to which lines a fire was burning in…. Then the talk got round to other aspects of war. Tiny (the Sangro was his first action) said he was afraid of pain. He didn't think he could stand it if he got hit badly. Poor old Tiny, he needn't have worried, he got a direct hit from a 170 m.m. or something just north of Rimini.’
The battalion kept ready to move on, once the enemy weakened, to attack up to the junction of the Orsogna-Guardiagrele road—but the enemy grew stronger, if anything, and no break-through took place. Eighth Army was bogged down for the winter. A stalemate spread over the Adriatic front.
Christmas came. In A Echelon's cookhouse Lieutenant Dave Whillans held a Christmas party and generously offered liqueurs all round. Bottles emptied rapidly, fresh ones arrived to be drained even more quickly, but nobody seemed much happier until the medical officer joined the party. He took a small sip:‘How long have you been drinking this stuff?’ The ‘liqueurs’ turned out to be a cough mixture laxative heavily laced with cascara. Translating instructions on the labels, the doctor36 read out to abashed soldiers just how many spoonfuls should be given to expectant mothers.
Roman Catholics from 22 Battalion and other nearby units went to midnight Mass in the church at San Eusanio. The organist rather startled the congregation by playing ‘Now is the Hour’ on three occasions. ‘We found out later that he had learnt it from the Kiwis who were billeted with him. He was under the impression the song was New Zealand's national anthem.’
On Christmas Eve Mick Kenny went over to visit his brother, a lieutenant in the Maori Battalion. ‘We had a grand evening and had been singing our own Christmas carols all in harmony —during a lull in our singing we could hear in the distance the voices of Germans singing “Silent Night”—then the Maori boys started singing with them. The next day we were into things page 259 again. I have thought more of this incident perhaps than any other, especially at Christmas when I hear the singing of carols.’
Padre Sullivan has his own Christmas story: ‘We took over… [an Italian's] house and established an R.A.P. in it. That meant that he and his wife and his little boy had to live in the stable below. He was a small farmer, with a tiny piece of land, two or three scruffy sheep and a few poultry. We were there at Christmas time and this old boy (at least he seemed old) spoke English fairly well. He came to me one day and said, “Would you read me some story from the New Testament?”
‘I said I would and he gave me a copy in the Italian language, so that when I read from it his wife and boy would be able to follow it. Each morning for about a week I was in the habit of coming down to that stable and reading him some passages.
‘Christmas came upon us while we were there and the boys in the Company thought they would like to do something for this small family and so they held a tarpaulin muster. One way and another a number of gifts were collected; many items of food and something each for the mother and the father and the boy. At night they stole down and, while these three people were asleep, they filled Christmas stockings for them. When I went down on Christmas morning, the small family was quite overcome with joy and the old man invited me on this occasion to read the story of Christmas. I did, and I was never more moved by it. The tears in their eyes as they listened to this immortal tale was a sight which somehow seemed to bring it alive. There was a father, a mother, a small boy, a stable filled with straw and a couple of lowing oxen in the corner. The wheel of history seemed to have made a full turn. In the midst of war, we were at peace.’
New Year's Eve: a blizzard. It was bitterly cold. Men in outposts had a wretched time. ‘Hardly any good days now, mostly cold and miserable with snow on the ground a great deal of the time.’ But New Year's Eve was happy enough for some members of 2 Company, cosy and warm with a plentiful supply of vino before a roaring fire inside a casa. ‘There was a feeling among us of mellowness and goodwill to all men.’
Back to the line they went, delayed by snow blocking the page 260 road, on the night of 3-4 January. The snow, thick on the ground, was a lovely sight, but it soon palled and the increasing mud was cursed steadily.
‘During this winter the old Army boots took a thrashing. Jokers coming from outside in the mud and snow took off their boots as soon as they got inside and put them by the open fire to dry. But many were put too close and so suffered damage. We also started building our own diesel stoves. Fuel drip-drip- drip from a tin into a metal container—a steady sizzle and a roar—and the smoke and fumes going up the chimney which protruded out a window (many round food tins wedged one inside the other with the ends cut out). She didn't always work too well though—the place that thick with fumes and smoke that you could hardly see or breathe. But when you got one really revved up she just glowed red hot and threw out a terrific heat: you wondered how all that heat came from that tiny trickle of diesel. Of course—there was a chance she may blow up on you.’
On the second visit to Salarola 3 Company occupied the village, thoroughly prepared the buildings for defence and carried out some ingenious schemes, which included bricking up lines of communication between houses, making holes in walls between rooms and holes in floors upstairs with ropes for quick descent. Efficient booby traps and signal systems were arranged, and all sentry posts were co-ordinated. The men, skilful now in not exposing themselves when need be, became highly efficient sentries; few people could move far without being challenged, as a senior officer (pig on back) and ‘Joe Ghost’ (fowls in hand) found out.
‘On watch during the day (there were two of us together) we would stand back from the window of the upstairs room of our casa and search with our eyes for any sign of movement in the enemy area. We had a good view of Orsogna (its tower bombed, shelled and blasted but always intact) and the ridge stretching down to Guardiagrele, and we would go methodically from one building to another in both towns, and the odd buildings scattered around (remember that casa sitting on its own just on top of the ridge where the road from the crossroads reached the top of the hill just before entering Orsogna?). But never could we two see the slightest sign of movement. He must page 261 have seen plenty of movement in our area at times (“This mess queue's going to get a shock one day”).’
Civilians were cleared out of the no-man's-land ahead (‘What a nuisance the poor wretched devils are in wartime’), and Major Donald became in effect the mayor of Salarola. According to custom he appeared on the balcony of Company Headquarters at 10 a.m., a time when enemy guns could be relied upon to remain silent. Then local inhabitants sauntering past would doff their hats and bow. All village disputes were brought before the ‘mayor’ to be settled. Gifts flowed into Company Headquarters, and at one stage the larder held four pigs, two lambs, six fowls, dozens of eggs, bottles of good wines, and fat cheeses. Officers began collecting walking sticks, and vied with one another to produce the nobbiest or the most crooked.
The booby traps laid around farmhouses in no-man's-land collected in the first night half a dozen sheep and two horses. A few snow capes arrived for patrolling. Before this a man might have improvised camouflage by using long white petticoats taken from empty houses. One patrol set out as an experiment in ordinary battle dress, made a wide sweep, and was almost into Lieutenant O'Reilly's platoon area before being detected. A group of officers, watching with binoculars in brilliant moonlight and icy clear air, had failed entirely to see the figures in battle dress.
Six Platoon (thought to be the first medium machine-gun platoon of 22 Battalion to fire at the enemy) held a remote outpost on Bianco ridge. Rations and ammunition came up by mule train from San Eusanio to Bianco village. A carrying party from the platoon covered the last three-quarters of a mile in deep snow and atrocious going. The platoon kept busy on sentry duty and patrolling. Shooting was done from positions well forward. A suitable place would be reconnoitred by night, the gun section would move into position well before dawn and return after dark. Fresh positions evaded spandau fire and mortaring.
The most exacting work at another advanced post is described by Corporal Paterson. A greater contrast with desert warfare is difficult to imagine. This post, at the top of a minor ridge, was about a mile from the cliffs on which Orsogna stood. Into these cliffs the Germans had dug innumerable holes. An page 262 observation post was manned by a British medium battery officer and his wireless assistant in the one room that remained upstairs in a small two-storied house. Downstairs were two rooms, one more or less intact and the other badly holed. These two rooms were occupied by a section of infantry as a guard, which was changed under cover of darkness every forty-eight hours.
Once inside the house the guard spoke in whispers only and showed no lights until relieved. The intact room was just large enough for seven men to lie down, each with one blanket; the holed room was used as kitchen, guard posts, lavatory and entrance to the house. The Germans, who had dugouts only 200 yards to the left of the outpost, were under the impression that the place was derelict and quite unoccupied. Nonchalantly they would climb out of their holes as daylight came and stamp around in the snow, swinging their arms to warm themselves and generally stretching themselves after a cramped night in a slit trench. To preserve the illusion that the house was unoccupied, the infantry had strict instructions not to shoot except as a last resort and to let inquiring Germans enter the house and deal with them silently inside.
Paterson's section (from 15 Platoon) lined up in the snow, which was a foot to 18 inches deep, and with a guide set off to relieve the British paratroopers about a mile away. ‘We were accompanied by our platoon commander 2 Lt. Ian Thomas37 and the company sergeant-major, Scott.38 We crept up to the house on its blind side and relieved the paratroopers who wasted no time in getting out and dismayed us a little by their obvious anxiety to leave the place behind them as soon as possible. (We found out afterwards that whereas we had 48 hours there, they apparently had much longer.) Ian Thomas and “Scotty” saw page 263 us comfortably in and departed, promising to call again in a couple of days' time. We had a couple of primuses and tins of potatoes, carrots, etc. which we cooked up during the day, together with odd cups of tea, and generally felt fairly comfortable. However about 9 p.m., towards the end of our first 24 hours there, a blizzard started to blow. The temperature dropped to much too cold and soon as we did our turn of picquet duty in the kitchen we found ourselves standing in something like a wind tunnel with the snow driving straight through from the big hole in the wall (facing the Huns opposite) and out the hole in the wall behind. There were two of us out in this at about 5 a.m. (daylight usually came up about 6 then)—when we saw staggering towards us on the blind side a solitary figure. In the driving snow it seemed to appear then disappear again. Remembering our instructions not to shoot we waited while the hair at the back of my neck anyway sort of rose, and we both wondered how far in we should let them come, and how many we should deal with. One of us woke the others and we all stood to. The figure eventually more or less fell into the room. It was Ian Thomas in a state of almost collapse. He was shaking violently with the cold. We rubbed him hard for a time, then with my greatcoat on we persuaded him to lie down and warm up with practically all the other blankets on him. It was some time before the shivering stopped. We asked him what on earth had brought him out walking on a night like this. He said that he wanted to see how his boys were getting on, and make sure we were all OK. He had started off about 9 p.m. and had only got a few hundred yards when the blizzard came up. However the thought of turning back had apparently just not been considered. In the finish he was falling face forwards on the snow to make a track for himself through the drifts which had piled up so high that he was almost out of his depth in it. By this means he managed to make the 1500 yards or so in good time—about 8 hours' solid going. Within three or four hours he had recovered his usual vitality and was joking, laughing and generally enjoying himself thoroughly—in whispers of course for the blizzard had gone and all was quiet again and Jerry very close.’
Intermittent shelling and mortaring still plagued the battalion area, but with no very serious results. A wiser battalion page 264 suffered only very few casualties compared with those during its first stay in Salarola. With the deep freeze the front had quietened down a lot. The most serious casualty took place on 17 January when a direct hit on a jeep killed all four passengers: Lance-Corporal Jock Downing,39 Privates Laurie Parnell,40 Garry Romley,41 and A. W. Morris,42 who were returning about 11 p.m. from playing poker at Transport Platoon headquarters. All except Romley, who died soon afterwards, were killed instantly.
‘A vivid memory of the next afternoon,’ writes Jenkins,43 ‘when we buried them just off the road, was the number of Italians present. Although quite a bit of shelling was going on, no one stirred even a little while the two padres, R.C. and C. of E. were reading the services.’
Shelling increased in the next few days. ‘Lying in the bunk at night listening to all the different noises the Jerry shells landing in the vicinity made. Some made a tinny crisp sort of crash, something like breaking glass. Some a deep-voiced crump. Some sounded more like a crack. There seemed to be many varieties—with some you would hear the whine—with others just the burst.’
As the shelling increased so did rumours of an imminent move—and on the night of 18-19 January the much-discussed relief took place. The men were warned repeatedly to make no noise whatsoever. An English regiment from 4 Indian Division came in, and with headlights flashing on and off, trucks roaring, and men shouting, ‘did everything but tell the Hun a relief was on. They set to work to park their vehicles—revving engines and gear changes as they drove up alleys—much shouting and advice to drivers: “Right hand down.” “Eeee, chum, you nearly took—corner off building,” “Easy mate,” etc., etc., and backed blaspheming into possies. Jerry didn't take any notice of it all—just the few usual ones in the vicinity. And we ‘oved quietly onto the road and away.’
1 Appointments in 22 (Mot) Bn on arrival in Italy were: CO, Lt-Col T. C. Campbell; 2 i/c, Maj H. V. Donald; OC 1 Coy, Maj P. R. Hockley; OC 2 Coy, Maj R. R. Knox; OC 3 Coy, Maj F. G. Oldham; OC 4 Coy, Maj L. G. S. Cross.
15 Lt H.J. Monaghan, MM; Eketahuna; born Eketahuna, 24 Jul 1918; labourer; three times wounded.
18 Maj-Gen K. L. Stewart, CB, CBE, DSO, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US); Kerikeri; born Timaru, 30 Dec 1896; Regular soldier; 1 NZEF 1917–19; GSO 1 2 NZ Div, 1940–41; DCGS 1941–43; comd 5 Bde Aug-Nov 1943, 4 Armd Bde Nov 1943-Mar 1944, 5 Bde Mar-Aug 1944; p.w. 1 Aug 1944; comd 9 Bde (2 NZEF, Japan) 1945–46; Adjutant-General, NZ Military Forces, 1946–49; CGS 1949–52.
20 Capt D. H. Nancarrow; born Hawera, 4 Jan 1910; school-teacher; killed in action 2 Dec 1943. Nancarrow's batman, Private G. R. Elgar, ‘whom, characteristically, Nan looked after as if he were doing the batting himself’, was wounded with him. ‘Come on! We've got them on the run!’ were the captain's last words. Unseen by 12 Platoon, a German motor-cycle combination on the other side of the demolition coasted silently downhill to the crater's brink, opened fire at point-blank range and fatally wounded the officer.
21 A light moving in the darkness perplexed this party until they found a distraught Italian farmer, who said that his cow was about to calve and he had to attend to her. Keeping a stealthy eye on the farmer, the infantry found that he was hiding money and personal treasures.
23 ‘The manner in which our sigs kept our lines of communication open was something to be remembered. Wading through snow waist deep, searching for lines and repairing lines under murderous shell and mortar fire, did not deter these men.’
32 Major D. G. Steele returned from furlough in New Zealand to resume his appointment as 2 i/c; Major Donald assumed command of 3 Company.
34 The ‘San Severo Club’ was formed after the first Salarola action. One evening in an Italian casa, over a few drinks, new lyrics were composed to the tune of ‘Ball of Yarn’—a song introduced by 2 Lt Earl Cross. Each verse was about one of those present on that evening, plus a few of the other officers of the company. Captain ‘Bunty’ Cowper was the head, and others in this club were Lts J. H. Dymock, C. R. Carson, F. R. Wheeler and E. K. Cross, Sgts Butler and Kerrigan, and Ptes Ancrum, Hudson, Agnew, O'Brien and Hanley. The song was sung on many a convivial evening after that occasion. The ‘San Severo Club’ was the forerunner of other such clubs in the battalion: another memorable club was the ‘Goums Club’. Veterans have many nostalgic memories of these gatherings.
36 ‘The Medical Officer at this time (like the padre) was a more popular man than a lot. When you visited him he heard your story before he decided whether or not you were malingering. So many gave you the impression that they reckoned you were lead swinging before they knew anything about your ailment. It didn't go over too well when you had been crook for, say, a day or two and knew you were damned crook.’
38 2 Lt E. M. Scott, m.i.d.; Masterton; born Dannevirke, 21 Nov 1916; shepherd and drover; wounded 17 Jan 1945. Every other night Scott took relief parties off to the ruined house. ‘Somehow, by the way he walked, or it may have been in the set of his chin, as he strode out wielding a heavy walking stick, bareheaded as a rule or with just a beret on, he gave a powerful feeling of confidence and well-being. He seemed to be quite fearless and matter of fact, perfectly confident and capable of dealing with any situation which might arise.” Paterson, meeting Scott in hospital in January 1945, told him of the great confidence he had given ‘us lesser lights. Scott, much amused, said that far from feeling as confident and fearless he was always internally between a—and a shiver until he got back into the lines.’