Journey Towards Christmas
(1) The Sangro
(1) The Sangro
EVERY morning a sea of pewter, burnished and dully shining. Sound of water slushing lazily in scuppers: murmur of stem and bow sighing patiently through the Mediterranean: patter of bow-spray falling on smooth swell. Already, though the sun is hardly out of the sea, the decks are alive with soldiers, most of whom suffer from a slight, an almost imperceptible, hangover, the result of sleeping between decks, the smell of oil and soft soap, the warm stickiness of the morning, the crowd in the lavatories. A rumble, a rotary impulse deep in the ship's bowels, answers an uneasiness in their own.
Breakfast in the soupy atmosphere of the troop-decks: electric lights burning: smells of porridge and of sweat and sleep: the appalling clatter of crockery: shouting and jostling of mess orderlies: dixies, warm and slippery. After breakfast, no room to move on deck because everyone has been hounded from below to leave the ship clear for inspection. Impatient waiting for ‘Three Gs’ to sound. Lunch, with appetites a little keener than at breakfast, and then a long, dozy afternoon, which ends with eyes and elbows aching from too much leaning on the rail and gazing seawards. Tea, but not enough of it, for appetites are ravenous now, and, after tea, cards and an examination of the day's rumours.
In wartime each troopship carries three rumours—more sometimes, but never less than three. Do they follow the ship like three albatrosses or do they sneak aboard before she leaves port? Do they crawl from deck and bulkhead like copra-beetles, come on breezes, or does the ship herself make them up, chattering through the night with doors banging, engines murmuring, heart sighing? They seldom vary in their essentials. (1) The enemy has broadcast the ship's name and her date of sailing. (2) An infectious disease has broken out. (3) Senior officers are awaiting court martial on serious charges.
These three, especially the last, go pleasantly with the cool of page break page 311 evening when khaki caterpillars circulate on all the decks, when destroyers fuss around laying smoke-screens, and barrage balloons (midget dirigibles that were silver earlier and are now dark like slugs) are hauled in. The distance between ships has lessened, and smoke from a dozen stacks, streaming astern in skeins, mingles in a grey net—grey shot with brown—that trails across the sea for miles. The spirit of protection and comradeship—the high, brave spirit of the convoys—is all about you. Silence then, and a light blinking quick and secret, and the drawing in, from all the corners of the sea, of the soft darkness.
Well, it was Italy. After the doubt, the certainty. After the bustle of departure, peace and restfulness—in spite of the overcrowding, the discomfort, the indefinable malaise. After the alarms and forebodings the calm knowledge that not illness, nor the vagaries of Authority, nor the malice of fate could prevent you now from seeing the new country. Doubtless you lacked some essential article of equipment. Possibly you had missed an important inoculation. Conceivably you harboured parasites. It mattered little—they would not turn back the ship.
The bustle of departure had come at the end of a long calm, a calm starting in mid-June—in mid-June because it was not until then that our 190 ‘Ruapehus’ left us after spending a fortnight in a daze of joy and alcohol—left us to miss and envy them and lose, by the process of shifting them from pocket to pocket, sending them to the laundry with our shirts, pulling them out with train tickets, innumerable scraps of paper bearing illegible addresses. After that, when the gale of long leave to Palestine, Alexandria, and Cairo had blown itself out, it was calm except for occasional squalls that spun us into Cairo for an evening's riot and sometimes into the orderly room the next morning. These occurred sporadically until our money ran out. While it lasted we were often in trouble—not bad trouble leading to courts martial but foolish trouble that caused the driver of the breakdown lorry (the unit's Black Maria) to make many trips to the Maadi Field Punishment Centre to collect people who had spent the night there. At first the provost sergeant would ask him where he came from and what he wanted. Later it was ‘Huh—you again! I suppose you want T—-.’ T—- would be page 312 led out, scratching himself and complaining bitterly of bed-bugs.
In the second week of July 102 reinforcements were received impassively, and three days later, grumbling a little, we moved to Puttick Camp, near Mena and the pyramids, where the NZASC was concentrating. An intensive training programme began but we allowed it to interfere with our calm only a little.
Each cloudless morning was announced by the Egyptian newspaper boy with his cry of ‘Very g-o-o-d news’. He had said it when France fell; he had said it, perhaps (for he was a boy only by virtue of his calling, his filthy tatters, his mocking and mischievous smile), when the German armies were surging towards Amiens in 1918, adding the improbable information that Hitler (only it would have been the Kaiser or Ludendorf then) had contracted an unmentionable disease. Cloudless morning was followed by baking day and a programme of physical training, drill, and discipline, most of which was directed at the newcomers. Each simmering evening melted into blue night, leaving us with a restlessness and longing as old as Egypt, a dark tide in the blood obedient to some star stranger and more tormented than most, a longing to make journeys—the golden journey to Samarkand, or the journey to Sicily, or the long journey home.
Daily, as the heat increased or seemed to, the programme was less arduous, and daily, as the Allies advanced in Sicily, where they had landed on 10 July, the very good news was better. On the 25th of the month Mussolini resigned, and three days later the National Fascist party was dissolved by Marshal Badoglio. On 17 August, after thirty-nine days’ fighting, resistance in Sicily ended.
For a month past our transport had been moderately busy with trips to Cairo, Port Said, and Suez, and for eight No. 2 Platoon vehicles there had been a trip to Aleppo. Workshops, which had stayed at Maadi because it was easier to work there, was busy all the time. Every vehicle needed either overhauling or reconditioning.
We returned to Maadi on 27 August, and on 2 September we lost the rest of the drivers who had come overseas with the First, Second, or Third Echelons—fifty-one men. They went back to the Mena area to await their return to New Zealand under the Wakatipu scheme. The next day the Allies landed on the Italian mainland.
The segregation of the ‘Wakatips’, a wave of injections, the page 313 publication of the Italian armistice terms, the pervading restlessness —our peace had gone now—all convinced us that events had begun to march and that soon we should be marching too. But where? Italy? The war in Italy was nearly over. England for the Second Front? The Division had been going to England for years now and doubtless it would get there in the end—when (to borrow poetry from our newspaper boy) the apricots bloomed! Desert manœuvres? Everything pointed in that direction.
Desert manœuvres it was. That was what they told us anyway, and on 19 September Company headquarters and No. 4 Platoon moved to an area near Burg el Arab, where the Division was concentrating. The rest of the unit was to follow as soon as Workshops had finished with its transport.
The manœuvres took place without us, and what was left of September passed in a golden dream of sunshine and sea-bathing. Think what you will of the desert, of Cairo, of Egypt, but look back always with the tenderest feelings of gratitude towards the Mediterranean—our playground, our green palace from which flies and dust were rigidly excluded, our private swimming bath, our cool, our pleasant, our unfailing friend.
Nos. 2 and 3 Platoons arrived from Maadi on 26 September and by the end of the month the unit was almost complete at Burg el Arab. No. 3 Platoon had only seven vehicles and the balance of its establishment (Chevrolets) was collected from Amiriya—and a motley collection it proved to be. Most of the load-carriers—only a few were new—had neither cabs nor canopies, and although foraging parties showed much ingenuity and some lack of scruple in making these deficiencies good the drivers were still far from satisfied.
We knew now that we were going somewhere by sea and taking our vehicles with us. The unit would be divided into three flights—two of personnel and one of vehicles. The vehicle flight, which would include rather more than one driver to a lorry, would be subdivided into smaller flights, which would sail as shipping space became available. The idea was that not more than a third of any one unit should sail in one ship.
We were issued with winter clothing, with bivouacs, with twogallon water tins, and as they handed us each article they reminded us that there would be a march of several miles at the end of the page 314 voyage. Dress rehearsals were held and they proved nothing except our inability to crawl more than a few yards under our burdens.
But where were we going? On what foreign strand were we to sink exhausted?
The answer came with October.1 On the 3rd the first personnel flight went to Ikingi Maryut, where it was divided into two groups, both of which sailed from Alexandria on the 6th. The rest of the unit (Company headquarters and Nos. 3 and 4 Platoons) stayed at Burg el Arab until the 12th, when the second personnel flight was divided into two groups and sent to the staging area, sailing on the 18th.
The first, second, third, and fourth vehicle flights sailed on the 24th, the fifth and sixth on the 29th.
The drivers with the vehicle flights strolled casually aboard, glancing between the treads of the gangway at the filth and bobbing oranges in the black water, and dreaming happily of tool boxes stuffed with cigarettes, chocolate, and tinned fruit. The others went aboard sideways, hung with packs, valises, water bottles, and boots, stifled with overcoats and bedrolls, stuck with bivouac poles as with arrows.
And the Egyptians on the quay laughed and laughed, seeing no end to the capacity of the ruling race for making itself ridiculous and uncomfortable.
Well, it was Italy. The little ships crept slyly across the Mediterranean, leaving snail tracks in the silver water—beaten silver scaly with tiny hammer marks. The sea was calm mostly and the voyages uneventful, but not always. Lieutenant Davis's flight ran into rough weather and tanks in the forward hold broke loose, page 315 threatening to smash through the ship's side. The motor vessel Lambrook, with Second-Lieutenant Dykes's2 flight aboard, hit a mine when ten days out from Alexandria. A spout of water shot high in the air and came down on deck, washing an Artillery sergeant from the bridge and breaking his wrist, and soaking blankets and gear belonging to our Workshops' drivers. She limped on, with her back broken and her starboard plates rippling, to Brindisi, ten hours away.
But one by one the little ships came safely to port—those with personnel to Taranto, in the arch of the Italian boot, those with vehicles to Bari, high up on the back of the heel. The first personnel flight reached Taranto on 9 October, the second thirteen days later.
‘We pulled into the wharf,’ wrote Sergeant Greg Mowat,3 who was with the second flight, ‘and we could see the roofless houses, the burnt-out buildings, and the piles of rubble—a sight new to the reinforcements. Once again we piled gear on our backs, struggled up the stairway, down the gangplank, and into the new country. We left our heavy stuff on the wharf to be picked up by lorries and taken to the transit camp, which was about five miles out of town.
‘The march did not seem a long one—there was so much to see. There were real stone houses with red roofs instead of wog huts made of mud and petrol tins. There were terraced vineyards, orderly and old. Real fruit grew on the trees. Only one thing reminded us of Egypt and that was the child beggars. They pestered us for cigarettes and all were mad for chocolate. Poor little bastards—they looked as if they could do with a good feed, most of them.
‘When we arrived at the transit camp we found we had missed our friends of the first flight by two days—they had gone to an area near Altamura, forty or more miles north-west of Taranto. The NZASC was assembling there and we were told we should be following quite soon.
‘There was leave to Taranto during the next week but no one thought it much cop. The town was dirty and damaged, the restaurants had little or no food, and the wine, though it was only page 316 about sevenpence a litre, was terrible stuff. His first night in Italy old “Snow” came back to camp and all he could say was “Drunk for a bob! Dead drunk for a bob!”
‘At the end of October Captain Gibson and fifty-three other ranks moved to Altamura and the rest followed a day or so later.’
The driver separated from his vehicle knows neither comfort nor peace of mind. He misses his home, his protection against route marches and the parade ground, the little gadgets he has contrived for his convenience. In the area near Altamura—misty mornings, bare rolling hillsides, mud and chips of stone everywhere: nothing missing, in fact, except gangs of convicts wearing broad arrows—the drivers waited disconsolately for their transport.
The first vehicles to arrive were Company headquarters' orderly-room lorry and No. 1 Platoon's cooks' lorry and water cart. The last two were needed at once by Second-Lieutenant Boyce4 and sixty drivers who, with the help of Royal Army Service Corps transport, were forming an ammunition dump at Modugno, five or six miles south-west of Bari. That meant that the orderly-room lorry had to be turned into a taxi-cum-carrier's cart. Forgetting its usual static dignity, it dashed about collecting pay and rations and performing a hundred and one menial tasks. It even took a leave party to Bari, and it was strange indeed to be travelling for pleasure in a vehicle ordinarily so unfrivolous. An alternative means of transport was provided by the ‘Altamura Express’, a conveyance, ancient, crowded, and creaking, that staggered along a privately-owned, narrow-gauge railway line. The engine-driver was an obliging man and for a cigarette he would stop anywhere.
Bari, with its fine harbour and magnificent buildings on the seafront, was worth a visit, and Altamura, eight miles south-west of our area, was like a town in an old story-book. Coming from a land that measures time by the extinction of the moa, we were impressed by its thirteenth-century cathedral and by a church even older. But our chief source of wonder and amusement was the Italian people. For the most part we behaved towards them as one does towards tiresome but rather attractive children; for like children they were greedy and emotional, and like children they page 317 snivelled one moment and laughed inordinately the next. Their charm, when they showed themselves charming, was child-like too.
Although the majority of us accepted the convention that all Italians had been bitter opponents of Mussolini, we remembered now and again—and the men from Bardia remembered more often —that every country gets the government it deserves. The kind the Italians had plumped for and remained complacent under for two decades had stood for bullying, boasting, and bad taste. Their vigorous apostasy, true, had a genuine ring, but it seemed not to occur to them that some deficiency in the Italian character might have contributed to their country's downfall. They had an enviable knack of dissociating themselves from the springs of their own disaster and they were not in the least put out at having been beaten at their own game by every army they had met. Possibly they were conditioned to ignominious defeat as Eskimoes are conditioned to cold and Moujiks to vodka. They shrugged off—and shrugging was something they did rather well—a quarter of a century of disaster and disrepute, and seemed to consider they had done very handsomely by everyone concerned. These were our thoughts at the time, but we might have modified them if we could have foreseen the friendliness of old men and women towards British gunners who had shelled their homes. Courage, kindliness, and patience were qualities older than Mussolini.
Anyway, it was heart-warming to find so many Sauls among the prophets. It was quite delightful to see the Wolves of Tuscany (if that was the name they had gone under in palmier days) trotting about contentedly in British battle dress dyed green—to watch the converted Blackshirt enthusiastically at work on his wall removing a DUCE from a large black VIVA and substituting a CHURCHILL, a ROOSEVELT, or a STALIN.
With this to divert us, together with camp duties and the task of familiarising our system with vast quantities of ‘Purple Death’, the first days of November passed pleasantly by and before long our vehicles started to reach Bari. Two flights docked on the 3rd, one on the 4th and the 5th, and two more on the 6th. On the night of the 6th-7th, while vehicles from Captain Delley's, Captain May's, and Second-Lieutenant Dykes's flights were being unloaded, there were six or seven alerts in the port area, three of which developed into raids, bombs being dropped among shipping and mines sown page 318 in the mouth of the harbour. Flares and ack-ack shells filled the sky and our drivers came on deck to enjoy the fun. Aboard the Lambrook enthusiasm diminished when a large piece of shrapnel made a hole in a temporary galley and another brought down the ship's barrage balloon. No damage was done to shipping and, except while the raids were actually taking place, the unloading of the vehicles was carried on beneath a smoke-screen.
By the 10th, though not quite complete—it was not that until 3 December—our unit was ready to function. We drew our secondline holding of ammunition from the new dump at Modugno and stood by for the order to move.
As long as Hitler held Rome and Mussolini he could claim that the Axis was still firing on all three cylinders. At present he held both. The former had been occupied on 10 September and the latter rescued from the Carabinieri Reali a few days afterwards. Mussolini's company Hitler could hope to enjoy for some months, but Rome—or so it seemed in the autumn of 1943—was another matter.
Naples had fallen to the American Fifth Army on 1 October, and by early November, when the Division started to join the Eighth Army on the Adriatic sector, the German line stretched across the Apennines from the north bank of the River Sangro, 130 miles north-west of Bari, to the mouth of the Garigliano River, thirty-five miles north-west of Naples. The plan was for the Eighth Army to attack between the mountains and the Adriatic, the New Zealanders' task being to cross the Sangro, cut the enemy's line, and advance quickly to threaten communications with Rome from the east.
At 8 a.m. on 12 November, Company headquarters, No. 1 Platoon, and Workshops—the other platoons were to follow—left the Altamura area for Lucera, eighty miles to the north-west as the crow flies but well over a hundred by road. Beyond Modugno, where we turned north to follow a road running roughly parallel to the coast, the country was all new. Mostly it was planted in trees and criss-crossed by low stone walls and dotted with trulli, stone summer-houses with roofs shaped like pudding basins, beehives, or ice-cream cornets. We passed through Cerignola and Orta page 319 Nova—the kind of places you see peeping at you from the faded blues and greens of an old tapestry—and came to Foggia, twenty miles from the coast. The town had been bombed into prominence some months ago but we had not expected such complete ruin. Whole floors—great slabs of concrete and steel—lolled out at us from smashed factories like tongues. Lucera was eleven miles away and our area was five miles north-west of it.
On the 13th the 4th and 5th Field Regiments moved up to the front, and with the latter went Captain Gibson and seventeen vehicles from No. 1 Platoon and thirteen from No. 4 Platoon. Our drivers spent the night six miles north-east of the little village of Furci with the Sangro only twelve miles away. They could hear the guns. On the 14th the New Zealanders, represented by the two field regiments, and the 19th Indian Infantry Brigade (under command)—the rest of the Division was to arrive during the next ten days—took over a section of the line about thirteen miles from the sea.
Soon after two o'clock D Troop of the 5th Field Regiment fired the New Zealand Division's first round of the campaign from the neighbourhood of Casalanguida, five miles north-west of Furci. Two miles away there was a steep, winding hill, down which, in the fading light, came Captain Gibson's transport, brake-drums squeaking, rain drumming on canopies, and mud and water, the colour of weak cocoa, swishing under mudguards. Shells were landing in the valley below, and one whined over the road and hit the hillside nearby.
The enemy, obviously, was aiming at a narrow, unblown bridge at the foot of the hill, and before crossing it our drivers were warned by provosts to travel fast and at wide intervals. An artillery quad, abandoned and burning, pointed the moral. There were some anxious moments, but all got safely across, and the lorries were dispersed for the night one mile south of Casalanguida and about 500 yards from the unblown bridge. There was cover for most of them on a hillside dotted with scrub and oak but some had to be parked in the open. However, it was hoped that the gathering darkness and the grey curtain of rain would hide them from the enemy.
Platoon headquarters moved into a one-storied red house with four or five rooms, the cowshed being requisitioned by the cooks, page 320 who set to work at once. By the time tea was ready a wood fire was roaring in one of the rooms and a row of boots steamed on the stone hearth. The dixies of hot food, the loping shadows, the dancing flames lighting the drivers' faces—young, eager faces most of them—made a cheerful picture. There were cheerful noises too: the muffled thunder in the great chimney, the clink of spoons, the excited talk.
‘Jerry can't be more than a mile or two away. You could hear those guns going plain as one thing.’
‘The roar when she came over—like a train. Then the explosion right among us. We were tinny all right.’
The old hands affected indifference, or said (truly perhaps, for some of them had been in the field a long time) that they didn't like the look of things, but the newcomers were plainly delighted. Many of them had been bitterly disappointed at not being drafted to a fighting unit with their special friends. They felt better now. Driving the old lorry might not be so tame after all.
The flames died down, voices became sleepy, and in twos and threes, dashing through the wet darkness, the drivers went to their lorries, leaving the red house to Company headquarters and the Italians who owned it. They slept until half past one and then they were woken by mortars, grenades, and bursts of machine-gun fire.
By the unblown bridge Bren guns and spandaus were in angry argument and there was a confusion of tracer fire. Everyone was ordered to stand-to, and with hearts beating fast the drivers felt for weapons and bundled on their clothes. Some went to the trees and others crouched under the lorries. Rain was spilling out of the darkness and sheets of it slapped against the lorries and whisked spitefully beneath them. Soon everyone was wet through.
The action went on for about half an hour and then the Indian guards managed to drive off the patrol that had come down from the hills to blow the bridge. Our drivers, stiff with cold and too tired to talk, went straight to bed, the newcomers, no doubt, remembering the infantry in the rain and reflecting how pleasant it was, even if a little inglorious, to have a bed to go to.
The next morning the ammunition was dumped and the convoy left for Altamura to reload.
On the same day—the 15th—Company headquarters and Work- page break page break page 321 shops moved from Lucera to an area near Larino, a small town twenty-seven miles south-east of Casalanguida, and during the next few days the platoons, helped by detachments from other units, cleared the old areas of ammunition, brought troops to the front, and established a reserve dump of 25-pounder ammunition four miles south-west of Casalanguida. On the 21st we moved to an area near there and opened an ammunition point.
Back to Base at Maadi
Winter in Italy
These trips had been made over vile roads among mountains, the sides of which were covered with scrub oak, all scarlet and gold and orange. Yellow leaves, like largesse, drifted through the autumn air and our wheels ground them to sludge. Every hilltop supported a little village, and always from one or another of these (and at Angelus from all of them) came the sound of bells. Staggering up and down precipitous hillsides, sliding round corkscrew bends, passing everywhere reminders of Christendom's first casualty—with the Nails, the Hammer, the Spear, the Sop of Hyssop faithfully and often horribly reproduced—we drove through a mist of leaves, of bells, of rain—grey and savage sometimes, sometimes gentle and golden like autumn.
On the 25th, leaving No. 1 Platoon and Workshops to follow later, the unit moved to a windy slope about a mile from Casalanguida. Here, for the first time in weeks, we were able to give our vehicles more than the minimum attention necessary to keep them going. The bad weather, the late arrival of some of the loadcarriers, the appalling hills, the shifting from area to area—these had placed drivers and transport under a severe strain and we had done well to have only eight vehicles off the road since starting work.
While we were servicing our vehicles and resting—the term is comparative—the battle of the Sangro started. On the night of the 27th-28th, under black rainclouds, the Eighth Army struck with three divisions. New Zealand infantry, on the left flank of the advance, waded through the icy Sangro and by daylight were established firmly on the north bank.
On 3 December, while the 25th Battalion was fighting desperately in the little town of Orsogna, which was blocking the entire advance—it was on a ridge eight miles from the starting point—we were told to establish an ammunition dump on the north bank of the Sangro so that it would matter less if floods or enemy action page 322 destroyed the bridges. Two days earlier we had moved a mile or so north-east to high ground, and now we had a wonderful view of the Sangro Valley and we could see our bombers at work. On the 3rd, then, forty-three lorries (fourteen from No. 1 Platoon and twenty-nine from a platoon of the 4th Reserve Mechanical Transport Company), preceded by Lieutenant Todd and Second-Lieutenants Langley5 and Boyce, who were to supervise the dumping, set out for the Sangro with 25-pounder ammunition, heading for a Bailey bridge ten miles north-west of the area. Later they were followed by a further 117 lorries.
Rain was falling and the river was said to have risen eighteen inches in twenty minutes. It was tumbling and snarling and beyond the bridge it had overflown its banks, confronting the convoy with a formidable water hazard. Three vehicles crossed under their own power but the rest had to be winched over by a tractor. The water covered the floor-plates and whenever you stopped you could feel your lorry settling under you. The current made steering almost impossible and two vehicles came to grief. One hit a partly submerged bank, driving the fan through the radiator, and another plunged into a dip and had to be abandoned until morning. At one stage a jeep was overturned by the current.
The rain came down in torrents and everyone was soaked. Drivers floundered about waist-deep in water, and a padre, stripped off and looking the picture of muscular Christianity, did a spirited job with ropes. Finally, when all but seven lorries were across, the river became impassable and the plan of returning to the unit area had to be abandoned. Our drivers settled down for the night at the ammunition dump with the guns flashing and barking round them in the wild rain.
With its canopy drawn down, each lorry was as cosy as a lighthouse—as a cottage on the dark heath where Lear wandered mad and lost. Our drivers lay in bed warm and dry reading Auckland Weeklies and Readers' Digests by bedside lamps, a load of tinned sausages and cocoa rumbling inside them.
There was something to be said for a transport unit after all—even the newcomers admitted it.page 323
The first attack on Orsogna ended in partial success only, and so did the second, third, and fourth. While they were being made and afterwards while the Division was engaged in what was officially known as ‘offensive defence’—this period lasted until mid-January—the platoons, having completed the Sangro dump by 8 December, were employed solely in replenishing the ammunition point in the unit area from a field maintenance centre near San Salvo. It was only a dozen miles away in a straight line, but we went by a roundabout route and it took us a full day to go there and back.
This was a strange time—over us the weeping skies, under us the mountain roads, round us the ubiquitous mud. Mud was now our element. It sucked at our boots, sometimes pulling them right off; it banked up beside our labouring wheels and mounted to the differentials; it collected in pools and lay in wait for us when we stepped out of the cabs; it was thick on lorry floors and it found its way into our beds. It was so much a condition of life that we seldom thought of ourselves as dirty because we were muddy or as uncomfortable because we were conscious all the time of the feel of mud—mud wet on the handles of ammunition boxes when fingers were crushed by cold as by a vice; mud caked and dry—a woolly and unpleasant feeling—when we were warm after loading. We knew always the taste of mud, cold, mouldy, abrasive; always the look of mud, glaucous, glutinous, froggy; always the weight of mud (we were shaggy with it like old ewes), and always either the chill of mud (trouser-legs being steeped in it as in icy goulash), or the sensation of wearing (sun or primus having dried them) cardboard clothes.
But we knew other things as well—rare, bright mornings when we hurled the ammunition aboard at a mad pace to keep warm; wood-fires leaping and dancing in great hearths; the delicious drowsiness as you thawed out; the surprising friendliness of the contadini (the country-folk); evenings when the red wine went round in bucketfuls; birthday parties when two lorries were parked tailboard to tailboard.
On 18 December we moved four or five miles north-west to an area near the little village of Atessa. Here we took possession of several acres of the best mud. Cooks and Headquarters' drivers found homes in sheds and buildings but the rest had to live in page 324 their lorries—islands of chilly discomfort in a mud ocean. Atessa itself was a huddle of cold houses—cold and forbidding, that is, from the outside but within wonderfully warm and welcoming. Three houses—casas we had learnt to call them—were known as ‘The First and Last’, ‘The Pig and Whistle’, and ‘The Family and Naval’.
The weather worsened towards Christmas and it was lovely after struggling with icy wheel-chains, after slipping and sliding for miles along greasy roads, after escaping a dozen times from being pushed into the ditch, to draw up beside a fire and take off sopping boots, and with new wine and old songs become progressively merrier until bedtime.
Christmas Eve dawned bleak and cold and in the afternoon it began to rain. We were very busy just then and most of us were out working, but everyone was in high spirits, looking forward to parties that night. Joyfully we flung on the last boxes of 25-pounder and turned home, where a heap of parcels, some private and some Patriotic, awaited distribution.
It came as a blow when we were told that a job impended and that anyone who drank too much could expect trouble. Possibly we ought to have cancelled our parties then and there but this was Christmas Eve. We compromised by saying that we should have a few and see how things went. No job materialised and things went very well.
Darkness came, and tiny pencillings of light, thin as a hair and invisible at ten yards—the old hands saw to that—showed where parties were in progress. Later the singing started.
Nowhere is the laughter louder or the company better than in the ‘Family and Naval’ (No. 3 Section's house of call) where old Italian Poppa—‘That the feast might be more joyous, that the time might pass more gaily, and the guests be more contented’—has fetched us his best red wine and is now making a speech, the audience applauding loudly whenever he says Buona fortuna (Good luck) or Buon Natale (Merry Christmas)—the two phrases they understand. Poppa's nut-cracker face is ready to split in half and fat Momma beams, too, and the daughters of the house, the page 325 cripple Nina and Alice whose husband is a prisoner of war, smile gently. Nicky, aged 16, has shining eyes for the soldiers.
Tiny scarlet candles burn under a picture of the Nativity and in the stable through the door sheep and great oxen sigh gustily and stamp. Pendulous shadows cast by bunches of onions and raisins nod vague approval as Poppa finishes his speech amid a chorus of bravos and grazies and then drains his tumbler. H—-rises to his feet and says with a perfectly straight face: ‘Thanks, Poppa, you silly old —-. May your….’ What he hopes for his host is indecent and not likely to happen, but Poppa, seeing no malice in any of the faces, only shining happiness and his red wine, breaks down, wrings H—-'s hand, sobs ‘Grazie! Grazie! Grazie!’
The room gives a turn and a half like a dog and by the time it has settled the two girls are singing an Italian love song in sweet, husky voices—‘Ma L'Amore No’. The visitors bawl ‘Maori Battalion’, bawl ‘Silent Night’. Poppa's asleep and snoring and the room gets hotter, mistier, noisier, spinning for some, for others rocking gently or floating loose in a gold cloud. Sometimes the tiny buds of light on the red candles bloom like tulips, bloom and multiply—a bank of tulips filling one whole side of the small, drunken room. Sometimes they shrink and shrink until they are swallowed up by the gloom over the cheap fretwork shelf in the corner, and then there is nothing left of those tall tulips but two imprints on the retinas, two echoes of light, two drowning motes, each smaller than a seed.
And next, or an hour later, everyone is outside in the cold and the sea of mud, lost and drunk, with the ‘Family and Naval’ hidden and the lorries hidden. Old George is down and muddy from head to foot and someone else is hung up on a tent-rope. Drivers stagger round in circles, roaring: ‘Where's number one sub?’ ‘Where's Neil's lorry?’ ‘Where's number two?’ ‘where's my bloody truck?’
Silence and peace at last, and out of the cold darkness, welcomed only by a few hardened topers garrulous over demijohns, comes a Happy Christmas, a Buon Natale—the fifth since 1939.
It rained on Christmas morning and the rest of the day was dull page 326 and cold, but we enjoyed it. We enjoyed the dinner and the Canadian beer and the nuts, figs, and wine bought from regimental funds. On Boxing Day the unit diary was laconic: ‘Very cold. Troops recovering from Christmas.’ Work started again on the 27th.
December ended in a howling gale and we woke on New Year's morning to find the world white. Fronds and feathers were swirling from a sky dark like slate and beyond the Sangro the Apennines were blancmanges and cloud-mountains.
Not all the North Islanders had seen snow before—snow falling, anyway—and some of them were tremendously intrigued and excited. The South Islanders, of course, were quite at home in a snow kingdom and their manner was proprietary.
Much damage had been done during the night by the wild weather. Workshops was flooded and tents and bivouacs were down. Many of the roads to the Sangro were closed and after breakfast all hands were set to work with shovels. We took jerricans of vino with us and there were snow fights, but we shovelled with a will and soon the road outside our area was open again.
On 2 January we carted 8000 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition from the Istonio railhead, fourteen miles due east of our area, to the dump by the Sangro, and from then on we did the same thing every day, travelling by a roundabout route. The roads were crowded and filmed with ice and each trip took from dawn till dusk, but for all that we found time to court death and disaster on home-made toboggans. The snow lay for a week.
By the 10th we knew that the Division was to be withdrawn for a rest, and five nights later, after dumping our ammunition and removing Divisional signs, we headed north-east towards the coast with other NZASC units. It was a beautiful shining night with the road hard and frosty and a highwayman's moon overhead and the trees like lace—just the night for the Captain to stuff a brace of barkers in his skirted velvet and go riding. Our destination was secret and that gave us a feeling of adventure although we were heading only for a rest area.
We breakfasted on the coast road and then drove towards Bari until we reached San Severo, sixteen miles north-west of Foggia. Here we were joined by No. 1 Platoon, which had been to Bari for page 327 engines. The day's journey ended by the roadside three miles north by west of Lucera and the news flew round that nine vehicles from No. 2 Platoon had stopped at San Severo to load grain for Naples. When we asked our officers if that was where we were going they put us off. The next morning, however, they told us that we were on our way to join the Fifth Army and would be stationed north of Naples. The move was still a secret and all towns and villages were out of bounds.
We went south for about fifteen miles and then headed southwest across the Apennines, passing a string of places with names as pretty as girls' names—Ariano Irpino, Grottaminarda, Avellino. Gone were the barren, treeless stretches we had known round Foggia and near the coast; instead a pattern of little fields went up into the hills and mountains, stopping only where the snow started. Here the country was two months nearer summer.
The road was dry and good but we travelled slowly because other New Zealand units were on the move as well. Often we halted in crazy, charming villages that seemed to be struggling not to slip into the valleys below, and while the noses of vehicles pointed up or down at fantastic angles the villagers crowded round trying to sell oranges and apples and bad wine.
We spent the night sixteen miles east-north-east of Naples, and Vesuvius with its perpetual plume could be seen plainly. The next morning we passed through Cancello, whose great railway yards were in ruins, and Caserta, famous for its royal palace. We turned north soon afterwards, crossed the Volturno twice, and long before lunch were in the new area with the transport dispersed on dry, grassy slopes. We were now twenty-nine miles north of Naples and rather more than a mile from the little walled village of Alife. Vesuvius was hidden from us by mountains and so was another volcano destined to be famous—Monte Cassino.
During the next fortnight we enjoyed ourselves. The weather was warm and sunny and we played Rugby football. No. 1 Platoon did best in the inter-platoon matches and we beat the 2nd Ammunition Company 11-nil in the only extra-unit match we had time for. In the evenings, thanks to Americans of the Fifth Army who were using Alife as a rest area, we went to films and concerts. There page 328 was day-leave to Pompeii and on the way to it we caught glimpses of Naples, which was out of bounds. The little we did see was sad and shocking, reminding us of a stately mansion festering into tenements, of a lovely woman drunk and on the streets. The people who lived there—squalid children, old crones, sluttish beauties, young loafers Sydney-flash, miserable old men in the cigarette-butt industry—alternated between whining hopelessness and a sort of gamin gaiety, desperate and ferocious. It was doubtful which was the less pleasing. As in duty bound—starving people are intolerable to men who are getting three square meals a day—we voiced our indignation and disgust, but without inner conviction. Few of us really blamed them for having sunk low, for being so hungry that nothing mattered. We did what we thought we had to in our own way, and children and old people and cripples found us not uncharitable.
Poor starving Naples! She had been preyed on by the Germans—they had thought of the delightfully German trick of linking the city sewers to the water mains—and now she was the prey of Italian sharks and tigers. And all the time she was mocked by the smiling beauty of her bay and by her jewel, Capri.
The towns and villages in the surrounding district were only a little better off. When we picnicked near the ruins of Pompeii the alternative to being stared at by a hundred yearning eyes was to eat our bread and bully in the back of a vehicle with the canopy drawn down, and it was the same at Nola, fifteen miles east-northeast of Naples, where we picked up our second-line holding of ammunition.
Alife, tucked away in the country between crumbling walls, was in better case. A crowd of women and children, each with two tins—one for meat and vegetables and another for tea and sweet things—picketed our refuse pits, but they embarrassed and annoyed us only when the meal was so good or so scanty that there was little left for them. That happened seldom. The cooks gave away a good deal and in return the men dug pits and washed up and the women washed and mended. The toddlers repaid us by lisping our Christian names and hanging around the camp.
January ended, and Alife and the rest of the free world (as we liked to call it) were flooded by a warmth of optimism, making us forget disappointments on the Eighth Army front and in the page 329 Dodecanese. Everyone, everywhere, seemed to expect great things. The hounds of spring were still snoring in their kennels, but sometimes of a sunny morning—those primrose mornings that blossom in late winter—it was as though one of them had put out a tentative paw, withdrawing it a moment later on finding the world not ready. Spring was what we longed for—spring and a surge forward to Rome, spring and the Second Front, spring and an end to this long war and to our long journey towards Christmas.
During the first week of February we heard that the Division would be in action soon. There was a word spoken, and it was Cassino.
1 The chief appointments on 3 October were: Company HQ, Maj S. A. Sampson, Lt K. L. Richards (posted 2 Sep 43), WO II A. L. Salmond (appointed 10 Jan 43); No. 1 Platoon, Capt R. C. Gibson, 2 Lt R. W. Langley (posted 12 Feb 43); No. 2 Platoon, Capt R. P. Latimer (posted 2 Jun 43), Lt C. H. Haig (posted 12 Sep 43); No. 3 Platoon, Lt J. D. Todd (posted 1 Dec 42), 2 Lt G. Dykes (posted 14 Feb 43); No. 4 Platoon, Capt K. E. May, Lt A. R. Delley; Workshops, Capt A. G. Morris; Ammunition Platoon, Lt R. K. Davis, 2 Lt H. W. Boyce (posted 13 Feb 43).
The following had left us: Capt W. K. Jones (Ruapehu Draft, 4 Jun 43), Lt T. A. Jarvie (posted to Base Training Depot, 13 Jul 42), Lt R. A. Borgfeldt (wounded 14 Jul 42), Lt J. M. Fitzgerald (posted to Base Training Depot, 5 Sep 43), WO II I. McBeth (Ruapehu Draft).
3 Sgt G. McG. Mowat; clerk; Wairoa; born Wairoa, 16 Dec 1914.