28 (Maori) Battalion
CHAPTER 17 — The Winter Campaign
The Winter Campaign
The New Zealand Division had not fought alongside the Canadians before and its departure did not go unnoticed. ‘All ranks 1 CDN CORPS are very sorry 2 NZ DIV. is leaving us,’ a message from General Burns, GOC 1 Canadian Corps, read. ‘Together we have driven the enemy from the MARECCHIA to the SAVIO and inflicted heavy losses on him. Canadians greatly admire the skill and gallantry with which New Zealanders fight and hope that we shall soon be together again.’
The Maori Battalion staged at Iesi in the same area it had occupied prior to the operations with 1 Canadian Corps, and then after a night drive found itself tucked away in a remote valley of the Apennines. The war that had ruined so much of Italy had left this backwater untouched and the hills were dotted with farmhouses where life went on as if the foreign invasion had never happened.
The venerable university town of Camerino looked down from its hilltop on the New Zealand flood that left the main road and spread into the villages. Battalion Headquarters was established in Polverina, A Company four miles away outside San Luca on the road to Camerino, B Company on the slopes above San Luca, C Company in Rocca, D near Vergoni, and HQ Company scattered around Pont le Trave.
The day after settling in (25 October) was clean-up day and the Italian clothes-lines displayed an unusual wealth of male garments. The women, horrified at their guests' treatment of woollen socks and underpants, speedily took over the job and thenceforth the Maoris wore really laundered shirts and really pressed battle dress. The people were friendly after their initial fears were dispelled, and the Maori, when not a bloodthirsty fighting man, is also of a friendly and happy-go-lucky nature.
Leave to Rome and Florence was generous and the men were encouraged to take advantage of the facilities offering for rest and recreation. In the unit route marches were frequent, lengthy, and interesting. Scarcely anyone then serving had marched through the leafy lanes of the south-eastern English counties but it was the same interest that shortened the kilometres.page 431
As it was put in the News Flash, the unit bulletin sent to the men in hospital:
Route-marching in this country has been found to be a pleasure in contrast to the sandy wastes of Egypt. Marching on the road one encounters strange things, such as an old broken-down Italian vehicle loaded up with all sorts of odds and ends, and then again it may be a pretty Italian signorina leading or following behind two or more bullocks. This … makes route-marching very interesting and one is always looking forward to the next corner to see what is happening or has happened.
Another event on 29 October that created much interest was the recording of messages to be broadcast to the folks at home at Christmas. A percentage of men from each company had their voices recorded, some in Maori and some in English, but Colonel Young, after speaking in English, sent a message in Maori on behalf of the battalion as a whole. His accent might not have been that of a Maori orator but his gesture was much appreciated by the troops.
The real rest period ended on 30 October with a 15-mile relay race, with eighty men from each company participating and with the company seconds-in-command driving jeeps behind their representatives and stirring them on with advice and exhortation. D Company romped home an easy winner, followed by B Company, then came Battalion Headquarters in whose ranks were Colonel Young, Major Awatere, Major D'Arcy, the last again with the unit for a short time. Thereafter it was ‘One-stop-two’ in the mornings, football in the afternoons, and concerts in the evenings.
Three weeks passed thus, with diversions. Rugby was taken very seriously and the unit had an unfailing run of wins at battalion level until a narrow win against 23 Battalion was followed by a thorough hiding at the hands and feet of 21 Battalion. The final score was 17 to 6—two penalty goals put over by Captain Smith.
For some time it had not been possible to hold a battalion church parade, but a small flat across the river from Battalion Headquarters offered a suitable site and the first Sunday in November a suitable time. Padre Huata gave an address on conduct in and out of the line, with special reference to courtesy towards the Italian womenfolk. One hundred and twenty-eight members of the unit attended Holy Communion.page 432
November the 10th was quite a day. The troops woke to find the countryside covered in snow and platoon strength battles raged fiercely. And then a kit inspection followed with woeful results and red-ink entries in ‘Army Book 64’. The Maori is a generous soul and the civilians were very short of blankets, boots, and woollen clothing!
November the 14th was a high-light day when a competition for a very high stake—four days' leave in Florence—was decided. It was a contest by platoons in arms and foot drill. No. 8 Platoon of A Company and 12 Platoon of B Company were the finalists, with 8 Platoon the winner. They left for Florence in the morning. In the evening about half the battalion was taken in to Camerino to attend a show by the Kiwi Concert Party.
Not to be outdone by the professionals, 5 Brigade put on a concert two nights later in the same hall. The items were well received, especially a rendering of ‘Ave Maria’ by a local girl. The second half of the programme was contributed by the battalion and the greatest applause followed an item by C Company's haka team. Sixty men stripped to the waist, wearing piupius and with faces tattooed, provided a spectacular performance. Many of the signorinas who were guests of the different units were molto paura (very frightened) by the ferocious aspect, the loud noise and pukana1 made by the performers.
November the 18th was an important day for the battalion. Colonel Young announced that he was marching out on furlough and that the battalion would again be commanded by a Maori. Padre Huata reviewed the Colonel's career with the Maoris, a career that ranked second only to Colonel Dittmer's in length but was the longest in actual fighting command. It was with the deepest regret that he, on behalf of the troops and as their kaumatua, had to say ‘Haere e te Rangitira.’
The Colonel was visibly moved as he made his reply. At 11.59 p.m. that night command passed to Lieutenant-Colonel A. Awatere, MC, with Major Henare as his second-in-command.
It should be mentioned here that an amenity not particularly appreciated by those it was meant for was the ‘Mobile Orderly Room’, made necessary because of the distance between Battalion Headquarters and the companies. Whenever requested the Mobile Orderly Room arrived at the delinquent's home address and dispensed military justice on the spot.
A warning order on 22 November to be ready to move at twelve hours' notice began a session of cleaning of arms and page 433 ammunition, checking of equipment and preliminary packing up. Preparations were accelerated the following day when an advance party under Lieutenant W. Reedy departed for Cesena. Cesena was on the Savio, but a four-divisional attack towards Bologna along Route 9 was in the process of driving the enemy back to his next river, the Lamone, about 20 miles farther north-west. The defeat of the Germans in Europe was expected before the spring, and with the two-fold object of withholding as much enemy strength as possible from the vital theatre and of pushing the line as far north as possible at the same time, sufficient men and material had been scraped together to mount another offensive. It was in full swing at that moment.
The twelve hours' stand-by warning was superseded that same night by a movement order which had the troops entrucked by 7.30 a.m. It could have been an Italian mobilisation, judging by the groups of red-eyed women and children standing around. As the trucks moved out sounds of unrestrained weeping and calls of ‘Buona Fortuna’, ‘Buon Voyage’, ‘Tornare Ancora’, induced an unusual silence in the column.
Meldola village near Cesena was reached that night. The unit stayed there for four days, then moved up to Forli, a sizeable town on the main road to Bologna and seven miles from the Lamone, where the attack had halted. Billets were in the centre of the town adjacent to the square, over which towered a lofty monument to the Italian soldiers who fell in the 1914–18 war.
A strict blackout was enforced in Forli as enemy planes, although not numerous, had still to be reckoned with. The town was also shelled by long-range guns. It had not been knocked about much and amenities were rapidly being arranged for the troops—Naafis and picture theatres were operating and the inhabitants, very few at that moment as they had not emerged or returned from their hideouts, were forgetting German and learning English. It was noticeable that though the ‘Pakeha Kiwis’ were welcomed the ‘Hori Kiwis’ were given a wide berth. Later, when amicable relations were established, it was found that the Maoris were thought to be Greeks or Indians and neither race was much esteemed in Forli.
The Division had taken over from 4 British Division, which had closed up to the Lamone River and was now in need of a rest. Immediately beyond the river stood Faenza, a town to which the enemy attached the greatest importance. The river itself was a serious obstacle with control banks a hundred yards apart containing a two-chain-wide flow of water that could rise page 434 twenty-four feet in as many hours. The far stopbank was held in strength, and it was the job of the forward troops to look for suitable crossing places. The 22nd Battalion, again in an infantry role, was under command of 5 Brigade, and with 21 Battalion was forward while 28 and 23 Battalions remained in reserve in Forli.
The troops stayed in Forli until 10 December. Their situation was very similar to that of the Maori Pioneer Battalion in Armentières in 1916: they were in a town close to the line where shells could be expected at any time and a hit-and-run air raid often enough to prevent outdoor training. A couple of hours' route marching when visibility was poor, which was fairly frequently, was more by way of exercise than part of a training scheme. The danger of minefields outside the town was the only limiting factor unknown to the earlier Maori Pioneer Battalion.
The unit finally lost the services of Major D'Arcy during this period. With one short break, he had been with the Maoris as their medical officer since August 1942, when he had taken over from Captain Cumming2 in the hectic days before Alamein. At a farewell dinner tendered to him by the officers of the unit Colonel Awatere mentioned that ‘Doc’ D'Arcy had been with the battalion longer than most of the present members and that it would be in order to refer to him as a Maori. The Pakeha-Maori doctor, who had been posted to 6 Field Ambulance, ended his reply with a dash of mordant humour. ‘Of course I'm bound to meet up with quite a few of you chaps yet, as I am only a stone's throw away from the battlefield.’ Lieutenant Moore,3 NZMC, was welcomed into the unit at the same function.
The only other event of note was an air raid that caused some damage to buildings. It was noteworthy only because of its rarity; one raider was shot down to the cheers of the Forli garrison.
The battalion's senior officers at that date were:
Second-in-command: Major J. C. Henare
Adjutant: Capt J. S. Baker
OC HQ Company: Capt J. G. P. Aperahamapage 435
OC A Company: Capt G. T. Marsden
OC B Company: Capt P. S. Munro
OC C Company: Capt H. Mackey
OC D Company: Capt R. Smith
On the Eighth Army front the indefatigable Canadians on the coast were wading through the mud towards Ravenna, which place, it will be remembered, had been the destination of 6 Brigade earlier in the campaign.4 On the inland flank 46 British Division had forced a crossing of the Lamone River and was being fiercely counter-attacked west of Faenza. The New Zealand Division was to sidestep into the bridgehead and relieve the British who were seriously under strength, so seriously under strength that some battalions could muster only 150 bayonets.
The New Zealand Division, with 10 Indian Division on its left, constituted the striking force of 5 Corps; on the Corps' right was 1 Canadian Corps and on its left 2 Polish Corps. In 5 Brigade's area 28 Battalion was to be on the right with 23rd Battalion on the left.
It was a cold winter morning when the men, muffled to the ears, climbed into the trucks. They were put down near the Marzeno, another of the multitudinous rivers that drain into the larger ones, this time the Lamone near Faenza. A two-mile route march due west across more muddy creeks, then across the Lamone, brought the Maoris to the Casa Cartiera, a huge building with a high tower and the headquarters of 2/5 Queens, where they stayed until last light. Captain Munro was killed while making a reconnaissance of his company area and Lieutenant Maika was put in temporary command until the arrival next day of Captain Northcroft.
The changeover was completed with some care and in extreme silence for, according to the guides, ‘Jerry was very trigger happy and at the slightest sound they would know all about it.’ It was a matter of crawling to the most forward casas and, as the ground was very muddy, some of the Maoris soon got careless and began to walk. A stream of tracer about waist-high decided for them that perhaps crawling was the better method. In the morning the Maoris found themselves disposed around a road junction a little more than a mile from the outskirts of Faenza. Two roads and the railway line from Faenza met there and a third road went north-west to Celle village. Houses were page 436 scattered around the junction which, for tactical purposes, was christened ‘Ruatoria’.
C, A and B Companies in that order straddled the roads and railway into Faenza, with D Company in reserve. Enemy-occupied houses were only 150 yards away. The nearest, the Casa Celetta, was hedged in with tall olives and poplars so that only the roof could be seen.
It was decided to take a closer look at Casa Celetta that evening and Sergeant Cullen5 (8 Platoon) took out a fighting patrol of eleven other ranks with him.
They found that the place was a real hornets' nest. Three well-hidden tanks were behind the building. The patrol was detected and a battle royal ensued in the darkness while the patrol withdrew with four wounded. The medium and heavy mortars were turned on to the locality and the tanks were heard moving back towards Faenza, whereupon Cullen returned with his patrol and killed six Germans who were still in the house. The men were preparing to settle in the casa when tell-tale rumblings indicated that the tanks had returned. Shells belting into the house confirmed the indications and again the patrol withdrew, this time with four more wounded.
Meanwhile, shortly before dusk, 11 Platoon (Lieutenant Balzer) was pestered by a man in civilian clothes who, in Italian no better than that of the Maoris, said he was a deserter and asked to be taken prisoner. He went from post to post pleading to be put in the bag but the troops were too busy to bother with him. At last in desperation he emptied a sack he was carrying on to the ground and there were his uniform coat, trousers, and all the ‘trimmings’. His desires were then gratified and he was later identified as belonging to 7 Company, 278 Regiment, 305 Division.
The 22nd Battalion came into the line on the left of 23 Battalion and 5 Brigade then had three battalions up and 21 Battalion in reserve. Defences were strengthened by sandbagging the walls of the casa strongposts, a very necessary precaution in view of the fact that a shell penetrated the wall of C Company headquarters on the morning of 12 December and wounded Captain Mackey6 and two others. Lieutenant Mahuika then took command. Enemy gunners were trying to locate the battalion page 437 mortars whose attentions were evidently disliked, and as Battalion Headquarters was just behind the mortars there was a lot of work for the signallers in repairing lines.
The new task of 2 NZ Division was part of an operation designed to seize crossings over the Senio River about three miles north-west of ‘Ruatoria’. Both 5 Corps and 2 Polish Corps were attacking; 5 Brigade on the right of the Corps sector was, initially, to threaten Route 9, the enemy escape route from Faenza. If he did not take the hint, 43 Gurkha Lorried Infantry Brigade, as the Faenza task force, was to attack and clear the town.
The Germans were known to have a reserve of tanks in Faenza and no intention of departing until the last possible moment. They were getting their heavy gear across the Senio, and Faenza and Celle were key points in the holding position. The Maoris had studied the taller buildings in Faenza very closely and were of the opinion that the town should contain good winter quarters; if the war was to hold out much longer it was desirable that they and not Jerry should have the use of them.
Fifth Brigade's operation order directed 23 and 22 Battalions north-west towards the Senio River while the Maori Battalion, with the railway line as its right boundary, attacked north and seized sundry points about half a mile short of Route 9, thereby guarding the open flank and making the passage of Route 9 a very precarious business.
Colonel Awatere, with half of A Squadron 18 Armoured Regiment at his disposal, made the following plan:
C Company (Lieutenant Mahuika) on the right would capture Pogliano and the Casa Baccarina localities.
D Company (Captain R. Smith) on the left would capture Villa Palermo, Casa Bianca, Casa Gavaletta and Casa Gasparetta. No. 12 Platoon B Company (Lieutenant J. Hubbard) would be under command for the operation.
B Company (in support of D Company) would occupy Casa ‘Clueless’ and Casa Ospitalaca.
In addition to an adequate barrage, the area east of the railway line would be under constant fire from machine guns, mortars and carriers, while at first light the tanks and antiaircraft guns would move up. Artificial moonlight would be page 438 provided. The start line was from ‘Ruatoria’ to Casa ‘Clueless’ and the time 11 p.m. 14 December.
Maori Battalion attack, night 14-15 December 1944
The great and unavoidable weakness of the Maori position, as will be seen by a glance at the map, was the lack of an axis road; on the right was the embanked railway line, but on the left the only road was in 23 Battalion's area and that was useless until Celle was cleared.
The Colonel was well aware of the possibility of having to contend with enemy armour without the benefit of his own supporting arms, and he ended his pre-battle conference by warning his officers that the presence of enemy armour might influence the fortunes of the attack. Provided the tanks and page 439 anti-tank screen could get forward at the earliest possible moment, he considered the Maoris need have no fear of the outcome.
After making final arrangements with 25 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Norman)7 regarding the relief of A and B Companies and assuring General Freyberg, who had made a surprise call, that the Maoris were all well and looking forward to another ‘crack at Jerry’, Colonel Awatere climbed the steeple of the church at ‘Ruatoria’ for a final look over the country.
Like the rest of the area it was quite flat, with a slight rise towards Celle and Pogliano. Small paddocks now fallow were separated by single rows of mulberry and poplar trees. In the season these trees would support the trellised grape-vines. The rows of trees ran in the same direction as the advance and would be no obstacle to the passage of tanks if the ground was firm enough. But the ground was not firm enough. Two shells tearing away a part of the tower warned Awatere that it was time to leave. He took the hint, which was just as well for a third shell brought the whole tower down.
The troops were on the start line half an hour before the barrage was due to open and moved off in good shape.
C Company attacked with two platoons, No. 14 (Lieutenant S. Paniora) right and 13 (Lieutenant Hogan)8 left. No. 15 Platoon was temporarily split into three stretcher-bearer parties, one to each platoon, and the third with Company Headquarters. There was no serious molestation from the enemy so Hogan swung left and shot up La Morte. It was apparently empty, and he rejoined Paniora who was waiting in a small casa near the railway and 50 yards from Della Cura; Pogliano lay another 50 yards further west. The two platoons waited the arrival of Lieutenant Mahuika, when the final assault would be planned. So far they had had only five wounded.
D Company's plan was for 16 Platoon (Lieutenant Huata)9 and 12 Platoon to make for Casa Bianca while 17 Platoon (Lieutenant H. Parata) and 18 Platoon (Sergeant Duff)10 dealt with Villa Palermo. They had an unimpeded passage and, after page 440 a short fire fight, Casa Bianca was taken without casualties. Eighteen Germans who surrendered were locked in the livingroom. Private Scia Scia11 had an exciting few moments. He was searching haystacks near the casa when he fell into a weapon pit that was already occupied by a very large German who seized him from behind. Scia Scia leaned back against his adversary, and, hitting him over his head with his steel helmet, forced the German to release his hold. When Scia Scia had finished with him he was dead. No. 12 Platoon, in an undefended house close to Casa Bianca, heard cries for help and found several wounded enemy in a drain. They had probably been caught by the barrage, but before anything could be done for them a tank came from the direction of Pogliano and stopped at the crossroads a few yards from the casa
Were the support tanks up already? They were not. Private Paraki12 moved quietly and climbed on to the tank, rapped on the steel hatch and, when it opened enough, dropped a grenade inside. An explosion followed, but the driver apparently escaped fatal injury for the tank backed off like a wounded bull. The Maori leaped off before it veered into a ditch, heaved itself out and departed at speed. Almost immediately another tank arrived, this time from the road connecting with Route 9. Lieutenant Huata turned a bazooka on to it, but the bombs failed to find a vital spot and the tank made off in the direction from which it had come. So far the only casualties were Paraki, with a hand grazed by the tank hatch, and another Maori, assisting with the bazooka, whose pants were burnt by the blast.
Nos. 17 and 18 Platoons had little difficulty with Palermo. Several prisoners were taken and locked in an outhouse. No casualties.
A Company found that La Morte, which had not responded to 13 Platoon's fire, was far from empty. The two forward platoons commanded by Lieutenant Kake13 and Sergeant Cullen had to dodge a minefield that Hogan's men had walked through safely and then attack from front and flank before the enemy capitulated. La Morte was apparently intended to be held, for several spandaus were found inside.page 441
Ospitalaca was empty and B Company settled in. Thus at 2.30 a.m. the left flank was on the objective road but the right was in serious trouble. While waiting for Lieutenant Mahuika and C Company headquarters to arrive, Paniora and Hogan decided to send a patrol to investigate Della Cura. Two sections, one from each platoon, crawled along a ditch to the edge of a tiled courtyard. There was no need to go further for a few yards away were two Tiger tanks and enemy in numbers moving about. An officer was giving orders and a German was sitting by the open hatch of one of the tanks.
This was serious news for the troops had no weapon capable of knocking out a Tiger. Lieutenant Mahuika, who had arrived while the patrol was out, called over the air for ‘stonks’ on Della Cura but none fell on the target. To make matters worse, the enemy tanks came out and began a tentative shelling of the building where the Maoris were sheltering. Mahuika decided to pull out and told Hogan to go first with his men and that the others would follow later.
No. 13 Platoon crawled down a ditch flanking the railway line, but when the men thought it was safe to leave that shelter they walked into a minefield. Explosions followed rapidly; there were also Germans on the railway embankment firing at them. Two haystacks caught fire and the enemy had perfect targets. Very soon there were not enough men to carry away the wounded. The survivors made for La Morte, though not sure if it was occupied or not. Hogan went forward alone and when within hailing distance yelled, ‘Hey, Ngapuhi!’ No answer. He tried again. ‘Ngapuhi! Ko Ngatiporou tenei.’ [‘This is Ngatiporou.’] This time the answer came. ‘Ae. Ko Ngapuhi tenei.’ [‘Yes. This is Ngapuhi.’]
Hogan thereupon led his men into the backyard. Here two Germans leapt from hiding in a haystack with hands up and yelling ‘Kamerad’. La Morte was now overcrowded, so after waiting some time for the others Hogan led his men back to Casa ‘Clueless’. Corporal Peters14 volunteered to lead a section back to bring in the wounded men left behind, and on the last of several trips was himself wounded and evacuated.
The road to the rear was heavily shelled, but the battalion carriers never stopped until they had taken the last wounded man to the dressing station. One driver was killed.page 442
Before 14 Platoon was due to leave, Lieutenant Mahuika was wounded and evacuated and command devolved on Lieutenant Paniora. Hoping that the tanks might get up or that the enemy might leave before daybreak, he decided to stay on where he was. All posts were withdrawn into the building and observation kept on Della Cura, a difficult business as the house had but one window opening in that direction and the Germans in Della Cura had it well covered. As soon as it was light enough four incautious enemy were shot in the open. This must have incensed the others for, besides the two tanks at Della Cura that had been peculiarly silent, two more arrived and the four turned their guns on to the house. One corner was torn off and falling bricks, timber, and debris wounded four of the garrison. An infantry attack, the preparation of which might account for the inactivity of the first two tanks, then came in but the range was suicidal and the survivors retired. Lieutenant Paniora was killed and Sergeant-Major Wanoa took command. He considered that there was no sense in staying there to be killed when nothing could be gained by so doing and called for a smoke screen and defensive ‘stonks’. The dead were laid together in one of the rooms and as the defensive fire came down the survivors, carrying their wounded, slipped away without being seen and reached Casa ‘Clueless’ safely.
There was at least one good marksman among the Germans. B Company back in Ospitalaca was peering through windows at no-man's-land and in a big room occupied by 11 Platoon a new reinforcement was riding a bicycle around the room. One of the windows had been blown in, and every time he passed the open space there was a thud on the wall opposite. The recruit mentioned to Lieutenant Balzer that every time he passed the window something smacked into the wall. ‘Yes,’ replied Balzer, ‘and if you don't stop riding that bike you'll be the one that'll be smacked, not the wall. You're being sniped at.’
To return to D Company. The two platoons at Casa Bianca found themselves in the same situation as C Company at Della Cura—tanks could be heard and later seen in the artificial moonlight. Celle junction, a 23 Battalion objective, was still in enemy hands so that, in effect, the two Maori platoons were well ahead of the fighting on their left flank. Supporting armour had no chance of reaching them and they had no weapons capable of dealing with the heavy Tigers, whose characteristic page 443 whine could be clearly heard. The tanks fired into and lit haystacks, evidently to supply illumination for their better aim; the two platoon commanders pulled their men back to Villa Palermo. So far so bad. Once again the Maoris had been forced to relinquish their gains through circumstances beyond their control. There was consolation, however, in the sight of enemy tanks and infantry speeding along Route 9 from Faenza to the safety of the Senio stopbanks.
The next phase of the operation, in view of the limited success during the night, was for 5 Brigade to feel towards the Senio. The job allotted the Maoris was to push out and cut Route 9 and secure the highway bridge over the river.
At his O Group conference the Colonel reported that he had seen from a vantage point enemy stretcher-bearers still carrying wounded from Pogliano. It was known that the enemy had a number of tanks still concentrated in that area and it was unfortunate that the anti-tank guns had not been able to reach the men who had taken their objectives that night. The supporting tanks had not been able to move either, but the clearing of Celle had allowed them to use the road to the Villa Palermo, where two of them bogged down in the front lawn.
The proposed thrust by the battalion set down for the following day would be along the road to Casa Bianca and Casa Gavaletta, thus giving Pogliano a wide berth. As soon as it was dark the companies were to move to new locations. Before this, however, 12 Platoon, still with D Company and situated in a building near Palermo, had a hectic few minutes. Just as the light was failing a party of Germans was spotted creeping up a drain towards the platoon post. It was thought desirable to let them come as close as possible and they were not molested. Suddenly there was an explosion and part of the front wall of the building fell in; three more explosions and the place was in ruins. Brens sprayed the area and the bazooka crew made off, leaving behind six dead; the Maori casualties were one killed and five wounded.
After dark B Company marched by a devious route to Celle and dug in near the church; C Company moved in to Ospitalaca when B vacated it; A Company handed La Morte over to 25 Battalion and occupied Casa ‘Clueless’. D Company remained page 444 at Villa Palermo. When the attack began first C Company and then D would move up to Celle in close support.
The moves were done in a peaceful atmosphere; the enemy was too busy defending the last toeholds in Faenza and dodging our artillery along Route 9 out of Faenza to spare any men or material on a lost battlefield.
The plan of attack was for B Company to attack, first, Casa Bianca and then Casa Gavaletta after an adequate artillery softening up. When these posts were taken, C Company would pass through and establish posts on Route 9.
Captain Northcroft entrusted the taking of the Casa Bianca crossroads to 10 Platoon (Lieutenant Maika) and the Casa Gavaletta crossroads to 11 Platoon (Lieutenant Balzer). No. 12 Platoon, which had rejoined B Company, was in reserve.
No. 10 Platoon moved off at 10.30 p.m. while the shells were still falling on the target only 600 yards away. A mist shrouded the objective as the troops in open order on each side of the road closed cautiously on Casa Bianca. Not a shot was fired and one section, covered by the others, was sent to investigate. The place was empty. The success signal was sent up and supporting tanks came up the road from Palermo accompanied by 11 Platoon. Lieutenant Balzer also made a cautious approach and found an empty house and a burnt-out Panther in a garage.
Route 9 was now only half a mile away. As soon as he saw the success signal Lieutenant Hogan, in temporary command of C Company, sent two platoons (Sergeants ‘Jeep’ Paringatai15 and Ben Te Ngahue16) up to Casa Bianca. Paringatai then led his men along a hedge and made a brief halt in Casa Bonomi, half-way to Route 9, where they had a view of German troops streaking across the fields for the shelter of trees and houses beyond the highway. There was no opposition and the platoon settled into casas covering the road junction. A search in the ditches around about produced three Germans.
Te Ngahue also found his objective unoccupied although the platoon was fired on from a house across the road. The tanks had arrived by this time and they shot up the house. Corporal Taylor17 took a section to investigate and had the satisfaction of seeing enemy disappearing with celerity through the orchard. page 445 Colonel Awatere wanted to carry on to the Senio but the tanks were reluctant to risk Route 9 without careful examination. They did not think the Germans would depart without mining the road first. Awatere, as impetuous as he was fearless, had taken the bit in his teeth and was prepared to chase the enemy as far as Berlin if needs be. He sent a signal to Brigade: ‘Give us Engineers to clear the mines to get the tanks up and we will go after the enemy.’
Brigade Headquarters, not so impetuous, told him to patrol the wide gap that had opened between the Maoris and 23 Battalion and that no attempt was to be made to cross the Senio.
The general position was that 22 and 23 Battalions had closed up to the Senio defences and 25 Battalion, after a sticky start, had pushed up to Route 9 on the Maoris' right; fighting was still going on in Faenza; farther right the enemy held the Lamone River line though reports suggested that he was thinning out.
That night (16-17th) it was the enemy's turn to keep Route 9 under intermittent fire and in the morning he had departed from Faenza. It was a quiet day on the Maori front, which was fitting because it was a Sunday. The only incident of interest was the capture by 15 Platoon of one German with a bazooka. He said he was one of three who had volunteered to destroy tanks, and also added that there were at least fifty enemy in the Casas Trentola, Quarantini and Prosciuta between the unit and the Senio.
The date being what it was, the most immediate operation was the building of hangis for a proper Maori Christmas dinner, so while the troops cleaned their weapons, their persons and their clothes, B Echelon bargained with the owners of livestock. Major Henare called the company seconds-in-command together and explained what had so far been accomplished. There would be an extra issue of rations and a consignment of mutton-birds from the folk at home was already in store. But, as he put it ever so delicately, no army rations this side of Valhalla could completely satisfy the meat-hungry Maoris. He understood that the district could meet the requirements for the hangis, but he warned them that tact and patience were necessary in dealing with the Italian farmers. Maori is a wonderful language in page 446 which to say nothing at great length, but the officers left the meeting clearly understanding that it would be up to them to produce adequate supplies of pork and poultry—somehow.
Snow fell that night (23rd) and the temperatures dropped below zero. Some genius thought up a way of combating the cold by the use of two oil drums. One with tap attached permitted a drop of dieselene oil to fall some distance into the bottom drum, thereby breaking the oil drops into fragments small enough to burn readily. There were fumes, smoke, and smuts as well as heat, but the result was entirely satisfactory to the Maoris, whose god next to kai is mahana.18
Snow fell again on Christmas Eve but the Maoris were warm and it was a ‘Late Night’. Soon after dusk there were sounds of revelry; then hakas in all their old-time ferocity were performed to the accompaniment of Bren and tommy-gun fire. By the grace of Providence nobody was hurt.
Snow had to be removed from the already-prepared hangis in the morning. It was a scene to be remembered. Around each of the company hangis men were preparing poultry or cutting pork into manageable sizes. Columns of smoke rose high in the air from the ovens where the fires crackled (only God and the Maoris knew where the wood came from; nobody else could find any) and heating stones burst with a noise like rifle shots. Sacks of Italian puha stood ready to be cooked with the mutton-birds for it is the oil of mutton-birds that gives the puha a flavor that to the Maori is a gastronomic delight. The ovens were opened at midday and the battalion's second white Christmas in Italy was a complete success.
The Maoris relieved 22 Battalion north-west of Celle on the night 26-27 December. They were all in casas out of the wet and cold and, being on slightly higher ground, could look across the Senio stopbanks where the enemy reserves were also ensconced in houses though their FDLs lay in front of the river.
The position on the Italian front was that the Germans, by their delaying tactics, had won another winter's respite. Eighth Army, denuded of divisions for more important theatres, had fought itself to a standstill and had neither the men nor the ammunition to mount another offensive. The Americans were finally bogged down near Bologna. In Greece the liberated Greeks, Communists and anti-Communists, were cutting each other's throats while a British force tried to keep the contestants apart without appearing to take sides. In Europe in the vital page 447 battle area unheard-of names were being mentioned over the air daily. Nobody knew where they were or cared much, but out of the welter of news it was learned that the Russians were advancing through Poland, the Anglo-American Army had reached Germany, the French were fighting in Alsace and the British were nearing Mandalay.
New Year's Eve did not go unheralded but it was Jerry who put on the show. Right on the stroke of midnight he opened up with all his fireworks aimed harmlessly at the sky—ack-ack shells, star shells, Very lights and tracer formed a multi-coloured pattern against the darkness of the night. Then, when the show was over, he aimed his weapons in the(to him) right direction.
January passed in much the same way as January 1944 had passed at Orsogna—patrols patrolled and mortars mortared. A German patrol got behind a Maori casa and caused some casualties. Brigade wanted some prisoners and WO II Bill Whareaitu (11 Platoon) spotted movement at a demolished house near the stopbank. A carefully planned raid secured six prisoners, and by a happy coincidence a German-speaking officer from a Jewish battalion was with the Maori company for experience. He ascertained from the Germans that they were waiting for a runner to bring word of their relief that night, so a party went out and collected the runner also. Further questioning brought the information that the capture of the patrol would probably not be known at their company headquarters. The typically Maori scheme was thought up of sending seven men to the stopbank; they would then return as the new patrol and collect the real patrol when it made its appearance. This dangerous idea appealed to Whareaitu's men and Corporal Johnny Hughes19 set out to give an imitation of a German patrol returning to its lines. There must have been something wrong with their act because they were fired on and lost three wounded. Hughes stopped long enough to inform the Germans at the top of his voice that they were a pack of square-headed b—–s. Even so, the platoon felt that on balance it had had the best of the deal. The battalion went back to Faenza on the 9th and returned to the line on the 23rd.
February was a replica of January. River-crossing exercises kept the men busy when out of the line, and sandbagging the holes knocked in their casas kept them equally busy when in the FDLs. The CO noticed a tendency for the Maoris to take page 448 things a little too easy in the stand-to period and issued a special order to all companies which ended:
Aggressiveness. [Company Commanders] will check p1 comds to see that they, the pl comds, without being bloody minded or bloodthirsty, are prepared to pull the trigger on the enemy 24 hrs a day without being told to do so. If a Spandau fires towards us from nowhere a p1 comd must retaliate immediately with 2 brens at least, Fire somewhere anywhere in the direction of the enemy. Inertia breeds laziness and lulls men into a sense of timidity which always causes demoralisation. Get cracking! shoot!
Fifty-five officers and men who for good cause had been left behind when the battalion last went into the line were fare-welled at Forli by the CO. They were the Maori portion of the Tongariro furlough draft, practically all the men in the unit up to and including the 5th Reinforcements. The Colonel ended his address: ‘Pikautia atu nga mate me te aroha o te Hoko-Whitu-a-Tu ki te hunga e tangi mai ra i nga marae maha o te wa kainga.’20
Two innovations were tried out during this period, one with definite and the other with doubtful success. The first was to stage a ‘Chinese’ attack whereby everything in the area that could fire fired, and the infantry, with improvised compasses, telephoned back the bearings of enemy gun flashes. It became a popular pastime and battalions issued invitations to their neighbours to participate in the next ‘Chinese’ shoot. If the flash reports were of use to the gunners, the enemy tracer display was well worth the trouble the infantry went to.
The second method of brightening up the war was to issue loudspeakers, turntables, and propaganda records to battalions. One or two musical items were put over first to soothe the suspicious Teuton and were followed by war items, and finally the state of the Reich was described in vivid terms. No shells or mortars sought out the equipment so it is to be presumed that the enemy found the enterprise not uninteresting.
Signs were not wanting that spring was near. A fortnight of sunny days dried up the mud pools and permitted the Air Force greater freedom; the untilled fields began to sprout from last year's crops and yellow crocuses bloomed in the most unlikely places.page 449
It was about this period that the Division changed its shape again by the formation of a third brigade of infantry. The 27th (Machine Gun) Battalion passed its weapons in and became an infantry unit, while each infantry battalion formed its own MMG Platoon and trained its own gunners; the Divisional Cavalry was also reorganised and became an infantry unit; and 22 Battalion, attached to 5 Brigade for some time, ceased to be motorised and marched out to the newly formed 9 Infantry Brigade.
On 5 March the Maoris handed over to 14 Battalion, 5 Wilno Brigade, 5 Kresowa (Polish) Division and returned to Camerino to train for the last showdown. The convoy travelled all night and early dawn disclosed the familiar valleys, streams, and hamlets of Camerino. The troops debussed and marched to the same area they had occupied on the previous occasion. It was like a welcome home.
There was a week's complete stand-easy accompanied by the assurance that a period of strenuous training was to follow. The afternoons were given over to organised sport and recreational training, with inter-battalion matches to stimulate interest. Maori Rugby was passing through a stagnant period for after a couple of wins the representative team took four good beatings in a row. Hockey was little better—definitely an off period.
Training began in earnest on Tuesday, 13 March, with PT and a road gallop and never let up while the unit was in Camerino. Colonel Awatere made a tour of the hospitals and arrived back with fifty men from Advanced Base who he thought would be doing better work in the battalion.
Major-General Kippenberger paid the battalion a visit on 22 March and there was a battalion parade in his honour. The General was entertained to afternoon tea by the CO and his officers and was presented as a mark of esteem by the Maoris with a carved walking stick—a peculiarly appropriate gift as the General had lost both his feet at Cassino.
The carving was the work of Second-Lieutenant Rua Kaika21 who had used as a base a pick handle from Cassino; the eyes of the figures were pieces of glass from the chapel on Monastery Hill; the stick was shod with the casing of a point five Browning cartridge and the rubber at the end was taken from a jeep destroyed at Cassino.page 450
The following day there was a practice ceremonial parade for the GOC Eighth Army, Lieutenant-General McCreery, at which General Kippenberger took the salute—he was seen to lean heavily on his carved stick.
The 26th was a day few will forget for an event certain to be unique in Maori military affairs. It had never before been possible for the battalion to welcome its representatives in the New Zealand Army Nursing Service, and the arrival of Sister Pare Saxby22 and Nurse Kia Rewai23 of 2 NZ General Hospital, accompanied by Nurse Betty Clements24 and an escort of Maori officers, was celebrated at a battalion parade in the time-honoured manner of their forefathers. After the CO had congratulated the men on their fine showing in front of General McCreery, the visitors were welcomed to the battalion by word and song.
Ceremonial parades for General Officers Commanding are, to the knowing, advance notice that the training period is drawing to a close. The parade for General McCreery was no exception and the troops packed up and left for the Senio on the last day of the month. A special order of the day from Field-Marshal Alexander urged them on to the last battle:
Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Forces in the Mediterranean Theatre
Final victory is near. The German Forces are now very groggy and only need one mighty punch to knock them out for good. The moment has now come for us to take the field for the last battle which will end the war in Europe. You know what our comrades in the West and in the East are doing on the battlefields. It is now our turn to play our decisive part. It will not be a walkover; a mortally wounded beast can still be very dangerous. You must be prepared for a hard and bitter fight; but the end is quite certain—there is not the slightest shadow of doubt about that. You, who have won every battle you have fought, are going to win this last one.
Forward then into battle with confidence, faith and determination to see it through to the end. Godspeed and good luck to you all.
4See p. 410
6Maj H. Mackey, MM; Ruatoria; born Waiomatatatini, 1 Dec 1914; shepherd; wounded 12 Dec 1944.
8Lt W. Hogan; born NZ 6 May 1911; stock agent; died Ruatoria, 18 Mar 1947.
9Maj A. Huata, MC; Frasertown, Hawke's Bay; born Wairoa, 19 Jun 1920; labourer; wounded 23 Mar 1944.
12Sgt T. Paraki; Taneatua; born Ruatoki, 5 May 1920; labourer; wounded 1 Aug 1944.
15Sgt J. Paringatai; Te Araroa; born NZ 31 Mar 1919; labourer; twice wounded.
16Sgt B. Te Ngahue; Te Araroa; born Te Araroa, 18 Mar 1914; labourer; wounded 21 Feb 1945.
19Cpl H. Hughes; Reporoa; born NZ 5 Mar 1918; farmer; wounded 7 Jan 1945.
20Take with you the memory of the dead and the love of the living of the Maori Battalion to those who are lamenting and grieving in the courtyards of the people.
21Lt R. J. Kaika; Te Araroa; born NZ 19 Jun 1917; carver; wounded 10 Apr 1945.