12

Early Italy

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Early Days

Pat Kane

On 6 October 1943, a section of our battalion found itself aboard the Dunottar Castle as part of a convoy escorted by destroyers and corvettes of the Royal and Greek Navies, bound for an unknown destination. Excitement and speculation ran high ... We were not kept long in doubt. The next morning we were told we were bound for Italy.

By this time Sicily had fallen to the seaborne assault of the Eighth British and Seventh United States Armies and Italy was still occupied by German Forces. Little did we realise the bitter resistance they would put up and the grim struggle that lay ahead. The sea was dead calm as we sailed past Sicily. I can still recall the thrill of suddenly beholding Mount Etna arising like a lofty giant from out of the ocean, my first glimpse of Europe.

We disembarked by lighter on the morning of 9 October in the outer harbour of Taranto ... We marched through the outskirts of the city into the beautiful olive groves of southern Italy and after about an hour arrived at our bivouac area. It did not take the troops long to discover the wine factories at Masseria, Tedesco and Giranda, nor higher command long to place these interesting places out of bounds. Higher command was not quite sure what attitude to adopt towards the local inhabitants, our former enemy, now neutral, soon to become our partisan friends, so instructions were issued that we should be polite but not friendly. It might have saved its time, for who could resist the friendly smiles, the charming sincerity, the beautiful music and the lovely children of poverty-stricken southern Italy.

1995, A Soldier’s Story

Oh, Egypt! The land that we’ve cursed long and bitterly,

Thoughts are of you when it rains here in Italy.

1943, NZEF Times, J.C.R.

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New Zealanders in Sangro River Battle

NZ War Correspondent

Advance in Atrocious Weather Conditions

Torrential rain was falling when in the early hours of the morning our artillery opened a barrage to assist British and Indian troops who crossed the Sangro River and reached their objectives in the high country beyond. Earlier, our engineers had waded through the swiftly flowing river, and although under fire, they suffered no casualties in anchoring a rope to assist the attacking infantry in making the crossing. This is now known as the ‘Indian rope trick’.

It was a cold and miserable dawn with rain still pouring. The gunners were strange figures in the gas capes now used as raincoats. Roads are deep in mud of a slushy consistency, but supplies and ammunition still get through.

Chains on truck wheels clang against mudguards and vehicles grind slowly out of water tables into which they have been forced by passing traffic on narrow roads. There have been trucks over banks – many of them. They are hauled back onto the road and proceed on their way. I watched the driver of an ammunition lorry in difficulties – axle deep in mud. He rocked it backwards and forwards without result. With tears of rage in his eyes and fists clenched he exclaimed: ‘I’ve been doing this all night. Sunny Italy, they told me. Where do they keep their ruddy sun?’ He was one of many. His truck was hauled out and he went on, probably into more water tables before he reached the front.

This morning I watched a bridge being erected over a demolition area very efficiently I thought. ‘See those chaps,’ said the engineer in charge, referring to the workmen, ‘they are our batmen, cooks and clerks.’ True, for with the engineers it is now a case of all hands. In quick time they put across a 150 ft. span; a job they had never done before.

The infantry I found with their slit trenches filled with water. Even those with bivouacs over them were no better off, for the rain water had poured down the hillside. The sticky earth clung to their boots in great heavy lumps. Just across the way are the Germans in their so-called ‘winter line’, described to us as deep comfortable dug-outs with communication trenches. Perhaps before long we will be living in them.

6 December 1943, NZEF Times

Return to Battle

Pat Kane

Patrol activity had revealed that in our immediate front the Sangro River split into five streams, interspersed with willow-clad shoals of gravel and sand, with a swift current about three feet six inches deep in the deepest part of each stream. The arrival of a free issue of YMCA cigarettes and chocolates and the presence of the RC padre at Company Headquarters, the most certain indications of approaching battle, warned us that an attempted crossing would be made.

Before the attack, Catholic members of the company were given the opportunity of seeing their Padre. It was a touching example of faith to see the Padre strolling quietly back and forth along the railway line giving spiritual comfort to one of the soldiers, while a small group sat huddled by the railway sleepers, each waiting to make his peace with his God, whom he might meet face to face within the next few hours...

By 2230 hours we had reached the forming up area and a silent approach towards the river began. The artillery did not deviate from its normal sporadic fire, as it was hoped that the whole Battalion would cross undetected before the barrage would open. By the time we reached the water’s edge half the Battalion was already across.

I shall never forget that first step into the icy cold water, straight from the snowfields barely a mile distant. Each step took me deeper and the cold seemed to seep into my very bones. When the water reached about chest level the tug of the current became really strong and it was difficult to maintain balance and at the same time keep my rifle dry. Then the current eased and the water began to grow shallower. The first shoal of sand had been reached. This operation had to be repeated at least four times before I reached dry land on the other side of the river. Here we had to wait, shivering and wet through, in the cold silence of a frosty night, while the rest of our unit made the crossing.

By 0235 hours the whole battalion was successfully across, it had taken four hours and had not been detected by the enemy. At 0245 hours the barrage opened and we moved forward towards our objectives. The late moon had not yet risen and the only light came from the flashes of our guns from the rear and the arcs of enemy machine-gun tracer bullets searching for us as we advanced. I listened intently for the enemy counter battery to come and when a loud explosion occurred near at hand I thought, ‘Now we are for it.’ I was mistaken. The explosion was from an anti-personnel mine which one of the Company had unfortunately walked on.

I was detached from my Company to make contact with the Company on the right, and when I made my way back to Headquarters learnt that the new Platoon Commander, who had joined us a few hours before, had been killed while trying to destroy an enemy machine-gun post.

We had reached our objective and there was little point in pushing on further. I attached Platoon Headquarters to a section which was sheltering in a disused barn, posted the pickets, and settled down in some hay to thaw out. Then for some unaccountable reason I experienced a sensation I had never experienced before. I suddenly suffered a spasm of uncontrolled shivers. I do not know whether it was the cold or reaction or what it was. I will admit that in the past I had always felt a bit jittery before a show started, but this was the first time my nerves had played up after the objective had been reached. Lying there, trying to hide my discomfort from my companions I must have dozed off, when I was woken by one of the pickets. ‘Wake up, Sarge. What the hell was that noise?’ he whispered. We both crawled to the entrance of the barn and gazed along the stretch of road, now bathed in moonlight.

‘Clonk, clonk, clonk,’ reverberated in the frosty night. We stealthily trained the Bren gun along the road and waited. Then to our amazement a large white cow came in to view sedately strolling down the centre of the strada. The laugh did us both good, and I settled down to sleep again.

When daylight came we realised that we had shared the village with quite a number of German soldiers who had been unable to make their withdrawal during the night, and a mopping up process began. Nigel and his section were assigned the task of preparing breakfast, while I took Bob and his section to clear out the immediate surroundings.

A group of Germans broke cover on a slope about a hundred yards away. We opened fire on them, but to our disgust did not hit any of them. The next instant a bullet cracked with deafening sound just above my head. My instinctive reaction was to drop to the ground and roll over. It must have been a convincing performance because even my companions thought I had been hit. I realised that there was a German post in a stream bed about 20 yards ahead of us. I assumed they were sheltering in a concrete culvert which ran under the road. I shouted to Bob to go down to one end of the culvert and I would attack from the other and we would trap them in it. I crawled forward into range and then tossed a hand grenade into the stream bed. Then Bob and I closed in from each end as fast as we could with Tommy guns blazing. My aim had not been as good as I hoped and the grenade exploded further from the culvert than I had intended.

I leaped down the bank and faced into the culvert. Bob’s end was completely blocked off and the culvert was empty. I swung round quickly with my finger jammed hard of the trigger of the Tommy gun. The gun did not respond. I had emptied the magazine on the way in. The thought flashed through my mind, ‘Mate, you’ve had it.’

There, huddled in a group were about a dozen Germans, with a white piece of cloth stuck on the end of a stick surrendering to an empty Tommy gun. My misdirected grenade must have landed fairly close to them for they were all nursing superficial wounds and were completely demoralised. By this time Bob had joined me and the Germans had come forward and placed their weapons at our feet. As Bob was climbing out of the ditch to lead the prisoners back to Company headquarters a shot rang out over his head. He slid back in the ditch and said, ‘If anyone is going to be shot it’s going to be one of these Huns, not me.’

Thereupon we made them lead the way and we followed. When we reached Headquarters we found the place seething with excitement. The clerical staff and ‘Q’ Branch had discovered a German hiding behind a haystack. Apparently the whole orderly room had opened up on him and scared the poor wretch into submission. He was suffering from a wound in the arm, which the Company Commander remarked ironically, each member of his clerical staff claimed to have inflicted, which proves again the time-worn adage ‘that the pen is mightier than the sword.’

In the meantime Doug and his section had not been idle. They had flushed several Germans out of their hiding place, without capturing them, and had rescued a German with a broken leg who had been left unattended for some time. They brought him in on a stretcher, gave him food and drink and a cigarette and then he was carted away for medical attention. The expression of gratitude on his face as he departed had to be seen to be believed.

While these things were going on Nigel and his section had been busy. They had discovered an evacuated grocer’s shop and a henhouse, and as we arrived back from our morning’s labour we were each handed a brown paper bag full of tasty morsels of roasted chicken and a steaming mug of tea. This was a fitting conclusion to a good morning’s work.

A jeep came speeding down the strada towards us. I jumped out on the road and halted it at the point of a captured German Tommy gun. ‘Where the hell do think you are taking that bloody crate?’ I demanded. Imagine my surprise when a high-pitched squeaky voice enquired courteously.

‘Why, what’s the matter, Sergeant?’ and General Freyberg’s head appeared.

‘I am sorry sir,’ I replied, ‘but the road happens to be mined.’

He dismounted and enquired the whereabouts of the Company Commander, calling him by name and displaying an amazing amount of knowledge of the disposition of his troops. He was accompanied by Brigadier Weir, who displayed a keen interest in the Tommy gun I had. I ultimately managed to exchange it with him for a case of canned milk. The remainder of the day passed without incident and it was not until the following day that we were called upon to move forward again.

1995, A Soldier’s Story

Castelfrentano

Pat Kane

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We commenced the advance towards Castelfrentano on the afternoon of 30 November. The going was heavy and slow. The Italian mud clung to the heels of our boots and was so thick that it added inches to our height. At times we had to stop and cut the mud of our heels with our bayonets, but it accumulated again before we had progressed much further. Towards dusk we came under mortar fire but suffered no casualties. Under the cover of darkness we occupied a number of farmhouses, three or four hundred yards below and to the east of the township ... The following morning I was ordered to take the platoon up a track leading to the edge of the village, dig in, and harass any enemy transport moving along the road. It was not anticipated I would run into any trouble, but as a precaution the other two platoons were positioned to give covering fire before moving up to join us.

We set off along the track at almost nine o’clock on the morning of 1 December, and had almost reached the road when an Italian rushed from a cluster of buildings and gesticulating wildly shouted, ‘Tadeski, Tadeski.’ He pointed excitedly to a cluster of slit trenches about thirty yards away on our flank. The trenches appeared to be unoccupied but I ordered two sections to close in on them and shoot them up just in case. We had no sooner opened up than we were fired upon from all directions. I managed to a land a hand grenade on the lip of one of the trenches and the platoon moved in fast on the explosion. About a dozen Germans emerged with their hands raised. One unfortunate who had attempted to fire back during our attack had received the full firepower of the platoon.

By this time I realised that we were in real trouble. There were enemy trenches all over the place and it was only the covering fire of our supporting platoons which prevented us from being either killed or captured before we had progressed any further. I was later to hear that we had penetrated behind Kesselring’s Winter Line. About a hundred and fifty to two hundred yards away right on the skyline stood a large two-storeyed stone building. To have any chance at all we would have to reach and capture the building.

A further trench yielded four more prisoners. These were entrusted to Nigel and Bun, who had both become wounded, to take back to Company Headquarters. Corporal Bob, who had also been wounded in the leg continued to lead his section as we advanced up the slope toward the building. He received a further wound, but carried on. The rising ground afforded us some protection and we reached to within about fifty yards of the building before we had to go to ground.

To our surprise and delight we saw a number of Germans evacuating the building and I decided that what they abandoned of their own volition, we would be most happy to use. I ordered Bob and his section to attack the front of the building from the left flank and Doug and his section the rear from the right flank. We were now down to two sections in number. I was amused to receive a R/T message from Company Headquarters that I was not to advance any further or I might get cut off.

Platoon Headquarters and I attached ourselves to Bob’s section. By the time we reached the vicinity of the building we were pinned down by heavy small-arms fire. I found myself in a shooting match with a German hiding round the corner of the building. When he managed to scar the bark off the side of a tree, behind the trunk of which I was firing, between my face and the tree, I decided that it was not a healthy place and would have to go at him from the back. I fired three rapid rounds in his general direction and then took off under the shelter of the end of the building.

Rounding the corner I found Doug and his section had not progressed very far. They were busy delving into a series of deeply-dug defensive trenches which fortunately appeared to be deserted. It was now borne home more forcibly to me that we were right in the middle of the German defences and were not dealing with out-posts. We advanced onto an out-building. A grenade tossed through the door, followed sharply after by the two Shady brothers, yielded a further two very frightened Germans. A this moment a very distraught member of the other section raced around the side of the building to inform me that Corporal Bob had been killed. Instructing Doug to clear the remaining out-houses I hurried back to the other section. Poor brave Bob who had already been hit twice had brought his section almost to the entrance of the building before being struck down. I was filled with a mixture of rage and sorrow, such as I had never known before in battle and was never to experience again.

At that very moment a German soldier advanced towards me with his hands above his head. How I managed to restrain myself I do not know. I grabbed the wretch by the throat, shook him until his eyes began to pop with fright, then turned him round and marched him by the scruff of the neck to the edge of the hillside, pointed out our Company Headquarters and shoved him down the bank. He did eventually find his way to Company Headquarters where he gave himself up. By this time Doug’s group had rejoined us and what was left of the platoon moved through the doorway of the building.

We hurried up to the second floor and manned the windows in preparation for a counterattack. We were no sooner in position when they attacked at about platoon strength. They seemed rather hazy as to our exact whereabouts and we were able to drive them back, inflicting heavy casualties. They counterattacked a second time and again met with such a hostile reception that they fell back. The terrific din made by our small-arms fire echoing through the hollow building must have given the impression that we were in far greater strength than we were. The third attempt to dislocate us from our position was of a far more cautious nature. Any German who dared to show his head above a stone wall or round the side of a building met with such a volley of fire that he quickly withdrew or was hit. I think by this time they gave us up as a bad job, especially when mortar shells from our Company Headquarters began to burst about the building.

Our troubles, however, were by no means over. The enemy, having given up hope of driving us out with troops, decided to shell us out. Mortar bombs and shells began to explode on the roof and about the building. We suffered two casualties from bomb splinters, which must have flown through the windows. In a lull between the shelling, reinforcements arrived from another Platoon. By about two o’clock in the afternoon the ceiling of the second floor began to cave in and we had to seek refuge on the ground floor. At this juncture half a dozen Spitfires began to duck and dive over the top of the building. After having been plastered by enemy bombs and shells for a couple of hours the prospect of being shot up by our own aircraft was just too much. We hastened to send up a number of recognition flares. Fortunately the pilots received our message, and so did the Hun gunners who intensified their shelling. We noticed that immediately we used the R/T we would be shelled, so naturally we used it only when we felt it was necessary.

Later in the afternoon, to our amazement, who should come limping through the door but Corporal Robbie. When we had left him with Bun to escort a couple of prisoners back to Company Headquarters they had come under fire and sought refuge in an abandoned trench. The Germans tried to escape and Robbie found it necessary to shoot them. Bun had sustained a further wound and was in a bad way. After lying up for most of the day, Robbie had crawled the seventy-odd yards to obtain help. It would have been suicide to send men out to Bun’s aid in daylight ... With the arrival of night the shelling at last stopped. The wounded were quickly evacuated and two men went down to get Bun. It was unfortunately too late, he had succumbed to his wounds.

While we were being shelled we knew we were relatively safe from an infantry attack. Now the Germans had the cover of darkness we were vulnerable and requested permission to withdraw from the building into the German dugouts. After some delay we received a message back through Company from Brigade that we were to hold the position at all costs. This message was received with a howl of laughter from the troops. Such is the queer sense of humour of the Kiwi infantry soldier. These men had been through a most trying day. Most of them were new to battle. The fact that they could laugh, bore testimony of their intelligence and quality.

I received a message from a runner that I was to report back with him to Company Headquarters. It was a clear frosty night and it was wonderful to be out in the fresh air after being trapped all day in the building. Headquarters was in the same building as the previous night. I have a vague recollection of blinking like a morepork after coming out of the darkness, and of being handed a bundle of mail and a huge glass of cognac. I was proceeding to pour cognac into my water bottle for my companions when the Company Commander said, ‘No, you drink that, I will give you plenty more for the others.’

He displayed wonderful understanding. He told me to get busy with my drink and read my mail and did not ask me any questions until I had done so. Although only still a matter of about 600 yards from the enemy-held village, it felt wonderfully comfortable and secure in this humble Italian casa so many thousands of miles from home. I learned that the Company as a whole had fared badly and that the casualty rate was high.

I have no recollection of the trip back to rejoin the Platoon. Those not on duty were already stretched out on the floor, and many had already fallen asleep. I joined them and seemed to have hardly closed my eyes when I was awakened and told it was my turn on ... at about nine o’clock next morning units of another Battalion passed through our position. They were amazed at the number of dead Germans strewn about the place, most of whom were without boots. Apparently during the hours of darkness Italian villagers had removed their footwear.

At about two o’clock in the afternoon I led my depleted Platoon along the highway towards Orsogna. Of the thirty men who had crossed the Sangro a few days before, no more than thirteen remained.

1995, A Soldier’s Story

Sangro Revisited – ‘85

Garfield Johnson

Fourteen soldiers in a row

Tried to cross the river Sangro

Shells screamed in, then they were dead

The mud was grey and then was red.

They were young, say twenty-one

When I was young and saw this done.

Fourteen headstones in a row

in the cemetery above the Sangro

A red rose blooms at each one’s head

They were alive and then were dead.

Now I am old and write this down

An old man in his dressing gown.

1999, Recollections and Reflections

At Castelfrentano we saw something of the intense misery of the Italian people and their hatred of the Germans. Plodding along in the slush and snow of one of the narrow streets one morning, I saw an old lady, bent and miserably clad, coming towards me. She gave a cheerful smile as I greeted her in Italian. I was wearing a heavy knitted scarf (some enthusiast had made it much too long and much too wide). I hauled it off and gave it to her. Her eyes filled with tears and she called down all the blessings of the saints and Virgin Mary upon me as she fondled the soft New Zealand wool and wrapped the scarf round her head neck and shoulders. I had another smaller scarf, so mine was no St Francis act.

I Was No Soldier, Ted Lewis

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Orsogna

Roger Smith

We marched out of Castel Frentano that afternoon, passing the carriers drawn up at the side of the road on the outskirts of the town. Cooky sitting on the side of his vehicle, his long legs dangling, gave us a huge grin and a wave as we went by. I paused for a short yarn to Rex, who was now a sergeant. He had been nominated for OCTU and was likely to go up before the next selection board.

We left the road and worked our way in extended order down the side of a deep valley. Orsogna, our next objective, lay a long way off, over the next rise and across another wide valley. The Hun, we were told, was holding on a line from Orsogna along the main road to Ortona on the coast, where the Canadians were battling furiously. The enemy had left some outposts and were retreating rapidly before us.

Dusk was falling as we topped the rise ... We halted on the high ground and orders came to dig in. Pounce found a house conveniently sited in the platoon area and though it was still occupied by an Italian family, room was made for us. Keith Allen and I pushed forward to look at the country ahead ... Orsogna was somewhat to the left of where we stood and partly obscured. What we could see looked formidable – the approach was steep and exposed.

We tramped back in the dark to find that Pounce had returned from the company conference.

‘You can get a good rest tonight, and stand piquet four hours on and four off. No one’s likely to disturb us except the enemy, and I don’t think he will. Now let’s get a decent fire going. Hot rations will be coming up shortly and I want to get these bloody boots dry.’

A yell from one of Bub’s sentries told us that the jeep and trailer had arrived – grub was up. It was a good braised stew and smelled hot and satisfying. We relieved Bub’s section first so they could get theirs, then hunkered down in front of the fire to enjoy our meal in leisure. Johny Pike came in for a yarn ... out of the blue he suddenly said:

‘The carriers caught it this afternoon. Captain Cook wounded and Sergeant Johns killed.’

I looked up, feeling slightly sick.

‘Sergeant Johns. Do you mean Rex Johns?’

‘That’s right. That nuggety joker, good footballer, with dark brown eyes.’

‘How did it happen?’ said Pounce. ‘Was Cook badly hit?’

‘Pretty severely, I think. Apparently, they were working off the road on the flank, doing over all the houses as they came to them. They came to one that looked empty, but when the Captain and Johns jumped down and went to investigate, a Tedeschi chopped them down with his last burst before he bolted out the back.’

Rex dead. I shivered suddenly, put my dixies down and looked round me. The faces seemed of strangers as my mind tunnelled back through memories of the last three years ... I got up and went outside; it was a quiet night, slightly overcast with stars showing. There was a small haystack in the backyard about ten yards from the door and I sat against it, leaning back into the straw. How many people – soldiers and others – must feel in a war as I felt then. There are so many deaths to regret, some deeply, some to a lesser degree. But there is always one that is the most affecting of all. This was it for me. My soul cried out: ‘Rex, where are you this night?’ Where’s that abounding energy, that vital spark, that joy of life? Where’s that gaiety, that sympathy, that courage?’ Snuffed out, ripped into eternity by a burst of Spandau fire – and voices in my mind mocked back: ‘Oh ye of little faith.’

I remember meeting him once in Queen Street, Auckland – it seemed a long time ago. I had Nan on my arm and was walking on a cloud. I recalled so well how he stood there, laughing gaily at us and with us, a confident sympathetic glint in his eyes; he gave sparkle to a happy night and made our delight a shining thing.

Bruce ... Kelly ... Rex. I thought to myself: ‘Should anything happen to me, by God, it is good company I go to.’ I sat there a long time, thinking of the past and present but never of the future; and startled Gus by looking up and laughing gently at him when he laid a comforting hand on my shoulder to warn me it was time for piquet duty. I was pleased to see him, his kind face drawn a little in sorrow for my loss, so pleased that half the sadness was gone in the pleasure of his presence.

2000, Up the Blue

‘Mad Minute’

Howard Kippenberger

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Winter was now closing in and all who could now lived in houses, cheek by jowl with the almost destitute civilians. It was almost impossible to feel any animosity against these unhappy folk: they seemed to have no food beyond what we gave them and they had practically no possessions. All their cattle, blankets, warm clothing, everything of the slightest value, had been stripped from them and sent to Germany or wantonly destroyed. There were no young men and very few young women, and none of them good-looking. Near my headquarters were eleven new graves. We were told that they were those of local householders who had been forced to work on the positions we had just taken and then been shot.

Travelling on roads acquired a new interest. The German gunners used their ammunition sparingly, but skilfully, and every trip near the forward area was something of an adventure. Very soon we had a ‘Hellfire Corner’ [at the end of ‘Shell Alley’] east of Castelfrentano and a ‘Mad Minute’ west of the town. This latter was a stretch of some hundreds of yards running parallel with the front in full view from Orsogna and it was exactly registered by a 170mm. gun which was particularly active in the early morning before our fighters were about. I had to pass it going to and coming from all divisional conferences – at this time held twice daily – and had several very narrow escapes. Three machine gunners going on leave were killed here, and almost every day there were some casualties.

Hellfire Corner was equally unpleasant and Jim, my new jeep driver, and I felt aggrieved that after returning from the conference over the Mad Minute we had to pass through Hellfire Corner to visit the battalions. One day a self-propelled gun sneaked forward and fired eleven shots directly at us at short range when we were crawling back up the road to the Corner. All missed by the smallest margin but we were frightened into abandoning the jeep and taking cover above the road. It was some time before we plucked up enough courage to go back to it and scuttle hastily on. Jim had a very bad stutter which I found rather infectious. It got worse after any incident like this and we would both stutter furiously for some time afterwards...

We were worried by the failure of the British Fifth Division on our right to keep level with us. This division had had no fighting except some very easy affairs in Sicily and it appeared to us to be overtrained and far too formal. Its patrolling was apparently bad and it was nowhere in contact with the enemy on its front. One day Dennis [Blundell] and I went for a walk as far as Lanciano, but as literally everybody we met or came in sight of saluted correctly, and Dennis was the whole time marching at attention while I was incessantly returning salutes, we had to retire, defeated. I never saw anything like it until I visited the Guards Depot at Caterham.

1949, Infantry Brigadier

A Maori Bn. Corporal describes

His First Action

D.L.F.

We all remember this attack as ‘the night of December the 7th’. It started at 2.30 in the afternoon, and to some of us it was great as it was our first action. Before we started, our officer, ‘Boy’, gave us a short talk and said to keep our eyes open and go in boots and all. He said that he had confidence in us, and that we wouldn’t fail.

We packed our gear into our small haversacks and started to move up to the road that led into the village of Orsogna. However, halfway up the hill Jerry started to shell us so into a small drain we dived. One landed too close and one of the lads, Charles, got a nick in the backside. It was really funny; he looked at us and said ‘You know, I think I’ve been hit in the...’. He didn’t come any further with us but stayed back.

After ten minutes we moved on up the road past tanks that were to support us, and we felt very good to have them, believe me. We turned off the main road onto a side track and started to climb again, up to the top, and over came the shells again. Myself I dived into some blackberry, not that it would stop anything, but I felt quite safe.

On once more – my section was the forward section of the forward platoon – and this time over some flat ground and then down a steep hill into a small swamp. All this time the artillery was pounding hell out of Jerry and his known positions, and the sound of that rumble, rumble, rumble, gave us a great feeling to go on and do the job we were sent to do. Down into this small swamp we went and all the time Jerry was feeling around us with those guns of his. We looked to the right and there was a steep hill to be climbed.

Finally we came to the bottom of our main objective and it reared steep and high, covered with scrub and trees. We looked at it, and Boy said, ‘Come on; let’s go chaps. Give it all you have.’ I looked at my best cobber, Freddie, from the South Island. He looked back at me; we didn’t speak, but inside we were feeling the same. Up we went. There was a house part way up, we ran as far as that to take shelter and get a bit of wind back in our lungs, then on again. I was praying hard – the first time I ever prayed.

I clutched my rifle and ran, then Jerry opened up with his Spandaus. Tracers were whistling all around us, and we could hear the Germans yelling. Don’t know what for. It was a hard job climbing, and we kept just below the top to reform. I could hear my heart thumping away as if it would burst open my ear-drums. Then Boy yelled out ‘Over you go!’ And over we went.

I saw Tom fall, and then Jim. I saw the German that did it run up a small quarry, but he didn’t run far. Charlie and I saw to that. Our brains were working overtime. Charlie rushed to me and said ‘Dal, quick. Some ammo, I’ve run out.’ I knelt down and took some clips from my pouch and gave them to him, and he and I rushed on. To our right there was one of the B......’s in a shallow trench screaming like a child, ‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’

We hauled him out and back behind a rock and started to strip him. We saw Sonny bandaging Jim, and felt like putting an end to this chap, but rushed over to help Sonny. To our ears came the yell, ‘Come on!’ It was Henry, so away we went through grape-vines and maize that had been smashed by our artillery fire. We came to the railway line and moved over to the right to a cemetery where we dug in.

Before we reached the place where we were supposed to dig in; some chap had joined our section and followed up behind. We called out, ‘Who’s that?’ The answer came back, ‘It’s all right – it’s me,’ in perfect English, too. We went back and to our surprise it was a German soldier. He didn’t last long. Henry and I saw to that with our bayonets.

Then came the time to dig in: Boy said to me, ‘Get the lads together and see that they dig in.’ I said, ‘Henry is here.’ Then Boy started to tell him what to do, but he couldn’t hear, his ears had gone deaf on him. Anyway, we got to work and were soon dug in. My trench was the nearest to the wall of the cemetery. It was very narrow and wasn’t deep; but when we were counter-attacked I was well out of sight, believe me.

Massey called out for my field dressing because Andy had been hit and was losing a lot of blood. While we were bandaging him we heard tanks and up went our morale. Then someone came tearing over to say that they were German tanks and to get out of it before it was too late.

There was a lot of rushing about, chaps were grabbing up their gear and moving back to the ridge that we had stormed a few hours before. The time was around 10.30 at night, the moon was shining and it looked pretty grim, men lying about. However, six of the lads led by Freddie, picked up Andy, our sergeant, and started to carry him back to the RAP. Myself I had three rifles on each shoulder, two picks and a shovel and away I went. Just over the road there was a tangle of electric wires all over the place, and of course I had to get mixed up in it. I heard Kino laugh. I was nearly crying, but I got out and ran on towards the cliff.

We all got down there and Mahima had two of the Germans that didn’t get out, and was just putting finishing touches to them; very grim, but it had to be done. By this time we had lost our mates and got mixed up in another company. Ike and I dug our trench right close to some dead, and it wasn’t at all pleasant, but we stuck it. Things were going pretty hot all that night, and I heard the signal bloke, Rube, working overtime, and he did a great job. We fought on until we were nearly out of ammunition, and Peter said to pack up and go to the bottom of the ridge where Mac would lead us back. We had to get back, it was useless sticking there.

Back at our area we got breakfast and it was very welcome, and then to sleep we went. Before that Boy called us together and said that we did a great job and he was proud of us. We were proud of him too. He was a great guy and I say this for all the lads. They’d follow him through anything if he wanted them to. He was a damn great chap all through.

9 October 1944, NZEF Times

At 4 in the morning of 17 January 1944 we set off for the other side of Italy, all badges and markings removed, in a vain attempt to conceal our identity. No one could possibly mistake New Zealand troops, with badges or without.

Howard Kippenberger, Infantry Brigadier

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