14

Beyond Rome

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The Black Diamond

N.Z. War Correspondent

The sign of the black diamond which has marked the track of the New Zealand Division from Alamein to Enfidaville and from Taranto to Atina, via Castelfrentano and Cassino, has been incorporated in the design of the new headgear now on issue to all units not wearing the black beret of tank or armoured car regiments. The new issue is a khaki beret, well made of battledress material with the black diamond, on which is mounted the NZEF badge.

It has come at a very opportune time, as in the dusty conditions of our advance it affords much better protection than the field service cap it replaces. In the informal atmosphere of the forward area, however, it is waging a war in popularity with the Borsalino and the common straw. Trucks, tanks and guns moving up through Sora are manned by dusty and cheerful wearers of various styles of civilian hats whose chief merit is that they keep out the penetrating dust clouds stirred by every moving vehicle.

To conform to the current fashion, the hat – felt or straw – must be worn with the badge of the NZEF in a prominent position. The average hat appears to have been involved in a few battles of its own before joining the Division. Most frequently it appears over a face on which sun tan and dust struggle for mastery.

It all goes back to those early days in Italy when felt hats cost only a few lire, and when it was good to have headgear which prevented the rain running in cold streams down your neck. Recently I have seen straw boaters and even one gorgeous creation of felt, fur and feathers, adorning the head of an oil-covered mechanic. Sometimes seen is the pensioned-off Kiwi felt hat, most of the brim of which has been used to provide washers for primuses.

The other day a New Zealand officer stood by his disabled vehicle near Atina and watched a ceaseless stream of trucks rolling through the dust-cloud. His driver gave the usual cheery wave or nod of the head. Suddenly another jeep loomed up out of the murk and the figures within it answered the casual wave. One wore a grey jersey and grey felt hat. It was only after the jeep had vanished up the road that the officer realised that he had just exchanged salutations with New Zealand’s Prime Minister.

12 June 1944, NZEF Times

Song of an Infanteer

R.B.P.

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The 88s they whistle by

And Spandaus chill our blood;

We’re thankful for our slitties

As we lie here in the mud.

The great guns roar and thunder

And smoke clouds fill the sky,

While up on top our shufti planes

Tell us where Jerries lie.

Our water-bottle’s had it

(What’s known as ‘out the monk’)

We’ll have to eat our biscuits dry

Without our usual dunk.

Now all you would-be soldiers,

Just take advice from me–

If you want to live to a ripe old age

Then join the A.S.C.

21 August 1944, NZEF Times

The ASC Hits Back

K.V.H.

‘Then join the ASC,’ he says;

But little does he think

Of the service they have rendered

In every ‘show’ or ‘stink’.

Of course we get around a bit,

’Twixt Rome and dump and front,

but everything’s not roses

When trucks are out the ‘monk’.

It’s not all fun just sitting there

With ammo on the back

When bombs are dropping all around,

And skies are full of flak.

We’re frequently up front you know–

Not always in the rear.

The arty want our ammo,

And get it, never fear.

With Eighty-eights and mortars

We sometimes have to deal;

We can’t crouch in a slittie

While swinging on a wheel.

The PBI can take it–

We’ve often heard it said;

But we’re the boys that BRING it–

Just get that in your head!

23 October 1944, NZEF Times

Wouldn’t It?

J.C.R.

Tootling through a large town in Italy one night I had the road to myself and was indulging in a little wool gathering. This came to an abrupt end with the sudden appearance of a New Zealand soldier who dashed madly out of a cafe doorway and on to the road.

Dead in my path stood this wild, dishevelled figure, making signals too frantic to be ignored. I slammed on the brakes and brought the old crate screeching to a standstill. Here, if I ever saw one was a desperate man. He leapt on to the running board, and as I let in the clutch ready for a quick getaway from whatever it was we were getting away from he shouted breathlessly into my ear: ‘Quick! What’s the Eyetie word for egg?’

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‘Uovo,’ I managed to splutter.

‘Woofer,’ he repeated. ‘Thanks’ – and he was gone!

Feeling slightly weak, I looked back down the street – there was only the gentle swaying of a bead screen in a cafe doorway to prove that it had really happened.

16 October 1944, NZEF Times

To Susan

(Lines written having backed over a mine)

Hank Williams

Believe, Sweet Sue, t’was no intent

Of mine to hasten your dear days.

The daily tasks a pleasure meant

A happy grooming of your ways.

Cute ways they were. Feminine guile

That gave your beauty sombre hue

And heavy-lidded eye, the while

Your purring hid a skid from view.

But you would tread the flowery path

Strew primrose and anemone

Where Tedeschi’s evil hand hath

Laid a snare that did deflower thee.

No healing balm that will allow

Ease from pain and body battered,

But salvage bids you welcome now.

Mine that was, by mine so shattered.

So–

We’ll take you up gingerly, lift you with care,

Fashioned by Chrysler, young and so fair.

22 May 1944, NZEF Times

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‘Mule Skinners’

Peter Newton

At the start of the Italian campaign they called for volunteers for mule packing – ‘mule skinners’ – and in our battalion most of the ex-high country men put in for it. As it happened only my old friend Brig Ferguson and I were selected, and we were put in charge of a crowd of Italian Muletiers. This scheme didn’t work because if the going got tough the Ities were liable to take off and leave us. Each man had two mules, and on one occasion, at the Rapido River, a couple of Jerry planes did us over and Brig and I were left with about 30 mules careering all over the flat.

After that the Italians were dropped and we were given a crowd of our own blokes from B. Echelon. This wasn’t a hell of a lot better for although our blokes would stick to their guns, some of them were absolutely hopeless with horses. There were men out of drapers shops, banks, milk bars and all, and some of them, I think, had never seen a horse – let alone a contrary mule.

We had one bloke who was dead scared of them, so I sorted out two beautiful quiet animals for him and things weren’t so bad. Our main job was taking tucker up to the front lines and this, of course, had to be done under cover of darkness. The morning meal would be taken up before daylight and the evening meal after dark. We were getting along fine until one morning this nervous bloke came screaming to me, clutching his stomach, and complaining that one of his mules had put the boot into him.

Each man still had only the two mules which when not working were tied to an olive tree and fed straw. Anyway I went across to investigate and there, tied to the usual tree, was one strange mule – and a pretty dirty one at that. It didn’t take long to guess what had happened. The Maori mule team was camped just across a gully from us and during the night, one of their chaps must have sneaked across, taken one of our quiet mules, and tied this dirty bloke in its place. Our man, not knowing one mule from another, had just blundered up to it in the dark, given it a friendly pat on the rump and – wham, it’s a goal! I reckon those Horis are still laughing over that.

One of the highlights of our ‘horsey’ experiences was a race meeting with those mules. They were fairly ignorant animals and there were no fast times. Indeed, 50 per cent of the starters haven’t finished yet. But we had a lot of fun: in one event a rider got dumped three times and still finished in the money. We ran a tote and there were cases where mule and rider were almost carried over the line by enthusiastic backers.

1971, Ten Thousand Dogs

N.Z. War Correspondent

Money was invested freely; a well conducted totalisator handling bets of no less than 440,000 lire. A running commentary was broadcast by loud speaker and music was provided by a brigade band.

The mules were inclined to be fractious and often went to extreme lengths to prove to their riders that they had minds of their own. There was little guide to form, and only one favourite scored, but the supporters of two winning outsiders, Rubble, by Bomb out of Fortress, and Old Griff, by Hurried out of Base, were quite happy about the results.

The principal event was the Cassino Hurdles, won by Rubble, and the Jockey Club Cup, a masterpiece of improvisation from a shellcase, was accompanied by a stake of 11,000 lire. The winning owner was D Coy.

No stakes were less than 6000 lire, and other winners were Keziban (by Itself out of the Blue), Merem (by Perhaps out of Mishap), and Merit (by Homer out of Hat). Promising place-getting form was shown by Dora (by Do out of Done), Signorina (by Daylight out of Bivvy), Eva (by Lava out of Vesuvius), Africa Star (by Monty out of Kindness) Bomb Happy (By Nebelwerfer out of St Angelo), and Strike (by Miner out of Butter).

1944, NZEF Times

Laying it on

Hamish

You blokes at the noisy end of the war probably think that Field Ambulance men have a pretty good life, light-heartedly poking needles into people and getting tangled up in bales of bandages. Perhaps, too, you have visions of fortunate orderlies attending to beautiful village belles ... believe me, it doesn’t work that way.

Consider Walter, an average sort of orderly, on duty one day when an Itie family roamed into the tent – Momma, Poppa, and the usual Bambina – all potential customers. After much parlata, with Momma and Papa talking in unison and Bambina (aged two) offering to kiss the MO, it appeared that Bambina was in trouble: scabies, and oodles of it, and some of the bites had turned into nasty looking sores.

Walter got the go-ahead sign from the MO and started to organise ... first a scrub. Walter provided the doings and Momma set to. Everyone was cooperative, except Bambina; having objections to exposing her person to the vulgar gaze of the soldiery, she howled. Somewhat deterred by the row and rattled by the admonitory howls of Poppa, Walter started on part two of the treatment, ointment to the bad sores. Bambina, now naked and still bawling, staged an improvised wrestling match with him, who made passes at her legs and arms as she lashed about.

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At last the four corners were successfully dressed. Walter stepped back for a breather and surveyed his handiwork, while Bambina tried in vain to wriggle out of the bandages that enveloped her. As she squirmed she indelicately reared her tail ... cripes, more sores! Now Walter was quite at home on a decent-sized tail, having served his apprenticeship on boils. But this was different, not enough scope. Undaunted he set to work. In spite of careful planning, the finished dressing was not first-class. But it had to do as by this time Walter had reached the ‘had it’ stage.

All that remained was to apply ointment to the bites – practically everywhere – Walter blew the sweat from the tip of his nose, seized the jar and set to. Bambina was still far from entering into the spirit of the thing, and Walter’s actions were rather like a man painting a wobbly fence on a windy day.

The job was finally done and, magically, the howls ceased. Walter reached for a piece of chocolate (mouse-nibbled, but non importa) and offered it as a parting gift. Poppa shook hands, Momma grazied, and Bambina, now all smiles, gurgled the Itie equivalent of ‘Ta-ta!’ Walter, with rapidly fading visions of grateful parents, vino and big sisters, watched them go ... and what did he get out of it? Not even an egg!

10 July 1944, NZEF Times

Living off the Land

The Maoris did not take long to find out that the Ities liked porkers too, but they usually kept them under their houses for safety. A Maori Company was up front, and behind the village were the Company cooks. To get the porker the boys knew about was no trouble; ah, but how to get it back to the cooks without arousing the villagers when the only route lay through the village? Simple.

They fixed the pig; and carefully laying it on a stretcher under a blanket, solemnly carried their burden through the streets. The villagers came out and placed flowers round the ‘body’!

60749, Soldier Country

For a Labour Day feast, a sergeant and six men attacked a pigsty in full battle order, firing tommy guns and throwing hand grenades. The sergeant told the Italians in the homestead that they were beating of a counter-attack by the Germans, and that the Italians must not come out of the house under any circumstances until the fighting was over...

Gunner 405906, Soldier Country

True Tale

A.J.R.

Tom, Tom, the driver man,

Stole a pig, to his truck he ran.

His cobber, letting in the clutch,

Got mobile midst a cloud of dust.

A British major saw the crime,

Appreciation in quick time

Decides him to attack on flank

And drive the jeep against a bank.

Charging grimly to the fray,

To his horror and dismay,

Attempt to kill pig did he see

In back of vehicle WD.

Ere his plan could take effect,

A noise from rear he did detect–

A Kiwi reinforcement pack

Puts in diversionary attack.

Thus forced to give up pursuit

(the stealers, pig, retained their loot)

The major, as a last resort,

Promptly sends in harsh report.

We wot not of the trio’s fate–

The pig, the driver, and his mate–

But soon, I ween, their fame will live

In general orders, NZ Div.

8 January 1945, NZEF Times

Italian man returning home and finding several New Zealand soldiers billeted with his family: ‘You steala my gallina (chicken), you steala my peeg, you seduca my daughter, you seduca my wife ... verra soon you goa too far!’

Padre Bill Thompson,

The God Botherer

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Roger Smith

The first of our platoon to go on leave to Taranto were Kevin and Gus. Both were new, but Gus could have worn First World War ribbons. We’d had our evening mess, it was getting quite dark and we were beginning to be a bit anxious about them, when down through our company lines we heard a raucous chorus being shouted by our errant leave party. Weaving slowly into view was a horse and cart being driven by Kevin, with old Gus sitting in the back patting a volubly protesting Italian on the head and assuring him in bastard French that everything would be all right. They pulled the horse to a halt in the platoon area and started unloading.

Those old soldiers were corkers. Our transport had not yet arrived in Italy and comforts were scarce, so Gus had set out to remedy the defect. He had somehow lifted two enormous tarpaulins from the railway yards in Taranto; also two cases of tinned fruit, two of condensed milk, and a carton of tea. Being unable to carry the loot home, he’d gone back for a previously scorned case of Bully to exchange for the ‘hire’ of the horse and cart. We stood round in awe as the booty came down. Pounce [platoon commander] took one quick look and disappeared tactfully in the direction of company headquarters. Gus shouted an assurance after him: ‘It’s all right Sir, all clear and above board. I’ve got a receipt and a checking list right here with me.’ He did too! Even if he was hazy about whatever yarn he had pitched to the railway transport officer.

In the ensuing wet weather we were the most fortunate platoon in the battalion, with our two tarps stretched like a marquee between the olives. It was a good home to come back to when we were wet and tired after a day’s training. We made a brazier out of an old oil drum and robbed some coal off a train in the siding by Statte. The next lot of boys that went on leave tried to emulate Gus’s feat at the railway yards, but by then the place was guarded by Indian troops and there was no fooling them.

2000, Up the Blue

On one occasion in Bari a small boy accosted me. ‘Vino, Mr Kiwi?’

‘No, Tony,’ I replied.

‘Eggs or bread, Mr Kiwi?’ he persisted.

‘No thank you Tony.’

‘Senorina, Mr Kiwi?’

‘No, Tony,’ I said.

He threw his hand in the air in exasperation and shouted, ‘Well what do you want Mr Kiwi?’

Pat Kane, A Soldier’s Story

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Vino for All

Ted Lewis

A brisk trade went on with the Italians selling vino, much of which was good and some, hardly matured, volatile and heady. The Germans had helped themselves to much of the best stuff, but cunningly concealed wine bottles had survived the enemy occupation and miraculously appeared. Field security being very good at discovering some of the hidden treasure, some rowdy parties erupted.

I well remember making a sketch in a deserted farmhouse one day. There were two large wine casks which had been stoved-in, on one side of the room, and the contents allowed to flow all over the floor. I presume this had been done by retreating Germans, who were determined that we would be deprived thereby. A couple of old digs came in and, looked sorrowfully at the broken casks.

2001, I was no Soldier

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The Rime of an Ancient Kiwi

W.G.F.

It is an ancient Kiwi

And he stoppeth one of three

‘With thy service stripes and Africa star,

Now wherefore thy stoppest thou me?’

He fixed them with a glassy eye.

‘There was a shop,’ quoth he,

‘With vino there, and a maiden fair

And molto eau-de-vie.’

The reinforcement fell to earth,

For he heard an eighty-eight:

The ancient one just glanced aside.

‘That shooting wasn’t straight.’

‘With the maiden fair I fell in love

And she much vino gave.

I kissed her here, I kissed her there;

I felt so big and brave.

‘Yea, so much vino did I drink,

I fell into a swound.

The old plonk shop and the lovely wop

Went round and round and round.’

The reinforcement turned to go,

And gave a muttered curse;

The ancient or the eighty-eight–

Which of the two was worse?

The ancient Kiwi turned him back–

He could not choose but hear

And thus discoursed the battered one

How vino cost him dear.

‘The maiden tried to help me up,

But I was drunk and mad.

She slipped beside me on the floor–

Oh, what a time we had!’

‘Her father came and found us there

And he a keg upraised.

He dashed it down upon my head;

It made me worse than dazed.’

‘Vino, vino everywhere

And every drop did stink;

How I such cruel cross should bear

I shudder still to think.’

‘And now I’m just a broken Dig,

And maybe A.P.R.

But this I’d say – don’t go my way;

Lay off the vino jar!’

30 October 1944, NZEF Times

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2011, To the Gateways of Florence

To Florence

J.T. Burrows

The advance on Florence, as far as the New Zealand Division was concerned, began with a set piece attack on high ground which overlooked the town of Arezzo. Sixth Brigade was given the task of capturing the area, the most prominent feature of which was Mount Lignano ... The operation was completely successful. All battalions in their turn took their objectives. The storming of these involved the climbing of steep, sometimes precipitous slopes. This was not achieved easily and our casualties were not light. Unfortunately some were caused by our own shells falling short, an occurrence so rare it could be accounted for only by the extreme difficulty of the terrain.

With the high ground that overlooked Arezzo in our hands, a British armoured regiment was able to move in and capture the town. It was good to see tanks, so long as they were ours, moving freely on firm ground and good, too, to see New Zealand tanks working with New Zealand troops. No longer need infantry fear they would be left unsupported.

With the capture of Arezzo, 5 Brigade took over from 6 Brigade and began the advance towards Florence. This took us up the Pesa Valley through the Chianti country famous for its wine. Its hills and valleys were thickly covered with vineyards, olive trees and crops of wheat. It was summer and, although the Germans made strong-points of every stone farmhouse, fought in every village, laid mines and made tank-obstacles out of every water course, our troops moved almost happily through the lovely Italian countryside. Their exuberant spirits showed in all sorts of odd articles of clothing they acquired from farmhouses abandoned by their owners and although Division frowned heavily on the wearing of anything but regulation uniform, it was just not possible to prevent these practices when the troops were in action.

One day Duncan McIntyre, my staff captain, went with me to some high ground on the flank of 5 Brigade where we could watch the Maori Battalion advancing to make its next contact with the enemy. I expected soon to get orders from the General to move 6 Brigade through 5 Brigade and take over the advance and I wanted to see for myself the difficulties that the leading troops had to contend with.

Very soon the leading section of troops came into view, advancing cautiously and correctly along a narrow road. We promptly swung our binoculars further forward, knowing that we had missed the leading scout, and we soon saw a most astonishing spectacle. This soldier, away out in front, entirely by himself, was wearing a woman’s expensive fur coat and on his head a black Borsalino hat. His rifle was slung over his shoulder but his pack and goodness knows what other things he had acquired along the way were dumped in a pram which he was pushing merrily along the road without a care in the world.

Many years later when Duncan McIntyre was Minister of Maori Affairs in the National Government, I heard him recounting this same story: ‘We felt it would be an interesting experience,’ he said, ‘to get a grandstand view of this delicate operation, the advance to re-establish contact with the enemy. And what did we see? We saw the great New Zealand Division, experienced and renowned for its fighting qualities, being led to its next encounter by a Maori wearing a woman’s fur coat, a Borsalino hat and pushing a pram – and he was as full as a boot!’

1974, Pathway among Men

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The Bit in their Teeth

Martyn Uren

On Monday morning [24 July] the battle was rolling away in the blue distance of the Florence plain. Progress was good: our infantry being well past Tavarnelle on the road to Florence. By Tuesday it was apparent that the New Zealanders were some miles ahead in a salient that pointed straight at the objective city. We could hear the Indians on our left rear and the South Africans on our right rear.

The guns by now had moved twice ... At 2p.m. we moved 10 miles north to an area north of Tavarnelle. Life was one long pack-up-and-move, very much a war of movement. Here the guns one moment were 500 yards ahead of us; next morning seven or ten miles away. It was good. The spirit was good. Florence was giving the New Zealanders something to go for. They had the bit in their teeth. All ranks enjoyed themselves.

There is little doubt that had we been allowed we should have taken Florence many days before it was finally captured. But we were in a salient and much was dangerous. To leave the flanks open was a risk that the army commanders do not wish, nor do they need, to take. Furthermore, what was probably more important, the taking of Florence was earmarked for the South African division. The ultimate result was that we waited for a week for the flank to catch up; finally got impatient and entered Southern Florence; whereupon the Maoris (who at 3a.m. were really beginning to enjoy the place) were ordered out and the South Africans ordered in.

1945, Diamond Trails of Italy

San Casciano

Giorgio Spini

I remember one night in which my work [Italian Resistance L.O. with the Eighth Army] had taken me back to San Casciano [anglicised to Chessaiano] ... The jeep that I was travelling on was fired on by the Germans. We jumped out and took cover inside a semi-destroyed house. In the darkness I became aware of a detachment hiding there while waiting to descend on to the Falciani bridge ... ‘French Gaulist?’ a voice asked me in the dark. ‘No, Italian anti-facist,’ I replied. And that voice in the darkness continued bombarding me with questions: is it true that many Italians are against Mussolini? Is it true that after the war Italy will become a democratic country like ours? In the darkness, interrupted only by the occasional flashes of an explosion, I could not distinguish the face of that stranger. He was probably a sheep farmer from so incredibly far away who wanted to know so many things about Italy, right there on the Front. But I think I know why he insisted so pathetically: he wanted to know if it really was worth it, in case that night in a town called Chessaiano, the bloody Krauts – the Germans – killed him.

The division [section] had a field radio with them and at a certain point this began to croak something. Then the New Zealanders gathered up their helmets and weapons and slipped silently out into the night, forming a single-file row along the road to the Falciani Bridge. Someone whispered an order and the division started off, disappearing almost immediately into the darkness. In its place, in front of the ruined houses, an ambulance appeared silently and placed a light displaying the sign of the Red Cross on the road, in order to be ready to take in those who had the misfortune to be shot, that very night and near that very town called Chessaiano, so many miles away from New Zealand.

2011, To The Gateways of Florence

Harvest!

Etain Whitethought

Ho, peasant of the Tuscan plains,

There were harvests of this year;

Grapes became firm-breasted sweetness

purple, clustered pearls in pendants;

And the clean grain shining–

The wheat you poured from hand to hand

with the same thought and look

as if you poured your heart.

Your flails thudded on the peas and beans

Pods brittle and crackling as dry flames;

And in the courtyard spread like great waves broken

Maize, red-gold – or coppery as a setting autumn sun.

Chili, fig, and cherry, pomodori, peri, albicocca

The sun gave them spilling from his great double hands–

Yet do you reap the other harvest

My saddened eyes can see in every field?

From the font the ripened names drip down

Who, too, were this year’s harvest.

What do you reap from your fields,

Of Albert James and Ronald John–

Of Frederick Stephen and Alan Robert?

Each one we grudged–

But my nation gave them, spilling from her double hands:

Tears are spilling there for the seed in your soil.

There can never be a grain or fruit

To overwhelm the worth of any one of them.

What have you reaped this year of Lester Selwyn,

Of Sydney Trevor, Tony Roy, Harold Walter?

No fruit of these names?

No grain of these names?

No root of these names?

If you garnered nothing of them

Then this soil is sodden deep with poverty

And those who work it poor in spirit.

Reap, at very least, their memory.

23 October 1944, NZEF Times

‘We remember with gratitude those New Zealand soldiers who sacrificed their lives on these hills, contributing to the liberation of our cities and our country from Nazism and helping regain peace and freedom.’

Plaque at the entrance to the Zibib Mountain Bike Trail, Casciano, Tuscany

August 2006

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