Many men fighting in the Italian hills were far from home but none more so than the New Zealanders. In mid December they were moving up for the assault on Orsogna where the Germans had established a defensive position. There was much patrolling and probing to discover the right line of attack.
Roger Smith was a 23 year old Private with the 24th Battalion. He vividly describes the miserable living conditions in the Italian winter with random deaths among his colleagues from shellfire. Yet the threat of a violent end lay everywhere, even when they were not being shelled:
The minefields were liberally sprinkled with ‘S’ mines — particularly malicious anti-personnel weapons consisting of one steel flower-pot affair containing another flower—pot. Each had its own explosive charge.
If you stumbled over the trip wire you pulled an igniter which set off the charge in the outer case. This tossed the inner charge up into the air and at the same time ignited a fuse set to explode it on reaching waist height. The inner case had about three hundred steel balls placed around the explosive charge case, and it is sickening to imagine the destructive effect when it exploded in the air on a level with a man’s stomach.
These things could be fired by pressure switches or pull igniters,but were usually fitted with trip wires connected to pull igniters. By using a ‘Y’ shaped double-ended igniter they could be linked in series, so that one going off would often bring several jumping after it. ‘S’ mines were an infantry man’s constant nightmare: some of my earliest recollections as a raw rookie were of hearing old soldiers talk of them in tones of hate and horror.
When we arrived, Major Suter was organising defensive positions round the pink house. The company had suffered some casualties on the way in, and we didn’t know if the attack would continue. Pounce took us to the front of the house and gave us section posts to cover the road, in what proved to be an orchard surrounded by a hedge.
I stepped through a gap and led the way in along a narrow foot track. While moving forward carefully, trying to see something of the lie of the land against the sky, I felt something across the laces of my striding boot. By a miracle I happened to be on perfect balance and was able to check the situation while my foot was still offthe ground.
With my left hand I reached gently down and felt a thin wire running across the top of my instep, at right-angles to the path. I stretched my fingers along the wire as far as I could, without finding its termination. Transferring the tommy to my left hand, I repeated the delicate exploration on my right, and in the rough grass beside the track, little more than a foot from where I stood, my fingers found the wire attached to an ominous little ‘Y’ shaped metal branch, and I felt the top of a round steel cylinder beneath it.
A cold sweat and a crop of goose pimples started at the base of my spine, travelled all the way up my back and raised the hair on the nap of my neck like a dog’s hackles, until my whole scalp tingled under my tin hat.
“Hold it, you blokes,” I croaked hoarsely. “I’ve struck a trip wire and an ‘S’ mine, Sir.”
All sound of movement behind me ceased and there was a deathly stillness, then I heard soft quick intakes of breath and Pounce answered me.
“Thankyou, Rod. Stay still a couple of minutes will you. Come on out the rest of you; gently, gently, don’t rush. Every minefield need not be like the last one was. Right? Rod — it‘s over to you and if you do happen to pull it, drop onto your face. If you’re close enough to it everything ought to go over the top of you.”
“Yes, Sir,” I replied. My foot was fast becoming uncontrollably heavy and my leg started to tremble violently. I reached down and eased the wire gently away in case it had become caught in my boot lace or anklet, then lowered my foot to the ground. I had to stand still for a long, long, minute — my leg was so full of pins and needles that I dared not step back in case it collapsed and caused me to fall. At last I was able to take three careful paces to the rear, and then I turned and got out of that orchard.