New Zealand gunners in attack across Sangro

November - December 1943: Two artillerymen (Sergeant J Hamilton and Gunner H Tennant) wringing water out of a blanket at their flooded bivouac on Monte Camino.

November – December 1943: Two artillerymen (Sergeant J Hamilton and Gunner H Tennant) wringing water out of a blanket at their flooded bivouac on Monte Camino.

Stretcher bearers work under fire and in heavy rain to bring casualties down the side of Monte Camino.

Stretcher bearers work under fire and in heavy rain to bring casualties down the side of Monte Camino.

Montgomery’s 8th Army in Italy was, just as it had been in the Desert, a multinational organisation. Now some old Desert veterans, the 2nd New Zealand Division, known simply as the ‘Div’ amongst New Zealanders, rejoined the fray in Italy. They had been recuperating and rebuilding in Africa but only had a matter of weeks to adjust to the cold and rain of Italy before they joined the latest attack.

The weather was steadily worsening in Italy, producing miserable conditions for those who had to live out in the open. The new attack was delayed for a few days until conditions improved slightly. Spirits were high amongst the Kiwis as they moved into the line. John Blythe was proud to be there, representing his country:

The Division was pushing patrols over the river and the infantry were obliged to wade across streams of varying depth amid mud and shingle banks. Planned attacks would later be put off because the heavy rain raised the level of the river.

On 25 November the skies started to clear and on the 28th we attacked. We shifted the armoured car to behind a haystack for added protection, switched on the radio and broke our wireless silence by calling up all the sets on our link; they came in loud and clear. As we sat there in the semi- darkness with the glowing dials and the old familiar shaded light, the crackle of static in our headphones, shades of North Africa returned.

We waited for the first crash of the guns crouched around us, muzzles raised to the dark sky. To date there had been only what one might term desultory shelling from individual batteries, but this was to be an attack by the whole Division to cross the Sangro River and force the Germans out of their defences on the other side.

To support the infantry a full-scale divisional artillery barrage was required, our first in Italy. As the sky lit up with lightning flashes and the deafening drum beat rolled back from the hills around us, it was like old times. I hated war, but one could not fail to thrill to and be inspired by the thunderous roar of our guns firing in unison.

This was New Zealand at war! Give them hell, the bastards! Give them hell! One sometimes felt like that when all revved up. We were a small but intensely proud nation and we knew the country was right behind us; every man, woman, child and dog. We were its spearhead, and although we moaned, cursed and got drunk occasionally, we wore its shoulder tabs with honour, a little like our All Black rugby teams, proud to be its representatives.

Out there on the cold flowing river were the infantry. We wondered how they were getting on. Were they pinned down by fire in icy water up to their chests? Had the engineers succeeded with the Bailey bridge? Go on guns, give it to them, give it to them! Howling cacophony ripping the night apart!

In actual fact almost all our objectives were taken with light casualties. The engineers succeeded with the bridge, and tanks and supporting arms were across the river and consolidating. German retaliation in our area seemed to be confined to a few shellbursts.

By day the Luftwaffe was nowhere to be seen and we had complete command of the air with fighter bombers flying overhead looking for targets. What a change from the desert, and what a relief to be able to forget about enemy aircraft.

How life improves when you’re on the other end of things and on the winning side, moving forward aware you have superiority in men and equipment, and that the enemy are taking a beating.

On 2 December we heard that the main German winter line on the Castelfrentano ridge had been broken and that it was expected we would shortly advance our guns across the Sangro. When we did move it was to find the road choked with traffic. There were masses of equipment channelled on to the only route available and one could not but perceive that whereas we might have cut a mighty swathe with it in North Africa, its effectiveness in this type of country was severely reduced by weather, mud and terrain.

There were already reports filtering back that our tanks were being halted by mines on the only access roads and coming under fire from cleverly sited anti-tank guns and tanks. The Germans were also letting our Sherman tanks equipped with the original smaller gun to come through, then picking off those which had the new larger gun.

Tanks were also slithering off the roads, getting stuck in the mud and sheltering behind farm houses, frustrated because of the difficulty in determining exactly what to shoot at. Their spearhead, however, had penetrated the German’s flank between his 26 Panzer Divison and 65 Division and forced a withdrawal.

See John Blythe: Soldiering on: A Soldier’s War in North Africa and Italy

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