Topic: The last Eighth army drive up through Northern Italy to Trieste by Hugh Harrison (1945)

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Hugh Harrisons account of the last Eighth army drive up through Northern Italy to Trieste appeared in the 6th Battalion (Hauraki) Regimental Association newsletter in February 2006 (newsletter no. 42). It is republished here with permission.

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6th Hauraki Insignia

Twenty Four

Late in January 1945 NZ Infantry Brigade was formed. This was in preparation for the last Eighth army drive up through Northern Italy toTrieste. It was to be a three division job. The 8th Indian Division on the right, NZ centre, 5th Kresowa (Polish) Division left. The NZ Brigade was under the direct command of General Freyberg who had personal contact with us a great deal of the time.

Shortly after Easter 1945, our transport platoon was assigned to an Engineers Company. Our job was to supply bridging materials on the heels of the infantry for the engineers to construct the various types of crossings and Bailey bridging over the numerous streams, canals and rivers which the supporting armour and artillery units had to swiftly cross. Our loads had been checked and rechecked and the moving parts of the bridging oiled and greased.

The lorries were in perfect order and everyone of our drivers while practising with the engineers during the winter had learned to distinguish between grillage and panels, decking and skin decking and transoms, the long heavy steel beams which my lorry carried.

On 9 April the attack began and the first river, the Senio was being crossed by the infantry. During that first night our bridging work was commenced while we were subjected to heavy motar and shellfire. Early the next morning the low level bridges were finished and on the far side of the river, bulldozers began to carve a passage through the big stop banks which most of the waterways required in this low-lying land. A long column of tanks were waiting to move across the river and later the artillery would come forward too. The final permanent Bailey bridge would be constructed as soon as possible, sometimes immediately if the site permitted and the enemy was sufficiently driven back.

For three weeks as we advanced the bridging work continued night and day with the fighting close at hand. Along the roads and at the bridge sites, mortar and shellfire and sometimes sniper and machine gun fire were frequently experienced. It was observed later that the roads we had travelled were terribly narrow full of deep potholes and covered with a couple inches of dust. All along the road especially near the rivers and canals were signs of bombing and fighting, huge bomb-craters often so close together that their edges over-lapped were everywhere.

On the 25 April our NZ engineers started work on a 460ft pontoon bridge across the riverPoin the morning and finished at 5.30pm in the afternoon. Two of our drivers with their lorry under full load tested the bridge for safety, they drove onto the bridge and moved slowly across it while it bent under them like a tight rope. I followed shortly after with my driver in our lorry and it was an eerie experience as each panel of the decking reared up in front until we had driven completely onto it. Then the next panel in its turn reared up likewise so that while on the bridge there were only momentary glimpses of the full remaining bridge ahead. In this crossing from the banks of the Po, there was nothing to see except a few wrecks, the long straight pontoon bridge and an expanse of water, pale and colourless in the half-light of the late afternoon.

Past the Po there were more rivers before we came to the town of Padua. Here we found a German supply dump a short distance from the main road where the Partisan guards, very drunk were turning civilians away but allowing the New Zeafanders to help themselves. In the building was a store of alcoholic delights piled high with cases of three-star cognac, kummel, cherry brandy and eggnog, also a large quantity of sugar. I found myself with a bottle of the brandy based eggnog and a small bag of sugar, both useful items for our tucker box and friendly barter with the Ities.

A few days later we had pulled off the road and settled down for a good night's sleep in an attractive farm orchard paddock area some distance from the noisy road traffic. Tomorrow would be my twenty fourth birthday with the end of the war in sight. I was looking forward to a few drinks from my bottle with my driver Viv L. About 2am I was wakened by unusual noises, shooting and shouting and glowing fire from the Engineers Company headquarters. I told Viv to stay with the lorry and I took a riffle to see if I could find out what the commotion was about.

I went through the area of the Folding Boat Equipment and found some Tommies in full battle order lining a ditch. They had no idea what was going on so I continued on with one of their men joining me. Shortly a Pole came towards us, he had been wounded in the outside upper arm below the shoulder. We stopped the bleeding with a field dressing and told him he should continue on to his unit. However he chose to move forward with us to where the disturbance was centred around the house and farm building.

We reached the first vehicle in the farmyard a YMCA van and crept around the corner of a building while we were doing this man in a long greatcoat stepped from the shadows. He called out "Kamerade!" (A shout of surrender). "Tedeschi!" (German) yelled the Pole.

My riffle was pointed straight at the German but instead of raising his hands he bent over his Schmeiser as if to shoot me but at this instant as I pulled my trigger the FBE man beside me fired a heavy burst from his tommy gun into the German's midriff.

He grunted with the impact of the bullets and dropped at my feet. Machine guns opened up at once and the three of us slipped away into the gloom. I raced back to our Captain and while I was reporting to him there was an explosion and fire broke out in the farmyard. Other information was coming in and it appeared that a strong German force had taken our Engineers Headquarters, capturing some and killing and wounding others. The racket was terrific now and bursts of tracer passed chest high between the lorries. A quarter of a mile away transport and haystacks were on fire and there was a lot of noise and shouting. Tracer and explosive bullets from spandaus and submachine guns whistled overhead and beside these the enemy was using mortars, panzerfaust and 20 mm guns. Rain fell steadily all the time, slanting steely rods between the fruit trees and glistening against a fiery background.

Our Captain decided we should join the battle so he divided us into two groups. One to go and defend the transport and the other to go forward to the farmyard. We were armed with Bren guns, tommy guns and rifles. Those of us going forward were divided into two parties. I was in the one going straight ahead led by our Lieutenant, my special friend and the other swinging left with the Captain. We reached the farmyard with out any trouble as the fighting was now subsiding and the Germans were retiring down a side road. They were desperately in need of transport and had started empty vehicles driving seven of them off and burning six others. There were still some small incidents, various challenges and firing during the mopping up and we saw a great deal of damage from the attacks. For all we knew the neighbourhood was still alive with Germans.

It was finally recorded that a group more than 1,500 strong had attacked our camp. The Germans killed eight New Zealanders and captured about 40 before escaping. The following day a party from 9 Brigade located the German force that had carried out the attack and bluffed them into surrender.

So that was my 24th birthday and I didn't have that one bottle party after all. For me it had been a very close call and much more fortunate to survive as the war was almost finished. Two days later on the 3rd May the German commander inTriesteand thousands of German army and navy personnel surrendered to the New Zealand Division.

My story covered a period of my experiences inItalyfrom approximately 1st April to 3 May 1945. Officially during this same period inItalythe New Zealanders lost 241 men killed and 1140 wounded.

H. Harrison.

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This article archived at Perma Cc in September of 2016: https://perma.cc/RW2M-XMMZ

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