Chapter 8: The NIH in Italy - Part Two: At Peace

Discussion in 'North Irish Horse' started by Gerry Chester, Jul 24, 2006.

  1. Gerry Chester

    Gerry Chester WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    The North Irish Horse - By Gerry Chester

    Rejoining the Regiment

    On Wednesday 20th June, after an absence of over two months I rejoined the Regiment which was harboured in and around Rimini - there was a lot of catching up to do.

    Jimmy Wiggins, who had taken my place aboard Ballyrashane, gave me a full account of the last days of action during which she had come through unscathed, the only casualty being the "loss" of my axe! By way of compensation, Jimmy had a present for me in the form of a bunch of lire.

    Apparently, Ballyrashane had forced the surrender of a German "Gehalt Wagen" which was carrying lots of Italian currency that had been evenly divided between the crew as "spoils of war" - Skipper had insisted that my share be set aside until my return. As days went by, I learned that nearly everyone in the Regiment had "liberated" lire in varying amounts. Rumour had it that the Adjutant's brother, 'B' Squadron's 2 Troop Leader, had also come across two boxes containing a small fortune. Sad was the day when an order came down from Brigade that all holdings of Italian currency had to be handed in or else!
    During my absence, the Mustang Rover Crew had been very active, including a two-day camp in San Marino which I was sorry to have missed. For details see pages 4 and 5 of the Crew's Anniversary Number Magazine. However, I was in time to enjoy the long-planned Anniversary Dinner that took place two days after my return. During my absence, four members of the Crew had volunteered for service with SEAC (South-East Asia Command. They and a few others, with Lt WAL "Paddy" Reid MC in charge, were on their way to the UK for leave prior to being shipped to Malaya. Regrettably, I had missed the opportunity of saying goodbye to some very good friends!

    About a week after my return, Major Sidebottom informed Sgt Ken Cheater (of 5 Troop and our Rover Crew Leader) and myself that we had been Mentioned in a Despatch for Distinguished Service. After offering his personal congratulations, the Major went on to tell us we were recipients of Britain's oldest military honour. To this day I do not know exactly why I received an Oak Leaf, however, I suspect it was something to do with carrying Major Russell to safety as both Bill Wheatley and Alan Hughes were later told that they too had been Mentioned.

    Guard Duty

    While awaiting further orders, the Regiment had been given the responsibility to guard both a Prisoner of War Camp and a large haul of captured German equipment located north of Rimini. The former a few hundred yards from the Adriatic, the latter somewhat further inland.

    A couple or so days following the Anniversary Dinner, I was given command of the guard at the entrance of the main encampment which housed several thousand POWs. Although it was for a whole week, it was a cushy job as all we had to do, twice each day, was to escort groups of 500 prisoners to the sea for a swim. In rows of four led by the camp's senior NCO, who always gave me a snappy salute, they were counted out guarded by just a couple of my chaps - an hour or so later they were counted back in - never was an escape attempted!

    On another occasion, I was in charge of the guard (a twenty-four hour duty only) on the store of German equipment. It covered a few acres and was surrounded by a high fence designed primarily to keep out the local populace (who cast envious eyes upon the contents particularly the mounds of tyres) rather than to stop prisoners who were maintaining the equipment from escaping.

    The Great Debate

    With the announcement that a General Election had been called, our CO, Lt Col AWA Llewellyn-Palmer DSO MC, had instructed Squadron Leaders to have meetings with their troops for the purpose of emphasising the importance of casting a vote. Consequently, Major Sidebottom decided that he, acting as moderator, would conduct a debate on the pros and cons of the two political parties. Having reached this momentous decision, he asked (or should I say "ordered") Jimmy Wiggins to head the debating team for the Labour Party and myself for the Conservatives.

    A couple of days later the Squadron gathered to hear the two teams, each of three, swing into verbal action. I wish I could record that my team was the winner, regrettably it was not so - Jimmy Wiggins and his team correctly forecast the defeat of Britain's wartime premier, Winston Churchill!

    Back to School

    Although the war with Germany was over, Japan was still undefeated, consequently there was no letup in ensuring that the Regiment was kept "Up to Snuff." One morning, while I was aboard Ballyrashane busily going through netting procedures with the Squadron's other tanks, someone popped his head through the turret to tell me that Skipper wanted to see me as soon as the netting was completed. Dutifully parading as ordered, I was astonished to be told by the Major, as the Regiment was not expected to make a move in the immediate future, I had been selected to go to an Army Formation College which had been established in Perugia, for the purpose of furthering my "higher education." Skipper went on to tell me that I was to leave in a couple of days, but he did not say (nor did I ever find out) why I was one of the few from the Regiment to be so chosen. Perhaps my team's defeat at the "Great Debate" had something to do with it!
    Early on Sunday morning, 1st July, I boarded transport Perugia bound. While on the way, I recall thinking of words uttered by Jaques, a character in Shakespeare's "As You Like It." Although I wasn't feeling quite as was the "Whining schoolboy" who crept "unwillingly to school," I must confess, I was not exactly enamoured with the prospect of being cloistered in some dusty classroom for heavens knows how long.

    Army Formation College, Perugia

    [​IMG] After a journey of a brief few hours, we arrived at the foot of the hill upon which Perugia sits. On looking up, one could not but remember how many weeks (and at the cost of so many lives) had been the journey in reverse. Slowly we drove up a winding road to eventually reach what was to be my home for the next five weeks - sitting at nearly 3,000 feet, the XVII Century Gallenga Stuart Palace which, a few years earlier, had become L'Università per Straniere.

    As we had arrived just in time for lunch, I was told that the checking in process would take place after 'we' had eaten - I use the pronoun as my driver was also invited to partake of the meal prior to setting off on the return trip to the Regiment. The registration was a simple affair, consisting mainly of being given a couple of forms to complete - a questionnaire as to one's educational background and the other a listing of available courses, two of which to be selected. After being allocated a room, the Registrar said I was free for the remainder of the day, except for attendance at a gathering of students immediately following the serving of "afternoon tea." I discovered later, in the world of academia, the serving of both morning and afternoon tea was a delightful necessity!
    After tea we gathered in the main hall for the introductory meeting conducted by a Lt Colonel of the Army (later Royal Army) Educational Corps. First we were given a brief history of the Corps, from the 19th Century Corps of Army School Masters, through its present formation in 1920 to the present. He went on to tell us that, with the war's end, the Corps had been given the daunting task of returning a national Army to a civilian occupation. Additional to the posting of Education Officers to Units, with the task of giving pre-release advice, the Corps was currently in the process of organising an extensive network of Formation Colleges.
    Explaining, that while the College was administered by the AEC, members of the academic staff were civilians thus, in the College we would be addressed as "Mister" not by our military rank. Following a brief session of questions and answers, the CO concluded his remarks by informing us, should we at any time find the classroom claustrophobic just step outside for a breath of fresh air.

    [​IMG] To provide for our physical well being daily exercise programmes were held and time given for the playing of various sports - one memorable being participation in a fifteen over's cricket match. With my roommate "Chunky" (on the left) as he wished to be called, (his name I have forgotten) a lot of time was spent playing tennis quoits on a court set up on the inner quadrangle. One Sunday, I believe it was the fourth, we took part in a knock-out tournament, although neither of us reached the finals of the singles event, as partners, "Chunky" and I won the doubles.
    Of the subjects available I had selected Geography and English Literature, both choices turning out to be enjoyable the former particularly so. With so much to do, in and out of the classroom, the weeks went by so quickly that it was a surprise when it was announced that transport would be coming on the morrow to take the students back to their units. After bidding "Chunky" and other new friends farewell (knowing that our paths would most likely not cross again) I was on my way to rejoin the Regiment - it was Saturday, the Fourth day of August.

    On the Road Again

    A few days following my return to the Squadron, word came the OC wanted to see me. On reporting, I was surprised to find that Major Sidebottom was accompanied by the Squadron's one time SSM, now RQMS (Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant) William "Tubby" Docksey.

    Coming straight to the point, Skipper told me to volunteer to undertake an "important [​IMG] mission" which turned out to be going to Benevento, locating the premises of Strega Alberti, then bargaining for as many bottles of Liquore Strega as possible. He went on to explain that the purchase was to be equally divided between the Officer's and Sergeant's Messes who were providing the necessary funds. Before I could say anything, it was the turn of the SQMS to turn the screw somewhat tighter by informing me that a 15-cwt Bedford and driver would be made available for my use and that I could make the trip a leisurely one. However, he concluded with a stern warning, that I had to be back no later than one week "or else." When asked if I had any questions, I suggested, that as I had been away from the Squadron so much, perhaps consideration should be given to selecting someone else. The OC said something to the effect that had I forgotten Major Russell's words when he asked me to bargain for some chickens? As I was still without my third stripe, I wanted to say that I didn't see what anything that occurred so long ago in Algeria was relevant, but prudence prevailed. The growing suspician that the pair had previously considered that I may object was confirmed, when the SQMS administered the coup de grâce. He reminded me that I was in his debt, quoting the occasion he had covered for me when I returned late from a 24-hour leave just before the Regiment had departed Wickham Market.

    The Grand Tour

    Tuesday, 14th August 1945

    Two days later as daylight dawned, with about 280 miles to go, we were off on the way south. In our possession, an impressive looking but completely ficticious set of travel orders, a purchase order for the Strega people, several tins of cigarettes, a Compo Box and a considerable sum of Italian lire stashed in the 15cwt Bedford's toolbox.

    With 'B' Squadron's L/Cpl Miller at the wheel we drove alongside the Adriatic until reaching our turning-off point at Pescara about lunchtime. Although we had six jerricans of petrol on board, we decided to fill up at the local POL (Petrol, oil and lubricant) supply point where, much to my personal relief, the NCO in charge only gave our papers a cursory look. As the local NAAFI was nearby we stopped there before travelling on - I cannot recall what we had to eat, whatever it was it was gratefully received by two hungry travellers!

    At Pescara, the railway line which ran parallel to the road which we had travelled branched into two directions - one line continuing south, the other to the west. We debated whether to follow the railway line as it branched off, hovever, on a closer examination of the map, we decided to continue along the coast road to the south.

    The town of Ortona, the capture of which had cost so much Canadian blood, was soon reached - although there were a few signs of rebuilding, obviously a great deal of reconstruction work lay ahead. After a short pause, we continued southwards until reaching the small town of Termoli where, by unanimous consent, we decided it was time to brew-up - the pleasant way, not what had happened to too many of our tanks the previous May. The town, which had been liberated by Commandos and the SAS, after a fierce battle almost exactly one year earlier, looked to be in a much better shape than the town we had driven through a couple of hours earlier.
    A few miles further south, following the road swung away from the coast, we reached Citta di San Severo where we found a small ristorante open for business. Except for some delicious crusty bread and a glass of vino, I cannot recall exactly what we had to eat, but I do remember that it was a meal enjoyed by both of us. Although "mine host" would not allow us to pay anything, he was most pleased to accept a tin of Compo Box cigarettes in lieu of lire. The inner man well satisfied it was time to call it a day - both of us were tired enough not be bothered by the area's history of being damaged by many an earthquake - so we settled down for the night a short distance out of the town.

    The Grand Tour

    Wednesday, 15th August

    Early next morning we set off, not taking the main road to Foggia but a minor one to Lucera where the Regiment had trained with units of 1st Canadian Corps. Not locating exactly where, despite asking for information from one of the locals, we gave up looking for the training area deciding we had better be on our way.

    Rejoining the main road (E-56) at Foggia we set off following the route we had taken in May, however, this time in daylight. Driving on the winding road, up and over the mountains, we wondered how it was possible that 8th Army had managed to follow the same route the previous May, without being detected by the enemy.

    [​IMG] Eventually arriving in Benevento it was time to set about the business in hand - how many bottles of the golden ambrosia could we persuade the Strega folks to sell to further the noble cause of keeping two NIH messes happy? On locating the premises of the family Alberti (not the imposing modern facility that it is today) negotiations commenced which turned out to be really easy and no doubt helped by L/Cpl Miller (he was the smoker) offering cigarettes all around coupled with the owner's command of the Engish language. I cannot remember how many bottles were purchased - it was a goodly number - the "purchase order," so carefully constructed, was only glanced at. Once the deal was consummated and a bill of sale received (I had to account for every lira spent on my return) it was time to sit down to enjoy walnuts washed down with a glass of "Witches Brew."

    Signore Alberti was a most interesting chap. He told us that the family had been in business since 1860 producing their product from an old secret family recipe. The name Strega, which translated means "witch," was chosen as Benevento, according to an old legend, is the place where an annual coven is held attracting witches from all over the world.
    The time had come for us to to be on our way, as I was anxious to get through Caserta before dark. Uppermost in my mind was always the possibility of being stopped, by an inquisitive MP wanting to know what was stowed under the 15-cwt's tarpaulin. Reluctantly, we bade farewell to Signore Alberti, after offering thanks for his hospitality we gave him a few tins of cigarettes which at first he declined to accept.
    We drove through Caserta without any untoward incident, then northwards on Highway 6. I was oberwhelmed by a profound sense of déjà vu when passing through towns with scenes of much devastation. First, Capua on the river Volturno, then Cassino (the road through the town had been reopened) through Frosinone to Valmontone a few miles north of which we decided to call it a day. Somewhere en route we managed to fill up at a POL without any questions being asked!

    Thursday, August 16th

    Even before it became light, we set off determined to resist the temptation to stop in Rome knowing, once we were through the Eternal City, the chances of being stopped by a Red-cap were considerably reduced.

    [​IMG] After successfully making our way through the city, at a fork in the highway, we branched left on the road to the ancient city of Siena, which my companion (for a reason I have forgotten) particularly wanted to see. As we drove on enjoying the journey through countryside untouched by war, on reaching the shores of Lago di Bolsena two hungry travellers decided it was time to stop for a long overdue breakast. Resuming the journey, after two hours or so, we arrived at Siena to find the main square, Piazza del Campo dominated by the building in the photograph, bustling with activity.

    As we stood watching what seemed to be thousands of people lining all sides of the square, upon which there appeared to be a race-track of sorts, two handsomely robed gentlemen approached us. One, who had a good command of English, asked had we come to see the Corsa del Palio. On replying that we were just stopping on our way to Florence, he insisted, as liberators of his country, that we must stay and as honoured guests we would be seated on a stand that had been erected on one side of the square. Thanking him for the kind offer but it was one we could not accept - we had been entrusted to transport some "valuable material" vital to the well-being of our Regiment, therefore we could not leave our transport unattended. Apparently, the two of them were persons of some considerable importance, as they were able to assure me that the vehicle would be guarded by a Poliziòtto while we were enjoying the afternoon's spectacle. After a member of the local constabulary had arrived to protect the Bedford 15-cwt we were escorted to the stand where we were introduced to many of the local dignitaries. To our surprise we were given prime seats as befitted those of such an "honourable status."
    [​IMG] We witnessed, on that wondrous afternoon, the return of a centuries old pageant "Corsa del Palio" that had not been presented for a couple of years due to the war. Our friendly host gave us a running commentary, much of which I have forgotten, explaining the significance of the various ceremony's colourful segments. It was an interesting combination of traditions, both religious and secular, culminating in horses, both with riders and without, running clockwise for several laps around the track.
    Very reluctantly, we had to turn down a kind offer to attend a post-pageant dinner, pleading that the supplies we were carrying were urgently required at our unit stationed on the Adriatic coast. In truth, we were getting somewhat concerned, although we had not tapped any of the jerricans, about the fuel situation, not knowing whether or not there was a POL dump in the that part of Italy. Following the many goodbyes, we returned to our waiting transport to find it in good shape, thanks to the Italian bobby who was pleased to accept one of our diminishing stock of cigarettes. After driving about half of the sixty miles to Florence on Hwy 222 (Via Chiantigiana) we decided to call an end to what had turned out to be a most enjoyable day.


    Early next morning we were on our way, hopefully to soon find a POL location, but we were diverted when, about five miles short of Florence, we saw a sign on the right-hand side of the road pointing to the home of The Florence Golf Club.

    [​IMG] I recall saying to my companion something to the effect that it was a course I had to see. Sure enough, after a short drive we pulled in front of Golf dell'Ugolino's elegant clubhouse. We had arrived where, shortly before the outbreak of the war, a couple of professional friends of my Father had played in the Italian Open - the course, one of Italy's finest, having been opened for play in the mid-thirties. Somewhat surprisingly, the course looked to be in excellent shape, so much so, it was with great reluctance that I turned down the offer of a loan of a bag of clubs with which to play a few holes - we had to press on. However, we did find time to share a glass of vino with a rather ancient gentleman, a member for over half a century. A most interesting chap, he proudly told us that not one German soldier had set foot in "his" clubhouse!

    Once more we were on our way, soon to cross the river Arno, arriving in Florence where we quickly located the POL point. Resisting the temptation to explore the city - or, more truthfully, we felt it prudent not to further delay our return to the bosom of the Regiment perhaps having to face questions as to why we had been away for so many days!
    Exiting Florence on the Hwy S67, in a couple of hours we reached Forli to there turn south-east to arrive home about an hour later. First things being first, we sought out RQMS Docksey to deliver our cargo and to account for the monies expended. It turned out, our fears of being questioned proved to be groundless! Thus ended a pleasant semi-tour of Central Italy.
    The following day word came that Major Sidebottom wanted to see both myself and Alan Hughes. When we reported, he first told us that the Squadron had been allotted a week's leave for two, at a Rest Centre located on the shores of Lago di Como in Northern Italy. Then he went on to tell us that he had decided that Alan and myself should be going. Alan richly deserved the rest, but myself after being away so much? I remember, although I had learnt long ago that one does not look into the mouth of a gift horse, I was so astonished that my thanks must have seemed to be less than adequate.

    Off Again

    The distance from Rimini to Como is nearly four hundred kilometres by road. Although Highway S9 goes through towns such as Bologna, Parma, Piacenza and Milan, I have no recollection of the journey either going or returning, nor in what transport Alan and I travelled. Whether it is the passing years or that I did not keep a written record I do not know - I trust it is the latter!

    Arriving at the Rest Camp in Como, after checking in we were given a room with four others, the six of us spent the whole of the seven days in each other's company. One of us, I cannot remember who, termed us "The Sprightly Six" - for a photograph and names of the happy band see "Memories of Leave in Como" below.

    Of all the memories, which included boating on Lago di Como, chatting with guards at the Swiss Frontier and trips up the funiculare to Brunate, two stand out, the seemlingly inexhaustable stories that Joseph had to tell and a wonderful round of golf.

    I cannot recall how the coversation got around to golf - probably it was the subject of one of Joe's tales. Anyway, while we were enjoying lunch and a spot of vino at a small locanda near Brunate, the conversation came around to golf. Our ever attentive waiter, overhearing us, mentioned that he played on the nearby Montorfano Golf Club and that he was sure we would find a welcome there. When Tom and Gordon (both golfers) and I said we would like to go, the other three said they would tag along.
    The following morning, crammed in a taxi, the six of us made our way to the course. Arriving at the clubhouse we were almost overwhelmed by the warmth of the reception we were given, certainly all of "you can play as our guests" . Not having any clubs we were each given a set with which to play, surprisingly, those in my bag were made by the famous Scottish clubmaker George Nicholl, of which mention has been made previously. Thus equipped and with a caddy for each of us, we made our way to the first tee. With an audience of about twenty, we all made a fairly respectable drive - including Joseph who stood with his feet splayed almost at 180º. It was a wonderful day that I will always remember, helped by Memories of Leave in Como.

    Addio Italia

    Back again in Rimini, the next couple of weeks passed uneventfully until being told that the Regiment had been warned to prepare for a move to Austria to take up garrison duties. It came as no surprise, but with perhaps a twinge of regret, we also learned that our faithful "Mountain Goats" were to be left behind.

    Early in the morning, Thursday, 11th October it was all aboard a train bound for Austria. The journey was an interesting one, particularly for those who had taken part in the final phase of the Italian Campaign. As we travelled toward Ferrara, the train crossed the many bridges over rivers and dykes each of which had presented a barrier to our tanks as they fought their way northwards. One could but guess how many Bailey Bridges had been built, fascines dropped and Churchill Arks employed in the Po Valley.
    On reaching Ferrara our train stopped for a short while, as did the Regiment prior to crossing the river Po. When we arrived at Rovigo (the furthest point north reached by our tanks) we had a chance to stretch our legs, the train having stopped for about an hour, awaiting the arrival of a south-bound train, before crossing the river Adige on the [​IMG] reconstructed bridge. There was another short wait upon arrival at the much bombed city Padua, then it was into the hills and a slow climb to and up the Brenner Pass. It was still daylight, as our train chugged its way upwards. How effective the Allied Air Forces had been, was evidenced by the numerous destroyed German vehicles we saw. Eventually, reaching the head of the pass at 4,508 feet, we truly could say "Goodbye Italy."
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