From the World War II diaries of Major H.R.C. Wild. Italy. June 1944

With all the Allied Armies in Italy we just completed a big step forward in the march towards Germany. And what an odd collection these armies have been - Americans, French, Poles, all races of Indians, Moroccans, Sth Africans, Canadians, men from every part of the British Isles and ourselves.

The signposts on the road have reflected the various units - "Tenez a Droit", "Ozret Zakrysty", "Don't come any further, pal, if you want to see the States again", "Ladysmith Rd", "All Carruck traffic turn here", "Hongi's track", "Journey's end, Soldier, get out and walk, Tommy" – At one point we had a battalion of "free Italians" under us, commanded by a Rear Admiral - but as the COC said "You’d better send a corporal over to watch that fellow" - and "put a guard on your quartermaster’s store!" But of all of them, there were none like the Kiwis.



These are a new division, almost - there are few except officers, who have done more than 18 months - and yet the humour and independent carefree-ness of the Div is just as it always was. I wish some War Correspondent, instead of writing (as they always do) of "grim set faces and bursting shells", could capture the spirit of this ragtime Army of ours, and give you and NZ’s history a picture of our fellows, as they were in this latest advance, when the Germans were on the run. Of the seemingly ragged line of infantry slouching up the road and through the fields as NZers do slouch, dressed in every kind of garb - battledress, shirts, no shirts - but mostly every kind of hat - berets, before and afters, and tin hats, Yankee 10 hands, Jerry tin hats, straw hats, woolen cap comforters, borsalinos and stetsons, one with a woman's hat with a long ostrich feather effect, another in an opera hat, some without hats - men shuffling through villages and houses, some here looking for vino and eggs, another here climbing a tree for cherries, Maoris trying to start a knocked out German truck, or hitch a light a-tk gun to their jeep, a fellow leading a fowl on a string, another playing a looted concertina - and a tank with a stolen grand piano roped on behind.

I must tell you the tale of an episode I had myself. It should be entitled "The liberation of Castel di Liri" or "How they brought the Good News from Avezzano to Coriagno". It happened thus: one day, with a companion, I went out to see forward tanks which had just entered the sizeable town of Avezzano in Central Italy. All was jubilation and glee. An Ity came up to us and told us there was another place a little further on which also required "liberazzione" and would we kindly come. We looked at each other and pondered the one pistol between us, and calculated how far the Jerries could have run - but decided to give it a go.

I put most of my faith in my friend's knowledge of Italian and German and my own good luck. On we went. Soon we came to a blow on the road which appeared quite impassable - and discretion was fast overcoming all parts of valour and when a herd of locals arrived cheering and joyous, and pressed us to come on. They would show us a detour. So we took a good swig of the vino we'd been given at Avezzano to dutch up our courage, hoped there would be no mines, and went on - down a hillside, along a dried stream bed, and up the other side. From here on, to our amazement, there were no more demolitions, and we came soon to Castel di Liri. (It's a pretty name don't you think?) The torch bearers had gone ahead of us, so the townspeople knew liberation was at hand, and the welcome they gave us was literally fit for a King. People thronged out and lifted us from the vehicle and we were carried shoulder high through the streets, while the crowd went mad with excitement. Flags, - Italian, House of Savoy - and Jacks and Stars and Stripes which must have been made ready - appeared as if by magic from windows; the bells of the churches began to peal, bouquets of beautiful flowers were thrown at us and hung around our necks. I felt an awful fool, but looked round and found the other bloke was getting the same. A self appointed guard of partisans appeared and marched alongside us as a guard of honour - armed, I noticed, with Jerry Tommy guns.

Carabinieri and odd soldiers arrived with rifles which they fired in the air in the general confusion. All the time a couple marched along with concertina and fiddle, playing some Italian song that everyone joined in. Women (most of them old - the young ones were a bit coy, unfortunately) rushed out and hugged us, and kissed us on both cheeks, and pushed starry-eyed children up as if to touch the hem of our garments. Some of them were weeping for joy (I've never seen this done before - but they wept, all right) - others, also weeping, asked about sons and husbands taken prisoner in Africa - or killed in Sicily. It was hard to find words for them - but the fact that the War was over, was something. When we came to the house of Podesta (the mayor) we were pushed into plush chairs and piled high with flowers, and plied with wine, much wine – until we ourselves felt liberated, too. In an inspired moment I realised the occasion, and got my friend onto the balcony to make a speech. This he did in magnificent style, after we had persuaded the bellringers and concertina players to stop, and the crowd to quieten. He made some fine phrases about "peace and prosperity", "Parliament of the world", “belissimo patrio" and what not. When he choked and searched for words I would hold up my armful of roses and bawl "Viva l’Italia" in the peculiar intonation they use - and a gent down below would reply with "Viva gli Alleati" – Viva le Novo Zealandaisi" and the crowd - by now about 2000 - would shout and holler. Then I would prompt my speech maker with a few more words about "liberty equality and fraternity" - and on it would go. At length Davin had outrun his Italian and we went inside for more vino and flowers - and to be presented "no, to have presented to us" the elders of the people - an old soldier who fought against Germany last time, a widow with 3 sons killed in Africa, a young beautiful white faced girl in black whose husband had been shot by the fascists just one week before. Then there was a very formal request made to us for authority to execute immediately 20 fascists that they had locked up in a cellar. But we were merciful, told them to hold them till the Allied law and order came.

By now we were pretty well intoxicated - with power and whatnot and when someone told us Coriagno was also pining for liberation we went on and did that place, to do. It was the same thing again. On the way back the people of the first town pulled us out of our vehicle again and carried us off to a sort of the city hall for dinner. These people have no bread or meat, yet they gave us the best they had, beautifully cooked, elegantly served. It was a very special honour with only the Mayor, the two of us and the beautiful young antifascist widow who cried all the time, at the table. They gave us wine and soup and wine and spaghetti and wine and tinned fish (ex Germany) and cherries and peaches. Multo buono! I forgot to say that at Coriagno I was taken away by a priest into a church, set up in a high backed chair, and more or less publicly blessed. Very embarrassing - I think I know what George Rex felt like at his coronation when the Archbishop showed him to the people as their King.

The story has a lame ending. On the way back the liberators, loaded up with two Jerry prisoners, they had wished onto us, ran out of petrol - and spent a very unhappy night walking the road to keep warm, till morning, when we hired a boy on a donkey to go back to our troops to send us up some petrol!.

(Sue: "Davin" may well have been Daniel Marcus "Dan" Davin CBE (1 September 1913 – 28 September 1990) - an Invercargill born author who wrote about New Zealand, although for most of his career he lived in Oxford, England, working for Oxford University Press. )

Back to WILD STORIES