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New Year At Castelfrentano

by Des O'Connor
Some Recollections of a 2WW Artilleryman To 4 Fd Regt Return to artillery of 2 Div Arty

The gun position that we (B Troop, 4th NZ Field Regt) occupied over the 1943/44 New Year period in Italy was to the left of an abandoned brickworks - a prominent landmark forward of the hilltop town of Castelfrentano and linked to it by the 'mad mile' - a stretch of road so named because it was under constant enemy surveillance and subjected to periodic concentrations of artillery fire.

We had arrived in Italy straight from the deserts of North Africa and were ill-prepared for the strange new terrain and for the extremely different weather conditions to come. On New Year's Eve 1943 it snowed heavily. It so happened that my quad (B3) was parked conveniently close to the guns and a few of us spent much of that night in the comparative comfort of that vehicle; warmed by a primus stove and sustained by coffee laced with rum (a moderate amount of which we had carried with us from Egypt).

As per normal practice we had covered our gun with a camouflage net held aloft by tubular steel uprights and secured by guy ropes also made of steel. By the time morning arrived on New Year's day, the weight of the snow had caused the net to collapse across the top of the gun. It had merged totally with the dial sight whose cover had fallen off. The tightly packed snow was heavily reinforced by the hemp camouflage netting interlaced criss-cross with strips of scrim garnishing and we had to cut it into blocks in order to free the dial sight and restore the gun to actionable condition. Ours was not the only gun in trouble on the 1/1/44 and the salutation "Happy New Year Fritz", planned to be fired on that day, had to be postponed until the 3rd.

The cartridge component of our ammunition, some of which followed us from Africa, was similarly unaccustomed to the conditions. The moisture that the cordite had absorbed in its new environment made it difficult to ignite and we found the frequency of misfires very frustrating indeed. After each such failure we had no inclination to follow the laborious procedures detailed in the drill book - we would simply open the breech rapidly ejecting the brass cartridge - load another one and try again. The ejected cartridge case would remain where it felt in the gunpit with its small red bag still inside (glued to the primer) and the larger loose (blue & white) bags strewn around the gunpit floor. On one occasion after an inordinately long sequence of misfires we succeeded in getting a round away! But we could not eject the empty cartridge case because the breech block (that operated vertically) was jammed closed. It had never happened to us before and we were baffled - that is until a tally of the discarded blue & white cordite bags revealed two missing - one of each colour! They had failed to eject along with the cartridge case after the preceding misfire (in spite of the fact that the gun was in an elevated position) and we had fired nearly twice the normal charge. A little while later after the judicious use of a sledge hammer; some abrasives applied to both sides of the breech block and a generous application of lubricating oil, our gun was back in action again.

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