The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 4 No 2 - December 1977

Museum News

First Day Cover

On 29 August 1977 the Museum issued 10 000 first day covers to mark the occasion of its thirty-fifth anniversary and the date on which the Museum’s coat-of-arms which appears on the covers was used for the first time.

The coat-of-arms was designed and drawn by Museum Artist, Mr Robert H. Wishart, with the assistance of the State Herald and his staff.

The motto, Scientia Per Historiam Armorum (Knowledge through history of arms), was suggested by Brig J.B. Bester, DSO, Vice-Chairman of the Museum’s Council of Trustees.

Tour of the 6th S.A. Division’s battlefields in Italy

Brigadier J.B. Bester, DSO, Vice-Chairman of the S.A. National Museum of Military History and a member of the Military History Society recently conducted a battlefields tour to Italy, which ended with a few days in London. One of the members of the tour was Lieut-Gen W.R. van der Riet, SSA, SM, MC, who has given us the following account of the tour.

On Saturday 11 June 1977 a group of old soldiers and their wives met at Jan Smuts Airport at 19h00 and began a never-to-be forgotten trip to the Italian Battlefields of the 6th S.A. Armoured Division.

Jack and Helen Bester were there to greet everyone. ‘Happy Jack’ was in fine form and got everybody safely on board in good time despite a delay or two on the Start Line.

Midday the next day found us in Rome where the weather was clear and warm and our tour bus with air-conditioning, music and TV was waiting. We settled down in the comfortable Hotel Boston and next morning, in sunny weather, were taken on a conducted tour of the Eternal City, always old and mysterious, always busy and humming with traffic, always something new to see or to revisit.

The next day we met our tour manager, Sydney Pinnock, an erstwhile RAF officer who settled in Italy after the war, worked for Qantas Airlines for many years and recently began managing tours — more about him later, and our driver, a delightful young Italian named Leonardo.

Off to Cassino, scene of that great battle for the monastery on the top of Monte Cassino. Quite a change here: the town has grown and the monastery has been rebuilt. Jack outlined the South African aspects of the battle and pointed out the well known areas like the North Passage, the Inferno Track from Acquafondata to the jeep-head at St Elia with the towering mass of Monte Cairo and Monte Cifalco completely dominating our 12th Brigade positions — what a battle — what heroism. Then further south to Caserta and Pompei where we enjoyed a conducted tour of the ancient city.

We then followed the wonderfully scenic coastal route from Salerno via Amalfi and Positano to Sorrento — what a road — what a coach driver; had the coach been half a metre longer we wouldn’t have been able to get round some of the bends. Capri came next and we were enchanted by this beautiful island and its famous Blue Grotto and Villa San Michele. Back to Rome via Naples and the age old ‘Via Appia Antica’ and ready to follow in the tracks of the 6th S.A. Armd Division to the north.

As we retraced the Divisional axis through well-remembered places like Civita Castellana, Fabrica di Roma, Viterbo to Celleno, Jack Bester, our tour leader, recounted the famous actions that had been valiantly fought. Old soldiers of the 11th Armoured Brigade will remember the full-scale action with their tanks in the Battle of Celleno followed by the hard-won victory at Bagnoregio where men of the RNC scaled precipitous cliffs in rear of the enemy positions. The countryside was much the same as we had seen it thirty three years ago; undulating hills covered in hazelnut groves, sheer cliffs and deep ravines in places and altogether difficult tank country.

You will remember the city of Orvieto perched high on a hill with perpendicular cliffs all around; it looked formidable then and very interesting now. Skirting Allerona on top of the mountains on our left, we made for Chiusi and here we were fortunate to find an Italian who had lost a leg in the town at the time of the fateful battle in the Teatro Comunale. He unlocked the doors and our group was most interested to read the plaque inside which the local Italians had placed there in honour of, and commemorating, the gallant stand by the ‘South African Liberators’. En route further the countryside looked lovely, wild broom providing great splashes of yellow against the fresh green of the hillsides.

From Chiusi we ‘fought’ ever northwards and recounted and relived many stirring battles in which the Sappers made history by repairing bridges, making by-pass fords across the numerous streams and rivers, clearing mines — all very often right out in front under heavy enemy fire. Here, too, the Gunners vitally supported the vanguards in their thrusts forward and blasted the enemy in their defensive positions and on their routes of retreat. How the medical services and the ever present ‘Q’ services battled to keep the ‘boys’ fit, well-fed and replenished with all the tools of war! At Sinalunga one was reminded of the legendary Papa Brits telling the Germans over his tank radio to ‘get off my b..... air, don’t you know I’m fighting a war!’ Remember Radda and Volpaia? ‘The Royal Boere’ *WR/DLR will recall Monte Querciabella, Monte Fili and S Lucia in those days. All these battlefields areas we looked at, drove through and discussed from vantage points in, praise be, good weather.

[*WR/DLR Witwatersrand Rifles/De la Rey Regiment.]

Then came Greve, Imprunetta, Galluzzo and so to Florence where we found to our surprise and joy that we were booked in at the old 6 Division leave hotel, the Lucchese, on the banks of the river Arno. The group had a great time exploring the wonders of this great city — the Duomo with the bronze gates of Paradise, the Ponte Vecchio — Michael Angelo’s David — the Pitti Palace — Boboli Gardens — what memories, what great treasures!

Our next move was to Prato and from there we struck north up that well remembered tortuous road, known to us as Route 6620, and into the heart of the Apennines and up against that formidable enemy stronghold known as the Gothic Line. We passed through Vernio at the entrance to the 19 km Apennine Tunnel, the longest double-track railway tunnel in the world and which had been effectively blocked and demolished and from there to Castiglione dei Pepoli. In glorious weather we all visited the South African Cemetery. It has been said often, but it bears saying again, that the cemetery is immaculately kept and in its peaceful setting and sweeping view far up the valley is, indeed, a fitting resting place for our fallen comrades. Here at the cemetery the Mayor of Castiglione presented our group with a banner of the town in commemoration of its enduring association with South Africa.

Castiglioni cemetery
At S.A. Military Cemetery, Castiglioni

On with the war and by persuading our driver, Leonardo, to take his bus where no other bus has ever been, we visited the scenes of action along the old road through Lagaro then west up to Grizzana and the ‘mad mile’ to Monte Stanco. Here we stood on a mountaintop and Jack gave a first class account of how the WR/DLR and the **FC/CTH with supporting artillery tackled this stronghold from which previous attacks had been thrown back by the doughty German defenders.

[**FC/CTH First City/Cape Town Highlanders.]

The scene has not changed much, a few more casas and more trees — one’s memory is not always all that clear. From here during the next few days we visited the sites from where one gets a good view of the mountains and recalled the formidable battles for those well-remembered peaks at Points 725, 806, 826 — Monte Salvaro — also Monte Termine and Casa Creda and the difficulties of coping with the very rugged terrain, the evacuation of casualties — the mule-trains picking their way up perilous mountain tracks where no vehicle could move, in snow and over ice-covered rocks.

Further forward from a view-site overlooking the area of the great Army break-through battle into the Po Valley we reviewed our part in that epic night attack on Monte Sole, Monte Caprara, Monte Castellino and Monte Abelle.

(Note: Here at this stand the writer himself, Renaut van der Riet, who commanded the WR/DLR in this historic battle, gave us a vivid and graphic account of how his Regiment attacked and, after a night and day of the fiercest and bitterest fighting ever, captured the enemy stronghold on Monte Caprara and Monte Castellino. As Renaut described the battle we could visualise the action in detail — the weeks of preparation, patrols — night after night — recces, order groups,forming-up areas, start line, zero hour, approach across open ground through minefields all the while under intense enemy artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire, evacuation of casualties, regrouping, final assault and at long last hard won victory. After 32 years we found that the scars of war around Monte Caprara and Monte Sole have all but healed and but for a ruined farm-house here and there one might never guess it was once a battlefield — yet, in.fact, it was, with El Alamein, the toughest battleground encountered by South African troops in World War II . . J.B.)

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