Wellington Scoop

My father’s diaries

by Lindsay Shelton
It was only this year that I read my father’s wartime diaries for the first time. There were no revelations. But there was an under-stated accumulation of basic facts and simple routines. One small page for every day that he was away from home – building a picture of his life as a quarter-master at the constantly-moving headquarters of the 2nd New Zealand Division in Egypt and Italy. A life which he never talked about.

Letters from home. He numbered each air lettergram from home – finally there were more than 100 from my mother. When letters failed to arrive, he wrote about his disappointment. He diaried a description of every letter or parcel. “Received a cake … received some papers which have been on the way for a very long time.”

“Worked tonight instead of writing. We are allowed to use more air lettergrams now but the supply is limited… Went to bed early after writing to Mum and Dad …Have managed to get two parcels sewn up. No mail for some time but we are hoping to get some soon.” And later: “Received 14 letters. How will I ever answer them all? … Received six parcels including pyjamas … Sewed up two umbrellas and posted them. Made a box and packed the plates which no doubt will arrive home broken. Also sewed up the gloves for Mum…”

Friendships. “We had a few bottles of beer and a good old chat about everything in general… We had a cup of tea and spent the evening talking and listening to a good programme on the radio…”

Italy in January 1945. “The mud was absolutely terrific. Then it started to snow heavily…. The heaviest frost I’ve ever seen, and everything is frozen solid. The road was solid ice… The mud is simply frightful.” And a month later: “A glorious day. The mud began to dry up. It was warm enough to discard our leather jerkins.”

Drunkenness. “Was in the greatest danger I’ve been in, as our inebriated soldiers put up a terrific barrage and bullets were flying everywhere. Understand that one chap got shot through the head and died… The men due to go home are doing some steady drinking; I don’t know why…Have never heard so many men hopelessly drunk as they were tonight, just because some of them are returning to New Zealand.”

The officers. “Left early this morning to buy poultry for the General. Managed to secure one turkey, one duck, one rooster and two hens at the price of 260 lira per kilo. There were ten kilos in this lot. Paid in cigs, soap and cash. Have decided that the general won’t see the duck.”

The locals. “A good Italian fight in the Square tonight when the women took to some men in great style. Troops were called in but it gradually subsided and all was quiet after half an hour.”

Unexpected events. “We were going on to Trieste but had to wait for a bridge to be built. Thirty of us got leave into Venice and we were greeted like heroes. Went for a ride in a gondola…Partisans and fascists fighting in the city all afternoon.”

The fighting. “We are likely to receive a very severe German attack here and may have to give ground, so all is in readiness.” And a few days later: “A fair bit of German shelling going on tonight… A big number of tanks moving up tonight…A lone German plane visited us tonight and we didn’t manage to shoot him down.”

Danger. “Jerry got busy with his artillery and was putting shells all round us all night. Thought I was brave but was getting too nervous. No damage fortunately.” And later. “Consternation this morning when we were told we were to move tonight. One of the busiest days I’ve ever had, packing the truck … We had to drive all night. I have never been more tired in my life… Our new area is in the yard of a large farm. Our truck is a yard or two away from a nice smelling pig… A mad flap when we had to get camouflage nets for all the trucks… A huge amount of traffic on the road, so looks as if our big attack may be going in soon. Will be glad when it gets going, to finish off the job.”

Two days later: “The attack started today and waves of bombers were overhead from 2pm onwards. They kept going till teatime. The guns started after tea and there was a terrific rumble with the truck trembling all the time…May have to move forward tomorrow.” After the move. “The scene of the bombing and shelling is simply terrible. The Germans must have had terrific casualties.” Two days later. “As usual we moved up too far. Soon after we arrived, Jerry started shelling us. It increased as the day went on. Len and I decided to dig a slit trench after lunch and it probably saved our lives – just as we had dug deep enough to cover our heads, a shell landed 18 yards away and an officer was killed.”

May 1, 1945: “1500 Germans attacked the unit at about 2am. A narrow escape for us, as we had 700 prisoners in the cage. We were posted all over the paddocks with rifles, but fortunately did not have to use them. They burnt lots of our trucks, captured others, and took some of our chaps prisoners.” The next day: “We went another 80 miles north today and were feted and cheered all the way. One day later: “The war in Italy is over, so we are told. But we may yet have trouble with Tito and his army.”

Another day later. “We are now living in the magnificent castle of the Duke of Aosta. The Germans marched out in front of us. There was a terrific lot of stuff left behind. Chaps got piano accordions and wireless sets.” Ten days later. “Two tailors and two tailoresses came in today to start alterations to summer uniforms. Got them installed in the castle and they soon had a terrific pile of work.”

Local friends. “Len spruced himself up and dashed off into Trieste tonight. Looks as though he must have some attraction there … Len went off to the beach with his friend… Len away all day … We went once more to our friends at the ladies’ dress shop…Went to say goodbye to our friends and took them some food and they gave us each a petticoat for our wives.”

Family matters. “Another wedding anniversary away from home, the third one. I wonder if I’ll be home before the next one?”


  1. Rosanne Robertson, 26. April 2013, 15:48

    I read this with interest as I recently published a book called For the Duration by Bruce Robertson, through Ngaio Press, based on my late father’s diaries and memoirs of WWII. He fought in the Middle East and was a POW in Italy and Germany (last with Upham). I’ve been in contact with Tom Scott today because a Wellingtonian, also at the War with Dad, is 97 – at least – and living now in Sawtell, NSW. We have both met him and hopefully his escape story in Italy with a Christchurch fellow called Hugh Flower, will get some broader coverage.
    Yesterday for the first time I started reading copious letters which Dad wrote to my mother and grandmother and I have never tackled before. If the first few are anything to go by they will give another great picture of life as a WWII soldier. Be interesting to discuss further.

  2. Alana, 27. April 2013, 22:23

    I enjoyed these passages so much, The brisk, journalistic quality is probably the tone of the time. So much under the surface then. Thanks.