I was introduced to the Mortars

This article appeared in the April 1984 The Battalion Remembers booklet.   

I was introduced to the Mortars

I rejoined the Battalion at a place called Castel Frantano. It was winter and the snow lay thick on the ground. It also blanketed the incoming shells so that they burst with a dull thud instead of the cheerful crash! All a bit disconcerting.  

Colonel Fairbrother had the Battalion and they had been withdrawn from the line for a rest period. The Colonel said. "I don't know what I'm going to do with you Aperahama, we're full up. Lots of new people.  

"Let's see". He tapped his teeth with a pencil.  

"We had two Officers killed just before we pulled out. Lou Paul and George Katene. Katene was Mortar Officer". He fell silent. I could hear him thinking.  

"Know anything about mortars, Aperahama?"  

"Not a thing Sir, except I used to hate having them in my platoon area when we were in the desert. Things like guns, tanks and mortars milling about drew a lot of fire, and we didn't like it. I've been on the receiving end of Mortar Fire many times and, that's not nice!"

Fairbrother gave a loud guffaw. "They're the things to pin the infantry down. I've heard that a good mortar crew can put five bombs in the air from one gun, nose to tail before the first one strikes."  

"I'll check on that, Sir, and let you know."  

He looked at me blandly. "Yes, do that," he said. "Now toddle off to the mortars and see what you can do with them. They're a pretty wild lot, by the way. But do your best and I'll soon have you out of it.  

Rangi Tutaki was the Adjutant. We'd gone to O.C.T.U. together in N.Z. We shook hands warmly.  

"I'm taking over the mortars; and I want a runner to show me the way to their billets."  

"Mortars! Cripes, Jim!" he said, and gave me a queer look. "You know about George?" he queried.  

"Yes, Fairbrother told me."  

I noticed he had his third 'Pip.' He saw me looking. "Yes, he said with a giggle, it goes with the job."  

"Runner", he bellowed. A figure muffled against the bitter cold popped into the brazier heated office.  

"Skip down to the mortars and tell Sergeant Bell to report here right away." We talked idly until Bell arrived. Bell's eyes roamed from face to face.  

"New Officer for you, Bell."  

I knew Charlie Bell, we'd sailed from N.Z. on the same ship. He's done a fair stint in the infantry, and was then sent on a Mortar course.  

"Got much gear?" Tutaki asked.  

"The usual."  

"Better take the C.O's jeep. Make it snappy though. He may want it at any time." We piled aboard and ground our way through the snow, four wheeled drive and all fitted with chains.  

It did not take long to reach the billet. Bell threw the door open of a large farmhouse kitchen.  

Twenty or so men lolled about drinking a variety of alcoholic beverages.  

Bell roared out; "On your feet everyone. This is our new Officer, Mr Aperahama."  

They scrambled to their feet groggily.  

Two figures made no effort to rise . "What's the matter with those two?" I asked Sergeant Brown, another N.C.O , I knew well and liked.  

"Out the 'monk', I'd say, Sir!!!"  

I walked over and examined the two recumbent forms. No doubt about it. The 'monk' all right.  

"All right, at ease everyone."  

They collapsed again with grateful sighs.  

Bell hurried over with a tumbler full of whisky. I took it with a murmur of thanks. In spite of the roaring fire and the charcoal braziers set about the room I was still cold. I raised my glass and said; "A Merry Christmas to all!" "A Merry Christmas", they replied and drank up.

I finished my drink and stood up, and gave my first order. "Breakfast will be at 0700hrs, platoon parade 0800hrs. Dress Battle dress, great coats, leather jerkins if in possession. Webb equipment including small pack. Rifle and bayonet with 100 rounds of ammunition in the pouches. Steel helmets, balaclavas may be worn under the tin hats if you wish. The parade will not take long, I want to have a good look at everyone and see what shape the platoon is in. That is all. I expect the Sergeants to have every man on parade at 0800hrs." Bell showed me a small cubby hole reached by a ladder in the ceiling. It was warm up there by the chimney. I crawled into my sleeping bag and was asleep in minutes.  

A few days later, at dusk we moved back into the line. We were taken some miles by M.T. and debussed along a wide shallow river full of boulders. We waded across and stepped on to the donkey track that served as a road. It was ankle deep in sludge and snow.  

We carried no mortars or bombs, only our personal gear, rifle, blanket, ammunition and rations. There was an exchange system in operation which worked very well. The occupying mortar platoon waited until they were relieved by who ever it might happen to be. This time it was us. Then they moved out leaving behind mortars and ammunition. About a mile along the slushy track, Bell stopped by a house along side the road.  

"Platoon H.Q." he said. "Reserve bombs etc; we leave twelve men here. We've got three mortars dug in here, ranged on Orsogna. We send the evening meal forward at night to the mortars up front. Another mile further up." The exchange was effected and Charlie and I moved on with the remainder of the men. Near the forward mortars we came under M.G. fire, firing on fixed lines from somewhere in the village. Fortunately for us the left side of the road had a ditch of about two feet deep. In an instant we were huddled in it packed like sardines while the lethal traverse hosed the road, and went screaming over our backs.

We reached the mortars and, relieved the anxious outgoing gunners who signed everything that had to be signed in 'jig time'. They said goodbye, and dwindled away down the track taking paces much larger than the regulation thirty inches. They knew that the fixed lines M.G.'s were due to open up and were anxious to cover the three hundred yards of open road and reach the shelter of the cemetery wall which masked the fire of the Spandaus. Once past the cemetery there were scattered houses, and all one had to do was to duck quickly from house to house to be reasonably safe.  

Bell and I talked quietly when a loud voice bellowed. "How did the change over go you English bastard?"  

"Take no notice it happens all the time. They've got an 88 position just over the second rise two hundred yards away. They fire down the valley at the river where we debussed. When they open up on the river we give them a few bombs that soon shuts them up."  

"Speaks pretty good English," I said.  

"Time we went Sir," Bell said. "They're ready to sweep that road any time now."  

Sgt Brown was in charge of the detachments, and as we went across the fatal three hundred yards, we too, took larger than the regulation thirty inch pace. We reached the comforting cemetery wall without an incident, and paused for a breather. We looked back across that innocent looking stretch of road so plain to see with its coating of snow and the black indents of our footprints. While we looked, the newspaper ripping sound of spandaus blasted the still night air. The surface of the road we had just crossed leaped and danced, lumps of snow flew into the air and snow dust thick and grey blotted out our forward mortar position.  

Bell put his mouth close to my ear and shouted, "We were lucky!"  

"Amen to that," I said.  

Abruptly the firing ceased. We moved on cautiously. At the end of the cemetery wall were three large concrete pipes left over from some drainage scheme. We froze in our tracks. We moved forward, rifles ready. The sight that met our eyes was unbelievable. A mounted spandau trained down the road we were following, and three German soldiers swathed in white Alpine overalls lay beside it sound asleep!  

With a shout Bell kicked the gun over. I prodded the sleepers awake with my rifle and they crawled out pale and shaken.  

We marched them back to Battalion HQ.'s, spandau and all, and presented them to a goggle eyed sentry, who hastily summoned reinforcements to take them to the adjutant for interrogation.  

For the winter, both sides had tacitly agreed on a static role for the Orsogna front. For four days, life flowed pleasantly for the mortar platoon. On the fifth day we received a message from Brigade to take delivery of four four point two (4.2) mortars which would arrive 1900hrs, together with two hundred bombs. They would arrive by bren carrier. A working party was to be on hand to assist with the unloading; at the mortar reserve ammunition base. At 1900hrs, promptly the carriers were heard grinding through the slush. With the twelve mortar men I had I managed to round up another eight from Bn. Quickly the new mortars were unloaded. They were crated and made handling easy. In half an hour the carriers were stripped of their cargo. Bell had a quick check and assembled one of the mortars in the farm house. A huge shining thing it was - base plate twice the size of the three inch mortars. Bombs simply enormous. Cases of charge one, two and so on. But horror of horrors, no range tables or sights, or manuals of instructions. Bell sprang up like a madman and raced outside to the officer in charge of the carriers, and explained the position. The officer promised to try and trace the missing articles from Brigade in the rear, and we had to let it go at that. We worked hard most of the night digging the new mortars in and stacking the ammunition in pits in small batches. Finally we threw camouflage nets over the lot and scattered twigs and leaves judiciously over them.  

Early next morning we obtained permission from Battalion to fire a 4.2 experimentally, using the three inch sight clinometer. The target was to be a belfry like tower in Orsogna. The propellant was charge one, the lowest, even so, we cut it down by a third. We had to get some idea of the capabilities of this new, beautiful monster!  

Bell twiddled with the sights, turned a few handles then sat back on his heels. He had been kneeling beside the mortar. "Ready to fire, Sir." There was quite a crowd of interested onlookers, including myself, standing at what we considered a safe distance.  

"Fire when ready," I said.  

"Fire"! Bell shouted. We all jumped. There was the usual "thunk" of a mortar discharge only this one shook the sodden ground we stood on. There was a rushing sound. All eyes were riveted on the tower, no doubt expecting it to be blown apart!  

"Must have gone right over," Bell called.  

"Yes," I said. The crowd shuffled uneasily.  

"Try another and cut the charge down a bit."  

Bell did so. "Ready to fire, Sir."  

"Fire when ready."  

"Fire!" We jumped again. Time passed. The tower remained undamaged. Both bombs had disappeared into thin air. Bell and I conferred. We studied my map. There was a deserted farm house half a mile to the left of our forward mortar positions. I got Sgt. Brown on the phone.  

"You know that farmhouse on your left?",  

"Yes, Sir."  

"We are going to have a go at it. Smoke bomb first. Get a man in position to observe, you stay on the phone and report what he says."  

"Right, Sir. The new ones doing the firing, Sir?"  


There was a short pause. Brown's voice said, "He's there now."  

"Number one coming up. Fire, Bell." he did.  

A long pause. "Well?" I queried. Brown's voice was apologetic. He said, "Unobserved, Sir."  

I was thunderstruck. Bell had used charge one and that farmhouse was over a mile from the gun.  I spoke into the phone. "You sure he saw nothing, Brown?" I heard Brown shouting at the observer. "Absolutely nothing, no sound, no smoke." "Very well, keep close to the phone we'll try again."  

Bell and I conferred once again. "We had better fire three in quick succession Bell suggested. I was all for cutting the charge down, but Bell pointed out the unpredictability of the new weapon and the possibility of the bombs falling short on our own lines. I agreed. Even if we couldn't observe them we knew that they fell in enemy territory and must cause damage of some sort even if they only frightened the hell out of some unsuspecting enemy soldiers.  

Bell got the three rounds off nicely, 'thunk'! 'thunk!' 'thunk!'  

I got Brown again. "They've gone," I said.  

There was a painful silence. Then Brown said "Unobserved, Sir."  

"Thank you, Sergeant, get the man down. We've finished for the day."  

I turned to Bell who was watching me with a quizzical smile on his face. It was too much. I burst out laughing and the spectators joined in.  

"Cover the bloody thing up Sergeant. I'll report to Battalion on our efforts."  

"Very well, Sir."  

At Battalion I was surprised to find we had a new Colonel, Russell Young. I explained the position to him. He grinned and said, "Well at least we fired them, the other Battalions didn't even do that. However, we're getting rid of them, Brigade is taking them over, going to make a whole battery. It'll give the Brigadier something new to play with. By the way, we're pulling out of here tomorrow night; being relieved by the Indians. Keep it under your hat, until fifteen hundred hours tomorrow."  

The time passed, and we were once gain on the move to an unknown destination which turned out to be Piedimonte d'Alife on the banks of the Volturno River. We stayed there for a fortnight. I managed to train with the mortars and thus improve my knowledge of these curious beasts. Although I learnt much about them I would never have qualified for the title of mortarman 'par excellence'.  

It was not long before we moved to positions in Cassino. After much hard fighting the Battalion was relieved by 24th Battalion and moved back to Mignano. During this period the mortars played little active part in the fighting that flowed back and forth over the mass of rubble that had once been Cassino. The mortars were dug in in a secure place and the personnel made use of in a variety of tasks which they performed nobly and well.   

On the 5-6 April the Division was to go back into reserve and on that night a Battalion of Coldstream Guards took over the Maori sector. It was at Mignano that my contact with the mortar battalion came to an end. I was promoted to Captain and posted to take charge of the Bren Carriers; with Lt. S. Urlich as 2/ic. As I drove off next morning; Cpl Mete Kingi, the platoon wit shouted; "You were a good officer Mr Aperahama. Good on you Jim. You're certainly a trier, and at least we taught you which end the bombs came out!"  

Jim Aperahama

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