Howard Chamberlain remembers the Waimate mate who saved his life
It is late 1943 in Italy, an end to World War II is still a long way off but seems to be drawing closer.
We’d break into a German camp at night, shoot everything in sight and get out. The main thing was to get out.
Waimate man Howard Chamberlain is among Kiwi soldiers finding pockets of resistance, Germans and their Italian allies, and as he terms it, “taking appropriate action”.”
He says it was nasty, bitter fighting with their enemy, Fascist “fanatics”.”
“We were trying to clean out groups that hadn't completely been wiped out. They started causing trouble when you’d gone past.
“There were both Germans and Italians, it was hard to tell one from the other at times. Some of them were changing their uniform and some had no uniform.”
Chamberlain and his mates dash to a house for cover.
He’s unsure where it was. All he knows is that it was one of two villages. High command never gave information of their whereabouts, and they could only pick the information up from street signs not blown up or blasted to bits.
“There was a window facing the road with quite a ledge. What it was used for I don't know. Myself and two others got under that.
“These Germans came walking down the street. They got mowed down.”
Other Germans were nearby, they concentrated machine gun and rifle fire on Chamberlain and about five other Kiwis sheltering inside the house.
“They sprayed the whole inside of the house. The others along the walls never had a hope, they were mown down. We were under the ledge. Most of us got wounded. We were all wounded some worse than others.”
Severely wounded in the right arm having been shot through the joint in his elbow, fellow New Zealand soldiers dashed inside to help.
One of them was Chamberlain’s mate from Waimate, Les Shefford, a farm labourer and second cousin with whom he had gone to school.
The memory brings tears to his eyes.
”Les, he died last year,” Chamberlain says. “He dragged me out.”
As Shefford pulled Chamberlain away from the carnage inside the house, a blast from a German bazooka exploded nearby.
“No-one survived 10 yards either side of it.”
We were trying to clean out groups that hadn't completely been wiped out. They started causing trouble when you’d gone past.
Chamberlain was wounded again. This time in the face.
“I was almost completely blinded by the bazooka.”
Les continued to drag him away. Reaching a safe position Chamberlain was desperately dry. They had little water. They had received rations of either cigarettes or one bottle of beer. Les still had his bottle of beer. He gave it to Chamberlain.
“I was bleeding fairly badly.”
Having been taken to a dressing station, Chamberlain was flown out in a small spotter plane, a trip which took three days.
“Others were getting carted out too.”
Reaching a hospital doctors wanted to amputate his right arm.
“I managed to talk them down. I said ‘leave it there.’ They said ‘it will be no good for you’.”
He got his way.
“I can use it up to a point. I can write my name with it. I can’t write a letter or anything. People just let me sign an initial.”
But he lost the sight in his left eye and after returning to New Zealand had to travel up to Burwood in Christchurch for months to receive treatment.
“They worked on that eye and saved it. They repaired it, but there’s no sight in it.”
Before the war Chamberlain worked in various jobs around Waimate, as a grocer, traveller and builder, until conscripted aged 18.
While training at Burnham, to his surprise, he and other soldiers were used to bolster a labour shortage on farms travelling out in trucks each day. Others worked on back country farms like Mt White station near Arthur’s Pass. He even went deer culling.
The one thing that kept me going: I married. She was a great gal.’
There was a lot of talk of going overseas but nothing came of it. That changed.
“Very suddenly the division was suffering a bad patch, and they were in need of reinforcements.”
He was off to war. His troop ship took a zigzag course to Freemantle.
“They were a bit scared of subs at the time,” he says, then on to Egypt and Maadi camp near Cairo for more training with marching and mock battles.
“We had two to three mock battles, the last one turned out to be our departure from there. We gradually got news of boats of all sorts congregating outside Alex [Alexandria].”
He embarked for Italy on an old coal ship, part of a large convoy of hundreds of vessels commandeered for the purpose.
“We were on the deck for two days and nights, huddled in one spot. We didn’t go anywhere and the only rations we had were what we carried on board.”
He stuck with a group of Waimate men, including Les. They were the only two to come home.
On reaching Italy, they found the Italians had surrendered to the Allies who were driving the Germans up the peninsula.
“They had strung Musso [Mussolini] up.”
German aircraft flew overhead, prompting the New Zealanders to blaze away with their guns.
“You couldn’t control some of the chaps. It’s not as difficult to shoot them down as you think. There were plenty of them shot down. All wanted a piece of the plane shot down. I joined in of course, but I never did souvenir hunting.”
Chamberlain says it was “dicey” with many Italians showing divided loyalties, one minute to the Germans, the next to the Allies.
“A terrible lot ... changed sides. A lot surrendered and wanted to help, but they weren’t trustworthy.”
Italians carted supplies to the New Zealanders on mules over rough country, and soon the Kiwis found some Italians helped themselves. The ration sacks, full on departure, were arriving half empty.
“The platoon commander, he told the ‘Itie’ in charge of the ration train as we called it, if the sacks didn’t arrive full, they’d be filled up with Italian soldiers, shot on the spot.”
That problem was sorted. Chamberlain and his fellow New Zealanders went into action.
“We’d break into a German camp at night, shoot everything in sight and get out. The main thing was to get out. That went on for quite a while.
“We were getting up country at that stage, but everything was pretty well under control. We struck sticky spots that didn’t go well for us. We lost quite a few, small payback for breaking into their camps. We got used to it happening at night.”
The Germans then attacked in daylight using Italian soldiers at the front as shields. The Italians having surrendered, and theoretically on the Allies’ side, refused to shoot. The New Zealanders were in a dilemma. They fired.
“We were told not to say anything about it. It was a very difficult situation to be in. There were times when what I did wouldn’t earn me a medal.
“We were told we were not allowed to shoot civilians. That we adhered to.
“There were a lot of times when you didn’t know whether you should shoot in that direction or not.
“We were getting shot up. The camp was in groups rather than any other formation.”
The New Zealanders camped near a river. Each morning civilians came with buckets to take water, one of them an old woman.
“We let them do that.”
We had two to three mock battles, the last one turned out to be our departure from there.
But they found themselves coming under constant attack.
“It took a week till we could pin it down. She [the old woman] was signalling the German troops where to open fire, where we were at our weakest point.
“We got instruction that day as soon as she appeared that morning to shoot her.”
The woman was shot. The visits to the river for water ended.
“We found similar cases before and after that too, it was the only way to stop it. The Germans used to send messages, if we killed, they’d kill more.’’
Back from the war, Chamberlain married Una, and farmed just outside Waimate. They had four sons. Una died a few years ago.
“The one thing that kept me going: I married. She was a great gal.’’
A bad right arm and blind in one eye did not stop Chamberlain becoming a champion road cyclist.
In 1946, trained by the legendary Phil O’Shea, he won the Timaru-Christchurch classic and competed in Australia. He coached one of his sons, Bruce to win the same race in 1990.
Chamberlain remains a stalwart of the Waimate Caledonian Society and helped organise the local games until four years ago.
The war has left the 98-year-old scarred. Remembering his time in Italy is like walking through hell.
He has never attended an Anzac Day service. It unlocks too much pain.
He says his youngest son Ken goes in his place.
And whenever he mentions Les’ name, the Waimate mate who saved his life, the tears flow.
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