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In Honour

Warren Warburton

War is never far from Warren Warburton's mind

Warren Warburton was an excited and adventurous 23-year-old when he left Invercargill to fight in World War II.

I know it’s something that’s on my mind every day of the week, just about.

But once there, the machine gunner often wondered if he would get back home.

The fact he did return, but some of his cobbers didn’t, was down to luck, he believes.

He fought in the battle of Cassino, was involved in one particularly fierce scrap with the Germans in northern Italy and twice survived friendly fire.

The Southland soldier, who was in the Gore territorials before the war, was with the 27th Machine Gun and Infantry Battalion of the New Zealand Division.

He spent two and a half years in Italy, including 32 days at Cassino, returning to Invercargill in 1946.

Seventy-five years later, the 99-year-old still thinks about his war years every day, and the thoughts aren’t always good.

Warren Warburton with his medals from World War II. PHOTO: KAVINDA HERATH/STUFF

His 32 days at Cassino were “delicate and hard”.

But it’s another battle in 1944 that sticks in his mind much more clearly, and it lasted just one day.

“We attacked a canal further up Italy,” he recalls.

“It was our job to charge up to a stop bank [in modified tanks] and capture it. We didn’t do it, we got hammered.”

The Germans had been waiting for them and of the 84 who went in, just 32, including Warburton, weren’t hit.

He doesn’t know how many died.

The next day, after the battle was over, they went back to the village of Medicina and Kiwi soldiers and German prisoners were digging about 30 graves for the fallen Kiwis.

Among the dead were some of his mates.

“That was a tougher time for me than Cassino, it was more direct, I was very much personally involved in this particular scrap.”

Anzac poppies adorn the doorway of World War II veteran Warren Warburton's room at an Invercargill retirement village. PHOTO: KAVINDA HERATH

He had been “emotionally geared up”.

“Your senses are going at 110 per cent, your brain’s working a lot quicker, your physical body is working a lot quicker, you get involved and once you start, there’s no backing out, you have to go through with it.”

He later says he has never mentioned this battle before, and he doesn’t know why he has now.

“I know it’s something that’s on my mind every day of the week, just about.”

Another bad memory was being “bombed twice by the Americans in the battle of Cassino”, he says.

Suddenly they all turned at right angles and came straight for us.

On the first occasion, a bomb from an Allied Flying Fortress bomber landed in Warburton’s camp and killed the troop commander and a corporal, and wounded five others.

What had gone wrong?

The bombers were meant to deliver their payloads in a sequenced rake of explosions, with gaps between them. The rumour was that in this case the whole kit and caboodle had descended in one almighty and tragically misplaced drop.

Warren Warburton recalls his time in World War II, good and bad. PHOTO: KAVINDA HERATH/STUFF

At 4pm on the second day of fighting, three American Marauders appeared overhead, approaching Cassino about three miles to the left of Warburton’s camp.

Which was strange, the Kiwis thought.

Where were they headed?

Another hurtful memory awaited.

"Suddenly they all turned at right angles and came straight for us."

Someone with binoculars shouted that they'd opened the bomb doors, and Warburton and his cobbers scattered like chooks.

Warburton dived to the ground as the rake of bombs went right through the camp.

The shrapnel caused one truck to burst into flames, riddled another, and left five men wounded.

“Americans aren’t my number one people, or nation if you like,” he says.

But he also has great memories of the war.

“We had good times too, great times, you get full of red wine, and it helps the day along a bit.”

World War II veteran Warren Warburton thinks about his experiences at war every day. PHOTO: KAVINDA HERATH/STUFF

Camaraderie was the best part of war, Warburton says.

“The bond was great, we were a healthy crew, very seldom would anyone get a cough or cold, we always talked about our family backgrounds and what we had done, all those things came to the surface over a period.”

He had a closer connection with his war cobbers than his civilian buddies.

“You know one another better, you see what each other can do, and not do, it’s a much closer relationship.”

When Warburton returned from the war he took over the family jewellery business in Invercargill and later married an employee at the business, Freda. They remain husband and wife 72 years later.

The last surviving of 11 siblings, Warburton knew of just two cobbers from his battalion who were still alive as of late March 2021.

World War II veterans should be remembered no differently from those who had fought in any war over the years, he believes.

“I think we should all give them a thought and remember them.

“We are inclined to forget those who didn’t come back, there’s a lot of them ... and they played a big, big part. Before they died they all had a story up to that time.”

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