War oral history programme

Page 8 – Notes and questions, Italy

Italy – October 1943–April 1945

The squadron commander decided that we must get some plonk and relax. We relaxed with a great little party, then settled down in dirty, rotten, wet, cold weather under some olive trees, waiting for the next attack on Cassino.

Rae Familton, 20 and 18 Armoured Regiments, in Megan Hutching (ed.), A Fair Sort of Battering: New Zealanders Remember the Italian Campaign, 2004

Before you interview any veterans of this campaign, we recommend you read our Guide to recording oral history.

Background notes

The 2nd Division of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2 NZEF) landed in Taranto in Italy in October 1943. Its long trudge up through that country was characterised by extreme weather conditions, rugged hill country and numerous river crossings. Unlike the North African desert, Italy was heavily populated and New Zealand troops met many civilians.

Within a month of arriving in Italy 2 NZEF was in battle with the occupying German army at the Sangro River, attempting, and failing, to take the town of Orsogna. More than 1600 men were killed or wounded in these initial operations.

The division then slogged its way across the Apennine mountain range to form part of the force that was preparing to drive up the Liri Valley to Rome. But the enemy was well entrenched at the town of Cassino, which guarded the entrance to the valley. An immensely strong defensive position, the town was dominated by Monte Cassino, on which stood a Benedictine monastery.

After initial attempts to take the town had failed, the task was given to the New Zealanders and Indians, who were grouped in the New Zealand Corps commanded by 2 NZEF commander Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg. Because of suspicion that the building was a German observation point it was bombed to rubble on 15 February 1944. Two days later the New Zealanders attacked the town of Cassino. The attack failed, and another attempt was made a month later. The town itself was razed by Allied bombers before the troops went in. But the German defenders could not be dislodged. On 23 March, when the division's casualties had reached 1000, Freyberg closed down the operation and pulled out the New Zealand troops. Cassino eventually fell to the British and Poles in May 1944.

The New Zealanders returned to the front in July, sweating their way up through Italy to capture the town of Arezzo on the 16th. By the time the city of Florence was in Allied hands on 4 August, the division had suffered another 1000 casualties.

The town of Faenza was the next goal. The New Zealanders took it in December. After enduring the rest of the winter on the Senio River, they took part in a major attack that shattered the German line on 8 April 1945.

With enemy resistance faltering, they raced northwards to occupy Trieste just as the German forces in Italy capitulated on 2 May. Yugoslavs of Tito's partisan army had also entered the town, and the New Zealanders found themselves in a tense stand-off for several weeks.

New Zealand casualties in the Italian campaign

In total 2003 were killed and 6705 were wounded.

Learn more about the Italian Campaign on NZHistory.net.nz.


These questions are suggestions only. You can choose those that are relevant to your interviewee, and add your own, too.

Background questions

  • What is your name, date of birth and place of birth (don't forget to spell out names)?
  • Tell me a little about your life before the war (parents, school, childhood and early working life).
  • Did either of your parents serve in the First World War? (If so where? Did they talk about it? What did they tell you?)
  • Were you in school cadets or the Territorials?
  • Where were you when you heard about the outbreak of war? What were your feelings?
  • What were your reasons for enlisting (joining up)?

Life in the army

  • Life after enlistment: what unit were you in? Did you have a preference? What was your rank? Where were you trained?
  • What did your training involve?
  • When did you leave New Zealand? How did you feel when it came time to leave New Zealand?
  • How did you get to Egypt/the United Kingdom? Which ship were you on?
  • Did you have a send-off before you left?
  • Tell me some of your memories of life on board the ship.
  • How well did you adjust to army life? What was your experience of the discipline? What was your experience of the officers?
  • Describe day-to-day life in the army (sleeping conditions, food, alcohol and leave).

If the interviewee served in North Africa first, see Suggested questions for North Africa.


  • (If fought in North Africa earlier) What was your reaction to the new conditions of Italy compared with North Africa? (Forces arrived in November 1943, i,e., winter.)
  • Describe your living conditions in those first months in Italy – what were they like?
    (Where did you sleep and wash? What was the food like?)
  • What was the countryside like (mountainous, river plains)?
  • What effect did this have on the way you fought (mud, fog, rain but also dust and heat in summer)?
  • What was the state of communications:
    • between HQ and your battalion?
    • between battalion HQ and your unit?
    • between units?
  • Did you know what was going on?
  • Did you have confidence in your immediate commanders?
  • What weapons did you have?
  • Did you get any more? Were they issued? Did you get any from Germans?
  • What was your reaction to air attacks (feelings of powerlessness, swearing)?
  • What was your attitude towards mines? What was your attitude towards booby traps?
  • What was your first experience of battle? Describe this.
  • What was that like for you? What were your reactions? What were your feelings?

For each stage of the journey up through Italy, ask for descriptions of what happened, the role played by your interviewee and their reactions to events.

Some general questions about battle

  • Did you ever take prisoners? What was this like? What was your reaction to them? Whose responsibility were they? Were any ever shot instead of being taken POW?
  • Did you ever search bodies? Why (for tobacco, identification)? What were the best things to find?
  • What other contact did you have with the enemy? Describe this. What was your reaction to them? What units were feared the most? Why?
  • Did you ever kill anybody? What was that like for you?
  • What were your feelings at the time about killing?
  • What were the reactions of your mates/other men towards killing?
  • Did you ever do things during battle without thinking about them? If so, describe these.
  • What were your thoughts later?
  • Were you ever wounded? How? What happened to you then? Have you had any ongoing effects of being wounded?
  • Were your friends/mates wounded? How did you cope with them?
  • What sort of supplies were there for the wounded? What were supplies of water like?
  • If you had mates who were killed, what happened to them? What role did you play in their burial (burial arrangements, own feelings, informing/writing letters to relatives)?
  • Did you have to walk/fight through places where corpses lay? What can you remember of that? What was the smell like (Cassino, for example)? What were your feelings?
  • Did you ever see any dead civilians? What effect did that have on you?
  • Were you aware of any cases of desertion? What happened to these men?
  • How did you learn about the end of the war?
  • Have reports you have read of the battles you were involved in reflected your experience? If not, why and how?

Out of battle – general questions

  • Did you ever suffer from lack of sleep? Why? Describe this. How did you cope?
  • Mail: how often did you get mail? What sorts of things did you write home? How much of the reality of being in battle did you include? Why?
  • Did it affect morale if someone in the unit got bad news from home? How?
  • Were there many 'Dear John' letters? How did you help these men cope?
  • When overseas how did you deal with separation from family?
  • How was pay organised (some to family, some to keep)? Who did that? Who decided how much?
  • Language: what slang terms do remember learning? What Arabic terms did you learn? Italian terms? Were there any that were peculiar to the New Zealand Division? What did you call the Italians and the Germans? Did you call each other 'Dig'?
  • Patriotic Fund parcels: what was in them? Describe the contents.
  • YMCA trucks: what did they have on them?
  • Importance of drinking tea? Cigarettes? (Reasons?)
  • What access did you have to alcohol? What did you drink mainly in Italy? Did you have any names for the local wine?
  • Did you play cards? Which games? How often?
  • Did you play two up? Describe this. Were there other forms of gambling? Describe these.
  • What sports were played? Were you in any teams?
  • Were there singalongs? If so, what did they sing?
  • How much contact did you have with local people?
  • What was the attitude of Italians towards yourselves? What was the attitude of Italians towards Germans? What was the attitude of Italians towards fascists and Mussolini? Was there any difference between south and north?
  • Did you have any contact with the Italian resistance/partisans?
  • Were there any instances, that you knew of, of New Zealanders and Italian women getting together? Were there any war brides?
  • Was there ever any trouble with locals (rape, other violence, cultural misunderstandings)?
  • Were you aware of trading for food – black market? What was traded? Were any attempts made by military authorities to stop this?
  • How much were you aware of looting of property? Were you ever involved in this yourself?
  • Did you learn any Italian?
  • How many men visited prostitutes? What instructions/information were given about VD and sexual health generally? How were men who contracted VD regarded by others?
  • What did you do on leave? What sightseeing do you remember? (Troops visited places like Naples, Pompeii, Rome, San Marino, Florence, Venice and Lake Trasimene.)

If taken as a prisoner of war in Italy

  • Where were you when you were captured?
  • Describe the events leading up being taken prisoner.
  • How many others were captured at the same time?
  • What was it like for you when you realised you were a POW?
  • What were your guards like? What sort of conditions were you kept in?
  • Were you able to get food? If so, what? What were your sleeping arrangements? Did you have bedding? What were the washing facilities for your clothes and yourself?
  • If you were wounded what happened? Were there any medical facilities? How well were you treated by your captors in Italy?
  • How did you fill in your time? Did you try to escape? If so, why and how? What happened?

After Italy – for more questions concerning your interviewee's time in internment, see POW suggested questions.

The end of the war

  • Where were you when you heard that the war had ended?
  • What was your reaction?
  • What did you do between the time the war finished and your return to New Zealand?

Returning to New Zealand

  • Were there farewell parties for those going back to New Zealand?
  • How did you get back (name of ship, which route)?
  • When did you arrive back in New Zealand?
  • How long did it take?
  • Were you met on your arrival back in New Zealand?
  • How did it feel to see your family again? Did New Zealand seem different to you after your time away?

After the war

  • When did you go back to work? Describe how it felt to be back at work.
  • Did you feel as though you had anything in common with people who had not been fighting?
  • How was your health? Did you ever experience nightmares? How long did they continue after the war? Do you have them now?
  • Did you drink much alcohol after the war?
  • Did you join the RSA on your return? (Reasons?)
  • What level of involvement did you have?
  • What was your attitude towards conscientious objectors?
  • What did the battle for Italy mean to you at the time?
  • What does that battle mean to you now?
  • Why do you think it is so well remembered by those who fought there?
  • What did you do on Anzac Day? Has that changed over the years?
  • What does Anzac Day mean to you?
  • What are your feelings about war in general?
  • What is the impact of your war experiences on your life?
How to cite this page

'Notes and questions, Italy', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/hands/from-memory/notes-and-questions-italy, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012