'It got a lot of sewing done to it during the Cassino time'

Sheila Smith remembers the war at home

Sheila Smith was born in 1922 in Rangiora, North Canterbury. She became engaged to Ken Smith, a soldier, in 1943. Ken fought his way up through Italy with 2NZEF and saw action in its major battles, including the month-long attempt to take the town of Cassino. But even before they reached there, the New Zealanders were struggling in Italy, and casualties were high. Ken returned safely to New Zealand in early 1946 and four months later he and Shirley were married.

In this extract Sheila recalls following Ken's campaign with concern and how sewing helped her get through some long nights during the Battle for Cassino:


Sheila Smith: I did [worry] especially when the Italian campaign got going and there'd be lists and lists and lists in the paper each day, when it came, of 'killed in action', and 'wounded', and 'missing presumed killed' and that sort of thing. You know, you felt very anxious.

Interviewer: Yeah, it must have been dreadful. How did you cope with that?

Sheila Smith: I don't know. You just got up and dusted yourself down and got on with it. But it was worrying and at one stage, I forget, it was early on in the Italian campaign, it was before Cassino, but practically the whole company he was with, they were one after ... there was a man who was in the bank in Rangiora, and several local people who were in the same company at Burnham as he was, and they were all killed. So I knew he was in among them. But he was fortunate.

Interviewer: So were you getting most of your war news, what, through the radio or newspapers?

Sheila Smith: The radio and the newspaper. And I had a big map of Italy up on the wall, one of the kitchen walls, and I had pins in it, and sort of you'd move them you'd hear that the New Zealanders had advanced from Bari to so and so, and whatever the river was, you know, and I'd move all of these pins up and sort of follow until it got right up to the top.

Interviewer: So you really were moving up through Italy with him?

Sheila Smith: Yes, yes.

Interviewer: Do you think you had any idea what it was really like for him?

Sheila Smith: No I don’t think so. Just ignorance is bliss.

Interviewer: So you didn’t really know what was going on?

Sheila Smith: And I had a big piece of linen and I got it hem-stitched at Ballantynes and I ironed on transfers and I did that all through the Cassino campaign. I've got it out now I’ll show it to you after. And that was my project, I used to sew at this every night. It was richelieu work and you’d cut it out with sharp scissors.

Interviewer: And transfers of what?

Sheila Smith: Designs and you ironed it on and took, peeled the paper off was and it was an orange or dark blue, whatever the colour the transfer had been, and you embroidered it.

Interviewer: And what this would be what you would do in the evenings?

Sheila Smith: Yes, that was so for Cassino and for a month or so after Cassino this was my project doing this cloth. So it got a lot of sewing done to it during the Cassino time. I worked at it, and I just felt, well, he must come home. He must come through all this.

Sheila Smith

Sheila Smith, 1943 and at home in 2007.

Sheila Smith and cloth

The detailed embroidery that occupied Sheila Smith during the anxious time when she knew her fiancé, Ken, was fighting at Cassino


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Posted: 28 Oct 2015

That was my great uncle Ken. Is Sheila still alive if so I would like to contact please?