Veteran marches for absent mates

By John Maslin; john.maslin@wanganuichronicle.co.nz


This morning, at dawn's first light, 92-year-old Wanganui war veteran Ralph Kitt marched in another Anzac Day parade, just as he has done since coming home from Italy in 1945.

And, as always, he will march proudly in memory of his mates who never made it home.

Mr Kitt was a member of 25th Battalion and fought in Egypt and through Italy between 1942-45. Even though that conflict ended nearly 70 years ago, he has vivid and haunting memories of what he saw and experienced as a 21-year-old private.

Talking about his three years of active service, fighting the Germans and Italians, is not easy for him. His dialogue is often broken as emotions well up and he takes time to dry his eyes.

He and his mates sailed from Wellington on the troop ship Aquitania in 1942, for Egypt.

Disembarking at Cairo, he spent a couple of months in camp at Maadi before being moved forward to Tripoli.

Initially, Mr Kitt was guarding Italian and German prisoners-of-war, but he and his pals were soon in the front line for "more serious business".

 


"We were on one ridge and the Germans were on the opposite ridge. But for three consecutive days and nights, US Flying Fortress bombers pounded the German positions," Mr Kitt said.

"On the fourth day, a sergeant came around telling us to stand up because the war in Egypt was finished. Only one man stood and he copped a bullet. After all that bombardment there were still some Germans there.

"The Germans surrendered and I'd never seen anything like it before. They were covered in blood. It was a hell of a shock seeing them - I couldn't get over that for quite some time."

The battalion was shipped to Italy, landing at Taranto in the south, before fighting its way through to Trieste in the north.

They had to get past Monte Cassino first, a battle which was as heroic as it was appalling.

"I was one of the lucky ones to get right through all of that," Mr Kitt said.

Luck was riding with him when he trod on a land mine.

"We were walking across this field and I trod on the mine. You knew as soon as you stood on one because it gave off this click sound. But, luckily for me, the bloody thing didn't go off," he said.

Mr Kitt never came away from the war with any rank and that's as he wanted it.

"Just before we were to be shipped home from Trieste this sergeant said to me they were going to make me a corporal. I told him I'd come over here as a private and was going home as a private and told him to stick that up his bum. So in the one day I went from a private to a corporal and demoted to private again."

Their troop ship stopped off in Melbourne on the way home and he was taken in by his wife's relations for a day.

"I went with a mate of mine and they gave us the most wonderful hospitality and a marvellous meal. But both of us 'lost' that meal on our way back to the ship. The food was too rich after our diet of eating bully beef dug out of a tin with a bayonet."

Mr Kitt had married Audrey shortly before going off to war but told her there would be no children "because the chances of me coming home were 50:50".

When Mr Kitt walked down the gangplank back home in Wellington the first to greet him was his brother.

"He came rushing up to me and just about knocked me over. Then I looked up and saw Audrey. I walked up to her and all I could manage to say was 'Gidday'. We've had a wonderful life together."

Today he wore his medals, among them the Africa Star, awarded to men who served alongside the British 8th Army in Egypt, and the Italian Star recognising service in that country.

Still very active, Mr Kitt continues his volunteer work for organisations, like the Cancer Society, and he's still a very good and competitive bowler.

Like those who experienced war first-hand, memories are raw and they will never leave him. He struggles with his emotions when he talks of his good fortune and the ill-luck of others.

In the 1992 he and Audrey took an overseas trip and made a point of visiting Cassino. His voice breaks as he remembers walking around the war cemeteries and "seeing the graves of all my cobbers".

"There's no need for war whatsoever. Not ever."

- Wanganui Chronicle

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