Memories of war on two fronts

Russell Towns holds a framed display of medals won by his father Alfred in World War 1 and by him in World War 2. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Russell Towns holds a framed display of medals won by his father Alfred in World War 1 and by him in World War 2. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Russell Towns had the good fortune to miss the battle of Monte Cassino, a 1944 fight in Italy in which 343 New Zealanders died and more than 600 were wounded.

However, the battle did mean Mr Towns became part of a rare club of World War 2 veterans to have served in both Europe and Asia.

Mr Towns began 1944 serving in the Pacific as a corporal in a machine-gun company, but by year's end, he was in Italy as an infantry reinforcement.

''We went to New Caledonia first and then to Guadalcanal. That was after the Americans had taken it,'' the Montecillo Veterans Home and Hospital resident, in Dunedin, recalled.

''From there, we cleared Green Island and we cleared Vella Lavella and Momo ... I retrained in Egypt and and eventually they took us over to Italy.''

The two theatres were very different. In the Pacific, jungle warfare meant patrolling and seldom seeing the enemy, whereas in Italy, battles were skirmishes in the open.

Seventy-five years on, Mr Towns (97) still has clear memories of both campaigns, and remembers being part of an Anzac Day 1945 advance of the 2nd New Zealand Division across the Po river.

''I know we were on a Bailey bridge ... I remember going over because it was night time and they put up search lights so we could cross.

''I remember on the other side seeing yards and yards of broken German materiel. They were broken there ... but we still ended up fighting all the way up to Trieste.''

Many of the Germans he faced had accepted the war was nearing an end and did not put up determined resistance.

''I remember marching across the Tuscany plain, lovely day, nothing much happening in front of us, and we came to a big barn.

''I said to the sergeant, 'I'll hop in and see what's in there', so I went in, walked up the stairs, and there was at least 100 Germans sitting there.

''They all had their backs to the wall and they were had it ... their sergeant was out the back crying and they had piled all their arms in the middle.

''It gave me quite a surprise. I got my back to the wall quite smartly before I realised the state they were in.''

After returning to New Zealand, Mr Towns, originally from Wairarapa, married a Dunedin woman, Margaret Massey, and settled in the South.

After a career in the meat industry, Mr Towns was recognised in 2003 with a membership of the New Zealand Order of Merit for nearly 50 years of service to fencing, and for community work with the Dunedin branch of the St Vincent de Paul Society.

The Otago-Southland fencing club president for 30 years, he was made a life member of the organisation in 1973.

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